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VIOLENCE WARNING: Okay, nothing terribly violent in part one, but it’s coming. Consider yourselves warned.
As always, any characters from "Xena: Warrior Princess" or "Hercules: the Legendary Journeys" are just being borrowed here.
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Autolycus followed Xena back to the inn. She informed the innkeeper there would be one more staying with them, and inquired to which room they’d been put up in. Following his directions they found their way, and Xena opened the door to reveal Gabrielle sitting cross-legged on one of the beds, her scrolls spread around her. She started to say something, but when she looked up and saw Autolycus, a huge smile of delighted surprise broke out across her face.
"Look what I found in the barn." Xena joked.
"Autolycus!" Gabrielle exclaimed, jumping to her feet and reaching up to throw her arms around the thief’s neck in a fierce hug. Autolycus laughed, returning the embrace just as enthusiastically. "It’s good to see you again, Princess." he said to the top of her blonde head.
Xena watched in quiet amusement. Only Gabrielle could get the reserved Autolycus to be so openly affectionate. "I hate to interrupt," she said after a moment, "but you’re still bleeding, Autolycus."
"I am, aren’t I?" he observed, releasing the bard.
"What did you do to yourself?" Gabrielle asked in mild alarm.
"An accident. I cut myself on something in the barn." he said casually, with a sideways glance at Xena. She snorted. Gabrielle sensed something pass unspoken between her friends, but let it go.
Xena searched her packs for her physician’s supplies, and dragged two chairs to face each other before the fireplace. "Sit down." she ordered Autolycus, settling herself. "Let’s take care of that hand."
"Yes ma’am," Autolycus said, sitting down across from her and extending his hand, palm up. Xena turned it in the firelight, examining the wound, and told Gabrielle to bring her the water basin from the night stand. Gabrielle did so, then sat down on the floor beside them, observing Xena but careful to stay out of her light. Xena’s face was stern as she washed the blood away to get a better look at the injury.
"Are you going to have to amputate my arm?" Autolycus asked.
Xena’s lips quirked. "No, but I might have to sew your mouth shut." she retorted, setting aside the cloth she’d been using. She reached into her bag and drew out a tiny corked flask. "It doesn’t need stitching." she ruled, popping the cork out. "But this will help prevent infection, and we’ll bandage it." She tipped the flask, pouring a tiny amount of grayish-green powder directly onto the cut. Autolycus yelped and jerked away.
"Jeez, that stings!" he complained.
Xena grabbed his hand back. "Sit still. It doesn’t hurt."
"Does too." Autolycus pouted.
"You’re such a baby." Xena muttered, but Gabrielle noticed that she seemed to use a lighter touch when she wrapped the bandage around his hand. "Good as new." she declared when she was done.
Autolycus examined her handiwork. "Your technique is good, but your bedside manner could be improved." He leaned back in his chair then, stretching his long legs out and hooking one ankle over the other. "So, what are you ladies doing in Aramid? Other than defending the downtrodden, that is."
"Just passing through, actually." Xena replied, putting the physician’s bag back with the rest of her things. "We stopped for the weather." As if to reaffirm her statement, thunder rumbled outside. The sound sent a prickling of unease up her spine that she shook off impatiently.
Afraid of the thunder now, Xena?
"I’m going to perform in the tavern tonight." Gabrielle was saying. "If you’re interested, that is."
"Spinning your tales, Princess? I wouldn’t miss it for all the gold in Greece." He shot Xena a dimpled grin. "And what about you, Xena? Are you entertaining tonight? I seem to recall you being a remarkable dancer."
Gabrielle watched curiously as Xena hurled a pillow at Autolycus with enough force to knock him half out of his chair.
They kicked Autolycus out of the room long enough to let them freshen up for dinner. Xena was combing her hair out in front of the mirror when she caught sight of Gabrielle’s reflection. The girl had taken a necklace Xena had never seen before out of the satchel she used to carry her writing supplies. It was a pretty thing, made of turquoise, and the style was vaguely Amazonian.
"That’s lovely." Xena commented. "Where did you get it?"
Gabrielle looked up, startled, and walked over to join Xena before the mirror. "It was a present." she said, holding the necklace up to her throat. Xena stood and took the ends from her, and Gabrielle lifted her hair so Xena could fasten it.
"It suits you." Xena mused. "Can I ask why you keep it with your scrolls?"
Gabrielle smiled, reaching up to touch the long, blue-green beads. "That’s a long story, Xena. Let’s just say it’s something very valuable that I didn’t appreciate as much as I should have when it was given to me."
It became clear that was all Gabrielle was going to say on the matter, and Xena didn’t push it.
"We’d better get down there before Autolycus picks anyone’s pockets." Gabrielle said. "Are you ready?"
"Yeah," Xena replied, fastening her chakram in place at her waist. Gabrielle sighed.
"Do you really think that’s going to be necessary tonight?"
"You never know, Gabrielle. Besides, I’m leaving my sword in here."
"I’m sure the innkeeper will be immensely relieved by that." Gabrielle jibed. "We can always use your chakram for cutting our fish, as a cover."
Xena gave her The Look. "And your scrolls for napkins."
Gabrielle stuck her tongue out. Xena smirked.
"Let’s go," the warrior said. "Autolycus gets into trouble faster than an unsupervised two-year-old."
Autolycus was seated at a table right in front of the "stage" where Gabrielle would be performing, which was simply an elevated area at the front of the tavern. He stood as Xena and Gabrielle approached.
"The best seats in the house." he said with a wave of his arm. Xena settled into the chair beside his, and didn’t protest when he captured her hand and kissed it lightly. Gabrielle suppressed a smile as she watched the familiar exchange. For all Xena’s irritation at the thief’s charm tactics, Gabrielle suspected she enjoyed being treated like a lady. Not that she’d ever admit it.
She noticed the innkeeper waving her on then. "Looks like it’s time to start."
"Don’t overdo it." Xena said as the bard took the stage, just as Autolycus called out, "Slay ‘em, Gabby!"
Gabrielle began with the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. She was already flushed, not from nerves, Xena knew, but from excitement. The girl was in her element now. The other patrons were drawn, a few at a time, from their various conversations into the current of Gabrielle’s story. Before long, Xena noted, the entire room was spellbound, listening to the well-known legend as if it was the first time they’d ever heard it. When Gabrielle finished the tale, she was besieged with delighted applause and demands for another. Beaming, she obligingly launched into yet another story. The crowd was treated to adventures of Jason and the Argonauts, awed by accounts of Hercules’ heroics, and thrilled with the terrors of Medusa and Echidna. Her audience loved each tale more than the one before, and Gabrielle was exhilarated, but finally, she came to her last story of the night.
"Here tonight you’ve heard tales of love and bravery, tragedy and adventure." Gabrielle’s tone was different, darker, as she spoke this time. "Now hear the tale of the two most terrifying creatures ever to walk the earth." She stepped forward, her face bowed, half in shadow. "I tell the tale of Vengeance and Chaos."
Xena drew a sharp breath. That Gabrielle should choose this, of all her stories, to close with...
Autolycus noticed her dismay. "What’s wrong?" he whispered, leaning in close.
"Vengeance and Chaos are goddesses, Autolycus. She’s talking about Callisto and Velaska."
Autolycus stiffened momentarily, then seemed to regain his composure. "Well," he said in a voice that almost passed for casual, "it will entertain the audience, at least."
His dismissive tone was forced, and Xena wasn’t fooled. His brief but terrifying encounter with Velaska had clearly stuck with him. Autolycus listened to Gabrielle’s tale with a sort of sickened fascination. He’d already left their company when Velaska had made it known she wasn’t dead, and Xena had always considered that a small blessing. The Amazon had hated Autolycus nearly as much as she’d hated Gabrielle by then; Xena had thanked the Fates he’d been gone when Velaska went on her rampage. Furthermore, the thought of exposing the thief to Callisto was one that made Xena physically ill.
The warrior recalled her helpless rage at watching Velaska’s brutal inquisition of Autolycus, then her relief when the Dagger of Helios had been jarred from its hiding place. She’d known, of course, that Velaska would make the connection between the dagger and the keystone, but she’d also known Autolycus would die at the woman’s hands before he gave her what she wanted. Later, the image of Autolycus sprawled on the floor before Velaska had filled her mind when she’d dropped the Amazon to her death.
To what should have been her death. But the bitch had survived, and become a god. And to vanquish a monster, they’d had to free a devil.
Xena was brought back to the present by the sound of wild applause. Gabrielle was bowing melodramatically. The story was over.
Back in their room, they prepared for bed, and Gabrielle was elated over her performance.
"I’d almost forgotten how much fun storytelling is!" she gushed. "That audience was so wonderful! I think they especially loved my last one." She paused for breath. "What did you guys think?"
"It was a real showstopper." Xena said. She couldn’t force any enthusiasm into her tone.
Gabrielle’s face fell. "You didn’t like it," she said quietly.
Xena sighed. "I just don’t understand why you would want to relive an experience like that, Gabrielle."
The girl was quiet for a long moment, sitting on the edge of her bed. "I think," she began slowly, "that sometimes, when something like that happens, something so frightening, that by turning it into a story I make it something I can control. Does that make any sense?"
"I think it does." Autolycus said suddenly. He’d been so quiet, laying out his bedroll in front of the fire, that both women were startled by the response. Gabrielle smiled at him.
"Alright, guys," Xena announced, "enough chitchat. Time to hit the hay."
"Past time." Autolycus agreed around a yawn.
The three of them settled in, and Xena listened to her friends’ breathing become soft and rhythmic. She was not far behind.
Xena stood in the center of a crowd of Amazon warriors, dressed for battle. She spun around, looking for Gabrielle. That girl chose the most inopportune moments to go missing...
"Gabrielle!" she called out. She had to shout to make herself heard. Noise filled the air: murmurs, wails, and sobs. "Gabrielle, where are you?" Above the din, she heard her name, and she whirled to face the direction it had come from.
Xena pushed her way through the mass of bodies around her, following the call. The crowd of Amazons parted, clearing a path. Ahead of her, Xena could see the platform where Gabrielle had been crowned queen. Xena rushed forward, carried by a crushing urge to reach the place. She broke free of the swarm and froze where she stood, a horrified cry dying in her throat at the gruesome tableau that met her eyes.
The coronation platform was blood soaked. Ephiny, Gabrielle’s regent, lay dead, her ash blonde ringlets matted with blood, glassy eyes staring sightlessly up at the sky. She looked like she’d been hacked apart with a scythe. Not far away was Solari’s body, face down, her dead hand still clutching her sword. Xena tore her eyes from that horror to find an even worse one awaiting her.
Gabrielle was on the platform, rooted in place by blind fear. Autolycus was on his knees beside her, facing the crowd. Velaska stood behind him, one hand woven through his dark hair, the other holding a long, curving dagger to his throat. Xena recognized it instantly as the Dagger of Helios. Velaska’s arms were blood-coated up to her elbows, and her face was splattered red as well.
"Xena," she said, and the warrior realized it was Velaska who had called her from the crowd. "I’m so glad you could join us. We’re about to crown a new queen, and I’d hate for you to miss the celebration."
Her arm moved then, lightning fast, slitting Autolycus’ throat. Xena screamed, rushing forward to catch his falling body as Velaska shoved him towards her. Xena felt the warmth of his blood on her bare skin, heard herself keening as she turned him over. Brown eyes held blue for the briefest of moments, and then he was gone. Xena screamed again, a feral sound of rage and agonizing grief, and raised her gaze to Velaska’s.
"I’ll kill you." she whispered, laying her thief gently on the ground.
"You’ll try." Velaska replied. "I don’t doubt you’ll try."
"Oh, I will do so much more than try." Xena rose to her feet and drew her sword.
"Ah-ah, Xena. Not just yet." Velaska chided, and Xena found herself in a ring of green flame, trapped. "I’m not quite finished here."
She brandished the bloody dagger, then turned towards Gabrielle. The girl stumbled backwards, her face terrified.
"No!" Xena cried. Gabrielle turned an accusing face to her friend.
"Why didn’t you help us when you had the chance, Xena? Why didn’t you save us? You were warned and you did nothing! They’re all dead because of you!"She tripped then, falling to the ground as Velaska advanced on her.
"Xena, help me!"Gabrielle pleaded.
A predatory smile spread over Velaska’s face as she raised the knife over her head."Long live the
queen." she purred.
The knife arced down.
"No! Gabrielle! NOOOO!"
She came awake to find hands gripping her shoulders, shaking her. Instinct took over, and she flung the person off of her. There was a startled curse, followed by a thud. With a snarl, Xena pounced, pinning the struggling body and drawing back her fist.
"Hey, easy killer, it’s just me!"
The semi-frantic voice registered, and after a tense moment, Xena lowered her fist. She did not, however, make any attempt to change her position otherwise.
"If these unprovoked attempts on my life continue I’m going to start feeling unwanted." Autolycus said conversationally, staring up at the ceiling.
Xena waited until she was as near to relaxed as she was going to get at the moment. "Why did you do that, Autolycus?" An unspoken "And this had better be good" hung in the air.
"You were having a bad dream. I thought I should wake you up." He finally moved, reaching back to rub his head. "Apparently I was mistaken in that particular course of reasoning."
Xena stared down at him in the darkness, and then laughed softly. "Are you alright? Did I wake Gabrielle?"
"I’ll be fine once the room stops spinning, and no, she’s still snoring like an ogre with a head cold." He cast a glance in the direction of the bard’s bed. "Could we turn her over or something? People are going to start complaining."
Xena smothered her laughter. "Don’t pick on her. She can’t help it." She sat up then, realized exactly where she was, and quickly took her weight off of the thief. She was immensely annoyed with herself for taking notice of the fact that he was bare chested as she did so. "A little survival tip, Autolycus: never shake an ex-warlord out of a restless sleep." she said shortly. "It’s not real smart."
"I’ll remember that." he said, and Xena thought she caught an edge to his voice. He returned to his bedroll and laid down with his back to her. Xena had the distinct impression she was being snubbed.
"It was a bad dream, by the way." she said.
"I appreciate the concern."
"I’m trying to thank you, here. Are you going to make me talk to the back of your head?"
Xena counted to ten, then climbed back into bed. "Fine. If you’re going to be childish, I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Goodnight."
Autolycus mumbled something into his pillow that Xena chose to ignore. Gabrielle rolled over in bed and snored in a new pitch.
"Okay, I’m sorry." Xena finally said through clenched teeth. Autolycus didn’t respond right away, and Xena could almost see him grinning.
"For yelling at me when I was just trying to help?" he questioned.
"Yes." Her jaw was beginning to ache.
"And for trying to kill me?"
"Yeah, that too."
"Both times. Sorry."
"And for using that stuff--"
"Autolycus," she broke in warningly.
"Right. Goodnight, Xena."
"Oh, and Xena? I forgive you."
She considered going for her chakram, then elected instead to pull her pillow over her head.
The light of the full moon drenched the world in pale silver-blue. The girl gazed up into the night sky almost dreamily. It was finally time.
She sank to her knees on the rough black rock and drew a slender dagger from her belt. Bracing herself, she made a shallow cut in her left palm. A brief, icy sting made her gasp, but the pain didn’t last long, and she quickly repeated the action on her right hand. Clasping the dagger in both hands, she held it aloft, crimson rivulets running down the gleaming blade.
It would work. It had to work. She’d spent so many months preparing.
"I summon thee. With blood and blade, I summon thee. With voice and soul, I summon thee." As she spoke, she plunged the dagger down, again and again. Each time the tip of the blade struck down, chips of volcanic rock flew out in all directions.
"I call the goddess Velaska. I implore her to restore the glory of the Amazon Nation. Rise Velaska."
The dagger continued to flash in the moonlight.
"Rise Velaska. Rise Velaska. Rise Velaska." it became a whispered chant, almost lost in the wind.
A tiny fault line formed in the rock, and began to split its way downward. Deep in the earth, something rumbled.
The lightning bolt and the thunderclap came almost simultaneously, or maybe that was just how Xena perceived it in her waking moment. Through the ringing in her ears induced by the sky-splitting noise, she thought she heard laughter, and the lightning had left an afterimage seared into her vision that mimicked the silhouette of a person. The shadows in the room were swimming--
swimming like eels
--and Xena blinked furiously, trying to clear her blurred vision.
"Sounds like Zeus is partying on the roof." Autolycus observed, and Xena realized for the first time that both of her companions had been awakened by the storm as well. Gabrielle was untangling herself from her covers, her hair hanging in her face. She pushed most of it behind her ears, and turned to Xena. She frowned when she saw the intense, alert expression on her friend’s face.
"Xena? Is something wrong?" Gabrielle asked, alarmed. Xena swung her legs over the side of the bed and went to the window, pushing the drapes aside. She peered out through narrowed eyes, not sure what she looking for. All she saw was rain-filled darkness.
Behind her, Gabrielle and Autolycus exchanged glances.
She saw nothing at all. But she felt something. Unseen eyes.
Gabrielle crossed the room and laid a hand on her friend’s shoulder. "What is it, Xena?"
The warrior shook her head. "I don’t know." She turned around and looked down at Gabrielle. Suddenly she saw that sweet face twisted in a mask of terror.
"You were warned and you did nothing!" It echoed back to Xena from the nightmare, and she felt a chill. Xena faced Autolycus then. He was kneeling on the bedroll in front of the dim fire. In her mind, Xena watched a monster step up behind him, bring a dagger to his throat, and slice him open.
But they were just dreams! she thought.
Dreams you’ve been having since the moon was in her first quarter, another part of her said. Dreams unlike any you’ve ever had.
Xena covered her face with her hands and leaned against the wall. She heard Gabrielle and Autolycus’ worried exclamations, but she ignored them. Her thoughts were whirling like leaves in a windstorm, and she struggled to make sense of them.
It was absurd. She had never believed in prophecy or visions. Never. She’d never had any reason to. On the other hand, she did believe in her instincts, and right now they were screaming at her that something was very, very wrong.
There was no such thing as prophecy. Xena would stake her life on it.
But not the lives of the people she loved.
Xena lowered her hands to face their expressions of concern.
"Xena, are you alright?" Gabrielle pressed.
"Listen to me, both of you." Xena said, without bothering to acknowledge the question. "We’re leaving here at first light tomorrow."
" ‘We’ are leaving?" Autolycus broke in. "And just where are ‘we’ going?"
"Ephiny’s village." Xena informed them. Gabrielle’s face lit up for an instant, but only an instant.
"Something’s wrong," the bard said quietly. It was not a question. "What does it have to do with Ephiny?"
"I’ll explain on the way. It’s going to take a while, and it’s probably going to sound pretty crazy."
"Now wait a minute, Xena," Autolycus said, holding up his hands. "First you want to drag me along with you on one of your little cross country tours, then you tell me we’re going to see a bunch of Amazons, who, I will point out to you, are not overly fond of me, and then you won’t even tell me why?" He shook his head. "No way. Forget it. Count me out. This not sounding like my idea of a good time. You ladies go right ahead, enjoy yourselves. There is no chance in Tartarus --"
"AUTOLYCUS!" Xena cut him off so sharply Gabrielle jumped. The warrior’s eyes were blazing. Autolycus actually backed up a step. "I’m not inviting you. I’m telling you."
Gabrielle swallowed hard, wondering how far this would go. Most people would have backed down right then and there, but Autolycus wasn’t most people. He did not take well to being ordered around, not even by Xena. He was every bit as strong-willed as she was, and Gabrielle suspected he’d tell the Warrior Princess where to go if he was pushed far enough. He’d get his ass knocked into the next kingdom for it, but he’d tell her.
The thief set his jaw and looked Xena dead in the eye. Oh, crap, Gabrielle thought.
Then the unthinkable happened.
Xena backed down.
"You’re right Autolycus." she conceded calmly. "I have no right to drag you into this without telling you what’s going on. But I can ask you." Xena stepped past Gabrielle so that she was face to face with Autolycus. "I am asking you to trust me. Please. I promise I will explain everything, but I need you to go with us to the Amazon village." A strange expression flickered in her eyes, something akin to desperation. "I need to know you and Gabrielle are safe, and the only way I can be sure of that is if you’re both with me."
Defiance gave way to confusion in Autolycus’ face. "Xena..." he began, but trailed off speechlessly.
"Please," Xena repeated, and after another moment, Autolycus dropped his gaze and nodded.
"Xena, why wouldn’t we be safe?" Gabrielle asked. Xena put an arm around the girl.
"Tomorrow." she promised gently, giving her shoulders a squeeze.
"And in the meantime you expect us to sleep, I suppose?" Gabrielle said with a half-hearted little laugh.
Xena smiled and ruffled her blonde hair affectionately. "We have to get going early tomorrow. We all need to be rested. Autolycus will have to steal himself a good horse; Argo can’t carry all three of us."
"Well, at least I’ll be getting something out of this arrangement." Autolycus brightened up.
"And a horse is the only thing you’d better steal." Xena said pointedly. She rested her chin on Gabrielle’s head and stared out the window.
Outside, it was raining harder.
Continues in Part 3
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