by katharsis 9
Disclaimers: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, and everyone else that's been on the show belong to Renaissance Pictures and MCA/Universal Studios, yadda yadda yadda. British readers may or may not recognize Xena's cousin, never mind the inside joke. Thank the gods the lucky lisp disappeared in the latter generations. Lyrics © 1984 Sire Records. Fans of Smallville may recognize a scene, slightly altered, which I borrowed from an episode, which in turn snipped a bit from Witness (Death by Silo!) Other characters sprang forth from my twisted little mind.
© Stiffneck Run Werks.
Warnings: Rated R for some language, graphic violence, heavy drinking, graphic drug use, and two women in a serious relationship of a sexual nature. If reading such material is illegal where you live, then stop and turn back. If you’re under 18, good-bye. No need for you to see this. If it is legal and you are of legal age, and this sort of stuff bothers you, then do not read below this line and go back.
Spoiler Alert: This story takes place after CRUSADER.
Pronunciation Guide: K'Tai [translation of full name unavailable]: (Kay •TIE') Makhet: (Muh •KETT')
Please feel free to drop me a line at the e-mail address above. If you’re nice I’ll answer ya, but if ya flame me, feel the wrath of my adamantium claws. Are they gone? Really? Okay, now that we’ve lost the prudes, the kids and the confused, onward shall we go...
i beat my machine
it's a part of me
i'm stuck in this dream
it's changing me
i am becoming
some girls are biggerthan othersmeat is murder reel around the FREAKS e fo hand untain in glove s till ill how soon is now? well i wonder there is a light than never goes out ask
Toris, where's Xena?"
The big guy awoke from a nice nap. He turned to the source of the interruption.
Gabs didn't look too happy.
The moment his bloodshot eyes locked with the bard's, he mentally smacked himself for forgetting something important. Like letting Gabrielle know that Xena had taken off unexpectedly. Like, two hours ago. Oops. "Uh...ah...Xena! Where is she?"
"That's what I just asked you," Gabrielle patiently replied. "Have you seen her?" Once she sat down, Lumpy the dog tottered over and put his paws on her leg, silently begging to be petted. She scratched him behind his ears and he hopped up on the bench and curled up beside her, his head on her lap.
"Oh...uh...she...ah...stepped out for a bit." After a really big. mean-looking guy. "She should be back, soon." Like two hours ago.
Gabrielle uttered a frustrated sigh and began scratching Lumpy's head. "Typical," she grumbled. "We were supposed to have the day to ourselves and what does she do? She just takes off."
"Oh yeah?" Toris shifted uncomfortably. He didn't really want to tell her that Xena had gone racing off after a stranger.
"I mean, she's been so distant for the past year. I know there's something that's bothering her, but for the life of me, I can't get her to tell me what. It's like talking to a brick wall, sometimes." Lumpy whimpered sympathetically and licked her hand before yawning and falling fast asleep on her lap.
"Well, she's never been real good at expressing her feelings. Did you know she didn't even talk until she was three? Mother thought there was something wrong with her."
"I didn't know that."
"You just gotta give her some time."
Gabrielle put her head in her hands and sighed. "That's just it, Toris, It's been nearly a year. Whatever's on her mind must be eating at her, and I can't help but wonder if it has something to do with me."
Toris stared into his mug. If only you knew... "Dunno. Look, whatever she's up to, I'm sure she'll be back soon."
"Can you at least tell me where she went?"
He sighed. There was really no way around it. The bard would pick and prod at him until he told her. "All right. There was this guy I met in town who asked me if I knew Xena, and I said yeah, and then he hands me this scroll..." He picked it up and handed it to Gabrielle. "I have no clue what this means."
She unfurled the scroll and read it. Her brows wrinkled in confusion. Attached to the parchment with beeswax was a single piece of rope. There were also two written words:
She shot a quizzical look at Toris, who merely shrugged. "So you're saying that this guy wanted to meet her in the forest? For what?"
"He didn't say. He just appeared in front of me. Scared me an' Mor."
"I don't like this." Gabrielle began to rise and reached for her staff. "I'm going after her." Lumpy was jolted awake and whined when her lap disappeared from under him. He hopped down and pranced about her feet wagging his tail as if to say, Oooh! Can I go? Can I? Huh?
"Whoa!" Toris managed to grab her by the arm before she could bolt out of the tavern. "Where d'ya think you're going? You don't even know if Xe's in the forest."
"Marf," said Lumpy.
She jerked herself out of his grip and shot him a glare of green fire. "How can you be so calm about this, Toris?" She spat. "Xena could be walking into an ambush right now, no thanks to you!"
"Okay, okay, maybe I screwed up, but Xena can handle this guy. Besides, she'd probably kill me if I let you go rushing after her and getting hurt."
"Get hurt? Get hurt?!? I am MORE than capable of taking care of myself, thank you very much! WHY would she go off somewhere without telling me?!? Do you have any idea what I've been through with her lately?!? She's been running around getting into every fight she comes across! And then, right after our run-in with Najara, it's just been getting worse! There's something wrong with her and every time I try to get her to talk to me about it she just shuts me out! I don't know...how can I...?" The staff clattered to the floor as Gabrielle began to sob into her hands.
Toris looked at her uncomfortably before standing and enveloping her in a hug. "It's okay, Gabs. She'll be fine. She'll be back. I promise." Don't you make a liar out of me, sis. "I guess the thing to do now is wait."
"I know, I know. I hate it when she does that, too."
"Hey, I got some nutbread. Want some?"
Deep in the forest with the twilight lingering just a bit longer, Makhet stirred, spires of pain shooting in his skull. He tried to get up, but collapsed back into the ground with a groan. Blasted woman and her flying weapon! Summoning his strength, he raised himself painfully into a sitting position, his temple pounding. His right arm was still paralyzed. He tugged at it with his good one, cursing. His eyes eventually adjusted to the darkness, and he spotted a crumpled body. So I did kill the bitch after all. Too bad. It was too quick, I would have loved to have done to her what she did to me. He struggled to his feet, pain arcing from every blow that had been landed on him.
You just had to get sidetracked, didn't you?
He whirled at the sudden intrusion from behind him. He found a woman with hair the color of fire, and dark green eyes. She was bathed in an unearthly glow in spite of approaching night. "Circe?" he sputtered. "But...but...I thought you couldn't leave the island."
Of course not, you fool. This is an astral projection. A scowl crossed her features as he reached out to touch her, only to have his hand pass though her. You can't touch me, I'm not even here. Why are you wasting time wandering around the forest when you have a mission to complete? This is what I get for sending a mortal.
"Mission," he sneered, tossing his blond mane. "Here I am, lying half-dead, and all you care about is your FUCKING mission! Find some broad, kill her, and grab her bag. What kind of mission is that? You mind telling me what's so special about what this frail's carrying?"
Circe merely gestured. A moment later, a great tearing sound could be heard as a giant limb broke from a nearby tree and came crashing down. Makhet barely got out of the way, cursing.
How many times do I have to tell you not to ask any questions? Remember Makhet, my magic may not work on you, but I can use it on other things to hurt you. And of course you ' ve managed to get yourself lost, or so you think. You have no idea how close you came to finding that priestess. You are to go back into that town and wait for her. She is due to arrive soon. Now, how about getting on your way?
He grumbled something and tried to shake his useless arm.
I suppose you'd like some help with that, would you? She pointed to a spot on his arm. Press here, and the feeling will return to your arm within moments. He did as he was told, turning over the regrets in his head. Was all that pain worth it?
"Yeah. At least I got to kill that bitch."
Are you sure? As mortals go, Xena is hard to kill.
"Was hard to kill. I managed to shiv her right before I got knocked out."
She glared at him with her arms crossed, a smirk tugging at her mouth.
"What, you don't believe me? She's laying right over th-" It was only when he turned to point at the body...that there was none. "But...but...she was right over there!" He looked back helplessly at Circe. "I saw her. She was dead!"
I think you may have a problem, Makhet.
I think I may have a problem. I should be dead, now. Makhet's knife hit home in my gut, a sure killing blow. But here I am, up in this tree, watching him and Circe. The wound's healed up now. And the blood. It's already dried and crinkling apart like old papyrus. The marks on my shoulder and leg have healed, too. Everything's booming in my ears and I can see clearly as if it was day, it spite of the night. And the scents. I can smell my own sweat, the rotting of the leaves, and the essence of Gabrielle that clings to me still. I have to concentrate hard to keep from going crazy. And those hairs on my hands. What's happening to me? Too many questions, too few answers. Right now, I have to find out what that bastard's up to.
I should have known Makhet would come after me. After what I'd done to him, I can't really blame him. But then again, if I had to do it all over again, I would have gone ahead and just killed the bastard. I thought he'd be dead by now, but when I read that scroll from him with that piece of rope, it was like my worst nightmare had come back to bite me in the ass. Seven years ago, when I was still a warlord, there was this little town not too far from Jerusalem that I was planning to invade. Gods, I can't even remember the town's name, it was so tiny. The town itself wasn't much, but it was situated in such a way that it would be a perfect stepping stone to Syria, Persia, or perhaps Jordan. It was supposed to be simple, go in, take over, if they put up a fight, kill a few folks, end of story. Instead, a rival warlord by the name of Gryllus decided to go ahead and invade that town before we could. By the time we'd arrived at the town, Gryllus' army was already in the process of slaughtering everyone they could find, man, woman, and child. Gods I was pissed. I'd had plans for this town, and here was this sorry son of a bitch who decided to ruin the town before I could get my hands on it. So as soon as I saw what was going on, I had my army dispatch Gryllus'. I suppose we were rescuing the town, but it was already a lost cause, with its occupants falling dead left and right. What's the point of conquering a village if there's no one to conquer? It wasn't long before Gryllus ran straight into the business end of my sword. His army was too busy dealing with my army, or just too stupid to notice. Makhet, Gryllus' lieutenant, was gutting a young girl with one of his knives when I first saw him. Now, I may have been a ruthless warlord in my day, but I would never willingly kill women and children, and I guess I just lost it. I charged him, sword upraised, but he surprised me. He'd seen me coming and simply whacked me with one of those oversized arms of his. Hef on crutches, the guy's even bigger than Hercules. As I went down, he followed with a tossed knife, which I barely dodged. No time to play, I had to take care of him right then and there, so I swept his feet from under him. I was just about to skewer him when he slashed my thigh with a poisoned knife. The stuff wasn't fatal, but it was enough to slow me down as he got away, the coward. When it was all over, we were left with a empty town and piles of dead bodies. I'd lost several men, but Gryllus' army was more than finished. Makhet was the sole survivor. I considered going after him, but I decided instead to simply regroup, grab what we could, and move on.
He showed up at my camp a few days later. To this day, I still don't know how a man of his size could slip past my guards, but he did. I was sleeping in my tent when I heard a rustling noise. As the noise grew nearer, I tightened my grip on my sword under the covers. I was out of the bed just as he plunged a knife into my cot. I kicked him hard and he came crashing out the tent, rolling on the ground. Some of my men came rushing and when they saw him, they grabbed him. It took five men to hold him fast. I walked up to him, pressed the tip of my sword to his throat and told him to give me one good reason why I shouldn't kill him. Makhet had the nerve to answer that he wanted to join my army. I had to laugh at that. So trying to kill me was his way of demonstrating his talents? That's a new one. So I grinned at him and said, Sure, why not? Guy like you could be useful. Little did he know. Before he could even blink, I jabbed some pressure points on his neck to knock him out, then had my men drag him out into the middle of the desert, where I bound his arms and legs between two poles staked into the sand. He was spread-eagle and helpless, just the way I wanted him. When the sun was high in the sky, I slapped him awake. It's no fun being strung up with a hot sun beating down on you, believe me, I know. He was definitely uncomfortable. He asked me whether I was just going to leave him there, and I said, Oh,no. The fun's just starting. That's when I got my whip and made stripes across his back. He screamed, begging me to stop but I wouldn't listen. I couldn't get the image of that little girl out of my head. The bastard. I lost count after thirty strokes. I didn't stop even after he passed out. Finally, my arm got too tired. Amazingly, he was still alive. I wanted to kill him, but it would have been too good for him. So I had him cut down, shackled in the strongest chains I could find, and dragged away. The day before, I'd come across a trading ship that needed a strong worker. So I had Makhet dragged over to the port, and sure enough, the ship was still there. In spite of the damaged I'd inflicted on his body, I got a very good price on Makhet, which more than made up for the losses from the nameless little town. And that's the last I saw of him. Until now, seven years later. And he'd kept that piece of rope I'd used to tie him to the stakes, knowing I would recognize it. Son of a bitch.
I was conscious before he was, laying there wondering the fuck had just happened to me. I was hurting all over, and I had just shit myself. Then he started coming around, I figured I'd just lay there and watch his next move. Didn't take long. Circe showed up, which surprised me. So that's how Makhet got off the ship, huh? As soon as I knew they weren't looking in my direction, I hauled ass into this tree two hundred fifty paces away, which happens to be where my chakram ended up. Even from this distance, I can hear every word they're saying. Turns out he's after some priestess who's carrying something Circe wants. Ohhh-kay. What divine artifact is missing this time? The Helmet of Hermes? The Hammer of Hephaestus? But then again, what would a powerful witch like Circe, who's practically a goddess herself, want with...whatever this thing is? No matter. The bastard's heading towards my home town, and I'll be damned if he's gonna even come near that unsuspecting woman. Circe vanishes just as the sun has set. Not too fond of the dark, are ya, Red?
I watch Makhet walk away, muttering to himself. Looks like he ain't too happy with being a witch's whore. Tough luck, bastard. Got his scent, now. It's foul, mixed with lingering sea salt, herbs, a woman that has to be Circe, and wild beasts. Even with a head start, I should be able to track him easily. Too easily. My senses have never been this sharp before. Could it have something to do with the hairs on the backs of my hands? I chance a look at myself, and there's more hair on them. Now there's hair on my legs, too. I'm at a loss to explain this. It must have started last night when I had that dream. What's happening to me? Who's doing this to me? And why? Not now. Got a bad guy to catch. Retrieve my chakram. Find my sword.
Oh, and clean the shit out of my breeches.
Will. This. Guy. Ever shut the fuck UP?
Metrius never liked his job as Amphipolis' constable, but he was stuck with it. His father and grandfather had held the job before him. When he was a boy, Metrius had wanted to join the elite Athenian Army, to see the world. Unfortunately, his father had other ideas, and bestowed the title upon him, whether he liked it or not, end of story. As a result, Metrius performed his duties grudgingly, rolling his eyes at every little problem the gentle folk of Amphipolis tossed into his lap. Metrius, my husband's drunk again. Please drag him out of the tavern and take him to the jail to cool off. Metrius, break up this fight. Metrius, serve this writ. Metrius, my cat's stuck up a tree, get him down. Why didn't anything exciting happen in this sheep town? He sat at a heavy wooden desk in the tiny office that was actually his living room, nursing a beer and staring hard at Stavros, who'd barged on in hauling something heavy, babbling about-
"A wolf?" Metrius sighed. "You're telling me there's a wolf prowling this shit town? Come on, there hasn't been a wolf seen around here in a long time. I think you've been smoking those flowers a little too long, old man."
"You callin' me a liar, boy?!?" Stavros fairly shouted. "I'm tellin' ya, there's a beast lurking around town. Last night, I coulda sworn I heard somethin' howl, an' it weren't my nephew's dog. And this morning, my brother Xipphantes said that one of his sheep turned up missing."
Metrius grumbled and took another swig of beer. Out of all the folk in this town, with the exception of loud Kentares, Stavros complained the worst. "All right. If Xippy's missing a sheep, then how come you're here, and he's not?"
The former blacksmith glared at the young man. "What, you think that the man has time to come down here when he's gotta farm ta run? Besides, my buddy Cyrill found this carcass out in the forest, looked like somethin' ate it alive." And with that, he swung the heavy sack from beside his feet and plunked it squarely on Metruis' desk.
The constable rubbed his temples. This job was really starting to suck, with people coming from all over and complaining about this and that. Why couldn't another warlord blaze through town? Why couldn't there be some sort of trouble where he was actually needed? This guy wasn't gonna go away until... Sniff Sniff "What is that smell?" He looked at the sack on his desk, his nose wrinkling. "It's that what stinks?"
Stavros leaned forward and planted his hands on the desk. "No shit, genius! How about taking a look?"
With the tips of his fingers, Metrius opened the sack and peered inside. The stench hit his face and he jerked back, gagging. "Damn, that stinks! This thing looks as if it's been torn apart!" After grabbing a cloth to press to his face, he peeled away the sack to reveal the rotting carcass of a giant buck. Or, what was left of it after the scavengers got a hold of it. It was mostly a bag of bones with strips of flesh still clinging to it. The head was still intact, but the neck bore what looked like distinctive- "What are those, teeth marks?"
"Oh, now you believe me! I say we get together a search party and go after it!"
"Say what?" Metrius squeaked around his cloth. "Ya gotta be shitting me! You don't even know if it was a wolf that did this! Man, the whole place stinks! How about getting this shit off my desk?"
Stavros slammed his hands on the desk, making the carcass jiggle. "I'm tellin ya, there's a wolf running around here, and if you ain't gonna go after it then I'll get Mor, Toris and Xena ta go."
Metrius glanced up at the last name. And scowled. Not that name again. Anything but. "Oh, the Freak's home again? How long this time?"
Stavros glowered at him, angrily tugging the sack off the desk. It fell to the floor with a wet SPLAT. "You no call my niece that, boy." he growled. "No wonder she kick your ass all the time while growing up. Ya don't wanna help? Fine. Me an' the kids'll do it ourselves. Glad your father ain't around to see his sorry excuse of a son that don't want to do his job. I'm outta here."
The constable grumbled. The old man just had to go there. Yeah, his dad would be disappointed. But so what? I never wanted this fucking job anyway. "Fine. You guys wanna tramp around at night looking for this wolf, go right ahead. No skin off my ass. Have fun." He got up from his now-smelly desk and shuffled over to the barrel for some more beer. "Oh, and don't let the door hit ya in the ass on the way out."
Stavros hauled up the heavy sack on his shoulder with one hand and swung his cane with the other. "Yeah, you have fun yourself, ya son of a bitch. You watch, we catch the wolf and you look like an ass. Maybe you lose your job." And with that, he turned and thumped and dragged out of Metrius' house.
"Wouldn't that be a dream come true," Metrius mumbled after him. He took a long draught of his beer, just now noticing the putrid-smelling wet spots on the floor and his desk. "Aw, man! Why'd he have to put that shit on my desk?"
Dinner rush was in full swing tonight One could only hope to squeeze through the bustling bodies without getting squashed to bits. Elaina was making her usual rounds, zipping here and there without missing a beat. The ale and port were flowing freely, loosening tongues and lowering inhibitions. The tavern was filled with the sound of many voices, punctuated often with rich peals of laughter. The noise was so thick, it was nearly impossible to pick out one voice.
Well, there was one voice that soared above the rest.
Kentares, a short guy with a very loud voice, was at a table with other men, screaming his head off. Tonight he was hollering about his days as a young would-be athlete. He bragged that in his day, he could out-run, out-throw, and out-(insert appropriate activity here).just about anyone in town. Oh, and did he have quite the physique back in the day, never mind that ol' Kent was now bald and had a sizeable gut. By the time the port finally reached his brain, he was bragging that even now he could best any man at (insert appropriate activity here). One of the other men laughed at that and asked how Kentares could even reach, much less punch a man. Kentares, of course, took that as a challenge and leapt to his feet with fists raised. Within moments there was a short scuffle between Kentares and the other man. Everyone else watched and laughed heartily, and some even began to place bets on who would win. However, the fight was short-lived, and ended with both men getting a large bucket of water splashed on them by a passing Elaina.
"You two just QUIT it, now!" She yelled over her shoulder.
The two men looked dumbfounded at her retreating form, then at each other, then started laughing. Eventually, they made up when Kentares offered to buy the man a drink.
Over in the far corner, Gabrielle and Toris were gorging themselves on a big meal. The lamb was quite exquisite, and the ouzo was to die for. Lumpy the dog sat under the table, happily munching on the scraps that were offered to him. He got a particularly juicy bone, and lay on the floor with it to gnaw at his heart's content. When he started making loud slurping noises, Gabrielle started giggling, and ducked her head under the table "Lump-EEEEE," she grinned. "Slow down, or you'll choke."
Lumpy the dog paused in his gnawing and looked up at the bard with a quizzical look. "Huuuuurrmrooooo?"
"Uh-huh. What if a bone gets stuck in your throat? Can't have that happen to a cute little puppy like you!"
The mutt shuffled forward, and planted a wet kiss on Gabrielle's face.
In a heartbeat, the bard slid completely under the table, and threw her arms around the dog, letting herself be licked senseless. "Awwwwww," she cooed. "Little puppy. You're so cute!" The mutt wagged his tail merrily. "Are you still hungry?"
"Good. There's this nutbread your Daddy's been sharing with me. Would you like a piece?"
"Rrrrrrrufff! Ruff! Ruff!"
"Okay, here goes."
Toris was startled when he saw a hand appear from under the table, and reach for the nutbread spiked with cannabis that he'd been feeding Gabrielle. He stared as the hand closed on its prize, and snaked back underneath. Shortly, there was a loud slurping sound which could only belong to a certain mutt. He ducked his head underneath, and spotted the bard cuddling with his dog. Surprise, surprise, the nutbread snatched off the table was gone. "Um, Gabs? I don't think it's a good idea to feed him that."
"Well, why not?" Gabrielle slurred, burying her face into the warm fur. "Did wonders for me, didn't it?" Lumpy didn't have any complaints either. It wasn't long before he got the canine version of a grin plastered on his face.
"You're seriously not trying to get my dog high, are you?"
"Well you smoke the shit around him, how is that any different?"
The big guy sighed. Now he was starting to regert getting the bard stoned. It did little to lift her from the funk she'd been in since finding out about Xena's abrupt departure. Mood swings, too. Wonderful. "Gabrielle, why don't you come back up? Your food's getting cold."
At the mention of food, Gabrielle perked up. Her stomach growled as well, demanding immediate gratification. "Oh yeah! I almost forgot!" In her mad rush to get back up, her head met the edge with a BONK!"Ow, that hurt." She slid back to her seat rubbing her head. "Wait. No it doesn't. Oooh, yes it does! Toris, pack a bowl, willya? I lost my buzz."
He rolled his eyes. Mental note. Kick Xena's ass when she gets back. "Sure, why not?" Anything to keep your mind off waiting for sis.
A young woman entered the tavern, squeezing through the bustling crowd. She was a pretty young specimen, with flowing dark hair and sparkling dark eyes. A few of the men gave her appreciative looks, but she ignored them all. The crowd seemed to part as she passed through, gawking at the pair of wiggling hips. Elaina nearly blazed past her when she stopped and broke into a wide grin. "Mara!" she cried. "How are you?"
"Hi, Ma." Mara said, pecking a kiss on her mother's cheek. "Just fine. And you?"
"Oh just fine, dear. Why don't you find a seat, I'll bring you something to eat, okay?" And off Elaina went on her rounds.
Mara smiled as she left and began looking around the tavern for a seat. There seemed to be no empty spot in sight. Finally, she spied a table in the far corner. It was the occupants that caught her attention, a tall one with a shock of black hair, and a shorter one with long strawberry blonde hair. She smiled to herself, and started towards the far corner.
Gabrielle and Toris were passing his smoldering pipe back and forth. Every time the bard took a hit, she would burst into a coughing fit, and hack up some snot, which she spat into an empty mug. Toris would pat her back absentmindedly with one hand while taking his hit with the other. Lumpy the dog was studying a cloud.
"Okay-KAFFKAFFF!" Gabrielle choked out between coughs. "Just for shits and giggles, let's ponder something. You know how big the universe is supposed to be, according to Democritus?"
"Demo-who?" Toris slurred.
"Democritus. Any-kaff kaff!!! ANYWAY! He had this theory that as large as the universe is, what if...?" She held up one finger to make a point and lost her train of thought. She froze in that position, searching for a mental foothold.
"What if...?" Toris echoed, thoroughly confused, now.
She remembered what she was about to say, and began to move again. "What if, the entire universe is nothing more than an atom of a giant being's fingernail?"
"Yeah. Think about it. If that's true, then a single atom of my fingernail must contain a..." She got lost again. This time, she pressed her fist against her cheek, and appeared to ponder some more.
Everything became mellowed out and smoothed over. Eventually, the coughing fits ended, and Gabrielle was able to hit the pipe with more ease. She blew a cloud of smoke in Lumpy the Dog's face. He sat there, blinking, his wet nose quivering. Deliriously happy, he took his place on the bench beside the soft and cuddly human once more. It was so much nicer being with her when that...other human wasn't around. He could have stayed like this forever, if it wasn't for the scent that caught his attention. He lifted his head, sniffed the air, and began to growl. Gabrielle smiled down at the mutt, and stroked his head tenderly. Xena must be back by now. And indeed, in spite of the crowd, she could sense a presence approaching her. About time. She's just going to have to accept that Lumpy likes me. "Took you long enough." She said without looking up.
"You missed me? Really? How nice."
Huh? Bewildered, Gabrielle looked up, and the smile disappeared. "Mara." She didn't even bother to mask the contempt in her voice. The smile came back, but tighter. She felt waves crash and recede within her. The room had been spinning, but not now. All of her green-eyed ire zeroed in on this new intruder in her space.
"Gabrielle." Mara answered with a smirk. "And how are you?"
"Just fine." Through clenched teeth. "And you?"
"Oh, just grand." Mara took this moment to look around the tavern. "And where is Xena, may I ask?"
Uninvited, Mara plopped down in the seat next to the bard. Lumpy the dog started growling again, the hair sticking up from from his neck. He disliked this human too, even worse than the other one.
"Hey," Toris called from the other end of the table. "You quit that!" He reached over and grabbed the mutt by the scruff of the neck, and dragged him off of Gabrielle's lap. He gripped the furry paws and looked intently into shiny black eyes. "Ya can't go around growling at people ya don't like."
"Arrrrooo?" said Lumpy.
"Yeah, and I mean it."
"Okay now, buddy. Now be nice." Toris then placed Lumpy between himself and Gabrielle, and out of Mara's way. Lumpy placed his head on the bard's lap once more and kept a quiet, but close eye on the other human beside her. "Uh, sorry about that, Mar."
"Oh no problem, Toris." Mara breezily answered, ignoring Gabrielle's narrowed gaze. "How are you doing these days?" She batted her lashes for added effect.
"Oh. Uh...uh..." Toris' face flushed uncomfortably. "Just fine, Mara." He tensed, waiting for the explosion that was bound to occur. The last time Mara was in the same room with Gabrielle...well, it wasn't pretty. Maybe it's good that Xena's not back yet. Then again...
"So how are things going with your warrior, Gabrielle?" Mara asked. "Just fine?"
"Yesssss." Gabrielle kept the smile on her face, but it was an effort. "I'll be sure to tell her you said hi when she comes back." If THAT is not a hint...
"Oh, I'm sure I could say it in person," Mara said. "After all, when Mother told me that Xena was back home, I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to come over to see her. You know how it is. Old friends, that sort of thing..."
"Riiiiight." If she doesn't leave now, I'm gonna fucking KILL her... "Emphasis on old. You understand."
"Oh certainly." In a flash, Elaina was there with a plate of food for her daughter and was gone again. With waggling eyebrows, Mara began to eat, daintily placing each bite of food into her mouth. When her mouth closed on one particular bite, she closed her eyes and hummed as if she were sucking a finger. No question as to whose finger she wished it was.
Gabrielle muttered darkly to herself. Great, now she'll NEVER leave. Lumpy the dog let out a low growl in agreement. Maybe if I just ignore her... Closing a hand around Lumpy's muzzle to prevent an unfortunate accident (She wouldn't sic Lumpy on Mara. Really.), she turned to talk to Toris. "So Toris, you catch that giant buck, yet?"
"Huh? What? Ahh...no!" The big guy had been lost in another daze. "Dunno if I'll ever bag it. I just can't understand how something that big can move so fast. Strange, though. I didn't see it this morning like I always do. It must have moved on, to the the next forest over."
"Well, maybe you could set a trap or something."
"For a buck? Especially in one THAT size? I don't think so."
"Hey, you never know. Maybe when Xena comes back, you can ask her to design a snare for you. You know how she loves a challenge."
"And does she ever," cut in Mara. "I was quite the challenge, if I recall. Or was it the other way around?"
Gabrielle glared at her, her voice pure venom now. "I'm sure. Don't you have someplace to be, Mara?" Gods, if she doesn't get it by now...
"Not while I'm still eating, honey." Mara smirked. "So tell me. While we're on the subject of Xena's ah...creativity, just how is she in bed?"
bitchwhorecuntsshitmotherfucker!!! "She does just FINE, thank you very much. If you don't mind..."
Mara leaned forward, hoping to bait the bard some more. "Just what is it about you that she likes so much? I mean, you're no bigger than a fart, you talk too much, and you wave around that little stick! Sure you can tell stories like no one's business, but I just don't see how that can appeal to someone who doesn't talk much."
"I must be doing something right, since she's with me and not you!"
Toris looked over at the arguing women with growing alarm. At first, the exchange was almost funny, but not anymore. This wasn't good, not by a long shot. These two had to be separated, and fast. Not to mention that they were ruining his buzz. "Uh...Gabs? Mar?"
They ignored him, and kept up what was rapidly deteriorating into a cat fight.
"And I could have her with a snap of my fingers, if I wanted to." Mara spat. "She's still got feelings for me, you know."
"You just don't get it, do you?!? Xena is MINE! Not yours! MINE!!!"
"Yeah, but for how long? She broke my heart once, sweetie, what makes you think you won't be next?"
"Spoken truly like a desperate SLUT who doesn't know when to quit chasing something she can't have!"
"Marf!" Lumpy barked in agreement. Okay, he still hated Xena, but so what?
"Uh...ladies?" Toris tried again, to no avail. "Hello?"
Mara leaned in, a twisted smirk playing upon her features. "A girl can't help but try, can she? Once you've had a taste, you've gotta have more." Then she went for the kill. "I'll have you know that Xena had me upside down, underwater, everywhere, and if I can just get her in a room alone, I could have her, again!"
Gabrielle's grip on Lumpy's muzzle grew tighter and he whined, moving his head to break free. "Why don't you just FUCKING leave her alone!!! If you don't stay away from her, I'll...I'll..."
"You'll...you'll...what, little girl? Talk me to death?"
"That's IT!!!" In one fluid motion, Gabrielle swooped up Mara's plate and mashed the contents on the surprised woman's face.
Food was dripping down Mara's face as she sat there in shock. "You. You. Fucking BITCH!" She swung at the bard.
"Whoa." Gabrielle ducked. The fist sailed over her head, and landed squarely in Toris' face with a resounding CRACK! Lumpy started at the noise and sudden movement. He wiggled about, and rolled off of Gabrielle's lap and landed on the floor with a "YIPE!" The bard took this opportunity to grapple Mara's shoulders and dive forward, propelling them both off the bench and onto the floor. Within seconds, they thrashed around, screeching like banshees, trading the punches and scratches.
The crowd didn't really give much notice.
"So, you wanna break them up, or should I?" Elaina was taking her break leaning against the bar. Cyrene was calmly wiping the counter.
"Oh, not yet," the tavern keeper replied. "They might as well get it out of their systems. Oh dear. Looks like Toris' nose is broken. Would you get a wet rag to him, please?"
"Sure." Elaina reached into a barrel behind the bar and grabbed a sopping piece of cloth which she wrung out. She then made her way through the crowd to the far corner. In front of the table the Gabrielle was on top, wrapping her hands around Mara's throat. Or at least she was trying to. It was kinda difficult, with Mara trying to scratch her eyes out at the same time. Poor Toris had his hands pressed to his face. He leaned against the wall helplessly, while Lumpy the dog decided that the blood pouring out from his nose was a nice, tasty treat. Elaina stepped one way, then the other. They was no way she was going to get past the two struggling bodies on the floor without actually stepping over them. Finally she gave up, and simply threw the rag in Toris' direction. It landed with a wet THWAP! on his face. He gratefully nodded and pressed the rag to his face with one hand, and pushing Lumpy away with the other. Rolling her eyes and shaking her head, Elaina went back to the bar. "Kids today," she sighed.
"I'm telling you, Elaina." said Cyrene. "Love is not blind. Love is stupid."
"I know what you mean. And the person they're fighting about isn't even here."
"Why am I not surprised? I told Xena to stay in bed today. She even promised me she would, but noooooo. She had to go running off and-"
"HEY CYRENE!!!" boomed a voice from the door.
Cyrene groaned and rubbed her temples. "Gods. Does he have to yell everything he says? WHAT, KENTARES?!?"
"THERE'S SOME LADY OUT HERE LOOKIN' FOR YA!!! IN A CLOAK!!! I THINK SHE'S FOREIGN!!!"
"BE RIGHT THERE!!!" She wiped her hands with a cloth and took off her apron.
"Now?" Elaina asked.
"Now," said Cyrene. She reached under the bar, brought up a large bucket full of water, and placed it in front of Elaina. "I'll be right back. You know what to do."
The fucker doesn't even know I'm following him. I've been tracking Makhet for a few hours now. Well, it took me a while since I had to clean myself up, but it was no problem catching up with him. He's on his way to my town where his target is supposed to be. Who is he after? All I got is that he's after some priestess. Priestess of what, I wonder? Circe was smart in one sense, only giving him just enough information to get the job done, no more. Not a problem. Won't be long till I catch up with him, and oh, will he be sorry when I do. I ain't about ta let him murder and rob an innocent person.
There's something about his scent. Something...like he doesn't want to be here, but at the same time he's glad he's not where he was before. Apprehension, that's what it is. It has a distinctive smell. He doesn't really want to do this little errand, he just wants to get it over with. Sounds like the guy's stuck. Or smells like it anyway. Almost feel sorry for the guy.
I still can't figure how he does it, be so quiet. From what I gathered when we first met, he's a seasoned killer. Probably why Gryllus chose him as a lieutenant. Vicious enough to fight for you, yet not ambitious enough to lead. If I had met him before Gryllus did, things would be different. Makhet would have been my lieutenant, instead.
Makhet is not stupid by any means, though. He knows all the tricks and turns, and has a smart mouth, to boot. I wonder if he sweet-talked Circe into letting him retain his human form. He was probably on his knees, offering himself in the most perverse ways, as the red-haired witch was about to transform him into a pig. Frightening image. More likely than not, Circe found him interesting and decided to take a new lover. It's a seasonal thing with her. She'll latch on to the flavor of the month, until they'll do something to piss her off. Like leave her. I don't think I have to rehash what happened to Picus. Poor guy. And Ulysses. In a cruel twist of irony, he was killed by his own son. A son he'd had by Circe. It was their first and only encounter. If Makhet wasn't already in deep shit already, he sure is now.
What is that smell coming from him? He stinks, there's something oozing out of his pores. Something plant-like and pungent, like an onion. Ulysses had a similar scent on him, but it was barely noticeable. This one reeks of it.
Of course. If Makhet was on a trading ship, then he probably came across a batch of moly and ate some. Maybe. I'm only guessing. Regardless of how he got the stuff, that makes him invulnerable to Circe's shape-shifting magic. However, as I saw earlier, she can move other things to hurt him. Makhet may be big and tough, but hit him in the right place, he's on the ground rolling in pain like everyone else. Bastard.
Makhet picked up on the trail that Circe had pointed out to him. In a way, he was glad that she had only appeared before him in the daytime. He liked the night anyway, and in fact preferred to sleep all day. Sometimes, when Circe was having one of her more violent tantrums, he would hide in the woods where the animals that were once human resided. The tamed beasts would lie beside him as he slept They followed him everywhere he went. He hunted for their food on the island and fed them. Even though they lacked the power of speech, the animals made him welcome when Circe didn't. As much as he hated tramping around in a strange territory following tracks, he was glad he was off the island for now. He scanned the footprints before him, and wondered about his prey. Who is it? Priestesses don't usually travel, much less alone with one horse. Strange.
Oh well, it's business, nothing personal.
He froze in his tracks, listening hard. He was being followed, he could feel it. He twisted his wrist slightly, and a blade slid out from underneath his sleeve. He wrapped his hands loosely on the blade, ready to toss it.
It had to be Xena. If she survived their last encounter, then he was in trouble, warned Circe. "She heals fast," she'd explained. "I know not how, but she does. And yet, she's fully mortal." He concentrated for a split second then flung the knife to his right.
She landed right on top of his shoulders, propelling him face-first into the ground. He spat out some dust as she planted two feet into his upper back, rendering him immobile.
Xena grinned down at her quarry. "Hi there. Remember me?"
"But..but...you're dead!" The bear-sized warrior sputtered.
"I got better."
"What do you want?"
"Let's review, shall we? You're after somebody. Well, guess what? You ain't goin' near her!"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
She shifted slightly, putting some more pressure on his back. He stifled a groan. "Wrong answer." she growled.
Makhet grimaced at the pain in his back. "Hey, I'm just doing a job!" he choked out.
"Are you, now? And Circe sent you? How pathetic!"
"When she finds out about this, you'll wish you'd stayed dead!"
"You don't even know whom I'm after!"
"Does it matter? But now that you've mentioned it, how about spilling it? Who are you after, Makhet? Must be someone special." She pressed juuuuust a little harder.
"Aaaargh! A priestess! Traveling alone! Came in from Egypt!"
"Is that so? Could the tracks you've been sniffing at be hers?"
"All right, Makhet." she drawled. "You've got two choices. Return to Aeaea under your own power, or in chains. Either way, you're going back to Circe empty-handed."
"She'll kill me."
"Not my problem. So, what's it gonna be?"
"You let me up, I'll kill you."
"Again? I don't think so." Grinning savagely, the warrior princess somersaulted off his back with a whoop.
Makhet leapt to his feet and tossed knives in her direction, but she had already moved. She moved in just long enough to smash her fist into his face, then moved before he could react. His hands flew to his nose and reset it with a CrrRUnCH Xena moved in again, this time behind him, and snapped two punches into his lower back. Makhet grunted and whirled about. He lunged at her with a knife in hand, swinging downward. She jumped into the air, just as the knife slammed into the earth. She somersaulted high over Makhet and landed neatly several paces behind him. Roaring, he charged her again. At the last second, Xena stepped sideways, grabbed him by his cloak, and swung him face-first into a nearby SPLAT tree. He staggered back when she let go, bright little spots whirling in front of his face. He felt more than saw the fist zooming towards him, and he grabbed her wrist. He yanked hard and turned, bashing her against another nearby THWOK tree. The moment she dropped, he grabbed her firmly by the neck, squeezing hard. Xena strained against the pressure, clutching at his massive fingers. She began to see spots, too. Makhet hauled her up in the air, his hand still closed tightly around her throat. "Any last requests, warrior?" he asked.
"Yeah," came the croaked reply. "Tell me how you did it."
"Did what?" he growled.
"Get a hold of some moly. How else could you resist Circe's magic? Did you know that too much of the stuff can make you go mad? Maybe make you see things that aren't there?"
"Am I? Are you sure you saw me die?"
"No," Xena's foot whipped forward and connected squarely with THUNK certain sensitive parts. "Your nuts."
Emitting a shriek, Makhet dropped his would-be victim like a hot potato. He sank to his knees, clutching his injured crotch. Before he could even blink, Xena's hands darted forward for the briefest of moments. He stiffened, his eyes bugging out. His arms began to flop about uselessly. It felt like someone was squeezing his head in a vise. "I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain." she informed him. "You'll be dead in seconds unless you tell me what it is you're after this priestess for."
Seeing his life flash before his very eyes, Makhet was more than willing to talk. "Circe wants something that the priestess is carrying in her bag."
"Which is...?" she prompted.
"I don't know! I swear it!"
Deciding that he was telling the truth, she took her time releasing the pinch. It hurt the victim more this way. And he grunted accordingly. "Looks like you want it the hard way, Makhet. Nighty-night."
"I would go out toniiiiiight, but I haven't got a thing. Tooo Weeeeaaaaaar. Thith man thaid ith gwoothome that thomeone tho hanthome thould caaare..."
Mor came home after a long day at the smithy, having repaired several objects and shod at least seven horses. He was tired, dirty and sweaty, wanting nothing more than to drag himself home and collapse on the nearest pallet. He kept himself going by singing little tunes that ran in his head. He sang with a pronounced lisp, of course, but his voice was so lovely, no one who listened cared. As he walked towards the house, he saw his father Stavros out front waiting. As he got closer, he saw the giant bag resting by the door.
"Hey Pa!" he called. "What'th up? What'th in the bag?" Mor stopped in his tracks, his nose wrinkling. "What thitinkth?"
"Son," Stavros pointed his cane at the bag. "We've got a wolf stalking the village. Have been for a day or so."
"Thay what?" Gods, does he smoke the stuff all day, or what? "A wolf? Thewe haven't been one 'wound here for yearth."
"But one's here now! Look, I have proof!" Stavros poked the bag open with his cane and bade Mor to look inside. Shrugging, his son leaned forward and peered in.
The stench nearly knocked the young blacksmith backwards. Pinching his nose shut, he looked again at the rotting buck corpse. "Holy THPIT, Pa!!! Whey-a find THAT?!?"
"Cyrill found it this morning. And last night, yer Uncle Xippy lost a sheep. Not a lock of wool's been found of the beast. Wolf must've ate it alive! Now son, what kind of creature kills and simply leaves the body to rot?"
"Umm..." Mor was at a loss on that one. Maybe Pa had been smoking just a little too much.
"Was a wolf that did it, Morry. Why don't we go get Xena and Toris an' hunt for it?"
"Thay what?" Mor's eyes grew wide at that announcement. Oh, no. Not again. "Anotha huntin twip? Pa, lath yeah, you thaid there watha chimeewa on the looth! You had me up until the thun wothe lookin fer thumpthin that wath'nt there!"
"This is real this time, son."
"But why go after thome poor innothent animal like that?"
Stavros rolled his eyes and sighed. "Son," he began, bracing himself for an argument. "That wolf ain't no fluffy thing looking to be petted. It's a vicious beast. We can't let it harm our home."
"But how do you know there'th even a wolf around? Have you theen it?"
"No. But the buck, son! Nothing but a wolf would do that!"
Mor looked over at the carcass again and sighed. It did look as if the wolf had mauled it. And...then was something else that caught his attention... "Hey. Ith'nt that the buck Towith been runnin' afta?"
I hope these vines are strong enough. Too bad I don't have any chains. They're not good enough for him, the sick bastard. I've got him tightly bound, and I'm hauling him behind me as I walk. The road we're on's kinda bumpy, so hopefully he banged his head along the way. Makhet is one of the few people I don't regret hurting. Killing him outright sounds like a viable option, but the last thing I need is some red-haired witch tearing after me for killing her current lover. I'm dragging his ass over to the constable's to cool his heels until I'm done visiting home. Then I'm hauling him over to the nearest port, and ship him back to Circe, special delivery. In the meantime, I gotta find this woman and warn her. From there, I dunno what, but I'll jump off that bridge when I reach it.
I'm following the trail he's been on, and sure enough, it leads straight into town. One traveler, on a horse. The horseshoe imprints are brand new, which means the horse was rented from a livery. SNIFF Sea salt. Definitely traveled by ship. From... SNIFF Huh. Looks like the bastard was telling the truth after all. Egypt. Yep. I recognize the scents from that land. Hmmmm. Definitely a her. SNIFF Funny. I don't smell the usual incense and oils you'd find in a temple. That stuff tends to linger. Yeah, it's oils, all right, but it's the stuff used for bathing. This ain't no priestess, that's for sure. So. who is it? SNIFF Let's see...ink...parchment...cannabis...a cat that stayed home and is missing her now...fresh linen...SNIFF heavy cloak...metal...smoke? From the smell of things, looks like this one survived a fire recently. Like, a few months ago. Can it be...? I'll be damned, I know who it is now. She's no priestess...but her mother was. K'Tai.
Grrrrrrrr. I was mad before, but now...I'm really pissed. The bastard was after a friend of mine.
I yank at the vine and pull him upright. He's still unconscious but it doesn't stop me from pounding a few punches into him. I might be able to stop him now, but what's stopping Circe from sending someone else? One more punch and he's on the ground again. Damn. I sure stepped in it this time. I gotta get home, find K'Tai, warn her, and protect her.
But why do I get the feeling that she might not let me?
It took a while, but Metrius finally cleaned up the mess in his office. He had to use an entire barrel of scented oil to kill the stench, but it was worth it. He nursed his mug of ale while he glanced around. Through a heavy door, towards the back and down a narrow hall were a few cells lined with bars There, the occasional drunk or rabble-rouser would sit until the magistrate decided their fate, usually a few licks with the lash in the public square. It had been years since there was a hanging, and the case had been pretty extreme. The poor unlucky bastard had killed five people, two of them children, before he was caught. That was the one exciting moment in Metrius' career. Then it got boring again. The cells were empty now, with dust lingering in the corners. They stank of piss, shit and puke, and one could die from the smell alone, unless they were too drunk to notice. Metrius never really bothered to clean the cells. He would leave the refuse, figuring he'd let his "guests" feel as miserable as he did. The heavy oaken door to the hallway of cells usually shielded him from the worst of the stench, but the odors would always find their way out into the outside air. Once every so often, the towns-people would complain about the smell, and he would reluctantly clean the mess up.
It had been two moons since the last complaint, and he was now working on a new pile. It wouldn't be long until the folks complained again. Oh well. Metrius took another drink from his ale. It was well past dark, and even further past his bedtime. He went around his office looking here and there, blowing out the candles that were spread around the room. He was about to blow out the next to the last candle when there was a THUMP THUMP THUMP at the door. He groaned aloud. Not another one. He snatched up the lit candle and went around re-lighting the others.
THUMP THUMP THUMPTHUMP
"Keep yer britches on, will ya?" he hollered at the door. "I'm coming!" When the room was lit again, he made his way to the door, cursing under his breath. He yanked the door open. "WHAT?!? Oh. It's you."
Metrius stepped aside, and Xena came in, dragging behind her a man tightly bound in vines. "Nice to see you too, Metrius. Got one fer ya, and ya didn't hafta do a damn thing fer once. This one-" She yanked Makhet upright. "Was on his way over here to kill somebody. Name's Makhet. Nasty fella, surely you've heard of him. Fought under Gryllus, remember him? Now he's a free-lance killer."
"And?" Metrius' reply disappeared into his mug.
Xena glowered and him and released the vine, allowing Makhet to crumple into a heap. "And?" she snarled. "I practically drop a wanted man into your lap, and believe me, there are quite a few villages who would love to have his head on a pike, and all you can come up with is 'and'? What the fuck is wrong with you?"
"Has he actually done anything?"
"You're serious, right?" Xena advanced the constable, towering over him by a few hairs. "I just got through tangling with him. He fucking stabbed me!"
His eyes flickered over the warrior and narrowed. "Where? I don't see any blood on you."
She glanced down at herself and swore. She'd forgotten the wounds had healed. "Look, all I need for you to do is to keep him here for a few days before I'm ready to move on, and I'll take him with me. Can you at least do that?"
He sneered back at her. "What is it with your family? Ya know yer uncle came barging in here with some story about a wolf prowling town? And if that wasn't enough, he hauled in this rotting buck corpse that stank up my office!"
"Oh, is that what it is? And here I thought you forgot to clean up your cells. Again!"
"Oh yeah? Since you find the so smell appealing, how about staying back there for a while? I might as well arrest you for filing a false report."
Xena got in his face, baring her teeth. "Arrest me, huh? I'd like to see you try, you miserable piece of shit!"
Metrius slammed his mug onto his desk and raised his fists. "I think I will. I've been working out lately, so I can take you now!"
She snorted. "Not that shit again! You never could beat me when we were kids, what makes you think you have a chance now?"
"What's the matter, warrior? Scared? You never had a problem before. And don't forget there are quite a few villages out there who would love to have your head on a pike."
"If you don't wanna take him, fine! I'll just stash him somewhere else!" She began to turn away.
Undaunted, Metrius grabbed her arm and spun her back. "Oh no, you don't! You ain't walking away from a fight are ya? You think that-" He stopped short when he happened to get a good look at her arm. "What the fuck?!?" He let go and backed away.
Xena glanced down at her arm and her face paled. The hair on her arms was thicker and more noticeable. "Metrius..."
He moved behind his desk. "No. You stay the fuck away from me."
"Dammit, Metrius! I don't have time for this! If I let this man go, he is going to kill someone!"
"I always knew you were some sort of freak! You got a curse on you or something?"
"Now's not the time to be worrying about me! Can't you at least-"
They didn't notice the tiny bomb until it was too late. It exploded in a brilliant flash, blinding them both. Thick, black smoke blanketed the air. Xena grabbed Metrius and got them both to a corner of the office where there was a patch of clear air. Tears stung their eyes and they bent over, coughing. Recovering first, Xena held on to the constable's arm and helped him up, patting his back as he coughed. He wrenched himself from her grip. "Don't touch me, Freak!" he sputtered.
When the smoke finally cleared, Makhet was gone. In his place was the heavy vines that had been cut away. "Dammit!" Xena roared. She hauled Metrius up by his shirt front and slammed him against the wall. "You incompetent FUCK!!!" His head swimming from booze and trauma, he slowly raised his head and fixed a weak scowl on the warrior. "Assault on an officer of the law." he groaned. "Now I can arrest him. You, too." Grunting in frustration, Xena let him drop and raced out of the building and into the night.
Sitting with his back against the wall, Metrius coughed some more and rubbed some sore spots. "Fucking freak..." he muttered.
So much for a short visit.
K'Tai only intended stay in Amphipolis for a few hours, no more. All she carried with her was a leather bag and the horse she'd rented from the seaport livery. The scribe had just entered the town, all the way from Alexandria, on a mission, of sorts. In his will, her foster father Philolaos had left a few items to his old friend Cyrene, and K'Tai thought it was best if she delivered them personally. She had been to Amphipolis once, years before with Phil. The town was a lot smaller than she remembered, and to her surprise, quite a few people recognized her. "Phil's little girl", they called her. Cyrene had welcomed the scribe with open arms. She was saddened to hear of Phil's death, bursting into tears when K'Tai presented her with several boxes full of jewelry, gold, scrolls, and oils. She insisted that the scribe stay at the inn for a while. Before K'Tai knew it, she was parked at the table with Gabrielle and Toris, with a plate of food in front of her. The dinner crowd had just wandered out of the tavern, leaving it nearly empty. Gabrielle's hair was still damp from getting drenched earlier (Mara had decided to retreat to the other end of the tavern), and was now working on her third plate of lamb stew. Toris was still holding a bloody cloth to his face. The big guy wasn't much on conversation at the moment, but K'Tai was glad to see the bard. After a brief reunion, they quickly fell into chattering about the latest scrolls that had arrived at the Library of Alexandria since the fire. Lumpy the dog had sniffed with curiosity at this new person, and decided that she was an okay human. He took his now usual position on Gabrielle's lap, while his furry tail thumped against K'Tai's thigh.
Toris was gracious enough to hand K'Tai his pipe, which she promptly stuffed with cannabis from her pouch. The three of them passed the pipe again, creating yet another giant cloud over the table. K'Tai was unused to smoking and the cannabis she'd brought was about ten times stronger than Toris' stash. She coughed and hacked several times. Gabrielle and Toris took turns patting the scribe's back. The buzz hit them very hard. Toris found himself in a heavy trance, which he liked, and considered asking the scribe for a few seeds to grow in Uncle Stavros' garden. Gabrielle picked up on the last philosophical thread she had been on, rambling about Democritus again. K'Tai, having read all of The Laughing Philosopher's work, joined right in, and the two of them began to discuss in detail Democritus' Atomic Theory. Poor Toris had no clue as to what the two women were talking about, but he smiled and nodded when a comment was tossed in his direction. He glanced at Lumpy the dog, who looked right back at him.
Eventually, the conversation drifted to the fateful encounter with Najara. K'Tai listened to the story thoughtfully, considering all of the details. "Well," she said after Gabrielle finished her story, "I do have a few thoughts about this Najara person. You said that she talked to...these spirits?"
"Actually," Gabrielle answered. "They talked to her."
K'Tai appeared to be in deep thought. "Hmmm. Well, I happen to know a few things about the jinn."
"Yeah. A lot of people believe in them. The jinn are spirits who inhabit a world very much like ours, but on a different level. And like us, they can be good or evil, male or female. But since their world is in a different dimension, they have knowledge and abilities which would be akin to magic to us."
"Don't they visit our world?" The bard couldn't help but wonder. Perhaps Najara had had access to some otherworldly ability.
"All the time." The scribe took a sip from her mug. "Hey, this is good stuff. What's it called again?"
"Ouzo," Gabrielle said. "But uh...be careful. It'll knock you on your ass. About the jinn?"
"Oh yeah. Anyway, they're said to be made of smoke and fire and therefore invisible to the naked eye. On occasion, they'll let themselves be seen by people. But here's the thing. They don't usually talk to people unless they're summoned. And even then, other people would be able to see and hear them too, even if what they see is a column of smoke."
"So...the voices in her head...."
"Weren't the jinn. You said earlier that Najara claimed they started talking to her as a child? Well, there's this other thing I read about. It's a disease of the mind where some individuals have an altered perception of life. You could say that they're in a whole different world. And...in most cases they hear voices in their heads, telling them to do things, sometimes destructive. Another thing I've read is that people with this affliction tend to be more perceptive than normal, picking up on emotional states, or perhaps even the thoughts, of other people. That would probably explain how she knew certain details about you. Nope." K'Tai took a long swallow from her mug. "That warrior was no mystic."
"She wuz a fuggin' nut!" Toris finally spoke up, still holding his nose. "I coulda told ya that." Lumpy whined in agreement.
Gabrielle sat poking at her lamb stew, mulling over what she just heard. "I suppose that should be a relief to hear." she said softly. "I really believed that Najara was this ultimate force for good, someone that could help me find the peace I've been looking for. I guess I was wrong. It was so stupid of me to believe her."
K'Tai patted the bard's shoulder. "You weren't stupid. You just didn't know. There's always going to be someone that does harm in the name of their god. But that doesn't mean you should give up looking for inner peace. That is a good thing to aspire to. You know, I've read some scrolls from India about a man named Siddhartha Gautama, who was said to have attained enlightenment. If you like, I could give you a few scrolls about his beliefs the next time you're at the Library."
Gabrielle smiled ruefully. "Thanks. I just might do that. I'm sorry for dumping my troubles in your lap like that. It's just that Xena and I have been through so much lately..."
"It's okay, Gabrielle." The scribe took another sip from her ouzo. "Really."
"And what about you?" The bard placed an arm around the Alexandrian's shoulders.
"What about me?"
"How are you holding up? You know, after..."
"I'm fine." K'Tai stared into the mug in her hands, her face becoming an impenetrable mask.
Like Tartarus you are. "K'Tai, ever since the fire, you haven't said a word about it. It's like you've shut yourself completely off. You're obviously in pain and and I just-"
"I don't want to talk about it." The scribe's voice became quiet. She continued to stare at the table, as if it would help her shut out the line of questioning. Her lower lip began to tremble, and her brown eyes threatened to fill with tears. "I think I'll go on to bed now." She set down her cup with a quivering hand. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I'm still not over it." And with that, K'Tai got up from the table and went towards her room. Lumpy the dog lifted his head and whined after her.
"She okay?" asked Toris. He sniffed and felt his tender nose, satisfied that it wasn't broken after all.
Gabrielle sighed, stroking Lumpy's head.
Stupid. Stupid. STUPID!!! I should have known. As many knives as he was hurling, he had to have a bunch stashed on him. It's my own damn fault for not searching him before I tied him up. And that smoke bomb. That's a new one. I'd never would have guessed he'd have that up his sleeve. I honestly didn't think he'd be smart enough to even identify, much less use, a bomb. If I wasn't so damn busy arguing with fucking Metrius... I don't even know why I wasted the time. We go back, me an' Mets. He's been calling me the Freak ever since we were eight. It all started when he decided he was gonna bully me and made a crack about my height. I in turn cracked him up side the head. I was always big for my age. If you bunched all us kids together, I would stick out like some overgrown wart. My hands were huge. And I was stronger, faster, and meaner than any boy in the village. One time, when Metrius decided to pick on Lyceus, I whipped some vine around his legs and started running in the rough part of the forest, dragging him behind me. He was covered in cuts and bruises when I was done. Boy, was Mom pissed. She made me clean the tavern by myself for a moon. If things were bad between me an' Met, they got ten times worse with the entrance of one person.
Short version. Mara was supposed to marry Metrius. I thought she was cute, but I was all for the wedding. Then one night when I'd drunk too much, Mara and I somehow wound up alone in an empty barn. One thing led to another and...no question where I'm going with this. As a result, Mara decided that she didn't want to marry Metrius anymore. When he found out...well, it wasn't pretty. He challenged me to a duel right then and there. We would have if his father hadn't charged in and dragged Metrius home, in front of the entire village. Talk about embarrassing.
There was one instance when we put aside our differences. And that was when Cortese came to town. Now, it's business as usual.
Sniiiiff-Snort! Snort! Damn! That smoke went up my nose, I can barely smell anything! I can still see Makhet's tracks. They're headed towards the tavern, where K'Tai is also likely to go. I hope I'm not too late...
K'Tai entered the darkened room with a candle. The light wasn't much, but it was enough to let her move around without bumping into things. After settling the candle on the nightstand, she peeled off her cloak and placed it on a chair. She sat down on the edge of the bed and let her nearly empty leather bag slide from off her shoulder. It went to the floor, beside her feet. After carrying the boxes she'd given to Cyrene, it only held personal items, a small sword, as well as a handful of scrolls. K'Tai reached inside and pulled out one scroll and began to read. It was a letter that Phil had written to her long ago.
She missed him. He'd raised her from childhood and taught her everything she knew. Growing up in the Library was a wondrous experience. Phil read to her often while she was growing up. When she learned to write, she was allowed to sit and watch while the copiers worked, and eventually became an apprentice. She became one of the best scribes, in the Library, and patrons began to request her services. One such patron was Julius Caesar. Seventeen-year old K'Tai was given the task of chronicling a meeting between Caesar and a man from a land called Madripoor. The Madri was seeking an alliance with the Roman, and made a very generous offer of furs, rare jewels, and bear oil. Caesar smiled at the Madri and offered his hand. K'Tai had been going over a few lines when she heard something heavy drop to the floor. When she looked up, a smiling Caesar was standing over the now dead Madri calmly wiping his blade. "This never happened. You will burn the scroll," he said. K'Tai immediately tossed the scroll she was working on into the torch beside her. "What scroll?" she said, hoping he would dismiss her. Thankfully, he did, with an understanding smirk and nod of his head. The scribe ran all the way from Caesar's Alexandrian base to the Library. Phil shook his head sadly when she told him. From then on, whenever Caesar entered the Library, K'Tai avoided him.
Other than her brush with harsh reality, K'Tai's life growing up was a daily learning experience. Phil believed in a well-rounded education and insisted on her learning various skills besides that of a scribe. She learned to ride a horse, sail, weave, and other other things. But the lessons she could have done without were those of combat. K'Tai never saw the point in it. She never could understand point of one person raising a hand against another. Still, she carried her sword to defend herself. Traveling alone was dangerous, especially for women. Thankfully, she'd never had to resort to violence to avoid trouble.
A soft sound caught her attention. She stood and looked around, her eyes trying to adjust to the darkness in spite of the lone candle. "Who's there?" she called.
For several minutes, she stood in the darkness. She couldn't hear anything out of the ordinary. Maybe I should have paid better attention to Uncle's lessons.
She felt the barest of movements behind her and turned. There was a shape there, a large one. Her eyes kept going up and up until they settled on a mass of thick long hair. It wasn't she felt the dull pressure that she looked down. There appeared to be a knife sticking out of her chest. But there was no pain or puncture of skin. No blood. Instead, there were tiny shards of metal floating in the air. She watched in fixed fascination as the shards fanned out before they dropped to the floor. The assailant lifted the knife off her chest and stared at the empty hilt with confusion. Then he suddenly vanished from her sight and the sound of fists punching flesh could be heard.
There was another person in the room.
THUD CRACK WHUMP
K'Tai could barely make out the shadowy figures struggling on the ground. She reached for her sword in her bag. When the fight was over, she swung her blade forward and and pointed it at the throat of the figure that was getting up. "Don't move." She said.
"It's me, K'Tai."
The voice was familiar. Puzzled, the scribe lowered the sword. "Xena? Is that you?"
"Yeah. You all right?" Xena drew nearer, but stayed out of the light.
"I'm fine. I think. Let me see you."
"Since when are you worried about your looks?"
"Trust me, K'Tai, you don't wanna see me like this."
Did she just...growl? "Okay. You wanna tell me who that guy is and what he's doing here?"
"You're in danger, K'Tai. This man's name is Makhet. He was sent to kill you by a witch named Circe."
"You're kidding, right? Why would she want me dead?"
"You're carrying something that Circe wants."
"What is it?"
"I don't know." Then, she said, "I saw him stab you."
"I'm fine. Really." K'Tai shifted slightly.
Xena cocked her head to the side. "Really, now? I saw that knife shatter against your chest. Explain that."
Uh-oh. "Ummm...body armor?" K'Tai lied.
"Under that flimsy linen? I don't think so." Xena seemed to edge closer into the light, but remained silhouetted.
She appraised the scribe with a curious gaze. "And you look just as surprised about it as I was."
Maybe I'm off the hook? Oh, whom am I kidding? Nothing gets past this warrior. "Well, uh..."
SNIFF SNIFF "And you're not part god, you're fully mortal. I can tell that from your scent."
Scent? Did she just...sniff me? "It's...kinda hard to explain."
"I...." K'Tai pondered this new dilemma. No one but Phil knew of her secret. Sharing it with a virtual stranger didn't sound appealing at all.
Xena picked up on the scribe's hesitation and realization dawned on her. There had been some unusual instances that occurred the last time they'd met. Her voice softened. "You were born with this ability, weren't you?"
K'Tai blinked. At least she didn't freak out and call me a demon or something... "Yes. I can manipulate matter." She answered carefully, letting the warrior absorb this. "You're not real surprised, are you?"
"Well," Xena answered. "It would explain how you could run through a burning hallway without keeling over from smoke inhalation."
"Oh. yeah. That." The scribe peered at the shadowy form before her. It looked vaguely like Xena, but bigger, somehow. "Will you let me see you?"
K'Tai rolled her eyes. "If you're not the least bit surprised about me being what I am, then whatever it is about you can't be that bad."
"Okay, I warned you." Xena stepped slowly into the light.
K'Tai swallowed a gasp. The warrior before her was not the same one she'd met nearly a year ago. The long black hair was the same, as were the piercing blue eyes. But the leather-clad body looked more muscular. Xena's face was all but covered with facial hair, with sideburns jutting out grotesquely down her jaw. Her arms and legs were covered with thick black fur. Long nails tapered from her fingers. And were those...fangs? The scribe stared at Xena until her scholastic instincts kicked in. "Are you turning into a wolf, or something? What happened to you?"
"I don't know, but it doesn't matter. I gotta figure out a way to keep you safe from Circe."
"What about him?" K'Tai looking warily at the large lump on the floor.
There was a twitch beginning at the side of Xena's face and a low growl rumbled from her throat. "I'll take care of him. He's not gonna hurt you again, K'Tai, I promise you that."
"Thanks. But what about you?" The scribe edged forward, fear slowly giving way to fascination. She thought she knew what the problem was, now. There were scrolls on this kind of transformation, although this one was a lot slower. And nearly all of such scrolls said that there were divine influence or magic involved. Perhaps if I could recall a spell...
"Let me worry about it."
"What are you going to tell Gabrielle?"
"Hhhhrrrrrrrr, I said, let me worry about it!" Xena bared her fangs and snarled savagely at K'Tai. "I...don't know...how much longer...I can hold this back. All...of my instincts...are telling me...to kill you." SNIFF SNIFF She grinned, her teeth gleaming in the dim light. "I can smell your fear."
K'Tai didn't flinch. "I'm not afraid of you," She said quietly. "I know you wouldn't hurt me. You're my friend. Let me help." She reached out to touch the warrior. Her fingers brushed against a hand covered in fur.
The reaction was immediate. With an unearthly howl, Xena snatched her hand back as if she'd been burned. She clutched at her hand as she dropped to the floor, convulsions ripped through her body. K'Tai looked on helplessly, wondering what was happening. "Xena?" She called. "Xena, are you all right?"
Slowly, the fits abated, and Xena stood on shaky legs, looking bewildered. She glanced at her hands and blinked in surprise. The fur was gone. She reached up and touched her face. It was smooth. "I'm normal." She said in wonderment. She looked up at K'Tai. "I don't know what you did, but I'm normal. You've cured me."
K'Tai glanced at her own hands, then back at the warrior, just as puzzled. "Well, that's never happened before."
To be Continued