The Chronicles of Gabrielle

 The Heart of a Warrior Book 2:

“Dark Night of the Soul”

 

 

 

 

My Disclaimer:

Xena, created by Rob Tapert and John Schulian, and all of its characters are the sole property of Renaissance Pictures.  This piece of fanfiction is not intended to infringe upon the rights of the studio or any of its benefactors in any way.  No copyrights or trademarks were harmed during the production of this story.   I write about Xena and Gabby because I love them, and I want to share my imagination with the Xenaverse, not to make money.

 

Copyright 2002 SliderBard

 

 

 

I would love to hear from you! Send your comments to sliderz105@yahoo.com

 

 

Dedication

  

For Lucy, Renee, Rob, and everyone else who put their blood, sweat, and tears into Xena.  I could give you everything I have in thanks and still fall short of all you’ve done for me and all the joy you’ve given me!  I owe you everything!  THANK YOU!!!

 

For Xena and Gabby, my best friends, my inspiration, who showed me what love and sacrifice is all about.  I wouldn’t be the woman I am today without you…

 

 

 

 

 

 

PROLOGUE

 

They were a week out from Amphipolis, and so far everything had been going okay, if one could call being without a certain warrior princess okay.  No bandits or warlords, cyclopses, giants, or any other such problem.  The only thing plaguing them was the rain.  There had been an almost constant downpour for days.  Neither Gabrielle, Jarra, nor Ezra could remember a time when they had been completely dry over the last few days.  They could barely keep a fire going.  Hair and clothes sodden, they trudged on through the mud and wet.  When they made their soggy camp that evening, they were thankful that their destination, the city of Sapai, was only a little less than a day away.  A day to Sapai, then one or two more to the coast port where they would be able to catch a ship to the islands.  From there they could find a ship going to Alexandria.  Soon, the Land of the Pharaohs would be their home.

     They had no idea that something was watching them from the woods, and waiting…

 

 

                                                                                *             *             *

 

 

Their camp made, Gabrielle had finally, miraculously, managed to get a fire going with the soggy timber available.  It was a weak one at that, the puny flames struggling to survive on the damp wood.  Still, they were slowly catching, the fire growing gradually with her assistance. 

     When the fire was burning heartily on its own, she brushed the soot and grime from her hands as best she could and went in search of her friends.  She found them in the nearby stand of trees where they had tied the horses.  The sound of Ezra’s flute had led her there.  She poked her head out from behind a tree; both were totally oblivious to her presence. 

                Jarra danced slowly, as if in a trance, singing softly to the mournful melody that Ezra played on his flute, her eyes closed.  Gabrielle knew the ritual she was performing.  The Amazon Grieving Dance.  She knew it all too well.  As Jarra sang, she silently mouthed the words along with her, feeling their healing power move through her, and remembered.

     Images of Xena flashed through her mind, all the places they had been, all the wonders that they had seen, how wonderful their lives had been because they’d had each other.  The singing stopped and the spell was broken.  Ezra was putting the flute back into its polished wooden case.

     “That was beautiful, Jarra,” she said, sounding very loud to herself after the silence following the Grieving Dance.

     Jarra started and spun, eyes wide in a startled expression. Ezra’s head snapped up.

     She smiled at them apologetically.  “Sorry.  I didn’t mean to sneak up on you.” 

     It seemed like she had been doing that a lot lately, moving so quietly that no one noticed her.  She had by no means gone crashing through the bushes all these years, but her level of stealth had increased dramatically since her return from Japan.  She smiled again, remembering all of the times she had nearly jumped out of her skin when Xena had snuck up on her, intentional or otherwise.  Gods, but she had wanted to wring Xena’s neck sometimes for doing that-now she was doing it to her friends.

    “Its okay,” Jarra replied with a familiar easy smile.  “Why didn’t you join in?”

     “I did, in my own way,” she answered enigmatically.

     Jarra cocked her head quizzically, the unvoiced question in her eyes.  Ezra had the same look of askance on his face.

     I grieve for the way things had to be, but not for Xena.  She isn’t really gone, Gabrielle said to herself in answer, but the words didn’t come out of her mouth.  She couldn’t speak them.  It wasn’t time yet.

    When no answer was forthcoming, her friends didn’t push her for one.  They knew that she would talk when she was ready.  When they sensed that an uncomfortable topic had come up, they carefully backed away from it. In part, she was very grateful for that, but it was starting to irritate her in a way, that they felt they had to be so delicate with her emotions.  She wasn’t as fragile as they were treating her.  Or was she?

     She couldn’t afford to doubt herself, not if she was to continue, to go on, but the questions still hovered behind every thought, everything she did.

     “You really miss her, don’t you?” It wasn’t really a question.

    “More than you’ll ever know,” Jarra answered, deep melancholy coming through in her voice, the look in her eyes.  Her expression turned thoughtful.  “There are people who move in and out of your life, leaving a part of themselves with you.  What they leave behind changes your life forever.  For me, Xena was one of those people.”

     In the wake of those words, Gabrielle was left speechless.  That simple truth applied to her as well, but in ways that Jarra could never know or dream of.  Xena was a part of her soul, always and forever.

     It was a long time before she found that she could speak again.  “I’ve got a fire going,” she stated simply, the power of the Grieving Dance and Jarra’s words still reverberating through her.  From the look on their faces, her friends were feeling it, too.

     Taking their cue, Jarra and Ezra followed her back to the fire, where they ate a modest meal before turning in for the night.

 

 

                                                                                *             *             *

 

 

“Gabrielle.  Gabrielle,” a voice was calling insistently.  A hand was on her shoulder, shaking her gently but urgently.  “Gabrielle!”

     Gabrielle pulled herself up from the depths of sound sleep, focusing on the voice and its urgency.  This had better be good, she thought.  She was exhausted.  She couldn’t have had more than an hour of sleep, but she forced herself awake anyway.

     “Gabrielle, you have to get up. Now.”

     Xena.  It was Xena who was talking.  Xena who had woken her.  But why?

     “What is it?” she asked groggily.  Her eyelids felt like they had heavy sandbags attached to them.  She had not been sleeping well of late, and when she did it never lasted long.  The dream always came sooner or later, torturing her, robbing her of any chance at rest.

     She propped herself up on her elbows, throwing back the fur blanket that covered her.  Goosebumps sprang up on her skin the instant the chill night air hit her.  She sat up, shivering, rubbing her arms to try and restore some warmth to them without much success.  She opened one eye, just a small slit, to look up at the sky.  It was still dark, stars twinkling faintly, the moon full.  At least it wasn’t raining. 

     She sighed crankily.  “Xena, it’s the middle of the night,” she complained.

     “Get up,” Xena said again, “and wake the others.  Quickly.”

     For the first time she noticed the undertone her friend’s voice carried.  Warning.  Suddenly she was quite awake and alert, her irritation at being awakened all but forgotten.

     “What is it, Xena?”

     The spirit of Xena, that only Gabrielle could see, hear, or feel, spoke quickly.  “I don’t know.  But something isn’t right here.  There’s danger coming.  There isn’t much time.”

     More trouble.  It wasn’t that she went looking for it, just that it always seemed to find her no matter where she went, what she did, or who she was with.  She was more capable of dealing with it these days, thank the gods, but that didn’t make it much better.

     What danger?  No one was around-she would have heard them by now.  But something did feel…off, somehow.  Her instincts were screaming at her, telling her something was coming and she had better be ready, that she should listen to her friend’s warning.  The more she thought about it, the more she could feel it.  The hair rose on the back of her neck.  She had to wake her friends.

     Pulling on her boots, she went to Jarra first, who was awake almost instantly.  One look at her face and Jarra knew something was up. 

      “What’s wrong?”

     “I can’t explain,” she said hurriedly.  “Just get up and be ready.”

     Though a little confused, Jarra obeyed without question, pausing only to wake Ezra, who had been sleeping soundly beside her.

     Gabrielle paused briefly to listen.  Behind the sounds of the forest all around her, she listened-still there was nothing.  An itch in the back of her mind, like the feeling a person gets when they know they are being watched, was telling her otherwise.

     She shoved her sais into her boots and snatched up her katana sword, not wasting another instant.  Something was coming.  She could feel it.  It would be upon them at any second.

     “Get your weapons, quickly,” she ordered her friends in a harsh whisper.  Still clueless to the danger, they obeyed. 

     She drew her samurai sword, the one given to her in Higuchi, feeling its familiar weight in her hands.  The feeling of imminent danger pressed at her from all sides at once, the weight of it oppressive.  Still, she neither saw nor heard a thing.

     “Gabrielle, something is coming,” Jarra said, drawing her own sais from her boots.  “I can feel it.”

     “Something isn’t right here,” Ezra said, eyes darting nervously around, his sword raised and ready.

     Jarra looked to her friend, eyes intense as she asked, “What in Tartarus is going on?”

     That’s when they came swooping out of the trees, making no sound at all, black human shapes with glowing red eyes.  The silence with which they moved was unnatural.  Why hadn’t she been able to hear them?

     One was suddenly in front of her.  It was human in form alright, but there was nothing human about those red eyes or the fangs that flashed in the moonlight as it dove for her throat.

     Gabrielle slashed at it, a stroke that it should not have been able to avoid.  But dodge the blow it did, ducking under and away.  It spun in a flash and its fist connected with her face.  She shook her head dazedly.  A metallic taste in her mouth-blood.  It went for her throat again.  This time by a stroke of luck she was able to anticipate it and buried her sword hilt-deep into its middle.  She planted a boot squarely on its chest, pulling her sword free as it fell back.  It hit the ground hard-and got right back up.

     She backed away, mind reeling.  That wound was fatal, but that thing was getting back up and showing no sign of slowing down.

     Sounds of a struggle to her left; Jarra was taking a beating, bleeding from a split lip and a cut over one eye.  Another one of those things was fighting her.  Jarra was barely keeping up with it, and Gabrielle knew that she would not be able to hold her own for much longer.  That thing would rip her throat out as soon as she faltered.  Ezra tried to help her and was thrown across the camp into a tree for his trouble.

     An almost debilitating fear hit her.  Gods, it was happening again.  Friends in danger, and she had to save them.  Could she save them, or would she fail them like she failed Xena?

     She fought down the fear, looking to Ezra, who lay in a heap on the ground.  Whether he was conscious or not she didn’t know.  She didn’t have time to look.  Neither of those things was making a move for him, he wasn’t in immediate danger.  Jarra was.

     He could be dead, she thought for a terrible instant.  You failed, Gabrielle.  You couldn’t save Xena, and you couldn’t save him…

     She reached for the chakram clipped at her waist.  Before it cleared the clip, she was grabbed from behind.  In that moment of hesitation that her fear had caused, she had neglected to pay attention to the thing coming for her.

     Failed, failed…failed…

     Its arms around her, it squeezed with inhuman strength, hissing in her ear.  She couldn’t breathe.  Much more of this and her ribs would snap, and that would be the least of her problems.  She twisted desperately in its grasp, but it was no use.  A rib gave way with an audible crunch, but she didn’t have enough air to cry out.  Darkness closed in at the edges of her vision.

     The pressure lessened, and she sucked in a grateful breath, the darkness clearing.  The sharp pain in her side made her gasp.  At least one rib was broken.  The creature still held her.  She couldn’t break free.

     Hot breath on her neck, then piercing pain.  It stemmed from a spot on her neck, moving all through her shoulder and coruscating down her arm.  Her mouth hung open in a silent cry, back arching at the exquisite agony.  Pooling warmth on her neck where the pain was the greatest-blood.  Her blood.  Greedy slurping noises filled her ear.  That thing was drinking her blood.  She struggled weakly.  Her strength was draining away with each passing second.  The blackness closed in again, her consciousness failing as her lifeblood was being sucked out of her.  Her sword dropped from nerveless fingers.  The thudding of her heart, becoming steadily slower, was all she could hear.  So this was how it would end…

     Xena…

     At the edge of awareness, she felt herself being released, and suddenly she was on the ground.  Faintly, she heard shrieking, coming from the attackers.  Her vision began to return.  Dimly she saw the red-eyed things running into the forest.  The stars had gone, the sky had brightened.  Sunrise was near.

     She tried to get up, but she hardly had the strength to lift her head.  The last thing she saw before blacking out was a bloodied Jarra running toward her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

She floated in nothingness.

     Was she dying?  Was she already dead?  It didn’t matter.  Not anymore.

     “Gabrielle?” a woman’s soft voice called from somewhere behind her.  Warm, soothing hands cradled her.  The touch, so familiar-warm, firm, yet gentle, it could only belong to one person.

     With great effort, Gabrielle opened her eyes, blinking and struggling to focus.  Xena’s face swam above hers, and she let her eyes slide shut.  She was too exhausted to keep them open.  But it was alright.  Everything would be alright now. 

     Hands gently brushed the hair out of her face.  “Rest, Gabrielle.  No one can hurt you now.”

     The pain in her side would not allow her to rest.  She would drift off, lying safely in Xena’s arms, only to have the agony in her side wake her moments later.  She faded in and out, stirring fitfully in her brief moments of consciousness.

     Xena’s voice floated to her through the haze of pain and exhaustion.  “I’ll try to help you, Gabrielle.  Hold on, for me.”

   She felt Xena’s hand cover the place where the pain was the worst.  So warm-the warmth spread outward and the pain eased.  She relaxed.  She was with Xena.  No more hurt, no more pain.  Her soulmate’s love and warmth enfolded her, and she surrendered to it completely.

     “I love you, Xena…”

 

 

                                                                              *                        *                          *

 

 

Gabrielle awoke much later.  How much time had passed she did not know.  She had thought she was dead. 

     Floating in a surreal dream-that’s what it had felt like, hovering there on the edge of death.  She’d felt such peace-it reminded her of the angels when they came to take she and Xena after their brutal crucifixion at the hands of the Romans.  But there had been no angles this time.  Just Xena.  Her soulmate was worth a thousand angles.  More.  It had seemed like a dream, but it most certainly had not been.  Xena had really been there, had held her and eased her pain as she clung desperately to life, hanging in the limbo between this world and death.

     If any fears about dying remained in her mind, they had been banished by this experience.  When it was her time, Xena would be there to welcome her.  Xena would take her in her arms and together they would face whatever new existence awaited.  There was nothing to fear.  Death was not the end-Xena had proved that to her.  It was only the beginning.  But just how close she had come to dying still sent a small shudder through her.

     She stirred weakly.  Every muscle and joint ached.  Her side throbbed.  Her abdomen felt tight when she breathed.  She tried to sit up, but her strength failed her.  She moaned at the fiery pain the movement ignited in her side.  

     Gentle hands on her shoulders.

     “Lie still, Gabrielle.  Don’t try to move.”

     Jarra.

     “You had us worried.”  This from Ezra, who was also near.

     “How long,” she croaked.  Her throat was dry.  Speaking almost took more effort than she had the strength for.

     Jarra brought the waterskin to her lips and she sipped the cool water gratefully.

     “You’ve been unconscious the entire day,” Jarra explained.

     She opened her eyes slowly.  Jarra was crouched beside her, face tight with worry.  It was almost sunset.  She let her eyes slide shut again.  It was too difficult to keep them open.  Asleep the entire day?  Yet she was still so tired…

     “Where are we?” she asked, her voice hardly more than a whisper.

     “Still at the camp we made yesterday.”  It was Ezra who answered this time.  “We were afraid to move you.”

     That bad?  But she knew that she had been near death.

     “You scared me, Gabrielle,” Jarra said softly.  She could hear the tears in her voice.  “It was pretty touch-and-go there for a while.  We almost lost you.”

     Jarra had been very deeply shaken. She could hear it in the way her voice trembled.  She had almost lost another friend.

     Gabrielle tried to move once more, but it was no use.  She was too weak.

     “Gab, please, don’t move,” Jarra pleaded.  “You’ll only make things worse.  You’ve lost a lot of blood, and at least two ribs are badly broken.  You need to save your strength.”

     She let herself relax.  Jarra was right.  But they needed to get out of here…

     “I’ve bandaged your ribs up nice and tight,” Jarra told her. “Should help with the pain.  Its about all I can do for you.”

     Bandages.  That explained the tightness around her middle.  The pain was minimal, as long as she didn’t try to move too much or breathe too deep.  Far less than it should have been, actually.  Had Xena really been able to aid their healing?  That was too complicated a question for her mind to ponder in her present exhausted state.

     She felt Jarra pull another blanket over her and tuck it around her tightly.

     “Try to rest, Gabrielle.”

     She had no trouble obliging.  Warm in the blankets and tired beyond imagining, she sank beneath the surface of consciousness.  On the fringes of sleep, she was barely aware of the conversation Jarra was having with Ezra.

     “-the wound is so small.  She couldn’t have bled that much from just that.”

     Hearing that, she fought her way back toward consciousness.  She had to tell them…

     “It bit me,” she whispered.

     “I know.  I saw it happen,” Jarra informed her.  “That still doesn’t explain-“

     “Drank my blood,” she interrupted.  Consciousness was fading fast.

     “What?” Ezra asked, incredulous.

     “Lamia drink human blood,” Jarra reasoned aloud.  “But those weren’t like any lamia I know of.”

     That was the last thing Gabrielle heard before sleep claimed her.

                                                                *             *             *

 

 

This recent turn of events had scared Ezra much more than he was letting Jarra know.

     One moment he’d been rushing to save Jarra, the next flying through the air and having the world go dark as he slammed into something.  Hard.  Jarra told him later that one of the red-eyed things had thrown him into a tree when he tried to come to her aid.  He came to minutes later to find the things gone and Gabrielle down, bleeding from a not-too-serious looking wound to the neck, an ugly purple blotch on her side where her ribs had been broken, barely breathing.  The terror he’d felt in that moment-the only thing that would have panicked him more would have been finding Jarra lying there in such a condition.

     They had almost lost Gabrielle.  Dear gods, they had almost lost her.  So deeply shaken by it was he that he trembled at the thought.  Not just at the thought of losing Gabrielle, which was terrifying in and of itself, but at the thought of what that might have done to Jarra.

     Despite the way things might appear, Jarra wasn’t hanging on by all that much, and losing Gabrielle would have surely broken her.  That scared him in ways that were indescribable.

     The truth was that the tragedy of Xena’s death had consumed him as well.  She had been an incredible presence in his life.  Her loss was a void that he didn’t think he would ever be able to fill.  She had been his friend, and he missed her deeply.  It would never be the same without her.  Never.  He still owed her so much for saving Jarra, the woman he loved.  Without Xena’s help, he would have lost her to her own demons and torments.

     To lose another friend so soon-it just might have broken him, too.  Gabrielle had almost died…  His hands shook, and he clenched them into fists to steady them.

     Just what were those things that had attacked them?  They drank human blood-Gabrielle’s condition proved that-but were they lamia?  Lamia were supposed to have the lower body of a snake.  Those things hadn’t.  Would they come back tonight?  He hoped not, because he wasn’t sure that he and Jarra could fight them off again.  The best thing would be to get out of there, to the safety of the city of Sapai not far away.  But they couldn’t move Gabrielle, not until tomorrow at the earliest.  Their only choice was to stay and stand watch and hope those monsters didn’t come back.

     Gabrielle slept for most of the remainder of that day, which was just as well considering her injuries.  When Jarra re-wrapped the bandages, just before nightfall, he got a good look at the angry purple-black blotch of bruising over her ribs, the myriad of other bruises, and winced inwardly.  Very painful, and very serious.  Sleep would bring back her strength, give her time to heal.

     When darkness fell, Jarra took first watch, sitting against a tree, strung bow in hand and an arrow from the quiver attached to her horse Demos’ saddle nocked and ready to let fly in an instant.  Like most Amazons, she had been trained in archery, and he had never seen her miss a single shot in all the time that they had been together.  Arrows were in short supply at the moment, but the extra protection would be worth the risk of using them up.

     When he looked up, his eyes met hers, and in them he saw his own worry and fear mirrored.  They both hoped that Gabrielle would be alright, and they both prayed fiercely that those things would not return.

Chapter Two

 

Gabrielle was markedly better the next day, though her full strength had yet to return.  Pale and drawn, the look of someone who had suffered severe blood loss, she lay on a makeshift litter that Ezra had fashioned for her.  She was still too weak to do much more than walk from one side of their small camp to the other, and it would hurt her ribs too much to ride Argo.  Even when she could manage to get to her feet, Jarra or Ezra had to be there to steady her lest she fall.  If there was the possibility that she could ride, she still might not have the strength to stay in the saddle.  So Ezra led Argo, who pulled the litter, while Jarra rode close beside.

     It really was too soon for Gabrielle to be moved safely, but all of them felt there was little choice.  All had been quiet the previous day and last night.  No further attacks had come, but it was too much of a risk to linger outside the safety of the city any longer than necessary, knowing what was out there. It certainly was not safe to stay in one place.  They had to move on.

     Gabrielle’s hand drifted to her injured side, bruised and swollen beneath the tight bandages.  Her fingers then brushed the puncture marks on her neck.  She was alive, and for that, according to Ezra, she had Jarra to thank.  Jarra’s quick and skillful ministrations had saved her life.  And even that had almost not been enough.

     She wasn’t entirely convinced that it had been enough.  That was no fault of Jarra’s; Gabrielle knew that her friend had done everything that she possibly could.  When she had been with Xena-that had been no near-death hallucination.  It had been real, she was sure of it.  Something had happened in that time that she couldn’t explain.  The spirit of her soulmate had been her savior; she had no doubt about that now.  Whatever Xena had done, it had been just enough to ensure that she lived. 

     Despite their easy pace, the litter hit a bump in the road hard, jarring her sharply, sending pain lancing through her side.  Still, it didn’t hurt as much as it should have.  She wondered again just what it was that Xena had done to her.  Her injuries had healed noticeably since just this morning.  Regardless, she was thankful for the healing she had been given, no matter how strange it seemed.

                                                                                *             *             *

The day was no less cold for the sun that was shining down upon them, the swirling breezes no less sharp.  Huddled into their coats despite the deceptive brightness, Jarra and Ezra hurried as much as they dared with Gabrielle on the litter, shivering in the bitter cold air.

     It was just now midday, the sun failing to warm them as it hung high and bright overhead.  At their current pace they could reach Sapai by sunset.  Ezra was glad of that; he didn’t want to spend another night out in the countryside if he didn’t have to, not when he knew what was out there.

     The wind picked up, becoming icier, stinging and numbing exposed skin.  Jarra waved them to a halt and jumped down from her mount to check on Gabrielle.  She put another blanket around her sleeping friend, trying to keep her as warm and shielded from the biting wind as possible.

     Ezra watched Jarra fussing over Gabrielle, thinking.  It was a small miracle that their friend was still alive.  Even more miraculous was the speed at which Gabrielle seemed to be recovering.  She should have been bed-ridden for days, even a couple of weeks.  Yet this morning she had been up and walking around, albeit weakly and unsteadily, and awake when they had moved out of camp.  That wasn’t all-according to Jarra, her badly broken ribs were healing abnormally.  That is, abnormally fast.  Several days worth of healing had occurred in the space of just one.  Neither he nor Jarra could explain it.

     That was what had gotten him thinking.  He remembered the night of the attack, and the subsequent fight for Gabrielle’s life, quite vividly.  They were doing everything that they could as their friend lay there unmoving-dying.  Both of them knew it, frantically denying it and trying to stay calm.  Nothing helped, and Gabrielle slipped further and further away.  Jarra had done everything she could, not that there had been much, and all they could do was hope.  Gabrielle’s condition continued to deteriorate, her breath so shallow that there was no visible rise and fall of her chest, and almost no pulse.

     Jarra had sobbed with grief and frustration, helpless to stop what was happening.  Her pain had only served to double his own.  To see the love of his life suffer so, to watch his good friend die, had nearly killed him.

     Then a miracle happened.  Gabrielle had no pulse that either of them could discern-they’d thought that she was dead.  Jarra was hysterical with grief.  He was sobbing, too.  Then he heard it-a deep intake of breath.  Another.  Gabrielle was suddenly breathing again, regular and deep.  Scarcely able to believe it, he’d seized her wrist, searching for a pulse, and he found one.  It was weak, but strong enough, still.  Strong enough that he knew she might be able to pull through.  What was more, Gabrielle had taken on a whole different appearance-she looked relaxed and peaceful, no longer looking as though she was suffering, and though still very pale, the littlest bit of color had returned.

     He and Jarra had cried again, tears of joy this time.  Joy and immense relief.

     Miraculous.  And it had made him wonder just what had happened to Gabrielle there at death’s door.  What had been done that she should be recovering so quickly?  What was it that had brought her back when she was so obviously lost?  He didn’t have the knowledge to answer that.  No mortal alive did.  What he did know was that Gabrielle had come back to them, and that was all that mattered to him.

                                                                                *             *             *

Jarra, foot securely in one stirrup, was about to haul herself back up into the saddle when the world around her froze and suddenly shifted.  After a brief moment of disorientation, she discovered that her horse, Ezra, Gabrielle, the countryside, were all gone.  In their place, grim iron-gray stone walls, like those of some dark castle.  Burning torches spaced at regular intervals provided light to an otherwise dismal and dark chamber.  In front of her, at the far end, a throne made entirely of skulls.  Lounging in it was the god of was himself, Ares.

     She swallowed hard.  Everything that Xena and Gabrielle had ever told her about the god of war and his ways replayed in her mind.  She didn’t fear Ares, not exactly.  But he was a god, one with a reputation for cruelty, and he could destroy her with a snap of his fingers if it suited him to do so.  She relaxed slightly, realizing that Ares most likely had brought her here because he wanted something.  First he tried Gabrielle, and now he’s trying to mess with me, she thought.  She had some measure of power over the situation.  His power, however, was a very real, almost tangible thing, sizzling through the air, reminding her just who was the god and who was the mortal.

     This mortal won’t be cowed, by a god or anyone else, she told herself resolutely as she gave Ares her best tough-girl, steely-eyed stare.

    “Did Xena teach you that look?” he asked.  The question lacked the sarcasm that she would have expected to come with it.  His eyes were hard, but there was hurt there, too.  Whether it was real or not…?

     “Why am I here?” she demanded boldly before she could stop herself.  Bravely she forged ahead.  “I’ve got places to go and an injured friend to take care of.  Things that are more important than dithering around here with you.”  The last sentence came out as a sneer.

     For a brief instant, his gaze was sheer murder.  Well, if she had gone too far then so be it.  She no longer cared.  She was in no mood to play games, least of all with Ares.

     “You presume much, talking to me like that,” he said dangerously, rising from his throne to approach her.  “Xena really has rubbed off on you.  I wanted to help you, but-“

     “Why would I want your help?”

     He came to stand before her, his towering bulk dwarfing her by comparison.

    “Kobejitsu lamia.  I can teach you how to kill them,” he stated enticingly.

     Her brow furrowed.  “Kobe-what?”

     “Kobejitsu lamia,” he repeated slowly, as if to a small child.

    She felt herself bristle, but thought better of responding to the slight.  He wasn’t worth it.  And just what in Tartarus was he talking about, anyway?

     “I am talking about what attacked you in the woods, almost killed Gabrielle, and would have killed you, too if they’d stuck around to finish you off,” he clarified.

     “Those weren’t lamia-“

     “Yes.  They were.”

     A new breed of lamia?

     “The kobejitsu variety are assassins, warriors.  Trained killers.  And they are just one type among many of a new breed.  How you kill them is very specific.  There are only two ways.  I can teach you.”

     It was a familiar tune that Ares was singing.  She knew it all too well, and wasn’t going to trust him.

     “What’s the catch?”

     “None,” he stated flatly.

     That sent up warning flags for her immediately.  He wouldn’t just help her for nothing.  There had to be something in it for him.  Didn’t there?

     “Why me?” she wanted to know.  “Why not take your little proposal to Gabrielle?”

     “Because Gabrielle is too stubborn and set in her ways to listen.  I was hoping that you would be a little more open to reason.”

     Then his lips were next to her ear.  His breath was hot as he whispered persuasively, “I can teach you, if you let me.”

     She wanted to say no.  According to everything that she had ever been told, taking anything from Ares never came to any good.  But knowing how to kill those lamia-valuable knowledge.  Life saving knowledge that they might need.  How could she turn that down?

     He moved behind her, hands coming to rest on her shoulders.  His voice and his breath caressed her ear and her senses.  “Let me teach you, and I can help you find the things you’ve lost…”

     She was suddenly listening very willingly.

     “So much fire,” he purred.  “It would be a shame to see it go out.  You can use it against them, and anyone else who would stand in your way.  You can be what you were.”

     “I’m listening, Ares.”

 

 

                                                                     *                            *                           *

 

 

Ares returned her to the exact moment from which he’d taken her.  It was as if she’d never left.

     Dear gods, just what did she think she was doing?  Dealing with Ares was like playing with fire-sooner or later you’re going to get burned.

     But it would be worth it wouldn’t it?  Lives could be saved with the knowledge he would impart to her about the lamia.  That is, if that really was what he was going to do.

     I can help you find the things you’ve lost…  You can be what you were…

     She heard the words over and over again in her mind.  He’d offered her the one thing that she couldn’t say no to.  She would risk almost anything to get back that thing inside that Xena’s death had stolen, that thing that which Jarra had only when Xena was by her side, that which she had so long as Xena was alive and there to help hold her up.  She wanted it so desperately that her heart ached for wont of it.  Without it, she would crumble.  She could be what she had been again…

     But she couldn’t tell Ezra, and especially not Gabrielle.  They would never understand her uneasy alliance with the god of war.  About that, Ares had been correct.  She at least was willing to listen, and she would walk away if she found that he was deceiving her.  If anything went wrong, she vowed to walk away.

     “Something wrong?” Ezra asked, looking at her oddly.

     Jarra snapped out of her thoughts, realizing that she was just standing there, one foot in the stirrup, doing nothing.

     “I was just thinking,” she answered lamely.

     “What about?”  He was still looking at her with that odd expression.

     Her suddenly strange behavior must have tipped him off.  Play it cool, she told herself.  Don’t let on that anything happened.

     “Nothing important.”

     Jarra hauled herself up into the saddle, doing her best to ignore the odd look Ezra was giving her.  Her secret was safe.

     She had found a way back to being the person Xena had made her.  Why did it feel like a horrible mistake?

                                                                                *             *             *

 

The trio of friends reached Sapai just as the sun was sinking beneath the horizon.

     They moved leisurely down the road, despite their urgent desire to get somewhere safe.  A sea of whitewashed buildings with tiled roofs stretched out before them as they drew steadily closer.

     Almost the instant that they came within sight of the sprawling city, Gabrielle awoke, insisting that she could walk.  Jarra was having none of it.

     “I know that you think you feel alright, Gab, but you need more rest.”

     “I’ve slept for nearly two days,” Gabrielle argued.  It was clear that even something as small as this exchange was tiring her.  And she wanted to walk.

     “You can’t afford to push yourself.  It would be very unwise-“

     “I don’t need to be mothered by you, Jarra,” Gabrielle shot back, voice rising in irritation brought on by fatigue.  She was on her feet now, face to face with Jarra.

     Jarra’s jaw twitched.  That stung.

     “I have to agree with her, Gabrielle,” Ezra broke in gently.  “It might be too much, too soon.”

     The fight suddenly seemed to go out of her, and she just looked very, very tired.  Perhaps she was seeing common sense, maybe it was because she was outnumbered, but she acquiesced, though not entirely.

     “A compromise then,” she said.  “I ride Argo.”

     Jarra opened her mouth to protest, but a look from Ezra silenced her.  She reluctantly nodded her assent, clearly unhappy with the compromise and making no effort to hide it.

     Suppressing a shiver, Gabrielle donned her long coat and went to mount Argo.  Ezra moved to help her, but she waved him off, the look she gave him not unkind but one that made it clear she didn’t want any assistance.

     Quickly, the littler was unfastened and the blankets packed up.  With much more difficulty than was usual, Gabrielle managed to get herself up into the saddle.  Despite her fatigue, she sat tall atop the golden mare as they continued toward the city gates.  In the dimming sunlight, the unnatural pallor of her skin lent her an ethereal quality that made her look like some sort of mythical being rather than a mere mortal.  Her face was set with weary determination.

     The strength of spirit that Jarra felt from her at that moment was unlike anything she had ever felt from her friend before.  This was indeed a very different Gabrielle from the one she once knew.  Stronger, more capable, supremely confident in her abilities, more…

     Like Xena.

     The thought suddenly popped into her Jarra’s head and she realized that right now, her friend had that look.

     Gabrielle has come a very long way, Jarra though with sudden admiration.  Then she noted the lines on her friend’s face that hadn’t been there before, the hint of sadness behind her eyes where there used to be joy.  But getting here hasn’t been easy for her.  It’s been harder than someone as good as she is deserves.

     “War is hard on the soul,” she remembered Xena saying.  In Gabrielle, it showed.  It showed more than ever since her return from Japan.

     She’s lost so much…

     Losing Xena the way that she did-no one should ever have to go through that.  And it had left scars, just not the physical kind.  Jarra saw it in her eyes every time she looked at her.  Yet she endured.  Such guilt Gabrielle had carried over what she had wanted to do-forsake the souls because all she wanted, all she cared about was Xena.  But she had finally come to understand that real, true love can make a person go against everything that they ever believed in.  She had come to accept that desire to save her friend above all else, even when it would have meant doing the wrong thing.  She couldn’t help it.  She loved Xena that much.  But she also loved Xena enough to do the right thing and let her soulmate have her long sought redemption.  The greater good was served just the same.  Above all else, that was all that mattered.  And Gabrielle was still bitter because, as she had confided to Jarra, the creation of Yodoshi and the fire in Higuchi that killed so many, the evils that Xena had been responsible for, were just one huge, horrible accident.  Xena had to pay for that with her life.  In Jarra’s mind, if anyone was to blame it was Akemi.  Akemi used Xena, and no matter who the blame and responsibility fell to, it was Akemi who set it in motion.  But Gabrielle forgave Akemi, and Jarra admired that because it would be oh-so easy for her friend to hate that girl, who couldn’t have possibly known what she was going to cause in the end.  No, Gabrielle was bitter because her soulmate had to die over something that was just an accident. 

     Jarra thought back to that fateful day at the port.  She’d been so happy to see Gabrielle, happy at the prospect of seeing her dear friend Xena.  But she’d sensed something was wrong the instant that she looked into Gabrielle’s eyes.  Her heart had shattered when Gabrielle told her that…that-

     Don’t, she ordered herself fiercely.  It won’t help anything.

     The last few weeks were a blur-it was hard to believe that they had journeyed to Amphipolis and laid their friend to rest, and that now they were here, and soon they would be on a boat to Alexandria.  So much heartache, and yet somewhere along the way they had started to heal.  Together.  There was so much soul searching left to be done;  at least none of them would have to do it alone.

     And they would be doing it in an entirely new place-Egypt, a place that Jarra knew well.  She and Ezra had gone there after he had found her and taken her away from the bloodshed she had wrought, twisted by grief as she was after her father’s murder.  For every night that she’d spent in Ezra’s arms, loving him, there were dozens more that she had spent tortured by the horrible things she had done.  But ultimately, Egypt had been a place of healing and growth-maybe it could be that for her again.  Maybe it could be that for Gabrielle as well.  She hoped so.  Hoped beyond hope, for her friend’s sake, because for all that Gabrielle had changed for the better, there was a darkness, a hardness about her that had not been there before and didn’t belong there now.  Jarra could only hope that she would be able to let go of it.  It was tarnishing someone who was otherwise so bright-it saddened her to see that.

     They had to get away from Greece.  Too many memories lingered here, and besides, Egypt needed their help.

     Gabrielle moved ahead at a trot, and Jarra was going to follow when a sudden impulse made her hang back instead.

     Leave her be, something told her.  You can keep an eye on her just as well from here.

                                                                                *             *             *    

     Gabrielle nudged Argo into a trot, moving out a ways in front of the group.  The movement of her mount jarred her ribs and she gritted her teeth against the pain.  She brought the mare to a walk as soon as she was out of her companions’ hearing range.  She tuned her ears to them-Ezra was asking why she had gone ahead.  Leather creaked as Jarra shrugged in reply.  Neither one of them was going to follow.  Good.

     “Feeling better?”

     Gabrielle looked down to see Xena walking at her side, clad in her armor, as though nothing had changed.  As if Japan had never happened.

     She gave Xena a small smile.  “Yeah,” she said softly so that there was no chance of Jarra or Ezra hearing her.  “My ribs still hurt.”

     Xena’s expression was apologetic.  “There’s nothing more I can do about that.”

     “Just what did you do?” She wondered.  “It was all so strange…”

     Her friend sighed.  “Honestly, Gabrielle, I don’t think there’s any way I could explain it to you that you could understand.”

     “Are you insulting my intelligence?” she joked.  “You’re not, are you?”

     This elicited a wicked smile from the warrior.  “Of course not,” she answered honestly.

     A warm hand came to rest on her knee, the touch reassuring and wonderfully familiar.  “Rest assured, I was there, and I helped you as much as I could.”

     She smiled in thanks, her hand briefly touching Xena’s before her friend withdrew it.

     The warrior looked out over the city, her expression becoming troubled.  “Something isn’t right here, Gabrielle,” she warned.  “Be careful.”

     “I know,” Gabrielle replied, following her gaze.  She looked confidently into her friend’s worried eyes.  “I will.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

Is it just me, or does this place seem a little bit subdued for a big city?”

     So it wasn’t just her.  Gabrielle wasn’t imagining the fact that the city was unusually quiet.  That is, as quiet as a city could get without being deserted.  Something felt wrong here, and Jarra was picking up on it, too.  So was Ezra, if his wary attitude was any indication.  She was all the more inclined to heed Xena’s warning and watch her back while they were here.

     Finding a place to stay was taking longer than it should have.  The first two inns had flat-out refused them.  The fear of the establishments’ owners had been palpable.  And it wasn’t a simple fear of strangers.  Even if it was, a fear like that was abnormal in a big city such as Sapai, with so many merchants and travelers passing through on a regular basis.

     Another thing that was wrong: there wasn’t nearly as much people traffic here as there should have been.  Few merchants, travelers, or residents were about at all.

     All of that had Gabrielle worried.  That, and the fact that she thought she would collapse from exhaustion if they didn’t find accommodations at the next inn.  Despite the appearance she was putting on for her friends, she hardly had anything left.  But she couldn’t be weak.  She had to be strong, for them.

     Just a little farther, she told herself again.  She’d lost count of how many times she’d had to say that inwardly on the ride into and through the city, frustrated with her lingering weakness and doing her damndest not to let it show.

     You could be dead, she reminded herself soberly.

     They came upon the next inn, the last one in the city (according to one of the locals that would actually talk to them), a place called Splendor of Sapai.  Ironically, it was anything but.  Shabby and run-down, complete with a few window shutters barely hanging on by one hinge, it was anything but splendid.  Gabrielle didn’t really care at this point what condition the place was in.  It could’ve been a barn, as long as it was warm and dry and there was something soft she could collapse onto and just sleep.  Being on the road with Xena all those years, she had learned to take what she could get.

     Jarra and Gabrielle reigned their mounts to a halt in front of the inn.

     “What are we going to do if they won’t take us?” Ezra asked, echoing what they were all thinking.

     “Let’s hope we don’t have to find out,” Gabrielle said, sincerely hoping that they wouldn’t, because she didn’t have the strength to go any farther.

     So tired that she’d all but forgotten about her injuries, she carelessly swung out of the saddle, first gasping at the sudden pain in her side, then clutching at one of the stirrups to keep from falling when her legs wouldn’t support her weight.

     Strong hands gripped her.  Ezra’s.  Without a word, he supported her until she regained strength enough to stand.

     “I’m okay,” she said in response to her friends’ worried glances.

     She took one step and her knees buckled.  Fortunately, Ezra was there to catch her.

     “Easy, Gabrielle,” he soothed, easing himself down to sit on the inn’s front porch, cradling his exhausted friend in his arms.  “You’ve done enough for today.”

     She felt the frustration rise up again, angry at her helplessness.  She had overdone it, and she knew it.  But there were no I-told-you-so’s, not even from Jarra, just concern for her well being.  Friends helping a friend who desperately needed them.  She relaxed against him, knowing that she was safe, that he and Jarra were there for her.  In the space of a few minutes, the time it had taken for Jarra to dismount and secure the horses, she had fallen into an exhausted sleep.

                                                                                *             *             *

 

“If there’s any kindness in your heart, you’ll give us a room,” Jarra pleaded.  “My friend is very ill.  We need a warm, safe place to stay, for her sake at least.”

     Even that didn’t seem to change his mind.  The portly innkeeper frowned, making his neat mustache droop.  His brow furrowed as his expression became pained.  “It’s not that I don’t want to give you a room-“ he began.

     No.  It wasn’t that at all.  He clearly desired to help them.  Jarra saw it in his eyes, the troubled look on his face.  That was what pained him so.  But fear, of someone or something, was curbing his kindness, making him suspicious of anyone, afraid of everyone.  Fear of what, though?

     This innkeeper wasn’t the only one.  She’d seen the same fear in nearly everyone they passed in this city.  It hadn’t been fear of them, the newly arrived strangers, either.  This was a big city; strangers passing through were commonplace enough.  What was going on?  What could make ordinarily kind, generous people behave like this?

     “Please, I’m begging you.”

     Jarra wasn’t in the habit of begging anyone for anything, but she was desperate.

     “I’m sorry, but I can’t,” he told her flatly, though he seemed to regret saying it.  “If you knew what was good for you, you would leave this city.”

     She looked at him in askance, hoping that he would elaborate, but he said nothing more.  He went back to wiping down the bar, doing his best to ignore her.

     She sighed and ran a hand through her hair.  Time to play the only card she had left in her hand.

     “My friend is Gabrielle of Poteidaia.  Xena’s Gabrielle.”

     That got his attention.  He looked up at her, the rag he was using to wipe down the bar forgotten in his grasp.  His eyes were alight with-what was that?  Hope.

     “The Gabrielle?” he asked, wary and infinitely hopeful at the same time.

     “If you don’t believe me, go outside and look for yourself.  She’s lying unconscious in my companion’s arms.”

     He looked around uncertainly.

     “I’m sure she would be happy to help with whatever is wrong around here.  But she can only do that if she is well.”  She speared him with a piercing gaze.  “Now, will you give us a room?”

     He nodded.

     “Thank you,” she said, meaning it.

     She rushed out the door.  Ezra still sat on the low porch, holding Gabrielle gently.

     “Did you-?” he started to ask.

     “Yeah,” she told him.

     He let out a huge sigh of relief.  “Thank the gods,” he murmured, shifting Gabrielle in his arms and lifting her as gently as he could.

     Quickly, Jarra gathered their saddlebags, slung Gabrielle’s pack over her shoulder, and led the way back inside.  She held the door open for Ezra, who eased with extra care through the doorway, carrying their still unconscious friend.

     She heard the innkeeper’s sharp intake of breath upon seeing Gabrielle.  “It really is her!”

     “Of course,” Jarra said softly.  “I didn’t lie to you.”

     With that she sensed that a measure of trust had been gained between them, something she intended to use later.

     “If she’s here, then Xena-“

     “Xena isn’t here,” Jarra interrupted sharply, her eyes hard.  So, word hadn’t reached here yet.

     The innkeeper took a step back, wiping his hands nervously on his trousers.  “She’ll be meeting you later-“

     “No, she won’t be,” she said curtly, not willing to say anything further.

     His face fell considerably.

     “Are you just going to stand there, or are you going to show us to a room?” Jarra demanded, suddenly very irritated with the man.  She inclined her head in Ezra’s direction.  “I sincerely doubt he can hold her like that all day.”

     He blinked, startled by her sudden anger.  “Of-of course,” he stammered nervously, fumbling beneath the bar for the keys he needed to open their room.  “R-right this way.”  His eyes darted fearfully in her direction as he passed.

     Irritation gone as quickly as it had come, Jarra regretted having been so short with the poor innkeeper.  He was afraid of something, and the thought that Xena could’ve helped-yeah.  And all she’d done was snap at him.  Not too nice.

     She didn’t have it in her to tell him the sad truth.

     You won’t be getting any help from the warrior princess, she thought bitterly.  She’s gone.

     The innkeeper led them upstairs, out of the tavern and up to the second floor, where they made a right down a narrow hall.  Boards creaked loudly underfoot as they shuffled along.  They stopped in front of the last door at the end of the hall; the innkeeper inserted the correct key into the lock on the door and gave it a turn.  It opened with a soft click and he moved to one side, gesturing them to enter.

     Ezra went in first, carefully, grunting with the effort of holding Gabrielle’s unconscious weight.  Jarra followed him.

     “This is the best I can do for you,” the innkeeper was saying.  “It’s the largest room I’ve got.”

     Not that big, but there were two good-sized beds, a small hearth for a fire, and a small washroom beyond that.  The place looked well used, but not at all run down like the outside.  It was clean and warm, and that was all that mattered.

     Jarra nodded her approval to the man.  He flinched at her gaze, shrinking back from her, and again she felt bad for the way she’d treated him.  The fear of backsliding into her hateful past seized her-it quickly lost its grip when she remembered Ares.  Yes, he was going to help her get back what Xena’s death had robbed from her…

     “Meals are included in the room price,” the innkeeper went on.  “Breakfast one hour after sunrise, lunch at noon sharp, dinner at dusk.”  His eyes skittered fearfully to Jarra’s.  “If-if you need any thing just let me know.”

     With that he hurried out of the room, closing the door behind him.

     She set their assorted bags and packs in an out-of-the-way spot on the floor, and turned to see Ezra easing Gabrielle onto the bed nearest the room’s solitary window.  Together they removed her coat, boots, and gauntlets and got her under the covers.

     Their friend was better, but not enough to ease their worry for her.  It looked as though they would be staying here for more than just one night.  There was no way that they could continue to Alexandria with Gabrielle the way she was.

 

                                                                                *             *             *

Ezra dropped the tea packet into the kettle, which he hung back in place over the fire he’d made in the small hearth.  He wondered for the billionth time that day if they were all really going to be okay.

     All of them were feeling the strain of the enormous grief they shared; at the moment he and Jarra were being strained two-fold.  Losing a friend as close to them as Xena had been was bad enough, but this thing with Gabrielle made it worse.  They had lost Gabrielle that dawn after the attack.  He knew that now.  Some miracle had brought her back to them; nothing they did could have, and he wasn’t about to question it.  He was so grateful to have her here, alive, that he could fall on his knees and weep.  Without Gabrielle, he and Jarra would have nothing left; no friends, no family, nothing but each other.  The worst part was that Gabrielle was still in a very precarious position.  The next few hours would tell.

     Health wasn’t the only thing about Gabrielle that worried him, either.  He’d heard her thrashing about, caught in tortured nightmares every night since they’d left Amphipolis.  What could be plaguing her so?  Was it what Jarra had told him, about Gabrielle wanting to bring Xena back and the souls be damned?  No.  Gabrielle herself said that she had come to terms with that finally, if uneasily.  But he had no doubt that events in Japan were still the source.  He could feel how twisted up she still was inside-she was starting to let go, he could see that, but there was more, still festering.  He saw that in Jarra as well.  He feared for both women, one his dear friend and one his lover-it was torture, the way it wrapped up with his grief over Xena and weighed down his heart.  The three of them being together-that gave him some hope.  Hope was something he needed badly right now.  They all did.

     Whatever was wrong with this city, though, it was giving him the creeps, big time.  They should get out before everything “went to Tartarus in an egg basket,” as Xena used to say.  But what about the people here?  They couldn’t just leave them if things were really as wrong as they were starting to feel…

     Why did it have to be like this?  Why did it have to be so damn hard?  He was so tired of hurting, so tired of worrying about Jarra and Gabrielle.  When would things be right, like they used to be when Xena was still alive?

     He couldn’t think about it anymore.  He didn’t dare.  Not if he wanted to keep going.

     “You can’t worry about the past, or what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Xena had told him once.  “Take things one day at a time.  Then suddenly you’ll wake up and realize that things are going right.”

     That’s a piece of advice he would take right now.

     You were a lot better at wisdom than you ever gave yourself credit for, Xena, he thought silently.  Sometimes, remembering the things you’ve said is all that has gotten me through the day.

     It’s said that the dead can hear you when you think about them or talk to them.  He hoped that Xena, wherever she was, could hear him now.

     He checked on the tea-almost done.

     This wasn’t the first tragedy for him.  He’d grown up happy in Britannia, a boy who adored and worshipped his parents.  Then the fever had taken his mother and father.  He’d made it through that somehow, going to live with his uncle.  That was how he’d met Jarra-her father had been his uncle’s neighbor and one of his best friends.  He remembered the first day he saw her (Gods, how could he forget?) running wild and free through the fields outside her father’s home.  Beautiful.  His huntress.  He’d never seen a woman like her before.  So untamed.  A real Amazon.  It was her differences that had so attracted him in the beginning.   She’d been extremely wary of him at first, though she refused to show fear or weakness.  He was a man-the enemy, in a manner of speaking, and not one that she knew and trusted like her father.  With each visit he’d made with his uncle he had been able to draw her out more and more, gain her trust, and found that they had much in common. So a tentative friendship was forged, one that grew with each passing day until they were inseparable, best friends-and much more.  He would never forget that magical Solstice Eve when he’d told her that he loved her, just like he would never forget how she’d broken his heart, running off after her father’s murderer without even saying goodbye.  When he’d heard what she’d become, he’d gone off in search of her, hoping to pull her out of her grief-fueled spiral into death and destruction, because he loved her and he had to try and save her.  He loved her that much.  He did find her eventually, taking her far away to Egypt to make a new start.  He’d managed to slow the downward spiral to a crawl; her violence and hatred had gone, but the guilt remained, still drawing her down.  He could stop it, but not in time to save her.  So they’d gone back to Greece, and Jarra had been about ready to give up.  On everything.  Even life.  Because even though his love was healing her, the healing wasn’t happening fast enough to counter the guilt and regret eating away at her.  That’s when Xena came along and changed everything.  Xena saved her.

     Now here they were, without Xena, their hearts hurting, Gabrielle injured and suffering still from what had transpired during her time in Japan, and Jarra hanging precipitously on the edge of another spiral from which there might be no rescue.  Ezra?  He was just trying to hold it together, for them if not for himself.

     When her really thought about it, things weren’t as grim as they might seem at first glance.  Gabrielle and Jarra, with each other’s help, had taken big positive steps already.  Things were getting better.  Slowly.  That was the problem.  Would they get better in time???  That was what was worrying him the most.

     Right now he wasn’t going to worry about the future.  He couldn’t afford to.  None of them could.

     Shaking off his fears, he turned his attention back to the tea, which had finally finished brewing.

     “Ezra?” a voice called sleepily.

     He turned.  Gabrielle was awake and trying to sit up.

     “Hey, Gabrielle.” His worry for her eased, like an unbearable weight being lifted, at seeing her awake.  “How are you feeling?”

     “Still tired,” she said, and he could plainly hear the exhaustion still in her voice, “but its getting better.”  She gave him a warm smile, and for a moment he saw the bright, joyful Gabrielle that he remembered.  He couldn’t help but smile warmly back.

     Rising from his chair, he poured her a cup of fresh chilled water from a pitcher one of the innkeeper’s maids had brought earlier.  Handing her the cup, he helped her to sit up while she drank.

     Having taken her fill, she set the empty cup on the low table between the two beds.  “Thank you,” she told him with another infectiously warm smile.

     Still holding her with one arm, he slid spare pillows under her shoulders and head, propping her up comfortably.  He noticed that she winced as he eased her down onto the pillows.

     Frowning in concern, he asked, “How’re the ribs?”

     “Still sore,” she answered tightly.  “But I think by tomorrow I’ll be able to move around without much pain, if they continue to heal as fast as they have been.  It doesn’t really hurt when I breathe anymore.”

     It was all he could do not to let his mouth hang open in surprise.  “How is that possible?”

     “I can’t really explain it,” she said easily enough, but he knew she was keeping something from him.  He didn’t press the issue; there was no need.  So long as she was getting better.  Curiosity about her unusually rapid recovery still nagged at him-he shook it off.  If she did know the reason, he suspected that she wouldn’t tell him about it anyway.

     “Tea?” he offered.  “Just finished brewing.”

     “Please.”  Her eyes glinted in the firelight, her lips curving into a small smile.  “You’re going to spoil me, Ezra Lusk.”

     His eyes twinkled mischievously, and he sketched her a graceful bow.  “But of course, my Queen,” he jested, using her Amazon title.  “You’ve earned it.”

     She couldn’t argue with that.

     Ezra poured the tea, a cup for each of them.  To Gabrielle’s, he added a heaping spoonful of honey from a little pot he’d spirited from the kitchen downstairs.

     “There you go, your majesty,” he said, grinning as he gave her the steaming cup and sat on the edge of her bed.  “Just the way you like it.”

     She smiled at him over the rim of her cup before taking a careful sip of the hot tea.  Her eyes closed blissfully.  “Mmm. Perfect.”

     The warmth of the drink brought color to her cheeks, and Ezra thought that she actually looked halfway normal.  The weight of his worry lifted a bit more.

     Gabrielle sipped at her tea, looking around and really seeing her surroundings for the first time.  Her brow creased.  “Where’s Jarra?”

     He stiffened.  “I don’t know.”

     She raised an eyebrow in question.

     “She left a little while ago, don’t know where,” he explained.  “She just said that she was going out and that she would be back in a while.”

     “Where would she be going in the middle of the night?” Gabrielle wondered.

     He shrugged.  He didn’t have an answer.  Jarra wouldn’t tell him anything when he’d asked where she was going.  The weight settled back on him, becoming nearly unbearable once more.

     Gabrielle’s frown deepened.  The worry in her eyes mirrored his own.  “She’s been doing this a lot lately.”

     He nodded.

     Her hand covered his in an instinctive gesture of reassurance.  “Maybe she needs the time alone, to try and sort things out.”

     He nodded his agreement.  “I just worry, with all that’s happened.  She’s been acting so strange since this afternoon-“

     “Don’t worry.  I’m sure she’s fine.  Just keep and eye on her.”

     That made him feel better.  Gabrielle always had that affect on him.

     He took a deep breath and changed the subject.  “Are you hungry at all?”

     “Starving.”

     Another good sign.  In a blink he was up and had removed a container of broth that he’d kept warming over the fire.  As he ladled it into a bowl for Gabrielle, he tried not to think about Jarra.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Four

 

 

“The only condition is that you make sure you use what I’m teaching you to kill them all.”

     Ares was looking Jarra straight in the eye, unmoving, but she did not shrink from his formidable gaze.  He wasn’t deceiving her, so far as she could tell, but he was the master of deception if he wanted to be.  Gods, she was far from trusting him, but what choice did she have?  If he could make her whole again…

     She was an Amazon who’d left her tribe in search of her father and herself.  Finding the father she’d come to know and love murdered had spun her into a life of murder and destruction.  The man she loved, Ezra, had found her and turned her away from all that, turned her back to the good that was always inside her.  But it was Xena who had saved her, and, she realized, Xena who had been holding her up all this time.  And here she was, in a pact with Ares that could jeopardize it all.  Why was she risking all that she had worked for?  Because, without Xena, she felt she was already starting to slip.  Losing Xena had weakened the very foundation of her recovery, ongoing to this day.  She felt like she might be close to falling again, and Ares had promised to make her what she had been before all this.  He was going to help her where others couldn’t, give her back her strength.  She wanted it so desperately that she could weep just at the thought, and felt panicked when she thought about what would happen to her if she couldn’t get it back in time.

     “Swear it.” The urgent demand in his suddenly deadly soft voice startled her.  It snapped her back to the moment, and she blinked, looking past him to see the throne room of wherever this place was that he kept taking her when they met.

     As good a job as he was doing of hiding it, Jarra had the gift of being able to read people, gods or otherwise, and she saw the desperation in him.  Why did he want so badly for the lamia to be killed?  What did it matter to him?  Ares wasn’t known for caring.  It must have something to do with what was in it for him.  Then why didn’t he do it himself?  He certainly had the power…unless he couldn’t. 

     “I swear,” she heard herself say before she realized what she was doing.

     Ares’ lips curved in a cold semblance of a smile.  “Shall we begin?”

     Jarra forced herself to nod, fighting the sudden feeling that she was in over her head and it was too late to claw her way out of the pit she’d dug for herself by making this pact.

     I have to go through with this, she reminded herself.  Ares is going to help me do what I can’t do on my own…

     Hadn’t she already convinced herself that this was the right thing to do, and more than that, what she had to do?

     Dealing with Ares is never the right thing to do, an inner voice admonished.  Silently she told it to shut up.

     Ares was going to teach her how to kill the lamia; surely that was worth the risk.  Because she was starting to think that lamia encounter in the woods was not an isolated incident.   The lamia could be what was wrong in this city.  Why wouldn’t anyone say so?  Why were they so afraid to ask for help?

     It didn’t matter.  She was going to learn how to kill these lamia, and free this city from their terror, if indeed that was what was going on here.  Either way, she would know how to take them out if they ever attacked her or her companions again.

     What does Ares really want with me?

     She refused to think about that, flat-out ignoring the warnings her subconscious was shouting at her.

     She took a deep breath.  Stilled her mind.  “I’m ready.”

 

                                                                                *             *             *

Elsewhere in the city under the cloak of the night’s darkness, a young man strode down the street, the beautiful woman on his arm guiding him toward an alley up ahead of them.

     “Where are we going?” he asked her as they entered the alleyway. 

     “Doma,” she answered casually.

     He froze in his tracks.  He recognized the torch-lit entrance at the end of the alley now.  Doma-Sapai’s most exclusive club, usually reserved for the city’s most elite socialites and beautiful people.   “Doma,” he uttered increadulously.  “But we’ll never get in there!”

     Her arms twined around his neck and she lifted up in tiptoe to kiss him deeply.  “Don’t worry,” she assured in a seductive purr.  “We’ll get in.”

     She sauntered up to the doorway with him closely in tow.  A quick rap on the door and a peephole slid open revealing a set of eyes.  Was he just imagining it, or were those eyes red?  Surely he was seeing things.

     She spoke rapidly to the doorman in a low voice.  He couldn’t make out just what it was she said, but whatever it was, it had gotten the doorman to open the door and usher them inside.  His mouth dropped open first in disbelief, then in surprise.  Disbelief of the fact that they were actually being admitted, surprise at the sheer size of the man guarding the door.

     Tall enough to tower over most anyone, with arms and legs thick as tree trunks, and enough muscle for ten men, his vicious red eyes twinkled menacingly with restrained violence.

     I think I’ve had too much to drink.  His eyes can’t really be red.  Not possible.

     His attention went back to the beautiful woman before him.  She was beckoning for him to follow her inside.  One look at her and the strange eyes were forgotten.  Gods he was lucky to be with her.  Not only was she stunningly gorgeous with her dark hair and endlessly dark eyes and delicate curves, but she had just gotten him into the most exclusive club in Sapai.  He grinned as he hurried after her.  Lucky indeed.

     It was a short walk down the entry hall before they emerged into the sea of bodies crowding the club.  The sound of flutes drifted sensually to the wild rhythm of drums and other various percussion.  The sound of such music – it was intoxicating to him, and apparently to everyone else.  Half dressed male and female bodies writhed in sinful abandon to the erotic tune the musicians played.

     Whoa.  It was the most articulate thought he could muster at the sight.

     Then the woman had her hand in his, leading him onto the dance floor, into the heart of the crowd.  Her eyes burned with desire, with hunger, for him.  For him.

     A chill ran down his spine – almost everyone around him was looking at him with that same hunger.  But then she kissed him, and his fear was quickly forgotten.  Together they danced, letting themselves be swept away by the music, letting its rhythm and spirit move them.

     When the song ended a roar went up from the crowd.  His “girlfriend” threw her head back in an exultant cry, loudly joining in the elated cheering.

     By the gods she was gorgeous.  Anything she wanted of him he would give without hesitation.  He couldn’t say no to her any more than he could stop the world from turning

     The music started again, different this time.  The flute melody was sharp, more insistent, the rapid, throbbing drumbeat driving the music to fever pitch.  She kissed him again and he became lost in the moment, feeling her move against him in a mimicry of the most primal dance of all, their tongues mingling as she held him tightly.

     Faster and more insistent the music became, reckless and out of control, pushing them higher.  It was building up to something , he could feel it, and when the music was at its wildest and he felt the moment upon them – that was when everything went horribly, horribly wrong.

     He opened his eyes to look at her, and she had changed.  Those eyes were not human.  His all-at-once shocked and terrified expression made her smile, revealing razor-sharp fangs that hadn’t been there seconds before.

     Fear surged inside of him and he tried to break free of her.  With inhuman strength she pulled him to her, crushing his ribs with her embrace, her fangs sinking deep into his neck.  He let out a gurgling scream, his body paralyzed by pain and sudden weakness as he felt his life being drained away.  Around him, all he could see was the flash of fangs, those cold, inhuman eyes, and other victims screaming and dying just as he was. 

     If only he had never met her.  If only he had never followed her here.  But it was too late.  The monsters weren’t supposed to be real…

     The music built to its final crescendo, each and every victim breathing their last in that moment.  And when the last note sounded their bloodstained murderers cast them to the floor like so much garbage, sated.  For now…

 

                                                                                *             *             *

Several hours had passed since nightfall before Jarra returned to the inn.  She walked briskly up the front steps, her footfalls soft but determined.  She knew the secrets now.  She could kill the lamia.  All of them.

     Still, Ares had more to teach her, and she wasn’t completely opposed to the idea of more lessons, not if all of them would make her feel this way.  Her blood was still singing with the thrill of the encounter.  The things he had shown her, the way that she learned to move and strike under his tutilage – for the first time since Xena’s death she felt truly alive, super-aware, strong.  She felt like herself again, and more.  The taste of power he had given her still coursed through her veins, heady in its intensity and promise.  The promise of recapturing her former glory.  The fire in her blood burned hotter than ever before under his guidance, pure, raw, all-consuming and all-powerful.  She was drunk with the ardor that was inflamed in her.

     Already it was fading, leaving her cold.  She wanted moreThis was what she needed – she could get it from the god of war.

     Patience, she reminded herself.  The next lesson would come soon enough, when Ares deemed she was ready for the next step.

     What was it he had said?  Fighting wasn’t just about physical prowess.  It was also about using mind and emotion to drive yourself harder, faster, to be stronger. He would show her the way.

     She moved swiftly through the inn’s downstairs tavern, which was fairly empty for this early in the evening, a reminder that things were wrong, incentive to find out what it was and put it right.  Up the stairs and down the hall she went, making almost no sound at all.

     That’s when the innkeeper rounded a corner and carelessly plowed into her.  They collided with a mutual oof, and he stumbled back.  Suddenly she was angry, very angry with the pathetic little man for getting in her way.  She stared at him witheringly, emitting a low growl from her throat.  He turned white and scuttled away in fear, away and out of her sight.

     Good.

     Her anger, what she’d just done, finally registered an instant later, stopping her mid-step.  Fine if she had been irritated, or even snapped a little, considering the stress she was under of late.  But this – so angry, even cruel, and ready to squash that poor man.  Where had the anger come from?  It had been an accident, no more his fault than hers.  For an instant she had become a person she didn’t know.  The first time she snapped at the man, after they first arrived – even that had just been irritation, and maybe a little anger, because he’d pushed her about Xena, an extremely sensitive subject.  She’d gotten mad because she didn’t want to talk about it.  This time she had just been…angry.

     A recent and all too familiar fear came to her.  She was slipping again, wasn’t she?  Back into the monster that she was doomed to be without Xena to help her.  She needed Ares, he was the only way.  He’d promised to make her what she had been before…  He had been able to give her a taste of that renewed strength.  He was the only way, dangerous or not.

     The guilt hit her again.  Keeping this from Gabrielle – it was breaking a sacred trust, the trust between queen and champion, what she had become in pledging her life to her friend.  The trust between Amazon sisters.  The trust between friends.  What would Gabrielle do if she found out, if she knew the truth behind her solitary excursions?  Keeping this from her friend was making her sick, but Gabrielle could not know.  Maybe later, when she had more to show for this pact, solid justification for taking such a risk.

     Gabrielle had such trust, such faith in her – this deal with Ares made her feel like she was throwing it all back in her friend’s face.  After all Gabrielle had done for her, she went and did this.  It made her feel awful, but Gabrielle couldn’t help her with the problem she was facing now, no matter how much she would prefer Gabrielle’s loving encouragement to Ares’ hard edged command.

     By all means then, go to Ares for help, her inner voice commented sarcastically.  Like he cares for you a fraction as much as Gabrielle and Ezra do.

     She ignored the voice.  This was the only way.  This was the way it had to be.  Deal with it.

     She finally arrived at the door of their room after standing in the hall for gods knew how long lost in thought.  She knocked softly before turning the doorknob and slipping inside…

 

 

                                                                      *                            *                               *

 

 

A soft knocking – the doorknob turned and the door opened.  Jarra was back.

     From the instant she walked through the door, Gabrielle felt there was something different.  She could see it in the faint scowl on her friend’s face, the tense set of her shoulders.  Her face was flushed despite the chill outside, her eyes shimmering with a hint of wildness.

     What had she been up to?

     Jarra headed to the washroom without so much as a hello.  Odd.  She met Ezra, who was on his way out of that same washroom, in the doorway.

     He smiled.  “Hi,” he said, leaning down to kiss her, but she turned away.

     “Not now,” she told him shortly, actually putting a hand out to push him away.  “Okay?”

     Ezra looked hurt, but he covered it quickly, stepping out of her way.

     Even more odd.

     Jarra emerged seconds later, looking refreshed.  She looked at Gabrielle as though just noticing her presence.  “You’re awake,” she said, smiling briefly.

     Gabrielle couldn’t muster a smile to give her in return.  Not with the sudden worry she was feeling.  Something about her friend didn’t feel right.  “Where did you go?” she asked casually, hoping that a little gentle probing might reveal something.

     “That’s not really any of your business,” Jarra said softly, but there was no mistaking the edge in her voice, the aggressive undertone.

     Ezra looked up from what he was doing, his eyes widening in shock.  Gabrielle’s own mouth was slightly agape.  That was not the response she had been expecting.  This was not like Jarra at all.

     “What’s wrong with you?” she blurted, shocked and a little bit hurt at Jarra’s attitude toward her.

     “I don’t know,” Jarra replied, eyes burning into hers.  “Maybe there’s something wrong with you.”

     That hurt.  Her temper flared.  “By the way, I’m doing much better,” she ground out with undisguised sarcasm.  “Thanks for asking.”

     Even as she said it, she regretted being that way, intentionally hurtful.  She was far too quick to anger these days, let her temper get the best of her.  Dammit, she was better than that – so was Jarra.  That was what she didn’t understand.  Where had this come from?

     It wasn’t as if they hadn’t argued before.  A particular incident came to mind – arguing in a portside tavern, just after she’d come back from Japan.  Harsh words had been exchanged, things both of them regretted, feelings hurt.  But those harsh words had come from a place of intense grief – over Xena – not from any real foundation of anger or ill will toward each other.  But this time…  She saw the anger in Jarra, anger without any reason.  It hurt her, being on the receiving end of it when she was completely undeserving, so she had lashed out without thinking.

     Lashing out without thinking – something she didn’t usually do.  The strain she was under right now was beginning to show.  Instead of getting mad, she needed to figure out what was going on, because something was wrong with Jarra, very wrong.

     “Gabrielle.”  It was Xena.

     She remained still, unspeaking, listening.  Jarra and Ezra didn’t know her secret, that she could hear, see, talk to, even feel her soulmate.  That death was no barrier for them.  She intended to keep it that way.  It would be too difficult to explain to them – they would probably think that grief had driven her mad.  They couldn’t see or hear Xena.  They didn’t need to know.

     “Jarra’s in trouble,” the warrior whispered urgently, unnecessarily, though there was no need for her to whisper except for Gabrielle’s benefit.  “I can’t explain how I know, but its different from what I warned you about before.  It’s…” She sighed heavily.  “Its different.  Something about her feels wrong – darker, angry.  Just watch her, Gabrielle.  You might want to tell Ezra to do the same.  He might even know something, since he’s the closest to her.  Talk to him-“  A pointed look in Jarra’s direction “-and her.”

     With that she left, and Gabrielle found herself once again alone with her friends.  Ezra had Jarra by both arms.  He shook her.  “What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded, more shocked than angry with her.  Jarra blinked once, twice, and Gabrielle watched the change come over her, watched as her anger changed into bewilderment – and shame.  “She’s been through enough already without you-“

     “Ezra. Please.”  Gabrielle interrupted softly, but firmly enough to stop him.  She appreciated that he was defending her, but Jarra didn’t need to be badgered.

     He relented, though reluctantly, standing silently aside.

     “Gods, Gabrielle,” Jarra breathed.  “I don’t…  I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”  She blinked back tears.  “You didn’t deserve that.”  There was anger in her voice, but this time it was directed squarely at herself.

     “I’m not going to tell you that its okay, “ Gabrielle began flatly.  “Its not.”

     Jarra’s face fell as she withdrew even further into her shame.  But Gabrielle wasn’t finished – she did have something helpful to say.

     “But I do forgive you.  We’ve all been through a lot, and we’re not done yet.  Believe me, I know how hard its been.”  She let her expression soften then.  “Jarra, if there’s anything you want to talk about, anything at all,” she said with extra emphasis, “you know that you can always talk to me.”  She meant that with all her heart.  Jarra needn’t keep anything from her.  They were too good of friends for that.

     Then why are you keeping things from her?  Immediately she shoved the question aside.  She had her reasons, hypocritical as it might seem.  Jarra was her friend, not her soulmate.

     Jarra didn’t look her in the eye.  “Thanks.” Then, “I feel awful, but I’m not gonna say I’m sorry.  Not because I don’t think I should apologize, but because saying sorry is too easy of a way out.  You keep saying sorry and it becomes meaningless.  I’m not gonna do that.”

     Such a strong sense of honor – one of the things that Gabrielle valued in her the most.

     She breathed a sigh of relief, letting the unpleasantness go, but she would not forget this.  She wasn’t the type to hold a grudge – she wasn’t going to start now, either.  She would remember it for what it was: a warning.  The rest she had already let go.

     She patted the bed next to her.  “Sit down, both of you.”

     They did, a bit hesitantly, not knowing what to expect.  Jarra sat by her side on the bed, Ezra on the other bed across from them. 

     “I know how hard it’s been for all of us.  Grief is one of the hardest things anyone can face.  I know the strain that its put on you both.  I know that’s why nerves are a little frayed lately.  But I have to say that I don’t know where I would be without the two of you right now.  I mean that.  I want both of you with me.”

     Her friends were silent, speechless.  They didn’t know what to say.  There weren’t words.              

     She took Jarra’s hand, giving it a squeeze, looking both she and Ezra in the eye squarely. 

     “I don’t think that I ever thanked you,” she began quietly.

     “For what?” Ezra asked.

     “For saving my life when those things got me.”

     “You don’t have to thank us.  You would have done the same.”

    “Gabrielle, I don’t think it was us that saved you,” Jarra said ruefully.  Her eyes twinkled.  “You were too damn stubborn to die.  You clawed your way back on your own.”

     She smiled at that.  If only they knew.  It was Xena that had saved her.  With every passing moment she believed it more.

     “That may be,” she told them, “but you still took care of me.  You’re looking after me now.”  A warm smile for both of them.  “I owe you.”

     “You don’t owe us anything,” Ezra said.  “That’s what friends do.”

     “I consider you both very good friends,” she said her words heartfelt and warming her with love for both of them.  “I trust you with my life.  I would die for you.  Believe that.”

     She meant every word.  She would fight and die for them without a second thought.  That was what it meant to truly love someone, that you would give your life for them.  She knew without any doubt that they would do the same for her.

     She focused her gaze solely on Jarra then.  “I want you to know that even though we are sisters as Amazons, I consider you to be a lot more.”

     Jarra had stood by her, and Xena as well, through some very tough times.  Jarra had been among the Amazon army she led at Helicon.  Jarra had saved her life then, during the storming of the beach, knocking her out of the line of artillery fire with no thought of the danger to herself.  They had shared much during that tragedy, including the loss of many friends and sisters.  They came out of it with a bond that was stronger than ever.  Gabrielle valued it greatly; especially now, when it was proving to be all she had left to hang on to.  These two dear friends, her link to Xena’s spirit, and the fight for the greater good; that was all she had, and it was those things she treasured above all else.

     Jarra looked away, deeply moved and lost for words.  Her shame over what had happened just moments before was even more pronounced, but that had not been Gabrielle’s reason for saying what she had.  She had almost died out there in the woods – she wanted to tell her friends these things while she had the chance because another might not ever come.  And she hoped that it might help to draw Jarra out, make her want to talk about whatever was going on with her, sooner or later.  She hoped sooner, because later could end up being too late.

     “I want to thank you, too,” Jarra said suddenly, so softly that even in the silence of their room, Gabrielle almost could not hear her.  “Its thanks that I think are long overdue.”  Jarra did look her in the eyes then, and everything that she felt in that moment was there for Gabrielle to see.  There was no describing it – the amount of emotion was startling, for she had not expected it.  “I want to thank you for all that you did for me when we first met.  You hardly knew me, yet you offered me all the kindness and generosity that you had to give.  I haven’t forgotten that – I don’t think I ever will.  You listened when I needed someone to talk to, gave me comfort when all I could do was cry, gave me words of wisdom and encouragement that helped me get through the day.  Thanks for just being there.  Your goodness showed me what I needed to be, what I could be if given a chance.  Thank you for giving me the chance to change, even when you knew the things I’d done.  Your belief in me meant more than you’ll ever know.  And most of all, thank you for being you.”  A pause as she took a moment to gather her thoughts.  “In the beginning, I didn’t appreciate you as much as I should have,” she admitted ashamedly.  “I was so focused on Xena then that I overlooked you, and for that I apologize.  I can’t believe I missed what was right in front of me.  You helped me as much as she did, in some ways more.  Know that I do appreciate you now – I’m in awe of what you’ve become, whether you think I should be or not.”  Jarra’s hand squeezed hers tightly.  “You are my sister, not just as an Amazon.  You’re family, the only family that I really have left.  I love you, Gabrielle.”

     It was those last words that went straight to her heart, forcing out the tears that filled her eyes.  She had always suspected, guessed, but she really had no idea.  Xena’s life wasn’t the only one she had made a profound difference in – she was overwhelmed. She was so grateful to have Jarra as her friend, especially now, when she needed that friendship the most.  And kind, loyal Ezra; he always stood up for her, looked out for her like a big brother would, and she loved him for it.  Thank the gods she had brought them with her on this journey.

 

 

    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Five

 

 

“You would have sacrificed us!” thousands of voices accused in chorus.

     “How could you be so selfish?” they demanded, in her face all at once, surrounding her, suffocating her.

     “You don’t understand,” she protested in panic.  “It wasn’t like that-“

     “You didn’t care,” they sneered.  “You said so yourself!  You would have damned us for eternity!!!”

     She clamped her hands down over her ears, trying to block their shouts, but it did no good.  Their voices boomed in her mind, an unrelenting torrent that threatened to drive her mad.

     “Damned!  DAMNED!!!  YOU DIDN’T CARE!!!”

   “NO!” she screamed.

     “YOU WOULD HAVE!!!” the voices roared.

     Somewhere inside of her she found the courage to roar back.

     “But I DIDN’T!  I DIDN’T!”

     Just like that, they disappeared.

     “And because you didn’t, I’m dead,” Xena told her.  The warrior’s lip curled in a cruel sneer.  “You failed me!!!”

     NO!

     Gabrielle jolted awake in a cold sweat, heart slamming, hurting with the deep ache the nightmares always left behind.  They’d begun not long after she left Higuchi, and she’d hardly had a good night’s sleep since.  They never stopped…  Why couldn’t she make them stop?

     Until you let go, they’ll never stop, something inside told her.  She was trying, but it was so hard…

     Comforting warmth at her back, strong arms wrapping around her.  Xena.  Xena always came when she needed her.  A chill made her shiver and Xena pulled her closer.  A hand gently smoothed back sweat-dampened hair, soft lips briefly pressed against her forehead.

     “It wasn’t real,” her friend soothed.

     Gabrielle felt the tears come, and she didn’t try to stop them – alone with Xena, she could let them out.  She was so tired of the pain.  Laying there in Xena’s arms, she cried for what could have been hours before finally relaxing in her friend’s embrace.

     Xena wiped away her tears, pressing another soft kiss to her cheek.  Gabrielle huddled closer, taking in her soulmate’s oh-so-familiar touch, her scent, letting her presence enfold her, letting Xena heal her in the way that only she could.

     “Please, don’t leave me,” she muttered pleadingly, exhausted, drifting toward sleep.

     “I won’t,” Xena promised.

     When she awoke in the morning Xena was still there, holding her tightly.  She lay still for a long time, just feeling her warmth, feeling that she was really there.

     “You stayed,” she breathed.

     Xena shifted to look down at her.  A warm smile touched her lips.  “Of course I did.  Did you sleep alright?”

    

     It was Gabrielle’s turn to smile.  “With you here, I did.  It was nice, having you with me.”

     It was.  The few times she’d awakened during the night she’d found Xena there holding her, watching over her.  Feeling safe and loved for the first time in too long, she had slept dreamlessly the rest of the night.  If only it could always be like this.  She was touched that Xena had stayed with her all through the night, even though it must have been hard for her.  Just because she needed her – no more, no less.  She hadn’t expected it.

     “It was nice for me, too,” the warrior said with such warmth and love in her eyes that it made Gabrielle want to weep, such love was she feeling in return.

     “I watched you all night.  You looked so peaceful – I didn’t want to miss a single moment.”

     All Gabrielle could do was smile.  She had no words for what she was feeling then.  But that was okay – Xena knew.  It was all there in her eyes, shinning such a beautiful pale blue in the morning light.

     “I’ll always be here when you need me,” Xena told her softly.

     She felt her heart clench.  Xena was leaving her.

     Don’t go, she wanted to say, but she held it back. She understood that her friend could not stay, but the feeling of loss still stabbed at her heart.  If only Xena could stay, just a little while longer…  Their time together always passed too quickly.

     “I love you, Gabrielle.”

     She had gone in the space of a heartbeat.

     She sighed.  It was so unfair, and hard on her.  Maybe harder than it would have been if Xena wasn’t able to visit her at all. 

     She looked around.  The sun was up, but it was still early.  Ezra was still asleep in the bed next to hers, but Jarra wasn’t with him.  She wasn’t there at all.

     She sat up, sucked in a breath at the twinge of pain it caused in her side.  But it was okay – she could deal with it, it was no longer debilitating.  And her fatigue had lifted significantly.  She could function like this if she really had to.  Good signs. 

     But where was Jarra?

 

                                                                                *             *             *

Apparently, it was never too early for some idiot to come into a tavern and get drunk like the moron next to her was.  Jarra had seen the innkeeper roll his eyes when the man came through the door.

     Must be a regular nuisance. 

     Whatever the case, he was being a nuisance now, exclusively to her.  It was her lucky day.  Why did this always happen?  Was she wearing a sign that said “if you’re a dumb, drunken slob, come on over and get some”?  Maybe it was all the black leather.  Could be sending the wrong signals to the wrong guys.  Time for a costume change?  Maybe some unwashed wolfskin would keep them away; then again, it would keep Gabrielle and Ezra, away too.  Back to the drawing board?  Nah.  Dammit, she liked the leather, but this kind of “attention” was so maddening at times.  She definitely didn’t need it now, or ever if she had anything to say about it.

     It wasn’t as if she hadn’t had ample warning that this was going to happen.  She’d seen the way his eyes moved over her when he’d first caught sight of her sitting at the bar.  She’d had plenty of time to get out, but she’d stubbornly stayed put.  Was it that she’d hoped the designated idiot would for once just stay away?  Yeah, right.  She knew better.  Now she was paying for her stupidity.

     “C’mon beautiful.  One little drink won’t hurt.”

     “I don’t think so,” she told him, refusing yet another advance for what seemed like the umpteenth time.  He belched, and she wrinkled her nose at the blast of sour wine that came with it.  She was one woman that he wouldn’t be taking advantage of today.  She spun on her stool, turning her back on him yet again.  She was determined this time to ignore him.  That’s when his hand groped her rear.

     She sat bolt upright in outrage.  Knocking his hand away furiously, she glared at him with pure murder in her eyes.

     He leered at her, his grin revealing rotten teeth.  “Feisty.  I like that.”

     He reached for her again.  In a blur of motion she intercepted the hand and bent it back at the wrist at a painful angle.  He stifled a scream, letting out a yelp at the pain instead.

     “My name is Jarra, and I’m an Amazon,” she said sweetly, teeth clenched and bared in a feral grin.  “You may have heard that Amazons don’t care much for men.”

     She put more pressure on his wrist – bones and tendons creaked under the strain.  He whimpered pitifully, but she didn’t let up.

     “You try to put that hand there again,” she informed him icily, “and I’ll be forced to remove it.  Get me?”

    A pained moan was all that he could manage.  It was enough for her.  She released his hand and shoved him, hard.  He fell back into the table behind him.  She drilled her eyes into his red-rimmed ones, and he cowered.  “Stay away from me.”

     A hasty nod and he was up and stumbling out the door as quickly as his clumsy legs would allow, with the innkeeper chasing after him to collect his bar bill.

     Good riddance, she thought, and went back to her breakfast.

     She caught a snatch of conversation going on at another table near her.  It wasn’t much, but enough to make her take notice.  The more she heard, the more interested she became.  Giving nothing away, she pretended to keep to herself while she listened to the conversation those two men at the table were having very intently.  What she heard was very disturbing.

 

                                                                       *                                 *                               *

 

Gabrielle stood, and miraculously, she didn’t feel as though she would collapse with the effort.  She actually felt – strong.  Well, stonger.  The weakness still lurked, but it wouldn’t for much longer.

     A deep breath.  Another.  Almost no pain at all.  She carefully removed the wrapping from her middle, looked down at her side – the bruising was just a barely visible shadow.  A person wouldn’t even see it unless they already knew it was there.  Whatever Xena had done, however she’d done it, it had worked, and she was grateful.

     She smiled, looking out the window and letting the warm morning sunlight bathe her, remembering.  Xena – that her friend had been there, stayed with her all through the night, meant the world to her and more.  To really feel that she wasn’t alone, to open her eyes and see Xena there by her side – she only wished that it could always be that way.

     “You’re never alone, Gabrielle,”  Xena’s voice reminded her gently.  “I’m always with you.”

     Her smile broadened, then faltered when she remembered what she had to do this morning, the talk she had to have with Ezra about Jarra.  Gods, she didn’t want to worry him unnecessarily, but she felt that this was important, and so did Xena.  She’d learned a long time ago to trust her own intuition, and to trust Xena’s even more.  She could feel the weight this had placed on her shoulders, but it had to be done.

     She had drifted off to sleep again for a short time after Xena left; sometime between then and now Ezra had awoken.  The bed next to hers was empty.  She wondered briefly where he had gone to, but then she heard him in the washroom.  A soft splooshing of water – he was bathing.  Her cheeks reddened at the image that went through her mind.  She couldn’t help herself – he was very attractive.  He was also in love with Jarra, and that was that.

     She hoped he wouldn’t be long.  She wanted to talk to him before Jarra came back, and she could only guess at when that might be.  Jarra had been doing this a lot lately, going off alone and not telling anyone where she was going or when she might be back.  She was worried about her.

     She went to rub a stiff spot on her shoulder and her fingers brushed the wounds on her neck, the place where she’d been bitten.  That reminded her – she was sure she had a salve somewhere that would help that heal better.

     She found her bags in the corner by the small hearth, next to Jarra and Ezra’s things.  She searched her pack first – it wasn’t there.  Next she searched her saddlebags.  First one (not in there either), then the other.  She reached deep, almost to the bottom, until her hand encountered something foreign.  She gasped at a sudden, sharp pain in her finger, yanking her hand out in a hurry.  Blood welled up from a cut on her fingertip.

     What the - ?

     She reached back into the bag with her other hand, searching carefully this time, and found the offending item.  With a triumphant mental ah – ha!  she pulled it out and saw-

     -Xena’s breast dagger.  Hers for about ten minutes before Xena had taken it from her and somehow conveniently managed never to give it back.  She looked at the delicate but deadly weapon she held in her hand.  She hadn’t even known it was in there.  She had just assumed that Xena had had it when…  A wave of emotion hit her, and she almost wanted to cry – she had something left of Xena after all.  And she had the fond memories that went with it.

    She smiled whistfully, remembering the day that she had bought the dagger, going against Xena’s order about no weapons.  She had been so different then, so nieve.  Fondly, she remembered the scolding glare Xena had given her when the dagger had fallen out of her blouse.  Thinking about that now, it made her laugh.  Those had been much simpler days for her.  Sometimes she wished that she could have them back.

     After carefully wrapping it, she placed the dagger back in the bag.  At that moment, Ezra emerged from the washroom. His was wearing his leather pants, but was otherwise bare from the waist up.  Heart-stoppingly gorgeous, especially with those pierced nipples…

     How did Jarra ever find someone with such heart that was so handsome?  Jarra was very lucky, there was no doubt about that.     

     “What happened?” he asked, rushing to kneel beside her and examining her cut finger.  “What are you doing out of bed?”

     His concern for her was sweet.  She gave him a quick smile.  “I was looking for something in one of my bags,” she explained.  “A dagger was unsheathed and I cut my finger on it.”

     “Well, its not bad,” he said, still scrutinizing her finger.  “Just a scratch.”  He looked at her, eyebrow raised.  “Why aren’t you in bed?”

     She sighed.  Now he was being the mother hen, in full big brother mode.  His heart was in the right place.

     “I’m okay now, really,” she told him.  “A little tired still, but really that’s all.”

     He opened his mouth to argue, but she shushed him.

     “Ezra, I appreciate your looking after me, but I really am fine now.  Trust me.”

     He wasn’t convinced, she could tell, but he didn’t say anything.  He was going to trust her.  For now, his look seemed to say.

     She looked at him very seriously then.  “I need to talk to you, Ezra.”

     “Of course.”

     “Its about Jarra.”

     His face changed upon hearing those words, the mask that had been covering his concern dropping.  “You’ve noticed it, too, then.”

     She knew what he meant, but still asked, “Noticed what?”

     “I don’t know,” he said with a frustrated sigh.

     She rested a hand on his arm, gave an urgent squeeze.  “Talk to me, Ezra. Tell me what’s wrong.”

     “Something is different about her, Gabrielle,” he confided.  “I know her, and ever since the attack a few days ago – there have been moments where she was like a complete stranger to me.  She’s been shutting me out – its not like her.”  When he looked at her she saw just how worried he was.  “There have been a couple of times where she’s looked at me and I haven’t liked what I saw.”

     He wasn’t alone on that last bit.

     “What did you see?” she pressed.

     “For an instant, I saw in her the way she used to be after her father died, the way she was before we met you and Xena, before I found her.  Angry, twisted, self-destructive.”

     Gabrielle felt her blood go like icewater.  She’d seen it, too, felt it when Jarra walked in the door last night, borne the brunt of Jarra’s outlashing.  What brought this on?  Not what happened to Xena – Jarra was dealing with that, and had been doing so well.  It was odd that this had come on so suddenly, so strongly.  The feeling of wrongness hit her again.  This behavior wasn’t like Jarra at all.

     “I have this weird feeling, like all of this going off alone has something to do with it.”

     “Have you tried talking to her about it?”

     He looked surprised that she would have to ask that.  “Of course I have.” His expression went from worried to hurt.  “She won’t talk to me.  She says that everything is fine, but I don’t believe it.”

     “Neither do I,” she agreed.

     Before she could say anything more, there was a brief knock at the door and Jarra walked in.

     “We need to talk,” Jarra blurted out in a rush.  “Those bad feelings we’ve been having?  I overheard some things while I was having breakfast downstairs that I think you should both hear…”

    

Chapter Six

 

 

Whatever Gabrielle had been about to say to Ezra was forgotten.

     “Murders.  Disappearances.  Strange illnesses.  It all started months ago, at almost the exact same time that reports started coming in about attacks in the woods around the city. Its still going on, right now, as we speak.  That’s why everything is so quiet around here.  The people are scared to death; travelers are afraid to come anywhere near here with all of the reports and rumors.”

     Gabrielle kept her silence when Jarra paused, and signaled Ezra to do the same.  They didn’t need to interrupt her with questions that could make her forget an important detail.

     “We’ve all been having bad feelings about this place, and I think that whatever attacked us out there is what is wrong with this city.”

     “What makes you say that?” Gabrielle couldn’t help asking.  A horrible sense of foreboding came over her when she sensed what the answer might be.

     “All the bodies that have been found, both inside and out of the city, have been drained completely dry.  No blood left in the bodies.  Some with throats torn out, others with small puncture marks, always in pairs.”

     Without thinking, Gabrielle’s hand touched the wounds on her neck.  Bite wounds, like the victims being found.

     “We have to do something,” was all she could think to say.

     “What can we do?”  Ezra asked seriously.  “ We don’t have anything to go on, unless you’ve learned anything else, like where they’re hiding?”

     “I’ve told you all that I know.  But we can’t just…”

     Gabrielle sighed.  Great.  They knew the problem, well they were pretty sure about it anyway, but they had absolutely nothing to go on.  Nothing.

     “We need to find some answers,” she voiced needlessly.  “We have questions – someone in this city has to know something.”

     “You can start with the innkeeper,” Jarra told her.

     “What?”

     “When we got here, when he realized who you were – he almost asked for our help right then, but he held back.  I wish you could have seen his eyes, Gabrielle.  He wanted to tell me something, what was wrong, but it was like he was too afraid of what would happen to him if he did.  He knows something.”

     “We’ll talk to him, then,” Ezra said.

     “I do have one answer for you,” Jarra said, and both Gabrielle and Ezra leaned closer in anticipation.  “We are facing lamia.  Blood drinkers.”

     Ezra was the first to protest.  “We already figured out that they weren’t.  They look nothing like lamia.  No snake bodies, remember?”

     Gabrielle had to agree with that.  She’d gotten a good look at their attackers, and they had looked nothing like the monstrous snake-bodied lamia that she knew.  And she knew first-hand what lamia looked like, thanks to an all-too-close encounter with one that she’d had on a past adventure.  Ugly, scaly, with stale, rotten blood breath.  She shivered at the memory.  “What I saw didn’t look like any lamia that I’ve seen.”

     “That’s just it,” Jarra explained.  “No one has seen lamia like these until recently.  They’re a new breed.”

     Jarra really wasn’t making this up – how did she know?

     As if reading her mind, Jarra said, “Please don’t ask me to explain how I know this.  Its too complicated.  Trust that I know.  They are lamia.”

     Gabrielle believed her, despite all of her strange behavior.  Jarra had no reason to lie, not about this, not to Ezra, not to her.  But how did she know…?

     “I believe you,” Gabrielle assured her.  “But how are we going to stop them?  I ran one through with my sword, and it got right back up and kept on coming.”

     “I know the answer to that, too,” Jarra said, surprising her yet again.

     Ezra looked at Jarra intently.  “How?”

     “Sever the head or pierce the heart, even expose them to sunlight, and they turn to dust.  You win.”

     It was so ludicrously simple that Gabrielle could have laughed, did she not already know how hard it was to get far enough inside their guard to complete such a manuver.  And sunlight – no wonder they had run at the sign of first light.

     “That’s it?” Ezra asked, dumbfounded.

     “That’s it.”

     They set out immediately to question the locals.  As Jarra had suggested, they were going to start with the innkeeper.  Much to their dismay they discovered that he was out and wouldn’t be back for some time.  Gone to the market to replenish some of the inn’s foodstores, the cook told them.  They couldn’t wait around for him to come back, so they hit the streets instead – they could talk to the innkeeper later.  They couldn’t wait around doing nothing.  They all felt the imperative now, to hurry, to find someone to who would tell them something, anything, because something was very wrong in Sapai –they all felt it now, acutely.  The feeling of wrongness drove them.  They had to do something, and do it now.

     As they walked down the street, coats billowing in the wind, breaths misting in the chill air, Gabrielle’s thoughts wandered.  She should have been paying attention to what was around them.  Not because there was any danger, but there could be clues waiting to be found anywhere.  But she couldn’t help the straying of her mind.

     I failed, she thought numbly.  I couldn’t save my friends when they needed me.  When the lamia attacked – I failed…

     She had been feeling frustrated, inadequate.  The first real threat to her and her friends, and she had come up short.  It wasn’t that she didn’t have confidence in her abilities – her duel with Morimoto, the evil demon Yodoshi’s general and a master samurai, had been over almost before it had ever had a chance to begin.  She defeated him not because he was lacking as a fighter, and not by luck, but because she had been that much better.  She was as good as Xena, she knew that now, had known it from the instant she used the chakram for the first time.  So what had happened to her when the lamia had come at them from out of the trees?  She couldn’t think of anything that she had done wrong that night, yet she had been caught and nearly killed, and didn’t doubt that her friends would be dead, too, if the lamia hadn’t suddenly retreated with the dawn.  She had fallen, unable to protect them.  The idea that she failed them crushed her.  She had vowed, after all that had happened to Xena, never to let anything like that happen ever again to anyone she loved.  She would have failed in that vow the night of the lamia attack if not for luck in the form of a timely sunrise.

     Luck saved her friends instead of her skill – it was humiliating.

     You failed me!!! she heard Xena’s dreamscape doppelganger accuse cruelly.  Yes, she had failed to save her friend, her soulmate, a truth that hurt beyond imagining.  She could have saved Xena easily, but it would have been more of a failure to have brought her back.  She would have truly failed Xena if she had taken away her redemption.  She couldn’t have lived with that.  She hadn’t failed in doing the thing that Xena asked of her, what she knew to be truly right.  Still, she had not been able to save Xena, failure or no, and she had not been able to save her friends from the lamia.  Luck alone decided when the situation went out of her control.  How long would it be before she let them down again?  Would their lives be the price she would have to pay next time?

     Angrily she kicked at a pebble in the dirt as she walked, furious with her perceived weakness.  She was afraid of failing them.  Terrified.  She was prepared to do anything she had to to prevent it.  She had to protect them – losing them was not an option.  She wouldn’t allow anyone else to fall.  Never again.

     “The instant you give up, that’s when you fail,” the disembodied voice of Xena’s spirit told her.  The words spurred her on – she wasn’t about to give up after making it this far.  That would be the worst failure of all to Xena, whom she honored every day that she kept going and fighting for the greater good, but most of all to herself.

     They weren’t having much luck so far.  No clues, and no one would talk.  Such fear Gabrielle saw in these people – it controlled them beyond reason.  It reminded her of Rome in Caesar’s time, when no one dared speak out against the emperor for fear of being crucified or worse if he found out (though she didn’t think there was anything worse than crucifixion.), or people who didn’t dare badmouth the gods (deserve it as they might) for fear of their retribution.  She understood that, she’d had a healthy fear of the gods once, until she saw them for what they really were.  And the kind of fear people experienced during Caesar’s rule – she understood that, too.  She’d had the unfortunate pleasure of being crucified, along with Xena, on his orders.  But the gods were out of the picture now (thanks to Xena), and there was no Caesar exercising tyranny here.  It was worse than all of that.  She could see it in the eyes of every man, woman, and child that they passed.

     Some that they questioned knew of her, her history with Xena, and she saw how desperately they wanted her help, but their fear would not let them ask, let alone say what was wrong.

     Jarra gasped.  Gabrielle came to an immediate and abrupt stop – Ezra, who was following directly behind, barely avoided walking into her.

     Jarra stood frozen in the middle of the street, her face a perfect mask of surprised horror.

     So lost in thought, Gabrielle had not heard or even seen signs of the commotion going on in front of them until this very moment.  It was hard to imagine how she could have missed it.  She followed Jarra’s gaze to the alley before them, where armored city militia was keeping back the growing crowd that was gathering around the scene.  From where she stood she had a clear view of the carnage; a corpse of a man, throat slit wide open, lying in a pool of his own blood.  A fair amount of it also covered the wall behind him in streaks and smeared handprints, and painted on that same wall, in that same blood, was a symbol, a crescent with lines and dots arranged in various patterns around it.  The killer’s calling card perhaps, or a message?  It didn’t look like any language that she knew.

     She looked back to Jarra.  Her friend had gone completely white – she looked like she was going to be sick.

     “Jarra, are you alright?”

     Ezra, wearing that same look of shock and horror, looked at her.  “Gabrielle,” he said shakily, “when her father was murdered, that same symbol had been found painted on the wall of their home in his blood.”  He took in the whole scene with a sweep of his arm.  “Just like this.  It looked exactly like this.”

     Gabrielle’s stomach dropped.

     Jarra, quaking now with undisguised rage, finally spoke.  “Whoever killed my father did this.  They’re here, and I won’t rest until I kill them myself.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

Gabrielle had never seen Jarra like this before.  Such pure white-hot pain and rage…  Is this what she had been like before they met?

     She was scared for Jarra - she had no doubt that her friend had meant every word about killing her father’s murderers.  She also knew what revenge lead to, what it could do to a person.  Gods, she didn’t want that to happen to Jarra – she was too good for that.  She didn’t want to see Jarra driven back in the darkness of her past after coming so far.

     The naked pain she saw in Jarra’s eyes – she knew that kind of pain, intimately.  When she’d learned that Gurkhan murdered her mother and father – yeah, she knew that pain.  But when she’d found Xena’s decapitated body strung up outside the samurai camp, on display…  She didn’t want to go there, remember the things that she’d felt.  Needless to say, she’d hurt more in that moment than she ever had in her entire life.  The anger it ignited in her – she had been mad enough to kill, to murder Yodoshi’s general Morimoto for what he’d dare do to Xena.  The only thing that had stopped her?  She refused to give Morimoto the honorable death that killing him at the end of their duel would have provided.  Instead she’d ridden off and left him in the shame of dishonorable defeat.  He wasn’t worthy of any honor after killing her best friend, after taking her soulmate away from her.  When he came to avenge the dishonor she had caused him, she’d ended up killing him anyway.  She’d taken his life with cool detachment, without so much as an eyeblink and no remorse.  She’d walked away feeling nothing.  It hadn’t made her feel any better – just cold and empty.  Funny thing about vengeance: it is always, without fail, never worth it.  She didn’t regret killing him for an instant, and what had it gotten her?  Fear.  Fear that even she was capable of murder without a second thought.  Fear and self-loathing.  Murder went against everything that she was, but when it came to Xena the rules had changed.  She accepted that, but she also had to live with it.

     Here was Jarra, staring down that dead-end road, and she wondered if she could do anything to save her.  Her friend didn’t need anything more weighing on her conscience.  She’d done enough.

     They were still standing in the middle of the street, unable to look away from the horror in front of them.  Ezra could only imagine what was going on inside of her.  That the most traumatic event of Jarra’s life would come back to haunt her here and now…  that was what shocked them, more than the carnage.

     As concerned as Gabrielle was for her friend, she took her attention away from Jarra and looked more closely at the faces in the crowd.  They were scared (who wouldn’t be?), but not surprised.  So this kind of thing wasn’t something new to them.  This was the first real evidence of a problem that she had seen, and suddenly she understood very clearly what everyone was so afraid of.

     She jumped when Jarra’s hand touched her shoulder.  Her friend broke through her raging internal turmoil long enough to point to the corpse and say,  “Gabrielle that’s one of the men I overheard talking in the inn this morning.”

     The same man from the inn.

     Trying to assimilate this startling new information, Ezra asked, “Are you sure?”

     She nodded emphatically.

     By the gods.

     He was not a stupid man, and the dots had just connected for him in a frightening pattern.

     Jarra had said something before, about the men she’d overheard.  One of them had been extremely paranoid (what else was new around here) about what the other had been saying.  The paranoid one, he’d warned the other about talking so freely about goings on.  That the things he was saying could get him into a lot of trouble.  That he should watch himself because someone could be watching him, and listening.  He’d gotten into trouble all right.  He was dead.  Someone had shut him up, Jarra was certain of that.  Why?

     The answer to that question was the key.  Whoever wanted that man silenced could very well be the cause of what was wrong in Sapai.

     Gabrielle reached her hand out to touch Jarra’s arm, but her friend yanked herself away.  “Don’t touch me.”

     The fury had returned.  Ezra knew that Jarra was just as intelligent as he, more so really, and guessed that she had been able to put two and two together as well.  Now she wanted answers – and blood.

     Without another word, his lover turned on her heel, coat flaring dramatically as she spun, and took off at a dead run, for where he didn’t know.

     He looked to Gabrielle; their eyes met.

     Go after her, her look seemed to say.  He nodded sharply in agreement, and they ran after her.

     Jarra ran with the speed that only desperation could bring.  Harder she ran, letting her roiling emotions fuel her.  Tears streamed; the biting cold made them like ice water, stinging her cheeks.  Tears filled with hurt and rage.

     They were here.  Those murdering bastards were here!  She couldn’t forget that symbol; sure she had tried, tried so very hard, but it had always remained burned in her mind all these years.  She would never be able to forget it as long as she lived.  That man in the alley had been killed exactly as her father had.  They killed the man from the inn, they killed her father, and she was going to make them pay.

     She felt as though her heart would tear from her chest; the pain was so great that she felt like she couldn’t breathe for the ache that had settled itself where her heart rested.

     She heard them behind her, Ezra and Gabrielle.  They couldn’t catch her – pure emotion made her faster.

     Yes, her father’s killers would pay when she found them.  Oh, would they pay, slowly and with much agony.  She would personally flay the skin from their bodies.  She smiled twistedly at the thrill the thought of it gave her.  It spurred her on.

     First, she wanted answers, and she knew just where to get them.  It had been plain to her, and still was, that the innkeeper at the Splendor of Sapai knew much more than he was telling.  He was afraid enough.  He was going to tell her just what in Tartarus was going on, and she didn’t particularly care what she had to do to get him to talk.

     She ran harder still; her pursuers couldn’t keep up.  Their footfalls faded, and she drew ever closer to her goal.

 

 

                                                                     *                              *                                  *

Jarra went around a corner and out of sight.  Gabrielle wasn’t concerned; she had a pretty good idea of where she was going.

     She led Ezra through the streets and back to the inn in time to see a man come flying out the front door, accompanied by others who were fleeing the berserker Amazon inside.

     They burst through the front door into an almost entirely empty tavern room – chairs and tables had been upended, furniture smashed to splinters.  Jugs lay in pieces, their contents staining multiple surfaces.

     Jarra was totally out of control.

     A crash from somewhere inside the kitchen got their attention.  Gabrielle hurried in the direction of the noise, vaulting over the bar and through the doorway behind with Ezra on her heels.

     “Tell me!” Jarra screamed.  She had a hold of the innkeeper, firmly grasping two fistfuls of his shirt.  She slammed him against the wall, hard.  “Tell me what you know!” 

     “If I talk, they’ll kill me!” the terrified innkeeper wailed.

     “If you don’t talk, I’ll kill you!” Jarra roared, slamming him into the wall again.  “I know that you know what’s happening.  TALK!”

     “Let him go, Jarra!” Gabrielle ordered.

     Jarra would do no such thing.  She was completely insane with rage.  “NO!”

     She proceeded to backhand the innkeeper across the face.  “TALK!”

     All the poor man could manage was a whimper.

     Ezra was the first to grab hold of her, getting a firm grip on one arm just as she was raising it to strike the innkeeper again.

     “Stop this, Jarra!” he grated out, struggling to pull her off of the innkeeper.

     “LET GO OF ME!” she roared, lashing out with an elbow and catching him in the face.  As he fell back, dazed, Gabrielle grabbed her underneath the arms and hauled her away from the man.  She spun Jarra around, and Jarra’s fist connected solidly with her face, splitting her lip open and knocking her down.  Blood welled up in her mouth.  Getting to her hands and knees, she spit it out, leaving a red splatter on the floor.

     Ezra, his nose gushing blood, was making to follow Jarra, who had run out of the room.

     “No,” Gabrielle called.  She inclined her head toward the innkeeper.  “Stay with him.  I’ll go after her.”

     Squelching anger and shock, she dragged herself to her feet and ran after her friend.  Yes, Jarra was still her friend.  It would take more than a punch to change that, hurt her as it did.  The absolute shock she’d felt when Jarra’s fist had connected – she’d never thought that Jarra would hit her.  Not in a million years.  This was her true darkness, and it was only a taste. Jarra was on a revenge-induced rampage and it was up to her stop her before anyone else got hurt.

     Gabrielle caught up to her in the alley directly adjacent to the inn.  She heard voices – Jarra’s and another, so familiar…  Playing it safe, she stayed out of sight and peeked around the corner.  Nothing could have prepared her for the shock of the sight that greeted her:  Jarra standing there with Ares.

     She could only watch, dumbstruck, as Ares snapped his fingers and the two of them disappeared.  When she finally came back to her senses, she ran full-tilt back inside.

     Dear gods, Jarra was with Ares.  Is that where she had been disappearing to when she went off on her own?  Suddenly Jarra’s behavior the previous night made a lot more sense.  The anger, the fury – what was Ares doing to her?  Why?  The way she was now, he could mold her any way he chose.  Her worst fears for Jarra were coming true in a way that she had never envisioned.  She hoped, desperately, that it wasn’t already too late.

     Ezra was helping the innkeeper to right what little undamaged furniture remained in the wake of Jarra’s rampage.  He’d never seen her so wild – it scared him.  Had she gone off the deep end for good this time?

     She had never hit him, really hit him, before – he couldn’t have been more surprised than when her elbow smashed into his face.  Gods, she hit hard.  Suddenly he found himself having a bit of sympathy for all of the thugs she had ever beaten up on.  The girl had fists of solid granite and the force to go with it.  He was lucky that his nose wasn’t broken.

     With a heave, he set another table upright, then a chair, the only one within reach that wasn’t a pile of splinters on the floor.  He sighed, taking in the damage that had been done.  They needed to fix this, somehow.

     He looked on the innkeeper with more than a little pity.  It was obvious that the man didn’t have much.  This inn and tavern was his livelihood – the little bit of livelihood that he could manage in this city.  It was obvious that dinars weren’t easy to come by – the rumors about what was going on in the city were keeping business away.  He watched the portly man numbly sweeping up bits of broken jugs and dishes.  All he saw in the man was resigned sorrow, the kind a person had when they were helpless to change their situation.  It was the look of a man who had given up trying to change his fate and was just trying to survive.  Jarra bursting in here like a madwoman and trashing the place couldn’t have helped.  It made him sad to see any human being in that state.  Worse, everyone in Sapai had that look.  They had to help these people.  They just had to.

     “I’m sorry about what happened here,” he told the innkeeper, feeling that he had to say something.  He was embarrassed that Jarra had done this.

     The innkeeper didn’t even look at him.  “My tavern is ruined thanks to that woman of yours.”  There was more than a little anger in his words.

     “Jarra belongs to no one.”  He didn’t control her the way some men felt they had to control their women.  He didn’t want to.  He loved her independence, the freedom of her spirit.  It would be wrong to crush it.  Jarra would never allow him to, anyway.  She would rather die.  Any Amazon would rather die than be controlled, especially by a man.

     “Perhaps its time you taught her what her place is,” the innkeeper spat.

     That made him angry, but he didn’t let it show.  “I don’t think its your place to tell me how to treat her,” he said smoothly enough.

     Unfortunately, Jarra’s Amazon nature was the very root of the disaster she’d caused here.  The wound to her pride and honor, to her very heart, demanded vengeance.  It demanded that she do whatever she had to do to find and destroy the people that murdered her father.  She thought the innkeeper had answers, and with the violence unleashed by her pain she had come here and done this to try and get them.  He understood that, but he did not approve at all.  There were better ways of going about it than this.

     Jarra knew that, too, but she didn’t seem to care in the midst of her own pain and rage.

     This must have been what happened before, when she’d found her father dead, murdered in cold blood in their own home.  He had been away at the time.  He hadn’t been there to see her then, twisted up with pain and the kind of perfect fury that only a warrior can truly know.  She’d killed so many in the ultimately futile hunt for her father’s killers, and she had never gotten any answers.  The murderers had just disappeared, like smoke into thin air.  That had been the worst part – her hatred and want of revenge had continued to push her, even though there was nowhere to go. It had twisted her more and more, until she hated everyone and everything in the world that had so horribly wronged her.  She’d left Britannia without a word to anyone.

     For a long time he’d lost track of her.  For all he’d known, she had been killed.  He had started to think that he would never see her again, and it had broken his heart.  A year went by, another – one day he heard about an Amazon woman-turned-mercenary, a sword for hire renowned for her skill and bloodlust.  He’d known without ever hearing her name that it was Jarra.  Gods, he’d been desperate to find her, but hadn’t had any idea where to look.  The world was a big place – she could’ve been anywhere.  He didn’t know what was worse – thinking she was dead, or knowing she was out there, in misery and needing him with no way for him to find her.  Then, by the grace of the gods, he’d heard where she was, where she was operating.  He’d left to find her the very next day, leaving Britannia for distant Chin, following the bloody swath in her wake until, at last, he’d found himself face to face with her.

     He didn’t know the person he’d found that day, so twisted by hate and hurting so badly – but her fury had long since burnt out.  It was true, what people said about the toll hatred and vengeance take on the soul.  She was sick of the life she had turned to, but afraid to let it go – it was all she had known for a long time.  She’d adapted to it, and she didn’t know if she could ever go back.

     With the promise that he would do all he could to help her, Ezra had taken Jarra away from the darkness, away from the blood and death.  They’d gone first to India, then to Egypt where they stayed, doing what good things they could and befriending the pharaoh himself in the process. But it became very clear to him within a very short time that though Jarra was healing, it wasn’t happening fast enough.  All of the evil she’d done, all of her regret over it – Jarra couldn’t handle knowing what she’d done, didn’t know if she could live with it.  It was killing her, and he knew that he wouldn’t be able to save her in time without a miracle.

     He’d taken her home to Greece then, not really knowing why.  That was when he got his miracle, where Xena had come into the picture and changed everything.

     All of that was rapidly crumbling now.  How could Jarra throw it all away, everything that she’d accomplished?  There was more to all this, he just knew it.  There had to be.

     “We could help you, you know,” he told the innkeeper, breaking out of a reverie that, seeming to last forever, had only really lasted for a few seconds.

     “I think you’ve done enough already.  If Gabrielle wasn’t with you, I’d-”

     “Throw us out?” he cut in.  “Fine.  You’d have every right to do it.”

     He didn’t seem even slightly appeased by the admission.

     With all seriousness, Ezra looked at the man and told him flatly, “I need you to tell me what you know.”

     The innkeeper nearly dropped the broom he was idly sweeping the floor with.  Suddenly he looked like a scared deer about to bolt.  “I don’t know anything.”

     Ezra knew the man was lying.  He saw the nervous darting of the man’s eyes, the bead of nervous sweat rolling down the side of his face.  In another time and place it might have made him angry.  Right now he just thought it was pitiful that this man was so scared that he was afraid to even save himself.

     “I need to know,” he said gently, “what is wrong in this city.  I know that you know something.  There’s no use in lying to me.”

     “I can’t.”

     He saw the battle going on within the man.  The innkeeper wanted to tell him.  Why wouldn’t he?  Ezra did get angry then.  Too much was at stake for this man to be holding out on them.

     “People are dying!” he shouted, patience leaving him.  “Help us!”

     “If I talk,” the innkeeper shouted back with an intensity that caught Ezra by surprise, “I will be killed!  I will end up like that man the guards found in the alley today, with my throat slit.”

     “We can help you - ”

     “Everyone that has tried to help us so far has been killed!  Just like everyone that has asked for help or told anyone even the littlest bit about the problems here!  I don’t want to die.”

     “So you’d rather live like this?” Ezra asked him softly.

     Silence.  Ezra had his answer.

    “The other people that have tried to help you weren’t Gabrielle.   Please tell us-”

     That instant, when he was just on the verge of breaking through the man’s fear, Gabrielle came barreling through the front door.  The innkeeper was so badly startled that he dropped all of the broken plates that he’d been rounding up, making an even bigger mess than before.  She rushed toward him, breathing hard.  He saw now that Jarra’s punch had split her lip – it was bruised and swollen; blood ran down her chin in a tiny rivulet.

     A stab of anger hit him, and he had to try very hard to fight it back down.  How could Jarra hurt her like that?  Gabrielle had only been trying to help.  But he had to remind himself that Jarra was completely out of her mind at the moment.  He might’ve thought that the Furies had a hold on her, except that Xena had killed them when she still had the power to kill gods.

     “Did you catch her?” he asked anxiously.

     “No,” she panted, out of breath.

     “No?  Then why-?”    

     “I chased her into the alley outside.”

     He opened his mouth to ask more questions, but she stopped him.  He didn’t understand; why did she stop chasing Jarra and come back here?  They needed to get to her before she hurt anyone else.  But when Gabrielle looked at him, he saw it: something more was wrong.  He suddenly felt the weight of the seriousness in her gaze.  It stopped him cold. 

     “Ezra, when I caught up to her, I saw her with Ares.  She disappeared with him before I could do anything.”

 

 

 

Chapter Eight

 

 

As the words came out of her mouth, Gabrielle couldn’t believe she was saying them.  It was obvious that Ezra couldn’t believe that he was hearing them.

     “By the gods,” he breathed.

     Gabrielle was trying very hard not to be upset, correction, angry over what she had discovered.  What did Jarra think she was doing?  She had gone to Ares behind their backs, and it hurt her deeply.  How long had Jarra been keeping this from them?  Had she just now invoked the god of war in the midst of her blind fury?  It didn’t really matter.  Going to Ares amounted to no good.  Jarra knew that, but she had blatantly disregarded the warnings.  Why did Jarra feel that she couldn’t come to she or Ezra?

     Gods only knew what Ares would do to her.  Vulnerable as Jarra was right now, Ares could easily bend her to his will.  That was the scary part, because Ares wouldn’t bother showing up if there wasn’t a benefit for him somewhere. 

     She had no way to find out where Ares had taken Jarra.  They would have to wait until she returned.  Gabrielle was afraid of what she might be like when she did.  All she could do was take Ezra back to the alley with her and wait.

     She hoped that Jarra had a damn good explanation for this.                      

 

 

                                                                    *                            *                                *

 

 

“I know that you want to continue with my lessons, but I’m a little pressed for time at the moment.  Something’s come up – we’ll have to do this later.”

     “Really?” the god of war asked. 

     “Yes,” Jarra replied coolly.  “My father’s murderers are in town, and I need to go kill them.”

     He seemed not to be listening.  “Such perfect rage,” he murmured, an amused smile just curving his lips.  “Do you know how beautiful you are when you’re angry?”

     She didn’t have time for this.  Did he really think that his little comment could distract her? 

     “I need to go.”

     “I’m afraid that I can’t let you leave just yet.”

     She saw it again – behind his casual manner was desperation.  Desperation at the prospect of her ending their little partnership.

     “What is it that you want so badly Ares?” she demanded, calling his bluff and furious that he would not let her go.  “Why me?  What’s in it for you, Ares?”

     “I told you before-”

     “You lied.  You don’t do anything that doesn’t serve you as well.  I should have known better than to think otherwise.  What do you want with me, Ares?  What’s in it for you?”

     “Our enemies are one in the same, Jarra.  Kill the lamia and people in Sapai stop dying, among them some of the few followers that I have left.”

     “So that’s it.  You weren’t really interested in me.  I’m just a means to an end.  Your end.  Gods, Xena and Gabrielle were right about you…”

     “That’s where you’re wrong,” he said, drawing closer, his hand reaching for her.

     “Don’t touch me,” she snapped.  He’d lied to her, and now he was wasting her valuable time.

     Ares’ eyes darkened with visible anger, his jaw muscles twitching.  His gaze bored straight into her, and suddenly she was pinned in place, unable to move for the fury in his eyes.

     “There is nothing I hate more than wasted potential,” he said, his voice low, anger barely under control, "and you, my dear, have enormous potential.  I want to help you be what you were so that you can fulfill it, and that is the truth.  Killing the lamia is a side benefit.”

     “You’re really going to do that?”

     “You have my word.”

     Strangely enough, she believed him.  The fact remained that her father’s killers could get away if she didn’t go after them now.  It hit her then: Our enemies are one in the same… What did he mean by that?

     “I still can’t stay.”

     He smiled enigmatically.  It was not the reaction that she had been expecting.  “As I said, our enemies are one in the same.”

     The realization hit her like a ton of bricks. 

     “The lamia killed my father,” she breathed, stunned.  How could that be?    

     “Yes.  Now you have to kill them, Jarra.  But they are far more powerful than you can imagine.  It will take more than just weapon-wielding skills to destroy them.  Your mind must be prepared as well, which brings us to the next lesson.”

     “How do you know that?”  Jarra was still stuck on the revelation that Ares had just laid before her.

     “Hey, I’m a god.  Gods know these things.”

     Good enough for her.  She really didn’t care how he knew, just that she now knew, after waiting for so long, who killed her father and that they were here.

     “Why don’t you just go after them yourself?” she suddenly wondered.

     “Can’t,” he told her.  “Too complicated for me to explain to a mortal.  No offense.”

     She raised an eyebrow at that, but he was already moving on.

     “As I said, you won’t beat them with skills alone.  What makes you angry, Jarra?”

     What kind of question was that?

     “What does this have to do with anything?” she yelled, frustrated.  Could they just get on with it without having to play these coy games?

     “Its you that’s making me angry right now,” was all she could think to say in reply to his odd question.

     “No.  Truly angry.  What does that to you?”

     “Ares, I don’t see the point-”

     “It isn’t up to you to see the point!” he shouted, patience wearing thin.  “Answer the question.”

     “Finding my father murdered – it made me mad enough to kill,” she finally answered, not sure if it was the answer he was truly looking for.

     “What about Xena?”

     So angry already, she snapped at the mention of that subject.  “Of course I’m angry over that!” she shouted at him, her outburst the sum of all the rage and pain she’d been keeping inside over the event that caused her friend and mentor’s death. 

     “Why?” Ares asked softly.

     “Why?”  Outrage flooded her.  “I’ll tell you why. She had to die because of a stupid ACCIDENT!!!  It wasn’t even really her fault-”

     “Can you be certain of that?”

     Her fury at the insinuation went beyond all reason.  How dare he even suggest that…  With a cry of absolutely out-of-control rage, she reached for one of her sai and made for the god of war, aiming to plunge it into his chest.  He stopped her, of course, grabbing the sai as she swung it down, halting it barely an inch above his chest, not that it would have done any damage to him anyway.

     Ares laughed.  He actually threw his head back and laughed.  Jarra tried to wrench away, but he grabbed her and held her fast with godly strength.  She glared at him, nostrils flared in fury.

     “Very good!” he exclaimed, still chuckling.

     Her brow furrowed, some of the fury being replaced by total confusion.

     “That is exactly what I wanted to see,” he said.  “I wasn’t sure that you had it in you.”

     “What?” She didn’t understand.

     “The way that you felt just now, that’s what you need against the lamia.  Perfect fury.”

     His hand caressed her face.

     “So much power in you, and the rage makes you even stronger,” he purred.  “That’s the lesson.  Use that emotion without letting it blind you.  That’s the key.  You’ll be stronger than you’ve ever dreamed… No one will be able to stand against you…”

     She listened, understanding and becoming totally enraptured with her own newfound power.  No one could stand in the way of that, especially not the lamia.

     “Show me…”

 

 

                                                                                *             *             *

 

 

Gabrielle stood outside the alley, shivering despite the warmth of her coat.  This was bad.  Very bad.  Jarra with Ares, as out-of-control and vulnerable as she was…  It took a lot to make her truly afraid these days; she was afraid now.

     It wasn’t just because of Jarra.  When she’d gone back to the tavern to get Ezra, she’d found him talking to the innkeeper, trying to get him to tell them what he knew, if anything.  It turned out that he knew quite a bit, once she had been able to convince him that it was safe to tell her.

     Monsters had invaded the city, he said.  She’d asked why no one had gone to the city militia for help.  Because, he told her, by the time anyone thought to, the lamia controlled the militia.  They only came out at night, because sunlight set them aflame, but they had allies among the city’s population, “familiars” he called them, in high positions of power to the lowliest beggar on the street.  They controlled everything with the aid of numerous familiars, people who served them all for the promise of eternal life that they would gain by being turned into one of them if they served well.  A person never knew who was a familiar and who wasn’t, and the familiars were always watching, always listening.  Watching and listening for people like himself who talked, asked for help, went against the lamia in any way, and had them killed for all to see as an example.  Why did they do this?  The people of Sapai were their own private herd of cattle.  They fed on the blood of the humans in the city.  Sapai was their feeding ground.  All of this information had spilled out in one fearful, panicked rant in a matter of moments.

     Jarra was on a rampage and at the mercy of the god of war, and the city was under siege by bloodsucking monsters who were using the inhabitants for food.  Just another day in the life.

     At the moment, Gabrielle could only wait and do her best to look casual.  She didn’t want to draw any attention to herself or Ezra, who was up on the roof above her keeping watch over the alley.  He would signal her when Jarra reappeared, that is, if she returned to this same spot.  That was their best guess, as good as any since they had nothing else to go on.

     “You were right when you said something wasn’t right here,” Gabrielle said under her breath to Xena, who was standing beside her.

     It happened like this every day, Xena, or her spirit at least, appearing like this and disappearing just as suddenly.  Gabrielle still wasn’t entirely used to it, but Xena’s appearances never startled her – she could always feel her soulmate’s presence before she ever saw her.  It was better than not having her there at all.

     She walked into the alley a short distance, just a few steps, enough to take her out of sight of people on the streets.  Anyone seeing her while she talked to Xena would think she was some crazy person talking to herself, and that would draw attention she didn’t want.              

     “You look worried, Gabrielle.”

     A rueful laugh escaped her.  Worried was an understatement.  “I should be.  Bloodsucking lamia are in control of the city and killing everyone.”

     “Oh, is that all?” Xena said with much sarcasm.

     The warrior looked around, her eyes searching.  “Where is Jarra?”

     Without preamble, she told her, “Jarra is off somewhere with Ares.”

     Xena whipped her head around, looking at her in complete surprise.  “What?”

     “That was my reaction, too,” she said.  “I don’t know what she thinks she’s doing with him.  The way she is right now…”

     “What’s wrong with her?”

     “Aside from what’s already wrong?  The people that murdered her father are in the city somewhere.  She’s almost insane with vengeance.”

     “And now Ares has her,” Xena said, understanding all too well.

     “That’s why Ezra and I are here right now instead of trying to find the lamia’s lair.  We’re waiting for Ares to return Jarra from wherever it is that he has taken her.  Hopefully that will be here, where she was when she left.”  She sighed frustratedly.  “What could Ares want with her?”         

     “Oh, I can think of a few things,” Xena said.  “None of them are good.”

     “Of course not.  We are talking about Ares.”

     “You’re right to be scared for Jarra,” her friend told her.  “Ares can twist her any way he wants right now.”

     “I have to get her away from him.”

     Xena nodded in serious agreement.  “Good luck.”

     “I’m going to need it.”  She sighed again, this time it was sad.  “I just don’t understand why she would do this, go to Ares like she did.  It hurts, that she didn’t come to me for help.”

     A solemn nod of understanding from her friend.  “The hurt over her father’s murder runs very deep, Gabrielle.  It has to, if it drove her to the things she did in her past.  Hurting like that – you know what it can do.”

     She did know, better than a person ever should.  Callisto murdering sweet Perdicas – that had driven her to the edge.  She’d peeked over it, into the precipice of absolute rage and hatred.  All she could think of was murdering Callisto in return, to Tartarus with everything else.

     And of course, Xena knew.  When that warlord had come to her village, killed her brother and people she had grown up with, knew and cared about – that incident set off a life of death and destruction almost unparalleled.  Ultimately, it was Xena’s hurt and the feeling of safety that she gained from power by force that had made her the destroyer of nations, not any evil in her heart. 

     “She’s twisted up like I was,” Xena said sadly.

     “She’s forsaking everything you taught her, Xena.”

     “If anyone can make her remember, its you, Gabrielle.  I learned from you.  So can she.”

     She was back outside the alley no more than two seconds when Ezra called down from the rooftop, “They’re back.”

     It took only a moment for Ezra to climb down from the roof.  In the meantime, Gabrielle carefully looked around the corner and down the long alley.  She could see them a ways down; they stood close together, Ares caressing Jarra’s cheek.

     Damn you, Ares, she silently fumed.  Same old tricks. 

     She heard Ezra come up behind her; he touched her shoulder lightly, signaling that he was ready.

     Down the alley they marched, making no effort to be stealthy, Gabrielle in the lead, her eyes determined.

     “Leave her alone, Ares!” she called out when they had drawn close enough.

     Jarra spun around in surprise.  Her eyes fell on Gabrielle, guilt flashing across her face.  “Gabby – ”

     “Hello, Ares,” she said, ignoring Jarra.  She smiled a not-too-nice smile that failed to reach her eyes.  Her tone was absolutely frigid. 

     Ezra’s statement was the drawing of his sword.

     Ares looked at him with mild disgust.  “Do you really think you can hurt me, mortal?”

     She had to give Ezra credit; he didn’t bite at the bait Ares dangled in front of him.  The god of war looked at her darkly, dangerously.  She knew him too well to be scared by this tired routine.

     “Don’t interfere, Gabrielle,” he warned.

     She didn’t give an inch, drilling her eyes straight into his.  “What do you want with her, Ares?”

     His expression changed to a self-satisfied smirk, a look that she knew well, and a look she didn’t like it in the least, because it always meant trouble.

     “Get away from him, Jarra,” Ezra called.  It was the only time Gabrielle could remember hearing him say anything even closely resembling a command to her. 

     “No,” she shot back.  “Ares is helping me.”

     His smirk widened, his already over-inflated ego swelling.  “She has enormous potential, Gabrielle.  Even you can see that.”

     Potential? she thought.  He means her rage, her hatred…  Oh, gods…

     “Potential?” she snorted with all the derision she could muster.  “That’s it, isn’t it?  Now that Xena is gone, you’re looking for someone else to use, to be your warrior queen.”

     Jarra’s gaze darted to the god of war, then back to Gabrielle, mouth dropping open in mute shock.  Gabrielle had not expected that reaction from her.  Had she not known…?  Apparently not; Ares looked none to pleased that she had just revealed his master plan to Jarra.

     “Very perceptive,” he said, his voice low and clearly displeased.  “How did you know?”

     “I didn’t.” Now it was her turn to smirk.  “You just told me.”

     It had been a bit of a gamble on her part, but what else could he have wanted with Jarra, the kind of warrior she was and as ripe for corruption as she was in her vulnerability and anger.

     Judging by Jarra’s reaction to the news, she hadn’t been aware of that particular motive.  Ares had lied to her to get what he wanted.  No surprise there.  He’d played that little game with her, too.  After he’d killed Eli – oh, the promises he’d made, the power he’d offered.  He’d played up to her grief, her helplessness, to the point where she thought she needed him.  She’d almost fallen for it.  Almost.  Thankfully she’d woken up in time to the fact that he was using her, trying to make her his.

     Is that what he’d done to Jarra?  Her friend had admitted that she felt weak without Xena.  Ares, snake that he was, probably  knew that and had used it to warp her.  It made her sick.

     “Leave her alone, Ares.  She doesn’t need you.”

     Then she saw it – the surprise leaving Jarra’s face, the mask of hatred that replaced it.  But there was uncertainty there, as well.

     “Gabrielle,”  Jarra said, “the things Ares has taught me – I feel powerful again, instead of weak.  Without him I – ”

     “Would be better off?” Ezra finished sarcastically.

     Jarra’s eyes flashed with anger, but Gabrielle saw her confidence slip.

     A part of her knows that she’s wrong…

     “Ares was the one that told me about the lamia,” Jarra admitted, desperately trying to justify her crumbling position. 

     How much damage had Ares been able to do?  If this had all been going on for as long as she suspected, it could be a lot.  The way that he’d been feeding her anger, making her hate…  Wait.  Why would he tell Jarra about the lamia?  What concern were they of his?

     “They killed my father!  Now I’m going to kill them all.”

     Gabrielle felt a chill at those words.    

     Ares smiled proudly.  “That’s my girl!”

     The next instant he disappeared in a shimmer of light.

     Jarra stalked forward, trying to shoulder past Gabrielle, who promptly grabbed a hold of her.  “Where do you think you’re going?”

     When Jarra’s eyes met hers, they were burning with hatred.  “I told you, I’m going to kill them all.”

     Gabrielle gripped her by both shoulders, looking straight into her eyes.  “No, you’re not.  Jarra, what did you think you were doing with him?” she demanded.

     Jarra’s gaze faltered, focusing on the ground. She knew she’d made a mistake, but she rallied quickly, looking back up.  Tears were in her eyes when she answered, “I’ve lost so much with Xena’s death.  Ares was helping me in a way that nothing else was.  He promised to make me what I was…”

     The lying bastard, Gabrielle cursed inwardly.

     “Maybe what you were before I met you,” she told her friend firmly.  She was giving her the straight, unsoftened truth.  Ugly as it was, it was what Jarra needed to hear, no matter how much it hurt.  “He used you, Jarra, like he tried to use me once, like he’s tried to use Xena more times than I can remember.”

     Jarra looked away, visibly ashamed.

     “What would Xena think of you now?  Is this what she taught you to be, who I helped you to be?  Is this who you really are in your heart?  I don’t think so.”

     She watched as Jarra’s rage and hatred disintegrated in the face of her truthful onslaught.  The Amazon, her friend, crumpled before her.  Jarra knew she was right, had known it all along.  “Gods, what have I done…”

     She collapsed to her knees; Ezra sheathed his sword and went to her, putting his arms around her.  “It’s okay,” he soothed.  “We’re here now.”

     “Jarra, you haven’t lost anything,” Gabrielle told her matter-of-factly. 

     “I don’t have anything without Xena alive,” Jarra choked out between sobs.

     “You’re wrong.”  Remembering what Xena had told her back in Amphipolis, she pressed on.  “Jarra, all Xena did was show you the way – you walk that path and stay on it by yourself.  Everything you think you’ve lost is still there inside you.  All Xena did before was give you a window inside yourself to see them.  Don’t you see?  You are what you are because of you.

     Jarra looked up at her, wonderment shinning through her tears.  They turned to tears of joy, joy at the realization of the truth her friend had just made clear to her.

     In that moment, a weight lifted from Gabrielle’s shoulders.  She hadn’t realized just how heavy it was, the weight of the responsibility she’d felt in looking out for Jarra.

     The joy didn’t last long – shame quickly replaced it.  “I don’t know why I trusted Ares, went along with him.  I knew it was wrong, but…”

     “Jarra, Ares is very persuasive.  Once, he even got to me.  I was very tempted, but in the end, I knew what was right and turned my back on him.  I know you can do that.”

     Jarra nodded.  Her expression hardened then.  “The lamia murdered my father.  That hasn’t changed.  They have to pay for that.”

     “We’re going after them,” Gabrielle assured her.  “But not with hate or vengeance,” she added, pointedly looking at Jarra.  “We have a city to save.”

 

                                                                                *             *             *

When Jarra came through the door, the innkeeper didn’t look too happy to see her.

     “What’s she doing here?” he ground out harshly.

     She’s with me,” Gabrielle told him with an edge in her voice that made it clear she would brook no argument from him.  More softly, she added, “She wants to apologize.”

     “I’m sorry for what I did,” Jarra told him with all sincerity, her eyes downcast, her whole tone and stance showing the shame and embarrassment she felt.  “Those monsters killed my father.  When I thought you knew something, I…I…”

     “You didn’t have to destroy my tavern,” he chastised bitterly. 

     “Hey, she said she was sorry,” Ezra said protectively in her defense.

     “Tell us what else you know,” was Gabrielle’s surprisingly undemanding plea.  The softness of her voice belied the seriousness of her request.    

     The innkeeper looked at her with irritated disbelief.  “First you people wreck my inn – ”

     “Jarra said she was sorry, Ezra interrupted very pointedly.

     “- and now you expect me to put my life in danger, all because you think you might be able to help?”

     “What’s the difference?” Gabrielle asked him with all honesty.  “Your life is in danger already.”

     “By keeping my mouth shut I can at least scrape out an existence.  I’ve told you too much already.”

     “What kind of existence?” was her challenge.  “You live in fear, and you could still be killed at any time, if what you told me before is true.  What have you got to lose?”

     His resolve cracked.  Gabrielle saw it happen; she was right and he knew that she was.  This was no kind of life, what he had here and now.  He couldn’t deny it anymore, not with her reminder of the futility of not doing anything.  Sure, he might die for what he told them, but if the city could be freed he could really live, instead of just getting by in misery and winding up dead for his trouble.

     “All right,” he said, breath coming out in a gust.  “I know where you can find them.”

     “Where?”

     “Doma.”

     “Doma?” Ezra asked, voicing the question that had just popped into all of their minds.

     “What’s Doma?” Gabrielle asked.

     “A club, for the city’s elite – “

     “What does that have to do with anything?” interrupted Jarra impatiently.

     Gabrielle chopped a hand to silence her and gave her a sharp look for good measure.  She understood her friend’s impatience; Jarra wanted a shot at the lamia in the worst way for the pain they’d caused her, for taking her father from her, but she couldn’t have her friend screwing this up.  The information to be gained was too important.

     “Go on,” she urged gently.

     “A club,” the innkeeper repeated.  “They own it, the lamia.  They have these parties… people die when they go there.  Humans go in, but they seldom come out.”

     “Unless they’re familiars,” Jarra reasoned.

     A shaky nod from the innkeeper at that.

     “Where?”

     “A few blocks north of here, at the end of an alley off the agora.”

     “Thank you.”

     They moved to leave.

     “Wait,” he called, stopping them.  “Going there now won’t help.  No one is there.  Nothing is open until nightfall.  You won’t be able to get in until then.”

     No one there, huh?  That’s what Gabrielle was counting on.  And there was always a way in.

     “We’ll see about that,” was her response.

     A strange feeling came over her, an itch in the back of her mind.  A warning, the meaning of which was just out of reach.  The innkeeper was giving her the oddest look…

 

 

 Continued in part 2

 

Taiko's Scrolls of the Xenaverse