As they walked on in silence, the causeway dropped off to the normal cobblestone street as they reached the edge of the lake. They continued down the wide street, staring up at more of the same marble buildings on either side. After a few more hundred yards, the structures gave way to some type of sunken square or arena.
Xena left Argo as she followed Gabrielle down the wide steps leading into the square, which appeared to be about a hundred feet on a side. As she reached the sandy floor, she looked back, realizing that the steps certainly did look like stadium seating. She walked towards Gabrielle who was studying the most interesting feature of the deep pit, a large collection of ten foot high round columns. They were made of the same grey marble as everything else in the city. They appeared to be about three feet in diameter and stood about five feet apart. Looking to both sides and diagonally, it was plain to see that the columns had been meticulously aligned into perfect rows.
"What do you think this place was used for?"
Xena shook her head slightly, "I don't know. Some type of game maybe. Look how all of the columns are smooth except for the ones on the outer edge. They have these semi-circular grooves in them."
Gabrielle looked at the surface more closely. "Handholds?"
"Maybe," Xena offered as she walked farther into the marble grove, having noticed something in the sand several feet away. She stooped and picked up a two foot length of rope. It didn't look that old. Definitely not as old as the city itself. She looked curiously at the frayed ends, surmising that the rope hadn't been cut, but popped.
Her head snapped up as she heard Gabrielle's cry echo around her. "Gabrielle, where are you?!" she hollered as she ran back to where she'd last seen the woman. As she emerged, she looked around and quickly spotted Gabrielle crouched down on the steps about forty feet away. She reached the woman in no time, relieved that she didn't seem to be in any distress. "Gabrielle, what is it?" she asked as she circled around in front of her.
"Look what I found!"
Xena stared down at the large pile of diamonds on the steps. Gabrielle handed her several. Studying them more closely, she noticed that they varied from clear to yellowish to bright pink. They were rough and unfinished, but probably still very valuable.
"How much do you think they're worth?" Gabrielle asked excitedly as she ran her fingers through the sparkling stones.
Xena tossed the ones she held back onto the pile. "Put `em back."
"What?" Gabrielle asked as she stared up at the woman curiously.
"Put them back. Somebody put them there for a reason and it doesn't have anything to do with us. I'd just as soon keep it that way."
"But, they're just...," she smirked as she looked up at Xena's expression. "Fine." She dropped the jewels back down and stood next to Xena, pouting.
Grinning, Xena leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. "Thank you."
Gabrielle couldn't help grinning herself. She looked down at the diamonds once more and sighed. She then raised a hand to her mouth as she yawned loudly, her body suddenly reminding her of how tired she was. "Hey, why don't we just sleep here?"
"Gabrielle, I don't think that's such a good idea." Xena suggested as her instincts told her she should put as much distance between them and the city as possible.
"Aww, c'mon. I'm tired. There's obviously no one around for miles. I'm sure we could find some shade somewhere. If you want, we could..."
"Alright, Gabrielle. Alright. But not here. Let's head back to the archway."
"Okay," Gabrielle said before yawning again as she began walking towards Argo.
Xena followed but soon stopped when something caught her eye near the side of a nearby building.
Gabrielle yawned loudly for a third time as she rubbed Argo on the neck. "What? Don't YOU ever get tired?" she asked the animal. She turned and spotted Xena standing next to the building, looking down at something. "Xena?"
Xena looked across at Gabrielle as the woman began walking back towards her. "I'm coming." She placed an arm around her waist as she drew closer, steering her back towards Argo.
"Did you find something?"
"Nah." She grabbed Argo's reins and led them both back up the wide street.
Gabrielle looked up at her curiously, not sure if she was telling the truth or not. She was sure, however, that she was too tired to care one way or the other. They continued over the wide causeway and eventually came to the collapsed building. As they went around, Xena paused, looking around momentarily.
As they continued straight, Gabrielle looked up to her and asked, "I thought you wanted to head for the entrance. It's back that way," she said, pointing towards her left.
"I know. I want to see something first," Xena replied.
They continued on for several hundred yards until they reached the high city wall. Turning left, they walked down the street which ran the length of the wall.
As they drew closer to the front wall, Gabrielle tugged on Xena's arm. "Hey look. This is perfect." She walked over to a small clearing near the side of a nearby building. She stretched in the shade under the widespread, low lying branches of a small evergreen. She looked back at Xena. "Well?"
Smirking, Xena looked around and noticed the ample supply of firewood at hand. She also spotted a large gap in the wall about forty feet away. "Yeah, I guess this is as good a place as any." As Gabrielle began pulling out a few blankets, Xena gathered some scrub brush for a fire. She left it heaped nearby, figuring she would light it sometime before dark. She poured out a small pile of sorghum for Argo as Gabrielle pulled out a large melon from their ration bag.
She removed her leather skirt, belt, and cuirass as Gabrielle sliced up the fruit. Sitting next to her on the blanket, she leaned back comfortably against a small inclined slab of marble as she popped a piece of the sweet fruit into her mouth. After they'd eaten, Gabrielle removed her boots and prepared to lie down.
"Hey," Xena said softly, patting her lap as she smiled at the woman.
Gabrielle looked at Xena's legs and then up to the woman's face. Her face took on a pained expression, "Please Xena, I'm SO tired. Can't we wait..."
Xena giggled as she lightly placed a hand over Gabrielle's mouth and shook her head. "No, Gabrielle. I just meant you can lay your head down here if you wanted to."
Smiling sweetly, Gabrielle lay back with her head on Xena's thigh. "Good night."
Xena leaned forward and kissed her tenderly on the lips. "Good night." Sitting back against the slab, she began softly humming a lullaby as she lightly stroked a finger through Gabrielle's hair.
Sighing blissfully, Gabrielle closed her eyes and was sound asleep in no time.
Smiling down at her affectionately, Xena leaned her head back and closed her own eyes, trusting her senses and Argo to wake her at any hint of danger.
Gabrielle bolted upright as she awoke with a start, having heard a woman's scream. "Or did I?" she wondered to herself as she blinked her eyes several times. She listened quietly, trying to hear any echoes of the loud cry she thought had awakened her. Nothing, aside from the soft crackling of the low fire a few feet away. She looked around worriedly as she finally realized Xena was nowhere to be seen. She looked back down at the rolled up blanket her head had been lying on. She seemed to recall falling asleep in Xena's lap. She jumped slightly when she heard Argo snort several yards away, not having seen the animal in the darkness. As she looked around at the darkened city, she realized how different it now appeared from earlier that day. The overcast sky permitted hardly any moonlight into the silent metropolis. A sense of foreboding crept over her as she uselessly tried to peer farther into the darkness around her. Gabrielle walked over and stood near Argo as she rubbed the horse's neck, taking comfort from the animal's closeness. "Where's Xena?" she asked softly to no one in particular. She took a deep breath and prepared to call out to her. But instead, she let the breath out slowly, afraid for some reason to break the silence. Looking around, she noticed that the woman's armor and weapons were gone. She walked back over to the fire and threw a large armful of branches onto it. As the flames climbed higher, she wondered what she should do. "Stay here, stupid," she answered herself softly.
Her eyes went wide as a frightening thought ran through her mind. What if she hadn't imagined that woman's scream. What if Xena was in trouble, somewhere out there. The thought of Xena in danger gave her a sudden boost of courage. She walked over to the blanket and quickly pushed her boots on. Looking down at the woodpile, she pulled out a sizeable branch and tied a rag around its end. She then lowered the brand into the fire, lighting it. She walked over and picked up her staff, but let out a frustrated growl as she realized she wouldn't be able to use the staff with only one free hand. Looking back down at the woodpile, she pulled out a fairly heavy club. Testing its weight, she spun it in her right hand a few times. Setting her jaw, she strode confidently down a nearby street, judging by her sense of direction that it would take her to the main road.
The first thing she noticed as she got farther away from the fire was that her torch didn't shed very much light. She continued walking down the cobbled street, trying to make as little noise as possible. She looked up at the shadowy structures surrounding her, thinking that they looked a lot taller than they had in the daylight. She spun around, thinking she'd heard something behind her. She smirked as she scolded herself quietly, "Stop it. You're just scaring yourself." She turned and started walking again, side-stepping a large pile of rubble. A shiver ran through the tiny hairs on the back of her neck as she suddenly got the feeling she was being watched. "Cut it out!!" she screamed inside of her head. "There's no one else here. Xena probably went hunting or something. She'll go back to the campfire, find you gone and..." She cut off her train of thought as she spun towards her right, thinking she'd seen movement out of the corner of her eye. Lifting the torch high and ahead of her, she walked forward slowly along the wall towards the corner of the building. Swallowing difficultly, she held her breath and thrust the torch behind the corner, following right behind with the club held high in her other hand. There was nothing there, however.
Letting out her breath, she was about to reproach herself again when she heard a shuffling sound behind her. Spinning around, she scanned the shadows as she walked back slowly towards the center of the street. The feeling that she was being watched grew stronger. Her eyes went wide as she heard the sound again from somewhere up ahead in the shadows. She turned quickly to run in the other direction and after two steps tripped on a large rock. As she fell forward to the ground, the torch slipped from her grasp and rolled away. She watched in horror as it slowly went out a few feet away. Rising to her knees, she clutched the club tightly in both hands. Eyes wide, she remained absolutely still as she strained to listen for any signs of movement. All she could hear was the roar of the blood racing passed her ears as her heart beat frantically upon the inside of her chest. The oppressive silence seemed to close in around her. She realized she'd give anything at that moment to hear the boisterous sounds of a bustling tavern or even the din of a battle.
She turned her head slowly as she heard a scraping sound from a side street to her right. She thought she could discern a shape moving in the darkness, but couldn't be certain. Quickly deciding she'd rather not find out, she rose and turned to run back towards their fire. She froze suddenly, gasping as she suddenly spotted the shadowy figure only a few feet away from her. In that split second, all she was able to determine was that it was roughly her height. Not waiting to make out any other details, she spun around to run in the other direction. She yelped as her head suddenly snapped back. Something had grabbed her by the hair. She swung the club backwards with all of her might. As the heavy branch struck, she felt herself pull free and heard a loud grunt. Without turning around, she bolted in the opposite direction, gasping again as she felt something brush up against her.
She ran blindly down the darkened street, praying to the Gods that she wouldn't dash herself against a stone wall. After a few minutes, she stopped to catch her breath, dropping to one knee. As her lungs pumped heavily, she looked down at the club which she still gripped tightly, finally realizing it had broken off just above her hand when she'd hit...whatever it was she'd hit. She eventually managed to pry her fingers loose from the small stump. She slowly looked around her as she also realized she was very lost. All four directions looked identical to her. Feeling very alone and frightened, part of her wanted to curl up into a ball, squeeze her eyes shut and wait for the nightmare to be over. The pain in her scalp, however, reminded her that she was very much awake.
Her head whipped up as she suddenly heard a soft shuffling sound down one of the darkened streets. Rising to her feet, she backed up slowly as she continued to scan the dark alleyway. She momentarily held her breath as she heard another low scrape. Although she couldn't see anything, she could sense its presence. She continued to back up slowly, sliding her hand against the nearby wall.
She gasped loudly and went stiff as something grabbed her shoulder from behind. Too terrified to scream or move, she clenched her eyes shut tightly.
She spun around as she heard the familiar voice, never more glad to hear it. Her eyes started to water as she looked up at the concerned expression on her friend's face. "Oh Xena?!" She threw her arms around the woman and hugged her tightly, not caring about the pain of the breastplate pressing against her or the fact that she was crying.
Xena raised a hand and lightly held Gabrielle's head against her chest. "Hey, it's okay. I'm here," she said soothingly as she felt the woman trembling against her. She softly pat the bard's head as she consoled her. "Shhhh. Everything's okay. You're safe." She could feel Gabrielle's tears running down her skin. She continued to comfort the woman as her eyes scanned the dark alleys around them. After a few moments, she started to pull back, but stopped as Gabrielle hugged her more tightly. Something had obviously frightened her. She was pretty sure she knew what it was as she made out a shadowy figure moving in the darkness off in the distance. "Gabrielle?" The woman didn't answer. Xena felt for her but she knew they couldn't stay there much longer. "Gabrielle," she said a little more loudly as she pulled back. She looked down at the woman's tear streaked face and raised a hand to lightly brush her cheek. "Are you okay?"
Gabrielle took Xena's hand in hers. "I am now."
AWe can't stay here. We're not the only ones in the city. I didn't get a good look at any of them, but I'm pretty sure they're not human. Let's go." She squeezed Gabrielle's hand as she led her up the street. After a few blocks, they emerged onto the wide central avenue.
"What were you doing here?" Xena asked as she continued to scan the side streets around them.
"I thought I'd heard a scream and thought it was you. I got worried and came to look for you."
Xena smiled as she felt Gabrielle squeeze her hand. "You did hear a scream. But it wasn't me."
"Where did it come from?" Gabrielle asked, also scanning the shadows.
"I don't know. I couldn't tell with all the echoes. I was going to head deeper into the city, but I got worried about you." She stopped as she spotted a dark figure partially emerge from an alleyway a couple dozen yards behind them. "Where's your staff?"
"I left it near Argo. I couldn't have used it while carrying the torch so I brought a club."
"Where's the torch?"
"I dropped it when I'd tripped running away from one of those things."
"Where's the club?"
"I ate it. Can we go?!" Gabrielle asked irritably.
Smirking, Xena reached in her boot and pulled out her dirk, handing it to Gabrielle.
As Gabrielle followed Xena once again, she held the knife hilt down with the blade resting flat against the inside of her forearm, figuring that was the surest way to avoid accidentally stabbing her or Xena.
They continued quietly along the main avenue. Both scanning the darkness around them.
Argo snorted loudly as they both appeared from out of the shadows. Xena walked over and stroked the animal's neck as Gabrielle quickly started packing their things. Sighing, Xena walked over and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Gabrielle, we can't leave yet."
She looked up at Xena incredulously. "Why not?!" She dropped her head as she suddenly remembered. "The scream."
Xena nodded. She reached down and pulled out one of the blankets Gabrielle had packed. "Give me the dirk and take this."
Gabrielle handed Xena the knife and held up the blanket as Xena had instructed, watching as the woman cut it up into long strip.
After she'd finished, she walked over to the woodpile and pulled out an armlength branch. She turned back to Gabrielle and handed it to her. "Here. Find about a dozen more of these, the same size." As the younger woman complied, Xena walked over to the evergreen and began cutting off several large branches, tossing them into the fire one at a time. Satisfied at the size of the fire, she left a few of the branches piled to the side.
Gabrielle looked up towards her as she backed away from the increased heat. "Is that enough?"
"Yeah," Xena replied as she crouched down next to her. Taking one of the long cloth strips, she began wrapping it around the end of one of the branches. "Since we didn't see any of these things during the day, I'm assuming they're nocturnal. So, I figure they don't like the light. That's why they're staying away from us right now." As Xena finished the last torch, she asked Gabrielle to borrow her sack.
Gabrielle walked over and picked up her bag as Xena removed her scabbard from across her back and fastened it to her belt. After removing a few things, Gabrielle handed her the bag.
"Thanks." Xena bent over and placed the torches inside. Standing, she placed an arm and her head through the strap, adjusting it so the sack rested against her back. She looked down at the fire and then to Gabrielle. "Those fresh branches will burn a lot slower than the dead ones. You can keep piling some more on if you'd like. Just stay near the fire, and you should be okay. If there's any trouble, get on Argo and head through that gap in the wall over there. Go back across the field to the trail and I'll...," she stopped, reading the expression on Gabrielle's face as the woman smirked up at her. "You are NOT coming with me," she said sternly.
Gabrielle placed a hand on her arm as her expression softened. "Please don't leave me alone again."
Xena momentarily resented Gabrielle's attempted manipulation until she realized the woman was still frightened. She looked down to her tenderly and placed a hand against her cheek. "Okay," she said softly. She took off the bag and handed it to Gabrielle. "Here, you can carry these." She noticed Gabrielle hadn't grinned smugly like she usually did whenever she got her way. "Let's throw some more of these branches onto the fire."
"You don't want to take Argo with us?" she asked as she threw a handful of brush onto the fire.
"No. I don't want to risk us riding her on these messed up streets in the dark. We'll be okay. And she's smart enough to take care of herself." She looked over and smiled as the horse snorted loudly, seeming to know that she was the topic of conversation. She walked over and stroked the animal's muzzle. "We'll be back. Stay close to the fire." She reached over and pulled out her flint from a saddlebag, wishing she had some oil or even some strong liquor.
She turned and walked back over to Gabrielle, pulling out a pair of torches. "You ready?" she asked as she lit them and handed one to her.
"Yeah." Gabrielle replied, putting on a brave face.
"Stay close to me," Xena instructed as she winked at her.
Gabrielle smiled as they set off down the nearby street running along the length of the high marble wall.
Argo snorted nervously as she watched several dark shapes move from the shadows to follow them.
The two emerged onto the main avenue once more, proceeding cautiously passed the edge of the nearby collapsed building. As they turned to head deeper into the city, they spun around quickly, having heard the sound of shifting earth from behind. Looking upwards, they both saw a number of dark shapes disappear behind the other side of the large hill of rubble as a few stray stones rolled down towards them.
"Let's keep going," Xena said quietly.
Gabrielle followed the woman closely, looking back over her shoulder. "Xena?"
"Do you think it could've been one of those things that we heard scream?" Gabrielle asked as she looked up into the sky. She noticed the clouds had started to thin out, allowing the half moon to shine more brightly than before.
"No. That was definitely a human cry. I figure someone else wandered into the city after we did and ran into them." Xena hoped whomever it was had managed to get away. She had a bad feeling, however, that they hadn't. As they began walking across the causeway, Xena spotted something on the paved stone up ahead. "Look."
Gabrielle stared down at the small pile of dark brown, plum-sized lumps. She looked back up to Xena. "Argo?"
"No. I kept track of where she went."
"Why?" Gabrielle asked.
"Because I'd found another pile near the pit when we were there earlier. It looked about a day or two old. This is still fresh," she added, pointing towards the manure before them.
"Well, I guess...Xena, look!" Gabrielle whispered excitedly, pointing across the lake.
Xena looked across and saw several dark figures, faintly illuminated by the moonlight, skulking along the shoreline, apparently watching them. Turning around, she spotted several more on the opposite side. She looked down and noticed Gabrielle's torch starting to go out. She reached in the woman's bag and pulled out another, lighting it on her own. "Here, you can throw that one away."
Gabrielle dropped the dim torch to the ground and followed Xena as the woman continued up the roadway. As they walked, she looked out across the water and watched the shadowy forms walk along with them.
After several minutes, they reached the edge of the large pit. Walking along the rim, Xena looked around at the smaller side alleys for any signs of movement. She watched as Gabrielle walked ahead.
Gabrielle looked down at the pile of crystalline stones they'd seen earlier that day. "Well, the diamonds are still here." She crouched down and studied them more closely, a puzzled look crossing her face. "Xena, these aren't the same ones."
"What?" the woman asked as she came closer. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah, look at this one." She handed the woman one of the large stones. "That one definitely wasn't there before. Do you think they belonged to the other people?"
Xena looked down at the deep blue gem. "I don't know," she said softly as she handed the stone back to her. Raising the torch higher, she walked down the steps into the pit. She looked around at the sandy ground, noticing several footprints she hadn't seen before, most obviously belonging to the creatures they'd been seeing. They appeared humanoid, ending in five toes. She estimated they averaged a little over a foot in length. As she continued searching the ground, she also found a few other boot prints, some too large to be hers or Gabrielle's. She looked back at the woman on the steps a few dozen feet away, still looking through the diamonds. Judging that she wasn't in any danger, she turned and continued to search the area. She walked ahead as she spotted another piece of rope lying in the sand a few feet away. Examining it, she figured it was the same kind as she'd found earlier. She pulled her hand away as she noticed it suddenly felt sticky. Dropping the rope, she looked down at the dark red smear on her fingers; blood. She looked up at the nearby columns. Walking over, she found more blood smeared on one of them. As she walked back over to the side of the pit, she noticed her torch start to go out. "Hey Gabrielle? Bring me another torch," she hollered out to the woman. She threw hers to the side as she climbed the first few steps, making do with the moonlight as she looked around further.
"Okay," Gabrielle called back. She looked around and finally spotted the woman standing on the bottom step of the pit near the far edge. "How did she get..." Her eyes suddenly went wide as she spotted the group of dark forms bolt from a shadowy alleyway and head straight for the pit, right at Xena. "XENA!! LOOK OUT!!!"
Xena's first reaction at hearing Gabrielle's cry was to look towards the woman. Her second was to look ahead at the pack of shapes silently charging at her down the steps from the rim of the pit. Instincts taking over, she raised her sword and skewered the first one to reach her. The momentum of the dying creature, along with the weight of the others, knocked her backwards off of her feet. She managed to somehow hold onto her sword as she hit the sandy ground. She took in a gasping breath as she quickly rolled the dead weight off of her and wrenched her sword free. As she started to stand, she felt a pull and a slight stinging pain in her left side. Spinning her sword in a deadly arc and letting out a loud battle cry, she brought the blade across the torso of the closest figure, feeling it bite deep. She ducked the sweep of an arm aimed at her head and brought her sword in a back handed swing at the creature's stomach. She rolled backwards as the fourth figure moved to tackle her. As she crouched on one knee and raised her sword, looking for her next target, she spared a quick glance over her shoulder as she heard Gabrielle emit a loud scream. Her eyes went wide as she watched the woman bound down the steps with a torch raised high in each hand, a scowl on her face, screaming madly like some demon from the lowest depths of Tartarus. Xena turned and watched as the two standing creatures quickly turned and ran. Each made their way towards one of the nearest columns, scampering up quickly and leaping away on the tops of the high marble stones.
Xena stood and looked down at the panting woman. "Wow. My hero," she said with a grin.
Gabrielle handed her the torch. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I think they...," she sucked in a quick breath as she felt a sharp pain in her left side.
"You're hurt," Gabrielle exclaimed as she brought the torch closer to Xena's side, looking down at the gashes in her leather armor just above her waist. She knelt down as she delicately slipped a finger inside the leather, pulling it out with blood on it. "We have to take your armor off."
"No, Gabrielle. We don't have time and it isn't that bad."
"Are you sure?" she asked, looking up at her with obvious concern.
Xena smiled reassuringly, "Yeah, I just need something to put against it." She watched as Gabrielle carefully put down the torch on the nearby step and then reached for the hem of her skirt. "Whoa Gabrielle. Hold on." She handed her the torch she was holding and reached behind the woman to pull another from the sack. She unwrapped the cloth strip and tore it in half. She pushed the cloth through the tear, grunting slightly. She looked down and noticed the concerned look on Gabrielle's face. She placed a hand on her shoulder. "I'll live, honest."
"That's not funny," Gabrielle said as she hugged the woman with her free arm.
Xena kissed her on the forehead. "Thanks." She walked over and picked up the torch Gabrielle had put down. She then turned and stepped closer to the nearest of the creatures she'd killed, rolling it over onto its back with her foot. She heard Gabrielle gasp as the torchlight washed over the grotesque figure. It looked about five and a half feet tall and wasfairly muscular. Its skin was mottled and dark grey. She looked down at the thin gash in its chest where she'd run it through, noticing that the creature's blood was light pink and watery. She finally looked at her sword, noticing the same pink fluid covering a large portion of the blade. She bent over and picked up the other half of the cloth strip, using it to wipe the blood from the sword.
Gabrielle grimaced as she looked the creature over. It was naked aside from some grimy type of loin cloth. She noticed the sharp teeth lining the inside of its mouth and the long filthy nails at the ends of its fingers. Its eyes, open wide, were nearly solid white, appearing milky and translucent. It had long coarse, jet black hair. "Look at the size of its ears," Gabrielle commented.
"I think these things must live underground."
"What makes you say that?"
"There'd be no light underground. Look at its eyes. I doubt it can see very well. It would have to rely on its hearing."
"Hence, the enlarged ears," Gabrielle added.
Xena walked over to the other one which had crawled away a short distance, dragging its entrails, after she'd eviscerated it. Seeing all the blood, she suddenly got an idea. "C'mon." she said as she climbed the steps up towards the wide street. She followed the edge of the pit, watching the interior carefully for any signs of the creatures.
"Where are we going?" Gabrielle asked, hurrying after her.
"I injured one of the ones that got away," she called back as she continued on.
"It's probably bleeding pretty badly."
"So?" she asked again as they reached the back corner of the pit.
Xena continued forward slowly now, searching the ground in front of her until she found what she'd hoped for. "Look."
Gabrielle stared down at the line of pink droplets leading from the pit towards a large flat building several yards away. "Oh, I get it." She followed Xena as the woman traced the blood trail straight to a grey stone wall. "There must be some type of hidden door somewhere." It didn't take Gabrielle long to find a suspicious looking grooved stone not far from where the line of blood disappeared. "Xena, look."
Xena walked over and stared down at the tile. "Get behind me." She pushed down on the stone with her foot, watching as a six foot square section of the grey marble wall swung silently inward. "C'mon."
As she followed Xena through the portal, she made a grimace. "Whew, it stinks in here."
Although she agreed that the air reeked, Xena judged it to still be breathable. Looking around, she found another grooved tile set in the floor. As she expected, the door swung shut when she stepped on it. "Every building in the city probably has doors like these." The eight foot cubical room they stood in led to a receding passageway at its opposite end. She looked back down at the trail of blood. "Let's go. I don't want to be down here any longer than we have to."
They walked down the gradual slope of the ramp, following the pink drops along the floor. After about sixty feet, the floor leveled as they reached an intersection. The opposite passageway rose upwards while the left and right continued level. "Which way?" Gabrielle asked.
"We'll follow the trail for as long as we can. We can always follow it back out again." She didn't relish the thought of getting lost in the labyrinthine corridors. "Stick close, Gabrielle," she advised as she turned down the right passageway.
"Don't worry. I will," Gabrielle replied as she placed a free hand lightly against the small of Xena's back. She turned and looked behind her, trying to peer past the range of the torches' light, which suddenly seemed uncomfortably insufficient.
After a couple dozen feet, Xena paused as she looked ahead.
"What is it?" Gabrielle asked as she moved along side.
"I think I can see some light from up ahead. It looks faint."
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes, looking forward also. "Yeah, I think so. It looks kind of greenish."
As they continued forward, the passageway opened into a large round, dome shaped chamber about sixty feet in diameter. "Look at that," Gabrielle whispered. She walked over to the wall, studying a large patch of green lichen or mold. "I think this is what's glowing like that." She looked around the chamber, noticing several other large patches like the one before her. "It's hard to tell for sure with the torchlight being here."
Xena grinned. "I tell you what. Give me your torch and I'll walk up ahead. You can stay here to find out."
"NO. That's okay. I can live with the mystery."
Xena walked back over to the center of the room and the blood trail. "Let's keep moving." She walked through the opposite doorway into a similar corridor with Gabrielle right behind. Her theory that they were growing accustomed to the smell changed quickly as the stench became stronger the farther along they proceeded. They soon came upon another intersection with side passages that sloped upwards. They followed the line of blood straight ahead.
After about another fifty feet, the passageway opened into a huge rectangular room. The right side had several long steps which ran the width of the room from one wall to the other, leading up to a wide landing. The left side of the room was still mostly rough hewn rock. The most striking feature, however, were the large veins of glittering crystal which reflected the torchlight across the room in a myriad of colors.
"Well, I guess we know where those diamonds came from," Xena commented as they walked into the large chamber. To her surprise, she watched as Gabrielle ascended the steps to the right instead of heading towards the diamonds. She followed her up to the level platform at the head of the steps.
Gabrielle's eyes widened as she spotted the huge bas-relief sculpture covering the majority of the back wall. "Look at this," she whispered as she studied it more closely. She marveled at the intricacy of detail.
"Do you recognize it?" Xena asked, taking in the whole picture a few steps back.
"Yeah. It's that arena outside." Stepping back herself, she looked at the representation of the sandy pit with the columns inside. The steps around the arena were filled with cheering people. She noticed that the inhabitants of the city were very striking. Statuesque and graceful, almost aristocratic. The arena itself was filled with several muscular figures, men and women, jumping from column to column in some type of sport. She leaned closer again. "What are these things?" she asked, pointing to several apple sized objects tied together on a cord and wrapped around the top of one of the columns.
"I'm not sure. A bunch of the columns have them. Look, some of the people on top have a few in there hands. I guess the point was to gather them without falling off, or being knocked off."
Gabrielle walked over to the side. "I bet you're right. Look." She pointed to a separate sculpture showing a man holding his arms up, each hand holding several of the cords. She looked at the nearby figure of a beautiful woman dressed in a long flowing robe. She was presenting the man with a large bowl of something. "I wonder what that is in the bowl?"
Xena looked down at the sculpture and then back at the sparkling stones on the far side of the chamber. "Diamonds. C'mon, we gotta go."
They walked down the steps and headed for the opposite doorway, following the trail of blood once more. The odor was growing worse with every step they took. It smelled like a cross between an animal's lair and a charnnel house. About thirty feet passed another intersection, they stopped when they noticed the drops of blood changed into a puddle. "It must've dropped right here."
Gabrielle noticed that the trail continued on as a wide smear from that point on. "It looks like it crawled along the ground after that."
"No. I think it was dragged," she commented, thinking the smear was too straight and uniform for the dying creature to have made. After they'd continued on a bit farther, Xena stopped suddenly, holding up a hand for Gabrielle to do likewise.
"What?" the woman whispered softly, holding a hand over her nose, uselessly trying to block the nearly unbearable stench.
"I heard something moving," she replied just as softly as her eyes narrowed. "There's another room up ahead." She walked forward carefully, sword poised in one hand, torch raised in the other. As their torchlight slowly bathed the interior of the domed chamber, her eyes opened wide in shock. "Gabrielle, stay back," she said quickly, her voice tense. She realized it was too late, however, as she heard the younger woman gasp loudly.
Gabrielle, held a hand over her mouth as she looked around at the dead bodies littering the floor of the chamber. She closed her eyes as she suddenly felt her stomach lurch.
Xena turned and leaned closer to the woman "Why don't you go wait in the hallway," she suggested softly.
Her eyes still closed, she shook her head and swallowed. "I..I want to stay here with you."
"Okay." Xena turned and looked at the gruesome scene before her. The bodies of about two dozen people in various states of decay littered the floor, both men and women of various ages. It appeared that all of them had had their throats ripped open. She fought back the bile rising in the back of her mouth as she quickly surmised that they had interrupted the creatures while feeding. She looked back towards Gabrielle. The woman was holding the torch in both hands and staring down the passageway they'd come in from. As she moved around further, she noticed several skeletons lying amidst the other corpses. She looked down at the body of a young man not far away, noticing a large bruise around his right wrist. She intended to look at his left wrist, but suddenly realized that the other arm had been torn from the socket. She looked around and spotted the same bruises on some of the less ravaged bodies. She also spotted the pieces of several suits of scale mail scattered across the room. Scharian, by the looks of them.
Gabrielle slowly looked down at the body of a young woman, about her age, lying not far away. The woman's eyes stared up at her in mute terror. As she saw the tooth and claw marks, and the large chunks of missing flesh, a sickening realization dawned on her. Holding her mouth tightly shut, she quickly staggered towards the nearby wall and fell to her knees, bracing a hand against the stone as she then retched uncontrolably, somehow managing to keep a firm grip on the torch in her other hand.
Xena quickly crossed the room to stand over her. She leaned her sword against the wall and rubbed Gabrielle's back gently, trying to soothe her. She looked over and noticed the body of one of the creatures not far away. Apparently, they weren't above cannibalism, either.
Having finally emptied her stomach, spitting a few last times, Gabrielle slowly opened her watery eyes and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. As she looked over against the wall a few feet away, the color suddenly drained out of her face. "Gods Xena, look," she said hoarsely, her voice shaky.
Xena looked over to where Gabrielle pointed, seeing the small skull sitting on the floor a short distance away, realizing that the child couldn't have been more than nine.
"Xe..Xena? Can we please leave?" Gabrielle asked, her eyes closed and her head down once again.
"Yeah, let's go." She knew they'd find no one alive down there aside from the creatures. After she'd helped the woman stand, she retrieved her sword and turned to follow her out. She happened to look down and see the young woman Gabrielle had. Remarkably, her beautiful face had been left untouched. Somehow, Xena knew that this had been the woman she'd heard scream. Moving her sword to her left hand, she lowered the right and gently closed the woman's eyes. A chill ran through her as she realized the skin was still slightly warm. She looked up and spotted one of the creatures lurking in the shadows of the opposite passageway. "Waiting to resume their meal," Xena thought to herself. Scowling, she rose and walked over to Gabrielle, standing a few feet into the hallway. She reached in the woman's sack and pulled out a few torches.
Gabrielle looked up at her. "Xena?"
She lit a fresh one and handed it Gabrielle. "Give me yours. Wait here and keep watch," she added as she sheathed her sword and stalked back into the chamber. She went around the room, lighting anything which looked as though it might burn, wishing again she had some oil. She tossed a torch onto one of the bodies and lit the spare she carried. She tossed the second onto another corpse and then walked over to the body of the young woman. She lowered the torch to the woman's red blouse, watching as it rapidly caught fire. She looked back across the room as one of the creatures, getting brave, poked its head from the shadows. Growling savagely, Xena grabbed the torch in both hands and threw it end over end into the far passageway; getting some small satisfaction as it struck one of the creatures, sending it and the others behind it fleeing into the darkness. She looked around at the spreading fire, not sure of how long it would burn. She realized she had done all she could, for now. She drew her sword and walked back into the passageway, taking another torch from Gabrielle's sack and lighting it on the one she carried. "Let's get out of here," she said as she led Gabrielle back down the corridor, sparing a last quick glance behind her.
As they reached the first intersection, Xena stopped. "Let's go this way." She turned left onto the upward sloping passage. As they reached the top and the blank wall, Xena pushed down on the nearby tile and hurried to follow Gabrielle as the younger woman rushed outside.
They both took several deep breaths of the warm night air. "You okay?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle nodded as she looked around. "Do you know where we are?"
"I think so. Follow me." She led the woman between a few more of the buildings and soon emerged near the side of the arena. She continued along the rim and took a right at the corner.
Gabrielle suddenly got her bearings as she looked down and saw the gems on the steps up ahead. Looking passed Xena into the pit, she noticed the bodies of the two creatures were gone. "Xena, the..."
"I know," she interrupted her, knowing full well what would become of them. She had figured out what had been going on in the city, and the thought of it sickened her more than anything she'd seen below. "Let's get back to the fire."
As they proceeded back down the wide center street, part of Xena wished that some of the creatures would be stupid enough to come within reach of her sword.
After they'd tossed several more branches onto the fire, Xena undressed and allowed Gabrielle to examine the wound in her side.
"It's not that bad," Gabrielle commented as she passed a damp cloth over the cuts, gently washing away the dried blood.
"That's what I told you. My armor took most of the damage." Xena, lying on her right side, smirked as she looked down at the gashes in her armor. Picking up one of the pieces of cloth, she tried wiping away the majority of the blood. "I'll get it mended in Antigonia."
"Sit up," Gabrielle instructed. As the woman complied, she placed a bandage over the wound, wrapping the cloth a few times around Xena's waist to keep it in place. "All done," she commented. She watched as the woman rose and started to put her armor back on. "Xena, why don't we leave right now instead of waiting until tomorrow? I don't know about you, but I know I won't be getting any sleep."
As Xena leaned down to tighten the laces on her boots, she looked thoughtfully at the younger woman. "We still can't leave yet."
"Why not? Those people are...dead."
"I know. But how did they all get here?" she asked as she walked over to Argo, removing their ration sack from a saddlebag.
"I..don't know," the woman admitted, realizing that she hadn't given the matter much thought.
Xena walked back over and sat near her. "Gabrielle, I think someone's bringing people in here and leaving them for those things. I found a couple of pieces of rope near the pit. I also noticed rope burns on several of the bodies. Those creatures don't seem the type to have much use for rope."
"But why would someone...," Gabrielle let her sentence trail off as she realized the answer to her own question. "The diamonds."
Xena nodded. "I think those...things are what's left of the people who used to live in this city. It's just a feeling. I figure whoever is doing this, comes in during the day, ties the people up to those columns, and then leaves before nightfall. Those creatures probably think they're playing some bastardized version of that sport while someone else collects the prize."
Gabrielle swallowed as she looked into the fire. "And I thought those THINGS were the monsters. Do you think they'll be back tomorrow?"
"For those diamonds? Yeah, I'd count on it."
"Well, we'll be waiting for them this time." Gabrielle replied as she still stared into the fire.
Xena looked across at the slight sneer on the woman's face. She knew exactly how Gabrielle was feeling. "Hey, you want something to eat?"
Gabrielle looked into the sack and pulled out a lime. "Can I borrow your knife?"
"Sure." Xena handed her the dirk from her boot and watched as the woman cut the fruit into four wedges. She wiped off the knife and handed it back.
"Is that all your gonna eat?"
"I'm not hungry," Gabrielle said softly as she tried to fight back the images of what she'd seen that night. "I'm just trying to get this taste out of my mouth." She reached over and took another long drink from one of their waterskins.
Xena rolled up the sack and placed it near the rest of their things nearby. She looked down as Gabrielle rested her head on her shoulder. "You know, you should really try and get some sleep," she said softly. "Those things won't bother us and I'll stay up to keep the fire going."
"I'm not sure when I'll be able to sleep again," she whispered, the image of the small skull they'd seen pushing into her mind.
"I know. I know," Xena said comfortingly as she leaned down and kissed her on the top of the head.
Gabrielle reached over and held Xena's hand in her own, squeezing it. "I love you."
"I love you, too." she answered softly. Xena stared into the dancing flames, vowing that someone would pay for the lives of those people.
Moralaus yawned as he and his men passed over the causeway of the Necropolis, as he'd come to call the ruins. He looked down from his midnight black charger at the half dozen people they'd...acquired, staring in particular at the dark haired young girl. "Pity," he thought to himself.
His mind wandered back just under a month to the afternoon he and his men had first entered the city, leading a group of captured Scharian prisoners. The deserted ruins had seemed as good a place as any to camp for the night before heading back to Vertova. They'd settled around the large pit, making camp near its edge. They had lashed the prisoners to the columns inside for safe keeping. Wishing to avoid discovery, he'd given the near-fatal order that no fire be built. A few hours after sunset, the creatures had attacked, killing two of his men almost immediately. He and eight others had managed to escape, hearing the screams of the bound soldiers as they fled. They'd spent the remainder of the night on a large hill a mile form the city.
Figuring they were safe as long as the sun was up, they'd returned the following day to retrieve their things. They had quickly discovered that there were no bodies to be seen. The five Scharians and his four men were missing. To their greater surprise, they'd also discovered the pile of diamonds at the edge of the pit. After thinking for a while, he'd decided to put his theory to the test. He and his men had gone out and captured a trio of fishermen unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They'd left the confused men tied to the columns that afternoon. On returning the following morning, they'd found another pile of diamonds.
Four weeks later, Moralaus now figured he had enough wealth to go back to Vertova and start raising his own army, one loyal only to him. He would eventually attack the capital by surprise and kill that fat oaf, Zetriphus. After naming himself king, he could unite the rest of the Vertovan militia under him and launch an all out assault on Scharios.
"Don't get ahead of yourself. One thing at a time," he silently chided himself. He planned on heading back to Vertova within the next few days, leaving his second in command behind to continue the fund raising. "No sense in giving up a cow when it's still giving plenty of milk," he thought to himself.
As they arrived at the pit, he looked down at the man, watching him glance around nervously. "Relax Tyros. Those things won't show their miserable faces in the daylight."
"I know. But I'd rather be out of here quickly all the same."
Moralaus tossed him a small sack. "Well then, get the stones." He turned to the rest of his men. "Go ahead. Tie 'em up."
"What are you going to do with us?"
Moralaus smirked down at the brown haired man, noticing again the bruise on his jaw. He'd been giving them trouble ever since they'd captured them near that village. He'd had to start going farther away for his "goods," not wanting to arouse suspicion by having too many disappearances in one place. "Shut up and be a cooperative fellow."
"Fuck you, you Vertovan pig!" He doubled over as one of the soldiers kicked him in the stomach.
"Get on with it," Moralaus instructed. He'd toyed with the idea of simply killing the people and leaving them in the pit. It would certainly save on rope. But, he decided to stick with what worked. It was a small price to pay. As he watched Tyros return with the sack, he smiled and thought, "A small price indeed." As he reached out for the offered bag, something struck it from his hand, ripping it open and sending the stones flying. He watched as the circular object ricocheted off a nearby building, then off another and returned to the hand of a beautiful woman in leather armor standing in the pit a couple dozen yards away.
He smiled down at the confident woman, noticing how attractive she was. "Now that wasn't very nice."
The woman returned the smile. "You think THAT'S bad? I was aiming for your hand."
Moralaus' smile faded. "This is no concern of yours. Be off while I'm still in a good mood."
"I'm making this my concern. Your little business dealings are over." Xena said as her own smile was replaced by a scowl. "Do you know what happens to the people you leave here?"
"I have a pretty good idea." He turned to his men and barked orders, "You two, guard the prisoners. The rest of you, kill her."
Xena laughed wickedly as she ran into the forest of columns with several soldiers in pursuit. As she weaved in between them, she drew her chakram once more. Reaching the opposite edge of the columns, she turned and watched as the men drew closer from different directions. Having practiced the shot a few times that morning, Xena threw at a column several yards away. She listened to the rapid metallic staccato as the chakram bounced from column to column, occasionally interrupted by a scream or grunt. She caught the chakram as it returned and then drew her sword as she spotted two of the men still standing, advancing on her slowly.
Peering from behind one of the columns, Gabrielle spotted the two soldiers standing with their backs to her, guarding the bound people sitting on the bottom step of the pit. She looked back as she heard Xena's chakram at work.
Moralaus looked towards the opposite side of the arena where the cacophony was coming from, letting out a frustrated growl that he wasn't able to see anything. "Stay here," he ordered as he rode to the right along the edge of the pit.
After she'd watched the man ride away, she snuck up quietly behind the two soldiers, holding a finger to her lips when she noticed a few of the others had seen her.
The man with the bruise on his jaw looked up at the soldiers. "So, I hear the Scharians are kicking the shit out of you Vertovans. Bunch of pussies."
The soldier nearest him leaned closer. "You're a slow learner, aren't you?" He punched the man hard in the face.
The second soldier laughed and turned as he felt a tap on his shoulder. He stopped laughing as the staff connected with the side of his head, knocking him senseless.
As Gabrielle aimed the end back at the other soldier, the man blocked it with his sword and kicked her in the stomach, sending her sprawling backwards as she dropped her staff. As she clutched at her mid-section, her eyes went wide, spotting the soldier advancing towards her with a feral grin on his face and the sword raised in his right hand. She crawled backwards slowly, still trying to catch the breath that had been knocked out of her.
Just as the soldier reached her, the man he'd hit rammed him from behind with his shoulder, knocking both of them to the ground next to her.
Moralaus, spotting the incident from the far side of the pit, urged the warhorse down the steps and onto the sandy floor. He drew his sword as he kicked the animal into a charge.
As the soldier struggled to stand, Gabrielle kicked him as hard as she could with her right foot, smiling as he slumped unconscious over her rescuer. She looked back suddenly as she heard the drumming of hoofbeats, spotting Moralaus barreling down upon them. As she watched the others flee, she bent down and tried to pull the body of the soldier off of the man underneath. With his hands bound behind him, he wasn't of much help. She looked up as the horse drew closer.
"RUN!!" the man shouted at her, still struggling to get free.
She ignored him and tried to push the soldier over instead. She looked back as she suddenly heard Xena's battlecry. She watched as the woman leapt from the top of one of the columns and tackled the man, knocking him and the horse to the ground.
As the animal righted itself, Moralaus crawled over to retrieve his sword. Just as he reached it, he saw a booted foot stomp down on the blade. He looked up at the leather clad woman and began to draw a dagger from his belt.
Xena brought her foot up and connected with his jaw, knocking him backwards. She watched as the man's head hit the nearby step. Walking over, she placed a finger to his neck.
"Is he?" Gabrielle asked as she helped the brown haired man stand up.
Xena walked behind him and cut his bonds. She handed Gabrielle the knife. "Here, go free the others." She turned to the man. "What's your name?"
"Eurion," he answered as he rubbed his wrists.
"Eurion, you can help me tie up these two. We'll take them with us," she said, pointing to the two other Vertovan soldiers. She and Eurion used some of the rope the soldiers had brought and tied their hands behind them. She looked up at the black horse standing patiently a few feet away. "We'll put them across the saddle until they come to." She looked up at the afternoon sun. "I'd like us to get out of the city quickly."
"What's your hurry?" the man asked as he helped her sling the second soldier over the horse's back.
"I'll explain later. Let's round up the others." Xena walked the stallion up the steps and the two of them found Gabrielle and the others on the side of the nearby building.
"Are we leaving now?" Gabrielle asked as she handed Xena the knife.
"Yeah. Unless you want to stay?" she asked with a smirk.
"No. Let's go."
As the group reached the opposite end of the causeway, Xena took Gabrielle aside. "Lead them back to the archway. I forgot something."
"I'll be right there. Go on," she said as she headed back over the bridge.
Gabrielle turned and looked up at Eurion, smiling as she suddenly noticed how cute he was, even with the bruise on his chin. "No, Xena forgot something. She'll catch up to us." She led them around the collapsed building and to the large entryway. After a few minutes, she smiled as she spotted Xena walking towards them.
As Xena reached the intersection, she turned to the right and raised her fingers to her mouth, whistling loudly. She watched as Argo galloped from behind a side street and joined them. "What kept you?" she asked the animal, stroking its neck.
She turned to the others. "Let's put some distance between us and this place. Eurion?"
"Do you have a bed anywhere in your village?" she asked as she led them through the huge portal.
Eurion smiled. "I think we might be able to find one somewhere."
"Well then, lead the way."
The group set out across the grassy field, all of them anxious to put the high marble walls far behind.
Several hours later, they walked along a dirt road running parallel to a wide stream. The soldiers, who had regained consciousness, walked ahead obediently with Eurion and another man each holding a sword nor far behind. Xena smiled as she heard the sounds of a bird singing happily in a nearby tree, realizing how much she took the little things like that for granted. She was definitely looking forward to a hot meal, a warm bath, and a good night's sleep as soon as they got to Eurion's village. She watched as the girl traveling with them stumbled up ahead. Eurion dusted her off and placed her in the saddle of the black charger. She smiled as she looked over the man, realizing that he was fairly handsome and fairly muscular.
Eurion, spotting Xena's gaze, smiled back and blushed slightly.
"Hey!?" Gabrielle whispered as she lightly slapped her on the arm. "I AM right here, you know."
"Yeah, I know." Xena's smile broadened as she looked down at the playfully jealous expression on the woman's face. "Well, maybe I won't go right to sleep," she thought to herself.
"Hey Eurion, how much farther to your village?" Gabrielle called out, still smiling up at Xena.
"Just about a mile."
Gabrielle looked up at the sky. "Good, it looks like it'll be dark soon.
Xena's smile faded as she turned and barely looked back over her shoulder. After a moment, she turned back and looked down at Gabrielle. "Hey, you hungry?"
"Starving," she replied with an odd smile on her face as she looked back up at Xena.
Xena cocked her head, trying to read the woman's expression as they continued down the road.
Moralaus groaned as he started to come around. "That woman kicks like a mule," he said softly. Sitting up straight, he kept his eyes closed as he took inventory of his injuries. Aside from his arms being a bit numb, and his head feeling like an anvil, he felt okay.
"At least you're alive, Moralaus," he thought to himself. "You have the diamonds stashed in the hills and you can always get more men and come back to the city later." He took a deep breath and leaned back against the stone. His eyes popped open as he suddenly realized his arms weren't numb, but pulled back behind him.
He looked around at the columns around him as the terrifying fact that he was tied to one sunk in. He strained against the ropes uselessly. Looking up, he saw that the first few stars had appeared in the evening sky. "No!" he screamed as he pulled again at the thick rope. "Noooo! NOOOOO!!"
He continued to scream for the better part of an hour, his cries echoing off the gray marble walls of the otherwise silent city.
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