H.E.Kern@worldnet.att.net

Disclaimer: The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess are owned by MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures, bless them. No copyright infringement is intended.

Author's Note: This is a prerift story. There is some subtext, as little or as much as you want. Antipany is a character from a previous story, but this tale stands alone. Suffice it to say that Antipany and Xena don't like each other very much.

Chapter 1

The warm spring day gave no warning to the tragedy to come. In fact the tedious plodding of the horses hooves set Gabrielle to doze from her perch on Argo's back behind Xena. Following along side was a disgruntled sorceress riding on a small sway backed brown pony named Circe. Unruly auburn hair framed a thin, pale, unhappy face. Despite the heat, she wore a cloak that seemed far too bulky for her slight frame and still she never broke a sweat. The longer they rode, the more unhappy Antipany became.

"Tell me again why I'm required to come along?" she fumed to Xena.

"Because you volunteered," replied Xena shortly. "Remember that 'If you ever need my skills, summon me' speech you made the last time we crossed paths?"

"Yeah, but I never thought you'd take me up on it," Antipany protested .

"It wasn't my idea."

The sorceress pondered that for a moment. "So," she said slowly, "Gabrielle twisted your arm until you agreed I had to come?"

"Something like that."

Gabrielle roused from her doze, wiping the drool off Xena's leathers. "Go ahead Xena, tell her how we came to an agreement."

"No."

"You're a sore loser, you know that?"

"Yes."

"Wait a minute," Antipany interjected. "Are you telling me I'm here because you lost a bet?" She glared at the warrior. "How many wagers have you won?" she asked Gabrielle.

"That Xena will admit to? Well, counting this time, once." Gabrielle snickered.

Antipany's pale complexion reddened. "After all these years you picked now to lose a bet!" she snarled, then fumed some more. "What was the bet?" she asked the bard.

"Never mind," replied the warrior hastily.

Gabrielle snickered again. "I made her move her hand. It was probably the wine that did the trick," she added cryptically.

Antipany stared at her. "You mean I'm here because her Eminence got drunk!"

Xena turned a cold eye to Antipany. "I'm never drunk." She glanced behind at the bard. "And believe me, Gabrielle, it wasn't the wine that made me move."

"No, no," Gabrielle said hastily, rubbing the warrior's back soothingly. "She wasn't drunk. Just very... mellow." Then winked at Antipany, who proceeded to mutter something about the sorry state of warrior intelligence under her breath.

Xena grimaced and urged Argo on a little faster.

Circe gamely trotted faster to keep up. "So, how did you get her to move her hand?" Antipany asked.

"Never mind!" the warrior snarled. She urged Argo into a canter and poor Circe nearly had to gallop to keep up. Gabrielle yelped in surprise and clung to the warrior.

"All right, all right," Antipany called out. "Slow down, princess, I don't really want to know the sordid details." Argo slowed to a walk. "Why Telamedes would trust you to save the Books of Prophesy, I'll never know," Antipany grumbled. "He gets some obscure message that someone's trying to steal them and he can't wait to get you involved. And what do you do? Drag me out of my wedding bed and insist I come along."

"You've been married for three months, Antipany, I doubt very much you and Telamedes were still in bed. And believe me, if I'd known your husband approved of your coming, I never would have agreed to do this. These are very powerful old texts that have been hidden for a long time in the Valley of Larima."

Antipany snorted. "The Valley of Larima is a death trap. I don't know of anyone who came back from there."

"Maybe Telamedes is trying to tell you something," Xena suggested

Antipany glared at her. "What makes you so sure we can get in. And if we get in, get back out?"

"I know how."

"Of course you do," murmured the sorceress. "But who would want a bunch of musty old texts?"

Xena brought Argo to a halt and stared at a knoll in the distance. "I suspect they would," she said with a tight smile. Gabrielle slid off Argo without comment and twirled her staff.

"How many?" she asked.

"Ten. Two on horseback."

"Can you tell us the color of their eyes while you're at it?" Antipany asked dryly.

"Who cares?" Xena retorted, then spurred Argo into a gallop as ten men crested the knoll. With a whoop, the two mounted mercenaries spurred their horses forward to meet her, swords raised.

"Let's go," Gabrielle yelled. She skidded to a stop when she noted Antipany had not moved. "What's wrong?"

Antipany frowned watching the mercenaries. "This a warrior thingy, Gabrielle. Blood, guts, dirt. Hardly suited to those of us who practice the finer arts."

"Oh right, wouldn't want to break a fingernail. But you have to help, that's what friends do," Gabrielle replied impatiently. Suddenly she whistled and Circe broke into a trot, following the bard toward the action.

Antipany nearly fell off the saddle at the pony's sudden movement. She grabbed the saddlehorn and, with the skill of a seasoned warrior, roundly cursed her gentle patient pony. "We're not even friends," she finally wailed when profanity failed. Then there was no time for talk as they entered the fray.

They came at Xena from both sides. She neatly ducked the sword of the man on her left and parried the thrust of the other. Bringing her foot up, she kicked the mercenary on her left, unhorsing him, then vaulted onto the back of the other horse as his rider was trying to bring him around. She grabbed the man's neck and gave it a savage twist, instantly breaking it. Throwing the body to the ground she drove through the ranks of the foot soldiers, scattering them and killing two more in the process.

Two of the men ran forward to take on Gabrielle. She dropped and took the legs out from one and then brought the staff up and connected with the jaw of the other. Spinning around, she swept the staff across the head of the soldier struggling to get up. He sat back down with a thump.

"All right, Gabrielle," Antipany said with approval, still perched on Circe.

"We could use a little help here, Antipany," the bard panted as another mercenary ran toward them.

"But you're doing so well..." Antipany's hands began to glow as the soldier ran by Gabrielle and headed for Circe.

Xena vaulted off the horse and immediately found herself surrounded by four men. They paused as a look of wicked delight crossed her features. "Come on boys," she coaxed. "Come to mama."

Antipany had brought her hands up to fire off a bolt of energy when Gabrielle swung around and clipped the charging soldier in the back sending him crashing into Circe. The little pony shied away, effectively unseating her mistress. Startled, Antipany shot off a huge, wayward bolt of energy that sheared off a large branch from a nearby oak.

There was a loud crack and everyone looked up just in time to see the massive branch come hurtling down on their heads. When the dust cleared, no one moved as Gabrielle and Antipany looked on in stunned silence. Then the leaves rustled and one very angry warrior princess stood up, shaking the leaves out of her hair. Her eyes fixed on Antipany, she brushed the debris off her shoulders, picked a small branch out of her cleavage and stalked over to where the sorceress was sitting.

"It's not my fault!" Antipany protested, scooting backwards as fast as her bulky cloak would allow.

Gabrielle hastily inserted herself between the two women. "She's right, Xena. It was my fault. I caused Circe to move." She absently picked off a few more leaves and brushed at the warrior's leathers.

Xena stopped and glowered over Gabrielle's shoulder at the sorceress for a moment, then turned and growled at the three mercenaries at her feet. Taking that as an invitation to depart, the three scampered to their feet and ran away. Stalking back over to the downed branch, she reached in and hauled out a body, then threw him over to the side. Reaching back in she hauled out another, this time with a grunt of satisfaction as she found the leader of the mercenaries. She dragged him out of the debris and watched patiently as he shook his head groggily.

When he glanced up at her she suddenly reached down and stabbed both sides of his neck with her fingers. He stiffened and looked bewildered as a small trickle of blood came out of one nostril.

"No blood, no brain," she explained. "You have thirty seconds to tell me what I want to know or you die."

He gulped and nodded.

"Who sent you?"

"Carnus of Larissa," he gasped.

She scowled. "What does a merchant want with the books?"

He looked up at her in agony. "I don't know. He paid me to delay you. Any... way... possible..." His eyes began to glaze over.

Xena reached down and poked the man in the neck. He relaxed with a sigh of relief. "Is it my imagination or are the scum getting scummier these days?" she asked before laying him out with a hard right cross. "Let's get moving." She mounted Argo and offered a hand to the bard.

Antipany looked around. "What about these guys? Won't they just come after us again?"

"I doubt even they are that stupid. They did what they were paid to do." She urged Argo on.

Antipany sighed as her pony nudged her. "I'm coming, I'm coming." She scratched Circe's forehead. "You should remember who feeds you," she scolded. "You never come that fast when I whistle." She mounted up and rode to catch up.

They camped that evening at the base of a mountain. After dinner Antipany went to wash the cooking utensils at a nearby stream. Xena sat on a log cleaning and sharpening her sword while Gabrielle made a few notations on some parchment. The vigor with which Xena was wielding the soapstone told Gabrielle just how angry she was. Every now and then the bard would glance over to her companion only to receive the same aggrieved look. Sighing, she put down her parchment and wandered over to the warrior.

"Antipany will be useful, Xena. Eventually," Gabrielle said with more hope than conviction.

Xena's hands stilled for a moment and she stared at her companion. "You are irritating sometimes, you know it?"

Gabrielle's brow furrowed and she knelt down between Xena's legs. Resting an elbow on each of the warrior's knees she asked, "If I'm so irritating, why do you keep me around?" She snapped her fingers. "I know! You'd perish without my cooking."

"I can cook, Gabrielle. At least enough to survive."

"What you do to good food is called a crime, not cooking, Xena. There's something to be said for the quality of life."

Xena shook her head. "No, I don't keep you around for your cooking." She cocked her head. "And it sure isn't for your snoring." Her face was carefully neutral. "Why do I keep you around?"

Gabrielle's eyes narrowed and a slight smile appeared. "Must be my stories then. You need entertainment on the road."

"You're always entertaining," Xena conceded. "But no, that's not why." A warm gleam appeared in the sky blue eyes.

Suddenly sober, Gabrielle looked at her friend. "Would it be because I'd follow you to Tartarus and live there happily with you if that were your fate?"

Xena sighed and bent forward to touch foreheads with her companion. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. We do need Antipany and I need you."

Gabrielle grinned, "Thanks."

She caught Gabrielle's arm as she started to rise. "Now why do you keep me around?" Gabrielle sank back to her knees considering the question.

"I know," Xena said, "it's for my conversational skills."

"Nooo, I don't really think so."

"My pleasant, even temperament?"

"Not even close," Gabrielle said dryly.

Xena stared intently into her companion's eyes. "Because not even Hades can keep me out of the Elysian Fields if you're there?" And was rewarded by a wide, warm smile. The clanging of pots announced the imminent arrival of Antipany.

"I love you, Xena," the bard whispered. With peace restored Gabrielle kissed her companion and went back to her parchment.

Antipany dropped her load of dishes and sat down with a groan. "I still can't see the wonder of camping out. A hard lumpy bed on the ground, insects providing the only meat in your food, and best of all those wonderful leaves to scratch the Tartarus out of your rear end."

"Parchment works well for that," Xena commented as she continued to sharpen her sword. "Gabrielle has some very soft pieces." The bard's head shot up from her text.

"Don't even think it," she warned Antipany, clutching her scroll to her chest.

Antipany shrugged. "Relax Gabrielle. I won't touch your scrolls." She thought for a moment then reached into her cloak and pulled out a scroll. "I brought my own wiping parchment. Some guy named Sappho..." It was snatched out of her hand before she could finish.

"Sappho's a woman, you... you Philistine," Gabrielle exclaimed.

"I'd be insulted if I knew what that meant, wouldn't I?" Antipany asked Xena, who nodded in confirmation. "So Sappho's a woman. Well, that certainly gives new meaning to those words." She exchanged an amused glance with the warrior. "Not to change the subject but why would a man who has more dinars than Zeus want with obscure old prophesies?"

Xena shrugged. "A man like that never has enough. He obviously thinks the books have some value or he wouldn't be after them." A coldness settled on her features. "But he's not going to get them. If we can get there before his men do, we can make him see it's not worth his time."

"What makes you think we can?"

Xena smiled, the coldness never leaving her eyes. "Because we're taking a shortcut."

"Why does that always sound so ominous when you say it?" grumbled the sorceress as she settled down to sleep.

The next morning they rode slowly along the base of the mountain searching for a path to take them up. Xena finally shook her head in frustration. "I know it's here," she said. She searched the face of the mountain. The grass and rocks stretched up as far as they could see, broken only by an occasional tree.

Antipany looked at her in surprise. "Aren't you following the signs?" she asked.

Xena stared at her, loath to admit she didn't see a thing out of the ordinary. "What signs?" she finally asked.

"Those signs," the sorceress said impatiently, waving a hand at some rocks. "The ones that point up that way." She pointed up the mountain, then paused. "Oh, you can't see them, can you? They were probably set by another sorcerer." She dismounted and walked up to some stones. Murmuring a few words, the stones glowed and revealed a mark pointing in an upward direction. "There's more," she announced, scanning the mountainside, "but it looks like we're going to have to climb a little."

Xena felt a movement behind her. "Gloating doesn't become you Gabrielle," she said softly.

"Now Xena, I would never say I told you so," said the bard, "even if I did. Telamedes knew her ability to see illusions would come in handy."

They left the horses to graze in the meadow. Taking some provisions, they hid the saddlebags and proceeded to follow the gentle incline up past markers which the sorceress insisted were there until they came to a sheer rock face which even Xena would have been hard pressed to climb.

The women stopped to rest and take a little nourishment before continuing. Xena opened the bag Gabrielle had been carrying and took out bread and cheese. Then a frown creased her face as she took out five hand sized rocks. "What are these?" she asked.

The bard settled down by her side and picked one up. "Aren't they unusual, Xena? I picked them up while we were climbing."

"They're rocks, Gabrielle."

"I know that. But look at the colors and the striations and the shapes. That one could be a flower and that one a wolf's head, and that one..."

"They're heavy. You don't need to be carrying the extra weight."

Antipany laughed. "Give it up, Gabrielle. All she'll ever see is a rock."

Xena looked unruffled. "What do you see?" she asked.

"A pile of rocks," the sorceress admitted. Gabrielle shook her head sadly and waited until Xena had moved away before covertly placing the rocks back into the pouch. Packing up, they stood for a while, staring at the rock face.

"What do your signs say now?" Xena asked.

Antipany shrugged. "Enter here," she replied, then disappeared through the rock face.

"An illusion," Xena said in resignation. "Should have known. Did I ever tell you..."

"...how much you hate sorcerers?" the bard finished. "Yes. Many, many, many times. Shall we go?" Trying hard to quash a sense of impending doom, she placed a hand on Xena's back and followed the warrior through the illusion.

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Chapter 2

They found themselves in a brightly lit, small cavern. The first thing Gabrielle noticed was the tunnel leading out at the back of the cave. The second thing that caught her attention was the pile of bones by the wall they had just walked through.

"Your lights?" Xena asked the sorceress, pointing to the brightly burning torches lined around the cavern and back in the tunnel.

"Nope," Antipany replied. "They lit up when I came through. Someone knows we're here, princess. By the way, we can't go back the way we came. The opening has been sealed."

Gabrielle tried to put her hand through and met solid rock. "Guess we go through the tunnel, huh?"

Xena smiled cheerfully. "Guess so." She strode off to the tunnel.

Antipany put her arm around the bard's shoulder. "Tell me again why you stay with her," she asked as they walked toward the tunnel.

Before Gabrielle could answer, the floor of the cavern began to shake, throwing them to the ground. And suddenly there was no ground at all as a chasm opened up beneath them. Acting on instinct, Xena launched herself into the air, somersaulting toward the tunnel. She fell a bit short, but managed to catch the edge of the chasm with her fingertips. The dirt crumbled under her fingers and she scrabbled desperately, trying to find safe purchase. Finally her feet found a small ledge and she held on, noting that even with her keen hearing she still hadn't heard the loose dirt hit bottom. All she heard was a faint moaning sound coming from the depths. With a determined yell she launched herself into a flip and landed in a squat on the lip of the chasm, teetering on the edge. Propelling herself forward with her arms, she stood and whirled, calling out, "Gabrielle!"

Xena stopped, her eyebrow raised at the sight before her. Antipany floated in the middle of the chasm, her eyes shut tight, arms outstretched, softly chanting for all she was worth. Gabrielle hung from the hem of Antipany's cloak.

"Gabrielle," the warrior called softly. "Can you swing over here a little closer and I'll pull you in."

"I... I don't think we can move, Xena, and I sure don't want to distract Antipany in any way."

Sweat poured off the sorceress' brow, and the chanting continued at a fevered pace. It was a lost cause. Slowly the pair began to sink into the dark, cold depths. Xena grabbed her whip and as she drew back, the lights went out.

"Gabrielle," she snapped, "talk to me."

"Gosh, Xena," came the shaky reply out of the darkness. "You sure pick strange times to want to talk things out..." The whip cracked and wrapped itself around a body part.

"Owww," someone yelled and Xena hung on for dear life as the whip suddenly jerked downward. There was a thump as bodies hit the side of the chasm. The warrior pulled up on the whip, then reached down and grabbed a handful of cloak. Pulling the sorceress up over the edge with one hand, she reached down and after a little fumbling grabbed a handful of skimpy green top with the other. One powerful tug propelled the bard up over the edge and onto Xena's lap.

Gabrielle wrapped relieved arms around her companion's neck and hugged her thankfully. Xena let out a sigh of relief and returned the embrace. "Gabrielle, as much as I love those magnificent abs of yours, we're going to have to get you something a little more substantial to wear. I had trouble finding something to grab on to. You don't even have love handles... at least on your back." She stroked the bard's trembling form until the shaking passed and they sat holding each other in the blackness.

Finally Gabrielle lifted her head and felt around with her hand. "Where's Antipany?" she asked. Her hand touched a piece of cloth and she followed it up to a shoulder and then a face.

"I'm here," came a soft, tired voice under her hand. "Would you please turn on the lights." The torches flared into life revealing the sorceress lying on the ground and Xena sitting next to her with Gabrielle in her lap.

"Boy, that's service," said the bard. They stared at the hole that took up nearly the entire cave. As they watched, the hole began to close and soon there was no evidence that a chasm had ever existed.

"Another illusion?" Xena asked, her brow furrowed.

Antipany sat up and sighed. "Yes, but whoever created this is far more skillful than me."

"You seem to have developed some new tricks since the last time we saw you," Xena observed. "Why did you just hang up there, instead of coming over to the edge?"

"The 'trick', as you so quaintly call it, is levitation, not flying. And the reason you never saw it is because it requires your feet to leave the ground. You know how I hate heights." Her head dropped. "Dear Zeus, I'm tired."

Xena rose to her feet, taking her companion with her. "I know what levitation is. I managed to do it once or twice myself." She looked lost in thought. "A long time ago. I even flew around a little too."

Antipany raised her head. "Of course you did," she said dryly.

Giving Gabrielle one last hug, Xena released her and reached down to help the sorceress to her feet. "It takes a control I never could manage to keep." She placed her hands on Antipany's shoulders. "You saved Gabrielle's life, I owe you for that."

Antipany held up a weary hand. "Don't hug me princess. I think I've suffered enough indignities on this trip."

Wrapping a long arm around Antipany's shoulders, Xena pulled her down the tunnel. "Oh, you haven't seen nothin' yet," she said with a wolfish grin.

Antipany groaned. "Please let me rest a while, Xena. I can't go on..."

"No time to rest yet. We have to go."

"Xena," Gabrielle protested. But the warrior continued to walk down the tunnel, dragging the sorceress along with her, holding her up when she stumbled in her fatigue. When they reached a part of the tunnel that took a hard right turn, Antipany pushed away from the warrior and stared at the wall.

"It's here," she announced. Her companions stared at a nondescript dirt wall and exchanged glances.

"Another illusion?" Xena asked.

"Yes," replied the sorceress. "Now let's get out of here." She walked swiftly into the wall, then sat down with a thump as her face contacted the solid rock. "Oww," she howled, holding her bloody nose. Tears rolled down her face as she turned bewildered, pain-filled brown eyes to Xena.

Xena sighed and knelt down, putting some pressure to the base of Antipany's head and tilted her head back. Taking a cloth, she gently wiped the blood away and pinched her nose. "You know, Antipany," she said in a conversational tone, "even a warrior knows not to lead with her face."

Antipany slapped the warrior's hand away and turned to Gabrielle for comfort. "Did I ever tell you how much I hate warriors?" she sniffed, leaning against the bard's chest. "Tartarus take you, Xena. I'm not moving from here until I get a nap." Then her eyes glazed over and she hurled herself into the waiting arms of Morpheus.

Gabrielle settled down with her back leaning against the wall, Antipany's head cradled in her lap. "I think this is as far as we go, Xena." She yawned. "I'm a little tired myself."

Xena looked around impatiently. "All right. You stay here with Antipany and I'll scout ahead and see where the tunnel leads. Don't move from here."

"We won't," Gabrielle promised. "Be careful." She watched Xena walk down the tunnel and disappear around another bend. Resting her head against the wall, she tried to keep alert but soon found herself drifting off. As she sauntered toward Morpheus' realm she composed a poem, saved the world from certain destruction, had the most incredible romantic interlude with... and remembered no more, finally succumbing to Morpheus' insistent touch.

When she woke Xena was sitting nearby, patiently waiting for her companions to return to wakefulness. "Have a good sleep?" she asked.

"Oh, yeah," replied the bard with a dreamy smile. At the warrior's upraised eyebrow, she cleared her throat and wiped at her eyes. "What did you find?" she asked.

"This tunnel is a maze. There's a few bones, but no way out. It seems others have tried this shortcut. It's pretty clever. Lure us in, then don't give us any way out. Takes care of all those people who would want to steal the books. Let's wake up your friend here and see if she has any ideas." Xena gave Antipany a nudge. When she didn't respond a cold gleam came to the warrior's eyes.

Gabrielle hastily held up a hand. "Let me try, Xena." She leaned down and whispered in the sleeping woman's ear. Antipany's eyes flew open.

"She wouldn't dare," the sorceress sputtered, sitting up. One look at Xena's face told her otherwise. "You really are a barbarian," she informed the warrior.

"Comes in handy sometimes," Xena replied coolly. "Tell us about this wall Antipany."

Antipany studied the wall then shook her head. "If I hadn't been so tired earlier," throwing Xena a reproachful look, "I wouldn't have tried to just walk through. The top line says 'This way out' then there's some writing I don't understand." She bent down and scribbled in the dirt. "This is what it says."

Gabrielle studied the writing. "I think I can translate it. It looks like an older version of Latin. It says,

One head, four eyes

Look behind, look ahead

Say my name

Or you'll be fish"

She looked up in confusion. "Fish?"

Antipany looked at the wall again. "Oops." She rubbed out the symbol and replaced it with another.

"Dead. Say my name or you'll be dead. Not much of a poet was he." She looked at the sorceress again.

"That's what it says. I just see it, I don't read it. Don't ask me what it means."

Gabrielle looked at the writing again. "What's Latin doing here?"

The warrior's brow furrowed. "I thought that was a dead language."

"You wish."

"It will be if I have anything to say about it," Xena said grimly.

"If I remember the stories right the Romans have a god with two faces. One points to the east and the other to the west. Something to do with gates, I think," Gabrielle continued.

"What's that indentation in the wall?" asked the sorceress

Xena studied the wall then reached up and brushed gently at the shallow hole. "It looks like a picture of some kind. Hmm... a face maybe." She bit her lip. "Great, just great."

"What's the matter?" Gabrielle asked.

"It's a lock, and we don't have the key," she said grimly.

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Chapter 3

They sat on the dirt floor trying to decide on their next move. Gabrielle finally threw up her hands and announced, "I'm hungry, let's have a snack." She grabbed her bag and dumped the contents on the ground. Gathering some olives, cheese and bread, she passed the fare around.

Xena's attention was fixed on the five stones Gabrielle had dumped from her bag. "Gabrielle, those rocks..."

Gabrielle looked guiltily at her companion. "Now, Xena, I know you told me to get rid of them but I couldn't. Please don't be upset."

Xena stared at her then took the bard's face in her hands and kissed her passionately. Releasing her startled friend she grabbed the stones and began to examine them. "Upset? Why should I be upset? I think you just saved our lives."

"Remind me never to do that," Antipany said to Gabrielle, who sat with a silly grin on her face, not looking the least bit offended. She humphed then watched Xena try to rub some of the dirt off the stones before reaching into her cloak and withdrawing a small brush. "Maybe this will help, princess."

"Did you bring the market, Antipany?" Taking the brush, Xena cleaned the surfaces of the rocks. "They're all about the same. Two faces, one looking right, the other left." She stood up and brushed out the impression in the rock wall. Holding up each rock, she compared it to the impression. Finally she chose one and started to insert it into the wall.

"Be careful, Xena," Antipany warned. "Put in the wrong one and we may never get out of here."

"I'm never wrong," Xena said matter-of-factly, inserting the rock into the depression.

"Of course you're not," murmured the sorceress.

"She's not," Gabrielle confirmed. "Although.... sometimes the rest of the world is." The rock melted into the wall and disappeared. "Janus," commanded the bard. They waited. And waited, getting more uneasy as the minutes passed. Antipany was starting to make rude noises when she suddenly fell silent.

"What happened?" Xena asked suspiciously.

"The happiest day of my life will be when I can finally say you're wrong," came the resigned reply, then the sorceress disappeared through the wall. Xena grinned at her companion and escorted her through the rock face.

And ran into the back of Antipany who was standing frozen in front of the opening. "What the..." muttered Xena, pushing the silent figure aside. Then she saw what Antipany was gawking at. At the front of the group was a priestess in a long white robe and behind her stood three attendants similarly attired. But what caught the warrior's attention was the two temple guards. Seven and half feet tall, bulging muscles, full black beards and long black hair. Even more impressive were their coal black eyes. Antipany instinctively ducked in behind Xena while Gabrielle moved up to her side. Xena's hand started for her sword.

The priestess was an older woman with long snow-white hair pulled back into a braid. Piercing hazel eyes regarded them calmly. "Hold warrior," she said in a commanding voice. "There is no need for violence here. We are not your enemies."

"That remains to be seen," Xena replied coolly, pushing Gabrielle back a step. However her hand fell to her side, sword undrawn.

"My name is Herophile. And you, warrior, are trespassing. Now kindly tell us who are you and more importantly, what do you want?"

"I'm Xena. This is Gabrielle," she said, indicating the bard, who nodded to the priestess. "And that is Antipany," she said pointing back to the sorceress who simply stared in wonder at the guards. "Antipany's husband is Telamedes, a priest of Apollo. We have word that an unscrupulous merchant named Carnus is going to try to steal the books of prophesy and we came to warn you."

Herophile appraised her for a moment. "Why should you care, Xena? Unless you came to steal them yourself." She turned to the temple guard. "Escort our guests to the temple."

As they walked Gabrielle attempted to make conversation with the guards. "Boy, you guys are impressive. Not from these parts are you?" Getting no response didn't deter the bard one moment. "What a remote place to have a temple. Don't get many visitors I'll bet."

The temple was a large, domed structure made of white marble. Impressive columns lined the front. Two massive wooden doors stood open. They were escorted into the cool interior, through several hallways until the guard stopped in front of a door. Pushing open the door, he gestured into the room. "You'll stay here. Dinner will served in an hour. You are not allowed out without an escort," he warned.

They filed into the windowless room and looked around. Slits along one wall allowed sunlight to filter in. It was sparsely furnished with a couple of chairs and tables, a large sleeping pallet in one corner, and a basin with a pitcher of water sitting by it on a stand. Antipany threw herself on the pallet. "Well, that was certainly interesting. How do you suppose Herophile ended up here, princess?"

"Do you know her?" Xena asked.

"I know about her. Being married to a priest of Apollo has its advantages." She sat up on the pallet. "She's a sibyl, an oracle of Apollo. But what I can't figure out is what she's doing here. She supposedly died years ago." Antipany scowled at the warrior. "Doesn't anyone know how to stay dead in this world?" she asked with a sigh.

Gabrielle turned to her friend. "She doesn't look very dead to me. I'm a little confused here, Xena. If she's a sibyl then she already knows the books are in danger. And those temple guards of hers can handle any threat to the books. So what are we doing here?"

Xena shrugged. "Guess we'll find out at the evening meal."

Dinner was served in an elegant dining room. Marble columns lined the walls and a long marble dining table graced the center of the room. Herophile sat at the head of the table with Xena on her right. A young acolyte, Hygea, sat on her left. The small blonde regarded the warrior across from her with silent awe throughout the meal.

Antipany sat between Hygea and another dark haired priestess named Demo. The reserved priestess picked at her food as she talked to the sorceress. "You're the first visitors to make it through the cave since I've been here. How did you do it?"

"It wasn't too difficult. Although it would have taken me a little longer without Gabrielle's excellent translation, and of course Xena's menial skills." the sorceress replied taking a bite of food. "The traps were interesting and vaguely familiar. Who set it up for you?"

"Oh, I know!" exclaimed an excited, red headed acolyte named Ionea sitting next to Gabrielle. "It was Maxius!"

Antipany inhaled sharply, then a look of bewilderment passed over her face. Frantically she grabbed her throat and her face took on a slightly bluish tinge. Quickly assessing the situation, Xena moved around the table and slapped the sorceress between the shoulder blades. Which caused her upper abdomen to strike forcefully against the edge of the table and a piece of lamb flew out of her mouth, landing in her plate. Sucking in great gulps of air, her color gradually passed from blue to red to its normal pale color.

Xena motioned everyone to sit down. "She's all right. It happens when all that hot air gets trapped in the lungs. You know, those signs in the cave seemed to be of Roman origin. Was Maxius a Roman?"

"Wasn't Maxius your mentor, Antipany?" asked Gabrielle.

Antipany wiped the tears from her eyes. "Ye... yes, but he wasn't Roman." She thought for a moment. "Maxius was... Well I don't know what he was. He was just old. He'd traveled all over the world." She shifted uncomfortably under Xena's unwavering gaze.

"Really?" Ionea said, running her hand through her unruly red hair. "He's said to have set up the protection for this valley over two hundred years ago, when this temple was built. It seems to have worked rather well. The mountains surrounding us are unscalable and that cave is the only entrance. I don't think more than a handful of outside visitors have been recorded since that time."

"How did you come to be here?" Gabrielle asked.

Ionea shrugged. "We were promised to Apollo as children. My parents brought me to the cave when I was very young. It's the only home I've ever known. Tell us about the world beyond the mountains, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle glanced at Herophile, who nodded her permission. Slipping into bard mode, she soon had a captivated audience of acolytes and priestesses hanging on to her every word.

Herophile waited until everyone was engrossed, then motioned Xena to follow her out into the courtyard. Antipany watched them slip away, then returned her attention to Gabrielle's story.

Xena was led into a torch lit yard with stone benches and bordered with carefully tended flowers and bushes. She walked restlessly around the yard, touching the flowers, searching the darkness for any hint of trouble and finding none. Finally she turned back to the priestess who was watching her impassively.

"You're looking remarkably fit for a dead woman," Xena said.

Herophile smiled. "The reports of my death were a bit premature."

"I had heard no one escaped that siege. What happened?"

"Apollo happened. Just before the city fell he took me away. There are benefits to serving the gods, Xena."

Xena snorted. "Yeah, and a lot of heartache. It's not worth it. All right, Herophile, we were sent by Telamedes. He says you know him."

"We've met. He's a good man."

"Yes, he is. And he's concerned that those books will fall into the wrong hands."

"You are also well known, Xena. I understand why the priest is concerned, but why did you come?" asked the priestess.

"Because I always repay my debts and I always help my friends," Xena replied steadily. "I've turned my life around, Herophile. No more looting, no more war making, no more armies." She gave the priestess a small rueful smile.

"I'm an oracle Xena, I know you've changed. I just don't know how much. As for the cave," she shrugged, "only the worthy make it and not many are worthy. Don't give me that put upon look. You like challenges. The harder they are, the happier it makes you. And I'm about to make you very happy."

"Oh?" Xena raised an interested eyebrow.

"Someone will steal the Books of Prophesy. I already know that and you have told me his name is Carnus. The time is soon, I can feel it. My problem is that the picture is clouded by someone within the temple, who will betray us. I don't know who it is, but my vision tells me you are meant to be here and that's why I'm going to let you stay. Find out who it is and stop them."

"Are the books here?" Xena asked, staring into the darkness.

"Last time I looked. I'm still not sure I trust you, Xena. You say you've changed, my dreams tell me you've changed, but the darkness still roils deep within you. It will surface again."

Xena shook her head. "That part of my life is over, Herophile. Gabrielle keeps me on a steadier course. I won't go back to the darkness."

Herophile looked out into the black night and her eyes lost focus. "Interesting choice of a companion, Xena," she said thickly. "How did you happen to pick her?"

"I didn't," Xena chuckled. "She picked me. I did my best to discourage her from following me, but she can be pretty stubborn." Her eyes narrowed as she watched the oracle stare out into the distance.

Presently the oracle shook her head and turned her attention back to Xena. "Lucky for you, but not so lucky for her. I see trouble ahead, Xena."

"Now there's a news flash," the warrior replied dryly.

Herophile shook her head. "I see a dragon bursting from a volcano. Her fiery breath threatens to consume you but instead of running away you run toward it."

"I think that pretty well describes my whole life, Herophile." Xena said still unimpressed.

"The dragon has Gabrielle's face," said the oracle unperturbed by Xena's skepticism.

Xena stiffened. "Gabrielle could never be my enemy," she said shortly and turned to go back into the temple.

"Xena." Herophile's command stopped the warrior. "Remember your companion is young. Her choices will not always be wise, as yours weren't at that age, but they come from the goodness in her heart."

"You should stay away from those spicy foods," Xena snorted. "Antipany isn't the only one full of hot air tonight."

"It's wise not to dwell on what you can't change," acknowledged the oracle, watching Xena enter the temple. "But ignoring us completely is an arrogance few can afford." She smiled once more at the stars, then sat down and let the visions sweep her away.

Continue to Part 2 (chapters 4-6)

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