EMBODIMENT OF EVIL
By Godot

Disclaimers: The characters of Xena, Warrior Princess are owned by MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures, bless their hearts. No copyright infringement is intended.
Note: This story uses a character from �Sing You a Song of Justice� so a couple of lines of dialog may make a little more sense if you read that first, but it isn�t necessary in order to follow this plot.
Any comments welcome. Godot

Prologue

The dead leaf crumbled in her fingertips as she stood riveted by what lay before her. One moment she was traveling in a lush green forest, then suddenly all was dead, dead trees, dead bushes, dead animals. She looked back the way she had come. All she saw was green. She looked toward the way she was going and all she could see through the light mist was devastation. Antipany wrinkled her forehead and shivered.

It had seemed such an innocent request. Her good friend Telamedes, one of the priests at the temple of Apollo, had asked her to keep an eye out for anything unusual as she gathered materials for her potions and elixirs. Since her confrontation with Xena a few moons ago, she was really making an effort to improve her sorcery skills, although she had to admit caring for animals was more her liking. As Gabrielle had pointed out, the ability to shoot energy bolts was not a very practical skill since water weakened their force. But since she had started bathing again she noticed people were more willing to socialize with her.

Well, she mused eyeing the destruction, this certainly qualified as something unusual. Now what to do? Go back and get reinforcements, or go on and search some more. She looked around, and could see nothing threatening. Nothing living anyway. Oh well, what could possibly happen? Glancing up she stared at the vulture perched in one the live trees just beyond the devastation border.

"What do you think, Peisander, shall we venture on?" The big bird didn't move. Something is terribly wrong when you can't entice a carrion eater to a free buffet. "All right, coward, if you won't come with me go get some help." Voicing a disapproving squawk, Peisander spread his large wings and flew back towards the temple.

Sighing, Antipany squared her shoulders and slowly walked into the mist.

*****


Chapter 1

The big guy flew into the tree with a sickening crunch. Xena whirled and with a delighted grin waited for the other two to attack. Finally, some decent exercise. She blocked their sword thrusts with a tree branch, kicking one in the groin, and punching the other in the nose with her elbow. Spinning around she kicked the now kneeling thug in the head sending him flying into a thorny bush. She was a little disappointed the fight was over so fast.

"Xena! Watch out!" She heard Gabrielle call. Whirling to face her attacker, the big guy running pell-mell at her ran smack into her fist face first. He stopped abruptly staring at her in stunned surprise. Planting a finger in his chest she gave a firm push and he toppled over backward in slow motion, his head hitting the ground with a resounding thud.

Gabrielle pushed away from the tree she was leaning against. There were only three attackers and she knew her companion would be irritated if she tried to help. �Ow, that had to hurt. Do you think there�s any permanent damage?�

�No,� said Xena walking over to the only conscious member of the group, still holding his groin and moaning. �I don�t think there's much in that head to damage.� She knelt down and extending the first two fingers of each hand, she held them up to the bandit�s face.

His eyes widened. �No, no, no. I�ll tell you anything you want to know.�

�Who sent you,� she demanded.

He looked at her perplexed. �No one did. We wanted your money and weapons. Two women alone. It looked easy.�

Xena looked at him in disgust. �Sorry to disappoint. Some people are missing from the village down the road. Did you three have anything to do with that?�

He shook his head sullenly. �We steal a little, but we haven�t killed anyone. Don�t know nothin� about missing people.�

She leaned close, baring her teeth. �You gather up your pals and get out of here, because if I ever come across you three again you won�t ever have to worry about pain in that area again,� she snarled pointing to his groin. �There won�t be anything left down there to hurt. Have I made myself clear?�

He paled and nodded rapidly. She laid him out cold with a smash to his jaw. �Let�s go,� she said to Gabrielle.

They continued to walk down the road leading Argo. The priest had requested their assistance in locating missing members of his community. Several had disappeared and he was afraid there would be more if something wasn't done. The ambush was the first trouble they had run into since they had left the village.

�It doesn�t sound like they know anything, does it,� Gabrielle said.

�No.� Xena shook her head. �Those three couldn�t plan anything more elaborate than a walk in the woods and even then they�d probably get lost�

They continued their game of twenty questions as they walked. "Sooo, it's an animal, huh," Gabrielle bit her lip in concentration. Ten questions down, ten to go. "And it flies. A bird. Now what kind of bird? Is it a small bird?"

"No."

"A big bird! That narrows it down. Wait a minute, it can't be that simple. Is it a Gryphon?"

"No." Xena smiled as the bard danced in front of her walking backwards as she talked.

�Can I see it?� asked the bard as she scanned the tree tops.

�Probably not, but I can,� Xena replied, scowling as she looked over the bard�s shoulder.

Gabrielle whirled around then stopped abruptly as she came nose to beak with a familiar looking bird sitting on a low-hanging branch. "Ah, Xena, it wouldn't happen to be a vulture would it?"

Xena glared at the big ugly bird. "You got it. He's been following us most of the morning. It can't be the same one that tags along with Antipany, could it?"

"You know, now that you mention it...."

"Gabrielle, did that blasted priest tell you who was missing?"

"Well, he may have mentioned Antipany was one of the missing." She waved her hand, "I really wasn't listening that close."

Resolutely Xena said, "We are not going to try find that sorceress, Gabrielle, for all we know this is a trap like last time. She almost killed you then, and I don't forgive people who hurt you."

Gabrielle gave her a quick hug, "That's really sweet Xena, but you know that was an accident. She was just trying to nail you for killing her brothers and I got in the way. And it's a good thing I did," shaking her finger at the warrior. "She was so sorry I was hurt, she gave up trying to execute you."

"You tricked her, Gabrielle. All you did is put off the inevitable."

"Minor detail." She turned back to the bird. "Now, my fine feathered friend, show us where she is."

The bird flapped his wings and took off down the road with Gabrielle in eager pursuit. As she passed, Xena grabbed her by the hair and hauled her back. "No you don't. Go back to the temple, Gabrielle, and wait for me. Anything involving Antipany will be dangerous."

Gabrielle untangled her hair from Xena's hand. "Oww. You know, I�m going to be bald if you keep doing that. I thought we got passed this ages ago. Antipany likes me, it's you she can't stand. If anyone stays, it should be you. I'm going Xena."

Xena cursing with an expertise born of years of experience, vaulted onto Argo's back. "You know Gabrielle, this new found independence of yours is becoming annoying." She reached down and offered a hand to the bard. Gabrielle settled down behind her companion, reaching around and hugging her waist tightly. "I know, but you love me anyway." Xena gave a wry smile and muttered softly, "Always."

The vulture who had flown back, was circling over their heads and now took off down the road once more with Argo following. Xena looked up at him and scowled, briefly wondering what a well placed chakrum would do to vulture tail feathers. She could have sworn the ugly thing was laughing at her.

*****

She was dead. No, that was a slight exaggeration. She couldn�t see, hear, breathe, feel, or move but she could still sense. She could sense his presence, a malevolence so palpable she would have felt him in her grave if she were dead. But she wasn�t dead. Yet.

She felt him every time he took a sip of her life essence. She could feel it drain away and was helpless to do anything about it. How long she had been entombed in this sphere she didn�t know. It seemed like minutes, but could have been weeks.

Antipany thought back to how she had arrived at this sorry state of affairs. She had found his lair all right, and instead of hightailing it back to the temple for reinforcements, or at least someone with more common sense than herself, she blundered on. Curiosity always gets you in the end, although somehow she never thought that applied to her. She had walked into a small valley that had all life sucked out of it. A large round stone house with a tall wall around it lay in the middle of the devastation. As she was studying the wall, she was suddenly accosted by five warriors. They sprang out of nothing, huge men covered with black leather armor, sporting an insignia she didn't recognize. She raised her glowing hands and fired off a bolt of energy at the nearest warrior. It hit him squarely in the chest and he dissipated without a trace. Like shooting clay pots off a fence she mowed them down one by one as they charged her, only to find five more rushing at her. While there seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of warriors, she was rapidly tiring and when they finally reached her side, her hands were barely sputtering little flashes of energy. Hades, she thought, I knew I should have learned to fight with a staff. There is always some advantage to the simpler things in life. The more complicated you made things, the faster they broke down. They tied her hands tight to her body. She never saw the blow that so rudely interrupted her nonstop flow of colorful invectives directed at the silent warriors.

When she woke, she was laying in front of a throne make of stone and encrusted with an impressive array of jewels. She groaned and holding her aching head, she sat up. The throne held her attention for a moment until a soft sinister voice said "Welcome to my home. I hope you will be comfortable here since you won't be leaving anytime soon." The voice cackled.

Antipany looked up and wished she hadn't. Peisander was gorgeous compared to this guy. He had a serious skin condition being light gray in color and appearing to be sloughing off. Parts of his cheekbones and forehead could be seen where the skin had disappeared. Pustules dripped thick green fluid from his face and hands. When he smiled, she could see his gums had receded exposing the bone underneath. He might have been handsome at one time, but that time had long since passed.

"Ahh...did you know you're... mmm...decomposing?" She asked politely.

He smiled, thick green drool running out the corner of his mouth through lips that didn't quite close. "Yes, I really must do something about that, although I�m really quite fond of this body, it's lasted over a hundred winters."

She didn't like the way he was looking at her. She stood up and crossed her arms. "Look here, Lord Pus Pockets, if you think you can intimidate me, you have another thing coming. I've seen a lot of things worse than you..." Her voice trailed off as the corpse lifted a hand and two fat white worms came out of sores in the skin. Her stomach roiled. She raised her hands and looked away. "Ooookay, you win, that was definitely the worst. Look, my poor puny body wouldn't last you more than a moon at the most."

"You're much too modest, my dear. I'll bet it would last at least six moons."

"Hey," she protested, vaguely insulted. She was thinking more like twelve.

"No, I have other plans for you. I need someone with strength of mind, body and spirit. It might be a nice change of pace to be a woman for a while, but you females just aren't strong enough to meet my needs."

"You know," Antipany looked thoughtful, "I bet I know some one who would just fit the bill. Have you ever heard of Xena, Warrior Princess? I hear she's around someplace. Near Amphipolis, I think."

"Hmmm," he said, "I�ve heard of her. I may have to take a look at the warrior princess. She might do very well. Thank you." He popped the two wriggling worms into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully.

"Great. Well, I'll just be leaving now. It was very nice meeting you. Ahh, if I can just have my cloak back, I'll be on my way." She gestured to her cloak hanging from the back of his chair.

"Ah, the cloak. Interesting piece of clothing. You can stuff a lot of things into three layers of material. I was a little disappointed when we took it off and found you were only half as big as you seemed to be. Not much meat on you, but you'll have to do.� He studied the cloak. �The only person I know who had a cloak like this was a miserable little maggot called Maxius. Do you know him?" He was not smiling now.

Oh, oh. "The name is vaguely familiar. Wasn't he a sorcerer? Seems to me he disappeared long ago." Maxius had been her mentor before he vanished on one of his frequent explorations. The cloak had been a gift from him. It was sewn in three thin layers with enough pockets to contain an amazing quantity of her possessions. "Did you ever meet him?"

"We had a few dates over the centuries. It would be nice to see him again and finish our business." He was staring at her intently.

Antipany looked at him puzzled. "I feel like I should know you but your name eludes me."

"I'm sorry child, where are my manners. Let me introduce myself. I am called Kryptus." He bowed slightly.

Antipany gasped in spite of herself. "But...but...but you're dead!" she sputtered.

"I know," he said wryly spreading out his arms, "that is very apparent."

"No, I mean you're a myth. A legend. Something parents threaten their children with to get them to behave." Hades, she didn't think she could feel any worse, but she did now.

"I don't think so." He slowly shook his head sighing. "Much as I've enjoyed our chat, it's time to get down to business. As you can see my power is a little out of sync, and I need to get it back into balance. That's where you can help, my dear." He gestured to the side of his throne.

For the first time Antipany took a good look at her surroundings. The great throne was encircled by four giant crystals. On top of each crystal was a large sphere. She walked over to one of the spheres and peered in. Inside, floating in some type of murky liquid was a figure. Pressing her nose against the sphere she could see it was a man. Or what was left of one. He was terribly emaciated and not moving, eyes glazed, just floating. She backed away slowly.

"Is he...is he..."

"Dead? Not yet, but he won't last out the day. And you, my nosy little friend, have the honor of taking his place!" His eyes emptied and his body stilled.

Antipany spun around and searched for the door. There wasn't any. Holy Hades, this wasn't anyway for a respectable sorceress to die. Or even an disrespectable one. She tried to lift up her foot and couldn't. Looking down at her feet she found she was standing in a bowl of thick gray fluid. Her feet felt numb and wouldn't move no matter how hard she tried. Slowly the sides of the bowl began to enlarge and grow up, filling up with fluid as it formed. Desperately she aimed an energy bolt at the bottom of the bowl. The weak bolt was absorbed by the fluid. She aimed another at Kryptus. By this time the fluid was up passed her knees.

Kryptus laughed. "Ohh. That felt good. May I have another?"

Horse chips, she thought, I'm going at this all wrong. By this time the sphere had formed to her waist. Every part of her the thick gray goo touched became numb. She held her arms up and crossed them on her chest. Bowing her head, she concentrated on punching a hole in the sphere. She imagined a sword thrusting into the side of the ball. To her surprise a small gash appeared and fluid started to leak out.

"Very good, little one. You have spunk. I like spunk. Spunky people add a little spice to my essence."

Spice, huh? She would give him spice all right. And as much indigestion as she could. The sphere repaired itself and the filling process continued. Exhausted, she knew she wouldn't win this one. The sphere formed to her chin, filling with fluid. This time she concentrated on punching a hole in one of the other spheres. Fluid began to leak from that sphere.

"Stop that!" said Kryptus, getting annoyed. "This will be much easier if you just cooperate."

Yeah, for who, she thought as the fluid began to fill her mouth. It crept up to her nose. In her nose. Down her throat. She was drowning. She gasped for breath, choked and felt it fill her lungs. It covered her eyes, blinding her and then washed up over her head. The sphere closed around her.

Kryptus chuckled malevolently. With a sweep of his hand one of the spheres crashed to the floor. He gestured to Antipany's sphere and it floated to the crystal, settling on top. Concentrating, he connected with the sphere and took a nice long drink. The sores on his face and hands began to heal. Ahh, nothing like fresh essence to clear the complexion he thought. He stood up and stretched. When he went to take a step one of his blackened toes snapped off. A large rat scurried out from under the throne, snatched up the wayward toe and ran for cover. Yes, he had mused, he really must venture out and find a new body.

And now she was dead, floating in this gray gel. Well, almost dead. She felt him take another sip of her essence. While it didn't hurt, she knew she was a little closer to death with every drink he took. Peisander better bring the army soon or there wouldn't be enough left of her to save. She would have felt even worse if she had known her only hope was in her best friend bringing her worst enemy to rescue her.

*****


Chapter 2

Argo's long strides easily kept up with the big bird for several miles until the vulture suddenly veered into the forest. Slowing down to a walk, they picked their way through the thick underbrush until it became apparent that the big horse would have to stay behind. They found a small glade with a stream and the women dismounted, the vulture settling on a branch at the edge of the clearing. Unsaddling Argo, Xena stowed their gear in the trees and told the horse to wait for them there. She nickered softly her agreement.

"You know Gabrielle, you could learn something from Argo. She stays put when I ask her to."

Rubbing some feeling back into her numb rear end, Gabrielle set about gathering up a few supplies. "What does she know, Xena, she's just a dumb animal."

Argo's head shot up and she stared balefully at the bard.

"Sorry Argo, I didn't mean it that way." She took an apple over to the horse in a peace gesture, patting the golden mare's neck as the horse munched on the treat.

Turning back toward Xena the bard said, "We better get going...ohhh. She never finished her sentence as Argo placed her muzzle in the middle of the bard's back and gave a hard shove sending her sprawling. The big bird squawked his approval.

Landing flat on her face at Xena's feet, she looked up spitting dirt and leaves out of her mouth. "Got off pretty easy that time, didn�t I. Can we go now?" Xena reached down and lifted the bard to her feet. "If you're done irritating my horse we can."

Xena looked at the bird. "Well, what are you waiting for. Lead on." The vulture spread his wings and took off. The going was slow through the lush thick forest. Following behind the warrior, Gabrielle bumped into her when Xena abruptly stopped. "What's the matter..." the bard's jaw dropped as she peering around Xena's back. "Great Zeus," she exclaimed, "what happened here?" Devastation swept before them. Dead animals littered the ground, the barren ground supporting no life. Xena looked grim. "Go back to the temple, Gabrielle. This is no place for you." The bard just looked at her shaking her head stubbornly.

Xena sighed. "Stay close then. The answer is in here somewhere and it's not going to be pleasant." They started forward. Looking back towards the trees, Gabrielle saw the vulture sitting on a branch looking at them. "Look Xena, our friend isn't going with us."

Xena looked back. "Proves their point doesn't it."

"Which is?" the bard inquired.

"Our �dumb� animals are smarter than we are," Xena said grimly and continued on.

*****


They moved slowly across the barren landscape scanning constantly for any signs of life. Xena led them to the highest point in the area. When they reached the top the warrior suddenly dropped to the ground taking Gabrielle with her. In the valley below stood a large circular stone dwelling surrounded by a tall stone wall with no apparent entrance.

"What do we do now?" Gabrielle asked.

"We wait."

"How long?"

"As long as it takes," Xena replied. "We need to scout this place out. I have a feeling we're dealing with sorcery here and we need to be very careful." She thought for a minute. "I hate sorcerers. Not an honest bone in their bodies. All illusion and magic, even the gods have more integrity. Give me a nice scumbag warlord any day, at least you know what you're fighting."

"Antipany wouldn't be a part of this Xena."

"We don't know that Gabrielle. Although I don't think the Sorcerer�s Guild would claim her as a member. She's pretty inept." Xena chuckled softly then frowned. "She's probably joined forces with someone much more powerful."

"She wouldn't do that Xena. We need to get in there and see what's going on. She could be in big trouble."

"She is big trouble," Xena retorted. "Patience, Gabrielle."

They settled down to watch the building, camouflaging their position as best they could in the barren landscape.

They watched the building the rest of that day and the next. Nothing stirred. No guards walked the walls. No one came or went. Gabrielle was getting restless. "Let's go down there. It might be just an empty building for all we know, we could be wasting time out here." Xena shook her head. "We wait." She checked her weapons. Sword, rope, chakram, whip, boot dagger, breast dagger. She was ready. There was no arguing with that tone Gabrielle knew from experience. They settled down for another long night.

Early the next morning Gabrielle was awakened by a hand clapped over her mouth. Startled she woke to find Xena bending over her, a finger to her lips.

"Something's happening," Xena said softly. She motioned the bard to follow her. Their peered into the valley below. A covered carriage was waiting in the courtyard of the building. A robed and hooded figure appeared to walk through the stone wall of the building and entered the carriage. The driver urged the four black horses into a walk and drove them through the outer stone wall. They were followed by a dozen soldiers dressed in black leather armor.

"An illusion," Xena breathed softly. "It must be covering the entrance." They watched the group disappear into the distance, a road appearing as they went and disappearing as they passed.

"Let's go!" Xena grabbed Gabrielle's arm and hauled her to her feet. Running down the slope they hurried to the part of the wall through which the carriage had exited. Feeling along the wall Gabrielle suddenly exclaimed as her hand disappeared into the stone image. She jerked her arm back.

�Good work Gabrielle,� said Xena. �You wait here while I check things out on the other side.� She carefully outlined the illusion with her sword to make sure the entrance was big enough, then stepped through what seemed to be solid stone and disappeared from Gabrielle�s view.

The bard waited for what seemed an eternity, glancing around nervously as she waited. What was taking her so long? Finally unable to contain herself the bard crept close to the opening and called softly, �Xena? Are you there? Xena?� There was no answer. She knew Xena wouldn�t just leave her outside by herself. Still, she gave a startled yelp when a disembodied hand shot through the stone wall, grabbed her by her skimpy top and dragged her through the illusion.


Chapter 3

He was gone. As much as Antipany hated having her life essence drained, the loneliness was more unbearable. He would talk to her while he fed. Why? She would rage at him. What gives you the right to take lives like this? He was genuinely puzzled by her question. You are nothing compared to me, he said. You are simply food and it is the right of the strong to feed off the weak. There was no remorse, no regret. It was his greatest pleasure.

He was her only connection to the outside, her only company, her only stimulus. When he took that last deep drink and snapped the connection she thought she had finally died. But when she didn�t arrive on the banks of the river Styx she knew death still eluded her. The nothingness was frightening. She hummed to herself, told herself stories, tried out spells in her mind. Anything to keep the nothingness in abeyance. Peisander, where are you? Damnation! Hades, where are you! Haven�t I suffered enough she cried in tearless agony.

*****

Gabrielle bumped up against Xena�s chest on the other side of the wall. The warrior leaned down and whispered, �Quiet. We don�t want to attract attention.� She let go of the bard�s top and motioned her to stay behind her. Gabrielle didn�t need to be told twice. The bard pointed her staff towards the building. �There�s the door,� she whispered.

Xena shook her head, instead heading for the place they had seen the robed figure exiting from, not trusting easy solutions to problems. Her sword slid through the stone exterior. Another illusion. She smiled then slipped through the wall with Gabrielle right behind her this time.

They found themselves in a long corridor. Flickering torches in stands bolted to the walls lined the hall and provided light. Xena took one and handed another to Gabrielle. With a torch in one hand and her sword in the other, she proceeded up the hall with Gabrielle close behind.

�Run your staff along that wall Gabrielle,� Xena instructed, �and I�ll run my sword along the other. Maybe we can find another doorway. We don�t want to miss anything.�

�Says who?� Gabrielle muttered. The hallway was creepy. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling and the torch stands. The stone floor was dusty with not so little rodent tracks running through it. The light cast strange shadows as it bounced off stone figures jutting out from the wall. The bard�s imagination was running wild. �Xe..Xena..I don�t like this place. It�s evil. You can feel it.� She looked nervously behind her. Slowly they edged their way down the hall. Intent on finding another doorway, they finally found an opening. When they fell through it.

*****


Chapter 4

�Eeeeeeeee,� Gabrielle cried as she fell, Xena by her side. Tucking her legs, Xena prepared to roll when she hit the bottom.

Splat, splat.

It was a little difficult to roll in the soft mush they landed in. Gagging from the stench, they pulled themselves upright. It smelled like they had landed on a pile of garbage. One torch had been extinguished by the muck but the other had landed upright seating itself in the eye socket of a skull. Xena pulled it out and looked around. Bits and pieces of skeletons, decaying body parts, rotting animal carcasses, putrefying pieces of flesh had cushioned their fall. Gabrielle sat up dazed. Suddenly she screamed as a skeletal hand dangled in front of her eyes.

�Relax Gabrielle,� said Xena as she plucked the offending limb off the bard�s head. �It won�t bite.� She held up the torch and looked around. The room was about twenty feet square. They were standing knee deep in stinking decay. She fished around in the muck until she found her sword and Gabrielle's staff. There was no opening in the ceiling. No opening anywhere in the room.

Calmly she sheathed her sword. Taking the rope she tied it to her chakrum. "Have I mentioned how much I hate sorcerers?" she asked Gabrielle.

"You know, I think you did. How are we getting out of here Xena?" She looked around quickly when she heard a rustling noise. Two beady little eyes stared at her. Then four, then ten. She went into defensive position, staff poised to strike. "Now would be good."

Xena concentrated for a moment trying to visualize the torch stand on the wall somewhere above them. The chakrum disappeared through the ceiling and they heard a clank as it hit the wall. She pulled on the rope and the chakrum fell back through the ceiling. "I really, really hate sorcerers," she sighed.

Twenty beady eyes grew closer. Gabrielle backed up a step still staring them down. "Now would be great, wonderful, stupendous." Rats the size of small dogs nipped at her staff. One finally got up the nerve to rush her and she batted it away. Two more ventured forward and they were promptly sent to the end of the line. Still they crept closer voicing their desire for fresh meat.

Xena concentrated again, adjusting her angle. The chakrum flew through the ceiling and there was a different sound as it hit the wall. Xena pulled on the rope and it caught, dangling barely within her grasp. She jumped up and grabbed the rope. Seeing their meal about to get away the rodents rushed the bard en masse, knocking the staff away, jumping at her chest and face. Shrieking, she swatted at them with her hands.

Swinging above the muck, Xena hesitated. "Ah, Gabrielle, you want to stop playing with the wildlife and get up here?" Gabrielle whirled and leaping a personal best only fear can inspire, grabbed Xena's legs. With a grunt she climbed up the muscular legs until she was securely wrapped around Xena's waist. "They took my staff, Xena." Xena climbed up until she could wrap the rope around her legs to anchor them. Releasing her whip she snapped it down, wrapping it around the staff. Whipping it up, the staff sailed up and disappeared through the ceiling.

Gabrielle hugged Xena closer. "Thank you."

"Anytime," Xena grunted as she began the laborious task of climbing the rope. They were three fourths of the way up when there was an ominous wrenching noise and the rope jerked. "I think we've heard this song before, although you may have been a little too tipsy to remember it," Xena puffed as she tried to speed their assent. �I remember. Vaguely,� the bard muttered. The rope jerked again. They reached the ceiling and Xena poked her head through the illusion. The chakrum hung on the torch stand, but the stand was tearing away from the wall. She searched for the solid part of the floor but couldn't find it. She reached back the way they had come and finally found the edge as the torch stand tore away from the wall. With Gabrielle's weight all the warrior could do was grasp the edge with her fingertips. "Climb up Gabrielle, I can't hold on much longer."

Gabrielle carefully pulled herself up and over Xena's head to solid ground. With the bard's weight off, the warrior was able to pull herself over the edge.

Gabrielle threw her arms around her companion. �ThankyouThankyouThankyou. I really wasn�t looking forward to another swim in the muck with the rats.� She sniffed the air. �Phew, we stink.�

�That�s the least of our worries right now.� Xena stood up at the edge looking down the hall. �I need to get my chakrum back.� She felt a tug on her skirt. Looking down she saw Gabrielle reach under her leg and pull out the rope. Pulling on it, the chakrum came up through the illusion. Xena patted the bard on the head. �Don�t know what I�d do without you.� She tossed the chakrum down the hall. It landed on solid ground. Pulling it back slowly she noted where it fell through. �About ten feet across,� she mused. Suddenly she launched herself in the air and somersaulted over the opening, clearing it easily.

�My turn,� said Gabrielle. She backed up down the hall and with a determined yell ran for the edge. Planting her staff at the edge she vaulted up, up, brushing against the ceiling, she headed down, down. Down through the stone floor to the pit below. Xena reached out and grabbed the staff just before it sank out of sight. Hauling it in, the bard�s hands broke through the illusion, still attached to the end of the staff. Grabbing Gabrielle, Xena deposited her and the staff on the floor. �Next time Gabrielle, let go of the staff. You get more distance that way.�

�Let go of my staff? On purpose?� The idea was totally foreign to the bard. She stood up and looked up the hall. �Guess we should get going, huh?� She whirled around as a wall slammed down behind her then jumped back as razor sharp blades sprang out all along it�s breath and width. She looked at it puzzled. �What�s the point of this? We�re going the other direction. This couldn�t catch flies.�

Xena grabbed her whip. �I think we�re going to get the point in a few seconds. Come on,� she yelled running up the hall dragging Gabrielle behind her. There was a second crash as the wall in front disappeared and a wall of water roared toward them.

*****


Chapter 5

Desperately Xena looked up and seeing a decorative satyr jutting out from the wall above her head, she cracked her whip winding the end around it. Pushing the bard against the wall, she wrapped herself around Gabrielle and hung on to the whip for dear life. The water hit them like the hand of Poseidon was pushing it. Xena thought her arms would rip out of her shoulders as the water rushed by pushing them parallel to the floor. Then the decoration broke away and the pair found themselves rushing towards the deadly wall.

�Xenaaa...� Gabrielle screamed, desperately clawing at the wall trying to slow their deadly journey into the blades. Xena kept Gabrielle�s body upstream, determined to meet the wall first and save her friend from being impaled.

The initial onrush of water hit the wall and rebounded back. The pair was caught in the back flow slowing their progress to the wall just enough so that Xena had a split second to gage where to plant her feet. Her feet slammed into the wall straddling a blade. Knees buckling she fought to keep her balance, Gabrielle and the water pushing her from behind closer and closer to the blade between her legs. The sharp point tickled her crotch and still the onrushing water pushed her closer. Suddenly the back flow became stronger and she was able to push away from the offending projection, propelling the bard in front of her.

The water became a gentle lake as it started to drain away. The pair began to swim up the hall away from the deadly wall. They had not gone far when the water had receded enough for them to walk and then it was gone. They slumped to the floor, shaken by their close call.

�Have I ever mentioned...�

�...how much you hate sorcerers. Yes, Xena. I�m not too fond of them myself right now.� Gabrielle took a long deep breath trying to calm her racing heart. She jumped as the wall at the far end slammed back down, then stared at Xena as they heard an ominous creaking noise coming from around the corner.

�Sounds like another wall just went up. Guess that�s our invitation to explore what�s around the corner.� Xena smiled tightly. She was beginning to enjoy this. But then she looked closely at the bard, who was looking a little green. �Water didn�t agree with you, did it? Look Gabrielle, let me take you back to Argo. I promise I�ll come back and hunt for Antipany. I�ve got a score to settle with whoever or whatever set this up anyway.�

Gabrielle shook her head stubbornly. �No. I hate being safe but knowing you�re still in danger. We�re in this together. Now let�s go.� She patted Xena�s arm and kissed the top of her head as she stood. Xena sighed. This really would be so much more enjoyable if she knew Gabrielle was safe.

Carefully they make their way to the end of the hall and Xena peered around the corner.

*****


Chapter 6

Antipany was past caring about anything. Her mind was beginning to dull, a fog swirling around in her head, making it hard to think. She was calm, ready for the inevitable. There was really only one big regret in her dying and that was being unable to fulfill her oath to her dead brothers. Xena was responsible for their murders, and a lot more, and she had sworn to bring the butchering warlord to justice. But she had been tricked by the killer�s companion, a sweet, innocent... conniving, devious... decent little bard named Gabrielle, into postponing the execution until Xena returned to her evil ways. Which Antipany was certain she would do eventually, but after watching the two interact, the sorceress wasn�t too sure that would happen if they continued to travel together. Gabrielle wouldn�t leave Xena unless the warrior turned to evil, and Xena wouldn�t return to evil unless Gabrielle left her. Such a conundrum.

Antipany fumed. She had thought there would be plenty of time to honor both promises, knowing in her heart Xena wouldn�t stay good forever. No one who enjoyed the sport of war that much could keep their hands out of it. Gabrielle should have seen through that facade and left long ago. Then she could honor her oath to her brothers and still keep her promise to the young bard. Surely being tricked into such an outrageous promise didn�t count. Calmness returned. Oh well, it didn�t matter now, it was far too late for regrets. The fog dulling her mind rolled in thicker and obscured everything.

*****

It looked peaceful enough. The adjoining hallway looked much like the one they had just traversed. Cobwebs, rodent tracks, dust, and decorative stone figures all present. Torches lit the way.

�Maybe we should have just come in through the front door,� Gabrielle whispered as she peered around Xena.

Xena just looked at her and grimaced. She threw her chakrum, still tied to the rope down the hall and pulled it back along the floor. Seemed solid enough. "Stay close," she commanded.

�No problem there,� muttered the bard keeping a hand on Xena's back, the other running her staff along the wall searching for an entrance as they advanced. Half way down the hall, the staff suddenly disappeared into the wall. She tapped the warrior on the back. �Ah, Xena I think I found one.�

�Great. Ready?� Xena looked at her questioningly as she poised to jump through the illusion of a stone wall. The bard swallowed hard and nodded. Grinning, sword held ready, Xena charged through, with Gabrielle again following closely.

A strange sight greeted them on the other side. A great jewel encrusted stone throne sat in the middle of the room. Surrounding it were four pulsating giant crystals and on top of each crystal sat a large sphere. A shimmering aura curtained the whole setup.

Xena�s eyes lit up. �Bingo,� she said softly.

Gabrielle, eyes wide open in wonder, started for the throne. �What is that?�

�Wait Gabrielle...� Xena started to warn, but she never got a chance to finish.

*****


Chapter 7

The fog lifted a bit as Antipany became aware of ... what she wasn�t sure. A presence, a movement, a noise. She just couldn�t make it out. Slowly she cast her consciousness about. It was so hard. It wasn�t Kryptus, of that she was certain, she knew his presence as well as she knew her own and she couldn�t feel him at all. What had awakened her?

*****

The warriors appeared out of nothing. Xena cursed and met the first wave with a sweep of her sword, decapitating two with one blow. They simply disappeared. She thrust her sword through the heart of another and he was gone. Another swung his weapon at her and it nicked her upper arm drawing blood before she could pull away. What kind of apparitions were these, she wondered. They felt solid enough, but give them a mortal wound and they dissolved, or maybe just reformed as their numbers seemed to remain constant. And they kept coming.

Gabrielle knocked down the one she was fighting, a blow that should have knocked him unconscious, but he got back up swinging. Another joined him. She retreated, parrying their blows but was unable to go on the offensive. Not being able bring herself to deliver a mortal blow was a distinct disadvantage in this fight, not that it would matter in the end. Finally they backed her up to the throne and there was no where else to go. Their black eyes showed no mercy as they brought their swords up to strike the lethal blows.

Antipany felt the reverberations of the fight and sensed the awakened soldiers. Something had stirred them, she thought. She didn�t know who, but the warriors� enemies must be her friends. She concentrated on slowing down the soldiers. She ordered them to stop, put down their swords, and go back to sleep. Over and over she repeated it, imagined it, broadcast it. And had no idea if they heard a word she was saying.

Poised to strike the fatal blows, the soldiers seemed to hesitate. Seizing the moment, the bard brought her staff around to strike. As she swung back, the staff smacked one of the spheres hard sending it crashing to the floor where it shattered. The soldiers' images shimmered a little before steadying and resuming the fight. Gabrielle knocked the sword away from one and tripped the other.

Xena was kept busy with her five adversaries. No matter how many she killed there was always five to confront her. She punched, kicked, beheaded, disemboweled an army and there was still five before her. Suddenly the warriors paused a moment. She saw Gabrielle�s staff break one of the spheres and the soldiers seemed to dim. Xena grabbed her chakrum and threw it against the wall. It ricocheted off slicing through the second sphere before making it�s way around the room slicing open the third sphere and then the fourth before returning to Xena�s hand. Gray fluid gushed out of the spheres. They rotated slowly around on their crystals before crashing to the floor and shattering. The soldiers froze and then just vanished.

Gabrielle looked around the room in a daze. The ceiling was gone, opening up to a bright sunny day. The throne was just a plain old weather beaten stone seat. The jewels had vanished. Over the back of the seat hung a familiar cloak. The room was a mess with shards of sphere and gray goo everywhere. And four bodies. �Antipany,� she cried racing over to the sorceress. Eyes wide open, she wasn�t breathing, gray fluid leaking from her nose, her mouth, her ears, and even her eyes.

�Xena, do something,� Gabrielle looked at her pleading.

Hades, she hated it when Gabrielle pleaded. It usually meant the bard wanted her to do something she didn�t want to do. Like this. In two strides she was bending over the sorceress, and standing the limp form up facing away from her, she placed her fists just under Antipany�s sternum and gave a swift upward thrust. Gray fluid gushed from her nose and mouth. Gabrielle, who had the misfortune of still kneeling in front of them, got a face full of the sticky stuff.

�Eeewww,� she recoiled. �Thank you. Thank you very much.� Frantically she wiped at her face.

�Sorry,� Xena said with a satisfied gleam in her eye. She whirled around until Antipany was facing away from the bard, then repeated her actions. More of the gray goo exploded from her mouth and nose. Antipany gave a weak cough and gasped for air. Then gasped several more times as Xena laid her back on the floor. The sorceress sucked in great gulps of air, gray fluid still trickling out her nose and mouth.

Xena looked at Gabrielle. �I think we better get out of here as soon...� A hand reached up and grabbed hers. Antipany pulled herself up on an elbow. Looking up she whispered, �I owe you an apology princess. I have seen the face of pure evil, and you, even at your worst, are just a rank amateur � She gave a little burp and with nary a warning vomited all over Xena�s best and only pair of boots. With that she lapsed back into unconsciousness.

Xena straightened up slowly and just stared at the bard for a moment, her face a monument to self-control. Gabrielle held up her hand as the warrior opened her mouth to speak.

�No. Don�t say it. The whole known world knows by now how much you hate sorcerers.�

They tried the same technique on the other three poor souls from the spheres but could not revive them. �I guess they�ve been here too long,� Gabrielle said sadly. �Or maybe they just aren�t as nasty as your friend over there,� Xena retorted. �We have to go. I don�t want to meet the owner of this place until I have a better idea of what we�re fighting.� She frowned, looking at the crystals. With a mighty effort she picked one up and smashed it against the wall. Satisfied with the results, she smashed the other three. Gabrielle picked up the cloak.

Xena scooped up the filthy, fluid encrusted sorceress and tossed her over her shoulder. �I suppose you�ll insist we take her along?� Gabrielle nodded, not sure if Xena was serious or not. �Why is it,� she continued as they walked out of the room, �Is that the only time we seem to see Antipany is when she�s in dire need of a bath?�

*****


Chapter 8

The illusions had all shattered with the breaking of the spheres. With the torches just rotting pieces of wood the hallway was dark. A dim light could be seen at the end of the hall and they carefully made their way towards it. When they rounded the corner they could see light streaming in from the opening at the end. First they had to cross the pit which was now standing open. Taking a running leap this time Xena and her burden crossed safely.

�My turn,� said Gabrielle as she prepared to vault over.

�Wait a moment,� said Xena hastily dumping Antipany none too gently on the floor. She pulled out her whip. �Now this time, let go.�

Finding a nice depression in which to plant her staff, Gabrielle backed up and with a whoop charged to the edge of the pit. Up she flew and, letting go at the precise right time, she sailed safely over to the other side. Xena snagged the staff with her whip as it was falling into the pit and flipped it into the bard�s hands. �I could have gotten you over if you would have waited,� Xena said.

�Yeah, I know.� Gabrielle replied, �But some things are more satisfying if you try them yourself. I can�t always expect you to be around to get me over every little pit in life.�

How true that was, thought Xena sadly. If she had her way, the bard would never face any trial without her. She hoisted Antipany back over her shoulder and they headed out into the bright sunshine. Packing up the rest of their meager supplies, they headed back to the forest. Half way there Antipany roused enough to realize she was being carried by the warrior.

�Put me down, princess,� she said weakly. Xena dumped her on the ground. She struggled to get up but couldn�t and lay in a limp heap. �Just leave me alone,� she sighed.

Xena looked at her for a moment then whirled around and started walking on. Gabrielle ran in front of her, blocking her way. �Wait a minute, Xena. We can�t just leave her here. She�ll die without us.�

�She asked to be left, Gabrielle. She doesn�t want my help.� Xena folded her arms across her chest glaring down at the bard.

�She needs us Xena, and we need to help whether she wants it or not.� Gabrielle rested her hands on Xena�s arms and stared into her eyes. Xena stared back thinking, don�t plead Gabrielle, just don�t plead, don�t you dare...

�Please Xena, please,� Gabrielle pleaded. �I know she...� Xena held up a hand stopping the bard. Taking the bard�s head in her hands she leaned over and fiercely kissed her forehead. It was either do that or smack her half way back to Poteidaia. Which would have been the preferred option in another life, another time.

Turning she went back to Antipany and hoisted her back over her shoulder. �I don�t like this anymore than you do,� she told the protesting sorceress. Antipany groaned, �Ohhh, my stomach.� She hiccuped and then tossed her cookies one more time down Xena�s back before passing out.

Xena put a finger to Gabrielle�s open mouth as she stormed passed. �You owe me big time, my friend.�

Gabrielle was already trying to think of ways to make it up to her.

*****


Chapter 9

They made it back to the edge of the forest without further incident. The vulture was waiting patiently for them, squawking loud and long when he spied the bundle Xena was carrying. �Get out of here,� Xena growled, �I don�t think she�s quite ripe enough for your tastes yet.�

She laid Antipany on the ground and sat down wearily to rest. Antipany groaned and opened her eyes. They fell on the bird sitting on a branch above her. �Peisander,� she cried lifting up one weary hand to the bird, �I knew you wouldn�t let me down. But really, Peisander, Xena?� The big bird flew to the ground and hopped over to her, voicing apologies along the way. He rubbed his ugly bald head against her upraised hand.

Gabrielle viewed the scene with wonder. �You mean he really is a friend? Here we thought he was just looking for an easy meal.�

Antipany smiled. She was so tired she could barely speak. �I raised him from a chick. At one time he thought I was his mother, now he thinks I�m his mate.�

�How appropriate,� Xena murmured.

They rested a little while longer, then started back to find Argo. It was getting late and they knew they must hurry to get there before dark. And the further they were from Kryptus, the safer they would feel. Xena reached down to pick up Antipany. �If you throw up on me again, I�m going to take it very personally,� she said evenly staring at the sorceress. Antipany nodded. She was just too tired to plot revenge. Xena picked her up, carrying her in her arms this time.

They made it back to Argo just as the sun had set. Too weary to do more than eat a few bites of food and take a much needed drink of cool water, they fell into an uneasy nightmare filled slumber trusting Argo and Peisander to keep watch.

*****


Morning came much too soon. A gentle hand shook Antipany awake. "Antipany, wake up. We need to get you cleaned up and get some food into you." She groaned and rolled over, groaning more as every muscle in her weakened body protested vehemently to the movement. She opened her eyes and Gabrielle lifted her into a sitting position. And then groaned louder.

"Oh, oh, oh," she wailed.

Gabrielle looked at her in bewilderment unsure of what was wrong. Xena raised an eyebrow at the display. "What's wrong Antipany?" Gabrielle asked in alarm.

"It hurts," Antipany sobbed.

Gabrielle exchanged glances with the warrior. "Let me guess," the bard said with a small smile, "you don't believe in suffering in silence, do you?"

The wailing stopped briefly as Antipany looked at her in surprise. "What's the point of suffering if you can't share?"

Xena snorted in disgust. Spinning around she told the bard, "You take care of her Gabrielle, I'm going to hunt up some breakfast."

"What's wrong with her?" Antipany asked as she watched Xena attend to Argo before going to hunt.

"She runs with the 'pain is a private matter' crowd," Gabrielle smiled.

"She doesn't feet pain?" Antipany said, impressed in spite of herself.

"She feels it, she just chooses to ignore it. Giving into pain is a sign of weakness."

"How very...warrior...of her," Antipany said acidly, then moaned loudly as Gabrielle helped her to her feet. And continued to loudly voice her discomfort as Gabrielle helped her to the stream where she undressed the sorceress and lowered her into a calm area of the water to bathe. The moaning abruptly stopped. Gabrielle looked around and saw that Xena was gone.

"You know, you really don't want to make her mad," Gabrielle warned. Disrobing, she joined Antipany in the cool water. Picking up a cloth and soap she gently bathed and messaged Antipany's aching muscles.

"Yes I do. Ahh...that feels good." Antipany stretched and exercised her arms and legs.

"She saved your life. You even apologized to her."

"I didn't!" Antipany looked incredulously at the bard.

"You did. You said you had seen the face of evil and it wasn't Xena."

"I didn't!" The sorceress eyed her suspiciously. "What else did I say."

"Oh, something about Xena being a rank amateur when it came to evil."

Antipany snorted. "But evil just the same. And evil should not be allowed to exist."

"She saved your life," Gabrielle repeated.

"You saved my life little one. Xena would have left me there to rot if you weren't there to guide her hand. She helped me because she cares what you think of her."

Gabrielle smacked the water with her hands in frustration. "Gods, you're a stubborn woman. You remind me of Xena..."

"Bite your tongue!" Antipany floated in the cool water while the bard finished bathing. "Tell me something Gabrielle. Have you ever seen Xena kill for no good reason?"

"No," said Gabrielle quietly, but her tone lacked conviction.

"I heard a 'but' in there somewhere."

"I've only doubted her motives once and that was when we were attacked by the Horde. She stabbed a man in the back as he was running away. But it was because she didn't want him giving away our defenses. She had a reason. She would have done anything to save me, and she was doing it the only way she knew how. I wish I could convince you how much Xena has changed. She really is a good person. She's just done some bad things in her past."

"She enjoyed the fight, didn�t she? She must be punished for her crimes," Antipany insisted. "I've lived with this anger for an eternity and talking won't make it go away. Release me from my promise, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle shook her head, "No."

Antipany grunted in frustration. "Why are you so fast to forgive her? You know the difference between good and evil. At least Kryptus is honest in his evilness. He makes no apologies for it, he revels in it. What makes you so sure Xena won't return to her old ways?"

"Faith."

"I beg your pardon?"

"I have faith the sun will rise every morning. That Argo and I will be fast friends one day. That good is stronger than evil and love is stronger than hate. That Xena will spend the rest of her life making reparations for her past mistakes."

Antipany stared at her. "There's no logic in faith."

Gabrielle smiled, "Isn't that the definition of faith?"

"And love," Antipany said dryly. "I can't argue emotions with you."

Gabrielle dried them both off and helped Antipany into a shift before dressing herself. Starting a fire, she boiled water for tea and broth for the sorceress whose stomach still rebelled at the thought of solid food.

Xena returned with fish already gutted and scaled. She bathed as Gabrielle prepared the food. Breakfast was remarkably quiet as each retreated to her own thoughts. "We need to know more about Kryptus," Xena mused. "And I�d really like to know where he is. Do you know where he was headed?"

Exhausted by bathing and swallowing the few sips she could choke down, Antipany had leaned back and closed her eyes. "Not really, but I suspect he headed to Amphipolis."

"What!" Antipany heard in stereo. She opened one eye. "Kryptus has a very urgent need for a new body and he thought a sex change might be nice. However, he wasn't too impressed with the females of our species, so I defended our honor and suggested he take a look at you. But since you are here and he's on his way to Amphipolis you don't have anything to worry about." She saw Xena's icy blue eyes turn several degrees colder.

�Xena's mother lives in Amphipolus," Gabrielle said quietly.

Both eyes opened wide. "Oh, oh." Antipany stared at Gabrielle. "I didn't know... Xena has a mother?!"

"Of course she has a mother," Gabrielle said impatiently. "Did you think she sprang full grown from Ares' hip?�

"That would be more believable. Holy Hestia, a mother. Next you'll be telling me she has a son." She shook her head in disbelief.

Gabrielle choked on her tea. Two bright red spots appeared on her cheeks as she looked at the ground. Antipany stared at her. "Great Zeus, she has a son?!" Her voice rose a couple of octaves. She sat up abruptly. "What were the gods thinking! Xena has a son. How many Mother of the Year awards did you win, princess?" She shook her head.

"Gabrielle!" Xena growled angrily.

"I didn't say anything!" Gabrielle protested weakly.

"You need a companion who has a talent for lying if you're going to have secrets princess." Antipany said thoughtfully. "This could be useful."

Hands clenched in fury, Xena stared at her. Enough was enough, Antipany had to go. It was one thing to threaten her, it was quite another to threaten her family. She reached down, grabbed the sorceress by her shift and lifted her off the ground until they were face to face. The warrior�s eyes were calm blue pools of deadliness. Antipany stared back impassively, but inside she was triumphant. If Xena killed her, Gabrielle would surely leave the murderer and even in death she would win. The carefully cultivated facade of goodness was about to be shattered.

"No, Xena. let her go!" Gabrielle grabbed Xena's arm but couldn't pry the deadly hands off the sorceress. Gabrielle doubted the warrior even knew she was there. Desperately she wedged herself up between Xena and Antipany. The two adversaries continued to stare at each other. Planting her back against Xena's chest the bard pushed as hard as she could. She could have moved Mount Olympus more easily.

"Xena, don't do this!" Gabrielle turned around with some difficulty. Placing her hands on Xena's breast plates and her knee in the warrior's stomach she pushed as hard as she could bracing herself against Antipany. The bard still couldn't move the furious warrior, but she at least got her attention. Letting go of one side of Antipany's shift, the sorceress spun away and the bard fell on her backside.

Xena looked down coldly, "What do you think you're doing?"

"Trying to prevent bloodshed, I think," Gabrielle said getting up. "Xena, she wants you to kill her. She's just baiting you."

"Hey," Antipany protested, "I may fry a few things but I don't do blood."

"Shut up," Xena said angrily. "Gabrielle, I don't care about my life, but I won't let anyone threaten my family. I'd forfeit my soul to protect them as I would to protect you."

Antipany's smug reverie was broken by the sudden realization of why Xena was so angry. She pushed the bard out of the way and stood facing the warrior. "Listen you stoic cretin." She poked Xena in the chest as hard as she could. Weak bolts of energy escaped from her fingertips.

"I don't harm the innocent..." Poke.

"...and your family hasn't done anything..." Poke.

"...so they have nothing to fear from me..." Poke.

"...because you and you alone should be punished for your crimes, princess." Poke. Poke.

Xena studied her for a long moment. Suddenly she grabbed the sorceress and pulled her closer. "That's right, me alone," she said softly, "But don't..." She gave Antipany a bone-rattling shake.

"...call me..." Shake.

"...princess." Shake. Shake.

She let go and Antipany fell to the ground in a well-shaken heap, wondering briefly if the Sorcerer's Guild covered whiplash. Gabrielle knelt down. "I told you not to make her mad."

Antipany held her head in her hands. She knew her outburst had just blown her best chance to drive Gabrielle and Xena apart and now she was so weary she just wanted to sleep forever.

The sound started as a low wail, so soft only Xena and the animals heard it at first, then crescendoed into a full-throated keening that stopped hearts for an instant and breaths for even longer.

*****


Chapter 10

Antipany whimpered as she clapped her hands over her ears and curled up into a fetal position. His voice. She would know it anywhere. �He�s come back,� she whispered.

Xena smiled, �Guess he discovered the mess we made. Sounds like he�s having a really bad day, I wonder how we can make it worse.� She frowned then looking down at the cowering sorceress said, �He�s a long distance from here, get a grip.� She reached down and pulled Antipany�s hands away from her ears. �Listen, the wailing has stopped.�

Gabrielle sat down and held Antipany in her arms. �It�s all right. No one is going to hurt you. � She looked up at the warrior, �Xena, we need to get her back to the temple. If she doesn�t start taking some proper nourishment soon she�ll die.�

Xena raised an eyebrow. This would be a tragedy? Gabrielle gave her an exasperated look. Sighing, she silently began packing their meager supplies.

Antipany felt the familiar strong arms lift her gently once again, this time seating her on Argo�s back. She stiffened as Xena seated herself behind the sorceress, encircling her waist to take the reins and urge Argo into a walk. The arms supported her securely, stilling her shaking. Finally she relaxed and leaned back against the warrior. As she fell asleep she thought wearily that she finally understood why Gabrielle felt so safe in Xena�s arms.

*****


They reached the temple late that night exhausted and hungry, their supplies gone. Telamedes met them in the courtyard. Taking in their condition in a glance, he shouted orders and within seconds Argo was being led to the stables and he was striding into the living quarters, Antipany in his arms and the warrior and her companion following closely behind. Food appeared almost as soon as the pair sat down, and they watched as the priest gently lay Antipany on the bed and tended to her while they ate.

He was shocked at her appearance. She was thin before, but now was so gaunt he could see every rib, every bone poking through impossibly pale thin skin. The few muscles she had before had vanished. Her sunken brown eyes were huge and her long auburn hair lay limp, too tired to form her usual curls.

To hot tea and broth, the priest added herbs and elixirs. Propping the sorceress up on pillows, he sat beside her and brought the tea to her lips. She took a taste and cursed him roundly. It was the vilest stuff she had ever tasted. With every sip she cursed him again. For getting her into this mess, for sending Xena out to rescue her, for the evilness of Kryptus, for the sun rising, for the sun setting, for trying to save her life.

And he agreed. Yes, he shouldn�t have sent her without knowing more, Xena was his last choice, but what was he to do on such short notice, Kryptus was evil beyond even his comprehension. As for the sun rising and setting, he�d didn�t think he had much control over that but he would talk to Apollo about it. The only thing he didn�t apologize for was for trying to save her life. Then he gently talked about how her animals did in her absence and the intelligence and bravery of Peisander. And even though she protested she was full after three sips, by the time he was done talking in his soothing melodious voice, she had consumed the awful tea and two bowls of broth and was again sound asleep.

Smiling in relief he stood up and motioned for the pair to follow him, showing them to another room where they could rest. �That was amazing,� said Gabrielle, �I couldn�t get her to drink more than a few sips.�

He nodded sympathetically, �She has a bit of a temper at times,� understating the obvious. Xena snorted. Turning to Gabrielle she said, �Go ahead and get some sleep. I�ll be back as soon as I�ve seen to Argo.� Leaving the bard, the warrior and priest headed for the stables. He was a big man about Xena�s height, with black curly hair and a full beard. Only his gentle eyes and soft deep voice attested to the caring, compassionate soul that resided within that large frame.

�Tell me about Kryptus,� Xena said as they walked.

�I always thought he was just a myth,� Telamedes admitted. �Stories about him have been around for centuries. He was just a man who gained great skill as a sorcerer. Somewhere down the line he lost his way and turned to evil. As his power grew, his vanity grew with it and when it was time to enter Hades� realm, he refused to go. He discovered a way to transfer his soul into another mortal�s body, and to nourish his purloined body and enhance his powers he fed off the life essence of other beings.�

�Why didn�t the gods stop him?� The warrior inquired.

�Well, the story goes that Kryptus worshipped Zeus with zealous butt-kissing devotion, even providing cover from Hera for the big guy for some of his lecherous escapades. A little mist here, a little cloud cover there. You�ve seen how good he is with illusions?�

Xena grimaced and nodded.

�Yes, well he wasn�t even at home when you encountered them, he�s ten times better in person. Anyway, for his services, Zeus has granted him protection from the other gods. Kryptus is no dummy, he�s very careful not to offend any of them, choosing only mortals not smiled on by the gods.�

�That would make most of us fair game,� Xena smiled ruefully. �And apparently Antipany had no special dispensation even though she practices sorcery.�

�No, sorcerers are his favorite food, considers them a delicacy. And Antipany has not endeared herself to any of the gods. Apollo is especially irritated with her.� He pointed to his beloved laurel trees. Xena could see burn marks through some of the branches and places where whole limbs had been sheared off. �Antipany can be quite passionate in her arguments, but she has the unfortunate habit of talking with her hands as well as with her voice. She loses control of those energy bolts she throws and the trees suffer for it.� He frowned. �She says pruning is good for the poor trees.�

Xena did her best to hide her smile at the priest�s distress. They entered the stable and Xena found Argo brushed and happily munching her grain. She stroked the mare�s neck, relaxing for the first time since their adventure began.

Telamedes watch for a few moments leaning against the stall. �Animals are wonderful aren�t they, unfailing in their loyalty and companionship, unquestioning in their devotion, always ready to forgive. Not at all like us humans. We find it hard to forgive even when we know it is the right thing to do. You don�t deserve Antipany�s rage, Xena.�

She buried her face into Argo�s side. �Yes I do,� she whispered.

�Maybe at one time, but not anymore. Antipany has nourished her anger for so long she doesn�t know how to let it go, it�s a fire that will consume her if she doesn�t put it out soon.� Then, not being in the mood to die that day, he stifled the urge to comfort the warrior by hugging her, but couldn�t resist the impulse to put a hand on her shoulder. �Good people do evil deeds, Xena. We all do, it�s part of our humanity. But good men have remorse for their cruel acts while truly evil men like Kryptus see no wrong in what they do.� He squeezed her shoulder. �You are a good person, my friend.�

It was too much really, as exhausted as she was, the kind words started an emotional struggle within her that threatened to spill out beyond her control. She closed her eyes against the tears trying to escape, gritting her teeth and taking a deep breath to calm the anguish trying to explode from her, so many innocent lives lost, so much guilt. Gods, she thought, Xena destroyer of cities brought to her knees by an act of compassion from a stranger. How pathetic. Good thing Callisto hadn�t thought of it or she�d be dead by now.

Control finally won. She shrugged off the sympathetic hand, stood tall and surreptitiously wiped a small traitorous tear from the corner of her eye before turning to face the priest. There was no sign her inner turmoil on her face.

�What do we do about Kryptus?� she asked coolly.

He studied her for a moment, then sighing turned and headed out of the stables. �Tell me what you found.�

As the pair walked across the courtyard she described the illusions, the spheres and the crystals and how they managed to destroy them . He listened intently, muttering to himself occasionally. �I think he�s gone. When you destroyed the crystals you destroyed his ability to focus his powers and maintain a corporeal body. My guess is that his spirit is roaming around, madder than Hades, trying to put all the pieces back together. How long that will take is anybody�s guess, but until he pops up again as flesh and blood I don�t think there is anything we can do. He must have gotten complacent in his old age, probably hasn�t had a serious challenge to his power for decades until you came along. In the meantime, I�ll study the problem and get Apollo�s advice. Maybe he�s ready to help us now.�

�I won�t hold my breath,� Xena said. She bade Telamedes good night and went back to her room. Gabrielle had gone sound asleep as soon as her head hit the pallet. The warrior stood over her pondering the priest�s words. Perhaps there was hope for her yet if her model for goodness stayed with her. She gently stroked Gabrielle�s hair and kissed her softly on the forehead. �I love you, my friend,� she whispered so softly she wasn�t sure she had said it out loud.

*****


They made preparations to leave the following morning. It would be pointless to wait around for Kryptus to pull himself together. If and when that happened it would take a group of them working together to get rid of the problem once and for all. And besides, Xena wanted to be far away before Antipany recovered enough to continue her vendetta.

Gabrielle found the sorceress resting comfortably. When she touched her shoulder she opened her eyes and smiled.

�We�re getting ready to leave and I wanted to say goodbye. Telamedes says you�re going to be fine.�

�Pity,� Antipany said wearily, �Release me from my oath Gabrielle.�

�No,� Gabrielle replied quickly. She didn�t even have to think about this one.

�Pity.� Antipany closed her eyes.

Gabrielle leaned down and kissed her cheek. As she stood to go, she felt Antipany�s hand grab her arm.

�Thank you Gabrielle. I don�t know why you bother, but thank you anyway.�

�Because I like you and it�s the right thing to do,� Gabrielle replied.

Antipany opened her eyes scowling, �Do you know how irritating that it is, being around someone who always does the right thing? I don�t know how Xena stands it.�

Gabrielle opened her mouth to protest, then smiled shaking her head, �Oh no you don�t. I�m not going to let you drive a wedge between us.�

�Worth a try.� Antipany squeezed the bard�s arm before letting it go.

�Antipany, you won�t spread rumors about Xena�s family, will you? A lot of people could get hurt if word gets around.� Gabrielle looked worried.

�No, the poor boy has enough trauma in his life, knowing he�s Xena�s son. I won�t add to it.� She lifted an eyebrow as Gabrielle�s gaze flickered. �He does know Xena�s his mother, doesn�t he?�

Damnation. Gabrielle spun around, �Gottagoseeyouaround.�

�Gabrielle!� The bard stopped and turned around slowly. �You�d think such a wonderful storyteller would be a better liar, wouldn�t you?� Antipany smiled. �Don�t worry, Xena�s secret is safe with me.� Gabrielle looked at her doubtfully. �Cross my heart and hope to die.� Antipany said wearily, closing her eyes once more.

Gabrielle joined the warrior and Argo in the courtyard and after bidding Telamedes and Peisander farewell, they headed down the road. Gabrielle looked back at the temple and giggled. Xena looked at her in surprise, �What�s wrong with you?�

�Antipany is in love with Telamedes.�

�She has a funny way of showing it,� Xena said dryly. Antipany had cursed at him in a much stronger voice that morning, angry at not being allowed to return home. In her agitation she had fired off an inadvertent energy bolt shattering a jar and singeing the priest�s hair as it shot past. A tendril of smoke rising from his head, Telamedes had come out of the room beaming, certain now his patient would survive.

Gabrielle stared pointedly at her companion and arched an eyebrow. Xena glanced at her. �What?� She said irritated.

�Some people have a lot of trouble expressing their true feelings,� said the bard jabbing Xena�s arm for emphasis. The warrior looked straight ahead, choosing to ignore the implication.

�Xena,� said the bard deciding to let her off the hook, �Do you believe pure evil exists? I mean an evil untainted by any form of goodness?�

�Yes, I do,� Xena replied. �And if we find it we should show it no mercy, because it has none, it would consume us all if we let it.� She sighed, �Pandora really make a mess of it when she opened up that box.� She looked down at Gabrielle and smiled, �Although, I bet you�re going to say there is a bright side to evil.�

�No,� said the bard shaking her head. �But... if evil didn�t exist, how would you know how precious goodness is?�

�Good point,� Xena said, laying a hand on the bard�s shoulder as they walked. �Believe me, I treasure it every day.�


End
Aug, 1997

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