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Xena, Gabrielle, Autolycus, and anybody else you recognize are not mine. Iím just borrowing them; I promise Iíll give them back. Well, Iíd kind of like to keep Autolycus, but I guess Iíll give him back, too.
If youíve read part 2, you have an idea of what to expect as far as violence goes. Thereís also some strong language, but as I said before, no sex, and no subtext.
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Gabrielle leaned on her staff, alternating between watching the road and watching Xena. The warrior sat astride Argo in the tall grass at the side of the road, intense blue eyes turned towards the town they had just left.
They were waiting for Autolycus. Heíd left the inn before dawn to see about "acquiring" a horse for the journey. After a quick breakfast, Xena and Gabrielle had packed up, paid for the room, and headed out, stopping at the meeting place Xena had decided on. But the sun was climbing, and there was still no sign of the thief.
Watching Xena now, Gabrielle knew she was getting impatient. That did not bode well for Autolycus when he showed up. Or was that if he showed up? Gabrielle was beginning to have her doubts. Not that she could really blame the guy for being less than enthused about coming along. His last encounter with the Amazons hadnít exactly been warm and fuzzy. He probably figured heíd get lynched if he went back.
Gabrielle sighed and scuffed the toe of her boot on the ground. Argo snorted and tugged at her reins, eager to be moving. "Soon, girl." Xena said, reaching down to pat the mareís neck. "Be patient." she added, and Gabrielle wasnít sure if that last was intended for Argo or the warrior herself.
"Xena, how do you know heís even coming?" Gabrielle finally asked. "He wasnít exactly jumping at the opportunity last night."
"Heíll be here, Gabrielle. Heís just taking his sweet old time to prove a point." The tone of her voice suggested that "impatient" was rapidly giving way to "mildly furious".
"If you say so." Gabrielle muttered.
"Your confidence in me is touching." Xena replied dryly.
"My confidence in you is just fine, Xena. Itís Autolycus Iím not sure about."
Xena eyed the girl thoughtfully. "Give him some credit, Gabrielle."
"I know, I know."
Xena looked at the position of the sun then, and frowned. It was a frown that said "mildly furious" was sliding towards "genuinely pissed" at an astonishing speed.
Gabrielle was just starting to think that Xena was going to ride into town and drag Autolycus out by his ankles when the rhythm of hoofbeats approached, not from the road, but from the field behind Gabrielle. A flame-colored horse, nearly as big as Argo, cantered towards them carrying the thief. He drew the animal to a halt and gave them a smug smile.
"Here I am, as promised."
His casual greeting was just a little more than Xena could take. "Where in Tartarus have you been?" she growled. "I told you I wanted to leave at first light."
He regarded her cooly. "Stealing a horse isnít exactly like lifting someoneís coin purse, you know. I had to wait for the right opportunity." He cast a glance back at the village. "Speaking of which, weíd better be on our way. I donít think theyíll miss this guy for a while, but Iíd rather not stick around to find out."
Xena was fuming, but she bit her tongue and turned to Gabrielle. "Ready?" she asked.
Gabrielle sighed. "I suppose. Letís go, Horseface."
Argo snorted indignantly.
Gabrielle passed her staff up to Xena, then grabbed the offered hand and pulled herself up onto the mareís back. Once settled in place behind Xena, she took her staff back and hooked her free arm securely around the warriorís waist. "Okay, Iím ready."
At a signal from Xena, Argo leaped into motion, shooting by Autolycus and the chestnut. "Try to keep up." Xena called over her shoulder.
"Youíre so cute when youíre mad at me." Autolycus said under his breath, and took off after them.
The storms of the previous day had dissipated, leaving the sky clear and blue, and the day warm. So warm, in fact, that at a little past midday, Xena decided they would stop for a while and rest the horses.
"Thank the gods," Gabrielle moaned, sliding stiffly down from the saddle. She made a great show of leaning on her staff and working the kinks out of her legs. "Ohhhh, my buttís numb." she lamented. Autolycus walked by and smacked her none too gently on the backside. "No itís not." he observed as she howled, and was a little too slow to avoid getting thwacked in retaliation.
"Ow! Play fair, I didnít hit you with a stick!"
"I didnít hit you either. I tapped you. If I hit you, youíd be on the ground trying to remember your name."
Xena couldnít help but smile as she watched them, her troubled thoughts lifting a little. She walked over to join them, leaving the horses untethered. Argo wouldnít go anywhere unless given the command by her mistress, and the war mare would have no problem keeping Autolycusí horse from wandering too far.
The three of them walked for a while, stretching their legs, and keeping as much to the shade as was possible. Xena was quiet, listening to Gabrielle and Autolycus banter, and mentally planning the rest of the dayís travel. They were heading away from civilization; any villages they did find would be small, with no inns. Theyíd be making camp tonight. Sheíd probably have to hunt. There was food in their packs, but Xena preferred to hold off on using those rations for as long as possible. You never knew when you would find yourself in a place where there was no good game, no place to fish, or when your snares would simply fail to raise the interest of the local wildlife. Xena knew the territory they were heading into well, and it was ideal for hunting.
Autolycus excused himself just then. "Pardon me, ladies." he said, heading for the bushes.
"No problem. Yell if you need any help." Gabrielle jibed.
"Oh, thanks, really, but I think I can take care of this on my own." Autolycus replied sarcastically.
"Little late to be shy," Xena mused. "Nothing I havenít seen already."
Gabrielle raised her eyebrows, and Xena swore the thief blushed, just a little.
"Thatís cute, Xena." he grumbled, walking away.
When he was out of earshot, Gabrielle turned to Xena, her expression now completely serious. "Do I get to hear the whole story now? You did promise. Whatís going on?"
Xena sighed. This conversation wasnít going to sound any better if she kept delaying it. "Gabrielle, I know sometimes you have dreams that you...believe are more than dreams. Visions."
Gabrielle stopped short. She didnít know what sheíd expected to hear, but this was definitely not it. "I thought you didnít believe in clairvoyance."
"I didnít. I donít. I ó ugh!" she cut herself off, frustrated. "I donít know what to believe, Gabrielle." the warrior admitted. "But Iíve been having nightmares. Bad ones. Iím not sure what to make of them."
Gabrielle didnít reply right away, looking thoughtful. "Iíve never known you to be introspective about dreams before. Not even the really bad ones. Whatís different this time?"
Xena shook her head. "Itís hard to say, exactly. The first couple of times I ignored it. I thought it was just my mind and my conscience having fun with me again." At that point Gabrielle opened her mouth to break in, but Xena waved her to silence. "Donít say it, Gabrielle. Itís nothing that hasnít been said a hundred times before. Letís not go there right now. Anyway, I brushed it off. But I kept having the same dream, night after night, and each night it was more...tangible. I would wake up feeling that I had actually been where I dreamed I was, said and heard the same words, seen you ó" she broke off abruptly, turning from her friend. Gabrielle stepped around in front of Xena and made the woman look at her. She was shocked at the undisguised emotion in those blue eyes.
"What?" she prodded gently. "You can tell me, Xena."
"I watch you die, Gabrielle." Xena said in a shaky voice. "Every night, I watch you die. You and Autolycus. I canít stop it. I want to. But I just...watch."
Gabrielle didnít even blink. "How?" she asked simply.
"Velaska." Xena spoke the name as if tasting poison.
Gabrielle drew a breath. "Velaska kills us."
"Yes. She slaughters you right in front of me, and I canít save you. Either of you. But she leaves me. She lets me live." It was stated so bitterly Gabrielle flinched.
"Xena, those are just dreams." Gabrielle tried to soothe her. "Velaskaís buried. Sheís beaten and buried, and sheís not coming back." The bard gave her a cocky grin. "Iím sure as heck not going anywhere!" she said matter-of-factly, and Xena gave a short laugh. She reached down and gave Gabrielle a quick, tight hug.
"I donít know what Iíd do without you, Gabrielle," she said honestly.
"Youíd get food poisoning from your own horrible cooking, probably." Gabrielle laughed, taken off guard. She turned somber almost instantly. "This was the dream you tried to tell me about yesterday. You were upset, and I made fun of you." She looked as guilty as if sheíd committed a crime. "Iím sorry."
"Donít be sorry." Xena chided. "I should apologize. Iím the one whoís been intolerable lately."
"Not intolerable. Unpleasant, maybe. I think poor Autolycus has caught more of it than I have."
Xena groaned. "Iím surprised heís stuck around this long."
"Iím not." Gabrielle startled her by saying. "Youíd have to do a lot more than act moody to drive him away, Xena."
"Iím not looking forward to telling him why weíre doing this." Xena sighed. "It sounds insane, for one thing."
"No it doesnít. It sounds like youíre following your gut feeling. When was the last time it was wrong? This is Velaska, after all. Iíd rather not take chances, no matter how strange the circumstances seem." There was steel in the bardís voice. "If sheís freed herself somehow, weíll stop her."
Speaks the Amazon, Xena thought proudly. Gabrielle had grown up.
She looked at the sky. "We should get going." she observed. Raising her voice, Xena called, "Autolycus, wrap up the nature walk!"
She could move again. The earth had pulled away from her body. She was still encased in rock, but she could move. She stretched as much as was possible in the tiny space. When she braced her feet against the rock, it moved a little more, cracking slightly, giving way.
"Like hatching from an egg," Velaska observed, and laughed out loud at the sound of her own voice. She hadnít heard anything but silence in almost two years.
Goodness, was two years a long time? The mortal part of her mind told her she should be awed at that estimation, but the rest of her felt like she was waking up from an afternoon nap. Couldnít be that long. Why she could remember clear as a bell the day she led a scouting party out to meet Gabrielle, taking Xenaís body home. She remembered the way the sun had felt that day, the way the woods had smelled.
Oh yes, she remembered lots of things. Why it was so important she got out of here, for example.
There were so many people up there she had to kill. She really needed to get busy.
"Well, one thing at a time I suppose." she said reasonably, and worked her fingers into a crack that had formed right above her head. She gave a wrenching pull, felt the rock start to tear like cloth ó
Velaska frowned. She tried once again to rip her way out by brute force, and again she felt a resistance that was more than rock.
"Damn it all, I donít have time for this!" she growled impatiently. This was going to become frustrating real fast. "I want out, now!" she shouted.
A womanís laughter echoed through her prison, and Velaska paused in her struggle. "Whoís there?" she demanded.
"Oh, my poor, ignorant little Amazon. You donít understand what you are, do you Velaska?" the voice was mocking and genuinely pitying all at the same time.
"I understand exactly what I am." she spat. "I am a god."
"A false god. A small god. Do you know what happens to a god with no believers, Velaska? They are blown away on the wind. Tucked into the forgotten corners of the world, where they wonít be in the way."
"Youíre wrong." Velaska told the unseen speaker. "Iíve heard the voice of a believer. She called to me. She woke me. She wants me."
"She may have awakened you, little Amazon, but her belief alone cannot free you. She is as foolish as you. She thinks that with some pretty words and the snap of her fingers she can bring you back just as you left. She means to make herself the gateway through which the mighty goddess Velaska will reenter the world and resurrect the old ways of her people."
"So far Iím liking her ideas." Velaska said, irritated. "Whatís your point?"
"Sheís offered you a way out, Velaska, but she hasnít the power to bring you out in tact."
"What are you telling me?" Velaska asked suspiciously.
"There is a price on your freedom. A god cannot pass through the doorway she has opened for you. If you choose to accept her invitation into the world, you forfeit your godhood."
There was a moment of stunned silence as this was digested.
"Thereís no other way?"
"No. Your powers will not leave this place with you."
Velaska fell silent again as she considered this. There was no choice, really. What good was all the power in the world if it meant she rotted here? That was, of course, supposing that this mysterious someone was telling her the truth.
"Who are you, and how do you know this?" she demanded.
The woman materialized before her, though how the tiny place was suddenly able to accommodate both of them Velaska had no idea. The woman didnít seem cramped in the least. She was small, muscular, and dark: severe, straight brown hair, dark gold skin, dark hazel eyes. Eyes that held Velaska in a gaze that was almost sad.
"There was a time when you would have known me. I am Artemis."
Fury bubbled up inside Velaska like the lava that had trapped her here so long ago.
"Artemis." she snarled. "Why should I believe the words of one who abandoned her people? I think you lie."
"Believe, Velaska." Artemis assured her quietly. "You will not leave this place a god. You can hate me if you so desire, but you know I speak the truth."
Glaring into those steady eyes, Velaska saw no trace of deception. As much as she wanted to deny what she was hearing, she realized the goddess wasnít lying to her.
"Iíll be human?" she asked in a level voice.
"Not human, Velaska. You will never be human again."
"If Iím not a god, and Iím not human, what in Tartarus am I? Enough riddles!" Velaska raged, her patience wearing thin.
"You are an Amazon."
The simple response startled Velaska, but after a moment she nodded.
"Yes. Of course."
"Youíve chosen, then?" the hunt-goddess questioned.
"I want my freedom."
"Do you willingly relinquish your godhood?"
Velaska barely paused. "I do."
The rock above her suddenly cleaved wide open, tearing up and further up. Dust and gravel rained down on Velaska, and when it settled, she raised her eyes to see the blue of the open sky high above her.
Artemis extended a hand and pulled Velaska to her feet. At the contact, a white flame seared over Velaskaís palm, and for a moment she felt as if she was falling through space. Velaska cried out in surprise at the unexpected vertigo. When it passed, she turned uncertainly to Artemis.
"Itís done then." Artemis declared. "Take your freedom, Velaska." Another rippling of white flame, and the goddess was gone, leaving Velaska alone.
Velaska took in the steep walls of rock around her. Iím to climb, eh? Very well, then.
She reached out and found a handhold, then another, and another, working her way towards the slice of blue.
"Nowhere to go but up." she said aloud, and laughed.
The sky was the deep blue of near night, except in the far west, where a narrowing swash of pale rosy gold burned the horizon. The air was cool and filled with the music of crickets and night birds.
Xena, Gabrielle, and Autolycus had made camp in the vicinity of a stream, and Xena had caught a few small fish for their dinner. Now Xena sat sharpening her sword, while Gabrielle laid on her stomach, scribbling furiously away at one of her scrolls. Xena reached out and stirred the fire up, giving the bard more light.
"Youíre going to ruin your eyes." she said flatly. Gabrielle glanced up, annoyed.
"Okay, Mother." she said sarcastically.
Xena gave the blade a last, critical examination, then slid it back into its scabbard and laid it aside. Movement by the stream caught her eye, and she saw Autolycus sitting beside the chestnut horse as it drank.
"Heís been quiet." Gabrielle said, noticing where her friendís attention was.
"Yeah," Xena replied, then stood up. "Iím gonna go talk to him."
Xena approached the thief quietly, and Autolycus didnít realize she was there until she stepped up beside him. "Everything okay?" she asked, and Autolycus jumped.
"Zeus, I didnít hear you back there. Yeah, Iím fine. Just tired."
"It was a hard day of riding." Xena agreed. "You did well, considering you usually avoid horses like a plague."
Autolycus stared into the water as if hypnotized. "I used to ride all the time when I was little. Every day. My mother taught me as soon as I could walk, and she and Malakis and I..." he faded off, either unable or unwilling to finish the thought.
Xena heard the sadness in that silence. He spoke so rarely of the happy memories he had of his family. She wondered if Autolycus realized just how much she knew. She had seen his memories, as clearly as if they were her own.
"Itís alright." Xena said gently. "Those are the things we need to remember."
He just kept his eyes on the water, his face carefully even. "Do you really believe sheís back?"
Xena clenched and unclenched her fist. "Velaska. I donít know, Autolycus. It seems ridiculous. But I have to be sure."
"Itís not that ridiculous. Just scary."
"I still half feel like a fool, taking off like this because of a dream. But somethingís wrong. Iím sure of it."
"She came out of the shadows." Autolycus said softly, talking more to himself than Xena. "She was part of them. A living shadow."
"What did you say?" Xena demanded. "Autolycus ó look at me."
He shook himself as if coming out of a trance.
"You dreamed it, too, didnít you? You saw what I saw." Xena marveled.
"I dreamed something. But I... couldnít remember. I woke up, and I was looking for you. I didnít remember dreaming anything. I still donít." He frowned. "Nothing except the shadows."
She was made out of shadows. Unreal and all too real at the same time. How could he have known? How could he have had the same dream?
An answer presented itself, bizarre, but no more so than any other part of this.
Your soul touched his, Xena reminded herself. Maybe some bonds are not so easily severed. Maybe some dreams are more than dreams.
"Sheís insane, Xena." Autolycus broke into her thoughts. "I saw it before, when she was still mortal. Thereís no telling what sheís capable of now."
"Iíve seen what sheís capable of." Xena said coldly. "At the core of it all Velaskaís still a zealot. Thatís dangerous even without the power to back it up. Anything she canít bend to her will, sheíll destroy."
"How long Ďtil we get to the village?"
"We should reach the edge of the Amazon lands in two days, if we ride hard. Ephinyís village is another day and a half beyond that."
"Three days." Autolycus sighed. "Iím not sure if itís too long or not long enough."
For the first time in many nights, Xena didnít dream. She was granted a few hoursí undisturbed sleep, waking at her normal time, just before dawn. The warrior laid on her back, watching the stars fade. In a few moments, it would be time to get up and poke Gabrielle until she stirred and greeted the day with her usual bright-eyed, first-thing-in-the-morning enthusiasm. It was going to be another long day of traveling, but for now Xena would allow herself a little while to wake up.
A small, soft cry disturbed her reverie, and Xena pushed herself up onto her elbows. "Gabrielle?" she called quietly, concerned. But the lump beneath Gabrielleís blanket was still rising and falling in the peaceful rhythm of sleep. A second sound, almost a sob, brought Xenaís attention to the third bedroll at the fire. Autolycus tossed fitfully in his sleep. Xena flipped her blanket back and moved quickly to her companionís side.
"Malakis," he moaned, and Xena saw the faint tracks of tears on his face.
Xena sighed. "Autolycus," she said, leaning over him, "youíre dreaming. Wake up." She reached down and gave his arm a gentle pat. "Come on, wake up."
The thiefís eyes snapped open, and he took a shaky breath. "My brother..."
"It was just a bad dream." she soothed. "Itís alright."
Autolycus sat up, drawing his knees to his chest. His hair was tousseled, and he looked much younger than the cocky thief Xena was so used to. Despite herself, Xena smiled fondly at the picture he made. He didnít resist when she reached over and took his hand.
"Okay now?" Xena asked gently. He nodded.
"I will be."
"Hey, at least you didnít slug me for waking you up." she joked, trying to lighten his mood. Autolycus laughed, if half-heartedly.
"When do you want to leave?" he asked.
"As soon as weíre packed and everyoneís had something to eat." Xena replied, brushing the tears from his cheeks. "I donít want to lose any time." She gave his hand a little squeeze. "Want to talk about it?"
Xena suspected he needed to, but she wasnít going to push it. She might mention something to Gabrielle later, though. The younger woman had a way of drawing people out that Xena truly admired, and what Autolycus shut away from most people he might be willing to let Gabrielle see. It wouldnít be the first time.
Xena located her armor and started fastening it into place. "Why donít you get dressed and bring the horses over?" she suggested. A mind set to work had less time to dwell on unpleasant dreams. "Iíll get Gabrielle up as soon as Iím armed and can defend myself."
"Sheís really not a morning person, is she?" Autolycus chuckled.
"Iíve been hit in the face with a scroll before."
"Xena," Autolycus said seriously, "thank you. I mean it."
A beautiful smile softened the usually stern face. "Anytime."
Gods, I love that smile, Autolycus thought, then abruptly looked away when he realized he was staring. "Iíll, ah, take care of the horses." he muttered, tugging his green tunic on.
Iím probably going to be dead in a few days, either by Velaska or a mob of women carrying grudges and swords, and all I can think of is what a gorgeous smile the Warrior Princess has. Gods help us all.
I donít understand what went wrong! I followed the ritual to the letter!
The young Amazon sat with her head in her hands, distraught. The summoning had yielded nothing. Sheíd come to the gorge as soon as she could get away yesterday to check, but nothing looked any different. Sheíd repeated the process from start to finish in her mind, looking for mistakes, but there were none.
Of course, sheíd been uncertain about the blood offering. The text hadnít specified what kind of offering. But what could be more fitting than the blood of the one doing the summoning?
Well, clearly something had gone wrong. It hadnít worked.
Her eyes flooded with frustrated tears. Sheíd worked so hard! Maybe if sheíd found a true sorceress to help her...
And pray tell where would you have found one of those, Delta? It was next to impossible to find the spell itself!
She glanced down at the book, sitting almost smugly in her lap. Moon above, it was an ugly thing. Bound in what she hoped was only aged pigskin, with a grotesque face worked into the cover. That face seemed to sneer at her now. Stupid girl! Did you really think anything would come of this?
Angrily, Delta blinked her tears away. Crying wouldnít make the spell work. She was a warrior. She would accept the failure with grace, not snivel like a child.
Squaring her shoulders, she stood and turned to head for her horse. "Time to go home, Nightshade ó OH!" she exclaimed in shock, stumbling over her own feet.
Velaska stood behind her, hands clasped behind her back, smiling.
Deltaís mouth worked mutely. Velaskaís smile grew wider at her disbelief, and she began to walk slowly towards the speechless girl.
"Delta, is it?" Velaska asked conversationally. "How appropriate. It appears I owe you a debt of gratitude, Delta."
Continues in Part 4
Thanks to everyone whoís hanging with me on this! Sorry if it took a while to get this part up; I experienced sporadic writerís block. More to come!
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