DUALITY OF HOPE AND DESPAIR
THE GATHERING STORM
She can't stand it anymore. She has been trying to maintain order but she now knows it is beyond her ability to control the chaos surging through the Underworld. Evil bleeds from Tartarus like an open wound infecting the purity and peace of the Elysian Fields. Persephone comes to terms with the fact that she must succumb to her weakness. She has not the strength to perpetuate the balance of her late husband's realm. Hades was the lord and master of this place and by his very existence it remained as it had since the beginning. With his death the borders have begun to break down. She had hoped that by sheer force of her own immortal will she might gain control. For some time she has done just that. But it is not within her to hold onto the confines of the Underworld forever. It will destroy her. But neither will she sit back and allow the darkness of all the evil souls confined in the recesses of Tartarus to savage all those who have earned the blessing of the Elysian Fields. There is only one option open to her now. She must break the gates of the Underworld and allow all others to claim whom they will.
I, Persephone, Bride of Hades, call upon the powers of life and death! I open wide the gates of this land! And beseech you to take all who dwell here to their appointed rewards! Be they evil or good! Be they twisted or peaceful! I cry to the heavens and to the hells! Enter this place and release me of this dark and loathsome burden! Please! I beg of you!
The reaction is instantaneous. The very atmosphere of Hades' realm is split as fissures of light and dark open in every corner of the Underworld. She watches in shock as all manner of deities stride forth with impunity into the land of the Greek dead. She sees dark shadows take shape to grasp onto murderers and thieves who thought they would soon enjoy the pleasures of Elysium. They scream and writhe as they are pulled away into dark rips in the fabric of reality to places of inconceivable torment. From one dark corner walks a hideous figure covered in grayish mottled skin with curled horns coming from his head and teeth so large she doubts he can even speak in any normal manner. As he walks through the realm he seizes one soul after another with taloned hands. As his hand touches them they scream in agony then fade from human form into wisps of black ether that drift away upon foul winds the stench of which cause her to gag. The Hell King Mephistopheles passes within feet of her as he dispatches the wicked to his realm of suffering and torment. She steps back from him but he takes no notice of her.
The sound of horses draws her attention aloft. Huge white horses, each ridden by a woman clad in silver armor, gallop down from the sky. Scores of the beautiful creatures and their riders soar about. So many that she loses count of them. The Valkyries of Odin swoop down and draw up the greatest of Greece's warrior dead to ride behind them on the great steeds. To Valhalla are taken Achilles, Hector, and so many more that she has known and spoken with over the years they have existed here. In Odin's hall will they be well might by more mighty men of battle who have gone before.
The sound of unearthly howling draws her attention to a jackal headed entity dressed in the attire of Egyptian kings who stands upon a massive golden barge that floats upon an ethereal river. He stands at the back of the barge driving the vessel with a pole forged of solid gold. Upon the prow of the barge stands another. He looks human but a light radiates from him that pushes away the darkness of the Underworld before him. A high crown tops his head and he carries a flail in one hand and the looped cross known in his lands as an ankh in the other. As he nears the departed he either lashes out at them with the flail or touches them with the cross. With each flash of the flail the soul shrivels into a dry husk and vanishes. With each caress of the ankh the soul cries out in wonder then implodes in a tendril of light and it absorbed into the devise. She meets the gaze of Osiris and nods but turns her head as the muzzle of Anubis turns to look upon her.
Light from seemingly every corner of the Underworld nearly blinds her. She looks around to see winged men and women swooping and soaring in all directions. Some are dressed all in white with wings so shimmering white that it hurts her eyes to look at them too long. These she watches take the outstretched hands of the purest among the dead. They pull the souls into heartfelt embraces then soar skyward to disappear from sight.
Persephone releases an anxious breath and hopes that she has done the right thing. Unsure of what to do now she wanders the Fields and watches in wonder as the dead are taken from her lost husband's realm. A muttering voice draws her attention and she gazes about for the source. She finds it in the form of a teenage girl with dark hair who sits at the edge of a pool of crystal clear water. She recognizes the girl as she steps closer. And she hears vividly the words the girl is muttering. They are the same words she has been repeating since she arrived in the Elysian Fields six years ago.
I forgive you. I love you. I forgive you. I love you. The words roll from her lips in an unending mantra. The words seem almost a part of the Fields for they have not stopped since she arrived. Neither has she moved from this spot since her arrival. Staring at the still pond before her she has not budged seemingly an inch in all this time. Her parents have visited her and been practically ignored. Childhood friends have come to speak with her and left disturbed by her actions. These are the Elysian Fields. This is supposed to be a place of happiness and joy. But this girl seems intent on never knowing a moment's peace. Once even Hades tried to speak with her but the god walked away after mere seconds later with a look of horror on his face. She had asked her husband then what about the girl had so disturbed him. He had not answered.
Persephone walks up behind the girl and hears her words. Despair grows in her heart as the pain in the girl's soul is given a voice with each word. I love you. I forgive you.
What is there to forgive child? she asks placing a hand on her shoulder. The girl does not register the touch. She is aware of a presence behind her and turns to find herself facing two angels. But these are different from those she saw before. These have dark wings of iridescent green and black. There wear dark armor instead of the white tunics of the others. There are swords sheathed to their belts and they have a look of the ancient about them. One is broad shouldered with dark skin and black hair with a full beard. He stands directly behind the other who is by far one of the most beautiful and luminous beings she has ever seen. He has blond hair and is clean-shaven. Light seems to radiate from him and she can feel a soothing warmth enclosing her as he steps closer. She sees the dark one eyeing the girl. What do you want here?
We have come for her, the light one says in reply to her query.
You seem unlike any of the others, Persephone observes. There is a power about you that dwarfs all the others here. Save him. She points towards where Mephistopheles gathers more of the evil dead to him.
I am Michael. The wings sprouting from his back spread and this seems to add more power to his presence. An arch angel in service of the One.
The One God! Persephone screams at the utterance of that name. You serve the one that took my love from me! Her rage causes a tremor to run through the Underworld.
You dare accuse an archangel of the dark angel begins but the other cuts him off by raising his hand.
Peace Raphael, Michael says in a calming voice. You misunderstand me. We serve the true One God. Not the evil force that prowls the earth in the body of this one's sister. He points to the girl kneeling by the pond.
Then the girl does something she hasn't done since she came to the Underworld. She speaks something other than her mantra. Gabrielle?
Persephone looks at her in shock.
Michael kneels before the girl and takes her trembling hands in his own. That's right Lila. Gabrielle. Your sister.
I forgive her, Lila mutters. She turns eyes red with years of tears to the archangel.
I know you do, he says in reply. Blinded by her hate and corrupted by Dahak's evil she was not in control of her actions. She was not herself when she committed that act of murder.
What are you saying? Persephone asks in confusion.
Michael stands to face her. I can show you if you will allow me. He reaches out both his hands and holds them near the sides of her head. He awaits her reply.
She is not certain what he means by his words or actions. Show her? But she nods nevertheless. His hands gently touch her head. In an instant she is assaulted with images of blood and fire. Of agony and hate. And three words ring through her head like a great bell.
Blood and innocence!
With those words ands those images she knows the truth. She points to the girl, Lila, and exclaims. Her sister is Hope!
Yes, Michael says taking his hands from her. Abused physically and emotionally, Gabrielle's soul was corrupted by hatred so pervasive it was inhuman. That drew the attention of the Dark One Dahak. He fed that hatred and her need for vengeance.
Persephone looks down into Lila's eyes and sees the unfathomable sadness within her soul. She killed you? Her own sister.
Yes, Lila says looking from Persephone to Michael. But I forgive her. She's my sister. I could never hate her for what she did. I love her.
Persephone turns to Michael. Who is this One you serve?
He is the antithesis of all Dahak is. Dahak is hate and evil but He is love and good.
But He sits back and let's Hope run rampant.
Unlike your husband and his kin it is not His desire to interfere in the affairs of mortals.
Mortals are dying by the thousands. Even gods are not safe. You say He is good and loving. But how can He do nothing?
Raphael opens his mouth to speak but Michael forestalls him with a gesture. There are those in His service among the mortals who will soon work His will against Hope and her allies. He turns to look at Lila. And you are one of them.
Lila looks incredulous at the archangel's words. What can I do to help my sister? she asks an instant later as she rises to her feet for the first time in six years.
Michael smiles. You will see in time. He steps aside and gestures towards his compatriot. Now let us take you where you belong. Among the angels.
Lila doesn't exactly smile but the agonized expression she has worn for so long seems to soften a bit. She walks forward and stands before Raphael. The archangel takes her in his arms and spreads his wings. They soar up and out of sight into the Heavens above.
Time for you to go as well. Michael looks to Persephone..
What? she asks as incredulous as Lila.
He extends his hand towards her. Take my hand, he says.
No, she says. I cannot.
Your essence was not enough to maintain the balance here. Neither will it be enough to sustain its existence. Once it is gone. So will you.
And what if that is my choice?
Do you think your husband would've wanted you to die?
I she mutters unable to answer the question.
Come with me, he says now extending both hands to her. Heaven is a glorious place. Full of wonder and possibilities. From the shining towers you can see all of creation. And it may be possible for you to find him. Given enough time. Nothing is every truly destroyed after all. It just rejoins the cosmic stream and waits to be reborn into a new life.
She stares first at him then up into the atmosphere above them. What if you are wrong? What if I can never see him again?
If you stay here and meet oblivion you will never know. He steps closer. Come with me. Step back from this abyss. He gestures to the Underworld, which is now empty and seems to actually be tearing apart as if it were made of parchment. You can see nothing in the dark. But in the Light all things are revealed.
She closes her eyes and pictures Hades in her mind one last time. I love you. She steps forward into Michael's arms. He enfolds her in his wings and she can feel the ground falling away beneath them. A warm breeze caresses her face and soon she leaves the darkness behind. She feels that they are picking up speed as the archangel carries them higher and higher.
They soar through the essence of the dying Underworld and drive through other planes of existence as Michael carries them both towards the Celestial City. They break through the clouds and Persephone can feel the light on her face.
Open your eyes, Michael says.
She does so and before her is a place unlike any other. A city of Light nestled among the clouds. Glistening like silver in the sunlight. As she steps from the embrace of the archangel's arms and wings she knows what he means. She can feel a love unlike anything she can imagine. It is all encompassing and unconditional love. And in her heart she can see the source of that love welcoming her home.
So Jett, Caesar says to the man who stands before him in Cleopatra's throne room. The queen herself is seated on her throne and is peering down at the assassin with doubt. Can you kill Hope?
Jett sneers and turns his head to one side to illicit a cracking from the joints as he considers what Caesar is asking of him.
You're asking a lot, Jett says for a reply.
Are you saying you can't do it? Cleopatra inquires. Are you not the King of Assassins?
I'm not saying I can't do it, Jett says. I'm just pointing out that you are asking me to murder the most powerful ruler on earth. He smiles a little when he sees the looks of scorn cross their faces. I meant not insult of course. He performs an overly dramatic bow for their benefit. Neither of them is amused.
You'll be well compensated for your services, Caesar tells him, the dictator's dislike of the man growing by leaps and bounds with each passing second he is in his presence.
You realize killing her will probably solve nothing, Jett informs them as his eyes wander off to gaze at a bit of tapestry hanging to the right of Cleopatra's throne. She has powerful allies. Any one of which could easily He doesn't get to finish his thought as Caesar explodes.
Do you think I fear Melosa and her rabble? He bellows at the top of his lungs. He surges forward to stand before the assassin. Do you believe for one second I am worried about Pompey the Magnus? He puts a jovial tone on the way he says the name of Pompey's title to show exactly what he thinks of the man. Or do you imply that I am afraid of that maniac Najara?
Jett holds up his hands to show that he understands. I am simply pointing out that she has many competent people working for her.
Caesar waves his hand in annoyance to dismiss the very idea. Cut off the head of the serpent and the body dies. He turns from Jett to once again stand by the dais on which Cleopatra sits enthroned.
Without Hope they will fall before the might of Egypt and Rome, Cleopatra states as if there is no other outcome possible.
Indeed, Caesar agrees. He turns his attention back to Jett. So I ask you again. Can you kill Hope?
Jett ponders the question. One hundred thousand dinars. Half now. Half when I return with proof of her death.
What? Cleopatra roars shooting to her feet. You would dare ask that of us?
The assassin is unmoved by the queen's display. But answers her query with a response uniquely his own. Bringing both hands up to his face he seems to be praying. Digging his right thumb and forefinger into the flesh between his left middle and ring finger he draws out a three-inch long, narrow diameter spike and hurls it at the queen. The weapon imbeds itself into the throne next to her head. Both the queen and the dictator are too shocked to react for several seconds.
That is why I am the King of Assassins! he exclaims. If it was my desire you would be dead right now despite the security you blanket yourself with in this palace. I am the best you will ever find at what I do.
Caesar stares at him for a moment before he bursts out in laughter. Cleopatra still stares at the spike that has missed her head by inches, she is not in the least amused by the man's display.
One hundred thousand dinars it is! Caesar shouts beginning to applaud the assassin's skill.
Jett bows once more.
And now after months of preparation Jett is about to conclude his transaction with Caesar. He pulls Hope up by her hair and presses the blade of his boot dagger against the soft flesh of her throat. The Avatar of Dahak does not react at the touch of the cold steel against her throat. She just pitifully utters the same word as before.
Ephiny, her voice is barely a whisper now.
He can feel his hand drenched in the sweat soaking her hair. Tears continue to stream down her face. Her breath comes in ragged gasps. He shakes his head at the irony of so many fearing this pathetic creature before him. Before drawing the blade across her throat he takes a moment to gaze into her eyes. Once many years ago a teacher of his in Chin had told him that the eyes are the windows to the soul. He has always believed that to be the most preposterous thing he has ever heard.
But as he looks deeply in the eyes of Hope he realizes that he may have been mistaken for a very long time. For in her eyes he does not see the loathsome evil so many in Rome and the west speak of. He does not see the ruthless terror of Dahak. He sees no malice. No scorn. No hatred. No rage. All he sees is the eyes of a girl who is about to die. The eyes of someone who is grief stricken and afraid. He recognizes the look of an innocent caught up in a maelstrom of malevolence. He knows because it is the same look he saw in his brother's eyes when he found him dead on the battlefield. Joxer had never had what it took to be a warrior. He had never possessed the willpower it took to fight or to kill. But his twin brother had been so caught up in trying to emulate him and to gain the respect of their parents that he had rushed off to join Callisto's army. When Jett and his father had finally caught up to Joxer it was too late. Najara had decimated Callisto's army. And Joxer was dead. Dead with the same tragic look in his eyes that now stares back at him.
The revelation shocks him into immobility. He doesn't even react when the sword comes to rest on his shoulder.
Step away from her or I will kill you. The voice is dripping with lethal intent.
He does not look back at Ephiny or do as she orders. His eyes are still on Hope. She is no longer staring blankly forward. Her eyes look over Jett's shoulder to gaze at Ephiny. The terrified look seems to melt away into what he can only compare to a frightened child seeing its mother after a horrific nightmare.
Ephiny, Hope pleads. She tries to move forward but Jett keeps his hand twisted into her hair.
Who is this? he asks in a voice more akin to the snarl of an animal.
The edge of the blade on his shoulder now presses against the side of his neck. Let her go now, Ephiny says through gritted teeth.
Jett turns his head around to gaze back at the handmaiden of the Avatar and repeats his question. Who is this?
Hope once more whimpers the name of her handmaiden.
If you do not get away from her you'll die without ever knowing the answer, she informs him.
Jett lets go of Hope, taking the blade from her throat and walking several steps away.
Ephiny drops the sword and kneels down to take Hope into her arms. The Avatar cries like a child as she buries herself in Ephiny's embrace. A torrent of tears begins to fall and she begins a completely incoherent rant that Jett can hardly understand.
Gods Ephiny! More! Killed more! So many! By my hand! Dead! Burned! Gone! No! It hurts! Stop! No! Please! No hurt! They! Gods! I've killed them all! No! Lila! I killed her! No more! I don't want to kill anyone else! Dahak! No Avatar! No!
Ephiny holds this poor creature tightly to her, stroking her hair and trying to calm her as much as she can. It's all right. Calm down. It'll be all right Gabrielle.
Gabrielle? Jett shouts turning to face the two women on the floor. He points to them. You're telling me she isn't Hope?
Shut up! Ephiny commands him.
The girl in Ephiny's arms shakes her head and continues her babbling. No! I don't want to be Hope! I want to die! It hurts so much! Ephiny! Make it stop! She stares up into the eyes of the handmaiden with a look that could break the heart of anyone still possessed of a decent soul.
Ephiny kisses the top of her head and pulls the girl tighter to her. I'm sorry Gabrielle. I wish I could.
Gabrielle breaks down into another fit of crying and is soon unable to say another word. Ephiny just holds her as tightly as she can. She turns her eyes back to the man before her. Who are you? Clearly you are not the idiot Najara takes you for. She looks at the cleverly designed weapon in his hand. Is Joxer even your real name?
Still staring at the pathetic girl in Ephiny's arms he replies, That was my brother's name. Before Najara killed him. My name is Jett.
Ephiny's grip on Gabrielle tightens as she recognizes the name of one of the most feared assassins in the world. She glances to the sword and now wishes she hadn't dropped it.
Now you can answer my question, Jett retorts. Who is that? Since it clearly isn't Hope?
Alti calls her Despair, Ephiny says. She is the last shred of humanity left in Hope. Her name is Gabrielle.
Jett looks at them in utter confusion.
Once she was an innocent girl in a small village. She wanted nothing more than to be a bard. But she and her sister were taken by a warlord who used their bodies for his pleasure. She killed him and they escaped to come to my village. I could see the hate and the lust for vengeance in her. She turns to look down at Gabrielle's face buried in her chest. She is sobbing and trembling. But I didn't want to see it fester. So I chose to be her friend. Then she left us and took her sister with her. She went to a far off land. There she found what she sought, the power to reap her vengeance. The power of Dahak. And she killed her sister to get it.
At the mention of her sister's death Gabrielle screams aloud, Lila! I'm sorry! Please forgive me!
I'm sure she does Gabrielle, Ephiny says in her most soothing voice. She loved you very much. As you loved her.
Jett looks at the girl cradled in Ephiny's arms and cannot but relate to the tragedy. Joxer had gone off in search of himself and found only death awaiting him.
After that she returned to our village, Ephiny continues.
Your village? he asks.
I am an Amazon once a princess next in line to Melosa. But when Gabrielle returned to our village I knew that she was not the girl I had befriended. Not the girl she pauses before she continues. She looks into Jett's eyes and dares him to ridicule what she says next. Not the girl I fell in love with. So when she proposed to lead us to a great destiny, I refused to fight for her. I threw down my sword. Melosa would've killed me had Hope not forbidden it.
She took me as her handmaiden. I stayed by her side for almost a year before it happened the first time. Dahak corrupted her body and blighted her soul. But he cannot totally destroy the innocence that still remains hidden beneath Gabrielle's hatred and rage. It happens from time to time. There is no pattern. No reason that I can understand. One moment she is the ruthless Avatar that rules so much of the world. The next she is She looks down at Gabrielle once more to make her point. She glares at Jett. Will you finish what you started? If you do then you will have to kill me too. For I will never leave her.
Jett stares at the two women. He battles within himself for what to do. Killing is all he has known most of his life. It is an occupation he is good at (not the best). Never before has he failed in a sanction. And certainly never before has he given a damn about the one he was sent to kill. But as he debates what to do Gabrielle turns her tear stained face towards him for a mere instant. And he cannot help but remember his brother who died an ignominious death on a battlefield in Thrace. He replaces the dagger into his boot. We should let her rest on the bed. He leans down to help them up.
Together Ephiny and Jett lay the still crying and trembling Gabrielle on the bed.
Perhaps we should let her sleep, he proposes.
Ephiny shakes her head. She doesn't sleep. She hasn't slept in six years. She's not known a moment of it since she spilled her sister's blood on Dahak's altar.
How do you know all this about her sister's death?
When Despair first appeared, Ephiny explains putting a sickened tone on the name Alti has given to Gabrielle's surviving personality. I wanted to know everything. I am Hope's only real friend. I asked to know what it all meant. She consented. She rarely refuses me anything. So using her powers Alti She pauses again and closes her eyes. She puts her hands to her face for a few seconds and exhales a shuddering breath. The memory of it hurts her. Alti connected us. It only took an instant. But I saw it all. The deaths of her friends and family. Her physical abuse at the hands of Draco. The temple in Britannia. The blood. The fire. The corpse of her sister. I sometimes wish I hadn't done it. Because I see it all in my nightmares when I close my eyes and go to sleep.
Jett walks back to where Hope first fell down. Does she know what is happening? he asks.
You mean does Gabrielle know what Hope is doing? Yes. She is in there always. Sees every single atrocity the Avatar performs. And blames it all on herself. And on Xena.
At the mention of the name Gabrielle howls in rage and surges out of the bed. Xena!
Ephiny catches her by the arms and holds her there. She is thankful that in this pitiable state Gabrielle possesses none of Hope's strength or powers. No Gabrielle, she says wrapping the girl in her arms once more. The rage subsides quickly and Gabrielle dissolves into weeping once more. Still holding her, Ephiny lays back on the bed.
Xena? Jett says again perplexed. What does the warrior princess have to do with Hope?
Gabrielle met Xena before this all began, Ephiny explains. Draco had tried to kidnap Gabrielle and some others from her village. Xena stopped his men. Then she went to Draco and asked him in the name of a relationship they once shared to spare the village. The warlord agreed and Xena left without a second thought. Draco lied. He returned the next day and attacked the village. Gabrielle found out about this during her servitude to Draco. And she blamed Xena for it.
Jett glances towards Gabrielle. And apparently still does.
Yes. Ephiny sits on the edge of the bed and places her hand on Gabrielle's head. The girl doesn't seem to react to the touch. Her hand slides down to grasp one of Gabrielle's tightly. So what will you do now Jett?
The assassin looks from the handmaiden to the girl on the bed and shakes his head. Inches away from the biggest pay off of his life. Hell of a time to have an attack of conscience , he thinks to himself. Unsure of what to say he simply shrugs. We'll have to wait and see. Rest assured that neither you nor she is in any danger from me. He walks over towards the door and glances outside into the hallway. Guess I'll need to refund fifty thousand dinars to Caesar. He sighs loudly. He opens his mouth to speak again but a sound from the room draws his attention. It is a loud thumping and it is coming from Gabrielle pounding her fist into the headboard.
You need to leave, Ephiny informs him. Hope is returning.
What? he says in shock looking from the girl pounding the bed and back to the door.
As I said there is no rhyme or reason to it, she continues taking her hand from Gabrielle's. These episodes can last from mere minutes to an entire week.
A look of concern crosses Jett's features. Is she going to remember what just happened? You know, the fact that I was about to slit her throat?
Ephiny seems mildly amused at his nervous reaction. It's unlikely. Hope tries to bury Gabrielle as deep within herself as possible. Hope despises that part of her that she sees as weak. But you should leave all the same.
The pounding of the headboard grows stronger and is now accompanied by a growling voice repeating, No. No. No.
Go! Ephiny says pointing emphatically towards the door. Don't return today unless she summons you. Go.
Jett glances at the two of them once more before darting soundlessly out the door.
Ephiny stands next to the bed and reaches down to stroke Gabrielle's hair. Gabrielle? she says in a tentative voice.
A hand clamps onto her throat like a vice. She gasps in pain and brings her hands up in a feeble attempt to pry the hand from her neck. She tries to speak but the fingers closing around her throat choke off any words trying to get past her lips. She watches in horror as Hope rises from the bed with a look of demonic fury on her face. As she stands up from the bed she lifts Ephiny from her feet and dangles her over the floor. Ephiny's eyes bulge as she stares into the eyes of the enraged Avatar. Gone are the soft green eyes of Gabrielle. Now there are only the burning orbs of Hope.
Why can't I kill her? Hope asks her struggling handmaiden. Why can't I be rid of her? She tosses Ephiny against the far wall without a thought. She slams into the wall and collapses in a heap on the floor.
She puts a hand to her neck trying to sooth the pain away. She coughs to clear her breathing passages before attempting to speak again. You'll never be rid of her Hope. She's the best part of you. As she completes the statement she feels herself being picked up in the grip of Hope's power. Like a giant's hand on her chest the power of the Avatar presses her against the wall and begins to slide her up towards the ceiling. She can feel the pressure building on her chest like a two-ton block of marble. Her breathing becomes labored and she can sense the bones of her chest being pressed closer and closer to the breaking point. She endures the pain but is not afraid of the death so many would think sure to follow. This has happened before. Hope's rage after being suppressed by Gabrielle's personality is something she has grown used to over the past six years.
Why does everyone say that? Hope asks in a fury. First that impotent goddess. Now you.
Were she capable of expressing surprise through the pain Ephiny would. Goddess? she thinks to herself. An Olympian besides Ares lives? The pain in her chest spreads through her like a plague and she starts to moan with the agony of it. Please she starts but has to stop as she can barely draw breath to say anything now. Stop.
Hope walks forward slowly still pressing her power against her defiant handmaiden. Stop? she says now standing directly below Ephiny's writhing form. Why should I? Why should I not kill you?
Ephiny draws breath to try and speak but begins gasping and sputtering as the compression on her chest increases. I she gasps and feels tears starting to stream down her face. I she starts once more but is cut short by a sickening fit of coughing accompanied by blood starting to foam from her mouth.
Go on Princess, Hope puts particular derision on Ephiny's former title. I'm anxiously awaiting your next words. She sneers malevolently and starts into Ephiny's tear filled eyes.
Through the pain and the humiliation being pressed upon her by Hope Ephiny manages to get two words past her lips. Love you.
Hope reacts as if slapped. The hatred in her eyes softens and she releases Ephiny from her power. The handmaiden drops into her arms. She looks down to see the tears in Ephiny's eyes and the blood on her lips. Hope carries her to their bed and lays her down where she herself had been sprawled only moments before. Joxer! she calls out.
Ephiny keeps her arms wrapped around her chest trying to ease some of the pain. But every breath hurts and she can feel more blood welling up in her mouth. Another few seconds and Hope would have crushed her insides to pulp. It is the most painful encounter she has ever had with Hope. She turns pained eyes on the Avatar who stands by the bed. The look on the Avatar's face is one of concern but it hardly seems to account for what she nearly did. She may be concerned for your well being Ephiny, she tells herself. But it doesn't even enter into her mind that you are in pain by her actions. She punished you. And feels no remorse for it.
Jett reenters the room. He sees Ephiny lying on the bed quivering in pain and Gabrielle standing over her. Not Gabrielle, he reminds himself. Hope. He stands in the doorway waiting for Hope to speak.
Bring some food and drink for Ephiny, Hope orders him then seems to forget he is there.
Jett rushes off to do as commanded wondering all the way to the kitchens if Ephiny will be all right.
Hope lays her hands on Ephiny's chest and closes her eyes. An intense heat almost as unbearable as the pain rushes through Ephiny. Within seconds all the damage done to her internally by Hope is healed. You really must learn when to keep your mouth shut Ephiny, Hope informs her. One day your words may push me too far. And no amount of pleading or admissions of love will be enough to save you. She places her hand on Ephiny's cheek. With her thumb she wipes at the blood on her lips. She takes her hand away and then removes the blood from her thumb with her tongue. My friend. She smirks vilely at the words.
Ephiny watches what to most people might seem an erotic display but to her is just Hope asserting the fact that she lives only at the Avatar's sufferance. And when Hope pronounces my friend' with such spite, she rolls over onto her side so that her back is to Hope.
Hope laughs at the rebuke from her lovely handmaiden. She rips the sweat soaked garment from her body and tosses it on top of Ephiny. You can keep that if you like. Now naked she moves towards the door. I have to go wash the stink of Gabrielle from me. I'll see you later.
The door slams shut with a cacophonous boom. With a shaking hand Ephiny reaches atop herself to grasp the red robe soaked with her lover's sweat. Like a drowning woman clinging to a lifeline she holds onto the garment. She begins to cry anew and whispers through the sobs one word. Gabrielle.
One of the marvels of Rome is her aqueducts. Massive stones structures that carry water from mountain lakes down to the city. Towering over some buildings they run for miles out of the city. One particularly imposing aqueduct is a two-tiered construction that leads into the city from the west. During the day no one pays any attention to it as it sluices water into massive cisterns that hold the water for consumption by the population. And during the night since it cannot even be seen in the moonlight it is not even thought about. But were anyone watching the upper level of the aqueduct they might think it strange that there is something moving up there. Three men, swathed in cloaks as black as the night itself, run atop the aqueducts with considerable skill and ease. But no one is watching. So no one knows.
Are the three of you insane? Antony asks as he paces Caesar's quarters. By the window Hercules holds Xena in his arms and Caesar is reclined on a couch sipping wine.
He's right, Iolaus agrees. It was foolish to fight him like that.
He's the god of war! Antony shouts as if they were unaware of Ares' identity. Do you have any idea what he could have done to you?
I have to admit I'm rather impressed with what we did to him, Caesar says downing the last of his wine then holding it out to a servant who takes it with a bow and leaves the room.
That isn't funny, Antony retorts staring daggers at his best friend.
No it isn't, Hercules says. But it made our point.
That point being what exactly? Antony says throwing up his arms in exasperation.
That we aren't afraid, Xena answers him abruptly. That even if the all mighty god of war comes to our doorstep we will fight him. Even if we have no real chance of winning.
It sends the message to Hope that no matter what she does we will not fear her or any of her lackeys. Caesar rises from the couch and stands before Antony. She may defeat us in battle but our resolve will never waver. Whether they are shamanesses, Amazons or gods. We will fight! He stands nose to nose with Antony daring his friend to disagree with him.
They're right too, Iolaus agrees again with a smile on his face.
Antony holds Caesar's stare before his face cracks opens with a smile and he starts to laugh. I wish I could have seen the look on his face, he admits.
I was almost convinced that a god could soil himself when we told him we'd been preparing to fight him for a long time, Xena says looking back into her husband's face.
He was certainly not expecting us to lay into him the way we did, Hercules says.
Even Hope saw the futility of it. Caesar strides over to stand by Hercules and Xena to stare out the window.
Nice chakrum throw by the way, Xena congratulates him on his skill with the weapon. Guess I taught you pretty good.
Caesar nods and replies, It's nice to be appreciated.
Octavian enters the room and announces, Uncle. Crassus is here.
Caesar turns to Antony and nods. The tribune of Rome and Caesar's Master of the Horse nods back and leaves the room. Inform the Senate I will be making an announcement in the Forum tomorrow morning and that I request their attendance. Caesar walks towards Octavian. And send our envoys to the people telling them that I would like them to attend this gathering too. Octavian nods and leaves the room. Caesar turns back towards the three Greeks. I will need the three of you there as well. Especially you Xena. Without another word he leaves the room.
What is going on? Iolaus asks.
He has a plan, Hercules says. Pity he doesn't see fit to tell us about it.
Xena seems to squirm in her husband's embrace. I think I may regret tomorrow.
Caesar stands alone in a room so small it can only be considered a cell. A single torch illuminates the dark confines. The walls are earth and loose stone. The air is thin and musty. He feels himself sick just standing in it. But it is the only place to carry out the current business. To his right torchlight flickers from a side entrance. Behind him two guards flank a second door. There are no other ways in. With his hands clasped behind his back Caesar waits.
An imposing figure steps from the doorway to his right. Clad in leather armor and holding onto a rather intimidating looking axe Vercinix makes his presence known without saying a word. Caesar glances at him but says nothing.
The other door opens and in steps a man clad in Roman armor and looking extremely agitated. His scraggly beard and disheveled hair indicate that he has arrived as fast as he possibly could without stopping to make himself more presentable. He salutes Caesar with fist to chest but takes note of the fact that Caesar does not return the salute. Hail Caesar! he declares. His eyes trail over to the man standing near Caesar. He has yet to notice the guards stationed by the door he has just walked through.
Caesar does not address his former ally in the Triumvirate. He looks from Crassus then back to Vercinix. I don't believe the two of you have ever actually met. But you have something in common. He turns to Vercinix. You have lost part of your family. He turns back to Crassus. And you had that family crucified. Along with an entire village that did nothing more than ask for small payment on all the supplies you demanded.
Crassus's face goes pale as he gapes at Caesar then at the other man in the room. He notices the axe in the man's hands for the first time. He reaches for his own weapon but Caesar snaps his fingers and the guards seize the Roman commander and hold him fast. Caesar! What are you doing? he demands of his former ally.
Caesar pays Crassus no attention. He faces Vercinix. Do we have an accord?
Vercinix looks to Crassus and can only remember his niece dying in his arms after he took her down from the cross. He hefts the axe in his hands. Gaul is with you. We will fight along side you against Hope.
Caesar! Crassus shouts at the top of his lungs.
By morning every Gallic slave in Rome will be freed, Caesar gives his new ally this assurance. Vercinix looks puzzled by this declaration but says nothing. By this time next week every Gallic slave in Roman held territory will be released to return to Gaul.
Vercinix nods then puts his gaze on the squirming and screaming Crassus.
Caesar turns back to Crassus. But instead he speaks to the guards. He points to Crassus's hand. I will need his ring when it is done. The guards salute.
Caesar! No! Crassus continues to scream and beg. Don't do this! Caesar!
Caesar walks from the room through the same door Vercinix entered. Behind him he can still hear Crassus crying out. Caesar ascends the stairs slowly. Crassus shouts continually until a wet slapping noise brings silence to this part of the palace.
The morning lingers on as rain threatens to soak the city once more. Caesar walks the corridors of his palace until he comes to Julia's room. He steps inside to find her sitting on the edge of the bed staring out the window.
He steps inside and sits beside her. She makes no reaction to his appearance. He places his arm across her shoulders. He doesn't speak but stands quietly by to share his daughter's grief. Minutes pass before Julia finally speaks.
I dreamed about her, she tells her father. She rests her head on his shoulder. She was standing in front of a group of soldiers. They said they'd come to kill her. She dared them to try. Tears begin streaming down her face as she relives the dream in her mind. I'm going to miss her so much.
A part of her will be with you forever, Caesar tells her. He removes the ring of Cleopatra from a pocket and holds it up to her. She left this for you some time ago and asked me to give it to you at the proper time. I believe this is it.
Julia stares at the ring and takes it slowly from her father's hand. With trembling fingers she slides the ring onto her ring finger and finds that it fits perfectly. She examines the ring on her hand and starts to smile a little.
Xena and Hercules have both told me that the dead can hear us when we talk to them, Caesar tells her. She will hear you. And she'll always be alive. He places his hand over her heart. In here. Never forget that. Hope can never take that from us.
She wraps her arms around her father and holds him tightly. Caesar puts his arms around his daughter and kisses the top of her head. He looks over and sees Xena standing in the doorway. The warrior princess smiles then walks away leaving the grieving family to themselves.
Diana looks around and cannot believe the stupidity of the thief whose aid she has enlisted. For over a week they have been hiding in merchant stalls, alleyways, basements and even a brothel! But this is the height of lunacy. She stares up at the statue of Hope dressed in Amazon guard and pointing a sword into the center of the room. There rises a fire that goes all the way to the ceiling and almost out of the skylight above it. The Eternal Fire of Dahak. How could she be so dense as to listen to this moron?
Are you insane? she asks the obvious. This is one of Dahak's temples.
They'd never think to look for you here, Autolycus replies. He turns to look around and finds himself face to face with a bust of Hope that sits in a niche in the wall. He yelps in shock and backs away from the wall and its disturbing occupant.
I cannot believe we've been in Athens a week and I still haven't been able to get back to the others, Diana comments. Finding the darkest corner of the temple, she sits on a stone bench and pulls off her boots. Her feet feel swollen from overuse. And she is tired beyond belief. They have not stopped moving since he saved her in the alleyway. She watches the King of Thieves saunter around the temple possibly looking to see if there is anything worth stealing. You're not leading me on a wild goose chase to get paid more? she asks him pulling her boots back on.
Autolycus turns and strides over to her. Look missy. I may be a thief. But I'm an honest thief. And leading damsels in distress astray is not in my play book.
Please don't call me that, she groans. How many times do I have to tell you? My name is Diana, she says adamantly rising to her feet with her fists on her hips.
Yes! Yes! Princess of whatever the heck that place was called, Autolycus interrupts her tirade.
Listen you crook! she screams pointing a finger at his nose.
How dare you madam! he responds. Crook is such a degrading term for my profession. I am a gentleman thief. He brushes his mustache with his fingers. The king of gentleman thieves. You'll never find a thief more gentlemanly than me.
There they are! a group of soldiers cry as they rush into the temple.
Well gentleman, Diana says pushing Autolycus before her. Time to protect my virtue.
No good deed goes unpunished, Autolycus decides as three soldiers rush at him.
Kill him and take the girl! he leader of the men says as he draws his sword.
Wait a minute! Autolycus exclaims throwing up his hands. As he does so his grappling hook shoots from under his sleeve and catches on a huge tapestry hanging over them. To his surprise the soldiers actually do halt. He raises an eyebrow in bewilderment before jerking down on the rope and pulling the tapestry down onto the men. He watches the tapestry writhe around like some huge red blob. You know thats the first time that has ever worked. He turns and grabs Diana. Time to go princess. They dash out the same door the soldiers had run into through.
As soon as they exit they find four more soldiers waiting outside tending their horses. There they are! one of the men screams pointing at them.
This is intolerable! Diana shouts as Autolycus drags her around the corner and into still another dirty alleyway.
Tell me something I don't know! he replies as they get to the end of the alley and find it blocked by a fence. He cups his hands. Up you go.
Diana looks up at the top of the fence. This is going to hurt isn't it?
Not nearly as much as a spear in the gut trust me. And that's a sensation I'd prefer to avoid. Now go! As she places her foot in his hands he vaults her over the fence. He hears a thud and a groan from the other side. Okay. Now my turn. He turns to face the fence and a spear impacts it right next to him. His eyes trail slowly to the still quivering weapon and he swallows hard.
Get him! a soldier screams from the far end of the alley.
Not today! Autolycus corrects them. Not tomorrow! Not ever will you catch the King of His boasting is cut off when another spear narrowly misses his head and embeds itself in the fence right next to the first spear.
He stares in shock at the spear. Another time then, he says as he leaps up onto the spears and uses them to springboard over the fence.
He nearly lands on Diana. That way! he points down the end of the alley where he can see a row of stables at the end. They dash into the stables and try their best to hide under the straw scattered across the dirty floor.
They are concealed quite well and can see the guards walking slowly past the stable. Then a big, black rat crawls across Diana's leg and she cannot stifle a shriek.
They're in here! a guard says pointing into the stables. The men all ready their spears and stalk inside.
I knew a pretty face would be the end of me one day, Autolycus admits to himself. He stands to his feet and tries not to wonder what it is he just sat in. I just thought it might be with a bit more dignity.
Beside him Diana also gets to her feet. She looks at him with a sad smile. Sorry I got you killed.
He smirks. Well at least there is a pretty face involved. He winks at her then holds up his fists before him. All right you lugs. Let's go!
The guards laugh and draw back their spears.
Well that's hardly sporting, Autolycus accuses them.
From behind the guards steps a very large but distinctly feminine shadow. She reaches forward to grab the spear from one man's hands and cracks him over the head with it. He drops as if pole axed. The remaining guards turn to face this new opponent. Even Autolycus steps forward to look at the latest arrival.
She speaks with a low toned but very sexy voice. I'd suggest you surrender.
The guards laugh again. Maybe you haven't noticed but there are five of us and one of you.
The woman, whom Autolycus is shocked to see is dressed as an Amazon warrior, whistles. Ten women clad in the same skimpy leathers erupt from the hay around them and draw swords. The guards drop their spears in unison.
One of the women, a tall specimen with auburn hair tied in multiple braids walks up next to Diana. It's about time you got here. What in Hades' name took you so long? she asks.
Diana grins and points to Autolycus. Sorry Solari. I had to take the long way around.
The woman who had initiated the combat grabs Autolycus by the shirt collar and lifts him up off the ground. Tonis sent half the city guard out looking for you after you escaped. She turns the thief around to look into his face. And what have we here?
The other women busy themselves with binding and gagging the guards. Put him down Eponin, Diana says with a smile. That's Autolycus. Autolycus clears his throat loudly. The king of thieves, she adds.
Eponin drops him on his ass. He looks around at the women around him. Umm... forgive me if I seem like a simpleton. All eyes turn to him. He locks eyes with Diana. And correct me if I am wrong. He points to all the women. But aren't these Amazons!
Diana shrugs and says, Yes.
He points to her and asks, And you are the leader of the resistance here in Greece?
Yes, she replies.
But these are Amazons. He points to all the women again.
Yes, Diana repeats herself.
But you're the leader of the resistance in Greece. He points to her again.
Yes! she shouts.
But these are Amazons! he shouts. He looks at Diana waiting for her to grasp the obvious. Amazons fight for Hope!
Did he hit his head? Solari asks Diana.
Autolycus. Diana steps up and kneels by his side. I can explain this to you later. But for now we have to get off the streets.
He glances to the bound and gagged soldiers and imagines some of their friends might soon show up looking for them. Good point. He jumps to his feet with fluid grace. Lead the way ladies.
Are you sure we can trust him? Eponin asks looking him up and down.
Diana looks at the thief and shrugs. I don't know. But he seems like a nice guy.
Autolycus puffs up at the compliment.
Bring him Eponin, Solari says as she leads them away from the stable.
Some time later they find themselves against the backside of a residence near the Athenian plaza called the Agora. Solari makes a high pitched whistling noise and a section of the wall parts open to reveal a young man with short black hair and an intense look in his eyes. He sees the Amazons and Diana and smiles. But frowns when he sees Autolycus. Who's he? he asks.
Never mind Palaemon, Solari tells him. Just let us in.
Palaemon steps back and gestures them to come inside. After they enter the wall slides shut without any hint it can open.
Some time later everyone present is staring at Diana and it is Eponin who asks the question. You're telling us there is a tunnel that leads to catacombs beneath the Acropolis?
For the fifth time yes! Diana exclaims passing around the room. But it won't be much help. It doesn't lead into the Citadel.
It must be of some importance if Tonis sent those mercenaries after you, Palaemon interjects. And then he sent the royal guard out looking for you.
Where is it located? Solari asks as she too stands and begins to pace the room.
The entrance is on the outskirts of Athens, Diana says. She closes her eyes to picture its exact location outside the city walls. There is a pass that runs parallel to the walls about one hundred yards away. We were returning from Corinth when Pompey's entourage came within sight. We dashed into the pass and hid there. We were huddled together in amongst a cluster of dead olive trees when Linus tripped over something and fell into a cave opening. We decided it might be better to hide in there so we entered.
But instead of a cave you found a tunnel, Eponin states the obvious.
We fashioned some torches and followed it for quite a while. Then we came to a crossroads in the tunnel. She pauses preparing to tell them the parts of her little adventure she finds rather disturbing. We split up. I went straight. Linus went left. Antius went right. At the end of the tunnel I found the Fire.
You mean the Eternal Fire originates from under the Acropolis? Solari says in disbelief. What was fueling it?
Nothing, Diana states simply. It was coming up out of a depression in the floor. But there was no opening or crack in the ground. It just started there. And there was no further entrance or exit from there. So I turned back.
Damn! Eponin curses. Would have been nice to find some secret entrance to the Citadel.
Just because Diana's tunnel doesn't lead inside doesn't mean there aren't others, Palaemon states.
Go on Diana.
When I got back to the cross road I found Linus on his knees being sick. I asked him what was wrong and he just pointed down the tunnel he had explored. I went down the tunnel and Diana trails off and finds it hard to describe what she saw. She places her hand over her mouth as if she about to be ill just from thinking about it. Palaemon takes her arm and helps her to a seat.
Diana? he asks. Are you all right?
There was a cell at the end of that tunnel, Diana continues as if not hearing him. In it was a I don't know what it was. It was in pain. There were all these cuts and bruises and burns on it. When I approached it cowered against the wall and started making this sound. It was horrible. Tears start to stream down her face as she recalls the encounter with the maimed creature.
What did it look like? Solari asks.
It was female. There were small horns growing from her head. And what I could see of her skin beneath all the scarring was this golden color. She exhales sharply before continuing her recollection.
It had the upper torso, arms and head of a human female. But its lower body reminded me of a centaur. But instead of having the body of a horse it was more like a deer.
The last golden hind, Autolycus says speaking for the first time since entering Palaemon's residence.
The last what? Palaemon asks.
The blood of a golden hind is one of the few things that can kill a god, Eponin explains to him. Zeus killed them all years ago. But it was rumored one survived. Hidden away by Ares.
That's how Hope was able to kill them all, Solari concludes. She has that poor thing locked up under the Citadel to supply her with hind's blood if she ever needs it.
What was down the other tunnel? Palaemon asks. The one Antius went down.
Aphrodite, Diana answers simply.
WHAT? is the unanimous reply from everyone present.
She was chained against the wall. She looked sick and emaciated. One of her eyes looked like it was bleeding. I don't think she even knew I was there though I must have stared at her for a few minutes. Diana puts her face in her hands and tries to hold back the torrent of tears.
How do you know it was her? Solari asks. I mean it could have been someone who
But Diana cuts her off by shooting to her feet and coming face to face with the Amazon. I spent the better part of my life as a princess in the Temple to Aphrodite. I went there every day praying for her to send me the true love I dreamed of. I spent more time at the foot of her statue than I did in my father's throne room. Every day I paid homage and sacrifice to her for for Philemon. She drops to her knees remembering her lost love that died when Hope and her armies invaded their kingdom. He had sacrificed his own life to make sure she escaped and lived.
Solari kneels down and wraps her arms around her friend. I'm sorry Diana. She holds the former princess as she breaks down into tears and sobbing.
So there is another Olympian alive besides the god of war, Eponin says as she watches with just a hint of jealousy as her lover comforts Diana.
So what? Palaemon says. It's Aphrodite. What can she do?
Eponin snorts. You obviously didn't hear what happened outside Corinth after it fell.
Corinth? Palaemon shrugs. It fell to Hope but not before Ares lost a huge part of the invading army. So?
That huge part of Ares' army wasn't defeated by Corinthian infantry. Eponin pauses for a moment. Aphrodite annihilated over seven hundred of Ares' finest warriors in an instant. One moment it was there. The next it was a heap of ash, blood and bone.
Okay, Palaemon replies just a little taken aback by the idea of the goddess of love killing people. I might be mistaken.
But they know you found the tunnel. Eponin fumes at the idea.
Yes, Diana says moving away from Solari. A group of mercenaries following Pompey's army saw us leaving the tunnel. They pursued us into town. They killed Linus and Antius. I'd be dead too if it weren't for Autolycus.
So it will be guarded now. Solari kicks a nearby chair in her frustration.
A side door opens slightly. Eponin sees the movement to her left and looks towards the door. Piercing brown eyes look through the opening in the door. Eponin makes a shooing gesture with her hand and the door closes.
It would have been a help to have her on our side, Solari admits stalking back and forth across the room. But Hope will have that entrance guarded now. We'll never get in now.
But surely we have to try, Diana says getting to her feet.
How? Eponin says raising her voice to mirror Solari's frustration. It will be locked down so tight no one can get in.
Not even the King of Thieves? Autolycus says brushing his mustache with a finger.
Diana turns to face the thief with eyes wide in disbelief. You're volunteering to help us? she asks.
Volunteer might be too strong a word my dear, Autolycus admits as he walks around the room. He takes his time looking over the bodies of the Amazons present. But perhaps I can be persuaded. He draws very near to Eponin as he says those words.
The Amazon draws her eagle guard sword and holds it very close to the thief's chest.
His eyes double in size at the weapon. He regains his calm an instant later. Now. Now. Ladies. You misunderstand.
Do we? Eponin asks in a growl.
As I have already told the lovely Princess Diana. I am a gentleman as well as a thief. And it is hardly in my nature to take advantage of people. He steps back from Eponin.
You mean it isn't in your nature to take advantage of people who are fully aware of it, Eponin retorts sheathing her sword.
And since I try my best not to lie to ladies I shall have to refrain from answering that question on the grounds that it may lead to injury upon my person. Autolycus walks back to stand where he was before he began speaking. Let's just say that I think it will enhance my reputation by leaps and bounds if I was able to say I had stolen a goddess from the Citadel of Hope.
Palaemon looks from Diana then to Autolycus then back again. Can we really trust him?
Diana looks at the King of Thieves again. Yes, she replies with a smile. I think we can.
Okay so we may have a goddess on our side, Solari says as her face contorts in deep thought. She turns to Palaemon. We have to tell Caesar about this. How long do you think it might take you to get to Rome? If you left let's say now?
Taken aback by the request Palaemon thinks about it for a moment. I know at least one ship's captain who will be more than willing to help us. But we won't be able to sail from Greece to Rome. In order to avoid any suspicion we'll have to go some rather convoluted routes. Probably take me about eight days.
Eight? Diana says.
Best I can manage. Palaemon shrugs.
Do it! Solari exclaims.
On it, Palaemon says and dashes out of the room.
Limping and dragging himself with extreme difficulty a dark cloaked figure passes under the eyes of a Roman guard at the gates. The guard steps forward. What's your business in Rome? he asks.
The cloaked man tries his best at a bow but only ends up falling flat on his ass. Sorry sir, he says trying to get back up to his feet.
When it appears obvious he isn't going to succeed the guard grabs one of his arms and pulls him to his feet. As he does so his nostrils are assaulted with the most rank and fetid odor he has ever encountered. He backs away clamping his hand over his nose and waves the man forward. Just get away from me!
I'm sorry sir, the man says.
The guard steps back and waves his hand in front of his nose to try and waft the stench away. He is not successful.
The dark cloaked figure moves into Rome dragging himself along with pronounced effort. He walks for quite a ways until he encounters a part of the city where the alleys are dark and the houses are nondescript. As he walks from the main thoroughfare and into this area of run down homes and crumbling walls his gait changes, his bent back straightens and his pace quickens. He moves with purpose towards one old, dilapidated structure in particular. As he nears it he divests himself of the dark cloak that he had rubbed with horse dung to make sure no one got too close to him. Underneath he is clothed in dark leather armor interwoven with metal plates and ring mail. An unadorned but highly functional sword hangs on his belt. As he nears the building's door it opens and he strides inside.
Feeling corrupted in body and soul she crashes to the ground and hears cloven hoofed feet crack the ground like an earthquake. Around her angels and demons still battle. She doesn't care. Her thoughts are only on one person. As an archangel Gabrielle is even more beautiful than she was on earth. But that beauty is marred by the damage done to her. Her mangled and bloody body lies trembling on the ground before her. One shining wing is gone having been torn from the bard's body by Xena's own hand. Numerous cuts and bruises cover every inch of exposed flesh. The heavenly armor she wore to fight Xena is ripped and shredded.
She stands over Gabrielle and looks down in confusion. They are meant to be together. Why does Gabrielle fight it? Because she has chosen to become a demon? One of the fallen? That shouldn't matter. It won't now. She kneels down and gathers Gabrielle into her arms. She hears the bard protesting. Trying to make her understand that she can't do this. She just shakes her head. Gabrielle will understand. In Hell they will conquer all and rule forever. In the darkness below they will be one and never separated again. Not by distance or death. She takes long strides towards the edge. She stands at the abyss. Gabrielle still protests but she ignores her now. It's too late. Nothing can change the destiny of darkness that lies before them.
Someone slams into her from behind and she tumbles over the abyss with Gabrielle still clutched in her arms. Someone grapples with her in a futile attempt to wrestle Gabrielle from her grasp. She slams her elbow back into their face. She will not give up her greatest prize. In a voice born of hellish evil and infinite darkness she cries out, We're going to Hell!
Then as they start to descend into the total blackness below she can feel a presence. Can hear a low chanting as someone calls to them. Can see a light suffusing them and their descent into Hell slows. She can hear the voice clearing calling both her name and Gabrielle's. It is the voice of a friend. And joined with that voice is a light of life and innocence so intense it hurts her demonic eyes to even see it. But she welcomes both the voice and light. It calls them back to the land of the living. Back to the place where their loved ones wait for them. Their bodies break apart like water evaporating to steam and for an instant she is unsure of what is going on.
Her eyes open. And it is not through the eyes of a demon that she sees but through the eyes of a mortal woman. She feels a hand drawn back from her head. But she doesn't look to see whose hand it is. She just turns her head and looks into Gabrielle's eyes. For a moment they stare in disbelief at each other. They are alive. Brought back from the dead and from Hell itself. She reaches out from what had moments before been a death shroud and takes Gabrielles hand in hers.
Xena? a voice calls from the waking world and her eyes open. She half expects to see the girl from Poteidaia lying next to her. But instead she looks over and sees Hercules dressed in his usual leather slacks and khaki tunic. He is holding a large bundle in his hands that he sets on the bed beside her. He leans in close and kisses her. Time to wake up.
What's that? Xena asks pointing to the bundle.
Octavian just brought it by, Hercules explains. Caesars requests you wear it at the assembly today.
She groans. I am really not going to like today am I?
You were dreaming again, Hercules states.
Xena feels herself turning a little red as he mentions the dream. She can never help but feel ashamed of these dreams in which she feels such love for the blonde.
What is it? he asks. He sits on the bed and takes her hand in his. Are they that bad?
No, she says squeezing his hand. They aren't nightmares at all. They're good dreams.
He smiles and her heart beats faster. She pulls him onto the bed and rolls over on top of him. She pushes the bundle off with her foot then places a rather intense kiss upon his lips. When they break for air some time later Hercules mutters, They're going to be expecting us.
They can wait, Xena replies grabbing hold of his tunic and ripping it off in one clean motion.
Xena stands on the steps leading down into the Roman Forum dressed in the armor and garb befitting a Roman general and is one hundred percent certain she will not like what Caesar has planned. She decides the helmet is too much and removes it but tactfully tucks it under one arm instead of tossing it down the steps. Beside her Hercules stands with his arms crossed wearing a green tunic now instead of the usual khaki color. He catches her looking at him and winks. Standing a few steps down from them is Vercinix. He is dressed in what Xena can only guess is some type of ceremonial Gallic garb complete with etched leathers and shining bits of plate armor. And standing near the bottom of the stairs are Caesar and Antony. Beyond them stand most of the members of the Senate and a huge crowd of Roman citizenry. There is a general buzzing from all those present. Many eyes look past the dictator and his second in command to both the Gallic chieftain and to Xena. There isn't a single person in Rome who does not know the warrior princess. But never before have they seen her dressed in Roman military attire.
Caesar raises his hands and all goes quiet. Senate and people of Rome! he shouts loud enough for all present to hear. I come before you today not to placate you with half truths or evasions! I stand before you today as a man who has tasted defeat! I stand before you as a man humbled by the reality of war! But I will not cower behind the walls of my palace and hide my face in shame! No! I will stand here before all those whom I serve! I stand before Rome and I will speak only the truth!
Xena looks down towards the crowd and watches for any sign of riot or rebellion. To stand here before the city and proclaim his failure might be a mistake. But knowing Caesar as she does, Xena can guess that he has no intention of losing control of the situation.
Caesar at last lowers his hands and continues, In Egypt we had both a valuable ally and a friend! Now we have neither and Hope controls the greatest navy in the world!
Murmurs of fear and trepidation go up in the crowd.
Now she possesses the ability to strike at us directly! He pauses.
The crowd begins to show signs of erratic movement. People begin jostling one another. Shouts start to be heard and the people at the back of the crowd seem ready to run.
I will not allow it to happen! Caesar cries out. I swear by the blood of Venus that runs through my veins that Hope will never set foot in Rome!
The general uproar that seemed about to start begins to die down but Xena can still see men and women milling about uncomfortably. The senators standing before Caesar certainly look nervous. Her eyes focus on Cicero and she finds the look on his face most disconcerting of all. He looks confused and afraid. She prays to any god listening that the orator is not about to open his mouth and say something foolish.
It is true that Cleopatra is dead but this day I have secured a new ally for Rome and our cause! Caesar turns extending his hand toward Vercinix. The Gallic chieftain makes his way down the steps to stand beside the man who was once his greatest adversary. Once we were enemies! Now we are allies! From this day forth Gaul stands with Rome against the forces of Hope! Caesar turns and puts his fist to his heart then extends his arm out again in the Roman salute. Vercinix meets his eyes for a moment and returns the salute to Caesar. Then he turns and salutes the masses of Rome before him.
For several tense second there is only silence. For five solid years Caesar had waged war in Gaul against Vercinix and his many tribes. The casualties on both sides had been nothing short of catastrophic. Now the greatest enemy of Rome before Hope stands before them in salute. Xena frowns and starts to reach for her chakrum preparing for the worst.
The masses of people standing in the Forum explode in applause and cheer. Only moments before Xena was sure Caesar was going to lose his support with the people. But know they are screaming his name once more.
CAESAR! CAESAR! CAESAR!
Only the senators standing before Caesar do not join in the shouting. Xena is certain they are at the least upset that so many of them have lost Gallic slaves. But at the worst they will see this as an alliance Caesar will use to crown himself king. Vercinix nods and steps back. Caesar raises his hands once more calling for calm and silence. Before speaking he turns and meets Xena's gaze. With his eyes he indicates that she should come down the steps to stand beside him. He turns to Antony and his friend draws closer as well.
When Xena stands beside Caesar he lowers his hands. There is one more announcement to make this day! Three years ago I was raised to the position of dictator to serve and protect the senate and people of Rome! In accordance with the tradition of that lofty status I chose my second in command! My Master of the Horse! Marc Antony! He holds a hand out over Antony and another cheer goes up from the crowd.
But today that tradition is changed! For there is another in Rome whose skill and bravery equals our own! And for too long she has walked in my shadow! No more!
Xena does a double take when she hears the word she' in Caesar's statement. She is equally shocked when Caesar produces a golden ring bearing the Imperial sigil of Rome. It is Crassus's ring. Caesar takes Xena's hand and slides the ring onto Xena's right ring finger. She stares down in disbelief at the ring.
With power and authority equal to Marcus Antonius of Rome I give you Xena! Mistress of the Horse!
Caesar takes the arms of both Antony and Xena and raises them into the air. So I have spoken! So it will be! With the last words he fixes the senators before him with an intense stare and dares them to challenge what he has done.
The crowd erupts.
CAESAR! ANTONY! XENA! CAESAR! ANTONY! XENA!
Wrapped only in her red and black cloak Hope stands before the Eternal Fire in the audience chamber. She reaches out a hand and the Fire obediently extends a tendril of flame out to touch her. She inhales deeply at the caress of the Fire. The Eternal Fire of Dahak feeds her and strengthens her. With each body fed to the Fire her power grows. But still she lacks the might to accomplish her ultimate goal. And that bothers her greatly. She has lost count of the number of men, women and children given up to the Fire in her name and in the name of Dahak. And not just here. Each temple to Dahak possesses an aspect of the Eternal Fire. And there are scores of them throughout her kingdom. But still it has not been enough.
The tendril of flame encircles her arm then slithers like a serpent up and around her neck. She gasps and tilts her head back for a moment. The touch of the flame is almost sensual in its embrace. Almost as sensual as
With a sweep of her hand she sends the tendril back into the column of Fire that spawned it. She closes her eyes and growls like an animal at the weakness she feels, the weakness of her affection for Ephiny.
Not me, she corrects herself. Gabrielle. She speaks the name like a curse. Because that is what Gabrielle is. A curse placed upon her when she came into this world.
Why don't you just kill her? a loathsome voice asks.
Hope does not turn to acknowledge Khrafstar's arrival. I would slaughter Gabrielle like a pig if I could Khrafstar. She turns to find the Deliverer standing beside her, his hideous countenance both repellant and beautiful to her at the same time.
I don't mean Gabrielle, Khrafstar corrects her assumption. I am referring to Ephiny.
We will not have this discussion again, Hope warns her devout follower.
We have all seen what she does to you, he says turning to face her, his eyes meeting hers. She is the reason Despair exists.
Despair exists because Gabrielle exists! Hope shouts in a reverberating voice.
Even you can't believe that anymore. Khrafstar crosses his arms and looks at her like a disappointed parent. Ephiny's love for Gabrielle is what brings her out. And as long as she lives Despair will always be a danger to you. What will you do when she emerges during a battle?
It has never happened! Hope exclaims.
Not yet, he retorts.
Leave me Deliverer, Hope says turning back to face the Fire.
Khrafstar does nor utter another word but bows and leaves the audience chamber.
Hope turns back to the Fire and contemplates his words. Can he be right? She asks herself. Is it Ephiny that causes it? She shakes her head. A part of her refuses to believe it. But another part knows it to be true. She brings a shaking hand to her face. A single tear runs down her cheek as she tries to solve this conundrum that the duality of her nature will not allow her to understand.
Looking down from the top of the steps leading down into the audience chamber Jett watches the monster called Khrafstar leave the audience chamber. That thing's very existence disgusts him. He wonders if anyone would notice if he suddenly disappeared. His gaze turns to Hope as he hears a sob escape from her. He does not completely understand the concept of what turned the girl he saw crying out for Ephiny into the Avatar of Dahak hated and feared by so many. But then he could never comprehend Jace either. Some people are just simply mysteries. When he sees her draw her hand away from her face he turns and goes back up into her quarters. He may as well see if Ephiny has recovered.
Palaemon walks with purpose towards what has to be the most run down dock in Piraeus. He passes by drunks muttering curses and merchants trying their best to sell fish that any smart person wouldn't use as bait. At the end of the pier he sees the ship he seeks. As he moves closer he has to step over gaps in the dock where the wood has rotted through and no one has bothered to replace it. He nearly trips over the remnants of a mold covered fishing net. And barely keeps himself from stepping on a rusty collection of hooks tossed on the ground as if they were purposely placed there to impede anyone approaching. As he comes within sight of the ship the smell around it of dead fish and salt water becomes nearly unbearable.
But he walks on. The wood of the craft looks old and cracked. The single mast sways in barely any wind at all. And the linen sail furled on the deck mast looks like it may disintegrate into dust were it to be touched. The gangplank is down and so he heads straight for it. A dog suddenly leaps over the deck rail and lands neatly on the dock right in front of him. The animal is a mixture of so many breeds of dog he can't even begin to guess at its origins. What he does know is that it is huge and has a lot of teeth. With its head and the fur along its back standing straight up it growls at him and snaps wildly. But does not advance on him.
A cloaked and hooded figure appears on deck. What is your business here stranger? the figure inquires of him.
Palaemon takes note of the pitch and tone of the voice and realizes this is not who he thought. Though hidden beneath many layers of clothing and an alteration in speaking he knows he is talking to a woman. But he decides to try anyway. I apologize. It is seems I have come here seeking nobody.
The figure stiffens as he speaks the code. The figure draws down the hood and Palaemon finds he is correct as a woman stares back down at him. Her face may have been a portrait of beauty once. But now a long scar running down the side of her face and years of hard living have taken their toll. She still manages a smile.
Cerberus! Heel! she shouts. The dog ceases its snarling then vaults back over the deck rail. She points to the gangplank and Palaemon runs the rest of the distance to it and is on board in seconds.
Before he can even say a word a man steps up from below decks and seizes the wheel of the ship. It's hard to recognize him now. His once clean-shaven face is covered by a full mustache and beard. And he carries himself without the bearing of the king he once was. Welcome aboard, Ulysses says. Penelope!
The former queen of Ithaca does not bother to untie the lines holding their ship to the dock. Instead she draws a sword and walking the length of the ship cuts the lines loose.
Palaemon if you would do me a favor and unfurl the sail, Ulysses says pointing to a line dangling near the mast.
Palaemon rushes over and tugs on the cord causing the sail to shoot up into position to catch the wind. Their vessel is away from the docks in seconds. Smaller boats plying their trade in the harbor curse them as their larger ship veers near them wildly. It takes Ulysses a moment to gain control and send his boat towards the mouth of the harbor.
Once out into open water Ulysses extends a hand towards his passenger. Palaemon. It has been a while.
Palaemon takes the hand and shakes it. Indeed it has your he cuts himself off from saying his former title. Ulysses.
So we sail for Rome. Ulysses says drawing a rope from the deck and securing it to the wheel. It sets their course out to sea and he draws away. It has been quite some time since I last set foot on those lands.
Penelope joins them and sits on the rail. Are you still running errands for Diana? she asks in a somewhat playful voice. I would never have thought you a messenger boy.
Ulysses laughs and so does Palaemon. If that is my duty then so be it. I'll do all I can to help bring her down. He leans against the rail next to Penelope. And this time I bring important news to Caesar.
What news? Ulysses asks.
Aphrodite lives, Palaemon replies.
Penelope is so shocked by this statement that she nearly loses her balance and falls over the rail. She regains herself and looks optimistically at her husband. I thought only Ares was alive among the Olympians.
Hope has her captive under the Acropolis, Palaemon continues. Diana saw her.
That means we may all have a very powerful ally against Hope, Ulysses says. He crosses his arms and thinks for a moment. She is a prisoner?
Yes. Palaemon nods.
How does one hold a god captive? Penelope asks. Cerberus pads over and sits obediently next to his mistress. She reaches down to rub his head.
Palaemon shrugs. We think we may be able to free her. We have a master thief working with us to try.
Master thief, Ulysses sounds doubtful. Who?
Autolycus, Palaemon says.
The King of Thieves. I have heard of him. We can but hope that his reputation is not merely a fabrication of his bloated ego. Penelope kneels down to rub her dog more enthusiastically.
All we have done is hope for a long time, Palaemon says. He too begins to rub the dog.
Then to Rome, Ulysses says again removing the rope and taking the wheel once more.
When Jett returns to the bedchamber he finds Ephiny sitting on the huge bed with her legs hugged against her and staring straight ahead. She's obviously still in shock at what Hope nearly did to her.
Are you all right? Jett asks the question though knowing it is a stupid thing to ask as soon as the words leave his mouth.
If I hadn't managed to say something she would have killed me, she replies. She blinks and looks up at him. It's getting worse.
She's Hope, Jett says stating the obvious. She kills. It is one of the things she does best from what I hear.
She has never hurt me that much. Ephiny climbs off the bed and walks over to look at the stand on which her sword and Hope's rest. I could feel my insides being crushed. Another second or two and I would have been nothing but a corpse. It's gone too far. I have to do something.
Like what? Jett asks moving to stand beside her. I'm reasonably certain you are incapable of harming her though the reverse doesn't apply.
I have to try and do something. Ephiny picks up her sword, the blade that had once belonged to Terrias. I've stood back and tried to ignore it all for too long. That she could do that to me proves that Gabrielle is being consumed by Hope faster than I thought.
I don't understand.
You've seen the Eternal Fire. Do you remember that they wanted to feed you to it?
You don't know what that means?
Jett shrugs. I assume it means to sacrifice me to it. To have me burned alive. Or dead.
Then you don't understand. The Fire feeds her. The more sacrifices she makes to it in her name and in Dahak's the more her power grows. When she first returned she was barely able to throw a sword with her power. She could influence a person to act in a way contradictory to their nature but only for a short time. And those powers were only limited to her line of sight. That was six years ago.
Then the sacrifices began. Now she can literally topple buildings with her power. She can summon fireballs that can reduce people to ash in moments. She can focus and cause an opposing army to turn on itself. And she can cast that power across great distances. And as she feeds the Fire she will grow more powerful.
Jett looks rather disturbed by this news. Just how many has she fed to the Fire?
When the sacrifices first began here in the Citadel I felt the need to be present for every life lost. I had to bear witness to the cruelty of the one I loved. But after a while it became too much. I couldn't stand to watch anymore. So I cower up here and try not to listen.
I stopped counting at ten thousand. Her eyes go to the floor as if in shame.
Ten thousand? Jett staggers under the weight of that number. While it is true he has sent more than his fair share of people to Tarturus even he cannot fathom that many dead at the word of one person.
And that is just here. Every temple dedicated to Dahak has the Fire. Countless more are sacrificed in those temples.
And people here still believe she is some kind of savior?
She drove out the Romans. And she builds hospices for the sick and elderly. Never mind that few if any ever come back out of them.
Yes. They are nothing but places to collect sacrifices. But the people believe in her so much that they look beyond things like that. The slaughter of the Centaurs? No one recalls that. Hope committed genocide and no one blinked. It is I think a part of her power. It subtly influences everyone who believes in her to look past anything she doesn't want them to see. Or so I guess.
How powerful can she become?
I don't know.
So what can we do?
She smiles to hear him way we.' She sets the sword back down. I need to meet with the resistance here in Athens.
What? Jett shouts in spite of himself.
I have to meet with the resistance. You're right. I will not harm her. But I can help those trying to bring her down. Ephiny walks over to the door and peers outside to make sure Hope is nowhere nearby. I can do that by meeting with the resistance.
Ephiny. Jett runs his hand through his hair in a gesture of frustration. That is not a good idea.
For all these years I have lived here in the Citadel. Everywhere Hope goes, I go. I have never been able to reach out to anyone outside. But now I have you. You can contact the resistance and set up a meeting with them. She turns back to him but does not shut the door.
Jett's shoulders slump as he realizes he has to tell her something that will, he is sure, greatly distress her. Ephiny. In these lands ruled by Hope and her regents you are the handmaiden of Hope. But do you know what they call you in Rome and in other lands fighting against her?
Ephiny shakes her head.
The whore of the Avatar, he replies.
She feels as though she has been punched in the gut. She looks down at the floor. Then her eyes turn to look outside again. Jett is sure she is turning away to hide tears.
They don't know me. They don't know her. They have no idea who she really is.
And you think you'll be able to convince them. They won't care about Gabrielle, the poor tortured soul from Poteidaia. All they know is Hope, the Avatar of Dahak the Dark One. They won't listen to you.
She turns and seizes him by his tunic. With strength born of rage, pain and frustration she slams him against the wall. I don't care what they think damn you! I can't stand it anymore! I have to do something!
He stares at her with that same emotionless look he has worn for so long as he speaks again. And what will you do for the resistance? Will you lead them in through some secret entrance and let them kill her? Tell me Ephiny. Will you do that?
Her anger drains out of her as she hears his words and knows he is right. What can she really do?
I will not let anyone hurt her. She releases her grip on him. Jett. I do not know what I can do. But I just need to talk with them. Maybe together we can come up with something.
You'll never convince them there is any other way except her death to end all this. Jett walks away from her to stand by the door now. He looks out and still sees no one. You may have to settle for her to be at peace in death Ephiny.
No, Ephiny says shaking her head. Damn it Jett. Just do it. Please.
The desperation he hears in her voice strikes home, as do her words. He can still remember blocking the doorway at the inn. Joxer had decided that to find any respect in his parents' eyes he'd have to be the warrior they hoped he would be. Jett had tried to talk him out of it. But Joxer had just looked at him and said, Move Jett. Just do it. Please.
He hangs his head down knowing this is a completely insane action for her to take. All right. Tomorrow while I'm in the Agora I'll try. But I can't guarantee you anything Ephiny.
I know. She stands next to him and places her hand on his arm. Thank you.
He looks back at her and gives her a smile that is not backed by anything positive. Don't thank me yet. Thank me if you live through the experience.
Pompey stands beside Najara in the audience chamber as the other members of the Inner Council arrive. He alone knows of what Hope will speak but is unsure what to think about her plans. It could be a strategic maneuver resulting in their total victory or it could be a disaster. He has already made plain his opinion. He is curious to see how everyone else will react.
Melosa, Velasca and Alti arrive together through the main entrance. They are chatting amongst themselves and take notice of no one else as yet. Khrafstar and Meridian enter trough the secret passage. Both walk to stand directly before the Eternal Fire and remain there staring at it. Tonis walks in casually but does not bear a pleasant expression. No doubt he is not particularly happy with the events of the past few nights. Once more the leader of the resistance has escaped from his guard. Hope will not be pleased. There is a flash of light nearby and Ares is there. He looks even more frustrated than Tonis if that were possible. The council is assembled. Now they only await her arrival.
You are quiet Pompey, Najara remarks. Could it be that you are bored? No parties or celebrations to attend.
His only answer is a shrug. He glances in her direction and sees her tilt her head off to one side as if she were listening carefully to someone speaking in her ear. Chatting with those djinn of hers, he thinks to himself. He has seen Najara fight. She is a holy terror with a sword that he is certain no living man or woman could defeat. But she is still mad.
I agree, she replies to thin air. He misses the triumphs in Rome that were rewarded to victorious generals. Don't you?
Triumphs and celebrations are unimportant. I live only to serve the Avatar. He stands a little straighter as he says the words.
Of course you do, she responds with a grin that he is uncertain whether to categorize as childish or insane.
He steps away from her and makes his way over to Tonis. There is only so much of that woman he can take. Tonis.
The king of Athens turns and he can see the worry on his face. Pompey, he says with a nervous stutter to his voice. You've heard? Before Pompey can reply he continues. I can't believe it. My royal guard outsmarted by a woman and a common thief. She'll have my head for this. He looks around quickly as if expecting Hope to appear behind him with her sword drawn.
Were I able to spare any men from my legions I would loan them to you, Pompey lies to him in a reassuring voice. But Hope has plans for them.
What plans? Tonis asks leaning in close.
You're about to find out, Pompey replies pointing towards the dais as Hope descends from her private quarters. And she is alone. Ephiny is nowhere to be seen. That is most unusual. He glances around and finds he is not the only one to take notice of this. He also finds that everyone seems to be quite happy with this development.
Victory over Caesar and Rome is within our grasp! Hope announces to all those gathered. She walks down to stand before them all.
The acquisition of the Egyptian navy guarantees that, Velasca says. Soon we will land upon the shores of Caesar's republic and lay waste to it all.
The navy is indeed a powerful new weapon, Hope agrees. But it is not that to which I refer. I mean that soon the power behind Rome will be dead. Caesar. Xena. And Hercules.
This draws confused looks from everyone but Pompey. He stands motionless to see what will transpire.
In one day's time I will leave for Carthage. Hope watches the reaction of all those assembled. Not surprisingly most of them look taken aback.
Carthage? Alti asks.
Why? Melosa asks as well. What possible use is that place to us?
Ares begins to clap his hands. Brilliant, he says liking Hope's idea quite a bit.
What's brilliant? Melosa retorts. Carthage is a ruin. It has been since Rome leveled it and sowed the land with salt.
And that is why Caesar will have to lead an assault on it. Ares strides slowly among them all. He understands the plan perfectly. The senate and people of Rome will not allow Hope to build back a city that represents their greatest triumph. It was with the destruction of Carthage that Rome solidified her power in the Mediterranean. For Hope to claim Carthage will be an affront to them all. And so they will attack. And with Hope being there personally they will send their best in an attempt to defeat her. That means Caesar, Xena and Hercules. He claps his hands together again and looks up at Hope with admiration. Simply brilliant.
Hope nods. Thank you.
How can you be sure Caesar and the others will come? Alti asks. I'm sure Caesar knows that you were not in Alexandria when it fell.
Because the legions will be bearing my personal standard when they leave for Carthage, Hope replies.
It will take time to mobilize the forces for that, Najara observes.
Those forces have already been mobilized, Pompey informs them all. Four legions have left from Alexandria for Carthage. They will already be in place. They will only be awaiting the Avatar's arrival.
Melosa turns a suspicious eye on Hope. And my Amazons?
They move with my legions as we speak, Pompey answers her.
What? Melosa exclaims. She stares at Pompey for a moment before returning her attention to Hope.
You sent my Amazons into battle without my consent?
Your Amazons swore fealty to me long ago Melosa, Hope states. She moves to stand directly before the Amazon queen. They do as I command. Is this in any way a problem?
Melosa looks daggers at Hope. We follow you because you have given us back our glory. The Amazons are once more a mighty nation. But to send so many of my warriors into a situation as unpredictable as this must be a decision we both arrive at.
The queen of the Amazons is so intent on her argument with the Avatar that she fails to notice Velasca and others taking careful steps away from her.
As Ares has just pointed out this is a carefully executed plan, Hope continues. With this action we will remove all resistance against us. With them out of the way there will be no one left to oppose us.
Caesar will send almost everything he has to Carthage, Melosa interjects. He will do anything possible to kill you. Please we have to think this through more.
Hope shakes her head. No we do not. She turns and walks back towards the dais.
You can't do this to my Amazons! Melosa screams. There are hundreds of my sisters now in Alexandria. You may be sentencing them all to death with this plan.
Melosa, Hope begins with her back still to the queen. Have no fear. We will win. And the war will be over.
You don't know that Gabrielle! Melosa screams. But the rest of her argument dies on her lips as she realizes what she has just done.
The eyes of all those present, even Ares, go wide at the mention of that name.
Hope turns very slowly back around to face the queen of the Amazons. Her eyes burn with hatred and fire. Everyone is the audience chamber can feel the seething power of Hope permeating the place. The very air vibrates with her rage. It is the first time that name has ever been spoken in the audience chamber.
Melosa stares at Hope. She begins to shake her head and explain that it was just a mistake. That she would never belittle Hope by using that name. But she never gets the chance to explain anything.
The eagle guard sword sheathed on Melosa'a back slides out of it scabbard and then plunges into the back of her neck. The point of the sword erupts from the front spraying blood everywhere. The sword continues to slide into Melosa until it is up to the hilt in her neck. For a split second her eyes go wide in shock but then they are just wide in death. Her body remains upright as Hope walks to her. Reaching up she removes the queen's mask from Melosa's head. She narrows her eyes and Melosa's body launches backwards into the Fire where it is instantly consumed.
Hope strides over to Velasca and holds out the queen's mask. With a leering grin of satisfaction, Velasca takes the mask and places it on top of her head. Hail Velasca! Hope cries out. Queen of the Amazons!
A cheer goes up amongst all those present. Hope walks away from her. As she passes Tonis she pauses then lashes out at his with a back handed slap that puts the king of Athens on his back. Why is the leader of the resistance not in a dungeon Tonis? she screams at him. You send out the royal guard and mercenaries and still I don't have her! Why?
Tonis brings his hands before his face in a most cowardly fashion expecting to be hit again. She reaches down and gathers the front of his tunic in a fist and pulls him up bodily off the floor. Please, he mutters in a pleading voice.
Please? she says her face a visage of rage. I made you king of the most powerful city state in Greece Tonis. I have charged you with keeping the peace in my chosen capital. And at every turn you seem to fail me. And now you beg like a child not to be struck. You are worthless. She tosses him aside.
Give me one more chance! Tonis cries out as he gets in his knees. I will bring her to you! Please!
She ignores him as she moves back up the dais. Najara. You and Meridian will accompany me to Carthage. She halts just before she disappears up into her private quarters. Tonis. If by the time I return from Carthage you have not captured the leader I will make sure you die a very slow and agonizing death before I feed you to the Fire. Do not disappoint me.
Tonis makes no reply but makes his way through everyone else to leave the audience chamber.
Caesar reads the missive sent to him from Egypt and then crushes it into a ball with his fist. He stares intently at his fist for several moments before turning back to the centurion who has delivered the message. The man has not moved a muscle since handing the scroll to Caesar.
Send for Antony and Xena, he orders the soldier.
Yes Caesar, the man replies putting his fist to his heart in salute. He moves from the room quickly.
Caesar looks at the crumpled up message in his hand once more before hurling it aside. He walks to a window and stares outside at the courtyard below. Clasping his hands behind his back he waits.
His Master and Mistress of the Horse arrive within minutes. Hercules is with them. He does not turn as he addresses them all. Hope is en route to Carthage.
Carthage! Antony exclaims. Damn it!
It's a trap, Xena states.
Of course it's a trap, Caesar agrees. Meant to draw us there so Hope can take us all out.
I'm not sure I follow, Hercules interjects.
Carthage was the last obstacle Rome faced as it grew into the Roman Republic, Caesar explains. We fought them in three separate wars.
The Punic wars, Hercules surmises.
Correct, Caesar replies.
And now Hope means to reclaim that city and all it stands for, Xena says.
The Senate and the people of Rome will not stand for it, Caesar continues now turning to face them. They will demand that I lead forces to crush Hope before she can resurrect that city that has so long stood as our greatest triumph.
And that is exactly what she wants, Antony says slamming his fist down onto a table. She knows what the senate and people will want. What do we do? He looks to Caesar though he already knows the answer.
We go to Carthage, Caesar answers. There is no choice. Malick! An instant after calling the name a servant appears in the room. I need you to find Iolaus and Vercinix and send them to us at once.
Yes Caesar. The servant bows then leaves the room at a run.
We will need to leave as soon as possible, Xena points out to him. We cannot allow her any time to rebuild and fortify the city.
I agree but you aren't going, Caesar declares pointing to her then to Hercules. Neither are you.
What? Xena and Hercules say in unison.
We are the best warriors in this part of the world. Xena walks over to stand before Caesar and stare into his eyes. If anyone stands a chance of winning this battle it's us.
If you mean to confront Hope directly you'll need us. Hercules stands next to his wife.
I don't want to argue about this, Caesar says.
Good. Then just accept that we are going. Hercules replies.
They have a valid point, Antony says. He smirks when he sees Caesar's eyes turned on him in anger for siding with Xena and Hercules.
This may indeed be a trap. Caesar moves past the two warriors and makes his way over towards the door. And as such I don't want you coming with me.
Why not? Xena asks.
Caesar stares out the door into the hallway without answering.
Xena and I have as much right to fight as you. Hercules steps before Caesar to block his view. She and I have lost our homes and out families to Hope.
You think I don't know that? Caesar screams grabbing Hercules by his tunic top and slamming him against the wall. Xena and Antony are dumbfounded by the dictator's reaction to the demigod's words.
Do you think I've forgotten that your family is all dead? Mortal and immortal. Do you think I don't remember that Xena's mother, brother and son are dead because of Hope!
Hercules could easily loose himself from Caesar's grasp but doesn't. He senses something pained in Caesar's words and lets him vent his anger.
With that in mind I have no intention of taking you both with me and making Lyceus an orphan! Caesar pushes Hercules aside and turns to Xena. But before he can say anything else Xena speaks.
Then you aren't going because I won't see Julia become an orphan either. She meets Caesar's eyes and holds his gaze.
Caesar tries to find any words to counter Xena's argument but knows it is futile.
Xena walks forward and lays her hand on Caesar's shoulder. It is a gesture of friendship and compassion she would never have imagined displaying to this man who years ago left her for dead on a beach. But she knows he is no longer that man. I know that you love Lyceus like he was your own son. Just as I love Julia like she were my sister. And as much as I love my son I know that if it takes my life to stop Hope I will give it.
As will I, Hercules says from behind Caesar. He places his hand in Xena's. We fight for the greater good Caesar. And if need be we will sacrifice for the greater good. As I know you will.
We've all lost so much, Caesar begins.
And others have lost much more, Hercules says before he can continue.
And it is up to us to fight and make sure no more suffer, Xena continues.
Most people would think this is all a very foolish sentiment, Antony interjects.
Most people aren't heroes like us, Hercules replies.
Are we interrupting something? Vercinix asks as he and Iolaus enter the room.
Xena, Hercules and Caesar share a smile before parting from each other. Xena and Hercules sit down upon a couch and Caesar walks back over to stare out the window.
I left spies within Alexandria and outside the city when I left. Caesar turns back to face them all as he explains the situation. Today I received word that a massive force of Pompey's legions and Melosa's Amazons had left the city and began moving west. They can have but one destination.
Carthage, Iolaus surmises. The Senate will call for an all out assault.
Indeed, Caesar agrees. There is more however. Hope will be arriving in Carthage to personally oversee the city's reconstruction.
How can you be certain? Vercinix asks.
They have her personal standard riding at the head of the army. He lets the information sink in for a few moments. This may be the opportunity we have been waiting for. Our one chance to take Hope out of the picture.
That may be easier said than done, Iolaus says.
I agree, Caesar says.
But we will never get a better chance, Xena says. She rarely leaves Athens. Perhaps away from her stronghold we may indeed have our best opportunity.
I have to agree as well, Vercinix says. His face takes on a defeated look. But even if we are successful it may make no difference.
What do you mean? Antony asks.
Her Inner Council is made up of some of the most powerful leaders and warriors in the world. How can we be sure that killing her will end this conflict? He waits with arms crossed for an answer.
Because she is the one thing holding them all together! Caesar exclaims. As I told Jett when you cut off the head of the serpent the body dies.
Jett? Xena shouts. She rounds on Caesar staring at him incredulously. And why were you talking to the King of Assassins?
Why do you think? he asks her. Though it's obvious he failed.
When did you hire him? Antony asks.
A few weeks ago, Caesar answers. That should have been more than enough time for him to get to Athens and complete the assignment.
You hired someone to kill Hope? Iolaus asks loudly as if not believing he is saying the words.
I will do anything to end this! Caesar exclaims glaring at Iolaus for judging him. And if that means paying someone to murder Hope then so be it. But it doesn't matter since he was clearly not up to the task.
Subtlety is rarely a concept that works well in war, Vercinix states.
Indeed, Caesar says in response. Then we must make plans that are not so subtle.
When do we leave? Xena asks.
As soon as possible, Caesar says. He walks over to a shelf nearby and retrieves a rolled up piece of parchment. He opens it up on a table to reveal a map showing all of Europe from Britannia to Armenia and parts of North Africa. He turns to Vercinix. How soon can you have your armies ready to move?
Vercinix points to an area in Nearer Gaul settled near Spain. I have an army four thousand strong encamped here.
Everyone present levels a shocked gaze upon the Gallic chieftain. I have been preparing for an invasion by Hope's armies for the past year and a half. It will only be a matter of time before she invades my lands.
Your foresight is going to help us a lot, Xena says. With her finger she traces a line from Rome into Gaul and west into Spain. She halts her finger on the strait over which one must cross to get from Spain to Africa. We should take an overland route. We run the risk of being attacked by Hope's new navy if we try to go across the Mediterranean.
I agree, Caesar says. We will move north. There I will take control of the legion Lucius commands. Then we will move across Gaul. He turns to Vercinix. I will not leave your lands unprotected. So if you agree we will secure half the forces you have gathered there then move into Spain.
The Gaul nods. I will instruct the other chieftains to begin bolstering our forces further.
Caesar nods before continuing. In Spain we will gather Crassus's legions and move across the Pillars of Hercules. Caesar stares at the map for a moment then turns to Hercules. Did you really push those land masses apart?
Hercules looks a little bit embarrassed by the question. Well. No. Actually I tricked Poseidon into creating a tidal wave that inundated then collapsed the narrow land bridge that existed there.
Why? Vercinix asks.
It was the only way to stop a war that would have decimated two kingdoms who were laying claim to the bridge.
As I recall Poseidon was not happy about being duped in such a fashion, Iolaus comments with a smile.
Not at all, Hercules says.
How on earth did Hope kill him? Antony asks. I mean he was the oceans, seas and rivers. How do you kill that?
Hercules shakes his head. I wish I knew. I mean how has she killed any of them?
Caesar points to the map again and begins discussing their strategy again. After crossing we will then move east into north Africa. We'll regroup and make the final march to Carthage. He turns to Antony.
Cicero will get his wish. I'll be taking most of the XIII with me when I depart.
Wait a minute! Antony exclaims. You mean I'm not going?
Antony! We've been through this before. Caesar lays his hands on his friend's shoulders. I need someone here to support me. As a tribune you have the power to veto anything the senate tries while I am away. There is no one else I can ask to do this. No one else who has the political power you do.
Antony turns away from Caesar and stalks across the room. Though he knows Caesar is right it drives him insane that while his friends fight he sits in session with senators who care more for their own agendas than the good of the people or the Republic.
He's right you know, Xena points out to him.
I know he's right! Antony shouts rounding on them all. That's the part that pisses me off the most!
Caesar watches Antony for another moment. Besides I think Octavia would be upset were you to leave.
Don't patronize me. Antony steps back to Caesar's side and looks down at the map. I'll need at least three cohorts to guard the city.
< Historical note : a cohort was a sub unit of the Roman infantry consisting of 480 men>
Of course, Caesar says. He stares at the map. Then turns to Xena. You have until this evening to get everything ready. We leave at dawn.
Xena looks a little perturbed by his swift timetable but nods her understanding then does something she never thought she would do. She places her fist against her heart to Caesar in the Roman salute. She exits the room almost at a run with Hercules and Iolaus fast on her heels.
Antony watches them leave. It seems quite ironic.
What? Caesar asks him still studying the map laid out before him.
That now a woman who swore to kill you is second in command of all Roman forces. And she has that power because of you. Antony leans down next to Caesar to look at the map as well.
It is quite a reversal of fortune. Were it not for Hope she and I would be the worst of enemies. I have no doubt that were it a different world she would be the death of us both my friend. Caesar looks up from the map to gaze out the door Xena and the others went through. She is my friend. And I can no longer envision a world where we are enemies.
You're getting sentimental in your old age, Antony remarks.
Caesar fixes his friend with one of his trademark stares and smirks. That may be the truth. Caesar stands erect and walks towards the window. I need you to do me one more favor.
Name it. Antony rolls up the map and replaces it on the shelf.
I want Julia, Octavia, Octavian and Lyceus to be with you at all times. Even when you are in the Senate chambers.
Why? Surely there are as safe here in your personal residence as anywhere in Rome.
Something doesn't feel right Antony. Call it a hunch if you like. But I want them with you at all times. Choose six of the best men in the XIII legion to act as bodyguards.
I think perhaps you are being a little bit paranoid.
Do this for me Antony. Please. It will lesson my anxiety. And I know that Hercules and Xena will feel more at ease knowing you are watching over their son personally. Caesar turns to level a gaze that practically pleads his friend for this assistance.
Antony places his fist over his heart in salute. It shall be done Caesar. He too turns and leaves the room.
Caesar clasps his hands behind his back once again and turns to stare out the window.
Najara circles the Eternal Fire in the audience chamber staring into the bright flame as she does so. It has always fascinated her. And it always will. It is a thing of beauty and horror. A focal point of death that stands for Hope and all she has accomplished. She holds up her hand inches from the flame that can consume a human body in moments. For as long as she has been Hope's champion she has desired to touch the Fire. To feel the power of Dahak touch her flesh. She moves her hand closer and closer. Extending one finger towards the flame she prepares once more to see what will happen.
She draws her hand back as if it is struck. She nods then begins to speak aloud. I understand. The time is not yet come. But surely soon I will be able to touch it. Have I not proven myself to her time and again? She turns her head slightly as if to better hear some sounds close by. No. No. She shakes her head. I do not question your words. I would never do that. You have been there to guide me since I was a child.
She staggers back as if someone or something has pushed her. Surprised by the movement of her body she trips over her own feet and stumbles to the floor. Her head snaps to one side as if she has been struck and she raises her arm to ward off another blow. Please! Why? What have I done wrong? I only want the favor of Dahak. To know the embrace of the One God.
A shocked look crosses her face and she seems on the verge of crying. Of course not! I would never forsake you! But do you not also serve the One God? You told me to seek the Avatar. It was you who brought me to her!
She cries out in pain and begins to crawl backwards like a frightened child. I'm sorry! I'm sorry! Please! I know! I know! You serve no one. You are the force that drives the universe. But could I not be of more help if I too could control the power of Dahak. If it were in me as well I could do so much more.
She hauls herself to her feet like a rag doll being picked up by a hateful child. She opens her mouth to speak but instead only gasps in pain and agony. Her eyes fill with tears and soon her face is wet with them. Her voice returns and she manages to gasp out, Forgive me.
She crumples to the floor in a heap. Drawing in air in deep inhalations she continues to ask forgiveness.
I am sorry. You are right. The blessings of the Djinn are all that I need. To serve you is all I desire. Her eyes look upon the Eternal Fire and she turns her head away in shame at having desired to touch it.
She gets to her knees and bends over to touch her head to the cold, stone floor. I live only to serve the Djinn. With their wisdom I am wise. With their power I am strong. With their guidance I am whole. Tell me what I must do. Tell me so that I may serve you better. Tell me what I must know.
She is silent and immobile for several minutes before she suddenly turns her head up. A traitor? Who?
Najara? a voice calls her name inquisitively.
Najara turns towards the dais and the stairs leading up to Hope's chambers. There in her white gown and golden circlet is Ephiny.
Are you all right? the handmaiden asks her.
Najara stares at Ephiny for a moment with the words of the Djinn echoing through her mind. They spoke of a traitor to Hope and now Ephiny stands before her. A coincidence? She thinks not. She doesn't let the loathing she feels for the woman show on her face. She rises to her feet and nods her head towards Ephiny. I am fine. Just paying my respects to the Eternal Fire and to Dahak.
Ephiny stares at the blond warrior woman for a moment. Najara knows she is the traitor. But she does not dare do anything about it within the walls of the Citadel. Besides she has no proof. And Hope will want proof that Ephiny is a traitor before she will do anything to harm her beloved handmaiden. Then I will get proof somehow, she thinks. The Djinn are never wrong. It is not in their nature. They are the force behind all of creation. They have never led her astray. Ephiny is the traitor.
Najara. Ephiny's voice brings her from her revelry and she locks eyes with the other woman.
Yes? she says.
Should you not be preparing for departure? Ephiny asks. We leave for Carthage in the morning.
Yes, Najara replies with as much of a smile as she can form. You're right. She bows slightly. I will see you in the morning. She turns and moves swiftly from the audience chamber. She can feel Ephiny's eyes boring into her back. They are the eyes of a traitor.
As she leaves the audience chamber they speak to her again. She stops in the middle of a corridor. Yes. I know. She will betray us all. But who can I trust? She listens in silence. Yes. Alti will know what to do. She is powerful and wise. I will speak with the shamaness.
Najara quickens her pace and walks with purpose towards her destination.
The sun has long set and the preparations are complete. Men, horses and all the supplies wagons needed for the journey to Carthage are ready to go. At first light the army will begin to move. But for now every man, woman and horse that will move as part of that army is asleep. Including Caesar's Mistress of the Horse. But Xena is not resting comfortably on her bed wrapped in the loving arms of her husband. She is asleep on a stone bench in the courtyard of Caesar's palace. She had been on her way there to report the army's readiness when she had felt dizzy. She decided to sit down and rest for a moment. But she was asleep almost as soon as she sat down.
Julia enters her uncle's courtyard to enjoy a bit of cool night air. She closes her eyes and breathes in through her nose slowly. Here she feels at peace at least. Here she can forget about the terrible war taking place out in the world. Something catches her eye and she turns to see Xena still clad in her Roman armor sitting on a stone bench.
Xena, she says walking closer to her friend. As she stands before her Xena extends her hand palm out with her fingers apart. Taking this as a friendly greeting Julia reaches out and takes Xena's hand in hers. But she is not prepared for what happens next.
Xena's fingers intertwine with hers and then in a low but loving voice so full of grief and compassion that it causes Julia's heart to ache says, Even in death Gabrielle I will never leave you.
It is then that Julia sees that Xena is asleep. And she realizes that she is witnessing Xena having a dream of the young girl she met so briefly years ago but who has dominated her dreams since then. She gasps and steps back releasing Xena's hand.
The warrior princess awakens suddenly. She jumps to her feet and reaches for her sword. Her eyes dart around seeking a disturbance. All she sees is Julia. Julia? What? Oh gods! I fell asleep. I came to tell Caesar all was ready and I fell asleep!
You were dreaming about her again, Julia informs the warrior. About Gabrielle. You said, Even in death Gabrielle I will never leave you.' You even reached out thinking she was here.
Xena falls back onto the bench and groans. This is becoming intolerable. Why do I keep dreaming about her?
You told me you only met her once, Julia says. She sits down next to Xena on the bench.
Yes, Xena replies looking up into the clear night sky. A few clouds hang out at the edge of the horizon. Xena feels a slow ache beginning in her knee. Going to be rain by morning, she thinks. Like Julia she breathes in the cool night air of Rome and lets it flow through her. And I was a bitch to her. I just wanted to be left alone back then. And I sure as hell didn't want some kid following me around.
As I recall you telling me you threatened her then left. It hardly seems possible to Julia for her friend to even speak rudely to a young woman much less use the point of her sword to make a point.
I never gave her a second thought. Then a few months after Hercules and I got married I had the first dream.
That was a long time ago. And I've had plenty of dreams since then.
Just try and remember.
Xena closes her eyes and concentrates trying to recall that first dream those years ago. She was angry. No. Not just angry. Enraged. Someone close to her, someone she loved, was dead. Murdered. She was hammering at a tree with a sword and I could see by the way she held it she had no clue how to use it. I can't remember most of what was said. She kept prodding me with the sword. Begging me to show her how to use it, to show her how to kill. I refused. She kept prodding me with the sword until I knocked it from her grasp. I turned to leave but she kept yelling at me. I said something to her. I can't remember what it was. But I remember what she said in response because my heart broke at hearing her speak the words. She said, I got news for you. She's already won! The little innocent Gabrielle is dead, and there's no getting her back!' I woke up with those words ringing in my ears.
Maybe it's your conscience getting the better of you, Julia suggests with a smile.
Five years worth of vivid and heart wrenching dreams is one hell of a guilt trip, Xena retorts.
Did you ever try to go and see her again? Julia looks into Xena's eyes asking the question. It surprises her that she has never talked so deeply about the dreams with her before. She and Caesar are the only ones who know about them.
I wanted to actually, Xena says looking down at the ground and making fists of her hands. But not long after that your uncle arrived in Athens. And then after that Hope and the Amazons invaded Thrace.
Xena can feel the grief beginning to build inside her as the memory of learning of Amphipolis's destruction creeps into her mind. After that there was no way I could go to Poteidaia. If Hope didn't destroy it as well. She leveled everything else in Thrace.
So you think Gabrielle is dead?
I don't know. How can I?
There's another possibility. What if these are prophetic dreams? Perhaps you and she are destined to meet again in the future. And become close friends. And what you are seeing are glimpses of that future.
That's assuming I have a future, Xena remarks as she thinks about the coming conflict in Carthage.
Julia ignores the defeatist remark and continues her musings. You have to admit it is possible.
I've never had prophetic dreams before Julia.
There's a first time for everything.
And for being prophetic, as in showing the future, she doesn't look any older than the one time I met her. It's been over six years. She won't look the same.
Julia shrugs. I don't know Xena. I'm just trying to help you make sense of them.
Maybe there is no sense to them. Maybe they're just dreams. Xena says the words but doesn't believe them. She has been dreaming of the village girl for so long she cannot remember dreaming about anything or anyone else.
You don't believe that anymore than I do, Julia says exactly what Xena is thinking.
But they just don't make any sense. There's no rhyme or reason to them. It's like a disjointed tale told in random order. Her clothes change. I've seen her in the same clothes she wore that day. I've seen her in short skirts with these tiny little tops. I've seen her clad in eastern attire.
So maybe you'll be traveling the world with her, Julia suggests with a shrug.
I've seen her wielding different weapons. A staff. A pair of trident like daggers. A sword. Want to hear the weirdest one? Before Julia can respond Xena elaborates. I've seen her as an angel. Complete with wings and armor. And I was fighting her. Then there's the cruci Xena stammers off wishing she had stopped speaking.
Then there's the what? Julia says suspiciously.
Xena stares straight ahead remembering the dream she'd had on the return trip from Alexandria. She starts to get up from the bench but Julia seizes her wrist and holds it tightly.
Xena? What is it? Tell me. She tugs on her friend's arm to get her to sit again.
Half-heartedly the warrior allows herself to be pulled back down. She sighs loudly before telling Julia about that dream. On the way back from Alexandria I dreamed that she and I were crucified.
Julia's eyes go as wide as saucers at the admission. I Xena Uncle would never Her words trail off in disbelief. She drops to her knees before Xena and grips her friend's hands in hers. You have to know that he would never do that.
He already has once, Xena states the obvious.
He was a different man back then. You know that. Her voice takes on a pleading tone. For some ridiculous reason she seems to believe Xena will go after her uncle now. It is a ludicrous assumption but she is aware of the ire in Xena's voice as she spoke those words.
Yes I do, Xena replies squeezing Julia's hands. But if you are right and these are foretelling dreams. Perhaps she and I will die on the cross at the hands of others.
Then I'm wrong and you're right. They're just dreams. Julia's eyes are brimming with tears at the idea that she could lose her closest friend in all the world. They don't mean anything.
Xena frowns. You shouldn't be so quick to throw aside your ideals like that Julia.
It was just a stupid idea Xena, Julia replies. Nothing more.
Xena stands up and helps Julia to her feet. It wasn't a stupid idea, she contradicts her young friend.
Yes it was! Julia shouts as she throws her arms around Xena. You are not going to die Xena.
Shocked by the affection Xena is stunned silent and immobile for several moments. She wraps her arms around Julia. The future is an uncertain thing Julia. And this is war.
I don't want you to die. You're my friend. And I've already lost too much! Julia is weeping openly now and fighting back childish sobbing as she does so. Her eyes lock onto the ring Cleopatra left her and feels that loss anew and knows she cannot stand anymore.
I don't want to die either Julia. Xena finds her own eyes brimming with tears. And I'm proud to have you as my friend. But
Before Xena can go on Julia interrupts her. Promise me you'll come back.
Julia. Xena can practically feel the pain coming off of Julia. I can't do that. I can't make that promise.
Promise me, Julia pleads in a voice that reminds Xena so much of that child she first met in Athens those years back when she came to kill Caesar. Please.
Julia, Xena doesn't know what to say. I would be lying to you.
Just say it. Julia is trembling in Xena's arms as she begs her to say the words she needs to hear.
And so Xena lies to comfort her dear friend. I promise you I'll come back.
Julia sobs loudly before speaking again. I love you Xena.
Xena shudders when she hears those words. So like the voice of Gabrielle in that dream. On the cross. About to die. But filled with joy to be dying with the girl from Poteidaia.
Night has fallen in Rome and the moon hangs high overhead sending its beams through the rain clouds gathering and bathing the city in an ethereal glow. But few are awake to take in the sight of the moonlit city. Most are nestled in their beds asleep but tossing nervously. The word has gone out. Tomorrow Caesar leaves for Carthage, there to do battle with the Avatar of Dahak. Finally to come face to face with the enemy that has been the bane of Rome these last years. Will this be the endgame or simply another battle in an endless war?
In one meeting room in Caesar's palace Hercules and Iolaus discuss just that point.
It will be nice to finally see her, Iolaus comments. To finally put a face to the name.
Not sure I agree with you old friend, Hercules replies. I could be just as happy never to know. I want this war to end. It has cost too much already. The demigod hangs his head down and looks at the floor.
Iolaus places his hand on his friend's shoulder knowing that Hercules's thoughts are on his mother and brother who died when Hope took Athens. And perhaps he even misses his father. Iolaus's family was dead before the time he was old enough to be able to know them. So he has never known the loss of family. But Hercules is one of the last of his family. Only his half brother Ares survives. And he knows his friend does not in any way consider the god of war to be family.
Perhaps we will see it end in Carthage, he says.
Hercules looks up with pained eyes. I pray it does. He surges to his feet suddenly. It has to. This can't go on. She has to be stopped.
I know, Iolaus agrees. We all do.
Lyceus should be able to grow up in a world where he doesn't have to fear attack every day. Hercules begins to pace as he rants. I will end this. I won't lose another family. To punctuate his point Hercules punches the wall and buries his arm up to his elbow in it.
I don't think assaulting my home will make things work out any better, Caesar states as he walks into the room. The dictator isn't wearing any casual clothes like one would expect for a man comfortable in his own home. He still wears armor and looks ready for battle.
Hercules whirls to face Caesar his displeasure at Caesar's flippant remark plain on his face.
Calm down my friend, Caesar says. I understand your rage. And I too know we have to end it at Carthage. With Egypt's navy she will soon be able to launch an assault on Rome and Gaul. And I don't intend to let that happen whether Carthage is a trap or not.
Hercules pulls his arm free of the wall and leans against it.
I also want my family to grow up without fear. Caesar assumes that stance that tells all present they are dealing with the dictator of Rome who wields absolute power. We have all lost too much as you say. Soon we will bring an end to it. Hope underestimates us. And we will make her pay for that oversight.
The silence is palpable for several moments before Hercules breaks it. I want the two of you to do me a favor.
Caesar and Iolaus both look puzzled at Hercules. What? Caesar asks.
When the time comes you will let me be the one to fight Hope, Hercules says walking away from the wall to stand between the two men. And you will make sure that Xena stays safe.
She won't let you do it alone, Caesar informs him knowing Xena too well.
But I have the best chance of taking her on. Hercules states the obvious not needing to explain that his god like strength gives him an advantage no one else has. So I will fight her.
She has powers of her own Hercules, Caesar says turning to look his friend in the eyes. We've seen what she can do.
We've seen a projection. Iolaus says. We've seen fire. Nothing else. The warrior starts to come to a realization. How do we know it wasn't Ares himself who did that?
He wanted to kill us, Caesar says. I doubt he would orchestrate such an illusion to stop a fight he wanted very badly to win.
And she has that witch with her, Iolaus suggests instead. Alti. Surely she could create such a phantasm. He starts to grab at a theory that might let someone other than his best friend fight this out alone.
A phantasm that burned Xena's hand, Hercules points out.
Alti could do that, Iolaus postulates. You have to agree that I have a point. He looks from Caesar then back to Hercules.
She has gathered together one of the greatest armies in human history, Caesar continues to try and convince Iolaus of Hope's power. He sees what the man is trying to do. Convince them not to let Hercules fight Hope alone. She united all the Amazon nations into one. Not even Artemis could do that. She brought all of Pompey's legions under her control. Everywhere she goes kingdoms fall under her sway. Those are not the abilities of simply a good leader.
Oh really, Iolaus retorts with a laugh that is devoid of amusement. Agamemnon was a normal man. Yet he united all of Greece against the Trojans. Alexander was just a man and he conquered more of the world than your vaunted Roman Republic.
Iolaus! Hercules shouts. This gets us nowhere. I know you don't like standing back from a fight. But I will do this alone. I will face Hope in Carthage. I just want your word. He turns to Caesar. And yours that you will protect Xena. And should anything happen to me that you will get her safely away.
Caesar exhales sharply not liking this one bit but conceding the point to Hercules. Of them all he has the best chance of defeating Hope in personal combat. Maybe it won't come to that, he thinks to himself. He nods. You have my word.
They both turn to Iolaus. Hercules's oldest friend seems on the verge of another outburst when he sighs loudly and also nods. You have my word.
Thank you, Hercules says. He places a hand on each of their shoulders. Xena and I are very lucky to have friends like you.
Both men grunt in subdued laughter. I assume you don't want to tell her about your little plan? Caesar asks already knowing what the answer will be.
No, Hercules answers. As you say she'll try and stop me. As I said before this is for the greater good. But I'm afraid that in the heat of the moment Xena will forget that. My life is worth Hope's defeat. And I'll make that sacrifice without hesitation.
As would we all, Caesar agrees.
Iolaus nods in agreement as well. For the greater good.
The greater good, Hercules and Caesar say in unison.
The late night darkness of Athens seems absolute. Thick, black clouds block any moonlight and make the city seem like a ghost town where only the dead hold sway. The only light comes from torches carried by members of the Athenian royal guard as they search the city for their king in an attempt to locate the places where the resistance may be hiding. Their king in desperate and has left no man in his guard in the palace. Each and every one of them wanders the Athenian night. They know that Hope has grown tired of Tonis's failures in capturing the rebels. They are certain that soon there will be a new king in Athens. And they do not know how that will bode for any of them. So they move from every street and house to the next searching every alley way and stable. For their efforts so far they have found nothing. And they have the bitter feeling that tonight will be no different.
One area they are not searching is the street intersecting at the Avatar's Citadel. Were they present in that location they would see two cloaked figures detach themselves from the massive shadow of the Acropolis and begin hastily moving from one dark corner to another. They move quickly and stealthily. Though they would have nothing to fear from the Athenian guard they have no desire to be detained and asked why they are moving about in the middle of the night dressed for secrecy.
Like wraiths they glide from street to street. They avoid one patrol then another as they make there way through the city towards the Agora. Just once a single guard lurking through the abandoned stalls that line the Agora spots them. He rushes forward and grasps the cloak of one apparently not seeing the other. A fist lashes out cracking into the man's jaw and dropping him as if he were pole axed. They nod to one another then race through the Agora. As they reach the far side of the square another shadow rises to meet them. Long curved daggers are held in each hand and the menacing apparition closes on them. From beneath the new comer's cloak comes a strange phrase.
The eagle carries the blade in its talons.
And not soon will its prey escape the inevitable, says the taller of the two cloaked figures.
The daggers are sheathed and the third figure gestures for them to follow. The three of them disappear into the shadows of some close quartered tenements not far from the Agora. They duck into a narrow alley as a patrol of four Athenian guards hustle past. Once the guards are out of sight the three figures move up against a stonewall. One of them whistles a short note and the wall slowly slides open. They duck within quickly and silently. The wall closes behind them without a sound.
The three cloaked figures enter into a small room where they find that they are presently alone. The one who led them in removes her cloak to reveal the imposing auburn haired form of the Amazon Solari. She turns to the taller of the two who removes his cloak to reveal Jett.
I didn't think I'd see you again Jett, Solari says a bit surprised by the assassin's continued existence. I thought for sure Hope would see through your little ruse and chop your head off.
I have many skills, Jett informs her.
The third figure still cloaked is facing the Amazon and seems to be utterly paralyzed.
And this is? Solari asks pointing with one of her daggers at the third figure.
Solari, a voice gasps out from beneath the cloak.
The Amazon warrior stares confused at the other visitor. She turns to Jett with a look of contempt. You told him my name? Jett are you insane? I agreed to allow you a visitor because you said you had some important information. But I didn't say you could
The cloaked figure cuts the Amazon off by dropping her cloak and stating, He didn't need to tell me. I know who you are sister.
Solari gasps with a mixture of shock and hate at the blonde before her clad in a loose fitting white gown and wearing a golden circlet on her brow. Ephiny. The name slips from her mouth.
Before Ephiny can respond hands seize her by the shoulders and slam her hard against the wall. She is stunned and unable to see or hear anything for several moments. The wind is knocked out of her and pain crawls up her back. Solari is in front of Jett like lightning with one of her daggers at the man's throat. She doesn't say anything to him but her eyes speak the word for her. Traitor.
When Ephiny's vision clears she finds herself staring into the determined face of
Eponin! she says in disbelief. She feels herself suffused with a joy she hadn't thought possible. These two women, sister Amazons, were her closest friends growing up. They were her family. For years she has thought them dead. To see them alive makes her happier than she has been in a while. Then she notices the dagger at Jett's throat. And then feels the sword pressing against her neck.
I have waited a long time for this you bitch! Eponin exclaims staring into Ephiny's eyes with a hatred she never thought possible. She presses her hand against Ephiny's chest holding the handmaiden against the wall then draws back her sword. The intent is clear. She's going to impale Ephiny against the wall. For a moment she has a vision of the whore of the Avatar pinned against the wall by her sword with blood cascading from her mouth.
Ephiny sees murder in her old friend's eyes and knows she is about to die. She opens her mouth to scream.
But instead a small, squeaky voice mutterers, Mama. What are you doing?
All eyes in the room turn to focus on the black haired, brown eyed toddler who has appeared as if by magic among them. Eponin, an instant away from thrusting the sword forward, balks at the sight of her daughter staring up at her with wide eyes. Varia. I told you never to come in here without my permission.
But I heard you yelling mama, Varia responds. With a small hand she points to Ephiny held against the wall. Who's that?
Solari's eyes go to Varia as well and Jett seizes the advantage. With one fluid movement of his hand he has disarmed the Amazon of her dagger and is holding the blade at her throat. Let her go! he demands of Eponin.
The door into the room bursts open and Diana strides in emanating an aura of command and royalty, every bit the princess she once was. Everyone in the room holds still as statues. She surveys the situation and is shocked by every aspect of what she sees. Most unnerving of all is the presence of the woman whom she recognizes by her dress and crown as the Avatar's handmaiden. What in Hades' name is going on here?
Varia shrugs and says, Don't know.
He's betrayed us! Solari says nodding towards Jett.
And how have I done that? Jett asks.
You brought this here! Eponin says glaring at Ephiny.
Oh please! Jett says now trying to hold in his laughter. Oh dear. I've brought the unarmed handmaiden of Hope into your midst. Whatever shall you do?
Shut up! Eponin roars.
Varia covers her ears. Not so loud mama.
Diana moves over to stand by the infant Amazon who immediately hides behind her skirts. Use your head Solari. The entire royal guard is out looking for us. If they meant to betray us we would be up to our eyeballs in Athenian infantry right now.
The logic of Diana's words sink in and they know their leader speaks the truth. Eponin fixes Ephiny with another hateful glare then shoves the woman aside before walking towards Diana and her daughter.
Jett smiles and flips the dagger in his hand to offer it hilt first to Solari. The warrior takes it then backs away from the assassin quickly.
Varia slowly moves away from Diana eyeing the two strangers then runs into her mother's arms. Who are they mama? she asks tilting her head while staring at the blonde. She crawls up into her mother's arms.
Diana turns her full attention on Ephiny. You are Hope's handmaiden. Ephiny.
Yes I am, Ephiny replies.
Why are you here? Diana asks.
But Ephiny instead of answering Diana turns her attention on Eponin and Solari. I thought you were dead. Melosa said you were dead.
She wanted us dead, Solari says. She twirls the dagger through her fingers in a fashion that always made Ephiny envious of her sister's dexterity.
There were those of us who refused to partake in the butchering of the Centaurs. Eponin continues.
Melosa and Hope branded us traitors and ordered our deaths. Some of us managed to escape.
How many? Ephiny asks remembering that Melosa had told her that Solari, Eponin and over fifty others of their tribe had been killed in the last battle against the Centaurs.
What do you care? Whore of the Avatar. Eponin yells. In her arms Varia recoils at her mother's tone and words.
You were my sisters, Ephiny replies. How could I not care?
Because you're with her, Solari shoots back. She sheathes her dagger. Everyone knows your Hope's pet and plaything. You hide in her shadow and watch every atrocity she performs.
Ephiny takes the insult and stands taller. Like a queen, Diana thinks.
Yes. I am with Hope. And you know why. You know who she is. Ephiny walks to stand defiantly before Eponin, Solari and their misplaced rage.
Dont be stupid of course we know who she is. We were all there that day Gabrielle came back. Eponin speaks the name with spite. And now we know why she came to our village. It was to learn our ways. Then to pull us into her twisted plans. I always suspected there was something off about her.
Don't delude yourself Eponin, Ephiny says meeting the eyes of this woman, once her closest friend, who hates her so much. You never suspected anything. You helped to train her as well. I wasn't the only Amazon to teach her how to use a sword. She looks past Eponin to Solari. Was I?
Solari looks away. We all taught her to be a warrior. We all hoped she could move past her grief. Maybe become one of us. But she didn't. Then she came back.
It was all a trick! Eponin shouts. She used us!
Varia covers her ears and shouts back, Quiet!
Eponin is so taken aback she nearly drops her daughter. I'm sorry baby. Why don't you go to your room. I'll be there to tuck you in later.
Varia crosses her little arms and glares at her mother. You gonna stop shouting?
Yes, Eponin says giving into her daughter's demands. I promise.
Okay, Varia nods then points to the floor. Eponin sets her daughter down and the toddler runs over to Solari. The Amazon kneels down to hug Varia. The child then moves out of the room but watches them all carefully to make sure they don't start yelling again.
Diana sits down on a couch and Jett steps back to lean against the wall. They both suspect they will have no part in the upcoming discussion.
You remember how Gabrielle was when she first arrived. Eaten up with grief. Consumed by rage. Ephiny crosses her arms and stares at Eponin and Solari.
She hid it well. Especially that day when Hector and Krykus came. Eponin too crosses her arms and stares at Ephiny.
You didn't know her like I did, Ephiny retorts. She was hurting inside. Being eaten alive by her pain and her grief. She tried her best to hide it. She still does.
I'd say she has moved past grief Ephiny. Solari enters the conversation. Do you have any idea how many she's killed?
Yes I do, Ephiny says matter of factly. But you don't know how much it hurts her.
Oh please! This is stupid! Eponin shouts then covers her mouth when she hears a disapproving sound coming from Varia's room. She lowers her tone and continues. She is a murderer. We know what really happens at her hospices' and in the temples. She wants to kill the world. You friend wants to kill everyone.
Hope does, Ephiny corrects her. Gabrielle does not.
Are you insane? Solari asks. They're the same person.
No, Ephiny says now letting her arms rest at her sides. They aren't.
Excuse me? Diana says rising to her feet.
It's true, Jett says from the wall. I've seen it. Ephiny is telling the truth.
This is madness. Eponin throws up her hands in disbelief and begins to pace the room.
Indeed, Ephiny agrees with her. She walks over until she is standing in front of Eponin. Do you want to know how Gabrielle became Hope?
Eponin turns away from Ephiny and walks over to stand by Solari.
Do you remember your friend Lila? Ephiny moves to stand between the two Amazons. Gabrielle slit her throat on the altar of Dahak in Britannia.
Eponin's eyes go wide and she looks as though she may be physically ill. She has never admitted it to anyone but she had been in love with Gabrielle's sister Lila. Perhaps it had been the girl's vulnerability or her compassion but Eponin loved her deeply. She had never told her of course. She had though that the two girls would stay and live in the village. She thought she would have all the time in the world to make her feelings known. But then they had left. That day when they had left and she had given Lila the staff she had wanted to tell her how she felt. But she had not had the courage to say the words. And now she will never be able to. She looks into the eyes of her lover and prays that Solari cannot see the grief filling her heart at the mention of Lila's death.
That just proves my point Ephiny, Eponin says pointing at Ephiny. She murdered her own sister.
Because she was so consumed with grief and hate that she couldn't see straight, Ephiny goes on as if not hearing Eponin's words. From the day she killed Draco she heard the voice of Dahak in her head. A voice of dark seduction that twisted her soul until she wasn't the same person anymore.
And just how the hell do you know that? Solari asks.
I was shown. It would take too long to explain. Ephiny holds up her hands to forestall any of them wanting an explanation. After she left our village she travelled to Gaul and then to Britannia. All the while the One God was poisoning her soul with hate. Promising her the power to exact revenge on the one she though responsible for all her misfortune.
But once she offered Lila up as a sacrifice to gain that power she was changed. She didn't want revenge anymore. Dahak subdued her soul and his evil took up residence in her heart. She became Hope. And the girl that I loved ceased to exist.
Both Solari and Eponin are taken aback by the admission and stare at Ephiny. Eponin however shakes her head in disbelief. No. I won't believe this. You've been at her side ever since she returned. And now look at you. You're her queen basically. You rule at her side.
I don't rule anything Eponin, Ephiny corrects her. Or have you forgotten? That day when she returned calling herself Hope. She looks from Eponin to Solari and then back. You two pledged yourself to her just like Melosa and Velasca did. She offered to lead us to victory over Rome and you all knelt to her. You were all so caught up in her bloodlust that it never occurred to anyone to wonder what happened to Lila.
Eponin feels sick again as she remembers that day. Not once upon Gabrielle's return did she ever ask about Lila. For the first time she wonders why she never asked. She had loved Lila. But she did not think to ask Gabrielle what became of her dark haired sister.
But I knew. Do you remember what I did? Ephiny waits for Eponin's eyes to return to look into hers. I threw my sword down at her feet and told her I would not fight for her. That I would not kill for her. I was her friend and that was all I would be.
Remembering the events of that day both of them look away from Ephiny's gaze.
Why are you here? Diana asks.
I want to help you stop her, Ephiny answers. She can feel the pain of her betrayal deep in her heart, but she cannot let Hope go on. She has to be stopped.
The three women stare at her in disbelief.
You're going to betray your precious Gabrielle? Eponin asks again taking on her mocking tone of Ephiny's affection for Gabrielle.
No. I'm going to betray Hope. I can no longer stand by and watch her spill any more blood. Ephiny sits down on a couch and feels almost sick.
Are there secret entrances into the Citadel? Diana asks thinking of the secret tunnel she already discovered.
Ephiny sits still for a moment then nods.
Will you show us where they are? Solari asks.
What if I do? she asks them.
Jett speaks before anyone else can. They'll kill her of course. Cut the head from the serpent and the body dies. He paraphrases Caesar's words to make his point.
I will not help you murder her, Ephiny says not raising her head to look at them.
Then this is all pointless, Solari states. She walks towards the door.
There has to be another way, Ephiny says in a low tone. You don't understand. She isn't Hope all the time. Every so often the real Gabrielle comes out. That terrified village girl who sought revenge and killed her sister in the process. She is in pain. And she knows everything that Hope does. A prisoner in her own body.
There's nothing we can do about that. Eponin begins to follow Solari out the door.
There has to be, Ephiny says rising to stand and stare at them once more. I refuse to just let her keep doing this. But I won't let you kill her. I can't lose her. I just can't.
The pain and hurt in Ephiny's voice cuts through Eponin's anger and she turns. I don't know that we can do anything Ephiny. I just don't see how we can stop her without killing her. She starts to speak more but stops when she sees a tear sliding down Ephiny's cheek. I'm sorry.
Will you at least try? Ephiny asks. I came here to help. But I can't be a part of her death, but we have to try something else.
I don't know what you're asking of us Ephiny, Solari admits. Hope is the Avatar of Dahak. And as yet no one, not even Caesar, has been able to halt her advance. I agree with Eponin. Short of killing her there is nothing we can do.
Then give me time, Ephiny pleads. Let me try and find a way to save Gabrielle. Halt the resistance here in Athens for a time. Stop fighting and investigate someway to to she trails off unsure of what she asking of them.
Some way to what? Eponin asks. Kill Hope without killing Gabrielle? That's impossible.
We're leaving for Carthage at dawn, Ephiny informs them. She hopes to draw Caesar, Xena and Hercules into a battle where she can kill them all.
What? Diana says in a tone she hopes is low enough to go unnoticed by Varia. She thinks about Palaemon on his way to Rome.
She wants to end the war with their deaths. I don't know if she'll succeed. Melosa didn't think she would. Ephiny says.
Why did you refer to Melosa in the past tense? Solari asks.
Hope killed her for speaking out against the plan, Ephiny replies. Velasca is queen now.
The two Amazons hang their heads for a moment. Melosa followed Hope and did whatever the Avatar asked of her, even the slaughter of the centaurs. But she did it all to bring the Amazons back to their rightful place. She only wanted for the Amazons to be what they were long ago. A great nation of warriors respected by the world. While they cannot condone her actions, they mourn her death and what she tried to do for the Amazon nation.
Stop your fighting here for the time we are away and try to find some other way to defeat Hope, Ephiny suggests.
If she defeats Caesar in Carthage it won't matter, Diana says. If he dies there won't be any leader strong enough to challenge Hope.
Jett peers out a window and sees the first stirring of dawn at the horizon. Ephiny. It's nearly dawn. We have to go back.
Wait a minute, Diana says upon hearing Jett's words. We can't just let you two go back into the Citadel. She turns her eyes to Ephiny. And I don't think we can let you go at all. You could reveal this place to her.
I won't, Ephiny says simply.
And what proof do we have that you won't? Eponin asks stepping closer.
Because I've kept my promise to Gabrielle. And you know it. When have you ever heard of me in a battle? When has word ever reached you of the Avatar's handmaiden fighting? I have not lifted a sword in anger or drawn blood with my blade or my fist since that day. I kept my promise. I have not fought for her.
Eponin looks deeply into Ephiny's eyes. She sees the eyes of the honorable friend and Amazon warrior she grew up with. She turns to Diana. She will not betray us. The resistance leader frowns for a moment but accepts Eponin's word. She nods and leaves the room.
Will you try? Ephiny asks.
Solari and Eponin exchange glances. We will look into it. But it will be pointless Ephiny. You will have to accept the fact that only her death will stop her.
Jett gathers his cloak and tosses Ephiny hers.
I refuse to believe that, Ephiny argues. The real Gabrielle is still in there. And we can get her back.
Eponin moves forward to look through a small hole that looks out onto the street outside. She sees no one nearby. She pushes open the section of wall and indicates that Jett and Ephiny should go quickly. As Ephiny passes by Eponin whispers to her, Don't hold onto your hopes and dreams too tightly Ephiny. I don't think they will come true for you. She thinks of Lila dead and she can almost sees the corpse of the young girl in her mind's eyes. Mine didn't.
Ephiny doesn't reply but follows Jett out into the street. The wall closes silently behind them.
In the predawn light Ephiny and Jett move as quietly and as quickly as possible. They skirt the edges of the Agora instead of passing through it. The dawning light of the sun is sure to give the guards more opportunity to see people wandering the streets. And they are anxious not to have to explain their purpose in being out at this time. Everyone in Athens knows who Ephiny is. But after her last encounter with Hope she is unsure that the Avatar would overlook this nighttime excursion.
I have to admit that went better than I expected, Jett admits.
What did you expect? Ephiny asks in a hushed town.
To be honest I expected Eponin to kill you, he replies a little too casually for her taste. And I think she would have if that little girl hadn't walked in when she did.
Ephiny laughs to herself. I would never have imagined Eponin wanting a child. She was the strongest of us all when we were young. We used to talk about having a family. But Eponin would just laugh and say she'd be too busy fighting for such a thing.
You were close friends I take it? Jett asks. Then before she can respond he seizes her and ducks into a darkened doorway as pair of guards shuffle by mumbling about the dumbest duty they have ever had.
Ephiny watches them move away then answers Jett's question. We were inseparable. Eponin, Solari, Terrias and I.
Melosa's younger sister. Princess of the Amazons. She was murdered to start a war. I was there when she died. She gave me her rite of caste. I became Melosa's true sister and princess of the Amazons. Ephiny draws to a halt for a moment. She has not thought of Terrias in so very long. And she suddenly finds that the pain of that loss feels so great that she has to fight to keep from crying.
Ephiny? Jett says a little confused by this reaction. Are you all right?
Ephiny pushes the grief aside. Yes. I'm fine. Let's go. But as she says the words she sees a man crossing from a side street to step into the Agora. He looks around and seems a little dissatisfied that there is no one in the vast square yet even though dawn in nearly upon the city. The dark hue of his skin marks him as someone from the east. Probably India. But it is his raiment that draws Ephiny's attention. He is dressed in the same simple brown robes as the man Hope had executed in the audience chambers some time ago.
Without a word she moves away from Jett to go towards the man. Jett makes a grab for Ephiny's arm as she walks away. Ephiny. It will be light soon. We have to be back in the Citadel. She pays him no heed but keeps walking. Ephiny! he calls out to her in the loudest voice he dares.
The plain dressed man is taken aback when the cloaked figure steps before him then pulls back her hood to reveal a beautiful blond woman who wears a golden circlet upon her brow. He steps back once then halts when he backs into another black garbed figure who has appeared behind him.
Do you know who I am? Ephiny asks him.
He nods and answers, You are the handmaiden of the evil one.
I am the handmaiden of the Avatar of the One God, Ephiny says in a slightly more malicious tone than she intends. And I have already seen one of your ilk executed by her. And now you are here in the Agora no doubt about to begin spreading more of your teachings as soon as people begin to gather here. Do you have a death wish?
And why should you care? he asks looking over his shoulder at the menacing man in black behind him.
Because I want to know more and I can't learn anything if you're dead, she tells him. Both the man and Jett are struck speechless by her admission. What is your name?
The man seems stupefied for a few seconds. Then he replies, Nannan. He stares at this woman not quite sure how he should react.
Ephiny, Jett says looking at her impatiently. We don't have time for this.
Yes. We do, Ephiny corrects him. She takes Nannan by the arm and leads him from the Agora. The man doesn't try to struggle. Despite his desire to spread the philosophy of his teacher to this evil place he is intrigued that someone so close to the evil one would wish to know more about what he has to say. He doesn't for one moment suspect any kind of trap. He has seen the guards moving through the city. She could have easily called some of them to have him arrested. So he allows her to take him from the task he has appointed for himself.
Where are you staying in Athens? she asks.
Nannan points to a small inn not far from the Agora. She draws the hood back over her head and she and Jett lead the man into the inn. The innkeeper hardly spares them a glance as they enter and move through the lobby into a second floor room.
Ephiny points to the door. Keep watch Jett. I'll be right out.
Jett opens his mouth to protest but knows he'll be wasting his breath. She is a strong willed woman and once she has her mind set to something she will not waver. He steps from the room and closes the door behind him. He turns his attention down into the lobby of the inn and watches intently.
Nannan sits on his bed. What is it you wish of me?
The one who was here before spoke of the power of love. That it is stronger than anything. Ephiny looks into the man's eyes and awaits his reply.
It is. Nannan agrees. Love is the driving force behind all life. Without love life would be meaningless.
He mentioned a teacher, Ephiny continues. You follow the same man.
Yes. But we do not follow. We listen and we learn. And then we spread the message of love.
Who is he?
Nannan looks uncomfortable now. This woman has informed him of the death of one of his fellows. And that he apparently died for speaking the truth. It occurs to him that this may be a plot to find and kill their teacher. He decides he will tell her of him but not his name. He lives now in the east on the borders between India and Mesopotamia. But he is from these lands. A Greek.
So he's some kind of philosopher?
He is far more than that. He is a devi and an avatar.
Ephiny reacts with surprise at the word avatar. An avatar? Of what?
Of the god of love.
Of the god of love in India?
No. He is an avatar of The God of Love, the power behind all creation. The avatar sometimes refers to Him simply as the One.
Dahak is the One God.
Nannan looks as though he will spit at the mention of the name. Dahak is the Dark One. He is evil. The One is love. They are anathema to one another.
Ephiny remembers the other title Nannan gave to his teacher. What is a devi?
A divine healer.
He's healed people?
Yes. The lame are made to walk. The blind can see. Those sick with plague are drawn back from the brink of death. All these things he has done.
And he can do these things because of the One? Because he is the avatar of the One?
Yes. Nannan tilts his head inquisitively to one side. Why do you ask me these things? Are you not the one who serves the Avatar of Dahak body and soul?
I would like you to teach me what he has taught you. I wish to follow this message he spreads. Ephiny sits on the bed next to Nannan. The words spoken to me by the one who died affected me in way I didn't think possible. I want to know more.
Nannan leans back in disbelief. You wish to follow the path of love. You? The whore of He slaps his hand over his mouth as he realizes what he has just said.
Ephiny finds herself smiling. I have heard all the names I am called and they do not bother me. And yes I want to follow this teaching of love.
Why? Nannan can still not keep the shock from his voice.
Because I am tired of death. Tired of pain. Tired of war. I want to know that there is another way. A better way.
To follow the path of love is not an easy thing to do. It requires the casting aside of all violence. It means never spilling another drop of blood. Never taking up a weapon in your hand again. Can you do this?
In the name of love I promised some years ago to never fight for Hope. It is a promise I have kept. And with your help that promise will become my way of life.
Nannan has seen many years on this earth. He has learned to look into the eyes of people and see what lies beneath, to search the soul and find the truth. He sees the truth in Ephiny's words. I will teach you. But I do not think it will be easy for you.
Nothing is easy for me Nannan. It hasn't been since the day I met her. She rises from the bed and steps towards the door. She turns back to the man. I must ask you to stay here. Do not go out into the city and spread your message. Please. I need to be able to learn from you. And I cannot do that if you're dead.
Nannan seems to consider it for a moment. Then he nods. Very well.
I am leaving in the morning for a short period. But I must ask your indulgence and wait for my return. I'll come to you here. Will that be all right? She cracks the door and looks out to see Jett still standing guard at the door.
Yes. It will. Nannan nods and draws his legs up onto the bed to sit in a lotus position. I will await your return.
Ephiny smiles then slips out the door.
Nannan stares at the door for a moment then closes his eyes in meditation. Is this why you sent me to Athens? Did you feel her love? Was this my task all along? He smiles. We shall see.
Running through the woods he dares not turn around to see if his pursuers are still there. He knows that if he does he will certainly stumble to the ground over something. So he watches the ground before him and runs with all the speed he can summon. His loose fitting robes don't make it easy. But then he hadn't intended to be running for his life when he woke up and dressed this morning. He feels ashamed of the fear running through him. But he knows what chases through this place after him. And he would be a fool not to fear her.
Behind him the first of his pursuers darts aside to avoid colliding with a tree and sees his quarry in the distance. He smiles watching the man running for his life. He draws the scimitar from his sash and screams savagely. He watches with glee as the fool's yellowish green robes snag on a tree root and nearly cause him to fall over. He slashes the sword menacingly in front of him as he picks up his pace.
A second pursuer breaks through the tree line and catches sight of his companion ahead of him. He ducks under a low hanging branch that snatches the turban from his head. He vaults over a fallen log and cries out loudly to his ally and their prey. He draws two wickedly curved daggers from his sash and thinks about how nice it will be to peel that fool's flesh from his bones with them.
Some distance behind the two blade-wielding hunters an enormous black dog continues its pursuit as well. The size of a small pony the beast snarls and barks through misshapen jowls. Copious amounts of thick saliva drool from its mouth and fly away as it calls out into the wood. It leaps over fallen logs and roots. It dashes under low hanging limbs and even climbs up small trees in order to leap further ahead in its pursuit. Its tunnel vision doesn't recognize the two men aiding in the chase. Its eyes only see the man in the robes running for his stinking life. It overtakes and passes the dagger wielding man who smiles as he sees the beast surging ahead.
Too far back for her own liking runs a girl quite out of place in these lands. Light skinned and dark haired she moves through the woods with a lithe grace that speaks of a life lived among the trees from her homeland. She sails over the same fallen log the dog had leapt over, somersaults through the air and lands nimbly on her feet to continue her own chase in the woods. She is dressed in leather armor that seems cobbled together from bits and pieces of various shades of brown, black and green. A strange conical hat sits on her head and a short sword is strapped to her back. She catches sight of the dagger man and draws the weapon screaming out a primitive battle cry as she does so.
Trailing behind her a man only a little older than she takes the option of running around the fallen log rather than attempting any ludicrous jumps. Dressed in a simple tunic top and leggings, he too is out of place here. With fairer skin than the girl and blondish hair he has spent most of his life indoors. He nearly stumbles over a tree root as he picks up the girl's trail and runs as fast as his body can take him. He is weighed down by a backpack and a bloated water skin slung over his shoulder. He is unarmed but he moves with an intensity and purpose to rival the girl he follows.
Lastly behind him follows a well-muscled man in Romanesque armor who steps on the fallen log and leaps through the air bellowing loudly as he does so. Also clearly from the west he is dark haired with a mustache and short beard. Held in his right hand are two pilum and strapped his left is an elliptical wooden shield with a bronze boss. He moves with the confidence of a warrior and weaves between roots, branches and logs without really seeing them.
As he catches up to his smaller companion the man points ahead. The dog has pulled ahead. It will over take him in no time.
Guess I should do something about that, the spear wielder says in booming voice. He seizes the other man by the shoulder and draws them to a stop. He takes one of the pilum and plunges it into the ground. Then he stares ahead with the trained eye of a hunter and gladiator. It takes him a second but he can make out the huge black dog bounding through the woods far ahead. He calculates the distance and strength he will need in a second. Then draws back the pilum still gripped in his right hand. Amarice! he screams.
The girl glances over her shoulder and sees her companion drawing back the spear. She knows precisely what is about to happen. She doesn't stop running but instead drops down and slides along the ground.
With a scream that echoes throughout the woods he releases the spear and it travels in a perfectly straight line never touching a single branch as it moves towards its intended target. The girl slides down just as the spear sails over her with a deadly whistle. She stirs up dirt and leaves as she slides along the ground. Her extended foot catches a root and she is catapulted into the air. She cartwheels over and comes back to her feet and runs on ahead without missing a beat.
The spear passes so close to the dagger man that he feels the breeze as it goes over his shoulder. The weapon hits the gigantic hound right where its thick head meets its back and the animal tumbles along the ground like a writhing shadow. It comes to rest at the base of a tree with the now broken spear protruding from its back.
The dagger man curses as he passes the creature but does not look back to see who killed it. He runs with more purpose now intent on avenging the death of his friend by killing that fool.
Pulling his other pilum from the ground the gladiator nods at his companion. Impressive wouldn't you say?
Save it Darnell, Caleb says. Go!
Darnell smiles and takes off running and quickly outdistances his friend. Caleb runs as fast as his feet can carry him praying they are not too late.
With her considerable speed Amarice catches up to the dagger man and slides into him much as she did to avoid Darnell's spear. As if sensing her attack the man leaps up and she slides under him. Not taken aback by his maneuver Amarice kicks up to her feet and draws the long dagger from her boot and turns to face the man. He thrusts forward with both weapons. She reverses her hold on both her weapons and crosses them before stopping his attack easily. She jumps into the air enough to slam both her feet into his chest and he stumbles back and falls onto his back. As he hits the ground Darnell leaps over him and continues on in pursuit of the sword wielder ahead of them. Sitting up the man sees the other warrior and throws one of his daggers at the man's vulnerable backside. Amarice hurls her own dagger and the weapons collide in mid air with an audible clang.
Cursing the man rises to his feet and draws another dagger. Amarice too draws another dagger from her other boot and leers at the man like he is a wild animal she is about to put down. Come on! she screams at him.
The dagger man is so intent on Amarice he fails to notice Caleb run by him. Caleb reaches down and picks up one of the daggers just thrown and nearly falls flat on his face for the effort. As much as he despises violence and bloodshed he considers being armed a good idea given the present situation.
With a strength and dexterity born of fighting for years as a gladiator in Rome, Darnell is soon close upon the sword wielder. He puts on an adrenaline-fueled surge of speed and is within striking range of the sword man. He swings the pilum at the man's neck but he turns quickly and dodges out of the way. He flanks Darnell and swings his sword with inhuman savagery. The weapon collides with Darnell's shield with such force it causes his teeth to rattle. The attack has brought the two warriors face to face over the top of Darnell's shield. Where some warriors might be daunted by such a situation as this, Darnell thrives on it. Smiling he leers at the man and says joyously, Oh yeah!
Hearing the sound of combat erupting behind him the object of everyone's pursuit turns to look back for an instant. And just as he knew he would he trips on a rock and falls flat on his face. He finds himself lying sprawled just before a rise in the woods. He starts to rise to his feet when he sees a figure crest the rise. He turns his head up to behold a native teenage girl wearing a golden crown and adorned in long strands of pearls which seem to be the only thing covering her otherwise naked body. His gaze travels to her face and in her eyes he doesn't see a young girl. He sees an ancient evil. Tataka! he gasps.
The girl's eyes light up with a fiendish glow and she smiles. Hello Eli.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART FOUR