NEW ENEMIES, OLD FRIENDS
OLD ENEMIES, NEW FRIENDS
SIX YEARS LATER
Gaius stares down at the body in disbelief. She can't be dead. How can she die?
I am Isis! she had once screamed at him. Now she lies on her back with a dagger plunged into her heart. The crimson stain in contrast to the white gown she wears. His eyes meet hers. They are open but empty. A defiant look etched forever on her face as if she dared the one who killed her to do the deed. He knows that she would not have let any man have the satisfaction of hearing her beg for her life. She had stood before her killer and stared into his eyes. No doubt she would have taunted him with his cowardice. What man but a coward could stab an unarmed woman in her heart?
Kneeling by her body he lays a shaking hand on her forehead. So many times he has laid his hand on her body and felt the heat of life and passion. Now she is cold. Cold like the grave. Cold like death. He passes his hand over her eyes closing them forever. There will never be another like her.
He locks his eyes on her beautiful face. On the alabaster skin and the ruby red lips. He doesn't want to look at her body. But his eyes stray down and he sees her mid section heavy with child. His child. A son or daughter that will never know the love of father or mother. Laying his other hand on the final resting place of his unborn child he tries to think of what to tell his daughter. How to inform her that she will not have the baby brother or sister he promised? He wills himself not to cry. But his will is not strong enough and the tears flow.
He raises his face and his voice calls out to the universe in lose and grief.
How the mighty have fallen, a sneering voice says from behind him.
He hears multiple footsteps as several men enter the room. He turns his gaze back down to her once more to memorize for the rest of his life the look of her. He takes his hands from her body and burns her face into his memory for all time. Closing his hands into fists he hears the knuckles pop and crack. Loss is replaced by hate. Grief succumbs to rage. And despondency is eclipsed by a desire to kill that no amount of blood will sate.
After all her talk of being a god she died flopping on the end of my dagger like a fish, the voice mocks her and his bloodlust only intensifies. The two of you should be together. Kill him.
Footsteps draw closer and he hears the swinging of a blade. He holds his left arm horizontally over his head and winces when the sword impacts with the metal bracer he wears on his arm. He ignores the pain as he draws his sword and spins around while rising from his knees. The sword opens the soldier's stomach and spills his guts all over the floor. The man falls with a look of astonishment on his face.
Arrayed before Gaius are five more soldiers all with weapons drawn. But he looks past them to the man in the elaborate red and black uniform. This man he had once called friend. More than once he had forgiven this man for acts that others considered treasonous. This man's mother was a dear friend to him in the past and he forgave him for her sake. He sees now that was a mistake. Once a traitor, always a traitor. More so because of the golden emblem of a triumvirate flame he wears upon his armor.
Gaius stands defiantly before them holding his sword at the ready. Why do you hesitate? he asks this cadre of traitors. Is it because I am not an unarmed woman that you fear me?
He's just one man! the traitor says. Kill him.
Most believe he is a no warrior. A great leader of men? Yes. A strategist who has beaten armies outnumbering him five to one? Truly. A charismatic leader who could lead a legion into the Underworld and convince his men they would come out unscathed? No doubt. But a warrior? No. In the next seconds five men learn a dire lesson.
The first man rushes forward intent to run him through. Gaius simply sidesteps and grabs the man's sword arm then smashes the pommel of his sword into the man's head. There is as sickening crunch as the man's jaw is broken and he crumples to the floor. As the man falls Gaius twists the sword loose from his grasp and meets the attack of the next man. He thrusts his blade into the man's groin then twists the blade. This opponent drops his own weapon and squeals like a stuck pig placing his hands to the wound. A third man closes from the right but Gaius twists around using his second opponent as a shield. The sword of this new attacker rams home into his compatriot. Releasing his weapon from the groin of the dying man Gaius reaches over the shoulder of the human shield to plunge his sword into the face of the other man. He pushes the two men down in a heap but draws the dagger of one of them and hurls into a fourth opponent who draws near. The dagger hits him in the neck and he falls clutching his severed jugular. He turns and meets his last assailant who seems intent to split him from his head down with a high downward stroke. He catches the man's attack by blocking him with crossed hands. He grips the man's hands and twists down hard and fast removing the weapon from his hands. And with a quick upward thrust under the man's chin that impales the brain, he dispatches the last of them.
Sword in hand he turns his full attention to the remaining traitor. And you Brutus? he asks simply.
Brutus draws his own blade and runs forward. He is easily disarmed and his opponent seizes him by his neck like a dog and forces him to his knees. He stares now at the body of the woman he so recently killed.
She is a god Brutus! Gaius says. And you are an insect!
Brutus grunts in ridicule. Cleopatra was a god? What does that make you then?
He hauls Brutus to his feet and looks the traitor in the eyes for the last time. Me? He runs the sword savagely into the man's gut and screams, I am Caesar!
Brutus claws at the uniform of Gaius Julius Caesar as he slips to the ground. Caesar stares down at the man watching the life ebb from him. Brutus sinks to his knees then falls over onto his side. Without looking back he exits the room and heads out into the corridor. He is only a few yards down when he is confronted by another group of Roman legionaries. But these do not advance with weapons drawn towards him. Instead they salute him and all stand off to one side. From behind their ranks comes a young man barely out of his teens dressed in the armor and wearing the mantle of a general in the armies of Rome. Uncle, Octavian says with concern upon seeing the blood coating his uncle's armor. Are you all right?
Yes Octavian. I am fine, he answers drawing closer to his nephew.
The Queen? Octavian inquires.
She is dead, Caesar answers simply. What is the situation outside?
In answer to Caesar's question the entire structure of the royal palace of Alexandria trembles. That tremor is followed closely by a second then a third causing bits of the ceiling and walls flake off and crumble to the floor.
Pompey has brought up his catapults, Octavian says trying to maintain his balance as two more tremors rock the palace. Alexandria is lost. All that is left to us is to get to the harbor. The boats are rigged and we can be underway in minutes.
I don't think I need to tell you I dislike retreating, Caesar informs his nephew.
Retreat and live or stay and die uncle, Octavian tells him in a voice very much like his own.
Caesar pauses to contemplate this decision and finds there really is no choice. He points down the hall towards the corridor that leads from the palace out to the Alexandrian harbor. Go! he commands. Proclaim the retreat! Tell everyone to abandon their posts. We are leaving.
Yes Caesar. Octavian salutes then turns to lead his men down the corridor. At each crossing in the hall he sends a man down it to inform all those present that Alexandria is being evacuated.
All throughout the palace can be heard the cries of, Abandon your post. Everyone to the ships!
The thundering of boulders striking the walls of the palace drowns out the orders to some and a few perish when sections of the walls collapse from the bombardment.
Caesar is the last to emerge onto the private dock of the queen's quarters where his personal vessel is docked alongside that of the late Queen of the Nile. He glances back towards the palace and up towards the window where he knows Cleopatra's room is and wishes he could have brought the body with him. He knows Pompey will take it to Athens as a trophy. But to take such a burden might have cost even more lives than have already been lost today. I'm sorry.
Caesar! a centurion exclaims as he runs down from a loading ramp of the nearest ship. Two of Pompey's ships are trying to blockade the harbor!
You! Caesar screams to the captain of one of the ships. The captain salutes and awaits his orders. Caesar points to Cleopatra's royal barge. Cut that ship loose! Push it towards the mouth of the harbor! Then set it on fire!
The captain gathers men and proceeds to do as he has been ordered.
Is that wise? Octavian asks approaching from the palace.
Pompey has too few ships here, Caesar explains. He'll not risk even one against a fire ship. We'll follow as close as possible. Once they have moved away from the mouth of the harbor they'll never be able to catch up.
Uncle and nephew watch for a minute as the ship is maneuvered into position in the harbor and pushed towards the mouth. A cacophonous sound draws their attention and they see a boulder launched from one of the assaulting catapults crash over the roof of the palace. It shears off a tower then hurtles down to the veranda on which they stand. Octavian stumbles backwards as it seems to be heading straight for them. Caesar does not move but watches it crash into the marble tiles of the veranda and bounce several feet into the air before crossing mere feet from him to splash into the water. Caesar helps his nephew back to his feet and says, I believe that is our cure to depart. He strides calmly towards his ship. In the distance he can see the flaming barge drifting into the narrow mouth of the channel. The captain has maneuvered it perfectly towards the blockading ships and as he knew they would they pull back from the fire ship.
Octavian follows him aboard and looks back. He can see no others running from the palace. We are the last. He signals to the captain to prepare to cast off. Within seconds the vessel is moving away from the dock with considerable speed as two rows of oarsman on each side put their backs into its movement. Caesar stands on the deck staring back at the royal palace. A wall to the far end collapses under the barrage of boulders from Pompey's catapults.
They are several ship lengths from the dock when men dressed in Roman legionary uniforms and armor but colored in red and black emerge from the palace. Among them is Pompey the Magnus. Caesar! he screams in disgust at seeing his foe escaping from him. You can't hide forever! Eventually you'll have no where left to run!
Caesar does not respond except to stare back defiantly at this man who, like Brutus, he had once trusted so implicitly. Enraged by Caesar's silence Pompey turns to a man near him and grabs his cross bow. He aims it towards Caesar's ship and at Caesar himself.
Uncle, Octavian says in shock. Surely he won't stand there and die? As he thinks those words a tall figure dressed in black brushes past him and walks towards Caesar.
Die! Pompey bellows then fires the cross bow.
Caesar stands perfectly still as the lethal projectile soars across the water towards him. He can see the bolt spinning and hurtling towards him. An inch from his face a hand snatches the bolt from mid air. Xena looks at the weapon in her hand then to the face of Caesar.
Thanks, Caesar says with a nod.
Don't mention it, Xena replies tossing the bolt into the water.
You can't win Caesar! Pompey screams. He slams his fist over a medallion made into the breastplate of his armor. A medallion etched with a triumvirate flame. Hope is eternal!
All those present echo his salute and words with him. Hope is eternal!
The Roman ships pass through the harbor mouth and enter the open water of the Mediterranean. We sail for home! Caesar shouts to all those present. He turns to Xena and sees he does not need to tell her of what happened in the palace. It seems I lose a bit more of the world every day.
She won't be forgotten, Xena says sympathetically. We won't allow it. She lays a hand on his shoulder. Get some rest, she urges him.
Caesar grunts as if amused by the idea. I won't be able to sleep for some time Xena. She was my wife. And I wasn't able to save her.
You're just one man, Xena informs him.
No. I am Caesar. He walks past her into his cabin and slams the door behind him.
Will he be all right? Octavian asks Xena.
Not sure, Xena says still looking at the cabin door. Once many years ago he said to me, I am Rome.' It seems like every time we lose territory he dies a little bit inside.
What can we do? Octavian asks.
Xena turns to look into the boyish face. What we have always done. We fight.
The chariot of Pompey the Magnus rides at the head of his army as it triumphantly enters the city of Athens. With one hand over the triumvirate crest on his armor and the other held high over his head he soaks in the adulation of the masses as they cheer his return.
Conqueror of Egypt!
Pompey the Magnificent!
Hail the Conqueror!
Pompey smiles and accepts what is due him. Behind his chariot follows the XIV, XV and XVI Legions formally of Rome but now in service to him and to Hope. Their armor and their arms glitter in the sun like gold. And gold they have as well. Plundered from the Queen's palace and treasury. Open chests of this treasure proclaim to the citizens of Athens the wealth they now possess thanks to Pompey the Magnus. Surrounded by groups of legionaries are hundreds of Egyptian slaves all clad in white and chained together in lines of ten or twenty. Cages holding exotic animals are hauled on carts. Greek men, women and children who have never left the city-state marvel at the sight of lions, leopards, giraffes and crocodiles. And guarded by fifty Amazon warriors at the center of the army is the greatest treasure: the wooden crate containing the body of Cleopatra herself. The threat of her navy and her alliance with Caesar has terrified the people of Greece for over a year. Now the queen who proclaimed herself a goddess is dead. The navy so feared now belongs to Hope. And Caesar has fled back to Rome after his sound defeat at the hands of the Magnus.
As the army comes within sight of the Acropolis a lone man on horseback detaches himself from all the others and gallops ahead. Decius is young and new to the XV Legion but he has high hopes for his career. His current assignment as Pompey's personal adjutant seems to be assuring that. And his current mission, though brief, is something he looks forward to. The Magnus has dispatched him to the Citadel to inform Hope of his triumphant return.
As he nears the Acropolis he gets a good look at the massive Citadel that is the seat of power for Hope and her Inner Council, of which Pompey is a prominent member. He has seen it many times but is still overawed by the sight of it. Once the Parthenon and numerous other structures stood atop the hill. They are all gone. Now only the immense four story, marble Citadel made of massive cyclopean stones dominates the summit.
Decius's horse races up the ramp leading to the top of the Acropolis. Lining each side of the way are both legionaries loyal to Pompey and Amazon warriors. The guardians of the Citadel are starkly contrasted in appearance and poise. The legionaries stand resplendent in their custom armor of bronze and leather. Each man wears breastplates, greaves, gauntlets and helmets made specifically for that man alone. The short bladed gladius is at their waists while the pilum or Roman javelin is held in the their hands upright as they are. The huge square bossed shields rest on the ground in their other hand. Each of them is standing straight and attentive, immobile but aware of their surroundings. They could be statues for anyone knows. On the other side of the way are the Amazons, Hope's elite warriors. They could not be more contradictory to the legionaries. They carry themselves with an animalistic air as if they are preparing to pounce upon some unseen prey at any moment. Some casually lean on staffs or spears. Some crouch on the ground fingering their swords or daggers. They wear no armor only leathers that barely cover their femininity. Feathers, beads and strips of colored cloth are woven into the leathers and even laced into their hair. Some wear elaborate masks that hide their faces but do nothing to dissuade anyone seeing them of their fierce nature. They are as casual as the legionaries are disciplined. But Decius knows how formidable they are having seen them fight in Alexandria. They had served as the scouting party that had moved into the city proper before the legions invaded.
As he passes by warriors on both sides slam fists over hearts in salute. He reciprocates the salute and gallops up towards the huge ornate gate bearing the triumvirate flame that is the only entrance to Hope's Citadel. Guarding the door are two enormous men clad in black armor and animal hides armed with jagged swords and evil looking clubs fashioned from wood and bone. Neither moves as he reins in his mount. He studies them for a moment. The armor they wear in lacquered in some tar like substance and the hides they wear reek as if they were just skinned off a beast and thrown on this morning without benefit of tanning. Their skin is black with dirt and gods only knows what else. The curved swords they wield are not something any member of an army would recognize. They've been crudely forged and are lined with jagged impressions and twisted slag. Dangling from rope belts are clubs of hardwood and daggers of bone. Along with what looks to be inexpertly processed leather. But he knows it is flesh. Human flesh as a matter of fact. Spoils of battle. Trophies of those they have killed. Of all those in service to Hope he cannot abide these barbarian trolls from the eastern steppes. The Amazons at least have a rich tradition and culture coupled together with martial skills and honor. These things have only blood lust and a hunger for death made more sickening by the rumor that they eat those they have defeated in battle. Only slightly viler in Decius's opinion than these barbarians is the one they follow.
The barbarian to his right seems to take notice of him for the first time and turns to glare at him. Decius meets the gaze and then shudders as he witnesses the blue eyes of the man suddenly darken to dull brown eyes rimmed and blood shot. And when he speaks it is not with the voice of a man over six feet tall and weighing over two hundred pounds. It is the voice of a woman he knows is hardly taller than most girls and who weighs next to nothing. Decius. You herald Pompey's return?
Pompey has sent me ahead to inform the Council of his triumphant return, Decius lets some of his disgust of the woman seep into his voice as he speaks. Open the gate. I would speak with Hope.
The warrior sneers though he knows it is the shamaness who controls him. The brown eyes go back to blue. The barbarian grunts then points to his companion at the gate. They turn and each place their hands in recesses in the wall. As one they engage levers that activate the gate's mechanism. The sounds of chains and the grinding of metal on metal are heard as the gate begins to rise up and ascend into the slot in the massive wall. It takes several seconds for the gate to disappear.
He goes inside. The barbarian guards do not salute as he passes by. They never do. As he enters the Citadel he is once again struck by the vastness of it. Seemingly larger on the inside than on the outside it is a wonder to all who enter it. This, the lowest floor above ground, is practically empty and is used mainly as a gathering place for those not in the Inner Council which meets on the third floor. The ceiling is high enough that he can easily ride his horse inside and indeed many others move about mounted on horseback. Massive pillars sprout like a stone forest supporting the upper floors of the Citadel. Around those pillars dignitaries, generals, merchants and royalty talk of the business of the day. Men and women dressed in the clothes of their native lands move about discussing rumor and news from their respective lands. As he moves by Decius notes that all eyes are on him. Surely they suspect that he brings news of Pompey.
Each floor of the Citadel is laid out in concentric circles that surround a central point. And that central point is the Eternal Fire of the One God Dahak. Each floor opens up in the center to the one above and the top most floor has an open chimney. The Fire originates from beneath the Acropolis itself. No one is allowed down there but it doesn't stop anyone from theorizing. And theories there are a plenty. From the burning corpse of Cronos to a rift in the fabric of reality.
Decius makes for the staircase at the other end of the floor that leads upwards. As he passes by the Fire he can feel the heat emanating from it and not for the first time wonders himself what fuels the Fire. A young boy detaches himself from a group of children at the base of the stairs and walks forward. Decius dismounts and hands the reins to the boy. He reaches into a pouch and tosses a coin to the boy. Take good care of him. He smiles down at the boy who grins and nods before leading the animal to the stables over by the far right wall.
Decius walks up the stairs towards the Citadel's second floor. Housing the living quarters of the Inner Council and guest accommodations for visiting dignitaries and others, the second floor is a warren of hallways and interlocking rooms that spiral out from the center. The rooms of the council members are situated nearer to the center and thus nearer to the Fire which burns up into this floor and beyond. He hears muffled voices from some of the rooms but pays them no mind as he makes his way towards the stairs that lead up to the third floor and Hope's audience chamber. A liveried servant passes by Decius on his way to the kitchens, which are also situated on the first floor. He stops at the bottom of the stairs. This is as far as he has ever been. He swallows hard and places his foot on the first step.
As soon as he does so he swears he can hear the voices of those in the floor above. He shakes his head and walks quickly up the steps. There is no door into the audience chamber, which explains why the voices had been so clear a moment ago. He looks back to find that he cannot see the bottom of the steps! He cannot see anything past the last few steps because the rest is engulfed in a tarry shadow that seems to writhe with a life of its own. He takes another step and is horrified to see that the shadow follows him up one step. He has to fight back the urge to run at top speed into the audience chamber. He inhales deeply and concentrates to dissuade his fear. He turns to face the opening before him then walks inside.
The chamber is no larger than the rest of the Citadel floors but it seems somehow vaster in scope. Perhaps because here there are no walls or milling throngs of people. Huge pillars carved with many different dialects upon them lend the support for this floor. The walls are covered in tapestries of every color, hue and design. A warm breeze ripples through them giving the appearance that the wall is somehow alive and breathing. And in the center of the room burns the Eternal Fire. He glances up for a moment at the ceiling. Above him is the fourth floor: Hope's private quarters. No one enters there but with her permission not even members of the Inner Council. His curiosity gets the better of him and Decius looks back down the stairs. The shadow now hides the stairway completely from view.
Unnerving isn't it? a voice says to his left.
He glances over and sees a blonde woman with short hair wearing thin leather armor leaning against the wall next to the doorway. She seems to be just casually resting but he knows better. He has only met her once but her reputation is known throughout Greece and beyond. His eyes go to the sword strapped to her back and to the row of daggers lining her belt.
She smirks at him. The gesture in no way diminishes the fear he feels just being in the woman's presence. It's a phantasm, she says. For a moment he doesn't know what she is talking about. Then he remembers he had been looking back at the shadow. One of Alti's creations.
I see, is all he can trust himself to say as their eyes meet. He hopes the fear he feels inside doesn't show on the outside. Najara is a woman to fear. Not only is she an unholy terror in combat, most believe she is totally mad. She claims to hear voices. The djinn she calls them. A few years ago these djinn led her from Phoenicia to Hope. And now she is Hope's personal enforcer. A warrior seemingly without peer who goes where Hope tells her to go and deals with who Hope tells her to deal with. Like that marauding psychopath Callisto. Anyone who had gone up against that woman had said she was invincible. But Najara had led a small army of elite Pompeian legionaries to do battle with Callisto. In record time she had returned with Callisto's head as proof of the deed.
It acts as a barrier keeping out undesirables, Najara continues to explain. The look she gives him makes it clear that she includes him in that category even though he has been given entrance.
The implied insult stings and he feels his fear replaced with anger. He is Pompey's personal aide and a mad woman will not speak down to him. I come from the army of Pompey the Magnus with news for Hope. I would speak with her.
Oh. Would you? Najara replies. She mocks him with each syllable.
No need to be mean Najara, a somewhat friendlier voice says from behind him.
Decius turns to face a man not much older than himself dressed in the armor of an Athenian infantryman. The manner in which he walks and carries himself speaks loudly to his training as a soldier. But he is far more than a soldier. The golden crown on his head attests to that. The man extends an arm to him and Decius takes it in a warrior's grip. Welcome Decius, the king of Athens greets him.
Thank you your majesty, Decius says nodding to Tonis. Most of Greece had been under Roman rule for years when Hope arrived with her Amazons and Pompey's legions. When Athens was freed the people tried to reward Hope with a crown. She had refused. Instead she instructed the senate on how to decide on a leader of their choosing. The people chose a young warrior who had for many years led a small army of rebels against Roman rule. After he was crowned king of Athens, Tonis had entreated Hope to stay in Athens. Pleaded with her in fact to stay and help them free all those oppressed under the yoke of Roman tyranny.
It isn't quite known when Tonis made this request if he understood the ramifications this would have on Athens, Greece and beyond. Athens would be the seat of power for Hope as she waged war against Rome. Though she would have no title, she would be obeyed without question. If they wanted her leadership they would accept it without condition. Since then many new kings have been crowned in formerly Roman held territory but each of those kings knows he rules only at Hope's whim. But none complain. They have autonomy and anything is preferable to giving up their own livelihood as tribute to Rome.
Perhaps more difficult for the people to adjust to at first was that Hope called for all organized religion pertaining to local deities to be abolished. From distant lands she had brought the worship of the One God Dahak. And she expected all those who followed her lead to do the same. There had been some resistance to it by temples and armies loyal to certain gods. But over time those loyal to the Olympians began to see that their gods were paying no attention to them. Why had Athena allowed Athens, her city, to fall to Rome is the first place? Why had Poseidon not protected the island nations? Hope had brought them out from under the heel of Roman oppression when their gods did nothing. After a while it only seemed right to worship the One God and the Eternal Fire. Now where once stood temples to Zeus, Apollo and others only temples to Dahak and one other stand. Decius himself had been married just over a year ago in a temple of Dahak that had once been dedicated to Aphrodite. He looks forward to seeing his wife again once this assignment is complete.
Following the liberation of Athens and the other Greek city-states Hope began constructing more outlying villages to encompass the cities in order to give refuge to those fleeing from Roman atrocity. The size of Athens nearly doubled and she even began reconstruction of Sparta. Many Athenians were not thrilled by this concept but Hope assured them that this new Sparta would be the first of many cities that while built upon a foundation of old rivalries and antagonism would serve the new order she was establishing. The new Sparta teamed with hospices and farmlands. In fact new hospices cropped up everywhere. In addition sanitariums for the comfort of the sick and dying were built. Throughout it all Hope has lived up to her name and her word.
And while beneficial to her allies, she is brutal to her enemies. Never was it more obvious than in Palestina two years ago when the Hebrews revolted. Proclaiming that the worship of Dahak was a sin and that Hope herself was a prophet of evil the Hebrews formed an army and began to attack the outlying cities in order to reinforce their hold on what they called their Promised Land. Hope had dispatched Brutus to Syria with the XII, XIV and XVII legions to quell the revolt. Which he did with simplistic ease. But a group of the rebel leaders had fled to a mountain fortress to take refuge. Hope could have just let the issue die but she determined to make an example of them to anyone who would dare fight the rule she represented. She had ordered Brutus to bring the leaders to justice no matter what. Brutus spent the better part of a year having a ramp constructed up the side of the mountain to reach them. Unfortunately when he reached the fortress those remaining had committed suicide rather than surrender. Hope had their bodies crucified anyway as a symbol to the people there. Not wanting the mountain fortress to become a symbol for future revolts she ordered it razed to the ground. Since that time thousands of Hebrew prisoners have been working day and night to raze not only the fortress but also the mountain itself.
There in lies the dichotomy of Hope's guidance.
News from Egypt? Tonis says breaking Decius from his musings.
What? Decius says certain he missed most of the question.
I asked what news from Egypt? Tonis asks. You ride ahead of Pompey so I can only assume the news is favorable.
Decius smiles happy to inform the king of the good news. Indeed it is. Pompey has sent me here to inform Hope of his arrival. Where is she?
She has not yet arrived, Najara informs him.
Decius glances at her before replying. Then I must wait for her so that I may impart my lord Pompey's greetings and news.
Surely there is something you can tell us now? Tonis inquires.
I was told only to relay it to Hope, Decius says. I'm sorry.
Very well then. Tonis gestures towards the expanse of the audience chamber. Make yourself at home.
Several tables laden with exotic fruits and spiced meats make his stomach grumble and his mouth water but Decius feigns interest in the repast. Thank you but I will wait, he says graciously declining their offer.
Of course. Tonis makes his way to one of the tables and samples the food. A woman in a light blue gown strides up next to Tonis from the other side of the Fire. She catches sight of Decius but doesn't pay him much mind. She strikes up a conversation with the king.
Unsure of what to do, having never been to any kind of political function in his life, Decius walks closer to the Fire. The Eternal Fire is a dancing radiance of red, yellow and orange that baths him in its warm glow. He is perplexed when he sees numerous slots cut into the floor running the circumference of the opening through which the Fire comes. Some ceremonial purpose he guesses. Glancing to the woman again he notices that she continually glances herself towards the staircase at the far end of the chamber that leads up into Hope's chambers.
Decius circles the Fire and as he does so comes within sight of a raised dais not far from the bottom of the staircase. That must be where Hope stands while she holds court. He chuckles to himself at the use of the term hold court since she is not a ruler by any name. But he doubts that if there were a throne sitting on that dais that anyone would say anything. She rules in all but name and all those who are allied to her know it.
Standing below the dais are two women who can only be Amazons. Each is dressed in leathers and carries herself with the same warrior poise he saw in the ones guarding the gate. Both are adorned in jewelry of polished beads, feathers and animal claws or teeth. And both are armed with the same eagle guard swords that are traditional to the Amazons of Greece. Though the Amazons' sphere of influence stretches far beyond Greece now. They were the first to follow Hope. Once scattered and divided, she brought them together and forged them into a vast army that swarmed from northern Greece into Thrace and further east. From many villages Hope had created a mighty nation. A nation that now controls parts of Northern Greece, Thrace, many islands in the Aegean Sea and the land in Asia that had once been Troy's. And of course it was while pushing east that Hope and the Amazons first encountered Pompey.
Even Pompey's own generals do not know the details of the alliance they forged. But what followed was Pompey's renouncement of any allegiance to Rome and also the return of the lands in the east to their rightful rulers. Roman governors were deposed and local kings brought back to power. Standing Roman armies were all brought under Pompey's command. All legions that refused were decimated. Within months of arriving in the east, Hope had Pompey's legions fighting alongside her Amazons. The force she led back into the west was five times the size of the one she had left with. Hope and Pompey surged west as inevitable as the tide wiping out legions loyal to Caesar and Antony. Finally returning to Greece they only encountered one group who would not capitulate to their demands. The centaurs refused to give in to their age-old enemies the Amazons. They were utterly annihilated. Now the armies of Hope stand ready to push further west and take Rome itself. With the acquisition of Egypt and its navy that seems assured. And it all began with a rag tag army of Amazons. It is no wonder they fascinate Decius so.
That's Melosa and her adopted daughter Velasca, a voice from nowhere says.
Decius turns to face the speaker and finds himself face to face with a huge man dressed all in black with similar hair and beard. One hand rests loosely on a sword sheathed at his waist. There is an aura emanating from him that causes Decius to take a step back.
And I wouldn't advise staring at them for too long, the dark man informs him. They might find it a little insulting.
Decius tries not to let his voice stutter as he replies. Sound advice, my lord Ares.
Ares smirks companionably and slaps Decius on the shoulder. Decius winces at the casual blow from the god of war. Ares walks over towards the dais by which the Amazons stand. Melosa, queen of the Amazon nation and her daughter princess Velasca? He should have known that. He does his best to appear as comfortable as he can amongst this gathering of some of the most powerful beings in the world.
Decius peers around the audience chamber looking for the most loathsome of Hope's allies. But Alti is nowhere to be seen. Which means nothing at all. Rumors of the shamaness's powers are legion. And if half of the things said about her are true (and Decius suspects that more than half of them are ) her spirit could be hovering over his head as he thinks about it. He has only witnessed her power a few times, one of them being her possession of the soldier at the gate. He ceases looking for her realizing he can do without seeing her anyway.
The woman in blue is still watching the staircase by the dais when suddenly her eyes go wide and a smile creeps across her features. The Avatar comes! she shouts so loud Decius is certain people in the Citadel's first level can hear her.
Everyone present moves towards the dais and stands before it. Decius watches them all bow their heads in a reverent manner. Even Ares. He sees that much to his disgust Alti is among those before the dais. Dressed in shabby skins that he swears still have blood clinging to them, she looks the least like she belongs with this grouping of warriors and warlords. Of them all she has her head bowed the least. He watches for a minute unsure of what to do. Should he join them or simply wait where he is to deliver his news? As he ponders this he feels a gentle compulsion to move and join the others. There are no words telling him what do to. Only a desire, a longing, to move forward and be there to greet Hope as she descends the stairs, to be in the presence of the Avatar as she arrives. So he steps closer to those gathered to await her arrival and bows his head as they do.
With his head down he cannot see her descending the stairs but he can hear her. And he also hears a second distinct pair of feet coming down with her. She is not alone. Melosa, the Amazon queen is to his left and even with his head bowed low he can see that her arm trembles. Whether in fear or anger he cannot tell.
Welcome my friends. The voice is at once as harmonious as a song and as hard as tempered steel.
Decius looks up with all the others and gets his first sight of Hope. He is struck not only by her beauty but also by how young she is. He had not expected Hope to be an old woman but neither had he imagined her to be a trim blonde not much older than himself. Green eyes stare out at those assembled from a face to make Helen of Troy's barely able to launch ten ships. Only a scar on her right cheek mars her perfect features. Her lithe body is clad in custom armor fashioned to look like gold and silver complete with greaves, gauntlets, breastplate and kilt. Etched on the breastplate is the triumvirate flame overlaid by a sword hanging point down. A blood red cape is attached to her armor at a shoulder clasp on her left shoulder then at her right waist. This seems to allow her better access to an eagle guard sword that he sees over her right shoulder. And he can see daggers concealed in her leather boots. A golden circlet, not dissimilar to a crown, rests upon her head. It is hardly difficult to understand why priests and priestesses of Dahak refer to her as the Avatar of the One God. It is no stretch of the imagination to believe that this beautiful creature stepped down from the heavens.
As one all those assembled place their fists over their hearts in salute and announce, Hope is eternal.
Decius chances a glance to his left again to see that Melosa is staring up at the dais with what he can only describe as abject hatred. Shocked he follows her gaze to see that she is not glaring at Hope but at the other who came down with the Avatar. Hope stands atop the dais but directly behind her is another blonde. This woman is slightly taller with wavy blond hair and she doesn't notice Melosa's gaze since her eyes are on Hope and nothing else. She wears a short gown of white trimmed with gold and Roman style sandals. And she wears a gold circlet identical to Hope's. It occurs to him that this woman may be Hope's consort. Though what about that concept seems to enrage the Amazon queen so he cannot fathom.
Decius nearly jumps out of his skin at the sound of his own name. But when he realizes it is Hope who spoke it he swells with pride that she knows his name. Yes, my lady, he says stepping forward to be recognized.
Hope smiles. All who are in my presence may call me Hope, Decius. I am not one for titles.
Decius ponders that for a moment before swallowing hard and choosing what next to say. My apologies Hope. This is my first time within the Citadel.
Hope simply nods in response. As she steps down from the dais her body moves with a rhythm that he finds stimulating. The blonde in white does not follow her but sits down on the dais steps as if to await patiently her lady's return. Standing before Decius she extends her hand. Decius looks down at the proffered hand in confusion.
She wants you to shake it, Ares whispers in his ear. It won't bite.
Mortified Decius reaches out and takes Hope's hand in a warrior's grip.
Welcome to Athens and to my Citadel, she says measuring his grip with her own.
Thank you. It is the only thing Decius can think to say.
Hope releases his hand as Velasca strides up behind her. We trust you are but the forerunner of Pompey, the Amazon princess remarks.
The Magnus is within the city as we speak, Decius informs them all in a commanding tone. He should reach the Citadel soon. With prisoners of war, treasures from Alexandria and the body of the Queen of the Nile.
The smile on Hope's face twists into a frown at his words. Only Cleopatra?
Decius nods. Yes. Both Caesar and Octavian managed to escape. He suddenly dreads the response this information will illicit. And Brutus is dead. We believe he was killed by Caesar.
You say that as if you're not sure, Ares says. Caesar is one of the greatest warriors alive. If you believe he can't hold his own in a fight you are sadly mistaken.
Hope turns a glare to the god of war. Ares shrugs. What? He used to be one of my favorites.
And Xena? Alti asks with that serpentine voice of hers.
She too escaped, Decius replies.
Fleeing back to Rome with their tails between their legs no doubt, Tonis interjects.
Damn, Hope mutters. Having them trapped in Alexandria was my best chance to get both Caesar and Xena. And neither one of them was captured.
They're fighters and survivors, Ares says by way of explanation. It's what they do.
Indeed, Hope has to agree. It hardly matters. Now I have Cleopatra's navy.
And with it we will control the whole of the Mediterranean, Tonis says making sure to emphasize the word we' in his statement. There are times when he is wary of Hope referring to their coalition of nations as I.'
How many prisoners does Pompey have? the woman in blue asks.
Let us go and see Meridian, Hope says. She points towards a balcony across the chamber. Everyone follows Hope though Melosa takes another opportunity to glare at the blonde sitting so comfortably at the dais.
Pompey's legions are settled at the bottom of the Acropolis when they step out onto the balcony. A huge throng of men, woman and children shackled together are amassed in the center of the army. Legionaries are beginning to unload wagons of treasure to prepare for transport to the Athenian treasury. Still can be heard the citizens of Athens cheering the conquering hero.
Meridian smiles with a wild glee at the sight of all the prisoners.
Hail Pompey! Hope shouts down to the army before her Citadel.
Pompey removes his helmet to reveal his blond hair and salutes. I bring you the spoils of Egypt! He gestures grandly about to show all that he has achieved. He urges his chariot to move closer to a large crate laid upon a wagon. And even the great Queen herself!
Send the prisoners and the treasure to their appointed place then bring me Cleopatra! I wish to see her for myself! Hope places her hand on the etched flame on her breastplate then holds out her open hand towards the army.
In practiced unison the legions salute and cry out , Hope is eternal!
It is the work of a few minutes to get the crate containing the queen's body into the audience chamber. All those gathered greet Pompey joyously at his triumph. All that is except the woman in white upon the dais. No one speaks with her and that is fine. She has no desire to speak with any of them either. She has heard enough from Melosa and Velasca over the years. And she has no desire to talk with that warmonger of a god. And Alti's very presence disgusts her. None of them matter anyway. She is only here for one reason. Her eyes fixate on Hope and never waver.
Several centurions wrestle the crate up onto its end then leave the audience chamber. Hope and the members of her Inner Council stare at the crate savoring the moment. Then Ares strides forward and wrenches off the cover. The wood clatters to the stone floor. Hope stares into the dead eyes of Cleopatra, Daughter of Horus and of Ra, Living Embodiment of Isis, Mistress of the Nile, Queen of Upper and Lower Egypt and wife of Julius Caesar. She can't help but chuckle at the sight. Isis I believe you called yourself, Hope says. She looks at the blood stained white royal robes she is still dressed in. Beads of precious stones are woven into a crown of sorts tied into her hair. Similar jewelry adorns her wrists, arms, neck and ankles. Hope seizes the blood stained clothes and drags the body from the crate to throw it to the floor. Most of the robe comes off in her hand leaving the late queen basically naked when she lands. A sickening crunch echoes through the chamber when the body's head hits the floor.
From the corner of his eye Decius sees the blonde at the dais reposition herself so that she is staring at the far wall of the chamber. He can understand her reaction. Though he is glad that Cleopatra has been defeated he doesn't feel this treatment of her corpse truly justified.
Funny, Hope says. She stares from the blood stained cloth in her hand to the body at her feet. You don't look like a god.
Alti, Ares, Pompey and Velasca laugh loudly at the comment. While Tonis, Melosa and Meridian simply smirk. Still maintaining her position by the door Najara either finds it either not amusing or she simply doesn't care.
By your leave Sir I shall prepare the prisoners and treasure for proper transport, Decius says to Pompey.
The Magnus continues to laugh a little as he stares gleefully down at the body of Cleopatra. For several seconds he hardly seems to notice that his aide has spoken. Decius prepares to repeat his words when Pompey nods. Go then. After you have finished retire for the night. Enjoy Athens as you see fit my friend. I think you'll find it a wondrous city.
Thank you my lord, Decius says saluting his general before moving towards the door.
Decius, Hope calls to him as he steps to the threshold. Again his mind thrills and his heart races to the sound of his name on her lips. He turns to face her. She points to the body. Have this taken to the town square and hung up for all to see. It will do the people good to know that even enemies who proclaim themselves as gods fall before us.
You know what the people will do if you just hang it up like that? Tonis asks. The king knows that an alliance between Rome and Egypt had terrified the people. Now Hope is giving them something to vent that fear on.
Yes, Hope answers. When dawn arrives have whatever is left sent to Caesar.
Decius salutes then departs to fulfill his orders. As he walks back down the stairs leading to the lower levels he watches as Alti's shadow retreats before him.
Hope tosses down the bloody remnant of Cleopatra's robes then reaches down to snatch the beaded crown from the dead queen's head. She holds up the multicolored interwoven beads and scrutinizes them. Quite beautiful, she says turning her head to watch the beads catch the glow of the Fire. It will make a nice addition to her collection. Focusing her vision past the crown she sees the blonde sitting upon the dais with her face still turned away from them all. Hope thinks how beautiful the beaded crown would look tied into her hair.
She turns her gaze upon Pompey. Thank you Pompey. You've done me a great service. I thank you for it.
I live only to serve, Pompey says laying his hand over her symbol on his armor.
Indeed. She gazes over all those assembled. Her eyes lock onto Meridian. Summon Khrafstar, Meridian. And all of you please be present after sunset. We shall sacrifice this evening. To give glory unto Dahak.
The priestess nods her understanding and is the first to leave the audience chamber. Melosa and Velasca salute Hope then move to leave themselves. As usual Melosa glares once more back at the blonde on the dais as she reaches the door.
You know I doubt she cares what you think Melosa, Najara states as the Amazon queen and princess begin to descend the stairs. Neither of them replies. Najara giggles as Melosa practically stomps down the stairs.
Pompey and Tonis begin a discussion on the best way to use the treasures looted from Alexandria to their advantage against Rome. As they leave Najara nods to Hope and follows them out.
Ares steps forward to address her. I'll be seeing you around. I'd love to stay for the sacrifices but I have my own temples to attend to. He winks then disappears in a display of color and sound.
Alti groans at the war god's words. It amazes me that this Citadel can contain his ego, she says. How can you put up with him?
He has his uses Alti, Hope says. As do you all. She waves a hand casually to let the shamaness know that she is dismissed. Alti bows but takes her time leaving the audience chamber.
Hope remains where she is standing until a few minutes later several men come bustling in and remove the body of Cleopatra. Hope notices that for some reason they try to be gentle with her body. She's quite dead I assure you, Hope informs them. There's no need for pleasantries. Just remove it.
The men each seize an arm or leg and proceed to drag the queen's body from the audience chamber as if it were garbage.
You beat her. Why is it necessary to desecrate her body?
Hope focuses her attention on the blonde stepping down from the dais. She strides towards the Avatar with a determination and a defiance that no one else living within the Citadel or under Hope's aegis would dare to display. She halts right in front of Hope and stares into her eyes.
Hope holds up the jeweled beads. I suppose there is little point in offering these to you as a gift, is there Ephiny?
Ephiny grabs the beads from Hope's hand and tosses them aside. How many of those prisoners will you offer to the Fire? she asks with contempt.
All of them possibly, Hope responds as if she were referring to the disposal of rats from a barn. She sees the pained expression on Ephiny's face. I have a purpose in all this. I have my reasons.
You're evil, Ephiny states what is obvious. That's your reason.
I'm striving for a better world. A world of order.
A world where any and all who oppose your rule are butchered or worse. With the murder of thousands upon thousands, your world of order is built on death.
I don't need to justify myself to you.
Ephiny sighs. She walks forward so that she is standing before the Fire. The heat of it washes over her like a torrent. She holds up her hand mere inches from the supernatural flame that burns brighter than any born of wood or oil. Not for the first time she wonders what would happen were she to thrust her hand into the Eternal Fire of the One God Dahak.
Hope takes Ephiny's outstretched hand away from the Fire then turns the former Amazon princess to face her. I've asked you not to do that. She holds Ephiny's hand tightly seemingly afraid that if she lets go Ephiny will indeed put her hand in the Fire.
Will it burn me? Ephiny asks. She stares deeply into Hope's eyes. She sees the Fire reflected in the green eyes. Or is the fire she sees actually burning within Hope? Would this eternal flame of yours harm me? If I were to step into it would I be consumed like all the others you have sacrificed to it for the sake of your better world?
I wouldn't allow it, Hope says. You are my friend. She places her hand on Ephiny's shoulder and pulls her closer.
You have many friends Hope, Ephiny responds.
No, Hope retorts. I have many followers and many allies but only one friend. You.
Ephiny reaches out to place her hand on Hope's cheek. The Avatar of Dahak who is worshipped and feared by so many closes her eyes and allows herself to relax in the calming sensation of Ephiny's touch. Ephiny's thumb strokes the scar on her cheek. I told you that you needed a friend. I will always be here for you. You terrify me sometimes. And there are times I wish to the gods I could bring your rule to an end. But
You have neither the power to stop me nor the desire to kill me, Hope finishes the thought for Ephiny. Then adds what they both know to be true. You love me too much.
Yes. I do. Ephiny leans in close and brushes Hope's lips with hers. The touch is so slight that Hope is unsure whether Ephiny's lips actually met hers or if she just breathed on them.
Hope lets out a breath she wasn't aware she'd been holding. Then something pushes at the edge of her awareness. At the back her mind a humming begins. For an instant her brain feels like it is vibrating in her skull. The humming break beat and is no longer persistent. It becomes a throbbing that sets off a series of sharp pains spiking into her head. The throbbing intensifies until it sounds like thunder blasting in her brain. The front of her skull feels like it is being hit repeatedly with a club. Pressure builds behind her eyes as something tries to burst forth from the inner depths of her consciousness. She blinks feeling a tear escape her right eye and run down her cheek.
Ephiny gasps as a tear touches her thumb where it caresses Hope's scar. She turns her eyes to Hope's to see the green eyes ablaze with the might and power of Dahak darting back and forth as if the woman before her was asleep and dreaming with her eyes open. She has seen this before. She knows what it is a prelude to.
No! Hope screams in a voice that sends a ringing through Ephiny's ears. She seizes Ephiny's hands and pushes the woman away.
Ephiny nearly stumbles off her feet as Hope pushes her away. An incident not diminished by the fact that she could easily have fallen into the Fire and inadvertently tested her theory. Hope? Her voice is thick with concern.
Hope stands rigid with her hands balled into fists at her side. Her eyes are shut tightly and she is mumbling under her breath. Ephiny can't hear all of it but she knows what is being said.
No. No. No. Go away. You are weak. Leave me. I am Hope. I am Hope.
Her eyes snap open reflecting the will of Dahak. You should go now Ephiny, she informs her companion. I know you don't like to witness the sacrifices. And I don't think Khrafstar likes you very much.
He hates me, Ephiny retorts. Just like Melosa. Just like Alti. They all hate me. For what I represent.
Hope chooses not to continue this conversation knowing she will not like where it will lead. Go and rest. I'll join you after the moon has risen.
Ephiny watches Hope approach the Fire and hold out her arms to it like a lover. Tendrils of flame coil out to wrap around the Avatar of Dahak. They undulate around her body writhing like serpents. The display of the Fire's caress on Hope always sickens Ephiny. But she takes some solace in the fact that Hope makes no sound as the flame couples with her. That pleasure is reserved for her alone. She ascends the stairs to prepare for the evening.
The cold bites into her flesh like a thousand tiny daggers. She breathes but finds that hurts. The altitude of the mountain makes it hard to breath. The soldiers drop her unceremoniously onto the wooden structure lying before them. She looks around and finds her own face staring back at her. The reflection on the shield is warped and her face looks like a disfigured mask.
More soldiers drag a second person with them and drop her down to the frozen ground. Rough hands grip her legs and pull them up onto the cross. She wonders why it is she can see them maneuvering her legs into position but can't feel them. Another soldier pulls her arms onto the cross's horizontal plank and starts to secure them in place with rope. A soldier to her left shifts position to secure the ropes to the arms of the woman placed on the cross next to her.
The other woman turns her head to look into her eyes. Green eyes under blond bangs stare back at her. Soldiers tie the blonde's legs to the cross while another passes a hammer to the man preparing her hands.
She recognizes the blonde. She is the same woman she has been seeing in her dreams for six years.
Gabrielle, she says. She feels small planks of wood being positioned over her palms.
The blonde smiles! It seems they are both about to be crucified and this woman smiles. Is she mad?
I love you Xena, she says. Small planks of wood are positioned over her palms.
Huge nails are settled over Xena's braced palms but she doesn't cringe or flinch. She is lost in the green eyes of Gabrielle.
Nails are positioned over Gabrielle's palms. They stare into each other's eyes taking strength from each other. Then the hammers fall. Pain lances through her arms as the iron spikes destroy muscle, bone and nerve to secure her hands to the cross beam. She cries out in pain and can hear Gabrielle's pain as her hands are pierced. The soldiers take great joy in the sounds and leer down at her. One soldier takes a larger spike and prepares to drive it through both her feet. She sees the hammer fall and hears the wet crunch as it goes in but she doesn't feel it.
Am I paralyzed? Xena wonders.
The same crunch echoes in her ears as a soldier drives a spike through Gabrielle's feet. Xena can feel the pain as if it were her own. Then her view of the world is abruptly changed as the cross is lifted upright. Her body is jarred violently as the cross is dropped into position in a posthole. She hears a thud and looks to her left to see Gabrielle's cross set in place.
The blonde looks to be in so much pain. She wants to tell her that she is sorry for this. That it is all her fault. But in Gabrielle's eyes she can see only love. Unconditional love. She smiles. Her chest hurts. It feels like there is a great weight resting on it. She knows that is the way it feels. Stretched out on a cross like this she will eventually die from being unable to draw breath into her lungs. But then as cold as it is they may well expire from exposure long before dying of asphyxiation.
But it hardly matters. If she dies at least she doesn't die alone. She dies with the one she loves most in the world. A strange thing to feel since she has only met Gabrielle once in reality. She had been cruel to that Gabrielle. But here in her dreams Gabrielle is her friend and companion. She would have it no other way. This is her destiny. To die on this cold mountain crucified with this girl from Poteidaia.
Xena. Someone says her name and she feels a hand on her shoulder.
She is awake in an instant with her hand on the throat of her assailant and the dagger she keeps under her pillow in her hand. The shocked face of Octavian stares back at her. His mouth is agape and wide eyes are focused on the razor sharp dagger in her hand. She pushes him away. Are you suicidal? she snarls. She replaces the dagger and sits up in the bed.
I heard you talking in your sleep, Octavian explains. I think you were having a nightmare.
Not really, Xena says remembering the content of the dream. For anyone else being crucified would certainly be a nightmare. But the circumstances in the dream had left her with no fear or agony. It had felt right.
Who's Gabrielle? Octavian asks.
None of your business, Xena informs him in no uncertain terms.
I just wanted to be sure you were okay, Octavian says in a dejected voice as he heads out the door of Xena's cabin. He nearly opens the door right onto Caesar.
I'd advise going into Xena's cabin for any reason Octavian, Caesar says walking into the room himself with his hands clasped behind his back. You'd be safer jumping into the sea.
Yes uncle, Octavian replies closing the door behind him.
Caesar walks past the bed to look out the small porthole. He watches the sea churn restlessly for a few seconds. Dreaming again? he asks though certain he already knows the answer.
Xena frowns. You like to think you know everything about everybody, don't you?
It does give me a distinct advantage over most people, Caesar admits turning around to face her.
I was being crucified, Xena says flatly. She sees his expression go from smug to mortified in an instant. Not by you. It was snowing on a mountain. I think I was paralyzed from the waist down. And she was there.
Caesar sighs in exasperation. Again? I certainly hope you don't tell Hercules about this cute little blonde you're always dreaming about.
You know that you and Julia are the only ones I've told, she reminds him. She swings her legs over the edge of the bed. She hisses in pain and lays a hand on her knee. The joint aches like mad. My weather knee informs me that we're in for a storm soon. Are we going to any port for the night?
No. I'm rotating men on shift at the oars. I want to be back in Rome as soon as possible. I want to get home before word of our defeat does. I want to be the one to tell Julia about Cleopatra. Caesar's stern resolve falters as he ponders the lose of his wife and unborn child.
I'm sorry, Xena says. Caesar nods in reply. She pushes the hair away from over her ear and realizes that she is still wearing her hair in the shoulder length; blunt cut bangs style of Egyptian nobility. She had styled it so that she could impersonate Cleopatra when the need arose. Now she is fully aware that it will remind Caesar of the death of his wife. I'm going to get this changed once we get to
Don't be silly Xena, he cuts her off. Leave it. You said it was more manageable that way. Besides she said it made you look like a queen. Hercules will approve I'm sure.
Julia. Do you think she'll be okay? Xena asks. Over the past few years she has come to think of Caesar's daughter Julia as the little sister she never had. She loves her like they were blood kin. She also knows the girl is physically more frail than anyone knows. She hopes the girl will be able to cope with the loss. But then she is the daughter of Caesar. And the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
I promised her that when I returned I would have a new baby brother or sister for her. He paces back and forth as he talks. Now I will have to tell her that he or she never even saw the light of day and that her stepmother was murdered by a coward. When Cornelia died it nearly crushed her. I was so happy to see how well she got along with Cleopatra. Most children do not take kindly to replacement parents.
I should have stayed with her, Xena says getting to her feet. She pulls on a robe of Egyptian silk that had been a gift from Cleopatra.
I needed you to get the boats ready. Octavian is too inexperienced. Besides her death isn't your fault or mine, Caesar says before she can continue blaming herself. Cleopatra's death is the fault of only two people: the man who killed her and the woman who ordered it. And I've already exacted half my vengeance. I only regret that Brutus's death was too quick. At least Curio was avenged.
He killed Curio? Xena asks.
Set fire to his home while he slept, Caesar answers. Just saying that makes him sick. Curio was one of his best generals, a genius in the field and a man without fear. To be burned to death is his own home is no way for a man like that to die. Then ran east to join Pompey and Hope.
Xena looks out the porthole. What she sees surprises her. There are no ships following them. Where are the others?
The others docked at Syracuse, Caesar explains. I wanted them all rested. No need to tire out the whole legion. They'll follow in a day or two.
How much further?
We should be home before dawn.
As Xena stares out the porthole she would never have imagined that she would call Rome home. But then anywhere Hercules and Lyceus are is home for her. She's been gone for many months. How she misses her husband and son. Have you slept?
No, Caesar says. I'm afraid I'll see her in my dreams. Not sure I want to experience that just now.
You should try, Xena reprimands him. You need your rest. You'll want to be strong for Julia.
You're right, he admits.
Xena forces a smile. You aren't the only one who can read people Caesar.
Caesar nods his head in agreement before leaving her cabin.
By the time he has shut the door Xena is back to thinking about the girl she dreams of so much.
Gabrielle. She says the name aloud. Tonight is not the first time she has dreamed of that girl she met so many years ago. She doubts it will be the last either.
It is a credit to Hope's ability to manipulate those loyal to her and her lieutenants that no one seems to remember that she and her army slaughtered the Centaurs upon returning to Greece. Not one single member of their race walks the land now. Those who lived during that time saw them as outcasts living in secluded villages hiding their ways and culture from the outside world. Few recall the Battle of Corinth where the centaurs allied with men to face the Destroyer of Nations, Xena. Teenagers and children these days speak of the centaurs like monsters. Misshapen creatures who lurked in the dark ready to attack and butcher those unlucky enough to earn their ire. It is a concept Hope has nurtured and fed through the lands under her sway.
She has spread lies and half-truths throughout Greece and beyond to twist the truth in her image. She is deified for removing Roman rule from Greece, Macedonia and lands further east. The citizens despised Rome for its taxes, conscriptions of its men and for subjecting them to the rule of the Senate and leaders. Many forget that they knew a sustained period of relative peace due to Rome's rule. While Rome controlled Greece and the surrounding lands there were no civil wars between city-states or outlying barbarian peoples. Hope has told them Rome held them under its heel and that is what they remember with vivid clarity.
Hope is called the Avatar. She is the living will of Dahak. None seem to question the meaning behind it all. To those living under her protection she is a savior. Few wonder what her purpose is in uniting all these lands and people under a coalition that looks to her for guidance and direction. Fewer still give any thought to the rapid decline of the sway of the Olympian gods since her arrival in Greek lands. She asks them to worship Dahak now and they do so without question because she has released them from the tyranny of Rome.
Ambassadors and envoys from all the nations in the coalition she reigns over live within the very Citadel she calls home. It is the bastion of their hero and savior. But within its walls events unfold that are not in the nature of a hero or a savior.
Were the people in the lower floors of the Citadel able to hear the sounds coming from the third level they would be afraid. Had they seen the large group of Egyptian prisoners led single file and chained into the audience chamber of Hope's Inner Council they would think differently of their savior and her allies. And if they knew what was about to occur in the name of the One God Dahak they would cease their worship of him and the adoration of his Avatar. But Alti's magic negates any sound from leaving the audience chamber. A secret entrance at the base of the Acropolis leads directly into the audience chamber. So only they who know the true nature of Hope and Dahak know what is about to transpire.
The chanting echoes off the walls of the audience chamber and circles the vast enclosure as if it were a living thing taking flight within the Citadel. Two hundred men, women and children formally residents in the royal palace of Cleopatra stand against a wall guarded by men in pitch-black robes. Husbands hold tightly to wives. Sons and daughters try desperately not to let their fear show. Brothers and sisters try to find strength and comfort in each other's arms. Perfect strangers lean into each other to lend support for one another in this strange time and place. Sobbing and crying drones on about the chamber but it is drowned out totally by the chanting. Those prisoners hearing the voices can only understand two words in the repetitive chanting; Hope' and Dahak.'
Standing in a circle facing the Fire of Dahak are men and women dressed in robes of darkest black with symbols in red. With their heads bowed down and hidden under hoods they continue to chant their litany to the One God. At the end of each repeated phrase they raise the swords they hold point down into the air and cry out the name of the One God. Dahak! There are two who stand in the shadows near the staircase and dais. They are hidden from the view of the prisoners for now. They are waiting patiently. As much as they may wish to rush the ceremony it is not the will of Dahak that the sacrifice be performed incorrectly.
The ceremony's prelude is brought to a close when all those surrounding the Fire cry out the name of Dahak once more then insert their swords into the very slots in the floor Decius had pondered earlier in the day. Hoods are drawn back to reveal people who are total strangers to the Egyptians but who would be well known to the citizens of the city. Tonis, king of Athens. Pompey the Magnus. The shamaness Alti. The leaders of the Amazon nation, Melosa and Velasca. The warrior Najara. With them are several priests from the local temples to Dahak and some from Corinth and Sparta. Various city officials and members of nobility complete the circle. Some thirty people ring the Eternal Fire of Dahak. Some spots around the Fire are vacant. Most noticeable is the place where Brutus once worshipped.
There is movement on the stairs and Hope, dressed in robes of red and gold, makes her way slowly down. With deliberate delay she makes her way upon the dais and faces the Fire. The whole tableau of the raging Fire, the ceremonial swords embedded in the stone floor, the worshippers dressed in reds and blacks and golds terrifies the prisoners. Alti practically moans as she drinks in the fear that to her tastes like the sweetest of wines.
Hope raises her hands up and calls out, Glory to Dahak! As she does so the Fire intensifies in color and a strange high pitched screaming erupts from it as if it were alive. Many of the prisoners cry out in horror. The moon rises to its zenith. Hope looks up and sees that the moon is visible through the aperture in the roof. The time of sacrifice is upon us. This night we feed the Eternal Fire. We sacrifice flesh, blood and bone to Almighty Dahak! Meridian. Khrafstar. Prepare them.
The prisoners do not react when a dark haired woman dressed in a blue gown steps from the shadows carrying an engraved wooden box. But they scream in sheer terror when a loathsome creature covered in scales with horns protruding from his head walks into the line of sight. Bring them forward! Khrafstar roars. His bestial eyes look upon the sacrifices with joy. Soon they will join the thousands who have gone before them into the Fire, to feed the never-ending hunger of Dahak.
The guards encircle the prisoners and corral them forward like they are cattle. And to those present that worship Dahak that is indeed all they are. Some protest and try to fight. They are quickly subdued. One of them, a young girl who had until recently tended one of Cleopatra's private gardens, tears away from the guard holding her and races for the doorway which leads down to the Citadel's second level. She is almost to the exit when a dagger hits her in the back. She stops running and drops slowly to her knees. She falls onto her side and blood starts to pool under her body slowly. Najara decides she will wait until later to retrieve her dagger.
The prisoners are formed into a single file line leading to where Khrafstar stands between the dais and the Fire. Meridian stands next to him and opens the box. From it he draws the same dagger the Avatar had used years ago to begin this. It is a sacred relic to them. Blood stains the blade. It is blood that cannot be cleansed. The blood of innocence. Lila's blood. Those at the head of the line see the blade and try to back away. But the guards just continue to herd them forward.
Those surrounding the Fire now move out into a line facing the dais. Pompey and Tonis step forward. They seize the arms of a middle-aged man who is the first in the line of prisoners and drag him to stand beside Khrafstar. The malformed high priest holds the dagger up and says, I am the Deliverer. I offer this sacrifice to the Avatar.
Speak your name, Hope says staring the man in the face.
He can hardly form words under her gaze. As he looks into them he can swear that he sees fire burning in her eye sockets. Nattus. My name is Nattus.
Nattus. I am Hope. Avatar of Dahak, the Dark one. She says the words as though they had just bumped into each other on the street. She watches his face for his reaction and sees a glint of fear in his eyes. A coward, she thinks. Your life is now forfeit in my name and His. On your knees.
What? No! Nattus cries out and struggles in the grip of the two men.
On your knees! Hope shouts annunciating each word with purpose and command. Nattus drops to his knees without anymore protest.
Deliverer, Hope says turning her attention to Khrafstar. Offer up the sacrifice. She nods.
Khrafstar stands over the man and proclaims, For the Glory of Dahak! He plunges the dagger into the hollow at Nattus's throat and twists it violently. Blood sprays from the wound coating the Deliverer as the man on his knees before him gurgles blood in a vain attempt to speak. As he bleeds to death Pompey and Tonis lift him up then walk back to throw him over the line of swords and into the Fire. Nattus is still barely alive when he enters the Fire and is consumed in an instant.
On the dais Hope holds her arms out to her side and throws back her head. The scream that pours from her lips is not human by any stretch of the imagination. It causes the walls to tremble and for all those present to wobble on their feet. Some of the prisoners lose their balance and fall. Those who worship Dahak have been through this many times and easily stay on their feet.
Khrafstar points to the next victim, a girl barely out of her teenage years. Velasca and Alti grab the girl and drag her forward. Khrafstar holds the dagger up again and repeats, I am the Deliverer. I offer this sacrifice to the Avatar.
Speak your name, Hope demands of her.
Sira, the girl says with defiance in her voice while making no attempt to escape from the two women's grasp.
Sira. I am Hope. Avatar of Dahak, the Dark One. Hope watches the girl for any sign of fear. She sees none. Your life is now forfeit in my name and His. On your knees. The girl falls to her knees and continues to stare daggers at Hope. Hope feels the hint of a smile forming. Deliverer. Offer up the sacrifice.
Khrafstar stands over the girl but does not cry out in rapture to Dahak. Neither does he stab the girl. He reaches down and takes Sira's hair in his hand. With the dagger he cuts off a lock of her brown hair. He hands the severed strands to Alti who carries it to the Fire and throws them in. The hairs disappear in a puff of gray smoke. Velasca helps the girl to her feet. Gripping her arm tightly she leads her to the darkened arch that leads to the secret passage that allows entrance and egress from the third level.
What is going on? Sira asks. Where are you taking me?
Velasca hands the girl off to a waiting priest. You should feel proud Sira. You showed no fear in the face of death. Hope has other plans for you.
Sira is led away by the priest and Velasca returns to the ceremony. She watches two priests drag a screaming and thrashing woman before Khrafstar and the ritual begins anew.
I am the Deliverer. I offer this sacrifice to the Avatar.
No! I don't want to die! Please!
Speak your name.
Don't kill me! Please! I have a son! You can't do this!
Speak your name!
Kerryn. I am Hope. Avatar of Dahak, the Dark One. Your life in now forfeit in my name and His. On your knees.
Deliverer. Offer up the sacrifice.
For the Glory of Dahak!
One floor above where Alti's magic does not silence the screams from the ceremony below, Ephiny sits against the wall with her hands clamped over her ears singing an Amazon dirge. She tries desperately to drown out the sounds of the dying but it is useless. She tries every night when sacrifices are made. She wants so much to be unable to hear the cries of those dying in Hope's name. In the center of the room the Fire blazes as another innocent soul is fed to it in the name of the woman she loves more than anything on this earth.
This time there is a knock on the door and Xena rouses from her sleep. For a moment she tries to rid her herself of the disorientation she feels. Had she been dreaming again? About her? She wishes she could understand why Gabrielle's face haunts her dreams. Over the years she has been tempted on more than one occasion to travel to the small village in which she had met the girl. But in the past she had not wanted to face the shame. She had acted like a complete bitch. Now there is no way she can go there. Thrace belongs to the Amazons and to Hope.
There is another knock at her cabin door. Yes?
We are within a few miles of Rome, the voice of Trabeus, one of Caesar's aides informs her.
Thank you Trabeus, she replies. She hears his footsteps recede. Slowly she gets to her feet. Her knee aches worse than before and she can hear why. Rain is pouring down on the roof of her cabin. A second later she hears the clap of thunder. She slips out of the silk robe and opens the chest at the foot of her bed. From it she extracts her leather armor. She quickly pulls on the sleeveless leather tunic and pants. She pulls on her boots and her gauntlets before picking up the bronze cuirass and fitting it over her chest and back. She touches the Roman eagle that is etched into its surface and thinks how unlike her original armor it is. But then she had wanted to break from her past as much as possible. But not all of it, she thinks as she picks up her chakrum and hooks it to her belt.
Coming up on deck she finds that it is indeed raining. Not a down pour but a steady constant rain that she can see falling for miles in all directions. At the bow of the ship she sees Caesar standing under a canopy with his hands clasped, like always, behind his back seemingly in deep contemplation of something. Even through the rain she can see the city in the distance upriver. Soon they will be home. And then the Senate and people of Rome will receive the bad news. All of Rome had rejoiced at the news of Caesar's wedding to Queen Cleopatra. For here surely was an alliance that could face Hope and her allies in the east and rid them of the threat posed by the Avatar of Dahak. Now that alliance is gone. Egypt belongs to Hope as does its navy.
Stepping up next to Caesar under the canopy she remains silent. He is staring forward with a blank expression. An expression meant to hide his grief she is sure. There was a time when she thought him incapable of such emotions as grief or love. He had betrayed her and left her for dead all to further his own ambitions. But five years ago something occurred to change her perceptions of Gaius Julius Caesar. Fulfilling the manifest destiny that Caesar, Pompey and Crassus spearheaded into the east Rome had invaded Greece. One by one the city-states fell to the Roman advance. When Athens fell Caesar had taken the king's palace for his own. The act was symbolic not only of the conquering of Greece but also of Caesar's personal ambitions towards being a monarch supplanting the Roman Republican system.
The then consul had moved all his staff from Rome to Athens. Xena and her friends and family had hidden outside the city. But despite the love of Hercules there still existed in her heart the desire to have revenge on the man who had made her the monster she had been. That night she had snuck into the city and into Caesar's new home.
Hello Caesar, Xena says dropping in through the window.
Caesar turns and his face pales in shock. Xena! But this is my How did you What
There's a sentence in there just dying to get out, Xena says. She draws her sword and twirls it. I believe you and I have some unfinished business that began on a beach a few years back.
Strangely Xena takes note of the way Caesar looks down a hallway off to his left before he clasps his hands behind his back and begins to walk arrogantly around the circumference of the room. So. Come to kill me? What would your husband say? Surely the mighty Hercules might feel betrayed if his beloved wife were to assassinate me. I hardly think it is something he would condone.
Leave him out of this, Xena shouts back at him angrily. This is between you and me.
Caesar continues the walk about the room as he converses with her in a casual tone. You really shouldn't take it so personally Xena.
You crucified me! Xena screams. I think that is about as personal as it gets.
As Caesar walks by the hallway again Xena sees the arrogance drop from his eyes for a moment to look down it. I also crucified the rest of your crew. I don't see them here wanting my blood. Obviously they moved on.
Yeah they did. To Tarturas! I'm the only one who survived.
Caesar's face brightens for a moment as he comes to a conclusion. The girl. The Egyptian stowaway. She helped you escape. Whatever became of her? Did she die fighting alongside you in some battle?
Your men killed her. Then I killed them!
I had wondered why they never came back, Caesar retorts to that with about as much compassion as she had said she'd spilled a jug of wine.
They were the first to fall before the Destroyer of Nations.
Now that is a very nice title. Wish I had thought of it.
Now you'll be the last.
Oh I doubt that. You see I'm not destined to die by your hand. The Oracle at Delphi told me so.
Guess I'll be the first to prove her wrong!
Do you know how many people I've killed Xena? Caesar halts right in front of that same hallway and draws his sword. You were one of a thousand! One of ten thousand! One of a hundred thousand! You are immaterial to me. But if you insist on this idiotic course of action then let's get it over with. I have more pressing matters demanding my attention.
Wailing her battle cry Xena hurls herself at Caesar. Their swords meet with a deafening clang. With each stroke of her blade Xena shouts and screams. Caesar keeps that same arrogant look on his face all the while as he blocks and parries her blows.
Their blades meet and they are face to face. Their eyes boring into each other. Xena snarls then says, I'm done playing with you. I think I'll kill you now. Xena twirls her blade in some exotic maneuver and Caesar finds himself without his sword. Xena draws back and slams her sword down. Only to find it blocked by the dagger in Caesar's hand. Through gritted teeth she informs him, That won't protect you for long.
Father, a distressed voice says.
Both Xena and Caesar turn their eyes towards the hallway he had been so intent on earlier. A girl with brown hair and eyes of the same color wearing a purple dress stares at them in confusion. Xena eyes widen in absolute shock. Caesar seizes the advantage and punches her in the face. She stumbles back and Caesar then scoops the girl up into his arms. Xena regains her footing and glares at them. The girl continues to stare at her.
Who are you? the girl asks cocking her head to one side in childish curiosity.
Julia. This is an old friend of mine. Her name is Xena. Caesar introduces the warrior princess casually.
Xena sees that the dagger is still in his hand. But he is making no move to use it. He is turned to one side so that his body is protecting the girl in his arms. A thought comes to her about the girl's identity. It can't be, Xena thinks.
Xena. This is my daughter. Julia. The look in Caesar's eyes begs the warrior princess to not renew their hostilities. He mentally sighs when she sheathes her sword.
Hello Xena, Julia greets the dark haired woman with a little wave. Why were you two fighting? she asks turning now to her father.
Your father and I don't get to meet up too often. But when we do we like to duel and see whose skill has advanced the most, Xena lies. It seems your father has learned a thing or two since the last time we met.
Caesar sheathes his dagger. Talius! he shouts. Moments later a man dressed in Roman livery but wearing a Gallic necklace known as a torque enters the room. He bows to Caesar. You need to keep a better eye on my precocious daughter here. Caesar sets his daughter down and gives her a gentle shove towards Talius. He points at her then touches her nose with the tip of his finger. Now you get to sleep.
Julia smiles then places her fist over her heart in the Roman salute before heading down the hallway with Talius behind her.
Caesar watches her go then as soon as she is out of sight he turns his attention back to Xena. She looks totally perplexed. I would never have thought you capable of the compassion needed to raise a child, she informs him.
There's a lot you don't know about me Xena, Caesar says in counterpoint. Now I assume you want to continue our little discussion. He grasps the hilt of his dagger.
But the idea of fighting is gone from her now. Her mind is not on Caesar's blood on her hands. She can only think about one thing right now. The son she has never known. Her son and the son of Borias.
It is a boy or a girl? Caesar asks.
Xena looks at him in surprise for a moment. A son, she says.
What's his name? Caesar asks.
I don't know, Xena admits. I had to give him up. Because
You didn't want him to be like you, Caesar completes her thought for her. Gave him to an enemy. Right?
How did you know that? Xena says.
Because it's what I would have done.
Pride yourself on knowing people don't you?
It has helped me in the past. Caesar walks past her to stare out the very window she had entered through. And I know that you aren't the woman you were a year ago. I have kept up with your movements over the years Xena. I never interfered in what you were doing because you never interfered in what I was doing.
What? So now we have some kind of understanding? You made me into what I was! Xena turns to stare daggers at his back.
He turns to gaze at her with that smug look of superiority. I made you? He can't help but smile. What else happened after you escaped your crucifixion Xena?
What do you mean?
I mean what else happened? Who else did you meet? Where else did you go?
She stares into his eyes and thinks about everything that happened after his betrayal. About Borias. How she lured him from his wife and son. About Lao Ma. And about Alti and the Amazons.
It's been over ten years Xena, Caesar says. Now as highly as you might believe I think of myself I won't take sole credit for creating the Destroyer of Nations. That was born of the totality of events over those first years. Weren't they?
As much as she hates to admit it, he is right. The events of those first years did in fact lead to her ultimate slide into darkness. But the idea of telling him that he is right galls her.
What's your point? she asks.
The point is that you have changed. And so have I.
Last time I checked you still invaded Greece. Not to mention all the lands in the east you control. Syria. Macedonia. Illyricum.
Lands that Rome controls. I follow the will of the people.
And the people want control of the world?
They want safety and stability.
And you're just the man to give it to them, right?
I'm one of them.
You haven't changed at all!
Caesar snaps his fingers and four men armed with cross bows step from the shadows. Actually Xena. I have. Otherwise you'd be dead by now. He waves a hand and the men exit through the same hallway as his daughter.
I told you before that I had a destiny Xena, Caesar begins. He walks back to stand in front of her. He waits to see what she will do. When she makes no move to attack him he continues. But now that destiny is changing. Soon I'll be defending this land. You've been in hiding for the last few months since my legions took Athens so I doubt you have heard what is happening in the north.
Xena crosses her arms and stares at him. Thrill me.
A vast army is on the move in northern Greece and Thrace. An army of Amazons.
For the last few decades and especially in the last ten years the Amazon nation has been in decline.
Xena recalls vividly that she is partly to blame for that. What would the Amazons be like had she not killed Cyane and the other leaders?
Scattered into villages. Ruled by local queens. Duped by clever warlords. No real threat to anyone. But now things are changing. All the tribes in Greece, Macedonia and Thrace are united under one leader.
What? This statement shocks Xena. She would never have thought it possible for them to all come together under a single queen.
They've conquered Thrace and are even now spreading south from northern Greece. So whether you Greeks like it or not, Rome may be your only defense from a new and powerful Amazon nation.
What about the centaurs? They're the blood enemies of the Amazons. Surely they
The centaurs of Greece are gone Xena. Word just reached me a few days ago. Every centaur village was massacred. They're all dead including any men who were their allies. Every man, woman and child.
Xena goes pale at those words. Her son. The son she gave to Kaleipus to raise. All dead? Xena mutters.
Yes. Caesar can see that something is wrong. What is it?
I gave my son to the centaurs to raise. Xena walks past him to lay her hands on the windowsill and stare out into the night. Now she has lost him twice. She looks up to the moon and feels a tear rolling down her cheek. I'm sorry Borias, she thinks.
I'm sorry, Caesar says. He can only imagine what it must be like. He can no longer imagine life without his daughter. To lose a child must be horrible. And she has lost her child not once but twice.
Who is this new queen who butchers women and children?
I don't know anything about her except that her name is Hope.
You realize that with the loss of Egypt you may lose support in the Senate and with the people, Xena observes.
Caesar blinks as if she has brought him out of a daydream. I'm hardly worried about the Senate. He turns to glance at her momentarily. Their power is figurative. Mine is literal. I am dictator by their vote. What control they may have had over me evaporated when they agreed to that.
Then what about the people? Xena inquires.
Caesar relaxes his stance and turns to her. That I do not know. The alliance with Egypt guaranteed Cleopatra's navy and the security of the Mediterranean for Rome. With that gone I can only hope that the death of Cleopatra angers the citizens of Rome to the point that they call for more powers to be allotted to me by the Senate.
You hardly need their permission. You control the armies. The people side with you. Only men holding vainly to a Rome that cannot exist in this crisis are against you. Cicero and Cato are voted down each time they bring a motion to the Senate floor against you.
They think I want to be king, Caesar says turning back to the face the approaching city.
And you don't? Xena asks.
Once maybe. But now I have only one goal. The defeat of Hope, Pompey and anyone else foolish enough to ally with them.
And should you achieve this goal you will simply step aside and allow the Republic to go on? This time Xena moves to stand in front of him. She looks him in the eyes as she asks the question.
Caesar grits his teeth and exhales loudly. I won't lie to you. The Republic was failing before Hope arrived. Rome will soon fail under the leadership of the Senate because they can never agree on anything. Rome only works efficiently under the control of a dictator. I told you once it as my destiny to rule the world. Perhaps that destiny has altered. Perhaps it has not. But I will tell you this. If we do succeed I will not have saved Rome just to let it fall back into the hands of squabbling men in white robes.
Xena nods. Fair enough. She stands next to him again. Octavian soon joins them. The three of them watch the city approach. Soon they draw near to a dock where a small group waits to greet them.
Xena flushes with joy and happiness upon seeing Hercules standing on the dock. Held in his strong arms is a four-year-old boy with black hair and blue eyes. Lyceus, she says. It has been many months since she last saw her husband and son. Lyceus has grown quite a bit since then. She holds back the urge to dive into the water and swim the rest of the way to them.
Caesar holds up a hand in greeting as they near the dock. Julia waves frantically at him with both hands. Behind her Mark Antony salutes his friend. His second in command looks hard and ready to explode. Just as he usually does whenever he has to spend any time in Rome near the Senate and its endless prattling. Another person makes their way onto the dock and halts next to Antony. Octavia, his great niece and Octavian's older sister, leans against him in a most familiar fashion. He hears Octavian groan and smirks. While his great nephew and protégé may not care for his sister's attention towards Antony, Caesar could not have hoped for a better match for either of them.
The ship docks and soon the three of them are ashore. Hercules puts Lyceus on the ground and he runs as fast as his short legs can carry him into his mother's arms. The boy plants kisses all over Xena's face and she does likewise. Hey there. How have you been? Been doing what your father and uncle Iolaus say?
Lyceus pouts insincerely. I always do what they say, he says with an overly dramatic trembling lip.
You shouldn't tell fibs like that Lyceus, Julia says throwing a smile Xena's way before hurling herself at her father. Caesar embraces her. By the overjoyed look on her face he knows word of their defeat hasn't arrived yet.
He does okay, Hercules says as he moves in close to embrace his family.
Antony says something to Octavia and she runs to her brother and gathers him up into a most humiliating hug. Then he makes his way to stand before Caesar. He holds out his hand and Caesar takes one arm away from hugging Julia to embrace Antony's in the warrior's grip.
Besides uncle isn't here, Lyceus informs them.
Octavia please, Octavian says trying to unclamp her arms from him. It isn't dignified.
Just hug me little brother, she says to him. Worry about dignity later.
Iolaus isn't here? Xena says in confusion.
He left some time ago, Antony says.
More precisely I sent him on a mission, Caesar explains further. To Gaul.
Gaul? Xena says still more confused.
Why are you back so soon anyway? Octavia asks.
Yes, Julia says. She looks back at the boat expecting someone else. Where's mother?
Caesar feels his heart break at the question. Julia had so loved Cleopatra and the queen had so loved his daughter. In the three years they had been married never once had Julia referred to Cleopatra by her name. She had always called her mother.'
Caesar, Xena and Octavian all seem to lose their ability to speak. All eyes are on them awaiting an answer. Antony guesses first. She's dead, he says it with such finality that they know he is not asking the question of Caesar but stating a fact. And Egypt is lost.
This will be just what Cato needs, Antony says later in the privacy of Caesar's personal quarters. He will say that you are failing in your appointment as dictator.
And who would they appoint instead? Hercules asks.
They are limited in their choices, Octavian agrees. They are few left who wield any influence with the legions any more. I doubt any of them would follow anyone except Caesar, Antony or Xena.
Surely they would not have the votes to remove him from the dictatorship in any matter, Xena says. She moves closer to Hercules and he puts his arm around her. Too long she has been without him. She will at least feel his touch if she can't be with him in bed tonight. Just as strong is her desire to hold Lyceus in her arms. But a meeting such as this is not for children. Or for young ladies so Octavia and Julia were also sent away.
Cicero has quite a pull with the moderates, Antony says. And he still calls for the removal of the XIII legion from Rome. It's becoming a weekly nuisance.
In the last two years we have had eight separate assassination attempts within the city walls, Hercules states. The XIII is here to protect us all. Including Cicero.
He says there should be no standing army within the walls of the city. Antony looks to Caesar as he says those words.
He means no standing army loyal to me should be within the city walls, Caesar retorts. Caesar buries his face in his hands. By the gods I should just kill them all and be done with it. He is silent for a moment. That was a joke Hercules.
Hercules finds no humor in it. But you can't fault their reasoning. With Egypt under Hope's control what chance do we have to win now? That navy was our best hope.
Not to mention that with control of the Egyptian navy Hope can now strike at Rome from across the Mediterranean.
Our best but not our only hope, Antony says.
What is that supposed to mean? Xena asks.
It means that with any luck Iolaus is on his way back with the possibility of a very fortuitous alliance, Caesar informs them all.
With whom? Octavian has to ask.
Vercinix, Caesar replies.
Vercinix! Xena shouts. Are you insane?
Until Hope's rise to power you had been fighting for years to conquer Gaul, Hercules says. And now you want to ally with Vercinix. What makes you think he'll even talk with you?
Because there is something that I can give him that he wants very much. Caesar looks at the golden imperial ring on his finger.
That being? Octavian asks. You can't keep secrets from us like this Caesar. What can you possibly give the leader of the Gauls that will persuade him to join us?
Vengeance, Caesar replies still staring at the ring. He looks to Antony once more. Tell me Antony. Is Crassus still in Spain?
Alone in the senate hall, Cicero paces back and forth anxiously awaiting Atrius's arrival. The man is late as usual. To occupy his mind Cicero begins reciting aloud his next speech to the Senate. He finishes the speech quickly then repeats it once then twice. The words don't seem to come as easy as they once did. But then the Republic was not in danger from men like Antony and Caesar back then. He recites the speech again trying to add as much zeal and fortitude as he can to the words.
Don't you ever get tired of listening to the sound of your own voice Cicero? a deep and gravelly voice asks him.
Cicero turns to find Atrius standing against a pillar. The aged warrior in his old and dirty leather armor is not someone Cicero would normally take advice from. Various scars on his face hardly complement the white thinning hair on top of his head or the unevenly trimmed mustache. He crosses his arms low across his body in an attempt to hide his protruding gut. Atrius's physical condition makes many of Cicero's fellow senators look like portraits of health. But the man has given him good advice in the past on dealing with the military that these days seems intent on running the Republic.
You are late, Cicero informs him. Again I might add.
Calm yourself my friend, Atrius says moving away from the pillar to drape an arm casually over the senator's shoulder. You worry far too much for a man your age Cicero. You must learn to relax.
I can relax better when I know that the Republic is not in jeopardy, Cicero says as he shrugs the man's arm off him.
If the Republic is in such dire straits it is because you and your colleges have not done enough, Atrius informs him as he lazily seats himself in the bench upon which the consuls of Rome sit when in the city meeting the Senate.
We have tried as you suggested, Cicero shouts leaning over the aging warrior to make his point. We have called for no less than five votes since Caesar left for Egypt.
What? You didn't have the votes? Atrius remarks in mock surprise.
Antony, as tribune, invoked his veto each time we reached an agreement to have the XIII legion removed from Rome.
If he is so much of a problem then you should have removed him.
One does not simply remove Mark Antony. He is a tribune of Rome who is popular with both the nobility and the peasants. To kill him would only bring Caesar's wraith done upon us. He has returned by the way. Caesar has. Along with Octavian and Xena.
So soon? Atrius tries to look surprised. He has lost Egypt then?
Yes! Cicero declares loudly. Now Hope controls those lands and the Egyptian fleet that goes along with it.
And you do not see how this will work to your advantage? Atrius asks looking bored with Cicero's ranting.
What are you talking about? Cicero asks Atrius incredulously.
Were you, the senate and the people of Rome, not counting on Caesar's alliance with Cleopatra to secure the Mediterranean with that fleet?
Yes. But I don't follow you.
Caesar has lost. How many times has Caesar lost? And lost so horribly?
Then this will serve to lessen him in the eyes of the people of Rome who have held him in such regard. Will it not?
Maybe so but it also gives Hope control over the greatest navy in the world. I may oppose what Caesar and his allies are doing but I would prefer him to Hope.
You mean you would prefer living under Caesar's rule to dying under Hope's?
You are putting words into my mouth Atrius.
Am I? Atrius feigns sadness at Cicero's words. Or am I simply stating fact? I'm not an idiot Cicero. Don't treat me like one.
Meaning I know that you value your life and the power you possess as a Senator of Rome far more than you value your vaunted Republic. But now you have no choice but to follow Caesar. Because you know that Pompey and Hope would have you executed.
Cicero walks away from the man towards the far side of the Senate hall. Fine! I admit it! Is that what you wanted to hear?
As a matter of fact yes. Atrius steps up to Cicero and places his hand on the senator's shoulder. Honesty is, after all, a dying art. But an art I appreciate.
You must help me Atrius? Cicero cries out turning to grip the warrior's arm. He wonders if falling to his knees will help at all but decides against it.
Help you? Atrius says with a mischievous grin. Don't you mean help the Republic?
Of course, Cicero says stepping back from Atrius. That is precisely what I meant to say.
Atrius smiles broadly now. Of course it was. And I may be able to do just that.
How? Cicero says with baited breath.
In time Cicero. But you and others like you must be prepared to do what is necessary. Regardless of what you may think.
I don't understand.
I know you don't. You are a man of words Cicero. But soon you must become a man of action. Now. Of your fellow Senators how many know about these meetings?
Why none of course, Cicero says with all the innocence he can muster.
Now don't insult me more by lying Cicero, Atrius says once again putting an arm around the man. But this time far more force is applied to get his point across.
The senator swallows nervously before he replies. Seven others.
Are these men you can trust? Men who will follow your lead?
Yes, Cicero says trying to regain some courage while still in Atrius's grip. They are loyal servants of the Republic like myself.
In other words they serve Rome so long as it serves them. I think perhaps if you had left Rome when Hope first conquered Greece you might have been able to join her. But you've waited too long. She'd never trust you now no matter what you said.
This time Cicero manages to pull himself away from Atrius. He looks daggers at the man. You dare question my loyalty?
No. No. Certainly not. I know where your loyalty lies. To you and your survival. Now these fellow citizens of Rome you vouch for. What will they be willing to do to preserve the Republic?
I don't think I like what you are implying.
I am simply implying that critical action may need to be taken soon and that you cannot hesitate. I may soon have the means to grant you freedom from Caesar's tyranny. Provided you don't vote to extend his tenure as dictator like you have been doing for the last four years.
I have done no such thing. I have been one of the few dissenting voices against his prolonged dictatorial reign. I know that he will seek to crown himself king should he manage to defeat Hope. Rome has survived three hundred years perfectly without a king. And we shall till the end of time.
Save your speeches for someone who will listen to them Cicero. You just be ready to do what needs to be done when the time is right.
If you are implying what I think then you are asking me and my colleges to commit suicide. The XIII is still in Rome. We wouldn't make it out of the forum.
You leave the details to me. You just be ready. Atrius pronounces the last four words with determination.
Cicero feels that he may be ill if he is correct in his assumptions. But he cannot, he will not, let Caesar and his cronies bring down the Republic. He walks with a hard stride from the Senate hall and out into the streets of Rome.
Atrius watches the blow hard of a senator exit the hall and enter the forum beyond. Then the scarred face, thinning scalp and out of shape body shimmers as if being viewed through water. There is a flash of bluish light and Ares, god of war, stands in the Roman senate hall. Damn but that man is annoying.
Annoying but useful, Alti says. Her spirit materializes next to him. Do you think he will really do it? Do you think he'll kill Antony?
I don't think that either he or any of his supporters have the stomach to hold a knife in their hand much less use one, Ares replies in disgust at the man's cowardice. In one single breath he pleads for the preservation of his beloved Republic but he's just afraid for his own skin. The only reason he hasn't defected to our side is because he's been a Roman citizen for too long since Hope's conquest began. He's afraid she'll kill him.
She would, Alti states. He's too spineless to be of any real aid. He stayed here because he thought for sure the great Julius Caesar would not lose and that he would be safe. Now he knows he is wrong.
Whether he can actually kill Antony is beside the fact. I've managed to sow quite a bit of discord here as Atrius. Besides even if he can't perform his function I believe we have other ways. He looks at Alti and smirks.
Indeed we do, the shamaness's spirit ripples with laughter.
When Hope hears that Ephiny's breathing has slowed, she opens her eyes. She looks down at the face resting on her chest to see that Ephiny's eyes are closed and that they are rapidly shifting under her eyelids. She is asleep and dreaming. The former Amazon princess is asleep comfortably in the bed and arms of Dahak's Avatar. Hope shakes her head at the absolute irony of the whole situation. Ephiny was the only Amazon who did not bow down before her and swear allegiance to Dahak. No. Instead she had walked up to Hope and thrown down her sword. I will not fight for you, she had said. Melosa had been enraged. She had called for the Amazons to fall upon the traitorous princess. But Ephiny was not finished.
I will be your friend. Just as I said I would. Something inside of Hope was happy at that statement. And so she halted the Amazons seeking the princess's blood. Melosa had stripped Ephiny of her royal status regardless and made her adopted daughter Velasca her heir instead.
Hope strokes a lock of Ephiny's blond hair and looks down into the face of this woman who wants nothing from her in return but love and friendship. All the others want something. Pompey wants Rome. Alti wants more power for herself. Hope knows that the shamaness is only her ally for as long as it suits the woman's purpose. Alti serves her well but she does not trust her one bit. Tonis wants to be king. Najara wants any excuse to fight and Hope gives it to her every chance she gets. Melosa wants the Amazons to be the feared nation they once were and Hope is bringing that dream to fruition as well. Velasca wants to be queen of the Amazons. Hope can see that desire in the warrior's face every time she looks at her. Velasca only awaits the right time and opportunity to take what she rightfully believes she deserves. And maybe she does. Khrafstar and Meridian want to bask in her glory and Dahak's for as long as they can. They are loyal at least: true servants of Dahak. Then there is Ares. It is obvious what he wants. War. Is it not his nature? And war she is giving him. She has also made him the most powerful of all Olympian gods. Done simply enough since she has removed all the others. It brings a smile to her face when she thinks about Hera.
The door to Hope's private dining chamber opens. Ephiny steps inside then gestures for their guest to enter. Hera, the queen of the Olympian gods, strides past Ephiny as if she were not there. She is dressed in an iridescent gown accented with peacock feathers. She carries herself with an arrogance that would make Caesar envious. Hope does not stand from where she sits at the far end of a long dining table. She sits casually drinking wine from a silver goblet. She holds the goblet up in greeting.
Welcome Hera, Hope says. She indicates a seat at the table near her. Please. Sit.
I prefer to stand, Hera bellows.
As you wish, Hope replies. She sips the wine then asks, Would you care for some? She holds up the goblet again just so the goddess knows what she is referring to.
No. Hera crosses her arms and glares down at this mere child who has been bringing so much grief to Greece and beyond. I have come to discuss serious matters with you.
You're sure? Hope inquires again. She drinks from the goblet once more and makes a point to spill some of the red liquid. She giggles like a little girl as she does so. It is quite good.
I said no, Hera shouts this time so loudly it vibrates the walls.
I procured it from some merchant named Salmoneus, Hope explains. He seemed quite taken with the vintage. Or at least he was until I had him killed. You'd be amazed just how much wine resembles blood as it flows.
Hope! Hera screams. Bolts of lightning shoot from her eyes and hit the table blasting a hole clear through it and into the floor. Enough!
Seeming to ignore the goddess's outburst Hope continues on. I doubt you have anything that tastes this good even on Olympus. It will be no trouble to open a new bottle for you.
Fine! Hera shouts in exasperation. I'll have a cup! Just please stop talking about it!
A goblet of our finest for the Queen of the Gods! Hope exclaims banging her goblet on the table loudly spilling quite a bit of the contents. She looks at the nearly empty cup and frowns. A little more for the Avatar of Dahak while you're at it.
Liveried servants rush in to fill Hope's cup and to bring Hera her own goblet of the wine. Hera doesn't even look at the cup set before her. Hope begins drinking down her newly refilled cup as soon as the servant steps away.
I think you know why I have come, Hera states.
Really your highness, Hope mumbles looking childishly insulted. I go through the trouble of bringing you some refreshment and you won't even try it.
Sighing in frustration Hera lifts the cup to her lips and drains the contents in a few gulps. She feels like she may retch. Never has she tasted anything so foul in her existence. She slings the goblet against the wall where it embeds itself several inches deep.
Hope shrugs. Acquired taste I guess, she surmises laughing. She drains her goblet then follows Hera's example and throws it against the wall where it bounces off and tumbles to the floor. One servant quickly retrieves her cup while the other tries vainly to pull Hera's from the wall. He tugs so hard that when he looses his grip he falls flat on his back at Hera's feet. He smiles apologetically and gets up to try again.
Just get out! Hera yells. The servant stumbles to the floor in fright. He looks to Hope who nods. The servant runs quickly from the room.
Hope leans back in her seat and props her feet up on the table. So. What did you wish to discuss with me? Wait. Let me guess. Hercules.
Hera glares at Hope. You are the Avatar of Dahak? The one feared by so many? The woman who united the Amazons into a mighty nation once more?
Yes, Hope replies but shrugs as if she doesn't quite know if she is right or not. She grins from ear to ear. Now I'm guessing you'd like me to take out Hercules for you since you've been so unsuccessful in all these years. I suppose I could do that. She laces her hands behind her head and leans her chair back so that it is tittering on its two back legs. As Hera watches the chair tips over spilling Hope to the floor.
This is ludicrous! Hera stares and laughs at the girl on the floor. Several of my kin have disappeared of late. Aphrodite. Poseidon. Artemis. My husband blames you. He thinks you represent some powerful evil. He's obviously mad. You're nothing but a drunken fool. She turns towards the door.
Hera! a voice dripping with spite, ire and malevolence speaks her name. Don't turn your back on me!
Hera turns back to face Hope again and is shocked by what she sees. An aura of fire surrounds the blonde and her eyes are aglow with power. The room is practically seething with a heat that makes Hera sweat. That fact stops her for a moment. She is a god. She doesn't sweat.
You might do well to listen to your husband, Hope advises the goddess. He is, I think, wiser than you. After all you were fool enough to come here.
Are you threatening me little girl? Hera asks. She extends her hand and hurls a bolt of lightning at the so-called Avatar. Hope simply twists out of the way of the bolt that seems to be moving in slow motion.
Threaten you? Hope says with a laugh that is nothing like the girlish sound Hera heard only minutes ago. I've no need to threaten you. Not when I've already killed you.
Killed me! Hera exclaims. The girl must be mad, she thinks. As she thinks that she feels a pain in her chest as though someone were hitting her repeatedly. With what? she asks. As the words leave her mouth she can feel her throat getting dry.
Hope extends a hand and the goblet Hera had slammed into the wall pulls itself free and sails across the room to land in her hand. With this, Hope says. She turns the goblet upside down and holds out her other hand. A few tiny red drops fall into Hope's open hand.
Pain unlike anything she could imagine explodes in Hera's head. She grips her head in her hands and stumbles back against the wall. Her brain feels as though it is on fire from within.
I told you how like wine blood looks when it flows. She drops the goblet and licks the spilled wine from her hand. She grins as she sees Hera drop to her knees. Whether it is the blood of a man. Hope walks closer to stand over Hera. The queen of the gods is shaking violently. Of a god. She delights at the sight of Hera gripping her chest and crying in pain. Blood flows out of her nose and eyes. Her mouth moves as she tries to speak. Her peacock eyes start to glaze over. Or of a golden hind.
Hera gasps as she feels her heart explode in her chest. She falls over onto her side. Dead. Hope laughs.
Gods have died easily at her hands. Hope looks at Ephiny's sleeping face. She thinks how easy it would be to grab her slender neck and break it like a twig. But something inside her won't let her do it. It is part of her she desperately wishes she could kill. She knows with certainty she could slay Alti, Pompey or any of the others without a second thought. But Ephiny she will not harm. She despises this weakness in herself. Loathes that one aspect of her being that will not allow her to hurt this one soul who is truly her friend and companion.
She slides out of the bed so as not to wake Ephiny. She has not been asleep. She pretends to sleep for the benefits of others. But she has not known sleep for six years. She doesn't need it. She is no longer mortal. She scoops up the flowing red silk robe from the floor where it had fallen earlier and walks into the adjoining room. Her bedroom is no small room with its massive bed big enough to hold ten or more people and numerous wardrobes housing her attire and Ephiny's. This room is even larger. But Ephiny will not come in here. Their bedroom is a place for them and their relationship. It is an escape from the vast machinations of the Avatar of Dahak. But this adjoining room is a testament to Hope. Beautiful and gruesome trophies adorn every square inch of it.
She wanders about looking at them all once more. There is a helmet once belonging to the late Meleager the Mighty. She laughs at that. Mighty indeed. Najara killed him in a matter of seconds. Near that hangs the sword belonging to that bitch Callisto. Najara had made short work of her as well. She groans when she sees the mask of the bandit/king Cortese. He had been a royal pain in the ass for her Amazons for a few weeks before Velasca had disemboweled him. Underneath a glass dome rests the Ixion Stone that she had found made into the hilt of a sword in a centaur village. That boy had refused to give up the sword. Something about it belonging to his father. It had taken quite a bit of force to remove it from his dead hand. Resting on a pedestal is the bleached white skull of a giant. Champion of the Philistines indeed, she laughs. What kind of champion dies from a single blow to the head. She had laughed then too as Melosa had thrown a club in fury at the giant's head. She hadn't expected it to do anything but make the giant mad. They'd been stunned when he fell dead to the ground. She picks up a lyre and strums a chord on it. Music to tame the savage beast. She strums it again. Amazing that the sound of this simple instrument had distracted Bacchus enough for her to kill him. By that sits a small crystal phial. She picks up the phial and sees that it is empty. She holds onto it as she walks around the room more. Mounted on one wall are several axes belonging to the Pomira, better known as the Horde. They had presented one of her greatest challenges while her Amazons were taking northern Greece. Near that is another reminder of those who opposed her. Held together with wire and rope is a full centaur skeleton. She can't quite remember but she's pretty sure its name was Kaleipus.
Various weapons of all types and sizes are displayed. As well as some of her own weapons; swords , several heavy throwing daggers and her slender silver dagger. Only her eagle guard sword is absent as it rests on a pedestal near her bed. She takes her hair and arranges it into a loose bun at the back of her neck then inserts the silver dagger to hold it in place. She looks at the phial again then walks towards the bedroom.
She moves noiselessly through the room to another door that leads into a short hallway. She opens the door that leads to the stairs down to the next level and enters the room that is at the center of the level. Here the Eternal Fire roars like a wild beast. She smiles and walks forward. As she nears tendrils of flame reach out to touch her lovingly. Then she steps out over the opening through which the flame rises. She hovers for a moment in the flame's embrace then descends slowly down through the third level. Then she passes through the second and first levels of her Citadel to the catacombs she constructed within the Acropolis itself. She touches down as if she had just taken a single step and not fallen over fifty feet. She steps from the roaring flame and enters the catacombs. In the distance she can hear the sound of an animal whimpering in pain. It is a sound of despair and utter sadness. It is the sound of weakness. And it is music to her ears. Several yards into the tunnel it splits off into three directions. Straight ahead continues on for over a mile to come up outside the city. She turns to her right and follows the tunnel from which the agonizing crying is coming from. Don't you ever get tired of wailing like that? Hope calls into the darkness.
She comes to a stop inches from where the tunnel ends. There is no light but she knows precisely where it is she is going. She holds open her free hand and an orb of swirling liquid fire hovers over her palm. The orb rises from her hand to hang in the air before her. The flame illuminates what is before her, a cell containing a most unusual creature. It possesses the main body of a huge deer whose golden coat gleams in the firelight. But where the head of the deer would be is the upper body of a nubile young woman with golden skin and a short pair of horns protruding from her forehead. Her golden hue is blighted by numerous blackened scars from which a bright crimson blood has run and coagulated to form foul splotches on her body. She shrieks at the light of Hope's flame and stumbles back in a vain attempt to escape the Avatar's sight. The chains around her feet and on her wrists don't allow her to go very far in the small cell.
Hope holds up the crystal phial. I need to get a refill Serena, she informs her prisoner. Don't make this hard for either of us. She draws the silver dagger from her hair.
Comprehending the threat and already in so much pain, the last golden hind lowers her head and closes her eyes in submissive obedience. Good, Hope says smiling cheerfully at this pitiful creature's misery. She looks at the cell door and it vibrates for a moment before swinging open of its own accord. Hope steps inside and presses close to Serena. She removes the stopper from the phial. Then she inserts the point of her dagger into the upper thigh of Serena's front leg. The golden hind cries out as blood flows from her punctured artery. She shuffles around on her hooves and thrashes at the chains securing her.
Hope turns her head to glare at Serena's face and screams, Shut up! The bulky form of the composite creature is slammed against the wall with enough force to break her arm is several places. Serena trembles in pain and terror as her blood flows steadily from the wound in her leg. Hope holds the phial under the wound and collects enough of the hind's blood to fill it almost to the brim. She puts the stopper back in then places her hand over the bleeding hole she has created. There is a rush of heat and flame pours from her hand to cauterize the wound. She stands quickly and seizes the hind by the throat. You insist on making me hurt you Serena, Hope says with contempt for the creature. You live at my sufferance. I need only your blood. I could get copious amounts from your corpse. Do you understand that?
Tears begin streaming from Serena's eyes. She nods.
Good, Hope replies. She leaves the cell but looks back at it for a moment. The door swings shut on its own. As she walks away the floating orb of fire follows her like a loyal pet as she crosses the intersection and heads towards her next destination.
Before she even reaches the end of the tunnel she starts talking. I've conquered Egypt, she begins with a smile on her face and her voice dripping with smug superiority. Cleopatra is dead. And everything that was hers is now mine. Hope waits for a reply but gets none. She laughs derisively and closes in on her destination. The whole of her forces that would have opposed me will now be used to conquer Rome and Caesar. She stands before another prison cell. Within this dark and squalid dungeon resides another prisoner she takes great joy in tormenting. Shackled to the wall the prisoner is slumped to her knees with her head held down. Hope takes pleasure in informing this prisoner of each and every victory she claims and the many lives she takes.
She stares at the cell door and it too opens by itself. The orb of flame floats into the cell and the light reflects off the prisoner's golden hair. Hope grasps the golden hair and hauls her head up so that she can see into the prisoner's face. A face that had once been the envy of every mortal on earth stares back at her. Once her eyes had been as deep and beautiful as the ocean. Now they are bloodshot and brimming with unshed tears. Where her skin had been exquisite and supple now it is sickly pale and marked with bruises.
And I fed another hundred or so to the Fire, she informs this brutalized soul. What do you think of that Aphrodite?
The beaten and lowly creature that had once been the goddess of love meets Hope's gaze. Defiance creeps into her gaze for a moment. Hope releases her hold on Aphrodite's hair and backhands her savagely. The shackles holding her rattle against the wall as her whole body shudders from the blow. Hope stands and kicks her in the gut with all her strength. She shakes her head in annoyance. Helpless and still you dare to defy me with your eyes. She begins to pace back and forth in the cell. Though I must admit that it still surprises me. Of all the Olympians I would not have expected you to have such reserves of strength and will. Ares told me you were a petty and childish god. He didn't think you would be any challenge at all. His army found out how wrong he was. How many did you kill? Seven hundred? Who would have believed the goddess of love capable of such hate.
I would murder seven hundred thousand if it meant your death and the death of Ares, Aphrodite growls like the caged animal Hope sees her as. She lifts her head to glare at Hope with a hate that is unfathomable.
Was it because I killed your husband or your son? Hope asks with a leering grin.
Aphrodite surges to her feet with inhuman speed. But it is not nearly fast enough. Hope stares intently at her and the goddess is slammed into the wall with enough force to dislodge a brick from it.
When will you ever learn your lesson? Hope asks her eyes burning with power and fire. You are too weak to oppose me. Which reminds me. She holds up the phial filled with the hind's blood. I've brought you your medicine.
Aphrodite's eyes lock onto the crystal phial and she starts to tremble with a fear no mortal can know. She shakes her head and mutters, No. Please. Not again.
Hope tilts her head to one side and Aphrodite is forced to her knees. The goddess struggles against the evil force holding her in place but as Hope pointed out she is too week. Years of hind's blood poisoning have made her a shell of her former self. Hope tilts her head down slightly and Aphrodite's head is forced back and her eyes held open.
The Avatar of Dahak relishes this torture. To see the goddess of love in such terror is intoxicating. She can feel her body warming with the feel of it. She looks at the phial and the stopper lifts free and hovers in the air. Next she pulls the needle like dagger from her hair and dips it into the hind's blood. With Aphrodite still pleading she holds the point of the dagger over the goddess's right eye and waits for a few seconds. The blood collected on the dagger soon forms a drop on its point and then it falls into her eye.
The reaction is instantaneous. Aphrodite cries out in immortal agony as her eye burns with the poison of the hind's blood. She thrashes against the chains binding her as she feels the blood cascading over the surface of her eyeball to make its way into the back of her eye socket and then into her brain. Her body is racked by such violent seizures that her immortal bones snap from her convulsions. They heal seconds later only to be broken again by continuous seizures. The earth itself shudders in concert with the pain of the goddess of love. The Citadel trembles atop the Acropolis as does the whole city of Athens.
The violent shock of the hind's blood subsides after what seems an eternity to Aphrodite but in actuality has been mere seconds. The goddess lapses into momentary unconsciousness. Hope just stands where she is and waits for Aphrodite to come to. She replaces the stopper into the phial and places the dagger back into her hair. She hears the goddess gasp in pain and knows she is awake.
I never get tired of that you know, Hope informs her prisoner. She lifts Aphrodite's head with her foot and looks into her eyes. She smiles when she sees that the right eye is a bloody and weeping orb in the socket. She laughs. Well. I must be going. I have other things to attend to than you this night. She turns to walk out of the cell.
You mean like your hand maiden? Aphrodite says in a hoarse voice.
Hope spins around to face Aphrodite and the goddess is picked up off the floor and smashed into the wall once again. What? Hope cries out in rage. She walks closer to Aphrodite, the whole time her power crushing the goddess against the wall. Do not dare to speak ill of Ephiny you bitch!
Much to Hope's surprise the goddess's lips curl into a slight smile. I would never speak ill of her. She is the only love I feel in the whole of this gods' forsaken Citadel of yours. And for a reason I cannot comprehend that love is for you.
Hope meets the goddess's eyes and then feels a surging through her. The statement coming from Aphrodite's lips pierces her like a blade and she can sense it writhing beneath the surface of her being. It cries out for release. But Hope denies it. She presses it back down within her with every ounce of her will.
Aphrodite stares at the embodiment of evil before and cannot believe what her diminished godly senses tell her. In the years of her imprisonment she has known of Ephiny's existence. She has felt the undying and unconditional love the woman has for Hope. It has been a lifeline for her, a beacon of love in the sea of hate around her. But in this brief instant she has seen that Hope, the Avatar of an all-consuming evil, loves Ephiny in return. Or more precisely some aspect of Hope loves her. And it is clearly an aspect of Hope that she does not want anyone to see. A part of her that she hates but that she cannot be rid of. A part of her that even through Hope's hate and evil shines through in one small part of the Avatar's existence, her love of Ephiny.
Hope's power releases Aphrodite and she drops to the floor. She moves to leave the cell once again.
You'll never defeat her, Aphrodite says.
Hope turns to face her once again. Unaware of what the goddess has just seen she jumps to the wrong conclusion. She assumes she refers to the only woman who is any threat to Hope. Xena will die. Just like all the rest.
Not Xena, Aphrodite informs her. I mean the one inside you.
Xena sits bolt up right in bed and manages to stifle the scream that started in her dream. She is coated in cold sweat and is shivering. She glances to her side and sees that Hercules is still asleep. She can hear her breath escaping her in rapid gasps. Placing two fingers to her neck she checks her pulse and finds it racing. Not for the first time she curses her dreams and whatever sick, twisted part of her mind that keeps placing that girl from Poteidaia in them. This time she had been leaning over the girl's dead body in what seemed a hospice. She was pounding on her chest and screaming at her not to give up. To fight for life. Tears streamed down her face and she cursed those around her telling her to let the girl pass peacefully to the other side.
Come on, breath! she had been shouting into the face of the girl who was dead in her arms. You never ran from anything in your whole life! Come on! Fight! Don't you leave me! Wake up! Wake up!
The girl had inhaled a breath and then her eyes had popped open in shock. Then Xena had woken up.
She glances at Hercules and wonders if he knows what she dreams about. Who she dreams about. Does she say her name in her sleep? Does the name Gabrielle pass her lips while she dreams of battling renegade armies alongside the girl? She hopes not. She loves Hercules with all her heart and would not see him doubt her love in any way. Would certainly not like him to know she feels some connection with this girl she has met only once but seen often enough in her dreams. Only two people know about these dreams. Caesar and Julia. She feels telling Hercules will be a betrayal of her love for him in some strange way. For in the dreams she can feel her love for the girl, Gabrielle. And she knows, somehow, that Gabrielle loves her.
This is insane, she mutters to herself. She slips out of bed as quietly as she can and makes her way to the window. It is raining outside. It is perfect weather to fit her melancholy mood at least. She presses her hands to her face and wonders aloud, Am I losing my mind? Have the years of war unhinged her. Caesar keeps telling her that she is wrong. That she is too strong to have her sanity broken by mere war. She has been through too much already. And Julia constantly reminds her that she was having these dreams before the war even began.
But Xena still has her doubts. She has already lost so much. Her mother and Toris died when Hope and her Amazons murdered their way through Thrace. Her son too is dead at the hands of Hope's forces. And the number of friends she has lost to this war has been staggering. Marcus died just as he was realizing he was wrong. Murdered by Mezentius just as Xena had made him see that following Hope was not the way. The death of her dear friend and former lover is a blow that only her love for Hercules enabled her to come to terms with. Helen, who had at last escaped from Agamemnon only to be captured and tortured to death my Melosa when the Amazons captured her during their attack on Troy. Now Troy is the capital of Amazonia. Ironic since many Amazons died in years past aiding the Trojans in their defense against the Greek forces. Goliath too has died at the hands of Hope. And she shudders when she remembers the package that arrived for her in Rome two years ago. A box bearing her head! Or at least that was what it appeared to be. Until the messenger who delivered it informed her it was a Hestian priestess named Leah. No doubt Hope had thought it quite amusing.
And now she has lost another dear friend. Cleopatra was the epitome of queenly virtues and strengths. Strong willed and fearless, she had been the first Ptolemaic ruler who could truly call herself Pharaoh. The first and only of their line that had bothered to learn the language of Egypt. Possessed of a keen and brilliant mind unrivaled in her lands. She ruled her kingdom justly and fairly. She was the envy of all including Caesar. In her the dictator saw as he said once, My equal in all things. Except gender of course. He had smiled with those last words. Those words were high praise indeed from Julius Caesar. Is it any wonder they fell in love? Two more unique beings hardly existed anywhere else. But now she is gone and with her Egypt. A fact not lost on the Senate, who today chided Caesar like a disappointed parent over the loss of so powerful an ally. She had noticed that Caesar paid them no heed. He had sat silently while Antony berated the Senate for tossing blame wherever they saw fit. His mind had not been on the mighty Egyptian navy but on his dead wife and unborn child. When Cato had stood and cried out that Caesar should be stripped of his dictatorship for the loss of Egypt, Caesar had stood and walked out of the Senate chamber without a word to anyone. She has no doubt that Cato and Cicero will use this to try and relieve him of power and get his legions reassigned elsewhere. They are fools. Who else in the west can lead them against Hope? Hercules is a hero but everyone knows he is no military leader. Octavian is too young. She certainly will not do it. And Antony will follow Caesar unto death.
Taking her hands from her face Xena looks out into the courtyard below and sees someone sitting on a bench out in the rain. Long black hair is plastered to her head and the shift she wears is so soaked Xena can see right through it even from where she stands. It takes her a moment to recognize the figure. Julia, she gasps. She runs as fast as she can out of her room pausing only to gather up two thick woolen cloaks. She descends stairs and moves through hallways at lightning speed. She rounds one corner and bowls over a Gallic servant but doesn't stop to apologize. She runs out into the courtyard throwing on her cloak and then wrapping the other around her young friend.
Caesar's daughter seems not to notice her. Julia, she says lifting the girl's head and moving sopping hair aside to look into the girl's face. Her eyes are red and swollen. Her face is flushed and her lips tremble. Julia. What is it? She asks the question though knowing it is childish. She knows precisely what is wrong.
Julia doubles over sobbing so hard she starts retching loudly. She's dead Xena! My mother's dead! I'll never see her again. I'll never be able to meet my baby brother or sister. They're gone!
Xena encircles this girl who is as dear to her as her own child in her arms and wishes she could bestow a portion of her strength on her. Wishes somehow she could take this grief away. Shh. Julia. Calm down. We have to go inside. You'll get sick if you stay out here like this. She draws Julia towards the archway leading inside but finds it already occupied. A big man dressed in leather armor and armed with a sizable axe blocks their way. A flash of lightning illuminates a scarred face framed with black hair and a rough beard. Xena curses herself for being unarmed. But then why should she be under any threat in Caesar's palace. Who in Tarturas are you? she asks in her most menacing tone.
He's Vercinix, chieftain of the Gauls, a voice very familiar to her says. Iolaus steps from behind the man. He sees Julia weeping in Xena's arms. He opens his mouth to ask the obvious but the Gaul beats him to it.
Is she all right? Vercinix asks in a voice so gentle it hardly seems reconciliatory to his imposing form.
She's in mourning, Xena informs them both. She doesn't wait for a response as she pushes between them and leads the girl to her room.
Xena dismisses the servants and attends to Julia herself. The daughter of Caesar hardly seems aware as Xena removes her soaked clothing and dries her off. She easily gets Julia into a dry shift and puts her to bed. As she draws the covers up to the girl's chin Julia speaks again.
He'll make her suffer for this, won't he? The look on her face is a mix of hate and grief that Xena knows well. My father will make certain Hope is destroyed for what she has done. Won't he?
Xena lays her hand on Julia's forehead. Yes, she replies. He will. And so will I. She sighs with the thought of a girl so young desiring revenge. She moves her hand to Julia's cheek and looks deeply into the eyes. Rest now. We will talk of vengeance later.
Julia's only reply is to close her eyes. She is asleep almost instantly. Xena stands and turns to leave the room. Caesar still clad in the armor and clothing he wore in the Senate hall stands in the doorway. Xena motions for him to back out and they exit the room.
Caesar glances over his shoulder to his sleeping daughter. He can feel her lose resonating with his own. And she is right. He will make Hope suffer for Cleopatra's death and the death of his child. The very servant Xena had knocked down walks up to Caesar awaiting any orders. Caesar turns to the man. Ask my physician to mix up a sleeping draught for Julia. Serve it to her with her breakfast. The servant nods and rushes away to fulfill the dictator's order. Caesar sees the way Xena is looking at him. She needs uninterrupted rest.
You're right, Xena says nodding with agreement. In her condition she doesn't need to be wondering the halls. I've seen people with this kind of depression do irreparable harm to themselves and others. But she will be mad at you.
I think I can handle it, Caesar retorts.
You should rest too, Xena states. She points to his clothing. Those will start to smell soon. And it will do one any good if you fall asleep in the Senate. Again.
Again? Caesar says perplexed by her statement. Xena I was right there with my eyes wide open.
Yes. You were right there asleep with your eyes open, Xena informs her. She grabs his arm and leads them away from Julia's doorway before their discussion becomes too loud and wakes her up. Do you remember anything that was said in there today?
I Caesar starts to object but realizes he cannot remember anything said in the Senate this afternoon. I just remember suddenly hearing Cato running his mouth and I just felt like I had to leave.
Xena shakes her head. I will miss her too Gaius. Caesar starts at her use of his proper name. Rarely has he heard the word escape her lips except to grab his full attention and to let him know that she cares for his welfare. But you can't let it destroy you. You are our best chance against Hope. You can't let any weakness show to the others or they will use it against you. You said before you won't let Rome fall into the hands of the Senate. You'll do just that if you keep this up.
All right. All right, Caesar says holding up his hands to stop her tirade. You sound too much like my mother when you talk like that. Stop it.
Xena pauses for a moment then informs him of something that had totally slipped her mind. Vercinix is here.
Good, Caesar says. I had hoped Iolaus would get here with him before Crassus arrived.
What has Crassus got to do with this? Xena inquires. You sent him to Spain to get him out of your and Antony's hair. You said he was becoming a liability. That you weren't sure you could trust him.
Perhaps he was a liability before, Caesar says. His eyes are now aglow with that look that Xena knows so well. A plan has been formulating in his mind. Something devious. Something that will forward his cause. Something wholly Caesar. But at this juncture he is a most prized asset.
Autolycus creeps slowly from the alleyway and studies the balcony railing several stories above him. With a flick of the wrist his grappling hook is in his hand and he starts to twirl it in preparation for its throw. Just as he is about to release it from his hand the city of Athens reverberates with another of those monstrous screams that has become almost a common event. Over the last few years it is heard on a semi regular basis. No one truly knows what it is. But Autolycus truly knows it has screwed up his throw. The grappling hook flies in the opposite direction he wished it to and hammers into the wall of the building behind him. Swiftly he gathers the rope and grapple back to him and starts to walk out of the alley. As he does someone emerges from the front door of the villa his grapple hit. The man is clearly military wearing his gilded helmet and wielding a short sword. But much to the thief's disgust not much of anything else.
Oh perfect, Autolycus mumbles. No gold and now I have to spend the evening scouring out my eyes with rock salt. As he turns he spies a shadowy figure emerge from further down the alley. He catches the briefest glimpse of a woman's face beneath a hood as the figure moves away fast and reckless. A grunt from the other direction makes him turn again to where the soldier is stalking about. Even from here he can smell the alcohol and sweat.
You! the man manages to slur out before belching loudly. He points his sword in Autolycus's direction.
Me? Autolycus points to himself as if confused. Oh don't mind me. He waves his hands in front of his face and makes moaning sounds. I'm just a figment of your boozed up imagination. Pay me no heed soldier. He takes several steps back. The soldier shouts something implausibly inadequate for the situation then falls forward flat onto his face. Autolycus laughs for a moment then sees a small bag sitting inside the soldier's helmet. Well. Perhaps the night won't be a complete loss.
Just then he hears men shouting. Get her. Stop her. Kill her.
The kill her draws his attention away from the temptation of easy money. Three men race down the same alley way he had seen the woman rushing into. He sees the glint of a sword or two. Gritting his teeth he looks back to the moneybag only a few yards from him. Then he looks back to the certain danger behind him. He hears a woman shout for help. He curses under his breath as his head turns quickly back and forth from easily ill gotten gains to helping a damsel in distress. Then the better part of his nature grips him. He slings the grapple onto the rooftop of the house the soldier had run from and climbs it so swiftly anyone seeing it might believe he is flying. Damn you Hercules! he mumbles to himself remembering the man who years ago had shown him he did indeed have a heroic streak in him.
He dashes across the rooftop and without looking, or thinking for that matter, leaps from it into the alleyway landing unceremoniously atop one of the ruffians closing in on the woman he saw. He rolls through his fall and manages to come up on his feet. He stands and gets to the side of the dark cloaked figure he has come to save. No need to fear my dear. Help is at hand. Just remember to tell all your friends you were rescued by the king of He breaks off his declaration as he sees the woman is standing several paces before him. Not right beside him.
Shouting aloud in dismay he ducks under the sword that comes so close to decapitating him that it actually shaves off a few hairs. Seeing the legs of the man next to him he grabs them and jerks the man onto his back. With an awkwardly placed backhand he sends the man into dreamland just as the man he fell on rises to his feet. The third attacker moves up behind the woman in question. Jumping to his feet he shouts, Duck!
The woman acts out of reflex dropping to her knees. Autolycus extends his arm and his second, heavy duty grappling hook shoots out from his sleeve and hit's the oaf right between the eyes. Autolycus swears he hears a bell being rung somewhere. The assailant's head seems to vibrate for a moment then a doppish grip split's the man's face and he falls forward. Laughing and grinning, Autolycus dusts the dirt from his tunic and turns his attention to the woman.
She points at him and shouts, Duck!
Autolycus drops to a squat as another sword nearly causes his head to part company with his body.
Thanks, he says to the woman as he drives his elbow back to collide with the man's groin. Was that another bell being rung somewhere? He turns to look over his shoulder at the man who is now bent at the waist in abject pain. He grabs the man's head then hauls him over to slam him onto his back. I tend to like my head atop my shoulders and not in the gutter, if you don't mind. Clasping his hands together into a huge fist he hammers the man's face. Surveying the area for any other attackers he jumps to his feet. Child's play, he states with a shrug of his shoulders. Now as I was saying feel free to tell your friends and family that you were rescued from peril by Autolycus
But the woman shouting in joy, The King of Thieves! cuts him off again. She throws herself at him and hugs him almost savagely.
Maybe this might work out for the best after all, he thinks to himself. Then she pulls back the hood and Autolycus is shocked beyond belief. He has never met her in person but he has been in Rome and seen her. There is no mistaking her. The brilliant blue eyes. The glistening ebony hair. The perfectly structured face. The incredible body. He tries to form words to express his surprise. I you it get how is all he can manage at first. You're Xena! he finally forms the words.
In an aristocratic and fairly high-pitched voice the woman speaks. No. I'm not. My name is Diana. And I need your help.
In a far corner of Hope's audience chamber Tonis speaks with the bald headed, overly muscled crony who has given him some news he doesn't want to hear. What do you mean you lost her?
We I the man stutters. He rubs the bridge of his newly broken nose and tries to organize his thoughts. We had her. But some guy just fell out of the sky and kicked our asses.
Some guy fell out of the sky? Tonis repeats the man's words in barely controlled rage. He points to where Hope sits on the dais. He tries not to notice that blonde woman kneeling right behind the Avatar. Two heavily armed men are walking up to the dais. Between them they hold a woman whose face is obscured by a black hood. You want me to go to her and say a man fell out of the sky and that's why the leader of the Grecian rebels is not here to be sacrificed to the Fire?
I well you're right. It does sound kind of stupid, the man admits. But on the plus side we did get all the others in that meeting.
Yes. You did, Tonis admits with a smile. He glances towards the secret entrance and nods. From the darkness one of Alti's barbarian warriors emerges and walks over to them. And for that I'll see that you receive a great honor.
The man smiles and grabs Tonis's hand and shakes it. Thank you your majesty.
The warrior grabs the man from behind and has him restrained instantly. The man mutters and blubbers like the moron Tonis knows he is.
You'll have the esteemed honor of being the first sacrifice fed to the Fire in the next ritual, Tonis informs him. The warrior places his hand over the man's mouth to stop him from crying out and drags him stealthily from the audience chamber.
Najara steps close to Tonis and says, I don't think she'll like hearing about this.
Athens is my city Najara, Tonis replies. And as such is my responsibility. I will see the rebels dead.
Najara smirks. Then I hope you have better assets than that fool to call on. She walks away giggling quietly.
That woman is absolutely mad, Tonis says to himself.
Hope glares down at the men and their prisoner. And why is it you wished to see me? she asks. If you have Athenian business that is for your king to deal with.
The two men bow and in doing so force the woman they have captured to her knees. A pitiful whimper escapes from under the hood. All mighty Avatar of Dahak! Great and wondrous Hope!
Spare us the pointless benedictions! Ephiny shouts as she stands to her feet behind Hope. Just tell her why you are here!
The eyes of many present, including Tonis and Velasca, go to Ephiny and glare pure hatred at her.
Hope merely snickers and says, She's right. Just tell me what you want.
We wish to present you with a gift! one of the men shouts. He pulls the hood off the woman and all present stare in shock.
Xena the warrior princess! the other man shouts.
Kneeling between them clad in soiled rags and securely shackled is Xena. Applause erupts in the audience chamber. Amazons and other warriors come forward to congratulate the men on their accomplishment.
But Hope just looks at the woman before her. It only takes an instant for he to know the truth. That is not Xena. Every sound in the audience chamber stops and there is only silence except for the whimpering of the woman before the Avatar.
The two men look down at their prize and protest, But surely it is. I mean look at her!
Are you questioning the Avatar! Meridian exclaims from where she stands near the Eternal Fire.
What is your name? Hope asks the woman.
Meg, comes the reply in a voice and dialect synonymous with backwater Thrace. I'm no warrior princess. I'm just a bar maid.
Hope puts her hand to her face in frustration. Without looking up she points to the trio. Show the two of them the fastest way out of Athens. The two mercenaries look confused but everyone else knows what Hope means. The fastest way out of Athens is dragged behind a chariot. An Amazon steps forward and indicates the two men should follow her. She lowers her hand then looks into the eyes of the woman Meg. Her eyes are bulging with fear and brimming with tears. While the barmaid is not Xena her face is a perfect reflection of the warrior princess that at her core Hope hates more than anyone walking this earth. And as such she has need to vent that rage. On your feet! she demands of the woman.
Meg is too terrified to do anything in response but finds that she is rising to her feet regardless. She watches the Avatar of Dahak stand to her feet on the dais and begin to walk towards her.
Hope, Ephiny says as she begins to walk towards the bar maid whose only crime is looking like Xena. Hope does not reply to her but continues to walk forward. As she draws close to the woman, Hope draws the Amazon sword from behind her back. Ephiny bites back a curse, as she knows that Meg is about to pay for that crime with her life. She turns her head so she doesn't have to watch.
Meg screams as Hope draws her sword. She wants to run but her feet will not move. She feels as though some huge hand has her entire body in its grip. She struggles futilely as Hope draws back her blade to strike.
Meg's head topples from her shoulders but her body remains standing. With her power she hurls the headless corpse into the Fire. She sheaths her sword and points to the severed head. Have that sent to Rome! she declares walking back up to the dais. She sits back on the top step. Xena can have it mounted next to the head of that Hestian priestess. Subdued laughter echoes through the audience chamber as a servant scuttles forward to retrieve the head and do as ordered.
Alti steps from the shadows and walks to the dais. For a warrior you are easily disturbed by the sight of blood, she says to Ephiny.
Blood does not bother me, Ephiny says to the shamaness. What I abhor is murder. To slay someone when they cannot even fight.
I wonder if Phantes thought that too, Hope says in a conversational tone that disgusts Ephiny.
Ephiny stands and prepares to take her leave when Hope grasps her wrist. She turns to look at the Avatar.
I'd prefer it if you stayed, Hope says.
Ephiny stares deeply into the green eyes and finds that as much as she may hate the Avatar she loves the woman far more. She nods and sits by Hope's side once more. Alti sees this and can hardly hide her disgust.
I understand there is a matter of sedition you wish to bring to my attention Tonis, Hope says to the king of Athens.
Tonis bows then speaks aloud so all can hear. We have arrested a man within the city who is speaking out against you Hope. He calls you evil and tries to rally others to follow his lies.
Bring him forward! Hope exclaims.
Soon a man dressed in simple brown robes is brought before the dais. He does not struggle or fight the guards who escort him. Middle aged, dark skinned and balding, he hardly looks like any threat and Hope is certain her time is being wasted. I understand that you are saying bad things about me. Just who do you think you are?
The man meets her gaze and she can see the eyes of a zealot staring back at her. You are evil. You are the Avatar of the Dark One. Any with eyes to see it knows the truth. You wallow in darkness and couple with flame. You are an emissary of evil that this world will not long tolerate. You and all those who follow you will pay the price for your wicked ways. Your hate is a power that cannot forever sustain you.
Hope laughs humorlessly. And what power do you have that can rival it?
Love, the man answers simply.
Ephiny turns her head to look at the man. Hope turns her head as well to nod to Alti.
Hope returns her gaze to this fool and smirks. Love? She laughs, as she thinks of Aphrodite bound and helpless beneath their very feet. Love is weak. You have no concept of what real power is. You aren't a leader. You're just a zealot. A mindless follower. Who is your master?
Alti creeps closer. Ephiny watches the shamaness but knows there is nothing she can do to stop her. Hope wants this man dead and her objections will fall on deaf ears. But that single word has struck a cord in her. Love. Would love redeem Hope and bring her back to the woman she once was? She feels the sensation dying within her. If love were enough then Hope would be nothing already. Ephiny loves her that much.
I have no master, the man replies. Our teacher has told us we need no ruler to follow our own path.
Mortal men and women cannot go far without guidance, Hope explains to him. You are lost without a superior being to guide you.
We need no gods to show us the way, the man states loudly.
The statement amuses Hope and her words in reply are no surprise to Ephiny. At this juncture you have none to guide you. I have seen to that. So what other nonsense can you spout to me?
Alti is now standing beside this messenger of love. The man sees her but to pays her no heed. I feel certain that nothing I can say will make you believe in anything save your own power and ego. His eyes turn to gaze at all those present about him. There is truly only one thing I can say that has any meaning here. His eyes go to Ephiny and she is certain he is speaking directly to her. There is no power in all of creation greater than love. With it anything is possible.
Enough! Hope screams getting to her feet. She nods to Alti. The shamaness reaches out and seizes the man by the neck. His body goes stiff and his mouth opens to emit a cry of pain unlike anything Ephiny has ever heard. His face contorts in agony and terror. Blood begins flowing from his eyes, nose and ears. Despite Alti's frail looking frame she manages to lift the man off his feet. His torment lasts for a few seconds longer then he is still and silent. Alti drops him like garbage.
The look on Alti's face is nearly orgasmic as she feeds on the pain and fear of the man she has just killed. She snaps her fingers. Lifetimes of pain in an instant.
Hope turns her attention to Tonis. What was that all about?
Tonis takes no notice of Najara sneering at him from where she stands. I'm afraid he is part of a growing problem, Tonis informs her. We have seen only a few of them here in Greece. But it seems to be a growing movement in the east. As yet we have been unable to determine what they want. This fool was no different than any others we have encountered. They spout platitudes of peace and love. As well as cursing your cause and your name.
I think I can handle an insult or two. I'm not a five year old, Hope declares glaring at the king of Athens. Certainly you have better things to occupy your time than bothering me with people who are calling me names. Like perhaps the rebellion here in Athens.
Najara makes no pretense to hide her girlish giggling now.
I am trying, Tonis says though he immediately knows his has chosen the wrongs words.
Try harder! Hope screams and what feels to all like a tidal wave of air emanates from where she stands to nearly knock everyone present off their feet. It is growing beyond my control to convince the citizens of my capital city that there is not a rebellion here!
Tonis drops to his knees in supplication and bows his head so low it nearly touches the floor.
Get up! Hope shouts and Tonis finds himself on his feet despite his not having made the effort. I think perhaps that you need to be reminded that you are king of Athens because it is what I wish! She prepares to continue her tirade but a commotion in the entrance hall gets her attention. What is that?
From the darkness of the entryway come two Amazons dragging a man who is making an extreme effort to release himself from their grasp.
As they move closer everyone takes notice of the ridiculous armor the man is wearing. It appears to be a mish mash of leather, bronze and steel designed without any knowledge of armoring at all. To Ephiny it appears as though he is wearing a pasta strainer for a breastplate. A conical helmet made up of strips of bronze and chain mail is strapped to his head. And held in the hands of one of his Amazon captors is a short sword wider than any weapon anyone of those present has ever seen. Ephiny can't help but smile at the man's comical appearance.
We caught this buffoon trying to climb the south wall of the Citadel, one of the Amazons announces.
And doing very well I might add, the man interjects in defense of his skills. One of the Amazons draws back a fist to hit the man and his face twists into a goofy grimace as he flinches.
It hardly matters, Hope says with a smile her humor returned now upon seeing this moron. Since as you failed to notice there are no windows or balconies on the south side of my Citadel.
The man looks straight at Hope as if seeing her for the first time. His eyes bulge impossibly large in his head. He tries to bow down but his female captors hold him in place so he just squirms childishly in their arms. Great Hope! he shouts in what he surely thinks is reverence but sounds to everyone else like idiotic shrieking. I have come to ask permission to join your armies.
What? Hope asks laughing in such a girlish fashion that her allies and supporters gaze in bewilderment. Only Ephiny looks overjoyed at the laughter. She has heard it before. The sound is music to her ears. You have to be kidding? What is your name?
The man tries to arrogantly place his hands on his hips but the women holding him do not allow for it.
My name is Joxer. He pauses for a moment. Joxer the Mighty. Some have called me Bloody Joxer.
Najara steps forward pointing to the man and screaming, You!
Joxer spies the warrior woman coming towards him and his whole body quivers in fear.
Na Naja he sputters and mumbles for a few seconds then checks his reaction. I mean so Najara we meet again! The overcompensating bravado is clear in his words. He is terrified but is trying with all his ability not to show it.
You know this man? Hope asks still trying to suppress an uncharacteristic giggling.
Najara steps closer to him. He was one of the idiots following Callisto, Najara replies. She locks eyes with him. And the last time I saw him he had my dagger sticking out of his heart.
For an instant Ephiny sees the fear in this man's eyes melt away into rage. It is so fleeting she wonders if it is her imagination.
He manages to jerk a hand loose and opens his tunic top. He reveals a scar that is just to the left of where a dagger would need to go to fatally pierce the heart. Lucky for me you have bad aim, he explains with the same false bravado.
I don't think I'll miss from here, Najara says drawing a dagger from her belt and raising it high. Joxer lets out a yelp of sheer terror and closes his eyes like a coward. But Najara's fatal strike does not come. Though she tries to drive her arm down to attack, it will not move. She turns to look back at Hope.
The Avatar stares reprovingly at her champion. Did I give you permission to kill this man Najara? she asks. Behind her, Ephiny sighs.
No Avatar, Najara replies letting the dagger fall from her grasp. She feels her arm released from Hope's power and steps back. Joxer, shaking in fear, opens one eye tentatively to look around him. When he discovers that he is not dead he sighs loudly just before fainting.
Hope bursts into laughter when she sees Joxer sprawled out on the floor between the two bewildered Amazons. Ephiny smiles broadly then she too begins to laugh. They are the only ones laughing.
Shall we feed him to the Fire? Meridian asks. She steps up to stand over the unconscious man and prods him with her toe.
Hope's laughter fades away as she looks at the man. Ephiny knows she is seriously considering just such an act. She places her hand on Hope's shoulder, which causes the Avatar to turn and look over her shoulder. It has been so long since I have heard you laugh, Ephiny tells her. Perhaps a jester is needed.
Don't be ridiculous! Alti shouts in disbelief at Ephiny's suggestion. The Avatar of Dahak doesn't need a jester. This fool is good for nothing except the Fire.
Alti is correct, Hope agrees. I have more important things to do than be entertained.
Then give him to me, Ephiny says. She sees the look of anger on Hope's face at her words and knows that she has misunderstood. I mean that I could use a personal servant to keep up with your household. It is difficult for me alone. As she explains she can see that light that is the source of her love for Hope enter into her face. Rarely has she ever denied Ephiny anything she has requested. That is another source of irritation among Hope's allies against the former Amazon princess.
Very well. Hope reaches up to place her hand over Ephiny's. Hope turns to walk past her and as she does so she slides her hand from Ephiny's hand to trace her cheek with the back of her hand. Sometimes think I spoil you too much.
Ephiny watches her ascend the stairs then turns back to where Joxer still lies unconscious. Have him brought upstairs and given quarters in one of the empty rooms. she says before she too walks up the stairs to the level she shares with Hope.
Caesar watches from the balcony of his room as Hercules and Xena play with their son in the courtyard below. He cannot help but feel the slightest bit jealous. Though he loves his daughter immensely he never had the opportunity to watch her grow up. He had spent her early years in Gaul, Macedonia or Greece fighting one foe or another. Now she is thirteen and will soon be entering the age when she will need to be married to a proper husband so that he can establish the continuation of his patrician family and to perpetuate the dynasty he will create to rule Rome. Xena and Hercules have no such desires for their child. They will be there to watch him grow into a fine young man. Assuming they don't die in this war.
He tries to suppress the anger he feels also at seeming them so happy when his child and Cleopatra's never even had the chance to live. He knows it is irrational. But he is a proud and strong willed man. And until recent years very used to getting what he wanted when he wanted and how he wanted. Old habits die hard.
But he does smile when he hears Lyceus giggle as his father tosses him high into the air and his mother leaps up to catch him in her arms. Lyceus is an extraordinarily lucky child to have such extraordinary parents. Should they win this war against Hope that child will have the most joy filled life they can give him. And Caesar will try his best to help. This he will do in memory of his unborn child.
You look far too deep in thought my friend, Mark Antony says stepping out onto the balcony.
It is all I can do at the moment, Caesar replies. How does it go?
Antony leans against the railing of the balcony and watches the child below laugh heartily as his parents perform some nigh impossible flips while clasping each other's arms. The Senate thinks he starts.
I don't give a damn what the Senate thinks, Caesar says cutting him off. What do the people say? Do they still believe in me? In us? In our ability to win this war?
The loss of Egypt has diminished faith in our leadership certainly, Antony replies. It was a lynch pin in our future campaigns. Now it belongs to Hope. I believe the people will begin to lose faith in you. Unless you can do something to assuage their fears.
I have my plans Antony, Caesar continues as he walks back inside letting the laughter of Lyceus die off behind him.
I assume this has something to do with why you have recalled Crassus. Antony moves over to a side table on which rests a decanter of wine and several cups. He pours himself some of the dark red wine and drains the cup in one draught. I must admit that I am a little confused by this. Not to mention Vercinix being here. Are you going to explain it to me or not?
I told you that I plan to persuade the Gauls to join with us, Caesar begins. He too pours a cup of the wine but he merely sips.
A plan I am extremely dubious of, Antony retorts.
Eventually Hope will invade Gaul. Even Vercinix must realize this.
Perhaps. But that can't be all of this plan. Why Crassus?
Crassus and the Gallic chieftain have some unfinished business. I plan to let them settle it.
Antony pours more wine and gulps it down before responding. You are a mystery even to me at times Caesar, he admits.
Good, Caesar says. He smiles at his dearest friend. I would hate to make life boring for you.
No my friend. Life is never dull with you around, Antony says returning the smile. He turns to leave the room. You'll have to excuse me. I have dinner plans. Please be sure to let me know when your scheme comes to fruition. I hate to miss a good show.
Caesar clasps his hands behind his back. Antony, he says simply. Marc Antony turns to face his friend once more. I've known you for a long time. You are a creature of emotion. You tend to follow your passions where they lead you without thought for the consequences.
Antony knows where this line of reasoning is going. He waits for the inevitable.
That girl is one of my own, Caesar states. She is of my blood. She is my great niece and you are my best friend. Do not make me do something I will regret.
Antony understands the threat implicit in the warning and knows that it comes partly from Caesar's own arrogance but also from a genuine love for Octavia. He puts fist to heart in the Roman salute. I assure you that you will not have to. They say that for every man there is the perfect woman. He holds Caesar's gaze for a moment longer then leaves the room.
As Antony passes out of Caesar's quarters he nearly collides with a centurion carrying a small package.
Caesar! the centurion announces his arrival as he salutes.
Caesar returns the salute. What brings you here centurion? he spies the package in the man's hand.
A messenger from Athens bade me deliver this to you, the centurion replies stepping forward.
Caesar hears the city of origin and knows that whatever it is will not be a happy tiding of any kind. Let me see it. The centurion opens the package and gasps in shock nearly dropping its contents when he sees it. Set inside a small bronze box is a severed human finger. Caesar stares in rage at the disgusting trophy sent to him by Hope. On the finger is a ring designed to look like two serpents twining about each other to come face to face on the top. Small rubies make up the eyes of one serpent and small emeralds the other. He knows the ring well. Take it off, Caesar commands his eyes still on the ring.
The centurion reasoning it out pulls the ring from the finger. Caesar takes the ring from the man's hand and stares at it.
The messenger is still within the city, the centurion informs his leader. Shall I have him arrested?
For a moment Caesar doesn't hear the man. All his attention is on the ring that had once rested upon Cleopatra's finger. No. It doesn't matter.
The centurion stands motionless for a few moments unsure of how to broach his question. Sir. What shall I do with He lets the question hang in the air.
Caesar glances at the severed digit and considers for a moment just telling the man to throw it away. But he knows he cannot dishonor her memory in that way. Lay it over there, he says pointing to the side table. Thank you centurion.
The centurion salutes then places the box as ordered and leaves the room. Caesar continues to stare at the ring in his hand until he hears Lyceus cry out in glee.
He walks back out onto the balcony. Hercules holds his son high over his head and spins him around so that the child cries out in delight. Xena! he calls out not letting his anger or grief creep into his voice. May I speak with you?
Xena recognizes the tone and nods. She moves close to Hercules and Lyceus. She kisses both her son and husband before making her way to Caesar's room.
Xena sets the bronze box back onto the side table then stares at the ring lying next to it. She grabs the half empty decanter and hurls it against the wall. It shatters sending bits of clay and red wine everywhere. Damn! It wasn't enough they killed her! They had to desecrate her body!
At least Hope has given us something to bury in her honor, Caesar says laying his hand on the box. I will speak with one of the Egyptian priests she had in residence here. He will know best how to prepare her remains.
Tears stream down Xena's cheek. She looks up at Caesar to see the stoic look on his face. She was your wife. How can you remain so calm?
A muscle in Caesar's face twitches when Xena say the word 'wife.' He picks up the ring and stares at it intently. Because if I lash out in anger, if I act irrationally, it will be exactly what Hope wants. I just reproved Antony for being a man who acts on his passions without thinking. It will hardly do for me to not practice what I preach.
But I will make certain that Julia's words become fact. I will make Hope suffer for this. He extends the hand holding the ring to Xena. You were as close to her as I was sometimes I think, like sisters. You should have this.
Xena stares at the ring. Light from outside glints off the red and green jewels set in the eyes of the serpents. Her memories of the great Queen coming flooding back to her. In her minds eye she can clearly see Cleopatra practically dragging her to her royal hairdressers after Xena had said how much she liked the Egyptian hairstyle. She recalls how Cleopatra had spent hours teaching Xena the language of her kingdom. Though she had tried her best, Xena's hieroglyphics had always looked like cat scratching on the papyrus. She sees the time she tried to teach Cleopatra to use her chakram. Luckily only two guards had been injured during the attempt. Seeing Caesar and Cleopatra wed together and being there beside her friends is one of the happiest times she can remember. Isis wed to a descendant of Venus. Sitting at dinner with Cleopatra and Julia one night in Rome waiting for Hercules and Caesar to return from an outing. How Julia had loved the Queen of the Nile. And had always after she had married Caesar called her mother.
You should give it to Julia, Xena says pushing his hand back towards him. She will miss her more than I. And I think it will do her heart good to have something to remember her mother by.
I will tell her it was left by Cleopatra here in the palace for her, he says looking at the box. I don't want her to know about this.
Xena picks up the box. I'll find the priest and arrange it. When he is ready I will contact you so you can bear witness.
So that we can bear witness, Caesar corrects her. She would have wanted you to be there too. He places his hand over the box in Xena's hand. Their eyes meet and they share a moment of mourning for a woman they both loved very much.
So why is it I am alive exactly? Joxer asks as he buttons up the tunic top he wears now in place of his ramshackle armor. I mean it looked to me like everyone else in there would have preferred me dead. He slips into the vest that goes over the tunic.
Because I wanted you alive, Ephiny answers simply. And rarely does Hope not give me what I want.
A nice arrangement I guess, Joxer says. He looks at the boots that have been set out for him. He picks them up and looks at the heels. Setting them down he looks at the rough brown leather boots he is wearing. I think I'll keep mine. I'm used to them
Whatever suits you, Ephiny says. This will be your room. She indicates the sizable room around them. Huge chests and dressers are against the walls. A large wardrobe takes up almost one whole wall. The bed he sits on is big enough for eight people.
My parents' house wasn't this big, he states. Speaking of my parents that sword belonged to my father. Any chance I can get it back?
No, Ephiny answers him in a voice that brooks no debate. You are a servant now Joxer. You have no need for weapons.
His face contorts into an annoyed but comical visage and Ephiny barely contains a giggle. So, Joxer says rising to his feet. I'm a servant complete with new clothing and no weapons. What should I be doing?
I will inform all residents of the Citadel that you are my servant and Hope's. You'll be able to walk unmolested throughout the Citadel. You should spend the next few days familiarizing yourself with its layout. After that I'll have some tasks for you.
I'm a first rate cook, Joxer says proudly. My family always raved over my dishes.
Hope doesn't need to eat, Ephiny says. Joxer looks disappointed. But I do. I would love to try your cuisine. And if it's good I might be able to talk her into trying it
Joxer decides to ask something that has been nagging him for a while. That circlet, he says pointing to his forehead to indicate the golden circle she wears about her own head. Hope wears one just like it. Is there some meaning behind that?
I am the hand maiden of the Avatar, Ephiny responds. And we are old friends.
That would explain why you can do whatever you like I guess, Joxer surmises.
Not always but often enough, she retorts with a grin. She heads towards the door. Follow me. Joxer follows her out and down a hallway. She points to a large door. That is Hope's bed chamber. You are not to enter it unless given permission by Hope or myself. To do so would be most unfortunate. Her patience has its limits.
Right. He looks around and sees a few other doors. Which one is your bed chamber? I assume that same rule applies to where you sleep.
I share the bed chamber of the Avatar, she says and delights to the shocked look on his face as he comes to the realization of what that means.
Right! he says again louder than before trying to hide the red flush of his face.
She laughs again. Joxer will prove to be entertaining in the days to come she is sure of that. Perhaps his presence and personality will enable her to forget what happens in the level below them on certain nights. Follow me. There is much to see.
The priest finishes the last incantation over Cleopatra's remains as Xena and Caesar watch on. Several servants remove the small wooden sarcophagus carved in the queen's likeness then place it inside of a larger one covered in beaten gold and semi-precious stones. The bald headed priest observes the servants placing the sealed sarcophagi inside the base of a statue of Isis that Caesar had constructed in a private garden adjacent to his palace during the queen's last stay. The stone is set into place and the ceremony is over. Neither is sure if they should be praying. Especially since neither knows of any god worthy of prayer. They both loved her very much. One loved her as a wife and the other as a best friend.
The ceremony is over, the priest informs them. Her journey into the Land of the Dead has begun. I thank you mighty Caesar for allowing us this opportunity to lay her remains to rest.
Caesar nods. Some stinging claim on the deaths of her murderers dies on his lips. To speak in such a fashion in this atmosphere would be to denigrate the meaning of the ceremony for a peaceful crossing.
Thank you for allowing us to attend, Xena says.
You were family to her as much as her husband Xena, the priest informs her.
Xena feels her stomach tie into knots at this statement. The priest leaves the garden and as he does the twisting in her gut is replaced by a tingling in her spine. Caesar feels it as well and they both turn in time to see a flash of bright blue light.
Ares, his arms crossed arrogantly and a smug smile on his face, stands before them. Before a single word can be uttered Caesar draws a dagger and hurls it at Ares. Xena unhooks her chakram and throws it at the war god.
Whoa! Ares exclaims holding up his hands. Both weapons bounce away to fall onto the ground. I come here and before I can even manage a hi' the two of you attack me. He grins broadly with a strange sense of satisfaction and even pride. Is it any wonder why you were my favorites.
Thought I might come here to give my condolences, he starts indicating the statue of Isis. Both his former protégés fix him with such a look of loathing it proves his supreme arrogance that he does not notice it. And to try one more time to convince you two to stop participating in this insanity and join us.
Us? Xena says. Join you and Hope?
Join the monsters responsible for the death of my wife? As Caesar speaks he draws his sword.
Join the butcher who is responsible for the deaths of my mother? My brother? My son? As Xena speaks she draws her sword as well.
Hey! Ares holds up his hands to forestall their rash actions. I just came here to talk.
I don't think there is anyone here who wants to talk to you Ares, a voice tells him from behind. The god of war turns around just in time to see the punch from Hercules that sends him sailing through the air to crash into a wall on the opposite side of the garden.
Hercules strides forward to stand between Caesar and Xena. Ares pushes the rubble of the wall off him and stands to his feet. Dusting himself he asks, And what has you so steamed?
How about the murder of my father? Hercules asks amazed that Ares could simply ask that question. My mother. And my brother.
Oh! Ares says smirking. That! Extending his arm the god of war released a blast of lightning that surges across the garden straight at Hercules.
The son of Zeus crosses his arms before him and Ares' bolt slams into the gauntlets of Hephaestus he wears. The bolt splits in two upon striking the god wrought metal and ricochets off at odd angles to strike a tall tree standing on one side of the garden and a marble column supporting an atrium on the other. The structure collapses with a sound like the crashing of thunder.
This counter to his assault diverts Ares' attention and his opponents take reckless advantage of it. Xena and Caesar run off at opposite angles from each other to flank Ares on both sides. Hercules grabs up Xena's chakrum and runs forward as fast as his legs can carry him. He delivers another impossibly strong punch to Ares that sends him tumbling over the remains of the wall and out into a street several feet below. He is quickly to his feet but not quick enough to dodge Xena as she throws herself from the rubble to kick Ares full force in the chest with both her feet.
Ares lands flat on his back. Looking up he sees Caesar sailing through the air with sword in hand about to land upon him. Ares curses loudly then rolls to his side barely managing to avoid the Roman's strike which sends up a cloud of dust as his sword cleaves into the ground. He turns to look into the man's eyes and sees the absolute hatred burning there and starts to think that having one last discussion with the two of them might not have been such a good idea after all.
Ares gets to his feet first and now sees this may be an opportunity to finish off the Roman leader who has been such a nuisance to them. But he has forgotten he is not facing just one opponent. Xena slams a fist into the side of his face and sends him stumbling back. Hercules tops the rubble and runs down towards Ares tossing Xena her chakrum as he does so. He slams into Ares with all his strength. That and his momentum carry the two of them into a rough-hewn stonewall across the street. They crash through the building like it was papyrus. Hercules rolls through with his attack past where Ares comes to rest.
But Ares gets to his feet first and draws his sword. All right! he exclaims. You want a fight? Fine! It's time I put an end to you anyway Brother!
He remembers that Hercules is not alone and places his sword over his shoulder and behind his back to block the attack of Caesar. He pushes the blade away and swings around to take the cursed man's head off. But he ducks and now Ares has a perfect view of Xena's chakrum as it hits him right between the eyes. He cries out in pain and staggers back. Caesar slings his feet out and sweeps the god off balance. Ares is flat on his back again and sees Hercules's fist heading for him. He rolls aside once more as his half brother's fist forms a crater in the floor.
Ares kicks up onto his feet and twirls his sword. Damn it! he shouts. Have the three of you been training to take me on like this?
Yes! his three opponents says in unison as they rush him.
Ares hurls a fireball at Caesar, which the Roman dodges by rolling to his side. Lashing out the god intercepts Xena's sword as it strikes for his head. But he is unable to avoid the blow from Hercules that cracks into the side of his head. Using the momentum of the punch Ares spins around to slam his sword into Xena's and delivers an uppercut to the unwary Hercules that sends him straight up and through the roof of the building they have carried the fight into.
Hercules! Xena screams.
Using the distraction Ares reaches out and grabs Xena by the throat. You need to worry about yourself, he tells her as he hurls her against the far wall where she rebounds off to fall flat on her face. Quite proud of himself he nearly forgets Caesar is still here. The dictator lunges forward with his sword and Ares parries the blow away. But Caesar leans into his opponent and drives his elbow into Ares face. Then he slams the pommel of his sword against the side of Ares' face before slamming his foot into the god's chest sending him into a flimsy wooden rack laden with pots and pans.
Caesar moves to Xena and helps the warrior princess to her feet just as the debris from his attack is scattered in all directions and Ares rises to his feet.
What dont you people understand about the fact that I am a god and that you have no chance of defeating me! Lightning blasts from his hand and Xena just manages to push her and Caesar apart so that they are not in the path of the blast. The two warriors run flanking positions around Ares again and he readies himself.
The roof crashes inward and Hercules drops down in front of his half brother. Ares can only look shocked before Hercules grabs him by the front of his tunic and slings him against the same wall the god had thrown Xena into. But unlike Xena, Ares crashes through the wall and into the street beyond. Citizens in the street who have been drawn to the noise of the fight are startled when a man comes crashing through the wall of a building. They scatter like rats as they hear a high pitched battle cry.
Xena rushes out of the building and charges Ares as he gets to his feet. Ares swings his great sword at her but she flips up into the air and over Ares' head. When she reaches the apex of her flip she throws her chakrum straight down at the god who this time manages to deflect the weapon away from him. The weapon sails away from him at a right angle to embed itself into the wall right next to the hole he has just made courtesy of Hercules. As Caesar exits the building through the same hole he grabs the chakrum and pulls it loose from the wall. And in a manner totally inconsistent with the way Xena uses it, hurls the weapon underhanded and vertically while twisting his wrist just as he releases it.
Ares watches the circular weapon tumble and spin erratically through the air like the thing is possessed. He cannot predict where it will go so he swings at it in a wild attempt to knock it from the air. He misses and the chakrum hits him on the side of the neck then angles off away from him.
Pain explodes in his gut as Caesar buries his sword up the hilt in the god's mid section. He pushes Caesar away from him with the sword still protruding from him. Then the point of a sword erupts from his chest as Xena runs him through from behind. Ares screams in pain and rage. Hercules wrenches the sword from the god s grasp. And with the strength born of Zeus that runs in his veins swings the sword and hammers it into Ares' neck. Were he mortal Ares would have been instantly decapitated. But the pain of his head nearly being severed is still an agony that he has never felt.
Enraged by the pain Ares throws his arms wide and unleashes a gale force blast of wind that sends all his opponents to the ground and causes nearby buildings to tremble on their meager foundations. People within the immediate vicinity of the battle are also sent to the ground. Some are picked up by the gale and hurled against buildings and fellow Romans. The ground under Ares splits open and cracks run for yards away from him in all directions. With an effort of will he sends the two swords that impale him hurtling through the air with such speed that when they hit nearby walls they explode into shrapnel.
Are every single one of you suicidal! Ares bellows in a voice that is heard in every corner of Rome.
But the three who oppose him merely get to their feet and begin to move again.
Xena picks up her chakrum while Hercules wields Ares' own sword. Caesar draws two daggers from sheaths at the small of his back. Hercules throws the god's sword at him like a spear while Xena hurls the chakrum at the same instant. Ares manages to snatch his sword in mid flight but the chakrum slashes across his upper thigh and his leg starts to give way. Caesar is there before he even knows what is happening. He attacks with the daggers slashing at Ares' face then reversing his hold on the weapons to bury them both in Ares' back. Hercules lands a thunderous kick and spins Ares head over heels onto his back. Xena's familiar battle cry sounds in his ears then he sees her sailing through the air. She lands on him planting both feet into his chest and immediately jumping off. Both their attacks serve to drive Caesar's daggers deeper into his back. Hercules grabs Ares by the feet then slings him around like a toy and tosses him high into the air. He flies quite a distance and crashes through the roof of another nearby building.
The three warriors hardly pause before running in the direction of the war god's landing. As they close the distance a unit of twenty Roman legionaries of Caesar's XIII come surging out of his palace and make their way towards their leader. The entire front of the building Ares fell through explodes in a massive fireball that sends debris straight up into the air and in all directions. All but one of the XIII manages to raise their shields in time. The unlucky one is hit in the head with a chunk of masonry that sends him to the ground in a heap.
Practically incandescent with rage and power Ares steps from the rubble of the building. This is getting monotonous, he states. He draws back his hand to release some attack as now over twenty combatants prepare to throw themselves into the battle.
The ground between Ares and his opponents splits open and a wall of fire that dwarfs the buildings around them erupts to cut off further combat. The heat and roaring of the fire are almost unbearable to all those present.
Enough! a voice cries out from the fire. And within the wall of fire the indistinct outline of a female form takes shape. No features can be made out in the flame but all present know whom it is.
Hope, Xena says her teeth clenched in rage. She hurls her chakrum at the form floating in the fire. The weapon hits the wall of fire like it was a physical barrier and it rebounds back at Xena. The warrior princess catches the weapon but then screams in pain and drops it. The circular weapon lays glowing red hot on the ground and Xena's hand is burned severely where she caught it. Hercules is to his wife in an instant.
That was foolish Xena, Hope explains to her. This is nothing but a projection of my power. I am not actually here. But that should serve as reminder to you of what I can do. I can reach across from Athens to strike you. And were it my desire I could do far more than just burn your hand.
I doubt that, Caesar contradicts the Avatar's projection. Were that the case you would simply kill us all and be done with it. While you may be able to manifest here you can do little more than create this fire that I am willing to bet is fixed in position. We are perfectly safe as long as we stand here.
You are most observant Roman, Hope replies. But with each passing day my power grows. There will come a day soon when no place will be safe from me. The form of Hope in the fire turns to face the god of war. Ares. This was a foolish errand. They will never follow you or me. They hate us. Now return to your duties! The wall of fire diminishes back into the ground and where the earth is split open a pool of molten rock forms.
Caesar laughs mockingly as he looks at Ares.
And what the hell is so funny? Ares demands.
Ares. Once the great and all powerful god of war. Caesar chuckles again. Now you are just Hope's bitch.
Ares seethes with rage but he knows that he cannot stay and fight. He must do as Hope commands. He vanishes in a ripple of light and sound.
Caesar walks over to Xena and Hercules. He looks at Xena's hand and motions one of the legionnaires forward. Summon my physician, he instructs the man who moves away to carry out his orders. He turns to look at his two friends. I must admit that went much better than I expected.
Joxer leans against the wall with a towel draped over one arm and holding a jug of water in the other. He must admit that his current duty is one of the better assignments given to him by Ephiny. Within the confines of this simple unadorned room, the Avatar and her handmaiden spare with one another. And that the two of them are wearing only simple loose fitting scarlet robes cinched at the waist as they twist and turn through complex maneuvers certainly makes it an enjoyable duty. He tries hard not to stare as they engage in this activity. They have been at it for sometime. And while sweat glistens on Ephiny's brow above the golden circlet she wears, he notes that Hope is not perspiring at all. In the week or so he has been Ephiny's servant he has never once seen the Avatar sweat from any physical exertion. As they swing their eagle guard swords at each other in what amounts to a dangerous dance of metal they converse with each other casually.
I would say that was a humbling experience for Ares, Ephiny comments. But I do not think he knows the meaning of the word humble.'
He is a god after all, Hope says as she ducks under a slash from Ephiny and tries a solid thrust that is easily parried. But the three of them fought him to a stand still. Had I not interrupted it that battle might have gone on all day. I feel reasonably certain that their mutual hatred for Ares would have fueled them for hours.
Ephiny drops down to try and sweep Hope's feet out from under her but her partner merely hops into the air to avoid it. The handmaiden barely gets her sword up in time to block Hope's downward stroke. In a rather unorthodox maneuver she slides herself between Hope's legs and comes to her feet behind the Avatar. Hope casually places her sword behind her back to block the ensuing attack. Now that was interesting, Hope remarks on the move.
You realize Ares cannot be trusted, Ephiny says as she steps back to avoid a decapitating stroke. He will only serve as long as it serves his needs.
Ares is a pawn and even he must know it, Hope explains. She meets Ephiny's blade with her own then lashes out with a swift backhand that catches her friend unawares. Ephiny's stumbles back with a split lip and a mildly bruised ego. But he serves me well. Were it not for him I would never have gotten Serena.
Ephiny stumbles a bit at the mention of the last golden hind. Her eyes trail to the needle like dagger in Hope's hair that she knows is coated with the blood of that poor creature. Hope sees the opening and takes it. She lands a kick squarely in Ephiny's gut that sends her sprawling to the floor. But the Amazon rolls through and comes to her feet not far away and lunges forward to take Hope by surprise. The Avatar back peddles just in time to avoid being skewered on the blade.
And he is now the supreme god in Greece, Hope continues as she begins a stunning display of twirling her blade in such a fashion that Ephiny is hard pressed to find any way through. Next to Dahak of course. And so he shall be as long as he serves. He would really be a fool to try anything against me. Wouldn't you agree Joxer? she calls out the question acknowledging him for the first time since they entered the training ground.
As it may be possible that the great god of war is listening in on this conversation, Joxer says looking up the ceiling as if expecting Ares to fall from the sky upon him. I choose not to respond to that inquiry.
Comedian, cook, diplomat, Hope says with a chuckle. You seem multi-talented.
I have many skills, Joxer states loudly.
Hope surges forward aggressively from her defensive display to try and get a solid hit in. But she over balances herself and Ephiny is able to use her own momentum to throw her to the floor. The room seems to echo with the sound of Hope hitting the floor. But Ephiny is over balanced as well from the move and comes to rest on the floor beside Hope.
Projecting yourself like you did must have really tired you out, Ephiny says rolling away to come to her feet. That move has never worked before.
Are you mocking me hand maiden? Hope inquires rising to her feet.
I wouldn't dream of it, Ephiny replies smirking. She steps into Hope and throws her sword to the right. Hope blocks the attack then twists around to slash at Ephiny from the opposite side.
Ephiny gasps in pain as the sword blade bites deeply into her left arm. She stumbles back dropping her own sword and bringing her hand to the wound. She grits her teeth and closes her eyes. I believe that signals the end of the duel, she proclaims. She drops to her knees.
For a moment Joxer sees the oddest thing. When Hope turns and sees the pain on Ephiny's face and the blood seeping from the wound in her arm, the triumphant sneer of the Avatar disappears. And instead he sees a face full of concern and even a hint of fear. Hope rushes forward to kneel before Ephiny. Joxer walks closer to aid if he can. Is she all right? he asks.
Upon hearing his voice the look of concern vanishes. She'll be fine, Hope replies. She places a hand over the wound on Ephiny's arm and a reddish glow emanates from her palm. When she pulls her hand back the wound is healed. Only the blood remains to show she was ever cut.
You win again, Ephiny says getting her feet and picking up her sword. She holds out her empty hand and Joxer places the towel in it. The handmaiden uses it to wipe the sweat from her brow and face. I don't think I'll ever stand a chance.
This coming from the woman who taught me how to use a sword, Hope says. She takes the jug of water from Joxer and hands him her sword. She does not drink from the jug of course. He is certain she has no need to drink or eat. Though she has eaten his food at Ephiny's request a few times.
I think you have exceeded far beyond my humble teachings, Ephiny admits. She hands her sword to Joxer. Hope hands her the jug of water and she drinks deeply from it.
Hope shrugs in reply. Why don't you get a bath before dinner? she suggests.
Hungry again? Ephiny asks.
What can I say? Hope says looking side long at Joxer. I'm getting fond of his cooking. It might become a regular event around here.
Joxer bows deeply. Happy to serve, he says.
Ephiny laughs and so too does Hope. A sound that Joxer finds a little odd. But no more so than that look of concern he had witnessed moments earlier.
A bath it is then, Ephiny agrees. The three of them exit the training ground. Hope and Ephiny walk side by side while Joxer, still carrying the two swords, keeps stride but several steps back. Dressed in their regal red robes and wearing the golden circlets he thinks how much they look like a royal couple, which for all intents and purposes they are.
As they pass one doorway Ephiny halts by it and pushes the door open. I won't be long, she says. She goes inside the bath chamber and closes the door behind her.
Hope looks at Joxer and indicates that he should follow her. She leads him to the doorway to her bedchamber. He halts for a moment when she opens the door. Since he began his service he has not been inside this room.
It's all right Joxer, Hope says in a voice that speaks of a subdued annoyance. I just want you to replace the swords. She steps inside and he follows. The Avatar's bedchamber is not so vast as he would have thought. But it is ornately decorated in all styles and cultures. Persian rugs hang from the wall. A marble statue of a nubile woman pouring water from a jug sets on a small plinth. In one corner stands a massive slab of stone on which is carved and painted scenes from ancient Egypt. Gilded frames bearing art pieces from all over her protectorate hang from the walls. On one wall is a huge ivory carving of the triumvirate flame that is her sigil. Next to the bed is a table on which stands a crystal sculpture about one foot tall of Hope herself standing straight with sword in hand and pointing regally forward. In it she is garbed in the traditional trapping of an Amazon queen.
Hope sees Joxer's eyes drawn to the sculpture. An Amazon artisan in Troy made it for Ephiny, Hope explains to him. She points to a velvet draped stand at the far side of the room. He can clearly sees the indentations in the red velvet where the swords should go. Unsure if one of the swords should go into a particular space he sets them down.
He turns to find Hope standing by the crystal sculpture with her hand resting upon it. We had taken Troy from the Greeks, she says staring at the piece. The Amazons took it for their capital. We stayed there for quite a while. A smile crosses her face and she looks almost overcome by a memory. I had to stand like for the better part of a day while it was made. But she wanted it made and I could not deny her.
You care for her a great deal, Joxer says. It is not a question.
Yes, Hope replies. I do.
Joxer prepares to leave the chamber when something strange occurs. He sees Hope suddenly go rigid where she stands. Her arms tremble at her sides and her eyes glaze over. Her lips draw back to reveal her teeth and she starts shaking her head. No, she says aloud. I will not.
Joxer stares dumbfounded at this display. Is she having a fit of some kind?
Her eyes blink rapidly and start to brim with moisture. I am Hope! she exclaims. I am Hope!
Joxer is rooted in place by the scene before him unsure of what to do. Hope? he says tentatively. She seems not to hear him.
Tears begin to stream from her eyes and down her cheeks. Sweat starts to glisten on her forehead and her lips quiver in the way of someone on the verge of a full-blown fit of crying. You are weak. I deny you.
Her head tilts back so that she is staring up at the ceiling. She utters a single word that is so filled with anguish and a heart wrenching despair that he feels on the verge of tears himself upon hearing it. Lila.
Hope falls back against the wall as if she has been struck. She collapses to her knees and cries out in what he can only compare to what it must sound like to hear a soul wailing in Tartarus. Her face twists into such a mask of agony and pain that he can hardly believe this is the Avatar of Dahak. Her face is red and flushed from all the tears she cries.
With trembling limbs she starts to crawl towards the chamber door. Holding up one hand and reaching towards the doorway she cries out like a terrified child. Ephiny!
Staring down in mute shock he sees that her entire garment is plastered to her body with perspiration that seems to have formed in seconds across the surface of her skin. Her blond hair is similarly soaked with sweat. Her body trembles violently as she drags herself across the floor, desperate to reach the door.
Ephiny! she wails again.
What had moments before been the mighty Avatar of Dahak has been reduced to a pitiful crying child calling out for help. He decides that he will get no better chance than this.
All pretence of the fool drops away. His shoulders stiffen. His posture straightens. The half bewildered look he wears before everyone in the Citadel drops away to reveal the eyes of a cold-blooded killer.
Ephiny, the girl on the floor croaks out her voice too overtaxed to scream anymore. He coldly walks over to the door and shuts it. He stands over her and calmly reaches down to grasp the heel of the boot he talked Ephiny into letting him keep. He twists the boot heel and it comes away with a click. He holds up the short, wide but incredibly sharp dagger and tests the edge with his finger.
She reaches out and grabs his leg as she tries in desperation to reach the door. Ephiny, she murmurs.
He kicks her away with his foot then kneels in front of her. He grabs her hair and pulls her head up so that her throat is exposed for an easy slash. He smiles a smile that holds no joy or happiness. Just a malevolent desire to do what he has been paid for.
Ephiny's not here babe, he says in a malignant voice. It's just you and Jett.