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Disclaimers: The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess are owned by MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures, bless them. No copyright infringement is intended.
Note: This is a follow-up story to "Embodiment of Evil" and "The Soul Catcher" so it would be helpful to read them first.
JOURNEY INTO DARKNESS
By Godot H.E.Kern@worldnet.att.net
There are worse fates than death, but for the life of him Autolycus couldn't think of any now. He was certain that it was death he was looking at as he stood at the precipice of a ledge that jutted out from the rolling mountains, looking across at a fortress said to be inhabited by a ruthless, evil sorcerer named Kryptus. Thin tendrils of mist swirled around the decaying structure. The wall surrounding it had gaps big enough to ride horses through. If it weren't for the men dressed in black leather armor manning the walls, one would think it was empty. Nothing grew just outside the walls. The earth was barren, dead to life and reeking of evil.
It was a simple job Xena had told him. All they had to do was trap Kryptus' soul in this special box she called the Soul Catcher. His job was to watch out for traps on the way in and open locks. His decision she had said. Actually what it boiled down to was a choice between joining up or being on her shit list for life. Some decisions were easy. So he had hunted up Hercules and Iolaus and they had met Xena's group in Helkinde. It was there he finally learned about the sorcerer's penchant for trapping people in spheres and feeding off their life essence until they died all to sustain a purloined physical body. Now he was pretty certain he didn't want to be here and backing out wasn't an option. Xena had made that plain. So, who did he want mad at him? Xena or Kryptus? Kryptus or Xena? A quick death or hounded for the rest of his sorry life. He shook his head muttering, "This is not good."
He looked at the gaunt still figure beside him. The wind blew her wild auburn hair back into an even more tangled mass. Her cloak whipped in the breeze. Still she did not move, staring with disturbing intensity at the fortress before them. She had been standing like that for hours, just staring. He was careful to stand downwind from her, wondering how he could tell her delicately that she...well, stunk. Xena had said the sorceress had not bathed since they left the temple more than three weeks ago. Water dissipated her force, the warrior said. Whatever that meant. Probably that one whiff of her and the enemy would keel over dead. And that vulture craning its neck to stare at him wasn't helping his unease either.
"Antipany," he said finally, "You shouldn't worry so much. You're both sorcerers. We'll have Kryptus boxed and shipped to Hades before you know it."
She laughed bitterly never taking her eyes off the fortress. "And a sparrow and an eagle are both birds, but you know who will win that battle. I am not the eagle in this fight, Autolycus." The vulture cawed his agreement. She fell silent and continued her vigil.
Oh boy, he thought. This is definitely not good.
Autolycus made his way back to the camp thinking of Antipany and her friend Telamedes, a priest of Apollo. Telamedes was a big man with a gentle soul and although he was a pleasant traveling companion, Autolycus didn't think he would be worth much in a fight. The priest had admitted as much. Autolycus suspected he had come just to keep an eye on the sorceress, Antipany. She had some kind of grudge against Xena, but the warrior insisted on bringing her. He didn't know what to make of her. Sullen and disagreeable, about the only one she talked to was that ugly carrion eater of hers, Peisander. As far as he could tell her only talent was the ability to shoot bolts of energy from her hands. He didn't know if the stench was worth it. He entered the camp where the other members of his party were making plans to assault the fortress. Xena had been elected leader by unanimous consent. It was a role she had naturally assumed and nobody else particularly wanted. Iolaus was making his case for a direct frontal assault.
"Where's the priest?" Autolycus asked Gabrielle.
"Telamedes is out communing with Apollo, I think," whispered the bard in reply.
"...so all we have to do is walk up to the gate and knock. They let us in and we beat them up. Simple," finished Iolaus.
Autolycus raised a finger. "I, for one, would like to say just how much I dislike that plan."
Xena smiled. "Maybe we shouldn't be quite that direct, Iolaus, but since Kryptus probably already knows we're here the element of surprise is lost." They continued to discuss options until Xena called a halt so they could prepare dinner, telling Hercules it was his turn to cook. He smiled and shrugged in good-natured agreement. "It's your stomach," he warned. Gabrielle hastily volunteered to help him.
Autolycus drew her into a private conversation. "You better go talk to Antipany, Xena. A few more hours of this and she'll snap like lock under my ministrations."
Xena nodded, looking annoyed. She made her way to the ledge where the sorceress was still staring at the fortress. The warrior had not been quiet in her approach but the sorceress did not move until Xena put a hand on her shoulder. Antipany whirled around, her hands suddenly bright balls of light.
Xena caught her wrists. "Wait! It's just me."
Antipany took a ragged breath and relaxed, her hands returning to their normal pale color. As Xena let her go, Antipany suddenly grabbed her hands. Staring wordlessly at her for a minute, the sorceress turned, drawing the warrior's arms around her and leaned back to rest against Xena's chest.
"I never thought of myself as a coward," she mused. "But this terrifies me." She paused then continued. "I am not afraid of death, it's the manner of my dying I fear. I don't want it to be a slow drawn out affair. Death should be swift and merciful." She fell silent relaxing against the warrior. Suddenly she turned and faced Xena intertwining their fingers.
"I can't go in there, Xena. He knows we're here and he's waiting for us." Her big brown eyes pleaded for understanding.
Xena did understand, but she also knew the success of their mission depended on everyone doing their part and that included the sorceress. She stared down into the frightened eyes. "Would you leave Telamedes to face Kryptus on his own?"
Antipany dropped her gaze, then looked up with a twisted smile. "You never did fight fair, princess." She thought for a moment. "All right, I'll go if you promise me one thing."
"If I can."
"If Kryptus starts forming one of his spheres around me, you'll kill me before the sphere is completed."
Xena's eyes flickered. She remembered threatening to kill the difficult sorceress many times during their stormy acquaintance and now Antipany was providing her with a golden opportunity.
"Please, Xena. It would be an act of mercy."
Xena nodded unhappily. "All right. If that will ease your mind."
Antipany sighed in relief. "Yes, it will. I can face the old spirit sucker now." She raised up and softly kissed the warrior. "Thank you. If you can't trust your worst enemy to kill you, who can you trust?" She smiled bitterly, released Xena's hands and walked back to the camp.
Xena stared at the fortress, her face a cold, hard mask. Well, that's why you're the leader, she thought. No one else in their little group would have even considered the request, let alone promised to fulfill it.
Dinner was a quiet affair with everyone thinking about the battle that would occur the next morning. Gabrielle settled down by Antipany and began to eat. Antipany noticed that the bard usually sat by her at meals. She would like to think it was her sparkling personality, but the sorceress suspected it was because she usually left food on her plate, a condition Gabrielle couldn't abide. Tonight, however, Antipany didn't leave a scrap of food for the bard to finish.
"Well, you seem to be feeling better. What happened?" Gabrielle queried.
Antipany told her of Xena's promise. Gabrielle choked a little on her tea then abruptly excused herself. When she returned after talking to Xena she looked even more unhappy. Telamedes had returned as they were eating.
"Any news for us, Telamedes?" Xena asked.
"Well, Apollo was kind enough to give me a layout of the place." Telamedes brought out a piece of parchment and spread it out on the ground. "You know, the gods are starting to get a little interested in this now. I understand Ares has placed a sizable bet with Artemis over who will win this little drama. Your brother doesn't like you much, does he Hercules?"
The big guy looked perturbed. "The feeling is mutual. If Ares is involved, you can bet he'll do something sneaky and underhanded."
"Zeus has forbidden Ares or Artemis to interfere personally. You put your father in a bind, Hercules. Kryptus is one of his favorite mortals and you are one of his favorite sons so he's rather put out with you for helping us. You know Kryptus has provided your father with some of his best cover when he goes prowling around down here, and he doesn't want to lose that."
Hercules grinned. "Ah, gee, I feel so bad about that. Just think how bad he's going to feel when I deliver Kryptus to Hades." He grinned even wider.
They gathered around the parchment on the ground and stared at the chicken scratches covering it. "Telamedes, when are you going to learn how to write?" Xena asked in exasperation.
He looked down at the parchment puzzled; it was perfectly understandable to him. He shrugged, "I'm a healer, not a scribe Xena." He pointed out four scratch marks. "These are the towers, one at each corner of the castle. Each tower contains four crystals with four spheres, one on top of each crystal. Then there is a central crystal that is the focal point for the others and that is located here." He pointed to another scratch near the center of the parchment. "That's where we'll find Kryptus. I think we'll have to destroy the outer crystals before we can weaken Kryptus enough to get to him. And best of all, there is an escape tunnel we can use to get in." He pointed to another scratch located at the base of the ravine.
Xena stared at the parchment thoughtfully. "The outer crystals will be handled by Autolycus and Iolaus. Hercules will keep the main force occupied, while Antipany and I go after Kryptus."
Gabrielle and Telamedes looked at each other. "What about me?" they asked in unison. Xena shook her head. "You two stay here," she said abruptly without explanation. Both of them shook their heads in return. "We're going," said Telamedes matter-of-factly.
Xena sighed. She thought at least one of them would show good sense, but that was just too much to hope for. "If you go, you will do exactly what I tell you." They both nodded. "All right. Gabrielle, go with Iolaus and Telamedes, you go with Autolycus. The sooner we get those crystals destroyed, the sooner this will end." They both looked disappointed, but Xena silenced them with a look.
"Sounds good to me," said Hercules. "There's just one thing left. Xena, I should take the box. After all, I'm the one who will be taking Kryptus to Hades."
She shook her head, smiling at him fondly. They had danced this dance before. "No, I'm the one going after Kryptus, I'll take the box." They stared at each other, a challenge passing between them.
Iolaus looked at them suddenly alert. "All right, what is so special about that box? You two haven't acted like that since we set Prometheus free. "
Telamedes cleared his throat. "Think about it, Iolaus. The Soul Catcher will suck in Kryptus... and whoever happens to be standing near it when it opens." Gabrielle groaned and Iolaus looked distressed. "I think you better let Xena take the box, Hercules, you're going to be busy with another problem." They all looked at the priest quizzically. He shifted, avoiding their eyes. "Ah...in exchange for this information, Ares got to add a new player to the mix." He looked up. "Strife will be on the other side. But only for two turns of the hour glass, and only when Kryptus calls for him."
Hercules smiled grimly. "I should have known Ares would mess things up. I'll bet he's up on Mt. Olympus laughing his head off." He turned to Xena. "All right, you get the box. But if you let it capture your soul, I'm going to very disappointed in you." Xena smiled at him.
Their plans set, the group broke up and prepared for sleep. Gabrielle cornered her companion at the edge of the camp. "I want to go with you, Xena. I..." She never got to finish as she found her arms seized roughly and her back slammed against a tree. She looked up into the icy blue eyes of a warlord. Her friend had disappeared. "You will follow my orders, or you will not go. Is that clear?" the warlord said coldly. Gabrielle opened her mouth to protest, then gulped and just nodded. "You're hurting me, Xena," she complained. The vise-like grip did not slacken as the warlord continued to glare at her.
Antipany, seeing the confrontation, hurried over and placed a hand on Xena's arm. "I think she got the point, princess." Xena let the bard go and shifted her glare to the sorceress, who ignored it. Gabrielle looked over at Antipany for support, but she held up a hand to stop the bard. "As much as it hurts me to say it, her royal pain in the butt is right. Both you and Telamedes should stay here, but since we all know you won't, you will do as Xena commands. She is our leader and you will treat her with respect by following her orders. And maybe, just maybe, by doing so some of us will get out of this alive."
Gabrielle looked at the ground and nodded. Suddenly she threw her arms around the warlord and hugged her tightly. "I'm sorry, Xena. I'll do anything you say." Xena's arms involuntarily folded around the bard and she stroked the golden hair. "I'm counting on that, Gabrielle." The warlord vanished and the friend reappeared. Gabrielle broke her grip and went to prepare for bed.
Xena glared at the sorceress. "You're welcome," retorted Antipany. Then she looked thoughtfully at the bard's retreating back. "She really has no idea how important she is, does she?"
Xena smiled ruefully, shaking her head. "I don't think she has a clue." She watched the bard walk away. "If the world remembers you and I, it will only be because of people like Gabrielle. She and her kind will build our civilization, while people like me just try to destroy it. Even when her name is not remembered, our children will sing her songs and tell her stories. And while people may respect and even admire me, they will still breathe a sigh of relief when I'm dead. Gabrielle will be truly mourned." She glanced at Antipany. "And thank you," she said curtly as she walked away.
They left early the next morning in the gloom before dawn, picking their way down the mountainside to the ravine below, leaving the horses and supplies at the campsite. Peisander flew up and down the ravine and over the castle ready to give warning if the group was spotted, but the lush vegetation at the bottom hid their advance. Carefully they explored the base of the ravine hunting for the entrance to the escape tunnel.
It was Autolycus who finally exclaimed, "Here it is!" He pointed to a vine-covered portion of the mountain wall. Hercules reached up and pulled d own the vines, exposing a large flat rock. "How on earth did you know it was here!" Gabrielle exclaimed.
"Well... I don't like to brag..."
"Yes you do," Iolaus interrupted as he helped clear out the vines.
"...but I am a pro," finished Autolycus studying his fingernails.
Hercules leaned against the huge rock and pushed it with all his might. Slowly it began to roll away. He stopped, wiping his brow. "Perhaps if I had a little help..." he said, eyeing the group. Xena and Iolaus grinned then helped him roll the rock slowly away. A solid wall of dirt greeted them.
"Yeah, a real pro aren't you," said a disgusted Iolaus. Autolycus frowned. He could have sworn it was there.
Gabrielle suddenly poked at the wall with her staff and the group watched as the staff disappeared through the dirt. "Aha," she said. "Just as I thought. It's an illusion." She outlined the opening with her staff.
"All right," said Xena. "Everyone stay here until I check it out." She passed torches out to everyone. As she dug out her flint, Antipany snapped her fingers and a torch lit up in flame. "No one likes a showoff," Xena said dryly. She disappeared through the illusion before anyone could object. A few moments later a disembodied arm appeared and crooked a finger.
"I'd recognize that hand anywhere," said Gabrielle as she walked through the illusion. One by one they walked through, except for Autolycus who was having second thoughts about the whole venture.
"You know, guys. Maybe Iolaus was right. Why don't I just go around and knock on the door..." He was still talking as a big paw whipped through, grabbed him on the shoulder and hauled him through the dirt wall. "...but this way's good, too," he finished, straightening out his vest. "Sheesh."
They all lit up their torches and Xena started down the long barren tunnel with the others following close behind. She stopped immediately when Antipany whispered "Wait!"
The sorceress stared down the hall, then said, "There's something hidden behind the wall on the left side just ahead." Xena stared at the wall but couldn't see anything. Then she glared at the sorceress. "You can see through the illusions? Why couldn't you tell us where the entrance was?"
"I was hoping for a return to sanity, but since that's not possible, let' s just get this over with." She studied the ceiling. "There's a beam fastened to the ceiling." She took a step forward pointing.
Xena grabbed her, but it was too late.
Xena slammed Antipany and herself up against the wall. Iolaus and Autolycus threw themselves down on the ground taking Gabrielle with them. Telamedes stood frozen in place, his eyes wide as the huge beam swung down hurling toward his abdomen. Then suddenly he was thrown up against the wall as Hercules pushed him out of the way.
It was too late for Herc to jump out of the way. In desperation he leaped up and felt the log settle under his legs. He rode it until it reached its peak and started down again then he jumped off, rubbing his head where it had bumped the ceiling. When it returned, he braced himself and caught it. The huge log pushed him back a few steps, but finally he managed to wrestle it to a stop. Everyone picked themselves up and Iolaus complimented the big guy on his excellent surfing technique.
Xena grabbed Antipany by the scruff of the neck and raised her to eye level. "You stay behind me! Do you understand?" She shook her for emphasis. "Y...y...yes," Antipany quavered. She dropped the shaking sorceress and turned to Gabrielle. Taking the bard's staff she tapped the left side of the tunnel setting off a series of darts.
They continued to walk slowly down the tunnel, a chastised Antipany walking a step behind the warrior pointing out illusions hiding traps. They managed to disarm all of them without further incident and finally entered a large cavern with steps leading up at the far end. Antipany looked around slowly and shook her head. "I don't see any illusions here."
Xena frowned. Something was wrong, she could feel it. Autolycus looked up at the ceiling and around the room then put his hand on Xena's arm. "Oh ...oh...this is good." He chuckled in satisfaction. "Well, they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." He rubbed his goatee. "This kind of trap was my idea, you know. Why, I remember a time in..."
"I know I can't kill him," Iolaus whispered to Xena. "But can I rip out his sorry excuse for a goatee?" Xena shook her head. "Get on with it Autolycus," she warned.
"Yes, well, see those nearly invisible wires running across the floor? Break the wires..." he studied it in admiration.
"And...," prodded Xena.
Autolycus shrugged. "And whatever those wires are attached to will be released. It could be anything."
Antipany started for the steps. "I can't see any wires..."
"Wait!" shouted the group in unison. Of course it was too late.
She felt rather than saw the thin wire stretched against her cloak, but by that time the wire was ready to snap. And did. Everyone held their breath and for a moment nothing happened. Then a tremendous creaking noise was heard above them and two huge trap doors opened up in the ceiling. Antipany panicked and started running pell-mell for the steps, breaking wires as she went. Trap doors opened up all over the cavern.
Xena cursed. "Everyone to the steps," she shouted, heading after the sorceress. She caught up with her just as Antipany was raising a foot to climb the first stair. Yanking the sorceress back by her collar, she threw her into the arms of Telamedes. "Autolycus, get up there and open that door," she said, pointing to the door at the top of the steps. Studying the steps, he made his way to the top, carefully jumping over some of the steps as he went.
Out of the ceiling flew two huge birds covered with green scales. Each as large as Argo, they had curved beaks that could tear off large hunks of flesh and huge hooked claws that could lift a man. From the trap doors in the walls, twenty large wolves charged the group. "Hurry up, Autolycus," yelled Iolaus, drawing his sword. Hercules, Xena, and Iolaus moved to face the onslaught. Xena grabbed her chakrum and let fly. It sliced through the neck of one of the birds and it dropped to the floor in front of them. The other bird dived toward them as the wolves attacked.
Autoylcus took a lock pick out of his vest and inserted it into the lock. He heard a satisfying click as he expertly wiggled it in the lock. "Am I good or...oh, oh!" The stairs suddenly flattened out and he began a quick descent down the steep slide. Desperately he threw up his arm and shot his grappling hook toward the door. It caught on the doorsill and his descent stopped abruptly. He hauled himself up to the door and pushed it open. "...am I good. Anyone coming?" he asked, rubbing the abrasions on his knees.
Telamedes drew Antipany to him and threw up his arm to protect his face as the bird dove straight for them. He winced as the claws tore into arm and started to lift him off the floor. Antipany pushed herself away and fired off two powerful energy bolts at the bird. It squawked in surprise and fell to the floor stunned, and then Hercules jumped on its back and twisted the long neck until it snapped.
The wolves charged at the group, some stopping to tear huge chunks of flesh off the dead birds. Xena and Iolaus fended them off with their swords. Autolycus dropped a rope down the slide. "Come on folks, it's time to go," he urged. Antipany looked up in disbelief. "You've got to be kidding! I can't climb that."
Xena cut the throat of a charging wolf. "Help her up, Hercules," she said calmly.
"Glad to," he replied. Before Antipany could react, Hercules grabbed her and threw her up to Autolycus. "Ohhhh, noooo," she wailed as she flew into the arms of a startled Autolycus, knocking both of them out of the door way onto the floor.
Gabrielle grabbed the rope and started climbing, closely followed by Iolaus and Telamedes, pulling themselves into the doorway. A wolf sprang at Hercules. He grabbed it midair and snapped its neck. "Time to go, Xena," he said. Nodding, she bent her knees and sprang up doing a backward somersault with a twist, landing in the doorway. Hercules kicked another wolf out of the way and jumped up the slide, grabbing the rope just below the doorway, the wolves snapping at his legs as he jumped. He hauled himself into the doorway and pulled up the rope. Xena turned slowly and faced a shaken Antipany. The warlord was back. Antipany started backing away from the angry woman. "Why don't I just walk back here with Hercules," she suggested.
Xena grabbed her cloak and drew the sorceress close. Baring her teeth, she smiled. "Because HE won't cause you pain." Antipany closed her eyes knowing it wasn't an idle threat. The warrior dug her fingers into her shoulder to emphasize her point and the sorceress whimpered, sinking to her knees. Xena released her and stared coldly. "When I tell you to stay someplace, you do it." Rubbing her shoulder, Antipany nodded. "You know, princess, I am a novice at this do-gooder save-the-world stuff. I'll bet Gabrielle made a few mistakes when she first started." It was the closest she could come to an apology.
Xena turned to take care of Telamedes. She cleaned his wounded arm and applied a dressing. Gabrielle leaned close and whispered, "She's right, you know." The warlord gave her a knowing look. "You were never that bad," she murmured back and felt the bard squeeze her shoulder. There were other minor wounds and bites, but deciding they could wait, the group continued on up the steep incline of the hall. Antipany kept a step behind Xena, but to their surprise she didn't detect anymore illusions. At the end of the hall they came to a junction. Telamedes consulted his map.
"Two of the towers should be at the ends of this hallway," he said indicating the bisecting hall. "Go straight ahead and you'll find the central crystal, and probably Kryptus."
Xena nodded. "All right, this is where we split up. Be careful everyone." She was speaking to the group, but her eyes were fixed on Gabrielle. The bard gave her companion a reassuring smile. "Don't worry about me, you just make sure that box doesn't swallow you up. I don't want to have to make a trip to the underworld just because you got clumsy all the sudden." She held up a hand as Xena started to protest. "We travel this road together Xena, I won't be left behind again," she said quietly.
Xena looked at her with a sinking feeling that dropped all the way down her stomach and wound its way around her intestines. "Gabrielle...," she growled. "Don't even think about it."
"Relax, Xena. I always obey your orders." The bard laughed and gave her companion a hug before hurrying down the hall with Iolaus to the southeast tower.
"Yeah, right," muttered the warrior staring down the hall after them.
Antipany kissed Telamedes and lingered in his embrace. "I'm sorry about your arm, Tele. And your precious trees." He held her close. "Don't do anything stupid, Antipany," he urged her without hope. She smiled. "You know me too well, my friend." He let her go and headed up the hall with Autolycus to the southwest tower. She watched them go then shook her head. "Ain't love a bitch?" she asked Xena in disgust.
The warrior just nodded, having made that observation herself at one time. It seemed to be a universal lament and for once the two women could agree on something unequivocally.
Antipany whirled and started walking toward Kryptus. "What are you waiting for, let's go." Only to stop abruptly when Xena grabbed her cloak. "One step behind me," reminded the warrior.
"Sorry, princess, I keep forgetting my place," the sorceress retorted. But she stayed one step behind with Hercules bringing up the rear. They met no resistance as they cautiously continued up the hallway toward the center of the castle. At the end of the hall, they pressed up against the wall and Xena peered into the great room. It was empty. A hallway led off each wall. Her sharp eyes scanned the balcony ringing the room but could detect no movement. She leaned back against the wall frowning. "I don't like this," she said. "Kryptus knows we're here. Why hasn't he done anything?"
Hercules shrugged. "I guess we'll find out when we go in."
"Wonderful," muttered the sorceress. Xena gave her a wolfish grin and tugged her sleeve. "Let's go," she said softly, cautiously entering the room. They edged around the corner, heading for the hallway on their right. The great room was surprisingly free of furnishings. A few benches and tables were scattered around the room. Rotting tapestries hung from the walls. Marble columns were set at evenly spaced intervals, supporting the balcony. They were halfway to their goal when all Tartarus broke loose.
Autolycus made his way cautiously down the hall with Telamedes close behind, content to let the master thief lead the way. They ducked into an alcove when footsteps were heard coming toward them. Autolycus drew his sword and motioned Telamedes to do the same. All he got in return was a blank look. The footsteps stopped and the curtain was thrown back. Before the guard could do more than open his mouth the thief rammed the hilt of his sword between his eyes and the guard crumbled to the ground. Telamedes pulled the unconscious guard into the alcove and tied him up with a curtain cord.
"Where's your weapon?" the thief whispered.
"I don't have one," replied the priest as he gagged the guard, making sure he could breathe. "I'm a healer, not a warrior."
Autolycus stared at him. "Ah...I hate to break this to you, my friend, but our primary purpose here is not to make them feel better."
"I know," replied the priest. "You do it your way and I'll do it mine." He looked cautiously out of the curtain. "Looks clear. Shall we go?"
Shaking his head, Autolycus led them to the foot of a steep flight of stairs. "The tower should be at the top. Step only where I step, understand?" Telamedes nodded
They slowly made their way to the top of the stairs, only after Autolycus studied each step. Some he stepped over and in one place he jumped over four at one time. Telamedes said a little prayer to Apollo before attempting the jump and ended up teetering on the edge of the safe step. It was touch and go for a few moments as Autolycus valiantly grabbed the much larger priest by his robes and hung on for dear life. With one mighty tug the priest finally fell forward and they held their collective breath to see what would happen when he fell across three steps going up. All was quiet. With a sigh of relief, Autolycus and Telamedes preceded up the rest of the steps without incident.
At the top of the stairs was a heavy wooden door. Autolycus quietly tried the latch, but found it locked. He shook his head ruefully. This was certainly no match for the King of Thieves. Hanging onto the door handle this time, he inserted his lock pick and went to work. There was a satisfying click as the door unlocked. The pair waited to see if the steps were going to fold, but nothing happened.
"Nothing to it," said the thief with some pride. He pushed down on the latch and slowly began to open the door. Only to have it wrenched violently open, throwing him into the room and staring up into the faces of two very large, very nasty looking guards. He swallowed. "Ohh, this is not good," he said, stating the obvious.
Iolaus headed down the hall in a hurry, heedless of the danger from illusions, traps, or Kryptus. He only knew that destroying those crystals meant less danger for his friends and he meant to do it as quickly as possible. Gabrielle followed more cautiously behind well aware of the possible dangers.
"Slow down!" she urged him. As he looked over his shoulder at her, she suddenly brought her staff down in front of his eyes.
Thunk, thunk, thunk.
He stopped and stared at the three knives quivering in her staff. "All right," he said slowly. Then he smiled. "Nice catch." And started walking as recklessly as before. Gabrielle shook her head in frustration and ran to catch up with him.
They reached the bottom of the steps to the tower and looked up at the narrow steep open stairway. "We better take this slow," she said looking up. "It could be.."
"Right," he interrupted, then charged up the steps two at a time.
"...trapped," she finished. Shaking her head again, she followed more slowly. By the time she reached the top, Iolaus had examined the door and found it locked. "What do we do now?" she asked.
He shrugged, then pounded on the door. "Hey, anybody in there?" he yelled. "So much for the element of surprise," Gabrielle muttered.
To their surprise, the door was yanked violently open and two very large, very nasty looking guards glared at them. Iolaus beamed at them in return as they drew their swords to strike.
The enemy poured through every door, howling as they charged. Xena pushed the sorceress behind her and turned to meet the onslaught. Her sword flashed, taking the head of the first enemy to meet her. Blood gushed up through the severed arteries as the headless body took two more steps before collapsing. Oops. "Hercules," she yelled. "These aren't illusions."
"I noticed," he replied, wiping the blood off his face. He punched a charging guard between the eyes and he dropped like a stone.
"WAIT!" the voice commanded.
Everyone paused and looked at the figure smiling evilly down at them from the balcony. "Ares sends his regards, Hercules," Strife said. Then he giggled. An hourglass was positioned by his side, suspended in the air, sand slowly pouring down. Strife pointed to it and said, "This really won't take that long."
Hercules roared a challenge and grabbing a startled guard, he used the unlucky man to batter his way through the still gawking enemy until he was standing beneath Strife. Tossing away his impromptu weapon, Hercules seized the pillar supporting the balcony and with a mighty push, broke the column. The balcony trembled violently a moment before slowly collapsing, taking a howling Strife down with it.
Landing on his feet running Strife quickly put a table between him and t he big guy. "Why don't you just disappear like a good little god," Hercules growled, lunging across the table to grab at the elusive troublemaker.
Strife danced out of reach. "What? And have Uncle Ares mad at me? I don't think so. You're so much more fun." He pointed to Hercules. "Kill him!" he screamed. The spell broken, guards charged from every direction.
Xena cursed and started cutting down every enemy she could get to. The guards seemed to have forgotten she was there as they rushed to engage Hercules. Her sword sung as it found targets on every side. She took a couple of steps before remembering the sorceress. "Stay behind me," she ordered glancing around for Antipany.
But Antipany had disappeared.
He called to her lovingly, caressing her with his voice. She felt an invisible presence brush against her cheek then down her back and she shivered. It was so cold. She had heard him calling to her from the time they had entered his domain and it had gotten stronger, more insistent, more demanding with every step closer she took. There was no refusing his call and strangely, she now felt no fear. When the guards attacked, she had simply walked through them and they had let her alone knowing she was being summoned by their master.
Antipany glanced around as she entered his sanctuary. The decor was certainly familiar. On a low platform in the center of the room was a large perfectly formed crystal and seated beside it was a handsome man smiling benignly at her. A shimmering aura surrounded the platform.
"Well, you seem to have pulled yourself together quite well," Antipany observed. "Although, your hair seems to be falling out and your zits are coming back. You really should do something about that skin problem of yours."
"Ah well," the smile turned a bit crueler. "This body is really inferior to my needs, but I was in a bit of rush, you see, and didn't have time to be picky. I would love to take Hercules, he does have a body to die for," Kryptus sighed regretfully. "I'm afraid his father would object. But I think Xena would make a good second choice, don't you think?"
Antipany nodded. "A very good substitute. Strong in body, spirit and mind. That's our princess. She'll last you a very long time." She removed her cloak and placed it in front of the doorway. As she laid it down, she surreptitiously slipped the Soul Catcher out and placed the cloak over it. "Aren't you the least bit concerned about Hercules and Xena being here?" She walked over to stand in front of him and touched the shimmering aura. It stung her hand when she tried to push through it. "Ow," she said, snatching her hand back.
Kryptus chuckled, shaking his head. "Strife will take care of Hercules an d I will possess Xena. The rest of you are insignificant without those two." He wasn't boasting, simply stating a fact.
Antipany shrugged. "Ares might be a little upset if you possess his favorite warrior. And why do you want me? I don't have much to offer you."
He stood and held out his hand. "The warrior princess has no use for the gods. Let's just say I'm helping Ares get over his obsession. Don't sell yourself short, my dear. You have a wonderful essence. I loved the taste of you." The smile was definitely malevolent now. "In fact, you're the only one to have ever escaped one of my spheres and lived. That tells me you have a river of life essence. I can hardly wait to feast on you again." He patted the crystal. "I saved a special spot for your sphere."
Antipany fought her rising panic. Just keep him busy, she thought. Then tried to clear her mind for the test of wills to come. Kryptus suddenly went still as he concentrated. A sphere began to form under Antipany's feet. She didn't try to run this time; it would be useless. Instead she centered her thoughts and formed a floor under her feet and as the sphere began to form sides, she countered by building invisible walls to protect her from the thick gray fluid that was filling the sphere as it formed. The gray goo had paralyzed her the last time they had fought this battle, but she was prepared for it this time. Waiting until the sphere was half formed, she created a sword and punched a large hole in the base and watched in triumph as the fluid leaked out.
Life returned to his eyes. He looked at her in amusement. "I see you've learned a thing or two since we last met. It won't do you any good, you know. Eventually you will be mine."
She returned his smile. "You'll have to earn me, you pitiful pathetic pile of satyr dung," she said with all the disdain she could muster. She winced as his smile faded and anger flashed across his face. Telamedes would probably consider that remark 'doing something stupid' and he'd be right. The sphere suddenly regenerated at an astonishing rate, rapidly filling with fluid that pressed against her walls with terrifying force. It was all she could do to keep her protective walls from collapsing, let alone punch a hole in the sphere. She would fight this battle as long as she could, but she knew she would lose the war.
A sparrow after all, is just a sparrow.
His whole magnificent life, at least the good parts, flashed before his eyes as the guards raised their swords to kill him. Before Autolycus could do more than squeak protest, Telamedes burst into the room.
"Ah, there you are my sons. Apollo sends his blessings. Are we ready to start the service? Autolycus, get up off the floor. How many times do I have to tell you Apollo doesn't like sniveling obeisance? Respectful obeisance is enough." Telamedes beamed at the two guards. "And what can Apollo do for you today my sons? Oh dear, let me look at that. I'm a healer you know." He pulled up the guard's sleeve and looked at the large sore on the man's arm. Taking some herbs out of his pouch, he fashioned a poultice, talking to them the entire time.
The two guards looked at each other and lowered their swords. Autolycus took the opportunity to scoot out of the way. Leaning against the wall, he passed a shaky hand across his brow.
After wrapping the poultice around the man's arm, the priest pulled out his flask. "I know this wine is not as good as you're used to," he said apologetically. "But it's all I have." One guard grabbed it eagerly and took a long drink before having it snatched out of his hands by the other man who guzzled down the rest of it. Telamedes began to talk about his favorite subjects. Love, peace, helping mankind and soon the guards were snoring peacefully helped along by the drugged wine.
The priest smiled and looked around for Autolycus who was dozing against the wall. "Wake up, my friend. Surely my talks aren't that boring." He nudged the thief's knee with his foot.
Startled, Autolycus jumped up. "No, no...what did you say?" He looked at the sleeping guards, then back to the priest with new respect. They tied up the guards, then studied a sphere resting on a crystal. Slicing the base of the sphere with his sword, Autolycus watched as the gray fluid oozed out and the sphere collapsed, breaking when it hit the floor. Telamedes picked up the thin young man contained in the sphere and placing his fist just below the breastbone as Xena had shown him, he did a quick upward thrust. Gray goo poured out of the man's nose and mouth.
Autolycus did his level best not to gag, but this kind of thing was not his strong suit. He rolled the crystal to the door and pushed it over the edge where it smashed against the stone floor below. Turning toward the door he said, "Why don't I just go on to the next tower while you're finishing up here." And beat a hasty retreat down the stairs trying hard not t o loose his early morning meal.
Telamedes just nodded and continued his ministrations.
The guards swung their swords at the impudent little man standing before them, but by the time their weapons reached the place he was standing, Iolaus had already slipped between them into the room. One of the guards felt himself propelled out the door by a well-placed foot into his back. Once out the door he tripped over a carelessly placed staff and found himself flying through the air to the stone floor far below. Gabrielle, who had flattened herself against the wall when the door opened, winced as the man hit with a convincing thud. I'm getting good with this tripping business, she thought.
She barely had time to react as the second guard came flying out the door. He teetered on the top step and by waving his arms wildly, managed to regain his balance. At least until the staff hit him squarely between the shoulder blades and sent him flying off the stairs.
Gabrielle entered the room. It looked familiar with four spheres, each sitting on top of a crystal connected to a larger crystal in the center of the other four. "Now what?" asked Iolaus.
"Well, last time I just knocked one over with my staff," she replied. She gave a sphere a stiff jab with her staff. It toppled off the crystal and shattered on the floor, revealing an emaciated woman in a pool of gray fluid. Gabrielle quickly went around the room and broke the other spheres. They attempted to revive the people from the spheres but managed to save only one. After Iolaus had smashed all the crystals, he left Gabrielle to tend to the survivor and made his way to the next tower.
Xena had an agonizing decision to make. Help Hercules, who was being pursued by countless guards and Strife or go find Antipany, who she was sure went to confront Kryptus. Infuriated by the no-win decision, she cut down six more of the enemy before heading down the hall to find Antipany. If Kryptus didn't kill the wayward sorceress, the angry warrior certainly would.
She met little resistance as she headed down the hall and those she did meet seemed curiously uninterested in engaging her. They either ran away or ran by her. She peered into the chamber and was surprised at the resistance Antipany was managing to put up. She had planned to use the sorceress as a simple diversion, but Antipany was giving Kryptus a real battle. The body Kryptus inhabited sat motionless in a chair surrounded by a shimmering aura. She noted the cloak on the floor, the tip of the oak box peeking out.
"Am I interrupting anything?" she asked, leaning up against the wall.
A disembodied voice spoke. "Ah, Xena. I've been expecting you. This will only take a few seconds more, then we'll talk." The sphere was up to Antipany's shoulders by now. The sorceress looked desperately in Xena's direction. Keep your promise, the brown eyes pleaded and she tilted her head to give the warrior better access to her neck. Xena looked around and sighed. Forgive me once more, Antipany, she thought. Taking her chakrum, she curled it to her stomach and let it fly toward the sorceress.
Bodies flew everywhere as a determined Hercules tried to catch the elusive Strife. Up to the balconies, out the doors, over the rafters, even over the chandelier as the big guy chased after the lean discord maker. In some ways, Strife was his own worst enemy. The lightening bolts he fired at the demigod did much more damage to his own men than to Hercules. And he couldn't resist touching guards as he flew by, causing the men to turn on their fellow guards for some real or imaged slight. Even a god can't go against his own nature and Strife was having the time of his life. By the time the hourglass had tipped again the chaos was complete. Guards were fighting among themselves as much as fighting Hercules.
Suddenly a lightening bolt caught Hercules directly in the chest sending him crashing into the wall. Even though his fall was cushion by two hapless guards who had the misfortune of standing behind him when he was hit, the blow still knocked the wind out of him. The big guy slumped to the ground, hearing Strife crow in glee. He looked up just in time to see a sword flashing toward his head.
Autolycus made his way cautiously down the hall to the northwest tower, but could find no traps or guards. He didn't know whether to be grateful or insulted. Kryptus apparently didn't consider him much of threat. He decided to be grateful.
"This is great, just great," he muttered sarcastically. "I risk my life f or what? No treasure, that's for sure. You'd think a four-century old being would accumulate some wealth over the years, but noo..." He ducked into an alcove and then peered down the hall. All seemed quiet. Too quiet. "See if I ever let you talk me into anything ever again," he promised Xena. Although it hadn't really taken much. Ever since that body-sharing incident, he seemed to have a soft spot for the warrior princess.
He made it to the steep open stairway and looked up at the solid wooden door. "I wish someone would make a little noise," he grumbled. Suddenly from behind him came the sound of stampeding feet. Then the door flew open and two guards charged down the steps. Looking behind him, he saw several guards running down the hall from the direction he had come. "I only wanted a little noise," he wailed as he took off running down the last unexplored hallway.
Iolaus ran down the hall to the northeast tower, meeting no resistance as he ran. Hercules must be keeping them busy, he thought. He paused at the foot of the steps wondering how he was going to get the door open, then shrugged. Taking the stairs two at a time he bounded to the top and raised a fist to pound on the door. Then stopped as he heard the noise of running feet pounding up the north hall toward him. Peering down the hall, he could just make out a man sprinting headlong down the hall followed by several big guards with weapons. Autolycus. Iolaus grinned, enjoying the sight. The thief could run he noted with grudging admiration.
Suddenly he heard the latch being lifted and he dropped down to his knees in a tight little ball. Two guards rushed out. And found themselves going where no man should go without wings. Tripping over the kneeling warrior they flew over the edge of the steep stairway. "Knock yourselves out, guys," Iolaus called cheerfully as they landed with an undignified thud on the stones below. Autolycus leaped over their prostrate bodies and sliding to a stop, he turned to the stairs and took them three at a time. Pushing a protesting Iolaus into the room, he whirled and jammed a bench under the latch. Leaning against the door, he bent over gasping for breath.
"I think Kryptus is beginning to notice us," he gasped.
"It's about time," Iolaus huffed. "I was beginning to feel slighted. Well, let's see if we can upset him a little more." He moved over to the four spheres and proceeded to slice them open one by one. Gray goo oozed out all over the floor as the spheres collapsed and fell off their crystals. Four emaciated men and women appeared in the wreckage. Autolycus groaned and turned his face to the door, only to jerk back as the door reverberated with the blows of the guards outside.
"Come on," Iolaus urged him. "Break those crystals, while I try to wake these people up." He grabbed one of the bodies and standing him up, placed his fist under the man's breastbone.
Autolycus screwed up his face and edged over to a crystal. Then made an incredibly quick twist of his body to avoid the stream of gray goo spewing from the man being held by Iolaus. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you did that on purpose," he snarled at a grinning Iolaus. He felt his gorge rise in his throat and swallowed quickly. Grabbing a crystal he struggled to lift it off the floor then threw it against the wall, shattering it. "Oh, my back,' he groaned, grabbing his flank.
"You want to change jobs?" asked Iolaus with sardonic concern.
"No...no," said the thief hastily and the smashing of the crystals proceeded with undue haste.
The pounding of the door intensified and they had just about completed their task when the bench shattered under the relentless pounding and the door flew open. The enemy poured in and not one of them looked like they belonged in a Greek chorus.
Antipany closed her eyes as the chakram flew toward her. Then opened one cautious eye as she felt the pressure ease against her protective wall and heard the weapon ricochet off the wall before returning to make another long furrow in her sphere. It then bounced off the shimmering aura, but not before digging in halfway before being rejected. Xena caught it and smiled. Kryptus was weaker, but still not enough.
Kryptus snorted in annoyance. "You women are more trouble than you're worth," he said. But he was beginning to worry. Like many vain men, he had not really believed he was capable of defeat, especially by these sorry mortals. Years of uncontested evil had left him convinced of own invincibility. But he had felt the loss of each sphere and now there were only four left. If he did not feed off of Antipany soon he would have to abandon the fight. He redoubled his efforts.
Xena suddenly found herself confronted by five warriors. She swung her sword with a prayer that these men were illusions and was rewarded when the first to lose his head simply vanished. Another appeared behind the other four and as soon as she had dispatched one, another appeared. She cut them down with glee, knowing each one took a little more out of the evil sorcerer.
Antipany groaned, cursing Xena for breaking her promise as the sphere repaired itself and the pressure intensified. She was past exhaustion. She felt herself falter and her wall finally collapsed, the gray fluid overwhelming her, filling her mouth and nose, trickling down into her lungs. And once again she drowned in the sickening goo as the sphere closed in over her.
Xena watched regretfully as Kryptus pulled the sphere through the shimmering aura with a wave of his hand and settled it on the crystal. He began to feed.
Telamedes made his way to the northeast tower room with a heavy heart. He had been unable to revive any of the poor souls trapped in the spheres and it bothered him even though he knew there was not much hope to begin with.
He paused at the bottom of the steps frowning. The door was wide open. Maybe Autolycus had already finished without him although he couldn't imagine the thief having the stomach to perform the maneuver necessary to revive the victims. He ran up the stairs and burst into the room. And found four spheres sitting on four crystals just like the last tower. He looked around puzzled, but there were no guards or Autolycus. Praising Apollo, he set about to work, cutting open the spheres and smashing the crystals.
Hercules ducked and the sword whizzed over his head and buried itself into the guard he was sitting on. "Sorry," he muttered to the unfortunate man as he slammed his big foot into the swordsman and sent him flying. Strife dodged the airborne man and sent another lightning strike at the demigod. Hercules slammed his foot on the edge of a discarded shield and it flew up deflecting the lightening into another guard. Then he grabbed the shield in midair and hurled it at Strife. "Eek!" exclaimed the god as he dropped to the floor. Then smiled ruefully as he realized he could not be killed.
Hercules stood up wearily. He didn't know how much more of this he could take. Strife was having way too much fun. The god stood up shaking a finger at the big guy. "That wasn't very nice. I'm impressed. But all good things must come to an end. Goodbye Hercules." With that he let loose a volley of lightening bolts and everybody left standing quickly flattened themselves on the floor. Hercules ran across the room keeping just ahead of the bolts. Furniture shattered, tapestries burned, chunks of stone fell.
Strife walked over to the remaining bench and peered behind it. Hercules was laid out on his stomach, his hands covering his head. The god giggled. "I can see you," he sang. He raised his hand to fire one last fatal bolt.
Hercules turned over on his side, hand supporting his head and smiled. "You can't."
Strife stopped and frowned. "Why not," he asked.
The big guy pointed to the hourglass suspended by the god's shoulder. "You're out of time, fool."
Strife whipped his head around in time to see the last grain of sand drop into the bottom of the hourglass. He began to fade away. "Noooo...," he wailed. Hercules thought he could hear a masculine voice bellow, "You imbecile!" Followed by a couple of slaps and a feminine snicker.
"Glad you're enjoying this so much," he muttered wearily, rising unsteadily to his feet. "Oh, oh," he said as a few of the guard also rose to their feet. He lumbered over to the doorway Xena had taken but before leaving he dislodged the marble column, causing the balcony to collapse and effectively blocking the doorway after him. Picking up a discarded short staff, he headed down the hall to find Kryptus.
The guards rushed at them, murder in their eyes. Autolycus and Iolaus sidestepped the first rush and heard the men grunt in surprise as their feet hit the slick gray goo, causing them to fall flat on their backs. The next two were met with blows from fists and sword hilts and they quickly followed their companions into the gray mess on the floor. The next two waited until their companions were in the room before attacking.
Iolaus ducked as the two guards swung their swords in unison, then jumped up over their swords as they swung lower. He then caught one by the arm and rolled throwing the man into the gray goo. While on the ground he kicked the other guard in the groin and threw the helpless man into the others knocking them all down once more.
Autolycus parried the blows of his two assailants again and again. But these two were expert swordsmen and they soon had him backed up against the wall. He kicked one in the stomach, then felt a hot pain in his leg as t he other guard stabbed him in his thigh. Down the thief went grabbing his leg. The guard grinned and brought his sword back for the killing blow. Only to get a very surprised look on his face as a series of blows landed across his back and kidneys. He turned to face a very determined grim-faced bard. Autolycus used the distraction to sweep the man's legs out from under him and landed a haymaker to his chin.
Gabrielle knelt down by the master thief. "Are you all right?" she asked.
"Of course I'm not all right," he retorted. "I'm bleeding," He winced as she wound a cloth around the heavily bleeding thigh.
"Let's get out of here before they recover," Iolaus urged them, helping t he wounded Autolycus to his feet. "Grab that bar, Gabrielle." They hurried out of the room, Gabrielle picking up a heavy metal bar. Iolaus shoved it through the latch and across the doorway, locking the guards in the room.
They made it down the steps before Autolycus groaned and slumped to the floor. "I can't walk, you go on."
Gabrielle and Iolaus looked at each other. "You go," she said pushing him down the hall. "I'll look after him."
"I'll be back," he promised, then raced back down the east hall. There had been a hall midway between the two towers and Iolaus thought he remembered from the map that it led to Kryptus.
They hadn't been sitting there long when Telamedes came puffing up. He glanced up at the door that was reverberating from repeated blows. "What happened," he asked. Gabrielle explained what had happened while the priest unwound the bandage and examined the thigh. He cleaned the wound, then applied a paste to the cut and bandaged it. "Looks clean," he said. "But you'll have to stay off of it and hope there's no pus. You don't want to lose that leg, you know."
"Great, just great," muttered the white-faced thief. "You have a real talent for words, you know that?"
Telamedes smiled at him unperturbed. "I'm a healer not an orator," he reminded him. The priest glanced up at Gabrielle who was looking restlessly down the hall. "I couldn't revive any of the people in the spheres in the other two towers. How did you do?"
"Only one," she replied still looking down the hall. Autolycus shook his head. "We didn't have a chance to do much. They're all dead in this one."
The priest took pity on Gabrielle. "Go on," he sighed. "Thanks," she said and headed down the hall.
"Gabrielle!" he called. She stopped and looked back. "Don't let Xena do anything rash." The bard looked at him in confusion. The warrior never did anything ill judged in battle. He smiled at her puzzled look. "You'll know when it happens. Go on now." She ran down the hall shaking her head.
Antipany could feel his desperation. Blind and deaf and dumb to everything about her, she could feel his need as he fed off her. Knowing she had to keep him here until he could be boxed, she stroked his ego while he drew out her life force. "You're the greatest sorcerer that ever cast a spell," she told him. "These poor fools don't have a prayer against your power. Show me how you do it."
"You will know it all before you die," he assured her. At this rate it won't be long, she thought, cursing Xena once more.
Xena watched her five attackers shimmer a bit before regaining their form. She suspected all the spheres but Antipany's had been destroyed. It was now or never. She beheaded three of her foes before reaching down to snare the box. As she stood up her mother suddenly confronted her. Startled, Xena lowered her sword for an instant.
"Come with me," Cyrene said softly, walking toward the curtain. Xena took a few uncertain steps forward. "Mother! What are you..." Then shook her head. "Nice try, Kryptus." With a sudden powerful swing, she beheaded the woman. And breathed a sigh of relief when the headless image of her mother faded away.
Kryptus chuckled. "Close enough," he said smugly. "I've been saving my power just for you, my love." Xena felt her legs go numb and she sank to her knees. She could feel him probing her mind, seeking a way to enter. She concentrated, blocking his probes at every turn. But he had much more experience at this than she and they both knew it was only a matter of time before he broke her resistance. Great Zeus, how she hated sorcerers. Sneaky, underhanded, despicable, sorriest excuses for human beings she had ever seen.
Hercules suddenly burst into the room carrying a short thick staff. She threw the box back to him. "Belt it one, Hercules." Then grabbed her chakram. He swung the staff back and brought it forward to meet the box with tremendous power. The Soul Catcher exploded toward the wall protecting Kryptus. Xena threw the chakrum and just as the box hit the aura, the chakram lifted the latch before bouncing off the stone wall and returning to the warrior. Hercules grabbed her and they dived out the doorway into the hall.
Kryptus watched in puzzled fascination as the box sliced through his weakened curtain and fell into his hands. Unlatched the lid flew open and the evil sorcerer stared into the depths of Tartarus. He screamed as his soul was yanked into the box. The lid slammed down and the box latched itself. His purloined physical body fell over, all inhabitants gone and all his illusions dispelled. Antipany felt his abrupt departure. Unable to gage the passage of time in the dark void, a terrible loneliness began to descend. She wondered if anyone was still alive and prayed fervently for Xena to have survived. Because she was going to kill her.
Iolaus found the two resting against the hallway wall. "Guess the fun is over, huh? Sorry I missed it." He looked into the room. The box was sitting on the platform by a sphere resting on a crystal. "Where's Antipany?" he inquired, eyeing the sphere.
Xena nodded, confirming his suspicions. "I was just about to cut her out, " she said. "Do you think she's still alive?" he asked. "No doubt," she replied with a hint of regret.
"She's going to be mad," he observed.
Xena nodded again. "Furious," she said calmly. They got up and walked into the room. Xena picked up the box and handed it to Hercules. "Better be on your way. We'll all rest easier when he's where he belongs." The big guy looked at the box and his short staff thoughtfully. "You know, this might make a pretty fun game. A fatter stick and a little ball." They looked at him tolerantly. He shrugged and threw the staff away.
"It's been a pleasure, like always," he said kissing her gently. He clasped Iolaus' forearm. "See you at mother's," he told him, then took off box in hand.
Xena and Iolaus looked at the sphere for a few long moments before the warrior patted it saying, "You're going to get your chance for justice now, Antipany. You've earned it." She drew back her sword to cut the sphere.
"Wait!" Gabrielle shouted from the doorway. She ran to the warrior and put a restraining hand on her arm. Suddenly she knew what Telamedes had been talking about. "Don't cut it open just yet. Autolycus is badly hurt and Telamedes wants to you to take him to the temple of Aesculapius for rest and healing. Iolaus and I will get Antipany out when everyone is out of the building."
Xena shook her head. "I know what you're trying to do, Gabrielle, but she has earned the right to judge me." She shook off the restraining hand.
Gabrielle moved in front of her, resting her hands on the other woman's abdomen. "No!" she said sharply. Her tone did not soften despite the uplifted eyebrow and the icy stare. She returned the glare with one of her own. "You've been relieved of command, Xena. The war is over. A person's word means a lot to Antipany and you broke yours. She has earned the right to judge you but to make that decision when she's enraged, and boy she will be, does a disservice to both of you. She'll have her chance once she 's cooled down. Now, go help Autolycus. The sooner you go, the sooner we can get her out." The bard crossed her arms over her chest and tapped her foot impatiently, her eyes never wavering.
Xena looked down at the imperious demeanor and frowned. She was never one to put off a confrontation. "Yes, my Queen," she said with just a touch of irony. Then looked thoughtfully at her young companion. "You can't put this off much longer, Gabrielle. It's not fair to Antipany or me."
Gabrielle nodded and pointed to the door. Sighing, Xena suddenly pulled the bard to her in an exasperated hug before finally leaving.
Iolaus applauded and laughed. "I don't think I've ever seen the great warrior princess take orders before. What would you have done if she tried to release Antipany?"
The bard shook her head. "Watch her die, I guess. Antipany would have killed her for sure. Come on, we have work to do before we deal with one very angry sorceress."
It took them the better part of the afternoon to get the wounded out of t he ruined castle. Released from the influence of the evil sorcerer, many of the guards turned very helpful and soon Iolaus had them organized into groups retrieving the wounded and bringing them into the courtyard where Telamedes and Gabrielle treated them.
Iolaus found a group of villagers kept in the dungeon, spares for the spheres. He released the grateful fodder and they also helped with the wounded. By late afternoon they finally had everyone on their way home or to the temple or buried. Gabrielle had made sure Xena and Autolycus were the first ones out of the compound, the warrior bringing the other horses over when she retrieved Argo.
They were exhausted but there was one more task to do before going home. Gabrielle, Telamedes and Iolaus stood around the sphere eyeing it with so me trepidation. "Well, I guess there's no putting this off." Telamedes said resolutely. He took his dagger and carefully sliced down the side of the sphere. The gray fluid and a soaked sorceress spilled out. Telamedes caught her and placing his fist under her breastbone, gave a quick upward thrust. Gray fluid poured out of nose and throat. He gently lowered her to the floor.
She took a choking, sputtering breath. "You better move out of..." Gabrielle tried to warn him as the sorceress hiked herself up and proceeded to spew fluid all over his boots. "...the way," she finished lamely.
Antipany gasped a few more times then used Telamedes to pull herself up. "Kryptus?" she asked hoarsely.
"Boxed and on his way to Hades courtesy of Hercules," confirmed Iolaus.
Antipany nodded in relief. "Xena and Autolycus?" Her eyes began to burn.
"Autolycus was hurt and Xena took him to the temple of Aesculapius," Gabrielle responded steadily. She handed the sorceress a cloth to wipe the dripping fluid off her face.
"Never thought I ever see Xena run away." She wiped the thick goo out of her eyes. The fire was growing.
"It was my idea, Antipany."
"And I supported it," said Telamedes. Antipany glared at him. Suddenly she bent over groaning. Telamedes put his arm over her back and leaned close. She shook her head then suddenly burped and expelled another stream of gray fluid over his boots. Iolaus hastily backed up to the doorway as the sorceress stood up.
"Did you get everybody out?" Her voice was deceptively calm. It was the raging inferno in her eyes that gave her away. Telamedes and Gabrielle exchanged uneasy glances. "Now, Antipany, don't do anything..." he stopped. "Stupid?" Antipany finished, raising an inquiring eyebrow. "Rash," he mumbled, studying his filthy boots which now matched his filthy robes.
Antipany studied them for a moment before whirling around. "Get out!" she ordered and fired off an energy bolt, shattering the perfect crystal. They didn't move. "Get out now!" she repeated and fired another bolt at the ceiling. Blocks of stone began to fall. She fired again and the wall began to crumble.
Telamedes pushed the bard to the door. "You two leave. I'll get Antipany. " He pushed them out of the room. They hesitated but he shooed them on. " Don't worry. We'll be right behind you." Gabrielle picked up the cloak and they started walking until they heard another bolt fired off, shaking t he hallway. Then they ran.
"Get out, Tele," she said once more. The room was beginning to crumble around them. The priest dodged falling stones until he came up behind the raging sorceress. "Let's go!" he urged her.
"Nope. Xena may be able to run from me, but this evil pile of stone can't. It's coming down," she responded grimly firing off another bolt. The ceiling continued to fall around them.
"I'm sorry, Antipany," he said miserably. She glanced around. "Wha..." And looked shocked as his fist connected with the side of her face. He caught her as she crumbled. A wall crashed down throwing shattered stones in their direction. He picked up her slight body and ran for the doorway. It started a cascade effect as wall after wall collapsed as he ran down the hall. Apollo was very impressed with the passionate prayers coming from his priest in his sprint to the courtyard.
Gabrielle and Iolaus waited anxiously in the courtyard. They could hear walls collapsing and suddenly a huge cloud of dust billowed out of the door. Before they could take a step, Telamedes staggered out the door carrying Antipany in his arms.
Coughing up dust, he dropped to his knees in the courtyard and laid the unconscious sorceress on the ground.
"What happened?" asked Iolaus, then his eyes widened as he spotted the red splotch on Antipany's cheek. He looked at the priest. "You didn't...!" The priest nodded and hung his head. "She was going to kill herself. It w as the only way I could think of to stop her."
Gabrielle pursed her lips. "She's going to be mad."
Iolaus nodded. "Furious."
The priest nodded, still looking miserable. He stroked her bruised cheek gently. "I'm sorry Antipany."
Iolaus went to get the priest's mount. Gabrielle grabbed his arm and hauled him to his feet. "Go home, Telamedes. We'll take care of Antipany. Let her calm down before you beg her forgiveness. Maybe she'll let you explain before turning you into toast." She pulled the protesting priest to his horse. Iolaus helped him into the saddle, the priest still protesting. Gabrielle slapped the stallion's flank sending him into a gallop. "We'll meet you at the temple," she yelled after him and they breathed a sigh of relief when the reluctant priest continued out the gate and down the path to home.
Antipany groaned and opened her eyes. She sat up holding her jaw. And her eyes widened as she remembered. "He hit me!" she said in disbelief. "I'll kill him." She looked around for her prey.
"Calm down, Antipany. We sent him home. He was trying to save you." Gabrielle pleaded with her to understand.
The sorceress was having nothing of it. First Xena and now Telamedes had betrayed her. She was furious, deeply hurt and she needed to destroy something. Now. She stood up and the front of the dilapidated castle turned to dust as the thunderous bolts hit their mark. Xena she could understand. What did a murdering warlord know about keeping promises anyway? Still, she thought the princess would have jumped at the chance to keep that one. The walls continued falling down under the barrage. Tele was a different story. She trusted him. He was her friend for Zeus' sake. And he never hit anyone. Until now. Tears began to fall. She fired until her hands went cold and she turned numb from exhaustion. The filthy goo-encrusted figure dropped to her knees, holding her head in her hands. Only then did Gabrielle dare approach the heartbroken sorceress.
They spent the night in the ruins of the castle, too tired to do more than eat a cold dinner and go to sleep. The next morning they set out for Antipany's home. Iolaus and Gabrielle walked in front of Circe who followed faithfully behind with her silent mistress on her back. By midmorning they had found a nice place to camp with a gently flowing stream and by tacit agreement they decided to rest there and get cleaned up. Peisander joined them for the journey home.
Iolaus went to hunt up food for their midday meal while the bard and Antipany bathed. "You've given me more baths than my mother," she grumbled. The sorceress said little else as Gabrielle helped her wash her hair. The bard just couldn't stand the silence. "I know you're hurt, but Xena had to do what was best for all of us. She saw how well you were resisting Kryptus, and as much as she wanted to keep her promise, she couldn't. Because of you, the rest of us could finish the job. She feels bad about breaking her oath, she really does. But we're all happy you're still alive, and you wouldn't be if Xena hadn't done what she did." Silence from the sorceress was her only answer. "And Telamedes couldn't stand by and watch the roof fall in on you. Any one of us would have done the same..." A hand reached up and grabbed the back of her neck, drawing her close to steely brown eyes.
"Gabrielle, please take what I'm about to say to heart. You know I love you, but please, just hush!"
The bard's mouth, open with unspoken words and surprise, snapped shut. They finished bathing in silence. When Iolaus returned he found Antipany sitting against a tree, once again dressed in her cloak, eyes closed in contemplative silence. The bard was setting up camp humming to herself.
They spent a leisurely two days at the campsite, resting up before continuing on. It took them another two weeks to make the trip home because the bard insisted on sleeping in every morning and stopping mid-afternoon. It was almost like she didn't want their journey to end, but Antipany never complained. In fact, she never said more than two words at a time and never more than four per day. But she thought and contemplated and wallowed in self-pity. A lot. And despite the warning, Gabrielle never did stop talking to the brooding sorceress. The trip home was blessedly uneventful except that Peisander disappeared the day before they reached their destination.
Iolaus and Gabrielle walked into the yard and stopped abruptly when they saw Telamedes sitting on a log waiting for them. Peisander cawed a greeting from a tree branch. Antipany greeted the ugly bird, but didn't see the priest until Circe stopped and she had dismounted, finally seeing him as he stood up. Her face flushed with anger and her hands began to glow. He looked at her calmly.
"You...you...you," she sputtered walking toward him. An energy bolt sprang unbidden from the finger she pointed and he ducked slightly, taking a step forward, as it flew by his ear. "You hit me!" she said pointing at the fading bruise on her cheek.
He ducked his head in shame. "I'm sorry Antipany, but you would have brought the building down on yourself and I couldn't stand by and do nothing. It was the only way I could think to get you out safely." He took another step toward her.
"So what! That's my decision to make, not yours. What on Demeter makes you think you have the right to take that away from me!" Another bolt flashed through the trees raining leaves down on them.
He squared his shoulders, and looking up he said, "Because I love you."
She stared at him in disbelief. "Because you love me!" She turned at looked at Iolaus and Gabrielle who were by now standing at the corral and watching with interest. "What kind of idiot excuse is that?" she asked them.
They looked at each other. "I liked it," offered Gabrielle.
"Works for me," said Iolaus. They smiled at her.
Antipany glared at them, then turned back to the priest. She watched him take another pace forward then shook her head. "It wouldn't work," she said.
His gaze held steady. "Why not?" Another step closer.
"We're so different. You're...you're a lake. Throw a pebble in you and t he water barely ripples. And I'm..."
"And you're a volcano. Throw a pebble in you and a man is likely to get a face full of fire and brimstone." He smiled and took a step closer. "Love doesn't always allow us safe or even rational choices."
She thought for a moment and watched as he took another tentative step to ward her. "Aren't you afraid I'll roil your waters?" she asked.
"Are you afraid I'll quench your fire?" He was so near she feel his breath. In a way, it was exactly what she feared. The fire had kept her warm and alive for so long she didn't know if she could give it up. But it was consuming her and he was offering her sanctuary from it. He took her face in his hands and softly brushed her lips with his. A feeling she though t had died stirred deep within her.
Passion. Hands on his waist she pressed closer wanting more. Their kiss deepened and when they finally broke it was the priest who looked flustered. "Well...," was all he could say, looking pleased.
Gabrielle sighed happily while Iolaus grinned and gave the priest a wink and a thumbs up.
"You've been holding out on me, priest," said the sorceress smiling. "But if you ever hit me again, I'll have your manhood with my eggs one morning."
He pulled her close and gave her a tight hug, unconsciously crossing his legs. "And I'd deserve it. There's only one unfinished task left for you to do." She looked at him inquiringly. He looked past her shoulder and nodded. "It's time to end this, Antipany," he said gently.
She heard Gabrielle gasp and turning around she saw Xena sitting on a log watching them. Taking a deep breath, she started for the warrior. "Oh yeah, I'm ready to finish this." She stopped by Gabrielle. "It's time, little one, to release me from my oath."
Gabrielle looked from Xena to the sorceress and back again trying to decide if this was going to have a happy ending. She couldn't tell. "Release me," Antipany repeated firmly. Gabrielle looked at Xena who nodded. "Do it, Gabrielle," she said quietly.
The bard danced a few more anxious steps before finally nodding, "I release you from your promise, Antipany." Then winced as a savage smile crossed the face of the sorceress. I think I just made a big mistake, she thought.
Xena stood and unsheathed her sword, waiting silently as the sorceress walked purposefully toward her, hands glowing brightly. Then Xena sank to her knees and offered the hilt of the sword to Antipany as she stopped in front of the kneeling warrior. Antipany took the sword in surprise and the tip sank into the dirt as the sorceress struggled to lift the heavy weapon.
"What am I supposed to do with this?" she asked puzzled.
"If I am to die, I'd rather it be by sword, instead of by those irritating bolts of yours," Xena replied calmly.
Antipany struggled mightily to raise the tip up off the ground. "As much as I'd like to oblige you, Xena, swords just aren't my style." With a heave, she finally managed to swing the sword up, nicking the warrior on the arm as she placed the weapon back in the scabbard. "If I did manage to execute you with this thing, it would be purely by accident." She scratched her head, thinking. "All right, give me your dagger."
Xena stared at the sorceress, concentrating. "I think I have something you can handle," she said grimly. She leaned back a little and suddenly her tiny breast dagger flew up into the air. Antipany snatch it as it began to descend and scowled at the warrior. "Nobody likes a show off," she reminded her, waving the dagger at her. Turning to Gabrielle she asked, "How does she do that?"
"Jealous?" asked the bard with a tight smile. "Antipany don't do this, please."
"And you're not?" the sorceress retorted. Damn those eyes, she thought. She walked around the kneeling warrior and stood close behind her, straddling her legs. Grasping Xena's forehead she pulled back until the warrior 's head was resting against her abdomen with her neck fully exposed. Xena looked into Gabrielle's eyes, saddened by the fear she saw there. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I do love you."
Antipany rested the knife against the pulsating artery in Xena's neck. One quick slash would end it and finally quench the raging inferno that threatened her soul. As she watched the artery beat against the knife, her eyes dilated, her breath quickened and her heart raced. She felt an eager tremor deep within her and recognized it instantly. Lust.
Time stopped and all faded except for the knife against the pulsating vessel. It felt so good, the power over her enemy, the passion. She wanted t o watch the blood pour out, to wash her hands in it, to revel in it. She finally had a glimpse of what emotion had driven Xena to kill. It was addicting. And she wondered what had made the warrior walk away from it after all those years, after all those deaths.
Antipany became dimly aware of a noise. Glancing up she saw Gabrielle straining against a white-faced Telamedes who was preventing her from interfering. Iolaus was frozen in place, confused as to what was happening. As she came back to herself she could hear the bard screaming for her to stop, pleading and crying.
Love and hate. Telamedes and Xena.
Love or hate. She could have one, but not both. Give in to hate and Telamedes would be lost to her. Give in to love and the overpowering desire for revenge died. And either one would satisfy her passion and maybe finally she would have peace.
Love or hate. Which was stronger? The bard believed it was love but Antipany wasn't so sure. She glanced over again at the two people whose opinion mattered the most to her and then back at the knife pressed against Xena's neck. They're wrong, she thought angrily. This is about justice. Her hand trembled under the strain. Then she met Gabrielle's eyes and no longer wondered what had turned Xena around. She knew. She had always known. Antipany took a deep steadying breath and suddenly drew the knife back, kissing the top of Xena's head. "I have three...no, four things I want to say to you, princess." She walked around to face the still kneeling warrior.
"Great," muttered Xena. "Now you want to talk me to death. I think I prefer to be fried."
Antipany ignored her. "One. I forgive you for murdering my brothers and destroying my village. Gabrielle is right. You are not the warrior who did those horrible crimes so many years ago. Hercules put you on this righteous road." She turned to glare at the bard. "And Gabrielle has kept you there." She turned back to Xena. "I had hoped to push you back into that fetid swamp from where you sprang, but now I'm forced to admit you'd probably stay the path whether Gabrielle was with you or not. Not that I'll ever get the opportunity to find out. But it's time to get on with my life, so I forgive you."
She took a deep breath. That wasn't as bad as she thought it would be. "Two. You probably think I'm angry because you didn't honor your promise to kill me if Kryptus formed one of his spheres around me. I'm not. You did what you thought was best for our merry little band and you were right to do it." She glanced around at her friends. "I want to apologize for being such a coward. It was a request I should have never made." She brushed her fingers absently across Xena's cheek. "Stand up, prin...Xena." She smiled sheepishly and shrugged. "Old habits die hard."
The warrior stood, still silent, wondering what else needed to be said.
"Three." Antipany took Xena's hand and slapped the hilt of the knife in it. Curling the warrior's fingers around it, Antipany opened her cloak enough to position the knife against her own heart. "It is time to end this. I give you the same choice you gave me. Kill me... or forgive me. You certainly have cause to do either. Ah...if you do choose to kill me, please make it quick, all right?"
They stared at each other for a moment. Xena's eyes flickered, then suddenly she pulled the sorceress to her chest with one powerful arm, the other disappearing in the cloak with the knife. Antipany stiffened then relaxed, held tightly upright against Xena's chest.
Telamedes started forward anxiously but stopped when Gabrielle put a hand on his arm. Long moments passed and no one moved. Finally Xena loosened her grip and Antipany shoved away, gasping for breath.
"I'll take that as a gesture of forgiveness," she wheezed. "And not an at tempt to snuff out my life." Xena grinned and nodded. "My goodness," Antipany continued to puff, looking at the warrior's cleavage. "Those are powerful weapons."
"Ah...I can attest to that," said Iolaus, leering at the warrior.
Xena glared at him, but his grin just widened. She clapped a hand on Antipany's shoulder as she turned to go. "Wasn't there one more thing you wanted to tell me?"
Antipany stared at her blankly for a moment, then remembered. Except now she really wasn't sure she wanted to say it. Oh, well. She just hoped she could explain it to her brothers. She faced Xena and sank to her knees. Taking the warrior's hands, she bowed her head and pressed them to her forehead. "I offer you my allegiance. If you should ever need my skills, summon me and I will follow your orders without question." She glanced up. "Well... without many questions," she amended. "And if I can understand your orders. Sometimes you aren't very clear..." Xena held up a hand. "I get the idea," she said.
Standing up she looked at Xena expectantly. "May I go now?" she asked. Xena was too surprised to do more than nod. She turned to go, then turned back reaching into her cloak and withdrew Xena's dagger. Handing it back she said, "Ah...Xena, this fragile fr...fr..." Hades, why was she having so much trouble spitting out the word? "Frien..."Nope. Not even close to being there. "...alliance of ours won't stand a trivial test. Use it wisely."
Xena nodded again. Then her eyes turned deadly and she said, "Antipany, y u do know you'll never have this chance again, don't you? If you ever come after me again, I will stop you."
Antipany smiled coolly. "Yes, I know. But know this, Xena. If you ever fall off this righteous path of yours, I'll be there to see you never climb back on." They stared at each other for a moment in perfect understanding, then the sorceress turned away. She looked at Gabrielle. "You win. Love rules." She shrugged in resignation.
Tears of relief streaming down her face, Gabrielle ran to her companion and hugged her tightly. Xena folded her into her arms and tried to comfort the young bard. "I'm sorry you had to see that, my friend. But I owed her and it was time to repay the debt." Gabrielle nodded against the warrior's chest, but continued to hold on tight. Her mind knew what her heart could never accept. Eventually another encounter like this would end quite differently.
Antipany walked over to Telamedes and saw the relief and love in his eyes. It was such a new emotion to her, this love, but it felt right. She grabbed his hand, pulling him toward the woods. "Come on, priest. I feel like boiling water." He beamed in anticipation, even as sweat appeared on his brow.
"Well, I guess that's my cue to go. I'm meeting Hercules at his mother's place. It's been a ball. Take care you two," said Iolaus as he gave Gabrielle a bear hug and a kiss, then offered his forearm to Xena. As she reached for it, he suddenly reached around and hugged her tight, burying his head between her breasts. "Ah...as sweet as I remember." He looked up at her with a twinkle in his eye.
She looked down at him in amusement, then taking his head in her hands, she leaned down and gave him a slow, passionate kiss. Releasing him, she said warmly, "You'll always be a close friend." Then nodded at her bosom. "But these are for another." The glazed look left his eyes and he gulped and nodded. Waving vaguely in their direction he stumbled down the road.
Gabrielle laughed softly as they leaned up against the corral and watched Iolaus make his way down the path. "Haven't lost your touch, I see," she commented. Then she wrapped her arms around her companion's arm and leaned against her shoulder, sighing contentedly. "I love happy endings."
Lost in thought, they stood for a moment before Xena asked, "Does all this mean what I think it means?"
"Yep, Antipany has forgiven you. I knew you could do it. And if you can get Antipany to forgive you, then you can get anyone to forgive you."
"Even Callisto?" Xena asked, eyebrow raised.
Gabrielle frowned. "Yes, but let's save her for last, all right? And, Xena, don't ever do that again. I don't think my heart can take it."
Xena put her arm around the bard. "I knew she wouldn't kill me," she said, pulling her companion close to her side.
"Oh, and how did you know that?"
Xena smiled at her friend. "Because you said she wouldn't."
Gabrielle looked up at her in disbelief. "Since when do you listen to me when it comes to your enemies?"
"I always listen to you. You're a better judge of people than anyone I know."
The bard groaned and buried her face in Xena's side. "Remind me to keep my mouth shut next time, all right?"
"I don't want you to hurt yourself," Xena teased. And felt a sharp slap against her abdomen in retaliation.
"Xena," Gabrielle said, suddenly serious. "I love you, too." The warrior smiled and squeezed her companion's shoulder.
"Gabrielle, we need to talk about this Tartarus thing... "
"Oh good," Gabrielle interrupted happily. "You finally want to talk about your feelings. I know there are things eating at you, so let's just air it all out. You go first, then I'll tell you how I feel.
Take your time. We have hours. Days even." Xena's eyebrow raised in consternation. "That's all right," she said hastily. "It can wait. We really need to get going soon." Gabrielle looked disappointed. "All right. You're the boss."
"Yeah, right," Xena muttered.
They watched the horses play in the corral. Xena sighed, "One down, hundreds to go." It would take longer than her lifetime allowed. She closed her eyes enjoying the breeze on her face, wondering if it was worth all the pain. Then she felt the bard's comforting presence leaning against her and knew she had to try. The gods would just have to accept her best efforts. It was all any mortal could do.