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Disclaimer: the characters Xena, Gabrielle, Autolycus, Velaska, Ephiny, Solari, Argo, etc., are not mine. They are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. Theyíre being used here for non-profit, entertainment purposes only. The character of Delta is my creation.
Violence Warning: Heck yes, thereís violence here! This is a Xena story, for crying out loud! We have it all, kids: sword fighting, chakram flinging, staff wielding, head busting, arse kicking, lightning bolt throwing Amazonian all-out brutality. You will find throughout the course of this story scenes involving torture of a physical and psychological nature, one scene involving black magic, multiple potentially disturbing dream sequences, a couple of dead bodies, a couple of nearly dead bodies, and lots and lots of blood. There is also a naughty word here and there.
Sex/Subtext Warning: Sorry to disappoint you, but thereís nothing X-rated here. A few innuendos (nudge nudge, know what I mean?) but no one does the deed. If you find subtext here, bully for you. I didnít put it there, but everyone is free to interpret whatever they want. It is, however, suggested in this story that the friendship between Xena and Autolycus is turning (slightly) romantic. ( Just a little more so than whatís implied in the show; theyíre not getting married or anything so donít freak out.)
This is not intended to be a story for kids or for anyone easily disturbed by scenes of violence. Itís going to get intense in parts, so use your own judgement. Parts of it will mean more to you if youíve seen the Destiny Trilogy from season two, but I think youíll be able to follow it even if you donít know the background story.
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It began, as always, in the clearing near the Amazon village, beneath a sky ablaze with stars.
Gabrielle sat on her left, her blonde head propped affectionately against her best friendís shoulder. Autolycus was seated on her other side, his arm in a sling, brown eyes sparkling roguishly as he teased her about something or other. And herself, alive and content, basking in the joy of their reunion. The night air was cool and fresh as it rustled in the trees.
Then it all changed.
A new wind blew through the forest. It was hot, stale, almost suffocating. It swept over the trio in the clearing, and their laughter faded.
Something was there. Approaching. Invading.
There was a taint to the air, like the smell of a battlefield from far off, when the last soldier has dropped and only the crows are left breathing. The shadows in the clearing seemed to twist and expand, slithering over each other like eels.
Approaching. Invading. Searching.
The black-haired warrior stood slowly, azure eyes lifted to the sky. Thunder growled in the distance, muffled and menacing.
"What is it, Xena?" Gabrielle asked, coming to her feet beside her friend.
"I donít know."
The stars were gone now. The sky seethed with black clouds that seemed to produce a sickly light of their own. Thunder sounded again, closer, and with it came another sound. Laughter. Cruel and mocking ó and familiar. She knew now who the hunter was, and felt her blood run cold inside her.
"Iím coming back." The voice was more in her mind than her ears. "Iím coming back, Xena. You wonít be able to save them this time. Youíll watch your bard and your thief die, I promise you."
The writhing shadows condensed themselves into a dark shape in the middle of the clearing, a shape that was not quite solid. But Xena knew who it was. She moved to stand between her companions and the demon materializing before her eyes.
She looked human. It was a good disguise. But it was a lie. Even before sheíd been a god, sheíd been a monster. Xena hugged Gabrielle around the shoulders and reached out for Autolycus. She faced their enemy, unflinching.
"Youíll never touch them again. Iíll drag you to Tartarus personally before I let you near them."
Velaska smiled, and her face was almost ó almost ó beautiful. "Not even you can protect them from a god, Xena."
The tall Amazon extended an arm. Lightning crackled along it, then shot in a single deadly bolt towards Xena. At the last second, a breath before it would have struck the warrior dead, the bolt split in two around her body, never so much as grazing her. But even as Xena turned, Gabrielle and Autolycus crumpled lifelessly to the ground.
Velaskaís mad laughter and her own screams were all she heard as she fell to her knees...
Xena choked on an anguished cry as she sat upright in bed, then looked around in confusion. She raised a hand to her cheek, and her fingers came away wet.
This was the inn she and Gabrielle had stopped at last night. Across the room, Gabrielle snored softly in her own bed. There was no forest, no Autolycus, and no Velaska. Xena pressed the heels of her hands to her forehead and drew a deep breath. A nightmare. That same damned nightmare, nothing more.
But when she laid her head back down on the pillow, it was a long, long time before Morpheus found her again.
Autolycus woke with a start, shivering in a cold sweat, his heart racing. He had his dagger half out of its sheath before he even realized heíd started to draw it. He forced himself to lie still as he tried to figure out what had awakened him. Heíd camped out in the hayloft of a barn for the time being, and the only sounds that reached his ears were the stirrings of the horses and goats below.
He was the only person there, yet he had the feeling he wasnít alone. Someone else was there with him.
"Oh, sweet mother of Zeus, Xena, are you dead again?" he whispered to the air. Autolycus would have something to say about being possessed twice. But his enquiry drew no response. He was left in silence, alone.
Autolycus sat up and pulled his cloak more tightly around himself. After a few moments he relaxed, thinking he must have dreamed about Xena and simply couldnít remember it consciously. That explained why heíd felt as if she was right here, didnít it? As if sheíd been leaning over him, shaking his shoulder to wake him, to tell him...
Unease started to creep up his spine. Autolycus had never been one to read much into dreams. Especially those involving Xena. No hidden meaning there. Meaning pretty much dashed naked down the parade route of those dreams, waving its arms and whistling. But this felt different, not so much a dream as a message.
Autolycus shook himself out of that thought with disgust. "At this rate, you wonít be getting any kind of sleep tonight, Auto, with or without dreams." he said aloud, more to break the silence than anything. He felt foolish. Here he was, a grown man, spooking himself silly and looking for monsters in the shadows.
A monster in the shadows. A monster made of shadows.
He groaned and flopped back in the hay. It was going to be a long night.
The woman halted her horse and dismounted quickly. She moved stealthily through the darkness, but cautiously, as if she feared that even in this wild place, in the middle of the night, she might be noticed by someone.
Eventually, of course, that was exactly what she hoped to achieve, but not yet. The time would come. Right now she required privacy, discretion.
She picked her way nimbly over the rocky terrain. The gorge was a black tear in the earth ahead of her. She was grateful for the nearly full moon; it would have been next to impossible to navigate this place on a darker night. As it was, she had her doubts about risking the walls of the gorge at night, but she would be missed in the village in daytime. Privacy and discretion. Solari didnít trust her to begin with; any further suspicion from that corner could bring all her work crashing down around her head.
Just thinking about the Amazon lieutenant momentarily distracted her from the task at hand, and she stumbled over something, coming down hard on one bare knee. She cursed in pain and irritation, and reminded herself to focus. Sheíd watch smug Solariís downfall with delight, along with good Queen Ephiny. What a damn joke that all was!
No matter. The rightful Amazon queen would sit on the throne soon enough.
The woman paused at the edge of the gorge. The lava was stilled, frozen. Had it been active, this would all be in vain. It seemed impenetrable now, but it wasnít. Hot and flowing, the lava had been a prison. Cooled and hardened, it was merely a barrier.
One more night until the full of the moon. One more night to wait. But she would make sure now that everything was in order.
She took a deep breath and started down. One wrong move, and it would be a long fall with a messy landing.
"Gabrielle!" Xenaís voice was curt as she turned Argo around and signaled her into a trot. Gabrielleís head snapped up from her scroll. She was a fair distance behind Xena, lost in her reading. Xena glared down at the younger woman. "Youíre falling behind."
"Sorry." Gabrielle said, noticeably stung. Xena softened.
"Itís alright. I didnít mean to sound so harsh. Just remember to keep up, okay?"
Gabrielleís smoke-blue eyes searched her friendís face. "Xena whatís wrong? Youíve been acting edgy all day."
Her tension was showing, then. "I just didnít sleep very well last night." That was true, at least. Xena hated keeping things from Gabrielle, but what could she say? "Sorry Iím such a bitch today, but you know I had a vision that a crazed Amazon goddess is going to show up and murder you and the King of Thieves" seemed somehow oversimplified. Even Gabrielle may have a hard time with that one.
Besides, it hadnít really been a vision. Just a nasty dream. Vivid and terrifying, but a dream nonetheless.
"Xe-na," Gabrielle singsonged suddenly, and Xena started, realizing the girl had been speaking to her. "You are really out of it today. I asked you why you didnít sleep well.
Oh, just tell her. Itís not like sheís never had a nightmare before, Xena reasoned. "Well, I had this dream, one of those thatís so real you feel like you just reach out and touch the people in it, you know? Autolycus was in it, and ó"
"Ohhhh," Gabrielle cut her off, giving an exaggerated nod of her head. Xena looked down at her, arching an eyebrow. "Whatís that supposed to mean?" she demanded
"It means ohhhh." Gabrielle offered, a positively wicked grin on her face. She shot Xena a sideways glance and giggled. "Autolycus, huh? Yes, I could definitely see where dreams about Autolycus could make it hard to sleep. Definitely, yes."
Oh, Aresí underwear. "It was not," Xena informed the bard firmly, "that kind of a dream."
"Iím sure it wasnít."
"It had nothing to do with...with...what youíre thinking it had to with."
"Honestly, Gabrielle, you can be such a little pervert sometimes."
"I know, itís disgusting, isnít it?"
"Why would you even think I would have a dream about being with ó why would you think that?"
"I donít know where you get some of your ideas from."
"Overactive imagination, I suppose. Itís a bardic thing..."
Xena stared ahead in silence for a while, her jaw set, her eyes narrowed. Gabrielle finally risked another glance at the older woman, and she had to bite back a giggle. The resulting sound was something between a snicker and a snort. Xena whirled to stare at her.
"What?" she snapped.
"Nothing, nothing." Gabrielle replied, regaining control of herself. "Go ahead, tell me what the dream was about. Iím sorry."
It seemed silly now, and Xena found she didnít really feel like talking about it anymore. "Never mind. I donít feel like discussing it."
"Spoilsport." Gabrielle muttered, loud enough that Xena could hear her. Xena bit her tongue. She was not going to be drawn into a sparring match with Gabrielle. She was impossible when she got like this.
They arrived in a village by the name of Aramid in late afternoon. The weather had been looking threatening for an hour or so by that point, so Xena decided they would cut the dayís traveling a little short and find a room for the night. Aramid was somewhat larger than the last village theyíd stopped at, and they discovered they had their choice of inns. They located one that was nice, but still reasonably priced. After a brief sidebar with the innkeeper, Gabrielle proudly informed Xena heíd agreed to cut their rate if she did some storytelling in the tavern that evening. Xena rolled her eyes and looked questioningly at the man over Gabrielleís shoulder. He chuckled and waved to her by way of affirmation.
"They never even know what hits Ďem, do they?" Xena said fondly.
Gabrielle flipped her dark gold hair over her shoulder dramatically. "What can I say? I have a gift."
"You have a mouth." Xena retorted.
"Oh, quit complaining. Iím saving us some coin, right?"
"Yes, you are. While youíre at it, save me a trip. Take our things to the room while I get Argo settled in."
Gabrielle accepted Xenaís belongings in addition to her own, taking a moment to adjust the load in her arms to a less awkward position. She didnít bother to tell Xena an inn like this would have capable grooms who would see the mare fed, watered, and bedded down; when it came to Argoís needs, Xena insisted on handling things herself. She considered the golden warhorse a dear friend, not some pack animal to be handed over to just anyoneís care.
Gabrielle made her way down the hall, following a little girl of ten or eleven years who must have been either a daughter or granddaughter of the innkeeper. She offered to help Gabrielle carry her burden, but Gabrielle politely declined, assuring the child she could handle everything on her own. When they reached the room, the girl opened the door for Gabrielle and stepped aside to let her pass.
"Whew!" Gabrielle gasped, dropping her armload on one of the beds. She took a critical look around. The room was pleasant, clean and uncrowded. A brightly colored patchwork quilt covered each bed, and the drapes and rugs were all made of a heavy brown material, excellent for cutting drafts. The wooden floor appeared freshly swept, and there was a stock of dry wood next to a small stone fireplace. "Very nice." Gabrielle observed aloud. "Thank you." she said, giving a couple dinars to the girl, who dropped a curtsy and exited the room, closing the door behind her.
Once she was alone, Gabrielle wandered over to the satchel where she kept her scrolls, and wondered what tales to tell tonight.
The barn was a large one, and, Xena was pleased to see, very well kept. The stalls held the horses and jackasses of other travelers, and also a few goats she assumed belonged to the owners of the inn. She located a stall for Argo and led the mare in. Xena removed Argoís saddle and bridle, hung them up, and began to brush the dust and sweat from the pale coat. She checked the mareís hooves, filled the water trough and hay bin, and was just about finished when she heard a soft sound, like a footfall, from above her. Xena stroked Argoís velvety nose one last time, closed and latched the stall door, and moved noiselessly to the ladder that went to the hayloft.
She climbed silent as a cat, taking her chakram from her waist just before she reached the top. She paused, listened, and heard nothing. Which meant either the person up there knew she was down here and was waiting for her, or was engaged in an incredibly soundless activity and was ignorant to her presence. Another momentís pause, and she detected the soft, controlled breath of someone who would prefer the breathing not be heard. Waiting.
They wanted her to make the first move, and she wasnít going to disappoint them. Trilling her war cry, Xena vaulted straight up into the loft, letting the chakram fly as her feet touched down.
It didnít come back. Xena realized in surprise that the intended target had caught the weapon. Then a tall, slender figure stepped out of the shadows at the far end of the loft, and Xena realized in greater surprise who the intended target was.
"You know, most people would just say hello." Autolycus said, examining the circle of metal he held. Despite the calm tone of his voice, Xena suspected he was as shocked as she that he had caught it.
Horrified at what sheíd almost done, it took Xena a minute to find her voice. "I guess the lessons on the way back from Cleopatraís palace proved more than a way to pass the time." The corner of her mouth flicked up in a half-smile. "That was pretty impressive. Gabrielle hasnít gotten the hang of it yet, and sheís had more practice than you."
Autolycus flinched suddenly. "I donít think Iíve gotten the hang of it, either. I appear to be bleeding." With a wry smile, he held up his palm, displaying an ugly laceration.
"Oh, gods above, Iím sorry!" Xena exclaimed, moving quickly to take his hand in hers. A quick examination of the wound showed it to be messy, but not deep. Not as bad as it could have been. She cursed herself silently. She hadnít known it was Autolycus, of course, but that was no excuse. What if it had been a child playing in the hay? Someone whose reflexes were not as good? Hell, if she was honest about it, Autolycus wouldnít have been able to catch the weapon if she hadnít spent time training him with it.
Sheíd been distracted all day, her mind never once where it should be. All because of a stupid dream. Well, no more. Time to damn well focus, girl, Xena admonished herself.
"Itís not too bad, but it might need stitching." She released her breath in an angry hiss. "I canít believe I was so careless. I could have killed you."
"Having one of those days, are we?" he teased her.
"Like you wouldnít believe." She shook her head. "Come on."
"Where are we going?"
"Back to my room."
"I must be getting delirious from blood loss. Would you mind saying that again?"
Xena gave him a dirty look. "Obviously youíre not hurt too badly. Letís go. Thereís a storm coming and I donít feel like getting rained on." She headed for the ladder.
"I feel woozy. Are you going to carry me?" His eyes were dancing with mischief.
"Iím going to kick your smart ass down this ladder if you donít get it moving." Xena replied with a brilliant smile.
"Iíve missed you too, Xena."
Continues in Part 2
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