by Godot
email Godot

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

Note: This is a follow-up story to Embodiment of Evil so it would be helpful to read that first.

Chapter 1

"He is back...near Helkinde."

Most of the hastily scrawled message was impossible to read. But it was all Xena needed to know exactly to whom the words referred. Kryptus. She looked at the lines in disbelief. Telamedes had said it would take a long time for the evil sorcerer to gather the resources he needed to make himself flesh and blood again. It had taken him no time at all. She threw the message down. "I'm going to see our friend. Stay here Gabrielle, the inn is comfortable and I should be back in three days."

"Who are you going to see?" said Gabrielle, not happy to be left behind yet again.

"I'm going to get Autolycus to help us. The King of Thieves may come in handy this time. If anyone knows about tricks and traps it's him. But I think his participation will require a personal invitation from me. Why don't you buy supplies? When I return, we'll go to the temple and plan our attack."

"All right," said the bard, still unhappy. There was a bright side however. Three days in a comfortable bed, with plenty to eat, and a place to tell her stories. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all.

Gabrielle walked with Xena over to Argo and bade her farewell. As Xena turned to mount her steed, the bard suddenly gave her a ferocious hug. "What's gotten into you?" Xena asked.

"Nothing, I'm just going to miss you, that's all."

"Yeah, me too," said the warrior uncomfortably. "Now stay out of trouble while I'm gone."

Gabrielle nodded. She always intended to stay out of trouble, it wasn't her fault it didn't always end up that way.

Later that evening as she was eating her dinner at the bustling inn, she felt a presence come up behind her. Gabrielle tensed, her hand creeping toward her staff. She rose quickly bringing the staff around and stopping it within an eyelash of the woman's nose.

The woman raised a surprised eyebrow. "Is this the way you greet all your friends, or am I just special?"

"Antipany!" Gabrielle dropped the staff and gave the sorceress a hug. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm on my way home and just stopped in for something to eat."

Gabrielle pulled her into a seat at the table. Calling the serving girl over, she ordered another dinner. "This is great. I really didn't want to eat by myself. You're looking pretty good for all you went through, although you could use a few more pounds. How's Peisander? Is he with you? You really have some strange pets, you know. Have you seen Telamedes lately? Boy, it really is too bad about Kryptus. Is that priest of yours still plying you with those elixirs of his? Although they must be doing some good if you're traveling..."

Antipany watched the bard with amused interest, wondering how many questions Gabrielle could ask without taking a breath. Suddenly she grabbed the bard's arm and stopped her mid-sentence. "What about Kryptus?" A plate of food was put in front of her, but all her attention was focused on Gabrielle.

"Gosh, didn't you get the message? No, I guess you wouldn't if you've been away from home for a while. Are you sure you're well enough to trav... Ouch!" Antipany's fingernails dug into the bard's arm.

"Gabrielle, what about Kryptus!"

"Telamedes sent us a note saying that he's back. That's all of the message we could make out. He sure has terrible handwriting for a healer. Xena is trying to find a friend of ours to help and then we're going to the temple to make plans. I assume you're going to be part of the plan since you're the only one of us who's actually met Kryptus."

Antipany absentmindedly picked up her spoon and took a bite of food, not really tasting it. She remembered every vivid detail of her time as a prisoner of Kryptus. Of being entombed in one of his spheres, of having the life sucked out of her minute by agonizingly slow minute, of the terrifying loneliness. She pushed the food around on her plate, suddenly losing her appetite. There was no way she could face that again.

"Antipany...Antipany." Gabrielle waved a hand in front of the sorceress startling her out of her reverie. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing, Gabrielle," Antipany said pushing her plate away. "Nothing a completely, verifiably, certifiably dead Kryptus wouldn't cure."

Gabrielle, long since finishing her own dinner eyed Antipany's uneaten plate of food. "Aren't you going to eat that?" she asked.

"Help yourself," Antipany replied, pushing the food over to the bard. She watched as the bard demolished the food with a gusto that the sorceress never felt even when she was hungry. Which wasn't often.

"How long is Xena going to be gone?"

"About three days she said. I've been rounding up supplies for the journey and I'm just waiting for her. Autolycus can be difficult to find if he wants, but Xena will get him eventually."

"Come home with me."

"What? I can't. Xena told me to stay here and keep out of trouble."

"My home is on the way to the temple. Just leave a note with the innkeeper here telling her where to meet you. I have a cart, so we can transport your supplies and you can see my library and we'll have a chance to talk. How much trouble can you get into?"

A lot, if truth be told. Antipany had made it her life's vow to punish Xena for killing her brothers during her warlord days and whenever the two crossed paths Antipany did her best to make Xena as miserable as possible. If not for her promise to the bard to postpone judgment until Xena returned to her evil ways, Antipany would have done her best to fulfill her vow.

The library. Gabrielle continued chewing, thinking furiously. The library. Say the magic word and collect fifty dinars; Antipany had just hit the jackpot. "This isn't a trap is it, because with Kryptus on the loose we don't have time for games," she said suspiciously.

"No traps, cross my heart and hope to die. But remember I promised not to kill her just yet, I never promised to be nice. And you're right, Kryptus is a much bigger problem. We can talk about it on the way to my home. I'm camping on the edge of town, if you want to come meet me at dawn tomorrow." She stood and reaching into her cloak, pulled out a few dinars. "Supper's on me," she said throwing them on the table. Then reaching in her cloak again she took out a scroll. "You might be interested in this, I just picked it up. A young bard named Homer wrote it. I think he'll be almost as famous as you someday." She handed it to a delighted Gabrielle.

The library. "Let me write a quick note to Xena." Gabrielle pulled out a piece of parchment and hastily scribbled a message telling her companion where she would be and how to get there, then took it to the owner and asked him to give it to Xena. The harried man grumbled but acquiesced taking the note and absently putting it in his pocket.

When she returned, Antipany hugged her and bade her goodnight. On her way out she accidentally bumped into the innkeeper as he was hurrying to a table. "Excuse me," Antipany exclaimed as a wine goblet spilled down his shirt. "Here, let me clean that up." She reached into her cloak, pulled out a cloth and started wiping down his shirt, making an even bigger mess.

"It's all right," he said holding up his hands and backing away. "Please, I'll handle it."

Apologizing again, Antipany backed out of the door. Laughing softly she slipped the piece of parchment into her cloak and headed toward her camp, then frowned as she remembered Kryptus. There was no way she was getting anywhere near that evil old man.

Gabrielle was at her campsite at the crack of dawn, an indication of how eager she was to see the texts. They packed the supplies in Antipany's cart and rode to her home chatting and laughing the whole way. Gabrielle had a grand time.

Chapter 2

Xena was furious.

"What do you mean she's not here! I left her here three days ago, where is she?" Xena's outraged face was too close to the innkeeper's for comfort even with a table between them.

"I...I...don't know," he stammered. "She left two days ago and she didn't say where she was going." He patted his pockets nervously. A note, something about a note. It had been so busy that night, he couldn't remember if she had given him a message or not, and he wasn't about to admit to the angry warrior that he lost it if she had.

Xena glowered at him. It had taken her longer than she had hoped to persuade Autolycus to help them and she had ridden hard to get back within three days. Now she was tired, hungry, and Gabrielle was missing. Again. Her eyes narrowed. "Did she leave with anyone?"

"I don't think so." He twisted his hands in distress. "She did have dinner with some woman the night before she left, but I don't know who she was."

"Describe her," Xena said curtly.

"A little taller than your friend, wild auburn hair, pale thin face, wore this strange bulky cloak."

Antipany. Xena cursed then sat down. "Get me something to eat." Argo needed to rest and so did she. This time she was really going to kill the sorceress, right after they took care of Kryptus.

Xena rode into the yard late the next day. She had wasted valuable time going to Apollo's temple to get directions from Telamedes. Besides being plied with food and drink, she had to sit through a gentle lecture on understanding and patience. She still had neither. Although he had wanted to send one of the temple acolytes to fetch Gabrielle and Antipany, Xena had firmly refused. She wanted to make sure for herself that the bard was all right.

All seemed quiet. There were a couple of outbuildings, a stable, and a corral with several horses but no obvious house. Antipany appeared around one of the buildings and stopped abruptly when she spotted the warrior. "You're late princess. You were supposed to be here yesterday."

Xena jumped from Argo's back and strode to the sorceress. Antipany was a mess. Dressed in only a shift and an apron, her apron front was splashed with drying blood. Her pale thin arms and hands were splattered with gore even though she had made a small effort to wipe them off.

"Where is she," Xena demanded.

Antipany frowned back, then looked down the front of her apron. "Well, we had this small disagreement you see..."

That was it. Xena's patience was completely, utterly exhausted. She whipped her sword out and held it to Antipany's throat. "Enough! You had your chance for revenge and choose not to take it. If you want me dead then do it. Stop playing these games. And don't drag Gabrielle into it. She's going to get hurt and I swear I'll kill you if you if she does." It wasn't a threat, it was a promise.

Antipany stood still for a moment, eyes flashing in rage. Her hands glowed with a bright light, stray energy bolts striking the ground despite her efforts to control them. "Someday Gabrielle will follow you to Tartarus and it won't be any of my doing," she hissed. She was so tired. Tired of being so angry, tired of being so scared, and just tired of being so tired. Suddenly she relaxed a bit, her hands cooling. Moving her head slightly she took a step forward so the blade was laying along the side of her neck.

"I made a mistake when I made that promise to Gabrielle," she admitted bitterly. "I thought someone that good would see right through you. What I didn't consider was how much she loves you and that makes her incapable of a rational decision when it comes to you." The two continued to stare at each other as Antipany continued. "Your mistake princess, other than not letting me die when you had the chance, is in thinking I really care what you do to me." With that she jerked her head, running her neck along the blade. Only quick reaction by Xena pulling the blade away saved her artery from being severed. Blood spilled from the cut on her neck.

They continued to glare at each other for a moment, then Antipany abruptly turned and walked over to an old tree stump with several dead limbs still attached. Pulling away one of the branches revealed a hole. Putting her lips close to the hole she yelled, "Gabrielle, come up here please, her Royal Highness has arrived."

"Xena's here? I'll be right up," came the muffled reply.

A few moments later Gabrielle stepped out of the trunk of a living tree in the yard. Noting the bloody apron she observed, "Hey Antipany, looks like Piapher's mare had her baby. Xena, are you all right? I was starting to worry. Did you find Autolycus? Did you have any trouble finding the place? You know how my directions can..." She stopped suddenly as she passed Antipany, peripherally noting the cut on her neck and the blood running from it. Backing up she stared at it. "What happened to you!" she exclaimed, then noted the sword in Xena's hand. "I can't leave you two alone for a moment can I." Throwing her hands up, she turned to Antipany. "What did you do?" she demanded.

Antipany looked nonplused and pointed to her neck. "What did I do? What do you mean, what did I do. She's the one with the sword in her hand and I'm the one who's bleeding."

"What directions, Gabrielle?" Xena asked.

"The message I left with the innkeeper. I told you where I was going and how to get here. Didn't you get..." She stopped as Xena slowly shook her head. Turning back to Antipany she demanded again, "What did you do!" Antipany gave her a sheepish look and shrugged. Gabrielle shook her head and snapped, "Take off that apron and I'll get something to clean your neck."

Antipany did as she was told and sat down. The stunt with the note had seemed like a good idea at the time. But she was still alive, Xena was still alive, and worst of all Kryptus was certainly still alive. And everyone was expecting her to go with them to hunt him down. Not in this lifetime. Gabrielle dug into Argo's saddlebags and brought out medical supplies. She tilted Antipany's head and cleaned the wound. "Not too deep, doesn't even need stitches. Guess you can travel with us after all." She turned to Xena. "I hope you didn't hurt the poor innkeeper. It wasn't his fault."

"It certainly wasn't," replied Xena, glowering at her companion. "How could you go off with Antipany. You know we can't trust her, and we're pushed for time as it is."

Gabrielle looked stricken. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. "Xena, I'm sorry. It was on the way to the temple. I got to ride in a cart instead of on Argo, no offense Argo," she told the horse hastily. "And Antipany has given me the run of the library. Xena, you should see that library! There are scrolls from all over. It would take me years to study them all."

"You're welcome to stay as long as you like," Antipany offered helpfully.

"Shut up!" Xena snarled. Then she sighed and said, "Gabrielle, we don't have time. The longer we wait, the more powerful Kryptus becomes and more people will die. We have to leave by tomorrow morning. Get your things and let's go. You too, Antipany."

"No," the sorceress said quietly.

Xena's hands clenched. "What did you say?"

"No," Antipany repeated. "I won't be dessert again for that madman."

Gabrielle knelt in front of the sorceress. Taking her hands she said, "We need you Antipany. You've seen him; you've fought him. You may be the difference between winning and losing this battle."

Antipany looked into her eyes and struggled to explain. "I would go anywhere with you Gabrielle, except there. You don't know what it's like to feel yourself dying little by agonizing little."

"Please Antipany," Gabrielle urged. "We'll be right there by your side."

Antipany felt her resolve weakening under the bard's steady gaze. Suddenly she started and snatched her hands away. "Gods! How do you stand up to those eyes and that voice, princess," she said to Xena. "I think I understand why I'm still alive."

Xena nodded ruefully. "It's hard sometimes, especially if she's right."

Before Gabrielle could object, a lad dressed in robes strode into the yard greeting the sorceress. "Any special instructions before you go, Antipany?" he cheerfully asked.

She stared at him, "What makes you think I'm going anywhere, Theocles?"

He stopped confused. "Telamedes sent me over to take care of the animals while you're gone..."

She stood up waving her arms. Bolts flew, tree branches sheered off. "You can tell that no good, sanctimonious, sun-loving quack that I'm not going anywhere." She started toward the stable not seeing Xena come up behind her. Two quick pokes of the warrior's fingers at the base of her skull sent the sorceress into blissful unconsciousness. The warrior caught her as she slumped to the ground.

"Xena!" Gabrielle protested.

"We don't have time for this, Gabrielle. Theocles, saddle one of those horses for Antipany." She turned to the bard. "You'll have to ride her horse over to the temple and I'll take Antipany with me."

Theocles, mouth open to object, wisely shut it and did what he was told. Out of the corral he brought a placid old swayback brown mare and began to saddle her. "This is Antipany's horse?" Xena asked.

Theocles laughed, "Yes, this is Circe. Antipany rescued her from some farmer who was beating her a few years ago. She may not look like much, but she has a big heart, and she's very even-tempered."

Gabrielle walked over to the pony and stroked her neck. "I think I can handle this one, Xena. She's not near as far off the ground as Argo." Circe nuzzled her chest. "I'll be back in a flash, just let me get my things and Antipany's cloak." She disappeared into the tree trunk and returned a short time later with their belongings. And a few scrolls. "Just some light reading for the trip," she explained to Xena's upraised eyebrow.

Lifting the unconscious sorceress onto Argo's back, Xena settled herself behind and urged Argo into a trot. Circe waited patiently for Gabrielle's somewhat clumsy mount then followed behind.

Antipany woke up groggily the next morning confused at first as to where she was, then groaned as she recognized the room where she had spent many days recovering from her first encounter with Kryptus. She looked at herself and discovered she had been bathed and dressed in a clean shift. Xena wouldn't have cared, Telamedes wouldn't have dared, and so that probably meant the bard had once again drawn cleanup duty. She staggered out to the common room where everyone was eating breakfast.

She glared at Xena as she plopped onto a bench. Then glared at the plate of food put before her. Not even bothering to taste the food, she pushed her plate over to Gabrielle who accepted it eagerly. "What part of 'I'm not going' didn't you understand princess?" she asked the warrior.

"Oh, you are going," replied Xena calmly, continuing to eat.

Antipany stared at her for a moment then stood and stormed out of the room. Putting on her cloak she slipped out of the building and headed for the stables. "You do have to go, you know," said Telamedes, rising from the bench he had been sitting on.

Changing directions, she marched out of the courtyard. "I don't have to do anything," she spat. He matched her strides easily and they walked in silence for a few moments.

She stopped abruptly. "Go home Telamedes, nothing you can say will change my mind."

He nodded. "All right, but I'll miss your company. I was looking forward to traveling with you."

She stared at him. "You're going with them?"

He nodded. "I'm needed. Not as much as you, but I can still help."

Xena, with Gabrielle riding behind her, rode up leading Circe and a black stallion. "Are you traveling conscious or unconscious?" she asked the sorceress.

Antipany stood fuming, saying nothing.


"I'm thinking, I'm thinking." Turning to Telamedes, she demanded, "What do you think you can do besides getting killed? You don't fight, Gabrielle can clean your sundial in two seconds flat."

"I'm a healer, Antipany. Where we're going I will be needed." He smiled sadly then added cryptically, "But before we tackle Kryptus, we need to see a man about a box."

Chapter 3

Telamedes rode at Xena's side with Antipany trailing behind in sulking silence. "I'm sorry Xena," he said. "I should have known someone like Kryptus doesn't live this long without a backup plan. That place you destroyed was just a summer retreat for him. Apollo says his main residence is near the city of Helkinde. His activities require a steady flow of victims and he tries not to call too much attention to himself, so he travels around quite a bit taking his victims from all over the country. Now that he knows we're on to him he'll be shoring up his defenses. We could use some more help."

"I've sent Autolycus to get Hercules and Iolaus. They'll meet us at Helkinde. Now what about this box we need to get?"

"The Soul Catcher belongs to Hades. It was a plaything for him, actually. Whenever he came upon a reluctant mortal, for amusement he would go instead of Celesta. He would open up his box and it would suck the poor person's soul right in. Then they could easily be transported to the underworld."

"How convenient for him. So where's the box?"

"Well, you know how careless Hades can be with his belongings." Indeed she did, remembering a certain Helmet of Invisibility. "He misplaced it years ago," Telamedes continued. "Apollo says it may be somewhere in Lamissa. All we have to do is find it."

"Is that all?" Xena said dryly. "Did Apollo at least tell you what it looked like?"

"A plain oak box, about this big," he said measuring with his hands. Then he brightened. "And oh, it has the stamp of Hades on the bottom. A dog's head surrounded by flames."

"Boy, we could use Autolycus now," said Gabrielle from behind Xena's back. "Lamissa is not a small place."

"Hmmm..." murmured Xena, deep in thought.

Although the stallion and Argo set a demanding pace, Circe kept up without complaint and they made good time. At dusk Xena finally called a halt for the evening and they set about making camp. Trying to draw Antipany out of her funk, Gabrielle set vegetables and a knife in front of the seething sorceress. "How about cutting these up for our soup?" she asked.

Antipany grabbed the vegetables and either not seeing the knife or not caring, flung them back at the bard. "Cut them up yourself," she snarled. The vegetables hit Gabrielle squarely in the chest, and the knife flew just past her ear planting itself in the ground behind her.

They all stood in shocked silence for a moment but before the sorceress could speak Xena was hauling her to her feet and had a fist drawn back intending to beat her to bloody pulp. Telamedes grabbed her arm, wedging his massive body between them.

"Easy, Xena. It was an accident. Don't go off half-cocked."

"I'm fully cocked and that was no accident," she snarled. "Let go of my arm Telamedes."

"Xena, it's all right. I'm not hurt," Gabrielle said shakily.

Antipany looked at the warrior defiantly and they stared at each other until Xena abruptly let her go. Whirling, they headed out of the camp in opposite directions.

Gabrielle and Telamedes looked one way and then the other, then at each other. The priest pursed his lips and let out a sigh. "So... which one do you want to take?"

"Neither," muttered the bard. She turned and looked in Xena's direction. "I'll take Xena. Right now the only way I'm talking to Antipany is with my staff."

"Really," said an interested Telamedes. "This is a side of you I've never seen before Gabrielle."

"If those two don't lighten up soon, it won't be the last time," Gabrielle promised as she walked away looking for her companion.

She found the warrior straddling a log with her elbows resting on her knees and her chin in her hands staring glumly at nothing in particular. Walking over to her, the bard placed a hand on her shoulder not sure what to say. She could feel the tension in Xena's body and she knew if she didn't do the right thing a lot of vegetation was about to be destroyed. She leaned down. "Thank you," she said softly.

Xena frowned, "I didn't do anything, except lose my temper. I seem to do that a lot when Antipany's around."

"For protecting me, for always being there for me," replied the bard. She straddled the log with her back to Xena, and then scooted until her back was resting against Xena's chest. Taking her companion's arms she crossed them in front of her stomach and held them there. The warrior pulled back for a moment then relaxed and pulled the bard closer resting her face in soft golden hair.

"It will never end," she said softly. "If not Antipany, then someone else will come along and demand retribution. My past will haunt me until I die. There is no way I can make amends for all my iniquities and even if I could it will never be enough to satisfy some people." She sighed. "I remember the power. It was intoxicating to bend men to my will, to make them do what I wanted, to kill without regret, to take without remorse. I miss that sometimes," she said longingly, absently nuzzling the bard's hair as she reminisced.

"It certainly would be easier to break Antipany's neck then to persuade her that you're worthy of her forgiveness," Gabrielle agreed. "The road to redemption is a narrow, treacherous one. But I know you can do it. Antipany will forgive you in the end, right now she's angry because you're not the monster she imagined and she's not sure executing you is the right thing to do anymore."

Soft laughter came from behind her head. "If you really believe that Gabrielle, release her from her promise and we'll see just how sure she is." The arms tightened even more. "I would have fallen off that path long ago if not for you, my friend. You can't know how much I depend on you. I know I don't tell you often enough, I could never say it too many times."

Gabrielle smiled. "Oh I know. Still it's nice to hear it every once in a while." She intertwined their fingers. "It works both ways, you know. I would have died of boredom by now without the adventures and the stories." She sighed contentedly. They sat in companionable silence for awhile, the tension gone, the forest safe for the moment. With darkness threatening to overtake them, Xena finally stood up kissing the bard's head as she rose, then pulled Gabrielle to her feet.

"We better head back," she said. "Let's see if we can keep Antipany under control at least until we take care of Kryptus."

As they walked back Xena asked, "Gabrielle? Antipany said you would follow me to Tartarus one day. You wouldn't do that would you?"

"Nah," her friend reassured her. "If you returned to your old warlord ways, the first thing you'd see is my backside hightailing it outta there." Xena looked at the ground then nodded. "Good," she said. So great was her need to believe she failed to see the bard holding crossed fingers behind her back.

Telamedes found the sorceress pacing in a glen, hands folded against her sides, talking animatedly to herself. He sat down on a log and waited for her to notice him. Presently her wanderings brought her in front of the priest. She looked down at him bemused, then abruptly sat down beside him. "When did I turn into such a harpy?" she asked morosely. "You don't have to answer that," she said hastily as he opened his mouth to respond. "I already know the answer. Why can't I let it go? I think I have everything under control, then Xena comes along and I lose it. It makes me so angry to see her so proud, so confident, alive. I see my brothers, so dead. And my home, so totally destroyed."

Suddenly she picked up his arm and ducked underneath it, snuggling up against his chest. Surprised he tightened his arm and pulled her close. "Someday we'll settle this, but now is not the time. I know Kryptus is much more dangerous than the princess is, and tangling with him is the last thing I want to do, but I know it's the right thing. I'll behave, I promise." He squeezed her shoulder and they sat in companionable silence for a while.

Finally she sat up and kissed him on the cheek. "Thanks Tele, you always know how to make me feel better." She stood up and headed back to camp, a rather befuddled Telamedes following behind wondering what exactly he had done since he had not spoken a word the whole time.

When Xena and Gabrielle returned they found Telamedes had finished setting up their camp and Antipany was busy cutting up vegetables and putting them in a pot of simmering water. She stood up and walked over to the bard. "I'm sorry Gabrielle, I didn't see the knife, I hope you know I wouldn't hurt you deliberately."

Gabrielle nodded. "No harm done. Let's get supper made, I'm starved." She gave the sorceress a forgiving embrace then headed for the fire. Antipany turned to the warrior and they stood facing each other in an uncomfortable silence. Gabrielle held her breath. Abruptly Antipany held out her hand. "Truce?" she asked.

Xena looked down at the hand for a long moment then took it. "Truce," she replied. Gabrielle started breathing again. Now the only thing they had to worry about was finding a needle in a haystack. Piece of cake after this.

Chapter 4

They reached the walled city of Lamissa the next afternoon without incident. A thriving town, the streets were swarming as they wandered through the central marketplace wondering where to start looking for the mystical box.

"Come one, come all. Enjoy the magical healing powers of the Elixir of Life. Yes. You too can live to be a hundred with this life-extending liquid." The voice was somehow familiar. Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other and grinned.

"Salmoneus," they said in unison.

"Who's Salmoneus?" Antipany asked.

"Salmoneus!" the priest thundered his face livid.

They looked at him in surprise and then at each other. They had never seen the priest lose his temper.

"Will someone please tell me who Salmoneus is?" Antipany said impatiently.

"He's a dear friend," explained Gabrielle.

"He's a scoundrel," said the priest hotly.

"Well yes, but he means well. He's a businessman..."

"He's a crook," interrupted the priest.

"I see you know our friend well," said Xena dryly.

"He sold temple property to rich merchants as river front vacation homes."

"What's wrong with that?" Gabrielle asked.

Telamedes scowled. "It wasn't his property to sell, there weren't any homes on the land and Great Apollo, there isn't a river anywhere near us. It took us ages to straighten everything out, and even now we still get an occasional pretentious fool looking for his vacation home."

Antipany laughed. "I think I like him already."

"I'm glad you're amused," said the priest who clearly wasn't.

They made their way over to Salmoneus who was deep in discussion with a prosperous looking gentleman. "Yes, my good man, this is the liquid of life. It will cure your ailments, clear up your skin, and make you perform like a young stallion, if you know what I mean..." Wink, wink. "And your wife can even polish the silver with it."

Salmoneus started as a hand clapped down on his shoulder. "I didn't do it..." he started to protest as the hand turned him around. "Xena! Gabrielle!" he said grinning delightedly. The smile faltered. "Telamedes," he gulped, then the smile returned. "How is my favorite priest?" Telamedes glowered at him.

"Excuse us," Xena told his customer. "We need to borrow Salmoneus for a while." She pulled him away.

"Xena," Salmoneus protested. "I was just about ready to make a sale."

Gabrielle took a container from him. It uncorked with a pop. She looked at it dubiously, then took a sip. "Salmoneus!" she exclaimed. "This is just some of that fizzy water you were bottling awhile back." She looked at Xena with mild reproach. "You remember, the first time I thought you died."

"Wait, wait. This is just part of my business. Let me show the rest." They followed him over to a building. Garish banners hung by door. Entering, they were greeted by a sweet young girl dressed in a tunic that barely covered her butt. Pert young breasts threatened to spill out every time she moved "Welcome to the Elixir of Life spa," she beamed.

"Ambrrr, how are you my sweet?" Salmoneus greeted her running an appreciative hand down her back. "These are my friends. Don't mind us now, I'm just going to show them around."

Gabrielle exchanged glances with her companion. Ambrrr? Antipany grabbed an absorbed Telamedes and pulled him along, no longer sure she liked Salmoneus or his business. As they walked to his living quarters they passed rooms with teeming with activity.

In the first room they heard musicians playing an energetic song while a group of panting women with sweat pouring down their faces stepped up and down on a stone block positioned in front of each of them. A bottle of fizzy water sat by each step. "Step up, step down..." sang the young vivacious leader in perfect rhythm with the music.

The next room held jugs of sand attached to wooden poles. Several men were straining to lift the poles at the urging of a buff young stud who berated their manhood as they struggled to comply. Other men were sitting on stone benches using their legs to lift crates of bleating lambs. Bottles of the fizzy water sat by each laboring soul. Telamedes pulled an absorbed Antipany along certain now that Salmoneus was a thief and a scoundrel.

From the last room they could hear the soft soothing chants of a chorus. Looking in, they saw two people laying in a pool of mud up to their chins, squash slices covering their eyes. Three other people were eating lunch consisting of a barely visible helping of barley and two small slices of fruit atop a generous helping of wheatgrass, all accompanied by the ubiquitous fizzy water. Gabrielle was speechless.

Herding everyone back to his extravagantly appointed living quarters, Salmoneus rubbed his hands together and said, "That's it. Great, huh? Now what can I do for you?"

Gabrielle was coming out of her daze. "Let me get this straight," she said. "Your customers go for walks that don't go anywhere, do heavy labor that produces nothing, roll in the mud like swine, and starve themselves to death. And they pay you for this?"

He beamed and nodded vigorously. "Isn't it wonderful!"

She looked at Xena in despair. "What's this world coming to?" she demanded.

"It will survive," Xena said. "Right now we need to find that box and we need a place to stay while we do it. This should do just fine, Salmoneus."

He gulped. "Sure Xena. My home is your home. But don't you think it might be a little crowded? Maybe a nice inn would..."

"Nope," she interrupted settling down on some pillows, feet propped up on an expensive looking table.

Gabrielle pointed her finger at him. "And don't try to feed us any of that grass."

"No, no," he said hastily backing away. "Only the best for my friends. Now what exactly are you looking for? Maybe I can help."

Xena explained their mission to capture Kryptus and send him to Hades and then described the box as much detail as she could. " we need to fan out and ask some questions. Telamedes, you go to the temple and..."

"Carnus!" exclaimed Salmoneus. Everyone stared at him. "He's the richest merchant in the city," explained Salmoneus, a look of hero-worship plainly on his face. "Worth millions. Hit it big in the import - export business. And one of his hobbies is collecting boxes, all kinds, from all over the world."

"And how do you know about this hobby of his?" Xena inquired.

"Well, some of my customers prefer I come to their homes instead of them coming here. We specialize in massages and other relaxation techniques you know...heh...heh." He sobered quickly when he noticed the disapproving frown on Gabrielle's face. "Anyway, he has boxes all over his palace."

"What kind of merchandise does he sell?' Gabrielle asked always interested in a bargain.

"The human kind," Salmoneus responded reluctantly.

"A slaver!" Gabrielle yelled. "You do business with a slaver!"

"I knew you'd say that little miss moral indignation. I'll have you know slavery is legal here," shaking at finger at her, then he shrugged. "It's just business."

Xena just watched the exchange looking thoughtful. "I have a plan..." she finally said.

Antipany looked around hunting for a bar to hide behind.

Chapter 5

The next afternoon Xena strode around the city making herself as conspicuous as possible, her wanderings finally taking her to the palace gates of Carnus.

"Tell Carnus I want to see him," she calmly told the guard. His eyes opened wide, she didn't have to tell him her name. He called another man over and whispered in his ear. The other guard looked up sharply studying the warrior, then hurried into the palace. She waited patiently until he returned some time later. "Follow me," he said, walking towards the entrance. As she started up the steps three guards on each side flanked her.

"Does Carnus treat all guests so well..." she asked. She heard the hilt of the sword swinging to strike the base of her skull, and moved just a little so it would strike more on her shoulder. Still, she had to admit as she sank to her knees, it smarted.

Across the road two pairs of eyes flinched as they heard the crack of the sword hilt hitting the warrior. Antipany turned to Gabrielle and raised an eyebrow. "That was part of the plan?" she asked.

Gabrielle closed her eyes briefly. "Xena is pretty flexible when it comes to plans," she said smiling weakly. They watched as Xena was dragged down stone steps leading beneath the palace.

"Well, the princess is in. Let's hope Telamedes can talk his way in without getting beaten up." Antipany shook her head. She had protested vehemently when the priest insisted on being included in the evening activities but to no avail, not even when a stray energy bolt smashed an antique vase next to him. Salmoneus was beside himself; good knock offs didn't come cheap. "We better go get dressed Gabrielle, we don't want to miss the fun." Antipany started walking with a purpose.

"I'm not wearing this, not now, not tonight, not ever, no, no, no!" Gabrielle stood in front of Antipany and Salmoneus, arms crossed, foot tapping, outrage visible on her face. The soft pure white tunic, what little there was of it, molded to her well proportioned body, the skirt almost covering her buttocks and giving tantalizing hints as to what lay beneath. One shoulder was bare, the material flowing up from the waist, across her chest and fastening over the other shoulder, leaving the left breast precariously covered and most of her back bare. "Look at this!" she said raising her left arm abruptly then grabbing at the offending material as her breast sprang up freed from its constraints. Antipany, hand to her face, closed her eyes and shook her head.

"Perfect!" said Salmoneus, eyes glittering. "Although...a little less muscle would be better and where did you get all that brown skin. Don't you know the sun is bad for you..."

Antipany stepped in front of the irate bard and grabbed her before Gabrielle's hands found his neck. "Gabrielle," she said gently. "He's right. That costume will definitely get you into the palace."

Salmoneus looked at her perplexed. "I don't understand what the fuss is about. My girls wear these clothes all the time. I sell a product here that makes people healthy and beautiful. Using beautiful healthy girls to promote my products increases my sales. What is the problem here? Don't tell me you've never used your feminine wiles to get what you want."

Gabrielle stopped. He certainly had her there. "Never this naked," she fumed. "Besides, how am I going to fight if my bosom keeps falling out of my clothes!"

Salmoneus raised an appreciative eyebrow. "Well...that would certainly distract me..." She lunged for his throat once more.

Antipany grabbed the protesting bard around the waist and pushed her to the door. "You make a great siren. Now let's go, we're going to be late."

"Antipany," Gabrielle protested. "Surely you can't approve of this."

"Gabrielle, it's a sad fact that in this world the strong rule. That means men call the shots, Xena and her ilk excepted. So no, I don't see anything wrong in using our feminine ploys to get what we want."

"But to use your body..."

"I'm talking about using your brain," Antipany interrupted; finally getting the recalcitrant bard pushed out the door.

The entourage entered by the servants' door at the side of the palace. Salmoneus had brought along five other young women and two young men besides Gabrielle and Antipany. With the others dressed in clothing covering even less than hers, she had stopped trying to pull down her skirt while holding up her bodice and just accepted the inevitable. She carried her staff, disguised with bright streamers and gaily festooned with flowers and leaves.

They set up in a large room off the great dining hall. The group would be part of the after dinner entertainment. Carnus was entertaining about thirty dinner guests in the dining hall. Gabrielle and Antipany went off to find Xena. "How come you didn't have to dress like this," complained Gabrielle to Antipany who still wore her cloak.

"Because I'm too pale, too skinny, and most importantly, too old," she replied. "Besides I'm the nutrilogist."

"You're what?"

"I advise people on what to eat and what potions and elixirs to use to increase their strength, virility, and longevity."

"No offense, but you're not the picture of health." Gabrielle studied the pale gaunt face walking beside her.

"I think I look pretty good for being a hundred and ninety four summers old," Antipany replied as she peered around a corner. "Salmoneus said the dungeon should be down those stairs."

Gabrielle stared at her. "You're not really..." Antipany just smiled as she headed for the stairs. "...Nah" said the bard as she followed. There had been a large contingent of guards outside, but not many posted indoors and they met no one until they tried the heavy wooden door to the dungeon and found it locked.

Gabrielle looked at Antipany. "Well," she smiled. "I guess this is where we use our feminine talents." She knocked on the door, glancing down at her clothes. There was no need to adjust them, exposing anymore would take all the mystery out of it.

A scowling face peered out of the small barred window in the door. "What do you want," he demanded.

Gabrielle leaned forward. "Carnus sent us to entertain you," she breathed.

He stared at her fresh eager young face then dropped his gaze lower. "Just a minute." The face disappeared.

"You've done this before," Antipany remarked as a key turned into the lock and the door flew open. Gabrielle ignored her. They walked in to the hoots and whistles of six burly guards and an argument started as to who would be entertained first.

"Wait a minute boys," Antipany said as she stepped in front of the bard. "There's a little floor show before the main event. Gather round here and keep a sharp eye out." She reached into her cloak and pulled out a small sphere. Breathing on it, the sphere started spinning on the palm of her hand, bright colors blinking on and off. She held it up in front of the guards and slowly took her hand away. The sphere remained suspended in the air still spinning. The guards stared at it mesmerized. "Look at it fellas and my friend here will tell you a nice story." Turning to Gabrielle she whispered, "Tell them the one you told Peisander."

"But that's so bor..." the bard started to protest, then the light dawned. "Right, that's a wonderful story." She began to speak in a soothing monotonous voice. A glaze soon settled over the guards' eyes. After carefully removing the keys from the captain's waist Antipany headed down to the cells to look for Xena.

Xena woke from her nap and tried to move. Damnation, she thought. She was manacled to the cell wall arms outstretched, feet manacled to the floor, weapons and armor gone. Her reputation had preceded her. There were downsides to being so famous. Well, this made things a little more difficult but not impossible. She studied the manacles binding her limbs knowing it was time to get out of here, the party was probably in full swing by now. Suddenly she stopped and listened. And frowned, hearing a familiar voice. Gabrielle. Footsteps echoed down the corridor. Xena relaxed waiting for her chance to ambush the unsuspecting chump.

"Hey princess, how's it going. This is a switch isn't it? Me rescuing you." Antipany unlocked the cell door and entered. "Now I know you could probably just rip those chains right out of the wall, but let's leave a little mystery in your escape, all right?"

Xena watched alertly as the sorceress entered and walked up to her. She saw Antipany's eyes start to smolder and her hands began to glow. There wasn't much she could do to dodge bolts in her fettered condition. Hades, this wasn't the time or place for a confrontation, she thought. "Do you really want to face Kryptus without me?" she asked mildly.

The fire died as quickly as it had begun. Antipany put her hands on Xena's waist and banged her head against the warrior's chest several times. "Why...can't...I go?" she asked through clenched teeth.

Xena moved her chin out of the way. "Aren't you supposed to do that against a stone wall?" she asked, clearly annoyed.

"That would hurt too much," said the sorceress, searching through the two dozen keys for one that would unlock the manacles. Exasperated, she threw them on the ground and reaching into her cloak, pulled out a long thin piece of metal. Inserting it into the lock, she jiggled it and the manacle snapped open.

"I'm getting mixed messages here," Xena said as Antipany repeated the process with the other manacles. "Every time we meet, you practically beg me to put you out of your misery and yet you can't stand a little discomfort."

"There's a big difference between death and pain, princess," said Antipany. "Death I don't mind, it's the suffering part I can do without." She picked up the keys and locked the cell door when they walked out. As they walked down the corridor Antipany explained what was going on upstairs.

"...Tele got himself invited to the party. I guess Carnus is a big fan of Apollo or maybe he just doesn't want to tick off any of the gods. Anyway, he's going to see if he can get Carnus to give him a tour of the place. Gabrielle and I have to get back upstairs before we're missed..."

Xena stopped abruptly. "What did you do!" she exclaimed.

Antipany looked at her frowning. "I wish people would stop saying that." Then looked to where Gabrielle was entertaining the troops. They still stood mesmerized around the spinning ball with the bard droning on. Droning on, staring at the ball, eyes glazed.

Xena turned on the sorceress, eyes flashing. Antipany backed up hands up in front of her. "Now wait a minute princess. This could be a good thing." She backed into the corridor further. "Look, in this state you can suggest something to a spellbound person and he'll do it. Watch." Going over to the bard she said quietly, "Gabrielle get down on your hands and knees and go over to Xena." The bard complied. "Now come back," she ordered. Gabrielle scooted back. The warrior raised an eyebrow at the view from the back. How did they talk her into wearing that, she wondered.

Xena watched with interest. "So if I told her to stay somewhere, she would really stay put? That could be useful."

"Yes. She would stay exactly where you put her. She wouldn't move if her life depended on it."

"Oh," Xena frowned. "Well, it was a nice thought." She looked thoughtfully at the guards and then the cells behind her, then spoke to the men. "Men, anyone who comes down those stairs is the enemy. You will disa..." She stopped as Antipany gestured at her wildly. She made a motion of cutting off her arm. Xena nodded. She didn't want a bunch of people running around without their upper appendages. "You will take away their weapons and lock them up in the cells. Do you understand?" The guards nodded, muttering about enemies and weapons and cells.

Xena found her weapons and armor and donned them. Antipany returned the keys to the captain's waist. Telling Gabrielle to follow, Xena and Antipany headed back up the stairs. As they were leaving, the sorceress clapped her hands and the ball disappeared.

"How long will this last?" Xena asked.

"I don't know," the sorceress admitted. Xena raised an eyebrow. "Look princess, it's not like I spellbind folks everyday. Actually, this is only the second time."

"Great." They stopped on the stairs. Antipany faced Gabrielle and said, "Gabrielle, when I snap my fingers you will wake up." She snapped her fingers. Nothing happened. Xena started making impatient noises behind her. Antipany thought for a second then abruptly slapped the bard's face.

"Hey," Xena protested.

Gabrielle looked startled, then slapped the sorceress back. "What did you do that for?" she asked looking annoyed.

"It's a long story," Antipany replied rubbing her face. "We need to get back to the party."

They reached the top of the steps. "I'm going to start searching for the Soul Catcher," Xena said. As she turned to go she paused, "Oh, by the way Gabrielle. Nice dress." And caught her breath as the bard smiled, flung her left hand behind her head and did a little bump-and-grind. She shook her head, laughing softly, making a mental note to thank Salmoneus although he would never know exactly what for and took off down the hall.

Chapter 6

Telamedes took another sip of wine and nodded politely as he listened to Carnus wax poetic about his box collection. The merchant had boasted he had over four thousand of the containers and the priest thought he had been shown at least a thousand of them since dinner. Only three thousand to go. Big boxes, little boxes, silver boxes, gold boxes, about the only type of box he hadn't seen was a plain oak one. Telamedes just couldn't see the attraction. What was the point?

Xena stealthily made her way to the far end of the palace away from the party. Rich tapestries hung from the walls. Expensive furnishings filled the rooms. She made her way from room to room checking each box getting madder as she went. Ostentatious wealth irritated her. So when the two guards interrupted her search, she wasn't in a particularly good mood. She surprised them as they walked into the room side by side. Jumping up she caught each under the chin with a boot. On the way down she threw rapid-fire punches to their noses. Two hands, two noses, just right. Spinning, she swept a boot across their faces. Face right. Spinning the other direction she brought a boot across their faces again. Face left. Two uppercuts. Face up. Then watched in satisfaction as they fell over backwards in unison. She hauled them to the dungeon stairs and gently tossed them down to the bottom into the waiting arms of the guards, where they were promptly disarmed and thrown into a cell. Frustration partly satisfied, she continued her search.

Gabrielle had persuaded Salmoneus to let her explore on her own. Secretly relieved, he had made only token objections. He was afraid she would deck the first customer with wandering hands she met and that would blow their cover. It was just her bad luck that the first room she entered was stacked floor to ceiling with scrolls. Her being spellbound again had nothing to do with Antipany.

Antipany was kept busy with partygoers asking her advice on a multitude of concerns. Citing the need for privacy she took them into different rooms where she could covertly hunt for the box while providing her consultations. She took a gaunt, nervous young man into yet another room and they talked while looking at the display of fine art and sculptures. "I just don't have any energy anymore," he complained. "Surely there is some powder that will help." Antipany studied him for a moment. Eat something, you idiot, she thought, not that she would ever take her own advice. Nodding, she reached into her cloak and pulled out a packet. "Take two pinches of this and make a tea. Drink it before each meal. It's a powder made from the molting of Hermes' wings. You'll be zipping around before you know it. Very rare, very potent," she assured him. "Of course it costs a little more..." she said apologetically He handed her a bag full of dinars and took the powder, satisfied with his find. I'm in the wrong profession, she thought as she slipped the bag into her cloak. Not finding the elusive box she wandered back to the party.

"What are you giving these people?" Salmoneus asked her nervously. "You know it's not good business to kill the customers."

"Well, so far I've handed out powders made from Hermes' wings, Aphrodite's toenail clippings, and Zeus' beard trimmings. Hercules' hair has gone over well, but you know the big seller is Minotaur testicles. Why do you guys have such a hang-up about your virility?"

He shook his head. "Just tell me you're not killing the customers."

"Relax, it's just herbs. Although that offensive windbag over there might be feeling a little under the weather tomorrow," she said indicating a richly dressed man who was bragging on his stable of slave girls to anyone who would listen.

Salmoneus clapped his hands to his face. "What did you do!" he said horrified.

This was really getting annoying. "Nothing," she snapped. "I just gave him some oil from castor tree seeds, he could use a little purging. I'm going to find Gabrielle. She's been gone too long." With that she stormed out of the room.


Xena's frustration knew no bounds. She had searched what seemed to be a hundred rooms and the Soul Catcher was no where to be found. Opening one door had revealed her companion deeply engrossed in a text. Relieved that Gabrielle was staying out of trouble, she shut the door quietly and left the bard to her reading. Not even throwing ten guards down the dungeon steps helped her growing ire. Any servants she ran across also got escorted to the dungeon steps although they were allowed to walk down. The only other interesting thing she found was a set of accounts indicating Carnus ran a very lucrative slave trade. Learning that a new group of slaves were housed in pens on the grounds, she decided to make a slight change in their plans. She sighed. The next step would be to confront the merchant himself, something they had all hoped to avoid.


Telamedes made it through the second thousand boxes before he could no longer stand any more. Finally in desperation he had asked Carnus flat out if he owned a plain oak box but the merchant had denied it. In one room he had spied Xena skulking in the shadows and he shook his head in response to her inquisitive look. She did not look happy and that worried him, he could sense a full blown battle brewing. When a servant finally distracted Carnus, he quickly excused himself and hurried down the hall.

Wandering through the corridors he rounded a corner and stopped. Antipany was standing in the hall holding an ornate box and examining the insides. Coming up behind her was a guard intent on grabbing a thief. Telamedes was in a bind. Never a violent man, he had somehow made it through this violent world without lifting a finger against another human being. Without thinking, he strode forward pulling a tapestry off the wall and threw it over the startled guard, knocking him to the ground, then sat on him.

Antipany whirled around startled. She looked in amazement at the squirming tapestry covered figure and then at the large priest sitting proudly on top. "What did you do!" she said in dismay. Gods, it felt good to be able to say that to some else for a change.

"He was coming after you, Antipany. I had to do something."

"And now that you have him, what are you going do with him? Knock him out, kill him?"

He stared at her appalled at the thought. Suddenly she grabbed a vase and smashed it over the covered figure. "Owww..." howled the tapestry.

"Why are you smashing pottery on his feet?" the priest asked puzzled.

Antipany counted slowly to ten, and made it all the way to three before abruptly grabbing a companion vase and smashing it over the head of the covered figure. Following Antipany's instructions Telamedes picked the up unconscious guard, carried him to the dungeon steps and rolled him down. He watched in amazement as the dungeon guard scooped him up and carried him away.

"Let's find Xena," she said before he could ask. "We need a new plan." The warrior soon found them. She led them to where Gabrielle was still absorbed with the scrolls. Startled by their entrance, she dropped the scroll and looking a bit guilty said, "Well, the Soul Catcher isn't in this room."

"It isn't anywhere in this building," replied Xena. "The party's breaking up and it won't be long before Carnus notices a lot of his employees are missing, so I guess I need to have a little heart to heart talk with him. I found this in one of the bedrooms, Gabrielle. Put it on."

Gabrielle held up the garment. It was a thin short robe. As she slipped it on, she smiled. "Didn't like the tunic as much as you thought?"

"I just want it to be a fair fight," the warrior said dryly, avoiding the bard's eyes. "Let's go find Carnus. Telamedes, go tell Salmoneus to leave." Telamedes slipped out of the room.

Chapter 7

They made their way to the balcony overlooking the great hall. It ran around three walls and had several exits leading to stairways and other rooms. A large chandelier hung from the middle of the ceiling held in place by five ropes. Carnus was bidding his last guests goodbye. Salmoneus hurried out to get his payment.

"Ah, Salmoneus, wonderful party wasn't it." The short portly merchant was contentedly polishing one of his boxes with his sleeve. "It's been a profitable day, my friend. Thirty slaves in the pens and the piss de resistance..."

"That's piece," Salmoneus muttered.


" Ah, I believe the term is piece de resistance," Salmoneus explained apologetically.

"Whatever," said the merchant waving a soft hand. "The icing on the cake is that Xena is in my dungeon. I should be able to get a hundred thousand dinars for her capture."

Salmoneus whistled. "That much!" His eyes reflected brief sadness at lost opportunities, and then he shook his head to clear it. "I really must get my boys and girls home, Carnus. They need their beauty sleep you know." A large sack of dinars exchanged hands and Salmoneus headed out of the room in unseemly haste. The merchant was too busy counting his profits to notice.

Xena pointed out the ropes to the other women. "Let's surprise him. Untie a rope and let's swing down there." Gabrielle moved around the balcony and proceeded to untie a rope. Xena untied the rope next to her, then noticed that Antipany had not budged from the wall. "What are you waiting for?" she asked softly.

"For Tartarus to freeze over," retorted the sorceress. "I have this small problem with heights, princess. I don't like them, so if you think I'm flying off the edge, think again." She turned and started for a stairwell. "I'll see you downst..."

Anyone but Antipany probably would have been allowed to use the stairs. Grabbing the rope in one hand and the cloak at the nape of Antipany's neck with the other, the warrior launched herself off the balcony dragging the sorceress with her. Down they flew.

"Nooooooo......" Antipany screamed, closing her eyes and instinctively curling up in a ball. Carnus looked up in amazement as a screaming ball of cloth came hurling toward him. His brain told him to move a split second before his feet could obey. It was much too long an interval. The ball hit him squarely in the back then landed on top of him as he fell face down.

Xena let go of the sorceress just before she slammed into the portly merchant. Landing gracefully on her feet, she tied the rope off. Gabrielle joined her on the floor seconds later. Xena walked over to Antipany who was now sitting up still on top of the merchant, shaking uncontrollably and holding her head in her hands. "Don't call..." Xena began.

" princess. Yes, I know. Prin...ah, Xena, you are a cruel woman," Antipany gasped. She clutched at her chest. "Gabrielle, please go get my heart. I left it up on the balcony."

Xena frowned. "Have you gained weight since we left the temple?" For some reason the sorceress seemed a lot heavier. Antipany reached in her cloak and brought out a bag of dinars. "As the man said, it's been a profitable day." The shaking had subsided somewhat.

Telamedes burst into the room. "We have company, Xena." Indeed they did. When they were not relieved, some of the outside guard had come in to see what was wrong and rushed to the great hall when they heard the scream. Six guardsmen burst into the room. The smart one ran back out to get reinforcements.

Xena grabbed Telamedes, wanting to get him out of danger. "Wait in that hallway," she said pointing to the hall leading to the dungeon stairs. "When we throw a guard over there, take him to the stairs and toss him down. Don't go down there yourself," she warned.

He nodded, knowing he wouldn't be much good in a fight. He hurried over to the doorway, patting Antipany on the shoulder as he went by. The sorceress nodded gratefully at Xena then looked around for something to hide behind. She gave up on the idea when she realized her quaking legs wouldn't cooperate, so she remained seated on the unconscious merchant.

As the men rushed her, Xena leaped up the rope Gabrielle had left hanging and swung in a circle, running across the guards' faces. Dropping down, she grabbed the first one and sent him flying back to Gabrielle who with quick blows across his face and body with her staff propelled the hapless man back to the priest. Xena grabbed the second man and sent him flying past Antipany who barely glanced up as she fired off a bolt of energy sending the guard to join his buddy at the priest's feet. Telamedes grabbed one in each big hand and started off down the hall.

The other three recovered enough to rush her with swords ready. Drawing her own sword, she parried all three at once, then smacked one on the nose with the hilt of her sword, planted an elbow into the back of another propelling him over to Gabrielle who disarmed him with a hit to his sword hand and knocked the wind out of him with a vicious jab into his stomach. Circling behind him, she planted a foot on his rear end and sent him sprawling in the doorway. Another guard flew by Antipany who again casually pointed a hand and blasted him as he went by. The priest hurried back only to find two more customers waiting. Sighing, he picked them up. "Wouldn't this be simpler if we just fought them by the dungeon steps?" he suggested, heading down the hall.

Xena finished off the last guard with a sweeping kick. "Good point. Antipany, get up. Gabrielle, wake that pompous piece of dung up." Antipany stood up and headed down the hall after Telamedes. Gabrielle found a wine flagon and dumped it on the merchant. He sat up sputtering. "Wha...what happened?" His struggle to stand up was assisted by the point of a sword digging into his throat.

"Not very hospitable are you Carnus. Remember me?" He looked up the length of the sword into the unforgiving icy blue eyes of the warrior.

"Ah...Xena. It was nothing personal, just a little business," he shrugged. "What do you want? I'll pay you anything you want to leave and we'll just call it even. All right?"

"Oh, I want something, all right." She picked up a small porcelain box. "What I'm looking for is a plain, and I mean plain, oak box. If you don't give it to me, I'm going to turn this useless piece of junk into a useless pile of powder."

He paled. "That's a priceless piece from the Far East," he wailed. "I don't have a plain oak box. Each of my boxes has a unique design, why would I have a plain oak box?"

Xena had to believe him. She put the delicate box down, cursing. Grabbing the guard, she pointed to the doorway. "Let's go." Relieved his box was safe, the merchant followed without protest. As they headed down the hall, they could hear footsteps pounding behind them. They hurried to the dungeon steps where Antipany and Telamedes waited. Xena propelled the guard down the steps and told Carnus to join him. She left him with one last warning. "I don't like slavers, Carnus. If you have any thoughts of coming after my friends or me I will destroy you. I won't kill you, but I will strip you of your wealth." This was a fate worse than death for the merchant. He nodded having no intention of tangling with the warrior again. A shrewd businessman knows when to cut his loses. As he went into the dungeon they could hear his startled protests as he was escorted to a cell.

"You three go on and leave by the kitchen door. The slave pens are back there. I'll catch up with you as soon as I've taken care these guys." Xena waited alertly for the men pounding down the hall to reach her. Then realized someone was still behind her. She closed her eyes briefly in frustration. "Gabrielle, get out of here," she ordered. The bard rested a hand on her companion's arm. "I go when you go," she said. They didn't have time to argue about it. Xena looked around liking the idea of a spellbound bard more and more. She picked up a long bench. "Stand by the stairs and be ready," she instructed the bard.

A long line of guards ran down the hall toward them. When the first came at her, Xena blocked his sword with the bench, then drew back and used the plank to sweep him to the stair where he tripped over a strategically placed staff and fell backward down the steps. Block, sweep, trip. Block, sweep, trip. Like a well-oiled assembly line the guards tumbled down the steps only to be disarmed and herded into a cell. Block, sweep, trip. The last man in the line, the smart one, stopped and throwing his sword back over his shoulder, shrugged and simply walked down the steps. Xena and Gabrielle ran back to the kitchen.

Antipany and Telamedes made it part way through the kitchen before running into trouble. One of the cooks, already tired out from his long day, was in no mood to have his kitchen invaded. Screaming at them he charged waving a very large knife. A startled Antipany blasted him with a more powerful bolt than she intended and the man flew back hitting a large sack of flour. Flour flew furiously coating everyone.

Choking and coughing on the flour, Telamedes made his way over to the man who was sprawled awkwardly over a variety of crates. Straightening him out, the priest was relieved to see the cook was still breathing and had a good pulse. Telamedes pulled boxes out from under the dazed cook and helped him sit up. He started to stand up then stared at the scarred worn box at his feet. The plain oak box the flour had been sitting on. He picked it up and wiped the flour off. The dog outlined by fire was barely visible on the bottom.

Antipany looked at the box then sighed, resting her head on the priest's shoulder. "Do you get the feeling we spend a great deal of our lives chasing our tails?" she asked.

Gabrielle and Xena ran into the kitchen. Telamedes held up the box. "Found it," he said. Xena looked at him in disbelief. Muttering to herself she examined the bulky box then silently handed it to Antipany who tucked it away in her cloak.

"How does she do that?" Gabrielle asked the priest as they all walked out the door.

He shrugged. "I don't know. There's something weird about that cloak."

Chapter 8

It was well into the night by the time they walked out of the palace. Stopping at the slave pens, Xena broke the locks and woke the people up, giving them the choice of staying or returning to their villages.

"I just want to point out that by setting them free you are stealing property," Antipany said.

"Slavery is wrong," Gabrielle said hotly.

Antipany shrugged. "It may be wrong, but it is legal. Are you above the law Gabrielle? I know Xena thinks she is."

"Sometimes you just have to go with your conscience," Gabrielle said going to help those who wanted to leave get ready.

"Yes, you do," said the sorceress softly as she watched Gabrielle walk off. "I just hope you understand that when the time comes to settle with Xena."

They raided the palace to get food and supplies and then escorted the group out of town. To their surprise they met Salmoneus on his way out of the city. "Where are you going?" Gabrielle asked.

"Hellooo... I don't want to be around when Carnus figures out who set him up. Besides, I was getting tired of this gig anyway. Ambrrr can run the spa. I heard of this new idea of taking a long strip of wood, hallowing it out and filling it with hay. Then you tack it up on stone walls. They call it 'siding'. Catchy, huh, and I can get in on the ground floor. Which way are you headed?"


"Oh that's too bad, I'm headed south. Well, see you around," he said waving as he hastened down the road. He would have gone in any direction but north.

It was dawn when they reached the gates of the city and the ex-slaves broke up into groups and headed in all directions. As they left Antipany reached in her cloak and gave each group of travelers a bag of dinars, courtesy of Carnus she told them. Soon only the three of them remained. Xena had gone to retrieve the horses and get their belongings. "Aren't you breaking some law by giving them money?" Gabrielle asked.

"Funny thing about laws, my friend. Seems like they only to apply to other people. Look at Xena. They apply to you only if you get caught." Antipany was staring off to the north. "Anyway, money won't help us where we're going. Nothing will." She shivered.

Xena returned and urged them to saddle up. "I know we're tired, but I want to put some distance between us and Lamissa in case Carnus changes his mind."

Gabrielle groaned inwardly, but smiled as she grabbed Xena's hand and was hoisted up behind the warrior. Xena made a small concession by hanging her sword and scabbard on the saddle. They rode down the road, Telamedes riding beside the warrior, Antipany trailing behind on Circe. She was soon dozing, trusting her surefooted pony to follow the other horses. It didn't take Gabrielle long to follow suit, resting her head against Xena's back and for once Argo didn't take advantage of the situation. As her hands began to loosen around her companion's waist, Xena held them firmly against her stomach to prevent the bard from falling off.

Telamedes looked at them and smiled. Some people just belonged together. He glanced back. And some people were just too pigheaded to admit it. He sighed.

"Apollo given you any words of wisdom yet, Telamedes?" Xena asked, interrupting his thoughts.

"Only of death, destruction, and despair," the priest responded.

Xena grunted. Finally a fight she understood better than any other did. Kryptus would show no mercy, they would offer none. Her hand tightened over the bards. Telamedes noted the gesture.

"You can't decide her fate for her, Xena, she must do that for herself. Locking her away somewhere is not an option."

"It was just a thought," Xena said smiling. "Why won't she stay out of harm's way?"

"Because you won't stay out of harm's way. Her life is so intertwined with yours that the two can not be separated. We all make choices in life and she has chosen you. Why is that so hard for you to accept?"

"It's going to get her killed." Xena's countenance darkened.

"Then she'll die happy. But cheer up, our choices don't have to be permanent. She could leave your side anytime. Sack a few villages, murder a few innocent people, and slap her around a little. I'll bet you could make her choose to leave."

Xena frowned. The idea didn't cheer her up at all. "So you think we have some control over our destinies?"

"I don't think our actions are preordained. We decide what is important in our lives and then we take action to make it a reality. For you it was power. You became a ruthless warlord to achieve power and you were brilliant at it. Carnus also lives for power, but he gets his through accumulating more wealth than he'll ever use, not winning battles. You decided to change your life and now you follow a different path. In fact, we could turn around and go home. But we won't because the path you now travel won't let you tolerate a sickness like Kryptus."

Xena said nothing. Maybe Telamedes was right and she had far more say in her life than she thought. Glancing down at the trusting arms encircling her she realized it wasn't a universal truth. There are rare times in life when there is really no choice at all. Still, she would get great satisfaction in sending Kryptus into the eager arms of Hades. Grimly they rode on to meet the fate they had chosen.

Oct, 1997

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