DUALITY OF HOPE AND DESPAIR
THE FACE OF THE ENEMY
Not far from the city of Corinth, the flat plains where battles have been fought for many years give way to dense woodland. Here game is plentiful and the flora green and alive. But despite this no one enters these woods. They are forbidden by decree of the Avatar of Dahak. Most residents of the surrounding lands don't know why. But then most have forgotten about the temple that sits in the center of the wood: a temple not sacred to any Olympian god. But to entities far older than the gods who once held sway over these lands.
Here stands the temple of Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos. Here stands the temple of the Fates. While every other temple in Greece, Thrace and the other lands under Hope's aegis have been rededicated to Dahak, save those devoted to Ares; this temple is untouched by her reformation. For even Hope is not fool enough to tempt the Fates. But she knows that they have no desire to interfere in the affairs of the mortals whose lives they spin from the ether of primordial existence and whose lives they cut when the time is right. So this temple stands unmolested but not unguarded. For surrounding the temple at all times are at least ten guards. And whether they are Amazons, legionaries or rogue warriors they stand watch over this place of mystery that none have entered in over four years.
This day one of those standing watch over the temple of the Fates is a girl saved from oblivion by her courage in the face of certain death. Now dressed in Amazon leathers and standing close by an Amazon warrior who is instructing her in her new role as a warrior, Sira wonders if a death in the Eternal Fire might have been preferable to this monotonous duty. Since that day she was escorted from Hope's audience chamber with her life intact she has learned that to be an Amazon warrior is not so bad as she might have thought. They live life to the fullest and train their bodies and minds to perfection. It is a life far more rewarding that running around the halls of Cleopatra's palace and fetching whatever the spoiled queen desired. It has occurred to her since that day to wonder what she ever saw as admirable in the Ptolemaic queen. This now is a life she can embrace; a sword on her back and her sisters by her side. To fight in service of the Amazon nation and for Hope herself.
But to stand guard at this boring temple is not something she is fond of. She and the others have stood here for the past four days and seen nothing move save mice and wild dogs. To her right a legionary is leaning against one of the pillars that stand freely in front of the temple. He seems bored and nearly asleep on his feet. And she cannot blame him. To her left her sister Amazon, Ismini looks just as bored.
“ What did I do to deserve this service?” Ismini asks the open area before her.
“ Bad luck?” Sira suggests with a shrug and a smile.
Ismini turns to her new sister and chuckles. “ You may be right. At least I have you to keep me company.”
Near them another legionary grunts his dissatisfaction at his station here as well. “ Why do we guard this thing anyway?” he asks. He spreads his arms to indicate the empty woods around them. “ I mean there hasn't been hide nor hair of anyone here in years.”
“ Hope thinks it is worth guarding so that is our duty,” Sira states though she does happen to agree with the man. She would much rather be on a battlefield testing her skills against some worthy adversary. The man shrugs then sits down on the ground and uses his pilum to draw patterns in the dirt.
Trying to alleviate her boredom Sira turns to the legionary leaning against the pillar and asks him, “Is this your first assignment here?”
“ Unfortunately this is my third time here guarding this place,” he groans. “ You cannot believe how boring it is after the…” He trails off as his eyes focus on some movement in the trees at the edge of the clearing. He shoots to his feet and walks forward to stand between the two Amazons. He points into the woods. “What was that?”
“What was what?” Ismini retorts turning to look at the indicated area. “ I don't see anything.”
But Sira gasps as she indeed does see movement. “ There!” she shouts pointing off to the trail that leads into the temple clearing.
Now all the guards at the temple are on their feet and standing ready. All ten of them draw weapons and prepare themselves for whatever will happen next. All of them are actually excited by the fact that something is about to happen during this most trivial of assignments.
But they are sorely disappointed when instead of a formable warrior or a menacing beast, a diminutive figure dressed in a grey hooded cloak emerges into the clearing. Sira sighs and Ismini groans. The legionaries curse and two of them walk forward to intercept the stranger walking towards the temple.
“ Halt!” one of them holds up his hand and bellows. “ This temple is off limits by order of the Avatar of Dahak!”
The cloaked figure pays the guard no mind and continues forward.
“ Hey old fool! Didn't you hear him?” the second guard shouts. He steps forward and lays a hand on the cloaked shoulder. He slumps to the ground unconscious in an instant.
Sira gasps again, this time in shock. The first guard moves forward with his pilum at the ready. “ Halt!” he screams. When the cloaked figure does not acknowledge him he thrusts forward and runs it through with his spear. Sira stares in horror at the attack. Though exuberant in her role as an Amazon she is hard pressed to stifle the scream forming on her lips as she watches the spear pass through the cloaked figure to erupt from its back. But she is more confused than anything when she sees no blood on the weapon.
The cloaked figure seems to take no notice of the fact that it has been impaled. It reaches out with an arm and a ghostly white hand slides out of the sleeve. The hand touches the guard on the side of his face and he collapses like his comrade. The figure pulls the spear from its body and tosses the weapon aside.
Two more guards hurl their spears at the figure. The image of the cloaked figure wavers for a moment and the spears pass through it as if it were smoke. Heedless of the figure's apparent power the two men rush forward with their swords drawn. As they draw near the cloaked figure throws back its head. Sira watches in puzzlement as the two men slide to halt then turn and run from the clearing screaming. She heard nothing. What terrified them so?
All the remaining guards except Sira and Ismini run forward to attack the lone figure. The figure stands perfectly still and holds its arms out to its sides. It becomes indistinct in form then vanishes from sight entirely. The rushing guards draw up short as Sira feels a vibration in the air pass through her. Branches on nearby trees and the dirt in the clearing is stirred up by a wind that Sira is sure originates from the spot where the cloaked figure had stood. The eyes of the guards gaze upwards into the air before them and they seem to be staring in horror at something that is not there. Two of them faint away. Another runs off screaming like a maniac. The last that had moved forward, an older man, clutches his chest then falls flat onto his face. Sira can't tell from where she stands but she is sure he is dead.
The cloaked figure reappears and starts its march forward again. It closes to within striking distance of them before Ismini seizes the figure by its cloak. “ Who are you?” she screams into its cloaked face. Then she stops and stares at what she sees under the hood. Her eyes go wide and are soon full of tears. “ That's impossible. You …you're dead!” Moments pass by and then Ismini drops to her knees and begins sobbing loudly. She begins muttering incoherently and Sira hardly recognizes her as the strong and courageous woman who has been teaching her the ways of the Amazons. The cloaked figure moves past Ismini. Enraged Sira draws her sword and steps forward.
The figure holds up a pale white hand to forestall her attack. Sira stops and stares at the hand that is as white as bleached bone. Quivering with pent up anger she practically spits her words at him. “What did you do to her?”
The voice that comes from under the hooded cloak is not the single voice of one man. But a frightening combination of voices that she knows from somewhere but cannot place in her mind as any particular person or persons. “ I showed her what she did not want to see. It is quite simple to reach within someone and draw out what they fear most. Particularly when you know what inhabits their dreams and their nightmares.” The figure pushes back its cloaked and Sira drops her sword. The face that stares at her shifts from male to female and back again. She sees the face of her mother who died when she was but a child. She sees the sneering visage of the royal guard who raped her one stormy night in Alexandria. She sees the beautiful countenance of the Roman soldier who picked her up onto his shoulders so she could watch Caesar and Cleopatra pass through the crowded streets. She shrieks when the face morphs into a face bloated and white in death like a zombie. Then she sees the face of Cleopatra, the beautiful queen whose memory she has betrayed by becoming a follower of Hope. The need to serve the Avatar of Dahak and her irrational hatred of the late Egyptian queen evaporates.
She drops to her knees and begins, like Ismini, to weep like the child she truly is.
She cries for what seems days before a hand is laid on her shoulder. She turns her eyes up to look into the face of a man whose visage is as chalk white as his hands. His hair is wildly unkempt and as black as the darkest night and dark eyes gleam with subdued reds, greens and blues. His face radiates both kindness and menace as he looks down into Sira's eyes.
“ This is not what you were meant to do in this world child,” the strange man says to her now in a single voice. He removes his hand from her and moves back to stand beside Ismini. “ Neither was this one meant for war. Or she would not be so grieved over seeing the face of the first man she killed in service to the Avatar of the Dark One.” His face shimmers and for a moment it is the face of a grey haired man with thick stumble on his chin and deep blue eyes.
“ You should go. Take her with you. Start a better life. And forsake all service to the Avatar.” His eyes burn with a dark light as he speaks the next words. “ Do this. Or whenever you close your eyes to sleep.”
His face literally splits open to reveal a black skull with massive eye sockets and a bony protrusion dripping blood and bile. “I will be waiting!”
Sira does not wait to see what will happen next. She rushes past the walking nightmare to grab a hold of Ismini. With strength born of fear and adrenaline she hauls her friend to her feet and leads her from the clearing. She does not look back as the two of them leave the temple of the Fates and their lives as Amazons in service to Hope behind them.
Morpheus watches the two women run from the clearing and is certain his point was well understood by the girl Sira. The grey and dirty cloak shimmers into a black cloak that the light of the day cannot seem to shine upon. Then with purpose he walks towards the doorway that leads into the temple of the Fates. As he ascends the steps the huge double doors open of their own accord. He strides through and they close behind him with a decidedly loud boom.
The temple is deep and high, totally at odds with its exterior dimensions. It is far larger inside than outside. But then the Fates have no reason to conform to the physical laws of this mortal realm in which their temple resides. Candles burn in sconces all through the temple though no one has been here to light them in years. Sunlight shows prismatic colors as it passes through the stained glass windows. Despite the candles and sunlight the temple is quite dark. He walks slowly across the floor and spies at the far end what he seeks, the skein of the Fates. He does not have to be any nearer to tell that something is wrong. But then he has known that for six years. Ever since he began having the dreams of that other world. As he closes on the skein he sees the many colored threads of mortal lives weaving and connecting within the Fates' construct. His dark eyes seek out two in particular and find them immediately. One was once a shining gold. Now it is tarnished silver. The other is blood red as it should be as it has been.
“ Welcome Dream Walker,” the childlike voice of Clotho greets him as she steps from behind one pillar holding a spindle on which shines mortal threads of life.
“Welcome Dream Weaver,” the motherly voice of Lachesis greets him as she steps from behind another pillar. As he watches a thread rears up from Clotho's spindle like a serpent. It moves to Lachesis who begins to manipulate the thread with her fingers and a long needle.
“ Welcome Dream Worker,” the aged voice of Atropos greets him as she steps from behind another pillar. In her hands is a set of shears gilt in gold and silver. The thread Lachesis works runs to her and passes in between the open shears before it joins in with the skein.
Morpheus turns back to the skein and looks closely at where the golden thread nearly intersects with the blood red one. But instead they diverge and the golden thread darkens into a blighted silver color. From there the skein is a tangle of numerous threads some of which seem cut short before their time and others of which seem to continue where they should have ceased to exist. The threads of mortal fate upon the skein are interwoven in such a manner that it seems an inattentive child has worked them and not these three beings older than time and the world.
“ What has happened here?” he asks pointing to the tangled skein.
“ Mortal folly,” Clotho answers.
“ Human weakness, “Lachesis answers.
“ Arrogance,” Atropos answers.
“ This was brought about by simple mortal foolishness?” he asks incredulously. He points to the two threads that have since mortal existence began been interwoven nearly as one. “ These are soul mates. Never meant to be apart. Much less mortal enemies.”
“ Mistakes were made,” Clotho explains.
“ Anger pushed one from the other,” Lachesis explains.
“ Pain twisted innocence into darkness,” Atropos explains.
“ But this is not as it should be. I know it!” Morpheus stands before the skein and reaches out to hold his hand a breath away from the tarnished silver thread. “ I have had dreams of another world. One far different from this.” He turns blood red eyes to the Fates. “How is this possible?”
“The Dream Walker dreams,” Clotho says turning to face Lachesis.
“ The Dream Weaver dreams,” Lachesis says turning to Atropos.
“The Dream Worker dreams,” Atropos says with a nod.
“ I dream of them in a better world,” Morpheus explains pointing to the two threads in question. “ A world not torn apart by war and on the brink of oblivion.”
“ What has been done cannot be undone,” Clotho retorts.
“ You cannot alter this world,” Lachesis retorts.
“ It will go on,” Atropos retorts.
“ But this cannot be allowed to continue,” Morpheus states indicating the skein. “ Even you cannot be blind to what will happen if she is allowed to go on.”
“ Hope does as her destiny dictates,” Clotho says feeding more of the thread from her spindle.
“ The Avatar seeks to fulfill the will of Dahak in this world,” Lachesis says as she steps past Atropos to weave the new thread into the skein.
“ She will feed the Fire until it consumes all,” Atropos says slipping her shears into a small pouch at her side.
Morpheus grows more agitated with each word he hears from the Fates. He touches the blood red thread and sees a rapid succession of visions all with Xena at their center. “ To her I have been able to send the dreams,” Morpheus explains. “ Xena has seen that other world. That better world. Where she and Gabrielle were together. With each dream of that other world I have I send it on to her.” He touches the tarnished silver thread and images of all of Hope's atrocities flash through his mind's eye. “ But Gabrielle I cannot reach.”
The Fates move closer to stand beside the skein and Morpheus.
“ She is always awake,” Clotho tells him.
“ She never sleeps,” Lachesis tells him.
“ She never dreams,” Atropos tells him.
“ No wonder then,” Morpheus traces the two threads with his finger from their divergence back to where they first began. He looks back the length of the skein and can see the inevitable conclusion. “ If this continues it will end. Hope will burn the world and beyond.”
“ This is true,” Clotho replies.
“ But even if Hope does not succeed the world and beyond may be irrevocably altered,” Lachesis replies.
“ For in the death of one or the other the universe will suffer,” Atropos replies.
Morpheus stares at them in disbelief then to the two threads. “Soul mates since time began. What will happen if one kills the other?”
“ Paradox,” Clotho says drawing her finger across her throat in a slashing motion.
“ Disaster,” Lachesis says slamming her fist to her chest as if stabbing herself.
“ Catastrophe,” Atropos says drawing her shears and snipping at the air with them.
Morpheus runs his pale hand through his jet hair. “ So Hope unleashes the Fire of Dahak to consume existence like a snake devouring itself or destiny implodes in upon itself and unhinges Fate when soul mates kill one another. Either way it all ends.”
“ Take heart Dream Walker,” Clotho says. The child like aspect of Fate points towards the many threads interwoven with the blood red and tarnishes silver threads. “ Can you not see?”
Morpheus peers closer to the threads the weaver of Fate indicates. He takes note of one in particular. A shimmering thread of purest white draws his attention and he reaches out to touch it. “ The Avatar of the One,” he says in a revered tone. “ He is a force unto himself though he knows it not at this time. Still even should he play his part…” he trails off thinking.
“ Look closer Dream Weaver,” Lachesis says. She draws his attention to a thread of azure blue.
He touches this thread and feels the love in it. “ The hand maiden.” He looks confused at the thread and cannot quite understand what she has to do with the fate of the world.
“ And here Dream Worker,” Atropos says. She takes his hand and lays it upon a thread that he sees is pink in color. The essence of that thread bores into his heart and he steps back from the skein.
“ Aphrodite! She lives!”
“ Now do you begin to see?” Clotho asks.
“Now do you understand?” Lachesis asks.
“ Now do you know what part you play?” Atropos asks.
Their questions trouble him. In his mind that is not grounded in any type of reality but in the boundless realm of dream and possibility, he does begin to see and understand and know his part. But one more thread draws his attention. A thread cut some six years before. He touches it and sees the blood spraying as the knife is drawn across her throat. He feels a tear forming in his eye. “ The sacrifice. She too will play a part in some way.” He does not pose it as a question but the Fates answer regardless.
“ It is true.”
“ Are you afraid?” they ask as one of Morpheus.
He looks from the skein and back to the Fates. “ No. I will do what must be done.” He turns and walks from the skein back towards the door leading into the temple. “ No matter what it costs me.”
He exits the temple proper and as soon as he is in the clearing he vanishes from this world to return to his own realm and to contemplate his fate.
< disclaimer : the Sandman is the property of Neil Gaiman and Vertigo Comics. He appears here because for the life of me I could not come up with another concept for Morpheus. He is needed for this story but as much as I racked my brain I couldn't think of a way to present him except as the King of Dreams from the comics. And of course since this is for fan fiction's sake I won't make a dollar from this so no copyright infringement is intended. >
Amarice easily sidesteps the man's attack as he drives forward with both his daggers. She kneels and twirls herself about slashing the man's leg with her dagger then brings herself back to a guard position with both her dagger and her sword crossed before her. The man grunts in pain but other than that hardly seems to take notice of the wound. She had intended to cripple the man with the attack but had not been in as close as she'd thought. He sneers and twirls the daggers in his hands in what she is sure is supposed to be an intimidating display of his skill. Amarice is far from impressed.
“ Are you done playing?” she asks the man with contempt heavy in her voice. “I came here to fight.”
The man lunges forward thrusting quickly and hard with each dagger in an attempt to get past her defense. She moves her two weapons with expert precision parrying away each attack with ease. This continues for several seconds before she lashes out with her foot kicking him squarely in the gut and causing him to stumble backwards. He just manages to keep his footing after the blow. He steps to his left and begins to circle around the young warrior woman. She stays in one place turning to keep facing him. He sees her lower her dagger just a hair and seizes the opening it grants him. He darts to the right and hurls himself forward with lethal force. But this is not the opening he has been waiting for. It is the trap Amarice has sprung on him. As he dives headlong at her in a powerful attack that might prove deadly against an untrained opponent, she simple reverses her movement to close her trap. Her left hand moves parallel with his attack and cuts a long, deep wound in his left arm. The strike severs muscles and nerves in his arm. The dagger drops from his now useless hand and she follows through with her attack, twisting her body to slam the broad edge of her short sword into his throat. The blade tears open his neck and severs the main artery within. She is sprayed with the blood erupting from him. He drops lifelessly at her feet and she lets go of the breath she has been holding since he began circling her.
She wipes her weapons clean of the man's blood on his tunic and sheathes them. With her hand she wipes away the blood from her face. She stares at her hand and at the blood coating it. For a moment her hand trembles at the sight of another life taken by her hands. But she does not allow the pain of it to overcome her. She moves past it. Because this is the path she has chosen for herself. It is her path on the Way; the Path of the Warrior. She has not once doubted it since she began to learn of it from Eli. And she never will. She turns and begins to rush forward to where the others were heading when she had engaged the dagger-wielding warrior.
Darnell leans into the attack of the man swinging the scimitar. The man's sword hammers into his shield with concussive force. He's strong, Darnell thinks. But there's far more to being a fighter than strength alone. The man steps back and spins his sword before charging forward again. This time he tries for an overhead strike that he thinks may get in over his opponent's shield. Darnell raises the shield high and deflects the blow while at the same time thrusting his spear forward under his shield. The weapon misses his opponent but causes him to nearly lose his footing. Darnell heaves the spear back and begins a huge rotation of his body that brings the weapon into a downward arc before him. But the man has seen the move and has scuttled backward causing Darnell's spear to slam into the ground.
The sword wielder kicks up to his feet and kicks the spear away and slashes before him. Darnell barely manages to get his shield before him. The sword bangs off his shield and cuts a shallow gash across his shoulder. His swings his spear around but the man is too close for the blade of the weapon to hit him. Instead the shaft of the spear hits him in the side of the head. He grasps the weapon and tries to pull it from Darnell's grip. Darnell pushes forward with his shield and drives the man backwards.
Seeing the futility of holding onto the spear, the man releases the weapon and spins to his left betting that Darnell's momentum will keep him moving forward and allow him a chance at the big man's vulnerable side.
Darnell realizes the move almost too late and spins himself hard around. The sudden movement causes him to trip and fall. The sword wielder expecting his foe to remain standing lashes out but finds empty air as Darnell goes down flat on his back. He brings his shield up to protect himself as the man's sword slams into it. Darnell scissors his legs back and forth catching his opponent's legs with his own. He twists and hears the man hit the ground. Scrambling quickly to his feet he blindly stabs the spear into the ground where his foe should be. The spear embeds itself in the ground between his foe's torso and right arm.
The man pins the weapon between his side and arm then rolls quickly. The movement pulls the spear form Darnell's grasp and snaps it in two.
The man rolls to his feet and smirks. “ What will you do now that you are weaponless?” he asks with a laugh.
Darnell smirks in return. “ Don't believe everything you see.” Then he rushes forward pressing his shield into his opponent.
His foe tries hard to hide his glee at this fool using the same technique again. It will fail him this time. He allows himself to be pushed back for a moment then he uses his same tactic as well knowing that this time it will work since the man in now unarmed. This time he spins to his right intent on running Darnell through with his scimitar. But as he moves around Darnell's shield the fighter draws the gladius sheathed on the concave side of his shield. The heavier bladed Roman weapon strikes the scimitar with tremendous force and breaks the lighter blade. For a moment the man stares in amazement at his shattered weapon. And a moment is all Darnell requires. The gladius pushes into the man's gut with considerable ease. He drops what remains of his weapon and looks down as if puzzled at the blade impaling him.
Darnell twists the sword then jerks it free. The man puts his hands to his stomach in a futile attempt to hold in the viscera falling out. He collapses to his knees then falls to the ground not dead but dying and no longer a factor in the current situation. Without another thought Darnell races towards where he last saw Caleb.
Eli tries to scuttle away from the possessed girl but she reaches down and seizes him by the throat. “ Eli. Eli. Eli.” Tataka giggles in a way that makes Eli shudder. “ I tried to be nice. I tried to be tolerant of you and your little cult.” With inhuman strength she tosses him over the small rise in the ground where she had appeared.
He hits the ground hard and gasps in pain. Tataka leaps into the air and lands neatly beside him. She kneels down and asks, “ Now after being so nice to you why are you and your foolish followers interrupting my work?”
“ They are not a cult and I am not their leader,” Eli states to her.
“ Ah yes,” Tataka says getting to her feet and walking a few paces away.
Eli takes the opportunity and rises to his feet. He looks around for anything or anyone that could help. He sees no one.
“ You are their teacher,” Tataka says to him as she turns back around to face him. She is far smaller than him and some twenty years younger. But that is only the shell, the body that the demon possesses. From here he can feel the evil of the demon Tataka that has taken up residence in the body of a fourteen year old village girl. And he cannot help but feel responsible. Over two years ago he had been an illusionist doing tricks and magic for small villages in India. But while performing the “Indian Rope Trick” in one village he had unwittingly opened a doorway to another world. And through that doorway a demon had come. It possessed his assistant and began attacking the villagers. Without a thought Eli had thrown himself into the melee. And in his first act as a devi, he had driven the demon from his assistant. But the demon had not been banished from this plane. It had simply sought out a new host. In that case it was a twelve-year-old girl who had been watching the spectacle from her parents' porch. Now he stands face to face with that evil once again.
“ Now I wouldn't have minded but when your humble students begin to preach your doctrine in my cities I do not take kindly to it.” Tataka leers at him. “ And I think I've just about had it with you infringing on my territory. I was civil to you because if not for you I would still be sealed away in that other place that Rama sent me to so long ago.”
“ I'm sorry it ever happened,” Eli replies.
“ There's no call for apologies. I'm quite happy you did it.” Tataka retorts. She steps closer and drags her hands along the sides of the body she inhabits. “ And if it weren't for you I wouldn't have this incredible body.”
“I wasn't talking to you,” Eli says feeling the calm coming over him. He breathes slowly to bring the peace of the One upon him. “ I was talking to that girl you wear like a garment.”
With unearthly speed Tataka lashes out slicing upon his robes and his skin with the action. When she draws back her hand blood glistens on her fingernails. With a sickeningly sensual glee she licks his blood from her fingers. “That was a tasty appetizer. Now I think I'll rip open your chest and feast on your heart!” As she speaks her eyes go pearl white. Her teeth lengthen into gleaming fangs. And her fingernails extend into long talons.
Eli steps back and glances around him feeling that the two of them are no longer alone. Over her shoulder he can see a figure clad in nondescript clothing running up behind the demon possessed girl.
“ No good looking around Eli. No one is here to help you. You are all alone.” Tataka screams at him like some unholy animal.
But now over his initial fear during his pursuit and filled with calm Eli speaks. “ I am never alone.”
“ Spare me your blather about the Way and the One, you fool! Just prepare to die!” She prepares to move forward but becomes aware of movement behind her. She spins and seizes a man by the throat just as he is upon her.
Tataka's back is to Eli and he can see the face of the man who thought to attack her from behind. “Caleb!” he yells recognizing his old friend.
The girl lifts Caleb off the ground like a rag doll. Her grip on his throat is like a vice but he manages to get the water skin slung off his shoulder and he tosses it at Eli's feet. Eli stares down at it dumbfounded. Then turns his attention back to Caleb.
Caleb grabs the hand holding him and tries desperately to relieve the pressure on his throat.
“ And just who do you think you are?” She examines the man's face as she chokes the life from him. “ You must be one of Eli's followers.” She sneers, as the thought of killing one of Eli's men right in front of him will cause the fool no end of pain. Until she kills him that is.
But Caleb doesn't turn his eyes to the possessed one. He meets Eli's stunned gaze. Through the pain and strangulation he manages to croak out, “Sacred water.”
Eli knows immediately what he must do. He grabs up the skin and uncorks it. Squeezing the bag he sends water from the sacred river Ganges onto Tataka's back. When the water hits her it boils and bubbles burning her skin like acid. She screams and drops her intended victim before turning back to face Eli. She screams at him once more.
When Caleb hits the ground he reacts as swiftly as he can. He reaches into a pocket in his tunic and draws out a dart. He rushes forward and slams the dart into Tataka's thigh.
The demon-possessed girl feels the slight pain in her leg and turns once again from Eli to this pest who dares to attack her again. “ What are you doing, you pathetic little…” But the words die on her tongue as her legs give way beneath her. Her eyes roll up into her head and she falls to the ground.
Eli stares in horror as his old friend apparently kills the girl possessed by the demon. “ Caleb! What in heaven's name have you done?”
Caleb pulls the dart out and tosses it aside. “ Seritha.” He states.
“ That's poison Caleb! You've killed her! She was just an innocent possessed by Tataka. She wasn't evil.”
“ Eli. Calm down. It won‘t kill her for some time. But it will keep her unconscious.” Caleb pulls another dart out of his tunic. “ And I have the antidote right here. But if I use it she'll just come to as Tataka again. Unless…” He lets the suggestion hang in the air.
Eli knows what it is that Caleb wants him to do. “ Caleb! I've only exorcised one person.” He points to the girl dying on the ground. “And that is the result.”
“ You were untried. Your faith was not as strong as it is now. I've heard all that you've done here Eli. Have faith in the power you've been given.” He looks down at the girl. “You can save her and end Tataka's reign of terror in these lands.”
“ I…” Eli begins but is surprised when two more people approach. One is a young woman carrying two blades. The other is a larger man armed with sword and shield.
“ You won't be interrupted I can tell you that,” Darnell informs Caleb as he draws up next to the man.
As the woman steps up close Eli recognizes her. “Amarice!” he exclaims. His joy at seeing her is tempered by the sight of the blood coating her.
“ Hello my friend,” Amarice says with a smile. She can see the forlorn look in his eyes. She glances down at herself then looks back and him. “ The Path of the Warrior,” she says to explain it to him.
He nods knowing that she still follows the Way. Though he had hoped some other Path would be open to her. “ I understand.”
Darnell looks from Tataka's still form to Eli then to Caleb. “ What is he waiting for?”
“ He doesn't think he can do it,” Caleb states.
“ Eli,” Amarice says in a disapproving tone. “ After all you've done do you truly think you can't do this?”
“ It was my mistake that made this,” Eli admits.
“ Then you must be the one to fix it, my friend,” Caleb tells him. He smiles as he says the words so as to take any sting from them. “ All you have to do is have faith.”
Eli nods. He kneels down next to the girl and lays one hand on her forehead and the other over her heart. He closes his eyes ands raises his head. His lips move as he chants under his breath in a prayer to the One he follows and to whom he has pledged his very existence. He asks the One for the power to drive the evil back from whence it came. He wants more than anything to save the body and soul of this innocent girl who suffers from this demonic affliction.
Tataka's body begins to writhe and thrash about like she is having a seizure. Sounds erupt from her mouth that should not come from a human girl. Then she goes as stiff as a board and something shoots from her. It is indistinct and shapeless. But he can feel the evil of it. Eli opens his eyes and gazes at the ethereal form of the demon Tataka. Then in a stern voice he commands, “ In the name of the One, you will leave this plane of existence and never return!”
A wailing heard more in the heart and mind than in the ears echoes around them. Then the otherworldly entity that Eli accidentally brought into this world is sent back to where it came by his faith and power. Then the wood is silent.
“ I knew you could do it,” Caleb says slapping his friend on the shoulder. He takes the second dart and uses it to administer the antidote to the girl.
Eli looks at the three of them and finds himself puzzled by their presence. “ Why are you here?” He looks at the warrior garb of Amarice. “ Your method of dress reminds me of the Amazons.”
Amarice does not reply to the statement.
“I must admit to thinking she was an Amazon when we first met,” Caleb says as he checks the young girl's physical condition.
Herr face is suffused with a mingling or loathing and distaste. “ There was a time when I dreamed of being an Amazon. But I saw what they did to the Centaurs first hand,” she replies. She pushes from her mind the images from that day. “ I'm a warrior. Not a killer.”
“And you are?” Eli asks Darnell.
Darnell shrugs as well. “ Me. I'm a killer. Not a warrior.” He jabs a thumb towards Amarice. “ We balance each other out pretty well.”
“ Darnell!” Caleb reprimands the warrior. He cradles the girl in his arms and shakes her to try and wake her. When she whines aloud he smiles and turns to Eli. “ She'll be fine.”
“Caleb. Why are you here?” Eli gets to his feet.
“ I had to find you,” he answers.
“ Why?” Eli asks.
“ I need to show you something,” Caleb explains. “ There are things you need to know.”
“ What?” Eli questions him still uncertain. As he asks the question he can see the fear and trepidation on Caleb's face. “What is it you have to show me?”
Caleb locks eyes with his old friend. “ Your destiny.”
Alti sits alone in her chambers within the Citadel and listens closely to the words resonating about her.
If Hope has plans beyond her conquests then the dead do not know what they are. We know many things but even we cannot discern the will of Dahak.
“ Then be gone!” she shouts dismissively. The many shapeless ghosts that are at her beckon call shimmer then evaporate. It annoys her to no end that she is ignorant of part of Hope's designs on the world. She knows there must be more to the Avatar's plans than just conquering nation after nation. That is the ultimate goal of simple mortal warlords. Hope is certainly not a simple mortal warlord. For what purpose does she feed the Eternal Fire? While it is true Hope's power increases with the sacrifices she found something in the wording of the ritual curious from the first time she was part of it. Hope says that the sacrifices' lives are forfeit in her name and in Dahak's name. She can see why Hope says they are made in her name. That is to increase her own powers and abilities. What she cannot comprehend is why the sacrifices are also made in Dahak's name. That implies some other purpose. But in the years she has served Hope she has been unable to learn what that purpose is. And that truly vexes her.
There is a hammering on her door and Alti is broken from her thoughts. And she is not at all pleased with that. Whoever is on the other side of that door better have a damned good purpose for disturbing her. She opens the door and is nearly knocked over when Najara bolts past her.
“I have to talk with you!” the warrior woman exclaims as she begins to walk the circuit of the room. “ I have to tell you something of great importance.”
Alti watches the way Najara moves about the room like a scolded child trying to work up the courage to tell her mother she has broken something valuable. On top of her pacing she is muttering to herself in such a low tone that Alti cannot make out what she us saying. The shamaness knows what this means. Najara has been contacted by the Djinn. While most believe the Phoenician warrior to be unhinged at the least and a raving maniac at the worst, Alti knows that whether the Djinn are real entities that speak with Najara or whether they are some fragmented aspect of her diseased mind, they are seldom incorrect.
Alti has tried her best to understand Najara and the voices she hears. It may be that the woman is clairvoyant in some way but that the idea terrifies her so that she fashions the idea of otherworldly advisors to keep her sane. Or it may be that she is in contact with something so preternatural that even the shamaness cannot make sense of it. Whatever the reason she has found the Djinn to be sound if somewhat enigmatic counsel. It was the Djinn after all who warned them of the threat posed by Callisto.
She steps in front of Najara and tries to calm the woman. “ Relax Najara,” Alti says leading the woman to a nearby seat. “ Try not to get so worked up.”
Once Najara is seated she continues to tremble like a frightened girl.
“ Now tell me what the Djinn have said.” She stands over Najara like a mother waiting to hear her child confess her mischief.
“ We will be betrayed!” Najara screams aloud with tears coursing down her face.
Alti stares dumbfounded at the woman. A traitor? Surely that is impossible. There is not a soul among Hope's Inner Council that would dare betray the Avatar of Dahak. While it may be true some of them have ulterior motives for serving her there isn't a one that would risk her wrath with betrayal. She's too powerful an ally to do something so stupid.
“ Surely you must be mistaken,” Alti says in a calming voice.
Najara shoots to her feet and grabs Alti by her shaman's robes. She hoists the woman up off the ground and stares into her eyes. “ The Djinn do not lie!” She bellows.
Alti swallows heavily knowing she may be on the cusp of a lethal mistake but she must be sure of what Najara is telling her. “ I am not saying they lie. I am merely saying you may have misinterpreted what they told you.”
“ I have not,” Najara contradicts her shaking the woman in her grasp. “ Ephiny will betray Hope.”
A lurid smile crosses Alti's face and it is an expression that does not make her look nicer in anyway. “Oh really,” she croons now careless that she is dangling in the grip of a possible lunatic. “ Tell me more.”
Caesar nods to the centurion beside him. The man gives a loud blast on a trumpet. All around men, horses and wagons begin to move north away from the city of Rome. The centurion lowers the trumpet then begins to move along with all the others. Caesar watches the mass of the XIII Legion begin its march. Within the day he will arrive at Lucius's garrison and take control of the legions stationed there. Then they will turn west and head into Gaul. The last time he had entered Gaul it had been shortly after he had dealt with Xena and her crew of pirates. He was fulfilling his destiny then. And conquering Gaul had been the first step in realizing that destiny. Now he will be riding into Gaul with that nation's chieftain as his ally. And he will take control of thousands of Gallic warriors. Ironic does not begin to describe the situation. The irony is driven further home as his Mistress of the Horse moves up next to him.
“ You look troubled.” Xena says as she pulls her horse close to his.
Caesar glances down at the tan warhorse Xena rides. The animal is trotting its feet in place and blowing air through its nostrils.
“ Argo looks anxious,” Caesar retorts sidestepping her observation.
“ She is a war horse after all,” Xena replies. “ It has been some time since I've ridden her into a battle. I think she knows what is coming.”
“I wish that I did.” Caesar watches the column of soldiers and staff moving en masse before him.
“ I believe you have said before that the best way to neutralize a trap is to spring it in your enemy's face,” Xena states.
“ For any other foe that may be the case.”
“ But this is Hope.”
“ Her armies can be defeated just like any other. We have nearly a legion here, Lucius's legions, Vercinix's men and Crassus legions in Spain. That will give us nearly twenty thousand men to throw at Carthage. Will that not be enough?”
“ While in the east Pompey had control of twelve legions.”
Xena stares in shock at Caesar. “ Twelve!”
“ He did not bring all of them to Egypt. Nor do I believe he has sent for any more. Hope needs those legions in place to keep control of Syria, Palestina, Cyprus and Egypt. Not all lands bowed down in subjugation to her and Pompey no matter the propaganda they fabricate in Athens. But rest assured we will be outnumbered.”
“ The clash of our armies will not be the true battle anyway,” Hercules intones as he and Iolaus ride up to Caesar and Xena. “ What matters is Hope.”
“True,” Caesar agrees. He is about to speak when he sees a horse galloping towards them. As the horse gets closer he can see Julia astride the animal. And sitting in front of her is Lyceus!
“ Julia!” Caesar exclaims. “ What are you doing?”
His daughter reins the horse in and simply smiles at him. “Sorry father. But we just couldn't let you go without saying good bye.” She brings the horse in closer to Xena and Lyceus leaps off into his mother's arms.
“ Mama!” the toddler cries out. He wraps his short arms around Xena's neck and hugs her tightly.
Xena blinks back tears as she holds her child in her hands. It is not difficult for her to recall the child's namesake and how much she misses the brother who died for her folly. “ What's all this?”
“ Be careful!” Lyceus shouts pulling away to look into her eyes.
Xena smiles broadly. “I will. Can I bring you back anything?” she asks him as if she were just going out on a shopping trip. Which in Lyceus's eyes she probably is. He is far too young to understand the concept of war. She hopes he will never have any need to understand it.
Lyceus is suddenly lost in thought. But then just shakes his head. “ Love you!” he shouts. Then he turns towards Hercules and holds out his arms. “Dada!”
Hercules reaches out to take his son in his arms and holds him high up over his head. “ Now are you going to behave while your mother and I are gone?” he asks scrutinizing his child's face.
Lyceus tries his best to look insulted but Hercules notices that he does not respond in any other way.
“ I'll make sure he stays out of trouble,” Julia says.
Iolaus reaches over and musses the child's hair. “See you later buddy.” Lyceus nods vigorously.
Julia brings her horse in as close to Caesar's as she can. “ Father. Please. I don't want to lose…”
Caesar stops her. “ Julia. I am going to war. I can make no promises.”
Julia reaches into the folds of her robes and produces a golden chain on which hangs an ankh that glistens in the sunlight. She holds it out to her father. “ Take this. It was a gift from mother. I want you to have it. The Cross of Life. To remind you of all that is worth living for.”
Xena and the others watch the moment unfold before them. They all smile as Caesar takes the necklace and places it over his head and around his neck. The ankh rests over the lion etched into her ceremonial armor. He lays his hand on his daughter's shoulder and their eyes meet once more. No words are spoken. None are needed.
Lyceus drops from his father's horse and begins to run giggling back towards Rome. As he nears the gates Antony, Octavia and Octavian meet him. Caesar's niece sweeps the child up into her arms. The three of them wave towards the departing army.
Julia nods to her father and meets Xena's eyes one last time before she rides away. Caesar and the others begin to follow the army but they halt when a voice cries out behind them.
“ Romans!” Julia cries out in as loud a voice as possible.
Caesar, Hercules, Xena and many others turn to face the voice of the girl on horseback before the city gates.
Julia puts her fist to her heart in salute. Then she bids them farewell with a phrase last heard from Spartan wives before their husbands left for war. “Return with your shields! Or upon them!”
In reply every Roman within earshot slams their fists to their hearts in salute and bellow a raging battle cry in fearsome unison.
In complete opposite to the massive force leaving from Rome, only a token few approach the Greek port city of Piraeus. Barely a cohort of Pompey's XXV legion follows behind Hope who rides at the head of the column of soldiers. Beside her rides Ephiny.
Behind her Ephiny can feel the eyes of Najara boring into her back. She does not look back over her shoulder at the warrior woman nor at Meridian who rides beside Najara. Over the years she has grown used to the hatred so many of the Inner Council have towards her. But she will not give them the satisfaction of acknowledging them or their disdain for her. She doesn't care about any of them anyway. She only cares for one. She glances to Hope who is clad in her ceremonial armor with the triumvirate flame etched on the breastplate, the flowing blood red cape and the eagle guard sword. She rides to battle. Before their departure from the Citadel Hope had offered to have her armored and armed for what the Avatar believes will be the decisive battle of her war with Caesar and his allies. As always Ephiny had refused. Hope had dropped the subject and Ephiny had dressed her in the armor she now wears. She had requested that Joxer stay at the Citadel in order to oversee what was certain to be Hope's triumphant return. Though in truth Ephiny neither wanted Hope to return the victor nor did she need Joxer to oversee anything. She wanted him to meet with the resistance at least once while she was away.
“ You are lost in thought again,” Hope says.
Ephiny jerks from her own inner thoughts and smiles at the Avatar. “ My apologies.” She looks at Hope and as always her gaze lingers on the scar on the woman's cheek before going up to meet the beautiful green eyes. “ I'm a little tired I think.”
Hope smiles in a way that is both playful and yet just a little sinister. “ I am sorry if I kept you up so late.”
Ephiny blushes and tries to look away but finds herself lost in the green eyes that glow with the inner fire of Dahak. Even knowing what evil lies behind those eyes she is always mesmerized by them.
A not so subtle groan emanates from behind them.
“ Something the matter Meridian?” Ephiny asks now turning to look at the priestess.
“ Oh. Nothing at all my lady.” Meridian says the words but they are as always untrue.
Of them all Meridian and Khrafstar hate her the most. Of that Ephiny is sure. They see her as the one thing holding Hope's true nature in check. Or at least that is their opinion. Since childhood they have known nothing but the desire to serve the One God. Their devotion to Dahak has blinded them to everything else. They would no more understand the concept of love than a rodent could be taught Herodotus.
“ We are here,” Hope informs them all.
Ephiny turns her attention to the city and gasps but not at the sight of the city. She has ridden the road from Athens to Piraeus and back again many times over the years. The city holds no fascination for her. But the sight of what lies moored in the harbor does garner her full attention. Anchored a few hundred yards from shore are fifteen Egyptian war ships. Wide and tall with sails that even now catch the winds and flutter, the vessels are as imposing a sight as Ephiny has seen in years. But they are nothing compared to what she sees there with them. For sitting amidst the war ships is a boat at least twice as long and half again as wide as any of its neighbors. Four rows of oars stick out from both sides of the massive vessel and its mast would seem to reach into the clouds. It glistens in the sunlight as if made from solid gold. Legionaries and Amazons stand in formation on the deck of the ship as do twenty some men on horseback. Painted on each side of the prow of the ship are eyes the green of Hope's and wreathed in flame.
“ What do you think of my flagship Ephiny?” Hope asks.
Ephiny turns to look at Hope but is too stymied for words. She turns back to look at the ship and its escorts once more.
“ When Caesar is gone I will sail that vessel right up the river and into Rome itself,” Hope declares. She smiles at the thought and kicks her mount into a gallop. Ephiny slaps her reins against her horse and the stallion gallops off after the lead horse. The rest of those following Hope also set their horses to run.
The citizens of Piraeus part before the rushing entourage of the Avatar of the One God. As one they cheer her passing. Some throw flowers before the horses as they race by. Soon they are before the docks and Ephiny is disgusted to see Ares leaning against a pylon near the water's edge.
Hope holds up a hand. “Wait here,” she tells all those with her. She dismounts her horse and walks over to stand before the god of war. They exchange words and Ares nods frequently as he speaks. Though too far away to hear the entirety of the conversation, Ephiny having been at the head of the column and nearest Hope can hear a few snatches of the conversation.
“ We are prepared.”
“ …will never suspect.”
“ … a two fold vic…”
“ Alti is ready. She…”
“ an entire city… fed to the…”
She can see Hope trembling with laughter at something Ares has said. Then she nods to him and he vanishes in a flash of light and sound.
“ What was that all about?” Ephiny asks.
Hope shrugs off the question by saying, “Nothing to concern yourself with. Najara!”
The warrior woman turns blazing eyes from Ephiny's back to Hope. “ Yes?”
“Begin preparations for departure. We leave with the tide.” Hope hands the reigns of her horse to the first of a group of young boys that have come from a building close to the docks.
“Of course!” Najara says dismounting and handing her reigns to another boy. She moves off and begins barking orders to all those assembled.
“Meridian you should get some rest. You will need all your strength for the ceremony in Carthage,” Hope informs the priestess.
Meridian nods and dismounts. “ Yes Avatar.” She removes a huge saddlebag from her horse and walks towards the docks.
“ Ceremony?” Ephiny inquires getting off her horse and turning it over to one of the boys. From the corner of her eye she sees a soldier distributing dinar coins to all the boys taking the horses. Even amongst children she will sow loyalty to her, Ephiny thinks.
“ Of course,” Hope replies. “ I will need the Eternal Fire if I am to consecrate the city to Dahak. And the rituals cannot be performed without it.”
Ephiny mentally slaps herself. Of course Hope will draw forth the Fire of Dahak in Carthage. How else will she make the sacrifices? It occurs to her to wonder if Hope will try and capture Xena and Caesar and feed them to the Fire. She shudders momentarily. She hopes there will be no sacrifices. For in Carthage she will not be able to hide from the awful rites of Dahak.
Hope's hand on her shoulder makes her jump.
“ Are you all right?” Hope asks in a voice so soft and compassionate Ephiny can almost believe that it is Gabrielle speaking to her. She grasps onto that illusion and holds to it. After her near death experience with Hope she feels she will take any chance to converse or interact with the Avatar as if she were the girl from Poteadaia.
“ Sorry. I…” she pauses trying to come up with some plausible explanation for her behavior. She certainly cannot tell Hope that she is becoming increasingly afraid of the Avatar after the incident the other night. Hope had nearly killed her. And she is deathly afraid of what may happen the next time Gabrielle appears and then Hope resurfaces.
“ How about I show you around the ship,” Hope says congenially. “ While it is still moored that is. I know that you don't like being out at sea very much.”
Taken aback by the duality of the Avatar that allows her to speak so kindly now to her but to turn into an almost god-like killer without provocation Ephiny has to fight to get the next words out to sound as friendly and as normal as possible. She smiles for a few seconds before replying. “ I don't mind being out at sea. It's my stomach that protests so much.” She forces a laugh.
Hope smiles and places one arm around her handmaiden's waist. Ephiny becomes lost in the personal contact with Hope and forgets her fears and trepidations. She allows Hope to lead her towards a small boat that will take them to the flagship. She glances at Hope's face from the corner of her eye. The Avatar is speaking but she isn't listening. She watches the lips move as if in slow motion. From those lips can issue forth the kindest and gentlest sentiments she has ever heard as well as words of absolute hatred and appalling evil. Words of love she has heard from those lips and words condemning innocent men and women to death. She wonders what trials will be ahead for her. How she will be tested. She thinks that she may soon pay a high price for following the Path of Love. But in her heart of hearts she prays that in the end it will be worth it.
Cicero tries his best to block out the squabbling and blustering of the men about him. He can hear Cassius telling the others to be quiet and to be patient. That is a tall order for these men of power in Rome.
“ Where is this friend of yours?” Cato asks him.
Cicero turns to regard the elderly Senator and can see the apprehension present in the old man's features. He looks past Cato to the other six men assembled with him. The only ones he has told of his dealings with Atrius. He glances about looking for any sign of the old warrior. Where in blazes is he? Cicero thinks to himself. To Cato he merely replies, “Be patient my friend. He will be here.”
“ This had better not be a waste of time Cicero,” Cato says shaking a gnarled fist in Cicero's face. “If this is all some farce of your making you will regret it.”
Cicero stares into the gaunt and twitching face of the old man who commands the respect of so many in the Senate. “I would not dream of wasting your time, my dear Cato.” He speaks the next words loud enough for everyone to hear. “I would not dare to inconvenience the lot of you simply for my own amusement.”
Cassius turns to face Cicero and nods. “Which of us has ever known Cicero to be a liar? Why do any of you doubt his word now? He says that he and this ally of his may be able to wrestle control of our Republic away from Caesar and his minions. I, for one, believe him.”
“Thank you Cassius.” Cicero turns back to Cato. “ Have no fear my friend. Soon we shall see an end to tyranny here in Rome and in all our lands. Caesar, Antony and that Grecian harlot think they have control. But we will prove them wrong.”
“Xena is actually from Thrace,” a voice from the darkness informs them. Atrius steps from behind a marble column at the back of the Senate chamber. All eyes go to him and not a few of them wonder how long he has been standing there. He must have been there since before their own arrival for he would have had to walk past them to get to the back of the chamber. “Amphipolis to be exact.”
“This is the ally you have spoken so highly of?” Antais, a close friend of Cato's who is always in the business of learning what the old man knows. He looks at the grizzled old wreck of a warrior and chuckles. “Now surely this is a joke after all.”
“For this you have wasted our afternoon Cicero!” exclaims the balding and bloated Piso pointing to Atrius with a sausage-sized finger. “How can this old fool be of any …Ahhhh!” He cries out in pain as Atrius grabs the finger in his hand and twists it.
Cicero barely hides a smile when he sees the fat man goes to his knees in pain and begin begging in a very girlish voice for Atrius to stop.
“These are the men you trust Cicero?” Atrius releases Piso's finger and begins to walk around all the men gathered here. Not a one of them seems worth his salt. Too young. Too old. Too fat. Too effeminate. But Atrius must admit that they represent fairly well a cross section of the Roman upper class. He shakes his head at that fact. “I suppose they will suffice. Loyal servants of the Roman Republic all of them?”
“Do not insult us with your mocking tone old man,” Cassius says in a tone that surprises Atrius with its strength and resolve. “I am a loyal servant of the Republic. And I'll not have the likes of your questioning that loyalty.”
“This one has a backbone it seems,” Atrius says to Cicero. Atrius finds that unlike all the others present, including Cicero, Cassius is just what he says. He cares more for the continuing Roman Republic than for his own hide or status.
“Enough of your banter Atrius!” Cicero shouts. “ I have brought these men with me as you requested. Now tell me what you want.”
“What I want is what you all want,” Atrius informs them. “I want Caesar gone. Antony gone. Xena gone. Hercules gone. I want the Roman Republic back in the hands of its citizens and Senators.”
“Why?” Cato asks with suspicion and a sneer that seems to crawl all the way up from his mouth to his forehead.
“Let's just say I have a vested interest in Rome no longer being under the auspices of men grown too powerful for their own good.” Atrius sits down on a stone bench usually occupied by one of the consuls of the Republic.
“That is an evasive answer,” Piso mutters from the floor.
“I am an evasive man,” Atrius repines with a shrug.
“Then enlighten us evasive man,” Cassius suggests as he crosses his arms and stares at the old warrior.
“You want to know how to regain control of the Republic? It starts with regaining control of this city. The Roman Republic hinges on Rome.” Atrius pulls a dagger from his waist and uses it to casually clean crusted dirt from under his fingernails. “ Wrest control of Rome away from Caesar and you have taken your first step.”
“There is a standing army in Rome!” Antais informs Atrius in a poisonous tone of voice. “Or hadn't you noticed?”
“Or hadn't you noticed that Caesar took all but two cohorts of the XIII Legion with him when he left?” Atrius counters the young senator. “There are currently less than one thousand soldiers left in Rome. And all of them under the command of only one man.”
“Antony,” Cicero says.
“Precisely,” Atrius continues. “ He is the only real man of any leadership quality left. Caesar took all the rest with him. Any legionary with any battle experience took leave with Caesar to Carthage. Only the youngest and least experienced are left.”
“And this helps us how?” asks a man so slight in body and high in voice that Atrius wonders if he is not some women posing as a man.
Atrius opens his mouth but Cassius beats him to the answer.
“If Antony were … removed, the remaining cohorts would be effectively leaderless.” Cassius feels a growing respect for this old warhorse before him.
“You are suggesting we commit murder!” Piso shouts at the top of his lungs.
“Silence you fool!” Cato screams at the man in only a slightly quieter tone.
“What I suggest is that you take back what is yours.” Atrius rises to his feet and walks among the men assembled. “Take back the city from the hand of the tyrant Caesar. For the good of Rome and the good of the Republic. Strike a blow for freedom.”
“Freedom?” the womanly senator inquires.
“Do you not see?” Atrius says. “Can't you understand what Caesar will do?”
“He will make himself king.” Cicero states what he has believed for so very long. “It's been obvious. The Legions aren't loyal to Rome anymore. They are loyal to Caesar. To Antony. To Xena.”
“I think you are all forgetting one factor in all this,” Cato says curtailing the conversation. “Across the Mediterranean sits the most powerful navy in the world. And it is under the control of Hope.” He turns to Atrius and Cicero. “Or had you not figured the Avatar of Dahak into this little conspiracy?”
All those assembled look a little appalled not to have thought about that. Cicero is at a loss for words. Even Cassius now looks dubious.
Atrius merely laughs. “Please don't tell me you believe all these stories about Hope being some supernatural Avatar of an otherworldly evil?”
“I have heard many tales about what goes on in Athens and the other lands under her control.” Piso says.
“Heard tales have you?” Atrius says walking back up to the fat man. Piso cringes as Atrius draws near him. “And you have proof of these atrocities?”
Piso shakes his head.
“You say ‘lands under her control.' Are you aware that she is not a queen in any of those lands? A king or queen of their choosing rules each of those lands. They have been since liberated from…” Atrius stops himself and feigns a look of embarrassment. “ Oops. I forgot. They were once your lands weren't they?”
“Again you mock us!” Cato exclaims. “Those were Roman lands. Justly conquered and fairly treated.”
“They didn't seem to think so. After Hope liberated them they heaped praise on her for releasing them from Roman rule.” Atrius sits back down to allow these men to digest what he has told them. Of course he has purposefully fed them ideals that are polar opposites. Speaking out against Caesar's dictatorship but then reminding them that Hope liberated lands they had taken. Sowing dissension to create conflict has always been one of his favorite ploys. He sits back to watch.
“She was only able to do so with the help of that traitor Pompey!” another elderly senator who seems barely able to stand without the assistance of a rail thin man at his side.
The thin man turns his gaze to Atrius. “This plan cannot go well in any way. You condemn us to anarchy in Rome even if it succeeds. The army will run amok to find out who killed Antony. It will be chaos.”
“Leave the remnants of the XIII to me,” Atrius says simply.
“What?” Antais says in a stunned voice. “What are you saying?”
“I am saying you do your part and I will do mine.” Atrius laces his hands behind his head and leans back.
“This is madness!” the feminine senator chimes in. “Even if Antony is dead. And you somehow manage to keep the XIII from turning Rome into a demilitarized zone. Then we will be at the mercy of Hope.”
“Would that be such a bad thing?” Atrius asks closing his eyes and waiting for the explosion.
“What?” is the unanimous response.
Atrius stands to his feet. And when he begins to speak again it is with clarity of voice and strength of purpose that rivals Cicero.
“ I can see that you do not entirely see what I am offering you. Hope is not a conqueror. She is a liberator. All the lands that she and her allies have freed from your rule are now under the control of local kings and queens. She has returned them to their rightful rule. This she can do here. She can take you out from under the rule of the despot Caesar. She will return control of the Republic to Rome!
“For over three centuries you have lived without a king. Now Caesar reigns over you as a king in all but name. But you can fight back. You can stand up to his tyranny. You can say to his regime, ‘We are Rome! And we will not be subject to a king!' I promise you that you will retain the Republic. Hope will not have you all cast out or murdered like Caesar has led you to believe. It is propaganda he has created so you will fear Hope and turn to him for leadership. You all saw what he did. Without your consent he made Xena his second in command. She is now a princess to his kingship. The citizens cheered them. And this he did right in front of you all. Flaunting his absolute power. Did you know he plans to marry his niece to Antony? With them he will create a dynasty through which he and his line will rule over the kingdom of Rome.
“But you can say,' No!' Stand up for freedom. Defy his representative. Kill Antony and take your first step back towards freedom. When Rome is yours Hope will not disband the Senate as Caesar no doubt plans to do. She will give you back full control of the Republic. And a grand Republic you will have. This peninsula is yours. As is Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. You control most of Gaul. But Caesar has, for all intents and purposes, given that back to Vercinix. He will incorporate Gaul into his kingdom. Spain too is yours. From the Adriatic to the Pillars of Hercules, that is the breadth of the Republic. And so it shall be until the end of time if you will but take a stand. When next Antony walks into this chamber take up arms and make sure he does not leave it. The rest I will deal with. Loyal servants of the Republic! What do you say? Will you fight against tyranny and take your first step back towards freedom? Will you show Caesar that this Republic is not ruled by one man? But by the Senate and People of Rome?”
The response from these eight men is unanimous and loud. “ YES!”
Some moments later Atrius watches the senators leave with a smile on his face that remains there as he shimmers and reverts back to the true form of the god of war. From behind the pillar where he had hidden earlier steps another figure clad in black. With his scarred face and useless arm slung to his body he hardly looks like any man worthy of Ares' attention. But the evil gleam in his eye and the sinister set of his face lend him a malevolent air that would dissuade anyone from thinking him not a true and worthy follower of the god of war. And he has been a devoted follower ever since the day he joined the army of Xena so many years ago.
Dagnine chuckles as he steps up next to Ares. “That went well.”
“So it seems.” The god of war rests one arm casually on the huge sword sheathed on his waist.
“Don't think they'll follow through?” Dagnine asks. He rubs his face with a leather-clad hand. The scars on his face still itch even after all these years.
“They were caught up in the moment there. I don't doubt Cassius. He truly believes in the Republic. He'll do it. But the others,” Ares pauses to think. “With daggers in their hands and Antony before them I am certain they will not be able to do it.”
“So I'm assuming you have something else arranged should they not prove up to the task,” Dagnine says. It is not a question. He knows that Ares is far too intelligent to not have a back up plan for this situation. They have been planning this for nearly a year. It is too much to let it hinge on the courage of these eight men.
Ares smiles. Dagnine has shown over the years to be a cunning and ruthless servant. Xena was a fool to lose him. “Alti has an alternative for us.” He turns to face the scarred warlord. “Is all prepared?”
“The last ones arrived before dawn. We are set.” Dagnine smiles.
Ares smiles as well. “Good.” He and Dagnine are still laughing when they both vanish from sight.
“I should have gone with him!” Octavian exclaims slamming his fist into the table before him. “He says I am like a son to him but that is no reason to treat me like a child!”
Octavia winces when she hears his hand impact the table. “He does not treat you like a child and you know it.” She crosses the room to stand before the table on which are laid out charts of Carthage. Their uncle had been studying them intently at every opportunity before his departure. Now Octavian studies those same charts with equal intensity. She glances at the charts for a moment then looks up at him. “And you know full well why he did not take you with him. You are young and inexperienced. As much as you may like to think of yourself as a great general.” She pauses to look at the armor and clothing he wears that shows his rank and station as a leader in the armies of Rome. “Even you are not so ignorant as to believe it. You are still a child in the eyes of many.”
“Why must you always talk down to me in that way?” he asks turning his reddening face back down to the charts.
“Because you are my little brother and one of my jobs is to tease you endlessly.” She smiles as she reaches over to muss his hair.
He pulls back and swats at her hand. “Octavia!”
She just giggles at his boyish attitude.
“Octavia,” Antony says from the doorway. “Don't tease him so. His ego may never recover.”
“I see nothing wrong with bruising his ego Marcus,” Octavia says making the point to call him by his first name in a very familiar way.
“I do!” Octavian shouts.
Antony laughs loudly before walking into the room, stepping up behind Octavia and wrapping her in his arms. “Where are Julia and Lyceus?” he asks her.
She leans back into his arms and smiles at the poisonous glance her brother turns their way. She knows that he feels some sense of jealousy towards Antony. Until they became lovers she had lavished all her attention on her brother. He claims to despise her teasing but she knows he has adored the attention since he was old enough to realize his sister's love for him. And now her attention is no longer fully on him. It annoys him.
“Lyceus is asleep and Julia is in her room,” she replies. She turns in his arms to look him in the eyes. Her gaze goes over his shoulder and she spies the legionaries standing outside the door.
Octavian looks past the pair to look at the soldiers as well. He sees that these men are not the young new recruits that currently stand in Rome but veterans of his uncle's Gallic and Greek campaigns. He deduces their purpose instantly. “Uncle wants us all protected. He fears some assassination attempt or such while he is gone.” He understands the reasoning behind it and nods. He points to the eldest of the six soldiers standing there. “Have Julia brought here and then send Syllia to bring Lyceus.”
The soldier stands a little stunned for moment. Then Antony glances over his shoulder at the man.
“Well? What are you waiting for?” he asks.
The soldier salutes then moves away. Antony looks back at Octavian and smiles. Octavia looks proudly at her brother. “Surely he doesn't think that Hope will attempt any such action? Two cohorts of the XIII are still within the city walls.” She looks a little incredulous at the very idea.
“Uncle seems to think so,” Octavian replies. “And he rarely does anything without just cause sister. I would not have thought it possible for Pompey to take Alexandria. But he did. With considerable ease I might add.”
Octavia moves away from Antony's intimate embrace and sits down on a couch nearby. “So we are to be prisoners in our own home?” she inquires but already knows the answer.
“Caesar wants you all kept safe and I have no intention of doing otherwise,” Antony answers her question.
Octavian continues to study the charts before him. “Do you think they can win?”
Octavia looks up at her brother in dismay. “Octavian. I prefer not to hear you talk that way.”
“It is just that there is this densely wooded area outside of the city ruins,” Octavian states pointing on one of the charts to the area he speaks of. “It is the perfect place for Amazons to lay in wait for an ambush. And parts of the city's outer walls still stand. They will be forced to come at Hope's forces from only one spot if she has them holed up inside.”
“Octavian,” Antony says walking up next to Caesar's nephew. He lays his hand on the young man's shoulder.
Octavian pretends not to notice as he continues his analysis of Carthage. “And the cavalry will be practically useless except on this plain north of the city.” He points to another place on another chart. “See. Here. And then around the outskirts of the city are far too many places where…”
“Octavian,” Antony says placing his other hand on the younger man's other shoulder. He turns him from the charts to face him. “It's all right. I know you are afraid for them. I am too. But this constant worrying will do no one any good.”
Octavian breathes in a shuddering breath before speaking again. “I just don't want this to go on any more. There was a time when I longed to fight beside him. But after Alexandria…” he trails off as a sick look comes across his face. “I don't want to see anymore death. I know it makes me sound weak to say so.”
Octavia stands and walks over to embrace her brother and hold him tight. “You are not weak Octavian. It is not weakness to cherish life. There is strength in compassion. Xena learned that lesson and after all this conflict so has uncle. Do you believe either of them to be weak?”
Octavian shakes his head. Then leans into his sister and takes strength from her presence.
Antony looks at the charts of Carthage and knows that all Octavian pointed out is true. But Caesar knows it all too. He hopes it will serve his friend well.
“I was sleeping!” a very upset Lyceus says as he is led into the room by one of his caretakers.
Antony turns with a smile. “So sorry to disturb you sir.” He performs an overly exaggerated and silly bow as Lyceus walks into the room.
Xena's young son points at Antony and giggles childishly. “Funny!”
“He has his moments,” Julia points out as she enters into the room followed by two of the soldiers. “I am gathering that father wants none of us out of their sight.” She jabs a thumb over her shoulder at the stationed men.
“It is just a precaution,” Antony points out. “And a pertinent one I think.”
“You always agree with him,” Octavian says with a smirk.
“I wish that I did,” Antony retorts. “It would make life far simpler.”
Julia rushes up to Lyceus and scoops him up into her arms. He giggles and then starts to laugh loudly as Julia begins to playfully tickle him. She turns to the caretaker. “It's all right. I'll watch him.” The older woman nods then leaves the room.
“It will sound a bit silly but I will need the four of you to accompany me to the Senate meeting in a few days,” Antony informs them all.
“That seems a bit paranoid even for father,” Julia states. She spins Lyceus in her arms so that he is hanging upside down in her grasp. He screams gleefully.
“Why are you meeting with them?” Octavian asks. “Surely they cannot want to try and vote again on the XIII being in Rome since there are barely two cohorts left.”
“Cato has called for this session.” Antony exhales in exasperation.
“No doubt he and Cicero will try once more to strip father of his role as dictator,” Julia says settling Lyceus back onto his feet.
“Again!” Lyceus shouts.
“He must realize that will be a waste of time.” Octavian rolls up the charts and replaces them on a shelf. “As tribune you will veto any such motion.”
“Cicero and Cato will keep trying no matter what,” Octavia replies. “I don't think they feel they can do otherwise. You know what they think uncle is trying to do. Make himself king.”
“Too much talking!” Lyceus bellows. “More play!”
Octavian moves to the scowling child and squats down to be eye level with him. He puts the tip of his index finger on the tip of the child's nose. “You are the very definition of precocious.”
Lyceus places his index finger against Octavian's stomach. “You pudgy,” he points out.
Octavian stands to his full height. “What?”
All present in the room including the soldiers chuckle.
“Does the truth hurt brother?” Octavia says as she laughs so loudly that it hurts her stomach.
“I am not fat!” Octavian yells at the top of his lungs.
“Are too!” Lyceus contradicts him.
“I am not!” Octavian screams.
Antony watches the jovial moment with a smile on his face. He takes heart in the ability of youth to somehow side step the awful realities of the world and know the peace that comes from simple moments of fun and hilarity. And not for the first time wonders how much longer such moments will be possible.
“You're disappointed in me, aren't you?” Amarice asks Eli as she paces back and forth in his quarters.
Eli looks up from the tea he is making for them and can only smile at the uncertainty of youth. “Now how could I be disappointed in you?” he asks.
Amarice stops her pacing to look out the window into the courtyard below. The enclave in which he lives with those he teaches is an abandoned fortress that once guarded the borders of India from barbarian invasion. Once a bastion of war and combat, now it is decorated with flowers and banners. Instead of soldiers pacing and standing guard, simple men and women mill about speaking casually with each other while humble merchants ply their trade. Not a weapon is visible except for the pilum and gladius Darnell wears as he walks from a stall selling salted meats to where Caleb is pulling sheaves of parchment from the saddlebag of his horse. Here peace holds sway. Here there is no violence. Only love. She turns away when a child playfully skipping with his mother turns and looks in her direction.
Once she had sought to be an Amazon. Since childhood she had trained herself to be physically fit. Had taken instruction from anyone who would teach her how to fight. Had saved dinars from odd jobs to purchase a sword. At age sixteen she ran away from home so that she could fulfill her destiny. She would be an Amazon.
But that ideal had been shattered when she had walked from a dense forest and found herself in the middle of a bloody wasteland that had once been a Centaur village. For hours she had walked among the dead. Centaurs, male and female, and men and women and children were everywhere. Or rather their corpses were. Not a single soul was left alive. She found the bodies of centaurs that had been butchered like livestock. Their entrails laid out beside them as if on display. Decapitated and dismembered bodies were everywhere. Men and women who were allies of the centaurs and lived in the village were crucified and hung from trees. She found one centaur who had his legs cut off and been made to crawl for his life judging by the huge blood trail behind him. From one hut she had run screaming after finding the body of a woman who had her centaur child cut from her body. The child had been cut in half then its upper torso had been shoved back into her body. Standing in the center of the village she could not imagine who could be responsible for this carnage. Then she saw a glint of metal from one centaur body. She stepped closer to find with horror an eagle guard sword thrust into the poor creature's body. Amazons had done this! Amazons had murdered an entire centaur village!
After being violently ill she had run from the village only to trip over one last body as she did so. She stared down at the body of a young boy who could not be much older than ten or eleven. He was lying on his stomach but his face was turned and so she could see his handsome features under long sandy colored hair. His blue eyes open in death staring at nothing. His right arm was stretched out. He had died reaching for a sword that was shattered into pieces. With all the strength in her young body Amarice had run from the dead village. Had run as far and as fast as she could away from the nightmare that had once been her dream.
Living on the road and barely surviving, she wandered east not knowing what else to do. Her reason for living was gone. Her destiny was nothing but a child's foolish fantasy now covered in gore. The Amazons were not heroes. They were murderers. And she had wanted to be one of them. She had been near death when a kindly old man had picked her up from the side of the road and placed her in his wagon. When she awoke she was lying in a bed and could hear the sound of singing coming from outside. She had staggered to her feet and gone to pull aside the curtain that let her see out into the courtyard. As she looked out the singing ceased and a man with a long dark beard and dressed in robes of green and yellow stepped onto a platform to speak. His name was Eli. And what he spoke of was called the Way.
Now she has returned to that enclave as a warrior. And she tries hard not to think about all she has done since her departure over a year ago. The people she has killed. The blood that has stained her hands. She holds up her hands and looks at them.
“The blood washes away from your hands Amarice,” Eli says as he stands next to her. “And it can be washed away from your soul as well.”
“I didn't want to be a warrior,” she tells him. “Not after I saw what the Amazons had done. I never wanted to take the life of another.”
“Do you seek to take life?” Eli asks her taking her hands in his. “Do you go out of your way to kill?”
“No,” she replies. “I…I…”
“You fight in order to protect others,” Eli answers her inner turmoil for her. “You fight for, and as a last resort you kill for, the greater good.”
“But at times I feel like I enjoy it,” she admits to him. “A blood lust wells up in me and I feel like it will consume me.”
Eli stares into her eyes and finds himself also staring into her soul. “You give into the blood lust in order to win. In order to help others, as you helped me. But it haunts you afterwards. Doesn't it?”
“Yes,” she says in a voice so low it is hardly audible. She can feel tears welling up in her eyes. “I see each of their faces when I close my eyes. I ended their lives. I think about the families they may have had and what that family has lost. I feel no better than the Amazons who butchered the centaurs.”
“But you are better because you feel the guilt. But you cannot let it overwhelm you.” He takes his hands from hers and reaches up to touch her face. “You were lost when you came to me. You were without purpose and without understanding. I gave you the understanding. But only you could find the purpose. And you did.” He leans forward to kiss her forehead. “You must know that you may suffer but that it is for a greater purpose. The Path of the Warrior is a difficult path on the Way. But it is a path on the Way. Never forget that. And follow it with your whole heart.” He presses his forehead against her and smiles as he looks into her eyes. “No. I am not disappointed in you Amarice. I could not be more proud.”
She steps back to stare into his eyes and sees that he is not saying these things to make her feel better. What he speaks is the truth. The Avatar of the One could not do otherwise. She hugs him fiercely and through tears of joy says, “Thank you!”
He holds her for a while longer than steps back to look at her tear streaked face. “Now you should clean that face. I am certain that you don't wish Darnell to see you like this.”
Amarice blushes at his words and what they insinuate. She doesn't speak but nods and walks to where a small basin of water sits.
Eli smiles. Amarice was a broken soul when she arrived two years ago. Now to see her this strong does make him feel very proud indeed. He returns to the small table. “Some tea?” he asks.
“I prefer ale or mead myself,” Darnell states as he comes into the room followed by Caleb whose arms are laden with parchments.
“I'm afraid you'll find none of that here,” Amarice says as she sits by Eli.
“This is going to be a dull place,” Darnell surmises.
“Darnell!” Caleb exclaims at his friend's brutish manner. “Could you just for the sake of appearance try to act civilized.”
“I suppose.” Darnell lays his weapons aside then sits down before Eli's table and arranges his legs into a lotus position. He looks up at Caleb. “Better?”
“Where did you…” he trails off.
“Met this man from Jappa once in Rome. Nice guy. Taught me a few things about fighting and meditation. Most of the meditating stuff didn't take. He was a good fighter though. Lasted over a month in the pits.” He shrugs and looks to the teapot and cups arranged on the table. “Guess I am a little thirsty.” He looks at Amarice and winks.
Amarice tries hard to hide the redness in her face from everyone.
“Caleb why don't you sit down and tell me what has brought you all the way from your sanctuary in Illyricum.” He indicates a cushion next to where Darnell sits. “When I knew you there I remember you saying you would never leave your place in the hills.”
“That was before Hope,” Caleb says as he seats himself and pulls a few particular pieces of parchment from the pile he has carried in.
Eli starts to pour steaming tea into four small cups. “This is from Chin. I hope you like it.”
Caleb takes note of the way Eli dodges his comment about Hope. He decides not to press him for a bit. He picks up the cup and looks down into the slightly green liquid in the cup. He sips it and finds the mild flavor to his liking. From the corner of his eye he sees Darnell wince as the big man tastes the beverage.
“Pretty good,” Darnell lies and sips more of the tea that to him tastes like week old bath water.
“He's not a very good liar is he?” Eli comments.
“No. He isn't,” Amarice says in agreement. “But he's a hell of fighter and though he won't ever admit it, a nice guy as well.”
“Come on!” Darnell says loudly. “Stop that. I have a reputation to maintain.”
“These two are quite a pair Caleb,” Eli says as he finishes his tea. It is the first time he has ever tasted the stuff. And if he could read Darnell's mind he might agree with the fighter's assessment of it. Luckily he is far better at concealing his dislike of the drink that Darnell.
“Indeed,” Caleb says setting down his empty cup and pouring more for himself. “When I decided to journey here to meet you I thought it might be best not to go alone.”
“You hired them?” Eli asks looking to Amarice.
“He hired me,” Darnell says defensively. He nods towards Amarice. “She never takes a dinar. Why? I don't know.” He shrugs.
“Perhaps because she is a better person than you are Darnell,” Caleb says setting down his drained cup once again.
Darnell rubs his chin thought. “ You might be right about that.”
Amarice responds with a very girlish giggle. She turns beet red as soon as the sound leaves her but the others laugh. Especially Eli who thought that after their first meeting her he would never know the sound of her laughter.
Caleb clears away the area before him and lays out his parchments. “Do you know what is happening in the west Eli?” He asks the question in an almost accusatory tone.
Eli turns his head to gaze out the window. The sun is setting and a pinkish glow suffuses the world outside. For many moments he is silent.
Amarice turns her accusatory gaze on Caleb. She is about to speak out against his words to her friend and mentor when she feels his hand on her arm. She turns her head to look into his face. He shakes his head letting her know that he doesn't want her to say anything to his long time friend.
Eli turns his gaze back to Caleb. “You mean am I aware of what Hope is doing? What she has already done? The murder of thousands. The repression of freedom. The slaughter of the Greek gods. The twisting of once honorable people into killers. Yes, Caleb. Of all this I am aware.” He turns to look out the window once more. “Some of those who follow the Way are well aware and have gone west to speak out against her.” He thinks of Nannan, Kale and Lyander. Kale and Lyander had gone west of their own accord. They said they could not sit back and do nothing. They said they would go and spread the message of the Path of Love. He had begged them not to go. That it would only end in their deaths. They had, of course, gone anyway.
But Nannan he had sent to Athens with a purpose. In a dream that he knows was from the One he had seen a single point of light shining brightly in the darkness of Hope's seat of power. He had sent Nannan to that place to find that beacon without knowing precisely why. He wonders how his friend and wisest of his students is doing.
“And you do nothing?” Caleb says after hearing Eli's admission.
Eli turns back to Caleb and when he speaks his gentle voice is tinged with anger. “And what am I to do Caleb?” He stands to his feet and goes to the window. He points outside. “Do you see an army down there anywhere? No!” He turns his back to the window and stares at Caleb. “I teach the Way here. I teach that to each man or woman there is a purpose for which they were born and that it is in then hearts to find that purpose on a path. I show them that they don't need the guidance of gods or warlords or kings. They need only to believe in themselves, to see the all mighty inside them. To find that aspect of the One that exists in us all. I am a teacher. Not a leader of men”
“ You are a teacher.” Caleb agrees. “And you are a Devi. And you are an Avatar. Just like Hope.” He opens up one parchment in particular and places his hand on it. “This is a prophecy written down in Persia over five hundred years ago. Do you want to know what it says?”
“I'm not going to listen to any prophecies Caleb.” Eli says. He turns to look out the window once more.
Darnell looks to Amarice and rolls his eyes. He opens his mouth to say something. She cuts him off by placing her finger over her lips and indicating he should be silent.
“Why?” Caleb asks getting to his feet and standing beside Eli. “Are you afraid to come out of your little sanctuary and face the world around you?”
“What do you expect me to do?” Eli rounds on Caleb staring him in the face. “I just told you what it is I teach here. The Way. That in each of us is a purpose. That we don't need anyone telling us who we are.” He points to Caleb's parchments. “That includes prophecies. In Heaven's name! I searched my entire life for my purpose and found it here.”
“Hope is the Avatar of Dahak, the Dark One.” Caleb picks up the parchment and holds up it up for Eli to see. “You are the Avatar of the One. Both of you are mentioned in this prophecy.”
“I don't care!” Eli shouts. “I will not, at the behest of some prophet's rambling, go to Greece and die! You ask me if I'm afraid. Yes. I am afraid to die!”
“You weren't afraid when you faced Tataka,” Caleb tells him. “She could have killed you. She intended to. But you faced her and drove her from that girl. Tell me old friend. Are you afraid to die? Or are you afraid that you may have a greater destiny than teaching the Way?”
Eli has no answer. He looks out the window full of frustration. Could Caleb be right? Is he hiding? Does he believe that he has been given these abilities just to be a teacher? Or does the One have a higher purpose in store for him? He looks to Amarice and remembers what he so recently told her. That even though it may be painful she must follow her path with all her heart.
Caleb watches as Eli walks slowly back to sit next to Amarice. He gestures for Caleb to take his seat again. When he does so Eli holds out his hand. “Let me see this prophecy of two Avatars.”
Day after day the king of Athens grows more frustrated. And today is no different.
“You have an entire legion camped in the city and outside the walls!” Tonis states loudly to Pompey. “I don't see why you won't loan me some of your men to aid in my search for the resistance.”
“It's quite simple your highness,” Pompey says as he picks up a green grape and pops it into his mouth. “The task given you by Hope is yours and yours alone. It isn't up to me to seek out the resistance.”
Tonis rakes his own plate full of food from him onto the floor. A servant runs in to quickly clean up the mess.
“Do you require anything else your highness?” another servant asks.
“No!” Tonis roars. The two servants scurry away. He rubs his face with his hands in anxiety. “I cannot believe this. The city is vast. She cannot expect me to find so few amongst so many.”
“Well she does.” Pompey spears a well-cooked piece of lamb with his dagger and chews on the meat. “And I suspect it is in your best interest to succeed. She doesn't take kindly to failure.” He gulps down the meat and washes it down with a goblet of wine.
“I have tried my best to find them,” Tonis tells the leader of Hope's legions. “But I can only do so much.”
“Why not just do a door to door search?” Pompey inquires picking up an olive and using his dagger to cut it open and remove the pit.
“That will cause a panic!” Tonis screeches as he jumps to his feet and begins pacing. “I am already pressing my fortune by having the royal guard patrol the streets. The people of Athens take my word for it that I believe Caesar may attempt to insert assassins into the city. But if I start searching every residence and business in the city they will know there is some kind of resistance cell in Athens.”
“Good point,” Pompey agrees swallowing the olive then flinging the pit across the room with a flick of his fingers.
“And Hope doesn't want the truth about the resistance to come out either,” Tonis says looking up as if expecting divine intervention. “So I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't.”
“That does put you in a difficult position,” Pompey says with a subtle smirk. He grabs a piece of bread and slathers it with olive oil then devours it as well.
“Spare me your patronizing Pompey!” Tonis says glaring at the general.
“Sorry,” Pompey apologizes around a mouthful of bread.
Tonis stares at him for a moment and thinks of something. “Why did you not go with her to Carthage?”
Pompey smiles broadly. “I have other duties to attend to,” he says.
“What duties would those be?” Tonis asks his curiosity now peaked.
“Sorry,” Pompey says sheathing his dagger and getting to his feet. “That's privileged information.”
“I am a member of the Inner Council just like you Pompey,” Tonis reminds him.
“True. But you are merely the king of Athens. As such you are merely in control of this city.” He spreads his arm to indicate all around them. “I, however, am Pompey the Magnus,” he declares as if that explains everything. He walks towards the door.
“Pompey!” Tonis exclaims as the man arrogantly walks from his dining hall.
“Best of luck finding the resistance Tonis,” Pompey says with a wave as he leaves.
“Pompey!” Tonis shouts again. When he receives no answer he picks up the chair he was sitting in and hurls it against the wall where it breaks into pieces. “Damn it!”
His army now bolstered to over ten thousand Caesar feels a bit more confident. Not to say that he feels he can win in Carthage. That is still in doubt. Once there was a time he thought himself invincible. Alexandria proved to him that is not so.
He glances about him. He finds it quite commendable that the men of his Roman legions are interacting so amicably with the Gallic warriors of Vercinix. Considering the war he had wrought in Gaul the last time he had passed through it amazes him that the Gauls tolerate them at all. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, Caesar thinks. In Hope they all have a common enemy. And of course Caesar's liberation of all Gallic slaves in Roman held territory helped. That particular part of his bargain with Vercinix had not gone over well with the Senate. But he doubts anything he does these days goes over well with those bloated fools.
He realizes someone is speaking to him and turns to finds Lucius Varnus staring at him.
“I'm sorry Lucius. What were you saying?” he asks.
The Roman general takes no notice of his leader's musings and asks his question again. “Do you think we will have any problem securing Crassus's legions?”
“No. I don't,” Caesar replies quite simply. “Whether they were loyal to Crassus or not is beside the fact. I am dictator so they will obey. I'm certain no one under Crassus will risk the decimation of his legions.”
< historical note: decimation was a form of extreme military discipline used in the Roman legions to punish mutiny and cowardice. A cohort to be decimated would be separated into sets of ten. All ten would cast lots and the soldier on who the lot fell to would be stoned or clubbed to death by the remaining nine. Such a form of discipline was crushing to morale and so was rarely used. >
“True enough,” Lucius agrees.
To his right Caesar sees Xena casting her glance about. Hercules and Iolaus have fallen back towards the rear of the marching army to inquire about morale. Vercinix is nowhere in sight.
“Will we be crossing into Spain soon?” Xena asks having never been in this part of the world before.
Caesar points to a mountain range rising up in the distance. “Once we pass through those mountains we will be in Spain,” he informs her. “It will take us a little over a day to get to where Crassus has his legions. Then a few more days to cross the isthmus into Africa.”
“Then due east to Carthage,” Xena says. “Where should I set up camp next?”
“It would be best to bed down before we reach the mountains,” Caesar replies. He turns to Lucius. “Inform your men that we will make camp at the base of the mountains. So they should make ready.”
“Yes Caesar.” Lucius salutes then rides off.
“ I'll go and organize the others,” Xena declares.
“Wait a moment,” Caesar curtails her action. He takes a moment to collect his thoughts and prepare his words. “Xena. I don't know that I have ever said how sorry I am that…”
“You're not about to start apologizing to me now, are you?” Xena asks turning one of ‘those' looks on him. “I don't want to hear it Caesar. This is not the end. Not for you. Not for me. Not for Rome. One way or another we'll come out of this.”
“Xena,” Caesar begins but she cuts him off again.
“If you start telling me these things then it means you are admitting defeat. Are you?” She looks at him and awaits his answer.
Taken aback by this assessment Caesar doesn't say anything in response. He exhales loudly before he continues. “I've done so many things wrong in the past. I just wanted to make things right by you.”
“ You can make things right by me. By everyone you've ever wronged by being the leader you always have been.” She nudges her horse closer to him. “And by not doubting yourself. You want to say you're sorry for crucifying me on that beach you save it for your deathbed because I won't hear it from you until the very end. Understand?”
Caesar can only smile at what she says. “Understood.”
“I'll see to the army now,” Xena says with a smile and a salute. Then she is off at a gallop.
Caesar watches her go. “I thought I understood women. I don't know anything.”
“Your people are very agreeable,” Iolaus says to Vercinix as they ride along one flank of the troops. “Considering.”
“We are an honorable people,” the Gallic chieftain informs him. “Caesar has kept his word by releasing all Gallic slaves. So I shall keep my word to aid him in fighting Hope.”
“The war between you was fierce I heard,” Hercules says from the other side of Vercinix.
“Very,” Vercinix says. He looks around him at his own people and at the Romans. “We lost count of the dead after the first two years. It is ironic that I never met Caesar face to face until I pledged my allegiance to his cause.”
“History is filled with great ironies,” Iolaus says. “Or so I'm told.”
“Indeed,” Vercinix agrees with a nod of his head. He looks to Hercules. “In this war, this is the first time you have fought directly against the enemy. Correct?”
“Yes,” the son of Zeus replies. “I do not like violence and I abhor bloodshed. But Hope must be stopped.”
“You plan to face her directly?” Vercinix says more than a little surprised. “You will fight the Avatar personally.”
“Does your wife know of this?” Vercinix asks.
Hercules looks around expecting Xena to materialize at the mention of her name but she in nowhere in sight. “No. I have not. And I would appreciate it if she did not know my intentions.”
“You will kill Hope at the cost of your own life if necessary?” Vercinix continues his morbid questioning.
“If it would stop this war I would fall upon a sword in this instant,” Hercules admits. “Too many have died already. Xena and our son are the only family I have left. And Lyceus and I are all she has left. All taken by Hope.”
Vercinix extends his hand to Hercules. The demigod takes the chieftain's arm in a warrior's grip.
“You are a strong and decent man Hercules,” Vercinix states. “I pray that you will not have to make any further sacrifices for peace. But if you do I will forever remember and honor you. As will all my people.”
“Thank you,” Hercules says unsure of what else to say after such a compliment.
“I hope it doesn't come to that either old friend,” Iolaus echoes the sentiment putting his arm on Hercules's shoulder.
The ruins of Carthage do nothing to make Ephiny feel better emotionally or physically. Having suffered from seasickness the entire trip across the Mediterranean, which included a particularly violent storm about half away across, she feels weak as she walks beside Hope through the rubble-strewn streets of the once powerful maritime city. Not a single structure is intact. Every building within the crumbling city walls is either fire damaged or on the verge of collapse. Following their victory in the Third Punic War, the Romans made certain there would not be a Fourth. They had razed the city and decimated the infrastructure. Whatever people remained in the city left not long after the Romans departed. Now only wild animals walk the streets. And even those do not venture out as Hope and her army make their way to the center of the city.
“You don't look well,” Hope says.
Ephiny does not immediately react to the Avatar's voice. She thinks about the life that once flourished here. She has read of Carthage's power when the city and its people were a force to be reckoned with in the Mediterranean. To see it like this makes her feel sad. And to know that Hope will soon birth another branch of the Eternal Fire here makes her feel worse. “It's just the seasickness,” she lies. “It might be a good idea if I try and eat something soon.”
Hope observes Ephiny with her peripheral vision. It is easy for her to see that her handmaiden is not telling the truth. Some part of her is furious that her friend would lie to her. Still another part is saddened by it. But she refuses to acknowledge that part. She ponders whether to say anything about it but decides it will be fruitless. “Once we have set up in the center of town I'll be sure to have something brought for you.”
Ephiny nods. “Thank you.”
They walk the remaining distance in a silence that Ephiny finds considerably unnerving.
At the center of the city is a massive structure that at one time might have been a colossal domed building. Now, like the rest of the city, it is a ruin. Ephiny can only liken it to a huge eggshell that has been cracked open. Inside she can see three separate stories that are exposed by huge breaks in the walls on all sides. The ground floor is taller by half than the two upper floors and may have served as a gathering place for the city in its heyday. She takes particular note of the many tufts of grass growing through the cracks in the floor and a sapling grown high enough in one corner that it touches the ceiling and is growing across it in a peculiar horizontal fashion.
“Meridian. Najara.” Hope calls for the two women and they appear as if from nowhere.
Meridian has a dagger sheathed at her waist that she will no doubt use for Dahak's rites. The priestess bows before her Avatar. Najara merely nods.
“Send some men into that building.” Hope points out the huge structure. “Have them clear out the ground floor. And we will need openings in the above floors and the roof so that the Fire will be able to rise.”
“Yes Avatar,” Meridian says before rushing off to find men suitable to engineer the task.
“As you wish,” Najara replies as she too walks away but not before turning a malicious glance towards Ephiny.
Within seconds large groups of legionaries detach themselves from the army and make their way escorting wagons laden with tools towards the building. “By nightfall this dead city will bask in the glow of Dahak's Fire,” Hope says with a smile.
“The ceremony will be at dusk?” Ephiny asks. She doesn't know why she asks. She knows that is always when the Fires are initiated. She just feels the need to make conversation, to talk to Hope. To grasp onto the illusion that everything is now as it was before. Even though she knows it isn't. She knows something has changed. And she knows it is her. So many things have happened so quickly. She has met with the resistance. She has met this man Nannan. And she has decided to seek aid from both. With those two things she feels she has betrayed Hope. And she has. But that is secondary to the fact that by betraying Hope she is not betraying Gabrielle. And as she told Eponin she will find a way to defeat Hope without killing her because that would mean killing Gabrielle. And she will die herself before she does that.
“Of course.” Hope answers the question Ephiny has managed to forget she asked. “I'd like you to do something for me Ephiny. After the Fire has been dedicated.”
Ephiny turns her head so fast to look at Hope that is causes her neck to hurt. Never before has she been asked to be involved in the dedication of the Fire. She has seen the ritual enough times to possibly perform it herself, if she actually had any faith in the Dark One. Which she doesn't. “What?” she asks fearing the answer.
“I'd like you to dance for all those gathered to witness the ritual.” Hope continues to watch all the men begin their work on the ruin.
Some part of her is relieved that Hope doesn't want her be a part of the ritual itself. But another part of her is taken aback by this request. The idea of doing that before so many is not a little bit degrading. She has not danced before others since her life in the Amazon village. In fact the last time had been not long after Gabrielle had come to the village. She had danced with others at the funeral pyre of those killed on the day Gabrielle slew Tyldus. And she had felt a little embarrassed that day as well as she had danced before the two strangers in their village. “Hope. I…” she finds herself trailing off as her mind races to come up with any excuse to give to the Avatar.
Now Hope turns to face her and her face is lit up with a bright smile that seems out of place for her. And for just one instant Ephiny feels she is looking not into Hope's visage but Gabrielle's. “Please do this for me Ephiny. I rarely ask anything of you.”
“But why?” Ephiny asks.
“Because I have not seen you dance in a very long time,” Hope answers.
Technically Hope has never seen Ephiny dance. It was Gabrielle who watched her that night in the Amazon village as they had said farewell to those who had died and were on their way to Artemis's hunting grounds. She remembers how as she had twisted and turned through the movements of the mourning dance she had caught sight of Gabrielle watching her. The young blonde was leaning against a hut dressed in the Amazon garments Melosa had provided for her. The sword she had used that day to kill Tyldus was sheathed and cradled in her arms. Her head was turned slightly to the side and she had tears in her eyes that reflected the orange glow of the pyre. In that instant Ephiny had seen all the strength and weakness of Gabrielle's tortured soul. It was also in that instant she had fallen in love with Gabrielle. She had, of course, never told Gabrielle. The vengeance driven girl had hardly wanted her as a friend, though they had become close friends during her stay, so she doubted seriously Gabrielle would have even considered the idea of her as a lover. She had never had the chance to tell the girl from Poteidaia of her true feeling before she and her sister had left. And when she had returned she wasn't Gabrielle anymore.
“All right.” Ephiny stares into the burning green eyes of Hope. “But I will not dance for them. I will dance for you.” She wonders how Hope would react if she knew that the ‘you' Ephiny refers to is not she but Gabrielle.
Hope's smile broadens. “Very well.” She places her hand on Ephiny's shoulder and leads them to where several wagons are being set up to distribute food to the army. “Let's get you something to eat.”
With Pompeian legionaries and Amazon warriors gathered before the structure Hope and Meridian begin the ritual to create an Eternal Fire in Carthage. Meridian in a gown of sky blue stands in the ground floor before a depression dug out from the stone tiles. In the second floor Hope stands before the hole cut into the floor dressed in robes of red and black.
“This day we dedicate in the city of Carthage the Eternal Fire of the One God, Dahak!” Meridian shouts.
An uproar is heard from all those gathered.
“We do this in the glory of his name! And in the name of his Avatar! Hope!” Meridian turns her eyes up where through the hole into the adjoining floors she can see the Avatar staring down at her.
“Hope is eternal!” All those gathered begin to chant. “Hope is eternal! Hope is eternal!”
Hope looks down at Meridian and nods.
Meridian draws the dagger at her waist and turns to face everyone. “I am Meridian, high priestess of the One God Dahak!” She presses the blade of the dagger against her forearm and draws the full length of the blade across her flesh. “And this is my blood freely given!” The blood begins to cascade down her arm in swirling patterns as she holds up her bleeding arm for all to see. There is a cacophonous cheer from everyone. Meridian then begins to walk the circumference of the hole cut into the floor. Every few feet she stops to face the hole. She gathers some of her blood on the tip of her dagger and slings the blood into the hole onto the bare ground below. “With my blood I fuel the Eternal Fire of the One God!” She repeats this process six more times at various points around the hole. When she is once again before all those gathered she wipes both her arm and the dagger clean of her blood across her stomach onto her dress. It gives the awful illusion to anyone watching that she has been stabbed in the gut and is bleeding. “With my bloodshed I fuel the Eternal Fire of Dahak!” She sheathes the dagger then turns once more staring up at where Hope stands.
Hope pushes back the hood of her robe and reaches behind her head and draws out the slender silver dagger holding her hair back. Her strawberry blond hair cascades out onto her shoulders. She holds one arm out over the hole and draws back her sleeve. Then she takes the dagger and stabs herself in the forearm. “With my bloodshed I ignite the Eternal Fire of Dahak!” she screams. She pulls the dagger from her flesh. As she does so a single drop of blood that glows like Greek fire falls from the wound. She steps back.
When the glowing blood droplet hits the exposed ground that is marked by Meridian's blood, the surface of the earth explodes and the Eternal Fire of Dahak fountains skyward. Meridian turns back again to everyone and cries out, “Behold the Eternal Fire!”
All those witnessing the ritual cry out in jubilation. Then a curiosity occurs. Typically the ritual is completed by a benediction to Dahak by Hope. But this time something new happens. From the shadows on the second floor a figure in white emerges. She approaches the Fire and seems to nearly fall into it before drawing back and spinning around with great speed. It takes a few moments for everyone to realize who it is. The light of the Fire reflects off the golden circlet around her head and she begins to twirl and step with fluid grace around the Fire. This is Ephiny, the handmaiden of the Avatar. Few of the men of Pompey's legions from the east have ever seen her. They watch in amazement as this blonde dressed only in a white gown that hugs her like a second skin performs a dance of graceful beauty that includes acrobatic cartwheels and somersaults so near the Fire that many of them gasp as she titters on the brink of falling headlong into the flames only to pull away with martial precision. Her movements are at times hard and fast as if she were in battle. And sometimes slow and poised like she is moving in slow motion. As she moves close to the Fire she becomes a blur of motion that seems to hypnotize those watching. She dances to the brink of the floor and holds herself over the edge by one foot and an expert sense of balance. Several people actually rush forward expecting her to fall from the building. She cartwheels back from the edge much to the relief of some. As the dance draws on some of those present feel a growing sense of loss in their souls. With each movement of the handmaiden many grow somber and a select few even start to cry as they watch her. Hope and the Amazons present alone know why Ephiny's routine is having such an effect on them. She is performing the Amazon funeral dance. With each movement of her body she is telling anyone watching of the loss of someone loved dearly. As each second passes all the men watching can feel the pain of this woman through the expressiveness of her dance. She spins and twirls around the Fire and then draws her display to a close by dropping suddenly into a kneeling position with her head down before the Avatar.
The crowd erupts into applause and cheering.
From below Meridian stares up in confusion at what has just occurred.
Standing amidst the crowd of gawkers, Najara looks like she will be ill after watching Ephiny's dance. She stalks off through the throng of soldiers.
With a smile Hope reaches down and places her hand on top of Ephiny's head. “Thank you.”
Ephiny simply nods to Hope's words. She could think of no better dance to perform than the funeral dance. For what is Dahak's Eternal Fire but a pyre to all those murdered by Hope in Dahak's name. She wonders if anyone watching could feel it. Could feel through her movements the loss and the misery she feels. It hardly matters. She didn't do it for them. And she didn't do it for the Avatar. She just hopes in her heart of hearts that somehow Gabrielle saw her.
Jett sits patiently waiting to see what Diana's reaction will be to his suggestion. He is sure she is not fond of the idea. As he is certain that Ephiny would not like it either. But it may give them an edge in Athens and allow them to move with more freedom. Or it may call down even more trouble upon their heads. In one corner he can see Autolycus leaning against the wall with his arms crossed casually and watching Diana pace back and forth across the room.
“You're going to wear a rut in the floor if you keep doing that,” the king of thieves informs the leader of the Athenian resistance.
“Be quiet!” Eponin shouts at him. She looks at Diana and asks her, “Why is he even here?” She points to Autolycus.
“Because I wish him to be,” Diana replies curtly. “Now please everyone be quiet and let me think.”
“Don't give it too much time,” Jett says. “With Hope gone now will be the perfect time.”
“You do realize there is an entire legion of Pompey's men in and around the city?” Solari asks. “This idea of your could have the streets filled with them.”
“Hope gave Tonis the mission to find you,” Jett replies. “Pompey has refused to help him on those grounds. Besides Hope has done her best to keep any notion of any kind of resistance in Greece under wraps. Maybe it is time to change that.”
“And you think leaving messages scrolled on walls and distributing leaflets in the Agora will help us?” Diana asks rounding to face Jett.
“And what have you done that has helped the people of this city since taking command of the resistance?” he asks her. He stands and looks at the two Amazons. “What have any of you done?”
“Now listen here you jacked up little …” Eponin roars.
But Diana cuts him off. “No Eponin. He's right. What have we really done? Besides hide here and send messages to Rome. Greece is our home. And we've done nothing to defend or fight for it in truth.”
“We've kept a low profile and …” Eponin begins again.
But again Diana cuts her off. “We've remained hidden. Run some errands gathering information for Rome and Caesar. Little else.” Diana sits down and looks at the floor dejectedly. “It's time we did something else. It is time the resistance was known.” She looks to Jett and nods. “We begin tonight. Will you help us?”
Jett looks back at her for a moment. “Ephiny will not be happy that this was my idea.”
“We will only be spreading the truth,” Solari says. “Hope is a murderer and a tyrant. It is time the people began to understand that.”
“It isn't as though we'll be saying anything bad about this Gabrielle she cares so much for,” Autolycus speaks from his corner and steps into the midst.
“We?” Diana says with a smile. “Does this mean you're going to help us?”
“Of course Princess,” Autolycus says the title with all the reverence and dignity it had entitled her to years ago. “Who better to aid you all in these acts of vandalism and subterfuge than the King of Thieves?”
“He thinks a lot of himself, doesn't he?” Solari asks Eponin elbowing her gently.
“Indeed,” she replies.
Diana turns back to Jett. “So. Will you help us?”
He looks from Diana to the Amazons then to Autolycus. He can see the determination in their eyes. The same determination he has seen in Ephiny's eyes. He nods. “I will.”
“Then it's settled,” Solari says. “I guess I should get some of the others together to start working on those leaflets.”
“And after I help you all out tonight I need to make preparations for my departure tomorrow,” Autolycus says.
“What?” Diana cries out a bit louder than she intended. “But you said you would help us.”
“Yes and part of that help involves rescuing a certain goddess from underneath a certain Acropolis,” Autolycus reminds her. “Into which there is only one single, and I'm certain small, entrance. That will no doubt be guarded now by far more men than a single cave entrance needs. Am I right?”
“Well yes,” Diana replies.
“Now I may be the King of Thieves.” He passes his fingers through his mustache casually. “But even I am not stupid. So I think it might help, in order to accomplish my task, if I were … invisible.”
“Invisible?” Solari says in confusion.
“Hades' helmet,” Eponin understands what Autolycus is talking about. “Of course.”
“Hold on a minute!” Jett says. “ Small problem with that idea. Hades is dead.”
“Doesn't mean the helmet is gone,” Solari says with a girlish smile crossing her face.
“What if he was wearing it when Hope killed him?” Diana asks. “She'd have it.” She turns to Jett. “Does she?”
Jett shrugs. “Ephiny has mentioned there is a trophy room on Hope's level of the Citadel but she has never gone in. Neither have I.”
“Wait a minute,” Eponin says. She closes he eyes and concentrates trying to remember something. “I remember hearing from someone that there were a few witnesses to the confrontation between Hades and Hope. That meant they could see him.”
“That means he didn't have the helmet with him,” Diana says. But her mood fades. “That means it's in the Underworld.”
“Okay,” Autolycus says as if the fact that what he seeks is on another plane of existence is only a minor setback. “So how do I get to the Underworld?”
“You could die,” Eponin suggests with incredibly inappropriate humor.
“Eponin!” Solari cries out in shock at her lover's implication of that idea.
“No thank you,” Autolycus retorts. “I would prefer a route that does not require my untimely demise. I'm not sure the world could handle such a lose.”
“That's not funny. Either of you.” Diana looks daggers at the Amazon and the thief.
“There's a lake here in Greece rumored to be bottomless,” Jett says remembering an old legend. “Legend has it if you swim deep enough you come up in Hades' realm.”
“That sounds like a much better idea than dying,” Autolycus states. “I'll take it.”
“All right,” Diana says. “Let's get started.” She looks at Jett for a moment. “You won't be missed at the Citadel if you stay to help us?”
“I am Ephiny's personal attendant,” Jett replies. “With her in Carthage I don't think anyone actually expects to see me. Which works out for the best. If they don't expect to see me then they don't look for me. I work best in the shadows. I guess I'll help with the leaflets. We'll need to make a lot of them.”
“Best if we leave bundles of them around the Agora on benches and near the merchant stalls,” Solari suggests.
“Agreed,” Diana says. “Let's get started.”
Jett, Solari and Eponin all nod and exit the room. But as Autolycus starts to leave Diana grabs him by the arm. “Wait,” she says. She lets go of his arm when he turns back to face her.
“What is it?” he asks.
“It's just that I wanted to thank you for all you've done to help us,” she says. She meets his eyes and finds herself looking away shyly. Can she truly be feeling this? Surely not. She only just met this scoundrel. There is no possible way she could possibly be falling for him. Am I betraying Philemon with these feelings? “And for all you will do to help us.”
“It's nothing Princess,” he says.
She cannot help but feel something at the way he calls her by her former title. Before, when they had first met, he had used the term loosely and flippantly. But now he says the word with meaning and respect. She has not had much time in his company since they arrived here. But she has enjoyed his jovial manner and kindhearted attitude. Even in the face of Eponin's insults he keeps his humor. And underneath it all he is a good man. Just like Philemon, she thinks.
“But it is,” she retorts. “You had no reason to help me and yet you did. You are truly a good person.”
“Now you need to stop talking like that or you'll ruin my reputation,” he says with a smile and laugh that only endears him more to Diana.
“You will be careful won't you?” she inquires. “When you go in search of the helmet. You will be careful.”
“Of course,” he answers now looking into her eyes.
“Good.” She nods. “Because I would be most upset if…”
But her words are cut off as the King of Thieves moves with incredible speed and wraps her in his arms. He leans in and presses his lips to hers passionately. At first she is taken aback by the action and tries to push him away. But after a moment she relaxes and gives into the kiss feeling her entire body warmed by the contact of his lips on hers.
He pulls away ands winks at her. “I think we have some work to do. Don't we?”
She can't help but smile. “Yes. We do.”
Eponin scoops up her dark haired daughter into her arms and carries her down the hall. “So do you want to help your mom and Solari with something little one?”
Varia wriggles in her mother's arms and nods vigorously. “Yep!”
“Good,” Solari says reaching over to run her hand through the hair of the girl who in accordance with Amazon law is also her daughter. “But it means you're going to help us write out some words.”
“Words!” Varia says now looking quite unhappy. She places her little fists on her hips and glares at Solari. “No words. Wanna learn to fight. I wanna be a warrior like mama and Solari.”
“In time, little one,” Eponin assures her daughter. She sets Varia back on the floor. “But for now you can help us fight the good fight with words.”
Varia looks as disappointed as a toddler can be when not getting her way. Then she nods and declares, “I'll help!”
“Thank you,” Solari says kneeling down to plant a kiss on Varia's cheek. The child giggles and runs off down the corridor towards the room where some of their friends have gathered awaiting word of what they will do next.
Eponin watches her daughter disappear around a corner. “I hope we'll live long enough to teach her how to be a warrior.”
Solari turns to face her. “We will,” she says simply. “Eponin you have to believe we will survive all this. You just have to.”
Eponin looks into Solari's eyes and tries to find comfort in them. “Even if by some miracle we win what will become of the Amazon nation?” She leans against the wall. “Since Gabrielle…” She shakes her head and corrects herself. “Since Hope came the Amazons have changed. She and Melosa have led them down a path of mayhem and murder. Artemis would be ashamed of her chosen people if she could see us now.”
“It can be changed,” Solari tells her. She reaches out to place her hands on Eponin's shoulders. “I know it can. Melosa only wanted for our nation to be strong again. I'm sure she never intended our people to commit the atrocities they have.”
“But she did nothing to stop it,” Eponin declares. “She had us branded as traitors for not participating in the massacre of the centaurs. She lost her away a long time ago.”
“And there in may lie the salvation of the Amazons,” Solari counters. She moves in closer to Eponin and takes her hands from the other woman's shoulders and places them on her face. “Melosa is dead.”
“Then Velasca is queen,” Eponin says, her hatred of Melosa's adopted daughter clear in her voice.
Solari shakes her head. “You and I both know that isn't true.”
Eponin leans in so that she is nose to nose with Solari. “Do you really think she has the will to do it? If the time is right do you think she will have the strength to be queen?”
“I do,” Solari replies. “I doubted her once. No more. Have faith in her.”
Eponin sighs loudly. “I shall try.”
“I never ask any less from you,” Solari says before leaning to kiss her lover on the lips. She pulls away and winks. “Come on. We have work to do.”
When the sun rises the next day on Athens some things are different. In the Agora a brief wind blows and scatters stacks of paper all amongst the people gathered to do their business. Citizens, merchants and soldiers alike pick up the leaflets and read them.
A young girl purchasing some fish for her dinner feels something touch her leg. She leans down to pick us a piece of paper. One it she reads:
Dahak is not the One God. He is evil. He is the Dark One.
A silver merchant setting up his wares sees a leaflet drift into his stall. Curious he holds it up to the sunlight. There he reads:
Hope is a murderer. The centaurs are dead because of her. She is no savior. She is the Avatar of Evil.
A small child running through the Agora slips on a leaflet. Her mother picks up the leaflet and reads:
Thousands have died to feed the Eternal Fire. Will your son or daughter be next?
A guard on patrol snatches a floating leaflet from the air. On it he reads:
Hope is a tyrant under whose rule we all suffer. Ask yourself why no one returns from her hospices.
Nannan, casually walking the streets, is waylaid by a teenager holding several leaflets. “Read this! You have to!” The boy pushes one of the leaflets into his hands and runs away with a few more of them still held in one hand. Nannan watches as the young man rushes up to two men carrying bolts of cloth and begins handing them leaflets as well. Nannan peers down at the leaflet and sees:
Prisoners of war are sacrificed to Hope and Dahak. Watch the Acropolis on the nights when the moon is full.
Autolycus, dressed in peasant clothing and on his way out of the city, spots a leaflet nailed to the door of a shop. He smiles when he reads:
It is better to die fighting upon the sword of freedom than to live under the yoke of tyranny. Down with Hope!
Tonis's royal guards are summoned to the home of a wealthy merchant. There they find a huge mob of people gathered around the north side of the house. They are mumbling and pointing at something there. The guards push their way in and try to disperse the crowd. Then at last they get in close enough to see what has drawn so many people. On the gray wall is drawn an image in broad strokes of black ink: an image of a naked woman coupling with a flame that sports an enormous phallus. Above the image is written: I am Hope! The world belongs to my lover and I!
A group of Pompey's legionaries leave a tavern after a night of drinking and carousing. As they stumble from the tavern they come face to face with a painted image on the wall opposite them. On the wall is an image of a naked woman holding up a sword in one hand and a heart in the other. At her feet is the bisected body of a child. Above it is written: I am Hope! All will bow to me! Or die!
By noon a murmur is heard in the streets. And whether the citizens realize it or not, rebellion has come to Athens.
“The last of the men are across Caesar,” Lucius informs him.
Caesar turns to the general and nods. “Excellent.” He looks back and just makes out the strait over the Pillars of Hercules it has taken them the better part of a day to cross. “We will continue to move until nightfall. With any luck we will arrive in Carthage the day after tomorrow.”
“I, for one, would hardly equate this coming battle as having anything to do with luck,” Hercules says.
“My apologies,” Caesar says. “An unfortunate turn of phrase I assure you my friend. I am no more looking forward to this than you are.” Turning his attention to Hercules's wife he is not sure either of them will like what he about to ask. “Xena.”
Xena looks up from rubbing Argo's neck. “Yes.”
“I need you to scout ahead for me,” Caesar informs her and he can see the look in Hercules's eyes as he says it. But even her husband must know that Xena is the best choice as a scout. Of any warrior in this army the warrior princess has the best chance of doing reconnaissance on Hope's location and returning alive.
“Caesar,” Hercules speaks up with a minute tone of hostility in his voice.
“Hercules!” Xena shouts at him when she too hears the tone.
The demigod turns his eyes from Caesar to his wife and finds himself being stared at in a most unsettling manner. He can read the disappointment in her eyes. He should know that Caesar is not doing this for any reason other than the fact that Xena is the best qualified.
“I shall leave at once,” Xena informs Caesar. She brings her horse in close to her husband. She reaches out and touches his face. “There's no need to fear. I'll be back.” She leans in close and kisses him.
As her horse begins to move away she hears Caesar speak again. “Iolaus. Go with her will you. I want to be certain she doesn't do anything foolish. Like try and take on Carthage all by her lonesome.”
“Then you're sending the wrong person,” Hercules states. “He's just as stubborn and bull headed as she is.”
“I'm going to remember that for a very long time, my love,” Xena says as she continues to trot off.
“So am I,” Iolaus says to his friend as he rides off to join the Mistress of the Horse.
As the two men watch the pair ride far ahead of the army and disappear, Caesar watches Hercules closely. His face is stern and set but his eyes betray his worry. “You should not fear for her. I think there are very few people capable of ever defeating her. And most of them fight for us.”
Hercules adjusts himself in the saddle of his horse. He repositions the sword strapped to his back. Then he runs his hands through the mane of the stallion he rides. “I just worry. Xena has lost so much to Hope.”
“We all have. You most of all I think. I have been informed that you were not on the best of terms with your Olympian family.”
“Iolaus talks a lot.”
“But I would imagine it must be horrible to know they all died at the hands of Hope.”
“Not all of them,” Hercules practically growls thinking of his half brother, the god of war.
“Indeed. He will pay for his crimes. I promise you.”
“I never thought I would miss them. I always thought of them as petty and cruel. But I mourn them all. Even Hera.”
“Aside from Ares I never met any of them. I can only wonder what they must have been like.”
“Strange coming from a descendant of Venus.” Hercules turns uncomfortably in his saddle again. He is used to walking wherever he has gone in the past.
“Please Hercules. There isn't a general or statesman in Rome that does not claim some mythical ancestry.”
“Except in this case it isn't mythical.”
“Excuse me?” Caesar says reining his horse to a halt and looking at Hercules in utter bewilderment.
“You are descended from Aphrodite,” Hercules informs him. “Your great grandfather had a tryst with her. After she bore your grandmother, she was given into your great grandfather and his wife's care. When you came to power it may have been Ares who laid claim to your military rise. But it was Aphrodite who bored the other Olympians by pointing down to Earth and saying ‘That's my great grandson down there.' She told me once before it all started.” By ‘it' of course Hercules refers to the war with Hope. Hercules slings the sword off his back and secures it to his saddle. He is also unused to being armed. “I guess that would make us distant cousins.” Hercules watches Caesar to gauge his reaction to this revelation.
At first Caesar can only stare. His descent from Venus was something his mother and grandfather had always reminded him of. He never once, in his wildest dreams, imagined it was anything but a fantasy created by his family to claim some semi-divine heritage. To know that Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was indeed his great grandmother is a source of pride and joy for him. But also a tragic epitaph since she, like all the others save Ares, is dead.
He looks to Hercules. “I don't know what to say.”
“I think perhaps I should have told you before,” Hercules says. “But it seemed cruel for me to have placed that lose on top of so many others. I'm sorry.”
Caesar smiles. “It's all right. You are correct. It is a tragic irony. But it does bring one thing into a brighter perspective. I have thought of you and Xena and Lyceus as family. Now it is a fact. Thank you.”
The two men share a fit of joyful laughter that totally befuddles all the men around them.
On the deck of Ulysses's ship Palaemon and Penelope watch the city move closer as they glide effortlessly along the river. Ulysses keeps the ship on a steady course to avoid all the other traffic on the water this morning. A light mist covers everything near ground level and its takes a bit of time for the former king of Ithaca to navigate close enough to a dock without hitting it with the prow of his vessel.
“Have you ever been inside the city?” Palaemon asks Penelope. Beside her Cerberus sits with his tail wagging and his tongue hanging out.
“No,” she says. From the docks she can see some of the grander structures of the city of Rome. “Until this war began I never had reason to leave Ithaca. Even during the entire time Ulysses was away at Troy.”
“Perhaps when it is over the two of you should make a point to visit,” Palaemon suggests. “I am certain Caesar would welcome you.”
Penelope turns her face up to look at him. The long scar on her face seems to go paler than the rest of her features. “When it is over?” she says with a certain amount of discord in her voice.
Palaemon turns his eyes away and looks at the docks. How easily he forgets that some people have suffered so much in this war. He has lost very little since Hope's rise to power. It is easy for him to be optimistic. But for people like Ulysses and Penelope who have lost their family, friends and their home it is next to impossible to even begin to think like that. As soon as he feels the ship make contact with the dock he vaults the rail and is ready when she throws him the lines. He secures them as fast as possible then looks around for any sign of danger. Then he remembers he has no need to be so cautious. He is in Rome after all. He climbs back on board and helps his friends bring down the sail. It is an errand of only a few seconds and then they are set.
Ulysses holds out his hand to Palaemon. Penelope ducks into the ship's cabin followed by her faithful hound.
Palaemon takes the hand offered to him in a warrior's grip and holds it tightly. “I thank you for your help,” he says stopping himself just short of adding the honorary ‘your highness.'
“Think nothing of it,” Ulysses says releasing the other man's grip. “I am always happy to help in whatever way I can. We both are,” he adds seeing Penelope emerge back on deck.
She carries a small satchel that she holds out to Palaemon. “Some bread and cheese. Just in case you get hungry.”
Palaemon smiles and thanks her before turning to walk back and leap over the rail onto the dock. He spares one last backward glance to the couple and gives a quick wave. Then he is walking into the city with no thought other than reaching Caesar's palace with the news he brings.
The city is busy as usual. But he does take note of the fact that there are fewer legionaries in the city than there were on his last visit. He is also aware of a general feeling of anxiety that permeates the people and places all around. It is as if everyone is waiting for something to happen. It gives him a sense of foreboding that makes all the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Something is happening, he thinks to himself as he marches with purpose towards the center of Rome. He passes through the Forum and is soon within sight of Caesar's palace. The imposing edifice seems to dwarf every other building close by but then one could expect nothing less from Caesar.
He decides that the direct approach is the best way and heads straight for the steps leading up to the palatial home of the dictator. As he nears the bottom of the steps several legionaries close ranks to block his path.
“State your name and your business here!” one the men shouts.
“Palaemon. I am here to see Caesar,” Palaemon replies.
“Caesar is on campaign,” the man says. “He and his army left for Carthage days ago.”
“Carthage?” he says. That explains the general feeling of unease all about him then. “Very well then I must speak with whoever is in charge.”
“That is not possible,” the soldier informs him.
Palaemon starts to get aggravated but knows it is best not to show any hostility towards a Roman legionary. He looks the man's armor and helmet over. The horsehair crest on his helm marks him as a centurion. “My apologies centurion but I have vital information from Athens that must be known to either Caesar or one of his commanders. Now I need you to go inside and tell someone that Palaemon from the Athenian resistance is here.”
The centurion studies the rebel before him for a moment. He turns to one of his men. “Go,” he simply says to the man. The soldier salutes then moves inside.
Palaemon waits patiently for the soldier's return. But he does not. Instead a woman in her early twenties steps through the entranceway and looks down at him.
“If you are who you say you are then there is something you need to say to me,” she informs him. She gestures her arm up with two fingers showing. Two of the men guarding the door move their shields aside and level their spears at him. “I would speak quickly Palaemon of the Athenian resistance.”
“It is not enough that we fight,” he says giving to this woman the first part of a code created by Caesar to identify members of local resistance groups that bring information to Rome.
“We must be willing to die,” the woman gives to him the second part of the code. She watches him closely waiting for the final part.
“For we would ask nothing less of those that fight with us,” he says placing his fist over his heart in the Roman salute that is the last act of Caesar's secret greeting.
The woman smiles and gestures him forward. “Come my friend. Antony will be anxious to hear of any news from Athens.”
As the two of them walk through the hallways of the palace Palaemon can see two men on either side of them shadowing their movements.
“I am Octavia,” she informs him.
He knows the name and identity of the woman. Caesar's niece. “Caesar fights in Carthage?” he inquires.
“It is complicated,” she tells him as they enter a very spacious room that glows with sunlight from several windows.
Within he sees a toddler sitting at a small table staring with all his intent at a wooden board on which sits many carved figurines. Across from him is a teenage girl waiting patiently with her chin resting in her hands. Standing by the nearest window is a young man near Octavia's age who looks very much like her. And sitting on a couch seemingly lost in thought is Marc Antony. When the Master of the Horse sees Octavia leading the man into the room he gets to his feet. He studies the man for a moment.
“Palaemon?” Antony says raising an eyebrow not quite sure if he is right. “That is your name?”
“Indeed it is my lord Antony,” Palaemon replies.
“Please just call me Antony,” the other man says extending a friendly hand.
Palaemon takes the hand and shakes it. From the corner of his eye he can see a few more soldiers watching them from the walls.
“Thank you Octavia,” Antony says touching the woman's arm as she passes by the stand by the man at the window.
“I understand Caesar leads an army into Carthage,” Palaemon says.
Antony gestures to a nearby seat and they both sit to continue their discussion.
“Hope means to rebuild the city. You can imagine that did not sit well with anyone in Rome.” Antony explains. “Caesar had no choice but to lead an attack personally.”
“But you have stayed?” Palaemon inquires.
“Caesar needed someone to remain here. He departed with both Xena and Hercules accompanying him.”
“Xena,” Palaemon says. Though he has been to Rome on more than one occasion he has never met with the warrior princess. Once, when he was far younger and far more stupid, he had thought that to show himself a true warrior he would face the “Destroyer of Nations” in personal combat and defeat her.
“So what news brings you from Athens?” Antony asks breaking Palaemon from his reverie.
“Disturbing and enlightening news,” he replies. “We know how Hope managed to kill the Olympians.”
This statement brings all eyes, except those of Lyceus, to the newcomer in the room. Octavia and Octavian walk closer to Palaemon to hear this new revelation. Julia does not move from her seat but her mind in no longer on the game she is playing with Lyceus.
“How?” Antony asks.
“Under the Acropolis Hope has constructed some catacombs,” Palaemon continues. “In one of the cells there she has the last golden hind.”
“Hind's blood,” Octavian murmurs. “So that is it. She used its blood to murder them. I had heard they were all dead.”
“You said ‘in one of the cells.' There are others?” Antony leans forward to listen more intently.
“Just one other.” Palaemon seems hesitant to speak the next words. They will be hard to hear. “She holds Aphrodite captive there.”
“What?” Julia shouts as she leaves her seat to rush forward.
Lyceus scowls at the unfinished game before him. Then he smiles realizing that by leaving the table Julia has forfeited and he has won. He starts to giggle in triumph.
“Diana said she looks weak and beaten,” Palaemon says. He meets the eyes of the girl who is watching him closely as he speaks. “But she is alive.”
“It was always said she had been killed following the incident at Corinth,” Octavian says as he sits down.
“How does one imprison a goddess?” Antony says asking no one in particular.
“It's possible Hope is keeping her weak with the hind's blood,” Julia remarks. Everyone turns to look at her. “It makes sense. The blood of a golden hind can kill a god. But minute amounts used in a particular way might feasibly be used to poison.”
“You are Caesar's daughter, aren‘t you?” Palaemon asks.
Julia looks at him in surprise. “How did you know?”
“Just a hunch.” Palaemon shrugs. “That was as intelligent an idea as I have heard. None of us thought of it. And it does make perfect sense.”
“This is interesting news indeed,” Antony says. “Would that I had some way to convey it Caesar. As it stands we will just have to wait and see if returns to tell …”
“When he returns!” Julia interrupts him.
Antony looks at her for a moment before returning his attention to Palaemon. “Is the resistance in Athens doing anything?”
“Diana has acquired the services of a certain ‘king of thieves' to try and get into the catacombs beneath the Acropolis,” Palaemon informs him.
“Autolycus,” Octavia says with a smirk. “I've read about him. He's wanted throughout most of the continent. I'd love to meet him.”
Antony's stare tells her just what he thinks of that idea. She smiles at him mischievously.
“I do not see that there is much we can do about it now,” Octavian says. “Until Caesar returns that is. But I am certain he will find this news fascinating. Don't you agree?” he asks looking to Antony.
“Very much so,” Antony indeed agrees. “Should your leader and this thief succeed it may go a long way in aiding us against Hope.”
Palaemon nods his understanding. “I am certain Caesar will be able to use it to his advantage.”
“Until his return I insist that you remain in Rome.” Octavia snaps her fingers, which calls a servant into the room. “Some refreshment please.” The servant nods and is away.
“Thank you,” Palaemon says.
“You are most welcome,” Antony replies. He sits back on the couch and tries to think what help Aphrodite may be in the continuing conflict. And how Hercules will feel to know that his Olympian cousin still lives.
“So you're going?” Amarice asks as she walks in to find Eli packing up his few meager belongings.
“Yes,” is his answer. He turns to face her. “I'm teaching people to grasp their own destiny. And to make of their lives what they will, to seek and to strive for the betterment of their lives and the world. I can do no less than they.”
“You don't have to do this, you know?” she says leaning against the doorframe. “A five hundred year old prophecy is just a moldy piece of parchment if you pay it no mind.”
“Cynical,” Eli replies. “That's not like you.”
“I'm cynical about anything that puts my friends in danger.” She looks down at the floor and tries to find the right words. “You're my friend Eli. You brought me back from the brink. I'd be dead if it weren't for you.”
Eli pauses for a moment to look at her and see the unashamed emotions welling up in her. “You would have found your way eventually.”
“Perhaps,” she says. “But I would not have found the Way . I know my purpose in life thanks to you. You've taught me so much. I don't think I can stand by and watch you march to your death.”
“I'm just going to Greece,” Eli replies pulling the small pack onto his back. “After that I don't know.”
“Do you believe in Caleb's prophecy?” she asks him.
“I don't know.”
“Then why?” She draws herself up and makes a point to block the door.
He meets her eyes and tries to put into words what he feels. “I have been given a gift Amarice. A power unlike anyone else on this earth. I can heal with a touch and with a word. I can look into people and see who they really are. With my words and the Way I've changed the lives of many. But I think there is more.”
“More? I don't understand,” she admits. She steps closer to him. “You are doing great things. What more can you do? You're not a warrior or a general. What does Caleb think you can do against Hope?”
“I told Tataka that I'm never alone. And I'm not. At all times I feel His presence, the presence of the One. It is true I have done great things in the name of the One. I have healed. I have enlightened. But I cannot believe that to heal and to teach is the only reason I've been chosen.”
“So you think this prophecy about the two Avatars means that you have to confront Hope?” she asks.
“I don't know,” he admits to her. “I've had dreams about Athens. I've seen a point of light and love within the Citadel of Hope. I sent Nannan there to search for the meaning. But now I believe that I was meant to go.”
“If you go to Athens and confront Hope she will kill you,” Amarice states without hesitation. She puts her hand on his shoulder. “You know that don't you?”
“Amarice.” He reaches up to pat her hand and gently remove it. “This is not easy for me. Yes. I am well aware that my life may be in danger once I get to Athens. But I'm going. For years I have been teaching the Way. Now it is time for me to follow it.”
Amative stares into his eyes for a moment then nods. “Very well then. I should have known there'd be no changing your mind. But I am coming with you.”
“I know,” he says with a smile. “And I'm glad. I don't think I could ask for anyone better at my side as I go towards my destiny.”
“All right then,” she says stepping away from the door and allowing him his exit. “Then let's see this thing through together.”
He reaches out to lay his hand on her shoulder. “I wouldn't have it any other way, my friend.”
It is well after daybreak before Xena and Iolaus return. Hercules intercepts his wife and best friend before they can get to Caesar's tent.
“I'm glad you're both all right,” he tells them.
“Was there ever any doubt?” Iolaus asks.
“I suppose not,” Hercules replies. He turns to Xena. “Are you all right?”
“Of course,” Xena says. “But we have to talk with Caesar.”
“That bad?” Hercules says with a calm demeanor that belays the anxiety he feels.
Xena and Iolaus do not reply as they walk towards Caesar's tent with Hercules accompanying them. When they enter Caesar looks up from a chart he is studying with Lucius and Vercinix. He sees the stern set of Xena's face and knows that the news is not good. But then he hadn't expected anything good to begin with.
“We're outnumbered at least two to one,” Xena informs him. “Maybe more.”
“Damn!” Lucius exclaims. “If only Crassus hadn't sent so many of his men through Gaul in that futile attempt to take Britannia.”
“I'm certain Boadicea was overjoyed to see an unprepared legion crossing the channel,” Caesar says.
“I don't think they made it that far,” Vercinix tells them. “One of our northern tribes talked of falling on a force of Romans last year.”
“We cannot worry about what Crassus's stupidity has cost us in man power. We have to focus on strategy in order to win.” He points to the chart in front of him that shows the outlines of Carthage and the surrounding terrain. “How are her armies positioned?”
Iolaus steps forward to point at the broken west wall. “There are close to three legions placed here right in front of the only break in the wall that would allow our men access.”
“They're set up in basic phalanx formation,” Xena continues. She points to both sides of the break in the wall. “Amazons are positioned on both flanks. But they aren't all there.”
“Some are in waiting in these woods outside the city.” Iolaus points to the forest in question.
“It would seem like a trap but it's too obvious,” Vercinix says.
“Hope knows we don't have a lot of choice here,” Caesar replies. “She's betting on us taking the direct approach.”
“To each side of the city several cohorts are camped,” Xena says indicating the north and south sides of the city. “They are not in formation. But it will take very little time for them to form up and crush us like a vice if we come straight in.”
“The good news is that the bulk of her forces are outside the city,” Iolaus says jabbing a finger into the center of the city. “From our vantage point it appears as though there is barely a cohort of Pompey's men in the city. And a token guard of Amazons in a large structure that now houses the Fire of Dahak.”
Hercules walks up to study the chart. “One way in. Outflanked and outnumbered. You'll be throwing your men into a meat grinder.”
“We are aware of that,” Lucius states. “But I don't think there is any other way.”
“Hope is the target,” Xena says. “Nothing else matters right?”
“That is if we can get through all those men and into the city,” Iolaus says drawing an imaginary semicircle around the city to indicate all the troops.
“That may be nearly impossible,” Vercinix observes.
“What about cavalry?” Hercules asks.
“We saw none,” Xena says.
“Crossing that desert on horseback would have been idiotic,” Caesar observes. “They crossed on foot and with camels.”
“But we have cavalry,” Lucius points out.
“That might be the one advantage we have,” Caesar says. “But it will require precise timing and application.” He stares at the chart and imagines all the armies moving through it in a battle. He can see his legions being torn to pieces in a direct assault. But that need not be the case if he can plan it out correctly.
“What are you orders Caesar?” Xena asks.
Caesar looks up expecting Xena to be the last person to ask such a question. He sees the steely determination in her eyes. Is she thinking about victory or vengeance? he ponders. He points to the cohorts to the north and south. “Lucius I want you to take one of your legions and split it. Before dawn you will move in from both sides and attack these forces. Taken off guard they will be unable to aid their comrades effectively. That should give us the time we need for a frontal assault.”
“Frontal assault?” Hercules asks in shock. “You're joking? Do you have any idea how many men you'll lose?”
Caesar stares into the eyes of the demigod. “Yes. I do. And it sickens me. But it will be the best chance for victory.” He turns to Xena. “Pick out the finest centurions in the ranks. They will lead the attack on the break in the wall.”
“Where do you want my men?” Vercinix asks.
“I need your men to refrain from engaging in the attack,” Caesar tells him. He sees the confusion in the chieftain's face. “I have plans for them. Trust me.”
Xena nods. “And me?”
“You will join Hercules, Iolaus and I when we storm the city,” Caesar says drawing a dagger and slamming it down into the center of the chart.
Standing in the dome's second floor with the Fire at her back Hope looks out over the city and at the army arrayed before the break in the wall. Past the city she can see the forest where hundreds of Amazons wait. She knows Caesar will recognize the trap. But it doesn't matter. He has no choice. To get to her he and Xena and Hercules will have to run the gauntlet. Caesar's army will be all but obliterated before it even gets near the city walls.
“All is ready Hope,” Najara informs her. “What are your orders?”
“Tell the men to hold Caesar's forces back for a while,” Hope explains. “Make them pay dearly for getting anywhere near the wall. Then after they have been bloodied almost to the point of retreat let them through.”
“As you wish,” Najara says. “And the men inside the walls?”
“Have them only put up a token resistance,” Hope replies. “I want them to get here.” She points at the space before the dome. “I want Caesar, Xena and Hercules to come to me. To face me. I want to see them die with my own eyes. I want to kill them with my own hands. I want only the Amazon guard and yourself in here. No others.”
Najara smiles. “How I have longed to see their demise.”
“You haven't seen it yet Najara and there is no guarantee you will today,” Ephiny informs the warrior woman as she steps from around the Fire. “Nothing is written in stone. They may yet surprise you.”
“The only thing that will surprise me is if one single cohort makes it out alive from this,” Najara says with a chuckle. “This will be the end for Julius Caesar. Then we can focus our attention on taking Rome.”
Both women hear Hope laugh and stare at her.
“What's so funny?” Ephiny asks.
Hope waves her actions away dismissively. “Nothing. Najara is right Ephiny. This will spell the end for them all. Caesar, Hercules and Xena.”
The way Hope speaks the last name with such hatred grabs her attention. “Still obsessed with vengeance? I thought the hatred of Xena was Ga…”
But Hope's hand in around her throat before she can finish the word. “Do you want to die Ephiny?” Her eyes blaze with that inner fire. “I killed Melosa for saying it. Do you want to be next?”
With her voice cut off by Hope's grip Ephiny can only shake her head. Hope releases her and she drops to her knees coughing and drawing in air. Najara looks down at Ephiny and smiles in satisfaction at her suffering.
“I suppose I should leave,” Ephiny says in between gasping breaths.
“No Ephiny,” Hope says. “Stay. I want you to see this.”
“Why?” Ephiny asks. She has no desire to witness any of this carnage. “I won't fight. You know that. Why do you want me to stay?”
“Because I want my friend by my side,” Hope says turning a compassionate gaze on her handmaiden. “I draw strength from your presence Ephiny.”
“Don't patronize me Hope,” Ephiny retorts. “I have no wish to see you murder good people.”
“Good people?” Hope laughs. “Good people? Caesar initiated a war not sanctioned by his government in Gaul that brought about the deaths of over five million people. Xena, the Destroyer of Nations, killed people from the North Lands to Jappa with as much care as you might step on an ant. Between the two of them they've killed more people than the plague.”
“And Hercules? What is his crime?” Ephiny asks.
“This is pointless!” Najara says. “If she wants to leave then let her run away with her tail between her legs like the bitch she is.”
The sudden urge to strike Najara rises within her. Never before has the warrior spoken to her in that tone and especially not in Hope's presence. She clenches her fist and readies herself to swing her arm so as to connect her fist with Najara's nose. With enough force she could break it quite easily. She inhales and prepares to lash out. But then she remembers Nannan's words: 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?
She relaxes her fist and exhales slowly drawing on all her inner strength. “Najara is right.”
Najara looks stunned at the statement. She stares at Ephiny in shocked silence.
Hope looks from Ephiny to Najara then back again. “Enough. Najara. You will inform the men of what I expect from them. Ephiny you will remain here with me.”
“If I refuse?” Ephiny inquires stepping in close to Hope.
“Why are you doing this?” Hope asks leaning in close enough that only Ephiny will hear her words. “Do you suddenly enjoy pain? If that is the case then I can make it far more enjoyable for both of us.”
Ephiny ignores the sexually depraved undertone of the Avatar's question. “Will you force me to stay? Will you use your power to make me remain here with you while you reap your revenge? Will you?” She is now so close she can feel Hope's breath on her face.
Hope glares at her handmaiden. The look on her face is a combination of confusion and frustration. The fire burning in her eyes seems to diminish and Ephiny watches closely half expecting Hope to succumb to Despair. But there is no trembling of limbs. No unshed tears. No outbreak of sweat. Just a smile that speaks of passion and arrogance. “No. I will not force you. But I ask that you stay with me. For the sake of our friendship.”
Ephiny stands there for a moment before reaching out to brush Hope's cheek with the back of her hand. “Very well. I will remain here with you to bear witness.”
Najara grunts in disgust and walks away stomping.
“We'll need to wait on the ground level,” Hope says moving towards the stairway.
“Lead on,” Ephiny says falling into step behind the Avatar. “I will follow.”
Hope looks back over her shoulder at Ephiny. And as much as she hates to admit it she can feel the love the handmaiden has for her. It is a sensation that disgusts, confuses and excites her all at once. “I know.”
Antony's group moves slowly towards the Senate building with their six guards surrounding them. He has Lyceus perched on his shoulders and is currently telling Xena's son how to behave once they arrive.
“And you have to promise to be quiet. Okay?” he remarks to the toddler.
Lyceus looks thoughtful as he considers it.
“Lyceus,” Julia says admonishing the child. “If you don't behave yourself I won't play with you anymore today.”
Lyceus nods his agreement to his favorite playmate. “Okay. Okay. Okay.”
“Good boy,” Antony says pulling the boy from his shoulders and setting him down.
Octavian looks ahead and sees that many of the senators are already gathered in the Forum in front of the hall. They are grouped off and in heated discussions over their own topics. Many of which will no doubt send Antony into a fit before the day is over. He takes particular notice of where Cicero and Cato are standing. They will make trouble of that he is sure. They always do. And he is not looking forward to sitting through a daylong session. No matter that his uncle would tell him it would prepare him for his role one day in the future. Listening to these fools babble on about the good of the Republic makes him sick. There has been no Republic since Pompey gave away all the eastern provinces to Hope. Only these fools are too blind and stupid to understand that. His uncle will be the one to bring order back to Rome. Whether that is as king or emperor, it doesn't matter.
“You look upset already brother,” Octavia says leaning against him. “We haven't even gotten inside yet.”
“I'd prefer to stand outside,” he comments.
“If I have to suffer so do you,” she replies.
“Will you two behave,” Julia says to them both.
“Last chance to run back to the palace,” Antony says under his breath.
“Don't tempt me,” Octavian says.
“Let's just get going,” Antony responds. “The sooner we can get this started maybe the sooner it will be over.”
“I doubt that,” Octavian groans.
“He's being guarded!” Cato says under his breath as he watches Antony and his entourage approach.
“It doesn't matter,” Cassius retorts. “He'll suspect nothing.”
“But they will kill us even if we manage to kill him,” Piso blubbers as he tries not to let the sweat coating his hands cause him to drop the dagger he holds concealed under his robes.
“This is foolhardy now,” Cicero declares to the others in general and Cassius in particular. “I won't throw my life away.”
“Coward!” Cassius says with barely contained rage. “You are no patriot. You're cowards. All of you. If we die at least we do it in service to the Republic.”
“I'll not die for anything,” Antais states. “We need to leave now. Make some excuse and let us be away from here.”
“Women,” Cassius spits. “All of you.”
“Better than dead,” Piso declares.
Cicero starts to speak but catches sight of Atrius standing by a pillar not far from them. He glares at the old warrior and then shakes his head. “I'll not do this. I'll not risk my life for this enterprise. I should never have listened to Atrius in the first place.”
Atrius turns his head to watch Antony and his party approach. They will be within range of Cassius and the others in seconds. He sees Cicero and knows they are too cowardly to do what he has asked of them. He sneers before muttering, “Alti. Now.”
Cicero is still watching Atrius as he prepares to walk away from this fool's errand. He is terrified when he sees Atrius waver like he was made of mist. Then the old warrior is gone and standing in his place is a dark haired warrior dressed in black leather armor and holding a huge sword. He recognizes the figure in an instant and knows he has been played for a fool.
But before he do or say anything he feels his mind clouding and a sensation not unlike his heart being pulled from his chest makes him go as rigid as marble.
Sitting calmly in her quarters within the Citadel, Alti waits to see if she will be needed. Before her is an earthen bowl filled with blood. She passes her hand over it and chants methodically. In her other hand she holds a jawbone. A jawbone once belonging to Cyane, queen of the Amazons. The blood too is Cyane's. They are the foci that allow her to channel the spiritual power of all the Amazons she killed in the steppes over the past decade. Some one hundred souls now serve her in ghostly bondage. And she revels in the use of their souls. She prays to the darkness she serves that she will be needed today.
She hears Ares' voice and smiles with ecstatic joy. Using the jawbone she stirs the blood in the bowl. She reaches out with her free hand to pick up a handful of black powder and tosses it into the blood. A sickening green flame erupts from it and she hears the otherworldly anguish of the tormented dead.
“Rise up!” she cries out. “Arise you spirits of the dead that serve me! I Alti, your mistress, call you forth to do my bidding!”
She senses screaming that cannot be heard by human ears. It is like music to her.
“By the blood and bone of your queen I summon you!” she cries out. Suddenly all around her are shafts of pale red light. Each sways back and forth as if alive. Faces appear and disappear within the light. Arms and legs extend forth from the shafts only to be reabsorbed a moment later. Pleas of mercy spin around the room. They ask for release. They ask for everlasting death. They beg her in the name of the gods to let them go. She ignores them all.
She turns and looks at them all. And when she speaks she sounds as though she is scolding a child. “You know that you are mine. I am the one who owns your souls. Never will you know peace. Unless you serve me well.” She points to the shafts of light in turn and shouts out the name of each one. She knows all their names. “You know what to do! Go from here. Enter into the bodies of those old fools. Wrench their souls from their flesh and stop the beating of their hearts. Make of them the living dead. Cast their spirits into the Abyss. If you do as I command perhaps they will take your place there.”
The Amazon ghosts wail as they beg it to be so. Plead for their freedom if they serve.
“Enough of your pitiful groveling!” she roars. “Go! Now! Work my will and the will of Hope! Go!”
The shafts of light ascend skyward through the ceiling of her chambers and out of the Citadel moving through the ether of the spiritual plane towards their destination in the physical world at the speed of thought.
“Interesting,” Hope says as she stands before the Fire with Ephiny on her right and Najara on her left. Before her stands a row of twenty-five Amazons with weapons drawn and ready for battle. And standing before them in her pale blue gown in Meridian.
“What?” Najara inquires upon hearing Hope speak.
Even from where they stand in the center of the city they can hear the sounds of battle. Metal on metal. Men screaming in pain and death. Scores, possibly hundreds, are already dead. And the sun has not even fully risen past the horizon.
“I would not have thought that Caesar would attack before dawn,” Hope says with some respect for the Roman dictator. “I thought wrong it seems. How many men were on the east and west sides of the city?”
“Less than three thousand all together,” Najara replies.
Hope tilts her head to one side listening to the sounds of battle that come from those sides of the city. She had planned to use those men to flank Caesar on both sides in a pincer move. A move not intended to destroy Caesar since she wants the Roman and his allies to make it inside the city. They were meant to force Caesar to split his army, to send one force forward into the city and leave the other to hold back the flanking cohorts. But now the main force of Caesar's army will be able to surge straight ahead at the city without worrying about being outmaneuvered. She has miscalculated.
But it doesn't matter. The lives of those soldiers are meaningless as are the lives of everyone else. As she thinks that she turns her head slightly to look at Ephiny. Not everyone, she thinks. And it occurs to her to wonder if it is she or Gabrielle thinking that. She shakes her head and turns her attention back to the fighting.
“Caesar's attacking forces will have been outnumbered when he attacked those cohorts,” Hope observes.
“But they were not prepared for battle,” Najara finishes the thought for her. “They were ordered to rest then begin preparations for combat at sunrise. I imagine many of them were still asleep when the battle began.” Najara then turns to her left and says, “It seems she has made a mistake.”
Ephiny turns her gaze on the woman for just a moment. There is of course no one next to Najara. She is obviously talking to the Djinn. Or so she fervently believes.
“Pity,” is all Hope says about the deaths of thousands. “I should have guessed that Caesar would scout the area. I should not have placed those men there until early this morning.”
“ ‘Pity?' Is that all you can say?” Ephiny asks.
“What more can she say?” Najara replies for the Avatar. “She made a tactical mistake. It can happen to anyone.”
“True enough,” Hope admits. “It won't happen again.” She turns her gaze to Ephiny. “I assure you.”
Ephiny stares into the burning green eyes for a moment longer then turns her attention back to the city before her. She looks at the backs of the Amazons. They are not from her tribe so she recognizes none of them. But all the same she prays to any deity listening that they need not all die this day. Again Nannan's words come to her. It means the casting aside of all violence. She is about to witness violence on a terrible scale. But she cannot leave. She will not leave. Without turning her head she looks at Hope. I'm staying here because I love her and I promised to be at her side, she thinks. “Let us hope you are right,” she says returning her gaze ahead once more.
Hope smiles then calls out to Meridian. “Would you please wait over there!” She points far ahead of them to a low wall encircling the dome. “I want you to lead Xena and Caesar here for me.”
Meridian looks a little nervous at this request but nods and does as she is told.
“This should all prove to be most interesting,” Hope states with a malicious grin.
When the sun rises and its orange disc is fully visible in the sky the Battle of Carthage begins in earnest.
Caesar's infantry moves forward with precision and determination. The stomping of thousands of sandaled feet are heard for miles as they advance. Led by dozens of centurions using whistles to set the pace, the legions of Rome moves inexorably forward. When they are within sight of the city walls some of them at the front are stunned at the number of Pompey's men that wait. The army before Carthage is massive and ready for battle. But the soldiers of Rome have trained to be just as disciplined as their counterparts. There is no hesitation. They march forward.
Already in phalanx formation Pompey's legions wait with shields down and weapons forward. They are aware that combat has already occurred on the east and west sides of the city but that is not their concern. They have their orders from Najara. And so they wait.
When Caesar's forces draw nearer a chant goes up from the legions guarding the city.
“Hope is Eternal! Hope is Eternal! Hope is Eternal!”
Following those words a roar erupts from Caesar's ranks. Then the centurions give one long blast on their whistles. The legions of Rome surge forward like a tidal wave of humanity intent on destroying anything and everything in their path. The two armies meet with a sound like thunder. Shield smashes into shield. Swords and spears clash with the ringing of metal on metal. Centurions' whistles blow as they rotate their men in formation bringing up the next line of legionaries to fight in the front line. Blood is spilled. And after three hundred years Carthage knows war again.
Within minutes men are dead by the hundreds. The battle before the walls is becoming just what Hercules predicted, a meat grinder that is chewing up both armies into bloody pulp. Massed in such tight quarters they can hardly see past the shields in front of them to see whom they are killing and who is killing them. Swords and spears move back and forth like some creature gnawing away at the flesh of anyone within reach. Men fall only to be replaced by those behind them in the formation. Bodies begin to pile up in a killing ground between the two armies that would be barely wide enough for a chariot to ride through. But the numbers of Hope's army soon begin to take their toll on Caesar's forces. And the forces of Rome start to pull back as the overwhelming size of Hope's army creeps forward. A single blast from a trumpet is heard from the back of Caesar's ranks.
With practiced ease the Roman forces disengage themselves from their enemies and as one march backwards away from their foes. For a moment the armies of Hope looked bemused and they try to decide what to do. From among them come their orders. “Hold your positions!” A man in the front ranks holds his spear high. Like a wave more spears rise up in a single line behind him until they reach the back of the ranks. Suddenly hundreds of arrows fly over the army standing before the walls of Carthage.
Every century in Caesar's army form ranks among themselves. Those grouping of one hundred men enclose themselves in the formation known as the turtle. Shields are positioned around and above them to hold off arrow attacks. But some do not react in time and many die with arrows through their bodies and others lie on the ground wounded but not dead.
Caesar's men respond with an aerial assault of their own. The front ranks close tightly forming a wall of shields. “Loose!” comes a loud voice that is repeated throughout the ranks. Pilum by the hundreds sail over the shield wall and rain down on Hope's men. The spears either pierce flesh or embed themselves in shields making them useless.
“Reform!” someone cries within Hope's men. The ordered is echoed several times. Their forces rotate positions bringing men with undamaged shields to the forefront. Within seconds the army stands ready once again.
Caesar's forces disengage their shield wall and form phalanx ranks once more. The centurions' whistles call out shrilly and they begin their second charge at the city walls.
An animalistic scream goes up from the outskirts of Hope's forces as her Amazons break away and attack the ends of the Roman lines. Lightly armored and armed they move with incredible speed into the Roman ranks. Like predatory creatures they leap onto and over the shields of the legions. Their brazen attack throws the outer fringes of Caesar's forces into disarray. Their plan is simple. To drive the edges of Caesar's armies towards the middle in order to allow Hope's legions to be able to surround Caesar's.
It would work if Caesar hadn't thought of it as well. From the east and west sides of the city come Lucius's cohorts. They fall with superior numbers on the Amazons and begin the gruesome work of dispatching Hope's female combatants.
Seeing the attack on the Amazons some of the legions of Pompey falter in their defense against the opposing legions. It had not occurred to anyone that Lucius would not hold his positions on opposite sides of the city. But it had never been Caesar's intention that after Lucius took those positions that he would hold them. He was always meant to defeat those men on the east and west sides then wait to see if the Amazons would do the obvious and try to flank their forces.
“Hold the ranks!” one man in the front calls to his men. The order carries all the way down the lines of Hope's forces.
The Roman forces continue to dash themselves against the unmoving wall of Hope's legions. Both sides are taking heavy loses but Caesar's side cannot long continue to lose so many men over such a short period of time. Then another trumpet blast from the back of the ranks signals another retreat of Caesar's forces. Then more trumpet blasts answer the call of the first. Caesar's forces pull back further than before and begin to draw closer together. From the very back of the Roman forces comes a piercing scream that cuts through the air like no trumpet call or whistle blast can. The screaming moves in waves forward through all the ranks. When it reaches the front lines all the centurions and legionaries scream in rage at the army arrayed before them. Then the Roman lines charge again.
But this time they do not move forward as a line. They reform into a wedge that slams into the front line of Hope's forces like a blade severing flesh from bone. The center of Hope's line not expecting such a radical change in tactic pulls back suddenly to try and give themselves a chance to regroup. But the wedge harries them with each step. Swords cut and spears impale and soon it is clear that the center of the line may falter.
The leaders in the front lines order their men to converge, to close the hole that is opening. But they don't get any such opportunity. The point of the wedge that is cutting into their forces starts to open up like a gateway. From the front of Caesar's lines all the way to the back his forces a path begins to open up. And through that path pours Caesar's cavalry, some two and half thousand strong and led by Caesar and Xena. The mounted forces are more than a match for the legions still holding their phalanx formation against Caesar's infantry. They mow down the men standing before them like wheat and continue forward.
Hope's forces try to regroup and counterattack but the wedge formation that had hidden the cavalry charge now inverts and Caesar's flanks wheel around to meet up with Lucius's forces and smash into their opponents. The battle at the walls of Carthage continues between Caesar's legions and Hope's. But Caesar's audacious plan has worked. He is inside the city walls. His cavalry races forward through the city streets tearing apart any who oppose them.
Hope's small army inside the city does its job to fight Caesar's forces in a delaying tactic. Then they disappear into the side streets as if retreating. Caesar, Xena, Hercules and Iolaus ride hard for the center of town towards their one true enemy. Hope.
But as they draw nearer to the dome at the city's center they first encounter a strange sight. A woman dressed in blue sitting on a low wall. As they approach she holds up her hand in greeting.
“Welcome Caesar. Xena. And Hercules.” As she says each name she looks to them. “My name is Meridian. I am high priestess of the One God. I will take you to the presence of the Avatar.”
Caesar stares at the woman and realizes this may all be a more elaborate trap than even he thought. But they are here. They will see an end to it.
“Take us to her priestess,” Caesar says.
The woman nods and gestures for them to follow.
Caesar calls a centurion to him. “Spread the men out. Hold this position. Nobody gets in and nobody gets out unless we give any order to the contrary.”
The mounted centurion salutes then goes back to the cavalry and relays the orders.
“Send the signal to him, Iolaus,” Xena says watching the woman walk towards the dome.
Iolaus nods and pulls a bow from his back. He notches an arrow painted bright red with red fletching. He looses the arrow at a high angle towards the east of the city.
Hiding in the woods behind the battle lines another force of Amazons awaits their chance for battle. They get it sooner than they think. Seeing the signal from Iolaus, Vercinix's Gallic forces move into the woods and engage the Amazons in a surprise attack. While both cultures are well versed in warfare in the wooded regions of their respective lands, it is a matter of numbers here. The Gallic warriors of Vercinix number over two thousand. Hope had stationed a mere four hundred in the woods outside of Carthage. She had planned them to mop up whatever meager forces were left after the battle. She had also expected that Caesar would make use of Vercinix and his men in the main assault, as they were drastically outnumbered. It never occurred to her that Caesar would hold back anyone. It is an oversight that will cost the Amazons dearly.
Inside the city Iolaus throws down the bow and follows his friends towards the dome and to the real battle they have come for.
It is Octavian who sees that something is strange. Since entering the Forum with Antony and the others he has been watching Cicero and his group where they are milling nearing the steps to the senate hall. He sees Cicero look off to one side then suddenly the man goes rigid almost like he is having a seizure. All those with him repeat the strange affliction. For a moment or two they are immobile seemingly asleep on their feet.
All the while Antony and his group are moving forward. Octavian unconsciously moves with them but his eyes are fixed on the oddly behaving orator and his colleges. He places a hand on Octavia's shoulder to get her attention. She is speaking to Antony but turns to look at her little brother. She sees the concern on his face.
“What is it?” she asks him.
Octavian feels a dread growing in him as they are soon very close to Cicero and the others. And before he can voice his fears all eight men look up as one. Their eyes are empty. Staring ahead with the unfocused emptiness of the lifeless. He sees the gleam of metal in the hands of Cicero. The orator is the closest of all the men and he throws himself forward.
“Antony!” Octavian cries out as he draws his short sword and puts his arm around his sister drawing her close.
The Master of the Horse reacts to the threat in Octavian's voice without a second thought. He draws his own blade and it stops Cicero's attack without an instant to spare. The point of the man's dagger vibrates a hair's breath from his eye. He kicks the man in the gut and sends Cicero tumbling backwards to land in a heap taking down Piso who stumbles down onto his face.
Antais runs forward without making a sound as he too bears down on Antony. But he is too slow for the seasoned warrior as Antony merely grabs his wrist and does not hesitate to open up the senator's guts with his sword. Piso begins to rise from where Cicero had tripped him and lumbers forward like some bloated zombie. A rail thin man in white robes that Octavian doesn't recognize but whom he knows was in the group with Cicero moves towards them. Antony is on the far side of the thin man's position but he seems intent on getting to the tribune. So he takes the easiest route and that is through Lyceus and Julia.
But Julia is not the daughter of Julius Caesar for nothing. She pushes Lyceus behind her and grabs the man's arm then hammers her arm into his elbow. The arm breaks so violently that a splinter of bone erupts from the flesh. The dagger falls from his hand but he continues to try and get past Julia to Antony. She grabs him by the robes and throws him down where his head impacts with a sickening crack on the stone of the Forum.
Lyceus begins screaming in terror. It all happens so fast that it takes the soldiers guarding Antony and the others seconds to realize just what is going on. They meet two other seemingly dazed senators as they converge on the group. But the fighting with Antony and his opponents is so close quarters they can hardly see what is going on.
Piso stalks towards the group with his dagger held high but he is speared through the back by one of the guards as they dispatch the fat man and another white robed senator moving towards Antony.
Octavia cries out and her brother turns to see Cato pulling his sister's hair savagely. But he not trying to use his dagger to slit her throat as one might think. Instead his eyes are looking past them and are focused on Antony. Reaching out his left arm Octavian moves his sister aside then leans in and angles his sword over and buries the blade into the side of the old senator's neck. Blood erupts like a fountain from the wound spraying brother and sister in the blood of a man who has served Rome for more than forty years. A man they once both admired for his iron will and determination. Now he is dead at Octavian's hand. It is the first person he has ever killed. He stares into Cato's eyes as the blood and the life drain from him.
Octavia cannot form any words. She just looks away. Her eyes see Julia looking down at a man lying at her feet with blood pooling under his head. She sees Antony screaming at Cicero. And she sees another man closing in from Antony's left, a man whom he has not seen yet. She begins to cry out to her lover but Octavian too has seen the man, Cassius, moving in on Antony's side. He moves past her quickly.
“Cicero! What the hell are you doing?” Antony screams at the orator. But Cicero does not respond. He just runs forward with his dagger raised and tries to stab down into him. Antony sidesteps the attack and Cicero doubles over with the force of his evaded attack. Antony slashes down with his sword nearly decapitating the man. But as he does so he can see Cassius before him. He has met the young senator on more than one occasion and found him to be a man of conviction and strength. It never occurred to him that Cassius would be a traitor as well. He raises his sword to block the attack but is horrified to find that the blade will not budge. The gladius has become wedged in the bones of Cicero's neck. He can only watch now as Cassius's blade makes its short trip towards him.
Then he is knocked aside as Octavian slams into him from the side. He rolls to the ground and comes to his feet with trained ease.
“Octavian!” He hears Octavia scream. When he turns back to the melee he finds Cassius standing there with his dagger buried in Octavian's chest. His eyes and muscles are fixed for a moment as he views the horrific tableau before him.
Even with the pain of the dagger piercing his chest Octavian somehow manages to keep his mind clear. Cassius hardly seems to notice what he has done as he turns his face to look at Antony. The assassin starts to pull his blade free but Octavian grabs his wrist and holds him there. The traitor does not turn to look at him but keeps staring at Antony and trying to pull the dagger free. Octavian can feel the blood running from the wound and down his legs. He knows he will be dead soon. But he'll not let this man do any more harm this day or ever again. With his dying strength he screams aloud then drives his sword up into Cassius's stomach. The blade goes up at an almost vertical angle slipping under the rib cage destroying ever internal organ on its route up through the thoracic cavity. It stops only when the point of it pierces Cassius's heart. The traitor dies an instant death. Octavian falls back but does not hit the stone as Antony catches him.
“Octavian!” Antony screams at the young man. The dagger is still in his chest. Blood begins to ooze from his lips as he lays there looking up at them. Antony can already feel the tears forming. For a quick moment he glances around. All the traitors are dead. Their guards close into a circle around them.
“No. No. No.” Octavia looks down into the eyes of her brother. “Octavian. Please no. Don't die. Please little brother.”
Julia holds Lyceus in her arms with her back to the scene so that the boy does not see it. He is frightened and crying nonetheless. She tries her best to calm him with her arms and soothing noises but the child will not be quiet. Somehow he seems to know that death is all around him.
“Octavian?” Antony says laying his hand on his friend's shoulder. He doesn't think Caesar's nephew can even hear him now. Octavian's eyes dart about erratically until they settle on Octavia. He opens his mouth but a rasping breath is all that comes out. He lifts one shaking arm up towards the face of his sister. But before she can take his hand in hers it falls back to the ground.
Octavia falls over the body of her brother and screams. “No!”
“It would seem I have grossly miscalculated Caesar's abilities,” Hope says to all those present. The sound of combat outside the walls is easily audible even in the center of the city. “I'm losing far more than I expected. But it doesn't matter. When he and the others are dead it will be over.”
Ephiny again winces with the way Hope can so easily brush aside the deaths of so many like it is nothing. She says nothing.
“They're approaching,” Najara says from where she now stands on the dome's second floor. “Meridian and four others. Three men and one woman.”
“Excellent,” Hope says. She turns to face the Eternal Fire. “Soon I shall give Xena, Caesar, Hercules and anyone foolish enough to accompany them to the Fire.”
Ephiny steps between Hope and the Fire. She is certain Hope will think it foolish but she must voice her concerns. Her fears. “You will be careful. Won't you?” she asks. “These are not just soldiers Hope. Please be careful. I don't want anything to happen you.”
Hope looks at her handmaiden and smiles. Back lit by the Fire Ephiny is even more beautiful than usual and seems almost to glow. She places her hands on Ephiny's shoulders. “You concern is touching,” she says is a soothing tone. Her hands snake up Ephiny's neck slowly before coming to rest on her cheeks. “There is no need to be afraid.” She leans in close to place a gentle kiss on Ephiny's lips. Looking into those eyes Hope can see she is both startled and excited by the tender display. Hope too feels a bit confused at it. But she feels some need to reassure Ephiny. “They can no more harm me than they could reach into the sky and pull down the sun.”
Despite the assurance Ephiny embraces Hope and speaks softly into the Avatar's ear. “Just be careful. My life is meaningless without you.” As she says those words she knows that Hope will realize to whom she is really speaking. Should anything happen to Hope that will also be the end of Gabrielle. And that is something she cannot even begin to imagine.
Even knowing that Ephiny is not speaking to her Hope nods. “I will.”
With her head resting on Hope's shoulder Ephiny can see Meridian as she leads four mounted persons into the area before the line of Amazons. The man dressed in all the armor is without a doubt Caesar. Next to him is a man who is easily the perfect specimen of the human male. It can only be Hercules. Next to the demigod is a smaller man who carries himself with a warrior's poise and manner. She has no idea who he is but she has little doubt that he is no underling working for the dictator. And then there is the raven-haired warrior princess. She had heard tales of the Destroyer of Nations in her village. While she could not condone the acts of barbarity she was known for in those days Ephiny had to respect her skills as a warrior. This is Xena.
The four warriors dismount and follow behind Meridian as she leads them forward.
“ They're here,” Ephiny tells Hope.
Hope places one hand on Ephiny's chest and gently pushes her away. Then without turning her head to face her foes she greets one of them. “Welcome to Carthage Xena.”
Xena dismounts from Argo and finds a strange sight before her. But it is not the blue clad priestess leading them towards a row of Amazon warriors. What surprises her is the sight of the two women standing in the ground floor of the cracked open dome before the Fire held in each other's arms. The woman with her back to them seems to be clad in Romanesque style armor. Complete with a blood red cape and she can see an Amazon eagle guard sword on her back. Her hair is a glistening strawberry blond. She sees the blond woman held in that one's arms turn her head slightly to say something to the other. The two women part from one another. She can see the other blonde a bit more clearly. She is dressed only in a body hugging short white gown and a golden circlet rests upon her brow. She has heard of this woman through information from Athens and beyond. Her name is Ephiny and she is the handmaiden of Hope. So that makes this other woman the Avatar of Dahak. The bitch who has murdered her friends and family and countless others for the past six years. Xena starts to say something but Hope speaks first.
“Welcome to Carthage Xena.”
Xena's words die on her lips as the voice strikes her with insane familiarity. And when Hope turns to face them Xena feels like her heart has been ripped from her chest. It has been over six years but there is no mistaking the girl from Poteidaia. “Gabrielle,” she mutters unable to believe her eyes.
Hope smirks. “You remember me Xena. How touching.”
Caesar stares in disbelief himself at Hope. He says nothing aloud but his mind is racing. Gabrielle. The girl that Xena has dreamt about for so many years, the girl she has seen herself fight with and die with, is the Avatar of Dahak. How can that be possible?
“No.” Iolaus's mouth has gone dry at the sight of Hope. She is the slave girl he had seen six years ago in Draco's caravan. She is the same Gabrielle that the Oracle at Delphi had told him to kill in order to save the world. This is not possible, he thinks to himself.
Hercules looks appalled at the fact that the Avatar of Dahak the Dark One is a young woman. But that is beside the fact. Young woman or not she has to be stopped. He is the first to draw his sword.
Every Amazon before them draws their weapons as soon as Hercules.
Xena closes her eyes and shakes her head. This is not happening. Gabrielle is not Hope. She thinks of all the dreams. She thinks of the love she felt for the girl in those dreams. How they had fought together and done so much to help others. True they were just dreams but they were something positive she could hold onto in this time of war and bloodshed. She has never told either Caesar or Julia that she looks forward to the dreams sometimes. That she feels a peace in them sometimes she cannot know in the real world. Not even in Hercules's arms. She remembers the peace she felt during the dream in which she and Gabrielle died on the cross. She opens her eyes and looks at Gabrielle there before the Fire of Dahak. The dream is ash. The reality is a nightmare. She draws her sword and tries not to let the pain of this cripple her.
“Is that the same sword you had that day Xena?” Hope asks. With her finger she touches the underside of her chin. “Do you remember? I offered you friendship. You answered by drawing my blood.”
Caesar's eyes go from Hope to the Amazons as he calculates the odds of the imminent combat. He draws his sword. “No one is here to reminisce Hope. We have come to end this war.”
Hope ignores Caesar and continues to talk to Xena. “You left me standing there terrified. I ran home and cried like a child. Then do you know what happened? Of course you don‘t. You didn‘t stay around long enough to find out.”
Ephiny watches the Avatar finding it strange that she is talking as if she were Gabrielle. But then it occurs to her Hope is doing this as some sort of ploy. She wishes this didn't have to happen. For she knows some of those involved will not survive this confrontation. As she watches it unfold she knows that may include her.
“Draco returned!” Hope screams. “My family and friends were all murdered or sold into slavery. My sister and I became his sex slaves!”
Iolaus watches Hope scream but he doesn't hear what she says. All he can remember is the Oracle telling him to kill Gabrielle. He had thought the Oracle to be false then. But now? Had he done what was told to him might he have spared this world the horror of Hope and Dahak? He draws his sword and feels the very weight of the world on his shoulders.
“And it was all your fault!” Hope roars. “Oh yes. Draco told me that you had asked him to leave us alone. And like the uncaring bitch you are, you believed him!”
For an instant Xena actually thinks of saying that she is sorry. She remembers that day. Was she really so ignorant as to believe someone like Draco would keep his word? Then she remembers the destruction of Amphipolis, the deaths of all her friends and family and all the other people she has lost to Hope. The woman in blue is still standing before them. She grabs her by the hair and pulls her back into her grasp. Then she places the edge of her sword at the woman's throat. “Enough of this!” she shouts. The images of the dreams still try to intrude into her mind. Resting by the campfire with Gabrielle. Watching the girl fight off men twice her size with a simple staff. And of course the words that dream Gabrielle had spoken to her as they were being nailed to crosses. I love you Xena. She shakes her head to push aside the dream images. “Send them away!” she yells nodding towards the Amazons. “So we can finish this business. Or I'll kill her.” She makes her point by pressing the edge of the blade to the woman's throat so that a trickle of blood flows.
Hope crosses her arms over her chest. “All right Xena. You've made your point.” She focuses her attention on the weapon held tightly in Xena's hand. “Now allow me to make mine!” She sends her power against the weapon in the warrior princess's hand with predictable results.
Without her consent the sword slides across the woman's throat. Blood cascades down onto her and she slumps dead in Xena's arms. She looks for a moment down at the blood staining the woman's blue dress. Then she turns her attention back to Hope.
The Avatar spreads her arm and cries out, “Are you through trying to intimidate me!” She points forward with both hands. “Kill them!” The Amazons charge.
As before the odds are against them but these are no ordinary warriors. Caesar faces off against two Amazons wielding swords and easily shows them that they are nothing to him. He parries their strikes and in seconds has pierced one through the heart and nearly severed the leg of the other. He moves on.
Xena draws her chakrum and hurls it into the rushing Amazons. The flying weapon dispatches three of them and Xena takes down a further two with her blade. When the chakrum returns to her hand she lets it fly once again.
Iolaus ducks under one sword strike and stabs at the next warrior in line before switching around and slamming his foot into the back of his attacker's knee. She crumples to the ground where he easily sends her to the next world. He blocks a sword strike from above and lashes out driving his hand into her nose. The impact is so violent bone shards from her nose shoot back into and impale her brain killing her instantly. He kicks up to his feet and readies himself for his next opponent.
With his god like strength Hercules is more than a match for any of these women. Three women attack him but with one single swipe of his arm he sends them all flying in different directions. Another Amazon attacks. He swings his sword with such force that it shatters her blade and his weapon continues on its course where it hits her neck and decapitates her. Once he had abhorred war and bloodshed. But there is no choice now. Hope must be stopped. With that thought he turns his attention to Hope herself. She is on the far side of the Amazons. He screams aloud then charges in her direction. Like a raging bull elephant he charges through and over the women in his path.
Hope watches as her guard of twenty-five Amazon warriors is reduced in number from moment to moment. Xena throws that weapon of hers and dispatches two more. Using his bare hands more than his sword the man she doesn't recognize kills one by hammering his elbow into her throat and another by hitting her so hard with the pommel of his sword that it breaks her neck. Caesar moves with lethal ease swinging his gladius to cut open one woman's throat then driving it into the side of another. She is so intent on watching the battle amongst the Amazons that she hardly realizes Hercules is nearly upon her.
“Hope!” Ephiny cries out.
Hope ducks under the sword slash from Hercules and rolls away to gain her feet again. She watches the son of Zeus with fascination. She sees the uncomfortable way he holds the sword. She begins a slow walks that allows her to circle him. “So I get to fight the great Hercules.” She bows mockingly. “This will be an honor.”
“Shut up!” Hercules screams as he rushes her. Enraged he slashes down at her, a move that she easily sidesteps. The sword shatters upon impact with the stone floor of the dome. He turns to look at Hope who has drawn back her fist. She strikes him with thunderous force and he is sent rolling away. He comes to rest at the feet of an Amazon who is battling Iolaus. The woman looks down to see him there and forgetting Iolaus raises her sword to stab him. Hercules seizes her ankle then hurls her like a weapon at Hope.
The Avatar crouches low allowing the Amazon to sail over her and go right into the Eternal Fire where she is consumed in an instant. She smiles down at Hercules. “Throwing women at me? Is that the best you can do Son of Zeus?”
Iolaus helps his friend to his feet. “Are you all right?” he asks.
Most of the Amazons have been dispatched. Only three more remain fighting Caesar and Xena. Hercules feels the pain in his jaw. He will not say anything but he has never been hit that hard by anyone except a god before. “Just make sure you stay out of this,” Hercules orders his friend. “She's mine!” He runs full speed back at Hope.
Hope smiles just before she ducks under a punch and lashes out with her foot to trip the demigod. Hercules leaps up to avoid the sweep. Coming back down he brings his fist down like a hammer towards her head. She falls to a kneeling position and blocks the blow by crossing her wrists and catching him. Then she draws back both her hands and slams them into his gut. He sails backwards and hits one of the only remaining Amazons.
Xena is stunned when Hercules lands on top of the Amazon she is fighting. “Hercules!” But he doesn't seem to pay her any mind as he races back towards Hope. She turns to watch him go. He is on her in a moment. He swings with his right arm then his left. Hope ducks under both blows and then lands an uppercut that spins her completely around and nearly off her feet but sends Hercules high into the air. He crashes down amidst the others. Caesar helps him to his feet. Xena stares at the blood coming from the corner of her husband's mouth and from a cut on the side of his head. She has never thought it possible for someone to actually make him bleed.
“We'll take her together,” Caesar says drawing close to Hercules.
“Is that all you can do Hercules?” Hope says stepping from with the ruined dome. She steps around the bodies of Amazons as she approaches them. “You brother put up more of a fight. Your mother was more of a challenge.”
With those words something inside of Hercules snaps. Since the day he discovered his god like strength he has held himself back. Always fearing that he would hurt or kill others he has never once used the full extent of the power bestowed upon him by his father's blood. But as he races towards Hope he allows that barrier to shatter. He lets go with his full power and collides with Hope.
Hope crosses her arms before her just as Hercules reaches her. The sheer ferocity of the impact sends her back to the point inside the dome where she had walked from. She looks up from where she has landed just as Hercules arrives. He punches down and she rolls away. His arm sinks into the stone floor up to his elbow like it was mud. She stands to her feet and prepares to attack. She sees him wrench his arm around and he pulls up a four-foot section of the floor with his hand and hurls it at her. She barely manages to twist her body to avoid the missile. When she turns back to face him she finds him already there. He slams his fist into her gut with such force that as she doubles over she lifts up off the ground. And before she can even settle back down with his other hand he delivers an uppercut that sends her soaring straight up through the ceiling into the second floor. She crashes with such force into the wall on that floor that the entire side of the building starts to crumble.
Najara watches the section of the building with which Hope collided start to give way. Like an avalanche it collapses taking a third of the dome with it.
“Hope!” Ephiny screams when she sees the Avatar struck by Hercules. She stares in shock and horror as Hope crashes through the structure of the dome. She manages to avoid several pieces of debris as one side of the dome gives way and falls apart. With her eyes locked onto the pile of rubble that now covers Hope she almost doesn't see Hercules pass by her on his way towards the rubble. The demigod glances at her for a moment then continues on.
Xena, Caesar and Iolaus witness the result of Hercules's rage and can hardly believe it.
But as Hercules nears the pile of rubble from which he intends to drag Hope's body, the pile explodes sending debris in all directions. When the dust has settled no one can believe what they see. Standing in the center of a ring of stone and dirt is Hope. Hercules stands there dumbfounded. With the strength he had hit her with he had honestly expected Hope's head to come off. He had been shocked when she had gone flying through then into the structure. That she has survived is impossible. He hit her with enough force to crack a mountain!
“Your power is impressive Hercules!” Hope announces. “Now bear witness to mine!” With that Hope drops down to one knee and slaps the stone floor to either side of her with the flats of her hands. From where she touches the floor great cracks shoot out and away from her and on either side of Hercules. And then as she stands those sections of floor rise with her forming walls to both sides of him. Hope releases the walls that continue to rise higher and higher. Soon the walls go up to touch the ceiling and the bottoms are composed of the dirt and rock where she has literally pulled the earth up from its roots. Then with savage quickness she brings her hands together. The walls converge like some huge trap.
“Hercules!” Xena screams upon seeing this. She runs forward but finds that Hercules still stands. In between the walls he presses them apart keeping them open with his incredible strength.
Standing in between where the walls begin Hope stares forward at the still living demigod and curses aloud. Looking down at the floor beneath her and then holding down her hands she beckons the stone and earth forth again with her power. A section rises before her and she sends it racing towards where Hercules holds the walls apart to stop from being crushed.
He sees the wall coming and uses the squeezing of the walls to aid in and propel him upward in the air. The walls crash together crushing the section of wall Hope had sent towards him. He lands atop the massive construct of stone and earth she has created.
Gazing up at where he stands Hope in incensed. She had never believed him to be this strong. She launches herself into the air higher than any human under his or her own strength could go. When she reaches the top of her arc she draws her sword then begins to descend. She slashes down at him but finds her attack blocked by the gauntlets of Hephaestus he wears. He lashes out with her feet and sweeps her. Hope tumbles back but does not fall instead she uses her momentum to cartwheel back and land nimbly on her feet.
Caesar, Xena and Iolaus rush towards the stone and earth trying to find someway to get on top of it.
Meanwhile Najara has left the immediate area and is summoning some of the men within the city back to the dome.
Hope looks to her right and stares at the pile of rubble that had recently buried her. A piece of stone drifts up from the ground. When she returns her gaze to Hercules the stone follows. Hercules meets it with his fist and the stone explodes into dust. With that dust thick in the air between them Hope charges forward. To her left is the Fire. She knows she doesn't have to kill Hercules with her sword or her power. All she needs to do is knock him into the Fire. But as she rushes into the dust-laden air and swings her blade she finds no one there.
She searches around her for any sign of Hercules. She cannot find him anywhere. “What's the matter son of Zeus? Are you afraid of me?”
From where he hangs off the stone and earth wall Hercules can hear her screaming. As soon as she threw the stone he knew what she planned. But he saw through it. As soon as the rock exploded he had dropped over the side of the wall and hung there. Now he can see her feet right in front of him. He nimbly jumps up right beside her.
“No,” he answers her question simply. He pulls the sword from her hand then spins her around to face him. He loathes killing any living thing. But this must be done. He rams the sword into her gut pushing it all the way up to the hilt.
Just as Hercules drives the blade into Hope the dust settles about them. And all present can see what has happened. Xena, Caesar and Iolaus stand in shock at they stare at Hope with the sword through her midsection.
“No!” Ephiny screams. She runs to one side of the stone and earth on which Hercules and Hope stand. She finds where some debris has piled up that will allow her to climb on top. She moves with lightning speed up onto it. She can see Hope just staring down at the sword in her with a slightly amused look on her face.
Hercules looks down at what he has done and frankly feels sick. He has never wanted to take a life before. This is the first time he has ever killed a person with that strict purpose. He came here to kill Hope. And now he has done it. Xena watches the Avatar of Dahak stumble back a little as her life drains from her. For a moment she is overcome with a surreal kind of grief. For so many years she has dreamed of this woman. Julia had even said her dreams might be prophetic; that she and Gabrielle might meet in the future and have some kind of life together. Julia was right about one part. They have met.
Ephiny ignores Hercules as she catches Hope before she falls. “Hope?” she asks of the woman wondering if she is even still alive.
Hercules looks at the woman holding Hope in her arms and feels for her loss. She and Hope were obviously very close. It pains him to see any kind of grief. But this had to be done. “I'm sorry,” he says.
Ephiny looks him in the eyes and wants to curse him for what he has done here today. But in his eyes she can see the genuine grief of the loss of someone loved. She turns her eyes from him. She doesn't want to but she looks down at the fatal wound. What she sees shocks her beyond all belief. The wound is not mortal. As far as she can tell there is no wound at all. No blood stains her tunic top. No blood seeps from around the wound. There is no blood at all.
“Save your pity for someone who gives a damn you bastard son of Zeus!” Hope screams as she suddenly rushes forward and punches Hercules in the chest. He flies backwards off the stone and lands at the feet of his companions.
Najara arrives now with some of the troops from within the city. But they are not alone as Caesar's cavalry and even some of the infantry that have made it inside the city follow them in. Combat now begins to rage on before the damaged dome.
But Xena, Hercules, Caesar and Iolaus have no eyes for the fighting about them. They are watching Hope. Even Ephiny stares in horror at what she is witnessing. Hope walks onto the edge of the stone and stares down at her opponents with the sword still impaled through her. She grabs the sword and draws it from herself like it was a splinter stuck in her palm. As it is pulled out a thick, glowing liquid like lava flows out accompanied by gout of orange flame. In an instant both the flame and the strange blood recede back into the wound and it closes like it had never been there. In her hand the blade of the sword is twisted and molten. She drops the useless weapon beside her.
“You don't understand do you!” Hope screams in fury. “I am not some godling like you Hercules! Or some warlord like you Xena! I am Hope! I am the Avatar of Dahak! I am possessed of the spirit of the Dark One! I am the living incarnation of his will! And there is not anyone or anything in this world that can stop me!”
There is chaos in Rome. News has traveled fast. Treachery! Assassins! Citizens run to alert soldiers of what has happened. Soldiers try their best calm the citizens and let them know that everything will be under control. The rumors run rampant in mere moments. Assassins from Athens have killed Antony. Antony has murdered the senate and declared himself king of Rome. The niece and nephew of Caesar have killed Antony and Julia and announced their joint ruler ship over the Roman Republic. Caesar has returned with the XIII and seized Rome once again. There is panic in the streets as citizens, soldiers and slaves move about trying to understand what is happening.
Then from every dark corner of the city black clad warriors spill out into the streets. From the ghettos and abandoned houses they appear and attack anyone within reach. The legionaries of Caesar's XIII are shocked by the appearance of these warriors. Where have they come from? Whom do they represent? The answer is obvious as groups of the dark warriors fall on any soldier they see. The remains of the legion try to form up their ranks wherever they meet. But they are scattered too thinly throughout the city. Anywhere they try to make a stand, they are overwhelmed by groups of warriors outnumbering them four and five to one.
Among the soldiers the call goes out for Antony. Where is the Master of the Horse? Where is their leader? From every alley the dark men continue to appear as if from thin air.
Some of the warriors close in on Caesar's palace and within minutes they have killed every living soul within save for one rebel from Greece who manages to kill one warrior and escape dressed in the man‘s clothing. But they do not find the prize they seek. No sign is there of any of Caesar's kin. Only slaves and a few token guards reside in the residence of the dictator. The soldiers of Rome fight valiantly against the superior numbers of the dark army. Several centurions try to make some order of the chaos the army has been thrown into. But they can only do so much. The legion is spread all over the city. There is no way to draw them to any staging point where they can mount an effective counterattack.
The dark clad warriors secure the homes of aristocrats and senators in the prominent parts of town. Slaves and family members unlucky enough to be at home are murdered. Some die in their sleep or in their baths. And still more of them come from hiding places within the city. There seems to be no end to them.
From atop the palace of Caesar Ares watches with glee as his army, led by Dagnine, runs rampant through the streets of Rome. He and Hope had been planning this for the better part of a year. Carthage was indeed a trap. But it was also a diversion to draw Caesar and Xena away from Rome. Dagnine's troops have been coming into Rome one, two and three at a time for over a year and they number close to eight thousand. It had taken some doing to keep the men of this army supplied. But with the help of Alti and her army of ghost slaves it was simple. Merchants were possessed by the spirits under the shamaness's command then used daily to send food and water to the warriors hiding in all the dark places of Rome. And with Caesar's departure and only a small number of soldiers left to guard the city the time has come. Ares thrills to the feeling of strife and conflict within the city. He feeds on it. Rome will belong to Hope before the setting of the sun. And thanks to Caesar taking the legions in the north with him to Carthage there is nothing to stop them. Within days the whole of the peninsula will be theirs.
Only one thing has gone wrong. Antony still lives. “Dagnine!” Ares calls out to his lieutenant knowing that no matter where the man is in Rome he will hear the voice of his master.
“Yes Ares,” comes Dagnine's response.
“Antony escaped the trap Alti and I set in the Forum,” he relays to his commander. “He must not be allowed to leave the city. Find him and kill him.”
“Yes!” Dagnine shouts though he of course does not need to. “It will be as you command1”
With a smirk Ares watches the citizenry of Rome scurry about trying to escape the inevitable. “Speaking of things that are inevitable,” he says aloud to himself. He turns his gaze to the southwest and if he focuses hard enough he will be able to see what is happening in Carthage.
Ephiny's heart is clutched by a fear she never thought possible as she stares at Hope. She looks down at the twisted piece of metal that had been a sword, her sword once, impaled through Hope's mid section. She's invulnerable to harm, Ephiny thinks. There is no way to stop her. Even Ephiny had harbored some notion that Hope could be stopped in some way. While true she doesn't want Hope dead because that would mean killing Gabrielle, some part of her knew it might come down to that. But now she sees that the argument she had with Eponin about finding some way to stop Hope other than killing was pointless.
Hope laughs at the helpless looks on the faces of those before her. “What's the matter? Are you scared?” She points back to the pile of rubble and then slings her arm back around as if she were throwing something. “You should be!” she screams as chunks of stone are hurled across the area towards Caesar and his allies. They all dive for cover in different directions. When they regain their feet they find that troops, both for and against them, are before the crumbling dome as they fight.
“You will all die here!” Hope scream at she points up towards what remains of the dome's ceiling and causes huge slabs to fall down upon the combat area in front of her. It doesn't matter that she is killing some of her own men. “Do you hear me? All of you will die!” She reaches out with both hands and dislodged pieces of the dome's walls and sends them hurtling horizontally from one side to the next with incredible speed. She gestures towards the ground causing huge fissures to open up and swallow anyone unlucky enough to be standing there.
Men are knocked from horses. Warriors are crushed to pulp under stones weighing a thousand pounds or more. Men fall into cracks in the earth and plummet to their deaths untold feet below. All the while the dome trembles with Hope's power. The ground tremors like an earthquake. The very city shakes with the rage of the Avatar of Dahak.
Through out the destruction around them the four warriors she is intent on killing manage to avoid all her projectiles and pits. All the while fighting more of Hope's troops who try and kill them as well.
“Hope! Stop it!” Ephiny screams as she tries to get close to Hope. The massive stone on which they stand shudders violently and it takes all her dexterity not to fall. “Stop! You'll bring the entire dome down on top of us!”
“I don't care” Hope roars. “All that matters is that she is dead!”
Ephiny looks a little confused by that statement. That she is dead? She's focused on Xena once more. Then she sees it. Hope's arms are outstretched towards the battleground before her. As Ephiny watches she sees Hope's right hand start to tremble. The tremor starts at her fingers and then her entire arm starts to shake. “No,” Ephiny says knowing what is about to happen. “Not here. Not now.” She has seen the indestructibility of Hope. But does that invulnerability extend to Gabrielle? She has never seen Hope sweat no matter how rigorous the situation. But when she reverts back to Gabrielle sweat literally pours from her body. Hope is immortal. But is Gabrielle? There is no way to know. But can she take the chance? No. She has to protect Gabrielle no matter what.
“No!” she hears Hope cry out in rage. She stares at her trembling arm then feels her power diminishing with each heartbeat. She drops to her knees and can feel sweat beginning to cover her skin and soak her clothing. She feels the tears forming in her eyes. Her muscles seize and her vision blurs. Before she succumbs totally to the weakness within her she curses the girl. “Damn you Gabrielle!”
Caesar has just dispatched one man with a stab to his groin when he hears Hope scream. He turns his head to see her drop to her knees and he hears her cry out. In the back of his mind he begins to comprehend something. But he cannot focus on it now. He sidesteps an attack by one of Hope's men and retaliates easily enough to kill him.
“Najara!” Ephiny cries out as she moves towards the fallen Avatar.
Najara follows Ephiny's voice and sees what is happening. Despair has returned. “Damn it!” she curses. “Why now?” She whistles loudly. The sound elicits an immediate response. All the soldiers gathered break off their attacks and follow her as she moves to stand directly before the stone on which Hope stands forming a defensive wall.
Xena stares puzzled at the change in tactic. Then she sees the Avatar on her knees and seemingly overcome by something. Hope is no longer throwing stones about like a juggler. She is weeping like a child and covered in sweat. And now she is being guarded. It occurs to her that in this state the Avatar of Dahak may be vulnerable. She is also aware that since it was a gift from Ares that her chakrum is no ordinary weapon. She makes one quick calculation in her mind and then without a moment's hesitation hurls the weapon at its target. As the weapon leaves Xena's hand it starts a chain reaction of events that lasts for mere seconds but which will seem like an eternity to all those involved.
With so many warriors in front of her Xena does not have a clear shot with the chakrum so she has sent is hurtling into the wall on her right where it rebounds and arcs all the way across the open area of the dome where he hits off another wall then heads straight for the incapacitated Avatar.
Ephiny who has been closing with Gabrielle the whole time since Hope lost control sees the deadly weapon of the warrior princess flying towards her. She takes the last few steps with speed she is unaware she is capable of. She steps in front of Gabrielle spreading her arms and screaming, “No!”
Gabrielle through her grief and sorrow hears the voice of Ephiny. She turns her tear filled eyes up to see her friend standing protectively over her. And beyond that she can see the flat disc like weapon of the warrior princess tearing its way through the air straight towards Ephiny. Her eyes grow wide in horror. Ephiny will die protecting her if she doesn't do something. But what can she do? She has only a moment to act. She knows she isn't strong enough here and now to do anything. But she knows one who is. So she calls out with her voice and her mind to the one being in all existence who can save Ephiny. Can save the woman she loves. “HOPE!”
Iolaus watches the chakrum speed towards the blond woman who stands before Hope to sacrifice her life for the Avatar. Then she sees and hears Hope scream out her own name. Hope is on her feet with such speed that it doesn't appear to him as though she has even moved. She encircles the blond woman in her arms and stares at the chakrum that now hangs in mid air mere inches from them both.
Ephiny feels herself suddenly wrapped in strong arms and turned around. Hope holds her face to face now. Gabrielle is gone. She sees Hope staring straight ahead past her and so turns to see what she is looking at. Hanging there in the air so close she can see the details on the weapon's etchings is Xena's chakrum. The weapon is held there by Hope's power and it vibrates with a high-pitched whining as if it were still moving through the air.
“Xena warrior princess!” Hope calls down to the woman who now stands there in disbelief. “I am Hope. Avatar of Dahak, the Dark One!”
Ephiny stares down at Xena now. Then back towards Hope's face. She is invoking the sacrificial rite. She means to kill Xena then feed her to the Eternal Fire. She doesn't want to witness this so she closes her eyes.
“Your life is now forfeit in my name and His!” She screams the last part of the rite. The chakrum flies away from Hope with such speed that at first it makes no sound. That is until it encounters the neck of a soldier unlucky enough to be in between the weapon's path and its intended target. The chakrum blasts through him like he was nothing and continues its deadly journey straight towards Xena. There is no way she can move fast enough to evade the weapon. Hope smiles at the impending death of the warrior princess.
Hercules slams into Xena knocking her aside at the last instant. When the chakrum hits him in the chest there is a resounding metallic ring that seems to echo off the walls of the dome. The force of the impact spins the demigod around and it is Caesar that keeps him from falling to the ground. He catches Hercules by his gauntleted right wrist and by the chakrum imbedded in his chest. He stares in shock into the eyes of the son of Zeus and time seems to stop.
Xena recovers her balance and turns to see what has happened. When she sees Hercules being held up by Caesar with her weapon in his chest she screams, “Hercules! No!” She tries to move towards them but Iolaus grabs her around the waist and holds her with all his strength. He too looks in horror at what has happened. Hercules is the son of immortals. But even his old friend never deluded himself into thinking he was incapable of dying. And Iolaus has fought in enough battles to know that the wound Hercules has received is mortal. “Let me go!” Xena screams at him. But somehow he is able to hold her in place.
Ephiny opens her eyes when she hears the screaming and looks down. She sees the blond man holding back Xena as she tries to go towards where she sees Hercules's back to them and Caesar apparently holding him up. It takes very little imagination for her to know what has happened. She looks at Hope's face again to see a wide grin. “Now that was unexpected,” Hope admits.
“Hercules?” Caesar says. Blood is pouring from the wound in the man's chest and cascading along the chakrum then down Caesar's arm. He sees his friend's eyes swivel around to focus on where Xena is being held by Iolaus.
“Make sure she lives,” Hercules implores Caesar. Blood comes from his mouth as he speaks. “You get her back to our son.”
Caesar can only nod at first. When he finds his voice he simply says, “I will.”
Hercules actually smiles. “Thank you,” he mutters in a voice that gets lower in volume with each spoken word. “Take care of them. They're your family now.”
As the last word is uttered all the life vanishes from Hercules's eyes and Caesar is holding up a corpse. Then the body is jerked from his grasp with such titanic force that Caesar is left holding Xena's chakrum in his right hand and one of Hercules's gauntlets in his left. He watches as the body sails through the air, carried by Hope's power, and is hurled into the Eternal Fire of Dahak.
“No!” Xena continues to scream. Iolaus looks at Hope and now knows that the Oracle was true. Had he listened none of this would have happened. The reality that he is partly responsible for his best friend's death and the death of so many others hits like a physical blow. He releases Xena. It is all he can do to remain standing there.
Caesar turns his gaze to Hope. For one insane second he entertains the idea of attacking her himself with just the chakrum in his hand. But that thought in forgotten when the Eternal Fire of Dahak erupts like a volcano.
The explosion is so violent that is obliterates the two upper floors of the dome and sends debris raining down for miles in all directions. Hope and Ephiny are thrown forward with the Avatar landing on top of her handmaiden as the remaining walls of the dome collapse inward and bury them both. Najara and her men before the dome are blown off their feet and flying debris kills some. Caesar manages to keep his feet somehow. He looks around him and knows that to continue this battle is suicidal. Hope's forces here inside the city are now in disarray thanks to the explosion. This may be their only chance to get out alive. He glances to the rubble of the dome through which the Fire of Dahak is still sending bright red flames skyward. Hope is buried in there but he knows she is not dead. This day is lost. Hercules is dead. He'll lose no one else. He spies Iolaus helping Xena to her feet. She stares at the rubble of the dome. Tears stream from her eyes but other than that she now seems in control of herself. Iolaus looks like he wishes he were dead. They have all lost someone important to them today.
Caesar looks down at his hands. He places the gauntlet in the waist of his uniform. One day when the boy is old enough to understand he will give it to Lyceus. In his other hand is Xena's chakrum. He looks up for a moment then throws the weapon with all his might vertically into the sky. Iolaus watches the weapon soar skyward and knows what it means.
“Retreat!” Caesar cries out. “All of you fall back!”
It takes several seconds for the chakrum to return to earth. When it does it is Xena who catches it. She stares at her weapon now covered in her husband's blood. She makes a silent promise to herself. I will not rest until Gabrielle's blood is on this.
“Retreat!” Caesar continues to call.
One centurion from his cavalry sidles up next to him. “But Caesar…”
“We've lost!” Caesar screams at the man. He points back in the direction they came. “Now I said fall back!”
“But Hope's forces are still battling with ours outside the walls,” the centurion explains.
Caesar continues to gesture emphatically back the way they came. “Just send the cavalry through now! Vercinix is on the other side! We meet him in the middle then get the hell out of here!”
The centurion salutes then rides off to follow his orders.
From his vantage point outside the city Vercinix sees the weapon of the warrior princess sail into the air and glint in the sunlight. “Damn!” he curses. He steps before his force of two thousand men which now include over one hundred mounted soldiers that he has held in reserve. He points towards the break in the city walls where Caesar and Hope's legions are still embroiled in bloody combat. “Advance!” he roars.
“Come on!” Antony yells as he tries to lead his group through the growing chaos in and around the Forum. The soldiers guarding them seem confused. All around them people are yelling and screaming. He catches bits of what they say. Something about demon warriors appearing from thin air all around the city.
With his weapon still in his hand Antony remains ready to defend those with him should he have to. Just what the hell is going on? He asks himself. He has to reach back and take Octavia's arm again as she seems to be totally consumed by her grief. In her hands she clutches her brother's sword that she drew from Cassius's body. Julia still holds Lyceus tightly to her with tears in her eyes as well. He too feels the loss of Octavian but he knows he can't let it defeat him now. He has to get them to safety. Caesar's palace will be the best place.
The sound of hoof beats on stone draws his attention from his task. He turns and recognizes the rebel from Athens, Palaemon, coming towards them. He is dressed in armor much darker than when they met before and is riding one large gray warhorse while leading another behind him.
“Antony!” he calls out. Palaemon draws up next to the group and Antony has to shout to the men not to attack this dark clad warrior.
“Palaemon!” he calls to the man. “What are you doing here?”
“You have to leave,” Palaemon informs him. “Rome is being overrun.”
“What?” Antony asks not believing what he is hearing. Certainly there is pandemonium in the Forum after what happened. But the man must be mistaken.
“An army of Ares is loose in the city!” Palaemon cries out over the screaming of the people around them. “There is no where left to retreat to. Caesar's palace has been taken and soon they will control the city.”
“An army of Ares!” Antony shouts. Now he understands. Carthage was no just a trap. It was distraction. With Caesar and all the troops away the timing is perfect. The city and the entire peninsula are practically unguarded now. Hope must have been planning this for years. But where the hell did this army come from?
“We don't have any time Antony!” Palaemon implores the Roman commander. “We have to go now! If we wait any longer they will control all the ways in and out of the city.”
Antony nods. He turns to look at the centurion commanding his personal guard. Before he can even say anything the man states, “We will stay and fight.”
“Thank you,” Antony says to the man. He extends his arm and takes the other's in a warrior's grip. He leaps up on the other horse and holds his hand down to Octavia. “We have to go. Come on.”
She looks up at him for a moment before nodding and letting herself be pulled up behind Antony.
“Come on you two,” Palaemon says reaching down towards Julia and Lyceus. “There's not much time.” Julia needs no time to decide. She hands Lyceus up to the man who places Xena and Hercules's child on the saddle before him. Then with practiced ease she leaps onto the horse behind him.
Both Antony and Palaemon kick the mounts into a full gallop and head for the nearest of the city gates. As they near the way out they see it blocked by ten men in black armor. They push the horses as fast as they will go in order to get past the men. But they need not have bothered. A group of legionaries spying their leader's escape and knowing that he must live in order to carry news of this attack to Caesar rush into the warriors. With their shields they push the dark clad men aside and engage them in furious combat. Antony and his group gallop past and exit the city as fast as their steeds can carry them.
As they head north Antony chances one quick glance over his shoulder. Smoke rises from the city of Rome. They should have realized. They should have seen it all for the plan it was. Now Rome, the heart of the resistance against Hope belongs to the Avatar. And Antony knows that now they may have no chance of winning.