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16-17 : PART I |
In Search Of
A Greater Cause
~ PART I ~
Xena was cursing silently under her breath, as she watched the soldiers and satyrs dump a dark mixture of something on the stones near each of the air vents she had mentally marked, then smear the mixture so that it covered the width of a hands the rock surface. The big satyr lifted his bearded face and sniffed the air. Xena was hopping the wind wouldn't shift, thus bringing her distinct scent to the sensitive satyr's small flaring nostrils. This turn of events was changing her thoughts on her tactics already.
But where's the thrill without some improvising? Xena thought grimly as she watched the satyr look toward the rock she was hiding behind.
It surprised her that the great Satyr did not move toward her hiding place, for she felt he was aware of her presence. His lack of action told her a few things, one being that her presence here was expected and another, which gave her just as much worry, was that this was part of a trap.
Xena could feel Dorie's presence and it seemed very restless. Xena's stomach took that moment to go through one of those 'Gabrielle was anxious about something' type of twists. Xena was grateful she had finally worked out her body's method of communicating to her just what type of distress her companion was experiencing; otherwise, she would have been rushing into a room every anxious moment the Bard experienced with sword drawn and ready to take head counts. She sighed. Since their return trip from India, Gabrielle had emotionally calmed herself a great deal, sometimes making it difficult for Xena to know when she was really in danger, but her body's sensitivity to the Bard adapted quickly. The twist in her stomach faded away, much to Xena's relief. That was a relief. If it had gotten worse she would have had to perform one of those feats Gabrielle liked to turn into more than what it was. Getting past the satyrs at the cave entrance would be quite a daring accomplishment, though she had no doubt she would be able to do it; it's what she would have to go through that had her concerned.
Except…hmmm…Images of dancing maidens at the edge of the clearing, appeared in Xena's mind. And so close to their festival time…that just may do the trick…Remembering their reaction to Gabrielle's appearance had her smirking. In their condition, one dancing maiden would be enough. Well, if this doesn't work, I have another option…dancing in the moonlight.
Xena waited for the group to finish their work. A torch was set to the dry brush around the rocks, when they finished. She frowned at the slight breeze that brought the smoke from the burning mixture they had pasting around the rocks to her sensitive nose. They had the same idea she had but hers was to drop the burning mud paddies down the opening so the smoke would get into the tunnels. There it would drop some where, with its slow burning incense odor would not be noticeable, and by the stench coming from the air ducts, anyone down there probably no longer smelled anything. She thought of Gabrielle enduring the stench, and how she would personally assist her to get rid of the stink that probably was clinging to her cloths and skin, when they were finished with all of this.
"Hermes feathered codpiece!" Xena cursed softly to herself, as she realized what she had inhaled. It put a person into a mindless state of consciousness. It wasn't the same drug Gigantes was using, or what had been used on the three priestesses she had rescued. It didn't leave the victim with an observable subservient demeanor. And the victim usually didn't remember anything after it wore off.
Why are they coating the air openings? Not much of that smoke is getting into the vents. Seems like a waste.
"You need to get away from here." Dorie told her worriedly.
"Hmmmm?" Xena looked up and could see Dorie's small etheral shape hovering above her. Her shape also looked….different….like a wisp of cloth caught up in a breeze and…
Part of Xena's mind informed her she had inhaled some of the mixture that was meant for her to inhale, and she had better get out of there before she was overcome with it.
"Come, please." The little voice pleaded.
Xena didn't know how she managed to sneak away, but she wasn't occupied with her own safety entirely, as she was looking around her with different eyes. Her world was taking on a different sight, and she was finding herself doing just as Dorie told her, biting back a giggle at the thought of the big bad warrior princess doing the bidding of a tiny child, and a shade at that. Her eyes narrowed however when the tiny figure wavered between wisps of a shade and that of a grown woman whose shape had her imagination running away with her. Oh, Oh.
Xena's progress to wherever Dorie was taking her was stopped now and again, as Xena reached to pick some leaves, or seed, as she studiously looked about her in an exaggerated demonstration of a grubber. It was funny how she recognized in the darkness the herbs she needed by senses alone. Her healer skills were still in tack, and her instinct to survive was keeping a part of her from being subdued by the drug's entire effect, but it was taking an enormous amount of will power and concentration of movement to keep herself from falling under its haze.
Xena showed no surprise, as two women dropped beside her, only annoyance, as one of them dropped her heel on an herb she was looking for.
"Lily!" Xena growled dangerously.
Both women's eyebrows rose. It was a name Hildreth hadn't used for almost a full season.
"Get your muddy boots off that plant!" The tall dark warrior ordered in a low voice.
Hildreth looked down at her feet.
Hildreth stopped as she noticed she did not have the warriors full attention…in fact…she didn't have any of it at all, as Xena reached for the smashed foliage and disgustedly tossed it to the side. Her eyes caught sight of another one and she pounced on it like it was an edible delight.
"Ahh…Xena, since you're here. Do you think you can…Xena, are you alright?" Alala studied the woman closely. "Athena's tight leathers." She cursed under her breath. "Hildie, I think she got some of that stuff in…"
Xena suddenly straightened up, and with a glint in her narrowed eyes, she shook a plant and its roots, dirt and a bit of pebbles at them. "Ya got that right! But don't you worry…" She smirked at the two women almost breaking out into a mirthful laughter at their expressions, "I got just the right stuff here."
After a few more moments of scrounging around the rocks, and finding one more small bunch of leaves of the herb, Xena straightened up and nodded toward the clearing where the small cave she had stashed the three priestesses in.
"Ya sure ya wanta get them out?" She regarded the two with an almost uncharacteristic wild gleam in her eye. "They could be still under the influence." She waggled her brows at the two.
The two women looked at each other then back at Xena. "Do you want us to boil some water for you?" Hildreth indicated the mixture of leaves and seeds Xena's large hand was clutching.
"Hmmm. Why don't we clear the opening." She suggested. She needed something to put the herbs in and that would be in the cave. Hopefully the priestesses were somewhat recovered. She was getting weary from fighting the dullness that kept threatening to descend on her thoughts; knowing that if she succumbed she would be of no use to Gabrielle.
She handed the herbs and seeds to Alala. "Now, don't loose any of that…or you'll be looking for more." She warned the tall animal warden, Alala, who looked worried.
Xena didn't need to study how to unblock the entrance. She had stopped it and knew how to unstop it. She found a large fallen branch and leveraged it off center, and leaned her weight on the end. She had placed a second stone under the larger one so that it could only be pushed this way. She suspected that anyone else may think it was balanced and try to put leverage in the center.
The stone rolled back and Hildreth was the first to crawl in, cautiously for she did not know if the three women would think they were the enemy, and be ready to kosh them.
"Agnes!" Hildreth called in a low voice. "It's Hildreth and Alala. We're coming in."
Hildreth dragged herself in and looked up to see Eleanor with a pan ready to bash her on the head.
"Hey, careful there." Hildreth told her as she dragged herself further in then stood up. The three women rushed to her and were still holding onto her in relief when Xena using all the control she could muster dragged her tall frame through the small opening then stood up breathing a sigh of relief that the cave was big and roomy.
Alala stuck her head in and handed Xena her herbs. "I'll keep an eye out here." She whispered.
The three women grabbed her hand and for a few moments held on. Then Alala disappeared back outside.
"Get up in the trees as high as you can." Xena told her as she withdrew. She was giddy with that brief effort to bring her thoughts into a tight focus.
"Do you have some hot water. Xena got some of that stuff in her." Hildreth told Agnes who was holding onto her.
The others nodded and went to the small fire they had going. Agnes took the herbs from Xena's hands that started to shake from the exertion.
"Come on. Get her over there. We have some herbs already going." Agnes was looking at what Xena had plucked and pulled. "Hmmm."
"This leaf we don't have." She added it to the already steaming brew they had steeping.
After a few candlemarks of sipping and Agnes massaging the muscles in her legs and arms that were cramping from the reaction, Xena was beginning to see a little more clearer. But not enough to go back to the cavern and face the satyrs.
"I take it…you're the one who got us in here." Eleanor mentioned to Xena as she placed another herb-laden cup of tea in her hand.
Xena nodded tiredly. She needed her herb bag to take another herb that would kick her system into a higher drive so she could fight the lethargy that was the after effects of the two drugs fighting each other.
"Thanks." Eleanor laid a hand on Xena's arm. Strong biceps contracted from the touch of a stranger.
"Sorry." Eleanor withdrew her hand.
"So…what's the plan?" Hildreth asked.
"Get the others out of the cavern." Xena told them quietly. She sipped the hot tea again. It was bitter, but she recognized some of the herbs, and one of them would soon be kicking in to give her that needed energy.
Blue eyes opened wide and looked around. She noted the cave was neat, the three women, who had once been mindless, looked a lot different…cleaned would be a good descriptive word, with direct eye contact.
"How are you all doing?" Xena asked.
Agnes smiled. "Well…after some of the fogginess cleared…and getting the scare of our lives when we heard Hildie and Alala chatting over our heads…"
Hildreth snorted. "You just about scarred the…" suddenly she turned to Xena. "Why didn't you tell us where they were?"
Xena's eyebrows rose. "You don't like surprises, huh?" She sighed. "If you went straight here…the satyrs that were trying to follow your trail would have found the place."
"We were followed?"
"Yea. But…you went around in circles there for a while and confused them…"
Hildreth laughed. "Well, we kinda got lost. I don't know what it was but…one moment we were going this way and then another…" She raised her hand bewildered.
Xena had a guess Dorie had a hand in it.
"Well…this is a safe place, but to guard it…you need to have someone way up in the trees. And it's cold out there."
Hildreth nodded. "I'll go relieve her. How are you doing?"
Xena nodded. "Better." She turned to Agnes. "I think we need to prepare some stuff for the satyrs curious nose…do you think…"
Agnes' lips tightened. "I've dreamed up a lot of different things."
"Well…make it simple. We can put it around here and other places just so that they know…they aren't the only ones in this game."
Agnes nodded. Xena leaned back against the wall and started to make new plans. Her gut wasn't twisting so Gabrielle was okay…so, far. She needed to get into the cavern. All caverns had more than one entrance.
Gabrielle didn't know how long she had slept, but when she awoke it was with awareness at where she was. Opening her eyes slowly she let her sight confirm what her sense of smell told her, and the tight bindings on her wrists reminded her, that she was still in the cavern, chained. Reaching over she pulled the gourd toward her and took a sip, the chains rattled on the stone floor. Gabrielle sat for a few moments letting the water's moistness coat her parched throat noticing that the same unblinking eyes remained focused on her. She wondered what she could say to start up a two-way conversation when her growling stomach intervened.
"It is better to stick to the water." The voice offered.
The voice was not accented as the others were, however, the voice sounded strained.
Gabrielle remembered the food was drugged and had no intention of willingly eating it. "Ahh." She blinked her eyes for a moment realizing she could see out of both. Gingerly she felt her lip then her eye. "Did you do this or…"
"You are in sacred space…though by the smell you wouldn't know that."
"I'm not sure I understand. Are you one of them?"
"I was once a very active member of this group that has enslaved the city's citizens down here and did as much damage to this sacred cavern as I could." He waited to see what reaction he would get from the young woman.
"Once…" she encouraged.
It didn't surprised him, that she didn't focus on what he had done. It intrigued him… though it wouldn't have mattered, for her part in this drama was already set, unless she changed an integral part of her sacred Self that would change her usual response to what was to happen.
"My interests have changed…"
Both heard the soft echo of booted footsteps and moment’s later the light from a torch brightened as it made its way toward them, removing most of the darkness though still leaving a lot of the room in shadows. Gabrielle heard the torch slide into the outside holder with a solid thunk.
Why weren't they bringing the torches in here?
"Arri!" A medium sized muscular man entered just as far as the overhang of the grotto's entrance. He studied Gabrielle's shadowed form noting the chains were fastened on her wrists, and legs, and she was seated on the ground in a nonthreatening position, with a gourd that normally held the drugged water. He looked back up at Arri’s shadowed form on the chair.
"I want to talk to you." He glanced at the woman in the corner and grunted. "Scion said the Bard of that Warrior woman was delivered." He stated in another language. Gabrielle didn't let on that she understood.
"She's a Bard? We were just getting to know each other. What brings you down to the cesspit you created, Yerik? I know you hate it down here."
"The Warrior Woman slipped past Gigantes." Yerik spat into the corner of the cave. He was about to take another step toward the stair of the dais, but thought better of it. Instead he shifted his weight to the other foot and spat again into the corner of the cave.
"Do you mind? I spend my time in here. It's bad enough you had them urinate on the walls and I have to smell it." Arri complained, then continued, "I would offer you a chair, but it seems the only one we haven't smashed may not fit you quite right."
"It's part of the plan, Arri. You know that. Desecration. Destruction. Humiliation. It's the way to keep the power at bay. And it was you that started it in here. I warned you to stay away from this room. Enough of this. Scion smells the warrior bitch near the cavern entrance. He's gone to take care of her. She should be wandering the forest, lost and senseless soon. He'll then snag her and add her to our collection. Gigantes thinks too much of himself. May Fata Morgana eat his heart out! That foreign trader! He thinks he's set us up when in fact…he sent us an Amazon Queen!" He roared then looked intently at his captain. "We've got four days left for the other two objects to be found."
Arri smiled. Of course he knew. He could feel the power building in the chair, in the cavern, and in the earth surrounding the cavern. The power would reach its most intense level at the new moon, ready for the three symbols to be joined by the sacred vessel, the emissary sent by the wise ones. Then a few weeks later at the full moon they would be brought together again for the final binding.
"Hmmm. Do you think her being an Amazon Queen automatically gives her this inside information on where the remaining items are?'"
"Arri, I've no time for your cynical comments. We need to get out of here before the solstice. The symbols I've put on the walls won't contain the energy that will rise and I don't want to be around to see what happens and nor do you! Now, use some of that power and find out if she knows where any of the stuff is."
Arri seemed to sigh. "Hmmm. Well…I could ask if she knows anything about the treasure?"
"What's that going to get?"
"At least we'll know if she knows."
"Arri, she has to be here for a reason. It's too coincidental!" Thundered Yerik impatiently, and annoyed with the smells that were bombarding his senses. His accented voice echoed down the tunnels.
"Okay. Then what's your suggestion, since you don't like mine?" The voice rasped.
"I say we drag that priestess up here and start skinning her alive."
"You won't get anything from her, Yerik. She can stop her heart beat."
"Well, that she may, but this woman won't know that, and she may give us all the information that we need to know. I understand she can't bear others to get hurt, especially if she is the cause."
"I think another way might do. Less dangerous than dragging the priestess out of her prison, which holds her powerless…why not let the young Queen visit the captives? Have her serve them…water…food…bind their wounds."
"Yerik…if you send her down there, and not let her interact, nurture those poor souls…" Arri's voice took on an exaggerated, though hoarse, pitying tone, "how is she going to quickly bond to them? Think beyond your normal use of force. You pride yourself in being able to adapt. Now, let her give some assistance to them…they certainly aren't going to be aware of her. They're too far gone. Besides…they need some medical attention. Our own skills are limited here. We can't be killing off hostages and workers for something that could have been prevented. We still need them to work on digging out the gold. Surely you haven't hoarded enough."
Yerik looked at the darkened figure of a man/woman he had taken under his wing, and found to be trustworthy enough to elevate to almost partnership status. However, Yerik never trusted anyone completely…and Arri had changed. Then, again, he still needed Arri for it was his knowledge that helped figure out the oracle's pronunciation. He ignored that Arri had pointed out that he was keeping back gold the hostages were digging…more than his share.
He would have to consult his small statue, though it was being more cryptic than an oracle lately. The spirit trapped in a statue made in her earthly likeness, was demanding release at her appointed time, and Yerik suspected, she knew he didn’t know the words to release her. Too many distractions right now, when he needed less. He was getting nervous as the time drew near, but he had to stick it out. The spirit in the statue said that all three articles would come together by the appointed time. Moving the golden girdle that was in the small trunk they had found, to Gigantes’ office was not opposed by him, for it would be a true test as to whether it was the genuine article. If the trunk was transported back to the cavern some how, it would prove it was real, just like the ring on Gigantes's finger. If it was the ring the oracle mentioned, then the ring, with or without Gigantes, would also be here. Yerik nodded to himself. Somedays he cursed the day he was captured by Caesar's army and others he was grateful. Caesar offered an exchange for his life for the delivery of three objects. To fail at it meant a forfeiter of his life. He had not doubt Caesar's agents would find him and have him dismembered alive if he ran out on this deal. He was suspicious at Caesar’s generous additional offer that he and his partners will not have to worry about money for the rest of their lives if he succeeded. But so far, he had no choice but to locate the objects.
Caesar had given Yerik the Seers prose, and a direction of where in Greece the Amazon's golden girdle would be found. It was kept in the Temple of the Muses in Crometh. So they knew that everything else would come together in Crometh, where the girdle was. What had him worried was the box that held the girdle was not heavy as if holding something that was made of gold. However, when the box was in the cavern the ground about it did shake, making him nervous enough to move it into the city. The shaking did seem to lessen with its removal, so maybe it did have the girdle in it.
For comfort, he ran the oracle's words though his mind again.
Moonless heavens a’fore solstice night
Three sacred objects brought to light
Owned by the tall proud Queen
Amazon crafted golden girdle
Feathered wand that moves the air
Ring of gold, that's the key
He looked back at his Captain. Arri was unable to escape the cavern into fresh air until they removed the symbols Yerik had drawn on the walls of the underground chamber, where the priestess was held captive. It was Arri who was holding some of the wild energy to a focused point and by the tremors in the ground, either he was tiring or they were getting stronger as the solstice approached, or was it the objects of power? Arri's surviving the power of the chair had mixed blessings.
"Yea…" Yerik decided to go along with Arri's suggestion. He didn't want to tell Arri that he didn't care one iota what happened to their hostages after he had all three objects. At this stage, he didn't care if Arri, whose damaged eyesight was too sensitive to light, even left the cavern. He suspected that the cavern would be left in shambles from the earth movement that the rising power would cause without the focus of the three objects of power to reconsecrate the original symbols on the cavern walls. He didn't understand the old symbols and didn't fully understand the symbols he had drawn. He had an idea they were in relation to time, distance, and life. He hadn't been a good student in his younger days when the full meaning behind symbols was taught. They were symbols he had gotten out of one of the books he had stolen from his deceased master's library along with the statue.
"We need to get her to give up the information before the drug takes effect. Otherwise…" he paused for effect on Arri, "I'll give her over to Scion for a night."
Gabrielle kept what she was hopping was a blank stare on her face. By the curse of Europa, so he thinks he can use me. I think I'd much rather be down this stinking place binding their cuts then visiting Scion! To quell her fear she thought about the tale of Europa and how after her rape by Zeus, who had taken the form of a bull, she had put a curse on him that he would never find comfort in his wife or any other woman for that matter. Whether that was already Zeus' fate or not, the story told on a young girls first blood moon, gave her some solace that rape, even for a god, was held accountable.
"I'll let you handle her then. I'll be back tomorrow. I need to see what Gigantes is up to in the city. I want to make sure our treasure is still where I left it…in his care."
"I don't think he'll be leaving the city with it, Yerik. Even if he doesn't believe in the curse he doesn't look like he's interested in testing it."
Yerik grunted, turned and left, taking the torch with him. He didn't see or feel the eyes of deep violent staring at him from a small alcove that was at one time a place where Urania, the muse of astronomy, had her statue standing.
Urania and her eight sisters could not take a life, as it was repugnant to them. They merely reported what could happen and what did happened in life. And their other sisters who visited their city were told they mustn't interfere by the Fates, for it would not bode well for those on Olympus as a whole. But the other three whose following of the rules didn't always occur nor their objection to using others to do things for them, had been leaving some hints to those they had deemed to be able to handle what was to come. The deadening of the city's citizens to their inner self and connection to their patrons, the Muses, was lifting, after Xena the Warrior Princess had changed the flow of the contaminated water. Urania smiled and left to return to the others. She had seen enough. Things were going as the Fates had said they would. But the worse was still to come. Would those that they were depending on come through for them? Not even the Fates knew, for the thread was clear with unseen threads.
* * * *
"Well, Amazon Queen and Bard friend of the great Warrior Princess, what have you to say of Yerik's plan?" Arri asked in the same language Yerik had used.
Gabrielle was silent for a few moments, pursing her lips. She knew he knew. Was it pointless to keep up a false front? Another part of her was worried about those Arri had said needed help. And what of Xena? She needed to be down there, just in case Scion was successful in bringing in Xena.
"Why are you helping me? And how did you know I could understand?"
"Ahhh. You don't believe that I have such powers just by sitting on the oracle's chair?" he asked switching to a Greek dialect.
"The oracle's chair? I thought…" She asked confused, for everyone was led to understand only those with the power of the pythia could sit on the apex of power the sacred space radiated. Was that trembling what she was feeling? Why wasn't Yerik burnt for being so close or her for that matter?
"Yes. I control the flow for now."
"That is not important right now. What is important is that the people below, in the tunnels need your assistance. The water you have will help heal some of their injuries."
Unconsciously Gabrielle touched her lip where the cut was now almost gone. The rattling of the chains made her look down at her wrists that were no longer sore. She couldn't see much in the gray light but just by feel she knew her cuts were healed.
"Is it this water?"
"Partially. It is the power from this cavern. Surely you feel it."
"Well…I feel something." She was quiet for a few moments thinking of what she needed to help the people. Lots of rags for binding cuts she guessed, which she didn't have.
"Just use the water. Dab it on those with cuts. Do be careful, for as Abbas has said, there are some that are maddened beyond my reach, and who will do you harm."
Gabrielle took a deep breath. "Right." She was determined to go and attend to the hostages for that was what she was here for. She shook her chains. They could be used as a weapon. She had seen Xena use them as such often enough…more than enough for her comfort.
She picked herself up and picked up the gourd trying not to trip over the chains wrapped around her ankles. She turned back to the yellow eyes. "What are you that survived the oracle's chair, if you are not an oracle?"
"I was once under the protection of Hermes."
"Hermes? Ohhh, well…I see. You're both man and woman." She suddenly understood better. The sacredness of twin souls, found in people who came into this life with the body of man and woman and those that had the inner soul of one sex and the outer appearance of another were considered by many to be the embodiment of Hermes, the sacred messenger, and therefore a natural diviner and healer. Many were trained to work in temples. "So…what are you going to do?"
"Send you down into the pits to help those that need more care than what they are being given. I cannot walk great distances yet, and though Abbas seems not to have taken my warning seriously, you can do much to help until he gets over his fear of me." The dark figure watched her for a few moments. "Are you willing to take advantage of that time? It won't last long…for he will drink himself to foolishness. Something's I can prevent…some must follow their natural coarse. Remember this however…self sacrifice is not always the right course of action."
Gabrielle laughed, suddenly feeling better. "That's something Xena likes to tell me, of course she doesn't follow it much."
"It's something to consider when you do have that chance, otherwise, you would not have been given that opportunity to consider it." Arri laughed. "So, refill your gourd with the water that runs behind the remains of Mnemosyne's shrine."
"Mnemosyne? I thought this cavern was to the Muses?"
"Yes. And to their parents was added a small niche. The river that runs through here was dedicated to Mnemosyne and the spout there, was to Zeus."
"Well, as long as it's not from the river Lethe." Gabrielle laughed nervously; having very good memories of her own experience with Mnemosyne's Temple, and the one time temptation to forget her part in doing harm to others was equal to her need to not forget her love for Xena.
The dark form said nothing as Gabrielle made her way cautiously around the debris to the water source. She was thinking of how many times she would have to return to refill it when Arri's chuckle caused her to look up from the filling gourd.
"Nothing too important for now."
Xena rested her head on the rough wall's surface she was sitting up against, not daring to close her eyes. It was too close in the cave and the drug's effect was magnifying her fear. She focused on the uneven texture of the dirt and rock that she leaned boneless against. She wished the essence of the herbs would hurry up and kick in to rebalance her inner and outer worlds. Her eyes flickered over the shadows on the wall the dancing flames from the fire created when another log was added. Idly her mind moved to other times she had spent in caves, watching the shadows while Gabrielle wove a fanciful story about what the shadows were to her…they were folder for story material in a very imaginative Bard's mind. By the time she had finished the story, Xena was also seeing the same story acted out by the shadows on the wall.
Xena sighed, closing her eyes. She wondered what Gabrielle was up to as a hostage. Playing havoc with their nice operation, she hopped. Though Gabrielle seemed to somehow get in the middle of dangerous situations, she usually managed to escape…but with her help.
Xena pulled herself to her feet with effort. For a moment she had felt herself getting her strength and wits back…but the sudden drain of her energy had her grabbing onto the wall for support.
"What the Hades is going on?" She mumbled to herself as she felt her legs wobble and a roaring sound that started from far away grew louder and buried her in its sound and dust. The wall she was clutching was also moving making it difficult for her to stand.
"Agnes!" Xena yelled. She had heard voices screaming near her but now there was silence.
When the rolling ceased Xena was curled into a ball with her arms over her head protecting herself from any falling rocks. She was surrounded in darkness and a thick dust that filled her lungs at every breath. She could hear the choking cough of others.
"Everyone alright? Agnes, Eleanor, Camilia?" Xena coughed from the thick dust. It was pitch black. She had risen to her feet cautiously. For being tall, she had learned early to check on headspace in darkened areas. She cautiously moved her feet forward feeling the debris that was loosened from the ceiling onto the floor.
"Xena…" A hoarse voice started then broke into coughing fits. Xena moved in the direction of the voice, nearly colliding with a low ceiling that she knew had not been there before. Her hypersenses were not dulled. She let her hands feel their way to the coughing that continued. The air was thicker with dust here. It meant there was no airflow. No airflow meant they would be running out of air soon.
Her feet felt something and she lowered herself to get a better feel with her hands. Her fingertips felt a dusty hand. Moving around she got an idea of the position and what one problem was with the woman under some major debris.
"Xena?" A soft voice whispered more to avoid taking deep breaths.
"Eleanor. We're Camilia?"
"E're." A weak voice from further in the darkness called.
"Are you two all right?" Xena asked.
There was the sound of movement and rocks being moved. "Got a busted leg…I think. Naw. Hera's curse. It sure hurts like a break, though."
"Can you get over here?"
There were more curses and time passed as Camilia tried to find a way to the others. Meanwhile Eleanor and Xena cleared a space for them to move Agnes, when they unburied her.
"Xena, I think we're running out of air." Eleanor informed her as she wiped a dusty shoulder across her dripping forehead.
"Yea. Let me see what I can do." Xena moved off to where she could hear the river moving. Though the cave had not been that big…it took a long time to make it to the water since there was a lot of large rocks and opened pits to navigate around in the dark.
Ahhh. Xena stepped into the water gratefully sinking into it and letting cold liquid cover her head. Underwater she rubbed the dust off that had coated her eyelashes and everything else on her. She opened her eyes up under water and had to shake her head in disbelief. There was a stab of light, like a knife blade cutting across the darkness. Xena rose to the surface and remembered to take a shallow breath of the still dust heavy air.
"I think I've found a way out. Give me a few to check it out." Xena then ducked back into the water and swam toward the light. Her dark hair fanned out around her as she swam and kicked toward the opening into daylight and hopefully out of the cold water. Her lungs were about bursting when she finally reached the light only to almost gulp in the liquid that surrounded her. A cloven hoof stepped into the water. Quickly she moved back into the darkness looking for a place to grab some air.
Pulling herself across the rocky sides of the streambed she pulled herself up cautiously to get some air. She controlled her impulse to take in deep breaths as her lungs cramped from the effort to be cautious and the icy cold liquid the surrounded her. She pulled herself out of the water completely. The cave she was in was warm, probably because it was cut off from the outside winter weather, with the exception of the icy stream that ran though it.
She was still in a part of the underground tributary she guessed. When the ringing in her ears ceased and the pounding of her heart got back to a more normal beat she could hear voices dronning from the other side of the rock outcropping she was hidding behind. Feeling her way along the rocks she moved cautiously closer to the wavering torch that was moving now away from her.
Xena slipped back into the cold water and dragged herself to the other side. By the time she had reached the other side, it was dark. She lifted her head cautiously above the surface of her water cover.
Her nostrils flared as she picked up the smell of unwashed bodies, human waste and something that was rotting. She also recognized the smell of the foreigner, Yerik. Doesn't any of his men take baths? She mentally asked no one in particular. Not wanting to leave water marks on the stones in case someone returned with a torch. Xena silently swam further into the cave hopping she wouldn't get too cold to finish what had to be done.
Her nose also recognized the smell of bituman. It was used for burning. Handy to coat on the end of a stick to make longer lasting torches, but this was stronger than what a few torches would give. It was also used for setting towns on fire in a hail of fireballs thrown from catapults. Tentatively she reached out to pull her self up and found her hand covered in the slime. Apollo in a flame ball! They smeared this stuff all along here. Why? Why were they preparing to set this small stream on fire? Did they know they were in the cave and this was the only way out? Xena cast about for other alternatives. She had to get the three women out of the cave they were in because there was little if no air. Xena pulled her self over the slimed sides of the rocks that lined the underground waterway. She needed to look just a little further down the way to see how much they had tarred their exit.
She stumbled on some abandoned equipment. Her eyebrows went up when she realized what was left. A plan formed in her mind and feeling around with her hands she had secured what she needed, tucked the sack in her waist belt and felt her way back to the water.
When she arrived back she pulled out the torch she had retrieved and carefully wrapped in a burlap so the tar would not fall off the wood. The tar wouldn't be effected by the water, but the straw used for helping it ignite would. She felt around for the flint someone had conveniently left behind, which she stored against her skin wrapped in its oilskin. She lit the torch to get an idea of what damage was done in the cave they had taken refuge in.
The flare from the torch light had three white dusted women hiding their faces from the brightness. Xena was relieved that all three were alive.
The dust was somewhat settled, so there had to be some air circulating, though not by much since the flame on the torch suddenly went low.
"The stream goes to another part of the cave but it looks like it may be part of the sacred cavern. Someone coated slime all along the rocks on the edge, like they plan on setting it on fire. What we can do is swim to the cave and dump dirt all over the stuff. There's some fresh air but the stink from the unclean is enough to gag you if you breathe too deep. Are you all going to be alright returning to the tunnels?"
The other women nodded. They weren't powerless this time and they wanted revenge and revenge meant getting the others free.
"Alright. So, lets get everyone's injuries tended to…then we'll get outta here. Eleanor, can you go about and see what supplies you can retrieve? I'll look after Camilia and Agnes."
Eleanor nodded. She like Xena survived with a few scrapes and bruises.
Xena took each woman to the water to submerge her and wash away the dust so she could get a clearer view of each one's injuries.
By the time she had wound around strips of cloth around Camilia's leg to give it support Eleanor had gone through the stack of supplies they had and resorted things.
"All right. Can you all swim?"
All of the women nodded.
"Good. It's dark and I don't want to lose any of you so…" she indicated the long strips of cloth she had Camilia knotting together from one of the cloaks they cut up. "It's not much, but I want each of you to tie one end to your wrist and attach it to another."
Xena pulled some of the supplies toward her and noted what would not fare well in the water. Then prepared for another dip in the cold water. "Okay. We don't need to swim all the way underwater. I'll tell you when. Let's go."
Xena put out the torch and wrapped it around a soaked sack. She could feel the tug of the others as she led them into the water. She knew she would have to get a fire going right away to warm them up. With the bituman from the coated rocks, fuel wouldn't be a problem.
* * * *
Gabrielle had one hand firmly on the side of the moving wall and her legs splayed out riding the wave of the earth moving under her. The roar within the cavern was loud and frightening. Her first thought was of Arri who could not move around, then of the people in the caverns that she had only heard in soft echos of movement as she moved down the cavern. Arri had told her it didn't matter which of the three tunnels she took, she would start running into the workers soon enough. Her lamp of oil she clung to fearing that if she dropped it the oil would burn out and leave her in utter darkness. She could hear the echos of tapping grow louder as she moved further into the tunnels.
A dark shadow that a flickering torch nearby barely revealed, moved slowly. She winced as she got a better view of the figure. Rags hung from a bony frame as it tapped the green strip that ran in a zig-zag line along the sides of the tunnel's wall.
The figure didn't turn to look at her or seem to hear the dragging of her chains.
She watched as the figure mechanically chipped away rock, tossing bits into a basket at his feet. For a moment Gabrielle let the anger run up her legs and into her heart then in a breath let it go.
"You can stop what you're doing." She told the figure before her. The motions stopped immediately. "Drink some of this." She handed the gourd over. The thin fingers grasped the gourd and started to drink, and drink until Gabrielle realized she needed to stop the intake.
"Okay, that's enough." She cursed under her breath at Yerik and whatever he had given these people.
She was studying the figure looking for observable cuts but there seemed to be none. "Why hit someone when they do everything you say?" She muttered. She wanted to free the man and let him rest somewhere but she didn't want to cause any problems…yet. She gave him the direction to return to his task and moved to the next shadow. She found that some did have bruises, under their rags and almost out of sight. Not knowing if just drinking the water would do the trick, she used bits of their clothing soaked with water to dab at the open sores.
She was down the second tunnel when she heard Abbas yelling in a drunken voice her name. Her skin crawled. She couldn't go back up the tunnel she would run right into him. She gripped the gourd and hurried further down to the end of the tunnel, passing oblivious workers, hopping she would find some place to hide. The chains made it not only slow but also a noisy progress. She stopped at the edge of an underground waterway. She didn't know how deep it was and with the chains, she would sink.
"Well there you are. Didn't I tell ya lads? She's a live one! Now don't ya go and get too anxious Darid. I get her first."
The others didn't pay attention as Gabrielle suddenly found herself fighting off Abbas and his friends awarkwardly due to the chains. She managed to knock a few off of her senseless but a crack on the back of her head had her knees turn to liquid and she collapsed to the ground.
"Hellas, Abbas! We want her awake!"
"Well ya got ta get to her first. Let her wake up. Get some water over there. Hold her legs and arms down. Get away from there Darid, I told ya I get her first."
Gabrielle groaned as her head ache was the first thing she became aware of then the different hands holding her legs and arms down and the others that were roughly and hungrily roaming over her body.
"Do ya like this, lovely? Hmmm? Abbas is going to make you feel real good." He slapped her across the face hard to get a response from her. "Wake up!"
"I've got something that will do more than that for you." A low and familiar voice to Gabrielle's ear purred."
"What?" The men holding Gabrielle were slow to respond as they were not just dulled from drink but focused on their fun, a break from real boredom.
Abbas bounced into a rock formation from the impact of a spinning blur that hit him on a metal part of his armor. Silently he slid down to the ground unconscious. Xena's sword was out and with cold anger rendered the rest unconscious. She didn’t dare kill any of the men for in the Sacred Caverns taking a life wasn’t done.
"Xena." Gabrielle's voice was shaky as she did her best to wrap her chained wrists around her rescuer's cold damp form.
For a long moment they stood with Xena's arms completely wrapped around the shaking figure of her beloved and Gabrielle's hands resting on the wet waist of her lover, letting the warmth of their connection settle her fear and the warmth of her body seep through her hands.
Finally Xena released her and let her fingers move along the chains. "Let me take these off."
"No. Xena if you take them off, Yerik will suspect you're here."
"He's going to when these guys don't show for dinner."
"Then let's get the prisoners out of here. He'll for sure take it out on them. I take it you found another way in."
"Ahhh, yea. But it's blocked now."
Gabrielle nodded. "The quaking of the earth, it's from the oracle's space. It's real strong there. Arri said it's building up."
"Do I need to know who Arri is?"
"He's sitting on the oracle's chair. He's one of Hermes' children."
"He's one of Yerik's men, Gabrielle." Xena hissed softly, suddenly connecting the name. Gabrielle's pronunciation of the name and Yerik's was considerably different. In the conversation between Gigantes and Yerik she had overheard their first night in the city, Gigantes never referred to him by name…now she knew why.
"Not anymore. Not since he sat on the chair, Xena. He…healed my cuts. He didn't have to. He also let me come down here to give the prisoners water and check their injuries."
"Before the drug they give you takes effect." Xena's voice growled. Her fingers touched the side of Gabrielle’s face that she had seen the bruises on from her perch in the trees.
Gabrielle didn't want to argue. "Xena, we got to help these people. Now that you're down here, can you help them with some of your herbs? Do you have any with you?"
Xena sighed. First things first, she reminded herself. "The three priestesses are in another cave that’s part of this underground place. The connection to the two must have opened from the last rumble we had down here because it hasn't been disturbed. It's hard to spot unless you're looking for it. It goes pretty far back and from the smell it has an opening to the outside. Eleanor went to look."
"You said they're healers. Why don't we let them take care of the hostages?"
Xena nodded. "That's what I was thinking. Send them down this way, to the end. I'll have one of the women waiting to show them through the small opening. It's a slit in the stone wall. Look for it on the left-hand side at the end of this tunnel. Ya got that?"
Gabrielle nodded. She wanted to get back to Arri to see how he fared in the shake and to get more water.
"Xena," she picked up the almost empty gourd. "just in case Yerik comes back, I'm going back. I'm expected. I don't think he goes far into the tunnels because of the smell, he just visits Arri."
"Just where are you going to be incase I have to come looking for you?"
"Up the main tunnel, they all lead to it. About halfway up there is a grotto to the right. You can't miss it…" she hesitated wondering if she should remind her about the danger of stepping into an oracle's room. "Let Arri know who you are before you step into the room."
Xena merely nodded and gently pushed Gabrielle back up the tunnel ahead of her. She was going to escort her as far as she dared. She didn't miss the grimace that crossed the Bard's face when she glanced at the shadowed forms of her would be rapists. She needed to tie them up and hide them somewhere so Yerik or any of his other men didn't find them, but first things first. They passed the workers that were still mindlessly pounding out bits of rock along a thin vein of gold that ran along the side of one of the tunnel's walls.
"Come here." Xena told Gabrielle quietly. Gabrielle's bindings rattled as slowly moved over to Xena's tall dark form. Gabrielle melted into Xena's embrace, relishing in the strength that radiated from the strong warrior's body and into hers. They let the tendrils of their bond weave through their bodies, reaffirming the closeness they felt that went beyond a physical touch, a sound, a tear, so deep it seemed to make everything else go away.
"Don't take chances." Xena told her solemnly as she finally released her friend. "That's my job, okay?"
"Right. You take the bruising better than I." Gabrielle joked back. Getting practical again, she thought with Arri's help, she could take some of the pressure off Xena in that score but didn't want to raise Xena's worry level by telling her.
As Gabrielle made her way back to the oracle's room, Xena hurried back down to where she had left the unconscious bodies.
Xena looked again making sure she had the right tunnel. Nope. She wasn't mistaken, there were marks of her charum left on the walls. No bodies. She cursed to herself silently wondering how the men could have passed her since from her own inspection of this second tunnel, there was no other exit except…back down to where she left the three women. She hurried back down the tunnel. Her senses were fully engaged as she made her way back to where she had hid the women, making sure that the men were not hiding somewhere.
The soft keening sound of a falcon caught Xena's ear. Stopping she listened again. It was coming from another part of the tunnel she hadn't explored. The falcon was easy to find by its mournful calls. There was a small torch in one of the corners of the small grotto, giving an errie shadowed effect of the falcon who was flapping its wings against the jesses that were keeping it tethered to the perch it was attached to. Old meat partially eaten, hanging just out of reach was giving the small area a sick smell.
Xena paused at the opening of the small alcove, letting her eyes and other senses search out anyone that may be around to be upsetting the falcon. Her eyes spotted a large rat that was moving about in one of the corners of its prison.
Cautiously she approached the falcon not knowing if it would recognize her.
"Ahhh, Mutie. Feathered friend of the Athena’s Warden, Alala. Would you like to see your mistress again? Hmmm? There feathered one. Yesss. Do you remember me or are you just curious? Or are you just waiting for me to get close enough to take a bite? Xena thought to herself. Thank the goddess they didn’t clip the wing feathers!
Xena made a slight detour and with a knife toss stuck the rat. She brought it over to the falcon cautiously. While it ate the rat with great relish, Xena cut the jess from one arm so that it could eat easier. She could see the arms were raw and hopped infection hadn’t set in. She didn't have any salve on her, and didn't think Mutie would let her get that close with her. She didn't have the time to bond with the falcon. She could release the bird through one of the vents and let it find it's way back to Alala. She pulled a small piece of cloth over the eyes when the bird was finished with most of the rat and waited to see if she was going to be attacked. Then she wrapped a thin piece of cloth around the still tethered leg. The rag was from Agnes robe, which she had used to bind a cut on her hand that she had long since removed. She knew Alala if not Hildreth would recognize the dirty but colorful weave. They were probably frantic topside.
Xena managed to get the bird to the small opening she had noticed earlier, where much needed fresh air was passing through. It was probably another opening from the earth shake, which meant the tunnels were not as deep as they seemed. Pulling off the cloth from the falcon’s eyes, Xena noted that there was some light out but was not able to tell whether it was sunset or sunrise. The falcon hopped off her wrist and carefully walked across the rocks then poked its head through the opening. It appeared to be testing the outside.
"Will ya get going, Mutie? Go find your mistress." She hissed. The falcon hopped through the rest of the opening then disappeared. Xena didn’t know if it took off or merely hopped out of sight. Whatever, she needed to get back to see what was happening with everyone else.
"Eleanor!" Xena whispered before she stepped into the dark slit in the wall.
She slid in and found herself facing Camila who had a rock in one hand.
"We're going to have company. Get the water boiling for some of that mixture you prepared for yourselves. Gabrielle is send the hostages to us."
Camila nodded her mouth tightening in a grim line.
She scrambled back into the cave while Xena went back out to direct the first of the group. They made no noise just moved forward whether there was light or not. If they stumbled they quietly regained their balance and resumed their progress. Xena could feel the quiet anger build up in her. When she got hold of Yerik…
Eleanor joined her. "Did you find a way out?" Xena asked quietly.
Eleanor nodded. "It's going to be a tight squeeze, but Alala and Hildreth are out there. They said they would work on it from their side."
"Good. I found Alala's falcon friend. She should be reunited with her about now."
Eleanor's eyes brightened in the small lamp light. "That shall be a heart lifter, for sure."
Xena felt partially relieved. "Why don't you direct our new arrivals. I'm going to check up on Gabrielle. And…there’s some soldiers that I knocked around some. They disappeared when I returned to tie them up. Be on the lookout for them." Her misgivings about Arri were making her apprehensive.
Eleanor nodded. "Don’t worry. We’re not the same passive slaves they once had. We know just how to handle them."
* * * *
Gabrielle whispered a command to the first person at the head of each tunnel after making sure there were none of Yerik's men around. The command was to tell the person next to him or her where to go, then to go there themselves. It saved her time, she was thinking. She was getting weary from the drag of the chains, though not from all the walking, for that was something she was use to. There was also the fact that she hadn't eaten anything and though the water was refreshing…her grouchy stomach that wanted food. Another reason to get back to the oracle's chair. By the looks of the prisoners, they didn't eat much. Maybe Arri could get some more food for them.
As Gabrielle turned up from the third tunnel into the main tunnel a fist she was too distracted from noticing came out of the darkness and nailed her on the chin.
Yerik grunted and brought his curled fist up shaking it out. He hadn't intended to hit so hard, but it did the job.
"Get her feet." He directed the man that was with him. They both carried her up the tunnel and past Arri's cave.
Unblinking yellow eyes watched them. Some things he had to let run their course. He would wait for the dark one and direct her to Yerik's tent. He smiled at her knack for usually arriving to help her friend at the right moments.
Gabrielle for the second time that day awoke to a headache but thankfully not held down by pawing hands. A soft groan escaped her lips as she tired to move her head to the side to clear the red that covered her eyes. Another fear crawled up her limbs as she found she couldn't move her head for it was held firmly between two posts. Her arms and legs were held just as immobile. She closed her eyes for a moment as she groaned inward, I hope this is not going to be a habit with Xena finding me in this same type of predicament, cause it's getting to be embarrassing.
She waited, knowing that whoever now had her would let her know what he wanted soon enough. Over the growling of her hungry stomach she could hear voices somewhere near her. They were very clear.
Voices carry well at night so maybe it was dark…unless the intention is for me to hear the conversation.
"I tell ya, Abba's gone with the others. They got scared when Scion found those bodies of Molion and his group."
"He's drunk, Pausanias. He and the others can't walk far after consuming a barrel of ale. Get the satyrs to look for those fools tomorrow morning, if they don't come back by then. Probably passed out in the forest trying to piss out what they drank. Fools!"
"Do you want me to pass out the food to the slaves in the tunnels?"
"Yea. The usual. Leave a bucket at the front of each tunnel. Don't waste time. We'll start on this Queen when you get back." Yerik turned back into his tent. He went to his desk and tapped the top of the lid to the small box Scion had sniffed out in the forest. He smiled. He couldn't open the lid but the jeweled carving on the top of box showed a fan. Three more days and he would have them all.
He turned to the bedraggled figure that was secured on the special rack he had prepared for the priestess. The technique hadn't worked on her, but she was the exception.
His prisoner's breathing was regular and not deep so she was awake. Good. He turned back to his table to look at his plans. He had marked at different parts of the tunnel where the slime, the tar that easily held a fire was going to be applied. He planned on leaving the tunnels in flames when he left, just incase the energy raised didn't bring the tunnels down. He didn't want any survivors that would recognize him. The citizens would blame Gigantes for their deaths and not him. One less person to share Cesar's reward with. He had no worry about Arri. He frowned as another tremor under his feet shook his tent. They were becoming more frequent.
He sighed and went over to his chest. He started to remove his instruments. He held the pincers up for a moment and remembered the last person he had used them on. She bled to death too quickly. He had to remember to take less flesh.
The statue on his table was watching its new master and another person he was going to try to get information out of. The spirit in the statue, though she could not travel far from her own prison, could have visitors, and Arri, the usurper, had visited her. She smiled. Her time was near and Arri had told her that when the woman on the rack released the spirit of the Lost One, she too would be released. He was right. She could feel the energy raising all around this small area she was imprisoned in. Even if Yerik did not let her go, she could use the energy herself for he didn't know how to reinforce the binds that held her.
So, it was to her advantage to help the small Queen on the rack. As she watched Yerik with his toys of torture, a dark shadow slid in through the tent flap and quickly scanned everyone in the vicinity including her. Silently the figure was behind Yerik and nailed him good behind the head.
"You must go quickly. The satyrs will catch your scent." The statue told the tall dark shadow. "You must leave through the back flap, and to the west. There are plants there that the satyr can't pick up scents from."
"What about you?" She asked as she quickly cut through the leather bands that held her friend down.
"I shall be there when the time is right." The statue answered. "Take the box with you."
"Geez, Xena. I'm getting rather tired of this same old rescue scene." Gabrielle whispered as she pulled her arm through the harness and rose, pulling the red cover that was over her eyes off. She blinked in the light looking for the source of the other voice.
"Me too. Come on." Xena grabbed Gabrielle with one hand and the box they had hid in the forest with her other. Looking around cautiously, she pulled Gabrielle behind her.
Yerik had removed Gabrielle's chains, much to her relief, so she was able to move easier but not fast enough to avoid Xena's push towards the back flap, and before getting a good look at what Yerik had planned for her.
Yerik's tent was a distance away from the cavern with a lot of open space and satyrs. Xena made the circle as the statue had told her, walking low and cautiously through the waist high stinging nettle that the satyrs hated because it itched their noses. For people the hairs of the plant would itch the skin but it was also used to awaken sexual desire. "Don't let yourself get scratched by those buds." Xena whispered in Gabrielle's ear. "Or you're going to be the star performer at some temple fertility festival."
Gabrielle's eyes opened wide as she pulled her arms closer to her body and followed the shadow in front of her.
Xena had been lucky getting out of the cavern for it was eating time for the prisoners and satyrs. She was with Arri when the bucket filled with something called food was brought down by one man who grumbled all the way down into the tunnels. On his second trip down Xena was already on her way across the open space to Yerik's tent.
Oh, oh. Xena lifted her head a little from her flattened position on the ground where she and Gabrielle were inching their way back to the cavern for the last few cubits. She caught sight of the big satyr approaching the cavern entrance and pressed herself down into the grass as much as she could.
His fellow satyrs that were quickly at his side answered his yell of rage with yells of their own.
No doubt they picked up my scent. Hopefully they don't know which direction I went in.
Both kept still, hidden by the darkness and grass as Scion gave orders…and the others refused to move.
Why are they refusing to enter the cavern? What was keeping them out?
A human figure joined them from inside the cavern.
"What's all the noise about?"
"The warrior woman, she has passed by here." Scion roared his anger. "Did you pass her?"
"Scion, there are three tunnels down there. I was in but one of them, and I didn't see any other light but my own."
"Go back down and look!"
"Are you crazy? If she is down there, then I escaped with my life. Listen, she's got to be after the Queen, and she's in Yerik's tent. Where's Yerik anyway? With all the noise you've been making he should be out here." The man's voice sounded suspicious.
Scion made a sweeping gesture to his fellow satyrs and they spread out and moved toward Yerik's tent.
"Here! She has been here!" One of them yelled.
The others swarmed to the right of where the two hidden figures were; not listening to Scion who yelled for them to stay spread out. Xena pulled on Gabrielle's wrist and both got up from the dark ground and ran the short distance back into the cavern. By then, Yerik had come to and was making such a ruckus everyone's attention was focused elsewhere.
"Xena, I hope this has a back way out." Gabrielle told her breathlessly as they moved as fast as Xena thought safe down into the smelly darkened tunnel.
"Yea, we're working on it." She mumbled as she led Gabrielle back to Arri's grotto.
Without announcing themselves Xena pulled Gabrielle into the room that had one small lamp lit.
"I see you have both made it back safely, but…Arri greeted them in his hoarse voice. "I'm expecting company. Do you mind waiting in there?" He gestured with his scared hand the side of the room where Gabrielle had filled her water bottle. "There is a small space to hide. I'm sure you both can fit."
Both women were about gagging from the pocket of stale air that surrounded them in that small space that was more accommodating for Gabrielle's height, and alone.
Footsteps and hooves echoed down the tunnels with Yerik turning the corner and cursing as he jumped back.
"Yerik. If I had known you would be coming I would have started working earlier on bringing down the energy, but now, it will take a while…what's all the activity about?"
"You're sittin on the chair!" He snarled. "You tell me!"
"Sitting on the chair is by circumstance. I can't go anywhere and no one can lift me off it. And I don't know how many times I have to explain to you…oracle visions are once a month and then it takes preparation, rituals, incense, you should know. You worked with a shaman for a while. Does this place look and smell like it's being prepared?"
"Don't give me that centaur's droppings, Arri! They had to come by here."
"The only thing I heard coming down that tunnel was you and…well, hello Scion. It's unusual to see you down here. Your sense of smell must be terribly offended."
The two women heard a grumbling noise. "You can't go back up! They're down here somewhere."
"How do you know?" Scion grumbled louder. "Did you see them enter?"
"They need to get back in here." Yerik argued.
"Hmm." The loud noise of hooves leaving, then fading away had Yerik furious. "Stay here." He directed Pausanias. "I'll search the dam tunnels myself."
"Yerik, that's not wise. If she's here…why not seal the cavern entrance?"
There was silence for a few moments. Arri was grinning for the idea of sealing him and everyone else in here had crossed Yerik's mind, he just wanted the third object and felt the cavern was what was pulling the objects toward him, so he didn't want to be too hasty.
"And seal Arri? Pausanias, he's a partner." Yerik grinned at the two men who did not like each other, then turned and exited the cave, following Scion back out.
"We just won't send anyone back down until Abba and his drunken buddies get back." Yerik muttered, cursing under his breath. However, the cursing lacked conviction to Arri's ears.
Pausanias stood just outside of Arri's cave not able to get any further least he end up as a small pile of ashes. He spat into the room and turned to leave.
Arri's laughter echoed down the tunnel following Pausanias out. Pausanias refused to give into what his senses were telling him, to run out as fast as he could. It would be giving in to the freak, and he would not.
Xena and Gabrielle came out of their hiding place as soon as the last footstep died away.
"We must begin to prepare." Arri told the two women.
"What are we preparing for?" Xena asked suspiciously.
"For the rituals. This Sacred Space needs to be cleansed."
Gabrielle looked around at the mess. She was tired and hungry. She couldn't remember when she last slept, which bothered her since she lost track of time in the tunnels. Her stomach had stopped grumbling it was empty long ago, probably giving up on her.
After most of the rubble had been cleared from the floor Gabrielle sat with her back against one of the cleaner walls to rest. Xena was using the gourd to pour water over the walls, rinsing them down. The air that was coming through a few of the ducts was helping with clearing the air.
"Aren't you worried Yerik's going to notice this place is cleaned up?" Xean asked as she patted some water on her face to cool it.
"He and his group will not be able to enter this area any more. The energy is now raising rapidly. It is already into the next day. Three days until the new moon."
The yellow eyes never blinked as they watched the two women clean the oracle's sacred spot. He knew he could refresh the two women, but there were still things that needed to happen and revitalizing Gabrielle would change things.
Xena turned to her friend who fell into a light slumber. "I'm going to check on the others. I'll be right back. Three days, you say?"
"It's the day the golden girdle left the city. It is three days from when the new moon raises into the star blanketed sky."
"Yea? Well, watch out for her will ya. Let her know I'll be back." Xena was weary though not tired. It meant she had been going for about three or four days without sleep yet didn't feel sleepy. She suspected it had something to do with the room they were working in. The trembling she felt beneath her feet, and the energy she felt crawl up her legs, just about made her hairs stand on end. It was strange that Gabrielle wasn't as effected, especially if she was the one that was suppose to be bringing all this together.
She cursed to herself silently. She meant to talk to Gabrielle about that part. She cautiously felt her way down the tunnel, listening for sounds that would indicate she wasn't alone. The small lamps that burned in their niches weren't being kept up, and some were out leaving long stretches of the floor in the dark.
It was sometime before she made it back to where she had left the three women. "Is there a way here?" She called to whoever was on the other side of the entranceway. Whoever it was smelled a lot better than what had passed by her earlier.
"Who goes there?" Camila's voice rasped.
"A friend." Xena gave the soft answer. She slid through nodding at the skinny face that the lamp reflected off. Camila waved her in and toward two dark forms huddled together.
Xena found Eleanor talking quietly with a young woman who looked as if she had been crying. Eleanor looked up at Xena and nodded toward another clump of people sleeping.
"Agnes just fell asleep. She's been worried about you." Eleanor told her softly. "She needs to talk to you."
"Right." Xena stepped around sleeping bodies sprawled out wherever they could find enough space. This place wasn't the roomiest.
She knelt down next to Agnes and gently shook her shoulder after calling to her.
"Hmm. Xena." Unlike Gabrielle who was sometimes slow in rousing, Agnes was wide-awake instantly, as if she were waiting for her, "I was wondering what happened to you. Camila went to look for you and brought back the buckets of food that one of Yerik's men left at the tunnel entrances, and told us she heard the great Satyr yelling."
"Yea, well we had a little trouble." With Gabrielle, what else is new? She mentally shook her head. And with the trouble, as was usual, came mixed blessings for they had retrieved one of the ritual objects.
"Are you alright here?"
"Yea. Alala and Hildreth have made the exit hole a lot bigger. The opening let's in some nice clean air. Alala sends heartfelt gratitude for releasing Mutie, and so do we." Agnes let a small amount of silence pass. "They've been hunting food for us too, bless Artemis for their catches. Many haven't eaten anything that solid for almost a year so…well."
"Good. Good. Look, I'm going to leave you guys on your own. Whatever is going to happen is around the oracle's chair and that's still a few days away. I want you guys to get back to the city. By now the citizens should be pretty much back to themselves and I'm sure they will love to see their loved ones."
"What about the satyrs?"
Xena was hopping Dori was still helping out. "You'll be alright. They don't like this part of the forest I hear, and Alala and Hildreth can keep to the treetops and spot them soon enough. I have a feeling though, the city will be heading out toward the cavern's as soon as they realize Gigantes is missing."
"Before you go back!" Agnes put a hand on Xena's leathered wrist. "Take this box and this." She handed Xena something that picked up the light from the small lamp nearby.
A large ring lay in the center of her palm. The stone was milky white and each side was a different picture of Artemis. "You had this, all this time?" Xena asked incredulously.
"Yes. I'm surprised they did not find it on me or even ask me for it. Hildreth was instructed by Artemis to bring it here for the new moon's ritual to release the spirit of a lost and wandering Amazon Queen. Hildreth had given it to me the day I was captured to take to the Temple of Artemis. She had a premonition that something was going to happen that day when she rode out to inspect the forest. She thought it was going to be her that was captured but…it turned out different."
"Did you know that Caesar has a reward out for it?"
"Yes. We heard from some wandering Amazons, on our way here. That's what had us worried about Crometh. We thought he would send troops to take over the town to find the three items. Hildreth sent others out before us to see if Crometh was taken but they never returned. They became drugged like the rest of the citizens, forgot their mission, forgot us."
Xena nodded and thought about the mercenaries she had seen with Hildreth on their first day. Absentmindedly she slipped the ring onto a finger on her left hand so as not to loose it. "That's the girdle?"
"Yea. Hildreth and Alala spotted someone sneaking into the forest last night and removed his burden." She moved a little and gestured to the rock. "You may open the box for the time is near, but remember, once it is opened, you must remove the girdle or you will not be able to open it again until another seven years." She shrugged her shoulders. "That's the protection spell the priestess put on it when Artemis gave it to her to hold."
"All right. Anything else I need to know?"
"Just that, you must remember that the oracle's words are not binding, for as the goddess always tells us…"
"We are the masters of our destinations…" Xena finished impatiently. That was her motto.
Agnes smiled. "Yea. Demeter said you would know."
"Demeter? Just how many are involved in this?"
Agnes gripped Xena wrist strongly. "You only know a bit of it. And we don't have time to discuss it. The goddess said Gabrielle has been sent dreams for three moons, of her quest, and since the first night of her stay in Crometh, the high priestess of the Muses Temple, instructing her in what she must do. The priestess is Aerope. You must find her and bring her out so she can help. She's at the bottom of the first tunnel, but Yerik has blocked the entrance. Arri, the Usurper, he will know of another way down. That is where Gabrielle must go now, before the energy of the oracle's seat is released. If she does not remove the spell Yerik has on the sacred pools, this entire city will be no more."
Xena reached behind the rock and pulled out the small box that held the golden girdle. Her fingers traced the design on the top of the lid.
"Take care of yourselves. See ya when this is all over." Xena was up and hurrying back to where she left Gabrielle. Sounds from one of the tunnels echoed down the tunnel as she moved as fast as she dared. She slowed to listen. She shifted the box that was under her arm and cursed silently as it made a scraping noise on the wall.
She pursed her lips and decided the box would have to go. If she had to fight her way back to Gabrielle's side, carrying a box this size would be in the way. She lifted the lid carefully, not knowing what to expect. It was dark where she was and the she had to feel for the contents. She lifted the thin-leathered girdle out of its box and tied it around her waist. Why not? Safest place for now. She picked up the box and somewhere along the way, found an obscure place to tuck it.
From where she was, she could hear angry words being exchanged between Yerik, who had returned and Arri's quiet voice answering him. Yerik was standing out side of the room.
"Say it to me again!" Yerik demanded.
"Alright, if it makes you happy. Dark and light held together, one to one and one as one, three objects bind them together, one to one and one as one, forward or back, there or now, one to one and one as one.
"What's that suppose to mean. Sie werden der Tod von uns alle sein!"
(You'll be the death of me yet!)
"Yerik, death isn't so bad, so quit your whining." The ground trembled making the people in the tunnel grab the walls for balance. "By Hermes winged sandals!" Arri breathed excitedly. "Can you feel the energy building up here?"
The ground continued to tremble under their feet and Xena had to grab onto the wall she was pressed closely against as the tremble grew.
"They are here!" The statue in Yerik's hand screeched scaring him so that he flung the statue away from him in fright. Into the oracle's room it went, rolling to a halt at the foot of the dais.
The energy in the room became more intense, as the three objects drew near to each other, or was it because they were near the room? Xena rolled her eyes as she thought about two of the items she was wearing. Agnes didn't say anything about this happening when the three objects got near each other. She moved back down the tunnel past where she had hid the box.
"Scion, look down the tunnel!"
Xena heard the reluctant movement of hooves echoing in the tunnel toward her. The movement under her feet stopped rolling but the trembling was still there. She moved back trying to gage just how close Scion was to her position.
"Yerik!" He hollered. "We have found your girdle!" There was silence for a few moments. "It smells of that Warrior Woman!" He growled.
Xena raised her eyebrows relieved. Hopefully they didn't open the box.
"Yessss. How did she get it?"
"Who cares. You have two of your items. You only need to wait for the third. Let us leave this place." Scion's deep voice echoed through out the tunnels.
"Wait." There was a pause and the shuffling of feet. "This is good by, Arri." Yerik's voice was soft. "It's been interesting knowing you but now, your value has suddenly dropped. Seal the entrance, Pausanias."
"Yerik, I'm so disappointed in your actions. Don't you want your statue? Maybe a little bit of advice before she leaves you?" Arri taunted.
Yerik laughed. "Her words are more cryptic than yours, Arri. The ring will come and I will be waiting just outside."
So, he doesn't realize we have the fan box. A bit too careless to be working for the likes of Caesar. Xena crept closer to see just how Yerik was sealing the entrance. She could smell the slime, bitumen, from where she was. They were going to fire the entrance. It would suck the air out of the small room. Xena watched the lone figure light the fire and watch it for a few moments then laughing, turn away and run up the tunnel after the others. Xena didn't wait as she dove headfirst through the flames. The ground again moved under her rolling body. The foot of the dais stopped her forward roll. Her feet came to a rest on the second stair where Gabrielle was struggling to help Arri's misshapen form off the chair.
"Gabrielle don't….touch… How come you're not up in smoke?"
"Like you, she has a sacred object. Can you not feel the power you both have around you?" Arri told the tall warrior as she got to her feet. He chucked. Xena easily lifted him and followed Gabrielle who was holding the statue Yerik had abandoned. Well, that meant they had all the stuff they needed, Xena was thinking.
16-17 : PART I |
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