Hide and Seek Part 2
Xena looked around the room. Tables and chairs lined the walls, covered in dust. Bowls of fresh fruit glistened on the tables. Goblets filled with rich red wine were spread about as well. They looked quite out of place in the cold, dusty room.
She reached over and grabbed an apple from the nearest bowl. She studied it. It appeared freshly picked, ripe and juicy. Her stomach began to rumble, she hadn't eaten anything all day. She slowly brought the apple to her lips, her mouth watering. She could already taste the sweet juice...
"I wouldn't do that if I were you."
Xena's head whipped around. Celesta was standing there, looking calm and peaceful, wearing a hint of a smile. Recalling the cruel trick the goddess had played on her and her friends, Xena threw down the apple and drew her sword. "What are you doing here?" she growled angrily.
"What am I doing here?" Celesta frowned, "I'm here on a stupid bet between my hotheaded brother and Ares! Ares stole my candle and hid it somewhere in this labyrinth, and bet Hades I couldn't find it before sundown."
She clenched her hands in frustration, "Of course, they don't consider the fact that I actually have more important things to do than play their little games. But I need my candle to do anything. So, here I am. And you?" Celesta folded her arms in front of her, curiously raising her eyebrows.
Xena took a menacing step forward, seething with anger, "That's a lie! You're the one who sent us here, and I want to know why! Right now!"
Celesta stepped back in shock, "I did no such thing! What are you talking about? There are more of you here?"
Xena's eyes narrowed dangerously, "Look, I'm only going to ask you one more time..."
Celesta put her hands on her hips, "Or what, you'll kill me? I'm Death, remember? That sword isn't going to do you much good. Anyway, I did <I>not</I> send you here."
Xena considered the woman's words. Sheathing her sword, she stood as close to the Goddess of Death as she dared. "All right. So, you're telling me that you didn't meet us at that strange castle with the big purple swirl overhead, where everyone suddenly died? That you didn't lead us to a room where you went hysterical, did the face-thing, and blew us across the room and down to this place? You're telling me you didn't do all that? Because if that wasn't you, someone who looks and sounds exactly you has it coming to her!"
Celesta's face went from total confusion at what Xena described to anger. "Proteus! That son of a Bacchae! What is he up to now?" Looking sympathetically at Xena, she explained, "Xena, that figure passing itself off as me was Proteus. He can assume any form he chooses. All gods can do it to a certain degree, but he is extremely skilled. I don't know why he's up to masquerading as me and sending you down here, but I'll be happy to help you. Once I find my candle of course."
Xena studied her for a moment, "Prove you're the Goddess of Death."
Celesta smiled, "Well, I could kill you with a touch, but I doubt that's necessary. Besides, I can't take you before your time. Ethics, you know." She laughed at Xena's snort of derision, "It's true, Xena. We gods have our own set of rules and morals we live by. Not that we expect mortals to understand them, of course. Here, this should be proof enough..."
Gliding over to the fruit-laden table, she touched her fingertips to a bowl of luscious green apples. They quickly began to wrinkle and turn brown. In seconds all that was left was a bowl full of rotting black slime, which was quickly turning to ash.
Clearly impressed, Xena lifted an eyebrow, "Okay, so you're the Goddess of Death. You could've saved me one. I had my eye on those apples."
Celesta shook he head, "I'd forget about eating anything just yet. Unless you don't mind staying in the Underworld."
"What! We're in the Underworld?"
The goddess nodded, "Oh yes! This is one of the Labyrinths of Tarterus. Hades hardly uses them anymore. Not cruel enough for the scum that wind up here, I guess."
Xena grimaced, rubbing her forehead, which was now beginning to ache, "Great, just Great! This is all I need. Look, my friends and I got separated back there somewhere," she gestured at the darkness through the door, "and I need to find them. If I help you find your candle, will you get me and my friends out of here?"
Celesta nodded, "I'd appreciate the help. We'll search for your friends along the way. Once I have my candle, getting you out of here won't be a problem. Shall we?" She swept her hand toward the door.
Xena agreed, and with a final longing glance at the feast, she followed Celesta back into the dark tunnels.
They wandered down the passageway, which no longer had a gaping hole, until it branched off into multiple smaller tunnels.
"Well, which way?" Xena asked, scrutinizing each path, but they all looked the same.
"That's what I was about to ask you," Celesta shrugged her shoulders, quite irritated at Ares and her brother.
Xena looked at each tunnel again and had an odd feeling about the one to their left. "This way," she said and took the lead. She half-turned while walking, eyeing Celesta. "And don't follow too close!"
"I understand," Celesta grinned and glided silently behind her.
Gabrielle and Amarice sat there in the dark tunnel, waiting. Graegus paced back and forth outside, as if it knew they had to come out sometime. The beast was so patient now. So frightening.
"What should we do?" Amarice tried to sound calm and controlled, but couldn't quite pull it off. At least her shoulder was feeling better now, it only throbbed a little.
"Well, we seem safe for now. All we can do is wait for Xena," Gabrielle sighed. All they could do was wait.
They'd been walking for hours, and Xena was getting frustrated. Her instincts were swirling in circles, this path felt right, then that one, but it kept changing.
"See anything?" Celesta asked. Oddly enough, she seemed quite relaxed.
"Yeah, tunnels and more tunnels," Xena snapped, her frustration seeping through. She rather be fighting Graegus instead of wandering through these endless passages.
"Calm yourself, Xena. Anger never solves anything, just follow your heart," Celesta advised in a soft voice.
"I have been! But it keeps shifting and..." It suddenly came to her. Of course! Why didn't she see it before? "C'MON!" Xena yelled, and began to run, knowing exactly where to go.
Running through tunnel after tunnel, they finally came to the room she'd woken up in. They stood directly behind Graegus. Xena looked around for her friends, but didn't see them. She wasn't sure if that was a good sign or not.
Graegus stopped pacing and sniffed the air. It could smell them. It turned around slowly to face its new meal.
"I think I know where your candle is," Xena said, looking the beast in the eyes.
"I'll handle this," nodded Celesta, gliding toward the beast. She was swift and smooth as she laid a hand on its foot.
Graegus howled, but something was wrong because it didn't wither and die like Xena expected. Instead it seemed to feed on the goddess's deadly touch. It began to glow with an eerie yellow light.
"Uh, Celesta," Xena unhooked her chakram, "I don't think it's working."
The goddess shook her head, "I know what I'm doing."
Howling and shaking its head in rage, Graegus began pounding its front paws fiercely against the floor. The whole room shook, large stones broke loose from the ceiling, and the floor seemed to tilt beneath Xena's feet. One particularly hard pound from the beast's foot threw Xena off balance. Landing hard on her bottom, she rolled backward into the wall behind her.
The shaking didn't seem to affect Celesta at all. She remained calm, and almost bored expression on her face. The creature glowed brighter and brighter and continued to howl until the sound was almost deafening.
Suddenly, two figures appeared in a sparkle of light next to it. Ares, God of War, stood with his arms folded across his impressive chest, a brooding look on his face. Beside him was Hades, holding his Helmet of Invisibility under one arm. The Lord of the Underworld looked pleased.
"Game's over Ares. She found her candle before sundown, now call off the dog."
Ares frowned over at Xena, who was standing up and dusting herself off, "You...can't ....think that you've won. Getting...her...to help you isn't exactly playing fair."
Hades grinned, "You're just sorry you didn't think of it first."
Celesta shook the beast's foot in frustration, "Come on, Proteus! Give it back!"
Hades frowned, "Proteus? How can that be?"
The creature suddenly dimmed and went still. Slowly it began to loose its shape, morphing down to human-size until it stood solid again. The god Proteus stood there in his natural form, bent and disfigured. He shook off Celesta's hold on his neck, and held out her candle. she grabbed it from him with a furious glare.
Hades pointed a finger at the shape-shifting god, "And using him to hide the candle? That's fair?"
Ares shrugged, "I hid it by myself originally. Of course, after you brought in extra help," he gestured to Xena, "I decided to bring in my own help."
Hades fumed, "Explain yourself, Proteus! We had a deal."
Proteus smiled, revealing long, crooked teeth, "When I agreed to appear as that swirl in the sky--"
"And me!" Celesta interrupted angrily.
Proteus bowed slightly to her, hands folded in supplication, "Never have I assumed a more lovelier form, dear goddess."
Celesta raised an eyebrow, but declined to berate him further.
The ugly god continued, "After I lured the woman and her friends here, my deal with you, Hades, was fulfilled. I saw no problem agreeing with Ares's request to hide the candle, as well." He chuckled, "Quite an amusing game, all in all."
Xena listened to the gods bicker back and forth, getting more and more agitated. She walked over to them. "Look, I hate to break up this little party, but I need to find my friends. Now."
The four gods looked as if they'd forgotten she was there. Ares spread his hands in front of him, "Wasn't <I>my</I> idea to bring you here. Have fun looking, though." He pointed a finger at Hades, "We'll finish this later." He winked at Celesta and flashed out of sight.
Hades sighed, "Never can admit defeat, can he?"
Xena grinned, "He <I>is</I> the God of War."
"Go ahead, brother. I promised to help Xena find her friends," Celesta admitted.
He nodded and turned to Proteus, "We need to talk." He put a hand on the other god's shoulder and they both flashed away, as well.
Crossing her arms, the goddess glared at the air where they had vanished, "I'm going to have one serious talk with him. Imagine! Wasting all this time when there are people who need my help."
Xena raised an eyebrow, "Well, you can get back to your work as soon as we finished here."
Celesta smiled warmly, "Of course. Your friends are right through there." She pointed to a passage on the other side of the room. Xena ran across, sidestepping the large chunks of rock that littered the floor.
"Gabrielle? Amarice?" Silence answered her echoing call. Concerned, she hurried inside. The sight that greeted her made her smile.
Gabrielle and Amarice were huddled together, fast asleep. Fright and worry and exhaustion had finally taken their toll.
Their deep sleep was disturbed when Xena loudly cleared her throat. They jolted awake, startled from the sound coming from so close, but seeing Xena, they quickly got to their feet.
A familiar sound woke them when none of the tremendous pounding and howling could. The idea made Xena chuckle to herself. Gabrielle threw herself into Xena's arms, hugging her tightly.
"Hey!" Xena checked to see if Celesta was watching, but hugged her back anyway.
Gabrielle eventually let go, not that she wanted to, but she didn't want to embarrass her. After reassuring herself that her friends were indeed okay, and that Amarice's shoulder wasn't too bad, Xena led them back to Celesta.
"You can exit through that passage," the goddess pointed to a tunnel they hadn't seen before. Before Xena could thank her, she faded out of sight. "C'mon, let's go," she led the way out.
Once outside, the bright sunlight was so strong they had to cover their eyes for many minutes until they adjusted. They breathed the warm, fresh air, so clean and pure compared to that in the labyrinth.
"Where to now?" Gabrielle asked, feeling giddy with relief, she acted as if nothing happened.
"How about you go down there and map out all those tunnels?" Amarice smirked. Gabrielle looked around for a couple of rabbits.
"Or you could jot down some ideas for your scrolls," Xena suggested, "but first I think we should find some food. I'm starving!" All three of their stomachs began to rumble at her words.
Xena's attention quickly shifted. Someone was coming.
"So where have you guys been? Hey Gabrielle!" Joxer's voice made Gabrielle jump, coming from right behind her.
"I'll be in the caves," Gabrielle sighed, and actually began walking toward them. Xena and Amarice weren't sure if was kidding or not.
"Well, wait... I'll go with you!" Joxer followed her like the love-sick puppy he was.
Gabrielle stopped, rolled her eyes, and turned to him, "No no, Joxer, I... Okay, tell you what, you go into those caves," she pointed to where they had exited, "find a place to hide, and count to 100. Then I'll try to find you." Gabrielle smiled innocently, trying hard to control her laughter. He could be such a child sometimes.
"Okay!" He readily agreed, "You'll never find me, I'm good at hiding!" He ran off toward the tunnels.
Xena looked at Amarice. Amarice looked at Gabrielle. Gabrielle smiled at both of them. They began to laugh. First quietly, but they soon couldn't control themselves! Gabrielle fell to the ground, she was laughing so hard.
"You...y...you think there's a real Graegus?" Gabrielle gasped between bursts of laughter.
"I hope so!" Amarice chuckled and fell down beside her, her shoulder forgotten.
Eventually, the three calmed down headed off to find their camp. Xena knew they'd go back for Joxer, but only after they found food. Lots of food. In the distance, if you listened carefully, you could just barely hear someone's voice...
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