Title: A Xena Murder Mystery Author: Smenzer Rating: PG Pairing: Ares/Gabrielle Archive: Yes, please. Let me know if you take it, OK? Teaser: A killer stalks Xena & the others at a party! Disclaimer: The characters are not mine. They belong to Studios USA or Whoever owns the Rights to Xena: Warrior Princess.

It was a dark and stormy night when Gabrielle entered the temple. The fierce wind outside almost blew the door out of her hand as she shivered with cold. Xena, who was right behind her, steadied it and allowed the bard to enter. The warm fires burning in the hearth urged her deeper inside the building. She heard Xena shove the door close behind her and Gabrielle rubbed her arms, trying to warm them. Before she could take another step, a figure leaped out of the shadows at her.

"You made it!" Aphrodite grinned. "I knew you wouldn't miss it!"

"Aphrodite!" Gabrielle gasped, her mouth hanging open. "You're wearing BLACK!"

"Well, yeah!" Dite squealed as she held out her arms. Dite's black dress was like nothing Gabrielle had ever seen before. The chest was low cut, which came as no surprise as Aphrodite never worried about hiding her body. The satin dress was overlaid with the finest black lace. It clung to her curves and narrowed near the ankles, with lacy tendrils at the very bottom. More tendrils hung from her wrists, where they were attached like bracelets. Her arms were bare. "It's a PARTY, you know? So I got dressed up!"

"So why exactly are you having a party?" Xena asked as she joined them.

"To celebrate the harvest, you know? And it'll be fun!" Dite explained as she led them deeper into the temple. The temple's main room had been redecorated. The pink conches were gone, as were the ever present rose petals. Instead, the flickering torch light revealed groups of bright orange pumpkins, black lace coverings on the walls and a big wooden barrel in the corner. When Xena approached the barrel and peered inside, she saw apples floating in water. "We'll have a blast!"

Xena looked doubtfully at the apples. "If you say so."

"So who else is coming to the party?" Gabrielle asked, curious. She was glad the Goddess had invited her to the party and she was going to enjoy herself. If nothing else, it got her out of a miserable day outside. The weather had turned for the worst just pass noon, the sky dark with angry gray clouds. Then the wind had picked up, howling like a beast through the naked trees. It had looked any minute the sky would open up and drench her to the bone. Luckily, they had reached Aphrodite's temple before the rain started. Gabrielle turned as the outer door flew open and two familiar figures hurried inside. "Hercules! Iolaus!"

The big Demigod shook rain droplets out of his shoulder length brown hair as he shoved the door shut. "It started to drizzle out there."

"Yeah, what rotten weather!" Iolaus commented as he hurried to join the women in the main room. Thunder boomed loudly overhead and the little hunter glanced up at the dark rafters high overhead. A moment later rain pounded on the roof, sounding like a hundred marching feet. "Boy, am I ever glad to be in here!"

"Looks like it's going to be a bad one." Hercules said as he joined the others. He glanced around the room in surprise, taking in the new look. "Taking decorating lessons from Ares and Discord? Truthfully, Dite, I'm shocked. I never knew you had a dark side."

Aphrodite's mouth dropped open, her eyes flashed. "This doesn't have anything to do with a dark side! It's this thing I heard about from some other Gods, a different pantheon. They got this belief that on one day of the year the dead come back to visit the living. I know it's corny and all, but it sounded interesting, you know? And mortals have it kind of bleak right now, facing the long winter and all...."

"And you thought it would be a good excuse to have a party." Hercules smiled as he wrapped a slightly damp arm around his sister. "And let me guess: this is the day those dead are supposed to come visiting."

"Well, yeah!" Aphrodite's pale face lit up momentarily as lightning flashed outside, the brilliant white light visible through narrow windows high on the walls. She led the others over to her altar, where she had festive treats waiting. "See? I even got us snacks!"

"Leave it to Aphrodite to use her altar as a snack table!" Iolaus laughed as he reached for an apple with a thin metal rod sticking out of the top. He soon discovered the rod was necessary, as the apple was coated in a thick, sticky goo. Chopped nuts clung to the goo. Iolaus took a bite and grinned. "Hmmm, this is good!"

"Hephy invented it." Dite admitted.

Ares appeared in a blue flash of light, scowling when he spotted Hercules. Ignoring his half brother for the moment, he turned to his sister. "So what did you want?"

"Ar, it's a party!" Aphrodite explained as she went over to him. "You're going to have some fun!"

"Me? Have fun? With HIM here? You got to be joking." Ares crossed his arms over his chest, his dark eyes drifting around the temple.

"Yes, with him here!" Aphrodite rolled her eyes, sighing. "Look, your BOTH my brothers and I want you both here for my party! So can't you two just get along for one night? Please? For me? And I promise you, Ar, you're going to have a great time! It's going to be a real blast!"

Ares eyed the wooden tub with apples with suspicion. "I'm not bobbing for apples."

"That's just a decoration, Ar!" The Love Goddess laughed. Her eyes twinkled with excitement. "I have a much better activity planned!"

***

"We're going to do WHAT?" Ares said, outrage in his voice.

"I said we're going to commune with the voices of the dead." Aphrodite repeated, her nose held high. "Today is the day the spirits come visiting the living, free from the underworld. We should see what they have to say."

"And how are we going to do that?" Hercules asked, skepticism in his voice. "I'm afraid I have to agree with Ares. It just sounds ... stupid. I thought this was going to be a party."

"I think Aphrodite just discovered ghost stories." Gabrielle smiled. As a bard, she was more familiar with things of this nature. Most mortals had a slight fascination with the supernatural whether they wanted to admit it or not. The tradition of sitting around a campfire or the family hearth to tell scary stories into the night was an old one, stretching back hundreds of years. It filled some need man had, although Gabrielle was unsure exactly what that need was. She turned to the two dour men. "Why don't we just humor her? Besides, it might be fun!"

"Yeah, I'm game." Iolaus said as he stuffed a second sweet covered apple into his mouth.

"All right." Hercules sighed. The big hero stood there, a half eaten candy apple in his hand. "But how are we going to do this?"

"Easy!" Dite explained happily as she dashed over to a candle lit corner of the room. She picked up a square board and brought it over. "I got this from a mortal who's an expert on these things. It's magic and will let us communicate with the dead."

Xena took one glance at the board and noticed it had all the letters of the alphabet on it. The letters ran along the edge in a circle. The Warrior Princess rolled her blue eyes and poked Hercules in the ribs. She leaned her head close to his. "Looks like Dite got cheated. That's an Ouija board used by scam artists."

Hercules' body jiggled several times, a hand over his mouth. Coughing loudly, he gave his sister an apologetic look. He hoped she didn't realize he had been laughing. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt her feelings.

Soon they were all seated in a circle according to Aphrodite's wishes, as she had a seating plan in mind. First there was Aphrodite, then Hercules, Xena, Iolaus, Gabrielle and Ares. The wooden table they sat at was small, so they were all close together. The Ouija board was placed in the center of the otherwise bare table. The Love Goddess then happily placed a small triangular piece in the center of the board. Thunder rolled overhead, drowning out something Aphrodite had tried to say.

Gabrielle leaned forward with interest. "So how does this work, Aphrodite?"

Ares turned his head to look at Gabrielle, who was seated next to him. "Don't tell me you believe this bunk?"

"I just want to see what's going to happen." She replied calmly.

Aphrodite lit more candles, then joined them at the table. "Now I want you all to clear your minds so we can make contact with the spirit world. You all need to hold hands."

Gabrielle felt Iolaus grip her hand on one side, his hand sticky from the candy apples he had ate. She held her other hand out to Ares. After a few moments of hesitating, he gave in. She couldn't help but notice how much larger his hand was compared to hers. Heat radiated out of it, warming her. Gabrielle glanced around and saw everyone was now holding hands. The circle was complete.

A sense of expectancy gripped the air. Gabrielle wasn't sure if it was the storm raging outside or the flickering candles or the fact that they were sitting here with two Gods from Olympus. All the nerves in her body were alive and tingling. Incense filled her noise, as did the smoke from the flickering candles and the sweet scent of apples. She was just sure SOMETHING was going to happen here this night. Then Aphrodite began to speak.

"Now, you are not to break the circle for any reason. to do so would be dangerous. Do you all understand that?" The Love Goddess asked, being completely serious.

"Yes, Aphrodite." Hercules answered for everyone, squeezing her hand.

"OK, then let's get started. The spirits will talk to us through the board. They'll spell out words with the ... thingy." Aphrodite explained. Shaking her long mane of wavy blonde hair behind her shoulders, she sat up straighter. Gripping Hercules and Ares' hands tighter, she closed her eyes. "Oh Spirits on the Other Side, we invite you here to talk with us this night. Guide us with your wisdom and knowledge. Come within our warm circle and give us a message. We are waiting."

Gabrielle leaned forward a bit more, her eyes glued to the small triangular marker sitting on the Ouija board. Lightning flashed several times in a row, burning her retinas with the harsh light. Each time after the lightning faded, the shadows in the room seemed darker, more mysterious. Had the piece moved slightly during one of the flashes? She couldn't tell.

"Is anyone there? Can you here me?" Aphrodite continued in a smooth voice, her eyes still closed. "Talk to us, O Spirits!"

The candle flames suddenly flared up, each fire turning blood red and nearly a foot long. Then the triangular marker scraped across the board inch by inch.

Iolaus gasped, tightly squeezing Gabrielle's hand.

Gabrielle's blue eyes widened as she watched the wooden piece move. She turned to Ares. "Are you doing that?"

Ares shook his head.

The piece moved crazily around the center of the board in circles and zigzags. Then it stood still.

"Is someone here?" Aphrodite asked again.

The marker moved towards a letter, then towards a second letter, a third and fourth.

I AM HERE

"Whoa." Iolaus said quietly. "This is actually working."

"Give us a message." Aphrodite said, her eyes now open and watching the board like everyone else. "What do you want to tell us? Why did you come here tonight?"

The triangular marker spun around rapidly, then started to spell out more words. Gabrielle slowly spoke the words out loud as they formed.

YOU WILL ALL DIE TONIGHT

"Hey, what kind of message is that?" Iolaus asked Aphrodite. "That's not funny at all."

"Yeah, aren't you taking this a bit far, Sis?" Hercules asked, frowning.

"But I didn't spell that!" Aphrodite exclaimed, her eyes wide in shock. "The spirit did!"

"Yeah, sure." Iolaus laughed. "You're just a Goddess with powers! Of course you made the thingamajig move! Because there's no spirit here in this room, just the six of us."

The room was plunged into blackness as all the torches and candles were snuffed out at the same time. Gabrielle gasped as she felt Iolaus' hand torn out of hers, nearly pulling her out of her chair. Only Ares' firm grip on her other hand saved her from tumbling into the blackness. A frightening gurgling sound filled the room and her heat beat rapidly in fright. After a moment, the sound stopped.

"No body move!" Hercules called out from somewhere in the dark room.

Gabrielle reminded herself that it was all just a parlor game. No doubt the lights going out was part of Aphrodite's party. Yes, that's all it was. She remembered that Hercules had been sitting almost across the table from her. Nothing could go wrong with both Xena and Hercules right here with her.

Yet she tightened her grip on Ares' hand. His warm touch, the softness of his breath, was reassuring.

What had been that awful sound?

A light flared as Hercules relit one of the torches. He brought the light closer to the table and Gabrielle's eyes went to where Iolaus had been. His chair was toppled over backward onto the floor.... And he was sprawled there. There was something dark on his throat.

With shock she realized it was the triangular piece from the game....

Hercules knelt by his friend, feeling for a pulse.

"He's dead."