by Godot
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.

Part 2
(chapters 4-6)

Chapter 4

The women were led back to their room by their omnipresent guard. Xena shut the door and leaned against it, lost in thought. "All right," she said presently, "the books are here, someone hired by Carnus is out to steal them, and he has help from within the temple. Did you learn anything about the women who live here, Gabrielle?"

"A few things. There are seven others living here besides Herophile and the guards. Two, Dionia and Ariadne, are recent initiates and still quite young. I don't think they're part of the scheme. Demo is second to Herophile and she's something of an enigma. Doesn't talk much and keeps to herself most of the time. Hygea has been here a less than a year. She's pretty shy but quite bright and she sure is quite taken with a certain warrior we all know."

Xena's eyes narrowed in warning. "Just stick with the facts, Gabrielle."

"That is a fact," retorted the bard. "She wanted to hear every story I knew about you. Ionea has been here most of her life. She was left by the cave as a baby and this has been her home ever since. The other two priestess are Semone and Ardenia. They're older women who work in the kitchen and tend the gardens. All of these women seem dedicated to Apollo. I can't imagine any of them plotting to steal the books."

"Neither can Herophile. That's part of the problem. I'm going to take one of our guard friends and have him give me a tour of the temple." She walked back out into the hall to be immediately challenged by a massive guard. Not missing a step, she crooked a finger at him. "Come on big boy, let's take a little tour of this dump."

Antipany shrugged off her cloak, while Gabrielle washed up in preparation for bed. "You were going to tell me why you stay with her. It's not like she needs you now. She'll do this do-gooder stuff whether you tag along or not."

Gabrielle looked up, her face dripping with water. "No, she doesn't need me to do that." She smiled. "But maybe I need her. Why did you marry Telamedes? You two are as different as night and day."

"No accounting for taste is there?" Antipany rolled her cloak up and used it as a pillow. "No wonder Tele was so hot for me to go on this little escapade. He didn't want me to pass up the chance to make brownie points with Apollo. You wouldn't think he'd still be upset about those old laurel trees I accidentally pruned, would you?"

"The gods have long memories, Antipany," Gabrielle sighed. "Ares still hasn't given up on Xena, no matter how many times she rejects him."

She settled down on the pallet and they talked until both drifted off to sleep. Xena didn't return until much later. Quietly she entered the room and quickly washed up, then gently nudged Gabrielle over and settled onto the pallet.

Antipany roused and gave her a disgruntled look. "I thought you preferred the floor, princess. Isn't that a sign of warrior toughness?"

"If you're feeling crowded, Antipany, you sleep on the floor," she retorted softly.

"Much too hard for my delicate frame," Antipany sniffed.

"Then levitate."

"Very funny." Antipany ducked as Gabrielle's arm came flying at her face. "Whoa, gets a little dangerous sleeping next to our restless young friend, doesn't it?"

Xena smiled. "Wait a few minutes. You won't even know she's here." Soon Gabrielle rolled over, tucking herself into the warrior and suddenly there was plenty of room on the pallet. Antipany just shook her head, then reached out and threw a blanket over the pair.

With a sigh, Xena closed her eyes and draped a long arm over her companion, holding her close, her face relaxing into an expression of peace and contentment. Her eyes flew open to find Antipany sitting up, glaring at her.

"What's wrong now?" she asked wearily.

'You don't deserve that peace," Antipany said, her voice full of resentment.

"I thought you forgave me?"

"Oh, I did. I don't want to see you dead anymore. But I don't want to see you happy either. My family died because of you and I'll never forget that. You don't deserve happiness, you don't deserve peace, and you certainly don't deserve her," Antipany hissed, indicating the sleeping bard. She flopped back on the bed and turned to the wall. If she had bothered to look at the warrior, she would have at least had the satisfaction of seeing Xena's jaw tighten and the impassive expression return before she turned to blow out the remaining candle.

Xena lay on her back and considered the darkness . But her brief moment of peace and contentment had been crushed under the burden of Antipany's resentment. At Gabrielle's soft murmur of protest, she willed her body to relax and turned once again to cradle her sleeping companion.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ionea could hardly contain her excitement. She lay in bed thinking of all the stories she had just heard, all the places she had never visited, all the wonders she had never seen. She nudged the woman beside her. "Hygea, are you awake?"

"I am now," came the sleepy reply. "What do you want?"

"Wasn't that wonderful! I wonder what it would be like to visit Athens, sail on a ship, see a giant. There's so much to do out there." She sighed.

"You wouldn't last two days out there," Hygea retorted. "I've been there and believe me it's much better here." She turned over, now wide awake. "Although that warrior was pretty impressive."

"I'm going to see those places," Ionea said dreamily. "Soon."

Hygea rolled back over, "Keep dreaming, Ionea. Herophile has already said you had to stay."

"There's no reason for me to stay here. I don't have visions like the rest of you. All I'm good for is to help in the kitchen and the gardens. There's got to more to life than that."

Hygea snorted.. "Not for you, now go to sleep."

But Ionea was much too excited to sleep.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

She sat in front of the fire soaking her aching feet in a pan of warm water, a cup of steaming tea sat on the table next to her chair and a woolen shawl covered her tired shoulders. Sighing in contentment she picked up the cup and took a sip. Suddenly the door of her home flew open and three strangers burst in and hauled her to her feet. The pan of water tipped over splashing its contents all over the floor. "It's time to go," one of the strangers snarled. "Why?" she asked bewildered. They didn't answer, just dragged her to the door. "I can't leave here," she wailed to no avail. They laughed and threw her out into the dark, cold night, slamming the door behind her. She screamed, but there was no one around to hear her cry.

"Semone!" A gentle hand shook her shoulder. "Wake up! Come on old woman, wake up."

Semone moaned and slowly opened frightened eyes. She shook her head and sighed. "I had the dream again, Ardenia. It won't be long now."

Ardenia gave a weary sigh. "You've had that same dream for the last ten years. I have no doubt it will some day come true, but not tonight. Go back to sleep."

"But the strangers have come," Semone protested.

"No one is going to hurt you," Ardenia retorted vehemently. "Herophile won't allow it. I won't allow it." Her head sank back into her pillow. "But the strangers are up to something. There is more to that warrior than she lets on. I can feel it." She shifted uneasily then turned and wrapped a protective arm around her gray haired friend. "We have an early day tomorrow, please go to sleep," she pleaded.

"Thank you, Ardenia," Semone said contritely. She snuggled closer to her friend but the dream came with regularity these days and not even the soothing comfort of a forty year old friendship could quell her growing panic.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Antipany woke early the next morning with an urgent need to pee. The night sky was just beginning to turn to dawn, and the room barely had enough light to make out the door. The forms next to her didn't move as she slid out the end of the bed and made her way to the hall. Two guards stood at alert attention outside the door and they scowled at her as she slipped between them.

But Antipany was in a foul mood herself and even the ferocious countenances of the two men could inspire no more than irritation in the sorceress. "Save it for someone who cares," she snapped walking down the hall, one of the guards trailing behind her. Abruptly she turned around, ramming into the stomach of the guard. Hands on hips, she glared up at the now totally bewildered man. "You know what really makes me mad? I feel bad about saying those things to her. She murders my brothers and I feel bad. Does that make sense?" She threw up her hands and turned back. "Boy, am I one messed up magic maker." The guard couldn't have agreed with her more.

Xena propped herself up on one elbow, unwilling to remove herself from the young body comforting her, and listened to the soft snoring of her companion. Finally she sighed and gently shook the sleeping bard. "Wake up, Gabrielle, we need to get going." Gabrielle grunted and turned over. Xena shook her head ruefully and hauled the bard up into a sitting position against the wall at the head of the pallet. Slowly she started to slide back down.

"Oh no you don't," Xena said, hiking her back up, then sitting down on the pallet beside her. "Come on, Gabrielle, we have some thieves to catch. Wakey, wakey."

"Hmmmph," mumbled her companion, reaching down to grab the blanket and throw it over them. Then she turned into Xena's chest and began to snore once more.

"Gabrielle," the warrior sighed, "you're the only person I know who can sleep standing up, sitting up, or on your head." She rested against the wall and gently kissed the bard's head.

Antipany stomped back into the room. "Nice to see you two finally awake." She paused and peered at the bard. "Well, at least one of you is awake. I see Gabrielle is her usual somnolent self this morning." She climbed back onto the pallet and reached for her cloak. "So what's the plan, princess?" she asked, slipping into her cloak, then sitting on the bed.

Xena regarded her impassively. "I'm going to investigate outside and see if our friendly thieves have arrived yet. You and Gabrielle, when you get her awake, can talk to the women and see if you can figure out which one is the traitor. Oh, and find out where the books are kept."

"I'm awake," Gabrielle mumbled from her comfortable pillow against Xena's chest.

"What do you want the books for, princess?" Antipany asked, eyes narrowing. "In fact, what are you doing here? We don't need your help."

"Telamedes thought you did."

"My husband thinks you can do no wrong," muttered the sorceress. "I know better. You aren't telling me everything, are you?"

Gabrielle sat up and rubbed her eyes. "Now, Antipany..." she began.

"I tell you what you need to know," interrupted Xena. "You couldn't handle any more than that. Telamedes knows you very well."

Gabrielle's head snapped around. "Now, Xena..."

"You don't trust me! After all I've done for you and you still don't trust me!" Antipany sputtered. "Well, you ignorant daughter of a basilisk, I don't trust you either. What do really want with those texts, Xena? Are you out to steal them yourself?"

Head swiveling to Antipany, Gabrielle said, "Antipany..."

"What exactly have you done for me, Antipany, besides try to kill me a few times, not to mention putting Gabrielle's life in danger more times than I can count." Xena growled, leaning over her companion to make her point.

Gabrielle put her head in her hands. "Xena..."

"I would've done the world a big favor if I had succeeded," Antipany retorted. "Killing Xena, not you," she added, patting the bard's shoulder.

"Gee, thanks, but..." the bard never got to finish.

"Well, it's too late now. I told you before, you'd never have another chance. But I'll be glad to toss you back into the cave." The warrior's voice deepened with implied threats.

Gabrielle sighed and slowly slipped under the blanket.

"And leave you free to steal the sacred texts?" Antipany snorted. "I don't think so princess. You haven't changed at all."

Xena leaned close, her eyes cold. "Why didn't you tell us your mentor was a Roman, Antipany?"

Antipany started at the sudden change in topic. "I don't know that he is a Roman, Xena. Maxius never told me where he was from and it never mattered to me." Her voice got angrier. "Don't try to change the subject, princess. Those prophecies are worth their weight in gold to those who can interpret them."

"Antipany, I've had enough of you." The warrior's hand clenched. "I'm going..." Suddenly her eyes widened and she gasped, clutching the blanket to her chest as her body jerked. She raised the cover and peered underneath. "Gabrielle, wha... what are you doing?"

"Trying to get your attention," came the muffled reply. "How am I doing?"

"Apparently quite well," said a baffled Antipany, noting the quickening of the warrior's breath and the sudden loss of focus in her eyes. She reached for the blanket. "What's going on under there?"

Xena slapped the blanket from the sorceress' hand. "Never mind," she said thickly. A barely audible gasp escaped from her lips as her body tensed. "Antipany, get out of here, now!"

"Are you kidding!" Antipany grabbed for the blanket. "This is just getting interesting."

Struggling for some vestige of self-control, Xena slapped a restraining hand on the lump underneath the blanket. "Ooomph," went the blanket. She grabbed Antipany's wrist with the other hand and her eyes bored into the recalcitrant sorceress. "Go relieve yourself, Antipany!"

"I just went," Antipany protested. But her kidneys took notice of the icy blue eyes, the deadly threat in the voice. Kicking into overdrive, they poured golden fluid into their reservoir, and in no time her bladder was trumpeting an urgent call to empty. "How do you do that?" Antipany grumbled as she climbed off of the bed and headed to the door.

"She has many skills," called out the blanket.

"Yeah, yeah." Antipany waved a disgusted hand at the bed before yanking open the door. As she slammed the door behind her, she heard a deep throaty voice say, "Well, now that you have my undivided attention..."

And the blanket snickered.

Antipany glared at the inquiring looks of the guards. "Yes, I have to go again, you want to make something of it?" Apparently they didn't. One fell in behind her as she made her way up the hall.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chapter 5

"I can't believe you did that, Xena. There must have been another way," Gabrielle said as she reached for her clothes.

"I couldn't let the opportunity slip by, Gabrielle. I promised Telamedes I'd take care of it and I did. Now we need to find Carnus' men and get out of here before we're discovered."

Xena quickly jammed her feet into her boots, readjusted her leathers, and slipped on her armor. She turned an impatient eye to her companion, who was struggling into her skirt. "Hurry it up, Gabrielle, we should have been out of here long ago." She yanked open the door and started out into the hall.

"Hey, wait up Xena," her companion called, grabbing her boots and dashing after her.

"Any problems?" Xena asked the burly guard. He shook his head. "Come on then, let's go hunting," she said with relish, starting down the hall in eager anticipation. She turned back to the bard who appeared by her side. "Put your boots on, Gabrielle." She raised an eyebrow at Gabrielle's sudden look of ire. "Now what?"

Gabrielle leaned against the wall and put on her boots. "You know Xena, I wish you'd at least talk to me before..." A noise came from somewhere in the temple.

"Listen!" Xena ordered, holding up her hand. The noise came again.

Gabrielle's eyes widened. "That sounded like a..."

"Scream," the warrior finished grimly. She took off running, with Gabrielle and the guard right behind.

They pelted down the hall, through the sanctuary and into another hall, the screams getting louder as they ran. Other women joined them until by the time they found the source of the screaming, most of the temple's occupants were gathered at the doorway of the library. Cautioning everyone to stay in the hall, the pair entered and shut the library door.

The room was in shambles. Demo was trying to quiet a hysterical Ionea. Herophile and a guard were on their knees examining a prone, unmoving Hygea. A large text case had been overturned and covered most of the acolyte's back. Scrolls and texts were scattered all over the room. Antipany sat on the floor holding her head. She glanced up when Xena entered and groaned. "It wasn't my fault," she protested before the warrior could say a word.

Shaking her head, Xena knelt by Hygea. "She's dead," said Herophile helplessly. "I knew something evil was going to happen and I couldn't do anything about it."

"What happened?" Xena asked as she examined the body. She moved the blood soaked blond hair and felt the back of Hygea's head. There was a depression that moved under her probing fingers.

"I don't know," replied the oracle. "We heard screaming, and when we ran in, we found Ionea in the doorway, screaming and your friend bending over Hygea's body." She turned to the young acolyte. "Ionea, that's enough!" The loud wailing became gentle sobbing against Demo's chest. "Take her to her room, Demo. We'll talk to her when she settles down." The pair left the room.

Xena stood up and stared at the wall. "Where does that opening lead to?" pointing to the hole in the wall.

"There's a series of caverns leading down into the mountain. As far as I know there's no exit. They put up the bookcases long before I came to keep the youngsters from exploring the caves. It's easy to get lost down there. There's also an entrance from the kitchen. We use some of the caverns for storage."

Taking a torch from its stand, Xena entered the hole and soon the light from her torch disappeared. Gabrielle stood at the entrance anxiously awaiting her return, giving a relieved sigh when torch light reappeared.

Xena stepped back through the opening, laying a reassuring hand on her companion's shoulder. "Herophile, get a couple of guards down there. Someone has left in a great big hurry and they've left a trail a blind man can follow."

Two guards grabbed up some torches and squeezed through the opening. Xena turned to Antipany. "What did you do?" she asked quietly.

"Nothing! Much." She dropped her gaze. "Look, I was just doing what you told me to. I was hunting for the texts." She rubbed the side of her head and looked back up at the warrior. "I was looking around and heard a noise coming from the library, so I looked in and saw Hygea on the floor and someone in a brown cloak was bending over her. I was getting ready to hit the guy with a bolt when someone hit me over the head. When I woke up, I was laying next to Hygea and someone was making a god awful racket. I was checking to see if she was alive when Herophile ran in."

"What makes you think the figure was a man?" Xena asked.

Antipany thought for a minute. "I don't know," she finally admitted. "If it wasn't a man, then it was pretty tall woman. The hood was up and I didn't see his... or her face. Do you own any brown cloaks, princess?"

"You're not helping yourself here," Gabrielle warned.

Xena walked over to the bookcase and hoisted it up to a standing position. There was a burn mark on one of the case walls. "This is yours, I assume," she said, pointing to the burns.

"Yeah," the sorceress admitted. "It kind of went astray when I got popped on the head."

"Maybe there's a simpler explanation," said Herophile, staring at the sorceress coldly. "You were in the library looking for the sacred texts, Hygea interrupted you and you killed her by dumping the bookcase over on her."

Xena looked at the astonished sorceress. "Sounds good to me," she said cheerfully turning for the door. "Let's go home, Gabrielle."

"Princess!" Antipany protested in a panic. "You can't leave me here. I didn't do anything!"

Xena crooked an eyebrow at her companion. "I suppose you want to stay."

"I suppose so," Gabrielle smiled tolerantly. "There are a few loose ends we need to clear up."

"Like what?"

"Like who's down there in the caverns, what was Hygea doing in here so early in the morning, who's the person in the brown cloak..."

"Assuming there is such a person," Xena said dryly.

"The bookcase didn't kill the girl, did it, Xena?"

"Very good, Gabrielle." Xena said grimly. "It didn't hit her head, just her back." She knelt by the body and moved the torn robes aside to expose her back. "See this line where the top of the bookcase fell across her shoulders, the little breaks in the skin? There's hardly any bleeding. She was dead before the bookcase fell on her."

"See," Antipany exclaimed. "I didn't kill her!"

"Not with the bookcase, anyway," Xena retorted. "Where's your guard, Antipany?"

"What guard?"

"The one who followed you when you left the room this morning."

"Oh, that guard." Antipany appeared to be thinking hard. Finally she shrugged. "Last time I saw him he was staring at this cute little ball with brightly colored lights spinning in the air..."

"You didn't!" exclaimed the bard. "You mesmerized him?"

"Well, it's hard to be stealthy with feet as big as his following you around," she said defensively. "He'll be all right. I'm getting better at this, you know. Just take the ball away and he'll snap right out of it." She paused. "I hope."

Herophile glared at them. "There's one other problem, Xena. The sacred texts are missing."

"Missing? How do you know... You mean you actually kept valuable texts in the library?" Xena asked.

"Of course we kept them in the library. Where else do you keep texts? In a vault? What good would they do there?"

"Why didn't you just put up a sign that said Steal Me?" Xena snorted. She whirled around and pulled Antipany to her feet. "All right, Antipany, time for a strip search."

Antipany jerked her arm away. "You're not searching anything, princess. Not on my body."

"We could always let him do it," Xena said, pointing to the guard as Antipany glared defiantly at her.

"There are seven books," Herophile pointed out. "I hardly think she could have fit them all under that cloak, Xena."

"Oh, you'd be surprised at what she can fit into that cloak," Gabrielle said dryly. "Why don't I get Semone and take Antipany somewhere private and we'll search her cloak together. That all right with you?" she asked the sorceress. Antipany nodded sullenly.

"Take her to the storeroom," Herophile instructed. "It's about the only room we can lock."

She called Semone and a guard in and instructed them to escort the grumbling sorceress to the storeroom. Gabrielle pulled her companion out into the hall and away from the others. "You don't really think Antipany had anything to do with this, do you?" she asked.

Xena smiled, her eyes twinkling. "No, I don't."

"Then why are you letting them lock her up?"

"Think about it, Gabrielle. We won't have a roommate tonight." She raised an inquisitive eyebrow.

Gabrielle pursed her lips and nodded. "You know, you can never be too careful. Maybe Antipany had something to do with it after all." She hurried down the hall to catch up.

A stretcher was brought in and Hygea's body was removed. The guards still had not returned from the caverns, so Xena instructed everyone to go about their business. With the room cleared, she searched the area then sat down in a chair and propped her feet up on the table. "You can come down now," she called to a corner of the room.

A shadowy figure covered in a brown cloak detached itself from the dark corner where the walls met the ceiling and dropped to the floor. Sweeping the hood off his black hair with his hand, the man walked over to the warrior. "Hello, Xena," he said sheepishly.

"Hello, Autolycus," she responded with a cold smile.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chapter 6

A search of Antipany's cloak revealed an astounding number of items, but no sacred texts. Assuring the sorceress her incarceration would be brief, Gabrielle locked the door and entered the kitchen to find Semone bustling fretfully about setting out food. It was well past noon and the bard was nearly faint from hunger. Gratefully accepting some cheese and freshly baked bread, she ate while she talked with Semone.

"You must have to get up awfully early to get the baking done. This is wonderful bread."

"Yes, Ardenia and I are up before dawn to say prayers and start the bread. This is just terrible, terrible." She covered her face with her hands.

"Yes, it is terrible," Gabrielle agreed, patting the woman's shoulder sympathetically. "Did you see anything this morning?"

Semone uncovered her face and shook her head. "No, we were just taking the bread out when we heard poor Ionea screaming. We got to the room just after you did." She sighed. "Poor child. It hasn't been easy for her, growing up here. Now this." With Gabrielle's sympathetic encouragement, the old priestess poured out her distress and much of the temple's dirty linen.

They were interrupted by Ardenia who frowned when she saw Semone talking to the young stranger. She walked over and placed her hands on the priestess' shoulders. "It's all right, Semone," she said soothingly. She glared at Gabrielle. "Can't you see you're upsetting her?"

"I'm sorry," Gabrielle said apologetically. "Did you see anything this morning?"

"No," returned Ardenia shortly. "We heard Ionea screaming but we didn't see anything."

Semone sighed, "I need to lie down. There's more cheese and bread for your friends and a canister of tea there on the table. Help yourself." She heaved herself up and made her way dejectedly out of the kitchen accompanied by Ardenia.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Now, Xena," Autolycus said hastily, "It isn't what you think." He sat down in a chair beside her. "Well, it is what you think. But I had nothing to do with that girl's murder. That just isn't my style."

Xena merely looked at him. "Suppose you start at the beginning."

He shrugged. "There's not much to tell. I was hired by Carnus to steal the Books of Prophesy. He can afford the best, you know." He studied his fingernails. "And I am the best..."

"Autolycus," Xena warned.

"All right, all right, keep your leathers on," he grumbled, then gave her a hopeful look. "Or not, whatever you prefer..." She growled. "Anyway," he continued hastily, "Carnus gave us a map to get into this place through a series of underground caverns. He said we would have a contact in the temple who would help us get the texts. It was supposed to be a simple snatch. They don't even lock the books up, for Zeus' sake."

"Who was with you, Autolycus?"

"Just Carnus' lapdog, Dionetes. He has the manners of a cur." He wrinkled his nose. "So we got here early this morning and found what you saw. The girl dead on the floor, blood everywhere. I made Dionetes stay in the cavern--you can smell him a mile away--while I went to search the room. I was kneeling down to check the girl when I heard this thump and a bolt of energy came flying past and hit the bookcase, knocking it over. I dove behind the table and when I looked up Antipany was lying on the floor unconscious, and this sweet young thing was in the doorway screaming her lungs out."

"That's when you decided to make like an owl?"

He grimaced. "If I'd known you were here, I would have been running with Dionetes. I thought I might get another chance to look for the texts once things settled down. I have a reputation to protect, Xena. Failure doesn't look good on a resume. Anyway, once you showed up my only choice was to stay put and pray."

"I doubt stealing from the gods will earn you their good-will," she said dryly.

"No, but it certainly adds to the mystique," he said with a roguish smile.

Shaking her head, she stood up and started for the door. "Come on, Autolycus, I have a nice safe place for you to stay until we get this all cleared up. And you'll love the company," she added with a smile.

"Ah, Xena, couldn't you just let me go for old times' sake?" he pleaded, following her to the door. She crooked a finger at him and he followed her to the storeroom grumbling the whole way.

Gabrielle was sitting at the table mulling over her conversation with Semone when the pair entered the kitchen on their way to the storeroom. She glanced up absently. "Oh, hi, Autolycus," she said.

"Hello, Gabrielle," he returned. They continued through the kitchen and nearly made it to the other side when Gabrielle's voice rang out.

"Hold it!" commanded the bard. They stopped and slowly turned to face her. Gabrielle studied them for a moment. "Let's see, brown cloak, that fits," she mused. "Then there's unobtainable objects in an inaccessible place and a fortune to be made. And you know what, Autolycus? I'm still surprised to see you." She gave a small, humorless laugh.

"Now Gabrielle, how could I pass up an opportunity like that? After all, I am the King of Thieves," he proclaimed proudly, running a finger across his mustache.

"And the Prince of Prevaricators, the Monarch of Malarkey, the Sovereign of Sophomoric Swagger." She glared at him. "Carnus is a slaver, Autolycus. How can you work for a man like that? And since when do you resort to murder?"

He clutched his chest. "You wound me, Gabrielle. I didn't kill that girl. I wish you people would stop saying that. Besides, after your run-in with Carnus, he turned over a new leaf. He now deals in antiquities and I'm merely helping him replenish his inventory."

"Now there's a big improvement," noted the bard. "I thought you vowed to work alone after your last misadventure with Jett."

"Dionetes wasn't my partner. Carnus sent him along to evaluate my performance."

"Wanted to keep an eye on you, huh? Imagine not trusting a thief, what's the world coming to?"

"Pretty sad, isn't it?" he said indignantly.

Xena grabbed him by the back of his vest. "Let's go." She hauled him to the store room. Taking the key off the rung by the door, she unlocked it and threw him in. "Going to have to find a new place for these keys," she murmured.

Antipany was sitting on a box and glanced up when they entered the room. Her eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed in anger. She rose and her breathing quickened, her hands burning with a bright glow.

Autolycus straightened up, noting the brightly glowing orbs. "Oh, oh," he said. "This is not good." He quickly ducked behind Xena as a bolt of energy flashed by his head. Cautiously peeking out from behind the warrior, he said, "Xena, you're not leaving me in here with her, are you?"

Folding her arms across her chest, Xena only smiled. "Antipany, you remember Autolycus, don't you? By the way, you'd better learn to play nice. He's going to be your roomie until we find out who killed Hygea and recover the books."

They stared at each other in consternation. "Surely you jest!" they exclaimed in unison.

"Nope. Antipany, come with me. I need to talk to you and we can get something to eat while we're talking." She turned and headed out the door with the still protesting Antipany on her heels.

"Ah, Xena," said Autolycus, waving his hand. "I'm a little hungry too."

"I'll bring something back for you. Stay here," she warned. "You won't like what I'll do to you if I have to hunt you down."

No, he thought as the door slammed shut and the key turned in the lock, I'm pretty sure I won't.

Xena and Antipany walked into the kitchen, where Gabrielle was making tea and setting out more food. Sitting down at the table, the bard served them each a cup. Antipany sniffed at the liquid then put it down without tasting it.

"Ares' Semen," she said quietly, turning her attention to the food.

Gabrielle put her cup down with a thump. "Pa... pardon me?" She grabbed Xena's arm as she was bringing the cup to her lips and forced it down to the table. "Did you say Ares' Semen?"

"Yes," replied the sorceress. "That's what this tea is made of."

"That's ridiculous," Xena snorted, brushing the bard's hand away and bringing the cup to her lips once again. "This is chamomile tea."

"That's what the uneducated call it," Antipany sniffed. "But people in our profession know it as Ares' Semen." She watched Gabrielle force the warrior's arm back down to the table again, Xena's questing lips having made a vain effort to taste the tea. "You mix it with a few other ingredients, say a few words and presto! You have a potion to increase aggressiveness and leadership abilities. Drink a lot of it, don't you, princess?"

"What opening did you blow that waste out of, Antipany?" Xena crowed. Then narrowed her eyes as Gabrielle quietly tried to pry the cup from her fingers. "You don't believe all that nonsense, do you, Gabrielle?"

"Of course not," Gabrielle replied, but having failed to get the cup, she reached up and gently kissed the warrior. "Please?" she asked softly, looking into the sky blue eyes. Xena's fingers reluctantly released the cup and the bard pushed it out of reach.

An eyebrow raised. "I'm never going to see another cup of chamomile tea for as long as you live, am I?"

"Oh, probably not," Gabrielle responded with a tight smile. She took the cups of untasted tea and trotted to the door to throw the contents outside.

Antipany looked at the warrior with innocent eyes. "You probably won't see chamomile anything for as long as she lives," she said compassionately.

"There isn't an oracle of truth to any of this is there?" Xena growled.

"Actually, there is. I may have, well... embellished a little. In fact, Ares is quite a stud you know. I think some practitioners are even using it as an aphrodisiac. I've heard it makes for more aggressive love making."

Xena's eyes followed the bard as she brewed a fresh pot of tea. "Well, we certainly don't need that."

"Of course you don't," murmured the sorceress.

"This is rose hip tea," Gabrielle said. "Are there any special uses for this?"

Antipany opened her mouth to respond, then noticed the icy glare she was getting from the warrior. She felt her kidneys twitch a warning. "Ah, no," she replied. "Can't think of a thing. Make me a biiig cup. All right, princess what do I need to do to clear my much maligned name?"

Taking a bite of food, Xena chewed slowly before answering. "Autolycus pretty much cleared you of everything but stupidity, Antipany. But since Herophile still thinks you're in on it, you'll have to stay locked up for a while."

Antipany glared at the warrior. "And how long will that be?"

"We'll know everything by tomorrow morning," she replied.

"We will?" Gabrielle asked.

Her companion smiled. "Yep. I think we can eliminate the two youngest initiates, and perhaps the two oldest, Semone and Ardenia, we'll see. I think we can also assume Autolycus is telling the truth and Hygea was already dead when they arrived. We should concentrate our efforts on Herophile, Demo and Ionea."

"What about the guards?"

"I don't think so. They're all well over seven feet tall and skilled at killing. We would have seen a different type of wound if one of them did it. Whoever did this is not skilled at murder. I found a small stone statue of Apollo with blood on it. My guess is that someone panicked, picked up the statue and struck the base of her skull with it. I don't think murder was the intent, just the unfortunate result."

There was a commotion in the hall and young Dionia flew into the room. "Come quick, Xena. The guards have returned from the caves and they found someone." She whirled around and rushed back out of the room.

Everyone jumped up and started for the door. Xena reached out a put a restraining hand on Antipany's shoulder. "Oh no you don't." She shoved the keys into Antipany's hands. "Go back to the storeroom and lock yourself in. And stay there!" she commanded. Then she rushed down the hall with Gabrielle at her side.

Antipany stood for a few moments fuming, then gathered some food and headed for the storeroom. "But I'm not locking the door," she muttered.

"You trust her with the keys?" Gabrielle asked.

"I doubt whether a mere locked door would keep either one of them confined for long," Xena replied. "I'm hoping that they fear me enough to stay out of trouble."

"That would do it for me," Gabrielle agreed.

Xena suddenly grabbed her companion, pulling her to a stop. Looking into the questioning green eyes, she laughed ruefully. "Gabrielle, it's nice to know you've never been afraid of me."

"You know that's not true, Xena," Gabrielle scowled. "I can't help it if trouble seems to find me an easier target than you." She thumped her friend's midsection. "Now let's go."

They arrived in the library to find two very dusty guards standing over a body. Herophile was examining the man, whose head lolled at an unnatural angle. Glancing up at the pair, she shook her head. "He's dead."

Xena walked over to the dead man and sniffed. "Whew, must be Dionetes. The stench is unmistakable." Even soiling his trousers in death couldn't hide the fact he hadn't bathed in a good long time. She turned her attention to the guards, who backed up a couple of steps under her deadly glower. "It's hard to question a dead man," she ground out.

They exchanged puzzled looks. "You never said to bring him back alive," one replied.

"Don't blame them," Herophile interceded. "They protect this temple and bringing him back alive isn't their first priority." She turned to the guards. "Did you recover the books?" she asked hopefully.

"He didn't have them," one replied sullenly. "We searched the path he took and there wasn't any sign of the sacred texts."

"He never had them," Xena said flatly. She studied the priestess. "You knew they would kill him, didn't you?"

She shrugged, "Of course, everyone knows that. He violated the temple. I understand you captured his accomplice and he'll also be held accountable."

Gabrielle made a gesture of protest, but caught the warning look Xena tossed in her direction and remained silent.

"I've seen everything I need to," Xena said quietly. "You may remove his body. Come on, Gabrielle." They walked down the hall a ways until Gabrielle could no longer bear the silence and stopped her friend.

"Xena, you're not going to let them hurt Autolycus are you?" she asked.

"No, of course not, Gabrielle." She fell silent again.

The bard waited anxiously. Finally in exasperation she asked, "Xena, what are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking that Autolycus is fortunate he thinks so highly of himself. Otherwise he'd be just another dead thief." She stared at the wall again lost in thought.

"Xena?" Gabrielle waved a hand in front of the warrior's face. "Are we going to have to have another talk about your communication skills?" Xena looked at her friend with a bemused expression. "What are you thinking?" asked the bard again.

Focusing on her companion, Xena said quietly, "I love you, Gabrielle."

Confused by the sudden change of topic, Gabrielle stared for a moment. Then a look of concern swept over her face. "Oh Xena, are you dying?" She grabbed her friend's forearms.

A finely sculpted eyebrow lifted to impossible heights. "No."

Gabrielle looked stricken. "Am I dying?" she asked.

Xena's mouth quirked. "Not to my knowledge. Look, you asked me what I was thinking and that was it." She spun on her heel and they started walking down the hall. Glancing down at her companion, she said, "I suppose there was a message in all that, wasn't there?"

"Can't put anything over on you, can I... princess." Gabrielle punched her friend's arm playfully.

"Well, I think it a lot even if I don't say it very often," replied Xena somewhat grumpily. She wound an arm around the bard's shoulders. "You are irritating sometimes." But the gentle squeeze of her shoulder and the soft kiss on the top of her head told Gabrielle volumes more than the gruff words.

Gabrielle wrapped her arm around her companion's waist as they walked. "Aww, there's nothing wrong with your communication skills, Xena. Words are one way to communicate but you speak to me most eloquently in a lot of other ways."

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Continue to Part 3--the conclusion (chapters 7-9)

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