Gabrielle stopped short, slapping her palm against Xena's stomach to halt their progress through the crowd.
Xena froze mid-step, looking down at herself and the hand at her stomach with an amused half-smile. The gesture had only resulted in Gabrielle's arm disappearing into the warrior's abdomen, but the unconscious action seemed somehow amusingly familiar. Well aware that an arm buried up to its elbow within her would probably look odd to anyone who happened to notice, Xena stepped back a bit so that now gently splayed palm gave the appearance of resting against her tunic.
"Evelyn's gone," Gabrielle repeated ominously, looking up at Xena with wide green eyes full of meaning.
"Apparently," Xena replied and took a quick glance around at the room. New music was bringing a fresh wave of dancers to the dance floor; others were leaving, returning to their seats. The round dinner tables remained crowded with soldiers who were drinking and carousing in much the same manner as they had been all evening. It appeared as though Evelyn's disappearance had gone virtually unnoticed.
Xena looked down at the treasured blond head standing in front of her and made a deep, sad sigh. The small shamaness' disappearance could only herald one thing: their time together was about to come to an end.
"Whadda ya say we get you out of here?" she asked, changing her expression to a forced grin when those pretty green eyes turned back her way.
"I'm right behind you," Gabrielle responded, mirroring the smile.
"This way. Stay close." Xena motioned in a direction that was, for the most part, a clear path out of the grand pavilion.
If she could, Xena would have taken Gabrielle's hand in her own and led her around the tables, through the crowd, out of the tent and kept on going until the army, Corinth and even Greece was nothing but a distant memory. However, the fact that she would never be able to do even this simple thing, the act of holding her hand, reminded her that wishes were truly like horses - fast and fleeting, and liable to throw you the moment you let your guard down.
With quick steps, she led them through the crowd. Xena's commanding presence and long strides easily parted a path through a sea of drunken soldiers. With every passing moment, she found herself worrying that Gabrielle would vanish before they had a chance to say anything to one another at all. And then, who knew when next she would return – if ever.
With a sudden burst of impatience, Xena shoved a few drunks aside, ushering Gabrielle out into the dark warmth of the Corinthian summer night. Once they were beyond the pavilion's border of the heavy canvas, it was as though that world, a world of music and merriment - a bright, colorful world of almost surreal festivity - had suddenly disappeared. The night was serene by comparison. A whimsical cacophony of celebration was still audible; the party's muffled tones were lifted up by a soft summer breeze and carried out to dance playfully across the gentle plains of the peaceful valley. There were very few people mulling around outside the immediate area. As they walked, Xena kept a wary eye on one or two stray soldiers who were staggering off into the darkness, heading back to their tents. Other than this, they were alone.
Gabrielle found herself mesmerized by the contrast of the dazzling gaiety within and the tranquility of the warm night outside. She stared at the valley spread out before them, quiet and dark, save for the distant sparkle of dim campfires and the flitting shadows of soldiers who hovered around them more for the light they provided than their warmth. Her gaze lifted up to the heavens and was immediately greeted by a startling display of Greece's celestial heaven.
"My god, it's beautiful!" Gabrielle commented breathlessly, looking up at a sky filled with stars that twinkled like diamonds cast out across an ocean of midnight black. The sky was alive with more stars than Gabrielle had ever seen in her life. The longer she stared, the deeper the dark void became, the more vivid the starry show. In her life, the stars were always washed out by a haze of smog and light pollution – only the brightest of constellations were visible on even the most cloudless and clear of nights.
But here, in ancient Greece, where street lights, traffic and skyscrapers were madness unimaginable, the night sky came alive in all of its celestial splendor.
"It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," she commented, looking up at the heavens in awe.
"I used to think so, too," Xena stated, glancing up as she led them further away from the pavilion, desiring as much privacy as was possible in a military encampment.
"Used to?" Gabrielle turned her attention to the warrior.
"Yeah, used to." Xena motioned up toward the sky with an elegant sweep of her arm; the silken fabric of her tunic shifted gently in the warm summer breeze. "The times I spent in the field with my army, in the quiet of the night when the rest of the troops were asleep, except for the guards – I used to love to walk through the camp. Thousands of troops spread out along a meadow floor sleeping under a blanket of twinkling stars. I imagined the stars were the teardrops of the gods, crying for those who were about to die. I used to think that those moments were the most beautiful moments of my life."
Gabrielle stopped walking, halting their progress away from the tent and turned to face the warrior, her expression firm. "Why is it you always relate everything to your army, to war – to death? Life should be about so much more than that."
Xena looked down at her companion and her lips turned upward into a half grin. "I know that now."
"Xena," Gabrielle said looking up into soft eyes that rivaled the beauty of the stars, "there's so much I want to say. So much I need to tell you."
Xena lifted her hands, stopping her words. "Don't. This isn't good-bye. This isn't about that. Besides, we tried that once, remember? Obviously, you didn't listen to me the last time. I have a feeling no matter what I have to say about fooling around with dangerous things – you won't listen."
"What I'm fooling around with right now – it's not so dangerous." Gabrielle responded playfully, not really referring to the drug at all.
"You sure 'bout that?" Xena's eyebrow twitched, threatening to rise. "Are you forgetting what you saw the last time you popped in on me, unannounced?"
A small blush colored Gabrielle's cheek. "I can't say that didn't surprise me, because I'd be lying," she admitted. "I know there's a side of you, a dark side that I may never understand. It even scares me a little."
Gabrielle had the sudden desire to reach up and run her fingers along that elegant, expressive brow - lay her palm against smooth skin and caress the side of Xena's face, assuring her that there wasn't a thing about her - dark, dangerous or otherwise that could ever turn her away. There were others things she wanted to do to convince her of this truth, but all they had were words and so words would have to do.
"It doesn't change anything. Xena, I won't stay way. I can't."
"And I don't want you to," Xena admitted acquiescing for the first time to something she felt in her heart. "So, I'm going to trust that your friend, Evelyn has some skill at being a shamaness despite the funny hat. But, I want you to be careful, you got that?"
Gabrielle nodded, trying to hide a triumphant smile in order to appear serious, but feeling as though she had just won a small, but no less significant battle.
"And," Xena added, raising a pragmatic finger, "just remember, the next time you come back, I'll be at the head of this big army on a campaign for all-out war against Persia. You could end up popping in right in the middle of a battle, like before – only worse."
Gabrielle nodded again quickly. "Yes, I know. I'll be careful."
"You won't have time to be careful, Gabrielle. Just be ready."
Xena sighed and looked to the heavens. Must the girl question every little thing? The Goddess of Love was up there laughing at her – she just knew it.
"React. Don't think react," Xena stated in the way of an explanation, "That's the only way I manage stay alive in battle. If I stop to think, I'm dead. I don't have time to weigh the pros and cons. If I see you and you're in danger, I'm going to react to that. A sword may not be able to hurt you, but it can sure ruin my day. Do you understand now?"
Gabrielle smiled - a cute grin that crinkled her nose in an adorable way.
"Sure, I get it. You care about me. That's nice."
Xena shook her head bemused. "I've been called many things, but I have to admit, none of them was ever nice."
"You are nice," Gabrielle refuted strongly. "And you have a good heart, too."
To this comment, Xena only snorted. "Just wait 'til you get to know me a little better."
"I know all I need to know."
The comment only made Xena's eyebrow rise. "Really? What makes you think I won't push you up against a wall and kiss you like you saw me do to that servant?"
"So what makes you think that I don't want you to?" Gabrielle held her ground, meeting the dare with a fearless smile.
"So what makes you think I won't?" Xena tossed back in a soft, smooth tone, her eyebrow arching even higher as she took a small, but imposing step forward, toward Gabrielle.
"Because you can't even touch me?"
"But you've touched me."
"Have I?" Gabrielle asked, somewhat confused.
"You have. Maybe not with your hand, or with skin against skin - but in other ways that matter more," Xena confirmed, studying the innocent face that stared up at her.
No, not innocent, Xena amended, regarding Gabrielle thoughtfully in the soft darkness of the warm night. The woman standing before her dressed in Amazon regalia was no longer a young girl, but a strong, mature woman who filled every inch of that Amazon Queen's attire in more ways than one.
Gabrielle's whole being radiated a beauty of soul that was quite simply breathtaking to look at. At one time, Xena may have thought of the stars above as the gods' tears, now whenever she looked up at them, she would forever be reminded of someone else.
"You have touched me, Gabrielle. Like no one else ever has. I don't know how or why, but somehow, I feel closer to you than anyone else I ever have in my life ever." Xena closed her mouth tight. She couldn't believe the words that were escaping from her lips.
Every nerve ending in Xena's body was screaming for her to just kiss the girl. Somehow, though all she found herself able to do was stare mutely down at Gabrielle like a dumb teen about to steal a kiss for the very first time.
Only Gabrielle's charming grin kept the tender moment from turning awkward. "Xena, for what it's worth, I really do wish you could kiss me right now."
"Really?" Xena asked softly.
Blue eyes that just a moment ago were so vulnerable, turned wickedly playful. "So, what makes you think I can't?"
"Xena be serious, how can you?" Gabrielle swatted at Xena's mid-section with the back of her right hand which ended up passing right through the warrior. "See what I mean?"
Xena moved closer, taking that one small half step needed to change the distance and the mood between them from safe and friendly to electrifyingly personal. They were so close, Xena imagined she could smell the soft scent of jasmine in Gabrielle's golden hair.
She leaned down, stopping only to smile ruefully. "Just watch me."
Xena didn't need to touch them to know the way Gabrielle's lips would feel – gentle and warm, full of love and acceptance, like no one else she had ever kissed before. She barely moved less the moment be disturbed and the spell broken, and leaned in only far enough to pretend to place her lips gently just at the corner of Gabrielle's – a chaste, but no less heartfelt offer of everything she was feeling.
Without warning, like fingers brushing against wool just before a storm, a spark ignited where their lips would have touched. She heard Gabrielle gasp and suddenly every nerve ending in Xena's body tingled with sensation. A whirlwind of images flooded her mind as though she had been swept into a dreamscape alive with memories.
They rode through a meadow together on Argo, Gabrielle's arms wrapped tightly around her mid-section, moving in the rhythm of a gallop as though they had been doing so for all of their lives.
Fighting side by side against ruffians, warlords, Gods – the God of War himself.
At a cliff's edge, locked in a bitter struggle that sent them tumbling over the abyss - only to receive absolution in the gentle caress of an ocean wave.
Xena surrounded by a ring of fire, leaning down to place a kiss upon the lips of a slumbering warrior poet.
Dead, alive, dead, nailed to crosses, raised to the heavens, cast down to hell and pulled back up again.
Even in death, Gabrielle, I will never leave you
Xena's mind whirled like a tornado, throwing her balance, stealing her breath and causing her heart to pound until she thought it would explode. And though she knew that pulling away would end their connection and stop the visions, she stumbled back, gasping for air, her hand pushed up against the painful pounding of her heart.
There was truth in those visions, she realized as she fought to breathe. There was truth in every one. They were meant to be together and all of this – the army, the conquests, all the wars - everything she was living now – everything she was - was all wrong.
It was all wrong! And everything that was right was standing right in front of her. Xena's mind grew dizzy with the revelation of it.
But when Xena's breath returned and her vision cleared, all that was right, along with Gabrielle, was gone.
She was dreaming – she knew it, but couldn't bring herself to wake up out of the nightmare. Xena and Gabrielle had found one another. Somehow, despite the fact that centuries of time and the barrier of an ancient spell stood like a towering wall between them, they had managed to overcome all obstacles and end up together. She was watching them, helpless to interfere, staring impotently as their lips finally touched in a tender recognition of love.
It was horrifying. She felt the power leaking out of her veins and spilling all over the sheets, staining them with a putrid shade of black coagulating blood. Her connection with the part of Xena that was evil, that darkness that even Ares craved, was slowly but surely being severed and by none other than that irritating little blond worthless bit of womanhood – her daughter.
"THAT BITCH!" She bolted up in bed forcing herself out of the vision, screaming. A layer of perspiration plastered long strands of hair to her head and face. Irritated, she wiped them away from her eyes with the back of her hand and then tossed the thick down covers aside.
"This isn't possible," she mumbled as she tore off silk Victoria Secret teddies and threw on a pair of jeans and a black sweater. "She isn't smart enough to pull it off."
She reached inside the closet and pulled out her black leather jacket. Pausing, one arm in the sleeve, she looked at the radio clock next to the bed.
Whatever the brat was up to, if she moved fast enough, she just might be able to catch her doing it.
She was through the bedroom door and rushing down the stairs before her jacket was barely on her back. Pausing only to grab her purse and then ring for the chauffeur, she pulled on the ornate golden knob of the heavy front door and heaved it open.
The black limo screeched up the driveway just as she was slamming the front door shut. A driver on call 24 hours a day did come in handy at times. Usually, she used the service to discreetly drive an evening's entertainment home.
This morning, however, she would use the service to catch a rat in a trap – a little blond rat, at that.
The long black limousine pulled up to the front of the house and she waited impatiently, arms crossed, for the vehicle to shift into park. In a second, a uniformed man was out of the driver's seat and running around the front of the car, grabbing at the passenger door with a gloved hand and swinging it open.
She glared at him, as though the bare few seconds it had taken him to get from the guard house to the front door wasn't even close to being fast enough.
Gabrielle's mother slipped into the luxuriously upholstered leather passenger seat in the rear of the limo and pulled her coat tail in behind her.
"Take me to my daughter," she ordered with a snarl.
The driver went to slam the car door shut, but she stopped him abruptly, bracing the door with her hand. "And don't stop for anything, not even a red light. Do you understand me?"
The driver stared at her, unnerved by the hardness of her expression and the anger that was making it appear almost as though her eyes were glowing with an unearthly green.
"Yes, ma'am," he answered, throat suddenly dry.
"Don't just stand there holding the door, you idiot! Drive!"
She released her hold on the door, and the driver slammed it closed, then scurried so quickly around the front to the driver's seat, he almost slipped on the pavement made slippery from the frost of early morning dew. She chortled wickedly in satisfaction, but then the memory of the dream came back to her, leaving an equally wicked taste in her back of her mouth.
"GO!" she ordered. And without further delay, the car lurched forward and sped off.
"You can't hide from me, Gabrielle," she vowed through clenched teeth, her thoughts seething with anger, "you can't hide from a god."
A flash of lightning nearly blinded her and then a torrential downpour of rain began to pelt against her face, soaking right through the thick furry fabric of her shamaness cloak. Evelyn lifted her hands to shield her eyes in an attempt to see but another flash of lightning flared through the night, stealing her sight. The long rumble of thunder that followed sent a rush of adrenalin, rattling her nerves, making her forget all about the rain.
Where was she, her mind screamed?
She squinted through the pouring rain and attempted to look around. It was pitch black and impossible to see. Thankfully, another smaller flash lit up the dark images surrounding her and Evelyn was barely able to make out that she was in some kind of village. Rows of primitively made huts and signs of organized, though primitive, life flickered into view all around her. A few of the dwellings appeared to be inhabited; the soft warm glow of hearth fire illuminated them from within, the storm having driven all residents inside for the night.
A wind picked up, splattering thick rain drops in every direction. A flash of lightning followed by thunder made Evelyn cringe. Already her coat was drenched, the fake fur flat and darkened by the rain. She reached up with wet fingers feeling for her headdress and could tell that the stuffed velvet antlers on the top of her hat were already beginning to droop.
Evelyn wiped her face with the sleeve of her cloak and began to look around in earnest.
Why did she end up here?
She had been watching Xena and Gabrielle dance, a thoroughly heart-warming and engaging sight, when suddenly she felt her world tilt. The next thing she knew, she had opened her eyes to find herself back in her apartment. After a few minutes, when Gabrielle didn't follow, she scrambled to get two tablets of Oxy from her hidden stash, crushed them, spread out two lines on a small make up mirror with the edge of a ceremonial knife and sniffed up the lines of white powder, one in each nostril, using a rolled up bit of fake leather costume material that lay nearby.
The powder hit the back of her nose like a hammer, making her eyes water. In a second, she was choking on the bitter aftertaste of a wicked nasal drip and then her mind, and stomach, went into a tailspin. Just when she thought she was going to throw up, she felt a splash of water against her face and opened her eyes to find herself here, standing in a storm in the middle of some kind of village soaked through to the skin.
The downpour of rain was so heavy, big fat droplets were beginning to slip from her lashes and slide down her nose. She blinked a few times and started slow, soggy steps through mud to the nearest hut. There was no light inside. Perhaps it was empty? She might able to take shelter from the storm for a few minutes while she figured things out.
She trudged through puddles toward what appeared to be the door, a flap of animal skins, and paused to listen.
It was then she heard it - muffled whimpering followed by an evil snicker. The voice that she heard next made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.
"So, the little princess wanted to learn a real, live shamaness spell, did you?" There was that insidious snicker again and the hoarse, evil sounding voice continued. "Well, you know what they say careful what you ask for."
There was a short sob and then came the disturbing sound of something being ripped apart.
The voice, deep and gravely, attempted to soothe, "Ssssh, sssssh, my dear. Shamaness lesson number one – the fastest way to an Amazon's heart, is through their stomach."
Evelyn heard what sounded like a stifled cry followed by a sickening gurgle, but then all sound was drowned out by a violet clap of thunder. Bare moments later, an evil cackle of laughter was joined by a flare of lightening that practically made Evelyn's heart stop still.
Without thinking, she threw back the flap and rushed into the tent. Another blaze of lightning illuminated the inside of the dwelling. Evelyn glanced around anxiously, trying to make sense of the many briefly illuminated shadows. Another flash lit up the still form of a body lying on the floor and something else – a dark shadow hovering over the body like a dark, sinister specter.
Another bolt of light streaked through the heavens and Evelyn watched wide-eyed as the flash lit up the victim's chest just as it was being sliced by the edge of a curved knife. The sharp blade passed between milky white breasts all way down to the belly button like a knife through butter. Another flash and Evelyn could see the killer rip open the rib cage and then gleefully dip long, craggy hands inside the gaping, bloody hole intent on the prize contained within.
Lightning flared again, illuminating the killers face and then Evelyn knew who she was looking at: it was Alti. The woman named by Xena. The monster she had popped in on the last time - doing, apparently, what she liked to do best.
Evelyn had arrived just seconds too late to stop a murder.
More lightning flashed, lighting up everything within the dark hut and Evelyn could see that the murderous woman was about to eat her poor victim's heart. The organ was still pumping and now Evelyn began to think she really was going to hurl.
"YOU BITCH!" she screamed, swallowing bile.
Alti nearly dropped the slippery organ in surprise. She looked up, eyes glaring with an anger that sizzled red like a bolt of lightning tearing straight out from the bowels of hell itself.
"YOU!" Alti screeched.
A boom of thunder shook the walls of the tent, but Alti ignored it. She let the heart flop wetly back into the chest of her victim and lifted the curved knife with gory fingers. In the flash of light that followed, Evelyn could see bloody matter dripping to the ground from the sharp tip of the curved blade.
"I'm going to rip you to pieces." Alti's voice rasped.
"YOU KILLED THAT WOMAN!" Evelyn pointed her finger at the wicked shamaness, screaming over a roar of thunder.
The accusation caused Alti to pause and stare at the corpse lying on the floor.
"Shit! I did, didn't I?" she stated sarcastically, then turned back to Evelyn with a malevolent sneer. "Guess who's next?"
A clap of thunder and a streak of lightning and Alti was rushing through the hut, knife raised overhead, lips pulled back into a contorted, hideous grimace.
Evelyn took off through the flap and fell face first into the mud and rain. Not bothering to look back, she scrambled to her feet, slipping in the sodden earth and ran as fast as her feet could take past a blur of dark huts.
She lost her footing again, falling almost to her knee and somehow found the courage to take a quick peek behind her.
Alti was rushing through slanted rain, gaining on her quickly. A burst of lightning glinted off the still upraised blade.
Evelyn pushed off the thick soil, slipped once and ran. Her shamaness hat dropped down over her eyes but she pushed it back just in time to avoid running into a tall pole. Using her hands, she caught the log and using her momentum, swung around it, changing direction to run down another row of dwellings.
Her cloak was heavy with rain, slowing her down. Arms waving in an attempt to gain speed, she sprinted past huts, large and small until she thought her lungs were going to explode in her chest.
Still running, she turned her head, attempting to get a glimpse of her pursuer, but the headdress was in the way.
One eye on the road behind her, she turned a corner, sliding in the muck and wet, and plowed right into something that stopped her dead in her tracks.
With a resounding plop, she fell down into the muck right on her ass.
After a moment, when Evelyn regained the presence of mind to push the wet, sagging headdress that had fallen over her eyes back, she found herself staring up at the tip of a razor sharp, highly polished metal sword. She looked up the long blade to its owner, a woman, who was staring back down at her from under a head full of blond, curly and very wet hair.
"Where's the fire?" the sword's owner asked. Her voice was clam, but not amused.
Evelyn took only a second to assess whether the woman was friend or foe. As long as she wasn't eating anybody's heart, she had to be a friend.
"SHE KILLED HER!" Evelyn sputtered, wiping fat drops of rain from the tip of her nose with her sleeve.
The blond woman scowled. "Who killed who?" She lowered the sword a bit and took a closer look at the woman sitting in the mud, wearing a very strange hat with drooping antlers. "And who in Hades are you?"
"My name is Evelyn I mean Yakut. I'm Yakut and that bitch, Alti just killed a girl in that tent back there," Evelyn answered pointing back with her thumb. Then she suddenly remembered why she was running and jumped up to her feet, surprising the woman warrior.
"Hey! Not so fast!"
"Yes, fast! She's chasing me with a big, curvy knife."
The warrior looked over Evelyn's shoulder through the rain behind them. Evelyn turned to look where she was looking.
The lane was empty.
The blond woman raised her eyebrows. "If someone was chasing you, she's a slow runner."
"You scared her off," Evelyn explained, wiping her nose again. She turned back to the warrior, suddenly realizing that for the moment, she was safe. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," the blond answered and looked over Evelyn's shoulder again, "I think. Are you sure someone was chasing you?"
"Alti – I told you. She killed a woman. I caught her doing it. She chased me with a knife."
"A big, curvy knife – so you told me."
"Dripping with blood," Evelyn added for emphasis.
The woman relaxed her sword, swinging the blade up and letting it rest against her shoulder and studied the woman standing before her. She was soaking wet and obviously had been shaken, scared out of her wits by something.
"Yakut, you say?"
Evelyn smiled meekly, looking drenched and forlorn. "Yea."
"Humph," the warrior grunted, "name sounds familiar."
"It does? What's your name?"
"Ephiny," the blond answered.
"Hi Ephiny," Evelyn said, lifting a hand covered by the long, heavy wet sleeve of her cloak in greeting. "Your name doesn't sound familiar to me, but thanks for coming to my rescue anyway."
Ephiny squinted at her suspiciously. "Any time. That's what sisters are for, right?"
Evelyn scratched her nose. "Ah, yeah right." Sisters? Did she think they were sisters, she thought to herself. Lightning flashed weakly and the accompanying thunder seemed to roll in from far off in the distance.
"I guess the storm is letting up," Evelyn commented, trying to keep a conversation going.
"I guess," Ephiny said in reply, but appeared distracted. "Look, why don't you take me to the hut where you claim someone was murdered."
"What?" Evelyn turned, looking at the row of huts that stretched out behind her. She had been running so fast to get away, she hadn't bother to look where she was going. Now the simple dwellings all looked the same.
"The hut? The murder?" Ephiny prompted.
"Sure, I can take you there," Evelyn stared down the long row of identical dwellings, " I think."
"So, you're not from this village, then – are you?"
"What makes you think that?" Evelyn asked, trying to look as innocent as possible.
Ephiny hefted the sword in her hand. "Look, your name may sound familiar, but I know for damn sure I've never seen anyone like you here before. And, if you don't know who I am, then I'm positive your not from this tribe. What I'm going to want to know is how in Artemis's name you got past my guards and into the middle of my village. Now," Ephiny flipped her sword for emphasis, letting it swing down into a relaxed, but no less ready grip at her side. "I suggest you take me to the hut where you claim somebody murdered someone, and along the way, you and I are going to have a nice little chat. How does that sound to you, Evelyn or Yakut - or whatever your name is?"
Evelyn gulped. Now it became vividly clear to her where she was. She was in the middle of an Amazon village and she was, most definitely, in a whole mess of trouble.
"Uggh! Did you get the license of the truck that hit me?" Gabrielle groaned, willing herself into a sitting position. She was back in the apartment. The rug which before felt so soft and comfortable, now felt rough and hard. She leaned back against one hand, using the other to massage an aching forehead. Everything hurt. Even her nose objected to the stale odor of incense that was still drifting in the air.
"What a hang-over," she commented, expecting Evelyn to be there, commiserating in her misery.
When there was no answer, Gabrielle became anxious.
"Evelyn?" Headache forgotten, she stopped rubbing her head and looked to where she assumed her friend would be sitting.
Evelyn was right where Gabrielle expected her to be, but she wasn't conscious. She lay flat on her back staring wide-eyed at the ceiling with unseeing eyes.
"Evelyn?" Gabrielle scrambled over to her friend's side. "Evelyn!"
She shook Evelyn's shoulders, but got no response. For a moment, a panic coursed through Gabrielle filling her with a cold dread. She shook Evelyn's shoulders again but only succeeded in making the headdress roll off to the side.
Gabrielle lifted the hat, looking quizzically at the thing. It was soaking wet.
In fact, her friend was drenched from head to toe. Her cloak, her hair, everything was dark with water.
"EVELYN!" Now Gabrielle was really worried. She looked around frantically, mind racing with a variety of scenarios, none of them good, when a small mirror on the floor caught her attention. She lifted the mirror, looking closely at bits of white dust that clung to its surface. Gabrielle rubbed up a bit of the dust with the tip of her finger and tasted it tentatively, cringing at the bitter flavor.
She scanned the area and quickly found the rolled up bit of leather.
They had both drank from cups, Gabrielle remembered. So, what's this drug sniffing paraphernalia doing here?
She tasted the white powder again and grimaced. It was the same bitter flavor behind the dark tea they had drunk in the ceremony.
Gabrielle stared at her friend in disbelief. Evelyn snorted the Oxy.
Of all the stupid things to do!
If she had been awake, Gabrielle would have given Evelyn a right good scolding.
But her friend was laying flat on her back, apparently comatose on the living room rug.
Or was she?
Gabrielle leaned over Evelyn, examining her expression closely.
Perhaps this is what they looked like while they were over there? Perhaps Evelyn had snorted the drug and simply gone back?
Gabrielle sat back against her feet thinking. Was Evelyn overdosed or was she having an out of body experience?
How could she tell?
Gabrielle stared intently as though willing Evelyn to give her some sign that her catatonic state was a normal part of the process when suddenly Evelyn's body twitched. Gabrielle nearly jumped out of her skin in surprise.
Evelyn jerked again and Gabrielle leaned back over her looking for signs of life.
Her irises were reacting, opening and closing despite the fact that the light in the room was not changing at all.
Evelyn's body trembled again and then Gabrielle knew: her friend was traveling.
Gabrielle realized that this must be what they looked liked when their souls were gone, appearing as though catatonic yet still connected somehow to their wandering spirit by the thinnest of threads.
The wet headdress though – that was a toughie to try to explain. She picked up the hat, examining it, lifting a droopy antler up and letting it drop down again, smiling affectionately.
She looked down at Evelyn with genuine concern.
"What have you done, Evelyn?" Gabrielle asked, putting down the headdress and picking up her friend's hand to hold it within her own. It was wet and cold. "Where are you?"
At that moment, Evelyn gasped for air as though she were being choked and then her entire body went into a violent spasm. Gabrielle threw herself across her friend's convulsing body and it was all she could do to stop Evelyn from hurting herself further as she slashed about uncontrollably.
It was still raining, but the drops were considerably reduced in size, barely more than an annoying drizzle. Evelyn's footsteps left deep impressions in the sodden earth as she turned left at a corner, leading Ephiny down a row of huts that she thought she remembered passing.
"Let's see," she paused, looking down the long row. "I'm pretty sure I turned here then went that way." She pointed a finger nearly covered by her cloak which was soaked and hanging heavy with rain.
Ephiny grunted and pushed Evelyn impatiently aside.
"You went this way," she announced, pointing with her sword in exactly the opposite direction.
Evelyn scowled. "How do you know?"
"See there," the blond warrior replied, indicating with the tip of her blade at a deep impression in the mud. "That's where you fell. And see there," Ephiny pointed to another spot strongly resembling two knees and a couple of hand prints filled with rainwater. "That's where you fell again."
With a meek grin, Evelyn shrugged, "I guess I went that a-way, then."
"Follow me," the Amazon ordered and stomped off down the lane with Evelyn slogging quickly after her, trying very hard not to slip.
Finally, after another left turn and a few more huts, Evelyn began to recognize the area.
"There it is!" she called out excitedly, pulling at Ephiny's arm. She skidded up to the hut, tugging the flap aside triumphantly.
"This is it! This is the place!"
Ephiny hesitated at the entrance, straining to see into the dark, stillness of the dwelling.
"Are you sure it's this hut?" she asked sternly.
"I'm sure," Evelyn responded with confidence.
Ephiny squared her shoulders and made a move to go inside, but Evelyn grabbed her by the arm, halting her in mid-step.
"Be careful. That bitch could still be in there. She had a knife, remember?"
"And I have a sword," Ephiny responded, looking down at the wet, cold hand that was clutching her bicep and then up again at its owner with a raised brow.
"Just be careful," Evelyn repeated and released her hold on the Amazon warrior.
"This is Terreis's hut," Ephiny commented aloud as she stepped through the entrance. "Terreis?" she called out, hefting her sword anxiously in her hand. "Terreis?"
"There!" Evelyn exclaimed, pointing through the shadows to the still form that was lying on the floor.
Without hesitation, Ephiny was at the side of the body, sword dropped and hands shaking as she took in the condition of the woman. The carnage was horrible to see even in the almost non-existent light of the hut's interior.
"By the gods," Ephiny cried hoarsely as her hands hovered over the gapping wounds in the chest and abdomen, unsure of what to do.
Ephiny turned to Evelyn, eyes shining with anger. "What have you done?"
"Done? Who me?" Evelyn exclaimed, pointing a finger at herself in utter surprise. "I didn't do this. I told you! It was that bitch from hell, Alti. I saw her do it!"
But Ephiny had already retrieved her sword and was rising to her feet menacingly.
"Ephiny, please," Evelyn said, pleading as she took a step back, "Please, we've got to go get help. Alti could come back at any moment."
"Too late," Alti's rough voice announced her presence at the entrance to the hut.
Before Evelyn could react, the Shamaness was at her, wrapping large hands around her throat. Alti shoved her roughly up against a corner post of the dwelling. Evelyn's back screamed in protest as she slammed against the hard wood. She slapped at the hands choking her but didn't have the strength or the leverage to pull them away.
With a gleeful sneer Alti pushed Evelyn up against the post harder, lifting her off the floor with almost inhuman strength.
Ephiny watched anxiously, hesitating, unsure exactly who the enemy was here. When the large, innocent and pleading eyes of the stranger turned her way, Ephiny rushed at Alti in Evelyn's defense. One quick glance from the Shamaness sent her flying across the hut as though struck. She crashed into a decorative shield, breaking it in two, and slid slowly down along the wall, unconscious.
"Hmmm, dessert," Alti commented to the now still form of the blond warrior on the floor. "But not before I've had my fill of you, Yakut."
She increased the pressure on Evelyn's neck, smiling with satisfaction as her eyes began to pop out.
"This time, Yakut," Alti whispered as she pressed even tighter, "I'll take more than your life. I'll curse your soul for eternity. Do you hear me, you pathetic excuse for a shamaness? I'll damn you for all of eternity," her voice cracked with hoarse anger as she squeezed, hands shaking.
All Evelyn could see was Alti's black eyes boring into her own. She needed to breathe. She needed to breathe desperately and the pain of the need was making her head pound and her ears ring with a deafening roar.
She can't touch me, her mind screamed in disbelief. How can she be doing this? And in those few brief moments, the realization came to her that the rain soaking her cloak and skin, the way she was able to lift up the hut's flap, leaving foot and handprints in the mud, the touch of her hand on Ephiny's arm – all of it should not have been possible. Yet, it was. She had felt the rain against her face, she did fall in the mud, had wrapped her hand around the strong arm of an Amazon warrior and here she was, about to be strangled to death.
I guess you were wrong, Gabrielle, Evelyn thought, her mind strangely calm in the face of her dire predicament. She stared at Alti's ugly visage sneering at her bare inches away, watching as it seemed to shift out of focus and fade away.
Her mind flashed on images from another past – another time when she had fought the wicked Shamaness, Alti, and lost. In that confrontation, Alti's touch had the power to fill her mind with memories of horrific pain from countless lives past and had sent her body into uncontrollable spasms. The witch had stolen her life and sent her soul into karmic purgatory.
This time, however, she somehow had the power to block Alti's cold grasp from calling up the pain of that past life. She could see into it, like peering down a dark foreboding well, but it didn't touch her, couldn't hurt her.
Alti growled in frustration. No matter how hard she tried, she wasn't bringing this worthless shamaness any pain. Grunting, veins bulging in her neck, she pushed her will to break through toYakut and tap into the evil vein of power that normally was always at her disposal. But nothing was happening - Yakut was blocking her.
"You bitch!" she rasped as she used every once of strength to crush Yakut's throat. "Where are you getting this power? Who's helping you?" She slammed her knee into Yakut's groin, snickering at the accompanying grunt of pain. "You felt that, didn't you?"
There was a power coursing through Evelyn – she could feel it filling her with a strength she did not know she possessed. Suddenly, Evelyn's need for air mysteriously vanished. How freeing it was to no longer need to breathe. And then she felt as if she was falling away, backward down a long dark tunnel. As she fell, the pressure at her throat diminished and Alti's threatening voice and harsh words all but disappeared. It was as if she was floating away to a very safe and peaceful place, a place where Alti's horrific face and stifling grip no longer existed, where nothing existed. Nothing at all. Not even her.
My god, Evelyn thought as her world turned black, I'm dying.
"Evelyn!" Gabrielle grabbed her friend's shoulders and shook gently.
Evelyn gasped once and then stopped breathing.
"EVELYN!" Gabrielle shook her again and watched for a reaction.
Oh god. Now, she was sure that Evelyn was overdosing.
First aid. First aid. Gabrielle pressed her palms to her head trying to force her mind to think clearly. She had taken first aid classes. Now that she needed them, she couldn't remember a single thing. What was it they taught her she should do?
Pulse. Check her pulse.
Gabrielle picked up a limp wrist and searched frantically for a pulse, but couldn't remember exactly where the pulse was suppose to be and so couldn't find one. She dropped the wrist and pressed her fingertips against the Evelyn's neck. There was a pulse, but it was weak and fluttering - and fading fast.
Heart? What about the heart?
She bent down and pressed her ear against Evelyn's chest. Nothing. She couldn't hear anything. Gabrielle listened harder. She couldn't tell if that was Evelyn's heart pounding or her own.
Oh god, where did all that first aid training go, she thought in panic?
That's what you do first! Check for breathing and if they're not breathing, open an airway and attempt to restore breathing.
Check for breathing, Gabrielle recited to herself. She placed her ear just at Evelyn's nose and mouth, tilting her head to be able to watch her chest carefully.
She wasn't breathing.
Check the airway. Gabrielle pushed open Evelyn's mouth, checking for signs of blockage concerned that Evelyn may be choking on her own vomit. Her airway was clear.
Placing the heel of one hand on her forehead and the other hand on the bony part of her chin, Gabrielle tilted Evelyn's chin to straighten her neck. With shaking fingers, she pinched Evelyn's nose closed. Quickly, she pressed her open mouth against her friend's and blew in a long full breath, then waited a moment before doing it again, watching carefully for signs of Evelyn's chest rising.
Look, listen and feel, Gabrielle said, repeating the lesson as she remembered it.
She lifted her head to the side and listened.
Sealing their mouths together, she puffed again.
And again – this time harder. Then, lifted her head to the side and listened closely.
"Goddam it, Evelyn!" Gabrielle screamed, pounding her chest with her fist in frustration. "Wake up!"
She puffed a few more times into Evelyn's mouth, forcing air into her lungs and then waited.
Evelyn was still staring at the ceiling, eyes open and glassy.
"Wake up!" Gabrielle ordered, pounding both fists down on her friend's chest in anger.
Evelyn gasped once and then sat straight up, scaring the living daylights out of Gabrielle.
"Jesus Christ!" Gabrielle exclaimed, sitting back her heels. Then, remembering a scene she had seen in a movie, Gabrielle scrambled to her feet and pulled Evelyn up.
"Come on, Evelyn. Don't you dare die on me!" Gabrielle draped Evelyn's arm across her shoulder and, using all of her strength in her legs to keep them up, she forced them both to walk. "You die and I swear, I'll kill you."
Thankfully, she heard Evelyn cough once and then twice and then her friend was spitting up brown tea on the rug. Gabrielle had never been so happy to see Evelyn puke in her life.
"That's it, get it out." She continued to drag her around the room, letting Evelyn heave the contents of her stomach out onto the carpeted floor. With every step her young friend grew stronger.
"Gabrielle?" Evelyn asked meekly, looking around the room in confusion.
"Yes, it's me, Evelyn." Gabrielle answered in relief. "You're back. You're back."
"Thank the gods," Evelyn mumbled, leaning against Gabrielle for support as the two friends walked wearily around the shamaness circle of their own making.
After several minutes, Evelyn began to get the strength back in her legs.
"I think that's enough, Gabrielle," she said, removing her arm from her friends shoulder. "I need to sit."
"Okay," Gabrielle said, helping Evelyn to sit on the couch. "You want some water?"
"Yeah, water would be great. Thanks."
Gabrielle shuffled off to the kitchen. In a moment she was back, glass of water in hand. "Here, drink this."
Evelyn took it from her hands, swallowing the cool liquid in long, grateful gulps.
"Easy, easy," Gabrielle advised, pulling the glass away before Evelyn could finish. "I don't think you should drink so much right off the bat. Give it a second to make sure it stays down."
"Okay," Evelyn acquiesced, "Thanks." She leaned her head against the back of the couch and groaned. "I feel like shit."
Evelyn lifted her head. "You will not believe what happened to me."
"When you're ready, you better tell me everything," Gabrielle said as she helped Evelyn out of her wet shamaness cloak. She threw the sodden garment off to the side, onto the carpet. Then, pulled off two wet and very muddy pair of leather boots and tossed them to join the cloak, followed closely by a set of cold, soggy white socks.
"You're drenched," Gabrielle commented as she snatched up a fleece blanket folded neatly at the end of the couch and wrapped her friend up in it. "Better?"
Evelyn stared at Gabrielle, stomach suddenly queasy. "Much, thanks. Give me a minute, okay?"
"Take as long as you need," Gabrielle said, sitting down on the couch at Evelyn's side and waited patiently while Evelyn leaned her head back again and rested.
Gabrielle turned her head to take a peek at the clock. It was 6:00 a.m.
For some reason, she felt as though she needed to get back to the dorm.
Staring at Evelyn, she watched as her friend took a few deep breaths and seemed to drift off to sleep.
Gabrielle took one of Evelyn's hands into her own and leaned back against the couch. The limp hand was still cold, but no longer wet. She held it gently within her palms, offering her warmth as best she could as she leaned her own aching head wearily against the backrest of the sofa, thinking.
Evelyn had gone back – and Gabrielle had a feeling it wasn't back to the party.
Wherever it was, somehow her friend had managed to get soaking wet.
As Evelyn slept, head turned off to one side, a mark at the base of her neck caught Gabrielle's attention. She leaned forward in order to see the blotch a little better.
There were a series of red welts rising up on Evelyn's tender skin and those reddening bruises sure looked a heck of a lot like a set of hand prints wrapped around her friend's scrawny little neck.
She would let Evelyn doze for a while, but then she was going to have to wake her up. Gabrielle ran her finger through Evelyn's hair, pushing a few of the wet strands back affectionately.
The radio clock on an end table drew her attention again.
That nagging feeling that she needed to get back to the dorm was beginning to become urgent.
One hour Evelyn, Gabrielle thought to herself watching worriedly while her friend rested, I'll give you one hour and then you and I, my so-called shamaness, are going to have to talk
because something is telling me I better get home.
"NOOOOOO!" Alti yelled out in frustrated as she watched Yakut disappear. The young shamaness faded, drifting out of her grasp like smoke dispersing on the soft sigh of a gentle breeze.
Eyes bulging with rage, Alti dropped her arms and backed away, watching the last of the nearly translucent vapor slowly dissipate.
Someone is helping that bitch, she thought angrily. Yakut was never this powerful. Somehow, someone or something was feeding her power. Alti swore to herself that when she found out, she was going to cut off first the supply, then both of their heads.
"And when I do," she vowed through clenched teeth. "I'm going to damn your soul and the soul of whoever's helping you to everlasting torment."
The impact took Alti completely by surprise. Ephiny rammed into her side, tackling the shamaness to the floor. They landed together in a jumble of arms and legs on the hard earth with a resounding thud. In an instant, Ephiny flipped them and was straddling Alti with a knife to her throat.
Alti struggled briefly, but then became still, keenly aware of the sharp blade that was pressing against her throat. "Well, this is a first - usually I'm the one that ends up on top," she rasped with bravado.
"You killed Terreis, you bitch," Ephiny accused, drawing blood as she pressed the knife harder against Alti's cold, white skin, "I'm going to send you back to whatever level of Tartarus you escaped from!"
"I didn't kill that shamaness-wannabe. Your friendly ghost did."
"You're a liar!"
"Maybe. Then again, maybe not. How can you know?"
Ephiny leaned in closer to the evil shamaness, pressing harder on the blade. "Because you smell like death."
Alti's lips twitched upward into a feral grin. "I think you're getting a whiff of your own death, my dear."
Without warning, Alti reached up and grabbed Ephiny by the throat, wrapping long, rough fingers around the Amazon's neck. Instantly, Ephiny was thrown into a world of pain that even in her worse nightmare, she could have never imagined.
The blond Amazon screamed as her mind filled with images of a thousand brutal deaths, her body experiencing each slash and stab as though it was happening to her here and now.
The knife fell from her hand as her body convulsed, rolling away to the ground, useless.
"Enjoy what you're feeling," Alti said as she lifted them both from the dirt to their feet, "because this pain will be the last thing you'll ever feel again."
As the shamaness hands squeezed harder Alti's mind pressed in on Ephiny's, throwing the warrior's memories into a scorching hell of fire that singed the flesh right from her bones.
Ephiny hung limply in Alti's grasp, her mind pummeling toward oblivion from the pain.
"WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?" the Queen shouted as she strode into the hut, followed by four Amazon warrior guards, fully armored.
Alti ignored the commanding query and continued to press her will on Ephiny. The blonde's eyes rolled to the back of her head as she began to lose consciousness.
"Release her, Alti!" the Queen ordered.
Ephiny's death was so close, Alti could almost taste it. She ran a blackened tongue along cracked lips, licking hungrily in anticipation. Perspiration trickled through the dried blood on her forehead, painting the side of her face in stripes of ghastly red.
The Queen stepped up, so close to Alti she could have licked her.
"I said RELEASE HER!"
With a grunt of frustration, Alti released her hold.
Ephiny crumbled to the dirt, unconscious.
"Take her to the healer," the Queen ordered and two of the guards quickly complied, lifting a slumped Ephiny between them and dragging her away.
Alti suffered a brief withering glance from the Queen before she paced over and squatted to examine the dead and mutilated body of Terreis where it lay, undistributed, in the center of the hut. Despite the carnage done to her chest, the young shamaness appeared as though sleeping, her face tranquil and at peace.
"Horrible," the Queen stated, passing her hand just over the gaping wound.
Alti smirked at the comment, fully aware that it was made wholly for the benefit of the two remaining guards.
The Queen rose and sauntered over to Alti. "Who do you suppose would do such a thing?"
"When I arrived," Alti said, offering her explanation, "there was a stranger in here. I attempted to capture her, but Ephiny intervened – as you saw."
"The murderer then, no doubt, was able to get away?" the Queen asked, lifting a thin, elegant eyebrow.
"Yes, she escaped."
"Attacked me as I was attempting to detain the stranger."
"Do you think they were in league?"
At this statement, the two guards shifted nervously. Alti knew well that Ephiny was the Captain of the Guard and leader of the Amazon army. She was extremely popular amongst all of the tribes. More importantly, Ephiny and Terreis were close friends, possibly even lovers, if she believed the rumors that were floating around about the two.
"No," Alti answered quickly, noting with satisfaction how the guards' posture settled, "I think she was just mistaken as to the culprit."
"So, she mistook you for the murderer while the real culprit managed to get away?"
"Yes, I meant to disable Ephiny, just until I had a chance to explain. But then you came in it all happened so fast."
"I see," the Queen stated, pacing off to the side and sharing a deliberately meaningful glance with her guards.
She turned to face Alti and squared her shoulders. "This matter is not resolved until Ephiny regains consciousness and we can question her in the matter. Until then, you are to remain in your quarters until I call you. Is that clear?"
Alti bowed her head in submission and moved to leave. The Queen raised her hand, halting her.
"After we confirm you story with Ephiny, we will require your services as Shamaness – since our own Shamaness is now unavailable. Are you prepared to assume the role?"
Again, Alti bowed her head in capitulation.
"I live to serve," she said with a sneer.
"Good," the Queen stated, "because my scouts have reported that Xena will be marching on the 'morrow. By the next full moon, that bitch of Ares will be at our doorstep along with the entire Macedonian army and then some. I'm going to need a strong and powerful Shamaness to help us unite our tribes to protect our lands and defeat this new enemy. So, are you that Shamaness, Alti? Are you truly as powerful as they whisper you are?"
"I assure you, my Queen, I am all that they are afraid I am."
The Queen smiled, her eyes flickering with that strange green glow that sent a chill even down Alti's wicked spine. "I certainly hope so. Tomorrow we plan step one - the destruction of our ancient enemy, the Centaurs. By the time Xena reaches the Shipka pass I want the head of every man, woman and especially child from the centaur village hanging down from the branches of the trees."
At this, Alti smiled revealing a mouth full of teeth yellowed from years of drinking the blood of her enemies. "So, you know?"
The Queen stepped up to Alti and wiped at a line of blood on her cheek with the tip of a long finger before sucking it clean. "Oh, you'd be surprised at what I know my soon-to-be number one Shamaness."
With that, the Queen turned and strode away, the two guards following quickly at her heals. Alti watched her depart the hut in pensive silence.
How she had managed to uncover the Warrior Princess's deepest, most well-kept secret, Alti couldn't imagine. The Centaurs were fierce warriors and butchering an entire village of them would be difficult at best. But, what scared Alti's dark soul even more was what Xena would do if they succeeded.
Gabrielle walked up the dorm's two flights of the stairs to the second floor barely able to make it up the last of the steps. She was absolutely weary to the bone. Couldn't they have put an elevator in here, she complained as she groaned up the last of the steps.
The tea worked great, but it sure gave her one heck of a hangover.
Gabrielle shook her head as she pulled at the latch and swung open the heavy fire door at the top of the stairs with a grunt. There had to be a better way.
Goddamn door, why did they have to make the so heavy?
Letting the door slam shut on its own, she trudged down the hallway, thoughts of her warm soft bed replaced once again with the same conversation she had been having with herself since she had left Evelyn's apartment.
Her crazy friend had snorted two entire pills of Oxycontin, right up her nose. She had, in affect, overdosed. Her soul had also traveled back to its previous life in an Amazon village and appeared in all of her corporal glory, solid enough to get wet from the rain, real enough to be choked to death by another shamaness.
'What did that mean?' Gabrielle thought as she shuffled down the quiet hall toward her room deep in thought.
Did it mean that the more opiates she took, the more real she could become? And if she went too far, would she die or would her soul return to the place it was meant to be – at Xena's side?
Gabrielle slipped the key to her dorm room into the lock and turned the knob.
The only way she would ever know the answer to these questions would be to try it.
But should she do it? Should she risk death to be with Xena?
The lock released and Gabrielle pushed open the door, walking in.
Did she need to die to be with Xena?
"Where the fuck have you been?"
Gabrielle stood in the open the door, mouth agape. Her mother was standing in the center of her room, arms crossed, virtually seething with anger. Before she could respond, her mother marched over and slapped her across the face, hitting her so hard she almost fell to the side in the direction of the blow. She stared at her mother in stunned silence unconsciously rubbing the already throbbing welt that had risen on her cheek.
As Gabrielle stood speechless, blinking back tears that were threatening to fall, Mother walked calmly over to the still open door and quietly closed it.
"I know you're up to something," Mother said as the door slipped shut, "Now, you're going to tell me where you were, what you were doing and with whom or else, you're going to wish you had never been born."