Xena lead the way carrying a torch much larger and brighter than the one the trapped miners had to guide their way. Toris walked a few paces behind carrying his own torch. There was little doubt they would have no trouble seeing their way to their goal. The passageway was narrow. While the warrior and her brother made their way easily, even with the extra supplies they needed to carry, Andreas was struggling. He was in fact an older man, perhaps by five seasons, but he was also a stout man. He was short and meaty, burly not flabby from years of work under the earth. The width of the passageway was barely enough to allow him to progress. He struggled with the extra torches, water bags, and rope he was carrying. He brushed along the walls, cold and smooth from years of Hera's priests traversing the same path. From the light of the torches before him Andreas could see the arched shaped of the tunnel and wondered what force those ancients could have used to round the ceiling above them. The torchlight flickered off the ebony walls. Ebony? Andreas wondered again. He ran his hand along the wall and brought it in front of him, clean. For a moment he suspected the smoke from years of torches had turned the enclosure black. Perhaps he was right. So much smoke, maybe it absorbed into the walls but, not the floor and it was as black as the ceiling. Smoke always goes up. These walls, this floor, this ceiling were naturally black. Hard black shining rock, Andreas had never seen anything like it. It almost looked like black glass. Here and there small pieces of this strange black rock had fallen to the ground. Andreas strained to bend over and collect some of them. It's only rock, he reasoned, no one will miss it. Might be worth something, in any case he wanted to look at it in the sunlight. He shoved his prize into his pocket and hurried to catch up to the others.
Xena noticed the strange rock also, how it reflected and attracted the flame of their torches. She didn't know why, but this worried her. The passageway was long, much longer than Linaeus had described. They had been walking for a little less than half a candle mark and although it was dark it was still easy to see the lighted doorway to the outer world behind them. From the ease of their gait she knew instinctively they were headed down. Down into the bowels of this cursed temple and that blasted mine, what would they find? Would the lost miners and young bard be unharmed and waiting for rescue? Would she need the medicinal herbs, bandages and slints she had filled her pack with that morning? How injured were they? Would they have to carry them out, carry their bodies back to the surface only to watch their funeral pyres light up the night sky? She tried to shake the images from her mind, but somehow they held fast. This only served to fuel her determination and she picked up the pace forcing the others to hurry to catch up with her.
Toris struggled to quell old fears that seemed to rise within his resolve. Things he had left far behind him suddenly were frighteningly familiar. He'd left his sister in a lurch before, it had cost their youngest brother his life. Xena had forgiven him, he had not forgiven himself. Xena had made him realize that killing that bastard Cortese would not end his pain or relieve his guilt. He knew she was right. Yet these thoughts were now clear and present in his conscience. He had promised his sister just yesterday that he would not leave her, that he would give his life to help her with this quest. Fear was encircling him, surrounding him and telling him to run. Turn around and run back to the light and the air above, below lay only death. He swallowed hard and watched as Xena bravely marched into the dark unknown. He turned around and watched as Andreas stuffed something into his pocket. Afraid? Yes, he was afraid and he knew now what that fear was. It was not that he was afraid to die, not anymore. He had found that life was sometimes more frightening than death. He was not afraid he would run. He had made a promise and would keep it. He was not afraid of the horrors Linaeus had described. He was afraid of what they would find, if they found anything at all. He was afraid of what he would have to tell an old blind man and a boy not quite ready for manhood. He was afraid of not knowing how to comfort a warrior princess who would certainly be crushed by the loss of her young friend. Like his sister, he was a man of very few words and knew even less about the art of comfort. And even if he did, his and Xena's lifelong love-hate relationship was not something that would allow such tenderness. Again he glanced ahead at his sister and took courage from her conviction. 'Together' he thought to himself, "we'll handle this together."
The tunnel began to grow wider at the same time the trio noticed a strong odor permeating the air. The close walls seemed to drop away and expand into a more sizable area. Immediately the travelers became more comfortable and happy to leave their closed in fears and feelings behind in the narrow tunnel. Not that this area was much better than that. The air was thick and full of a heady scent. A haze seemed to drift around them making it difficult to see, even with the torches. The torches seemed to burn bright blue in the altered air. In the distance was the faint sound of a river running rapidly, lapping at the sides of its banks. It was an eerie sound this far under the ground. Toris glanced back up the tunnel. The entrance was now a mere dot of light occasionally blotted out by Nyran who undoubtedly paced back and forth across the entrance. Xena took a few steps into the fog and disappeared from her brother's sight. Andreas set down his cargo and rested against a rather large chunk of that fascinating black rock. He raised a waterskin to his lips and took a long drink then offered the same to Toris.
Xena stepped back into sight so abruptly that both men jumped. "Just like Linaeus said, huh?" She smiled despite the situation.
"What's next?" Andreas inquired wiping his eye with one finger. They were beginning to sting and tear. His skin felt strange as though he had been covered with some oily substance. Rubbing his eyes seemed to make matters worse. He jumped up from his perch suddenly frantic with the burning pain. Within seconds the grown man was jamming his fists into his eyes, sucking air through his teeth and squirming from foot to foot. It was almost comical, he looked for all the world like a small child throwing a temper tantrum. No one was laughing, however. The pain grew worse as tears streamed down the miner's face. Xena thrust her torch into Toris hand and used all of her strength to pry Andreas' fists from his face.
"Ah no no let me let me just " Andreas protested.
"STOP!" Xena commanded. "You're making it worse. Stop!" She shook the man's wrists that she held tightly in her hands. "Stop it! Let me help you." She shook him again with more force then slowly released him.
Andreas clenched his eyes shut tightly, grit his teeth and used every ounce of his will power to keep his hands from his face. Xena looked at her own hands, through the tears forming in her own eyes. She rubbed her fingers and thumb together and felt the slippery residue on her fingertips. She noticed it glistening on her arms, her leathers, her armor. She glanced at Toris who was attempting to rub his own eye with his upper arm while holding both torches.
"Toris DON'T!" She shouted stopping him just in time.
Toris froze, blinking and squinting alternately. "What is it?" He managed to ask.
"I don't know but, we're covered with it. It's all over. Keep your hands away from your face, it will make it worse." She turned her attention back to Andreas who was kneeling in front of her clenching and unclenching his fists in an effort to control the desire to dig them into his eyes and wipe away the pain. His eyes were still tightly shut. "Okay, it'll be okay" She comforted. She reached for her medicine pack realizing it too was covered with the slick substance. Opening it carefully so the grease could not get inside she pulled out a clean cloth and quickly wiped her hands, then took a strip of bandage and began to wrap it around Andreas eyes. "There," she spoke softly. "That should help, a little. You just made it worse with all that rubbing. You'll be fine, but you won't be going any farther I'm afraid."
Andreas laughed, feeling slight relief from the pain. "And I was so looking forward to this exciting journey."
"Yeah, well I got a another one for you." Xena informed him. "You think you can make your way back up that tunnel?"
"Just point me in the right direction." Andreas groaned as she helped him to his feet.
"Guess you won't be needing a torch." Toris joked still standing behind with both lights.
"Can't see any point in that." Andreas joked back.
Xena took his hand and lead him back to the tunnel. "Just keep going." She instructed as she released him. "Nyran is close to the entrance. Get some water and a clean cloth when you get out and keep those eyes covered until I get back."
"You're in charge." He smiled at the warrior and grasped her arm in a handshake. "We'll be waiting." He turned and began his climb back to the light.
Xena took a torch from Toris and stood for a few minutes watching Andreas' progress. His unspoken words said good luck and come back soon. She silently hoped they would.
"Whatever this stuff is, Toris, it's coming from this mist." Xena informed her brother as she turned from the tunnel. "The smell is bad, but not bad enough to cause the pain." She had noticed the odor was more sweet than acrid. It was an earthy smell, old and foreboding. There was something familiar about it, yet just outside of her memory. It left a strange taste in the back of her throat and an odd sensation in her nose. She could not place this strange scent, but again something inside warned her, told her to be wary. It was dangerous. Andreas was proof of that. Her eyes were beginning to sting and the impulse to rub away that sting was strong. She blinked a few times and let her tears wash some away of the burning pain.
"Whatever you do, Toris, don't rub your eyes." She warned her brother seeing he was having the same problem. She thrust her torch back into his hand just in time. Toris opened his eyes wide then blinked hard in an effort to clear his orbs of the sting. Xena reached into her bag without opening it. She felt for the roll of cloth that was kept for emergency bandage. (Life on the road was hazardous, you never knew when you might need something like that.) She had used one roll of it on Andreas and part of second to wipe the residue off of her hands before treating him. There were two rolls of bandage left. Her mind went to the people trapped below, she may need to treat their injuries when they were found. 'Treat their injuries' she thought for a second. That would mean they would be alive. Yes, she would save that last roll. She turned to Toris who stood holding a torch in each hand, his eyes squeezed shut tightly. He looked for all the world like some crazed priest supplicating his god. The eerie blue light from the torches gave him an even stranger appearance.
"Trust me, Toris." It was more of a command than a statement or a question.
"Huh?" Toris replied squinting to try to focus on his sister as she approached. Before he could do that she reached out and pushed him down onto a large flat rock. "What the ?"
"Just be still, Toris. I know what I'm doing." She ordered as she used another piece of the second roll of bandage to wipe most of the greasy substance from around her brother's eyes. She took the third roll and wrapped it securely around her brother's head completely covering his eyes and protecting them from the oil-laden mist.
"Xena! What in Tartarus are you doing?" Toris demanded struggling to pull away. "If you think you're sending me back up that tunnel you .."
"Relax, Toris." Xena soothed using the heel of her palm to wipe the film from her brow. She made sure the bandage was secure and stood back for a better look. "It's to keep you from temptation."
"Temptation?" Toris repeated cocking his head.
"Yeah. You start digging your fists into those baby blues and I'll be taking this pilgrimage alone. Just call it insurance."
"Let me get this straight. We're going to navigate through this nightmare blindfolded?!" Toris exclaimed.
"No." His sister replied calmly, taking one of the torches he was still holding. "You'll be traveling sightless. One of us has to lead the way."
"What?!" Toris leapt to his feet reaching to pull the covering from his eyes.
Xena grabbed his wrist. "Toris! I know what I'm doing."
"Oh, I get it. Just another one of your subtle little ways of saying you're better than I am at yet something else?" He roughly pulled his wrist away and inhaled deeply.
For a moment she just stared at her older brother. How in the gods' names could he bring this up now? With so much at risk, so much to do she stifled the urge belt him. Instead she calmed herself and refused to take the bait. After all, she had been a little sister all her life she was used to this behavior from her 'big' brother. "No, Toris. It's just that I've lived with adversity for a while, I know what it's like to work through pain. Did I ever tell you about the time I had a little vision problem caused by sumac oil?" She tried to lighten the situation, but Toris was still hot.
"NO, no you didn't. You don't usually care to share anything with me!" He shot back.
"Now see, that's not true. I just shared my bandage with you and how could you forget how I invited you on this relaxing excursion?" She joked. He still fumed. For a few minutes the only sound in the foggy cavern was that of the river racing along. Xena began picking up supplies and positioning them in a comfortable, safe carrying position. She wiped the oil from her cheekbones with the sides of her index fingers. Toris stood with his back to her, refusing to acknowledge that she was preparing to continue.
"So, ya coming or not?" She asked slipping her hand inside of his. She squeezed just a little.
He squeezed back. "It just always bothered me that you were better at everything." He said in a voice that was little more than a whisper.
"Trust me?" This time it was a request. Toris took a breath and swallowed hard. Xena had been a pain in his backside for most of her life. She teased, annoyed, antagonized, and bested him at every turn. He had contemplated choking her, beating her, even throwing her off a cliff. In reality she drove him nuts, but he did trust her above and beyond anyone else. If she said she could do something, by damn she could do it. He nodded slowly and she tugged him toward the path that followed the river of black.
Progress was slow, hampered by Toris' silence. The thick black sticky liquid ran along the strange underground river lapping at the bank and splashing its slick substance against the ledge they walked across. The ledge was wide enough to walk at a normal pace but the warrior kept her back to the wall in order to maintain the physical link to her brother. The mist rose from the black water that seemed to churn and boil in small whirlpools along its course. The opposite bank was flush with a solid rock wall. The river splattered its inky coating in wide arching patterns at odd intervals. It looked like some mad decoration throw haphazardly against a fine wall. The warrior's eyes stung as black tears streamed down her cheeks. She stubbornly refused to wipe them. Even if her vision were clear it would not have been possible to see more than a few feet ahead.
"You know, I wasn't better at everything." She casually stated without looking back at Toris.
"Huh?" Her comment had broken his preoccupation. He had been silently contemplating a way to get even, then chastising himself for such childish thoughts. Both of them had long since grown out of that nonsense. Or had they?
"I said, I wasn't better at everything." She kicked a fist-sized rock out of the path and into the water.
"Ha right just climbing, running, swimming, fishing, riding, tracking, hunting, lets see did I leave out anything hum oh yeah singing. Damn it, Xena you even sing better than me and I have a pretty good voice."
Xena couldn't contain the laugh. She had never thought of her brother as a singer, never even knew he could sing. The ledge started to narrow and she slowed their pace, carefully side stepping along the bank.
"Just what can't you do better than me?"
"Well " She thought hard. "You could hold your tongue better than me."
Now it was Toris' turn to laugh as he slowed his steps to match his sister's gait. "Oh, now there is a claim to fame. Toris Tongue Holder, sounds great. I mean how can that compare to Warrior Princess. And, by the way how did you come by that title?"
"It's a long story, for another time. And it's better than anything you ever called me. Careful." She warned as they felt their way around a sharp turn. The inky liquid was just inches from their feet.
"It doesn't count anyway." Toris continued. "I only kept quiet because I was too afraid of what would happen if I didn't. You were never afraid."
"I was afraid." She stated without emotion.
"Yeah, right, when were you ever afraid of anything?" He huffed.
"Remember that time I pummeled your face, followed you and your friends to that famous best fishing spot you were always bragging about? I was afraid then." She told him between breaths. The ledge was growing smaller and more slippery.
Toris shuttered at the memory. "Sure you were, afraid of the lashing you knew you had coming."
"Maybe." She answered. "But I was more afraid of you hating me for making you look like a fool in front of your friends. I guess, after that day, I just thought you did."
"Did what?" He wondered catching himself as he slid just a bit.
"I did." For a beat the pair stopped, then immediately continued. "We were kids, Xena. I hated you because I was so angry and because I figured you hated me for being weak and for the..."
The ledge was now so narrow their toes hung over the edge, yet it seemed higher than it had been a few steps before.
"You're right." She interrupted stepping carefully up the small step her left foot had softly bumped. "Step up." She told him feeling another small rise against her boot.
He did not pursue the matter. Of course she hated him, now she willingly admitted so. He raised his foot slowly tracing the height of the step with its side. Now she was a few steps above him and he could sense they were on their way up.
"We were kids." She continued. There was a slight hint of strain in her voice as she hoisted herself and the load she was carrying up the gradual incline. Were the steps getting higher? "It was a long time ago, Toris. Long forgotten." She took one more step and found herself atop a slick plateau. The black river swirled and churned below into a whirling vortex that resembled a giant drain. The pungent black goo was sucked down and away into the dark recesses of the cursed mountain. The path ended there against a rock wall slick with the black spray. There was enough room on the platform for both of them to stand. Xena stood at the edge and looked down. The river ran under the ledge, it wasn't any narrower than before but it jutted out over the water as if reaching for the other side. From this perch she could just see the small flat edge on the opposite bank. The leap down should be an easy one, the leap of faith Linaeus had called it. She'd made much farther jumps, taken much greater risks. A few steps back, a good start and yes, she would land perfectly on the shelf below.
"What?" Toris interrupted her train of thought. Her silence suddenly making him apprehensive.
"A leap of faith" she stated with a crooked smile. She grabbed her brother's hand and took a step back. Before he had a chance to protest, to ask any more questions, to react, to refuse -- she pulled him forward quickly. Toris' surprised bellow complemented his sister's ululating cry in perfect pitch as it reverberated across the chamber. For a few seconds he felt his own weight pulling him through the air then it abruptly ended as his body was flung headlong onto the cold hard ground. The torch he had managed to hold on to despite the jump now slipped from his hand and rolled across the floor. Its strange blue flame sputtered and faded in the soft silt. Xena landed catlike on both feet, releasing her brother's hand and pushing him forward an instant before impact.
Toris rolled over and yanked the blackened bandage from his eyes. He glared at his sister standing above him. Jumping to his feet he grabbed her by the shoulders wrapping his fingers around the slippery straps of her armor and leathers. "WHAT IN TARTARUS IS WRONG WITH YOU? YOU COULD HAVE KILLED US BOTH!" He shook her again and looked up at the precipice ten feet above them and then to the black swirling vortex a few inches behind his sister. He automatically stepped back pulling her with him.
"Bet you're glad ya had that blindfold." She smirked, grabbing his shoulder and returning the shake.
He took a moment to take in the full sight before him. Xena was covered with the black film, her hair slicked down and stuck in tendrils to her cheeks, neck and shoulders. Her eyes were blood red and grey slimy tears had left grimy tracks down her face. In addition to her armor and weapons she was burdened with two lengths of heavy rope thrown over either shoulder. Her medicine pouch hung across her chest along with three water bags. She held a torch in her right hand and her brother's shoulder in her left.
She took a quick visual inventory of her brother. He seemed no worse for wear. He was grimy and dripping with that moldy smelling blackness. The area that had been covered by the bandage was clean giving him an almost comical appearance, but his eyes were clear.
When each was satisfied that the other was unharmed, they both laughed with relief. It was then they noticed it. The sound of running water. Not the churning growl of the black stream they had just crossed, but pure clear, clean water and it was coming from the narrow tunnel ahead of them. Toris looked over his shoulder toward the sound then back at Xena.
"Shall we?" He asked.
"After you." She replied.
They walked into the tunnel, toward the water, toward ablution, toward relief, toward those they came to rescue.
Gregor opened his eyes and stretched his long thin legs to relieve the stiffness brought on by sleeping on the cold rock floor. Tristan snorted grumpily turning to his side without waking. Gregor shook his head, now that man could sleep on a pike. He rose slowly and leaned back to help the pain in his back. He ran his fingers through his shoulder length hair and shivered involuntarily. It was cold, not freezing, but colder than he liked. A fire would be nice right now, not to mention a stout port to warm the body. Of course there were other ways to warm a body and taking that chatty little brat would be perfect. He turned and surveyed the large platform they had used for a rest area. Meneos and Daemon rested against the farthest wall. The large man lay with his arms across his chest and his head back against the rock. His mouth was open and at even intervals uneven snores escaped it. Daemon's breathing was raspy and irregular. The younger miner rested against the giant's meaty arm. Across the small cavern their one torch glowed faintly. Under its meager light slept the girl. She was curled into a ball and resting against an outcropping of granite. She shivered with each breath even though he could see her flesh glistening with sweat. So, she was cold too. Well, he would fix that. He hadn't had a woman in he didn't recall. She was only a girl, but she would do. She was hurt, less fighting that way. He'd have to keep her quiet, if the behemoth awoke he would well, there would be trouble. And Barillus, that noble freak, he'd be trouble too. His eyes darted around the dark area. Barillus was nowhere to be found. He paused, listening, nothing. He put his thumbs under his belt, hiked up his pants, licked his lips and smiled menacingly. He took one last look around and moved cautiously toward the girl.
Slowly he crossed the dark span between them, his eyes constantly darting about the dim cave. He stood over her watching her breast rise and fall with each breath. She rested against the rock, her uninjured hand between the cold granite and her cheek; the exposed side of her face purple with bruises received in her narrow escape from the cave-in. This was to his advantage. The injury had caused her cheek and eye to swell effectively blurring her vision on that side. He sneered to himself 'she won't even see me coming'. She'd be defenseless, lying on her good arm, the other in a sling -- useless. He have her just where he wanted her and when he was through well, the edge was so close she just might slip and He reached down and put one large hand over the girl's mouth the other he wrapped around the hot skin of her neck just under her jaw, using more than enough strength to restrain and silence her.
Gabrielle woke abruptly, her eyes wide with terror. Gregor's face was very close to hers. She blinked trying to focus. He was pushing her against the rock, hard. His body pressed so close to hers she could hardly straighten out her legs or pull her hand from under her head. He moved even closer bringing his lips next to her ear.
"One sound, darlin', one sound and I'll snap your neck like a dry twig." He hissed and finished by running his tongue along the outline of her ear. The girl shivered with revulsion. "Cold?" He growled. "Oh, I'll fix that, I'll fix that good." He shook her a bit to emphasize his tone. He removed his hand from her mouth, but kept the other tight under her chin, against her jaw. She let out a small gasp in an effort to breathe. He quickly leaned close to her face. His hot sour breath against her lips. "One sound, remember?" kissing her cruelly as he pressed his knee into her stomach and roughly yanked her legs out straight. Her insides lurched and she fought to suppress the urge to vomit. "Might as well get comfortable." He leered with an evil grin. A single tear ran down the girl's cheek and she tried to swallow the sob threatening to escape her throat. He ran his icy cold hand along the inside of her leg slowly sliding it under her skirt. She whimpered -- he tightened the hold on her neck. The whimpers turned to terrified sniffles as she squeezed her eyes shut not stopping the flow of tears. She desperately tried to push away with her other foot, but in doing so only gave him easier access to what he was about to forcibly take. Her mind cried 'NO!' even though her voice could not. Her body tensed, braced itself for this defilation. Her mind thought itself away, it was a nightmare she would awaken and it would all go away. His hand, his rough fingers were inches from their goal. Her mind raced with every prayer she had even known, she mentally apologized for every misdeed she had ever committed. She wept silently, the voiceless sobs causing her small frame to shake. "Don't you worry darlin' I'm really gonna show you how to shake." His breath was hot on her already feverish cheek. He brought his lips close to hers, again. She knew she would not be able to suppress the feeling much longer. Then she felt his fingers brush close against her most private domain she screamed inwardly, letting only a whimper escape through the small opening he allowed in her throat. She imagined the pain felt the shame and then he was gone roughly pulled away -- away from her neck, away from her The pressure on her midsection was relieved as his knee also came away suddenly.
"I WARNED YOU!" She heard Barillus' furious tone. "I told you to stay away from her!" Barillus had grabbed Gregor by his shoulders jerking him up and away from the girl. Gabrielle opened her eyes only enough to squint at the scene being played out before her. Gregor turned and swung at Barillus, but the mine boss ducked and came back with a swing of his own. It landed square on her attacker's jaw knocking him back a few steps. Gregor rubbed his face and turned on Barillus again, his eyes flashing with anger. The commotion had brought Tristan wide-awake. He jumped up and stood blinking at the two men standing off in front of him. Meneos also awoke, struggling to bring his massive self and Daemon to their feet. The young man had awakened just in time to see the fight begin. Meneos knew Barillus would have to put an end to this now.
"I've taken all the orders I intend to take from you, boss!" Gregor threatened raising his fists. "Now we finish this, and then," he glared at Gabrielle, "I'll finish that." Gabrielle pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her good arm around them. Barillus took a defensive stance; yes it was time to finish this. He'd also had enough. The two men faced each other, both looking for an opening, both looking for the other's weakness. Gregor made the first move. He dove at Barillus intending to take him down then use his greater size to pin him to the ground and shatter his skull against it. Tristan smiled, he had seen Gregor use this move before. It was a sure thing. But, Barillus moved quickly and sidestepped the man's attack. Gregor sailed past Barillus and spun to repeat the maneuver. The loose gravel scattered under his boots sending him sprawling in front of his companion. Tristan pulled him to his feet and set him in the right direction giving him a slap on the shoulder as he went. Barillus smiled, inviting the moron to try it again. Gregor was incensed, beyond any rational thought; he charged letting loose a loud roar as he attacked. Again Barillus quickly moved to the side, effectively shoving Gregor at the same time. The added momentum combined with the scattered gravel sent Gregor much farther than he intended. For a second the enraged despoiler teetered at the edge of the great chasm and Barillus moved to snatch him back. The mine boss's fingers grazed the fibers of Gregor's shirt as the man went headlong over the brim.
For a moment no one spoke and no one moved, the startled howl from Gregor as he sailed into the black unknown was the only sound in the cavern. Barillus pulled his hand back as though it had been burned and looked at his fingers half expecting to see something there. Tristan stared over the edge in shock. He swallowed hard. Gabrielle rubbed her throat, she would have screamed if she could but the terror of Gregor's attack and the force of his hand on her neck had taken away that privilege. After a day of unconsciousness, Daemon wasn't even sure if this was real or yet another strange unsettling dream.
In that frozen moment of time that follows every tragedy each stood in a private silent trance desperately trying to rationalize what had transpired. Each pulled together the shattered bits of reality that had been exploded by the scene, staring transfixed at the spot from which Gregor had disappeared. His long fading shriek still echoing in their ears. Each partially expecting him to reappear, each waiting for the other to make the first comment the first attempt at staring time moving again. It was with the slight gasp of a frightened, defeated young girl that it happened. Time once again set on its course and with it came the awful repercussions of a catastrophe's aftermath.
Barillus stood speechless alternately staring at his hands and the ledge. His mouth moved in silent reparation, frantic explanation and despondent justification.
"YOU " Tristan accused, suddenly coming alive with rage. "YOU " He repeated at a loss for anything else as he lunged toward the shaken mine boss.
Barillus shook his head and turned morose eyes toward his accuser. Tristan grabbed his collar and drew back to land a blow that would have certainly knocked the man senseless. Rage and grief can create unbounded strength. Barillus stared into Tristan's incensed eyes desperate in his attempt to explain.
"I it I didn't accident " He stammered at the man preparing to pound him unconscious. He made no attempt to defend himself and held his hands as if they were some offensive weapons.
Tristan snarled evilly planning to send the miner to the same fate after he bloodied his face beyond recognition. Then suddenly found himself lifted not only away from his victim but a good distance from the floor. He turned and looked into the deep blue eyes glaring from the whiskered visage of the giant. His countenance was far from gentle; the menacing glower sent immediate panic into the shorter man.
Meneos shook the miner once like a child's doll and tossed him back against the wall of the great cavern. Tristan's body slammed against the rock face with a sickening crunch and he slid to the ground in an unconscious heap. Daemon watched the encounter wide eyed. He gulped in disbelief and watched as Tristan's body sailed through the air and came to a rough landing. Then looked back toward Meneos and Barillus. The giant turned his attention toward their leader, who was slowly sinking to his knees. He glanced quickly at the young girl still huddled between the wall and the large boulder, her eyes glazed with fever and shock. She would need attention also, and very soon if he were to keep her from slipping away. He could tell she was a fighter, but these past few incidents had certainly taken their toll. But, first things first. Barillus was their leader, he had to be calmed, had to be brought back from the edge of remorse in order to get any and all of them the rest of the way to safety.
"Barillus!" The large man bellowed grabbing the smaller man by the wrists and dragging him to his feet before he was completely down on the ground. "Meneos is knowing Barillus needs to be listening, no!" He shook the younger man hard forcing him to look away from the ledge and into his own eyes. "Is bad, yes." Barillus swallowed hard and looked back to the edge of the chasm causing Meneos to shake him a second time. "Barillus!" He bellowed grabbing the man's head on either side and forcing him to look at him face to face. For a second the miner's eyes met the giant's, then quickly darted to the edge once more. Meneos added a bit more pressure and shook again. "Barillus is not being the one to blame. Barillus is not being guilty now." He spoke quietly, almost whispering. "Little missy is being in trouble, Barillus is wanting to help, no?" Barillus looked at the giant, blinking back tears of guilt.
"I I killed him." He breathed.
"Barillus is not killing Gregor. Barillus is defending self and little one. Gregor is having evil thoughts, is planning evil deeds, is hurting little girl. Barillus is being true man, is not letting Gregor bring dishonor on little one, no." Meneos reasoned trying to convince the remorseful man in front of him. He released his hold on Barillus.
The shaken mine boss shook his head, "no it was my fault I'm supposed to protect everyone." He stated quietly stepping back from Meneos.
"Protect, yes. Barillus is being protector, leader, but is not being responsible for actions others are taking. Barillus cannot be doing this, no? Gregor is making his decision, yes? Gregor is making fight. Gregor is having anger. Gregor is running. Gregor is falling." Meneos stressed the fallen miner's name with each statement. He rested his large hand on Barillus' shoulder. "Barillus is protecting all." He finished with that statement knowing the younger man would have to wrestle with his own conscience over this until he came to his own resolution. He waited. Barillus looked at his hands again. The giant made sense; he couldn't help himself or the others if he let this tragedy overtake his sensibility. He reached up and grasped Meneos' wrist, took a deep breath and gave him a determined nod.
Meneos returned the gesture. Tristan moaned behind them, slowly regaining consciousness. They both looked in his direction. "Perhaps is being good idea to be helping others now, yes?" Meneos gently shook the miner again waiting for an answer.
Barillus nodded slowly whispering "yes." He swallowed, breathed deeply and found his voice along with his determination. "Yes, yes we should." He replied with much more purpose. Meneos smiled and slapped the young man's back as he turned toward the semi-conscious Tristan.
"Is best Meneos is helping this one now. Barillus is better to see to little missy, no?" Meneos nodded toward the young girl in the shadows under the flickering torch. Barillus agreed and started toward her.
He moved slowly toward the frightened young girl trying to pull herself into the small crevice between the wall and the large rock she rested against. She hugged her knees to her chest and rested her forehead on them rocking slightly and mumbling to herself. Barillus hunched down in front of her and reached out to touch her shoulder. It was a gentle touch of concern and comfort, but the traumatized girl recoiled with a gasp. She pulled her knees tighter against her chest and buried her face behind her arm while pressing her small body even farther into the narrow crack behind her. Barillus pulled his hand back just as frightened by her reaction as she was by his presence.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I didn't mean to scare you. It's me, Barillus." He spoke in a hushed soothing tone and waited for the girl to acknowledge him. "It's okay. You're safe. Gabrielle?" She had stopped moving, stopped mumbling, stopped rocking; he knew she was listening. "C'mon Gabrielle, it's all right now. He can't hurt you." At this statement the man swallowed hard, knowing the full and tragic meaning. He felt a pang of guilt at Gregor's accident.
"No " the muffled answer came, "no more no, no more." The girl spoke without raising her head.
"What do you mean, no?" Barillus asked quietly.
She picked her head up slowly. He could see the tracks of tears on her dusty cheeks, and even through the layer of grime the flush of fever was apparent. In addition to the large scrape and bruise, which covered most of the left side of her face, she now wore the imprint of her attacker's fingers on either side of her jaw. Soon those marks would turn the same ugly shade of purple. Something inside of Barillus told him he would have a lot to explain to the warrior that would be waiting back in the outside world. He had only just met the two women before the mine collapsed, but even in those few minutes he could feel the protective glare of the older one when he offered to escort the young bard into the shaft. Now he looked into her red-rimmed green eyes and felt a great responsibility for her situation and a large amount of pity for her plight. He tried again offering his hand to the girl.
"It's okay, it really is okay now. You're fine. I'll help you. Come on." He encouraged her.
She swallowed back the tears that threatened to overtake her. This was no time to fall apart, but it was getting harder and harder to hold on to the belief that 'everything would be all right'. In less than two days she had been almost crushed by a mountain, smashed her face, broken her arm, balanced on the edge of nowhere, nearly had the life choked out of her, and worst of all had that creep's hands on her. She was hot and cold, hungry and tired, dirty and scared and her protector, her savior was nowhere in sight. She was alone. She looked into the face of the young mine boss in front of her and then at the hand he was offering. It would be so easy to just sit here and let the fates do what they would. Oh, gods why wouldn't Xena just come and get all of them out of this mess. Where was she? Outside, she was outside probably sick with worry, probably trying to take down the mountain rock by rock, probably blaming everything on herself, probably giving Toris a very hard time Where were these thoughts coming from, why couldn't she focus? Xena said to focus. "Focus, Gabrielle, act don't react," a familiar voice in her head reminded her. "Be brave." The same voice encouraged. "You never ran from anything in your life!" It inspired. "Don't you leave me." It pleaded. She listened to the voice and let it rebuild her confidence. Slowly she relaxed the grip she had on her knees and reached out to take Barillus' hand.
"I just want to get out of here." She stated with a determination laced with frustration. She managed a small smile.
Barillus smiled back and carefully pulled her to her feet. She took a few shaky steps before he placed a strong arm around her shoulders to guide her toward what remained of the small group.
Meneos had spent the time attending to Tristan who was now standing on his own rubbing the back of his head. Daemon had also managed to get to his feet to help. His head was still pounding and his vision a bit fuzzy, but he felt better than he had before. He was quite curious about what he had missed and it was apparent he had missed a lot.
"Meneos is knocking wind out of this one, yes? Quacksalver is being better now, no? Is resting enough, is time to go." Meneos stated turning away from the sullen miner to inspect the tense bard's newly acquired bruises. He gently tilted her chin back and ran his large nimble fingers over the soft flesh of her neck. He turned her head left then right shaking his own head at the large bruises on either side. "Soon, little missy Meneos and others are being out of here, soon Meneos is fixing all these hurts, yes?" Gabrielle lowered her head as he withdrew his hand. She felt sorry for the giant who was feeling so bad about not being able to relieve her pain. She grabbed his hand and squeezed.
"It's okay, Meneos. It doesn't really hurt." Her voice sounded a bit raspy and not quite convincing, but the giant understood her meaning. He squeezed her hand gently and smiled once again revealing his glittering gold tooth.
Tristan glared at all of them from the shadows he had backed into. 'Let them comfort each other,' he thought. 'We're not out of here yet. I still have time. They killed Gregor, they won't get me.'
"Okay," Barillus said expelling a deep cleansing breath. "Time to get out of here." He looked over his shoulder at the place where Gregor had slipped away and said a quick silent prayer for the lost miner then grabbed the torch from the wall.
The group moved slowly along the narrow ridge in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Barillus lead the way carrying the torch that had burned down to a small flicker, just enough to see a short distance ahead. Gabrielle stayed close enough to reach his hand if either of them needed that contact. Daemon managed to walk on his own casting a wary glance over the edge every few feet. Meneos followed keeping a close watch on his two young patients. Tristan sulked a few paces behind in the darkness, licking his wounds and plotting his revenge.
Barillus stopped as the path along the ridge came to an abrupt end on a large circular platform against a gradual incline. He stood staring at the flat rocks placed at even intervals worn smooth as if they had been used as a staircase. The steps went up the slope into the darkness above them. The others soon joined him and followed his line of vision up and into the gloom.
"Looks like someone's already been here." Tristan's remark dripped with sarcasm.
Meneos and Barillus exchanged knowing glances. They had both noticed the rust colored stains over the large flat rocks on the ledge where they had rested. There was no doubt that they had been left by the sacrifices made to some bloodthirsty god in some ancient ritual. Barillus had suspected for some time that they were not the first travelers to enjoy the hospitality of this cavern. Meneos knew it. Now, the only way out was up those stairs. Hopefully, whatever sect had used this cave for their unholy worship would not be home when they arrived at the top. The top. How far up was it? Just as they could not see the bottom of the wide chasm, they could not see the top of the twisting series of stone steps.
"Well?" Tristan asked, accusing them of being afraid. He took a step toward the stairs only to be stopped by Barillus who quickly moved ahead and began the long climb to the top. Tristan laughed through his nose and followed the mine boss. Daemon took a deep breath and began his ascent. Gabrielle looked to Meneos who gave her an encouraging grin. She watched as the men ahead of her slowly began to disappear into the darkness then began her own ascension. Meneos waited until there was a safe distance between himself and the bard and took the first step of the long advance to the surface.
The clean fresh water spilled from an opening in the rock three feet above them. It had splashed down on to the ground below over centuries causing a smooth shallow pool to form in the stone. The strangely warm water and some vigorous scrubbing helped to remove most of the oily film that covered their clothing and bodies. It wasn't perfect, but it would do for now. The thought of a warm tub and a strong soap crossed each of their minds, although neither would ever admit it. The same water combined with a bit of agrimony made an effective eye wash greatly relieving the sting in their eyes and completely stopping the itch. Within the hour both the warrior and her brother were rested, restored and ready to resume their mission.
Xena glanced around the small chamber and easily made out the small opening in the wall immediately behind the falling water. From this angle it appeared they would only fit through it if they turned side ways and slid along the walls. It was probably better that Andreas had been forced to turn back. The stout man would never have fit into the narrow tunnel.
Toris tilted the water bag and look a long refreshing swallow. He ran the back of his hand across his lips and handed the bag to his sister. "Guess we'll have to leave most of our gear behind, doesn't look like it'll fit through that."
Xena took the water and rose from the rock where she had been sitting. "Only believe half of what you see, Toris." She reminded her brother with a sly smile, took a drink and handed back the waterbag. She walked toward the opening taking in every aspect of its appearance as she approached. As she got closer she realized the illusion the rock had created. A large flat piece of stone jutted out and along the wall for a distance of about three feet. The space between this piece and the piece behind it was just wide enough for a person to squeeze through. In order to see this Xena had to stand flush with the wall and look directly down into the narrow space. It was difficult to see beyond the spot where the walls came together in a sharp turn. She turned to her brother and left him with one directive. "Stay here."
Before Toris could object, she disappeared into the tight opening. Her armor scraped the walls in front of and behind her as she skimmed along the length of the crawl space. She held her torch in her left hand and watched as its flame flickered in the slight breeze that flowed through the tight space. The breeze carried a smell of decay, of something long dead and rotted. Although the scent was hauntingly familiar she felt her insides lurch just a bit. Slowly she inched toward the sharp turn at the end of the passage. She stepped carefully around that angle noting the expanse of the walkway at that point. Although tempted to continue in this quest, she knew her brother would not wait much longer.
Toris paced back and forth cursing under his breath at his sister's heroics again. Gods! She was frustrating! He clenched his fists and kicked a small rock across the chamber so fiercely it crumbled to dust as it hit the opposite wall. He cursed again bellowing loud enough to produce a vibrating echo then reached for the remaining torch. He had no intention of 'staying here'. He stomped toward the opening still muttering under his breath.
"Never could follow directions, huh?" Xena quipped dryly as she emerged from the crack between the parallel walls. Toris stepped back swallowing his anger. "We can make it, even with our supplies. If we carry them just right." She informed him, ignoring his hostility. She rapidly retrieved her medicine pouch and a coil of rope, then threw the water bags to her brother. "Grab those torches." She stipulated as she passed him and again squeezed into the small opening.
Toris watched his sister disappear again then snatched the extra torches from the ground and followed. It was a tight squeeze but in his anger he barely noticed. He was forced to keep his arms outstretched on either side and the position along with the unbalanced weight of the torches was causing a terrific cramp across his shoulders. Xena was an arm's length ahead. She stopped as she reached the turn in the tunnel.
"What's wrong now?" Toris barked barely missing her with his lighted torch.
"Nothing yet." Xena remarked peering around the edge. She turned in the slightly wider space that formed the corner and faced her brother. "Beyond this tunnel is the Chamber of Temptation Linaeus spoke of "
"And?" Toris was growing impatient as well as uncomfortable. "Its smell isn't very tempting." He grumbled trying to adjust the weight of his burden.
Xena couldn't help smiling, despite the situation. "I'll understand if you don't want to go any further."
Toris stopped struggling and looked at his sister. "Xena, what are you NOT trying to say? That I might compromise your attempts and give in to my own desires once we enter this stinking place?"
"No, but "
"But, what Xena?"
"Toris, you can't even think about wanting that stuff in there." She nodded in the direction they were heading.
"Don't you trust me, little sister?" Toris asked quietly. Xena did not answer. She wanted to trust him, but she knew her brother. On the other hand, time was their enemy and there was very little of it remaining. It had been almost three days since the collapse of the mine. There was no time for sniping, arguing, or trading degrees of faith. Toris had made a lot of mistakes in his life, but so had she. He trusted her in their leap of faith, even with that silly blindfold. This would be an even greater leap. She had no other choice. "Come on, Xena. I don't know how much longer I can hold my arms like this." Xena nodded once then moved into the wider section of the tunnel with Toris close behind.
The scene before them assaulted their sense of sight as well as their sense of smell. The torchlight was magnified one hundred fold as it bounced off the jewels, coins, and precious metals strewn about the massive chamber. The reflection temporarily blinded both siblings. As they became accustomed to the brightness they took in the rest of the spectacle.
The room was enormous stretching away into the darkness in all directions. As far as they could see it was piled high with riches. Even the ceiling glittered with thousands of small shiny crystal mounds. It looked as if some naughty child had pelted it with snowballs that stuck there and became part of the decoration. One corner of the room was devoted to precious stones and baubles of every color and size imaginable. On a table chiseled out of rock rested at least a dozen golden goblets laden with ruby and emerald embellishment. There were chests, baskets and musty tattered bags spilling gold and silver coins into forgotten collections across the floor. Lengths of golden chain, bejeweled crowns, scepters and large vases laid on top of some of the piles as if in homage to long absent royalty. Years of tribute lay before them. In all Xena's years as a warlord she had not collected even a handful of this treasure. That thought turned her stomach. Toris had never even imagined this much wealth in one place, he didn't think it was possible. He stopped himself from thinking anything else. There was no sign of the peculiar guard set to protect this bounty but the acrimonious perfume that permeated the air was a telltale sign that they were close.
Xena stood with her fists planted on her hips and surveyed the scene. They would have to make their way through this trove without so much as brushing against it and that would be no easy task. Somewhere on the other side of this monstrous mess was the entrance to the passage that would take them to their ultimate destination. It would be marked with two black pillars. She noted at least five different pathways through the mass of glittering clutter each leading in a different direction.
"I don't suppose Linaeus mentioned which one we should follow." Toris sighed behind her.
She glared at her brother then nodded in the direction of the center path. "This way." She growled and started off before he could ask why she was so sure.
They walked in silence each keeping their eyes straight ahead and their minds on anything other than the wealth surrounding them. The sound of their footsteps echoed in the large chamber, and every now and then the sound of clanking metal tumbling down the jeweled mounds would resonate throughout the room. Toris jumped at the sound expecting one of the grisly guards to emerge from the jumbled pile protecting its territory. He was in fact much too concerned with his own safety to consider desiring any of this fortune, but Xena had she truly changed. He had heard stories of the tribute villages had made to his warrior sister. Could she really have left all of that behind just because some baby faced peasant girl set her on the straight and narrow? He hardly believed that and each time he heard that ominous clang he wondered just what his conniving little sister was really thinking.
Xena winced at the occasional noises also, wondering if each was an alarm set off by her brother's careless thoughts of acquiring easy wealth. Toris had always taken the easy way. It was his need to take the gold from the mine that started all of them on this insane expedition. Some luck! She glanced back over her shoulder to be sure Toris was following. He smiled nervously and looked sharply to the right as yet another piece of precious metal bounced down from its perch. They both stopped and waited, listening for what would come next. There was no other sound, no grim sentry leapt out of the darkness. They took only a few more steps and found themselves in the center of the great hall.
They stood in a circular area free of any clutter. At least a dozen paths lead off from this point as if this was the center of a large wheel. Xena cursed silently under her breath. It could take days to follow each path. Which was the right one? She stood in the center and turned in a complete circle scanning each choice. Toris glanced at the floor and cocked his head stepping back for a better look. "Xena, I think you ought to take a look at this." He stated as she walked toward him.
"What is it?" She snapped, clearly annoyed.
"There." He pointed behind her and to the floor. She turned slowly and followed his line of vision. There on the floor, or rather in the floor was the symbol of the queen of the gods. A large figure of a peacock was inlaid in gold and emeralds pounded into the rock. There was nothing beautiful about it; it represented pure evil and ultimate malice toward the human race. Its emerald and sapphire tail feathers spread out fanlike across the circular area and its giant gold talons glistened in the firelight. The head was cocked at a strange angle looking up and to the right, its one green jeweled eye staring in the same direction.
"This is it." She stated in a hushed voice and started in that direction.
Gabrielle climbed the slippery staircase without looking down or back. There was nothing to steady her ascent but she kept her hand close to the cold rock wall on her right. She tried not to think about what lay to the left. Gregor's last scream was still fresh in her mind and she couldn't help wondering if by this time he had blessedly reached the bottom of that pit. She glanced ahead to make sure Barillus' light was still there. She couldn't make out much else in the darkness. It occurred to her that if any of the men preceding her were to slip and fall back, she would be tossed off the precarious series of ledges into the unknown. She pushed the thought away. She could hear Meneos' labored breathing as the large man struggled to make the climb. She glanced ahead again and noticed that Barillus' light had stopped bobbing up and down meaning that he had stopped moving. She figured it was because the mine boss was waiting for the stragglers to catch up and made an effort to do just that.
Barillus and Tristan stood at the top of the long staircase in an open chamber. Tristan moved to the far wall, he'd wait for the others but he had no intention of helping. It would be so easy now to just push that bastard Barillus over the edge and hope he took as many of the others as possible with him into the pit below. But, Barillus held the only source of light in the dark cavern. Without it Tristan could wander for days, weeks, and probably fall over some edge himself. No Tristan had every intention of getting out of this mess in one piece. He would have another opportunity. He would wait.
Daemon reached the top a little out of breath. Barillus helped him away from the edge and to sit down to wait for the others. Gabrielle and Meneos reached the summit practically together as the giant gently guided the young girl across the top step. She leaned back on his large frame and let out a long sigh of relief. She hated heights, even when she couldn't see them. Meneos lead her to the same spot Daemon was resting and she dropped to the floor next to him with no protest.
Daemon smiled, "Nice to see you again."
Gabrielle returned the smile. "How are you feeling, Daemon?"
"Oh, I've been better. Heck of a climb, huh? Guess I missed a bit." He teased.
"You don't know the half of it." She laughed back.
Meneos squatted down in front of his young patients. He looked closely into the young miner's eyes noting that they seemed to follow the light. The pupils of each seemed equally sensitive to it as well. "Is having great ache in head, no?" He asked raising both eyebrows.
Daemon put his hand to his head. "Easy for you to say."
Meneos turned his attention to the young girl placing the heel of his palm on her forehead then the backs of his fingers on her unbruised cheek. The fever was still there. He shook his head wishing there were some way to relieve it and to help each of them through their pain. He offered her the waterbag. She took a short drink then passed it to the young man next to her.
"Soon, little missy, soon Meneos is taking young ones into the sun. Soon all darkness is being gone, yes." He said this as if it were a promise then he reached out to help both of them to their feet. It was time to move on, again.
The small group kept close together as they made their way slowly through the darkest of the tunnels they had encountered. Their torch did little to light their way now. Barillus knew it would not last much longer. If they didn't reach the surface soon they would be engulfed by the darkness of the underground, with very little hope of ever finding their way out.
Tristan suddenly pressed the back of his hand against his nose. He grimaced and swallowed hard at the strange offensive odor. The others also noticed the scent. It seemed to get stronger as they progressed through the passage but was totally forgotten as the group stepped into the hall of opulence.
Even the tiny flicker of light left on their torch was enough to create a brilliant reflection off the mounds of gold and jewels that lay before them. For a second they stood dumbfounded, left totally speechless by the vision of magnificence in this otherwise joyless cavity.
"Would you look at this!?" Tristan practically screeched, his voice rising with each word. He ran ahead down the nearest path grabbing small jewels and coins stuffing them into his pockets and shirt. He pulled a large gold chain with a glittering ruby attached from the pile and placed it over his head. He turned back toward the others laughing like a man in a drunken stupor. "Can you believe, this!?" He laughed again throwing himself backward onto the shimmering pile. "After all that torture we walk right into this!" He spread his arms wide filling his hands with jewels and letting them spill back onto the pile.
Gabrielle reached out to touch a large golden goblet resting on a small table when Meneos' large hand stopped hers. "Is not good idea to be touching bounty of some other, no?" He smiled at the girl who blushed with shame and pulled her hand back.
Barillus stepped forward and surveyed the splendor surrounding them. He shook his head. Who could have left all of this and why? He looked at Meneos in silent inquiry. The large man only shook his head in return.
Daemon blinked a few times and fought his way through fuzzy thoughts to the long forgotten memory of stories he had been told as a child. Suddenly, everything became crystal clear. "Stop!" He shouted. The sound of his voice causing his head to throb even more than it already did. "Don't! Tristan get out of there!" He moved toward the older miner basking in the riches stumbling over the pieces that had fallen from the mound. Meneos caught him as he went. "No, no you don't understand he can't we can't you have to stop " he struggled to escape the large man's grasp.
Tristan's mad laughter stopped suddenly as a putrefied hand reached through the golden mound along side of him. He jumped to his feet dropping most of the treasure he had pilfered. "What the ?"
The form slowly emerged revealing its putrid figure. Its mouth moved slowly but no sound escaped, it peered at the miner through dark holes in its almost skeletal face. It rose as if it had been awaken from a long slumber, shaking the weariness out of its being. Most of its flesh was rotted away revealing its yellowed teeth set in an evil smile. Pieces of gold and jewels stuck to its body in contrast to the tattered rags that clung to it.
Tristan scrambled to safety behind Meneos. Barillus handed the large man the fading torch and grabbed a long heavy scepter from the pile to wield against this gruesome aggressor. He swung with all of his strength, but the creature easily caught the rod and pulled the miner close. Barillus found himself in the tight grasp of this long dead mercenary and struggled to escape. The stench of the thing was enough to kill; its hold was just as powerful.
Gabrielle picked up a large goblet and threw it with every ounce of her strength. It bounced off the creature's head and for an instant took its attention off of Barillus. This was all the opening the miner needed. He broke free and turned delivering a mighty punch to the thing's jaw. Taken off guard the creature fell back and over the mound of gold behind it. Barillus turned to the others with one word. "RUN!"
No one needed a second warning. Each turned and made a dash down the nearest path. The rustling and clanking of metal told them they were being followed and that the thing that had attacked was not alone. They raced headlong through the mess stumbling and jumping over the items that were strewn in their path. Now it seemed as though the large piles of treasure were coming to life with the rancid bodies of the grotesque warriors. Tristan began using his acquired baubles as fodder to throw at the assailants. Meneos used his massive strength to simply shove them from his path.
Gabrielle gasped as a wrong turn brought her face to face with a creature that was no more than a few pieces of flesh left on a white skull. It reached its ghastly clutches toward her grabbing the swollen fingers of her splinted hand, almost as if it knew that would be the most vulnerable spot to attack. It pulled her toward the massive pile of jewels from which it had recently emerged. "NO!" She gasped unable to pull in the opposite direction, pain and fear battling for control of her near panic. Barillus leapt from behind the pile and swiftly cracked the corpse with the only weapon he had. The torch.
The creature's skull flew from what was left of its body and landed among the collection of chests spilling over with coins. It rolled a few times then came to a rest smiling at the miner and the young frightened bard. What was left of the rotten body crumbled to the ground. Barillus breathed heavily. "You okay?" He asked placing a hand on the girl's shoulder. She managed to nod. They both looked as the torch Barillus held flickered out then back on finally giving up one last sputter before extinguishing for good. They stood in total darkness.
Gabrielle felt the miner's hand roughly pulled from her shoulder and heard a muffled 'umph'. "Barillus?" She whispered not daring to move. "Barillus " She felt a presence, very close, very cold. An involuntary shudder rattled her body. She longed to hear the battle cry of her best friend, the sound that always meant help had arrived and she would be safe. Something cold and slimy wrapped itself around her upper arm and a strong foul odor assaulted her nostrils. She pushed against the thing next to her. Her hand passed into a pocket of sickening goo. Without thinking she screamed the only word she knew could bring salvation
In the center of the Chamber of Temptation the warrior's keen hearing had picked up the sounds of battle, of fear and of desperation. These sounds bounced around the chamber misleading even the mighty Xena, but this sound, this familiar cry for help was like a beacon showing her the way to her goal. She stopped, listening to be sure she followed the right track.
"What is it?" Toris queried straining to hear what she did.
"Gabrielle." The warrior breathed and broke into a run.
Gabrielle wasn't sure if her eyes were open or closed, the darkness was so complete. It was not humanly possible for her pupils to dilate enough to make the adjustment. If only her nose could close as well. The wretched thing that had grabbed her arm pulled her to its slimy chest and pushed her down onto the jagged pile of jewels. It pressed its emaciated rank form against her body forcing her to gasp for air. Each breath she managed to steal was contaminated by the repulsive odor of death. She felt her consciousness slipping away and fought to keep it. This thing was trying to force her into the pile of riches, trying to make her a part of its morbid army. She was sure her life's force was ebbing away as she began to notice specks of golden light outlining the revolting form above her. As the last bits of awareness drifted out of her reach she was sure she could hear the ululating cry of the warrior princess. She let go of cognizant thought with a relieved smile.
Xena sprang into a long leap and flipped into the small area she had pinpointed as the source of her friend's cry for help. She announced her arrival with her usual battle cry landing lightly on her feet behind Gabrielle's captor. In one liquid movement she jammed her torch into the mass of gold and pulled the whip from her belt. She snapped it across the short distance wrapping it around the fiend's body, then with one fierce pull the already decaying corpse burst into innumerable scraps and splattered across the opulent stacks of glitz.
The golden mass began to quiver and shake as yet another form struggled to free itself from the weight of riches. Xena pulled her sword from its sheath and readied herself for its attack. One mighty swing would relieve the thing of its head and send it back into the glittering abyss. She raised the sword high over her right shoulder and swung stopping inches from Barillus' neck as the young man turned white with fear. Instantly she pulled the sword back holding it still at the ready in front of her. They stared at each other for a moment waiting for someone to make a move.
"I I'm not I'm alive I think." Barillus croaked slowly raising his hands in front of him. He started to rise, then looked into her flashing eyes silently asking permission. At her nod, he got to his feet and shook off the bits of treasure that clung to his garments. She sheathed her sword and reached to help him step carefully from the mass. A soft moan caught their attention.
"Gabrielle " Xena breathed a sigh of relief as she turned to her friend. The creature had effectively pushed the girl's body into the mound of golden chain and coin in its effort to make her part of the amassed treasure. Xena brushed the precious metal away from the girl before carefully lifting her from the gilded snare. She brought her gently to the stone floor avoiding any contact with the piles of wealth and sat back resting the young bard's head in her lap. For a few seconds Xena took a visual inventory of the girl's many injuries and made a metal note of each, once outside she would certainly be able to perform a much more detailed examination. She almost laughed imagining the girl's protest and objection to being treated like a child. The warrior gently ran her fingers over the ugly purple mark on the bard's cheek carefully brushing the stray hairs away from the injury. She admired the make of the splint someone had fashioned on the girl's broken arm and lightly touched the small swollen discolored fingers that dangled at its edge. She frowned at the suspicious bruises on the girl's throat, certainly not the type damage expected from her ordeal in the mine. This hurt was caused by someone not something and when she knew who that someone was there would be Hades to pay. For a moment rage threatened to overtake her relief, but it melted away as she looked at the small hurt form in her arms. She cautiously hugged the girl closer to her chest and pressed her lips against the feverish blond head silently thanking whatever gods had protected the young storyteller to this point.
Toris burst into the small area stopping himself inches from a headlong collision with Barillus. He pulled himself back and made an effort to catch his breath. As he breathed deeply and rapidly he placed a hand on Barillus' shoulder in a gesture of greeting and relief. Barillus mirrored this action and waited for Toris to resume normal breathing.
"Are you the only " he began to ask between breaths.
"No," Barillus answered anticipating the rest of the question. "Meneos, Daemon and Tristan are here somewhere." He finished, scanning the area and straining to hear any sound that would divulge their location. He pushed the thought of Gregor's demise out of his mind, that was a story for another time, a better time.
Toris nodded as he placed his hands on his knees and bent at the waist to aid in his breathing effort. He glanced at his sister noticing she was not even slightly winded. He shook his head as he straightened his frame, took one long deep breath and expelled it loudly. He moved to join Xena bending down and offering her one of the waterskins.
"Is she?" He did not want to finish the question.
"No no, she's okay. She's gonna be okay." Xena answered almost not believing her own words. She poured a bit of the water onto her hand and used it to wipe some of the grime from the girl's face. "Gabrielle," she spoke softly, "come on, Gabrielle, it's time to wake up now." She used a bit more of the water and felt the bard take a slightly deeper breath as her eyelids fluttered just a bit.
Gabrielle blinked a few times, her eyes unaccustomed to the brightness of the larger torch. She squinted and focused on the blue eyed, dark haired image staring at her. "Xena?" She said in a small voice tinged with unbelief.
"No," Toris chuckled. "But, you're close."
The girl turned slowly to her left focusing her good eye on the warrior who held her. She turned into the embrace ignoring the blast of pain it sent into her injured arm and clung with desperation using the opposite limb. "Xena." It was more of a sob than a word and it opened the floodgate of tears fiercely held back in times of distress only to be released when a protective haven of safety finally erases the suffering. "I'm sorry, Xena. I'm sorry." The young girl wept apologizing for all of the things over which she had little control.
"Shh, shh " the warrior comforted, rocking gently as a mother rocks a trembling child. She fought a losing battle in keeping her own tears from falling. "It's okay, you're okay shh."
Toris stood and moved away from his sister and her friend, allowing them the time and space to console each other. Barillus understood and turned away also. There were others to locate and those things were still out there.
Gabrielle looked at Xena through her tears. "I knew you'd come." She smiled weakly.
Xena smiled back, "Oh you did?"
"Of course." The young girl sniffed. "Never could pass up on a crazy adventure."
Xena shook her head, even in this nightmare the bard kept her sense of humor.
"Although, I gotta tell ya, this tour is not all it's cracked up to be." She groaned as Xena began to rise and assist the girl to her feet.
"Oh, you ain't seen nothing yet." The warrior joked back dryly.
"Wanna bet?" The bard challenged amicably.
The warrior tousled the girl's hair gently. "What'dya say we get outta here?" She grinned reaching for the girl's hand.
Gabrielle smiled and held tightly to the offered hand just to convince herself that this was not another fever dream but surely the real thing.
A loud crash somewhere in the chamber brought them all to attention.
Meneos and Daemon navigated through the maze of golden mountains with Tristan at their heels. Daemon managed to relate most of the stories his grandfather had fed him as a child, at least the parts that seemed important to this situation. He remembered the great treasure room and the captive guard that protected it. He seemed to remember something about desiring the stuff or taking it or trying to or just wanting to try to take it. Anyway it wasn't a good idea and it woke up the greasy sentries and set them on the trail. If one of those things grabbed you you became one of them. Heck of a way to keep thieves from desecrating the place!
Meneos seemed to understand. He raced through the labyrinth dragging, or practically carrying the young miner. How, Daemon wondered, did he do it without tripping over the treasure-laden floor? Tristan had bumped and crashed into various items at every turn, cursing loudly each time. Daemon tried to look into the giant's face expecting to see the same glowing eyes he had seen in the faces of the cats that hunted rodents in his grandfather's barn. No such luck. It was so dark Daemon imagined it had a life of its own, that it was actually a thick substance they were fighting against.
A dripping claw grabbed at his arm and he pulled it back sharply, gasping as he did. Meneos picked up the pace and swore in some strange tongue Daemon had never heard. On and on they went until Daemon was sure they were merely going in circle after circle. His head throbbed in cadence with their pounding footsteps and he was sure he would lose what little was left in his stomach if one more of those putrid creatures so much as brushed by him again. He wondered how the massive man yanking him through this mess would react to that and shuddered at what Tristan's reaction would be. He swallowed hard and pressed on.
Then he saw it, not far ahead. It was there. Then it wasn't. He closed his eyes tightly then reopened them. Yes, it was there just beyond that far mound. Something was glowing. Something was giving off a soft light. Something was shining a tiny beacon of hope and they were headed straight for it.
He looked up at Meneos and saw the sweat streaming down the huge man's brow. He wasn't sure if he could hear his own labored breathing or if it was the breath of the man next to him. The source of light was drawing nearer and larger. 'Soon,' he thought as his heart pounded so hard that he was sure it would burst. His lungs burned in their desperate need for air. He hoped his chest would not split before he made it to that safe spot in the distance. Just a few more meters, just a few more minutes and
Three large dripping bodies of putrefaction stepped into the passageway and blocked their escape. Meneos skidded to a halt throwing the boy behind the protection of his large frame. Tristan crashed into both of them with such force that even the massive Meneos swayed forward before quickly catching his balance and pushing back.
The three rotted warriors stood in varying states of decay, each adorned with armor and weapons from separate periods of long forgotten history. Their bodies, long ago emaciated inside that armor, dripped with some foul fluid that ran in streams of black and dark green. The center ghoul had but one eye and it bulged from its cracked socket. Its disgusting teeth sneered at them behind blackened lips. The creature on the right had no facial features, just the smashed remnants of what was once human. A large hole in its middle revealed an accumulation of shimmering goop that may have once been his life's source.
Daemon wanted to look away, but his eyes were frozen on the spectacle before him. The last demon looked as if its flesh had been burned away. It was bubbled and scorched like a piece of meat left too long on the fire. Its lips, ears, and eyelids were melted away but its strange yellow eyes stared into the wide eyes of the miner. He watched as some clear liquid oozed from the shriveled corpse. It was more than he could take.
The young miner fell on all fours retching violently. Tristan jumped back in disgust. The creatures began to move forward raising their decrepit arms to engulf the human intruders. Meneos reached down grabbing the sickened young man by the back of his collar and pulled him to his feet.
"Is not being good time to rest now Daemon! Is good to be moving quickly, no?" He reached into the trove next to them retrieving the largest gilded urn he could and flung it at the advancing menace. It smashed into 'one eye's' evil smile knocking him backward with a sickening crunch. Tristan took this as a sign and grabbed a massive coronet. For a moment it admired it longingly then pitched it directly into the hole in 'no face's' midsection. It passed through taking with it the sloppy mess of rotted entrails. Even without a face the thing looked shocked as it crumbled into a pile of useless battle gear.
Their animosity was momentarily forgotten as the men nodded at each other in silent congratulations on a job well done. "Is good to be going, NOW!" Meneos insisted as he grabbed both men and pushed them forward past the final charred guard. For the moment it seemed to be confused by the easy defeat of its gruesome comrades. The men slipped by and made a last ditch effort to reach the glow in the distance.
Xena heard their approach and pushed Gabrielle protectively behind her. She pulled her chakrum from her belt anticipating several attackers making their way through the passage.
"Toris!" She alerted him as she tossed her sword in his direction. He caught it by the hilt and turned to face whatever fiend came through the opening between the mounds of coin before them.
Barillus leveled the torch he had grabbed as the only weapon he could manage. This time there was a second; even a third torch if he lost the light.
The three defenders stood silhouetted by the reflected torchlight as the three frantic victims of the last fray rushed into the small open area. The look on their faces told all that needed to be said. Tristan and Daemon fell to the ground desperately drawing in gulps of air. Meneos turned and prepared to join in the fight.
The incinerated cadaver charged into the opening eager to take whichever of the prowlers it could reach first. It never had a chance. Toris countercharged swinging the warrior's sword above his head, giving his own version of a war cry. He swung the weapon with practiced ease slicing the surprised fiend diagonally from its shoulder to its hip. The two pieces slid apart with a sluicing slurp, the legs taking a few extra steps before noticing the rest of its body had slipped away. It puddled to the floor twitching for several seconds before giving in to its fate.
Xena snapped her round weapon back in place and smiled as she approached her brother. Toris stood staring at the mess at his feet. He held the sword with both hands and swallowed hardly believing what had just occurred.
"Nice work." Xena remarked standing next to him. She poked the still mass with the toe of her boot. Toris turned his head slowly toward the sound of her voice and nodded. He looked from his sister to the weapon in his hand. He started to hand it back to her.
"Oh no," she backed away holding her palms out in front of her. "You used it, you clean it!"
Toris looked at the sword again and for the first time noticed the sticky residue left by the recent kill. He swallowed again. "Yeah...sure clean it."
Xena laughed, just a little and gave Toris a good natured slap on the shoulder. He smiled at her and slid the sword under his belt. He would keep it safe, until he could give it a good cleaning.
They turned and studied their small group of evacuees. These were the people they came to rescue.
Now it was time to get out.
The rag-tag group moved cautiously through the network of pathways toward the center cog of the great wheel. Xena lead them with a very tired bard at her side. The warrior had wrapped a protective arm around the girl's shoulders refusing to let her out of her sight. Gabrielle made a concerted effort to keep up with her larger friend but the effects of her recent struggles were beginning to take their toll. She stumbled just a bit overcome for the moment by fatigue and fever, catching herself with a sudden tight grasp on the warrior's arm. Xena immediately caught her young friend.
"Hey, you all right?" The warrior asked with soft concern, tilting the girl's chin back to look into her eyes.
"I'm okay just tripped on something," the girl lied in a weak voice.
"Um-hum," Xena eyed the girl knowingly. She pressed a hand against the girl's head and although Gabrielle drew a restrained breath she did not protest. "That settles it." The warrior commented as she bent to gather the wounded girl into her arms intent on carrying her the rest of the way. Her plan was cut short as Meneos moved to accomplish the same task.
"Meneos is being one to carry little missy. Warrior sister is being better to be leading way out, no?" He flashed his golden smile at Xena. For an instant the warrior flashed with rage. She was not about to give up the treasured friend she had so desperately fought to rescue and so recently gotten back. The large man gathered Gabrielle into his muscled arms, her small form practically disappearing within them. Xena refused to relinquish the girl's hand, yet something in her told her to trust this gentle giant. After all he had brought the girl safely this far, he deserved the warrior's gratitude not her cynicism.
Meneos stood silently waiting for the Warrior Princess' permission to continue in his mission, her cobalt glare meeting his cool azure gaze. Gabrielle nestled in the protective folds of the titan's large arms. She was and would be safe there, until Xena could get all of them outside.
"Meneos is being careful. Little missy is not being burden. Meneos makes promise, yes. Care for young ones, Meneos is telling boss. Warrior is not needing to worry now about little missy. Warrior is needing to find way to sun, no?" Again the large man smiled revealing that golden tooth. His warm blue eyes peeking through the tangled mane of his mop of hair and whiskers.
Xena relaxed and patted his meaty forearm. "Thank you," she said, so quietly it was almost only a released breath. Yet it spoke volumes expressing her gratitude for the man's understanding as well as his delivering the bard safely back to her. Meneos smiled as she took one last scan on the bard's condition before turning back to the task at hand. He shifted the girl into a more comfortable position against his shoulder and followed.
Toris and Barillus fell in step with the warrior leaving Meneos to his commitment. Daemon walked between them staring wide-eyed at the stuff on which his childhood nightmares were fed. They continued without confrontation yet each knew those things were still out there.
Tristan remained at the rear of the small troupe eyeing the wealth, as well as the threat, within his grasp. He made an effort to keep his distance from the others. He had gotten over his encounter with the ghoulish guards and once again began to smuggle bits and pieces of treasure into his pockets. They were bulging with his ill-gotten loot. It seemed to him this warrior woman could handle the demons, she might be useful. She could get him out and then he would take care of her and return for as much as he could carry.
As they neared the symbol of the great peacock Toris leaned close to his sister and spoke quietly close to her ear. "Xena, have you given any thought as to how we are going to get out of here?" She turned slightly eyeing him with perplexity. He realized she didn't know why he was asking. "How is Meneos going to fit?"
Suddenly the warrior understood her brother completely. There was no way the large man responsible for getting the miners to this point would fit through that narrow tunnel. Furthermore how would any of them get back across that black oily river? She and Toris had made the leap across and down at least ten feet. She hadn't noticed any means of getting back to that upper ledge. No, that was not the way out. The ancient worshippers who built this temple, or tomb as it was, were smart enough to effectively block that means of egress. From the size of some of the bounty stored in this large warehouse vault, it was certain there was another entrance. These large urns, thrones, and idols could not have been carried through the narrow tunnel she and Toris had passed through in order to enter. No, there had to be a back door, a way for the priests of Hera to carry their plunder into the tomb or to escape if necessary. Somewhere in this dank catacomb was another portal to the outside world.
"Xena?" Toris' voice called her out of deep thought. "We'll never make it Xena?"
She turned to her brother just as they stepped into the large open center of the chamber. "I'll find a way." She stated determinedly.
The members of the tired troupe made their way into the center; each awed by its splendor. They stood in silence waiting for Xena to make the next move, to lead them to the light. Barillus was glad to relinquish the lead to her; he too was weary of this adventure. Xena moved close to Daemon. The young man swallowed hard and stepped back in awe of the powerful woman. He had to look up to meet her gaze. He had heard stories of the Lion of Amphipolis, the Destoyer of Nations, the Mighty Warrior Princess. He had heard she was a changed woman. He hoped this was true.
"Your grandfather will be proud." She told him with a slight smile.
"Huh?" He replied. He didn't know what he expected her to say, but he knew that wasn't it.
"Linaeus," she continued, "your grandfather will be proud of how you came through this."
"Oh, yeah." He nodded, feeling very stupid and very young. "Grandfather you know my grandfather?" Now he was confused.
"We've met." She replied. "He "
"Told you about the abandoned temple on the mountain!" Daemon finished realizing how the warrior had found them. "They weren't just stories!"
"Daemon, did your grandfather ever mention a secret exit or doorway into this part of the temple?" Xena asked hoping the boy had listened to those stories.
Daemon thought for a moment. "It's been a while since I well I really don't remember can't we just " He stopped as the warrior shook her head. "I'm sorry I don't think " He lowered his gaze as his words sunk into a mumble.
The warrior grasped his shoulder. "Don't worry about it, it isn't your fault. We'll find it." Daemon looked into her eyes and saw no danger, no killer, no crazed wild woman intent on destroying the world. What he did see was an understanding dwelling deep in pools of blue.
Xena turned back to the others, quickly scanning the area. It wasn't so much what she saw that disturbed her, but what she heard. She could hear them rustling just beneath the glint of the surface. 'Regrouping' she thought to herself. 'Probably never had to deal with adversaries like this.' Her battle sense was tingling; sight, hearing, smell, touch, intensified by the anticipation of combat. The next attack would not be a tease. They had a taste of the warrior's skill and they would be ready. So would she. She was tiring of this whole situation. She was sick of the rank odor of this place. She was cold, hungry, scared and aggravated beyond measure. They were close and ready to attack. It was time to end this expedition.
She carefully scrutinized the pathways leading away from the center. Which one? How to be sure? It struck her suddenly and mentally she chastised herself for not seeing it sooner. The path directly above the head of the great bird was slightly wider than the others, its surface smoother and well worn. The items on either side of the walkway were small and neatly stacked, unlike the rest that seemed haphazardly thrown into diverse piles. This collection had one thing in common, emeralds hundreds of them strewn throughout emeralds matching the one set in the eye of the evil feathered fiend. From the corner of her eye she noticed the mound beginning to tremble, the guard was awakening.
"This way! MOVE!" She ordered pointing toward the worn path. She pushed Daemon toward it. He stumbled but caught himself, grabbed a torch, and hurried into it. Toris drew the sword at his waist and moved to his sister's side. He would not run, he would fight. Barillus joined them. "Get outta here!" She commanded turning to face the approaching enemy.
"Not a chance!" Toris shot back.
"Grrr-eat " She growled and backstepped toward him. "We're all going!" She turned to see Meneos and Gabrielle a few feet into the passageway. She nodded in that direction. Toris and Barillus hesitated, both sure she would turn back once they had gone. "NOW!" She barked and both men followed the order. She turned back for one last look before joining the group. The creatures were slowly rising from the gilt and milling into the open center of the great room. She turned back ready to make a dash down the ragged path.
Intense heat and blazing light temporarily blinded her. She raised her hand instinctively to protect her eyes and face. Stepping back she was able to see her assailant.
"Tristan! You stupid bastard!" She bellowed, infuriated by the man's insipid action. She reached for the weapon at her side, but he quickly jabbed the torch against her hand. She gasped involuntarily and pulled her it away from the flame. Pain flashed across the extremity as the skin sizzled and blistered. She shook it trying to throw off the discomfort. "What are you trying to do you stupid "
Before she could finish he thrust the fiery weapon again toward her face forcing her back. "Stupid? I don't think so. You see, princess, you're going to show me the way out of here. I know you found your way in. Now, you show me the way out."
"Don't be a fool, Tristan!" She sneered. The rotting corpses were drawing nearer, their scent carrying on the stale air.
"Don't irk me harlot!" He hissed through his teeth. "Now, move!" He pushed the torch toward her middle forcing her to jump back.
She looked past him into the dark passageway. The others were out of sight, probably still running at her order. She made a silent plea to the gods that there was an exit at the end of that tunnel. This moron would suffer greatly, she would see to that. They might not survive, but his would be a much more painful death.
"Fine." She spit out the word glaring at him from under drawn brows. She smiled wickedly and noticed him tremble. "Follow me." She turned and walked quickly toward the tunnel she and Toris had taken to enter the sector. A grisly sentry stepped into her path. She flattened it with one powerful punch and marched toward her goal.
Tristan was smart. He stayed far enough behind to be out of her reach, but close enough to use his lighted weapon if needed. The piles of gold were high enough to contain the warrior and there was no means of escape. Xena's anger boiled within her and in her mind she plotted this fool's slow and torturous death.
They approached the narrow crawlspace that led to the caustic river. At least a dozen putrid cadavers stood blocking their way. They stopped. Xena glanced over her shoulder at the imbecile behind her. "Go get'em girl." He snickered.
She held up her charred hand. "Sorry," she quipped, "seem to have a bit of a handicap. Won't be doin' any fightin' for a while." She shook her head and cradled her hand with the opposite arm.
"I said fight!" He demanded, his eyes and the veins of his neck bulging.
"Can't." She stated simply shaking her head.
The things began moving toward them. She waited. He froze. She stared into their eyeless sockets. He stared at their lip-less grins. She sprang up and back, over the torch wielding grave robber, landing nimbly behind him. He spun around to see her wiggle her fingers in a sarcastic wave. He stared open mouthed. She pointed behind him. The things closed in.
Tristan screamed beating the dripping carcasses with his torch. He managed to pull away and raced into the narrow tunnel with the creatures close behind. They seemed to completely ignore the warrior. She had none of their goods; wanted nothing they were condemned to protect.
The miner squeezed through the space losing skin as he scraped along its rough sides. He managed to keep a tight hold on his torch. He reached the end and burst into the opening falling flat onto the soft silt of the ground. He looked behind to see the first of the beasts sliding out of the crack. He scrambled to his feet and frantically searched for a way out. The sound of running water called to him and he answered. He sprinted toward the sound with the dead army at his heels. Past the waterfall he sped and out onto the ledge along the ebony whirlpool. His mistake was looking back. The slippery black substance splashing out onto the rock was his doom. He slid and found no purchase to catch himself. He and his flaming truncheon careened over the edge and splashed into the black goo.
The ebony water caught the flame of the torch and fed it with its evil darkness. The fire sprang across the surface of the river igniting it with deep purple flame. It rolled along the plane eating everything in its path, even the air seemed to be engulfed in its wake. Tristan's form disappeared in a flash of white ash and dissipated into tiny sparks that became part of the great inferno. The fire consumed the battalion of ghouls and sped toward the narrow crevice that led to the great chamber.
Xena heard the screams of the asinine looter and the roar of the flame as it approached. She back flipped several times and landed in the center of Hera's seal as the fire shot out of the crevice and began to eat away at the mounds of gold. It's intense heat turning the ancient trove into puddles of shimmering liquid. She raced through the exit path as the smoke began to fill the chamber and suck out the life giving air.
Toris and Barillus were almost flattened by the warrior's approach. She had no time to explain. No time to ask why they were on their way back. She simply grabbed each man by an arm and pulled him along. The flame licked at their heels and the thick black smoke threatened to blind them.
"This way!" She heard Daemon's voice and followed the sound.
"Hurry!" Meneos' voice boomed over the roar of the conflagration.
"XENA!" Gabrielle pleaded for her return.
They pierced the edge of the dark smoke as a large hand pulled them to safety. Behind a great granite wall Meneos had stowed his young patients, protecting them from the oncoming danger. The flame could not penetrate this rock, but the smoke would choke out their lives if they did not find an escape.
Gabrielle ran to the warrior wrapping her one good arm around her waist. "Don't ever do that again." The girl warned tearfully. Xena coughed as she nodded and hugged the girl briefly. She looked up and noticed the large emerald forced into the rock above them. Although she still could not speak she pointed to it and everyone followed her direction.
Meneos balled his hand into a fist and swung. He slammed the emerald with a powerful punch shattering it with his strength. The rock began to rumble and the earth to bounce. Rocks broke from their formations and tumbled toward them. The dust mingled with the smoke and made breathing almost impossible. Over the roar of the flame came the sound of a muffled crash. Meneos reached up with both arms and braced the large flat stone above him. A blast of cool fresh air flooded the chamber as the outside rushed in to meet the inside.
"Is good to be going, NOW!" The giant urged straining under the weight of the mountain. At first they hesitated entering yet another dark tunnel. "Not good to be thinking, Meneos is saying to go. GO!" This time he was insistent.
Daemon ducked under Meneos' arm and peered into the blackness dotted with stars. Sky, the night sky greeted him. He drew in deep breaths between bouts of coughing and stumbled out of the cavern. Barillus and Toris followed close behind each desperate for fresh air falling onto the cold soft grass and coughing out the toxic fumes as the clean air rushed into their lungs.
Xena pulled Gabrielle around the large man. The girl stopped and grabbed his shirt. "Come on every body's out you can let go." She pleaded between gasps for air and coughs. Xena met the man's eyes and saw the answer there. She pulled the young bard toward the night air. "No, no Xena we we have to save him."
"No, little missy." Meneos panted under the strain of his burden. "Meneos is coming as far as goddess is allowing. Meneos is keeping promise. Young ones are being safe, no?"
The girl did not understand what the man was saying. She looked to the warrior with tear-laden eyes. "We'll help you come please" She begged.
"Is not being possible, little missy. Meneos must be staying. Gaia is not letting Meneos into out. Go, now is time." He looked Xena, "Take care of treasure, warrior, is being more precious than all gold in temple."
Xena nodded, still unable to speak through her desperate coughing. She placed a strong hand on Gabrielle's arm and gently pulled the girl toward the fresh air they both so desperately needed. The girl did not resist, she watched as her giant savior relaxed his hold on the massive weight and stepped back into the Chamber of Temptation. As the tonnage of rock and dirt re-closed the exit Xena threw the girl out of danger and shielded her already damaged bard with her own form.
As the dust settled Gabrielle wept softly, comforted by an equally disturbed warrior. The others had witnessed Meneos' sacrifice and ultimate fate. Toris and Barillus helped a very weary Daemon to his feet. They made their way slowly and silently toward the small dot of a campfire in the distance.
Truth and Freedom
Daemon was greeted warmly by his brother and grandfather. He submitted to a brief examination by the warrior who pronounced him well on the way to recovery and was ordered to rest. He moved off to a bedroll sharing the 'thrills' of his adventure with a very eager Nyran.
Barillus sat at the fire sharing a wineskin with Toris and Andreas. He shared the experience he and the others had in the great cavern with his superior remorsefully relating the story of Gregor's demise. Toris listened as he used his sister's whet stone to clean and sharpen her sword then related the tale of his and Xena's entrance into the chamber before both men fell into exhausted sleep.
Xena consoled the young bard for quite some time before making sure all of her injuries were attended. Gabrielle grieved for the large man she had become so close to in that dark prison. After much protest and finally a, 'no more nonsense' 'because I said so' order, the bard allowed the warrior to make a more detailed exam of all of her wounds and agreed to provide explanations for all, especially those imprints on her neck. Xena's eyes flashed with anger as the girl pieced together the tale of Gregor's attack and how Barillus had been there. The bard's voice sunk low when she described how the man vaulted over the edge and vanished. Although Gabrielle's tone told that she pitied the criminal, Xena secretly relished the punishment the gods saw fit to bestow on him. The girl yawned sleepily and the warrior called an end to the night's performance. There would be plenty of time to tell all of the tales of their venture underground. Although the girl protested claiming she felt fine, the warrior won the battle and Gabrielle gave in. She drank all of the bitter tea Xena brewed to fight infection and fever and for the first time in three days Gabrielle fell asleep against soft furs wrapped in warm blankets. Xena watched her sleep and for the first time in as many days felt a great weight lifted from her heart. Gabrielle was safe.
Xena stepped away from the campfire and stood under the light of the full moon. She sensed the approach of Linaeus as he skillfully made his way through the darkness. "Thank you, warrior." The old man offered in greeting her. "You have a strong heart." She smiled suddenly feeling a familiar warmth surround her soul. The man sensed her mood. "Your friend is all right?" He asked concerned with the young girl's condition.
"Yes " Xena glanced back at the bard asleep by the campfire. "Yes, she'll be fine. The bruises and breaks will heal, but I'm afraid she will hurt for a long time over the loss of her giant friend."
"Hmmm, yes, Daemon told me of the large man that cared for him and your friend during their 'adventure'. He also told of the man's sacrifice to free all of you. He says the man was called Meneos."
The warrior nodded lost in the memory of her last experience with the man. She never really spoke to him and missed the opportunity to offer him her gratitude.
"It was said, all those years ago, that a great god sent a guardian to this evil place to keep watch over those innocent souls undeserving of Hera's wrath. It was said that spirit inhabited this place long before the arrogant wife of Zeus claimed it as her own. In my youth there were many that claimed to see this guardian roaming the mountainside or prowling the tunnels below. They say he was as massive in size as he was in heart."
Xena raised an eyebrow and wondered if the old man was actually reliving a memory or creating one to console the survivors of the disaster.
"You might wonder, warrior, how this old man survived the destruction of this place all that time ago." Linaeus waited for her answer and sensed her skepticism. "The temple dissolved in a flash of light taking my sight with it. The last vision I had was that of a massive shaggy beast moving toward me. I thought it would be my end, but found myself lying here in the cool grass alive. I don't know what it was and I never told anyone, but someone or something took me from certain death." Linaeus turned and patted the warrior's arms she had crossed over her chest. "Good night, Warrior Princess, pleasant dreams." He moved away, back toward the campfire, back to his sleeping grandsons.
Xena stood in the moonlight, allowing the cool summer breeze to fall around her. It felt good to be in the open, in the air, alive, safe, loved. In the distance she watched the fire that burned out of the tunnel entrance she and Toris had entered that morning. A rustling in the brush caught her attention and she reached for her chakrum. The warrior watched quietly as a large grizzled bear rumbled out of the undergrowth. It ambled slowly into the clearing and turned looking deep into her eyes. She smiled in recognition at the strange cool azure stare of the gentle giant. It raised its snout and sniffed the air, let out an amiable grunt and turned away. She watched it lumber across the meadow and disappear into the forest on the other side. It turned and glanced back at her, tossing its head side to side and then it was gone.
"Thank you." She whispered and smiled knowingly.
Return to The Bard's Corner