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CHAPTER 8: the quiet before the storm
Xena rushed into the apartment and slammed the door. Gabrielle, who was in the kitchen pouring herself a drink of water, dropped the glass in surprise. The plastic cup fell to the floor, impacting with a loud smack. Water went everywhere.
"Damn," the bard said to herself as she knelt down and picked up the cup. She grabbed a cotton towel from off the counter and began to wipe up the mess. When she was done, Gabrielle looked up into a raging Xena.
"It went that well, huh?"
Xena struggled for calm. There was no reason for her to lash out at the bard. This entire fiasco was all her doing. Gabrielle noticed Xena's left was swollen three times it's normal size. She let out a small gasp.
"Xena, what happened?" Gabrielle gingerly took Xena's hand and turned on the large overhead light. The big light revealed a swollen and broken fist. Gabrielle, never letting go of Xena's hand, reacher over and open the ice box. She pulled a bag of ice from the cold area and set it in the sink. Somehow the bard managed to open the bag and dump it's contents into the confines of the basin. After making a small indent in the ice blocks, she set Xena's hand in the cold, covering it carefully. "We have to get the swelling down," she said as she released Xena's hand. "So are you going to tell me what happened or are you going to stand there and melt the ice with those eyes?"
The bard leaned against the counter as Xena began to tell what had transpired between her and Anaria. With some help from the bard, Xena managed to tell the entire story.
"The worst part of this, Gabrielle, is that I know Anaria realizes what's happening to her, but she doesn't care. And as much as I try not to, I do."
Gabrielle reached over and took Xena's good hand in hers, "You can't give up hope yet, there's still time. Maybe once this task is done, you can try talking to her again."
Xena gave the bard a sullen expression, "If the next task is a fun as this one, I don't think I'm up for it."
"We're committed now, Xena. The stakes are high for us too."
"I know," Xena looked down at the floor. "There have been many people who have had a great impact on my life." She looked up and smiled at Gabrielle, "You being far above everyone else." The bard smiled, Xena continued, "Some helped to create the warlord that I once was..."
"Like Cortese and Aries," Gabrielle offered.
"Yes," Xena smiled sadly, "and I'm not proud of that, but I can't change the past. Some though, helped me in other ways."
"Like Hercules showing what it was like to be a good guy...."
"Even before him. There were people who started me on the path, but I fell from it. One before Cortese, one right after."
"She came later. When I was little, Brieal and Anaria were the only ones who supported me in my goal to become a fighter. Anaria was a childhood idol of mine. When I met her I was about ten or so. The one season she and Brieal lived in Amphipolous was one of the happiest of my childhood."
"I had no idea," the bard replied in amazement. For Xena to open up like this was a rare occasion.
"I remember sneaking into the inn at night and listening to traveling merchants or the occasional bard tell her stories. At first I remember them being about some amazing feat the Dark Assassin pulled off."
"She started off as an assassin," Gabrielle asked. The bard mentally kicked herself for not looking at the Anaria Scrolls more carefully.
"The best in all of Greece by age fifteen."
"How awful, to be so young and a trained killer."
Xena continued, squelching the pang of hurt about her own youthful misdeeds, "Then one day, someone said that she had turned away from killing. Something about a mix up, Anaria accidentally killing some kid or something. She began traveling as a hero. Those stories were even better than the assassin's tales."
"So you can imagine that when she staggered into Brieal's favorite clearing my heart skipped a beat. Here she was, my childhood idol, the person I most wanted to be like. It was like a star fell from the sky and landed next to me."
"What happened then," Gabrielle asked, riveted by the story.
"She was badly hurt," Xena's expression grew distant as she remembered the day vividly. "Brieal, my only female cousin, was visiting us fresh from the Academy. She had taken Lyceaus, Toris, and myself to her favorite spot by a small spring not far from the village. We were going to have a picnic. All of a sudden, this figure emerges from the bushes, covered in mud and blood, and collapsed at my feet. Brieal and I managed to turn her over as Toris took Lyceaus went to get help." Xena paused, "It was Anaria. She smiled up at me and I stopped breathing."
"You had a crush on her didn't you," Gabrielle asked, a little bit of a tease in her voice.
"Oh yeah, you could say that," Xena admitted. "Anaria then looked up at Brieal. She was the one whose breath caught. I knew then that those two were destined for each other. Within a few weeks, my suspicions proved themselves true. By then it didn't matter, Anaria had taken me under her wing. As soon as she was healthy, Anaria began to help me refine my skills. She showed me the basic routines that I still do to this day."
Gabrielle took Xena's pause as the opportunity to check out her left hand. Much to the bard's relief, it wasn't broken. Xena looked down at her hand.
"She could have broken that easily. The only one who hits that hard is Aries."
Gabrielle looked up at Xena and smiled, "But she didn't. Maybe there's a little bit of the hero left in her still. Some one with that much love in them can't be all bad." She gave Xena a supportive hug, "Look at you." Xena smiled and held the bard with her good hand.
"Who was the other one," Gabrielle asked, leaning back to look Xena in the face.
"The other one?....Oh the other person who helped change my life." Xena sighed, "She was, of all things, a cook in my army."
"She certainly didn't give you any of her many skills," the bard laughed.
"Oh no, she did, but none of them had anything to do with cooking."
"Where is she now?"
"I haven't seen her in years. I heard she was dead, but I doubt it. Those rumors about deaths are greatly exaggerated. The person always turns up alive somewhere else later on."
The pair looked at each other and burst out in laughter as they left the kitchen.
One midnight more Gabrielle thought as she burned the instructions Ty had given them two days ago. This time tomorrow night we make our grab for the spear. Satisfied that the parchment had been reduced to ashes, the bard flushed the remnants down the sink. She wiped her hands dry and left the kitchen.
Xena was reclined on the couch watching something on the television. Gabrielle smiled to herself. Despite her protests to the contrary, the Warrior Princess had adapted quite well to their new environment. The bard had a sneaking suspecion that Xena actually was beginning to enjoy it.
"What'cha watchin'," Gabrielle asked as she plopped down on the couch.
"You know how they have those traveling bands of musicians? You give them a dinar, they play you a tune?"
Xena pointed to the screen and turned up the volume some on the tv. Gabrielle watched in fascination at the large group of men and women garbed in black. They were playing a kind of music the bard had never dreamed of on instruments which seemed to defy the impossible.
"Is that what they are now?"
"That's called an orchestra. Funny name don't you think?"
"They're playing something called Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin."
Gabrielle listened for a minute to the mixture of haunting then suddenly harsh sounds of the Bartok. After some time she said, "Bartok must have been a warlord."
"What makes you say that," Xena asked, arching an eye brow.
The bard replied shrugging. "The music just brings the image into my head."
Xena was about to reply when her skin began to tingle. Gabrielle noticed the change and quickly got off the couch. No sooner done when Loki flamed into view next to Xena.
"Enjoying some culture I see," Loki drawled pointing to the tv. "Bartok was always one of my personal favorites."
"What do you want fire god," Xena asked harshly.
"I wanted to let you know that I spoke with Anaria today. She's not very happy. It seems you two have figured out our little ruse."
"It wasn't that hard Loki," Xena leaned back on the couch. "You yourself said how smart us Greek girls are."
"Touche," Loki replied smiling. "I've come to tell you that I've released Anaria from our previous agreement. Now that Malevolent and his crowd are planning to stop you from taking the spear, you need her help."
"No thanks," Xena said getting up. "I need people I can trust. She is now not one of them."
"Your personal squabbles are of no concern to me Warrior Princess," Loki said harshly. He stood and looked coldly at Xena, "She will help you when the time comes. She will also be the one to present the spear to Odin. There will be no further debate on this issue."
"Where is she then," Gabrielle asked. " Shouldn't she be here helping us prepare."
Loki looked calmly at the bard, "She is on another errand related to this mission. Don't worry. Tomorrow night, Anaria the Dark Assassin will be there to safe guard you." With a regal smile, the God of Fire vanished.
"Well at least Anaria will be there to help us after all," Gabrielle said, trying to make the best of a bad situation. Xena was still sore from her encounter with the ghostly warrior days before.
"No, she won't," Xena said sitting back down, "the Dark Assassin will be."
Gabrielle sat down next to Xena who was looking at the orchestra on the television. "Why do I suddenly feel worse?"
Xena shut her eyes and let the strange music wash over her, carrying her to the darkest depths of her soul.
CHAPTER 9: "...it smelled like....victory...."
At 11:30pm, Xena and Gabrielle slipped into the building being renovated just behind the museum. There the duo changed from normal street gear into something more appropriate. After taking the time to carefully wrap the other's hair tightly around their heads, black was the color of choice. Both sets of outfits were sent over, compliments of Ty, late that afternoon. Made of a durable yet light fabric, the skin tight long sleeved shirt and pants kept movement free. Ty's note which accompanied the clothing told them that this was an experimental weave of cloth, thought to stop a .45-caliber slug. He hoped that it would also help lessen the wounds inflicted by an angry god.
By 11:50 the pair was completely changed and heading for the museum. Somehow the lights which normally lite the small alley which separated the two buildings seemed to be malfunctioning. Xena smiled to herself. At 11:55 Gabrielle popped the lock to a service door and entered the museum. The entrance was the closest one to the exhibit. Xena nodded and disappeared into the inky darkness. None of the security guards took notice of two dark figures making there way, via separate routes, to the Heroes of the Ancient World Exhibit.
Part of Gabrielle was thrilled that a key part of the mission relied on her. Another part was frozen with fear. The young bard had faced many horrible situations and had made several hard choices, but something about this felt so terribly different. It was a no win situation. The spear would only be a quick fix for another, more sinister, problem. Gabrielle's inner monologue told her that even if she and Xena were only small players in this game now, they would become ensnared in something which would affect them for the rest of their lives. Maybe longer.
Xena easily removed the thin screen over the air duct and leapt inside. As much as the Warrior Princess hated confined spaces, she agreed that a two prong attack would be best. If all went according to plan, the fake spear would be waiting for her at the end of the long ventilation shaft. As her eyes adjusted to the thick pitch in front of her vision, Xena knew that this would only be the first step in a long road which would end at the feet of Malevolent and his gods. The spear was only the key which opened the door to an evil which made Dahok look like an angry Cupid. Mentally shaking herself, the Warrior Princess began the grueling climb through the many air shafts towards the exhibit room.
Anaria adjusted her seat for the umpteenth time on the large display in the center of the exhibit room. The ghostly warrior had been here for hours, waiting for Malevolent and his goons to show. The older warrior had been shocked when Xena deftly called her out on her misdeeds and was stunned at how accurate her prodigy had been. Unlike Xena, Anaria had no Gabrielle to help her stay on the path. Falling back to the old ways, to her family's heritage, was so easy. The darkness called to her with all the whiles of a skilled lover and the power of a vengeful one god. Anaria had never dreamed that when she made that bargain with Aphrodite and Athena that things would become so confusing. Even now, so close to the prize, she could hear the gentle calling of Malevolent's employers, beckoning her to join their team. "No, you bastards," Anaria said, reassuring herself, "no."
Anaria felt a surge of power. Gabrielle had entered the room from the far entrance and was quickly making her way towards the exhibit. She stopped directly under Anaria's seat and pulled a fake spear from a hidden compartment in the base of the display. The bard turned quickly and was greeted by Malevolent. Gabrielle swallowed hard. She now saw why this demon had earned such a name.
Cold grey eyes appraised the bard quickly. Gone was the dark business suit popular with this society's men. In it's place was a type of armor Gabrielle had never seen. She couldn't help let out a gasp in horror when she realized what his outfit was made of.
Malevolent laughed cruelly. He turned around for the bard, modeling his wear, "Do you like it," he asked mockingly. "I picked this out myself. I'm quite proud of it actually. You know it's really quite hard to get human flesh to the right consistency. It takes so long to dye and harden, it's almost not worth it." He sighed, "but then when I get a response like yours, I'm reassured that all the work was for a good cause."
"Monster," the bard whispered.
Malevolent's eyes turned a dark grey. He began to walk menacingly towards Gabrielle, "you have no idea little bard."
Suddenly Malevolent's head was twisted almost entirely around. He was picked up and tossed half way across the room by an unseen power. Flipping lazily in mid air, the demon landed on his feet and began to applaud.
"I was wondering when you would show yourself child," Malevolent said jovially. "I surprised have so much restraint, especially since I wore your favorite outfit."
Anaria materialized in front of Gabrielle wearing the warrior outfit the bard had first met her in. The clothing around the ghostly warrior shifted in front of the bard's eyes into something unmistakable. The garb of an assassin.
"Stay behind me Gabrielle," Anaria said, her voice colder than even Xena's worst. "This fight is mine."
"Such the brave little warrior," Malevolent's smile was pure evil. "If only she knew who you truly were. You really did so well for so long it's commendable. Especially without Brieal to be your moral barometer Anaria." Malevolent's eyes looked past Anaria to Gabrielle. "You know little bard, each great god had fathered mighty children. Some still walk among the living, others have already joined their parents. This one though," he motioned to Anaria, "is a special case. Her family was bred to service us. Somehow though, this child was able to break from her lineage." Malevolent looked back at Anaria, "but that time of freedom is over now young one. It's time for the prodigal to return home."
Anaria drew her sword, "That will never happen."
Malevolent drew his weapon is response. He drawled, "but it already has."
Sparks flew when their blades clashed. Gabrielle stood dumbstruck for a moment as the immoveable object met the unresistable force. When Anaria sent Malevolent flying for a second time, the bard quickly headed for the display containing the real spear. Five paces away from her goal, a hand reached from the darkness and grabbed her shoulder. Something spun her around and hit her, hard, across the face, knocking her to the floor.
Gabrielle, using the fake spear as a make shift staff, swung at the legs belonging to the thing that had hit her. The spear connected, sending her attacked to the floor with a loud thud. The bard was quickly on her feet, swinging the spear in wide circles fending off invisible hands. Each time one of the hands made contact with her body, she felt some of her life force drain away.
"Hurry up love," Gabrielle said, making contact with another assailant. "I can't hold out much longer."
Xena heard the battle long before she saw it. Unfortunately, she had a decent distance to go before she reached the exhibit area. From the sounds which made their way down the large cooling vents, providing a distraction hadn't been a problem. Doubling her pace, the Warrior Princess turned another corner and headed towards her goal.
Anaria smiled as her sword cut deep into Malevolent's chest, causing black goo to fly everywhere. The demon laughed and pulled himself free of the blade.
"Come child," he said condescendingly, "you know the importance of the right tools for the job."
Anaria rushed Malevolent again, unfazed. "Why, that's my next task. When we meet again, I'll finally be able to kill you."
"You don't have the knowledge," the demon taunted.
"Oh, I do, dear Uncle," Anaria replied. "And I can't wait to show you just what I've learned." The demon and the warrior whirled in a dance of death. Anaria knew she could only hold out a few more minutes before the dark messenger's power would overcome her.
Just as planned, Xena slipped unnoticed from the air duct directly behind the display which held the spear. Luckily, the spear was in one of the few displays which wasn't protected by a wall of glass or behind a fence. With the fake spear in her hand, the Warrior Princess crossed the distance between the duct and display. She quickly reached up and pulled the real spear from the display and replaced it with an exact copy.
Smiling to herself, Xena turned to see Gabrielle down on one knee, swinging another fake spear. The bard looked drained, and was about to succumb to the dark forces hidden in the shadows. With her trademark yell piercing the artificial night, Xena flipped over to the bard. Swinging Odin's spear in a wide arc, Xena made quick work of Gabrielle's dark attackers. The spear took on an eerie glow as it cut through four of the life draining shadows. With a howl, several forms sunk back into the recesses of the dark.
Malevolent's head turned, his eye's wide with anger. He had been fooled. His personal quest against Anaria had caused him to loose sight of the big picture. Malevolent turned and gave Anaria an amused look.
"Excellent child," he said his tone light. Anaria knew that he was at his most dangerous when he seemed like he didn't care. "What a clever plan."
"Thank you," Anaria kept her voice light matching Malevolent's. "I knew that you're own desire for revenge would blind you to the obvious. If I do say so myself, you were taken much like a Greek god."
Malevolent barely suppressed his anger at Anaria's taunt. With an even voice he replied, "it still won't matter in the end child. We will win. This is just the opening night prelude to the drama which lies before us." He turned and nodded at Xena and Gabrielle, "Congratulations on this small victory. Enjoy the thrill, because it will be your last." The dark prince turned and disappeared into the dark.
Anaria walked over to Xena and Gabrielle. With little warmth, she asked, "are you two alright? Those life draining demons Malevolent employs are bad news."
"We're fine," Xena's tone was all business.
"Good," Anaria reached for the spear. With reluctance, Xena handed it over. "Excellent work the both of you. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a certain god to see. I do believe you two were on your way to Athens...."
Suddenly Xena and Gabrielle were back at the campsite in Greece. Gone were the trappings of the twentieth century. The familiar garb and feel of the ancient world surrounded them once more.
"Whoa," Gabrielle said. She looked up at Xena, "I can't believe we're back. Just like that. Poof. Here we are as if nothing has happened."
Xena kept her expression unreadable. She merely looked down at the bard and smiled, her thoughts already drifting ahead to the next 'task' she must complete for Anaria.
"MOVE! MOVE DAMN IT!" Velaska shouted at the three remaining Amazons and her new lover. "Those goons won't let us live if they catch us!"
Brieal threw herself blindly through the dense forest foliage. The mission into the town hadn't gone well. Solari and Eponin were taken as they entered the village. Brieal's quick thinking had managed to save the weapons master, but the scout was killed before her eyes.
After what seemed like hours, the five women stopped to rest. Brieal quickly went over to Eponin.
"How is your arm," she asked. The weapons master had taken an arrow in the shoulder as they fled the village.
Hollow eyes looked up at the poet, "I'll live," she responded flatly. Velaska had told Brieal after their lovemaking that Solari and Eponin were also partners. The poet's heart went out to the woman before her. Even with Velaska at her side, Brieal still felt the void left by Anaria's absence.
Brieal leaned back on a stump and drank from her water skin. Velaska, after checking on the condition of the remaining group, joined her.
"How are you feeling," Velaska asked gently. "I saw you save Eponin. That was amazing."
Brieal sighed and took Velaska's hand, "I only wish I could have saved Solari. No one should have to know that kind of pain."
Velaska saw the far off look in her lover's eyes and decided to remain silent. She knew deep down that she would never be able to replace Anaria in Brieal's life. All the Amazon wanted was to help Brieal forget the past and help the poet build a new future.
Brieal's senses alerted her before her eyes saw. The poet rose quickly, her insides in an uproar. The poet turned around and looked straight into the face of her soulmate, Anaria.
"I had heard that there was another Brieal," Anaria said coldly. Despite her inner confusion, the poet knew that the woman before her belonged to this Greece. Not hers.
"What of it," Brieal said defiantly. "I suppose you're now going to massacre us. Another wonderful tale of conquest to tell around the campfire."
"No actually," Anaria replied amused, "I'm not."
"Then you're going to pay for what you've done," Velaska said rising quickly. The other Amazons quickly surrounded Anaria the Great Demon.
"Ah. Ah. Ah." Anaria waved a finger. Suddenly the women were surrounded by a group of Anaria's men. "I never travel alone. I'm not here to kill you. That I will do later," she smiled. Brieal fought back a tear. The grin was so familiar, it hurt to see it on one as evil as her.
"Then why are you here," Brieal asked. "You could have killed us in that village. Or right now for that matter. What do you want?"
"I wanted to see for myself the women who would forsake true love."
"And what would you know about love," Velaska asked harshly.
Ignoring Velaska, Anaria continued. "I know to you, I seem like such a monster. Aries has told me some about the land from which you come. There, you and my counter part are heroes, and Xena, of all people, is the villain."
"That is true," Brieal replied flatly.
"In spite of those small differences of good and evil, things seem to be about the same."
"So I wonder then if my Brieal could so easily forget me if the situation was reversed." Anaria's black eyes bore into Brieal with a hate unparalled. "Despite all of the deeds we have done. Despite all of the blood which we have spilled. Despite the occasional experiment," Anaria smiled wickedly, "Brieal and I have a love untouchable by the gods themselves. We have always been, and will always be together. Be it here, or in Taruturus, we will not be separated in spirit."
Brieal was stunned by Anaria's words. Underneath the layers of evil, this Anaria was one and the same as hers. Just the thought of losing Brieal sent her into fear and pain. Brieal could feel it with this Anaria. She didn't want to think about what would happen with her own.
"Pray you never go through what she's had to," Velaska, ever her hero, rose to defend Brieal's honor. "Would you want your Brieal to suffer alone in your absence?"
"Yes," Anaria said flatly, "because where ever I was, I would be doing the same. I would forgive an occasional physical indulgence. No one should have to become chaste overnight. I would not forgive, however, what I see before me. I feel sorry for you both Brieal." Anaria's voice softened. "You and I both know that she will find you. Of that there is no doubt. What will you say to her," she motioned to Velaska, "and to Anaria then."
With a whistle and a wave, Anaria's men disappeared into the night. Anaria began to walk away. She turned and looked back at Brieal and the stunned Amazons.
"Oh, by the way, I believe you left this behind."
Two men emerged from the woods, carrying a slumped form of Solari. Eponin gasped and rushed to the scout's side.
"She's alive," Eponin whispered in amazement. She looked up at the warlord, "Thank you."
"No one should have to know that kind of pain," Anaria said. With one more look at Brieal, the Great Demon disappeared into the night.
Velaska looked at the retreating form of Anaria with a new level of respect and fear. Respect for the code of honor which, strangely enough, the demented warlord seemed to carry. Fear in the words she had said. The fear of the truth in them. The Amazon Regent reached for Brieal's hand to reassure her of the new found feelings they now shared.
Brieal shook off Velaska's touch and looked into the night, trying to forget all she once knew about the women who had shared her life for so long. She would need to. That love would prevent her from doing the job she now must do. Kill Anaria.
To be continued in Penalty
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