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Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.

NOTE: All works remain the © copyright of the original author. These may not be republished without the author's consent.

Any polite comments you would like the author to read send to Short and to the point would be nice. Venting at the author is not advisable since the Muses protect their own. 8-)


By J. A. Bard



Chapter 1-6 Chapter 7-14 Chapter 15-20 Chapter 21-23



Chapter 1

Long strong fingers connected to equally strong hands attached to broad wrists dangled comfortably over the ends of the carved chair’s arms. For a moment the fingers traced the carvings that adorned the ends of the arms as if to refamiliarize the owner with the feel. Eyelids slowly closed over the startlingly bright blue eyes that glittered from the torch light in the cavern and the dark head leaned back against the tall ornately carved back of the chair. Inhaling slowly, Aleka held her breath for a moment before expelling it.

She felt comfortable as her thoughts returned to the cavern with the sacred pools. She imagined the two tall pillars that were covered with runes and encryptions’ representing places both near and far. What Gaia called a vortex was a portal or doorway to places that were known and unknown to Aleka. Each site had a word and tone that identified it and she remembered them as if they were freshly imprinted in her mind. When a tone was chanted for the desired destination a portal opened with a passageway between the two places that allowed objects as large as a horse drawn cart to move through.

The tingling sensation on her exposed skin and the sounds from the water feeding into the pool reminded her of another time and lessons that took place in this very cavern.

She took another slow deep breath letting it out through her mouth aware that her shoulders relaxed further with the rest of her limbs following. Sounds and sensations around her that had heightened faded to nothing. She felt a lighter part of her unattach from her heavier body and was amused that it was so easy. Briefly, memories of previous experiences in both lives for this type of travel overlapped.

She looked around the cavern from her new vantagepoint high above everyone's heads. The women were scattered about, some in groups or sitting alone. She spotted the bright red hair of Gabrielle sitting on a flat rock with her knees pulled up, her chin resting on the knees, and her arms wrapped around them. Her brow was wrinkled as if in deep thought. Her eyes were fixed on the still form that was seated in the wooden chair. Erica was approaching her with Eleanor. Do they think she’s going to remember or say something? Aleka chuckled to herself. The voice suggestions may be wearing off.

By the structure of their leadership in the group, Lily and Agnes would normally have said something to Gabrielle but until they return Erica and Eleanor were to lead their respective groups.

Gabrielle must have said something that made the two concerned enough to step in before the other two women returned. Aleka sighed to herself remembering the drug Gabrielle had inhaled. Nothing is calm around the Bard for too long. She didn’t think Gabrielle remembered who she is in this life, for she didn’t see the familiar look Gabrielle would have in her eyes when they had exchanged looks. There was recognition, but there was mostly guilt and fear. Iaia’s memories. For all that Gabrielle has gone through in this life, she would add the guilt of the failed journey to her burdens. Xena thought of the Bard taking on the burden of another life and how much more complicated it would make her life today. Of course it’s not her fault! I should have been more discreet! Goddess, if I had known my interest in her would cause problems! I should have known! Will you stop! Xena admonished her. You showed interest in her! So what? You didn’t touch her, say anything to her or even insult her. Let it go! I have enough guilt in this life without you adding to it!

Aleka’s form was rising slowly toward the ceiling of the cavern as she studied her companions and struggled with her conscious. Abruptly she shot out of the cavern and through the top of the mountain. Right. Concentrate on the business at hand, Ka. You don’t need to go there! It’s finished! This is something else! Xena pulled her focused back on her plan.

Thinking of the site where Agnes and Lily had gone to brought her spirit form immediately hovering outside of a temple that had seen better times. The cobblestone courtyard was partially covered with earth and brush that no longer had someone to keep them within neat borders. The courtyard was surrounded with silver birch trees. Some had been recently hacked down to stubs with bits of the tree strewn about while others had escaped damage. Aleka turned toward the temple with a heavy heart at the destruction. Here also was the evidence of vandalism as the pillars that were once detailed with the face of the goddess were now misshapen images of something unrecognizable.

She watched with trepidation, as the last of a group of men dressed in the familiar dark clothing and shield sewed to their cloaks noisily moved out of the abandoned temple’s courtyard. She saw no evidence of Agnes or Lily in their company. She glided into the temple looking for any sign of the women. Statuary, artwork and tapestry that had once graced the main altar area were now laying about in bits and tatters on the debris covered floor. Most of the damage appeared to have happened seasons ago, for dirt and leaves covered much of the damage. She moved through different rooms looking for any kind of evidence that the two had been there.

The moment Aleka moved into a small room off of the private altar area she knew it was where the portal was. The colors in the room were different than the others and a familiar pulse that was growing faint as the influence of the chant to open it was fading. But there was a definite attraction from the area that she knew if she gave in to that she would be sucked up within it. She remembered she needed to stay away from it while in her present form. Carefully staying outside of its influence she looked closely on the ground for any trace of a struggle. There were a lot of recent footprints with evidence of a struggle but no sign of blood. She found what she was looking for, the feather. It was broken and under debris, as if it had been purposely tucked there.

Aleka moved back to the outside of the temple looking for the dark cloaks. They were not difficult to find for there was a gray to black cloud hovering above the ten horsemen and twenty men walking behind, and she knew it wasn’t from the dust of the road. She could not see any prisoners. Her experienced eye picked out signs that indicated many of the members were new recruits unaccustomed to walking in formations or sitting for long periods on a horse. She watched in what direction they were headed and then returned to the area around the temple looking for any more signs that the women had been there. What she was looking for was nearly covered with the prints from the departing horses and boot prints. Cart tracks.

She moved higher to see if she could see anything of the cart. Between tree branches she could see a small group of village men that were resuming their journey after a stop away from the temple. She was quickly above them studying their numbers and what they were hauling in a small caged cart. Two unconscious woman, and by their dress, Lily and Agnes. Both were bound with bags over their heads. The group was loud and boisterous making sure the two prisoners knew what they were planning for them. Though, by the looks of the forms, they were unconscious, for their bodies were bouncing too much as the cart moved over ground that a cart would normally not be pulled over. It was making its way back onto the road. Are they trying to evade the dark cloaks?

The men sounded as if they were drunk which was not the best way to travel on the open road even in daylight. Aleka floated close to the cart and whispered encouragement to the two women, not knowing if either could hear her.

Movement along the edge of the woods had her moving off to investigate closer. There were dark figures shadowing the men. Are they together? It would be a good reason why the villagers have no fear of traveling on the road in winter -- drunk!

From the conversations from the boisterous group, she knew where they were headed. Satisfied she could do no more, she thought herself to an old cavern that was once used by Gaia’s followers that was nearest to the cart's destination. It was about a candle mark outside of what use to be a village called Naticus but the men that had Lily and Agnes were calling it Danai. Aleka couldn’t help wondering if the men were crazy as they had mentioned they were going to hold as ransom to the goddess Athena the two women, thinking that since they appeared in her temple they were her priestesses.

As her thoughts formed the memory of the cavern she quickly found herself in a space that was without light. For a moment she was frightened she had done something wrong. In the shadowy world she started to perceive with another sight outlines of a wall then the inside of an abandoned cavern that had once been a busy portal. She spotted what appeared to be a large dark ink spot on one of the walls and moved toward it. An exit. She thought of the outside and was hovering outside of the cavern’s entrance. The outside also looked deserted.

Aleka thought of the cavern and the carved wooden chair and was back where the others were waiting. Everyone seemed to suddenly become busy with preparations as she looked about with awakened eyes.

Chapter 2

Sitting in a relaxed position in the chair Aleka idly watched the others gather in the order they would be walking through the portal. Camila had brought up the nervous bay horse, Itali that Aleka usually rode and he was waiting near her elbow playing with his bit and shifting from one foot to the other.

Aleka was also aware of Argo's calm presence next to Gabrielle who was standing next to Erica. Argo extended her head and snorted a greeting bearing her teeth in a playful grin, as if she knew Xena was watching her. Xena kept a tight control on her thoughts this time as she moved her gaze back to Gabrielle.

Gabrielle was absentmindedly stroking Argo’s neck as Erica spoke to her. By the expression on her face Aleka knew she was listening intently. She wondered what Erica had to say that would be that interesting. Aleka returned her attention to Gabrielle. She studied her wondering when she would remember herself as Gabrielle and then for how long they could restrain from their usual habits of familiarity. A laugh here, a grin there...She closed her eyes for a moment trying to forget the feeling of emptiness at not being able to connect with the Bard, and focused on the character of Aleka, letting her memory of Iaia come back to her. Unfortunately, they were the wrong memories Aleka had of Iaia. It did not give her the resolve to stay detached that she was looking for.

Try practical thoughts, Ka! She admonished herself. A tight smile appeared on her face as she realized it was the second time she used the nickname her mentor had called her -- Little Ka. The small black birds that nested nearby the Temple would make such sounds and as a child Aleka would imitate their cries to amuse herself and the birds.

I was talking to them! The thought startled her. Xena shrugged off the childish indignation of Aleka. Aleka’s ability to communicate with plants, other creatures and the elements was distracting to Xena. Xena thought that it would complicate the journey if she became too familiar with all of Aleka’s abilities. The possibility that it may submerge too much of Xena’s instincts which she felt were necessary for the survival of the troupe, was what Xena was not willing to chance.

She returned her mind back to the more practical business at hand, the questions she wanted answers to. Were the men in the room when the women appeared? They had to have, why else would the women have gone down without a fight? Given her desire for all the women to live through this journey, she would have counseled the women not to resist if it meant death to do so. She balled her relaxed hands into fists out of frustration then released them as she went over her plan to get the women back. The thought that if she had only remembered that she could have visited the place first in spirit interrupted her thoughts. Xena knew Aleka was remembering the failure of the first journey and firmly refocused on the present job to be done. There were too many distractions from this merger of personalities, she was thinking impatiently.

By the diminishing sounds of movement around her she knew it was time. The others were ready. She rose from the seat. Walking to where she could feel a trembling in the air, at what Gaia called a vortex, she took the torch and flint Erica handed her absentmindedly.

The bay followed Aleka with his nose close to her elbow. Standing with her eyes closed she began softly chanting the word that would open the portal for their travel, feeling the tone vibrate against an unseen door. The others behind picked up the sound and chanted with her. It was like a low hum. As the women could feel the air around them change their volume grew. The sound magnified in the underground cavern sending off small sparks of energy around their forms. The bay nervously stamped his feet and tossed his head as tiny lights swirled in front of him.

A breeze that brought a scent from somewhere else passed across her face. Gripping the unlit torch she stepped through quickly tugging the bay’s reins gently for him to follow.

The place she entered was dark and dank. It hadn’t been used for a long time as her first visit indicated. She quickly stepped aside and lit the torch. Grace waited allowing Aleka enough time to light the torch before timing her own arrival. She lit her torch from Aleka's. They looked around quickly. It was once a storage area. Decaying remains of containers were stacked on wooden shelves that were still standing, though not too securely. The area was large enough to contain their group. What she hadn't seen clearly on her first visit she was able to pick out in the torchlight. There had once been a large pool of water in one half of the underground sanctuary, but it looked like it had been dry for seasons.

"Send the feather back." Aleka directed Grace. Aleka handed her reins to Grace after spotting the exit and quickly ran up the dark tunnel with her torch extended. She had forgotten to check the condition of the tunnel on her first visit.

The tunnel was wide enough for the cart, she noted as she waved the torch slowly side to side for a better view of the condition of the tunnel’s walls and ceiling. They would have to walk their horses for it wasn't high enough for riders on horses, but enough for the cart.

She reached the opening to the cavern and looked out. She felt no danger on the outside. Birds were chirping and after sniffing the air she caught the smell of some creatures that wouldn’t be around if any human hunters were. Aleka tentatively reached out and felt the energy from the surrounding trees. No one had been around since the last new moon. She turned her head to see what gray shape moved just outside of her vision. In moments the familiar gray muzzle poked through the low ferns. Aleka grinned and retreated back into the tunnel.

She planted the torch in a wall mount taking in the condition of the others that had arrived. Two other torches had been lit and spaced with enough distance to give adequate light so the others wouldn’t stumble on any abandoned debris as they quickly made room for each other's arrival. Everyone had arrived by the time Aleka returned. The group felt the need to hurry.

Aleka watched Gabrielle and Erica move around the others checking up on them. Erica nodded toward Aleka when the check was completed. Normally Erica would be paired with a priestess but in this case Camila, whom she was paired with that day was riding the cart so Erica took it upon herself to insure her Queen was well looked after. If Red was conscious that she was being protected she gave no indication and Aleka knew if it were Gabrielle, she would have said something.

"Let’s get moving." Aleka said in a low voice, feeling tired. She nodded to Grace, who was her partner for the day.

The tunnel opened out into a cleared area that was in turn ringed by a thin line of trees. The sun was nearly resting on the tall treetops of the surrounding sacred grove, giving them about two candle marks of daylight left. On the outside were small figurines with the remains of faded flowers and dried up fruit showing that someone was still visiting the small altars on the outside. The gray wolf had her nose buried in one of the dried bouquets.

Now what can possibly be that interesting with an old bunch of flowers, she asked her spirit guide? The wolf turned her yellow eyes toward Aleka.

I want to know who left them.

Oh, one of those – nose things, Aleka nodded trying to hide her smile.

From practice of a time long ago, Aleka placed her hands on the side of the cavern's entrance and whispered a prayer of protection and thanksgiving.

When everyone was ready Aleka gracefully and effortlessly leaped aboard the bay. She prodded him forward into the trees just behind the easy lope of the gray wolf.

Chapter 3

Erica and Eleanor sat on either side of Red on the flat rock.

"Red." Erica nodded as she tried not to let the smile on her face become too broad from the memory of how she got the name red and how now, it was very appropriate. Perhaps their Named was also a seer. Her heart quickened as the green eyes looked deeply into hers.

Red regarded her for a moment, studying the increased heart beat at Erica’s throat, the smile she was trying to hide and then the discomfort she seemed to be experiencing. For a brief moment she saw a blur of colors around her head until she refocused her eyes on the face.

"Erica, Eleanor." She returned smiling.

"We need to explain to you some of what you may be going through." Eleanor started. Erica looked relieved that Eleanor had volunteered to do the talking.

"You had asked me some questions earlier that I couldn’t answer. Before Agnes and Lily left, I had spoken with Agnes. Agnes was going to talk to you about this...but - well, I think you need to know now rather than later."

Erica nodded. She’s got that right, Red! Erica thought relieved. She had seen how Gabrielle was looking at Aleka and sooner or later she was going to say something that may be the wrong thing.

Eleanor explained and filled in some of the gaps Gabrielle’s dreams left also giving her small feelings of trepidation that she was responsible for this whole mess the group was in now. At the thought of being responsible for the deaths of a group of innocent people her eyes wandered over to the still figure seated on the chair. Something was tugging at Red’s memory yet she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Did she know Aleka in this life too?

She returned her eyes to Eleanor as she had placed her hand on Red’s arm to hold her attention. Red’s fear of being condemned by the others was lessened as Eleanor explained in depth their quest and Erica, feeling more confident, interjected a few words.

"And it wasn’t your fault." Eleanor reassured her at the end of the recounting watching Red’s face closely. We all feel that way. It wasn’t your command that ended our quest." Eleanor patted her hand when the frown on the Amazon Queen's face didn’t go away.

Red’s green eyes that darkened in the shadows, looked into Eleanor’s for a long moment. "How do you know that? She objected slowly. "I was there too! If I hadn’t..."

"Stop, Red!" Erica told her gruffly shaking her arm. "Like Eleanor said, we are not here to point fingers."

There was silence for a while as Red pulled herself together, and not without a few tears running down her face.

"It will take a while for you to get use to seeing two life times overlap." Eleanor continued.

"Two life times? I can only remember one!" She took a deep breath. "And that one isn’t too comforting!" Tears threatened to fall again as she fiercely held them back.

"Maybe for you that is what is best." Eleanor returned gently.

"Great." She muttered. "I have a horse I feel better walking beside than riding and I’m having dreams of a face I can’t put a name to, and I feel so lonely..." She stopped and plucked at her sleeve. "And I don’t even know if its from this life or Iaias!" Red turned to Eleanor. "And it’s driving me crazy!" Her voice became low and worried.

Eleanor was able to keep a smile off her face while Erica whom Red had her back to did not. "What does she look like. Maybe we know her."

There was silence for a few moments.

"How do you know it’s a she?" Red asked quietly.

Eleanor’s face slowly turned red.

"It’s a guess, Red." Erica tried to save her.

"You know who I am in this life?"

"Yes." Eleanor told her truthfully. "And the it of a tall and beautiful dark haired woman dressed in armor?" She decided to face the problem head on.

Red blinked a few times. "Yessss. Yes, she appears to be a warrior."

"Don’t talk about her, Red. Don’t even whisper her name in your dreams. Please. When we are through with this journey, she will be waiting for you." Erica spoke with firmness.

Red turned to face Erica. "What if at the end of this journey I still don’t remember who I am? What if I don’t want to know who she is? Red’s voice faltered. Is that what she really felt? Fear of not feeling the same for this woman that kept appearing in her dreams or in her mind’s eye when she was awake? Red shook her head and held an apologetic hand up. "Sorry, I think that was from...somewhere else." Her eyes turned back to the still form on the carved chair as if from their own volition.

Eleanor seemed to sense Red’s struggle with Iaia’s guilt. ", Iaia!" She whispered fiercely. "!" She paused studying the face that was a study in confusion and...guilt. "We have."

"If anyone were to be blamed it would be the Named. She..." Erica stopped when Eleanor glared at her.

"It was the person who gave the order for our deaths." Eleanor pointed out firmly.

The sudden movement from the dark figure in the chair brought the conversation to a halt as the others quickly rose to their feet. Aleka looked around her as she sat up straighter in the chair noticing the women start to gather their belongings.

Erica took a firm hold of Gabrielle’s elbow. "Come on, Red. I can tell you’re a hard customer to sell the idea of non-guilt to. Stay with me and we’ll see if I can convince you." She teased.

With the golden horse beside her, Red took her place beside Erica. Looking in the warm brown eyes of Argo she realized she was her only touch with her present life that and that she had no clear memories of. What consolation is that? She turned off her thoughts and focused on the sound of the chant, feeling the vibration it created in her chest as she took it up. Argo shifted from one hoof to another as if she felt it too. It’s strange that my senses are still heightened. Surely the drugs in my system would have worked themselves out by now. She took a deep breath as she felt Argo's excitement and everyone else's. Talk about no privacy, she thought feeling guilty that she was privy to not just hearing the small talk between the women but also the awareness of the covert glances one had for another and the implications it all carried.

The moment Grace disappeared Red moved forward and after counting to ten, she also moved through the shimmering outline of something that looked like a thin thread that led to nothing. She moved through not needing to pull on the reins to Argo's bit as the golden horse willingly walked with her through what Red thought she could not see.

The hairs on Red’s arms stood up from the cold but it was over so quickly as she found herself walking into an old storage area surrounded by stone walls. She moved quickly forward to leave room for Erica who was close behind her and followed by the others. The last two would make sure any trace of their prints would be removed.

Red's natural concern for others had her along with Erica checking that the others were feeling fine. Red took a quick look toward Aleka. Her breath caught as she felt how tired their leader was. Instinctively she started to go to her side.

"Red." Erica's placed a hand on her shoulder, which was emphasized with her moving her body to block her view of Aleka. Red looked up into the blond haired woman's concerned face feeling the anxiety vibrate from her form.

"She'll be okay, Red, or would you rather Iaia?"

"I guess it doesn’t really matter right now." She sighed. For some reason Erica was distracting her from her concern with Aleka. Why?

"Let us know when you remember your other name, okay?" She added lamely.

She nodded and took comfort in giving Argo a few pats on the neck as she collected herself. "You don’t happen to know who the dark haired warrior is, do you?" She whispered in one of the twitching ears. Argo merely pricked her ears forward.

Red and Erica held back with the cart, waiting for the others to move out. They were given the job of covering the group’s tracks this time. It gave Red more time to mull over her place in the group.

Red was glad she had talked to Eleanor for she had helped her understand the strange dreams she had been having for the past two weeks. If she couldn’t remember who she was or her name, she did remember that she had been dreaming about Iaia for the last few weeks. She was already regretting not talking about it to...Hades! The name was right there! Right on the tip of my tongue! The image of the tall dark haired warrior came back to her but not the name. The glittering blue eyes that could be so cold it made her blood cold yet she remembered the warmth of them too, that sent shivers up and down her spine. Why do I keep thinking of her? Erica had said she would be waiting at the end of this journey. How long is this journey supposed to be? Her curiosity was piqued at the identity of the woman. The feelings of warmth and—of feeling protected when she thought of her made her yearn for her presence.

As Red and Erica followed behind the cart her thoughts returned to what she remembered about Iaia. She had made a promise to Gaia. That was why she was here. A smile appeared on her face. Iaia thought she had not been granted entrance to the sacred site, yet it was the Phythia disguised as the old blind woman that talked to her. She felt smug at knowing this.

So my quest is to fulfill Iaia’s pledge to Gaia on this journey. Just what am I suppose to do? All right, so Iaia was not responsible for the deaths her jealous husband had ordered yet...the knowledge that it was from what she thought was a harmless flirtation didn’t alleviate her guilt. She was aware that Iaia had refused to speak to her husband on their return trip out of shame. The murders of Gaia’s followers caused Iaia to lose her last interest in living.

Before her marriage she had gained a reputation for her portraits which had unusual colorings around the subjects head. Her paintings had supported her ailing father and her after her mother had died. Her mother was also an artist and had taught Iaia her trade. Her father was a potter whose ill health had prevented him from spending much time at his trade. When her father realized he hadn’t much time left to live he had arranged her marriage to a merchant that had been asking her father for her hand. He had shown interest in Iaia’s work and had enough money to take care of her. Her father felt in such a short time he couldn’t have done better. He knew Cadius would settle her in a house of her own, as he did with his other wives, and see her when he was in town. He felt that Iaia could suffer him for those visits as long as she was able to continue her artwork. However, the best-laid plans don’t always work out that way. Cadius wanted to set her up in her own house but to paint what he could sell. He felt that he knew better what would sell and therefore gave Iaia directions on what he wanted painted. Suddenly faced with painting on demand and on subjects that held little interest for her she lost her love of painting. As a trade off for painting what he wanted, she cajoled him into taking her along with him on his caravan journeys.

For a moment Gabrielle wondered if Iaia had become despondent over the death of the slim young leader, Aleka, for she remembered Iaia had many times sketched in the dirt outlines of Aleka on her return home. She had been careful to destroy evidence of them when her husband or anyone approached. What did she feel for the young leader? Gabrielle couldn’t decide. Iaia was a very focused person. First on her paintings, then on searching for a cure for her aliment, that is, until her visit with the old blind woman.

She leaned over Argo’s neck ducking a low hanging branch as Argo followed the others through the trees and onto the road. Once on the road they picked up the pace into a fast trot. Gabrielle hated the trot, but it was the fastest Aleka wanted to go for the cart drawn horse. Looking at the cart as it bumped over the deeper ruts she knew where she was, was by far the better ride, but she would have preferred to walk. She could sense Argo's discomfort of her bouncing around on her back when she missed a beat. How could Argo belong to her if she hated to ride so much?

Chapter 4

They reached the village a little before dusk. They all could see a tall plume of dark smoke curling up in the late afternoon sky. The smell of burning incense engulfed them in a cloud as they drew closer.

"I hope that's not a welcoming committee. Grace mentioned. "I’m too tired to put on a play or recite a poem." She weakly joked.

"Whadaya think it was?" Erica asked to no one in particular. Red who was next to her shook her head.

"It was the previous village protector." Eleanor explained. She recognized the smell of the wood for it was from the terebinths of Mamre, the sacred groves. The trees had a distinct aroma of their own when burned. The followers of Gaia and Ianna had used only those trees for cutting their images.

In anticipation of their leaders next order, Erica kneed her horse forward followed closely by Argo and her rider.

"Let’s see if we can find a place for the night." Aleka nodded to Erica. "Go take a look at the other side of the village and see what’s going on." Erica nodded and prodded her horse away from the group with Red following. Aleka chuckled at the sight of Red riding off on Argo. By the way she was sitting on her, Aleka could image how sore she probably was and Argo was certainly not enjoying it by the way she was tossing her head and snorting. Oh, yah. They are bonding real well, she thought wryly.

Aleka turned her attention back to the village. Brona had dismounted in the nearby field and was running the dirt through her hands. Aleka moved her own horse over to see what she was frowning at.

"What’s up?" Aleka asked. The gray wolf sauntered over to where Brona was squatting and used her paw to dig a shallow hole.

Nothing can grow here, it’s been salted, the gray wolf informed her.

Brona's light gray eyes looked up at her puzzled. "I was just wondering what they grew here. The texture of the dirt doesn’t feel good."

Aleka looked back toward the village. Salted? Why would someone salt a field? They wouldn’t be able to plant anything for generations. No warlord would do that, but an invading army would. Xena remembered the City of Troy’s punishment from her enemies was the fields around her torn down and scattered walls, were salted. It was an unforgivable desecration of land and the one who gave the order had paid the punishment from Demeter's own hand. Aleka shook her head to forget.

Returning her attention to the present she shut out the familiar movement of the horses and the small talk that she could hear from the others and listened to the other noises around the outskirts of the village. The only sounds were from them. There weren't any winter birds, wild animals in the brush or children playing.

She motioned to the others and they moved into the small village. The street was silent as they proceeded toward the village center. Whatever the heap of ashes had been it was massive. It was in the center of the village, therefore had at one time been an important part of village life. Aleka didn't feel any evil that dark powers usually brought when a village was possessed. She moved past the smoking remains hearing the crack of hot embers that occasionally would break out into flames.

It appeared to have been the village’s protector, as Eleanor had said. As Xena, she knew it had been Demeter. When she had passed many years ago with a small detachment of her army the village had been too small to raid and it was too soon after a previous successful battle to stop by. But she did send scouts out to investigate for the sake of caution. She left nothing to chance in those days.

The women came to a halt in the village square. There were men in various stages of unconsciousness or drunken states scattered around the hot embers, not even rousing as strangers entered their village. Aleka’s thoughts returned to the men that she remembered had captured Lily and Agnes. They were quite drunk too. With Aleka's eyes she could see a dark cloud over the village that wasn't from the smoke.

This village certainly has a problem. Meleager should go on a quest here! She thought grimly. Hmmm, was Aleka’s shared comment.

Aleka spotted a semiconscious man watching them through bleary eyes. He was outside an unmarked building wrapped around a post that had at one time a sign hanging from it. Aleka moved her horse closer watching the eyes struggle to follow her. His disheveled appearance gave the impression he wasn’t into personal grooming.

"You know where there's an inn?" Aleka asked studying him. The color around him was a dirty gray.

He tried to focus on the dark haired stranger before him. "Ya hereforthe cellllbration?" He slurred. Squinting at the horse, he launched himself away from the post and fell face first into the neck of Aleka’s bay. Itali stepped back a pace but Aleka stopped him for it would have dropped the drunk onto the dirt, being he had a precarious hold on his balance. He made a grab for Aleka’s boot to steady himself. Her leg twitched and her face wore a grim look.

"Celebration for what?" She asked quietly trying to control her reflexes.

"T’a protect’r." He tried to pull himself away from the horse in a dignified pose. "Wegodanew god ta protects us." He failed to stand upright and started to lean too far to his left when Aleka’s booted foot extended to halt his tilt.

"What god is that?" Her voice lowered. The she wolf was sitting on the stairs of the building the sorry looking man had been clinging to. At the question she cocked her head as if to listen.

The red eyes blinked and tried to put the several faces in front of him into one. His face took on a frightened look for a moment. "Mekor." He whispered this then tried to look furtively around on unsteady legs.

Aleka looked up and around again testing the atmosphere, still not feeling the malevolence that usually permeates the area when evil was around. The gray wolf moved from the porch and nosed around the semi conscious forms scattered about the embers.

"T’ain’t here now." He mumbled, noticing her glance around. "Night. There’s gonnabe sacrifice. When ta moonsup." The man shuddered and lifted an unsteady hand to his dirty face.

"What sacrifice is that?" Aleka asked drawing her hand in front of the man’s face and toward her. His squinting eyes followed her hand.

"Some priestesssss." He mumbled almost inaudibly.

Aleka could feel the hairs in the back of her neck rise. More than one person would be needed to bring evil into the upper world. Dahak needed more than two village’s worth of human sacrifice to bring his energy high enough to enter the upper world’s portal. Had they already made previous sacrifices? And who was this Mekor? Is that the same as the Dark One that Alala was going to destroy the talisman of? She knew it wasn’t Dahak. Aleka gave a mental sigh. Too many gods from the darkness. Ares is bad enough on his peak days.

"Is there a place for travelers to stay the night?" She asked again.

The man once more struggled to stand on his own. "Ahhhummp. Otherside fire." He leaned into the horse putting an unsteady hand on Aleka’s leg. "Hey, ya gotanicebitoflesh...'ere." He said after a bold squeeze.

Aleka leaned down swiftly and grabbed the unshaven face firmly in her hand pulling his chin up so that his eyes looked in hers. She looked into the bloodshot faded green eyes that could barely stay open. The man swayed as he squinted into icy blue eyes that made him fear more than his soon to be village protector. He quickly removed his offending hand from the leg he found surprisingly strong.

"How safe is it?" She purred.

The man gulped and tried to pull away. "Bettern’ th old woman’s." He whispered hoarsely." Suddenly pulling away, he asked. "Whoereyaanyway?" He was unable to break the grip that held his face in an uncomfortable position.

"Someone you don't know and will forget about." Her voice commanded. When she released him he found himself off balance and heading for the hard packed ground, face first. Aleka studied his unmoving form then looked around the village that should have people moving around at that time of day. It also disturbed her that the unconscious man who acted drunk did not smell of ale or any other drink.

Bad breath, yes, but not from ale or wine. Something is not right, even if there isn't any overt feeling of evil. He has a dark cloud around him. Aleka offered. Sounds like drugs. Aleka squinted at a spot above the man’s prone figure. It did look like a dark cloud.

"Let’s try the old woman’s place." Aleka told Grace in a low voice. Grace gave the Amazon sign she had been taught and it was passed down soundlessly. They were on alert. Grace interpreted the look on Aleka’s face correctly. Something was amiss.

The inn was called the Eye of the Storm and was easy to find because Argo and Erica’s horse were waiting outside. Trust Gabrielle to find an inn, Aleka thought chuckling to herself. It looked like it could use some work on the outside. As they were dismounting the door opened and an old woman stood in the doorframe.

The gray she wolf stood beside Aleka. She can see me.

"Ya got rooms for the night?" Aleka asked as she dismounted. Great. Is that something to worry about?

No. She does not recognize me yet.

"Yep. Plenty this time of the season." The old face regarded her and the rest of the women as they too dismounted. "There’s a barn behind here where ya can stable your animals or leave them in the corral, depending how much ya wanta spend. Y’all with them other two inside?" She asked without skipping a beat.

She wants me to sleep with the horses, the gray wolf snorted in disgust.

Grace nodded and smiled at the old woman.

"Camila, Gari and Brona, go and check it out." Aleka nodded to the three. She didn’t want to find empty stalls in the morning. The women nodded.

Then maybe you should disappear like you’re going to do just that, Aleka suggested. No need to scare the locals. Is she a shaman?

No. But...she can see. Aleka could feel her puzzlement.

Gari took Aleka's reins and led the bay away. Kynthia was riding in the cart and followed them with the extra horses tied behind. "Berik, you and Catherine watch for those men." She spoke to them softly as they stood beside her. "Leave your horses." She told Berik as she had swiftly remounted. She slid back down just as quickly and was gone with Catherine at her heals.

Grace looked at Aleka for a moment and smiled. "They're getting better." Indicating with her head the direction Catherine and Berik took.

Aleka smiled and nodded to the young woman. "Looks like it." She turned to Eleanor. "Notice anything unusual about the locals?"

Eleanor raised her eyebrows and paused exchanging puzzled looks with Grace, before they followed Aleka in.

Aleka followed the old woman in grinning at the look on Eleanor's face.

The inside of the inn was unlike what the exterior gave the illusion to. It was a large comfortable common room with benches that had backs on them. The fireplace opened up into the kitchen so the smell of food cooking filled the room. Aleka could smell bread baking, probably for the next day. There were a few patrons sitting at the front table next to the bar in conversation. Aleka immediately spotted the bright red of Red's head and at the other end of the table Alala’s red hair. Not as red as Red’s, Aleka thought with amusement. Red had raised her eyes catching Aleka's as she entered.

Red was sitting next to Erica listening to one of the old women. Red was good at making people talk without twisting their arm or breaking a body part, Aleka smiled to herself. Alala was silent and merely nodded as Aleka's eyes glanced her way.

In the dim light she could see Alala's recently bruised face. Oh, oh. More trouble, she thought.

A middle-aged woman came towards them whisking out a towel to wipe off flour and bread dough from her hands.

"My names Martha. What can I get ch’ya?" She asked huskily.

"A couple of mugs of ale n’ cider, and whatever you have over your fire, Martha. It smells reeeaal good." Erica responded as she came over and joined Aleka, rubbing her hands. Red rose from Alala’s table stopping to assist the innkeeper they met at the door. She was carrying two pitchers. Aleka was thirsty. Erica nodded to Aleka.

Aleka nodded back that she understood. They had something important to talk about, but it would wait.

Grace had pulled out a purse and was taking care of the expenses with the innkeeper. She nodded to Aleka that they had enough rooms. She held up four fingers. They had four rooms Aleka translated. They wouldn't be staying long so it didn't matter, and the women would be rotating guard shifts until they left. It would work out fine. She was hoping they weren't tiny little rooms.

Gari and Kynthia came in when another server brought two pots of lamb stew setting them on the two tables they filled. The old innkeeper returned with a trencher of stacked plates and loaves of bread piled precariously high. Gari sat in the empty space next to Aleka.

"Camile wanted to make sure the horses were comfortable." She told Aleka when Aleka’s inquiring brow rose. "There’s a horse in there that we recognized, Yori. Ahh, there she is." She nodded toward Alala. She paused with the spoon in mid arc to her mouth. "Ouch! Looks like she has a story to tell."

Erica nodded as she pulled some bread apart and ate hurriedly. "Hmmm"

Gari took a mouthful of stew and chewed it for a while. "Hmm. This is great."

"The barn looks like someone’s gone to some extra steps to protect it from raiders or thieves." She continued when her mouth was emptied.

"Good, but we won’t depend on that." Aleka mentioned as she played with her food. She watched as one of the Amazons collected enough food for two and left to take it to Brona and Camile. Aleka absently nodded in assent as she passed her.

Aleka had rotated an Amazon with a priestess at the beginning of their journey and the others picked up on it quickly. She wanted everyone to be able to work well with each other and learn each other's preferences and shortcomings. They would make a better team with this knowledge. Aside from the daily drills she had everyone go through, she was able to also judge what weakness each women needed to work on. She didn't want anyone to die from something she could have prevented. A grim smile appeared on Aleka’s face as she realized both her personalities had that strong sense of responsibility and Xena wasn’t going to attribute it to Aleka’s experience alone.

Grace, Eleanor and Agnes wanted to spend time under Aleka’s tutelage due to her healing skills.

Aleka turned to Eleanor who was also playing with her food. She looked up and smiled sheepishly. "I should have caught it right away." Grace looked at her still not clear on what the two were now talking about.

Gari looked at Eleanor, Aleka then Grace who shrugged her shoulders as she chewed on her bread.

"What's that?" Erica asked suddenly attentive.

"What was your impression of the town's men?" Eleanor asked those sitting within hearing distance as she took a bite of mutton. The two tables became quiet as they thought about it.

Aleka eyed the women with a grin. "Come on. One of ya had to feel that something was off."

"They weren't drunk." Eleanor finally told them.

The conversation immediately turned to what type of drugs they could be on. As the others discussed this point Aleka looked back at Alala’s bruised face. They got the idol back, she surmised. They were running into her too much for her to not be part of the original journey. Aleka guessed she was Lia, the storyteller.

Aleka’s thoughts returned to the villagers. If anyone or thing was serious about taking over a village there would be a considerable amount of pressure on the inhabitants to conform to the rules of the new oppressor. Therefore the energy in the village would be heavy with the feel of this energy, yet there was nothing she could call oppressive here. People on drugs had their own energy and that she didn’t feel, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t here. Aleka pursed her lips as she struggled in both her memories for any previous experiences that she could use for a comparison to this village. Would drugging the village be another alternative to taking it over? Were those men going to be able to get themselves together enough to have a sacrifice late tonight?

"So, what’s going on?" She asked Erica after giving her a chance to eat more than a few bites.

"Not good news. The talisman was taken from Alala. She’ll tell us more after she confers with the women who are priestesses from a temple near by. They’re sizing us up on just how much to tell us." She laughed. "Red, here, softened them up a bit, but they don’t trust so easily. Without us telling them that half of us are priestess’s they feel we don’t belong to their small rapidly declining membership." Erica put another mouthful of the stew in her mouth and chewed a bit.

Aleka nodded. Priestesses could be a tight lot if they were on someone’s elimination list.

"Hmm. Another thing." Erica nodded toward Gabrielle. "Alala called Red, Gabrielle but she didn’t recognize it. She doesn’t recognize Alala either."

Aleka looked at Red to see how she reacted to Erica’s announcement. It wouldn’t have done any good for Erica to whisper this bit of information to Aleka for everyone was aware that with Red’s senses still heightened, she would have probably overheard Erica’s comment anyway.

"Does that bother you?" Eleanor asked the red-faced woman.

"Well...I...ahh." Red shrugged her shoulders.

Aleka studied her reactions with curiosity. Why would that embarrass her?

Grace leaned over Gari. "Aleka, you haven't been eating."

Aleka looked down at her plate of food she had been idly pushing around. Aleka smiled at the change in attention. She could feel Red’s relief that the attention was off her.

"What would you like us to call you?" Aleka asked, returning the pressure but with the intention of giving her some control over how the group would identify with her.

Red was still red faced and seemed ill at ease.

"I...well, if you don’t mind, Iaia. Since I’m part of this journey and I’m here to undo..."

"Listen to me!" Eleanor stopped her in mid sentence. "You are not going to take the blame...for any of it...for a decision that was made by someone else." Eleanor told her friend strongly. "I really meant it when I said no one here blames Iaia for what had happened. You were on your own quest, just like all of us. The blame lies with the person that gave the command and those that took lives they had no business taking."

The others nodded in agreement for each had personal memories of their own parts that allowed the assassins into their camp. Due to this guilt none of them yet had discussed it with the other members of the circle of friends.

Aleka remained silent as she watched the women. After the slaughter Aleka’s spirit had surveyed the scene and had been privy to everyone’s guilty feelings about the part that they played in the group’s demise. The anguish of each woman’s spirit had left her surprised. With compassion she hoped they get their wish to have another chance. Aleka’s spirit however, was ready to move-on. Yet here she was, taking the role of the vessel that held their intentions and as an icon, hopefully giving them inspiration to again face the trials and tribulations that would lead them to some sort of release from their self imposed punishment.

Aleka didn’t need to see Red’s face to know about her struggle with her feelings of wanting to believe that she wasn’t responsible. She could see the heaviness of colors that were around her as well as feel them. It was good that Red forgot herself as Gabrielle for Gabrielle would have made it a mission to carry everyone’s burden on this journey. Aleka had a grim smile on her face as she thought of the green sparking eyes that could grow dark when serious.

Aleka kept her gaze on her hands that were wrapped around her mug. She knew what it was like to face guilt and remorse. As Xena she had reached a livable compromise with her self-retribution. Without the compromise she would not have been able to experience happiness and the love of others. Yet Xena still suffered through dark nights filled with dread as she relived brutal attacks that were carried out in her name if not done by her own hand.

After traveling with the Bard for over three years she realized that if Gabrielle hadn’t suggested they travel to foreign lands to see what was out there, she would have eventually become over burdened with always fighting someone else’s battles with hopeful forgiveness for herself. It wouldn’t have happened she realized. It was Aleka’s knowledge of thought energy that she understood Gabrielle’s wisdom in moving to foreign lands that Xena had not hurt others.

Aleka finished her meal without being aware of what she ate as her thoughts occupied her attention. The innkeeper returned with another pitcher of ale and retrieved her plate after getting the sign she was finished.

Alala left the group of women she had been talking with and made her way to them. She was moving stiffly.

"Come meet my friends." She softly offerered.

Aleka rose and followed her to the table motioning for the other five to follow.

"This is what’s left of Athena’s temple in Malis." She motioned to the two older women sitting at the table. "This is the high priestess Loris and her assistant Corita. Acheta is the owner of this inn; you’ve met her at the door. Martha and Domica work and sleep here."

Malis, the Temple where Lily and Agnes had been captured.

Two of the women nodded toward Aleka then the others.

Aleka introduced the women that surrounded her.

"They need help, Aleka. I think the men are trying to sell the village's soul to the dark one of the talisman."

Aleka nodded. "We heard they have a priestess they're going to sacrifice tonight."

Loris waved her hand. "They have no priestess. We know all the ones around this area, and we’re both here."

Corita snorted in disgust. "We all know who the dark power is. It's from Gaia's times. It calls itself Mekor, but it has no name we care to speak of. She had defeated it once before and some idiot warlord found its prison."

"Largo." Aleka cursed under her breath.

"Ahh, you know of him. But he wasn’t the first. He was foolish enough to think he could use it for his own. There have been many after him trying to complete the process. This power isn’t like any we’ve met before." She shook her head mystified. "The village is acting different and we can't figure out just what it is that's happening. The men don’t work in the fields or at their trades and the women don't even come out to do their cleaning anymore. The children don’t stir either."

"Are they alive?" Aleka asked.

"Yea. They look like they’re resting or sleeping."

"Why haven't any of you been affected?" Eleanor asked curious.

"Hmm. I could say that it's because we're priestesses but the truth is as long as you sleep in this inn, you’re fine. Corita and I have wandered around at night and day to see what could be going on and we’ve seen nothing."

"What is it that they've been doing different besides sleeping all the time?" Aleka asked, wanting specifics.

"It’s hard to say if you didn’t know them before. Only the men move around during the daytime, if they move around at all. Then, there are no normal conversations between the men. When there is a group of them together they don’t do anything. It’s like they don’t have the strength. The few people we do see take a long time to even notice us and even longer to answer a question." She sighed. "It’s as if they were elsewhere. They re lucky they had taken their harvest in before this curse had fallen on them, and the sheep are cared for by the herd dogs and us, otherwise this village would be in real bad shape"

"Then this morning we heard a group of men making all sorts of weird noises as they set up a big fire around Demeter's wooden statue. You no doubt passed the fire on your way here." Loris continued.

"Welll, not actually Demeter." Acheta, the innkeeper corrected. "It was originally Gaia but when she lost her influence they eventually renamed her Demeter."

"Wasn’t this village once called Naticus?" Aleka asked curious.

"Oh, it is, or was. When the village leaders wanted to change the fate of the village they renamed it Danai. The lazy fools. If they would work in the fields as hard as they think up these grand schemes, that would change things for the better. There's only a few of us original settlers, and we’re the ones who do most of the work." Acheta continued. "The original settlers were farmers. The new arrivals that have taken over the counsel are basically do-nothings. They appoint each other to positions on the counsel and try to tax the rest of us to pay for their lives of ease."

Red had moved instinctively to Aleka’s side. She felt her hand on her arm in a familiar gesture to let her know that she was there. Aleka had felt her approach but kept herself still. She was wrestling with the desire to smile down at her or to return the touch to acknowledge her presence. She remembered a time when they first started to travel together when she would not have even let the thought cross her mind. The three years together had changed their relationship considerably.

"So how did they get hooked up with the dark one?" Red asked, letting her hand drop when Aleka moved over to give her room.

"The Village Reeve took a ride out to the nearest village, Malis, and somehow got the idea that this particular god or whatever they were worshiping, could turn this village’s fate for the better like he said they were." She snorted in disgust. "Good hard honest work could get them the same thing." The other two village women nodded in agreement. "If Corita and Loris hadn't been here to help us out, we would be in a worse mess."

Aleka looked at the two priestesses and wondered how many of Athena's priestesses in Athens would do that for a tiny village, then her eyes wandered to Alala. What is the payoff, she wondered cynically? She looked at her hands for a moment and knew the cynicism was not from Aleka. But if she had been just a little bit suspicious of people's motives, wouldn't the original group have survived? You don't know that, she corrected herself. It was a long journey and that was only the second day. If Cad’s bodyguards didn't attack them, they would have sooner or later been overcome by bandits or armed soldiers too bored to let innocent travelers, notably women, alone. She frowned to herself. Why didn't Gaia protect them if they were on a mission for her? They could have used the vortexes. Xena didn’t hear any comment from her counter part. Did Aleka know the answer? What is there on this journey that they had to learn before reaching the Mountain? Xena asked more to the point.

"Taking over two towns is not all there is to this." Alala told them frowning. "There’s something more going on, at a deeper level. I’ve also looked around this village and can find nothing beyond the obvious. The town’s people are in a stupor of some sort and it’s not from a drug. I can’t say why, but the idol has some importance to all of this and they have it."

"What do you think they are going to do with it?" Eleanor asked.

"Once an object is a focus of power, even if it were drained, it can be brought back to life. They have taken up residence in caves in the mountain nearby." Loris explained.

"Great." Aleka was thinking about how things were getting more complicated and she had a feeling it would get worse before it got better. That may explain why the dark cloaks were not in the village just yet. They were attempting to build up the energy back into the idol. Xena shuddered when she recalled the fire that burned her insides when she had touched the idol.

Catherine chose that moment to come rushing in. "There’s a small group of men approaching but they don’t have the cart with them!"

"Who's approaching?" Alala asked alarmed.

They made good time, Aleka thought. Where would they have left the cart and its occupants? "You’re sure that’s the group?" Aleka asked.

Catherine nodded. "They’re dressed just like you described them and that one with his belly hanging over the pink and gray belt. Can’t miss him."

"It seems a couple of the locals caught Lily and Agnes in your temple at Milas. From what I overheard, they intend to hold them for ransom to Athena." Aleka explained.

The old innkeeper choked on her laughter. "They are idiots! Can you image any one in their right senses thinking they can do something like that to a goddess?"

Aleka didn’t bother to explain that it had been done, was done and will be done by people who thought they had something of importance to the god they were trying to provoke.

"Did you spot Agnes or Lily?" Red asked.

"No, Red. But, the men look real tired." She looked back at Aleka. "I’m surprised they made it this far."

"Erica," Aleka had to place both palms on the table to not jump up and back track the group herself to look for the cart tracks. Erica was a very good tracker. "Find out where they took the cart. Take two others with you." She didn't want Erica's back unprotected while she studied the ground. "Catherine, did you and Berick see where the men went?"

"They headed toward an inn at the other side of the village. Berick is keeping an eye on the inn from outside."

"That’s they’re meetin’ place." Martha informed them. "I’ve taken a peek in there en’ they’re just nodden off at the tables. Its not like they’re talkin or getting somethin’ done."

"Where would they take the women?" Aleka asked.

"The only place they can secure anyone is in the temple cellar." Acheta told them with certainty.

"I didn’t see a temple in town." Aleka mentioned.

"It’s not in town. Just to the east of here. It's not like the other temples that can have an oracle." Corita nodded to Aleka as if she knew. She meant it wasn’t built on a place of power.

"It was built for Gaia when times were better but people didn't want to walk too far to give her tribute during the winter months. The village gets snowed under for about a full moon cycle. This temple was rededicated to Demeter and her daughter when the town was renamed." Acheta explained.

"But, we got the back door key from the last priestess as she didn't feel it was safe leaving it in the village. Corita smiled mischievously.

"It's too easy." Aleka shook her head. She didn't feel comfortable with men lying about who seemed drugged, womenfolk whose disappearance was suspicious and dark cloaks that were content to wait. It didn’t matter that the ones she saw looked like raw recruits. She needed to be sure what they were dealing with.

"The dark one won’t let anyone that said they were interested in its power to just collect people without some intervention or guidance from it's agents, the dark cloaks." Alala murmured as she shook her head. "I’ve been following some of its agents for two moons and this doesn’t seem right."

"Maybe they're waiting for someone." Red suggested.

"Take your search out that way first and see if you can find anything." Aleka directed. The Amazon nodded and quickly left.

"Was the deep well ever anything other than a deep fire well?" Eleanor suddenly asked.

"Hmm. Ya. My grandmother had told us children tales of the times before Gaia. The people here worshiped a fire god that demanded human sacrifices to be tossed into the well. Every first born when she or he reached four seasons was wrapped in black cloth and dumped down the well." Acheta explained.

Red shuddered. For some reason she thought of the fire that the one-eyed man from her dreams was from.

"The practice came to a stop after a group of priestesses passing through to the holy site in the mountain talked about Gaia and her distaste for sacrifice of the living. You can bet that caught on rather quickly. One of the priestesses remained and after ten seasons the fire god was forgotten."

"That had to be a long time ago!" Eleanor said softly.

Acheta nodded. "It's a story that is passed on from mother to daughter. During Gaia's time her temple was held sacred, and children and women were honored and cherished. A time long gone. That's why many of us welcomed Demeter and her daughter, Persephone, as new protectors." "

"I don't understand what happened." Eleanor told her sadly.

"Outsiders, is what happened!" Acheta snorted. The three villagers nodded to each other.

"Yaaa. My dam husband and his family and others came and settled bringin their lazy ways with em. Didn't want to put out anythin extra for anybody. It seems once they settled here, they started to attract the same type of fools." Martha reported darkly.

"Must have put out an announcement or something." Acheta grumbled. "Next thing we know, women aren't allowed to walk around in public, make any decisions nor own anything whether they have a husband, son or any man to take care of them or no." She spat out the last.

"How did you get the inn?" Red asked Acheta, absorbed with the story.

"They didn't change all the laws soon enough! I just can't pass this place on to another woman." She snorted. "It'll be my death pyre and a dam glorious one at that!"

"Well, we have to figure out what we’re going to do about getting Lila and Agnes back and" Aleka looked around at her group, "what we're going to do about this dark one." Aleka brought the subject back to the immediate.

"Whatda suggest?" Alala asked.

"Visit the temple. You said there is a back way?"

Corita smiled. She loved the surprises the goddess cooked up when things seemed to really look their darkest. Though she was Athena’s priestess she knew her way around Demeter’s temple. All temples had the same sacred layout based on Zeus's equations.

Aleka turned to the others. "We’ll keep to the usual watch shifts. Let the others know, Erica. As usual, we'll be covering the stables as well. We're short of people so," She took a deep breath. "Iaia," she nodded toward Red, "can take third shift with Erica." Aleka looked at Erica and Erica nodded hiding her smile. She effectively killed two birds with one stone. Aleka always took the third shift so she would be able to keep an eye on Red while she was patrolling. Some things didn’t change.

Chapter 5

Alala went out with the first group of guards to assist with whatever information she had already learned on the village’s defenses and weaknesses. Loris, Corita and Eleanor joined Aleka as they made their way in the darkness to the backside of the temple where there was another entrance. Every temple was built with the same sacred dimensions squared. Some were smaller but the basic layouts were the same. The escape tunnels however, were the only thing they differed in. The sacred numbers were as important for the energy of the building as the placement so its front entrance faced the east and the underground entrance was south.

The key moved easily after Loris coated it with something. As they moved cautiously down the darkened stairwell Corita’s hand found the first torch. She lit it and they moved on at a faster pace. The tunnel twisted around and went further down into the core of the temple where, if they had a Pythia, she would have had her seat. However, this temple never had one, as it was not built on a power site, but the rules of building an acceptable temple were quite clear, power or no.

"It’s around this corner." Loris hissed softly. They were all trying to make as little noise as possible as the passageway magnified any sound. Aleka halted the group and peered around the corner. A gray shadow was sitting in front of a door.

"It’s about time, the she wolf remarked to Aleka.

Above the wolf was a torch that was at its end, sputtering as it gave out pathetic attempts of illumination. Aleka moved over to the door that was securely bolted on the outside and listened for any sounds. She could hear very slow breathing of two people in deep sleep or drugged stupor. She motioned for the others and took a step up the hall to listen to what she could hear on the other side of the next corner. It led up to a steep set of stairs. She was wondering how they could put a storage room near such steep stairs when she noted another room adjoining the storage room.

Corita had joined her. "It’s the seers room. That door hasn’t been opened since it was built."

Aleka could see the dust and rust on the door and floor around it. Recent footprints went by it.

Both went back into the room that Loris had opened. Eleanor and Loris had already moved from Lily to Agnes. Corita knelt next to Lily as her eyelids fluttered opened.

"Hey." Lily’s voice cracked as she attempted to get her eyes to focus on Aleka’s face. "Glad you could make it." She whispered in relief.

"How soon can we move them?" Aleka asked concerned resting a hand on Lily’s shoulder. She could feel the women wince under her touch. By the looks of both women they had suffered the usual fate of people taken prisoners. She was hoping their injuries were not serious.

"Give us about a quarter candle mark. The herb has to take effect. They have nothing more serious then bruises. They’re lucky." Eleanor whispered.

"Then I’ll just take a quick look around. Care to be a tour guide?" Aleka whispered to Corita.

She smiled and gestured toward the door.

They crept up the stairs listening, careful to not make any sounds that would cause an echo, while the gray wolf ran up the stairs as if having nothing to worry about. They heard men’s voices and one woman’s coming from one of the rooms above ground. Corita led her to a secret room that buttressed up against the wall the voices were coming from.

"It ain’t goin’ ta go over well with the village if ya kill off all the people!" One of the men angrily pointed out.

"I didn’t say they had to be from your village. You asked for protection from Mekor. I’m telling you what you have to do. There aren’t any compromises." The young woman’s voice reported briskly.

"We don’t have any villages close by except Navito and they already follow your ways. Hades! I didn’t hear them raiding any nearby villages for sacrifice." The man continued to argue.

"They don’t advertise it." The terse voice returned.

Aleka thought it odd for a follower of any dark power to give a choice, especially when they’ve already spent a moon’s full cycle of their time with them. She wanted to see who this young woman was.

"It’s the virgin thing that’s ..."

"We didn’t say virgins. You think there really are many of those!" The young woman’s voice was sarcastic. "You just need bodies. Live ones."

"Ya have virgins on the mind, ya know?" A male voice pointed out sardonically.

"And one or two people aren’t gonna do the trick. How many times we gotta tell ya that? Look, ya got those two women from the temple. You said the old woman that owns the inn ya wanta get rid of and there are a few more women staying there in her inn. Round em up!" The young voice told them matter of factly. "Get them out of that inn!" She emphasized.

"If we keep gathering women from this village we aren’t going to have nothing but us men. That ain’t something I’m looking forward to."

"You don’t sacrifice all your women. You get the people that you don’t need. That includes men. Didn’t you say there’s a few that disagreed with you on this?"

‘Those women are paying customers. It may not be in my inn but they still are paying customers. If word gets out that visitors disappear here, we won’t need protection from your god. We’ll be just as dead to business as we are now."

One of the dark cloaks got up from his stool. "You came to us. If you don’t want our protection, that’s up to you." Suddenly the man turned on the villager grabbing him by the collar and pulling him up.

"But then, you may start finding people from your village or anyone visiting you gone." He warned in a lowered voice.

"Ya don’t scare me!" The sound of metal scraping and foot shuffling could be heard. "I know how ya take them in their sleep. Ya can’t get ta me! Now, get out!"

"You just made a very bad mistake." The deep male voice remarked casually.

"Hades codpiece!" Aleka thought. If those young recruits are set loose on the village there won’t be a standing building left. What does he know to gamble against those odds?

Corita was shaking her head next to Aleka. Corita and Aleka listened as the temple emptied of its insolent visitors. Once the unwelcome guests left the two crept back down the stairs to the store room. Lily and Agnes looked better in the torchlight but Aleka could tell it was the drugs in their system that gave the appearance. They would probably both be hurting when the drugs wore off.

"We gota get going. It seems the deals off with the dark cloaks." Aleka announced softly. "Don’t know when the villagers will be back for their hostages but I think their value has changed."

Corita looked at Loris. "The old fool canceled the partnership with the dark cloaks."

Loris grimaced. "Was it the inn keeper, the one with the scar right here?"

Aleka and Corita nodded.

"Barbous. He and Paxter, that’s Martha’s ex husband, try to run this village like it’s their mini-kingdom." Corita explained to Aleka, "One day they have this grand scheme and the next day its something else. For the one moon cycle we’ve been here this is the scariest scheme they’ve come up with. The dumbest was to kidnap one of Athena’s priestesses and hold her for ransom. How in Athena’s name they got the villagers to agree on this dark ones presence is a mystery."

"Well, these people aren’t the type to take a change of mind." Lily mumbled between bruised lips. "We met two of them. An older man and a young woman with white hair." Weakly Lily touched her lips, wincing at the feel of the swollen skin, imagining the pain she would be feeling when the drugs wore off. This is not the fun part of this journey, Lily thought to herself ruefully.

"They have plans." Agnes sighed as she looked at Aleka. "They showed us the statue, their talisman." Agnes paused as she took a slow deep breath. She could feel her bruised ribs move at the expansion of her lungs. "I don’t know what happened to Alala. They didn’t know that we had attacked their friends but the idol had enough power radiating from it for me to know it can be brought back to importance as their talisman. They also have plans for Gabrielle." Agnes again paused for a breath as she tried to concentrate on what she had to say and walking. The drugs were making it difficult. "They referred to her by name. They’ve been keeping track of her in her dreams. That's how they have this village. They feed off the psyche when they sleep."

"Alala is back with us. Bruised but doing fine." Eleanor informed the two.

Aleka cursed Morpheus under her breath remembering a previous run in with him concerning Gabrielle. Is he the dark one? No, he can’t be. This dark one was during Gaia’s time. Morpheus is one of her offspring. Oh.

Corita patted Aleka’s arm for attention. "That’s not good. We need to talk more with Acheta." She said in a low voice.

Aleka nodded as felt Lily stumble. She put a firmer arm around her waist knowing it was going to be painful for her but it was better than carrying her. The Amazon’s dignity would not put up with that. "They won’t make any serious moves until it has more power. They have to be waiting for someone who can bring that power to a more focused point."

"That someone is Gabrielle." Agnes whispered hoarsely behind her as she walked on shaky legs with Eleanor’s help.

"What do you mean?" That familiar dread was working its way up Aleka’s spine and resettling in her stomach. She could feel Lily shudder against her.

"From what I gather, this dark one has been using the dream-state to capture souls for their energy." Agnes whispered. "Think as a shaman, Aleka. How many realms of the underworld are there?" She paused as she let the conversation she had overheard replay. "Gabrielle would be like a beacon of light in the dark realms."

"It would be like moths to a flame. That’s how the white haired girl described her." Lily mumbled.

Aleka didn't bother to tell her of Morpheus’ attempt at taking Gabrielle for a bride, which when all was said and done, didn’t seem to have left bad feelings between the three of them, or so she had thought. Is this Morpheus’ way of getting back at Gabrielle? It can’t be. Artemis’ and Athena would not allow it, to say nothing of Aphrodite, who would not admit it, but took a liking to Gabrielle. But then, did this journey that went back before her allegiance to Artemis nullify Artemis’ responsibility to Gabrielle? You have too many Gods! This can get very complicated! Xena felt a pause in Aleka’s thoughts as if she was pondering something. There are many realms in the unconscious. What do you mean? Sleep, death, initiation, and then there are the realms of the chthon. Chthon. Yes. I remember something about those realms.

The women left the temple out the back way. When they returned to the inn Aleka woke the priestess at Agnes's request. After both Lily and Agnes strongly ordered Aleka to take a nap Aleka allowed the tiredness that she had been keeping at bay to finally settle over her. Rather than go back upstairs, Aleka found a quiet corner to grab a few candlemarks of sleep. She was still a light sleeper and knew she would wake if any danger were near by. Or would she? A nagging fear that Aleka may interfere with Xena’s hypervigilance surfaced as she let her heavy lids have their way.

Alala who had taken a guard position near the stables, caught sight of the returning women and stopped in to hear the news.

Eleanor quickly gave her an update then explained about the poisoned darts. "But, we’ve got something that can counter the freezing up of the limbs." She rummaged around in her herb bag until she found a container that was glazed in dark green. She handed some soft succulent leaves to Alala. "Keep it in your mouth. When you feel like you’ve been hit with one of those darts, bite on the petal and it will release a sap that can keep your wits about you and counter the muscles from becoming like jelly."

Alala shook her head. "I wish I had that when I got hit."

She left again to pass the word to those on duty that they needed to keep a look out for the dark ones and that they were using darts. She sent the two priestesses on guard duty with their Amazon counterpart back to the inn. The Amazons would have to patrol alone this night. She made sure the Amazons understood when to bite on the leaf, giving them two incase they swallowed one before needed. Alala laughed to herself as she thought about the difficulty in keeping something in one’s mouth when moving around in the dark. Unseen dips in the ground or the sudden appearance of a tree in front of one could easily make one bite ones tongue to say nothing of what else was in ones mouth.

Chapter 6

Aleka’s dreams for that short nap were not comforting nor did they make sense. She dreamed of herself looking up a steep mountain whose peak was shrouded in thick white clouds. One side of the mountain was slate gray and had few easy to see handholds for climbing up its sheer side but Xena wanted to go up that way for it was more direct to the top and beckoned to her adventurous and daring nature. However, she had a group of young women who were not experienced with climbing that type of terrain so Xena was resigned to take the switch backs on the greener side. As she guided the weary travelers up the steep incline, she looked up once again to see if she could get a fix on their destination. A break in the white cloud cover revealed a small white building that was just as white as the clouds. It was the shadows between the pillars that caused her to see the difference and recognize it as a building. Then the view was gone as the clouds once more shrouded it from view.

Perhaps it was Xena’s struggle to accept Aleka’s memories of what the different realms of chthon represented that had her feeling like she was on an endless series of switch backs.

When Aleka woke she was quickly on her feet looking around the common room where she had chosen to nap trying to pull her scattered wits together. A small torch was burning; giving off shadows that swayed with the flickering as the last of the torches fuel was burning. Her nose picked up food nearby. She spotted a small covered plate near her table with a scrap of parchment tucked under it. Her heart picked up its steady beat. Was Gabrielle finally remembering who she is? She was surprised her hands were shaking as she reached for the scroll.

Aleka closed her eyes and let her heart go back to a normal rhythm. She was relieved when the handwriting was not Gabrielle’s but Agnes’. Taking the plate and note over to the flickering light she sat down to read and chew her snack.

Agnes had forgotten something one of the dark cloaks had said off-hand to another and she wanted Aleka to know. Aleka’s eyes caught movement from the stairs. She watched a shadow move quietly down the staircase. She recognized the movements as belonging to Alala. She was walking more loosely.

Aleka nodded breaking off half the bread and indicating the cheese on the plate. "Help yourself."

Alala gratefully took a big bite out of the offered bread. "I couldn’t sleep."

Aleka reflected on Agnes’s note and what they were going to do. She handed Alala Agnes’ note.

"Hades balls!" Alala let out in a quiet exasperated puff of air. "She’s been having dreams?" She asked Aleka.

"Yea." Aleka was thinking how to explain to Alala that Gabrielle had all sorts of dreams. Bad and good, which she knew about because Gabrielle could be as talkative in her sleep as she was in her waking state. She should have suspected with all the tossing and turning with no sounds coming from her sleeping lips that something was not right.

"So, she thinks Gabrielle is the sacrifice for tonight. If they are planning on reaching her soul though dreams, isn’t there a way to protect her?" Alala paused, watching the interesting face that the flickering torch revealed. The blue eyes were bright in the reflected light. She wondered if that was how her eyes appeared to others. These were captivating as they flickered over her face in a quick study. "In Athena’s temple we're taught that there are always solutions to every problem whether god contrived or not." She continued.

"Yea. There is." Aleka sighed, as she stretched her long legs out in front of her. "We’re just getting cramped for time." Her face became still as she thought.

"If it’s during dream time that the dark one will make its move, then most people fall into their deepest sleep time either two or three candlemarks after the moon reaches it’s zenith." Alala thought out loud.

"Hmmm." The tall figure rose from her seat. "And I'm sure there’s going to be a lot of them around her when she does go into dream-time, ready to snatch her body. We need to get her away from the inn. Everyone else in here hasn't been having any problems with their dreams, so this place is protected. We can't let the dark cloaks come in here in the off chance that their presence may change that."

"Yea. Sure bet. They have the talisman and soon the sacrifice needed to reawaken it." Alala grimaced at the thought that she had been making a lot of mistakes lately. She lost Gabrielle, who now can’t even remember who she is, and she lost the talisman, which is going to make life real difficult for a lot of people. "Are you going to tell her?"

Aleka sighed as she studied the stairway to the rooms. "Iaia, Red, or Gabrielle," She emphasized with a smile, "will have to know. Besides, she mustn’t think she’s alone in those dreams." Aleka’s face turned serious. "That’s how evil usually works, through the loneliness of its victim." Aleka closed her eyes for a moment. Was it Aleka or Xena that was struggling with this inability to go to Gabrielle and explain what was happening. Gabrielle hated being left in the dark with matters that concerned her and now more than ever, Xena didn’t want her to be.

Aleka took a deep breath. She needed to concentrate on her role as the Named. Her usual response to protect most anyone in trouble had kicked in by agreeing to become the leader to this group, or so the excuse she gave herself explained. However the overlapping feelings from Aleka and Xena were tiring. She had been using Agnes and Lily's observations to keep a steady perspective for she didn’t want to pull the others into her own issues as Xena. However, combating this dark one of the dreamtime she had no confused thoughts on. The group was in agreement on this and would help the two villages free themselves from this dream enslaver. Aleka had an idea where in the lower realms that the dark one might be keeping the enslaved souls.

"I think while some of them are trying to trap Gabrielle, I mean Red, they may send the townspeople and some of their dark cloaks to keep us busy here."

Alala nodded. "Corita and Loris know about the rituals to protect against unwanted energy. Did you know that the innkeeper comes from a long line of shaman's?" She asked abruptly.

Aleka wasn’t surprised. She had seen the she wolf. "That probably explains why whoever sleeps here is not touched." Aleka smiled, "All the shaman’s I’ve known have been a little crazy." That brought a grim smile to her face.

"So, what about Gabrielle or Red? Most drugs would have worn off by now. People who are sensitive to one of the herbs have experienced memory loss but it lasts for a short time, days maybe."

"She may be remembering little bits and pieces. Every now and then it seems she remembers something. Agnes and Eleanor will keep track of her. They’ve had experiences in such poisonings." Aleka didn’t want to say much more for she didn’t want to have to explain to Alala the whole long story of the journey. She would rather Agnes do so. She was their spiritual advisor whereas Lily oversaw the guard duty of the group. Aleka was the leader however, and made the final decisions on what would be good for the group. So far it was working without too much trouble except for Lily’s occasional disgruntled noises at Aleka’s decisions that didn’t agree with hers.

Continued in Chapter 6

Chapter 1-6 Chapter 7-14 Chapter 15-20 Chapter 21-23


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