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Rita Spenser looked up from the chart, fire lighting her brown eyes. "Why wasnít I called about this incident with Ms. Remington? I thought Iíd made it very clear that I was to be notified for anything out of the ordinary." The morning staff shifted uneasily. Irritating the Neurology Chief of Staff was not a good idea. The nursing head, Anita Wills, approached the fuming physician. She had a good ten years of age on Rita and was more than acquainted with the good doctorís temperament.

"May I see that?" Anitaís hand was outstretched toward Rita and the metal backed chart.

Rita sighed and delivered the object into the nurseís waiting hands. "And just what is it youíre looking for... confirmation of my standing order?"

"No, Dr.Spenser. I want to see who was on duty last night." Ms. Wills was unfazed by the seething woman before her... sheíd seen it all before. She quickly scanned the pages, eyebrow lifting and head slowly nodding. "Hmmm... seems one of the newer nurses was on last night. From her notes, Liz demonstrated a very slight fluctuation in her sinus rhythm. She promptly called the night resident..." She paused and looked directly into those warm brown eyes. "...your resident, I might add, and passed the call to him." She handed the chart back to the doctor. "So, if you wish to chew some butt this morning, I suggest you start with your boy... and lighten up on my nursing staff. Iíll have a word with them to make sure they fully understand your orders."

Rita calmed herself before speaking. She had a tremendous respect for Anita Wills, but she was still the big dog in the room and would have the last word.

"Be sure they do." She scribbled a few orders on Lizís chart and handed it to Anita. In an icy tone, she asked, "Now... where may I find Dr. Hunter?"

One of the staff nurses ratted the poor man out. "I believe heís in the residentís room. Heís been up for nearly 36 hours straight and is trying to get some rest."

Rita pushed herself away from the desk and prepared to leave the nursing station. "Well, you know what they say... no rest for the weary." She stepped around the end of the counter and strolled toward the room down the hall. Dr. Hunter was about to have a very bad morning. The ICU staff watched with a feeling of empathy for the resident. This was mixed with relief that Dr. Spenserís ire wasnít directed at them. The stillness slowly became a low buzz of conversation as they went about caring for their charges. The routine was so automatic as to be incredibly boring. Silently, every one of them knew all hell could break out without warning... shattering the routine in the well-orchestrated, heart pumping frenzy of a full Ďcode.í This morning they welcomed the boredom.

Liz was dreaming... at least she thought that she was dreaming. Everything was so real... the sounds... the smells. She was standing on the dock at the Dunes in Key West. It was that night so long ago that she and Sam had celebrated her birthday. She turned in expectation, knowing... just knowing... Sam would be walking up to her with a glass of champagne. A figure was approaching... a blonde woman. Lizís heart reacted, the rate increasing. But something wasnít quite right. The woman had a dark man in tow with her as they strolled to the end of the dock. Ares and Callisto ambled to the railing, the ocean breeze flowing through tosseled manes of hair. They positioned themselves one on either side of Liz. She watched in silence, knowing this wasnít right, but felt powerless to stop the dream... she wanted desperately to run... her thought audible to the two gods.

Callisto looked hurt and formed her lips into a pout. "Now, dearie, why would you want to run?"

"Yes, she does have a point. What would you be running back to? ... a pathetic life of longing and grief?" Ares peered into the dark sky, sighing heavily. In an off-handed way, he laid out his first card in this hand of emotional poker. "You know, if it werenít for Xena and that bitch, Gabrielle, Sam would still be alive... alive and with you." He arched a brow and brought his fingers to his pouty lips.

Callisto upped the ante," Yes... itís true. She would be with you right now... skin next to yours... hands caressing every inch of your body...." She hesitated, letting the image grip Lizís mind, then ripped it away, mercilessly. "...but sheís dead, shot down like a dog on the street." In a very catty voice, she hissed. "Why... you didnít even get to say goodbye, did you?"

Liz didnít know why these two were tormenting her, but she knew they were wrong... they had to be wrong.

"No!! Thatís not right. Because of Gabrielle and Xena I met Sam... and because of them I was allowed to finally say goodbye to her... to exchange vows and rings with her. Youíre not telling the truth... youíre trying to confuse me." Liz was barely in control of her emotions. What they were saying couldnít be true.

Ares put his arm around her shoulders and drew close to her ear, speaking in a low, even tone.

"Oh, is that so?" He took her hand from the railing, examining her fingers. "Where is that ring now? Hmmmm... lost? Or perhaps it was never there... perhaps a trick? As I see it, they contributed directly to Samís untimely and I might add, rather painful, messy, death by putting you on that street at that precise moment." He released her shoulder, leaned on the railing and continued his insinuation. "But, if thatís what you choose to believe..." He let the words dangle. "All I can say is none of this has to remain like it is."

Liz blinked back the tears in her eyes. She looked at her hand. Where was her ring? The vagueness of Aresí statement caused her to shift uneasily. "What do you mean?"

Callisto took up the gauntlet. "Heís saying... we can help change all that... bring that little girlfriend of yours back from the dead... back where sheís all warm... wet... and ummmm... you know..."

Liz stepped back from the two forms, tears in her eyes, desperation in her heart, desire to acquiesce nearly on her lips.

"Nooo... please... stop... no more." Liz put her palms over her ears trying to halt the onslaught. Ares pressed.

"Think about it... that beautiful, luscious blonde once again in your arms... the love of your life breathing again... loving again." He knew he was almost there... just a bit further. "She can be yours again, Liz. And it will be so easy... all you have to do is make the parties really responsible pay. I mean... they are the sole reason Sam is food for the worms... now arenít they? Use your mind. Donít you remember your first meeting with Xena?"

Liz blinked and vividly remembered her first encounter with the Warrior Princess. Her life had been in jeopardy that night. The hoodlum, Grackus, had her strung up like and animal and was taking great delight in abusing her. Xena had appeared at the last possible moment rescuing her. Liz was teetering on the very edge of reason. She tried to defend her relationship with Xena and Gabrielle. "She saved my life that night, and she didnít have to."

Ares rolled his eyes and sadly shook his head. "Oh please... she didnít save you out of the goodness of her heart. She needed you to help Gabrielle. Believe me, Xena would have been just as happy to let that road slime finish you. You meant nothing more to her than a means to an end. If it had come down to saving you or blondie... well, you might as well kissed your ass goodbye." He let the words sink into Lizís mind like poison into an open wound then continued his attack. "Xena always resented your presence here. She blamed you for Gabrielleís woes and was fully intent on making you pay. Sheís still irritated that you keep popping up. Youíre like this bad dinar that will not go away. Donít confuse her politeness with acceptance. Not so deep down, she doesnít like you very much. I wouldnít be surprised if she were waiting for an opportunity to finally run you through."

Lizís certainty about her friendship with Xena and the bard was beginning to waver. An irrational self-doubt was taking hold of her judgement She was allowing twisted rationale to make sense.

Ares threw out a bit more for Liz to ponder. "You know, all that time shifting back and forth wasnít a good idea. It has really screwed with the timing in your real life. You thought nothing of sacrificing your future by helping those two, and it has resulted in you and Sam being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As I see it, you have only one choice. Xena and Gabrielle have to go. They are the main reason, like Iíve said. Without them, youíll be free. No more waking up here ...helping two ungrateful users. Your life will be as it was... all of it."

Lizís pain was making her mind actually listen to all this. Yes, Xena and Gabrielle were the reason Sam was gone... so many Ďifsí conspired to place them on that street that night. If just one thing had been different, then Sam would be living... one thing... the main thing... yes... change the main thing.

Callisto played the final card. She stood behind Liz, her breath on the womanís neck, her hands barely touching sweaty skin. As she brushed lips to skin, she whispered, "You canít tell me you donít miss her."

Lizís response barely escaped her dry lips. "Yes... I miss her... I... miss her."

Ares was overjoyed and jumped to seal the bargain quickly. "Good... then we are agreed. You can have what you want, Liz. All we need is for you to do us a small, insignificant favor. Itís nothing really... youíll hardly be inconvenienced." With a snap of his fingers, three goblets appeared. He handed one to the numb mortal.

"Here, letís drink to uh... love and happiness." He waited for Liz to sip the liquid. She hesitated.

"What do I have to do?" The question was simple, her good sense trying to save her... but it hardly mattered. Liz had decided to do whatever it took... her pain was so deep and inconsolable.

Ares and Callisto stood either side of her again, assisting the cup to her lips. The god of war had the last word.

"Donít worry your little head about the details. Iíll let you know what and when. Now drink up, and Sam will be with you again very soon."

Liz brought the cup to her lips and let the molten liquid run down her throat. She felt like her soul had been cut from her. The deed was done. She belonged to Ares now...even though she would have no concrete memory of the bargain... just faint whisperings of remembrance. There was no way out of this contract alive.

"You gonna sleep all day?" The voice was familiar, in an irritating sort of way. "Címon, time to open those eyes." The voice now had a pair of hands gently rocking Lizís shoulders. She was still in a quasi-dream state... the words and promise of Ares reeling about in her tortured mind.

"Liz... wake up." Gabrielleís voice once again pierced her consciousness. "Time for breakfast."

Once again, Aresí voice teased her. "You can have Sam back... just make the responsible parties pay... Iíll tell you how and when."

Liz was trying to fight. It was too late, she had already agreed. Yet, she felt a tremendous sadness in losing Gabrielle and Xena. This just didnít feel right... how could she possibly do what he wanted?

Callistoís seductive voice joined that of Ares. "You wonít have to miss her any longer."

Another shake to her shoulder brought Liz almost to the waking realm... the voices and uneasiness fading but leaving a hidden trigger behind... like broken barb of a fish hook under the skin. In a jolt, she made the final leap to full consciousness, her eyes snapping open, her heart pounding. She was slightly disoriented and defensively swatted Gabrielleís hand away. She had the look of a trapped feral animal... pupils dilated.

Her reaction took Gabrielle by surprise, and she backed away. "Liz... itís ok, itís me, Gabrielle. Youíre in the Amazon village... remember?"

Liz blinked at the bard. Yes... she knew this woman, but now she was mildly repulsed by the sight of her. Lizís mind tried to quell the foreign hostility building in her core. ĎThis isnít right... she is my friend... my friend.í

"Gabrielle... sorry... I was having a bad dream." Liz was doing her best to believe her own words. Her throat was parched and raw. She absently ran her hand over the front of her neck, massaging the supporting muscle structures. It almost felt like someone had tried to strangle her.

"Liz, are you all right?" Gabrielleís voice was genuinely concerned.

"Yes, I just need some water. My throat is really dry." Rather than tell Gabrielle about a vague dream, she lied. "Itís from snoring... I do it all the time."

Gabrielle wasnít convinced but let it go. "Uh-huh... snoring. Well, Xena and I will be in the food hut when youíre up and about." She stood and prepared to leave Liz to her morning rituals. Stopping at the roomís door, she thought about warning her of Xenaís concerns. But she really didnít want to further piss the warrior off. She was sure Xena was wrong and they could all talk about it over food. "Uh... you remember where the food hut is, right?"

Liz forced a smile. "Sure I do... Iíll just follow my nose and listen for you eating everything in sight. Iíll join you in a few."

Gabrielleís spirits picked up at Lizís poking fun at her eating habits. "Ok... see you in a bit." She shut the door as she exited into the hallway. The smile on Lizís face dissolved, and she sat back on the pallet.

Opposing feelings were actively taking shots at one another in her mind. This was so confusing. She sat for a moment, cradling her head in the palm of her hand.

"Iím losing my fucking mind." She softly mumbled.

Across the compound the day had begun for the village. Amazonís went about their tasks in an unhurried way. Many had been up for hours already putting time in on the training ground. Some were about the village routines, collecting firewood for the cook, doing various repairs, tending the horses, the vegetable gardens and in general, breathing life into a thriving community. It was a co-operative effort, all taking part, all sharing. Liz stepped into the open, taking a moment to orient and watching the movement before her. Several of the women glanced her way, but for the most part, they accepted her presence and went about their business. She made her way toward the food hut, her stomach drawn by the aroma.

"Xena, I tell you youíre wrong about Liz. She couldnít align with Ares, not in a thousand years." Gabrielle was already defending her friend without the benefit of hard evidence. She was giving equal time to talking and eating... it was a difficult decision.

"Gabrielle, Iím not saying that Liz is Ares agent... Iím just saying I Ďfeltí him... and Liz Ďmightí be his target. You always overreact." The warrior looked toward the roomís door. "I thought you said she was on her way over here. Gods, sheís worse than you in the morning."

"Whatís that supposed to mean?" The slice of warm nutbread disappeared into Gabrielleís mouth. "Hmmm...?"

Xena shook her head. "I didnít mean anything by that... at least not anything bad. Itís just that the two of you have a hard time getting motivated in the morning."

Gabrielle took a big gulp of fresh juice nearly spewing it all over Xena. It took a few seconds to get her breath. "Xena! As I recall, you have had a little sumptin to do with my uh... lack of motivation some mornings. It isnít all me you know. Gods.."

"Ok, Iíll take some of the um... heat for that, but whatís Lizís excuse?" Xena waited for a response, a sly smile turning up the corner of her mouth.

"Oh... I dunno... how about nearly dying in the wilderness... losing the love of your life a second time... being jerked into another dimension without warning... having nightmares... hmmm... lessee, did I forget anything? Honestly, Xena, sometimes you amaze me with your... your..." Gabrielle was actually stumped for the correct word.

The warrior offered to complete her sentence. "... my insensitivity?" She reached past Gabrielle to snag a piece of nutbread. "Liz is a strong woman, Gabrielle. She may be a romantic but sheís also in tune with reality. This latest development rings of something serious... and sheíd better take it as such. Thereís no room for self-pity in this place. It will only get someone killed."

Gabrielle started to protest knowing an argument with Xena was usually futile. She sighed heavily trying to think of a rebuttal. It was at that moment that Liz made an appearance in the doorway. A few heads turned to follow her entrance into the room. She made eye contact with Vectra and Kai as she passed their position, nodding good morning. Vectra nodded back... Kai focused coldly. It gave Liz an odd feeling. She had a feeling the two of them would interact... not at this moment... but soon. She acknowledged Xena and Gabrielle, moving to their table. She pulled a vacant chair to the table and had a seat opposite the pair.

"Sorry... guess I was really tired last night. Hope you havenít been waiting long." There was almost a formality in her speech. The usual warmness and familiarity was missing. Xena took this information and combined it with the suspicions she already had. She also took note of the physical distance Liz had set between them. This was not in character for her, and Xenaís honed senses were buzzing. Gabrielle felt ill at ease with the tension and tried to lighten the mood.

"Uh... Liz, you must be starving, how about some fresh nutbread? I know itís one of your favorites." She broke off a large chunk of the bread and passed it to her. Liz took the bread, never looking at Gabrielle. Her eyes were locked on Xenaís.

"Thank you, Gabrielle. I am sorta hungry." She tore a bite and put it to her lips. "Arenít you eating, Xena?"

"Oh, Iíve had plenty this morning." The warrior broke eye contact and raised her goblet to her lips. She was about to get to the point. "Gabrielle tells me you had a nightmare. It didnít involve Ares by any chance?"

Gabrielle continued to buffer the conversation, "Juice?" She poured the liquid into a cup, sliding it toward Liz.

Liz never flinched. "Nightmare? I donít recall saying I had a nightmare, Gabrielle. I said I had a bad dream... not the same thing." She mirrored Xena with her cup. "Donít really remember what the dream was about but Iím sure Iíd recall Ares being in it. Heís kinda hard to miss, yíknow." An involuntary shiver went over her... a shadow of a figure brushed her consciousness for just the most fleeting of a moment. It wasnít even enough for Liz to anchor on... to grasp.

"Yes, I know." Xena wasnít giving up. "Heís here for some reason. I felt him and another yesterday on the path. He has a very distinctive vibration. He canít hide from me."

"And just what does this have to do with me? I assume you are tying me to all this for some reason." Liz stopped eating and looked directly into Xenaís eyes.

Gabrielle cut her eyes at her lover. "I think what Xena is trying to say is that Ares has no scruples and will use whomever he can to continue his little Ďwreck Xenaí crusade." She paused, glaring even more at the warrior. "Right, Xena?"

"Yeah, thatís what Iím saying, Liz. He will use you if he thinks he can. Donít underestimate his ability to manipulate. He will promise you anything. And it will sound so sane at the time. I know from personal experience. So, did your dream concern Ares?" Xena was like a pit bull on a poodle. She never gave up.

Liz was no poodle and her deepest, unnamed ache surpassed any semblance of sanity. "No, it didnít. I told you I donít really remember." She was beginning to dislike Xena... a thought that was, at first, worrisome. But her dislike seemed to be growing of its own accord, like a blemish on oneís first date. It wasnít welcome but there was little you could do about it... save make it worse.

Xena could sense Lizís defenses, and the last thing they all needed was poor communication. "Look, Iím sorry if I was so blunt. But you admit you donít know why youíre here... and feeling Ares yesterday isnít a good sign. I just want you to be aware of the possibility. We care about you Liz and want to help. It wonít do us any good to be at odds with one another."

Gabrielle echoed Xenaís concern. She placed her hand on Lizís arm. "Xenaís right. We do care about you. Thereís a reason youíre here... weíll find it."

Liz slid her arm away from the bardís touch and stood. She needed to get some distance from these two. She tried to sound sincere. "I know youíre just looking out for me. No offense taken, Xena. I think I will take Vectra up on her advice about the training ground. I could use the physical exertion. Iíll see you two later." She snagged the remainder of the nutbread and made her way out of the food hut. Gabrielle was furious with Xena, and, now that Liz had left, she was about to let the warrior have an earful.

"Xena... I canít believe you! You practically accused Liz of lying and consorting with Ares. Whatís wrong with you!? Sheís our friend, remember? Weíre supposed to help her... not go to war with her. Your suspicions arenít helping."

Xena let the bard calm before speaking. "Are you finished?"

"For the moment." Gabrielle said flatly.

"Well, get ready for some real fireworks. Itís not just Ares we have to worry about. That Ďotherí I was talking about is Callisto. This is very, very bad, Gabrielle. And for some reason, Liz is right in the middle. We have to find out what is going on." She let the ĎCallistoí part sink in before continuing. "We canít do that if we are fighting. Donít you see thatís exactly what Ares wants... for you and I to be at odds with one another again? Think about it."

Gabrielleís heart was racing at the mention of Callisto. She took a deep breath. "Ok, I can do this." She whispered and then continued. "Xena I donít understand why they would use Liz. Surely they know weíre on to them by now. Thereís no element of surprise... their plan is ruined. Wonít they just give up now?"

"You know Ares wonít give up. The key is to keep Liz from falling under his spell... if she hasnít already. Thereís something different about her, and itís not for any of the reasons you listed. Something... cold now. I tell you Iíd bet my last dinar that Ares has her... I just donít know for what."

"Xena... no... this canít be right."

"Gabrielle, listen to me. If we are to beat him and Callisto, you and I have to be on the same page. Just keep an eye on her... and watch your back."

"Why canít the gods just leave us alone? Havenít we been through enough?" Gabrielle was near tears in frustration.

Xena pulled her close, wrapping strong arms around her protectively. "Nothing can separate us, Gabrielle... not Ares... Callisto... or the dogs of Hades. I wonít allow it, and if it means fighting Liz... so be it."

Gabrielle extricated herself from Xenaís grasp. She was filled with worry over Ares and Callisto once again meddling in their lives and fearful that Liz and Xena would end up at each other. There had to be away around this.

"Xena, Iím not going to allow Ares to destroy Liz, taking us with her in the process. There will be no fighting... do you hear me? I mean it." The bard stood and moved away from Xena.

"Gabrielle, where are you going?" Xenaís eyes were narrow.

Sighing, Gabrielleís voice softened. "Iím going to the training ground to make sure Liz doesnít offend an Amazon. Sheís acting very weird." She paused, composing herself. "Are you coming?"

"No, I believe you and Vectra can handle anything that might come up. Iím going to go tend to Argo. She needs a good bath, and I need some time to think."

"Whatever." Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders and left the food hut. The tension between she and Xena was very evident to all in the room, although no one was going to mention it out loud. Xena watched Gabrielleís back as she exited.

"Damn!" Xena cursed under her breath. She washed the rest of her irritation away with the fresh juice... wishing it were a mug of port even at this early hour.

Ares and Callisto watched the images in the reflecting pool.

Smugly, Callisto said. "Now what? Youíre little plan has been foiled even before it got off the ground. See, I told you this would never work. That little charade on the dock was for nothing. What a waste of my time!"

Ares tossed a stone in the pool, its ripples obliterating the images.

"By the gods, youíre impatient... deliciously wicked... but impatient all the same. Besides, all youíve got is time. Thatís the allure of being immortal. My plan is proceeding exactly as I envisioned. And if youíd take a moment to think it through, you could see the simple beauty of it all."

Callisto pointed her finger toward the pool... fire arcing from the tip, literally setting the water on fire.

"Oooh... well, since Iím sooo slow, perhaps youíd like to explain the simplicity to me."

Ares spoke in a very condescending tone to Callisto. "Ah... you see the whole point of this is to create suspicion and distrust... which I might add, has worked perfectly. My dear Callisto, before this is over, someone is going to die. It doesnít matter which one or who kills whom. The result will be the same... no more Xena and Gabrielle together. It canít fail... trust me."

"Trusting you is the last thing on my mind." She hissed. "Just make sure it works."



"Dr.James please. This is Dr. Spenser calling in reference to Liz Remington." Ritaís voice was controlled and even into the ear of Randiís admin assistant.

"Yes, just a moment, Dr. Spenser." Maggie put the doctor on hold and buzzed the inner office. "Dr. James... Dr. Spenser on one."

Randi was examining a three thousand-year-old pottery shard... her concentration shattered by Maggieís voice. Carefully but quickly, she placed the artifact back in its protective holder.

She acknowledged the voice. "Thanks, Maggie, Iíve got it." Randi looked at the blinking light on the phone console. This probably wasnít good and she steeled herself for the worst. Gingerly, she depressed the illuminated square and spoke into the receiver.

"Rita? How is she?" Randi had little use for chitchat... especially for this. She wanted the hard truth.

Rita sensed the unspoken words and tried to sound optimistic.

"Randi, relax. This isnít bad news. I just wanted to give you an update."

Randi took a deep breath and willed her heart to slow. "Please tell me Liz is awake and terrorizing the staff." She would have laughed under different circumstances.

Rita felt the same way. "Oh, god, I wish that were true. The woman does have a way about her, doesnít she?"

"Yes, she does. And I want to see that again." Randi paused, interjecting; "Roger is positively lost without her."

"We all are, Randi." Rita let the words comfort her friend before continuing. "Liz had a pretty unremarkable evening with the exception of a minor heart arrhythmia. Itís nothing to worry about. Iíve had the best heart man do a work up on her this morning."

Randi didnít like the sound of the word Ďheartí and Ďarrhythmiaí together. "How can anything connected with the heart be minor?"

Without going into the dry details, Rita put the event in perspective. "Randi, calm down. Sometimes patients react to all the drugs being given to stabilize them. Itís not uncommon and this was an isolated occurrence. The staff is paying special attention to the heart monitoring. Sheís okay."

"No, Rita, she is not okay. Sheís in a coma and you donít know why." Lack of sleep and pure worry was making Randi unusually curt.

"Youíre right, sheís not okay. And I canít find a cause. But sheís stable and her brain function is normal." Ritaís years of experience dealing with families in the eye of disaster allowed her to ignore Randiís panic. "Randi, Iím exploring every avenue. Iíll find the answer and Liz will be her annoying self once again." Rita then said something she rarely verbalized. "I promise."

"Thatís a bold statement coming from you. Iím going to hold you to it. And you know how unpleasant I can get when someone breaks a promise to me." Randi wanted so much to believe Rita could keep this vow, as irrational as it was.

"Iíll do what it takes to keep your wrath off me, Randi. Lord knows I donít want to incite the good Dr. James." Rita smiled to herself, remembering her first encounter with Randiís temper. She thanked the gods it hadnít been directed at her.

It involved an out of town fund-raiser and an overflowing toilet in the hotel room above Randiís. It was almost a scene out of The Amityville Horror...sans blood... water snaking down the walls from the ceiling. Randi politely notified the front desk of the internal waterfall and asked for other accommodations. The night clerk assumed incorrectly he was dealing with a hysterical female and made some vague promise to look into the incident. What he did instead was to ignore her call. It was a big mistake on his part. Randi waited for a call back confirming another room. Meanwhile, the water was beginning to soak the carpet and everything in its path. Randi gathered her luggage and deposited such at the front desk... much to the clerkís surprise. It was at that moment Rita entered the hotel lobby. She was in town to speak at a seminar on brain stem injury and rehabilitation. She walked to the front desk to check in and witnessed Randi reaching critical mass with the insolent clerk. Rita stood back and watched in sheer amazement as Randi dissected the bespeckled clerk. She informed him in no uncertain terms that not only would a new room be assigned her, she would be reimbursed for any damages to her personal property due to the flood. Randi never raised her voice, but her intensity and verve were palpable. The clerk never stood a chance. He swallowed and dutifully gave her another room. Rita had remained silent through the whole scene, wondering who this woman was. As Randi prepared to leave the lobby for her new digs, she turned to Rita, offering advice. "If he tries to put you in room 2150, take snorkeling gear."

The thought of that incident and Randiís surgical precision in dealing with the clerk had stayed with Rita. It was even a now familiar story told at small gatherings.

"Iíll call you this evening after I make rounds. We can discuss possible solutions to this unusual problem." Rita chuckled out loud. "Leave it to Liz to do it the hard way. Sheís in such big trouble when she wakes up."

Even Randi was relieved that Rita found some humor in this situation. To her it signaled hope. "Yes, big trouble. Thanks, Rita Iíll talk to you this evening." Randi hung the receiver in its cradle. She sat for a moment thinking, fingers drumming the desktop.

"Oh, what the hell." She said to no one in particular and picked the receiver up, dialing a familiar number. On the second ring, a womanís voice answered.

"Yes... this is Ruth. How may I assist you?"

Randi cleared her throat. "Ruth, this is Randi James... Liz is in trouble... your kind of trouble I believe. Sheís in ICU at Piedmont. Can you meet me there tonight?"

The psychic didnít hesitate. "Of course, what time?"

"Visiting hours are between five and eight. How about seven?"

"Seven is fine Randi. Donít worry... Liz knows what sheís doing."

The line went silent and Randi pondered Ruthís statement.

"I sure hope to high heaven she does." Randi gathered her belongings and prepared to leave for the day. There would be little use in her trying to concentrate on some dead civilizationsí pottery shard. Her mind was elsewhere.

The sounds of conflict met her ears well before the actual sight of the training ground. The music of metal on metal, the low whistling of arrows in flight, the dull thuds of arms and legs countering one another... all tonal characteristics of the arena. Liz entered the open area and looked for Vectra, thinking she may as well immerse herself in her new surroundings. What better way to start than with a little butt kicking... she was in the mood... why? She couldnít remember.

"I see you decided to take my advice." Vectraís voice sliced the air sending a chill up Lizís spine. She turned in the direction of the sound.

"Oh... you were advising me? I wasnít aware it was a request." Liz heard her words but had no idea why she was saying them.

The tall Amazon stared coldly at the stranger. She said matter of factly, "It wasnít. And insolence wonít serve you very well here, so save it."

In a few words, Liz had erected a rather formidable wall between her and the Amazon instructor. It wasnít a good beginning. Vectra was a seasoned warrior and bore the scars of many conflicts. She was muscled and hard with a practiced coldness in her eyes. In a fight, Liz would be woefully overpowered. It would be no contest... and no challenge. Vectra knew this and she carried her confidence quietly.

"Are you here to learn or talk?" The warrior paused. "I have little patience with talking."

Liz was tired of talking. "Iím here to learn."

"Good." Vectra motioned for Kai to join them. Liz watched as the young Amazon made her way across the compound. The womanís movement was graceful and balanced. She had an unmistakable air of sureness about her... just as all of the participants here. Liz wondered if it was something in the water that made them all so damn smug. That thought alone bothered her... it felt foreign. She had always celebrated any womanís self-assurance, reveled in its beauty, encouraged the development. Why did this womanís demeanor seem like a threat? What was wrong with this picture? What was wrong with her? She felt so angry inside... so agitated... aggressive.

Kai approached Vectra and Liz. She was approximately the same height as Liz, very lean and obviously very fit. She had dark hair and deep brown eyes, which at first were very soft but upon closer inspection had a warriorís savviness riding deep within them and a dash of practiced suspicion. Kai was young but she was not inexperienced and misjudging her would prove to be a very painful mistake on Lizís part. The two eyed one another looking for an advantage. Vectra let the silent posturing continue for a few minutes, finally breaking the standoff.

"Kai, I want you to train Liz. Start with the basics and find her strong suit." Her words were succinct and clear. Vectra left them staring at one another... neither very pleased.

Kai motioned Liz toward an open area where several women were sparing with staffs. Liz walked ahead with Kai slightly behind toward the area. Tightness forming in Lizís gut. The sparing Amazons ceased their activity as the two approached. In fact, the majority of the women present had stopped their various regimens and was wandering over to the clearing. Apparently, Lizís first lesson was going to be a source of entertainment.

ĎFine,í she thought. ĎYou want amusement... Iíll give you something to watch.í

Kai looked at Liz and selected a staff from the ones stacked against the wall. She tossed it to her, wanting to test her reflexes right away. Liz flinched somewhat, but caught the staff easily, leering back at Kai. There was a slight smirk on the Amazonís face. The growing crowd took delight in this small victory. One of the women threw Kaiís personal staff to her. She caught it effortlessly maneuvering the weapon in a series of practiced figure eights and battle stances. Liz watched, hand on her hip, waiting for the whirling dervish before her to cease.

"Are you done? I didnít come here to learn high school baton tricks. You gonna show me something or not?" Liz was intentionally trying to incite her and felt powerless to stop.

Kai wasnít going to let this intruder have the satisfaction. "Can you do anything besides shoot off your mouth?"

Liz took a defensive stance and growled. "Oh, yes... I can do a lot more."

In an almost casual way, Kaiís steps shadowed Lizís, her eyes never breaking contact, staff ready, moving constantly. The lesson was about to begin.

"The first movement you should learn is the front strike." The words were barely out of her mouth good before her staff whipped through the air, coming toward Lizís face. By some miracle, Liz brought her staff up to fend the blow away; adrenaline was now pumping through her system. A smile flashed across Kaiís face, and the crowdís excitement started to build.

Gabrielle could hear the sounds coming from the training ground. She knew this wasnít good and quickened her step. She entered the area and at first thought Liz wasnít there. All she could see were the backs of a crowd of Amazons urging one of their sisters on in a duel. She caught sight of Vectra, arms folded across her chest, apparently enjoying the spectacle. As Gabrielle approached from the back of the crowd, she heard Kaiís voice.

"Very good... you have quick reflexes to match your tongue." She moved quickly to her right, catching Liz off balance. "Now, letís see how well you can counter a side attack." She feinted movement toward Lizís right side, but as soon as Liz committed a defense, she changed and struck on the left. Kaiís blow was merely a love tap and she let Liz know as much.

"Good thing I wasnít serious." The women were now shouting encouragement to their sister, the noise level rising. Vectra stood in the background watching the contest. There was no need to intercede at the moment... blood wasnít flowing yet. Gabrielle couldnít believe Vectra was allowing Kai to have a go at Liz. She started to push through the warriors and archers... each moving respectively once they realized it was Gabrielle. Vectra stopped her from interfering by placing a firm hand on her arm.

"Donít Gabrielle... this is a lesson for both of them." Vectra held the bard in check. "Let them finish." Gabrielle wasnít too keen on the idea but knew Vectra wouldnít let things get too out of hand. She took a deep breath and stood still, watching the dance before her.

Liz was pissed now and thatís just what Kai wanted. Lose your control... lose your objectivity... lose your head. Kai was playing her like Orpheusís lyre. Liz regained her balance and lunged toward the Amazon, her attack easily pushed to the side. Liz passed by her ineffectively much to the sheer delight of the standing crowd. To add insult to injury, Kai executed a rear sweep, upending Liz and sending her hard to the ground. A roar of pleasure erupted from the crowd. Gabrielle shot a look toward Vectra, hoping sheíd end the conflict. The tall Amazon shook her head to indicate a Ďnoí and focused her attention on the two women again. Kai picked up the loose staff and tossed it back to Liz... insincerely apologizing for the ambush.

"Oh... sorry... did I fail to mention you should watch your back at all times?" There was a fire in her dark eyes. This wasnít a game and Liz needed to understand this in a most painful, real way. Kai had no intention of letting her off easy. She looked at the woman on the ground. "Finished for today?"

Liz pulled herself off the ground, using the staff as a support. She was seething inside. Through clinched teeth, she answered. "Not hardly. Is that all youíve got? A miserable little shot from behind?" She taunted the Amazon. "Címon... you can do better than that. What kind of warrior are you? I shouldnít even be able to put a staff near you, much less fend off a blow." Lizís arrogance had found an opening in Kaiís armor... a small crack of insecurity. They both were in danger now. The women gathered around sensed a very real shift in the fight. Vectra inched closer to the combatants. This is what she wanted to see.

Kaiís eyes focused... her body language shifted. Liz didnít wait for her to strike. She used the end of the staff and landed a sharp punch to the warriorís midsection. The Amazon took the blow and hardly winced; instead a look of pleasure crossed her face. Liz was about to be in some deep shit. Kai came at her, striking efficiently... once to the abdomen, doubling Liz over. The next blow came from the side, striking her across the shoulder and neck, knocking her to one knee. Liz tried to maintain her balance, but Kaiís boot caught her in the ribs, sending her sprawling. In a matter of a few seconds, Liz was looking at the end of the staff poised to break her nose or worse. There was a look of seriousness in Kaiís face. She wasnít finished... and neither was Liz.

Gabrielle moved to end the fight, but Vectra held her back. "No, Gabrielle, not yet."

In a desperate effort to escape facial maiming, Liz brought her foot up hard between the warriorís legs. Much in the way it paralyzes men to have their gonads kicked, women find the sensation equally uncomfortable. It was just enough to move Kai off, Liz rolling away from the business end of that staff. She was in the process of looking for her weapon when Vectra stepped into the circle.

"Enough!" With that one word, the high tension of the warriors began to subside. Kai was still in beat-the-strangerís-butt mode but she backed away at Vectraís command. Her eyes, however, stayed on Liz. Gabrielle moved to help Liz off the ground, the effect of Kaiís expertise beginning to appear in welts on her arms and neck. Liz held her side trying to breathe. Kaiís boot had nearly broken a rib. As it was, she would be sporting a nasty bruise. Gabrielle was furious.

"What in the name of Zeus were you trying to do... get yourself killed? Youíre not an Amazon warrior. These women are and they will hurt you! Do you understand what Iím saying?" Gabrielle was inches from Lizís face and incensed beyond belief. Liz pulled away from her and was equally hot under the collar.

"Hey! Iím all grown up here. I donít need you babysitting me!" Liz was taking a physical inventory of her wounds. Fortunately, nothing was broken or needed stitching. She was lucky this time. She took a deep breath and looked at Gabrielle. Her mind was reeling. Why was she yelling at Gabrielle? "Look, Iím sorry, ok? I guess I got a little carried away. I'll apologize to Kai."

"That wonít be necessary." Vectra had Kai in tow and was approaching Liz and Gabrielle. "I needed to know if youíd be a worthy student... and if Kai would be a worthy teacher."

Gabrielle shook her head in disbelief, looking into Vectraís clear eyes. "And?"

"They both have a lot to learn." Vectra was never one for mincing words.

"And I suppose a good old fashioned conversation would have been out of the question, right? You had to get them fighting one another?" Gabrielle was incredulous by this behavior. "I swear, I donít understand the value of physical violence." In disgust, she turned to leave the group. In parting, she threw a comment toward Liz. "You may have found a home after all." Gabrielle continued mumbling to herself as she walked away. "I donít believe this."

Liz, Kai and Vectra remained facing one another. It was clear who was in control. Vectra coldly regarded the newcomer. There wasnít that much warmth afforded Kai, but the young Amazon took it in stride. This wasnít some cliquish club. Warmth had very little to do with survival.

Vectra stated flatly, "You two will work together. There is no room for petty attitudes on the training ground. You will learn this or suffer the consequences... and in this place that can mean death." She paused to let the words sink in. "Kai will be the master and you, Liz, will be the student... just as I am her master and she is still my student. Do you understand the principal?"

"Oh, yes, I think so. In my parlance, its see one, do one, teach one. I think Iíve got it. Anything else?" Liz was still flirting with a bad attitude and seemed to have no control in remaining civil. Vectra raised her brow but let the snippiness slide. Kai would soon have a handle on this woman.

"No, I think thatís about it." She looked at Liz, noticing the bruises forming on her neck. "I want you to have the healer check you over. I wouldnít want to be accused of being a barbarian."

Liz started to protest, but Kai interceded. "Weíll go right away." She threw a practiced look toward her student. No further words were needed from Vectra and she made her way toward her other charges. Kai grabbed Liz none too gently by the arm, leading her off the training ground.

"I donít need to see the healer... Iím fine." Liz disengaged Kaiís hand from her person.

The Amazon was being tested for control. She focused her dark eyes on the newcomer. "You just donít get it, do you? No one... and I mean no one questions Vectra in her arena. She has absolute power in the training ground. Not even Ephiny would question her. For some reason, sheís allowed you this indiscretion. Donít mistake it for weakness." Kai paused, "She has none, trust me. Sheíd just as soon gut you where you stand. If youíre half as smart as your mouth, you wonít cross her."

Liz felt a rush flood over her... an excitement. The idea of going one on one with Vectra had an insane appeal. She thought,í Why bother with Kai when I could have a go at the master.í Her audible words were much different. "Thanks for the warning. Now... um... where is the healerís hut?"

The two unlikely figures walked in the direction of Sarasís hut. Ares and Callisto watched unseen by the village inhabitants. The goddess was becoming very impatient with Ares and his Ďperfect plan.í

"I donít see why you didnít empower that bitch so she could start kicking some Amazon ass. Really, I donít understand why we canít just get on with it!"

Ares sighed. Working with Ms. Incongeniality was wearing on him. "Ok, one more time from the top. The beauty in this is the planning... the dance as it were. If Liz all of a sudden starts whipping butt, Xena and that... that blonde will never be drawn in."

"Uh...technically, Arie, Gabrielle is more honey-haired than a blonde. Iím a blonde." Callisto loved to correct the god of war and did so at any opportunity.

Ares raised an irritated brow and continued. "Yeah, whatever. As I was saying... they already think weíre involved but canít prove it. Having that little nothing turn into an expert fighter would give them the proof. No, my dear Callisto, she will appear to learn her skills at the hand of one of their own... accelerated but in a Ďnormalí fashion all the same. That will make the end that much more delicious. You just have no appreciation for theater."

Callisto rolled her eyes. "I guess not, but Iím beginning to have a real appreciation for Valeska. I should have formed and alliance with her instead."

Ares laughed, "And what... give up all this drama?"

The evening shift had just come on and was in the process of giving patient updates. Liz moved involuntarily in her bed, like she was trying to avoid being struck. It was a slight movement at first but quickly escalated, drawing the attention of the nursing staff. For all intents and purposes, it looked like she was having a seizure. The staff quickly responded, preparing for the possibility of a Ďcode.í

The charge nurse, Joanne, was calling the shots. "Someone get Dr. Spenser... stat! And call Dr. Hunter. Have that cart ready. Call out the vitals!"

The team went about their duty in a precisioned manner.

"BP elevated... 130/85..."

"Heart rate increased to 180... respirations... 90 and climbing..."

They were hovering over Lizís thrashing body... each monitoring part of her vital functions.

"EEG?" Joanne was waiting on the predicable call indicating a Grand Mal. "Well... call it out!"

One of the staff nurses, Emily, looked at the monitor and hesitated.

"Uh... itís normal." She said. "This thing must be screwed up."

Joanne had little patience with this sort of mistake. She moved to the monitor to see for herself.

"What the...?" The words were barely out of her mouth when Liz stopped moving about. Slowly all her vitals went back to normal. The team was looking at one another and then at the various monitors. This was not right.

The charge nurse was beside herself. "Will someone please tell me what the fuck just happened?" She began scanning the faces of her staff.

"Iím not sure, but youíd better have a look at this." Doug Winston, a respiratory therapist had been making sure Lizís airway was patent.

"What now?" Joanne was envisioning herself explaining all this to Rita Spenser... the thought was not appealing.

Doug moved away from the bedside. "This." He was pointing to obvious bruises on Lizís neck and shoulder.

Joanne stared in disbelief. "Good God!"

Chapters 6 - 8