Janice Covington squatted down, absently letting the dirt in her hand trickle through her fingers. Lifting her head, she surveyed the landscape from this new perspective, as if a change in viewing angle would make all the difference. She didn't need any sign or marker to tell her that these were the ruins of Amphipolis. She could feel it. Argo strolled over and nudged her mistress' hand. Janice smiled as she absently petted the dog, her eyes continually roving across the ruins. Slowly she stood, brushing her hand against the leg of her sturdy work pants. Her six-shooter comfortably rested at one hip, her bullwhip at the other. Janice minutely adjusted her hat and smiled. She was close, she could feel it.
"Any luck?" Emily asked from behind Janice's left shoulder.
"Janice doesn't believe in luck," Mel supplied from next to Emily. The Amazon leader gave a mild snort and returned her attention to Janice, waiting for an answer.
"These are the outskirts of Amphipolis, no doubt about it," Janice commented. "The location of the Strymon river, the place where Lake Achinos was... the details all fit. The central city would have been built over, many times, but out here... we should have a chance at finding something intact."
"What exactly is it we're looking for?" Stacey asked as she strolled over to the group, taking a moment to pull her jacket more tightly around her body.
Mel empathized with the young woman. The temperature was cool but the breeze coming off the ocean carried a penetrating chill. Mel removed her hands from her pockets to quickly turn up the collar of her jacket against the brisk cold. Janice's eyes flicked over and she smiled. While she was fully in the company of Janice the Archeologist, her lover was still acutely aware of her every move.
Something caught Janice's eye. She focused her gaze on a low hill just past Mel. "I think I may have found it," she said softly as she walked over to the hill. The mound was perhaps seven feet high and twenty-five feet in diameter. The other women watched, puzzled, as Janice circled the formation, Argo keeping close to her left leg. "Emily, can you have someone bring the surveying equipment over here?" she called from across the mound. The Amazon leader relayed the request.
A short time later, Janice had moved beyond surveying equipment to a shovel. After some deliberation, she chose a section of the mound and began to dig. The other women offered to help, but Janice sent them away, asking them instead to take readings and survey other areas of the city. "What's going on?" Mel asked when she and Emily were the only other people remaining by the mound.
Janice looked briefly at the Amazon leader before speaking frankly to her lover. "I think this is the crypt," she said without preamble, "what do you think?"
"How can you tell?" Emily asked immediately.
Mel smiled demurely at the blond woman, who was nearly able to look her in the eye. "Janice and I have very strong gut feelings where these things are concerned," she explained. Picking up the canteen that was slung around her shoulder, she handed it to Janice. "Why don't you take a break? Let me look around."
The archeologist nodded, took a healthy swig, then wiped her mouth with her sleeve. She readjusted the hat on her head, then slowly poured some water over Argo's muzzle, getting hit by flying droplets as oblivious to the cold, the dog enthusiastically lapped at the falling water. She sat down against the bank and watched Mel as she slowly strolled around the mound. Her movements were graceful and elegant in spite of her attire. Mel was dressed in a similar fashion to Janice, finally realizing the practicality in such wardrobe choices. Still, her pants were pleated and better fitting, and her shirt was crisp and wrinkle free. She returned to Janice's side and accepted the offered canteen wishing it were hot coffee.
"So you're thinking the tavern was that way?" she asked, pointing to her left.
Janice nodded. "Yeah, across and just west of the blacksmith's shop. That would put the entrance to Amphipolis over there." She pointed toward crumbled ruins some distance away that may have been part of a gate or wall.
Mel nodded, agreeing. "Okay, so we're just outside the city. That makes sense. I reckon this could be it."
"I didn't want to say anything in front of the others in case I'm wrong," Janice continued, picking up the shovel once again.
"Lan' sakes," Mel replied with a smile. "Janice Covington, wrong? Perish the thought."
Smiling, Janice teased right back. "Listen to Scarlett O'Hara..."
"I heard," Emily said dryly, looking at both women. "Last night, all night, and I didn't get any sleep." She picked up another shovel and joined Janice in digging.
Janice looked over at Mel and winked. "See, I warned you."
"Actually," Emily broke in, "you're the loud one."
The archeologist frowned at that, then resumed her digging in ernest. A short time later she stopped, looking critically at the rock she'd uncovered. "I think this is the top of the doorway," she announced. "It almost looks like a rockslide or some other debris sealed it. It's a good sign."
Emily radioed the four Amazons surveying the city. When they returned, the entire group worked to clear a small section of doorway.
By late afternoon, Janice Covington eased herself through a small hole at the top of the door to the chamber below. She lit her lamp and looked around. Satisfied that it was safe, she whistled. Argo scrambled up the hill and followed her mistress inside. The slope on the inside of the crypt was such that the dog was able to scramble down the debris with little difficulty. Mel followed Argo and was in turn followed by Emily and Tory. Stacey remained outside in radio contact with The Charmer. Debby and Shayne remained on the perimeter of the mound as lookouts.
Janice surveyed the interior of the crypt, fighting against the anxiety she felt in the chill setting. Four large stone slabs were positioned in a row in the center of the room. Each slab was about three feet wide, seven feet long, and just over a foot thick. "So the sarcophagi were here?" Emily asked, following Janice's gaze.
"Yeah," the archeologist confirmed. "They would have been set on those base stones.
"That would be a huge project, moving something that big," Tory commented.
Janice nodded. "I'm surprised they didn't just put all the bodies in one sarcophagus, and take that..."
"Oh my!" Mel exclaimed, cutting Janice off. Reaching the heiress' side, Janice saw what had startled her lover. Two skeletons sat side by side in the far corner of the room. "Who are they?" Mel asked, horrified.
"Good question," Janice agreed as she kneeled down to examine them more closely. Peering at the skeletons critically, Janice took note of their position, what little remained of their clothing and their immediate vicinity. Shifting her position so she could sit next to them she looked over at the debris that sealed the door. Peering closely at the bodies once again, she studied each rib cage. Finally, she followed the arm bones of the skeleton closest to her down to the floor to the point where the bones of the hand rested among dust, ash and cobwebs. "Mel, would you hand me that lamp?" she asked as Mel passed her the light.
Bringing the lamp to the floor she studied the hand. Blowing at the dust, yet careful not to disturb the bones, she meticulously cleared a small section of floor. "What is it?" Emily finally asked, unable to restrain herself any longer.
Janice looked up, her expression serious. "I think these two women were Amazons," she said sadly. "It's my guess that they stayed behind when the other three took the bodies. I'll bet Velasca showed up here expecting to find Gabrielle and found these two instead. I'm afraid they got the brunt of her inevitable temper tantrum."
"What are you saying?" Mel whispered, staring at the two still forms wondering how they could have told Janice so much.
"That door," Janice continued, hurrying over to the blocked entrance. "This kind of debris, coupled with those scorch marks," she said pointing to the walls just inside the entry way, "are from an explosion of some sort, not a natural cave in of an ancient structure. What's left of the clothing is clearly Amazon. Here," she said pointing to the rib cage of one body, "she was stabbed in the heart." Mel followed Janice's eyes to the knife still clutched in the hand of the other still form. "By that knife, I suspect."
"They don't look like they were fighting," Emily commented.
Janice shook her head. "No, they weren't. If Velasca found them instead of Gabrielle and sealed the entrance in some godly fit of anger... they would have starved to death. This one is holding the remains of a water skin. I'd guess that they tried to escape, but for whatever reason couldn't. Maybe when the food and water ran out they decided to end their suffering quickly as opposed to waiting for the inevitable."
"So there is nothing here to tell us where Xena and Gabrielle are," Tory said sadly.
"Oh, no." Janice disagreed, nodding at the other skeleton. "She's told us exactly where they are." Holding up her hands to stop the barrage of questions she gathered the other three women around the bodies, pointing to the recently dusted floor.
"What's that?" Emily asked, looking at some flaky black markings.
"Dried blood, very ancient dried blood," Janice supplied then looked at Mel, her eyes gentle. "Look familiar, Mel?"
It took only a moment but the pattern registered and Mel's eyes grew wide. There, drawn in the blood of a dying Amazon, was an image Mel knew all too well. "It's a chakram," she breathed.
Outside the crypt, Emily, Mel and Janice stood deep in conversation as the other women reverently put the remains of their ancestors to rest. Janice watched without regret atse bodies were lovingly removed from the tomb and set upon a hastily constructed funeral fire. "But you said the chakram was in Ares' tomb," Emily said, puzzled by the cryptic clue.
Mel nodded. "I saw it myself. Do we have to go back there?" she asked Janice, her concern evident.
"I don't think so. It has to be something else..." Janice wondered aloud. "I wonder where it came from?"
Mel's head snapped up, her blue eyes shining with understanding. "That's it Janice!"
"What?" Janice asked, perplexed.
"The clue. There was a forest not far from here, on the cliffs. It's where Xena first got her chakram. The cave entrance where the bodies were hidden, it must be near that spot."
Suddenly a breeze blew through the ruins of Amphipolis. While it was gentle and mild, it made the hair at the back of Janice's neck stand up on end. Time felt like very precious commodity now. There wasn't much of it left.
Coming to a decision, she turned to Emily, bravery and determination etched in her fearless features. "Emily, take Argo and the others and get back to the boat. We'll radio you with our location when we find the cave. Until then stay out of sight."
"No, way," the Amazon protested. "We're going with you."
"This isn't about me," Janice countered. "If you really want Xena and Gabrielle to be put to rest, do what I say. I'm going to need some dynamite and rope. We don't need the boat calling attention to our location. When the bodies are gone, we'll call you and you can come get us."
Mel brightened at the Janice's use of the word 'we'. "You're going to take me with you?" she asked.
"I need you to help me find the cave, Mel. But I don't want you going in. I need you to lower me on the rope." Mel nodded. There would be time for further discussion later.
Emily hurried off, getting the supplies Janice requested as the archeologist whistled for her dog. Argo padded over and sat down, looking up expectantly at her mistress. "Good, girl," Janice said, her voice cracking. Untying the bandanna from around her neck she knelt on the ground and with trembling fingers tied it around the big dog's neck. "For once in your life you're going to have to listen to me, girl." She said fighting back tears. "You're going to go with Auntie Emily. Mommie's going someplace you can't follow. 'Sides you hate caves as much as I do. Remember I love you and I'll see you when I get back." Argo cocked her head to the side, enjoying the attention of her mistress and her mistress' mate. While she couldn't comprehend the words she could tell that the mood was serious and sad. Moments later the blond haired one returned and handed Janice a heavy pack. After getting a final kiss on the top of her head, Argo watched as the two women left, quickly heading across the ruins. Strong arms restrained the dog as she struggled to join her pack. Finally there was nothing to do but howl in sorrow and frustration.
"Is this it?" Janice asked as they neared the cliff edge. They were on a high plateau. The rhythmic pounding of the surf could be heard from far below. The Aegean Sea reflected the brilliant sun creating the dazzling effect of diamonds sparkling on its surface. It took a few moments for Mel to catch up. When she caught her breath, she looked around, studying the landscape.
"Janice, I just don't know," Mel said anxiously as panic began to set in.
The archeologist nodded, and walked over to where Mel stood. Offering her the canteen, she smoothed a stray strand of ebony hair that had escaped Mel's pony tail. "It's okay, Mel," Janice soothed. "I know this looks a lot different. The forests that were here centuries ago are gone now. Just take it easy, relax."
"Relax?" Mel demanded. "How can y'all tell me to relax? I know y'all think something bad is going to happen. I saw you say goodbye to Argo." Janice's eyes fell at the words and Mel knew she'd struck close to home. "Janice, I'm scared," she finished quietly, not sure how her lover would respond to that admission.
Taking Mel quite by surprise, Janice smiled up at her, her eyes suddenly almost dancing in their warmth. "I know you're scared, Mel. Trust me, I'd be worried if you weren't. But you can handle this, I know you can. Mel, you're not the same woman you were six months ago. I didn't think you could get any more magnificent, but you did. You're a natural behind the wheel of a car, you shoot straight, hell you can toss me around like a sack of flour. That's all you, Mel, not Xena. You can do this, too. Just try to remember when you first saw the chakram. When did Xena first see the chakram? Don't worry about where you got the info. I don't care if it was a scroll, a dream, a Solari story. Just think about the images."
Taking a deep breath, Mel closed her eyes. "You've changed, too, Janice," she commented as she let her thoughts wander.
"How so?" Janice asked as she patiently waited for Mel's input.
Mel shrugged, her eyes still closed. "When I first met you, I wondered if there would be room in your heart for me. Yet at every turn you surprise me. You have an enormous capacity for love, Janice Covington. I see it with how you treat Pandora, Hyperion, the children. I know adjusting to the university and to me has been hard. I'm glad you decided to stick with it."
"Mel," Janice said, her voice urgent and intense. "I love you more than I've ever loved anything. I'd happily walk on hot coals if it were into your arms."
At that Mel's blue eyes flashed open. "Then promise me you won't sacrifice yourself for Xena and Gabrielle," she said softly.
Janice flinched as if she'd been slapped. Tearing her eyes away from her lover, she looked at the ground. "Mel, I hope you love me too much to ask that."
Mel closed her eyes again, this time brushing away a single tear that made its way down her sculpted cheek. "I do," she whispered. Steeling herself against her inner conflict, she looked around the plateau once again. "Xena saw the chakram for the first time when she was a little girl. She couldn't have been more than ten winters old at the time."
"Ten winters?" Janice interrupted with a frown.
Mel smiled sheepishly. "Sorry, ten years old. She'd been playing in the forest near the cliffs with Lyceus and Toris. The boys had run off, and Xena was tracking them." As Janice followed, Mel began to walk towards the cliff edge. "She came across a crippled man, over there." Mel pointed to a patch of ground a short distance away. "She wasn't afraid of him. Rather, she went to see if she could help. He was a kind man, impressed that Xena was not intimidated by his disfigurement. She was immediately intrigued by the chakram he held and asked to see how it worked. Isn't that strange, Janice?" Mel asked hoping against hope that her memory was not as significant as she now suspected.
"It was no accident that Xena encountered Hephaestus that day," the archeologist replied, her voice gentling the firmness of her words. "What happened next?"
As if in a trance, Mel continued. "He taught her how to hold it without cutting herself. He also showed her how to throw it. Positioning the chakram in her hand he drew her arm back and she threw it with all her might. It richocted off of two trees and a boulder then imbedded itself high up in a tree..." she paused turning her head to the side, "right here. Hesphestus said that when she could reach the chakram and pull it free, it would be hers."
"When was that?" Janice asked, intrigued at the story.
"After Xena's encounter with Caesar, when her heart was consumed by hatred, she came back through Amphipolis. Her original intent was to pay her respects to Lyceus. She came through this grove of trees to keep out of sight. She didn't want anyone to know she'd been here, especially her mother. As she rode by this tree, she saw the chakram. On horseback it was now within her reach. Sure enough, when she touched it, it easily pulled free."
Janice nodded. "Okay, that tree was where? Here?"
Mel shook her head, clearing her mind. "What? Oh yes, the tree. Yeah, it was right there," she said, more certain of herself this time.
Walking straight for the cliff from the point Mel indicated, Janice paused at the cliff edge. Blue and white surf pounded the rocks one hundred feet below. "Oh my!" Mel exclaimed, moving near the ledge behind her lover.
"Careful, no shoving," Janice warned, looking critically at the sheer cliff wall. Easing back from the precipice, she extracted a length of sturdy rope and proceeded to tie it around her waist. "Okay, I guess it's time to go cave hunting." While looking around for an anchor, the radio in the pack crackled to life. Mel answered it and in moments the Southerner's frantic warning interrupted Janice's thoughts.
"Janice, it's Quest and the women on the The Charmer. Another boat has arrived, and it sounds like Leesto."
"Oh no," Janice groaned. "I really didn't think she'd show." Janices eyes closed in pain, several tears spilling down her cheeks. It took Mel only a moment to figure out why. Leesto had showed up, near the boat where she'd just sent Emily and the others. It was quite possible that at that moment Calisandra Leesto had Argo.
The transport truck shook violently as it headed down the steep dirt road. "Damn," Emily cursed from behind the wheel. "I think we've got a flat."
"You can say that again," Shayne agreed from her spot at the back of the truck. Argo sat between the large Amazon and Debby, the nurse who had earlier bandaged her foot. Soon, the vehicle rolled to a stop and the back of the truck opened. Argo watched carefully. When the women began to move and the grip on the bandanna around her neck loosened slightly, she charged for the back and leapt from the truck.
Emily and Stacey chased after her, but it soon became apparent that they had no hope of catching the muscular dog. "Damn it," Emily swore as she kicked at the dirt. "Covington is gonna have my head for that." She watched as the moving form of the retreating dog sped out of sight.
"It's hot, and we've been on the road for an hour. Maybe by the time Argo catches up to Janice, the danger will be over," Tory supplied helpfully.
"I hope you're right," Emily replied as she returned her attention once again to the flat tire.
"A little more to the right," Janice called from her position on the cliff face. It was steep, enough so that the rope was quite necessary to keep from falling, but not so steep that the archeologist could hang directly from the sturdy rope. That had made her progress down the cliff face slow. She frequently had to change position to keep her life line from catching on protruding rocks or small plants that thrived on the cliff face.
"You see anything yet?" Mel called down, tying off the rope to halt her lover's downward progress. She winced painfully, her hands having suffered painful burns from lowering Janice down the cliff face.
"No, not... wait, there's a shadow." Mel listened intently as she heard Janice shuffle over a few feet. "Hot damn, there it is."
"I declare, Janice Covington, y'all don't need to swear. A simple 'I found it' would do," Mel said, crossing her arms. She winced again as her hand came into contact with her arm. Having never had blisters on her hands before, she was finding it an inconvenient as well as painful experience.
"Awww, that's what makes you crazy about me, Mel," Janice continued, her voice now picking up the traces of an echo. "I say and do all the things you were brought up to think unseemly. Deep down you're a rebel, Melinda Pappas, sure as I'm standing in Xena's cave."
Mel hurried to the cliff edge, getting as close as she dared. "Are you sure?" she called down hopefully.
"Oh, yeah," Janice called back. "I can see the marble friezes here at the entrance. That's one mystery solved. Lower down my satchel, and three or four sticks of dynamite. It looks like this tunnel goes a ways back. I'll have to check it out."
After hearing Mel's affirmative response, Janice turned her attention back to the cave opening. The late afternoon light showed brightly at the entrance. As her eyes adjusted to the deep shadows, Janice noted how high the ceiling extended. Even Mel would have plenty of headroom. The discovery would have felt great if only Argo were here. Aside from the discovery of the actual scrolls themselves, Argo had been present for all of Janice Covington's triumphs. It was impossible for her not to dwell on the absence of the animal that for several years had been her closest friend. Only in Mel Pappas did she find another soul as trustworthy. With a sad sigh, she searched through the debris at the cave opening, finding a serviceable torch among the rubble. With a light source in hand, she headed into the dark recesses of the cave.
The temple friezes were lined up three on each side as the tunnel extended into the cliff wall. As Janice felt the ambient temperature decrease, her own heart rate sped up. After a few twists and turns, she could no longer see light from the entrance. Fully consumed by the cliff, and surrounded by stone that was cool to the touch, Janice fought the urge to flee with every fiber of her being. Chiding herself for irrational fears, and drawing some measure of comfort from the tiny animals she saw packed together along the cave ceiling, she continued on. It was a familiar routine. Janice Covington was far from fearless, she only seemed so because she simply refused to let her fears get in the way of her objectives.
The tunnel sloped sharply upwards, and Janice began to climb up the cool rock formation. Pressing her back against one wall and her legs against another she made quick progress. "How the hell did they get it up here?" she wondered aloud as she worked. In moments she had her answer. Reaching out with one hand to climb some more, a piece of wood broke off in her strong grasp. After examining it and the spot where she'd pried it loose, it was clear she was looking at the remains of an ancient ramp. Something big and heavy had been either shoved or pulled up this tunnel.
It was almost anticlimactic when she happened upon her prize. Sitting there in the middle of the tunnel was a simple sarcophagus. It was unmarked and plain, but the style and structure told her what she needed to know. Here was the final resting place of Xena of Amphipolis and Gabrielle of Poteidaia.
Janice debated for a moment if she should pry the top off now and make sure the bodies were intact. Deciding against it, she climbed back down and headed back towards the cave entrance. Reassured by the glimpse of sunlight and sky, she considered her options. It would be dusk soon. She wanted, needed, to be out of the cave by night fall. She was almost to the entrance when she heard a loud noise. Spinning around, her gun drawn and ready to fire, it took a moment before she realized that Mel had just lowered the satchel with dynamite. Reholstering her weapon, she shouted her thanks up to the woman waiting topside, and slung the bag over her shoulder.
Argo kept a steady pace as she headed back up the road to rejoin her pack. She was tired and thirsty, but knew without a doubt that she would be needed, most likely to save her mistress as she had so often in the past. Stopping to check the trail again, she sniffed first the air, then the ground. She was close, very close. In moments she'd be at the place where she'd been sent away with the other pack. Argo didn't dwell on unpleasant thoughts, she was certain her mistress hadn't done it to be malicious. Humans just didn't always know what was best for them. Pack unity was a painfully simple concept that humans struggled with endlessly.
Mel peered over the cliff edge, anxiously waiting for some sign that her lover was ready to come back up. She was startled half out of her wits by the calm voice that spoke right next to her. "What are we looking at?" She spun around to find a dapper young man on the ground kneeling next to her.
"Professor Byron?" she asked, puzzled by the appearance of Janice's university suitor.
"Not exactly," he replied, his eyes holding something sinister. Shoving Mel away from the cliff edge he picked up Janice's backpack and rummaged through it until he extracted the radio. Mel was about to scream a warning to Janice when he smoothly pulled out a gun and pointed it at her. Mel shut her mouth soundlessly. "Leesto, this is Byron. You got all of those bitches rounded up?"
"That's no way to talk about your family, William," Callisandra Leesto's voice chimed back. "A few had some car trouble and were late, but we're all one big happy family now. What about pretty Xena and the irritating blond?"
"Xena is going to be taking a nap up here shortly. Sure you don't just want me to throw her over the cliff? She could meet you down there." Byron smiled as he spoke, looking at Mel as if she were dirt. Frozen with fear, the Southerner tried to exude a confidence she didn't feel, praying that what ever part of her was Xena would hurry up and surface.
"Don't you dare," Leesto warned. "I'll be right up. Any sign of Jan's mutt?"
As an afterthought, Byron looked around. "Here, puppy, puppy..." he called then whistled. "No sign of it. I'm sure it's around. Kill it when you finish off Xena. I'm going to take care of Jan and those bodies. Byron out." Dropping the radio into his pocket, he grinned once again. "Nap time, my dear," he said then extended his open hand toward the Southerner. A small explosion erupted at her feet, sending her flying backward. Her momentum was stopped by a particularly large boulder, her crumpled body falling to the ground, unconscious. Byron chuckled to himself as he grabbed ahold of the rope and began his descent down the cliff face. "Now to find Janice. I told you once before, Gabrielle, you can't hide from a god."
Argo strolled into the clearing, her hackles rising instantly. There was a danger here so intense she could almost taste it. Growling softly in her throat she continued forward, looking for any signs of movement or danger. In no time she found her mistress' backpack. She followed her scent to the edge of the cliff where the scent of danger assaulted her sensitive nose anew. Backing away slightly, she scouted for the best way to proceed downward when the scent of her mistress' mate registered in her canine awareness. Turning her head, she spotted the taller woman about twenty-five feet away.
Without making a sound, the big dog ambled over and immediately began to inspect the unconscious form for injuries. This process consisted of licking the woman's face and prodding with her nose until she woke up. "Janice, not now," Mel mumbled groggily until she realized that the wet sensation at her ear was most certainly not her lover.
Her eyes flew open and she saw soft brown eyes gazing at her with love and concern. Unable to restrain herself, she threw her arms around the big dog and hugged her fiercely. Argo tolerated the confining display of affection for a moment, then growled very softly. Mel took the hint and released the claustrophobic animal. "Okay, okay," she said with a smile. "Ya know, Mommie doesn't mind my hugs." Brushing herself off she stood. The back of her head ached and she was sore, but nothing was broken. Moving cautiously, she walked back to the cliff edge. The ropes hadn't been moved and Byron was nowhere in sight. Coming to a decision, she grabbed Janice's pack and headed for the cover of the rocks where she'd been tossed. "Leesto will be here soon. I say we have a nice greeting planned for her." Taking a swig of water from the canteen, she then poured a liberal amount for the dog who lapped at the falling water enthusiastically. Thirst sated, the big dog sat and patiently waited while mistress number two decided what to do.
Janice extracted the four sticks of dynamite Mel had stowed in the bag, tucking them into her kakhi shirt for lack of a better place to store them. With her bare hands she started moving rocks out of the way, clearing a path for the stone coffin. As she worked, she found more remnants of the ramp that had been used to move the sarcophagus to it's final destination. With any luck, the right kind of shove might move the stone tomb from its location up the tunnel onto the remnants of track where its weight would carry it down to the cave entrance. She wasn't worried about damaging the priceless artifact. She was planning to destroy it completly after all.
"You would have been better off going to Hollywood," a cold voice commented from the cave entrance. Without the alert canine to warn her of danger, Janice Covington had been caught lost in her thoughts. Slowly she stood and turned around to face the voice.
"Professor Byron?" Janice exclaimed instantly recognizing the Egyptologist. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Really, Janice, you can call me William. There are no students here after all." Smoothly he pulled a small cigar from his pocket and placed it in between his teeth. In a blur he lit a match, and in moments puffed on the cigar contentedly.
Janice's mind, tuned into small details, noticed that the thin trail of smoke that should have come from near his feet from the discarded match was missing. Catching a whiff of his exhaled smoke, she realized that he was smoking one of her cigars. Suddenly she began to get a very ominous feeling about the man. "Yes, Janice. I know all about you," he said conversationally taking the cigar from his mouth and examining it briefly. "I've had my eye on you for some time."
"Sorry to hear that William," the archeologist replied with more confidence than she felt, "I'm flattered, but you're not my type."
He laughed a tone that sounded hollow in the confines of the cave. "I might surprise you."
With effort, Janice relaxed her limbs. She'd have one chance and one chance only to draw her gun on the smoking man, of that she was sure. "So you work for Leesto?" she asked envisioning her .357 Magnum leaving its holster in one fluid movement.
"Not exactly, Janice. You see, Leesto works for me." Byron watched and waited. In some form or another he'd been waiting for centuries, what were a few more seconds. "You realize, of course, that I'm going to kill you?"
Janice's muscles tensed, as hours of practice came to fruition. In the space between heartbeats her hand grasped the ivory handle of her six shooter, cleanly drawing it from the it's holster. In an instant she had the gun cocked and aimed at his head.
"Not bad, Janice," Byron allowed, his brown eyes turning to milky white. "But still not quite good enough. Go ahead, pull the trigger." Without pause, Janice squeezed the trigger. The hammer slamed home but nothing happened. It was then that she noticed the gun getting warmer in her hand.
"Who are you?" Janice breathed as the gun steadily got hotter.
"Come now, Janice. Surely a bright girl like you can figure it out. Tell me, who can you possibly think of who might have a centuries old score to settle with you?"
"Velasca." The archeologist gasped at the searing pain from her weapon.
"Your insight serves you, Gabrielle," Byron commented, "too bad it isn't going to save you. You took something of mine Gabrielle. You had no right to be Queen of the Amazons. All these lifetimes later I have not forgotten."
Realizing now that she really was going to die, Janice acted before thinking. "Maybe now would be a good time to grow up Velasca," she quipped throwing down her weapon, now glowing orange with heat. It discharged as it hit the stone floor. Using the distraction of the dust and small rocks that rained down on Byron, she ran, heading back into the dark tunnels of the cave.
Callisandra Leesto walked confidently across the clearing. She'd spotted Melinda Pappas some time ago. Xena's descendant hadn't moved from the boulder where she'd been sitting, looking out at the ocean as if she were on a picnic. Shaded by one of the few trees that dotted this cliff, she stood without an apparent care in the world. Leesto drew her gun anyway. She didn't see Janice's dog, and that was troubling.
"Surely Janice told you I was top marksman in our class," the blond woman called out. "I could kill you with one shot from here."
"Yes, you could," Mel agreed, looking calmly at the approaching form of her lover's nemesis. "But do you think that will fix anything?"
"What do you mean?" Leesto asked guardedly.
"I saw the panel in the museum," Mel explained. "Callisto's eulogy for her murdered family. Killing me won't bring anyone back. Death seems too simple and small a payment for the damage Xena wrought in life."
"You're not seeing the big picture, dearie," Leesto laughed. "What is a simple death now, ends up being a major defeat in oh...a hundred years or so."
Before Mel could respond, a shot rang out from the cave below. Argo, startled from her hiding place near the cliff, sprinted for the edge. At full speed she navigated the sheer rock wall with the coordination of a mountain goat. Leesto only had time to fire off one round before the dog's body dropped out of sight.
Leesto hurried to the cliff edge, keeping a wary eye on Melinda as she moved. The big dog was nowhere to be seen, and she noted with disappointment, there was no evidence of blood to indicate that she'd hit the animal. "Fuck," she muttered, searching for any sign of the dog. "I swear that dog has more lives than a cat."
"How long have y'all been working with Professor Byron?" Mel asked, hoping to draw her attention from Argo.
Leesto laughed, a thin insincere sound. "In a way, William and I have been working together for centuries. Trapping Callisto and Velasca in that river of lava was not the smartest thing Xena ever did."
"Professor Byron is Velasca?" Mel asked stunned.
"So he says. Personally I don't give a rats ass if he's Hades himself. He contacted me after our little soiree six months ago. I'm willing to listen to anyone with plans for Jan's demise... and yours as well of course."
"Of course," Mel allowed.
Mel watched, feeling surprisingly calm as she looked down the barrel of a gun steadily drawing near. Leesto pulled a pair of handcuffs out of her pocket with a sinister grin. "We're going for a little ride Miss Pappas," she declared as she stepped within five feet of the Southerner.
"Not today," Mel muttered under her breath. Moving her foot, released the rope she'd been standing on.
Leesto saw the rope fly as she heard a whizzing sound. Without the time to turn around the backpack filled with rocks sailed from it's position in the branches of the shady tree and connected solidly with the back of the archeologist's head.
Mel knelt over the other woman's prone form and checked her pulse. She was alive, but very unconscious. Sending a silent thanks to Xena, Mel headed for the cliff edge.
Janice frantically climbed up the tunnel. Without a torch to guide her she fumbled in the inky darkness. Clenching her teeth she fought back cries of pain as she used her badly burned hand. That was one small asset afforded by the inky blackness, she couldn't see just how extensive the damage to her hand was. Byron's taunting laugh reached her ears as she continued to climb. "You can run but you can't hide, Janice Covington," Byron called.
Her attention focused solely on moving one limb after another she startled herself when her hand felt the distinctive smoothness of the stone sarcophagus. Janice pulled herself up onto the ledge she'd felt earlier. Sitting next to her ancestor's remains, she valiantly tried to focus her mind.
"You don't have much time Janice, think!" she told herself. "You're gonna die, what can you do?" Fumbling in her pocket with her left hand she extracted her lighter. She flicked it's switch and was rewarded by a tiny flame. Not much to see by, but she confirmed that there wasn't anything sitting on the sarcophagus lid. Letting the light go out, she climbed to her knees, wincing at the pain. Finding purchase in the seam of the lid, she pulled for all she was worth. With a shove, the top came off the stone tomb. It flipped over with a dull thud, rocked a couple of times, then lay still.
Reaching into the opened sarcophagus with one hand Janice felt around blindly. With her other hand she searched the area below the stone casing until her fingers touched a length of track. Pulling the wood free with her good hand, she pulled something soft and textured out of the sarcophagus at the same time with the other. Seconds later she lit the crude torch she'd fashioned. The faded material blazed to life, hints of bilious green still clinging desperately to the homespun fabric.
Now able to see, Janice spared a glance into the stone tomb. She stared, mesmerized at the pale white bones of the two intertwined skeletons. Fragments of leather and fabric still clung to the one on the bottom, bits of Amazon-styled cloth to the skeleton on top. The one, she realized, she'd robbed for her torch. Two small urns were also present, the names Cyrene and Lyceus faded but legible on the outer surfaces. Janice looked closer, finding bits of hair still unconsumed by time, red-gold and cave-black mixed together. Reaching out a trembling finger, she touched a strand, only to have the brittle hair crumble at her touch. Coming to a decision, she began to pull and tug at the stone, moving it into position.
Byron watched Janice run, feeling powerful and fearsome. He knew Janice Covington, knew the fear that clung to her soul like stars in the night sky. She could be dangerous when cornered so he decided to dispense with the games. He would not make the mistakes he'd made as Velasca.
"Time to say goodbye, Janice," he called out. "I need you out of the way to pay my final respects to Gabrielle." Staring intently at the cave floor, he noted with satisfaction the tiny rocks and pebbles that began to shimmer. Suddenly, the ground began to move as the cave floor was transformed into a blanket of crawling, chittering insects. With an evil grin, Byron watched the chittering carpet of destruction surge toward the back of the cave and the dark tunnels beyond.
Argo scrambled down the cliff face. The momentum of her movement made stopping an impossibility even if she'd wanted to. Following the instructions provided by her keen sense of smell, she headed down the cliff, unconcerned by the pounding surf below. Finally with the cave in sight, she leapt from a protruding boulder, landing lightly on her feet at the entrance to the stone mouth. Without a second thought, she sprang at the man she'd seen earlier at her mistress' workplace. Ninety-five pounds of teeth and muscled fury leapt for the neck of the person Argo somehow knew had to be stopped. All of this was observed by a second figure in the shadows. A presence Argo sensed but did not fear. Ancient eyes watched as the battle for the souls of the Third Age commenced. "Be brave, Janice," he whispered.
Not expecting the attack, Byron was caught completely off guard as the canine body slammed into his back. With a howl of pain and fury, he flung the red-gold dog away from his body. Argo landed with a yelp ten feet away. Extending a hand, a burst of light shot forth, narrowly missing the dog that ran behind the cover of a boulder. The cave shook with the energy from the explosion, causing small rock fragments to rain down from above.
Janice's good eye went wide with panic as her other eye throbbed painfully at the attempt. Still swolen from the impact of the book corner, Janice had to struggle to keep her vision in focus. From the first rumble of the cave floor, her heart rate doubled. A heavy rock, shaken loose from the ledge above tumbled down and landed squarely on her shin. She cried out in pain as she felt the tibia of her break from the cruhing blow. To make matters worse, she heard a soft sound, a faint chattering that steadily increased in volume. Propping her torch between a couple of big rocks she froze panic at the dark tide moving in her direction. It took a few moments of petrified observation from her unswollen eye before she realized that it was a swarm of insects. Beetles, centipedes, millipedes, earwigs, ants, and roaches all swarming toward her.
"Just so you know," the taunting voice of Byron called out. "I'm not going to cut off the flow of blood to your brain." He laughed at his own joke, which angered Janice enough to put her fear aside. "No my dear colleague, you're going to be eaten alive by any number of crawling things. Take a gook look at Gabrielle's bones, you'll be twins soon enough." With a pained gasp, Janice shoved the rock off her leg, sobbing as the pain shot through her. "You were so easy to beat," Byron continued. "I'd hoped to find the bodies without you, of course. But Leesto was never as smart as you. I handed her the drawings and the Solari stories, and she still didn't figure it out."
With tears flowing freely from her eyes, Janice got to her knees and crawled to the sarcophagus as the first of the insects reached her. She absently hoped the pain of her leg would keep her mind off the tiny bites. She was wrong. She felt every bite, every sting. In a futile attempt to buy herself some time, she sent a silent apology to her ancestors and crawled into the stone coffin.
"The Third Age will be mine, Janice, as was always destined." Byron bellowed with rage. "Once Ares is free I will have my due. You robbed me of a throne once, you won't stand in my way again."
Immediately she felt the brittle bones crumble under her weight. Still, she reasoned, that was the idea. Destroy what was left of Xena and Gabrielle. Outsmarting the insects for the moment, they made futile attempts to climb the slick sarcophagus surface. Still under attack by the tiny monsters already crawling on her, she fought against the pain of their attack, as well as the pain in her leg. With shaky hands she took the sticks of dynamite out of her shirt and held them reverently in her lap. Carefully she put one stick in the front of the coffin, one behind her, and one next to her thigh. The fourth she held toward the crude torch that was just out of her reach. In a matter of heartbeats, her sole source of comfort, the tiny flame, appeared to become her undoing. With a valiant stretch, she cried out as her tortured bones and muscles protested. Made of no sterner stuff than flesh and bone, she passed out, inches from her goal.
... In a way, the understanding I reached with Cyrene was prophetic. While I made one or two more attempts to maintain some sort of bond with my birth-family, each time it seemed more tenuous and fragile. The summer I broke my leg was the final blow, both mentally and physically.
It took many years to realize it, but ultimately the rape wasn't the worst part of that fateful visit to Potiedaia. No, the wound that cut much deeper and took the longest to heal was the betrayal of my family. Erasmus violated my body, but the others, they violated my soul. For a time, I wondered if I'd ever be able to see any of them again. Nothing positive came from the rejection of my own flesh and blood. At least something positive came from the rape. Lyceus.
Xena and I felt such devotion to our children, I didn't see how any one could divorce themself emotionally from their own offspring. One day I said as much to Cyrene. The silence that met my ears brought tears to my eyes instantly.
"I'm so sorry, mother," I said, turning around.
"It's alright, Gabrielle," she finally reassured me. "But I'm here to tell you it can happen. While I don't think the actions of your family was warranted, I had my own reasons for letting Xena go."
I nodded, rushing over for a hug. "I wonder what I'll say should I ever see them again," I wondered aloud from the warmth of her embrace.
"That is for your heart to decide, little one," she whispered back.
That day came sooner than I might have expected. It was our first family trip to Thebes. It had been ages since Hercules or Iolas had seen the children, and we decided they were old enough for the trip. While we'd visited the Amazons from time to time since Lyceus' birth, this was different. For one, it was our last trip with Argo, and I'm glad the children had a chance to see what life on the road had been like for Xena and I.
Xe was seven, and like her grandmother in almost every way. She was fearless, precocious and stubborn. Handling responsibilities seemed second nature to her. As soon as she came to live with us, she'd adopted Argo as her own personal charge. I'd watch for hours as Xena taught her how to handle and care for the mare. Now, the only input Xena seemed to have was lifting things that were, for now, too heavy for the child.
Lyceus was a different story. Argo, or Ego, as he called her, made him nervous, and he'd only ride the mare in the company of someone else. I didn't blame him. He was only five, so what if Xe was riding alone by then? Lyceus was a talker, I don't think that surprised anyone, but he was also a listener, and to my occasional embarrassment, he remembered everything.
The children enjoyed our time on the road. Sleeping with us under the stars was a novelty, and they made a game of finding pictures in the bright patterns. Both pitched in with camp chores. Xena taught both to hunt, although I never really developed the stomach for that task. I taught both children to cook, and over time even my lover picked up a few things.
There is nothing quite like the sight of a big city through the eyes of a child. I don't think I ever forgot the squeals of delight that came from Xe and Ly as they sat together astride Argo as Xena and I approached Thebes. It was all so new to them. While Amphipolis is not a small town by any stretch of the imagination, it was one they were used to. They knew almost everyone and considered all of the Inn's regular patrons assorted uncles and aunts.
With Cyrene's Inn in mind, our first stop was to a purveyor of exotic beverages. There would be Hades to pay if we came home with out a cask or two of Cyrene's favorite port. Daxen's Obsession was the only tavern that carried it.
"Xena, if you can take care of this, I'll take the children over there," I suggested nodding in the direction of stalls selling a variety of fabrics. "They need some new clothes."
"I suppose they spend enough time in taverns at home," she agreed, helping Lyceus climb down from Argo.
"We could get some sweet meats," Xe offered helpfully.
"And candy," Ly supplied.
Xena grinned at the two faces gazing at her hopefully. "You'll have to work on mama for that one," she said giving each child a warm hug and a kiss. "I'll meet you over there as soon as I finish here."
"Hurry, Na," Xe suggested.
"Love you Nana," Ly added.
"Where did they learn this stuff?" Xena asked me with feigned embarrassment.
"Only from the best," I replied, puffing up with pride. "Don't take all day, Xena, I love you too."
She smiled wryly before giving me a quick kiss and disappearing into Daxen's tavern. My mission clear, I took Lyceus' hand in my left and grabbed my staff with my right. Xe held Ly's other hand and three of us were on our way.
"I'd like blue," Lyceus chatted as we crossed the square.
"I want black," Xe added.
"Anything but green," they both chimed in unison. I don't know what it was, but both children hated the color green. Xena found it terribly amusing, but it only served to puzzle me. It was a shame though. Lyceus had hair that was more blond than mine, but still had copper highlights. He would have looked quite handsome in green. Xe's choice was no surprise. She tried to emulate Xena whenever she could. More than once I'd seen her cutting off the flow of blood to a doll's brain when it needed the surgery of restuffing.
As I'd hoped, the dry goods dealer had a wonderful selection of cloth. I was able to find several colors for the children, as well as pick out something for Xena. I didn't often get the chance to surprise my love, and I indulged myself whenever the opportunity presented itself.
At Ly and Xe's constant prodding we headed over to the area where racks of meat strips were smoking over a low fire. "We'll have a clear view of the tavern from our new location," Xe pointed out helpfully. I was counting out my dinars to get a treat for the children when Ly tugged at Xe's hand. They'd developed the habit of only turning to Xena or myself when they couldn't handle a problem on their own. I well knew I'd eventually have to deal with obscolescence, but with children ages seven and five, it was a little earlier than I expected.
"Why is that lady staring at mama?" Lyceus asked his sister.
"I don't know," she replied.
Picking up Lyceus, I asked him directly. "Who is staring at mama?"
With all the discretion of a five year old, he stuck his arm straight out and pointed to a pregnant woman nearby. "She is."
I had to do a double take. Then I realized that the pregnant woman was Lila. She looked ready to flee when I called to her. Realizing she'd been spotted she froze. Sweet meats purchased, the three of us walked over.
"Gabrielle," she said quietly.
"Lila," I replied, noting the advanced stage of her pregnancy. "When are you due?"
"Three weeks," she said taking a seat on an available bench.
"Who are you?" Lyceus asked curious.
Lila smiled at him, so I decided I might as well do introductions. "This is my sister Lila."
"Who's children are you watching?" Lila asked, plainly enough.
I bristled at that, but quickly reminded myself it had been my choice not to inform my parents or sister of my pregnancy.
"They're mine," I explained, watching her eyes widen in surprise. "This is Lyceus, and this is Xena." The children nodded and smiled, looking at her extended belly curiously.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle," she said in a rush. "I didn't know you married." I was trying to think up a suitable retort when Lila's mouth dropped open in wonder.
"Everything okay?" Xena asked softly from behind me.
The children turned around in surprise, not having heard her walk up either. "Na!" Lyceus shouted and leapt into her waiting arms.
"But how?" Lila wondered aloud, staring at little Xena and Lyceus in amazement.
"I have many skills," my lover replied flatly, turning to go.
A seven years later we received word that Perdicus' father had died. As the widow of his oldest son I was, naturally, expected to attend the services. Since Argo was no longer with us, we packed our belongings onto Idgie, Argo's successor, and as a family made the trip.
We attended the ritual fire apart from the other mourners. I'd always liked Hector, he was a very kind man. Xena quietly sang a hymn for the ears of her family alone. I saw mother and father standing with Lila and Erasmus and their child. Lila, I noted, was pregnant again. I made a point to keep Xena as far away from Erasmus as possible. Understandably, the anger was still there. I felt it too. We'd already explained to Lyceus who his father was and what the circumstances of his conception had been. I had hoped to wait until he was older, but he came in with all sorts of questions one day about why Xena and he didn't look more alike. We decided that if he was old enough to ask the questions, he was old enough to hear the answers. Little Xena knew about her parentage, it had never been a mystery. Still, it was hard for her to hear that she and Lyceus didn't share blood since they were so close.
After the funeral fires burned low, we decided to get a bit to eat before heading out of town. To my surprise, father sought us out. We were eating our meal in silence, well aware of the curious and hostile stares that were cast in our direction. This was not new to the children. On occasion they'd been taunted or teased and knew that after some persuading from Xena, they'd be apologized to and left alone. This time one farmer in particular was a little drunker and louder than the others.
"How do you think she did that?" he muttered to his friend.
Both Xenas leveled their steely blue gaze in his direction.
"I mean the girl is a spitting image, and the boy looks just like the bard," he continued with a laugh.
Xena was about to stand, only to find fourteen year old Xe already on her feet and walking toward the group of inebriated farmers. We all tensed, watching our child calmly walk into trouble.
They abruptly quieted when they realized the subject of their comments was in their midst. "Is there something you'd like to know about my family?" she asked sensibly.
The drunk man didn't back down. "Yeah, how did the Warrior Princess sire you?"
Xe flashed a grin. "Because she's more of a man than you'll ever be and twice the woman you'll ever have. She has many skills." The farmer slammed his drink down on the counter and was about to stand when Xe grabbed his ear, keeping him in his seat. "I'd think very carefully if I were you," she said conversationally, looking at the whole group. "Is Xena of Amphipolis someone you really want to anger?" They all looked nervously over to my lover who sat with her arms crossed, beaming with pride at our daughter. They slowly shook their heads. "Good," she continued with a nod to her grandmother. "But I wasn't talking about her."
"She's a smart lady." A new voice I recognized as my father's came from the tavern doorway. "Any affront to Gabrielle, or her family can be taken up with me." He sternly looked at the men as he walked over to Xe. "May I join you at your table?" he asked softly.
Xe looked at us for an accepting nod, then led father to our table. He'd aged a lot in the past dozen years, it hurt me see him so old.
He didn't take a seat, only stood there looking at me. It took a while, but I noticed tears in his eyes. "Gabrielle, can you forgive a foolish old man? I was wrong. I thought you weren't the daughter I'd tried to raise, but seeing you at the funeral and now, with your children..." he stammered, looking for the right words. Taking a breath he began again. "I know you didn't learn it from me, but somewhere you learned the important things, and you've raised fine children. I wasn't there for you... when it happened. I'll carry that regret with me to my own fire. I just want you to know I'm proud of what you've become. Of who you are."
I couldn't keep my own tears back as I cried in my father's arms. He was the last person in the world I would have expected to try to reconcile with me, and he surprised me beyond words. We spent three or four hours with him in that tavern. He got to know Xe and Ly, and I know that meant a lot to him. Xena was happy for me, and I was beyond happiness. I had something back I thought I'd lost forever. My father had returned.
Mel carefully climbed down the rock face, forcing herself not to look at the crashing surf below. At one point she slipped, and would have fallen into the pounding waters were it not for the vise like grip she had on the rope, her lifeline. After what seemed like an eternity, she saw the outer rim of the cave opening. Moving like a spider along the slick stone, she finally positioned herself to drop down to into the cave mouth. She landed lightly on her feet, not making a sound. She clung to the shadows and was surprised to see another man besides Byron in the cave. Before she could move, he spoke. The familiarity of his voice kept her riveted in place.
"Byron, old boy," Tildus offered cheerfully. "You're cheating."
"What are you doing here?" the Egyptologist screamed, his voice taking on a hysterical feminine edge.
"I'm watching, as required by the ancient texts," Tildus replied. His eyes traveled upward as he scanned the ceiling of the cave. "You know the insect thing isn't allowed," he said with mild reproach.
"And just what to you plan to do about it?" Byron asked, cocky.
Tildus grinned, and lightly blew a puff of air toward the ceiling. Byron watched, amused, until he noticed the bats that covered the cave ceiling waking up. One by one, then in groups, they descended from their sleeping perches as they began to swoop down and consume the insect feast that carpeted the floor of their cave. The flapping of leathery wings could be heard in the far tunnels of the cave as more bats continued to wake.
"If you're going to beat Janice," Tildus scolded the seething man. "You're going to have to do it on your own."
"You'll pay for this, Hephaestus!" Byron growled menacingly.
"We shall see," the elderly man allowed with a smile.
Without another word, Byron turned and picked the six shooter up off the cave floor. Gun in hand he headed back toward the tunnel, towards Janice Covington.
"No!" Mel shouted as she ran from the concealing shadows.
Calmly, Byron turned, aimed the gun at her head and fired.
Mel blinked, expecting to feel the sting of lead as life fled from her body. After a moment, realizing that she was still very much alive, she opened her eyes. There, floating mere inches from her forehead, was a stationary bullet.
"Come, come, Velasca," Tildus chided as he walked over to Mel and plucked the bullet from where it levitated. "You made an agreement with Callisto, remember? You leave Xena and her descendants alone, and in turn she leaves Gabrielle and her progeny to you. Don't renege, it's bad form."
With a fuming scowl, Byron turned and continued back to the tunnel once again. Mel was about to race after him when a gentle hand on her shoulder stopped her where she stood. "No, child," Tildus said softly. "The battle with Ares was yours, this one is hers. Let her fulfill her destiny."
"But she'll die," Mel sobbed. Imploringly, she gazed into the face of the kindly old man. "Don't let her die."
Sadly, Tildus shook his head. "I'm sorry, Melinda, but that isn't for me to decide. Janice will live or die based on her own actions. Still, she doesn't strike me as the sort finished with life, now does she?" Mel nodded in reluctant agreement.
Mel Pappas was not the only one in the cave who had difficulty with Tildus' instructions. Argo crept from the cover of the bolder where she'd been hiding to slink toward the back of the cave. "Not so fast," Tildus continued with mild reproach. "You've done your part too, Argo, this last isn't for you." With a guilty expression, the dog returned to the cave mouth and sat at Mel's side.
"She'll be okay," Mel assured the dog, hoping with every fiber of her being she was right.
Janice heard the unusual sounds just as she felt a light weight settle on her thigh. She opened her unswollen eye and, after a moment focused on a tiny bat picking a centipede off of her leg. An instant later, it took flight with its meal. Staring in amazement, she looked around as bats everywhere went after the tide of insects. More landed on her, gently touching down, grabbing a bug, then taking flight. With a renewed sense of hope she shook the sleep from her mind and with determination borne out of that hope leaned forward for the torch. Before pain claimed her anew, she had to get this done.
"Got any last words?" Byron's voice taunted from down the tunnel. He was getting close Janice realized. It was now or never. She cried out as the pain of movement surged up through her body. Bending her broken leg, she reached the torch, lighting the dynamite fuse just as the sputtering flame went out and Byron's form appeared down the tunnel.
His eyes went wide at the sight of the sputtering fuse, then wider still as the stone sarcophagus started to tip. Put off balance by Janice's lunge for the flame, it rocked slightly, then tipped off its ledge, sliding down the track like a bobsled. "Oh shit!" Janice gasped as she realized what she'd done. She originally moved the coffin onto the track so she could haul it to the cave mouth before blowing up the contents. Riding it down was hardly her plan.
Byron looked equally surprised as Janice sped towards him. There wasn't anywhere to go in the narrow tunnel. Before being able to fire a single shot, he was knocked into the coffin on top of Janice.
Neither passenger had time to get their bearings. The tunnel twisted and turned, the ride bumpy in places where the tracks had disappeared completely. Still, it was steep enough, and the sarcophagus smooth enough, that nothing short of hitting a wall would stop its progress. Hitting the last descending slope, they picked up speed and sped into the mouth of the main cave.
In an instant the sarcophagus appeared at one end of the cave, each passenger struggling for balance, the next moment they were shooting out the cave mouth, flying through sky over the brilliant blue ocean below.
"Ohmigawd!" Mel screamed and took off out of the cave mouth, climbing down as fast as she could.
Argo tried to follow, but was stopped by Tildus' hand around her bandanna. "This is not for you to see," he said gently, picking up the ninety-five pound dog in one arm and climbing up the cliff to the top.
Janice regained her wits as the cold air hit her in the face like a slap. She grabbed the gun from Byron's hand and threw it away from the airborne coffin. He struggled, clearly disoriented. Grabbing for another stick of dynamite, she lit another fuse from the now almost expired one. "Hold this," she screamed at Byron. Then, with a shove she rolled her body out of the falling tomb.
"Wha..." he stammered, confused. He looked at his hands to see what Janice had given him.
As soon as his eyes registered the lit stick of dynamite, it exploded. He didn't have time to scream. Janice felt the impact of the explosion as she plummeted to the ocean floor one hundred feet below. She doubted she'd live, but at least she took Xena, Gabrielle and Velasca with her. As the blue of the Aegean Sea rushed up to greet her, she instinctively stretched her body out into a dive position. Seconds later she hit the water with tremendous force.
Mel watched as the sarcophagus soared over the ocean. Pausing for an instant in its arc, it angled downward and fell. Janice's form could be clearly seen launching away from the stone coffin seconds before the whole thing blew up. The rapid sound of explosions, one after the other rang in her ears as dust and rock rained down into the sea.
Mel had made her way part way down the cliff face. Standing on an outcrop perhaps fifty feet above the water, it took a moment for her to spot Janice's body. There wasn't much in the way of debris, but the lingering smoke made vision difficult. Without stopping to consider the safety of her actions, Mel leapt from the cliff. The water was a cold shock as it rushed up around her, making her clothes heavy and cumbersome.
"Janice!" Mel shouted looking around frantically for her lover. From her vantage point it was impossible to see the archeologist. Mel listened intently for any response, but was rewarded with only the sounds of water lapping against her body. Not deterred, quickly discarded her heavy boots then swam with powerful strokes in the direction she'd last seen her love.
Janice hit the water hard, its stinging chill alerting her mind even as the impact made her leg scream in agony. She felt the pressure on her ears increase painfully as her body continued downward, propelled by its' hundred foot fall. Angling her body slightly, she used what momentum she could to carry her back to the surface.
With lungs burning from exertion, she finally broke the water's surface, expelling spent air and taking in fresh oxygen greedily. The clear air made her head swim. She felt dizzy, exhausted, spent and giddy all at once. "So what if I die right now?" she thought. "I kept my word to my ancestors." She readied herself to slip below the surface one last time, absently regretting the need to leave Mel and Argo.
"Oh, no you don't," a stern voice said as a strong arm reached around her chest.
"Mel?" Janice asked grogily as she tried to open her eyes. Was she dreaming?
"Damn right it's me. With all the trouble I went to get y'all housebroken, I'm not about to let you drown," Mel replied as she carefully kept Janice's head above water. Inwardly she cringed. Janice was a mess. Her eye was still swollen and she had several bug bites. Her hand hung limp at her side, severely burned. Peering into the clear water, Mel could also see the bloodied disfigurement of her left shin. She was bleeding profusely and the Southerner wondered how long before the blood attracted any variety of ocean predators.
"I'm tired, Mel," Janice whispered. "Really tired."
"Well, you can't give up yet," Mel urged. "I love you, Janice. Me and Argo need you, you're not leaving us without a fight."
"Kiss me," Janice breathed, barely audible.
"Now is funny time to get friendly," Mel said gently before tenderly claiming soft lips with her own. At the contact she could feel Janice's body relax in her grip as she slowly slipped away.
"Love you, Melinda," she whispered softly before closing her eyes once more.
Mel fought against the urge to panic when she noted the shallow movement of her lover's continued breathing. She was alive for now, but wouldn't be much longer if she didn't get out of the cold salt water. Treading water for both of them, she held Janice tightly, determined to keep her lover alive, by sheer force of will if necessary.
She didn't know how long she'd been treading water, continuing to kick her strong legs in spite of the exhaustion and cramping of her muscles. She heard an odd noise that didn't match the sounds of the sea. Distracted, she looked around, breaking out a huge grin as she saw the familiar hull of The Charmer approaching.
...The final trip I made to Poteidaia was for the funeral of my father. Once again the four of us made the trip. Lyceus was sixteen, the only thing that surpassed his good looks was the gentleness of his heart. Xe was eighteen and resembled Xena more every day. In a way Cyrene got her wish and was able to envision a Xena and Lyceus without Cortese's raid on Amphipolis. Lila had a total of four children, two boys and two girls. Erasmus was no longer in the picture. I didn't know all the details, but understood that he'd been a troubled soul since they married. Like Melegar, he took to drink to wash away what ever pain he suffered, only serving to create more. Lila told me she was pregnant for the third time when he took off for good.
We were at mother's house. I was surprised she'd invited us over after the lighting of the funeral pyre, but accepted nonetheless. Lyceus and Xe were immediately adopted by Lila's two eldest, Daphne and Ulysses, and taken outside to play. I swear she named her son that just to annoy me. As for the other two, they were twins, a boy and a girl. Lila tried to balance them on her lap as I helped mother prepare dinner. I felt so bad for my sister. It was bad enough what she'd had to endure with Erasmus, what we'd all had to endure. But to be left, two months before giving birth to twins, then facing the monumental task of raising four children alone -- life was not going to be easy for my sister.
Xena came in from tending to Idgie, and noting Lila's distress, offered to take one of the babies. Shyly Lila handed the girl over, since the boy was finishing up his latest meal.
"What's her name?" Xena asked as she shifted the child in her arms. I smiled to myself. Xena was an expert with children and it showed.
"Gabrielle," Lila answered softly. My eyes shot over to my sister in wonder.
Xena only smiled. Without taking her eyes from the infant's face she smiled. "Well, hello then Gabrielle," she said.
"This is Xenos," Lila announced as she handed me the other infant. Now it was my turn to grin as Xena looked over, amazed.
"Lila, you didn't have to do that," I said, my voice thick with emotion.
"It was your father's idea," mother said as she brought a steaming roast to the table. "Lila has a chance raising her children to undo a lot of mistakes we've both made," mother explained.
"I don't want to lose sight of that," Lila finished.
"It was your father's final wish," mother finished.
The only thing that prevented me from crying my eyes out was Xe and Ly bursting through the door, each with a small child clinging to their back. I don't know how, but both children inherited my appetite.
"Dinner ready?" Lyceus asked.
"We're starved," Xe added with a chorus of laughter from Daphne and Ulysses.
Shortly after returning to Amphipolis we were paid a visit by Xenan Gabris Phantes, my Centaur nephew. Ares was on the move to the north. He spoke hurriedly about the battle for the first age.
"Slow down," I finally asked. "What battle?"
"The Oracle," he replied, rushed. "Mother said to mention the Oracle's predictions. The old myths." He looked at Xena imploringly. "I came because I can run faster than any of the Amazons. Mother said that you would understand."
"I do," Xena assured them.
"Well, I don't," I interjected.
"Gabrielle," Xena said gently turning to look at me. "I told you before about the oracle that made the predictions about mother." I nodded. I'd heard those stories several times, and had even written them down. "The oracle also told her of a battle that would be fought in three different ages. I have to go fight Ares..."
"Then what?" I interrupted. "Our children will have to fight him? Xena, we need you here."
"Shhhh," she said placing gentle fingers on my mouth. "It'll be okay. I know I'm needed here, which is why I have every intention of coming back. I have to do this. Trust me, my heart."
There wasn't much I could do. Xena's mind was made up and that was final. Did I mention she can be stubborn? I managed to persuade her to take a satchel of my scrolls for luck. It was going to be a long trip and it would give her some distraction all those nights until the inetivable. The month that we waited for her return was the longest I'd ever endured. She did come back though. Exhausted, bruised and bleeding, but came back she did. The children were asleep, as was Cyrene. I was up writing, waiting as I had been each night. The door opened silently, but I felt the breeze and the presence that made my pulse race. "Xena," I whispered as I ran to her.
"I'm home, Gabrielle," she said, wrapping me in those wonderful strong arms. "For good." It took a moment to realize what she'd just said. Then I noticed that her sword and chakram were missing. "They're gone, Gabrielle," she explained. "As are your scrolls I'm sorry."
"It's alright, Xena," I assured her. "I can always write more. You're back and that's all that matters. Is there anything you can't do?" I wondered aloud.
"Making you happy, Gabrielle, is the only goal I've got left," she replied with a kiss.
Xena did make me happy. And I her, for many, many years. Eventually we lost Cyrene, which was hard, but our family continued to thrive in spite of our loss. Lyceus was the first of our children to marry. He met a poet who'd studied under the great Sappho and was smitten from the moment she'd entered the Inn. He was seventeen at the time and it took him three years to convince her to have him. Xe was another matter. For a time it seemed unlikely that she would marry or commit to anyone for longer than a season or two. For several years it seemed as if her interest didn't extend beyond women. There wasn't an attractive woman who came through Amphipolis that our entire family didn't appreciate. After breaking the hearts of both sexes for so long, I think even Xe began to wonder if she'd ever meet her match. Naturally, as Fate would have it, she did. She was won over by a young philosopher. They'd argue for hours about philosophy and ethics. Finally, she agreed to marry him. As she said, put up with him on a permanent basis. Xena and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Lyceus and his wife had two children, Lila and Cyrene. Xe and her husband had a son, Marcus. We enjoyed our grandchildren immensely even though technically Marcus was Xena's great-grandson. We were sorry that Cyrene never had the opportunity to enjoy them, but sadly, that is how life works sometimes. To my surprise, Lyceus kept in contact with my birth-family. While I'd essentially come to an understanding with mother and Lila, the closeness that had existed before was irretrievable. On his own, Ly forged a new bond with his aunt and grandmother, occasionally taking his family to Poteidaia for visits.
Sadly, as the Fates command, life can not endure forever. My world came crashing in around me on a bright summer morning. After more than six decades Xena could still leave me breathless and sated. To the very end we were fiercely in love with each other. Living with a passion that could not be curbed, we indulged ourselves and each other as often as our aging bodies would allow. Xena told me she wanted to go for a ride. "Gabrielle, you ignite me," she said. "I've got to do something with this pent up energy or I'll wear you out."
"I'd like to see you try," I replied with a grin.
Still the day was warm, and she was feeling her oats, so I kissed her good-bye and wished her a nice ride.
"You know I love you more each day, don't you?" she asked, as she mounted the roan stallion.
"As I do you, my heart," I replied. "Be careful."
Around noon, Lyceus and Xe went to look for their Na. She'd not come back yet and I was a little worried. Xe's expression when she returned was all I needed to see. With an anguished cry I ran outside as Lyceus was lowering Xena's body from his horse. Both children were sobbing, but I scarcely noticed as I cradled my love in my arms one last time.
Later, when the grieving had begun, something that would take until my own death to finish, Lyceus explained what had happened.
"The roan threw a shoe and stumbled," he said his voice raw from sobbing. "They were on a steep incline, and the horse fell. Na broke her neck when she was thrown, she didn't feel a thing." I nodded absently. At least I had that.
Xena was put to rest in a sarcophagus between Lyceus and Cyrene. I contacted the Amazons and explained why I would not be committing her body to the fire they'd wanted so many years ago.
"Gabrielle," Ephiny said gently. "We don't want you to. Now that the battle of the first age has happened, it changes things." Although I was hurting beyond belief at my loss, I listened attentively as Ephiny relayed the last of the Amazon legends I would need to know.
I lived eight years after Xena left. They weren't bad years, but too much of me was missing to fully enjoy them. I continued to live at the Inn. Lyceus had taken over running it. While I loved Xe dearly, it was harder to see her than my son. She was so like her grandmother. She looked then as Xena did in her prime. Her voice, the smile... I had to remind myself that it wasn't Xena.
I continued to write some. When I'd decided I'd penned my last tale, I had the scrolls carefully wrapped and sent to Solari. I knew she'd take good care of them. My own children already knew my stories, they wouldn't need them on parchment. When my last day arrived, I knew it was so. I didn't feel particularly bad, I just felt ready. In a way I was looking forward to crossing over, to being reunited with my love. Since my health had been slipping, the children came by each day to visit. As the Amazons had asked, I sent for them as well when I knew my time was near. They kept a respectful distance, providing what support they could for my family. I kissed each grandchild goodbye before saying my final farewells to Xe and Lyceus. "I'm proud of you both," I told them, "and love you with all my heart. You've learned, and passed on the important things. A greater gift you could not have given Xena and me." The blue of Xe's eyes was the last thing I saw on this earth, until I saw the blue eyes beyond.
"Is she alright?" a gentle Southern voice asked, the worried edge unmistakable.
"Yes, Mel," another voice replied patiently. "Same as yesterday. She's been through a lot. She'll wake up when she's ready."
"Mel?" Janice gasped weakly, her throat dry and tight.
"Janice, you're awake," the Southerner replied, relieved.
"Maybe," Janice whispered as she thought about opening her eyes. Then, feeling a vaguely familiar, softness against the skin of her breast, she opened her eyes and looked down. She was back on board the Lovely Lunacy, nestled in a bed and wrapped in black satin sheets.
"I thought those might wake you up," Mel teased with a knowing gleam in her eye.
"How did I get here?" Janice asked, taking in the faces of the concerned Amazons gathered around the bed. "Where's Ar..." Before she could get the dog's name past her lips the Golden Retriever/Alsatian jumped up on the bed. Janice flinched, expecting the jolt of the bed to hurt her broken leg. Looking down, she could clearly see a cast outlined by the satin. She checked her hand, noting that it was bandaged as well. "What happened?"
"You pulled it off, that's what happened," Emily said, beaming from the foot of the bed. "Xena and Gabrielle are ashes as they should be,and Velasca, or rather Byron, is no more. We found chunks of him floating all over the place.
"Small chunks," Quest added for clarification.
Mel frowned at the grisly tone the conversation had taken. "The Charmer came and picked us up. Quest and the others managed to fend off Leesto's thugs."
"Picked us up?" Janice asked confused.
"You should have seen it," Tory continued, picking up the story. "After you hit the water, Mel jumps off this fifty foot cliff after you. I saw it with the binoculars. Once we got rid of Leesto's thugs we came right over."
"Yeah," Stacey added. "Debby fixed your leg and wrapped up your hand. You've been unconscious for two days."
"How did Argo get here?" the archeologist asked, finally beginning to wake up.
"That's the strange part," Emily replied. "Someone had delivered her to the crew of the Lunacy. She had our coordinates tucked into her bandanna. They arrived only a couple of hours after we picked you and Mel out of the water."
Mel looked over at Emily, her surprise evident. "You didn't tell me that. Did y'all get a description of whoever it was who dropped her off?"
The blond woman nodded. "The Captain said it was an old guy with glasses."
Mel smiled, sending a silent thank you to Tildus. "What about Leesto?" Janice asked.
"She was picked up at the top of the cliff. She's in custody, in connection with the Athens museum theft," Kit supplied, passing Janice a glass of water.
"I doubt it'll stick, but I'm glad she's out of the way for now," the archeologist replied thoughtfully. "What about the marbles?"
"From the temple frieze?" Mel asked to clarify. "Why, they're only the most recent amazing discovery of one, Dr. Janice Covington. The authorities have secured the sight and I'm sure teams will be assembled in no time to retrieve them."
"That might not be so good, Mel," Janice warned.
"Why ever not?"
"Because the sarcophagus lid is still in the cave. When word gets out I destroyed the remains..."
"I wouldn't worry about that," Emily assured her. "After all, none of us saw you blow up the coffin. Did we, Tory?" she asked, looking at the younger Amazon.
"See it? Why, no, of course not. It isn't your fault, Dr. Covington, if you discovered the cave but the remains were already gone."
For the first time in a long while, Janice smiled, a relaxed grin that threatened to stay on her face for days.
Later, when Janice had convinced everyone that she was indeed on the mend, she and Mel were left alone in their cabin. Propped up against Mel's side, her head resting against a soft breast with Argo curled up at her feet, Janice Covington was the picture of contentment.
"They'd like us to stay in the vicinity for a day or two, to make sure you're okay," Mel explained, stroking Janice's hair softly.
"Fine by me," Janice agreed with a sigh. "Now that the crisis is over, it'd be nice to spend some time with the family. Maybe I'll even find the time to get seasick."
"I can hardly wait," Mel replied snuggling closer and resting her chin on top of Janice's head. "But I'm glad you think seeing family is a good idea. I was thinking..."
"Yes?" Janice asked rolling over. Her left leg was clumsy but after a couple of tries she got it out of the way. With Mel stretched out beneath her, she rested her head on the Southerner's chest, sighing with contentment at the sound of the familiar heartbeat.
"I was thinking that for summer break," Mel continued, lightly touching her lover's back, "we might meet some more relatives, head to Scotland, perhaps?"
"The MacGabbers?" Janice asked, her left hand roaming over familiar skin.
"Exactly," Mel agreed.
"Good, because I've been thinking, too," Janice continued. "I don't think the scrolls we found are all of them. Who knows, maybe we'll find something new in Scotland." Janice continued her ministrations, nipping at soft flesh beneath Mel's satin slip.
"Ah, Janice, what do you think you're doing?" she asked concerned.
"You mean you can't tell?" Janice replied, stunned.
"What about your leg?' her lover inquired gently.
"I've got news for you, Mel, I don't use my leg for that. Having my right hand bandaged is going to be a problem, but I'm willing to improvise."
"You're incorrigible, Janice Covington," Mel breathed, her voice throaty and warm. "And I hope to God you stay that way for a long, long time."
"With you, Melinda Pappas, I don't doubt it," Janice replied claiming hungry lips. Passion ebbed and flowed as two hearts beat in tandem. Souls bound together beyond the confines of time and space pulsated with the devotion of their union. With a love to rival that of their ancestors before them, Janice Covington and Melinda Pappas were connected, as they would remain forever.
The Year 2042
Xero smiled as her fingers moved across the sensory input pad. Arctic blue eyes watched lines of data scrolling across the top and bottom of her screen. It was a new security protocol by Hybrid Systems Inc. Running an absent hand through her long black hair, she studied the data carefully. Xero was at work. Paid to compromise and steal intellectual property, Xero was one of the best in the business. At age twenty-eight, she already had fifteen years experience as a professional hacker, a nettie, cyber thief, and virtual thug. Watching the two data streams simultaneously, she keyed the sequence to launch one of her own encryption programs. It would take a few moments to insinuate itself within the data stream, so Xero reached for her glass of water and took a long decadent sip.
There was nothing quite like the taste of natural water, and Xero sighed as the cool liquid spilled down her throat. Sadly, she knew that her bottle was almost empty. It had been a gift from her roommate and occasional business partner after a tricky job well done. Never taking her eyes from the screen she saw the green flash as her program launched into operation. Xero proceeded with the next phase of her theft. After defining her search parameters, she let the retrieval program go and checked its progress with her watch as well as the on screen chronometer.
As the seconds ticked down something at the top of the screen caught her eye. Almost imperceptible, there had been a slight lag in the data reading across the security field. Keeping her input strokes on the sensory pad consistent, Xero keyed the sequence to her personal trace/counterseek program. It was doubtful she'd been tapped by a syscop, it'd never happened before. But Xero knew all too well that there was a first time for everything.
There it was again, someone was definitely on her channel observing. Carefully, she continued her work. So far she could only be hit with snooping charges, since she hadn't downloaded any data, yet. Keeping a steady hand she relaxed. If it was local security, they might just think she was with an MIS company or an overworked employee doing routine maintenance. Her cyber-retriever flashed orange, it had the data. She could set it aside to download later, or continue with her theft. She was spared the decision when the watching entity made it's presence known.
Nice work Xero, the greeting flashed on her screen, gold text on a black background. Automatically Xero keyed the sequence to launch a tracer program.
Who are you? she replied, stalling for time.
An admirer, possibly an employer, came the immediate response.
Xero's blue eyes flashed in surprise. The tracer error message was unmistakable. Whoever was at the other end of the data line had heavy duty encryption. She read a few lines into the error subroutine and froze. The encryption had syscop data nodes. A net cop had spotted her.
As you've no doubt discovered by now, I've got syscop access, the message flashed. But I'm not interested in arresting you. Xero, I need your help. My keyword is Amphipolis. I'll meet you at--
Xero launched her scrambler and cut the connection cutting off the data stream mid flow. Letting out a controlled breath, she launched her sanitation program and shut down the system. It was possible if she'd been tapped, she'd also been given a worm. Virtual tapeworms were an effective tool cybercops used to identify the hardware used in the theft and compromise of intellectual property. A tiny data code, it was impossible to find unless you knew what to look for, but when activated could shut down entire systems as well as forward transcripts of all net activity to the authorities.
"Hey, Xero. I'm back," Bat called from the doorway. Xero could hear the distinctive sound of groceries being put away as various cupboards were opened and closed.
"Bat, get in here," she called, "I've got a job for you."
"What's the problem?" Bat asked, navigating the various cables and link lines that littered the floor of the tiny living room.
"I just got tapped by a syscop. I need your eye to check out the system," Xero said with a glance to the woman who had taken a seat next to her.
The most unusual thing about Bat was a black eye patch worn over her left eye. The result of a botched lens implant job, she'd decided on practicality over vanity. She'd gone to a gray market surgeon for a mechanical eye. Revolting to look at, it gave her an edge hacking. In a business where every edge counted, this was a decided advantage. "A syscop?" Bat echoed, impressed. "No shit. Must've been a good one."
"Not that good, I spotted them," Xero replied. "I hope you didn't have any plans tonight. I need you to go through my system, check for tapeworms. I still need to get this job done, cop or no cop."
Bat nodded, understanding. She had no illusions about her role under Xero's roof. She worked for the enigmatic woman, simple as that. Until her debt was paid off, Xero, for all intents and purposes, owned her. "No problem. Like I've ever got a date," she muttered. "Why don't you give me some space. If I'm going to disassemble the system, you'll only be in the way. Go down to the 'Horn. Get something to eat, relax, get laid."
Xero watched as Bat pulled her long brown hair into a ponytail. Already she could see the shorter woman planning which backup systems to use, what tools she'd need. "I thought that was what you were for?" she shot back good-naturedly.
Bat frowned. "What? I don't kick you out of my bed the two or three times you end up there drunk, and now I'm a dyke? Spare me."
"You didn't have any complaints at the time..." Xero stopped herself. She knew exactly why the other woman hadn't complained. Bat was afraid of her. As one of the few former corporate systems managers, Bat had a price on her head. People who worked corporate and then got out didn't have long life expectancies. That was in fact how they'd met. On a rainy night, with two corporate security thugs at her heels, Bat had wandered into the Saddlehorn Pub & Grill. Desperate for a cover, she'd foolishly made a play for Xero and ended up in an entirely new line of work. Since then, she'd enjoyed the protection of Xero's association, but also responded to the taller woman's demands unflinchingly. "Sorry," Xero mumbled, thinking she may have pushed the other woman too far.
"Shit, don't worry about it," Bat replied with a grin. "You know our deal. I worry about your hardware, you take care of your own software, so for chrissakes, go get some, will ya? You've been edgy as hell all week." Xero grinned at that. The other woman got up and began to set up some diagnostic equipment. "Xero," she continued as she worked, "I'd consider you a friend if I thought for a millisecond that you had any. This thing has obviously gotten you spooked. So take the night off and chill. Say hi to everyone at the 'Horn for me and by the time you get back, this rig will be running in top form." Xero nodded, grabbing her leather jacket from the couch.
"Here," Bat said, picking up a small mobile communications unit. "Take the mobie." From a compartment on the bottom she extracted two tiny ear pieces. "Wear the wire, and if I've got any questions, I'll let you know."
"Sure," Xero agreed, slipping the tiny receiver into her ear.
"Oh, and do me a favor, will ya?" Bat finished as Xero headed for the door. "If you see some good looking Bobs tonight, for god's sake get their number. It's been so long since I've had a guy, I'm forgetting what being straight is all about."
"I'll see what I can do," Xero replied with a grin, pocketing the mobie unit and clipping the tiny phone to her jacket.
The Saddlehorn was unique even though it was only one of several hangouts frequented by hackers. Versus was a well known hacker bar as was Fire Circle, but they didn't have the mystique of the 'Horn. The Saddlehorn Pub & Grill was exclusive. The word was out that only the invited and initiated could congregate there, those who ignored the warning usually found corrupted net accounts soon after an unwelcome visit. The clientele was also exclusively female, not that it was a lesbian hacker bar per se, although at first blush that was what most people assumed. The usual crowd of hackers also included those buyers who would procure their services.Only the most serious and determined buyers ended up at the 'Horn. Simply put, it was the place adopted by the best of the best. Even the managers of other bars spent time at the 'Horn. If you were female and good on the nets, you had to be there.
It wasn't an easy place to find, but Xero knew the route by heart. The 'Horn was more of a home for her than her apartment. Nodding to the bouncer, Bandit, she stepped through the door. The security light glowed green. She wasn't packing any weapons. Several unfortunate incidents with flamethrowers had made the precautions necessary, but Bandit did her job with unobtrusive efficiency. Quickly, her eyes adjusted to the dim light. The ancient battered saddle that hung over the bar was bathed in soft blue light today, reflecting the mood of the patrons gathered. It was a little on the early side, only nine thirty. The lights would be changed over to red when the prowlers were out. A place to relax, make business deals, have a decent meal and cruise, the 'Horn was something different to everyone.
Xero made her way to a table in the back. Lady Delirium and Addict, the bartenders nodded and sent the Pirate over to take her order. "A little early for you isn't it, Xero?" Pirate Ska Mayhem asked conversationally.
"I'll have a beer, make it a Buckner. Maybe dinner later, ask me then," Xero replied as she looked around. The small dance floor was vacant. Several women played darts at one end of the room. Credit codes exchanged hands after a decisive throw won the game. At a corner booth, Wordee sat with several other women. She recognized MaryD, but the other two she couldn't place.
"Where's your sidekick?" Ska asked, putting a dark bottle down in front of Xero.
"Working," Xero answered as she keyed in her payment and a tip. "Who's the newbies?"
"Just that, newbies. Both after Wordee, the one on the right is a potential employer, the one on the left is a suitor." After a moment's reflection she continued, "I guess it's your fault."
"How do you figure?" Xero asked, taking a sip of the smooth beer.
"You nailed Bat, one of the few straight women who hang out here. That makes it hard on the rest of 'em. Not that I'm going to cry them any rivers anytime soon."
"I heard that," Lani remarked from a table behind Xero's. "Pirate's picking on the straight chicks again," she continued, only louder this time.
"Oh, look who's talking," Ska shot back sarcastically.
All eyes turned to a table in the center of the room. Blue, the Arbitrator who had been trying to enjoy a peaceful dinner with Jenbob, was suddenly the center of attention. "So make her buy the straight chicks a drink," she finally decided. Sentence passed, everyone returned to their individual business.
"There go my tips for tonight," Ska muttered wandering off.
Xero enjoyed her beer. Left alone to observe the interactions around her, she felt herself finally unwind. The big winner at darts, Trillbaby, bought the next round for the house. Halfway through her second beer, the receiver in her ear clicked on.
"I've got something for you, can you talk?" Bat's disembodied voice asked softly in her ear.
"Yeah, what do you have," Xero asked after another sip.
"I'm off the nets, running a closed loop system to check out your files. You've got a tapeworm all right, but it isn't a tracker."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean she sent over a shitload of files, but nothing to track you. It's all stuff so you can get ahold of her. She may be a psycho."
"How do you know it's a she?" Xero wondered.
"That's what I'm telling you. She sent over personnel files, all kinds of shit. Her name is Rielle MacGab, I've got a picture, she's cute... I mean if you're interested in women, that sort of thing."
"I get your point, Bat, go on," Xero pressed.
"According to this, she's a syscop for the Archives Corp. But she's on a leave of absence. She had a medical leave a couple of months ago, now she's just taking vacation." Xero could picture Bat as she went through the files. Shoes off, curled up on the couch fidigiting with a pen in one hand. She was talking fast. That meant she was scanning files as she spoke, struggling to keep up with her mechanical eye.
"So why do you think she's a psycho?" Xero asked.
"All this other stuff she sent you. Xero, buddy, she must have been waiting for you to log into that data stream. She was watching you the whole time. She's downloaded a book, The Adventure of a Lifetime, a Memoir by Melinda Pappas. Provided links to a television database for an old '90s show, her own records and the message that you tried to cut off. Be careful, Xero, she's planning to meet you at the 'Horn."
"You unlocked all this with the keyword Amphipolis?" Xero asked, scanning the inhabitants of the club once again.
"Yeah, just like her greeting said. I'm running a buffer system, so I'm not worried about getting zapped. But it was just a simple keyword. No traps or homing beacons. If this picture is an accurate one, you're looking for a twenty six year old red head with green eyes and," she paused to read further "according to her psyche files, a sunny disposition." Xero didn't answer right away and Bat laughed. "Yeah, I know. Just your type. Still, why not have a go? The 'Horn regulars are too intimidated to actually sleep with you. Did I mention you being annoyingly tense all week?"
"If that's all the news you've got," Xero cut her off. "Why don't you reassemble the system and get it back on the nets. Put all this new stuff on an isolated drive and I'll look at it later."
"Okay, will do," Bat assured the hacker. "Logging off now."
The 'Horn was beginning to fill up as more women came in after their mid-day shifts. Few of the women who frequented the place had regular jobs, but a number of hackers kept regular hours too. Especially the women who worked for hacking companies. They had shifts and benefits like legitimate workers. Xero considered ordering dinner when a tense hush settled around the club. A couple of men, Bobs as they were known at the 'Horn, stepped through the security markers and were making their way to the bar. Both were tall, about Xero's height and good looking. Their sun bleached hair and bronzed skin screamed 'surfer'.
Xero noticed Lady Delirium step away from Addict, who was pouring drinks for the Bobs. Retrieving the mobie unit from her pocket, she keyed in the secured frequency and turned on her communications unit.
"...obs at the 'Horn, Shadow. See what you can do." Lady Delirium said quietly.
"They been here before?" Xero asked quietly.
"Xero, that you?" Lady D asked as she looked over. Seeing the dark haired woman's affirming nod, she continued. "No, they're newbies, not trolls. They just told Addict that they're in construction and retrofit, they're here on vacation. Too tan to be hackers."
"I'm in their net accounts now," Shadow offered.
"Then take it easy on them, Shadow," Xero asked. "When you screw with their files, don't mess 'em up too bad."
"Bat send you out to find her dates?" Shadow asked with a wry laugh.
"Yeah, so give 'em her locator file. Then they'll know who to contact to clean up the mess."
"Okay, will do," Shadow agreed. "They should be out of there as soon as they try to pay."
As if on cue, one of the men looked up alarmed as he swiped his account card through the reader a second time. The other man tried his card but with the same lack of success. Both men left abruptly when they'd logged on to their accounts only to find garbled text instead of account information. Once they were out the door and down the block, their drinks were raffled off, the two women who won raising their glasses in silent toast to their now absent benefactors.
Bat carefully adjusted her baseball cap before connecting the final system wire to the net brainbox. If a trap or other aggressive program had slipped past her careful examination, this was often enough to trigger it. She held her breath for a couple seconds, and when nothing happened she readjusted her hat and relaxed. No matter how many years went by, every system connection took her back to the day five years ago when she'd earned the name Bat and lost an eye in the process. She should have seen the trap but didn't. As a result her client's brain box blew up in her face, damaging the lens of her left eye beyond repair. Convinced she'd be blind, her friends started calling her 'Bat'. Her eye recovered, with the aid of a mechanical replacement, but the name stuck anyway.
System initialized, she keyed in Xero's general use account. If someone was after her boss, logging into the system as herself would serve little purpose. She started with routine housekeeping. Xero's preferences were pretty straightforward, and Bat knew the subroutines as if they were her own. She logged in the day's messages and took note of the net account balances. Everything was in order there as well.
Satisfied that the system was operating as it should, she launched the program that would fling her onto the nets. Cruising Xero's regular haunts, she began to notice a few familiar faces, identified by their screen icons, as well as several new ones. She'd cloaked Xero's own icon, making her invisible to the other passersby unless they were using a high end detection program. Even then, the detector would only be able to tell that another entity was logged on, not that it was Xero. Unfortunately, such programs caused more trouble than they were worth while hacking, so they were only used for sightseeing or other legitimate net business only.
Things were slow, but Bat noted that it was still early. She was about to make her way to the node for the 'Horn when she was stopped by a greeting.
We meet again, Xero, the message said.
"Holy shit," Bat gasped, her good eye wide in surprise staring at the screen.
Or should I say, Xena? the message continued.
"It's her psycho," Bat whispered as she touched the control of her mobie unit. "Xero, you there?" she asked, worried. There was no response. Either Xero was on another channel, or the mobile communications system had been jammed. Bat glanced back at the screen. The message was waiting for a response. "What would Xero say?" she wondered. She'd been spotted and tagged, it was no good to try to pretend otherwise. Finally she keyed in her response. Who the fuck is Xena?
Could it be that you don't know yet? This gets better all the time, the message flashed, red letters on black. I'm going to enjoy killing you, Xena, I only hope it's as good for you as it will be for me.
Who are you? Bat asked, trying to fight her growing fear, and losing.
I'm sorry, it's been such a long time. Xena, my dear, my name is Ares.
Xero decided it was time to leave. There wouldn't be anything happening here for her tonight. She pushed away from her table, and stood as a third Buckner was put down in front of her. The hacker looked up into lovely green eyes she'd never seen before. "Mind if I buy you a drink?" a soft voice asked.
Towering over the shorter woman, Xero smiled. It could only be the syscop Bat had warned her about. Strawberry blond, petite, beautiful. Her one-eyed associate did have a gift for understatement. Xero wrapped her long fingers around the neck of the beer bottle. "You don't mind if I take it with me?" she asked. Beautiful as this woman was, she was still a syscop.
A smaller hand wrapped around her own, holding the bottle onto the table. "As a matter of fact, I do," the young woman said evenly. "When I buy a beautiful woman a drink, I expect her to finish it in my company."
Xero flashed her a grin, displaying a mouthful of perfect white teeth. There might be something here worth the risk after all, she decided. "That's rather butch of you," she commented sitting down again. The other woman took the seat opposite her and let go of her hand but didn't say anything. "Use that line a lot do you?" Xero asked, after taking a sip of the beer.
"On occasion," the other woman replied with false bravado. Xero laughed and the other woman frowned. "I say something funny?"
"You don't lie very well," the hacker replied. "No, I'd bet a bottle of spring water that I'm the first woman you've hit on in a bar. Isn't that so, Rielle?"
Her companion looked at the table as her cheeks flushed crimson before making eye contact again. "I'm glad you took the time to look at my files at least," she finally said, changing the subject. "Xero, I need to talk to you."
"Too bad, I don't talk to syscops," the older woman replied flatly.
"Can I buy you dinner? Give me that much time at least?" Rielle asked.
"Fine," Xero replied with an artful shrug. She nodded to the Pirate who came over to take her order. "Kitchen have fresh produce?" she asked.
Ska blinked, naturally grown fruits and vegetables were very expensive delicacies. "Yeah, some," she replied.
"I'll have a salad with the works," Xero requested.
"For two," Rielle added, handing over her account card.
When the waitress was gone she turned to her companion once again. "Xero, I'm going to tell you a story, you're going to think its fantastic, but I want you to hear me out anyway."
"Until I'm done eating, I'm all yours," she replied.
Feeling warm, Xena? The message on the screen taunted.
Bat tried again in vain to break eye contact with the data code that scrolled past her eyes at blinding speed. If she'd had two natural eyes, all she'd see was a mesmerizing blur, unfortunately with her mechanical eye she could make out some of what she was reading. The repetitive, hypnotic code was sending signals to her body. Her brain, unable to filter out the harmful instructions, could only wait and experience the body's self destruction. Like subliminal advertising on steroids, Bat was helpless against the onslaught of information. Sweating and dizzy, she guessed her fever must be well over one hundred three degrees by now.
I'm not Xena, she finally managed to send.
Sure you are, the message came back. You just don't remember yet. I really didn't know the battle for the third age would be this easy. Even Melinda Pappas was more of a challenge than you. So, wanna race?
Bat's heart started beating faster, her heated blood pulsing through her system. Then her lungs collapsed, cutting off her air as the hacker tried desperately not to panic. If she was going to die, as now seemed likely, she wanted someone to know why and how. Eyes still riveted on the scrolling text, in the periphery of her vision she could see the isolated drive sitting on top of the brainbox. After yanking a wire from an unused diagnostic unit, she plugged the drive in and keyed in a record sequence. Just then her chest expanded, air finally filling her lungs. The racing of her pulse continued. Whatever was killing her intended to do it slowly.
You don't know how long I've waited for this, Xena. I've had thousands of years to plot your destruction. I never doubted that as long as I got to you before that irritating blond did, I'd have you. I hope you're able to fully appreciate what you could have had all those millennia ago, when a simple 'yes' from you would have given you immortality.
Feeling something wet on her leg, the hacker noted that her hands had broken out in blisters that were popping soon after forming. Clear plasma ran down her hands onto the input pad and finally and dripping on her thigh. Her eminent death looking messy, Bat took the battered baseball cap off her head and tossed it aside. A remembrance of her mother who had died in the Plague, she wasn't about to let her own demise ruin Mickey Mouse.
Her lungs collapsed again, this time she hoped for good. Her vision changed and she absently noticed it was from her natural eye giving out. The moisture and soft tissues burned. Were it not for her implant, she'd be blissfully blind.
Well, Xena, it's been fun. Give my regards to Callisto, Velasca and Hades when you see them.
She could smell charring flesh now and would have screamed had she been able to get the air, to do so. Instead she winced as she felt her heart finally explode in her chest cavity. After that everything slowed down until life itself mercifully ended.
"Let me get this straight," Xero said dubiously. "You're saying this bar was originally funded by the Pappas Foundation. That saddle hanging over there bought at the big auction the Smithsonian had when their funding was cut?" Rielle nodded and let the other woman continue. "And this Melinda Pappas fought the battle of the second age." Rielle nodded again. "And I'm related to her, how?" Xero asked.
"That's just it. You aren't," Rielle explained. "Melinda Pappas was related to Xena and Janice Covington was related to Gabrielle. You and I are the reincarnated souls of Xena and Gabrielle."
"That's right," Xero amended, not believing a word of it. "Which one am I again?"
"You're Xena," Rielle said loosing her patience.
"Of course, the 'X's, I should have known. Okay, I'm Xena and I'm going to fight the battle of the third age. Against who?"
"Against Ares," the syscop continued clearly annoyed. "And believe me, if you don't start taking this a bit more seriously, you're going to loose."
"Well I wouldn't want that," Xero shot back with a smirk.
"Didn't you read any of the material I sent over?" Rielle asked. "I was hoping it'd jog your memory."
"Y, you've said that Xena and Gabrielle were lovers," Xero offered. "Don't you think that would jog my memory?"
An unreadable look crossed the younger woman's face. "I'm willing to try anything," she said quietly.
"Well, don't make it sound like such a chore," Xero shot back miffed.
"It's not that, Xero, it's just that obviously I can remember things at this point that you can't." She shook her head sadly. "It'd be a lot different for me than for you, I suspect."
Xero was tempted to tell the young woman to forget the whole thing and just leave. Still, there was something about her company she found intriguing and wasn't ready to part ways just yet. If nothing else, she could take the woman home and let the terrified newbie off the hook then. "Fine then," Xero said as she stood. "Let's go."
All eyes in the Saddlehorn Pub & Grill watched the newbie leave with Xero. The only puzzling thing was why she didn't appear pleased about it.
"So when did you first realize that you were the reincarnated essence of an Ancient Amphipolitan Bard?" Xero asked as they stepped off the lift at her floor.
"Poteidaia, Gabrielle was from Poteidaia," Rielle corrected her.
"I started having vivid dreams a couple of months ago. Unusual at first, but they wouldn't go away. Then I started to do some research. The more I learned, the more things fit into place," the syscop explained as they walked down the hall to the older woman's apartment.
"I still don't see how it's possible to be reincarnated from a television show," Xero insisted.
"Not from a show, you big dumb hacker," she snapped. "The show was based on a collection of scrolls Janice Covington discovered in 1942, then later in 1961. The '42 Scrolls were hidden away until the '90s when they were used for the show."
Xero nodded as she ran her thumb over the door's ID patch. It unlocked and upon opening it her senses were immediately assaulted by the acrid smell of burnt hair and flesh. "What the fuck!" she gasped and ran inside.
Bat, or rather her charred remains, rigidly sat on the couch. Small tendrils of smoke still drifted off of her body. A flaming sword could clearly be seen rotating on the screen in front of her with the words Goodbye Xena below them. A green light was blinking on the portable drive indicating that it had just been backed up.
"That's Ares' symbol," Rielle said, pointing to the screen.
"What happened to her?" Xero whispered realizing her roommate was beyond dead. "She's grounded," the hacker noted the grounding wire trailing from band wrapped around the dead woman's wrist. "How could she have been zapped?"
"That is what I'm trying to explain," Rielle said softly. "Ares must have thought she was you, or he's just practicing. Xero, this is a god we're talking about. He's powerful."
Xero turned to her companion, her blue eyes flashing in sorrow and anger. "So now you're a Fundie?" she demanded. "Did you orchestrate this?" she growled as she advanced on the smaller woman. Wisely, Rielle backed up. "Rig the equipment? A syscop who works for Archive Corporation, maybe, is that it?" Backed against the wall, Rielle looked up into the face of her aggressor. She was much shorter than the hacker, her head only reaching just past the taller woman's shoulder. Craning her neck back she tried to remain calm as cold blue eyes bore into her. "I'll ask one more time, 'cop. Are you or are you not a bounty hunter?"
"Xero, you know I'm not," she said carefully. "You can see for yourself she's still smoking. She's only been dead a matter of minutes. I was with you. Do you honestly think I could construct a remote program that your friend wouldn't be able to disable?"
"She wasn't my friend," Xero muttered turning away.
Rielle looked again from the charred body to the woman who once was Xena. "What was she then?" she asked quietly.
"A good acquaintance," Xero answered with a shrug.
Walking over to where the taller woman stood, she put a comforting hand on her arm. "Even so, it isn't safe for you to stay here. Even if you don't believe what I've told you about Ares, surely a corpse in your apartment isn't something a hacker would care to explain, now is it?" Rielle asked seriously. "Why don't you come to my place. You can crash there tonight. Maybe in the morning you'll listen to some of what I have to say."
Xero nodded absently. The syscop was right. Bat's body would have to be tended to and there were too many unanswered questions for her to remain. She'd probably be implicated in the murder, although the authorities didn't worry too much about the death of a hacker. She would find whoever it was who did this, syscop or no syscop. Shaking her head, Xero grabbed a small bag and began to collect a few things.
First she picked up her portable system. After that she picked up the isolated drive that had been blinking. She grabbed a second pair of jeans and a shirt and some loose credit slips. When she'd added her wallet and mini discs, she was ready to go. "I should take Argo," she said as an afterthought.
"Argo?" Rielle asked, eyes wide.
"Yeah, Bat's iguana."
The syscop looked at the dead woman in wonder. Could she have been mistaken and contacted the wrong one? "This woman has a pet named Argo?" she asked to be sure. "Where did she get the name?"
"I don't know," Xero replied with a shrug as she headed for the bedroom that led off from the main living room. "I think she said she heard me mumble it in my sleep." She returned several minutes later with a large bright green reptile perched on her shoulder. The animal's body was about forty centimeters long, Rielle guessed, with a tail almost as long. "I don't know why, but Bat had a soft spot for lost causes," Xero explained as she put a container of food into her pocket.
"Is that why she lived with you?" Rielle asked.
Xero glared at her. "She lived with me because she worked for me. She put in long hours keeping my rig in shape. Besides, here she had some measure of protection against corporate thugs." Xero looked once again at the dead woman's body. "Apparently it wasn't enough." She made her way towards the door when she paused at the couch. Picking up Bat's antique baseball hat, she put it on and smiled sadly. "I'm going to find the thugs that did this," she whispered. "And when I do, they won't end up looking half as good as you." Cold blue eyes taking a final sweep around the small apartment, Xero realized that there was nothing else she needed, nothing else she could take with her. "Let's go," she muttered tightly to her companion.
"Here we are," Rielle said as she pushed open the heavy front door to her apartment. Xero already impressed by the prime location of the building. She was speechless at the spaciousness of the dwelling.
"How many people live here?" she asked, putting her heavy bag down on the overstuffed couch.
"I live alone," Rielle answered.
"I didn't know syscops did so well," Xero quipped, trying to mask her amazement. No one lived alone save the extremely wealthy. The fact that she only lived with one person spoke volumes about how well she did as a hacker.
"Yeah, well it belonged to my parents," Rielle explained, answering Xero's unasked question. "They both died a few years ago. The flat was already paid for."
Xero nodded and looked around. The place even had windows. Unable to resist, she strolled over and looked outside. At night the city lights sparkled brightly, making the South California skyline pulsate with glowing beauty. "Would you like something to drink?" Rielle called from the kitchen.
"Sure," Xero called back. "Whatever you've got." After moments spent in rapt fascination at the window, she was joined by the syscop.
"You mentioned spring water earlier, so I thought this would be okay," Rielle explained, handing her a glass of iced water.
"You seem to have everything here," Xero commented after long sip.
"I guess," Rielle replied, uncomfortable. "But I stand to lose it all, everyone stands to lose everything if you don't get your memory back and battle Ares."
"Are we on that again?" Xero asked, exasperated. "Look, kid. If this is a clever line you're using to get me in the sack, trust me you're trying way too hard."
"Is that what you think this is about? Fucking you?" Rielle stormed away from the window. "Xena must have looked long and hard to fine the densest, dumbest... most clueless body she could. Your friend is sitting burned to a crisp on your couch and you think I'm making a pass at you?"
"I'd be careful if I were you," Xero growled. "I'm in no mood to be taunted by some spoiled syscop who thinks she's bringing in the catch of the day. You don't play this game very well do you, Rielle? You pick me up in a dyke bar, give me this bullshit about past lives, throw in New Age Fundie crap with the god Ares and tell me I'm going to suddenly remember being a reformed warlord from Amphipolis!" As she turned she winced. Argo, losing his balance from her shoulder grabbed with a foreclaw, sharp nails digging into her exposed skin above the collar of the leather jacket.
"Here," Rielle offered moving to take the lizard from the taller woman's shoulder. "Why don't we put Argo down." Gently as she could, she put the big reptile down on the floor. The lizard was heavier than he looked.
"Thanks," Xero muttered.
"I'm sorry," Rielle replied. "Why don't you take some time. I'm sure there's someone you should notify about your fri... associate's death. I wish you'd trust me, but I realize that you think you can't. Still, I have to tell you that I've no intention of arresting you or turning you in. You're welcome to stay, the couch is yours. Make yourself at home. We can talk more about Xena and the other stuff in the morning." She turned away and walked toward the bedroom. "If you were serious about what you said earlier," she added turning back around. "About needing to jog your memory, I'll be in here."
Xero watched her go. The other woman made it clear that she was up for sex but didn't want it. No matter, Xero decided, she wasn't in the mood anyway. She wandered into the kitchen, opening up cupboards until she found a small bowl. She poured some of the spring water from her glass into the bowl and put it on the floor near the lizard. Pulling out her mobie unit, she keyed in the satellite codes for maximum encryption and called the 'Horn.
Wandering back to the window, she waited for the connection to link up. "IQ? This is Xero, put me through to Shadow." After a moment's pause she was connected. "Yeah, Shadow, it's Xero. Look, I've got bad news. Bat is dead. She was fried about an hour ago. I found her when I went home... No, I'm not there now. I'm... elsewhere. If she's got any family or anything, you need to let them know. I'm uploading the codes to my place. Security would just dump the body, she deserves better than that.... Thanks, Shadow, I appreciate it. Keep my place secure if you can. I'm going to track down whoever did this, I might need to go back and get some things... Okay, I will. Thanks again." Feeling numb, she broke the connection and put the mobie away. She looked around the stylishly decorated apartment, then headed for the couch. If the syscop was set on taking her in, Xero decided it was one way to see how good the young woman really was. She took off her boots, casually tossing them under the low table near the couch. Next she removed her jacket. While she was at it, she pulled out the small container of food pellets and put a few down on the floor for the lizard. She also extracted her small hand held flame thrower from a concealed pocket and put it on the table as well. Finally she took off her hat. She gazed at the faded picture of a cartoon mouse for long minutes, reverently tracing its outline with her finger. Shaking off the pensive reflection, she put the hat on the table as well. She laid down, stretching her long legs, flame thrower concealed in her right hand. With that ,and easy access to two knives, Xero realized that she was as safe as she could be under the circumstances. When she closed her eyes, sleep was almost instant.
...Xero looked around disoriented. She was standing in a board room dressed in her jeans and t-shirt with nothing on her feet.
"So glad you could make it," a firm voice said in greeting.
Looking up, Xero was startled to see two women sitting behind a polished black table. Both were dressed in old fashioned tuxedos, one of them looked a lot like her, the other looked like Rielle, the syscop.
"I must be dreaming," Xero said trying to make sense of her surroundings.
"The hacker catches on fast," the strawberry-blond continued. "We decided on formal wear for our first meeting, I hope that's okay with you. I am Janice Covington, and the ravishing creature next to me is Melinda Pappas."
"It's nice to meet you, Xero," Melinda said with a Southern accent.
"I never dream," Xero stated bluntly, wondering why she wasn't simply waking up.
"Believe me, that's been a major problem for us," Janice replied. "Fact is, this isn't going to be fun. The stuff Rielle is telling you is true. If you can stop thinking with your libido and refrain from bullying her you might learn something. Why don't you try listening for a change."
"I don't have to take this crap from you," Xero growled deciding she liked the syscop's look alike even less than the syscop.
"Auctually , Xero you do," Janice replied with a grin.
"What she means," Mel interjected, "is that you have to sleep. Now that we've reached you, we're going to keep at it."
"Look kid," Janice continued. "Ares is on the move, he offed that friend of yours. With our help we're going to see to it that you blow his sorry ass to kingdom-come."
"Janice!" Mel implored at her companion's harsh language.
"Relax, Mel!" Janice soothed. "I'm just trying to get through to the Warrior Princess over here. Xena, we need you to remember. We're going to do whatever it takes to see that you do remember. We didn't risk life and limb to have you forfeit the battle of the third age."
"Battle of the third age?" Xero mumbled.
"Gods she's slow," Janice groaned in frustration.
"Janice, please!" Mel implored. "She's been through a lot. It was hard getting through to Gabrielle too if you remember. Give her some time to get her bearings, get to know Rielle. At least let her say goodbye to her friend."
"I don't have any friends," Xero replied automatically.
"I never thought I'd meet someone who made Xena look well adjusted," Janice quipped. After getting an icy glare from Mel she continued in a rush, "Alright, you've been through a lot. We won't get started right now. Rest up some, but start thinking. Search your feelings. You are more than you imagine. Get in touch with what's beyond you. We can't help you if you don't help us."
"Whaaa..." Xero looked around the dimly lit room. The lights had dimmed automatically with her inactivity. Something felt odd but she couldn't quite describe it. She checked her watch, she'd been asleep for three hours. Mildly surprised that the syscop had not in fact tried to arrest her, she sat up and stretched. Absently she considered that the young woman may have been telling the truth after all, far fetched as it sounded. Putting her weapons on the coffee table with the baseball hat, she silently walked over to the bedroom door.
Rielle was sleeping on her side, facing the door on the far side of the bed. Staying as far away as possible from me, no doubt. Xero considered. When she crossed the room and picked up the bed cover the other woman's eyes flew open with a start.
"What is it?" Rielle asked worried, frightened.
"Relax, Rielle. I'm not after your virtue. I think the couch is uncomfortable, it made me have a weird dream. I'm sleeping here," the hacker mumbled as she slid under the covers.
"Weird dream you say?" Rielle asked, the hint of a small smile tugging at her lips.
"Yeah," Xero muttered. "These two women in tuxedos. It's nothing. Lemme sleep."
Rielle's smile broadened as she watched her companion slip into slumber. Realizing that things might just work out after all, the smile remained as she too drifted off to sleep.
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