DISCLAIMER: Xena, Gabrielle, Hercules, and Ioulas all belong to someone other than me, I just borrowed them. The same goes for the Predator. No money was made in the publication of this story.
The characters Michas Acacus and Garis are mine, though they haven't made me any money either.
The weekly annual meeting of N.I.W.W.T. (Northern Illinois Whiskey & Writing Team) posed an interesting question. In a stand up fist fight, who would win? Hercules or the Predator! Of course, yours truly accepted, and what follows is the result of that challenge.
I'm not entirely sure at what point this story would have taken place during the run of Xena Warrior Princess. This is a stand alone adventure that could have been dropped in just about anywhere after the episode, 'Prometheus'. This is a Xena-Hercules / Predator crossover. As would be expected, anything having to do with the The Predator, usually involves:
E) Nasty weapons
F) Descriptions of horrible injuries and mutilations
G) All of the above
If the reader hasn't seen the Predator movies, that shouldn't matter much though it will help greatly with visualizing the action of the story
Story will have a PG-13 rating for violence and some sexual content. (Nothing too descriptive on the sex side, though the imagination can be a wonderful thing.)
SPOILERS: None that I can think of.
A BRIEF WORD ABOUT N.I.W.W.T. (Yes it is pronounced 'newt'):
Take four motorcycle enthusiasts, two bottles of whiskey, a series of DVD's
or Box Sets, shake vigorously and serve mildly toasted. That is the recipe for
many of the colorful discussions that happen on a weekly basis. Those discussions
lead to challenges issued by the majority to one of the writers, and the end
is a series of stories or papers regarding various subjects.
"I belong to the sea, and she to me. We are one in form and majesty. Her waters cool me, her life sustains me. I am a creature native to that element, and shall ever desire the gentle caresses of her breath.
Such is the yearning that drives me to the which I am eternally bound. I am as I shall ever be known, a sailor on the skin of Life itself."
An excerpt from the scrolls of Michas Acacus, Captain of the Agean Glory.
Xena and the Terror of Andros Island
by Michael Dobler
A Birthday Surprise
Gabrielle held her hands out tentatively, her eyes were bound by a dark cloth. Her feet felt the uneven rough texture of plank wood beneath her boots. All around her, she heard the sounds of people going to and fro, and she smelled the salt air.
Gulls wailed above her and the sound of water lapping against stone was on her right.
"Xena," she giggled. "Are we there yet?"
"No," Xena's voice replied at her left ear. "Just a bit further."
"If you push me in the water," Gabrielle said. "I'll kill you."
"Ooh," Xena teased. "I'm so scared."
She felt Xena's hands steering her gently through the crowd until she came to a stop and turned to her right. Gabrielle could hear the water now, directly in front of her.
"Alright," Xena said. "Take a look."
Gabrielle lifted the blindfold, her excitement building to a peak, and then it plummeted.
Before her was a ship that was obviously preparing to sail.
"Happy Birthday, Gabrielle," Xena said, pleased with herself.
Gabrielle looked up at her friend and gestured to the vessel moored before her.
"A ship," she said.
"You're taking me on a ship," Gabrielle continued, beginning to look irritated. "For my birthday?"
"Yes," Xena said, trying desperately not to smile.
"Xena," Gabrielle protested. She faced Xena completely and noticed Xena's futile attempt to hide her smile. "Me – ship – water – this is a bad combination, right?"
"I know," Xena said quickly, her will cracking by the moment as she stood under the dreadful stare of her best friend.
"Then why –" Gabrielle continued, but a booming voice cut her off.
"Hey!" It called. "Are we going, or not?"
Gabrielle knew that voice. At least she hoped she knew it. She turned back around and saw him standing at the rail, his hands spread out in a gesture of question.
His long brown hair ruffled in the salt breeze. His tan tunic fluttering on his chest.
"Hercules?" Gabrielle called out. "What are you-?"
Another voice came from her right.
"Can I help you with your bag, miss?"
She turned again and looked into the eyes of a blonde haired man in a red vest.
"Ioulas!" she blurted, and she embraced him. "What are you two doing here?"
Ioulas laughed and Xena finally let her own laughter burst out.
Hercules was grinning from ear to ear. The plan had worked perfectly.
Gabrielle was too stunned to care about the ship now.
"We're taking a vacation," Xena said at last. "Two weeks on the Isle of Andros."
Ioulas was leading Gabrielle up the boarding ramp, walking backwards on the treacherous plank.
"You're gonna love it," he was saying enthusiastically. "It's a tropical paradise. Warm beaches, good food, all the ale you can drink and so many –"
Hercules cleared his throat loudly, snapping his friend out of his frame of thought.
"Sights to see," Ioulas finished without missing a beat. He looked at his friend. "What did you think I was going to say?"
Hercules shrugged and then embraced Xena.
"How have you been?" he asked.
"You know how it is," Xena replied. "You have good days and bad days." She looked over; watching as Ioulas was describing all the accommodations of the island.
Gabrielle had a smile on her face, and seemed to have already forgotten that they were on a boat.
"Looks like today is one of the good ones," Hercules said as he watched Gabrielle and Ioulas.
"Just wait till we get away from port," Xena retorted, and then she smiled and leaned in against Hercules' chest. Hercules wrapped one strong arm over her shoulder and smiled.
"It's good to see you again," he said softly.
Xena squeezed him gently and looked up into his eyes. "You too."
Sure enough, less than an hour later, Gabrielle could be found, leaning over the rail.
Xena and Hercules sat on the deck, watching with a mixture of pity and amusement.
"You did this to her," Hercules smiled. "For her birthday?"
"She'll get over it when we arrive," Xena said, smiling. "Besides, I showed her how to cure it."
Hercules jabbed his fingers in front of him. "That whole, pressure points thing?" he asked.
"Yes," Xena replied, smiling.
"Okay," Hercules said knowingly. "I know why you brought Gabrielle. Why did you invite Ioulas and me?"
"I think Ioulas and Gabrielle make a good couple," Xena said. "Besides, I know she likes him, and they haven't seen each other in a long time."
"So you're a matchmaker now?" Hercules grinned. "You have many talents."
Xena looked sidelong at him that soft smile still on her face.
"Fine," she admitted. "I missed you as well."
Then she looked out over the vast expanse of ocean.
"Besides," she finished quickly. "We're all always so busy running around and helping others. I think we deserve a little break." She looked back at him again. "The world will still have problems in a couple of weeks." She arched a suggestive eyebrow in his direction.
Ioulas stepped closer to Gabrielle, leaning far over the side of the boat. He heard the choking sounds coming from the young woman and he winced in sympathy.
"Hey," he asked softly. "You going to make it?"
Gabrielle stood back up, wiping her mouth. Her complexion could have been a very sickly pale shade of green, not much lighter than the green halter she was wearing.
"Oh yes," she said hoarsely. "I'll be fine once the ship stops moving."
Ioulas smiled. "It won't stop moving for two more days," he said gently.
"I know," Gabrielle turned back to face out across the sea. "I know." Then she bent double over the rail and resumed heaving.
Ioulas stepped up next to her and gently rubbed her back. He figured the best way to get her to stop thinking about the ship was to get her talking about something else. He thought furiously and then blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
"I lied to you," he admitted.
Instantly, the heaving noises stopped and Gabrielle shot back upright to look at him.
"Lied?" she asked. "About what?"
Ioulas winced. "Nice job," he thought. Well, he had put his foot in it.
"I did hear you," he said. "When we were in the cave, on the way to help Prometheus, You told me a story about everybody being split from one soul?"
"Yes," Gabrielle smiled. He had her full attention, and the color was coming back to her face. Might as well keep going.
"Where did you hear that story?" he asked, now trying to nimbly change the path their talk was on.
Gabrielle blushed. Well, any color on that face was better than before.
"Well," she admitted. "I kind of made it up on the spot."
Ioulas thought desperately. "It was nice," he said lamely, trying to buy time.
"Ioulas?" Gabrielle looked up at him questioningly.
"Oh, no," he thought. "What do I do now?"
"Well," Xena said. "At least she's not leaning over the rail anymore."
Hercules smiled. "No, but I think Ioulas might jump."
"Why can't he just come out and say it?" Xena asked, and then she looked quickly at Hercules, hoping he wouldn't notice the glance.
He did. "I don't know." He answered. "Do you always say everything that you think?"
"Yes," Xena answered immediately. Hercules raised his eyebrows in response.
"Well, most of the time," Xena corrected.
"Ah," Hercules nodded, and looked back over at his friend.
Ioulas had said something, and Gabrielle looked at him for a moment, then she burst out in laughter. Ioulas visibly relaxed and the two of them went away from the side of the ship, walking and talking together.
"Well," Hercules said. "I think he just dodged an arrow."
"I doubt it," Xena replied. Then she looked over at him.
"When we get to Andros," she said suddenly. "There's something that I need to talk to you about."
"What?" Hercules asked.
Xena smiled. "When we get there."
Xena and Hercules didn't know how Ioulas managed it, but two days later as they neared the coast, he and Gabrielle were still engrossed in some conversation, or perhaps Ioulas had managed to keep the young woman thinking about other things the entire time.
Once the Island was in view, there wasn't any need to keep her preoccupied. The steep green hills and rolling white beaches did that duty just as well. From the sea, Andros was a tropical paradise.
Flocks of wild birds lifted in feathery clouds from the tops of gigantic trees. Freshwater springs and waterfalls dotted the steep landscapes. Here and there they saw small clusters of thatch roofed huts.
"This is amazing," Gabrielle breathed as she looked at the land drifting by.
The four of them stood on the deck watching the landscape.
"This was a good idea," Hercules said, standing next to Xena. He looked at Xena. "Thanks for inviting us."
Xena smiled, then suddenly, her instincts screamed out an alarm. She stood up straight, her gaze trying to pierce the thick leafy canopy.
In the forest, high above the forest floor, another figure sat in the crotch of two large tree branches, watching the primitive vessel coast by.
Behind his mask, the images shifted polarity and zoomed in closer to the small clot of figures standing near the edge. A thick, clicking growl emanated from behind the angular face plate.
"More," it thought greedily. It zoomed in on the four figures, scanning them in detail.
"Two mascu's and two feme's. Excellent." It focused on the two smaller figures. The feme was small, underdeveloped and her musculature and pulmonary rate indicated that it would not be a promising prey, it was quickly dismissed. The second figure, one of the mascu was a little more promising. Its frame was sturdier, and pulmonary scans indicated greater conditioning. A viable trophy to be certain. It marked the bio rhythms in memory and continued.
The next mascu was most impressive, and the creature sat a bit straighter, it's very being focused on this prey. Yes, it was fantastic in every way. That trophy would bring honor to his cadre. It looked down at the polished skull it held in its clawed hand, and let the trophy fall to the forest floor below. It was worthless now. It resumed its appraisal, moving to the final feme.
It, too, was exceptional. It was taller than the first two subjects, and extremely well groomed. The creature stood up straight to get a better view. It did not fear discovery, its stealth field would conceal it.
Yes, this last one was also viable. What was even better, this one was dressed for the hunt. It wore their primitive armor and carried the weapons. As it zoomed its view in on the feme's face, the creature suddenly looked up right at him, searching for him. It's instincts as well, were formidable.
The hunt was going to be a superior one indeed.
The creature dropped noiselessly to the ground below and tracked the vessel as it moved around the coast.
"Something wrong?" Hercules asked, his brows furrowed in concern at Xena's sudden discomfiture.
Xena's blue yes narrowed as she surveyed the trees. She could see nothing in the thick canopy, but that undeniable sense of hers was screaming out a warning. A hand touched her shoulder and she turned her head, startled.
Hercules also started slightly, and then smiled.
"What's got into you?" he asked with a nervous smile.
Xena looked back up at the coast, and then at Hercules again. Whatever had set off that internal alarm had gone.
"You really do need a vacation," Hercules said lightly.
Xena smiled uneasily. "Yes," she said. "I suppose I do." The adrenaline was still coursing through her system. Her instincts had never been wrong before, and something unquiet settled in the back of her mind.
Hercules gave her a reassuring smile and put his arm around her shoulder again.
"What was that all about?" Gabrielle asked quietly. She looked up and saw that Ioulas had the same concerned look on his face as her.
"I don't know," he said. "But whenever Xena senses a problem, there's usually a problem."
Then he forced a smile. "Let's not worry about it." He said cheerily. "We're all here to relax, so I say, let's relax."
Gabrielle smiled, her unease quieted for the time being. She felt completely protected in this company. She knew Xena wouldn't let anything happen to her. With the added protection of Hercules and Ioulas, she felt that this stay would be something for one of her scrolls. She resumed scanning the beautiful landscape. Ioulas glanced over at Hercules, who met his gaze. The big man shook his head subtly, and Ioulas shrugged helplessly. Both of them spoke without saying anything. "Keep your eyes open."
As the ship came around a short outcrop of pale rock, they saw the harbor ahead. It was small and simple, with three long wooden piers stretching out like fingers into the ocean.
Two other boats were currently moored at the docks. One of them an expensive looking private yacht, and the second was a large merchant ship.
Hercules stared at the merchant ship for a long time. It was a bulky single masted vessel, painted a deep magenta color, with a pair of eyes painted on the bow just beneath the name plate.
"I know that ship," he said, and a grin began to spread across his face. As they came closer, Hercules read the name plate and laughed.
"The Agean Glory," he said. "I knew it! That's my friend Michas's ship."
Xena raised an eyebrow. "So, you'll spend the entire time with an old friend, and forget all about use?" she jibed.
"No," Hercules said, and then he looked at her face and was struck by how lovely she was in the light of the setting sun.
"No," he said again more softly. "No, I'm all yours for the duration of this trip."
She smiled and looked back at the seaside village. "Good," she smiled.
The ship moored across the pier from the Agean Glory, so Xena was unable to prevent Hercules from running over to the other ship to greet his friend. A few minutes later he came back with a tall, lithe young man of about thirty years. He had tan skin and golden brown eyes that were almost hypnotic. He wore no shirt, only a faded, salt stained pair of pants that may have been blue at one time, and sturdy leather boots.
His hair was a few shades darker than Hercules, but longer, and tied back in a thick tail that ran down between his powerful shoulders. He was clean shaven, as tall as Hercules and had handsome, chiseled features. When he smiled, it showed perfect white teeth. He was smiling now as he and Hercules approached.
Xena, Ioulas, and Gabrielle were still unloading their baggage when the two men stepped up. They were laughing like old friends, which was in fact the case. Michas had been involved with Hercules and Jason during his quest with the Argonauts.
"Michas," Hercules said cordially. "You remember Ioulas?"
Michas took Ioulas's forearm and shook. "Good to see you again, Ioulas."
"Likewise," Ioulas answered with a grin.
"And this is Xena, and Gabrielle," Hercules finished, gesturing to the two women. At those names, Michas smiled even more broadly. He gave a curt bow to each of them and extended his hand.
"I've heard a lot about you," Michas said politely. He clasped Xena's hand and smiled warmly, then clasped Gabrielle's in like fashion. "Both of you." He finished.
Gabrielle was flattered.
"Usually I end up in the background somewhere," she stammered.
"Not from what I've heard," Michas replied. "Your name is mentioned every time hers is. If half the tales be true, then I am twice as honored." He turned back to Hercules and slapped him on the shoulder.
"So, what are you doing all the way out here?" he asked.
"Vacation," Hercules replied, smiling.
"What's that?" Michas asked, looking confused.
They all grinned.
Xena raised her eyebrow, staring at Hercules. He saw the look, and the message behind it. "Don't you dare."
"Uh look," Hercules said quickly. "We need to get ourselves situated, so – " he took Michas's hand again. "It was great running into you again, old friend."
Michas smiled and looked knowingly at Xena.
"Herc, old buddy." He said. "I was born at night, yes." He looked back and Xena and nodded understandingly. "But not last night.'
Hercules sighed with relief. He had not seen Michas in several years, and was grateful that his friend understood.
"Besides," he continued grinning. "I've got a cargo to unload, and then another one to load up. So I don't have time for you either. We'll be here for a few days yet, so there'll be plenty of time to catch up."
"Thanks for understanding," Hercules said. He grabbed his bag and the four of them moved off down the pier.
"Excuse me, Xena?" Michas called after them.
The Warrior Princess turned and looked at him inquisitively. Michas stepped up quickly and took her hand.
"It was a pleasure meeting you," he said sincerely, and he kissed her hand softly. Then he looked up at Hercules and winked. Hercules gave him a "don't even think about it," look, and Michas smiled.
He looked back at Xena. "You take good care of him, Mistress," he said. "He's a good man."
"I will," she answered, and she turned away.
As she walked past Hercules, there was a smug smile was on her lips.
Hercules looked at Michas, and then at Xena. Michas only grinned and winked again.
"Whatever he said," Hercules said to her quickly. "It was probably just a line."
Xena smiled. "I'll keep that in mind."
Is this Place Great or What?
They spent the remainder of that day, settling into their accommodations at the Red Shield, an upscale establishment designed around the tourist trade that dominated the island. The Inn was a sprawling establishment, only one level high, with the best rooms at the ends of its two long wings. Each of the suites of adjoining rooms shared a single hot tub, fed through a hot springs waterway that had been tapped and piped to that location. This kept the tubs at a constant hot temperature without much maintenance.
It was two of these adjoining suites of rooms that Xena had reserved for them. Ioulas and Hercules on one side of the hall, with a view of the ocean and the marketplace, while Xena and Gabrielle took the suite of rooms across the hall, with a view of the thick forest and a magnificent waterfall near the peak of the jagged cliff.
Gabrielle was in awe of it.
"Xena," she said as she fell down on her bed. "This is fantastic!" She gazed about the room. Dark wood furniture, crudely hewn, yet elegant decorated the room. Oil lamps hung in sconces on the walls, and the blankets were of an animal fur that was soft as velvet to the skin.
Gabrielle wondered why there were so many blankets. The heat and humidity had left her feeling a bit tired. She got up and strode out the back entrance to get a better look at the view. That was when she discovered the tub. With a squeal of delight, she disrobed and settled in, feeling the hot water tingle against her skin. She sat there for a moment, basking in the feel, and then stretched her arms out along the edge of the tub and let her head drop back.
"Comfortable?" Xena's voice came from the entrance to her own room.
"I am in the Elysian Fields right now," Gabrielle sighed. She opened her eyes, looking upside down along the jagged hills and spied a line in the trees. Turning around so she could see the sight from a normal angle, not an inverted one, she saw a line that was unmistakably man made. It was a gray wall, slashing across the forest on one of the low ridges nearby. Beyond that, through the overgrowth, she also made out the vague shapes of ruined buildings.
"What's that?" she asked, pointing the feature out to her friend.
Xena leaned against the edge of the tub and squinted out at the sight. Then she shrugged. "Probably just some old ruins that the tourists get to explore." She said.
Gabrielle sighed and turned back to see Xena settling into the tub across from her.
Xena's head disappeared under the water for a moment and then came back up. Xena leaned back against the edge, in a mirror of Gabrielle's posture.
"This is nice," Xena commented as she let the heat soak through her tired limbs. She felt tension that she never knew existed begin to melt away. She let her eyes close, relishing the feeling. "We should have done something like this a long time ago."
Gabrielle smiled and let her head drop back, sighing in contentment. "Five or six more hours of this, and I'll be on the road to recovery."
The two of them laughed.
Ioulas toweled his curly hair as dry as he could and then turned to face the open doorway where the tub rested. He could hear Hercules, taking his turn and humming loudly to himself.
"I hope that's not singing, I'm hearing," Ioulas shouted. Hercules had been in the tub for at least thirty minutes.
"What are you doing?" he continued, smiling. "Scrubbing your fingernails? Come on, the girls will be waiting!"
"Relax, Ioulas," Hercules voice answered back. "As soon as they see their tub, we won't see them for a few hours. What's your rush?"
"Hunger," Ioulas said. "There's good food down the hall and I'm hungry."
"Fine," Hercules said. "Go check on the girls, and see if they're ready. Twenty dinars says their soaking it up in their tub."
Ioulas stared at the open doorway, then at the main door to the room. A wager was like a challenge, and right now he knew Hercules was laughing to himself.
"All right," he said finally. "I'll get the girls, and if they are ready, I'll take them both to dinner. You can stay in there and shrivel up for all I care."
"See you in a couple of seconds," Hercules retorted. "With my money."
"With my money," Ioulas mouthed back scornfully. Then he went across the hall, stood at the door, cleared his throat and knocked softly.
"Oh, ladies?" he called in a lilting voice. "Dinner?"
He grimaced when he heard the unmistakable sound of water splashing.
"We'll get something later," he heard Xena say.
"Twenty dinars, twenty dinars, twenty dinars," Ioulas mouthed, panic setting in.
"Come on girls," Ioulas pleaded. "Herc and I are all set to go." He lied, trying desperately to save his money. "The food here is the best around."
"Go on without us," Gabrielle's voice answered back. "We'll meet you there later, okay?"
Defeat. A crushing monetary defeat. Mentally Ioulas kicked himself for taking a bet against his friend. He smiled forcibly and tried to keep the strain from his voice when he replied.
"Okay," he said. The forced cheer was stretching like old leather, threatening to crack. His teeth clenched together. "We'll see you there." He stayed at the door for a few moments, praying that they were only joking, and any second now, they would come walking out, ready for dinner, and making him twenty dinars richer. Instead, he reached down and pulled his money bag from his belt, looking inside. He had twenty-two dinars left. His hand shaking with frustration, he turned and forced his feet to take him back into his room.
"So," Hercules called out when he stepped quietly back to the small seat in his room and began to sit down. "Are they ready? Waiting outside for us?"
Ioulas stopped in mid sit, grimacing in pain. He pursed his lips and furrowed his brows. Then he stood, took his money bag.
He got to the door and looked inside.
"Hey," he said. There was the sound of movement, and Ioulas threw the moneybag with all his strength. There was a loud splash.
"Ow! Ioulas!" Hercules shouted.
"No," Ioulas said calmly, he turned away with a smug smile. "They're not ready yet. They said to go on without them."
"Garis!" Michas called down into the hold. "How much more do we have?"
Garis, a medium sized man of lithe proportions and handsome features looked up from the darkness below.
"Just three more barrels," he answered, wiping sweat from his brow. "And one more pallet."
Michas clapped his hands together and rubbed them. "Right, well, lets get the barrels unloaded, we'll use the crossbrace and the mast as a crane for that last pallet."
Garis smiled. "That must be why you're the captain?" he said.
Michas smiled and reached down as Garis passed one of the barrels up to him.
Michas set that one down and reached in to take the next one.
"Curtis!" he called over his shoulder. "No slacking off, get moving!"
Two of his other crew members moved quickly to take the remaining barrels as Michas hauled them up from below. Then he hauled Garis up.
Garis was a finely built man of moderate size and above average looks. His unshaven face and long black hair gave him a roguish appearance. He grinned and watched as the other members of the crew scurried to finish the unloading.
"Head over to the warehouse and see that our outbound is blocked and ready to load," Michas said. "I'll head over to the Rusty Pelican and see if Arturus wants the live act back." He grinned broadly. "Send two boys to get the wagons we'll need, and have the rest start unloading the instruments once that last pallet is off."
"You bet," Garis smiled back.
Michas turned and strode down the dock towards the entertainment district.
"Another mascu, excellent," the creature thought as it watched the heat signature of the one moving away from the vessel. It was a decent specimen, but more importantly, aquainted with his primary prey. The thermal image zoomed in several times till it could see the bone structure o the skull beneath the layers of flesh and muscle.
"And excellent specimen, to be certain," it thought. It watched the second figure, still at the ship, giving instructions to the crew.
How to coax the quarry to the hunt? It mused over this for a while, and then decided on a course of action. It dropped silently from the branches to the beach below and moved towards the ships moored at the dock.
First thing, cut off any escape for his prey.
It entered the water submerging before the fluid shorted out his camouflage net, and swam with powerful strokes towards the first ship.
"What was that?" one of the crewmen shouted, pointing to a spot just off shore.
Garis stepped quickly over and caught sight of a sharp white flash just below the surface. Then another, and a third before the water went dark and still again. He shrugged.
"Could be electric eels, hunting for food," he suggested. "If it happens again, call me."
"Aye, sir." The crewman replied.
Garis turned back to the deck. He ordered two men to fetch the wagons required for their instruments, and then had the rest of the crew begin unloading while he went off towards the main warehouse.
Hercules and Ioulas waited for nearly an hour before Xena and Gabrielle joined them for a late supper at the inn's tavern.
All four agreed that the food was excellent and the drinks afterward were even better.
Ioulas came back to the table with four more mugs of mead in his hands.
"Drink up, kids," he said cheerily. "We got a lot of celebrating to do."
Gabrielle took her mug, though the flush in her face, and her inability to stop giggling suggested that she had already had more than enough.
Indeed, Hercules, Xena, and Ioulas, too were showing signs of comfortable inebriation.
"This is wonderful," Gabrielle burst out, leaning her head against Ioulas's shoulder. She was grinning broadly. Then she looked at Xena.
"So," she asked. "Are you going to tell him, or what?"
Hercules looked at Gabrielle, and then at Xena. He was feeling relaxed, but being half god meant that it took a lot more to get him in the bag.
Xena blinked and smiled. "Later, Gabrielle," she said. "Later."
Gabrielle nodded and then looked at Hercules. "She's crazy about you," she said simply. "You know that, don't you?"
"Gabrielle!" Xena stammered.
"Completely wild about you," Gabrielle continued relentlessly. "That's the main reason she want the two of you on this little trip." Gabrielle winked.
"Really?" Hercules grinned.
"Gabrielle!" Xena hissed, her buzz completely overcome by dread.
"Relax, Xena," Gabrielle kept going. "Why can't you just admit it? You're as crazy about him as I am about Ioulas, here."
Ioulas choked in mid swallow, and half of his drink sprayed out onto the floor. Gabrielle rubbed his back as he coughed and hacked for a short time.
"Well," said Hercules, looking around the table. "I think this party's about wrapped up for one night." He looked at Xena and smiled. "We have time. No need to rush anything the first night here, right?"
Xena was so flushed, that she almost glowed crimson. It was a color that Hercules had never seen on her cheeks.
"Yeah, right," she managed to say almost sheepishly. Again, this was totally out of character for the proud warrior princess.
Hercules rose and then offered a hand to Xena.
"Have you had enough?" he asked sincerely.
"I think so," Xena replied, staring hard at Gabrielle, who still smiled back at her.
"Ioulas," Hercules looked down at his friend, finally composing himself after the shock of Gabrielle's blunt statement. "You going to be alright?"
"Yeah," Ioulas choked. "Yeah, I'll be just fine." He waved Hercules off and turned back to the table, taking another cautious sip of his drink.
"Okay," Hercules nodded. "I'll see you in the morning."
Again Ioulas waved and nodded.
Hercules took Xena's arm and escorted her back through the lobby towards their rooms.
Ioulas looked over at Gabrielle who still smiled mischievously. He laughed.
"You are terrible," he said. "I can't believe you said that!"
Gabrielle only smiled wider and chuckled a little drunkenly.
"Why not?" she asked. "It's the truth, isn't it?"
"Yes," Ioulas said. "But there is such a thing as tact."
He turned back to face her and ran right into her kiss. He froze for only a moment before he settled in and enjoyed himself.
"This is so wrong," The thought echoed through his mind. They finally parted and Gabrielle was looking at him with a seductiveness that he never thought she could possess. His body screamed out at him "Yes, yes, YES!" but his heart shouted "Not now, not now!"
"Gabrielle," Ioulas managed to say somewhat timidly.
"Come back to my room with me, Ioulas," Gabrielle whispered huskily in a voice that sent a shiver of desire up Ioulas's spine.
"Whoa," Ioulas thought. He couldn't believe it, but he was actually intimidated by the raw passion of her desire. It was a new experience for him in many ways. Ioulas was usually very confident around women, especially ones that desired him, but this was something new, and quite different. Perhaps it was the fact that he felt for her the way she felt for him, and if this was about to happen, it would drastically change things between them forever.
She had him against the wall, outside her door, and was smothering him in another passionate kiss.
"Gabrielle," Ioulas said, once he could breathe. He placed his hands on her shoulders, gently keeping her at bay. "Gabrielle, wait."
"What's the matter?" Gabrielle asked, somewhat surprised. "Don't you like me?" there was a coyness in her voice, and she smiled.
"Yes," Ioulas answered. "Yes, I like you a lot."
"Gabrielle," Ioulas said, fumbling for words. "I want to come in with you right now. I really do, but everything in my heart tells me that this would be, well, the wrong time."
Gabrielle looked downcast.
"No," Ioulas said gently, lifting her eyes to meet his. "Please don't do that." He looked at her a long time, and she could see the struggle in his eyes. That gaze pierced through the buzz in her mind.
"I care about you, Gabrielle," Ioulas said. "More than I want to admit sometimes, because of what we do." He looked into her eyes. "If anything happens between us, I want it to happen for the right reasons, you understand."
She looked at him and frowned delicately.
"I don't want us to wake up tomorrow and regret – anything," Ioulas finished. "It's too important – you're too important to me. I hope you can understand that?"
Gabrielle looked at him for a long while, and he thought a stinging comment was coming. Instead, she kissed him again, and opened her door.
"Are you sure?" she asked.
"Yeah," Ioulas answered quickly. "I'm sure. Good night, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle smiled, and closed the door after her.
Once he heard the latch click into place, he let out a long breath of relief.
"Holy Hera!" He whispered, moving his arms back and forth with nervous energy. He turned and headed towards his room, stopped, and then wheeled and headed back to the tavern. "Another drink," he was saying to himself. "Big, big drink."
To his astonishment, he found Hercules seated at the bar, nursing a mug of his own.
"What happened?" he asked as he slid into an empty seat at his friends' side.
"Probably the same type of conversation that you just finished having," Hercules replied. He took a drink and sighed.
"Yeah," Ioulas said uneasily. "But you and Xena, I mean, if Gabrielle and I – " he gave it up and ordered a fresh mug for both of them. "Never mind."
Hercules placed a hand on his friends shoulder.
"You're a good man, Ioulas," he said.
Gabrielle rolled over groggily, her head was pounding. She let out a groan.
"I'm surprised to find you in that bed alone," Xena's voice boomed between her ears.
"Please," Gabrielle begged. "Not so loud." She clamped her hands over her ears and rolled away from the intruding sunlight.
Xena arched an eyebrow. She walked slowly over to the side of Gabrielle's bed.
"With everything you blurted out last night," she said loudly, stooping closer to Gabrielle's ear. She grinned as the young woman winced. "You should thank the Gods that I'm not yelling at the top of my lungs."
"Was I that bad?" Gabrielle whimpered.
"You embarrassed the Tartarus out of me last night," Xena said. "It's a good thing that Hercules is a gentleman, or I could have been in real trouble."
"What about Ioulas?" Gabrielle asked. "How bad was it?"
"I think everything is going to be fine. They both had to go looking for a cold stream this morning." Xena said. "Ioulas more so than Hercules."
Gabrielle rolled over and pulled the pillow on top of her head, moaning.
Xena grinned. "I'm just teasing," she said compassionately. "Everything is fine with the four of us. I don't think any of us ever saw you that drunk before."
"I've never seen me that drunk before," came the muffled reply from beneath the pillow. "I really need to learn to keep my mouth shut."
"Yes, you do," Xena replied. "I'm going to grab some lunch, would you like me to bring you anything?"
"Lunch?" Gabrielle said, forcing herself to sit upright. "What time is it?"
"Almost one hour past mid day," Xena replied.
Gabrielle forced herself up onto her feet and stumbled out towards the tub. "Where did Ioulas and Hercules go?" she asked.
"They're out and about, somewhere," Xena said. "I think Ioulas needed to talk with Hercules about a few things."
Gabrielle winced at that and settled into the steaming water. The warmth made her feel better, then Xena handed her a glass of water, and that helped a little more.
"Gabrielle," Xena asked seriously. "Do you want to be with Ioulas?"
Gabrielle looked up at Xena, surprised.
"It's all right," Xena said easily. "Nothing happened last night. But you apparently wanted it to, quite badly from what Ioulas says."
"Oh, no," Gabrielle put a hand over her eyes.
"Gabrielle," Xena said quickly. "It's all right. Ioulas and I had something a long time ago, sort of. It won't bother me if you do?"
Gabrielle thought for a long time, and her look sobered.
"I haven't been with anyone," she said slowly. "Not since Perdicus died." She sighed. "I miss that feeling, Xena. A part of me thinks I can feel that way again, with Ioulas."
"And you're probably right," Xena agreed. "He's a great man, Gabrielle. The question I have is: Are you really ready for that, though? I mean, it would be a big step for you, you know?"
"I know," Gabrielle answered thoughtfully. "And I appreciate what you're trying to say. If anything, last night proves that Ioulas would be the right man, if it were to happen."
Xena smiled understandingly. "I'd say, talk to him about it first, before you have a drink or two."
"Definitely," Gabrielle agreed.
"Take some time today," Xena suggested. "Do some shopping, see the sights, you've got plenty of time to make a decision."
Gabrielle smiled. "Thanks for not being mad at me."
"About what?" Xena asked. Then she smiled mischievously. "Everything is still on track."
Challenges, Chobos, and Quarterstaves, oh my!
After some food and a bit of walking about, Gabrielle felt much better. Now she stood in front of a vendor, haggling over the price for a pretty necklace of coral and blue green gems. If it wasn't for the blasted language barrier, it might even be fun.
"No, no," she said again. "I'll give you four dinars," she held up four fingers.
The man, a small, thin Asian man of middle age, looked at her blankly and then shook his head, holding up eight fingers of his own.
"Ande tue pau chi ne, Tran?" a voice said behind her in the merchants tongue. "Que si mui?"
"Dane' mui octe, ne bi," the merchant replied.
Gabrielle turned and saw Hercules' friend Michas standing there, leaning against the wooden post that supported the roof of the hut.
"Octe?" Michas answered, and he reached out. "Alle, alle," he beckoned.
Reluctantly, the merchant handed the necklace to the sailor for inspection. A few moments later, Michas chuckled.
"Octe?" he repeated. "Mese nuI, octe, Tran." He shook his head. "Sembe Dui, to net."
"Dui!" The merchant blurted. "Nabe! Nabe nada sen dui!" He looked at Gabrielle for a long moment, and then sighed.
"Sente sungi fem dei, alle treso," he said, smiling.
"Nabe," Michas replied. "Nabe, sente sungi fem uni Amazon sengi Xena comparte."
The merchant looked at Gabrielle, standing there with her hand resting on her quarterstaff, looking back and forth between Michas and the merchant. The only words she did understand in the entire exchange were Amazon and Xena. She looked at Michas again inquisitively.
Suddenly, the merchant laughed out loud.
"Senge tu belle," Michas said chidingly.
"Excuse me," Gabrielle asked, looking at Michas. "Do I get a say in this?"
Michas smiled. "Not yet, but you may thank me later."
"Nada, nada," The merchant laughed. "Sege sem tibue."
"Tibue?" Michas asked, and then he looked at Gabrielle. "I just explained that you are companion to Xena, and also the Amazon Queen that he's heard tales of." He shrugged. "He says that you are too small to be that person." He turned back to the merchant. "Semble tue chi?"
The merchant composed himself and then began rattling on in his language, while Michas translated.
"He says the stories that he has heard speak of a mighty Amazon Queen, who stands taller than any two warriors and wields fire from her staff. She has the strength of any ten men, and the beauty to rival the Gods themselves." He shrugged. "No offense." He added.
"Oh, none taken," Gabrielle forced a smile. She looked at the merchant for a moment, and then said. "Tell him he shouldn't judge a scroll by its parchment."
Michas translated this and then the merchant fixed her with an inquisitive stare. Gabrielle held his gaze unflinchingly, and the merchant must have seen something there, because his smile faded slightly and he swallowed.
He looked at Michas, who merely grinned more broadly.
"Combe sae, Tran?" he asked.
"Sae ie te ende fem," The merchant said. "Talle Chi come' tui?"
"He wonders if you would be willing to prove that you are the woman he has heard tales of." Michas asked, still grinning.
Gabrielle looked at Michas suspiciously. "How?"
Michas relayed the question, listened to the response and looked at Gabrielle.
"His son is a master at the quarterstaff," he said. "He would be honored if you would have a competition with him, best of five touches.
"Competition?" Gabrielle repeated. "For a stupid necklace?"
"No," Michas replied. "He said he'd give you the necklace, simply for agreeing to the competition." He looked over at the merchant.
"Me' tuni o grene' hobre' in Sembe nuchi'," The merchant said sincerely, and he bowed to Gabrielle.
"He says it would be an honor to witness your skill," Michas translated.
That statement flattered Gabrielle and she smiled, leaning back on her staff.
"Well, since you put it that way," she said. She looked at Michas. "Tell him, I'd be delighted. Where and when?"
Michas translated and then looked at Gabrielle. "Now, in the main square." He said, pointing out of the shop into the center of the giant open air market.
"Now?" Gabrielle replied. "Right now? In front of all these people?"
In response, a young man, about Gabrielle's size and only a few years older stepped out into view. He was thin and lithe, with light brown eyes and skin. He bowed his head respectfully to Gabrielle and said a few words in his own language.
"His name is Kim," Michas translated. "He wishes to know if you will require the weapons padded, or not?"
"Oh," Gabrielle said, suddenly nervous. "Um, I don't think we'll need to pad the weapons for this, will we? It's just a friendly competition, right?" She turned a questioning eye to Kim. He listened to Michas's translation of her words and nodded, grinning warmly.
"As you say," he spoke haltingly. "Friend competition." He bowed again.
Gabrielle returned the gesture and the man smiled. He gestured towards the square and Gabrielle led the way as they moved to the large, squared terracotta tiled section of the open market.
Instantly most vendors and many of the patrons noted something was up, and the activity died to an expectant mass of waiting eyes.
Gabrielle handed her bag to Michas. "You get to hold this." She jibed, and then she stepped to one corner of the square and let the end of her staff rest on the ground.
Kim removed his tunic, revealing a well defined muscular build. Then he took up his own staff, a narrower and slightly longer version of hers, and stepped to the opposite corner. He looked at her expectantly.
Gabrielle looked back at him, not sure what was next, so she gestured to Kim to begin. The young man smiled appreciatively and bowed, and then he moved to the center of the square and began a series of warm up moves. His weapon spun in ever increasing arcs of speed and complexity, his face set and emotionless as he was absorbed in his task.
He finished his warm up and ended on one knee, his weapon horizontal and behind him. Then in a fluid motion, he rose and bowed, retreating to his corner. He smiled encouragingly at the Amazon.
Gabrielle nodded in acknowledgement of his skill. He grinned even wider, and then gestured in gentlemanly fashion for her to proceed.
Gabrielle, more than a touch nervous, smiled and stepped into the center of the square.
"What's with the crowd?" Ioulas asked as he and Hercules were walking back up into the shopping district to look for the girls.
"Maybe a show or something," Hercules replied. A cheer and clapping sounded ahead.
"Yup," Ioulas said. "A show." Their curiosity triggered, the moved gently through the throng of people, hoping for a better view.
Along the way, they stumbled upon Xena, exiting a clothing establishment.
"What do you have there?" Hercules asked.
"Nothing," Xena answered quickly as she pushed the red cloth further into the bag. "What's up?"
A man standing nearby leaned over. "It's a weapons demonstration."
"Oh?" Xena asked.
"Indeed." The man answered excitedly. "One of the native stave fighters is holding a demonstration with an Amazon Queen."
"An Amazon Queen?" Hercules echoed. The three of them exchanged looks. "Oh boy." They all began moving more forcefully towards the action.
"How does she get into these messes?" Xena asked.
Hercules stopped, his eyes fixed on a figure off to their left. He tapped Ioulas and pointed. "I have a pretty good idea."
Ioulas sighed. "Michas."
Michas was clapping in approval as Gabrielle finished her warm up routine, and withdrew to her corner. He felt a heavy tap on his shoulder.
"Hey, Herc," he said without looking back. "What's up?"
"Why is it, whenever you're around, someone I know ends up in trouble?" Hercules asked, standing just behind Michas and burning a hole in the back of his head with his stare. "What have you started this time?"
"Nothing big," Michas replied. "Just a friendly competition."
"Competition?" Xena hissed.
Michas turned his eyes to meet Xena's icy stare. "Relax, beautiful," he said calmly. "She's fine."
At this point, both contestants stepped forward and faced one another. Gabrielle stopped and bowed respectfully to Kim, who returned the gesture. Then he stepped forward and extended his hand. Gabrielle took his forearm.
"Good luck," Kim said and he smiled warmly.
"You to," Gabrielle nodded graciously. They parted, stepped several paces apart, and dropped into ready stances.
The weapons spun with lightning speed, clashed and bounced with wooden shots that echoed against the walls. Cheers erupted from the assembled crowd as the two combatants began.
Kim was highly skilled, and Gabrielle had a little trouble compensating for his thinner and much lighter weapon. She felt her leg swept out from beneath her, and she spun away, coming back up only to see Kim standing back, waiting. He held up one finger, signifying a point.
Gabrielle got back up to her feet and nodded, acknowledging the strike. Then the two of them closed for a second exchange. This time, Gabrielle scored with a swift move around to Kim's back and spun around, lightly tapping him in the spot just above his kidney.
Kim spun around a split second too late and dropped back quickly. He smiled and acknowledged the hit.
Tie score, one each.
Now that the rules had been established, Xena and the others relaxed visibly, once they realized there was no danger to their companion.
High up in the forest, another set of inhuman eyes also watched the exchange. It growled. It had obviously underestimated the prowess of the smaller feme. She was quite skilled in combat. Perhaps she could be another prey for his hunt. The thermal image of the feme zoomed in and he could hear its breathing in the midst of the exchange, even and steady.
Disciplined as well and well conditioned. That was promising. It watched the feme score another hit, and then take a second one as well.
Gabrielle stepped back, that second strike had been a little harder than the last one. She looked at Kim in surprise. He had the most genuinely apologetic look on his face. She immediately realized the intense hit had been an error. She nodded and he sighed in relief. He gestured to her.
Gabrielle nodded and Kim set himself in another fighting stance. Gabrielle also settled. Then Kim gave his weapon a twist, and two sections of the fighting save popped free, joined to the central section by strong silver chain. Kim moved into a different stance smoothly, the weapon now flexed like a pair of insect legs. He grinned.
Gabrielle spun her weapon slowly, gauging this strange new weapon.
"Interesting," she said to herself.
The two combatants closed in again for the final exchange. Gabrielle had to watch herself as she tried for the final point. Now that Kim's weapon had additional flexibility, he could wheel one end in defense while the second was available to strike from an opposing angle. They had a long exchange moving around the square like a pair of dancers, and then they separated as Kim came in low for a shot to Gabrielle's knee. Gabrielle parried the blow and spun away, coming up a safe distance away from Kim. He shrugged and smiled, nodding in approval.
Gabrielle held up her hand, staying him for a moment, and stepped over to Michas. She saw Xena, Ioulas and Hercules watching with approval. Xena had a look that was more like motherly pride. Gabrielle tossed her staff to Xena, who caught it neatly. Then Gabrielle went to Michas, reached into her travel bag and removed two long, ash colored sections of carved wood.
"Thank you," she said to Michas shortly, and then she turned around and faced Kim, holding the two sections of wood up to show him.
"Chobos," she said.
Kim stood up and gestured for her to demonstrate. Gabrielle nodded, and began spinning the two weapons in a series of rapid, opposing arcs.
The crowd cheered as she finished her little demonstration and moved back to the center of the square.
Hercules leaned in closer to Xena. "She's gotten pretty good with those things," he commented.
Xena smiled. "That's my girl." She said proudly.
Kim was also impressed. He nodded and the two combatants faced one another again and began the exchange. Kim deftly wielded his sectioned staff. Gabrielle ducked under a high swing from one section, and then she spun and seemed to hover over the second half as it arced in low. She came down, extended her leg and swept Kim's foot out from beneath him. With the agility of a cat, Kim flipped back, planted one hand and came up on his feet again, laughing.
Gabrielle also spun quickly back to her feet. Once she saw the laughing face of he opponent, she also grinned broadly and began to laugh.
Kim snapped the three sections of his weapon back together and spun the weapon in two smooth arcs before it came to rest at attention behind his shoulder. He gestured with his free hand to Gabrielle, indicating the winner, and bowed.
Gabrielle blushed as she stood up straight amidst the cheering and clapping.
Kim took the necklace from his father and presented it to Gabrielle.
"We must, again some time," Kim offered in a friendly voice.
"Any time," Gabrielle grinned. She offered her hand to her opponent, and they clasped forearms.
Kim raised his other hand, commanding silence and then said in a clear, thickly accented voice.
"Queen Gabrielle, of the Amazons!"
Again cheers and adulation, and Xena smiled with even more pride at the attention Gabrielle was getting. In her own mind, she felt it was long past due. She looked sidelong at Michas and gave him an appreciative smile.
Michas smiled back and nodded understandingly. Then a man placed a bag in Michas's hand and walked away with a look of disappointment.
Xena recognized the winnings of a wager when she saw one, her eyebrows rose again, and again Michas smiled sheepishly, and then he gave a shrug.
"What are you?" Ioulas said, tapping Michas's arm. "Her agent?"
Michas smiled and tied the bag of coins to his belt.
"I'm just a poor sailor, looking to make a little extra coin," he said innocently. "Besides, I knew she could do it. So I bet my wages for the last load on the contest."
"How much?" Ioulas asked.
Michas shrugged. "Three hundred dinars."
Ioulas's eyes went wide as saucers and his mouth dropped open. "Three hundred!" he exclaimed. "Are you out of your mind?"
Michas fingered the heavy bag at his hip and grinned. "Doesn't look that way now, does it?"
"I guess not, with six hundred dinars in your purse," Ioulas said appreciatively.
"Actually," Michas said. "The odds were three to one."
Hercules' jaw dropped, and then he shook his head and smiled. "You're always working some angle, aren't you?" he said.
Michas looked thoughtful for a moment, and then nodded. "Yes, I suppose I am."
"I guess that means you're going to buy our dinners tonight, then," Xena said, also smiling.
"It would be my honor," Michas said smoothly. "If you would join me, this evening at the Rusty Pelican, down by the harbor, I promise a meal to remember and a night you'll never regret. Say, eight?"
Xena looked at Michas for a moment and then looked at Ioulas and Hercules.
They both nodded, deferring to the hostess.
Xena smiled. "Eight it is." She said.
"Excellent!" Michas exclaimed. Then he fished out a coin bag from his belt and dumped a fair share of the winnings into it, handing it to Xena.
"Please be sure my lady receives this, once she's free," Michas presented the bag of money to Xena. "And tell her I said thanks." He looked over at Gabrielle, thronged by people asking her question upon question.
"What's this?" Xena asked, feeling the heavy bag in her hand.
"Her share of the winnings," Hercules said knowingly. "Though I doubt very much if she even knew she was working for them."
Michas moved off, patting Hercules on the shoulder. "The man knows me so well." He grinned. "See you tonight. Oh, and come ready to dance."
He gave a salute and moved off into the crowd.
Ioulas and Hercules both shook their heads while Xena watched the sailor depart, his hands behind his back, moving with a spring in his step.
Then she looked over at Gabrielle, still answering question upon question about herself and her travels with Xena and a myriad of other topics. She obviously loved the attention.
"And why shouldn't she?" Xena thought with a smile. After all of their adventures together, it was about time she became the center of attention. She was more than just a sidekick. Sidekick? What a terrible label to put on a friend, especially a best friend. It seemed almost derogatory to refer to Gabrielle as a "sidekick." For every battle that Xena had fought, there were three that Gabrielle had prevented. It was a shame that people only remembered the violence, and never remembered the ones who avoided the bloodshed through a kind word or a patient act.
"You know," Hercules was saying to her. "This is going to go straight to her head."
Xena smiled again, watching Gabrielle.
"Why shouldn't it?" She replied. "After all, it is her birthday trip. It should be all about her."
The Rusty Pelican and the Agean Slaughterhouse.
The Rusty Pelican was not the best looking establishment. It tended to appeal to the rougher side of town, being more frequented by locals, sailors, and other workers on or near the island. It did, however boast a fine menu and an excellent out door garden area, complete with a bandstand and dancing area surrounded by small tables and chairs.
The place was already in the throes of a party when the four of them arrived, Gabrielle still somewhat in shock at the amount of money she had received from Michas.
The proprietor, a heavyset, cheerful man named Arturus smiled broadly when the four of them entered and immediately ushered them outside to one of the tables near the bandstand.
There they saw Michas, in the midst of arranging various instruments and people. Everyone was in high spirits, laughing and joking.
The four of them watched and both Xena and Gabrielle realized that Michas was changing languages every few moments as he gave instructions to one person or other. Then he opened a large chest and began handing other hand made instruments out to other men that Xena recognized as being from Michas's crew.
The four of them looked over the makeshift orchestra. Nearly thirty people, some local, most from Michas's crew, were assembled around the instruments.
They all noted that a majority of the instrumentation was percussion based. Drums of all sizes and shapes were clustered about, while other horn and stringed instruments lay in racks or rested in stands along the base of the stage.
The four of them watched as Michas organized everything. Hercules was smiling.
"He's been busy," he said.
Once everything was as set as it could be, the people up on the stage began to fiddle with the instruments. Michas opened a long, thin case and removed a beautifully carved wooden flute or pipe of some kind, the likes of which none of them had ever seen before.
He slid a smaller slide piece into the main tube, and then fitted a dried reed to the mouthpiece before securing that to the end. He tested the slide and blew a long wailing cry that rose and fell as he moved the slide up and down.
That was when he saw the four of them sitting at the table.
"Hey kids!" he bellowed in greeting. He came quickly to the table. "Glad you could make it!" He signaled to one of the servers.
"Attende! Attende!" he shouted, changing languages again. "Prege' de subleme'!"
"Sie', sie'!" the server replied smiling, and he rushed off toward the kitchen.
Hercules laughed. "Michas," he said. "You have entirely too much time on your hands."
"Hmm?" Michas replied, then he followed Hercules's gaze to the myriad of instruments and he smiled.
"The ocean's not always stormy," he said. "Besides, I like finding new sounds and learning how to make them."
Xena looked at the various strange instruments again, then back at the sailor.
"You mean, you-?" she pointed at the stage.
"Made most of them, yes, and the boys and I try them out when the weather permits. We have quite a little ocean going group formed here, and it keeps the lads from getting too drunk on liberty." Michas smiled. "Plus we have a damn good time when we do play on land, as I hope to show you." He gave a bow.
The server returned with a tray laden with food and drink. A second man arrived and quickly set everything up for the four of them.
Michas was between the table and the stage. He quickly rattled out some orders to one of the musicians in one language, then turned and said something to the servers in his language. Then he changed to yet another language and gave orders to another of the musicians.
Gabrielle watched this in amazement as Michas switched from tongue to tongue as easily as she put one foot before the other walking. Finally she couldn't stand it.
"Michas!" she called. The big sailor turned. "Yes?" he answered.
"How many languages do you actually speak?" she asked.
Michas thought for a moment. "Fourteen, no, fifteen," he said simply, and then he gave a quick bow and jumped up onto the stage.
Gabrielle looked at Xena, who in turn looked at Hercules, who only smiled and took a drink from his mug.
"Speaks fifteen languages," Gabrielle said.
"Makes musical instruments as a hobby, and plays them," Xena added.
Hercules set his mug down. "Okay," he said. "The short version on Michas Acacus, Captain of the Agean Glory. He began ticking items off as he spoke.
"Age, twenty-seven, I believe. Born in Athens, third son of Senator Tiberious Acacus, and the black sheep of his family. Was educated at Athens University and holds a certificate in Philosophy, with several treatises's published regarding the methods of Socrates through his disciple Plato. Learned the Lyre at age five and became superb at it. Invents his own musical instruments. Speaks fifteen languages now, and plays a half dozen normal instruments as well as the ones he designs."
"Why is he only a merchant man?" Xena asked, looking at the handsome sailor with a new appreciation. "Seems he could do any number of things?"
"Because his father didn't approve." Hercules said simply. "Until he got together with Jason and me, he was a wandering merchantman with a small ship. He's made a good name for himself over the years, and picked up a few more languages since I saw him four years ago."
Ioulas nodded. "It's quite amazing, actually. He has this ability to somehow understand and learn a new language, just through listening to it. The last time Hercules and I saw him, he was putting on a show, not unlike this one. It was fantastic! You two are in for a real treat!"
Michas stood at the center of the stage next to another man, only slightly smaller, but just as well built. He said a few things to the other man, who blew a loud calling note on his own flute, catching everyone's attention.
"Good evening!" he shouted. "My name is Garis, and most of you know my friend, Michas, here! Welcome! I hope you are all ready to dance!"
With that, a large dark skinned man began beating a deep, rhythmic beat on a pair of massive drums, and the music began.
Kim moved past the last building on the town, walking along the beach away from the noise of the village. He sighed and gazed up at the stars. A sound caught his attention and he felt dread sink into his stomach like an icy lump.
A low clicking growl issued from the shadows ahead of him, somewhere in the foliage at the beginning of the forest.
Kim saw a shimmer of movement ahead, and then he saw the flash of steel in the moonlight. Before he could even cry out, the blades had severed his head from his body. He fell in a spray of blood. Then his head and body slid quickly and silently into the concealing leaves leaving behind a dark oozing trail in the pale sand.
The crew of the Wandering Star, the passenger ship that had brought Xena and her friends, were mostly below decks, snoring peacefully. Only a couple of men kept watch above. On Andros, there was never the need to keep a very vigilant watch. Those relegated to guard duty spent their time speaking with the two members of the crew from the Agean Glory as they looked about into the night.
There was a splash off the bow of the Glory, and the four men looked in that direction as the ship rocked gently, as if something had just landed somewhere forward.
One of the guards moved forward, drawing his sword as he searched for the source of the movement. There was a sharp hiss, and then a shadow dropped between him and his companions. The lone guard fell, his bowels scattering across the deck. Two of the others were impaled by a long, cruel looking spear.
The remaining one cried out in alarm before two razor sharp blades burst from the front of his neck. He gave a strangled gurgle and went limp.
A shimmering shadow leapt across the dock and onto the center of the Wandering Star.
The hatch to below opened and the first crew member of that ship, coming up to see what the problem was, felt his belly ripped open. He fell back into the hold in a gout of blood and gore.
Men cried in fear, weapons rang free of scabbards, there was a flash and a sizzling bolt of blue light burned through several of them, temporarily blinding all while it killed several.
There were several more flashes as the carnage spread quickly and effortlessly through the panicked crew. Some of the crew killed one another in their mad rush to survive, hacking and slashing in the darkness. Others were less fortunate, feeling the flesh of their bodies ripped from them before they died. As quickly as it had begun, it was over. A slaughterhouse stench filled the hold as bodies lay strewn through the room. The floor of the hold was slick with blood and other bodily fluids.
The massive figure standing in the middle of the carnage growled in glee at the ruination of it all, and then settled down and began skinning its victims.
The music was loud and throbbed through the air as people danced on the lawn in front of the stage. Garis and Michas maintained the frenzied pace for what seemed like hours. Finally, they brought the concert to a halt, waving and bowing in appreciation. They were both drenched in sweat and their long hair hung in strings over their shoulders.
They, like everyone else in the band were grinning like madmen as they played. They each had their own brand of antics as they worked within the chaotic rhythms.
"Okay!" Michas shouted, catching his breath. "Okay! Okay! Okay!" he waved his hands, trying to calm everyone down a bit.
Gabrielle and Ioulas were in the middle of the crowd. They had been dancing along with everyone else, while Xena and Hercules simply stayed at the table and enjoyed each others company.
"Everybody!" Michas shouted. "As most of you are aware! I like to have someone come up and start us off on a free dance number! Well, tonight, I have the perfect person in mind!"
He moved his head to get a view of Hercules and Xena seated at the table.
"Hey! Xena!" He shouted. "I know Herc, there, has absolutely no sense of rhythm! Would you be so kind?"
Xena almost choked on her drink. She looked up at Michas with surprise. Hercules actually laughed.
Xena shook her head and smiled.
"Oh, come on!" Michas shouted. "We know you can do it!"
In the crowd, Ioulas was laughing and Gabrielle let out a wolf whistle that screamed over the din. She shouted encouragement to Xena.
Xena saw her and then shook her head and surrendered.
She stood and, much to the delight of the assembled throng began to move towards the stage. As she passed Gabrielle she leaned over.
"I'll get you for this," she teased.
She got to the stage and Michas gave her a hand up in gentlemanly fashion.
"What did I ever do to you?" she whispered to him.
"You love it," Michas replied with a grin. He led her up to the top of a small riser, and brought her before a group of three rather large drums.
"These are mid line, base drums," he explained. "Each one is tuned at a different base pitch, so check them out and see what you can come up with. When you're ready, just nod and then start. We'll take whatever rhythm and pace you set, and come up with something. After that, just ride it out and have some fun, okay?"
Xena hit the first drum, then the second, and then the third, noting the three tones.
"I really hate you for this," she said with a forced smile.
"Hey," Michas smiled broadly. "I'm not coming home with you tonight. Hate me all you want."
"Go Xena!" Gabrielle shouted, laughing. She let out another wolf whistle, and Xena fixed her with an icy stare.
"She's gonna kill you," Ioulas laughed.
"She loves it," Gabrielle replied clapping. "She just won't admit it."
Xena hit the three drums in different orders for a few moments, a thoughtful look on her face, and then she looked down at Michas and gave a sly grin.
"Okay," she said to him. "Let's try this."
Her hands flew as she belted a long roll on the center tone drum and then began bouncing rhythmically from the mid to the high and then to the low.
The rest of the musicians listened intently for a few bars, getting the feel to the rhythm, and then Garis blew a long calling note on his flute. That set the pitch, and the band began joining in one by one. Within a few moments, the entire floor was bouncing again as the band took the three part rhythm provided by Xena and turned it into a rousing dance number.
Hercules grinned wider and wider as he watched Xena up on the stage. After her initial nervousness, as the music grew she really began to get into it. She swayed with the music and her hair flew wild as she pounded out the rhythm along with the rest of them. It was infectious.
She looked up at one point and saw a large dark skinned man pounding on a series of even larger drums. He grinned encouragingly and watched her intently as he gauged the rhythm of her line. Then in between bars he motioned to her. The question was simple: "Wanna switch?"
Xena grinned and nodded.
They watched each other for a few more measures until the big man gave a quick nod, and the two of them spun past each other to the respective instruments. The man took over Xena's base rhythm, and then went into a pounding short solo before the rest of the band joined back up again.
Gabrielle howled with delight as she and Ioulas danced to the wild music.
Hercules was laughing and clapping as he watched Xena, hair flying wildly, glistening in a sheen of sweat as she completely let loose. She was laughing and dancing right along with the rest of the band, cavorting around like she had played with them for years.
The music was building to a thunderous finale when there was a brilliant flash and a deep rumble that was not a part of the music. A large orange ball of fire shot skywards from the area of the dock.
Everyone in the place froze and then in one instant, the mood of the entire evening went from levity to stunned horror.
Michas, Garis, Xena, Gabrielle, Hercules, and Ioulas all ran for the docks.
The private yacht moored across from the other two ships was a ball of burning waste, while the two larger ships were sunk down in the water to the bottom.
The six of them skidded to a halt at the end of the dock, looking at the two ships sunk into the water, their masts standing out at odd angles, the sails hanging in shredded tatters.
It wasn't the fact that the ships had been scuttled where they were moored that froze their blood; it was the gruesome display that hung shining in the pale light. They hung from the cross trees, the netting, the sides.
"Gods," Garis breathed in horror.
Bodies dangled upside down in the salt breeze, their blood pooling on the parts of the deck that were still above water.
Garis took a step or two towards the Agean Glory, only to have Michas hold him back.
"Easy, partner," he said. "Let's wait a minute here."
Gabrielle looked up at the carnage, bodies hung like cattle hanging in the slaughterhouse. She couldn't tear her gaze from it for a long moment and then she turned away as the gorge rose from her stomach. She almost collapsed to the planks when Xena caught and held her, her own eyes taking in the horror.
Ioulas stared at the carnage. "Hercules," he breathed at last, trying to stifle the stench of blood wafting through the ocean air.
"Buddy," Michas said in a subdued voice. "We have seen some sick, twisted things in our day," he also looked up at Hercules. "But I ain't ever seen anything like this."
Hercules nodded grimly. "So much for vacation." He said, and he stepped forward along the dock, heading to the Wandering Star. "Let's cut them down."
Swallowing, Garis, Ioulas, and Michas followed.
"Xena," Gabrielle gasped. "I can't stay here." She choked again.
"I'm getting Gabrielle out of here," Xena called after the others.
Ioulas turned and nodded. He waived her off.
Gabrielle was sobbing, or choking in the rancid air. She couldn't get her feet under her. Xena practically carried her off the dock and away from the sight.
Once they had a building or two between them and the scene, Xena let Gabrielle sink to the ground, her back against a wall. Then she ran to a nearby well, filled the ladle and brought it back.
Gabrielle took a small sip, and spit it out, trying to wash the taste of bile from her mouth.
"I've seen battlefields," Gabrielle gasped, her cheeks stained by tears. "I've seen bodies lying dead on the field, covered in blood, or burning." She took another sip, trying desperately to compose herself. "Nothing I've - what kind of person would do that?" he eyes closed as if to shut out the terror. "What could do that to another person?"
"I don't know," Xena replied. She brushed Gabrielle's hair out of her eyes and wiped a few of the tears away. "I don't know."
As Gabrielle composed herself, another ear splitting shriek of fear cut through the shadows further down the avenue.
Gabrielle's went wide again as she and Xena bolted in the direction of the sound.
They crashed headlong into another figure, running as fast as it could away from the edge of the forest.
It was covered in blood and gore, and her pale eyes were wide with maddened terror.
"Easy! Easy!" Xena said, trying to calm the young woman down. The woman was ranting in a language that Xena could not remember hearing before.
"Michas," Xena said quickly, trying to hold the woman still. "We need Michas."
"I can't go back there," Gabrielle said shaking her head.
"I'll go," Xena said quickly, wrapping her cloak about the nearly naked woman. "You stay with her. I'll be right back."
Gabrielle took the terrified woman and moved to the other side of the street. She began cleaning the gore from the woman's face trying to stifle her own terror.
Xena returned with Michas a few minutes later. Michas looked pale and drawn, as if he himself had been sick.
"What happened?" he asked.
"I don't know," Gabrielle said. "She keeps repeating the same phrase, but I can't understand her."
Michas listened for a moment as the woman repeated the phrase again and again. His eyebrows furrowed in thought.
"Adonde'," he said gently. And he kept repeating it until the woman looked up at him with wide, terrified eyes.
"Adonde'," Michas repeated. Then he asked her, in her own tongue, what happened.
The woman turned and timidly pointed towards a dark space between two of the low buildings. Xena and Gabrielle rose and cautiously moved to the indicated place.
Xena drew her sword and moved silently down the alley, Gabrielle, staff in both hands, moving behind her.
Their hearts thundered in their ears as the silence descended around them. There was nothing except the nearby sound of something slowly dripping into what had to be a puddle.
Xena looked up into the branches of the nearby trees, whose limbs stretched over these small buildings. A lump began to form in her throat. That was when she caught a familiar scent.
"Oh, no," she murmured. She paused at the corner, closed her eyes for a moment, took a deep breath and then spun around the corner, sword at the ready.
She froze in renewed horror as she saw the pile of organs lying in a pool of gore on the muddy ground, and the skinned headless body hanging by its ankles from the low branch.
"Gabrielle!" She called behind her. "Stay there!"
Too late. Gabrielle rounded the corner, stopped, and her eyes gazed in fresh horror at the grisly remains. The body glistened red with blood, as the cords of fleshless muscle hung exposed to the open air. The middle of the corpse had been gutted and the majority of its internal organs lay in a pile beneath it. A hole in the center of the corpse revealed that the heart, too, was missing. It was one thing to view the carnage from a distance, back lit by the pale moon. It was quite another to see the horror at close range. Gabrielle's eyes went wide.
A scream began somewhere in the bowels of her being and rose, like a wave, bursting out of her in one long terrified shrieking note. She stumbled back against the opposite building. The air gone, she felt her lungs refill, and then a second scream rushed out, even longer than the previous one.
A pair of strong hands grasped her shoulders and a figure interposed itself between her and the scene.
"Michas!" Xena ordered. "Get her out of here!"
Michas pulled the shocked and horrified Gabrielle out of sight of the scene. She was shaking like a leaf, and her breath came in choked sobs.
They made it to the corner of the building before she wrenched herself free of Michas and doubled over. The vomit rushed out of her, splattering on the packed earth at her feet.
Michas held her fast and let her revulsion carry itself out before he led her further away, back to the other terror stricken girl.
At the same moment, Ioulas came running at full sprint, around the building from the docks.
He saw Michas, cradling Gabrielle as he moved her gently towards the second victim.
"What happened?" he called out, rushing to Gabrielle's other side.
"Found another one," Michas said. He let Ioulas slip his strong arms around Gabrielle and stepped back. "Stay with her, buddy," he said. "I'll be back."
Michas turned and ran back to Xena.
He found her, standing where he had left her, her weapon still forgotten in her hand.
"Hey," he said gently.
Xena's face turned towards him in a fright, her blue eyes wide. Then she took a couple of breaths and blinked.
"I've never seen anything," Xena started.
Michas swallowed his own bile and stepped up next to the warrior princess. "Just take a step back, Xena," he said gently.
Xena found moving extremely difficult. It was as if the horror of the sight had rooted her feet in place. She took one unsteady step back, and would have fallen if Michas hadn't caught her arm.
Michas helped her back away from the sight and lean against the building very near where Gabrielle had been a few moments before.
"Gabrielle?" she asked hoarsely.
"Ioulas is with her," Michas replied. "Just stay here, and if you feel too muzzy, go ahead and sit, okay?"
Xena nodded absently. Even she had never seen anything this horrible; in spite of all the things she had said and done in her past, both good and evil. Nothing matched this calculated brutality. She had believed herself immune to the shock of anything. She now realized that there were some things, unimaginable things, that even her experience had not prepared her for.
Michas looked at Xena closely for a moment. She was pale, almost white from the shock.
"Xena?" he asked gently. "I need you to talk to me? I don't care what you say, but I want you to talk, understand?"
Xena nodded numbly. "What's on your mind?"
She recognized the approach. Even a meaningless conversation would help distract a person from the true horror of a task. He was asking her to help him focus on anything else while he did his inspection.
Michas smiled gently. "You and my buddies, for one," he said with forced levity. "How did you meet Herc and Ioulas?"
He stepped away from her, keeping himself between her and the corpse as he moved closer to examine the scene. Xena began speaking in a subdued voice about her first encounter with Hercules, and how he had helped change her path in life. Michas nodded and made nice little conversational replies as he took a closer look at the scene. He focused on listening to her voice as much as the conversation, which kept him from focusing too much on what he was actually doing. As he surveyed the body, he saw something lying nearby on the ground. He stepped around and gingerly picked it up. It was a broken quarterstaff made from thin, hard wood. He groaned in recognition.
"Kim," he murmured.
"What?" Xena asked.
"Nothing," Michas said quickly. Then he plodded on in his questions. "So, you really got a thing for Hercules, huh?"
Xena was still in shock, and she answered automatically. "Yes, I do. He makes me feel things that I've never felt before. I really need to be careful around him, otherwise I could easily fall in love."
Michas smiled grimly and turned away from his investigations. He took Xena's arm and led her away, keeping the broken pieces of staff on the opposite side of his body.
"Sounds to me like you already have fallen in love." He said.
Once they were clear of the sight, Xena began to improve. "Please don't say anything," she said quickly, realizing that she had confided more than she had intended.
"Hey," Michas said more easily. "Not my business or my place." Then he looked at her closely. "But you will have to fess up sooner or later. You know that, don't you?"
They rejoined Ioulas, Gabrielle, and the other frightened girl. She huddled, trembling in the blanket. Michas knelt down in front of Ioulas and Gabrielle.
"How's she doing?" Michas asked Ioulas.
Gabrielle's head was resting on his chest. He looked down at her and shrugged slightly.
"She'll be okay," He finally said. Then he looked at the other girl, still staring wide eyed at the jungle. "I'm not so sure about her, though."
"Yes," Michas said. "I'll talk to her and take her to the healer. Can I meet the rest of you at your room in say, two hours?"
Ioulas nodded. "I'll tell Hercules."
"Right," Michas turned and gently helped the other traumatized girl up, leading her down the street.
Histories and Confessions
Gabrielle was lying down in her bed while the other three mulled about, discussing the terrible events of the evening.
Michas was late, which was unusual for him. They had been waiting for nearly three hours now, and the night was dark and thick about the inn. Water vapor crept along the ground outside the room, and the forest beyond was shrouded in mist.
"So," Hercules offered. "Any ideas on who could have done this, or how?"
Xena grinned sardonically. "I can think of several, but none of them are in this area. You?"
"I can come up with a few," Hercules agreed. "But none of them this brutal. Not even Hera would be this extreme."
There was a knock at the door.
"Come in," Xena called.
In walked Michas with a plate of mugs and two large flagons of drink. Behind him followed Garis, carrying a second platter of food, mostly fruits and vegetables.
"Put away the list of usual suspects, boys and girls," he announced. "Have a drink, no have two, and get ready for what I got to say."
The two men set their burdens on a nearby table.
Ioulas filled a mug, and took some of the food. "I'll see if Gabrielle wants some," he offered, and he disappeared into the other room.
Michas filled a mug, took a long drink, topped the mug off again and then settled into one of the comfortable chairs.
"What have you got?" Xena asked.
Garis took and apple and filled his own mug, then he filled another and offered it to Xena. She accepted it, but her eyes never left Michas.
Michas crossed his legs and leaned back, a strange smile on his lips.
"Well?" Hercules asked impatiently as he moved to grab a mug of his own.
"Hope you like ghost stories," Garis said quietly, and then he took up a position near the door, munching thoughtfully.
Michas took another drink and then sighed.
"First thing's first," he said. "The young woman that you found on the street is going to be fine. She and her baby are calmer now, and resting."
"Her baby?" a somewhat weak voice came from the opposite side of the room. They all turned to see a pale Gabrielle standing in the doorway between the two rooms.
"How are you doing, Mistress?" Michas asked sincerely.
Gabrielle smiled weakly and nodded. "Much better, now. Thanks."
"Get back to the woman and baby," Xena asked suddenly.
"Yes," Michas replied. "Well, the young pregnant woman's name is Tynia. She and her new husband came here for a belated honeymoon, of sorts. They were up in the forest yesterday afternoon when something attacked them."
"She got a look at it?" Ioulas asked.
"Not exactly," Garis put in.
"She saw something," Michas continued. Then he stood up and began pacing, as was his wont when relating information.
"Okay," he said. "From the beginning: When Xena and Gabrielle ran into Tynia this evening, she had just made it out of the forest, and ran into the body that we found hanging behind the blacksmith's place. That was when Xena came and got me, while Gabrielle stayed with the poor woman, trying to calm her down."
"Okay," Ioulas nodded.
"At that point, I went back with Xena, and proceeded to try and help with the young lady. At the time, she was in shock and kept repeating the same phrase over and over again."
"I remember," Gabrielle said. "What was she saying?"
"At the time, it didn't make any sense," Michas replied. "All she was saying, loosely translated, was that the forest came alive and took her husband. I merely accepted it as part of her delusion, caused by the shock."
"But not later?" Xena asked.
"Not after speaking with the village elders, no." Michas finished. "But I digress. Once Tynia was calmed down, I was able to speak to her a little more coherently, though the dialect took some getting used to," he turned to Gabrielle and offered an encouraging grin. "By the way, it's sixteen now." All of them gave an appreciative smile.
"Tynia and her husband had found a nice romantic spot in the hills, not too far from the ruins on the ridge. They had just settled down for a meal and whatever else might follow, when Tynia says the forest came alive and attacked them. It killed her husband in a matter of a couple of seconds and then got hold of her. She maintains that she never saw the attacker. She only caught a glimpse of movement in the foliage, as if the thing was transparent. Whatever it was, it lifted her from the ground by the throat, looked at her for a few seconds, then dropped her on the ground and dragged her husband's body into the woods. The only thing tangible that she says she saw were two glowing yellow eyes."
"Yellow eyes," Gabrielle repeated. She shivered suddenly.
Michas shrugged and took a drink from his mug. "When the good doctor and I heard this, he got real edgy. He suggested that I take the young woman's story to the village elders and find out what they had to say."
"Which you did," Ioulas said.
"Yup," Michas nodded. "And that's the reason I'm late. They had quite a bit to say on the subject, though they requested that I keep it all hush hush for the time being while they deliberated on what action to take."
"What's to deliberate?" Ioulas said suddenly. "There's a killer on the island. We need to get everyone off!"
"And how do you propose to do that?" Michas asked knowingly. "The only three ships capable of an evacuation are currently sunk in the harbor. The next ship isn't due for a week. The only other water craft on this island are small rowboats that wouldn't last an hour on the open water? If they let the word out now, it would cause a major panic."
"We need to get one of those ships floating again," Hercules said as if to himself.
"That's already in hand," Garis replied to the spoken thought. "The Glory should be afloat again by morning and the water completely out by early evening tomorrow. Then we can get to work on the Star."
Hercules's eyebrows rose in surprise. "Those ships are up to the deck in the mud."
"But not over the deck," Michas said with a sly smile. "My boys can repair the damage below the waterline, and then we just pump the water back out of the ship."
"What about the village elders," Xena asked suddenly. "What did they say? How many bad guys are we dealing with?"
"That's the disquieting part," Michas said, raising a finger. "Just one. Apparently there's some history on this island that the average resident is not aware of."
"And that is?" Xena asked. "How could there just be one person doing all this?"
Michas finished a circuit of the room, stopped at the table and refilled his mug again.
"Once upon a time," he began. "This island was home to some pretty interesting, and ferocious animals. The native population allowed outsiders here to hunt. They would have people coming from all over to go on safari here.
Well, apparently there was one type of hunter that would show up every century or so, that none of them would ever see. They would find the remains of kills. Animals with the hides missing, or the heads removed," he looked at Hercules. "Sound familiar?"
"Yeah," Hercules nodded.
"Yeah," Michas echoed. "As the years went on, the predatory animals died out from over hunting, leaving only the indigenous population and the non predatory animals in abundance. As their technology improved, they became quite good hunters in their own right, allowing for the fine fare that we have enjoyed here in this lovely establishment." Michas gestured to the plate of food, now suddenly not as appetizing as before. "About five hundred years ago, the hunts shifted focus. The game animals were gone, and the island was not being visited by the adventurers that it was before. The population shifted their focus to making this an island where people could come and relax. However, one hunter still showed up on occasion. That would be when men of the village would go missing, only to be found like the game animals in the past, or like the crew of the Wandering Star," Michas sobered. "Or Kim."
"Kim?" Gabriele suddenly perked up. "You mean the man I had the contest with this afternoon?"
Michas nodded. "Only the best hunters of the village would be singled out. Sometimes war parties would go into the forest to find this thing, only to disappear and never return. Then the killings would stop as quickly as they started only to resume a century later, when the cycle would start all over again."
"By the Gods," Gabrielle gasped. "He was watching us in the square today!" Her expression became distraught. "Kim would still be alive if we hadn't had our contest? I may as well have signed his death warrant!"
"Gabrielle, you don't know that!" Ioulas offered. "Don't start blaming yourself."
"Let me guess," Xena said. "The last attacks were about one hundred years ago, right?"
"Ten points for the lady," Garis saluted with his mug.
Gabrielle was looking down at the floor, her heart heavy. She had enjoyed the contest with the young hunter and she couldn't believe that the hunk of mangled flesh had been that man.
"How do we stop it" Ioulas asked. "I'm sure the village elders knew something about that as well?"
Michas shrugged. "They've tried, every time the killings started. But it's never worked. They're planning on sending a party out tomorrow, just like in the old days."
"And that party will probably end up getting butchered," Garis commented. "Just like in the old days."
"Maybe not," Hercules said, his gaze going dark.
"Then let's go hunting," Ioulas added eagerly.
Michas looked from one to the other. Hercules' face was set, and Ioulas was likewise. Xena had a determined look on her face, and even Gabrielle seemed resigned.
"Not now," Xena said quietly. "It's no good stumbling through those woods in the dark. If we set out when it's light, we'll have a better chance."
"Just so we all understand, here," Michas said as he stopped pacing and looked at them. "You are proposing going hunting for something that has been hunting the residents of this island for the last five centuries. It probably knows every inch of the island intimately, and can't be seen until it's too late. Is that what I'm hearing?"
"You've done enough already," Hercules said. "You don't have to go."
Michas set is mug on the table and looked back up at Hercules. "Gee, thanks mom," he said sarcastically.
Xena looked down at Gabrielle. "I don't want you going either," she said.
"I don't think so," Gabrielle retorted, suddenly coming back to life. "Where you go, I go, remember?"
"This isn't like anything we've ever dealt with before," Xena said, smiling. "You could get hurt."
Hercules turned to Ioulas. "She's right, you know?" he said.
Ioulas looked at Hercules for a moment, and then the intent dawned on him.
"Oh no you don't!" He said angrily. "If you think for one second that I'm going to sit here on my tail while you and Xena walk out there into that forest and square off against whatever that thing is –"
"Ioulas," Hercules protested.
"Forget it!" Ioulas said obstinately. "I'm going!"
"Me too!" Gabrielle put in, standing in front of Xena. "There's no way I'm letting you go out there and face that kind of danger alone!"
"I won't be alone, Gabrielle," Xena said with unnerving calm.
"You know what I mean!" Gabrielle protested. "Besides! The more pairs of eyes we have, the less chance of us getting surprised!"
"Gabrielle," Xena pleaded.
"No!" Gabrielle said obstinately. "I'm coming with you and that's it!"
"Same here," Ioulas said flatly. "Or I'll knock you out so you can't go without me!"
He looked Hercules square in the eye.
"You'll knock me out?" Hercules said, a smile breaking into the stern lines of his face.
"Well," Ioulas suddenly shifted uneasily. "I'll give it my best shot."
"My," Garis said from his place at the door. "What a cozy little group!"
Michas looked about the room, and began to sense that he and his companion should make a polite withdrawal.
"I'll go to the village elders and let them know what we're planning," he said. "If I dig up any more information, I'll let you know in the morning, fair enough?"
"Thanks, Michas," Hercules said gratefully.
Michas gave a bow, and turned, taking Garis by the arm. "Come, my friend," he said theatrically. "Let us away."
The four friends worked out a few more details and then they retired to their rooms for the remainder of the night.
Gabrielle couldn't sleep. She tossed and turned but the image of Kim's mangled body hanging from the tree kept her from closing her eyes for very long. She sat up and went out into Xena's room, grabbing a mug and filling it with the last of the mead from earlier. Then she noticed that Xena's bed was empty.
Alarmed, she went to the door and stepped out into the hall. She saw Ioulas standing in front of her door.
"What's going on?" she asked.
Ioulas jumped, startled by her voice. "Oh, uh, hi Gabrielle," he said. "Xena wanted to talk to Herc privately, so I figured I'd come over and see how you are, well, uh doing?" He shrugged and gave her an embarrassed grin.
Gabrielle smiled and invited him in.
"So," Hercules asked, once they heard the door across the hall close. "What was it?"
Xena looked back at him, a nervous light in her eyes.
"What was what?" she asked.
"What did you want to talk with me about?" Hercules asked, smiling patiently.
"Oh, that," Xena said nervously. She stood by the door, her lips moving as if she were trying to find the right words.
"Did you mean what you said?" she asked suddenly. "When we were on the way to help Prometheus."
"Which part?" Hercules asked innocently.
"You know which part," Xena said. "The part about your wife. "She paused. "And how I made you feel?"
"Oh, that," Hercules nodded, becoming more serious.
"It's just that I-" she stammered. "I've thought about that a lot and, well."
Hercules stepped over to her and placed his hands on her shoulders.
"Xena," he asked gently. "What do you want to tell me?"
She stepped away from him, her hands fidgeting as she spoke.
"Oh, Gods," she said. "I had this big speech prepared. And here we are, about to get into something all over again. Something tells me that we might be getting in over our heads."
"You're afraid," Hercules said suddenly. "That's it, isn't it?"
"No," Xena replied quickly. "I'm not afraid of what's out there."
"But you are afraid," Hercules stepped over to her again and looked her in the eyes. She met his gaze a little unsteadily.
"Yes," She finally admitted. "I'm afraid." She reached up and placed a hand on his cheek. "I'm afraid of losing you. Of not being able to say the things I've wanted to say for the longest time, and not being strong enough to say them."
Hercules smiled. "You're doing pretty well right now," he smiled.
She turned away again and moved across the room. "No I'm not!" She snapped. "I just – When you were dead set on taking the swing with Hephestus's sword, my whole universe just – went dark! That's why I knocked you out! You gave me this new life, and I've tried to live up to it! But I never really told you – told you how, uh how much," she faltered again. Then she looked in his eyes, her gaze a cold as steel, more from her internal struggle than anything else.
"How important you are to me." She finally said. "If you had taken that sword and freed Prometheus, I wouldn't have gotten the chance!"
Hercules smiled gently. "You're very important to me, too," he said.
"No," Xena said, her voice filled with frustration. "That's not what I'm trying to say!"
"Xena," Hercules said. "Just come out and say it."
"That I love you!" Xena blurted out. "That I am so deeply in love with you, and it scares me to death!" There it was, out in the open for all to see. She was naked now, exposed to anything he might have to say. However gently the refusal, or rebuke might come. She closed her eyes and braced herself for it.
Instead, she felt two strong arms encircle her, and she let the emotion out, crying gently.
She wrapped her arms around his waist and held him tightly. "I don't want to lose you." She said. "Not ever."
He planted a gentle kiss on the top of her head and stroked her hair.
"You're not going to lose me," he whispered. "Not now, and not ever."
She waited for the part about their lives always taking them in different directions, or something to that effect, but the words never came.
"Xena," he said softly. "I love you too. I have for a very long time. I did mean what I said when I hadn't felt this way since Dienerra died. I don't want anything to happen to you either." He stroked her hair for a few more moments.
"Why don't you and Gabrielle stay here tomorrow," he said. "Ioulas and I can handle this."
"Oh, no," she came back to life and stared at him with fierce, tear filled eyes. "No you don't. I'm coming with you whether you-" she stopped when she saw him smiling at her. She slapped his chest.
"You're a brute," she jibed, a small laugh escaping her lips.
He kissed her. It was warm and long, reaching deep into her soul, filled with passion and promise. It exploded through her like black powder soaked in honey and she grabbed the back of his head and held onto that feeling as long as she could hold her breath.
"What do you think is happening over there?" Gabrielle asked as she paced nervously about the room.
Ioulas leaned back in the oversized chair and smiled.
"Do you really want to know?" He asked.
Gabrielle turned to face him and smiled. "No, I suppose not." She resumed pacing about the room, her fingers twitching nervously.
Ioulas watched her for a few minutes.
"Hey," he finally said. "You're making me dizzy. Will you sit still?"
"I can't!" Gabrielle blurted. "I'm just all wound up."
Ioulas sat up and rested his elbows on his knees.
"You know," he said thoughtfully. "If anyone should be nervous, then I think it should be me."
Gabrielle turned suddenly.
"Why do you say that?" she asked.
"Well," Ioulas said. "Only last night, I was standing outside that door, being seduced by a beautiful, young, very drunk, Amazon Queen. Now, here I am locked in the same room with her." He looked up at her and smiled. "All alone." His eyebrows rose mischievously.
Gabrielle stared at him for a long moment, and then she broke into a grin and laughed quietly.
"I am so sorry about that," she confessed.
"Don't be," Ioulas smiled. "Just, next time, if you really feel that way. Warn me first. I don't think my heart could take it."
Gabrielle flushed from embarrassment and sat down on one of the other chairs.
"I really am sorry," she said again.
"I'm not," Ioulas admitted. "I might have been, surprised, flattered, scared out of my wits, but I'm not sorry."
"Scared?" Gabrielle asked in surprise. "Why scared?"
"Gabrielle," Ioulas said. "I care about you a lot. And I think you were absolutely right about all people being born of one soul. A part of me thinks that you're my other half. At least that's the way I feel whenever you're around. I like that feeling, Gabrielle. Still, it scares me at the same time."
Gabrielle looked at him so softly and sincerely that Ioulas's heart skipped several beats.
"Ioulas," she said softly.
"Wait," Ioulas put his hands out to stop her in case she dove at him right there. The possibility was written in her face, and shone from her eyes like two warm emerald lights.
"I don't ever want to do anything to hurt you, Gabrielle," he continued quickly. "With Hercules and I always wandering around, getting into situations that could get us killed. I don't want you to ever have to deal with that again." He looked at her for a moment; his gaze was filled with gentle longing. "And I don't think I could bear it if the roles were reversed."
"Ioulas," Gabrielle said again, moving towards him this time. She closed the distance between them and she reached out and caressed his cheek.
"Stop," Ioulas said regretfully. "I don't want this to happen." Then he blinked. "I mean: I do want this to happen, just not right this minute."
"Why?" Gabrielle asked, smiling.
"Two reasons," Ioulas said. "First, it would be too much like saying goodbye before we march off to die. Secondly, I don't think my heart could take it." He smiled at her warmly.
Gabrielle smiled back, and then laughed, wrapping her arms about his neck and hugging him to her.
"Tell you what," Ioulas said, smiling. "Let's do what we have to do tomorrow. When we're finished, if you still feel the same way, then, perhaps. Alright?"
Gabrielle looked up at him, smiling at him fondly. "Alright." Suddenly, weariness fell over her like a warm blanket. She felt the anticipation of tomorrow slowly fade away in the here and now.
"Alright," Ioulas said. "In the mean time, you need to rest, and I need to rest." He looked over at Gabrielle's bed. "Get some sleep. I'll take Xena's bed. I have a feeling she won't be coming back here tonight."
Gabrielle nodded and then looked up into his eyes. "No," she said.
"No?" Ioulas repeated. "No, what?"
Gabrielle took his hands and began leading him to her bed.
"Gabrielle," Ioulas protested weakly. "I thought we agreed."
"We did," Gabrielle replied. "But I don't want to be alone tonight. Just lay with me?"
Ioulas could sense the millions of potential disasters that could be brought about by this scenario, but he didn't think any of them would happen. At least he knew he wouldn't try anything. Ioulas was a man of his word. If he said it was no, then it was no. If that wasn't good enough for Gabrielle, he could always fight his way out and run and hide somewhere. The irony of those thoughts murmured through his mind and he laughed.
"What's so funny?" Gabrielle asked, looking up at him.
Ioulas looked down at her and kissed her forehead gently.
"The clothes stay on," he said sternly. "Agreed?"
Gabrielle smiled. "I usually sleep in the raw," she teased. "But I'll make an exception this one time."
"Thank you," Ioulas said. She climbed under the blankets, and he lay down atop them, moving up to cradle her.
"Ioulas?" Gabrielle said softly.
"You can get under the blankets, if you want." She said.
Ioulas looked down at himself, fully dressed, right down to his boots.
"Get under the blankets Ioulas. Take your boots off, Ioulas. Kiss me Ioulas. Make love to me Ioulas." The thoughts rampaged through his mind. And he fought one of the most difficult battles in his life in only a few moments.
"I'm fine," he said at last. "Now go to sleep."
Gabrielle smiled as his strong arms wrapped themselves about her. She felt protected, safe, secure, and quickly drifted into a deep, dreamless sleep.
The next morning dawned, pale and misty in the trees. The voices of many exotic birds called back and forth amidst the foliage, and the murmur of the waterfall in the distance was like a gentle lullaby.
Hercules rolled over and discovered Xena was gone. He looked around and found her standing, wrapped in a blanket, staring out at the ocean. The sunrise was just peeking over the horizon bathing her in soft hues of orange and red. She looked radiant.
Hercules stared at her for a long time, just taking in the vision that was Xena. Her long dark hair shimmered in the sunlight, and her entire form seemed to glow.
He smiled and just drank in the sight of her.
She turned and looked back at him and smiled. "How long have you been watching me?" she asked.
"I don't know," Hercules admitted with a smile. "Not long enough."
She smiled and glided over to the bed, lying down next to him and kissing him. Then she looked at him, trying to think of the right words to say. There wasn't any need. He stroked her cheek and then let her settle against him. They lay there, wrapped in each others arms until the sun was bright in the sky.
When they finally emerged from the room, they discovered Ioulas and Gabrielle missing. A quick search found them in the tavern, having a breakfast. They sat down and joined the others enjoying a fine morning meal.
They were on their way towards the edge of the village when they spied Michas and Garis, seated casually on the edge of the well.
Both men were dressed in dark colors, Garis in brown vest and pants with dark boots, and Michas in dark gray pants, black boots and a dark green vest. Each of them had two bandoliers of black leather across their shoulders and a sword belt around their waists.
Two handles protruded behind each of Michas's shoulders, while Garis also had two long curved knives hanging at either hip.
Michas turned to Garis.
"They wanted an early start, right?"
"That way the way I heard it," Garis agreed looking up at the late morning sun.
Next to the two sailors was an array of other weapons, primarily bows and crossbows, as well as four large backpacks.
"I'd hate to see it when they slept in," Michas commented, and Garis smiled.
"Michas," Hercules said. "What are you doing?"
Michas jumped to his feet, looking up and down at Hercules like he was sizing him up. Then he took a large bow and a quiver of arrows and tossed them to the big man.
"You look like a strong, strapping lad," he said. "The one fifty should work quite nicely for you."
"Michas," Hercules caught the weapon and inspected it. Then he caught a short sword belt, scabbard and sword that Garis also tossed his way.
"You guys are traveling light," Michas said, moving to Ioulas and handing him another bow, somewhat lighter than the one Hercules had.
"The elders called off their own little posse, opting to let the Son of Zeus and his friends handle this one."
"Michas," Hercules said again but the sailor ignored him and stood in front of Xena.
"Good morning, gorgeous," he said. "You look lovely today." He grinned knowingly. "You have such a nice glow about you this morning," then he leaned in and whispered. "You fessed up, didn't you?"
Xena did her best to be insulted by Michas's forward attitude, but his smile was infectious, and he was, of course correct in his assessment. She smiled in spite of herself and nodded.
"My girl!" Michas spun away triumphantly, punching the air with his fist. He picked up another bow and handed it to Xena.
"That's alright," Xena said. She lifted her chakram for him to see. "I'll use this."
Michas nodded and turned to Gabrielle.
"No thanks," she admitted. "I can't hit the broad side of a Cyclops with one of those."
Michas looked back at Garis, who smiled wryly.
"Do Cyclops have broad sides?" he asked. Michas shrugged.
"How about a crossbow?" he asked, lifting one up for her inspection.
Gabrielle smiled again. "No thanks. I'll be fine with this." She patted her trusty staff.
"No offense, Mistress," Michas said honestly. "But if our friend gets close enough to you for the Ugly Stick, it'll be too late." He reached back and presented her with a long, narrow dagger in a leather sheath.
"Take this as well," he offered. "Just in case."
Reluctantly, Gabrielle accepted the weapon. She drew it half way out and inspected it closely. It was finely wrought and etched with a design of flowers and stars tracing the blade down to the silvered handle. The hilt was shaped in the image of a tree, with two main branches creating the cross guard.
"This is beautiful," She said appreciatively.
"Then it's well given," Michas replied.
"Michas!" Hercules finally burst out. The other man stopped.
"What are you doing?" Hercules asked again.
Michas leaned against the well and crossed his arms over his chest. "Well," he said. "If you haven't figured it out yet. I guess we're going with you."
Hercules smiled and shook his head. "You don't have to do this."
Michas looked thoughtful for a moment and then nodded his head.
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I do."
"How do you figure that?" Hercules asked.
"Well," Michas replied. "Follow me through here. I stay here; the four of you go out there and die. Then I have to live with the guilt. Or I stay here, and the four of you go out and come back heroes, then I miss out. Either way it goes, I lose. I just can't live with that."
Hercules stared at his friend for a moment, and then shook his head in surrender.
"What about you?" Xena asked Garis.
"Me?" Garis answered. "I'm just going to tag along and make sure I don't get promoted."
"He doesn't want to be captain," Michas added.
"And the ship?" Hercules asked.
"It's well in hand," Garis replied. "The crew has their orders and will move on to the Wandering Star once they finish with ours."
"We're wasting daylight here, folks," Michas said, looking up at the sky. He reached down and shouldered one of the packs on the ground, while Garis took the second one. The remaining two went to Ioulas and Hercules.
"Which way, boss?" Michas asked Hercules.
"I planned on heading towards those ruins," Hercules suggested. "That was where the young woman and her husband were attacked. Maybe we'll find something up there."
He turned and began walking towards the woods.
"Or something'll find us," Garis said quietly. Michas clapped a hand on his shoulder and the two sailors followed after the others.
The Hunt Begins
As the six figures moved into the outskirts of the forest, their departure did not go unnoticed. Seated high above the forest floor, gazing down at the square, the creature had watched the exchange of weapons. A growl escaped its throat. He watched the orange amorphous images vanish into the thicker foliage, and then leapt from tree branch to tree branch in pursuit.
The hunt has begun! At last!
It moved with complete silence as it moved from tree top to tree top, moving closer, always closer. It had to see them, had to hear what they were saying.
It came to rest in the crotch of a tree, some twenty feet above the floor of the forest, watching through the leaves as the six figures move cautiously towards its hiding place.
A three sided, red target reticule zoomed in on the lead figure. It was the mascu, the principle trophy. The creature almost howled in anticipation, but its training canceled the impulse almost as quickly as it had felt it.
The target reticule moved from one figure to the next. There was the feme, and the other two immature specimens. But what were these last two that trailed behind?
The thermal image zoomed in once, twice, and a third time. The final two weren't unpromising, though he had not observed them more closely in the past. The two mascu's from the primitive vessels it had disabled the previous night. It considered them for a moment. Unknown variables always made the hunt more interesting. The clicking growl issued from it again.
In one body, all six figures halted.
"What was that?" Gabrielle asked, looking around, trying to pierce the foliage with her gaze.
Hercules, Michas, Ioulas, and Garis all bent their bows, scanning the surroundings for any movement.
Xena's hand was on her chakram, and she also scanned the area, then her eyes traveled up into the trees, her instincts screaming.
"We're being watched," it heard the principle feme say as it held a strange circular object in her hand, ready to throw.
"I don't see anything."
"But we all heard it, right?"
"Herc, maybe this wasn't such a good idea."
The creature stayed perfectly still, watching the party below. The principle feme was staring right at him. It was impressed with the creature's instincts. Though its eyes could not discern it, the mind of this one was particularly acute. It held perfectly still, trusting in its stealth field to mask it, and considered for a few more moments. Then it reached a decision. Time to cull one of the lesser creatures from the herd.
The target reticule settled on the second, smaller feme and flashed.
Gabrielle heard something. A deep, barely perceptible hum. Looking down she saw three tiny red points on her chest. She frowned and looked back at the others.
Garis, standing just ahead of her, turned at her movement and saw the three red points as well. They did not move with her body.
He looked back up into the trees and caught a flash of two yellow points in the crotch of two large branches. Then a soft whine rose in pitch beyond his hearing. On instinct alone, he dropped his bow and leapt at the young Amazon woman.
"Get down!" He shouted.
There was a pale blue flash, and a sizzling sound as the bolt hissed through the air. It just missed Gabrielle's chest as she was unceremoniously bowled over by Garis.
Sparks erupted and there was the odor of burnt meat as the two of them rolled clear of the explosion.
Michas turned and drew his bow, sighting along the line of the incoming shot.
The bow twanged loudly, and the arrow whistled through the air, imbedding itself on a distant tree.
"Did you see anything?" Xena shouted.
"Nothing!" Michas shouted back.
"Where is it?" Ioulas shouted at the same time.
Hercules said nothing, watching the trees high above the ground. He caught a shimmer in the rays of the sun. A ghostlike shape, leaping from one of the lower branches.
"Gotcha!" Hercules snarled. In a flash he bent the bow and released.
Michas caught the movement and followed suit, sending a second arrow along the same path as Hercules's first one.
The arrows whistled through the air and struck the target as it dropped from sight. There was a crash and an inhuman roar.
Hercules darted off in the direction of the sound.
"Ioulas! Xena!" Michas shouted. "Go!"
He turned and dropped down next to Garis and Gabrielle.
Gabrielle was collecting herself, her eyes wide in shock from the hit. The wind had obviously been knocked out of her, but otherwise, she was unharmed.
Garis was not so lucky. His face was a mask of pain. Blood stained the corners of his mouth and a large stain spread on his clothing.
"Easy," Michas said as calmly as he could. "Easy partner. You're going to be okay."
Garis groaned in agony. "Gods, that hurts!" His body was stiff as stone.
Michas and Gabrielle gently turned Garis over onto his back and saw the damage on the right side of his abdomen. The wound was clean through, large, burnt and Michas knew at first glance, it was mortal.
A bloody hand grasped the shoulder of his vest in a death grip.
"Cap!" Garis hissed through bloody teeth. "Cap! Did you get him?" His breathing was raspy now. "Did you hit the bastard?"
Gabrielle let Garis's head lay in her lap.
"Shh," She whispered in his ear. "Rest. You'll be okay. Just lay still."
Michas took hold of Garis's wrist, while Garis maintained his death grip on Michas's vest.
"Did you get him?" Garis hissed again. Blood burst from his mouth in a choking gout.
"I think so," Michas said helplessly.
"You make sure!" Garis gurgled fiercely. "You find that son of a bitch! You hear me? You find him, and you wipe the deck with his ass! Sweet Nautica's Mother, this hurts!"
His body went stiff once more and then relaxed. Garis's eyes stayed open, fixed on Michas. His fingers released the cloth of his vest, sliding down to the ground, leaving a bloody stain.
Gabrielle froze, uncertain.
"Garis?" She asked timidly. "Garis?"
Michas sighed and closed Garis's eyes.
"He's gone," he whispered.
"He saved my life," Gabriele said absently.
A branch snapped behind them, and Michas wheeled, his two weapons sliding out from behind his back. They were long, cruel looking single edged choppers with extra long handles for balance.
Hercules, Ioulas and Xena all froze when they saw his eyes. They were filled with cold anxious fury.
Xena looked over at Gabrielle, still cradling Garis's head in her lap.
Michas relaxed and spun the two weapons back into the sheathes at his shoulders.
"Gabrielle?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle looked up at Xena, a tear running down her cheek. "He saved my life." She said again.
Gabrielle let Garis's head down gently on the grass. She got up and moved away from the body.
Michas went around and removed a large blanket from his back pack. He spread it out next to the body and got ready to lift Garis onto it.
Hercules and Ioulas moved to assist, but Michas looked up at them with shark like intensity.
"Back off!" he snarled. The two men halted and retreated.
Michas lifted his friend onto the blanket and began sewing him up in it.
"Did we bring it down?" he asked as he worked.
When an answer was not immediate, he paused in his labors and looked up at them.
"Did we bring it down?" He asked again more loudly.
Hercules shook his head. "We didn't find anything."
"What!" Michas exploded to his feet. "I know I winged him with the second one, and I saw yours hit it too! We had to have brought it down!" He looked like he was about to attack even Hercules.
Gabrielle's hand settled gently on his Michas's shoulder.
"Take it easy," Xena said gently.
Michas was seething with fury. He turned back and finished sewing up Garis's corpse.
"I'll bury him here," Michas said a few minute later. "You guys go on ahead."
"I don't think that's a good idea," Hercules said sympathetically. "It's okay. We'll wait for you."
They all stood at a respectful distance while Michas tended to his fallen friend. The daylight was settling into evening by the time he was finished.
He stood at the head of the grave, his arms covered in forest mud up to the elbows, his friend's sword in his hand. He stabbed the weapon down into the soft earth to serve as a grave marker. Then laid his bow across the top.
"Rest easy," Michas said simply. "You've earned it."
He shouldered his pack, took up his weapons again, notched an arrow to the string and looked at the others.
"We need to find a place to camp for the night," he said simply. His eyes searched the rising edge of the ridge and the path leading up to the ruins above.
Hercules was watching Michas intently. "Okay," he said. "Let's go."
The creature settled on the branch, feeling the primitive projectiles moving in the wounds at its upper back. Looking down, he saw the sharp point protruding out its chest. It hissed in pain.
Its plasma cannon was useless. The second projectile had damaged it beyond functionality.
Looking down, the creature snapped the end off the projectile with two clawed fingers. Another hiss as the pain rifled through its nerves.
It reached behind and grasped the shaft protruding from its shoulder blade. There was a crunching sound as the bone grated against the polished wood. It grasped the shaft, inhaled deeply and with a tremendous pull, ripped the shaft from its body.
Its howl of pain echoed through the trees like the sound of a thousand tormented souls.
Once the initial pain subsided, it opened a small compartment on its thigh and removed several vials of liquid, mixing the caustic fluids into a pale blue luminous paste. It smeared the substance over the oozing green wounds. There was a sizzling sound and another bellow, more terrible than the first ripped through the fading day.
It leaned back against the tree trunk, letting its medication do its work, and then it scanned the trees in the direction of its quarry.
They would not have remained with their fallen comrade. They would have buried it and moved on. Once it was healed, it would be time to claim his trophy. It settled back and waited.
The five of them stopped in there tracks, their blood turning to ice as the second roar died away. They had started to follow the winding trail up the flat face of the hill. The path was open on one side, dropping down to the previous switchback, while the other side was made up of solid gray stone.
"Whatever that thing is," Ioulas said after the echoes faded away. "It sounds angry."
"I think we got its attention," Hercules replied. He looked about at the lengthening shadows around them. At this point, they were nearly half way up the ridge, heading towards the ruins above. The area was dotted with numerous small tunnels and caves as the path wound its way up through a series of ancient switchbacks.
Michas quickly found one that wasn't too deep, and was concealed from prying eyes by the wild overhanging foliage that extended from the path above.
He did a quick search to make certain it wasn't occupied, and then ushered them all inside.
"Two hour watches," Xena said.
Michas lit a small oil lamp from his pack.
"Everyone bundle up," He suggested. "I don't want to chance a fire." He stood up and drew one of his weapons. "I'll take the first watch."
He moved silently to a spot still well within the cave and settled himself behind a tall stone that offered concealment while allowing a full view of the entrance and the ground beyond.
The others silently went about setting up their gear for the night.
After they were settled in, Hercules stared at Michas for along time, and then he stood up and went over to him.
"Hey," he whispered. He crouched down next to Michas. "You going to be alright?"
Michas didn't take his eyes off the entrance.
"Garis was with me for five years," he finally sighed. "He was the best first officer I could have ever wanted. And the best friend."
He looked at Hercules and nodded. "I'll be alright." He finished. "Just promise me that we'll get the bastard."
"That's a promise," Hercules said. He patted Michas's knee reassuringly and stood up.
"Wake me in a couple of hours, right?"
"Done," Michas agreed, and he turned back to the entrance.
Xena awoke them as the first light of dawn began to creep over the eastern horizon. They ate a hurried breakfast with hardly a word, checked their weapons, and broke camp.
As they moved to exit, Ioulas froze near the entrance, his eyes fixed on something lying on the ground.
"Uh, Hercules?" he said nervously.
Both Hercules and Michas stepped forward. The looked down and Michas's face went rigid.
Lying no more than three feet from the entrance was Garis's sword and bow.
Michas pursed his lips, his anger building to a slow boil. He knelt down and examined the ground around the weapons. There were no tracks of any kind to be seen in the damp earth.
"Arrogant bastard," he finally said.
"He's playing with us," Xena said from behind. "The bastard is playing with us."
"Xena," Gabrielle said timidly. "I think you might have been right about me staying behind on this one."
Xena looked down at her and she gave a nervous smile. "Me and my big mouth." She shrugged helplessly.
Xena smiled and placed a reassuring arm around her shoulder.
Michas was looking out across the tops of the lower forest.
"Son of a bitch wants to play," he said to himself. "Okay, let's play." He picked up Garis's sword sliding it into his belt as he rose. Then he turned back to the others.
"We need a place where we can control this bastard's movements." He said with unusual precision. It was as if he were reading a scroll, or giving a performance. The others picked up on this right away and each of them gave a subtle nod. Wherever this thing was, they all realized it was not too far away, possibly close enough to overhear their conversation.
Michas continued. "We need the high ground, somewhere where he won't have the benefit of trees and brush to hide in."
"The ruins," Hercules said.
"It's at the top of the hill, on a low flat ridge, with not too much vegetation to offer cover." Michas replied. "Then we set up and keep a look out."
"I'm sure he won't keep us waiting long."
The creature looked down from the ridge above, watching intently as the prey made their feeble plans. Then it watched as they exited the cave moving steadily towards the temple. It gave a low hiss.
The three mascus had their weapons out and the projectiles in place to release if they spied him. It didn't understand how the primitive beings had seen through its stealth net before. None of the others had seen through it in the past.
No matter, it would soon be finished, and their six trophies would adorn his altar.
Moving as silently as a hunting cat, it stalked after them.
Hercules and Ioulas were moving at the front with Gabrielle behind them.
Xena and Michas brought up the rear.
As they walked, Xena's eyes suddenly widened, but she kept walking at the same, slow deliberate pace. There it was a low nearly silent hiss. If their senses had not been sharpened by the combination of paranoia and adrenaline, it was a good chance that none of them would have even noticed it.
"Sst," She hissed softly.
Michas caught the sound and nodded subtly, and then he kicked a small rock and struck Hercules on the heel. The big man seemed to ignore the contact, but his body language shifted slightly and the silent message was passed on to Ioulas.
"So," Michas asked suddenly. "How does that thing work?" he indicated Xena's chakram.
Xena smiled drew the weapon holding it up for Michas to see.
"It's actually really simple. It's all in the wrist."
The creature paused. The feme's bio rhythms had changed slightly. Before it could assess the change, the feme spun and threw its strange weapon with incredible accuracy.
The chakram whizzed through the air and slammed into something a short way up the ridge on a parallel trail. There was an inhuman cry and a shimmering shape tumbled from the ridge above onto the path.
Michas bent his bow and let another arrow fly towards the strange shape.
The chakram bounced off a rock and returned to Xena's hand.
The arrow bounced off something metallic with a sharp clang, and the shape leapt up and then plummeted over the edge of the trail, dropping from sight.
All of them rushed to the edge, bows ready, but they could see nothing below.
"Damn!" Michas cursed. "It must be armored!"
They all scanned the tree tops below them, searching for any hint of movement. There was nothing.
"Where are you," Michas was growling as he panned his bow along his line of sight.
In one breath they all froze as an ominous clicking growl sounded off to their left, up the path.
They all turned and saw the shimmering shape standing ahead of them, unmoving. It was as if it were daring them to shoot.
Two glowing yellow eyes flashed to life and faded.
With a cry, Michas bent his bow and released. Xena's chakram whizzed past Hercules's ear. He and Ioulas dropped to their knees and drew back on their bows, waiting.
The creature leapt, seeming to run along the wall with long strides. There was a metallic "chink" and Michas spied the two blades protruding from the thing's right arm.
Michas dropped his bow and drew out one of his choppers, raising it in a defensive posture.
Xena's sword rang out and she leapt to the edge of the drop, hoping to flank the thing as it passed, while Michas leapt left, his weapon coming up in a vicious slash.
The two blades on the creature's right forearm shattered the blade of Michas's weapon, passing on to graze his neck and shoulder. Blood flowed from the wounds as he rolled with the attack and spilled out onto the path in a heap.
Xena's sword rang against something metal and sparks erupted from the thing's left extremity.
At the same time, Michas felt a crushing impact against his right side, and he slammed hard against the unyielding stone with a crunch. In the back of his numbing mind he counted. "Two ribs broke. Maybe three."
Gabrielle ran to him while Hercules and Ioulas bent their bows and waited for a clear shot.
With her characteristic battle cry, Xena leapt after the thing again, her weapon swinging. She was between the thing and Hercules, blocking the shot.
"Xena!" Hercules called out. "Get out of there!"
He and Ioulas held their fire as Xena attacked.
Her sword found the two blades on the wrist and clanged loudly. Blue coronas of energy snaked over the figure, exposing it to sight for the first time since the hunt began.
It blocked several more quick slashes by the warrior princess and then lashed out with a vicious left hand. Xena took the blow in the middle of her chest and went sailing back right into Ioulas, who's arrow whistled off into the distance, useless.
Hercules held his breath, his arrow sighted on the target.
The creature stopped, looking at him. The blue fire still writhed over it.
It reached down and tapped something on its left wrist. The corona's faded and the creature stood exposed.
It was massive in size, nearly seven feet tall, with pale white skin, blotched at the sides and arms with dark black or gray splotches that reminded them of an amphibian. The entire form was knotted with powerful muscles and long black tendrils hung from its head, shimmering with an oily hue.
Pieces of armor or equipment hung at different places on its body. Its large hands and feet ended in sharp claws.
Over its face it wore a dull gray steel face plate, smooth and angular. The yellow eyes flashed again as it stared them down.
"What are you supposed to be?" Hercules asked. Then he released his arrow.
The creature moved with frightening agility, dodging the arrow and charging right at him.
"Not good," Hercules muttered. He dropped his bow and raised his arms.
The creature slammed into him like an avalanche. Hercules rolled back and got one leg on the creature's abdomen, flipping it off him as he fell. The creature went sailing through the air, writhing like a cat and landing firmly on its feet. It spun around and crouched. Its arms out, claws splayed open.
It raised its left arm, pointing it at Hercules.
"Look out!" Ioulas shouted and he slammed into his friend from the side as there was a sharp clang.
Two of the three projectiles ricocheted harmlessly off the rocks while the third one embedded itself in Ioulas's leg.
The creature charged again as Xena got back to her feet. She threw her chakram, striking the creature's arm as it blocked the attack. Luminous green blood sprayed from the wound. The chakram stuck deep in a nearby tree.
Xena intercepted the creature, her sword swinging. The thing blocked her blade and lashed out with the two blades on its right wrist. They slashed through her armor, and the leather beneath, leaving two deep gashes on the left side of her chest. She cried out as she fell over, swinging her leg around and kicking the thing's feet out from under it. Her sword bounced out of her hand and fell down into the forest below.
The creature landed hard on its back. It rolled and was on its feet immediately, trying to get some distance between it and the two combatants.
It turned and almost ran right into Gabrielle.
She raised her staff in a defensive posture, her eyes wide with terror.
The thing growled that clicking growl, and reached back over its shoulder. It removed a short wide bundle of metal, bronze in color, and held it out in front of her. The ends snapped out in long sections until it held a staff nearly a head taller than she was.
"Bad move," Gabrielle said, trying to gain some distance and still protect Michas, wheezing on the ground behind her.
The creature spun the weapon in a savage attack. Gabrielle raised her own weapon in defense, and watched in horror as her staff was shattered just above her left hand. The impact sent lighting pain down her arms, and the rest of her weapon fell from her tingling fingers. Then she was sent flying by a blow from the creature's foot. She slammed against the earth, saw white pain flash in front of her eyes as the air blasted from her lungs and she knew no more.
Hercules was back on his feet, standing over Ioulas. The dart had pierced his upper leg, but wasn't bleeding too badly.
"You okay?" Hercules asked quickly.
"Get him!" Ioulas hissed. "Just get him! Go! Go!"
Hercules rose and marched towards the thing.
The creature turned and locked its gaze on its primary prize. One hand moved slowly to the side of the face plate. There was a snap, and a hiss of gas as a small hose was released. Then a second line was snapped. The clawed fingers pulled the face plate off and let it fall to the ground with a heavy thud.
Hercules stopped short. He had never beheld anything quite like this before. The pale flesh of the face was mottled with dark spots. Two orange eyes stared out of a face straight from his nightmares. The two sets of outer jaws were more like a crustacean than anything human, while the inner mouth showed lines of needle like teeth.
The thing crouched low, spreading its arms again in challenge and let out a bellow that shook the hillside. Its outer jaws opening wide in a grotesque display.
"Whoa," Hercules said, his arms coming up. "That's ugly."
With a cry of his own, Hercules charged.
The two grappled for a few seconds, and then Hercules let loose with an uppercut that bobbed the thing's head back. On any mortal man, the blow would have broken the jaw and rendered the opponent unconscious. In this case, the creature merely looked back down at him and struck out with a blow of its own, knocking Hercules back several feet.
"Well," Hercules said rubbing his own jaw and feeling the thick wet sensation of blood. "That didn't work."
He charged in again and led with his right foot in a devastating kick to the creatures mid section. The thing flew back several yards, landing in a crouch, still facing him.
A noise behind it caused it to turn expecting another attack.
It ran straight onto the blade in Michas's hand.
The thing looked down to see the hilt of the weapon it had laid outside the cave the night before. Then it looked up into the eyes of the prey.
"Hey big fella!" Michas hissed. "Remember me?"
Michas jammed the blade deeper, the green glowing fluid covering his hands.
The thing lashed out with its two blades. Michas blocked the creature's forearm, but the counter blow from the thing sent him reeling back again, blood erupting from his nose and mouth. He almost tripped over Gabrielle's prone body.
The thing grasped the hilt of the sword in its belly and ripped the weapon free with a howl.
Michas was on one knee, gasping for breath, his right hand planted on the ground. The lower half of his face was a mask of crimson. He grinned savagely and drew out his last remaining chopper.
"Come on, big guy!" he hissed. "Wanna play? Let's play!"
Michas drew the dagger from Gabrielle's belt and staggered to his feet. Stumbling sideway, still off balance.
"No!" Hercules shouted. "He's mine!"
Michas staggered forward, tossing the dagger to Xena as he ran. He swung the chopper in a devastating cross cut, only to have it deflected again by the twin blades on the creature's wrist.
At the same moment, Xena slipped under and drove the dagger into the creature from the side. Then Hercules was on it from behind, his own sword drawn.
This was happening too quickly, even for the primitives! The creature was surrounded and it knew it could not win this fight. The weapons bit into its flesh and with a bellow of rage, it threw the two on it across the path, turned and landed a solid blow into the face of the alpha mascu, sending it sailing backwards. Then it leapt to the next ridge, its blood leaving a pale green stain on the ground and dripping from the ridge above.
Michas teetered on the brink and fell, Xena slammed into the rock wall across from him.
Hercules rolled with the blow, came up on one knee and dove for Michas.
He caught the sailor's hand at the last instant and hauled him back up onto the path.
They looked up at the thing, standing above them, Xena's dagger still lodged in its side. It drew out the weapon with a hiss and stared at them with fierce orange/yellow eyes.
"What are you supposed to be?" It spoke in an inhuman grating voice. Then it threw the dagger at Hercules feet and vanished.
They were stunned. The thing had actually spoken.
"We can't let it get away!" Michas said in a pained voice.
"Oh, he's not getting away!" Hercules replied in a voice so filled with dark anger it sent a chill up Michas's spine.
"Hercules?" Xena said calmly from the opposite side of the trail.
They looked down and saw her leaning against the rock wall of the path. The middle of her armor was ripped open, and her skin beneath was soaked in a coat of crimson. Four long gashes crossed her belly. The creature's claws had ripped through the armor like it had been made of linen.
"Oh no," Hercules cried and he ran to her side.
She waved him off as he knelt beside her.
"It looks worse than it is," she said, wincing.
Hercules actually smiled. "I don't know," he said. "You look pretty bad."
She looked up at him icily. Her shoulder and midsection were gashed and covered in blood. The thick leather armor was shredded in those places, and the right cheek and corner of her right eye were bruised and puffy, getting worse as he watched.
"Gabrielle?" she asked.
Michas ran over to the prone girl and knelt down. "She's alive," he said. "Just out cold."
"I'm fine too, thank you," Came Ioulas's voice behind them. He was back on his feet and hobbling towards them, the silver dart still protruding from his wound.
Michas lifted Gabrielle gently from the ground and carried her over by Xena and Ioulas.
"When she wakes up, she'll have the mother of all headaches," he said.
"Get going, you two," Xena said. "We'll just wait here."
"Are you sure?" Hercules asked. He was afraid that Xena was making light of her injuries.
"Herc," Ioulas said stiffly. "You and Michas get moving! You can't let that thing get away!"
Michas retrieved his last chopper and then got Xena's chakram from the tree. He gave it to her.
"Keep your eyes open, okay?" He said. "If the bastard gets past us, bisect him for me?"
Xena held up the weapon and smiled painfully. "Go."
Hercules rose reluctantly.
"We'll be back," he said.
Xena smiled. "I know. Now get out of here."
Hercules turned to Michas, battered, bloody and bruised in many places. He was wincing slightly as he breathed, though he did his best to cover it up.
"You sure you can handle this?" Hercules asked.
Michas nodded. "I'm sure."
With one final long look down at Xena, the two of them jogged off up the path. They found the creature's blood trail without difficulty. It needed little skill to follow.
"Anyone normal would have bled out by now," Michas said as they ran.
"Whatever that thing is," Hercules countered. "It definitely isn't normal."
They were rounding a final bend in the path, heading up towards the entrance to the old ruins, when the ground beneath them began to tremble.
"Now what?" Michas asked.
Ahead, they could see the remains of an ancient gate, and beyond that a large opening into the rock beyond. A brilliant orange glow grew from somewhere deep beneath the surface. There was a roar and smoke billowed from the mouth of the cave.
"Get down!" Hercules yelled and the two of them dove for cover.
The roar grew to a deafening thunder, and something massive launched itself from the cave ahead, passing over them, leaving cloud of dust and ash, and a few moments of searing heat as it rocketed into the sky.
The sound died away as the cloud of debris and ash settled on the top of the ridge.
Michas and Hercules both got to their hands and knees, ash sloughing off their bodies as both of them choked in the thick air.
"Herc!" Michas called. "What in Tartarus was that?"
"I don't know!" Hercules coughed. He got to his feet, looking up at the sky. He saw a trail of smoke ascending into the clouds.
The two of them looked like pale gray ghosts, covered in the fine powder. They turned and entered the ruins, alert for any movement.
The temple had been grand at one time, now overgrown with shrubs and clawing growths. A small rivulet of water trickled down into an old fountain, spilling out onto the moist earth.
Fires crackled all around them from the explosion. Blackened charred rocks lay strewn about the courtyard.
"I don't think our friend is here," Michas said a few minutes later. "Whatever that thing that flew away was, I'll bet it was him."
"I think you're right," Hercules replied, looking about them. He spied something pale white off to one side and moved towards a ruined doorway, blown open by the explosion.
"What you got?' Michas asked, following behind.
They stepped into a small chamber and stood aghast at the site.
All about the room, mounted on the walls or in niches were skulls of various sizes and shapes. Mixed in with the grisly display were human skulls, the entire collection polished white as ivory. Some of them still gleamed wetly from being recently set out.
Michas suppressed a cold shiver as he realized that Garis's skull was probably one of these resting here on display.
"By the Gods," he whispered.
"Trophies," Hercules said in disgust. He let his eyes wander around the room for a few moments and then motioned for the two of them to leave. Once outside, Hercules pulled the heavy doors closed.
"Let's get back to the others." He said.
Gabrielle knelt over Ioulas's leg, her fingers gingerly touching the protruding metal.
"Ready?" she asked nervously.
Ioulas gritted his teeth and gave a nod. "Do it."
Gabrielle grasped the metal and pulled the object free with a sickening crunch of flesh. Ioulas let out a choked cry in pain.
Quickly, Gabrielle slapped a compress on the wound and began wrapping a bandage around it. Fortunately, there was very little more blood from the wound.
"Sorry," Gabrielle said lamely.
"No, no," Ioulas groaned. "It didn't hurt a bit, honest." Then he let out another groan as Gabrielle tightened the bandage. "Okay, maybe a little bit."
Gabrielle neatly finished with Ioulas and then turned to Xena.
"I'm okay," Xena lied.
"Yeah," Gabrielle quipped. "And I'm Helen of Troy." She gently peeled the edge of her armor away from the wound in her upper chest.
The two gashes on her chest were deep, but Gabrielle couldn't see any internal damage, and Xena wasn't coughing up any blood. Her belly was much worse, however, though the claws had not penetrated the more vital tissue beneath the skin. If it had, it could have easily disemboweled her.
Quickly, Gabrielle began to stitch the two wounds closed. As she worked, she looked up at her friend and saw the swelling on her right cheek. The skin around her right eye was turning a deep purplish blue, and was nearly swollen shut. The skin of her right cheek was scraped, bruised, and bleeding, as was the right side of her upper lip.
"Do I look that bad?" Xena asked, reading Gabrielle's expression.
Gabrielle smiled. "Well, you've looked better."
Xena smiled in spite of the pain and then her eyes looked past Gabrielle's shoulder.
Gabrielle and Ioulas also looked behind and saw two gray figures stumbling down towards them, ash still blowing from their clothing like fine gray mist. Darker splotches on their clothes showed where they bled from several injuries. Michas had one hand on Hercules's shoulder, and walked with a noticeable limp. Both forms looked bone weary as they stumbled towards them.
"What in the world happened to you two?" Ioulas asked in shock.
Michas let himself sink painfully onto a short flat rock. He looked up at Hercules and then at the others.
"Too much, too quickly," he sighed, wincing as he tried to get comfortable
Hercules smiled weakly. He could never remember being so completely worn out.
Glancing down the path, he saw something, and his expression went grave. He walked a little ways from them and knelt down, lifting the creature's face plate from the ground.
"So," Gabrielle said hopefully. "You got it?"
She saw Hercules looking back up towards the clouds. Turning her eyes to Michas, she saw him staring out across the tree tops, but not seeing them.
"Didn't you?" she finished.
"Let's just say we evicted him," Michas finally said wearily. "Whatever that thing was, it's still alive."
"Do you think it'll come back?" Gabrielle asked, suddenly frightened all over again.
Michas said nothing.
Hercules looked back at the face plate in his hands. He let the thing fall back to the earth.
"He'll be back," he said, as if to himself. "In about a hundred years, or so."
The five of them got to their feet and began the long painful walk back down to the village.
As they left, Michas stooped and picked up the face plate.
It took two slow days for them to get back to the village. When they arrived in the early afternoon of the fourth day since their departure, all activity in the village came to a standstill.
Patrons and proprietors alike stopped dead as they watched the battered party make its way to the hall of elders.
They entered without announcement and walked straight into a heated debate by three old chieftains, arguing back and forth. They all fell silent in awe at the five travelers standing before them, battered, bruised, in pain, but still very much alive.
"Attende'," Michas said in a hoarse voice. "Se dubinie' al torge, nabe' steganna."
He tossed the face plate on the floor before them as evidence.
The three men exchanged startled glances, finally the central one spoke.
Michas looked down. "Nabe. Otte te' sublene'. Ine' te' chorro." He shook his head.
The elders looked at each other, and then the central one nodded, smiling grimly.
"Ande subre natte?"
Michas smiled wearily. "By the skin of our teeth, venerable," he said, not bothering to speak their language any longer. "By the skin of our teeth."
They turned and exited the building.
They returned to their rooms, after all, they still had five days left before they would have to leave.
Even Michas rented a room there, a couple doors down from the rest of them. They stayed in their rooms, moving as little as possible.
Hercules tended to Xena while Gabrielle took care of Ioulas.
Ioulas was the first one to get back on his feet, for the most part, though he walked with a stiff limp for quite some weeks following the attack.
Michas fared a little better. His bruises and cuts began to heal, and he was able to move about, albeit slowly.
Xena stayed in bed for several days. She had received the brunt of the damage on the ridge, a direct result of her face to face confrontation with the beast.
Gabrielle stood at the dresser, wetting a cloth and preparing a fresh bandage for Ioulas's leg. She turned and looked at him for a moment.
"We need to talk," she said.
Ioulas's eyes looked at her knowingly. "I was wondering if it would get to this." He said, and he smiled.
Gabrielle smiled back and settled down next to him, gently stripping the old bandage off his wound and cleaning it.
"I believe you wanted me to warn you if anything was going to happen between us," Gabrielle said, not looking him in the eye.
"Yes," Ioulas answered. "Just so I didn't die of a heart attack."
"Well," Gabrielle still didn't look at him. "I've been thinking about it a lot these past few days, and I've come to a decision."
"And should I start running for my life now?" Ioulas teased.
Gabrielle laughed. "You aren't going anywhere." She finished tying off the new bandage and then stretched out on the bed next to him. Her fingers began combing through his thick golden hair. "I guess you're at my mercy until you've healed enough to outrun me."
"What about your decision?" Ioulas asked with a hopeful fire in his eyes.
Gabrielle looked into his eyes for a long time, as if she were formulating the right words to say. Then she lowered her lips to his in a gentle, passionate kiss.
"The answer's yes, Ioulas," she said in a husky voice. "Even if it's just for a night or two, I do want to be with you."
Late one evening, Xena awakened in the small hours of the night. There was a soft calling sound drifting through the thick night air. It came from outside her room, beyond the patio. She looked over at Hercules, sleeping soundly next to her. She smiled as she studied his face.
Ignoring the pain that the movement created, Xena pulled herself stiffly out of the bed. She wrapped a blanket about her body and moved to stand out by the hot tub. Several doors down, she saw Michas sitting on a chair, his flute to his lips, playing a soft, moving song, almost like a lullaby. The clear notes rose and fell effortlessly, echoing through the nearby trees.
Pulling her blanket closer around her, she moved slowly towards Michas, relishing the music.
The song ended with a final soft wailing note filled with sorrow.
She paused near the edge of his patio and simply watched the sailor, his eyes closed as he let that one final note die. There was a single tear running down his cheek.
"That was lovely," she said, once his eyes opened again.
He turned around, surprised, and smiled softly.
"Hey there," he greeted her. "What are you doing up?"
"I heard you playing," Xena said. "I just wanted to see how you were."
"I'm good," Michas replied, moving his arms slightly, still feeling the soreness in his chest. "Better than you, anyway." He finished with a smile.
"I'm fine," Xena waved her hand in a dismissive gesture.
Michas's eyebrows rose in amusement. The right side of her face was still somewhat swollen, and she was obviously feeling discomfort with every movement.
He gestured to the other chair on the patio.
"No offense, beautiful," He remarked. "But you still look like something that came out of the south end of a northward swimming kraken."
Xena settled stiffly in the chair and gave him a stern look.
"Have you always been so forward with your opinions?" she asked.
Michas gave a slight shrug. "I tried subtlety once."
"What happened?" Xena's eyebrow rose.
Michas made an obscene gesture and a squishing noise. "Screwed the pooch." He finished.
Xena looked at him for a moment, totally shocked and then she laughed, though it sent tiny rivers of pain through her chest.
"It's funny," Michas said. "When I first saw you and Hercules on the dock, I told you to take good care of him. Now he's the one taking care of you."
"Good care," Xena said wistfully. Then she looked at Michas.
"What about you, Michas?" She asked
"What about me?" Michas asked.
"Do you have anyone special waiting for you somewhere?"
Michas smiled wryly. "I have the largest home in the world, the best lover, and the greatest form of expression, all at my fingers."
"What?" Xena feigned shock. "You get me to confess to you in an alley, and in return, you offer me a riddle?"
"I was taking your mind off of something extremely unpleasant at the time," Michas countered. "And it worked. You said what you needed to say to me. That gave you the courage to say it to Hercules."
"You would have told him," Xena said knowingly. "If I hadn't. Wouldn't you?"
Michas grinned in return, folding his hands in his lap, still cradling his flute.
"Is there anything else you'd like to know?" Michas asked with a smirk.
Xena laughed and shook her head. "I'm afraid to ask."
"The point is: You finally told Herc about how you feel?" Michas asked suddenly.
"Yes," Xena replied.
"And do you regret it?" Michas continued.
Xena smiled at the memory of that night. About all the feelings that she had released, only to have them rewarded a hundred fold.
"No," she said honestly. "No I don't."
Michas smiled and picked up his flute. "We should all be that fortunate," he said with a hint of regret and then he set the instrument to his lips, wetting the small reed in the mouthpiece.
"South end of a northward swimming kraken, huh?' Xena said.
Michas smiled, "Or something like that." He quipped, then the long melancholy note began, and the slow melodic song echoed through the trees once more.
Xena sat there, her head leaning against the back of the chair, letting the mournful sounds fill her ears.
"You're a good man, Michas," she whispered, though he couldn't hear her.
The next morning, Hercules strode casually towards the docks. He had wanted to speak with Michas that morning, and had awakened to find that his friend had already checked out.
As he approached the harbor, he saw both the Agean Glory and the Wandering Star, once again floating proudly at the dock. Michas had split his crew in order to assist the local volunteers in running the second ship.
Michas was walking back and forth on the dock, between both ships, shouting orders in a myriad of dialects, just like at the Rusty Pelican earlier that week.
"Keeping busy?" he asked as he stepped up behind his friend.
Michas froze and then turned. He smiled, but there was something in his eyes that lent sadness to the expression.
"Hey, Herc," he said. "What's up?"
"You going somewhere?" Hercules asked. "I thought you weren't leaving for a few more days?"
Michas looked uneasy. He didn't answer for a long time.
"The owners of the Wandering Star are going to need their ship back, and I figured we could escort her back to Athens. You know, safety in numbers?"
"You could do that in a few days?' Hercules pressed gently.
Michas gave a non-committal and then he sighed.
"I don't belong here, Herc," he said suddenly. "Heck, I've always felt more at home out on the water than around people."
"You seem to do pretty well on the land," Hercules offered. "With you're concert at the Rusty Pelican and all. You seem to enjoy being the center of attention?"
"No," Michas confessed. "Not really. Garis was usually the one that convinced me to go ashore. The truth is, I've always felt uncomfortable around people. I'm really only relaxed when I'm out there," He looked out at the rolling sea. Then he looked back at his friend. "I don't belong here, buddy. Especially right now. I need time to reflect, maybe mourn for a while. When I'm out there, I can do those things. Here - ?" he shrugged.
"You don't need to leave, Michas," Hercules offered. "And I think you fit in on the land just as well as you captain a ship on the water."
Michas smiled. One of the crew on the Wandering Star called out to him, and Michas looked up to see the crew at ready to sail.
"Very well!" he shouted. "Weigh anchor, secure the lines! Get her out on the water!" Then he began walking quickly towards his ship.
"Michas!" Hercules called after him. The sailor stopped at the boarding ramp and turned back. Hercules offered his hand, and Michas grasped his forearm firmly.
"May the Gods stand between you and harm," Michas said. "In all the empty places you will walk."
"Don't be a stranger," Hercules smiled, and he clapped Michas on the shoulder.
Michas smiled and boarded his ship. He stood on the rail, one hand holding onto the rope and saluted his friend.
"Herc, old buddy!" He called out, grinning broadly. "They don't come any stranger than me!" Then he turned and worked his way aft to the bridge, shouting orders as he went. The main sail dropped, filled with wind and the ship slid effortlessly out into the harbor, heading toward the open sea.
Hercules watched the Agean Glory slide out to the edge of the harbor. As he looked, he saw Michas standing proudly on the bridge. He turned and waived to his friend. Hercules returned the wave and watched until the two ships vanished over the horizon.
"Safe journey, my friend," he said almost as a prayer.
Two weeks later, The Midnight Sun docked in Athens after an uneventful, two day voyage from Andros Island. Four weary, but mostly healed travelers disembarked. They stepped out onto the docks and looked about. Hercules was searching for Michas, hoping that his friend wouldn't have taken another load right away and might still be around.
The four of them headed to the dry-dock facility, hoping to see the familiar lines of the Agean Glory undergoing it's much needed repairs. Instead, they found two small fishing ships up on the blocks having hull work done.
Hercules immediately went in search of the yard foreman while the others waited.
Xena, Gabrielle, and Ioulas watched from a distance as Hercules and the foreman held a conversation.
As they watched, Hercules became more and more subdued.
Ioulas's eyes narrowed as he watched.
"Something's wrong," He said under his breath.
By the time the conversation ended, the foreman handed a piece of parchment to Hercules and walked away, shaking his head. Hercules read it and his entire posture changed. He looked bowed under a heavy burden. His eyes left the parchment and looked out at the sea, and then he began a slow walk back to his friends.
"Oh, no," Gabrielle whispered.
Hercules walked right past them and sat down on a nearby crate, his face set in stone, eyes looking inward.
Ioulas took a step forward.
"Herc?" he asked. "Herc? What is it?"
The big man didn't answer. Instead he handed the parchment to Ioulas.
Swallowing down a sudden lump in his throat, Ioulas took the parchment and began to read out loud.
It was a report from the Vengeance of Ares, a merchant sailor out of Corinth. It was dated eight days prior.
"The Vengeance of Ares reported seeing two ships floundering off the cape of Argos. The ships were identified as the Wandering Star, out of Athens, and the Agean Glory, out of Athens. Both ships floundered in severe weather. The vessels were purported to be en route from the retreat at the Isle of Andros in the south sea when they encountered a typhoon. The Vengeance of Ares attempted to render assistance, however severe storm damage forced the ship to withdraw. It is presumed that both the Agean Glory and the Wandering Star have been lost at sea with all hands.
No one said anything for along time. What was there to say? The shock settled down upon them like a slowly expanding weight.
Gabrielle turned away and went to lean against a nearby post, her fingers caressing a necklace that she had acquired on Andros. All she saw was Michas, leaning against a support, beaming mischievously as he talked her into a weapons competition with the merchant's son.
Ioulas remembered two sailors and a myriad of gear stacked patiently, waiting for them before a treacherous journey into a foreboding forest.
Xena said nothing, simply picturing the man seated in the night, his music floating through the trees.
Hercules voice broke the mournful silence.
"It's a far greater journey that I have ever dreamed," he said quietly. "A far better resting place I now travel, than I have ever known. Look not to the bones seeded in the earth, for my spirit has departed. Instead, think on my life as I had lived it. I am, as I have always been, a part of the greater miracle that is this world."
"Is that a poem?" Xena asked, looking down at him.
Hercules smiled thoughtfully. Remembering his friend, standing proudly on the bridge of his ship, his hand raised in a final farewell that neither of them anticipated.
"No. It's a passage from the Treatise on Life, by Michas Acacus."
ENDReturn to the Academy