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Longest Day, Shortest Night
Xena awakened with a start, bathed in perspiration, her heart thumping crazily in her chest. When her eyes finally focused she found herself entangled in her blanket, lying beside a dying campfire. Opposite her, in peaceful repose, lay Gabrielle, her chest rising and falling in the rhythmic pattern of deep sleep. Xena kicked off the blanket and scrambled on her knees to the bards side.
Gabrielle stirred at the first touch of Xenas hand on her shoulder. "Wh..what is it?" she inquired sleepily, drawing herself up on her elbows. "You okay?"
Xena drew a breath and sat down heavily beside her friend. "Im fine...fine. I wanted to tell you..." Gabrielle crooked an eyebrow, a non-verbal sign of query. "...that Ill go to Poteidaia with you, if you still want me to?"
A tentative smile spread across the girls face and she sat up more fully, clutching one of Xenas arms. "Of course I want you to! What changed your mind?"
Xena grimaced. "Its not important..."
"You had a dream," interjected Gabrielle. "You saw me in danger..because I traveled the road to Poteidaia alone..."
Xena blinked unadulterated surprise. "Yes," she murmured, softly marveling. She wanted to say more, and perhaps if Gabrielle had looked at her just once with that inquisitive light in her eyes, she wouldve divulged everything, every detail of the dream in a terrible, unguarded rush of relief. In the end, the matter was not pressed and Xena merely said, "A bad dream... mustve been something I ate."
Gabrielle gave a small, soundless laugh. "Well, I cant find fault with dinner...it got me company home." Her gaze drifted to the horizon; darkness was beginning to yield the first tentative patches of dawn. "Itll be daylight soon. What do you say I make us breakfast and we leave at first light?" Without waiting for a response, she got to her feet and enthusiastically shook out her bedroll. "You know, Im not dreading it so much anymore," she said, rolling the blanket into a tight package. "Facing Perdicus parents, I mean..."
"Thats good to hear," said Xena, waving away the dust disturbed by Gabrielles frenetic movements. She unstopped the wineskin and tilted her head back, taking a deep swallow. Even as the warm wine slid easily down her throat, she detected movement at the tree line. Casually, she put the wineskin aside and looked for her sword. "Gabrielle..."
"I hear them," the bard replied in a whisper, already clutching her staff.
Her words were still hanging in the air as two men burst from their cover, wielding swords above their heads. Loosing her warcry, Xena somersaulted over the fire and lay her fingers on the hilt of her sword just in time to block a lethal blow to her head. She parried with her opponent for a moment, a man whose skill with a weapon rivaled her own; his sword grazed her shoulder, drawing an icy hot line in her flesh. Retaliation, borne more from surprise than pain, was swift and excruciating. Her leg, strung taut as a bow from hamstring to toes, sent him sprawling into the fire. He rolled clear of the coals, cursing her name and frantically beating the orange embers from his tunic. Xena used the distraction to check on Gabrielle. Despite a fitful sleep and no breakfast, the bards strong arms wielded her hardwood staff with precision and confidence against an opponent nearly twice her size; she was economy of movement as two rapidly-administered blows knocked the man senseless, and a third roundhouse strike behind his knees swept him from his feet. The scene was eerily familiar. Xenas first instinct was to intervene, her second, coming right on top of the first, was to duck as she heard the whistling descent of a sword. She pivoted her body mere inches and the blade gouged the earth at her feet. She used the close proximity to deliver a paralyzing knee to her opponents groin. As he hunched over, gasping for breath, she granted him the mercy of oblivion. When she straightened and looked up, she found Gabrielle, winded, but uninjured, standing over the body of her attacker, who had not fared as well. Even before Xena moved to stand at the bards side, she could see that the man was dead, his windpipe crushed by a single vicious blow from Gabrielles staff.
The two women stood there for some time, reverently still and quiet in the presence of death. At last, Gabrielle shifted the staff in her hands and announced, quite unnecessarily, "I killed him."
Xena nudged the body with the toe of her boot. "Yup..."she agreed wryly. "And I am duly impressed." Gabrielle turned to face her, wonder and disbelief plain on her youthful face. "I mean it," Xena elaborated. "You didnt falter or hesitate -- one clean blow to the throat -- my first kill was messy..." To demonstrate, she drew a line across her throat with her finger.
"Then...then youre not upset with me...?"
"Upset?" Xena lifted an eyebrow. "No." She turned and kicked dirt over the fire. "Why would I be upset? Youd have to mean something to me for me to lose any sleep over this."
Gabrielle stammered. "Whatre you saying?"
Xena sighed, patiently sheathed her sword in its scabbard and put it aside. "The charades gone on long enough," she said, ignoring the blood running down her arm, and the pain which nagged her shoulder. She raised her voice, addressing the air, "I gotta give you credit, Manus; this was a good one...full of the little details that make a convincing story. I almost believed it."
"Dreams can sometimes seem more real than life," said Manus, appearing at the tree line;
Xena did not seem at all surprised to see him. "The waking senses are so inefficient, dont you agree?"
Xena spread her hands. "This is your realm, you tell me."
"Be honest, Xena," began Manus as he moved deliberately about the campsite. "Where did I go wrong, hmmm? What tipped you off? What detail was lacking?"
"If anything, there was too much detail." Xena followed Manus progress through the scene with her eyes; she noted that Gabrielle -- Manus Gabrielle -- did the same. "Gabrielles perceptive, but you made her an oracle..." She narrowed her eyes and looked at the man with evident distaste. "And then you made her a murderer."
Manus feigned irritation. "You didnt care for the method? Too quick? Too neat? I suppose I couldve given it some more thought," he said, scratching his earlobe. "But you didnt give me much notice. You and that old fool, Elkton have unnaturally strong resistance. I wasnt expecting you, you see...and then you go and make me a gift of your consciousness."
"I didnt have much of a choice," said Xena, rubbing the back of her head; she felt a lump there. "You went to some trouble to set up this scenario."
"I can only re-create what is already in your mind...your hopes, dreams...your fears. Dreams are nothing more than the scraps and remnants of a persons waking life. The human mind is loathe to throw anything away. Can I really be faulted for putting it to use?"
Xena shook her head. "Dont expect me to validate your actions. I think youre the worst kind of coward, preying on the defenseless, the innocent..."
Manus took umbrage. "Have a look in a mirror sometime, Xena." He moved to Gabrielle, who visibly trembled in his presence. He ran long fingers down the girls cheekbone; from where she stood, Xena could see the muscles in the girls jaw bunch under his touch. With his free hand, Manus called the dying campfire to life; it blazed and crackled enthusiastically. "Its ironic, isnt it? The dreamscape, intended as punishment, has served more as a haven. Here," he said, spreading his arms to encompass the terrain, "I have perfected my skills and discovered gifts I thought long gone."
"Gifts? Skills?" Xena was incredulous. "You use your skills to kill defenseless people... to torture innocents into doing your bidding! Im supposed to admire that?!"
"Xena, Xena," said Manus, clicking his tongue. "Such venom. I know its not easy to shed the idea that all life is sacred...but it can be done."
She shook her head in disgust. "I dont know how you can think that way..."
Manus shrugged. "When youre a coward, like me, some things come easy."
"Gabrielle wont kill for you," she retaliated with confidence.
Manus smiled out of the corner of his mouth. "You sound so sure of that."
"I know her. No matter what you may have done to her, shes still Gabrielle...murder just isnt in her nature."
Manus laughed. "Youre deluding yourself, Xena. You wouldnt have contrived to remove her from the temple if you truly believed that." He moved to stand before her, his long nose inches from her face. Quietly, he added, "The truth is: you really dont know..." He observed her clenched fists, and her trembling body and mistook the cause. "...and that scares you to death."
Under Manus smug gaze, Xena vibrated like a miniature Vesuvius. If it would serve any purpose at all, she wouldve drawn her sword and cut him in half and never felt a thing about it. But she could only contain her thoughts and glare at him in inarticulate rage.
"Ohhh, such anger, such hatred..." Manus turned at the waist to face Gabrielle. "Can you feel it, my dear?"
Gabrielle nodded, churning the end of her staff into the ground. "Theres guilt, too..." The young woman caught Xenas glare of annoyance, but sensed that her hatred was reserved for Manus. "A lot of guilt."
"Thats understandable," said Manus, moving in a slow, close orbit around the warrior.
"With conscience comes guilt. I dont have that problem." His arrogant smile faded as he watched the warrior shut her eyes...in effect, shutting him out. Gradually, their idyllic green surroundings faded and were replaced by a landscape of perfect ebony wherein stood the three unmistakable points of life and light amidst the blank dreamscape canvas. "Whats this?" Manus queried. He spun on his heels and took in the void, nodding appreciatively. "You surprised me, Xena. I didnt think that was possible any more."
* * * * * * * *
"Elkton, wait up!" called Photis, giving chase to the older mans retreating shape.
He caught up with him halfway down the corridor to the sleeping cells. "Ive just come from the cloisters..."
"And..." prompted the old mystic expectantly. "And its the same thing there...Septim, Athol, Mercidas...all of them...I havent yet been to the infirmary, but I fear we will find the same."
Elkton groaned, his irritation evident. He moved at a good pace down the winding corridor, Photis at his heels like a faithful hound. "He grows stronger by the minute, Photis," he growled. "He no longer waits for his victims to fall asleep...now, like some bold fox in a henhouse, he takes them where they are!"
"There may be no stopping him, Elkton," Photis replied, his breath coming in short gasps. "If his powers reach beyond the dreamscape --"
"Failure is not an option, Photis. Now, how many are left?"
Photis ticked off the remaining and available allies on his hand. "Theres you and I, Lias, Silvus, Mendicus, Linius...Phyus and Androcles, theyre posted at the crypt...and Xena, of course...nine total...nine of fifty-nine...the Fates have not been kind."
"The Fates must not have the last word, Photis," retorted Elkton as they turned into his cell. There, the men were startled to find Xena, lying unconscious on the stone floor. "Xena!" Elkton was at the warriors side instantly. "Xena, can you hear me?" He turned her gently onto her side, relieved to find her still breathing, yet unable to rouse her.
"Is she -- did Manus get her, too?"
Elkton shook his head. "I dont know." His stubby fingers took an inventory of Xenas injuries. "Goose egg here...and that laceration will need a half dozen stitches at least."
"That looks like a sword wound," observed Photis thoughtfully.
"Get her legs, Photis," Elkton commanded, placing his own hands under Xenas arms. "Help me get her onto the bed."
Photis put his small hands around each of Xenas ankles and lifted, grunting with the effort. "Ughn...sheavier than she looks..."
"Its all that armor," replied Elkton as he settled Xenas limp form awkwardly on the bed.
"Too bad she wasnt wearing some of it on her head..." he murmured, inspecting the lump on her skull. "Get me that basin, will you? And a cloth..."
Photis complied and stood to one side, watching as the older priest ministered aid. "How is she?"
"Well, she ought to thank Zeus for that hard head of hers, anyone else would be dead."
"Gabrielle is gone," said Photis simply. Elkton merely grunted. "Xena seemed so certain the girl wouldnt harm her."
"Gabrielle didnt do this," retorted Elkton. "Actus me invicto factus, non est meus actus...or is your Latin rusty?"
Photis rolled his eyes; his Latin was impeccable. "An act, done by me against my will, is not my act. Thats one of the first principles you ever taught me...but Latin, Elkton," he said, clucking disdainfully. "Itll never catch on."
"Its the language of scholars, Photis, or soon will be. Now, I want you to find Linius and the pair of you look for Gabrielle; wherever she is, she wont stray far from the temple."
Alone in the room, save for his charge, Elkton rolled back Xenas eyelids, knowing what he would find, but none-the-less startled by his close scrutiny of the warriors incomparable blue eyes, dilated, unfocused. "I know youre in there somewhere, Xena..."
* * * * * * * *
"Are you interested in knowing how to free them all, Xena?"
"You know I am," she replied evenly. She stood very still, arms folded, only her eyes moved, contradicting her studied repose; they followed Manus lazy progress through the void with earnest hatred. "Are you interested in telling me?"
"I might be," replied Manus, coyly; the affectation did not convince. "You can save them all. I will free each and every last one of them...the villagers, the temple priests..." He gestured to the form of Gabrielle. "Even your precious Gabrielle."
"Wouldnt that frustrate the prophecy?" quipped Xena with mock concern.
"Prophecy be damned!" exclaimed Manus, beating the flat of his hand once against his thigh. "Now, do you want to know the conditions, or should I just --"
"Im listening," she interjected calmly. "What conditions?"
"Submit to me," he whispered; his low voice hummed through the tiny bones in her ear and sent an undetected chill down her spine. "Submit to my will...offer your life to me, and I will release them all."
"Submit..." She stepped back to look him squarely in the eye. "You mean --"
"One death, Xena. Blood spilled for me, in my name, and it all ends..."
Xena, to her credit, did not appear surprised by the suggestion. "If you wanted me dead, I can think of a dozen bounty hunters who would happily have accepted the contract."
"Oh, men like Hesiod...? The Titans dealt with him...then there was Thersites..." He tugged pensively at a wiry eyebrow. "Who else...?
"Atyminius," prompted Gabrielle helpfully.
Manus acknowledged her with a nod. "Thank you, child..." To Xena, "Atyminius, perhaps one of the more ruthless examples of humankind...I even gave Callisto a nudge in your direction...failures all. No. Im convinced that the only person capable of ending your life...is you. What do you say, Xena? One life in exchange for hundreds, possibly thousands." Manus smiled, magnanimous in victory. "One life to set them free. I cant be fairer than that."
There was a weighty pause before Xena spoke again. "What guarantee do I have youll release the villagers?"
"You have my word," said Manus smugly.
"That and a dinar will buy me a cup of wine."
"Xena, you dont trust me," he retorted, feigning indignance. "Im hurt, but given your nature, I suppose Im not entirely surprised." He directed his voice at Gabrielle. "Come here, child." Gabrielles shoulder fell under Manus waiting hand. "Look at her, Xena."
Xenas eyes traveled without hesitation across the face of her friend; the trust there, so genuinely evident in this surreal setting, made her heart ache. There was really only one decision she could make.
Actus me invicto factus, non est meus actus
Xena felt gentle arms supporting her, and then a cool cloth across her brow. "Gabrielle?"
"No, it's me," said Elkton as he helped her into a sitting position. "Youve got quite a respectable lump here," he said as he parted the hair at the back of her head. "Who did this?"
"I cant be sure, but I think it was Hesperos...sssss, easy there, Elkton..."
"Sorry. Hesperos, eh?" marveled the mystic. "He mustve done this, too." Elkton gestured to the irregular needlework on her shoulder. "I stitched it as best I could, but I think its going to leave a scar."
"One more for the collection..." Xena groaned as her fingers probed an egg-sized lump at the base of her skull. Trying to focus her eyes, she blinked surprise and muttered, "Its dark."
"One of the telltale characteristics of nightfall," quipped Elkton. "Ive been trying to rouse you for hours."
Xena cast frantically about the room, and the effort made her head pound. "Wheres Gabrielle?"
"She was gone when we found you," replied Elkton. "I have people searching the temple grounds for her." Xena swung her legs off the bed; her feet intersected a hard, flat plane she tentatively identified as the floor. "Hesperos has gone missing, too," he said, watching the warrior carefully.
"Big surprise," said Xena through clenched teeth. She struggled to her feet, her remarkable recuperative powers curiously absent as she leaned heavily against Elkton for support.
"Easy, now," he crooned. "Or you wont be going anywhere but down."
Xena shut her eyes, shaking her head to clear it. "Just gimme a minute..."
"Id offer you a chair," said the mystic, looking at the splintered wood littering the floor. "But I see youve already had one." He laughed mirthlessly at his own joke before addressing her more seriously. "Xena...you were talking just before you regained consciousness..."
She raised an eyebrow. "More prophecy?"
"You tell me...you said, Ill do it. What did you mean by that?"
Xena shook her head irritably. "Its just gibberish, Elkton. You dont take a blow to the head and come out of it spouting Sophocles." Satisfied that she had quelled his suspicions, she stepped away from the support of his strong arm and teetered precariously for a moment before finding her equilibrium.
"Thats curious," he murmured under his breath. "I hadnt noticed that before."
She braced herself with her fingertips against the table top. "Whatre you talking about?"
He pointed with his chin. "Your sword...its gone."
Xena reached over her shoulder, grasping only air...the sword, her lethal counterbalance for many years, was missing. She paled visibly as she contemplated the consequences of her missing blade.
"Why would Gabrielle have taken the blade?" mused Elkton, lighting on the edge of his bed. "Unless..." his eyes met Xenas. "...unless she means to kill you with your own weapon."
One life. One death. The possibility that Gabrielle had taken the sword was simply unthinkable and Xena dismissed it immediately. "Trust me, Elkton, Im not easy to kill."
"I noticed you didnt deny the possibility though..."
Xena merely looked at the old mystic and pursed her lips; the thought of explaining the actions she had seen Gabrielle take in the dreamscape made her ill. "I wont be Gabrielles first kill...I couldnt do that to her."
Elkton raised an eyebrow. "You couldnt do that to her? Youll be the one whos dead."
"Youd have to have taken a life to understand, Elkton. Some things are with you forever... memories that stake out tiny claims on your conscience..." She shook her head, consigning her private demons to the back of her mind. "If Gabrielle had wanted to kill me, why didnt she when she had the chance?"
"You dont want my argument, Xena," said Elkton, rummaging through his raging emotions for a smile. "So...what now?"
"We need to find Gabrielle and Hesperos," she announced resolutely.
"Perhaps easier said than done. The grounds are extensive. Ive had people searching for Gabrielle since the moment we discovered she was missing. No ones seen either her or Hesperos."
"People dont just disappear into thin air, Elkton. Come on," she said, taking him by the shoulder and propelling him out the door.
* * * * * * * * * *
Hesperos drew Gabrielle through the labyrinth of corridors, their combined footfalls echoing quietly off the stone walls. He needed no map and no directions to the destination he had never visited. His feet carried him inexorably, unerringly to his master's side. They reached a simple oaken door devoid of any decoration or adornments. The two guards, positioned to either side of the door, deferred to him, saluting with the simple swords they carried. Hesperos did not hesitate, but pushed open the door and entered the silent crypt.
Gabrielles eyes swept the interior of the expansive chamber, taking in the dank stone walls and musty tapestries depicting various scenes: faithful followers making sacrifices to the Dream Gods, Morpheus in the guise of Ceyx, long dead husband to Halcyone, coming to deliver the news of her husband's demise in the form of dreams. The tapestries, faded with age, were still powerful in their representations of a kinder, gentler Morpheus. A black river of scuffed tiles traced a path to a raised dias, and above that, at eye level, hung the Sword of Psyche, a blade of such beauty and deadly power that it held Gabrielle's gaze for a long moment before her eyes were drawn to the most prominent feature in the room; upon the dais, dressed in the ceremonial robes he so cherished in life, lay the motionless body of Manus, looking very much unchanged since Gabrielle had seen him last. That was it: echoing space, silence, and one still figure.
Hesperos left her at the threshold and addressed the two guards at the entrance to the chamber. He conferred with them in hushed tones for a moment before waving them back to their posts. Moving once again to stand beside Gabrielle, he said, "The master awaits."
As she was prompted over the threshold and into the room, it seemed to Gabrielle as though the air had taken on a heavier quality. She could feel the evil, it pressed upon her like a physical thing. She could also sense Manus strong presence in the room, could feel his icy caress upon her mind. Gabrielle shrugged off Hesperos guiding hand and walked deliberately towards the dais, her eyes never leaving Manus deceptively peaceful face. Her hands shook slightly as she clutched Xena's sword, her heart thumped as if it would burst from her chest. As she drew nearer, she could see a plaque set directly into the dais, bearing an inscription and an icon of Morpheus. Gabrielle set the sword aside and knelt before the dais as any disciple might kneel before an altar. Eventually, she found her voice and spoke, in confidential whispers of her devotion to her master. "Soon. Soon youll be free and it will be my hand that frees you," she pledged. Her fingers absently caressed the raised script on the plaque. "What does it say?" she asked, turning at the waist to address Hesperos.
Hesperos footfalls rang on the stone floor as he approached. "Its not for us to know, child." He took her by the elbow, compelling her to stand. "Come. You must conceal yourself."
"Why doesnt he talk to me?" she asked, genuinely confused. "Have I displeased him?"
Hesperos blinked surprise at the inquiry. "Not at all. You have done all that has been asked of you, but there is one thing more. Come now, you must wait for the right moment to reveal yourself. Those who would oppose us will be here soon, and you must be ready to face them." He hefted Xenas sword with effort. "All rests with you, my dear." Gabrielle nodded wordlessly and allowed Hesperos to escort her into the shadows, behind a tapestry, concealed from the eyes of anyone who might enter the room. "Remain here until summoned."
"How long?" she implored, breathlessly impatient.
He put the sword into her hands, grateful to be rid of it. "Youll know when the moment is right."
Gabrielle clutched Xena's sword to her breast. "I trust you, Hesperos," she replied confidently.
Hesperos paused a beat, looked at the young woman seriously and then, taking his time,
lazily pulled the tapestry across her face, and arranged it so that it hid her boots. He stepped back and admired the effect before turning to the prostrate form on the dais. "Soon, Master..." he crooned. He smoothed the drape of Manus robes, wiped a thin coating of dust from the broad, dark face with the corner of his own garment, and swept small flecks of stone from the cold slab.
He cast his eyes upward, frowning at the dilapidated ceiling high above his head. He nodded sagely, knowing that Manus would appreciate the irony of his body remaining unchanged while the world around him crumbled and decayed.
Hesperos yawned, a wide, interminable yawn that left his jaw sore; his mind grew fuzzy at the edges and his legs felt watery, as if they might not support him. He had to lean against the dais for fear of collapsing. As a rule, he required very little sleep, frequently going four or five days without closing his eyes. Often, before being drawn into the dreamscape at his masters bidding, he experienced similar symptoms, though nothing so severe as this. Manus always announced his intentions, giving his minion time to prepare, and so naturally, Hesperos was more than a little puzzled by his sudden physical decline. "What is this?" he murmured aloud, his initial feeling of exhaustion stifled by a wave of suspicion. Master? Are you there?
Hesperos...you resist me. Why is that?
Hesperos sighed, palpably relieved, but even as he did so, his limbs began to tingle. No, my lord. Im merely surprised you bother with your servant at this late hour, when resurrection is so very close.
You lie, Hesperos. You fear me, said Manus, and the revelation surprised him.
No, my Lord Manus. You have never given me cause to do so... until now, Manus quipped.
Hesperos opened his mouth to object. The utterance, "Never!" simple and impassioned reverberated throughout the chamber.
Then join me...close your eyes, open your mind and join me. I have new instructions for you.
You cant get there from here
"Well, where is it, Elkton?"
Elkton stood poised at the intersection of a corridor, his thumbnail clenched firmly between his teeth and his mind casting about frantically for landmarks. "Its this way," he said, although the uncertain tone in his voice belied the confident statement.
"Elkton," Xena snapped impatiently. "Time is running out."
"My dear Xena, no one is more keenly aware of the time than I am! Now, as I said, the crypt is..." He pivoted ninety degrees and indicated a completely different corridor. "...down this way." He moved a few feet, stopped and turned, his gaze concentrated on a large crack running the height of one wall. "...funny..I dont remember that being there..."
"Admit it, Elkton: you dont know where we are."
Elkton scratched his head and sighed wearily. "Im an old man, Xena. Ive been reminded of that time and again these last days. Perhaps my memory is failing me. I was only at the crypt once, during the internment ceremony."
"Well, that was over a winter ago," interjected Xena, laying a hand on his shoulder. "And this place is as bad as a minotaurs maze." They had been walking the halls for some time now, in ever-increasing circles, it seemed to Xena, and although she had been informed that there were a number of people searching the temple, they had yet to come across another living soul since leaving Elktons chamber. Adding to that was the uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched. She looked at her companion and could see her apprehension mirrored in his eyes.
"You feel it, too, eh?" Elkton smiled cautiously. "Thank the gods, I thought I was being paranoid."
"Even paranoids have enemies. Whats down this corridor?"
Elkton searched his memory in annoyance. "I could be wrong, but I believe that way is the infirmary. I think I can find the crypt from there. Thats where the body was prepared."
Much to their relief, Elktons memory had served him, at least on this one occasion. But as they rounded the familiar corner into the infirmary, they were shocked at what they saw...a room huddled in sleep...priests and novitiates unconscious on the floor, or collapsed over the bodies of their patients, seeming to have dropped where they stood when they were stricken. "Oh, Xena..." was all the old mystic could say as he picked his way into the room, stepping over the still form of his friend and confidant, Photis. "Photis?" Elkton knelt and placed two fingers at the unconscious mans throat; he was relieved to find a weak pulse. However, the body trapped beneath Photis, that of an old man, was cold. "Photis is alive...barely." Rising, Elkton was incredulous at the scene spread out before him, positively surreal in its dreamlike quality.
Xena rose from her own examination of the young novitiate she recognized as Silvus; the gray eyes behind his sleep-heavy lids were clouded and distant. "Manus," she uttered spitefully, the very name itself had grown to personify evil in her mind.
"By the gods, Xena, do you realize what this means?" He rejoined her beneath the windows. "Manus is now strong enough to reach out from the dream plane!" He clutched her arm. "How can we hope to defeat such power?"
Xena turned at the hand on her arm, "Elkton, calm down. If we panic now, then Manus will have already won," she said, her warriors reasoned mind taking control. "The solstice isnt over, and if youre right, I have to be dead by my best friends hand before Manus is released. Now, unless Im dead, and just dont know enough to stay down, were not finished yet."
Elkton nodded, failing to see the humor in her statement. "You're right, of course, Xena." He drew in a deep breath, using the techniques he had learned so long ago to slow his heart rate and bring himself under control. It was then, at the edge of this perfect clarity, that he felt the first tingling...the first dark, cold tendrils of fear within his mind. "Sonofa--" he murmured, and quickly moved to strengthen his mental reserves; he felt stronger almost immediately, although the effort left him shaking. The nerve...thinking you can seduce the High Priest of Morpheus with sleep...you wont have me, too, Manus...
"We have company," said Xena in a whisper.
"You sense him, too?"
Xena pointed with her chin, gesturing to a darkened corner of the room. "There," she announced in a whisper. Xenas eyes, remarkable for their acuity as much as their color, discerned movement, gray against gray as the furtive figure dwelt in the shadows, moving along the wall like a hunted thing.
Elkton squinted, gazed intently at the same patch of wall as his companion and shook his head. "I dont see anything. Are you sure?"
Xena took umbrage; not so very long ago, anyone who questioned her judgment never lived to question it a second time. But she was a different person now, and the mystic with his kind heart and affable ways, merited mercy in the form of a sly wink. "Trust me."
He nodded and raised his voice, directing his inquiry to the shadows. "Hesperos, if thats you, I suggest you show yourself!" His voice echoed back impotently.
"Elkton," Xena said in a dangerous voice. "Wait here."
The cautionary command was still hanging in the air as the figure bolted into the adjoining corridor, Xena in pursuit. She lost sight of him only briefly when he rounded a corner. One heartbeat behind, and wary of ambush, Xena lingered at the threshold leading out into the moonlit courtyard. Presently, she felt Elktons presence at her side. "Youre as bad as Gabrielle," she muttered without taking her eyes from the courtyard. "Stay close to me."
"My dear, Xena," whispered Elkton, his fingers at her elbow. "Consider us joined at the hip." He squinted into the night and leaned in close, his breath stirring wisps of hair about her ear. The solitary figure stood poised in the center of the courtyard, his cowl pulled close to keep his face in shadow, his hands behind his back. "I cant make him out...is it Hesperos?"
"Too slight for Hesperos," she responded, cautiously moving into the courtyard proper.
"Hold!" The need for subterfuge no more, the figure slowly drew back his hood to reveal the face of the young novitiate whom Xena had charged to watch Gabrielle.
"Linius," breathed Elkton, sounding both relieved and irritated. Xenas arm across his body kept him from advancing further. "Linius, why did you run from us?"
The young man smiled innocuously. Without replying, he turned his face to the moon to observe a cloud of blackbirds winging its way across the translucent night sky in a singular mass of ebony. He spread his arms and intoned in a strong, clear voice, "Lord Manus takes what he wants, old man...when he wants it."
Elkton scratched his head in puzzlement. Xena followed Linius steady gaze skyward.
Momentarily, she felt a heavy thud on her skull, a second object grazed her shoulder and fell to the ground at her feet. Upon closer scrutiny, she could see that they were blackbirds... dead blackbirds...stricken from the sky at the whim of a madman. She straightened and looked over to see Elkton throw his arms over his head in an attempt to deflect the barrage but in a matter of moments, a carpet of feathered bodies lay at their feet.
"Its a big man who can fell a few birds," quipped Xena, clearing her path with a graceful sweep of her foot. She advanced a step, wishing she could see what the young man held behind his back. Her fingers sought the cool comfort of the chakram at her hip; shifting her gaze, surveying the courtyard, she calculated distance and trajectory...whether to maim...or to kill. She hoped she didnt have to kill Linius; she rather liked the boy. "Linius, tell me the gods were generous and gave you two hands...let me see the other one."
As if all he were waiting on was invitation, Linius brought a short sword into view. Observing the sleek blade with reverence, he said, "Its magnificent, dont you think?" He flaunted the sword clumsily, with hands unaccustomed to such unwieldy weight.
"Trust me, it isnt you, Linius," said Xena lightly. "It doesnt go with the robes."
"Linius," begged Elkton, his voice full of passion. "Put the sword down and join us. Morpheus would want you to join us."
Linius gave the old mystic a sideways glance and snorted derisively. Without saying a word, he used the tip of the blade to draw a rough circle in the dirt. He wiped the blade once on the hem of his robes and stepped dead center of the circle. Then, moonlight reflecting off the polished blade, the novitiate raised the short sword into the air and said, "For you, Unbelievers... a demonstration in blood." Before Xena or Elkton could utter a sound, he spun the blade, leveled it at his chest and impaled himself.
"No!" cried Elkton, even as the blade passed through the rough material of the young mans robe and pierced the tender flesh of his chest. He rushed to the boys side as he crumpled to the ground, spilling across the circular furrow he had cut, spilling his lifesblood over his hands and onto the ground. With shaking hands, Elkton turned the boy onto his back and shook his head, intoning, "No, no, no..."
Xena knelt beside Elkton and gazed deeply into the sad eyes that looked to her for help. To satisfy his wordless plea, she made a cursory examination. "I'm sorry, Elkton," she said softly as she studied the dead boys peaceful face. Expelling a breath, Xena reached over and as gently as possible, pulled the sword from Linius' body. Regarding the bloodstained blade, she cursed herself for the sin of overconfidence; she had expected a frontal attack. Armed or unarmed, she could have bested the boy in combat without doing any real harm to him, but she hadnt anticipated a suicide.
"No, Xena..." She turned at the mystics voice. Though his head was bent, his face in shadow, she could see his half-closed eyes were bright with unspilt tears. "...youre not to blame," he said at last.
Xena didnt know why his acute perception should have startled her. "Elkton, I --"
"--did everything humanly possible..." One large, calloused hand smoothed the boys hair while the other sought her hand, covering it, taking and imparting strength at the same time. "Such is the extent of Manus power...that he can turn the devout into blasphemers and innocents into killers."
"Yeah, well, Manus has got a lesson coming to him, one I intend to teach personally."
Elkton looked at her sideways and murmured, "Lesson?"
"Hes new to war; he doesnt yet understand that any weapon can be turned on the bearer." Rising, she scanned the courtyard; she could make out small dark lumps scattered about the grounds. Manus had done it, achieved such a level of power that he could literally kill at will from within the dream plane. It was he who had killed Linius -- the boys blood, black in the moonlight, was on Manus hands. And it was Manus who had killed these simple creatures and left them where they fell from the heavens. Behind her, Elkton whispered a silent prayer for the soul of the gentle novitiate, now dead at his own hand, guided by Manus. Xena's eyes swept the courtyard once again, and came to rest on a golden lump lying amongst the trees lining the yard. Her heart sank within her chest as she moved, tentatively at first, then at a full sprint across the grounds, knowing what she would find, but hoping against hope that she was wrong. She dropped to her knees in the cool sand at the mare's side and ran her hands gently over the golden flanks, and was shocked to find her warm to the touch. Xena's hands found a heartbeat, faint but there nonetheless. She breathed an audible sigh of relief. But the knowledge that Argo was alive was tempered with the newfound wisdom that it was Manus who now held their lives in the palm of his hand. Reluctantly, Xena got to her feet and rejoined Elkton at Linius' side. The priests eyes were closed and his lips moved in a soundless prayer for the boy's soul. Xena touched him lightly on the shoulder, startling him from his devotions. "Im going to the crypt, Elkton. I think it would be better if you remained here."
"Better..." Elkton murmured, his voice broken. "Better, but not safer, Xena." He pushed himself to his feet. "Manus has just demonstrated that he can take me, you...whomever he wants, where they stand." He closed his eyes in deep thought for a moment, and when he opened them again, he knew with clarity where Manus would be most powerful, his influence the strongest.
"Hell be in the crypt. Lets go get the bastard, shall we?"
Threes a Crowd
In direct contrast to his earlier attempts, Elkton led Xena through the myriad of passages unerringly, drawn by some unseen force; Xena had to admit, thats how it looked to her. The mystic raced through the corridors, chest thrust before him, as if an invisible tether drew him along. At last, his legs, unable to keep pace with the rest of him, folded and he sprawled gracelessly to the stone floor. Xena was at his side in an instant. "You okay?"
"Forgive me, Xena..." he said, sweat pouring from his brow. "Im afraid Im only slowing you down..."
She squeezed his shoulder and grinned out of the side of her mouth. "Are you kidding? Im having trouble keeping up with you."
"Liar," he retorted good naturedly. He began to struggle to his knees, but finding them uncooperative, gave up the effort. "My body betrays me, Xena...my heart is...is sprinting but my legs...are rubber...gods, for a cup of cool water..."
"Rest a minute," Xena said, patting his arm. She rose and shifted the short sword in her hand.
"Where...where are you going?" he asked between gasps.
"Im gonna play oracle and have a look into our future," she quipped, gesturing down the corridor.
"Dont tell me everything, okay? Id like to be surprised."
Xena turned her lips into a fair imitation of a smile and left him there, sitting on the cold floor, his chest heaving like a bellows. She padded quietly down the long corridor, hugging the wall. The short sword, its once gleaming blade now dull with dried blood, hung parallel to her thigh. At a dark intersection, she stopped, her back pressed against the smooth stone wall. She blew a slow breath over her lips and, instincts preceding her, peered down the adjoining corridor.
* * * * * * * * * *
Elkton closed his eyes; over his rasping breath he heard echoing footfalls, the wind howling through the passage...imagined pursuit. When he came to himself, the sweat cold and drying on his skin, he heard none of those things, but he took no comfort in the silence that belied the turmoil around him. "Whos there?" He cast about, squinting down the passage. "Xena?"
You sound frightened, old man...is that fear I hear in your voice?
"Manus," growled the mystic, his contempt unmistakable. "Its you who should be afraid."
Come inside and say that to me...
"I like it where I am, thank you. Youre coming across very strong; we must be close indeed."
Why do you seem in such a hurry to die, old man? You do know that is the fate that awaits you...and Xena. Oh, and youre right...you are slowing her down...but I must have you both, so I am content to wait.
The ferocity of Elktons psychic retort left Manus momentarily stunned; far from being spent, the older mystic seemed invigorated by the engagement. Temper, temper, Elkton, said Manus, clicking his tongue, feigning a casual air. What would your students say if they could hear that kind of language? But I forgot...they cant...can they? Elkton shook his head and cried out audibly, his hands clasped over his ears. Manus pressed the advantage. Join me, Elkton...join me and swear allegiance now and you will be spared.
Youll forgive me if I forego the offer, but Ive seen how you reward loyalty.
Remember you refused me when you are writhing in agony... when all you know is dust beneath my feet...
Bold talk, Manus
Yes, it is, isnt it?
"Elkton...wake up." It was Xena, a lifeline to the waking world. "Come on...snap out of it. Elkton," she growled. "Dont make me come in there after you..."
Without a backward glance, he focused on her voice, on the life and light implied in its impassioned plea. "No need for threats, Xena," he quipped, even before he had opened his eyes. She was kneeling beside him, the concern on her face such that he felt compelled to soothe her anxiety. "Im alright, Xena...my unwelcome guest has returned, thats all."
"Hes persistent, you gotta give him that."
"Did you find anything?" he asked as she helped him to his feet.
"Theres a promising looking door about a hundred paces down that corridor...two beefy guards..."
"Ah, that would be Androcles and Phyus, two of Morpheus most devout."
Even the devout have to close their eyes some time...
"Shut up!" barked the mystic and Xena shot him a dangerous glance. "Sorry...not you, Xena."
"Do you mean you cant sense him?"
"Sorry," Xena shrugged. "Youve always been his favorite. Now, if youre rested up, we really need to --"
"Strange..." the mystic mused. "Manus is picking off people one by one; hes been so bold as to assault the servants of Morpheus, the High Priest of Morpheus...tell me, Xena, how is it you escape his attentions?"
"We dont have time for this, Elkton," she retorted, looking everywhere but into his eyes.
Elkton eyed her steadily. "Xena, whatever offer hes made you --"
"Whatre you talking about?" interjected Xena, playing confusion like a lyre.
"Whatever offer hes made you...he lied. Youre lying to me now."
Xena considered the mystic a moment, his soft gray eyes staring intently into her face. The last man to call her a liar had had his tongue cut out before shed killed him. "Elkton, we might both live through this night if you stay out of my head. On some nights, theres barely room enough in there for me."
He lay a hand on her arm and implored, "Talk to me, Xena."
"Youre dangerously close to the edge, Elkton," she hissed in her no-nonsense voice.
"I think you should know Im prepared to go that extra step," he retorted, equal to the task; he hoped she would admire his persistence before she squashed him like a bug. He shook himself from such thoughts, which, when they were all poised on the brink of annihilation, seemed superfluous anyway. "What offer did he make you, Xena?"
The question hung in the air, eminently answerable. "Come with me or stay," she whispered harshly, shaking loose his grasp. "Its your choice." Without further word, she turned and headed down the corridor, and even as she did so, she could hear the rustling of his robes as he moved to follow.
One hundred paces down the torchlit corridor, Xena came upon Androcles and Phyus, two of Morpheus most devout, and Elktons most trusted...asleep...back to back on the stone floor, their short swords clasped in spasmed hands, as if they had gone down fighting.
"Androcles...Phyus..." whispered Elkton fiercely, shaking both men.
As Elkton continued trying to rouse the men, Xena slipped quietly to the crypt door and lay a keen ear against its surface. The air in the room hummed with expectation. "Any luck?" she inquired when she had rejoined Elkton.
He shook his head, the words Even the devout have to close their eyes sometimes... nagging at his conscience. He lifted his gaze and regarded Xena gravely. "Manus wont give them back, we have to take them."
"Im on it." Xena pried a short sword from the fingers of one of the priests. "Here," she said, offering the blade.
Elkton held up his hands. "I cant."
"For Zeus sake, Elkton," she hissed. "Arm yourself."
"My faith is my weapon, Xena," retorted the mystic.
Xena opened his hand and placed the hilt of the short sword across his palm. "Faith wont cover my back. Take it." She closed his fingers over the hilt and when she was assured the blade wouldnt drop to the floor, signaling their approach, she turned and lay one hand on the iron handle of the door.
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