DUALITY OF HOPE AND DESPAIR
DICLAIMER / VIOLENCE: Extremely bloody and violent scene occurs at the end of this part of my tale. Just wanted to warn you all ahead of time.
The fighting at the walls of Carthage continues but to all those present there is no doubt as to the outcome. Caesar's forces are in retreat. The cavalry that had penetrated the legions of Hope at the wall are driving forth from within in a reckless attempt to get out of and away from the city. Caesar leads what Hope's men view as a hopeless attempt at escape. They are outnumbered and outflanked now. For them there can be no escape.
Or so the legions of Hope believe. Then the Gallic force led by their chieftain Vercinix hammers into the back side of their lines. Some two thousand men drive into their number and begin to push them back. A force of cavalry from Gaul also joins the fray. Both Vercinix's warriors and what remains of Caesar's legions fight like men possessed. With a strength born of desperation they attack without mercy and without reason.
And then as Caesar had predicted his forces and those of the Gaul meet in the middle of Hope's writhing legions. Once the Roman dictator and the Gallic chieftain have seen each other they both spur their forces to new heights of savagery in order to survive the day. The fighting now makes the combat from earlier in the day seem tame by comparison. Bodies pile up like leaves in autumn as the battle turns into a seething mass of humanity and carnage. Caesar's horse is cut from underneath him and he falls to the ground. He deftly avoids attack from many sides before leaping into the saddle of a horse whose rider has been killed. He rides hard into more enemies trying desperately to reach the other side of the combat zone. Horses and men slip and fall in puddles of blood that are widening into lakes and rivers.
Atop her Argo, Xena fights like a demon slashing with her sword and sending her chakrum in all directions killing so many that soon as she nears any warrior with the weapon ready they do their best to take cover behind comrades both living or dead. She is a one-woman army fueled by a rage few could understand. For this day her world has been shattered both by the death of her husband and by the betrayal of her dreams. With each stroke of her sword and each sling of her chakrum she can see the face of Hope, the face of Gabrielle. For years she had dreamed of the girl from Poteidaia and in reality had longed to meet her again and perhaps make right the wrong she inflicted. But she cannot. Gabrielle is Hope. And Hope has murdered Hercules. Her world can never be the same again. She fought so hard after meeting Hercules to change what she had become and to put the Destroyer of Nations behind her. But today she lets loose the monster she buried six years ago. Today the Destroyer of Nations lives again. And while she knows she cannot accomplish this goal today she vows that she will kill Gabrielle.
Knocked from his horse Iolaus fights almost half heartedly nearly being killed on more than one occasion as his mind races over everything that has happened today. His best friend is dead and he could have prevented it. If only he had done as the Oracle had told him and killed Gabrielle. But how could he have known? The Delphic Oracle had been correct. Hope cannot be stopped now. She will eventually murder the world. The Oracle had told him the world would be changed and that the only way he could save it would be to kill the girl Gabrielle. He had, of course, refused to do any such thing calling the Oracle a fraud. But she was right. And his arrogance has now doomed the world. A dagger that digs into his shoulder interrupts his guilty thoughts. He turns and slashes with his sword. The soldier before him falls and he continues to fight. Though he is not sure why.
It seems an eternity but the first of Caesar's forces breaks through Hope's lines. There is no waiting for any others. Whoever gets through the line runs or gallops at full speed away from Carthage. No victory can be claimed today except to live to see the sunset. Among the combat Vercinix spots Iolaus being overwhelmed by four others. He signals one of his mounted men to go to the aide of the Greek. The horseman tramples any near Iolaus then he reaches down and pulls the exhausted warrior on the horse behind him and makes a run for the line. He manages to break through but is wounded in the process. As he breaks free and gallops away he loses consciousness. It is Iolaus who takes the reins and sends the horse on further.
Caesar and Xena also meet up near the line. Caesar prepares to break away when he sees that Xena is more interested in killing as many as possible than escaping. “Xena!” he screams. She ignores him and hurls her chakrum once more. The weapon slices open the throat of one man then hurtles away to hit another in the head and then arcs back to Xena. Caesar virtually slams his mount into hers. “Xena!” he shouts again. She spins in the saddle and lashes out with her sword. She finds her attack blocked by the sword in Caesar's hand. “Xena! What in hell's name are you doing?” And when he looks in her eyes he sees the answer. She is nearly lost in a berserker rage. Killing without thought. Fighting without reason. “Xena! Snap out of it! We have to get away!” He pulls away from her to block the attack of a solider trying to impale him with a spear. He kicks the man in the face then reaches down to pierce his neck with his sword.
When he turns he finds Xena still battling with any one close enough. “Xena!” he screams once more.
“What?” Xena finally responds yelling at him as she beheads a man who has drawn to close to her sword. With a squeeze of her legs she causes Argo to kick out and slam her hooves into a man behind them.
“We have to get away!” Caesar exclaims. Xena doesn't seem to hear him and she pulls back her arm to throw the chakrum again. Caesar seizes the arm and holds fast. The warrior princess turns those cold blue eyes on him. “Nothing will be served by dying today! We have to escape!”
With murder in her eyes she growls, “I will kill her!”
“But not today!” Caesar informs her. “Now come on!”
She comes back to her senses a little and some part of her knows Caesar is right. Live today and she will have the opportunity in the future to kill Gabrielle. Giving her battle cry she turns and sends Argo into a heart stomping gallop towards the line. Caesar follows close behind her.
As Caesar's forces run away as fast as they can they all pray that Hope's legions do not intend to pursue them once they have broken through the line. None of them look back to see if they are being followed or to even help their fellow soldiers. It is an all out route. They know where to meet up at after it is all done. Caesar and Xena come out through the line and race as fast as their horses will carry them away from Carthage. Both of them chance a look back. The milling mass of fighting soldiers is still before the walls. And like a fountain of lava the Eternal Fire of Dahak shoots over a hundred feet into the air making it clearly visible for miles around. Neither of them think it a fitting memorial to Hercules. Xena screams in rage and grief back at the dead city which this day has claimed one life too many.
As they ride on two things Hope said continue to echo through Caesar's mind:
I am possessed of the spirit of the Dark One!
Damn you Gabrielle!
His analytical mind processes those two things and begins to draw an extremely unorthodox but logical conclusion. He had seen Hope's collapse but only briefly. It made little sense. She had them all right where she wanted them. From his own experience with the “Falling Disease” he is well aware of how incapacitating such a condition can be. But surely a woman who can be run through with a sword and suffer not even a scratch cannot be prone to emotionally and physically debilitating attacks. There is something unique about Hope. Possessed of the spirit she had said. When his horse nearly trips Caesar decides it will be better to concentrate on his riding than on trying to draw any conclusions about the nature of the Avatar of Dahak.
Xena continues her ferocious screaming as she kicks Argo to gallop faster and faster. She can hardly see past the grief and the rage. The grief of her husband's death and the rage she feels from Gabrielle's betrayal. For that is how she thinks of it. For almost six years Gabrielle has been in her dreams. In those dreams she has walked side by side in deep friendship with her. In her dreams she has grown to love the girl she walked away from so many year ago. She had almost hoped that Julia's notion of the dreams being prophetic might be true. But she knows now they have nothing but a cruel joke the world has played on her. Gabrielle is Hope, the Avatar of Dahak the Dark One. Gabrielle is the butcher of Amphipolis. Gabrielle is responsible for the death of her brother, her mother, her first-born son and so many others she has loved through the years. And now she is the murderer of her husband. She screams again causing anyone running or riding near her to veer away wildly.
She turns to look back at Carthage again. “I will kill you Gabrielle!” she screams back at the dead city.
She thinks of that dream in which she and Gabrielle are crucified. Now she wishes more than anything that she could see Gabrielle nailed to a cross and suffering a slow agonizing death.
Najara and those gathered stare in disbelief at the pile of rubble that had been the dome at the center of Carthage. But it appears more like a volcano in truth than a ruined building. The Eternal Fire blazes high and bright from the center of the mass. The stone near the Fire is literally molten and heaped around it not unlike the rim of a volcano.
“How could she possibly be alive?” one of Pompey's centurions asks.
Najara turns a glaring eye at him but does not say anything in response. Because she too wonders how Hope could have survived. While she had seen the Avatar fight and defeat Hercules even she has her doubts that she could live after the entire dome collapsed on top of her. “Bring some men here and start shifting this rubble,” she orders the centurion. “I will not believe she is dead until I see a body.”
The centurion looks to the rubble than back to Najara. “Yes ma'am,” he says with a salute before he walks away ordering men to begin moving the rock pile.
Still another centurion runs up to speak with her. “Caesar's forces are in full retreat Najara,” he tells her with a smile plastered on his face. “We've won.”
“So it would seem,” Najara replies looking back to the rubble once again.
“Shall we pursue them?” he asks.
“No,” she answers. “Hope's orders were not to take the army past the outer walls.”
“But Caesar and Xena are escaping!” the centurion shouts.
“Then let them escape you fool!” she screams rounding on him grabbing him by his throat. “You will follow the orders of the Avatar or I will throw you into the Fire right now!” She points to the erupting Fire to make her point. “Now get as many men as you can here to begin clearing this away.” She gestures to the rubble.
He stares in confusion but is not so stupid as to question the warrior woman again. He salutes and walks away.
Najara looks to the rubble again as a few men have already and arrived and begun to shift it stone by stone. She turns her head suddenly to the left. “Yes. I know,” she says. “I refuse to believe it either. She is the Avatar. She still lives.” She raises her eyebrows in a curious sign of delight. “True. If we are fortunate then at least Ephiny will be dead. And we need not worry about her or what she will do to betray Hope.”
“Excuse me?” a soldier says walking up beside her. “Were you speaking to me?”
“No!” she snaps at him. She points to the rubble. “Get to work!” The soldier obeys quickly.
Najara steps back away from the work crossing her arms and watching them as still as a statue. She does not move as the work progresses.
That is until there is a flash of light beside her and Ares appears. Startled she turns to face him.
Ares observes the destruction around him and whistles in astonishment. “Okay. Now this looks like it was one hell of a fight.” He looks around then looks around then looks back at Najara. “So. Where is Hope?”
Najara stares at him for another moment then turns back to the rubble and points. “She buried under there somewhere.”
Ares glances at the rubble then shrugs. “I'll come back later then.” He vanishes without another word.
“Ares!” Najara screams shocked at his lack of concern.
“Najara,” comes the voice of another centurion.
“Yes!” she says turning around from where Ares had last stood.
“The legions are accounted for,” he says.
“Our losses?” she inquires.
“Close to half,” the man says the amazement clear in his voice.
“Caesar's tactics were unlike anything we were prepared for,” the centurion continues. “We lost over two cohorts in his cavalry charge. And when he closed the wedge in his lines that allowed the cavalry through our men were too closely packed to form ranks. It took us some time to regain any ground there. By then over a legion was gone.”
Even Najara must respect the Roman's combat tactics. “The man is a demon in battle.”
“His Gallic contingent wiped out all the Amazons hiding in the forest,” he goes on. “Every single one of them is dead. And during their retreat they fought harder than when they tried to get in.”
“It seems the Romans have salted the earth of Carthage again,” Najara observes. “This time with their blood.”
“What are your orders?” the centurion asks.
“Are there any prisoners?”
“None. Those who did not escape fought to the last.”
“Assign one cohort to gather the dead. The rest must come here.” She points to the rubble and to the men already working on it.
The centurion looks at the rubble in confusion. “Why?”
“Because Hope is buried under there somewhere,” she informs him.
The centurion stares in shock at the rubble. He doesn't want to voice what he thinks. Certainly there is no way she is alive under all that. But he says nothing of the sort. He merely salutes and runs off to comply with her orders. Najara turns her attention back to the men working on the dome's ruins.
As the day goes on more and more men arrive to help clear away everything. Most of them share the view of the centurion that no one could survive being buried under so much rock. But none of them say anything. They work hard and diligently under the watchful eye of Najara.
As dusk approaches it seems to the men working that they have made little or no progress. The light from the Eternal Fire now casts an orange glow over everything as the sun slips below the horizon. Many have noticed the Fire lessening in intensity. What that means none of them can say. They pray it does not mean that the Avatar is dead.
Night has come and still the men work by the light of the Fire. Najara stands in the same spot and has not moved to either feed or relieve herself. She may as well be a pillar of stone standing before the ruins. She speaks only once to acknowledge a centurion when he informs her that all the dead have been gathered together.
“Gather a token of some kind from each man so we can have something to give to his family when we return,” she commands him. “Then bury them all in a mass grave.”
“The Amazons?” he inquires.
“Leave their bodies where they have fallen and set fire to the forest,” she replies. “They cremate their dead in funeral pyres. It will be fitting.”
He salutes and leaves without another word.
As the night goes on the Fire diminishes little by little. Soon the men must light torches in order to see where they are working amidst the rubble. In rotating shifts they work well through the night and into the early morning. By dawn the Fire has decreased to what it was before Hope fed Hercules to it.
“Najara!” someone shouts.
Najara moves from her position at last and runs towards where she sees the man signaling her. When she arrives at his position she looks down at where he points. She sees a hand protruding from the rubble.
“Everyone over here now!” she shouts. Every man working on the ruin closes in on her position. Now even she works with them to clear the rubble away. Soon a whole arm is showing. The blood red of Hope's cape is seen next. Then the strawberry blond hair is uncovered. It is the work of many minutes to uncover Hope's upper body. She is lying face down and her legs are still pinned under the rubble.
“Work carefully you fools!” she shrieks when some of the rubble begins to shift around her due to one soldier's careless footing.
“There's hardly any need for that,” a voice that seems to be trying not to turn into a laugh tells her.
Najara looks down at the uncovered body of Hope and sees it starting to move.
“She's alive!” a soldier screams as he watches Hope begin to rise from the ruin.
“She's alive!” the scream is echoed by several more.
Soon it becomes the battle cry: “Hope is eternal! Hope is eternal!”
The rubble now slides from Hope's back like water from a duck's back as she rises to her feet. Her clothing is torn. Her armor is dented. But she is unharmed. Najara can only stare in disbelief at the living Avatar before her.
When Hope is on her feet she bends over slightly and holds her hand down. Najara is shocked to say the least when she sees Ephiny reach up to take Hope's hand and be pulled to her feet. The handmaiden, like her mistress, is unharmed. Najara hopes that her dislike of this fact does not show on her face.
A boisterous cheer goes up among all the men present. And the chant resounds throughout the dead city of Carthage. “Hope is eternal! Hope is eternal!”
Ephiny leans her weight against Hope unsure of her own body's strength to keep her upright. She cannot understand how she is still alive. She should have been crushed under the rubble she sees around her. It is obvious that Hope used her power to protect them both as the dome had collapsed after the Fire erupted. Even free now she can still feel the weight of Hope's body pressing down on her for such a long time. At first she thought she might be terrified. But she had not been. Though Hope had said nothing to her, she took strength from her presence.
“We thought for certain that you …” Najara begins but does not finish.
Hope smiles. “Surely you did not think the collapse of a building would do me in Najara. Have you no faith in me?”
Najara shakes he head vehemently at the question. “No! I mean yes. Of course I do.”
Still holding Ephiny, Hope turns to look at the Fire. She basks in its glow and can still feel the power it has given her.
“What happened?” a centurion next to Najara asks. “We saw the explosion and thought a volcano had been birthed here.”
“It was Hercules,” Hope replies. She closes her eyes for a moment savoring the power his sacrifice to the Fire has bestowed upon her. She holds up one hand and a ball of white-hot flame appears hovering over her palm. She turns quickly and sends the fireball racing across the open area before the ruins. It hits the ground floor of a two-story structure and explodes. The whole building crumbles to debris in seconds. She laughs loudly and joyously. “His mixed human/Olympian blood has increased my power tenfold. By Dahak I did not think I could ever feel this strong!”
Ephiny looks at the overjoyed look on Hope's face and cringes. There will no stopping her now, she thinks.
Hope turns her gaze to the rubble surrounding them then lashes out with her power. The stones around them are heaved straight up into the air then scatter in all directions around the city impacting buildings and demolishing the city even further. Hope laughs again like a child who has just discovered a new cache of toys.
The soldiers present stare in awe at Hope's powers. Never had they imagined she was capable of this. Surely Caesar and his allies will stand no chance against her. She could probably defeat them all single handedly now.
“It's closer now,” Hope says. “I can feel it.”
“What?” Najara asks.
Hope smiles mischievously. “Nothing Najara. It's nothing. I'm just musing.”
But Ephiny can see the evil intent behind the smile. What strength she has fades and she nearly collapses. But Hope catches her.
“I think we can both use some rest,” Hope informs Ephiny. She leads her handmaiden away from the ruin. As she passes Najara she says, “We return to Athens tomorrow morning. Make sure everything and everyone is ready.”
“Yes,” Najara replies. She watches the two women walk away. She is heartily overjoyed that Hope is alive. But she is sickened by the fact that the traitor still lives.
Ephiny feels quite embarrassed to be carried away by Hope in this fashion. But she does not protest. She feels at ease in her arms or more precisely in Gabrielle's arms.
“She called for me you know?” Hope says shaking Ephiny from her thoughts.
“What?” she asks not quite sure what Hope has said.
“She called for me,” Hope repeats. “Your precious Gabrielle.”
Ephiny stares in bewilderment. “What do you mean?”
“When you threw yourself in front of Xena's chakrum in order to sacrifice your life for hers. I guess you didn't hear. She knew she was too weak to do anything. She called my name.”
Ephiny's eyes grow wide as she hears this. It makes her heart sink as she stares into the burning eyes of Hope.
“I told you she was weak,” Hope tells her with a smirk. “And she has proved it to us both now.”
Ephiny closes her eyes tightly.
“You know something else?” Hope asks Ephiny is a sadistically playful voice. She doesn't wait for Ephiny to reply in any way before she continues. “I can feel less of her now.”
Ephiny's eyes pop open. “What?”
“Her spirit was diminished when she called out to me,” Hope explains. “She had to surrender to me in order for me to save you. I‘m not sure if you‘ll be seeing her again any time soon.”
Ephiny shakes her head in denial as Hope tells her this. She even tries to pull away from Hope. But the Avatar holds on to her and continues to lead her away from the ruin of the dome.
“I hate to ruin you little moment,” Ares voice sounds inside her head. “But I just thought you might like to know. Rome belongs to us now.”
Autolycus half expects the lake to be guarded. He is pleasantly surprised and more than a little relieved to find that it is not. But he still approaches cautiously. He didn't become the King of Thieves by being stupid. With his trained eye he searches around and seeing no one walks towards the lakeshore and nearly trips on a piece of driftwood lying there. He regains his footing then looks again just to make sure no one is around who might have seen that bit of clumsiness. As he suspected there is still no one.
The lake looks like any other lake in Greece. It's a murky brown and reeds grow from the shallow waters near the edge right up to the shore and beyond. A faint breeze stirs the surface of the water. A leaf plucked from a nearby tree lands on the shifting surface of the lake and sends gentle ripples across it. Creeping to the water's edge Autolycus scans the surface of the lake and finds it as nondescript as everything else around. But according to legend this lake goes down into the Underworld. And it is only there he will find the helmet of Hades. A wolf howls in the distance and he turns as though expecting the three-headed hound of Hades, Cerberus, to be behind him.
“Okay Autolycus,” he says to himself. “You're jumping at every little sound. Stop it!”
He dives for cover behind a woefully small rock near the reeds on this side of the lake when he hears voices nearby. He looks about trying to determine where the men are he just heard. He ducks behind the rock again when he hears another voice. He listens closely.
“ … little sound. Stop it!” the voice calls out to him.
He thinks that voice sounds oddly familiar. Then realizing he is hearing the echo of his own words he slaps himself a little too hard on the forehead. “Ow!”
“Ow!” his voice echoes back.
“Sad Autolycus,” he says to himself. “Scared of your own voice. Could that be anymore pathetic? No I think not.”
He pauses for moment and sighs in exasperation. “No more pathetic than talking to and answering yourself!”
Placing his hands together he takes deep breathes in and out. “Okay. Focus Autolycus. Focus.” Rolling his eyes he adds, “And stop talking to yourself!”
“Talking to yourself!” his echo tells him as well.
“Shut up!” he shouts.
“Shut up!” his echo retorts.
He shakes his head and this time thinks to himself. This is ridiculous. Just dive down to the Underworld and get the helmet.
“You know a lesser thief might think I was bragging,” he speaks aloud again.
“A lesser thief might think you were out of your gourd,” a voice tells him that sounds nothing like his own voice.
He turns to see a short dwarf of a man with a hunched back carrying a massive pack on his back looking at him through one milky white eye and one eye that seems to wander in the socket.
“Oh sorry. Didn't know anyone was here.” Autolycus explains.
“Could have fooled me the way you been talking this whole time,” the hunchback says to him.
“Well you see my good … Sir. I was just psyching myself up for a rejuvenating swim.” Autolycus points to the lake.
The dwarf looks at him in confusion. “A little late for a swim don't you think?”
“By no means,” Autolycus replies. “Any time is a good time for a swim.” He plants his hands on his hips and looks out across the surface of the lake.
“Then don't let me keep you,” the dwarf says sitting down on the sand and starting to remove his pack.
Autolycus watches the curious little man for a moment. “Well swimming is kind of a private thing you know,” he informs him.
“You going skinny dipping?” the dwarf asks as he opens up his huge pack on the ground before him.
“No!” Autolycus shouts.
“Okay,” the dwarf says with a shrug. He arranges a blanket from his pack before him and begins to pull several objects from his pack and lay them on it.
Autolycus stares in annoyance at the dwarf. “Might I ask why you are hanging around?”
The dwarf points to his right and says, “I live here.”
Autolycus follows the line of the man's finger to a hut set back away from the woods that is only a few feet from where he exited the forest minutes before. He frowns and slouches in disgust. “Fine!” He pulls off the cloak and drops it to the ground. Then he takes off his boots and lastly his outer vest. He piles them by the shore. “Can you watch these for me?” he asks the dwarf pointing to the pile of clothing.
“Sure,” the dwarf says. “Your echo and I will keep an eye on them.”
“Everybody's a comedian.” He walks into the shallows of the lake and nearly shrieks with how cold it is. As cold as death, he thinks. Appropriate.
Taking a deep breath he dives under the surface of the water and kicks hard to send him on his journey to the Underworld. But mere seconds later he encounters something he hadn't expected. The bottom of the lake! “What?” he shouts forgetting he is underwater and sucking in a large amount of muddy water. He swims back for the surface and spits out the water and begins a steady stream of cursing that echoes back at him several times.
“What's the matter?” the dwarf asks as he picks up several items laid out on his blanket and examines each one carefully. “You see your reflection and decide you don't need a partner?” He chuckles.
Autolycus drudges back to the lakeshore soaking wet and incredibly frustrated. He points back to the lake. “I thought this lake was supposed to be bottomless.”
“It is,” the dwarf says.
“But it has a bottom!” Autolycus screams.
“But it has a bottom!” his echo reiterates.
“I know that!” he calls back to his echo.
“Of course it has a bottom,” the dwarf says looking at the man before him like he is a complete moron.
“But it's supposed to be bottomless!” Autolycus shouts.
“Yeah. And the Persian Empire was supposed to last forever.” The dwarf pulls a loaf of black bread from his pack. “But it didn't.”
Autolycus throws up his arms and lets out an infuriated scream.
“You should calm down young man,” the dwarf tells him as he bites off a piece of the bread. “People might think there is something wrong with you.” He chuckles.
“Ha. Ha,” Autolycus replies not amused in the least. “I don't believe this. I blew it.”
The dwarf looks at him curiously. “How so?” he asks around another mouthful of bread.
“Everyone.” Autolycus drops into a sitting position not far from the dwarf and his spread. “But this one woman in particular.” He thinks of Diana and how she will be crushed that he was unable to get the helmet. Freeing Aphrodite hinged on Hades's helmet. Without it there is no way to rescue the goddess. And without being able to do that he can't get the girl. So to speak.
“Ah. Love. Isn't it grand?” the dwarf asks now spitting out pieces of the bread as he talks. He pulls a clay jar from his pack. “I'll drink to it! Care to join me.” He holds up the jar.
Autolycus looks at the chunks of food caked around the dwarf's mouth. “Sure. But only if you have a cup.”
The dwarf shrugs and produces a dented metal goblet. “Here you go,” he says as he sloshes some red liquid into the cup.
Autolycus takes the cup and sips it. He nearly gags on the stuff inside.
“Like that?” the dwarf asks. “That's my own home brew.”
“I might have guessed,” Autolycus replies.
“To love!” the dwarf shouts holding up the jar then noisily and sloppily drinking from it. While his eyes are away Autolycus tosses the rest of the vile liquid from his cup onto the ground.
“To love indeed,” he says. “And to any chance of love gone. She'll never have me now.”
“Really?” the dwarf says looking sympathetic. “Perhaps a gift would help.” He indicates all the trinkets and things scattered out on his blanket. “As it happens I'm a traveling merchant. I collect rare and exotic items. Have a look. If you see anything you think she'll like I'll give you a fine deal on it.”
Autolycus looks at the knick-knacks and doo dads scattered before him. Rare and exotic indeed, he thinks to himself. As he eyes each item he tries not to laugh at the twisted man's ignorance. That's a rusted Roman dagger. That is a piece of quartz that he obviously thinks is a diamond. That's the skin of a green snake. That looks like a volcanic piece of glass. You can find those all over the Greek islands. Is that a piece of Egyptian papyrus? Nope. It's a soiled bamboo leaf. That's a broken arrowhead. A seagull feather he's probably selling as a quill. A strip of cloth that looks like it was dyed by a blind squid. Another clay jar no doubt containing more of that gods awful wine. The helmet of Hades. A piece of wooded carved to look like a deer with what he is sure is the forged signature of Senticles on it. A ring that appears to be made from lead.
“Hold on,” Autolycus says. He points to the helmet sitting dead center of the bunch of junk on the blanket. It looks a little tarnished but there is no mistaking it identity. “How much for that?”
The dwarf holds up the helmet and bangs on it. “This thing?” he looks at it for a moment then shrugs. “Why would you want it? I found it over there in the reeds like a week ago.” He points over towards the lake. “It's junk.” He bangs on it again.
Autolycus looks back at the lake. Okay, he thinks. It makes a strange kind of sense. Perhaps after the death of Hades something happened to the Underworld. And since Hephaestus forged the helmet it couldn't just vanish or be destroyed. So what? he asks himself. It floated up from the Underworld to sit in the bushes until this idiot found it? He shrugs at himself. “She likes junk jewelry. I'm sure she'll love it.”
“Okay,” the dwarf replies. “Five dinars.”
Autolycus drops the coins into the goblet he is still holding and hands it to the dwarf. The crooked little man hands him the helmet.
“My friend,” Autolycus says holding the helmet over his head. “I'd seriously consider a career change.” He places the helmet on his head and promptly vanishes.
The dwarf stares in disbelief as the man disappears. Then he watches the man's pile of clothing rise up and drift away into the woods. He turns back to look at where the man had last been visible and mutters, “Bother.”
Vercinix's encampment in Gaul stirs at the sight of the approaching army led by their chieftain and Julius Caesar. The first thing they notice is that this army is far smaller than the one that originally passed through. The second thing is that around this army hangs the distinctive aura of defeat. Men, women and children move out to meet their returning kinsmen.
Astride his horse Caesar watches the families of the Gallic warriors reunited. He turns to look at Vercinix. “I am happy that at least so few of your men had to perish for my foolish venture,” he tells his one time enemy.
Vercinix nods his understanding. “I am sorry that so many of yours did perish. But it was not a fool's venture. You tried to end this war with her defeat.”
“Instead Hercules is dead,” Caesar remarks. “This is twice I've tasted defeat at the hands of Hope and her allies. And twice it has cost me someone dear to me.”
“What will you do know?” Vercinix asks.
Caesar looks around him at what remains of his army. When he had arrived in Carthage he had well over ten thousand men. His forces now number less than two thousand. His proud and mighty XIII is gone. All that remains of them are the cohorts he left in Rome. Lucius is dead and barely a third of his legions remain. The legions formally under Crassus's command were all but annihilated. As they passed back through Spain he saw no reason to leave any garrison there. They had taken what supplies they could and burned the rest. He had sent messengers to all the Roman villages in Spain to inform them they were now undefended and that they should retreat north into Gallia Comata or Germania. Vercinix had shown his nobility by offering any Roman citizens from Spain sanctuary in Gaul. Lastly Caesar has asked that as each village left for refuge that they should burn everything they cannot take so that when Hope marches into Spain to conquer it she will find only scorched earth.
“I will return to Rome,” he informs Vercinix.
“With the Egyptian navy she will soon be at Rome's gate,” Vercinix tells him.
“I think I may not be around to see it,” Caesar says as they trot into the Gallic camp proper. Young boys and girls appear to take horses from any mounted troops. He hands his own mount off to a black haired girl. She bows slightly then leads the animal away.
“What do you mean?” the Gallic chieftain asks.
“Twice now I have failed. Egypt fell to Hope. Now I have lost nearly three quarters of Rome's fighting force.” Caesar stands where he has dismounted and does not move. “The Republic cannot continue to fight. It will surrender to Hope now. There is no other choice. And to insure their survival they will turn me over to her.”
“You can't be serious,” Vercinix says. “You are dictator. You are their only hope for victory.”
“There is no chance for victory now,” Caesar admits. “I didn't really start to think about it until now. How odd. I have failed too many times.”
“You don't want vengeance?” Xena asks as she rides up to the two men and dismounts.
Caesar turns to face her. “Perhaps you aren't aware Xena that vengeance on Hope is impossible. You saw what happened when Hercules stabbed her.”
“I don't care,” Xena says. “And neither should you. Your wife is dead because of her. Now my husband is dead. How can we not want vengeance?”
“Where are your wife and children?” Caesar asks Vercinix.
“I sent them to the north to be away from all this,” he replies.
“When I arrive in Rome I will try and get my family out,” Caesar says. “Will you look after them?”
Xena and Vercinix both stare at Caesar.
“When did you become such a coward?” Xena asks Caesar.
“I'm no coward Xena!” Caesar says to her in a tone deep with barely checked fury. “But I'm no fool either. The senate and the people will call for my head so they can give it to Hope as a peace offering. Never mind that it will do them no good and Hope will certainly feed them all the Fire. But the least I can do is make sure Julia and the rest of my family survive.”
“You're talking about surrendering!” Xena shouts at him. “You? Gaius Julius Caesar? You plan to surrender?”
“Damn it Xena! Don't you understand that we've lost? Hope has won!” Caesar intones.
“Do you truly believe that? You honestly think there is no way to defeat her?” Xena screams.
As she say those words the two phrases he heard Hope utter come back to him again.
I am possessed of the spirit of the Dark One!
Damn you Gabrielle!
“What if there is?” he says aloud.
“What do you mean?” Vercinix asks.
“It was something that Hope said,” he replies.
“What?” Xena asks now eager to hear what he has to say if it means defeating Gabrielle.
“Caesar!” a centurion scream rushing up towards them. “Caesar! Marc Antony approaches!”
“Antony!” Xena says. “What is he doing here?”
But Caesar knows the answer already. And he tells them. “We've lost Rome.” Without explaining further he rushes past them towards the centurion. “Where is he?”
The centurion points to one end of the camp where Caesar sees two horses galloping in. On the lead animal sits Antony with Octavia behind him. On a second horse is a man who is a stranger to him with Lyceus sitting in front of him and Julia behind. There is no sign of a third horse. Or Octavian.
Before Antony is off his horse Caesar and the others are there to meet him. He and the others with him look exhausted as though they have ridden non-stop from Rome to Gaul.
“What happened?” Xena asks.
“Where is Octavian?” Caesar asks.
“Rome has fallen to an army of Ares,” Antony explains as he helps Octavia down from the horse.
Caesar sees a blood stained sword he knows belongs to Octavian gripped tightly in her hands.
“Ares?” Xena says.
“They came from everywhere,” Antony continues. “There were thousands of them.”
“Where is Octavian?” Caesar shouts.
Octavia breaks down crying and sobbing. She steps forward into her uncle's embrace and manages to mutter, “He's dead.”
Caesar turns his eyes to Antony. “Cicero. Cato. Cassius. They attacked us in the Forum,” Antony says.
The stranger dismounts from his horse and helps his two charges down.
“Mommy!” Lyceus screams rushing into the waiting arms of his mother. Seeing their son makes Xena relive the grief of Hercules's death and she begins to cry.
Julia walks slowly to stand before her father. He reaches out with his free hand and pulls Julia to him next to Octavia.
“They just turned on us with daggers,” Antony goes on. “They were intent on me. They hardly seemed to notice anyone else. Octavian died trying to defend me from Cassius.”
Octavia screams aloud in anguish.
“He was a brave man,” Caesar says in praise of his nephew's courage.
“Then this army clad all in black and metal just seemed to materialize all over the city.” Antony looks towards the stranger. “If it weren't for the quick thinking of Palaemon here we might all be dead.”
Caesar takes one arm from around Octavia and extends it to Palaemon. “You have my thanks Palaemon.”
Palaemon grips the Roman's hand but does not speak.
“Black clad and metal you said?” Xena interjects. “Large rings of mail with small plate.”
“I think so,” Antony answers.
“Dagnine,” she practically spits the name out.
“You know him?” Caesar asks.
“He was one of my lieutenants years ago,” Xena replies remembering the scarred face of the man who killed Borias those many years ago. Something else Antony said stirs her memory. “You said they ignored everyone else. That Octavian was only killed because he got in the way?”
“Yes,” Antony confirms for her.
“Did they seem like they were …” She pauses looking for the right word. “Like they weren't alive?”
“Yes,” he affirms again. “There were like the walking dead. How did you know?”
“Alti,” Xena hisses. “She once boasted to me that she could sunder people's souls from their bodies and invest that body with a soul under her command. At the time I met her she hadn't the power to work that kind of magic.” It sickens Xena to think that the shamaness has that kind of power now partly thanks to her and her murder of the Amazon leaders.
“Hope must have been planning this for years,” Antony says.
“Drawing us away to Carthage was part of a greater design,” Xena agrees.
“Rome belongs to her,” Caesar says still holding his niece and daughter. “Soon the whole of the peninsula will be hers.”
“What can we do?” Vercinix asks.
Caesar shakes his head. “I don't know.”
As her army completes its march from Piraeus to Athens, Hope begins to see that something in not quite right. She remembers well Pompey's account of his triumphant return to Athens after Alexandria. People had lined the docks in the port city and waved at him as his ship and the rest of his fleet had arrived. People had stood on both sides of the road between the two Greek towns and cheered him as the army he led made its way past. Women had thrown flowers before his chariot. Children had clapped and yelled as he had ridden past. Then as he had entered Athens the people rose up from every corner of the city to welcome him back. They had called his name and praised him so loudly it could be heard within the Citadel. These things she recalls well for it was the constant talk of everyone in Athens who was within earshot of the Magnus or any of his commanders.
But as Hope's massive flagship had drawn near there had been very few on the docks. And of those present most were working to bring in fishing catches or to arrange for charters and not to greet the Avatar on her triumphant return. As they had made their way up the road between the port city and the capital next to no one was there to wave or greet the army and its leaders. In fact from the road Hope could see people working their fields and milling about their homes.
And now as Hope brings her legions back to Athens after her victory in Carthage she is met by a mediocre response to say the least. Even Ephiny is perplexed at the turn out. Perhaps news of the decimation of Caesar's forces has not reached the city even though Hope had decided to send messengers ahead and to take her time returning to her capital. And of course the news of Rome's capture was also sent ahead with envoys. There should be massive crowds there to meet them. Rome, their greatest enemy, has been conquered by Hope and Ares's masterful plan. And with the loses of so many of his forces it will only be a matter of time now before Caesar is utterly defeated. But there are only a token few citizens to meet the Avatar and her army. The whole city had turned out for Pompey's arrival. For Hope there seems hardly anyone.
Ephiny watches Hope's face and can see the anger barely hidden beneath the surface. As they pass through the Agora only a few take notice of their passing. Most do not even look up from their buying or selling.
“What is going on?” Najara voices aloud what they are all thinking.
Among them all only Ephiny harbors some notion of what has happened during their absence. Apparently Eponin and her friends have been busy. She isn't sure how to feel about that.
As they draw closer to the Acropolis Hope becomes more and more angry as she watches people move about like there isn't a victorious army in their midst. It takes all her self-control not to lash out with her power at all these ungrateful fools.
A group of riders approaches and they recognize Pompey and Decius leading a group of legionaries. Both soldiers salute and bow their heads. But before either of them can speak Hope does.
“What is going on Pompey?” There is more than a hint of anger and disappointment in her voice.
Pompey turns to Decius and points to the army trailing Hope. “See to the legions Decius.” The young officer nods his understanding then rides past Hope, Ephiny and Najara to the head of the army and begins barking orders to them. Pompey turns his attention to the trio of women. “There are some things you must be informed of Avatar.”
The doors to the royal palace in Athens are literally blown from their hinges.
“Tonis!” Hope's voice echoes throughout every square inch of the king's residence.
Ephiny and Pompey follow the Avatar into the palace. Najara was told to return to the Citadel to prepare for Hope's arrival there.
The king of Athens, wearing his royal robes and his crown, enters into the foyer of his home followed by a contingent of his royal guard to greet the Avatar. From where she stands Ephiny can see that the man is sweating buckets and he holds his hands tightly but she can still see them shaking. Hope continues to walk forward until she stands right before them. She strikes him with a back handed slap that lifts him from his feet and throws him into his guards. His crown flies from his head and bounces to the floor. The guards recover themselves quickly and help their king to his feet.
“Leave us!” Hope shouts at the guards. They turn their heads to look at Tonis. “Don't look at him! I said get out!” Hope screams. The men need no further motivation as they scuttle away as fast as their legs will carry them.
Tonis seems on the verge of speaking but Hope does not let him. “Correct me if I am wrong Tonis,” she begins. “But when I left the city I told you to be done with the resistance by the time I returned. What about those orders were not clear to you?”
“Hope,” Tonis mutters. “I…”
“But upon my return I find that not only is the resistance still here but that they are spreading leaflets decrying me as a murderer and painting graffiti on the walls of this city portraying me as some sort of whore!” Hope slaps him again and he falls to his knees.
“I'm sorry,” the king blubbers. “I tried. But it was impossible to root out the rebels without letting on that there was a resistance in Athens.”
“That is certainly pointless at this juncture,” Hope informs him. “There's not a soul in this city that doesn't know about the resistance now.” She looks to the ceiling in exasperation then kicks him savagely in the gut. He coughs and falls onto his side writhing on the floor like a child. “I grow tired of your useless existence Tonis.”
When he hears these words he looks up into the enraged face of the Avatar. “No! Please!” He crawls towards her but Hope steps back. “Give me one more chance! I can find them! I can!”
Hope draws back her hand and Ephiny sees one of those white-hot fireballs that leveled a building in Carthage forming in her hand. She steps forward and grasps Hope's arm in her hands. “No,” she says in a soft voice in the Avatar's ear. “Please don't kill him.”
Hope looks into the eyes of her handmaiden. “Why not?” she asks.
Ephiny can feel the heat of the fireball in Hope's hand. “His death will be meaningless. It will solve nothing. It won‘t make the situation here go away.”
Hope looks from Ephiny then back to Tonis. “You're right,” Hope agrees. She lowers her hand and looks into the pulsating fireball she holds. “Only one thing will do that.”
Tonis, who looks on the verging of either fainting or losing control of all his bodily functions, just stares at them. He sighs loudly when he sees Hope close her hand over the fireball and extinguish it. With wobbly legs he gets to his feet. Hope strikes him again and this time he falls unconscious to the floor. “King of Athens,” she says in disgust. She holds out her hand and Tonis's crown sails across the room into her grasp. As soon as it touches her flesh it begins to glow red-hot. Soon it begins to melt and twist in her hand. When she drops it back to the floor beside the king it is nothing but a lump of blackened metal.
She rounds on Pompey. “I want every man of your legion within the walls before nightfall. I want men stationed on every street corner. I want men around the Agora day and night. I want the people of this city to see the presence of my army. And I want the resistance to know that their days are numbered.”
Pompey nods in understanding. “Yes Hope. It will be as you say.”
“And take that to the prison,” she says pointing to Tonis.
Pompey summons some men who had remained outside and they remove the unconscious king. Pompey salutes and takes his leave.
Hope watches everyone go then turns her attention to Ephiny. At first Ephiny expects her to berate her for not letting her kill Tonis. Instead she looks all around her for a moment. “This place is yours now,” she informs Ephiny. “It can be your personal residence from now on. I know that the Citadel makes you uncomfortable.” She starts to walk back towards the ruined doors. “I'll send for Joxer.”
“Hope,” Ephiny says with a hint of desperation in her voice. Is she being pushed away? Is the decency within Hope that she is sure springs from Gabrielle gone? “Wait.” She steps up beside the Avatar. “I don't want to leave the Citadel. I don't want to leave you.”
The look on Hope's face is unreadable. “As you wish. But take this place anyway. I won't be replacing Tonis. There'll be no need for a king soon.”
Ephiny is left standing there to ponder those enigmatic words as Hope leaves the palace. Ephiny looks around at the ornate stonework and the statues of past Athenian kings along the walls. It occurs to her that she can use this to her advantage. She can come here without sneaking from the Citadel to meet with either Eponin or Nannan. And with Hope ordering Pompey's troops into the city to patrol it she knows meetings with either will be difficult. She'll have to get Jett to find Nannan and bring him here. And she'll need to bring the staff in the palace down to a bare minimum. The fewer people there are here the less chance of anyone discovering her seditious actions.
She looks down and sees the ragged chunk of metal that was Tonis's crown. She reaches up and touches the golden circlet about her own head. She ponders what would become of her if Hope were to find out what she has been doing. She knows the Avatar favors her. But she also knows that favor can be fleeting. She closes her eyes and tries not to let the situation overwhelm her. The death of Hercules. The defeat of Caesar's forces. And now the rise of the resistance is Athens. Things are getting decidedly worse. She wonders how long it will be before it all spirals out of control.
“Can you feel it?” Hope asks as she makes her way slowly down the dark corridor towards her prisoner. “The power that is mine.” She steps up to the cell in which Aphrodite resides. “Now that Hercules is dead!”
Aphrodite raises her head and stares at the Avatar of Dahak. “You're lying,” she mutters.
Hope laughs as she leans against the bars of the cell and looks down at the goddess of love. “No. I'm not. I killed him using Xena's own weapon. Then I fed his body to the Fire. And now more power courses through my veins thanks to the blood that was in his.”
Aphrodite lets out an inhuman scream and tries to rush the bars of her cell. Hope turns her head and with her power slams the goddess back against the wall.
“You are so stubborn,” Hope says. “Will you never learn?” She shakes her head. She holds up her right hand in which resides the phial of hind's blood. She watches the fear creep into the goddess's eyes and savors it. She doesn't bother with her dagger this time. She just stares at the phial and concentrates. A single drop of the blood rises from the phial and makes its way through the bars of the cell. Aphrodite's head in wrenched back and her eyelids are held open. The droplet hovers over her eye for a moment and she can do nothing but stare in horror at the liquid sphere. Hope relapses her power and the drop falls.
The Citadel and the city once again shake with the agony of the goddess. Hope releases her hold on Aphrodite and she slumps to the ground. Blood weeps from the poisoned eye and tears from the other. Hercules is dead. The two of them had their differences before but she always respected and loved the son of Zeus and Alcmene. Now he is dead. Another sacrifice to Hope and to Dahak. “When will it be enough?” she manages to say through the pain.
“Enough?” Hope retorts. She smiles maliciously. “Soon it will be enough. The end is drawing near. I can see it. I can feel it. It moves closer every day. It won't be long now. The will of Dahak will be done. And this world will burn!” She stares at the goddess and uses her heightened powers to make her point. Aphrodite begins screaming in pain as Hope ignites an ethereal fire in her chest. The goddess wails in anguish anew, which causes another tremor to move through the city.
Hope releases the fire and turns away. As she walks back into the darkness she casually calls back over her shoulder. “Don't worry. I may spare you. Just so you can see what happens next.”
Varia is well aware that there is some fresh bread on top of that counter. She can smell it and she can see it from where she stands. But she just can't quite reach it. Not matter how high on her tiptoes she gets she can't touch the warm loaf with her fingers. She places her hands on her hips like she sees her mama do so often when confronted by a challenge. Like her mama she enjoys a good challenge. And she will conquer this one. It should be quite simple. All she needs is something to stand on.
She casts about the room for something. There's the table and its two chairs. Perfect. All she has to do is drag one of the chairs over to the counter and she's won. But it proves more difficult than she thought. The chairs are made of a hard heavy wood that she can barely budge. She only manages to pull the chair away from the table a little ways before she grows tired. She stamps her foot in impatience. She looks at the counter again. This is taking too long. If it takes too long by the time she gets to it the bread will be cool. And she can't stand cool bread. She loves the way when you break open warm bread that the steam rises from it. She loves the feel of it in her hands. And most of all she loves the taste of the warm bread as it melts in her mouth. But once it cools there's no more steam and then she has to chew it.
She stands back to take in her challenge again. The chair is just back from the table. And the table is the same height as the counter. She has it now! All she has to do is climb up on the chair then onto the table. She can easily jump from the table to the counter. Now that is a strategy. Mama would be proud.
She climbs the chair like a ladder. Then she manages, with some exertion, to clamber up onto the table. Across from her she can see the warm bread sitting on the counter top. The white steam rises from it and her mouth waters. Suddenly the room begins to tremble. “Uh oh!” she yelps. It's one of those quakes the city feels occasionally. She drops to all fours on the table and waits for it to stop. After a few moments it ceases and she stands up again. She looks carefully from the table to the counter judging her distance. There is hardly any space at all between them. She can make this easy!
Without a bit of hesitation she runs and jumps. She lands on the counter right next to the bread with a soft thud. “Yes!” she yells softly congratulating herself. She squats down and picks up the warm loaf of bread. Then everything starts to shake again. Confused she starts to rise to her feet but loses her balance when the building begins to shake harder. She yells as she falls from the counter. But her cry is cut off abruptly when the back of her neck tiny neck slams into the table she has just jumped from. She lands hard on the ground next to the chair she had pulled away from the table. As she stares up at the ceiling she wonders what that funny tingling feeling is in her back. She lies there for a moment longer then decides she should get up. She discovers that her arms won't move. She tries to get her legs working but finds they won't move either. She tries to roll over but she can't. She can't move at all! A pain like nothing she has ever imagined in her darkest nightmares hits her at the base of her skull then runs down her back and out into her arms and legs. She cries out in agony. She tries to get up again but nothing works and the pain hits her again. She wails like she is dying. The tears start to pour from her eyes and she cries out, “Mama!”
The door to the kitchen bursts open and Eponin runs in followed by Solari. “Varia!” the Amazon cries seeing her daughter lying on the floor. She stares at Varia quivering in pain and crying loudly.
Unable to even turn her head to look around Varia is unaware that her mother has arrived. She screams out for her again but the word is cut off as the pain cascades through her little body again. She screams so loudly it hurts her own ears.
“Varia!” Eponin kneels down next to her daughter. “Baby. What's wrong?”
Solari looks around the room for a moment half expecting someone to be hiding in the kitchen. Then she sees the loaf of bread on the counter. Her eyes travel to the table with the chair pulled out. And she sees the place along the side of the table that is smashed like it has been hit with something. Her eyes go to her adoptive daughter who lies motionless on the floor. “Oh no,” she mutters feeling tears forming.
“I can't move mama,” Varia complains as she tries to move her leg to make the point. But as she does so she is racked with pain. “Aaahh!!! Mama! It hurts! It hurts!”
“Varia!” Eponin cries out hearing her daughter in such pain. She reaches down to take her into her arms but is stopped by Solari grasping her outstretched arms.
“Don't,” Solari tells her lover.
“What do you mean don't ?” Eponin shouts. “Can't you see she's in pain?”
“Yes I do,” Solari replies. “But I think she's damaged her spine with the fall. If you try to move her too quickly or too hard it may injure her further.”
Eponin turns her tear-streaked face back to her daughter. Varia cries out in pain again.
Diana steps into the kitchen but Solari keeps her back.
“What is it?” Diana asks. “ What's wrong? I heard Varia screaming. Is she okay?”
“Get some of the others and ask them to bring a mattress in here,” Solari informs her friend. “We have to move her as gently as we can.”
“What's wrong?” Diana asks again.
“Varia fell,” Solari explains. “She can't move and every time she tries it hurts her. She must have injured her spine. Diana. I think she's paralyzed.”
Without another word Diana rushes off to get help.
The slap echoes throughout the Roman-Gallic camp. Iolaus looks up at Xena's enraged face from where he lays on the ground.
“You knew?” Xena screams. “You knew Gabrielle was Hope!”
“No Xena! I didn't!” Iolaus shouts rising to his feet. “I only knew what the Oracle told me.”
“And you didn't believe her!” Xena bellows.
A crowd begins to mill close by watching the two arguing. Caesar and Vercinix emerge from a tent.
“What's going on?” Vercinix asks seeing the two friends standing very confrontationally with each other.
“I don't know,” Caesar says. “Let's go find out.”
“The Oracle told me to kill a teenage girl!” Iolaus shouts. “She told me to murder someone!”
“ Yes! In order to save the world! What about that didn't you understand?”
“I'm not an assassin Xena!”
“You may as well be! Thanks to you all my family is dead! Along with thousands of others! It's all your fault!” Enraged Xena draws her sword from the scabbard on her back.
“Xena!” Caesar screams as he moves in closer. “What do you think you're doing?”
“It's all his fault!” Xena points to Iolaus with the sword. “The Oracle at Delphi told him that to help the world he should have killed Gabrielle!”
“Put the sword away Xena,” Caesar says stepping between Iolaus and her.
“He could have stopped this before it all began!” she roars. “They'd all be alive! My mother! My brother! Solon! Hercules! They're dead because he was a coward!”
“They're dead because Hope killed them,” Caesar says.
“Hope would never have happened if he had just done what the Oracle told him!” Xena cries out. She tries to step around Caesar but now Vercinix blocks her path.
“Xena,” Vercinix says. “This will not help.”
“But it's his fault!” she repeats. “All he had to do was…”
“Kill a girl in cold blood,” Caesar finishes for her. “At the behest of the Oracle of Apollo. Tell me Xena. Would you have done it?”
Xena turns her murderous glance from Iolaus to Caesar. But before she can shout out anything else she realizes he is right. She could no more have killed an innocent girl on the advice of the Oracle than Iolaus could have. She has allowed her grief and rage to blind her. She drops her sword down and throwing her head back screams. Caesar steps forward and takes her into his arms. The warrior princess collapses into him. She begins crying anew.
“I know Xena,” Caesar says. “I will miss him too.” He looks up at Vercinix and nods towards the tent they just left. The chieftain nods before going to the tent and opening the flap. Caesar leads the grieving woman inside.
The crowd that had formed around the two of them disperses and Iolaus finds himself alone. Or so he thinks.
“Iolaus,” a voice says his name.
He turns to find Octavia standing there holding a short sword in her hands. The weapon is still stained with blood. Her face and eyes are red from crying. He's not sure if he is up to facing any more grief stricken women today. “What is it?” he asks anyway.
“Teach me to use this,” she replies holding out the sword. “I want to be a warrior.”
“Why?” he asks though sure that he already knows the answer.
“I want to fight alongside my uncle against Hope,” Octavia replies. “I want to be at his side in battle. And I want to run this blade through the black heart of that witch who killed my brother.”
“Revenge is never a good reason to take up the sword,” Iolaus tells her. “Look what it did to Xena for ten years.”
“It may not be a good reason but it is my reason,” she informs him.
“No,” he says. “I won't teach you to be a killer.”
Without warning she swings the blade at him. The attack is fast but clumsy. He easily avoids it. She swings again at him. He catches her by the wrist.
“I don't want to be a killer!” she shouts at him. “That's what Alti is. That's what Hope is. I want to be a warrior. Like Xena. Like you.”
Iolaus stares into her eyes and can see the conviction there. Her heart is now set on this course. Nothing he says or does will change it. Better she learn from him. Perhaps along the way he can make her understand that killing Alti or anyone else will not gain her any peace or closure. “All right,” he says. With a twisting of his hand he has her sword in his grasp. She stares in shock at her empty hands. “First things first. You need to learn how to hold a sword.”
Palaemon strokes the neck of the horse that brought him here to Gaul and contemplates what to do next. His eyes are drawn to the tent that Caesar resides in.
“You seem unsure of what to do next,” Antony says walking up beside the rebel from Athens. “I've held off telling him what you told me since it was, after all, your mission to inform Caesar.”
“I feel that I will simply be compounding the hopelessness of the situation,” Palaemon replies. “What good will the information do him or any of us now? Now that Rome has been lost. Rome was the bastion of all resistance to Hope. With it now in her hands, what can we do?”
“True. The city has fallen. But rest assured that the bastion of that resistance is not the city. It is men and women like Caesar and Xena who refuse to give in to the Avatar of Dahak.” Antony turns his attention to Palaemon. “It is in men like you who fight with their heart and soul.”
“You still think we can win?” Palaemon asks.
“I don't know,” Antony answers. “But I for one have fought too long and too hard to give up.”
Feeling a little humbled by the Roman's words Palaemon nods. “I guess I should tell Caesar what we have learned.”
Antony nods in agreement and the two men walk to Caesar's tent. They enter to find Caesar talking with Vercinix and a much calmer Xena. The three of them look up and Caesar recognizes the man who aided his friends and family out of Rome.
“Welcome Palaemon,” Caesar rises to greet him. “I have to thank you once again for all you did in Rome.”
“You are most welcome Caesar,” Palaemon replies. “I only wish I could have done more. And I think perhaps that I can. I have information that might be useful in the conflict with Hope.”
“Oh,” Xena says her attention now fixed on the young man. “Tell us.”
Vercinix extends his hand towards some chairs nearby. “Take a seat.”
Palaemon and Antony sit. All eyes go to him as he begins. “Some weeks ago the leader of the resistance in Athens, a woman named Diana, was returning to the city when she happened upon a cave outside the city. She and those traveling with her entered the cave and discovered that it travels well under the city and terminates under the Acropolis itself.”
“What?” Caesar asks shocked by this revelation.
“Is it a way in?” Xena asks fervently.
“No,” Palaemon says with regret. “its only entrance into the Citadel is barred by the Fire that rises up into the hill and Hope's Citadel.”
“Damn!” Xena curses kicking over a small table and sending a bowl of fruit to the floor.
“Upon exploring it they discovered two things,” Palaemon continues. “One was we now know how Hope has managed to kill the Olympian gods. Beneath the Citadel she holds the last golden hind.”
“I thought they were just a legend,” Caesar says.
“What is this creature?” Vercinix asks. “That it allows Hope to kill gods.”
“The blood of a golden hind is one of the few things that can kill a god,” Xena answers for him.
“One?” Vercinix asks next. “There are other ways?”
“Yes,” Xena says. “I've heard of some mythical weapon of light that is capable of killing gods as well.”
“That's beside the point,” Caesar states. “So that is how she did it. We've wondered how she managed to kill them all.”
“Will the blood of this hind kill gods from other pantheons?” Vercinix glances from Palaemon to Xena waiting for an answer.
“I don't know,” Xena replies.
“Maybe it does and maybe it doesn't,” Caesar says. “But I'd say the other gods of the lands Hope has conquered are not willing to take the chance. They have seen what she's done to the Olympians. They are not willing to chance their own lives to face her.”
“They're cowards!” Xena spits.
“If they are anything like the gods of Greece were they are far more interested in themselves and their own agendas than mankind,” Caesar says in agreement. He turns to Palaemon. “What was the other thing she found below the Acropolis?”
“Aphrodite,” Palaemon says quite simply.
“What?” Xena shouts. “But they're all dead. Hope murdered them all except Ares.”
“Or so we thought,” Palaemon retorts. “The Avatar has the goddess of love chained below her Citadel.”
Caesar sits in silence. Since Hercules's revelation that he is, in truth, a descendant of Aphrodite, he has pondered that relationship and found a profound grief over the loss of the goddess. Now to hear that she is still alive and Hope's prisoner confuses him. It was easy to feel the connection to the goddess when he believed her dead. With the knowledge that she lives, he is unsure how to feel.
“But how the hell is he keeping her captive?” Xena asks.
“The hind's blood,” Caesar answers before Palaemon can. “She's using the hind's blood to poison her. To keep her weak.”
“But why?” Vercinix is bewildered by the idea of Hope keeping an enemy such as Aphrodite prisoner. “It is foolish. She is a goddess after all. And surely Hope cannot overlook what Aphrodite did outside of Corinth.”
“To gloat,” Caesar answers again. “No doubt after she returned from Carthage one of the first things she did was to tell Aphrodite that she had murdered Hercules.”
Xena looks enraged and begins cursing Hope. “That bastard Gabrielle.”
“So an Olympian still lives,” Antony states. “How can we use this to our advantage?”
“I don't know,” Caesar replies. “We would have to free her somehow.”
“Diana has the services of the king of thieves to help her with that,” Palaemon tells them.
“ Autolycus?” Xena says. “Hercules told me a little bit about him. But I don't think even he could steal a goddess from under Hope's nose.”
Caesar contemplates all this trying to formulate some idea or plan to set into motion. But he can think of nothing. Too many of his plans have gone horribly wrong. Egypt's fall to Pompey. The disaster in Carthage. And the loss of Rome. He hears the others continue to talk but he does not listen. He has lost too much already. He cannot, he will not, throw his forces at Hope again without knowing they can come out of it with some victory. And a victory is what he needs. Morale will soon begin to suffer. Thereafter will follow mass desertions of his ranks. After their arrival in Gaul he learned that some men had already run away during their march from Carthage. Can he truly blame them?
What can he actually do? He had thought that killing Hope would end her reign. But that is impossible. She can't be killed. Then there must be some other way to defeat her, he thinks to himself. And his mind continues to return to those two things she uttered in Carthage:
I am possessed of the spirit of the Dark One!
Damn you Gabrielle!
Possessed. That word most of all stands out to him. Then there was the way she had cursed her own name. Hope is Gabrielle. Why say that? The idea that began to form in his mind when he heard those words continues to take shape. As he sits among the muttering of his friends he starts to understand something. Something so fantastical it couldn't possibly be true. But it is the only thing that makes sense. A plan starts to take shape in his mind. A plan that is highly improbable but not impossible.
Sitting cross legged with her hands resting on her knees, Ephiny breathes in and out very slowly as she puts Nannan's meditation technique into practice in order to ignore the world around her and to purge herself of emotion. Besides her own breathing she can hear his where he sits across from her on the floor. She has been sitting this way for nearly the entire afternoon. And she does, as Nannan assured her she would, feel at peace.
“How do you feel?” he asks her breaking the silence at last.
“Peaceful,” she answers without opening her eyes. “Like I'm the only one in all the world.”
“Very good,” Nannan replies. He laughs for a moment. “It took me weeks to achieve a meditative state similar to what you have done in only one afternoon.”
She smirks. “Sorry. I didn't mean to show you up.”
He laughs again. “No apologies are needed. You are doing very well.”
“Thank you,” Ephiny says now opening her eyes to look at the man before her. “May I ask you something?”
“Certainly,” Nannan answers opening his eyes to look at her.
“Is it right to kill in order to save the one you love?” she asks him the question that has been on her mind since she began learning the Way.
Nannan answers without a moment's hesitation. “No. And that it is why the path of love is so difficult to follow. It is not just about love for those close to you. It is about a reverence for life that extends to anyone and everyone. That is why it requires the renouncing of violence.”
“When I pledged myself to Hope I said that I would not fight for her,” Ephiny says rising to her feet. “But until Carthage I believed that if the need arose I would choose to kill in order to save her.”
“But in Carthage you chose instead to die for her,” Nannan says. When the man Jett had brought him to this place Ephiny had told him everything that happened in the city of Carthage.
“I wanted to protect Gabrielle,” she continues. “And the only way I could do that was to sacrifice myself.”
“There is no greater gift that can be given than to lay down your life for the one you love,” Nannan states. “What you did was an act of selfless love that is the very essence of the path you have chosen upon the Way.”
Ephiny leans against the cold stonewall and sighs. “I wish that I could make her understand.”
“She cannot,” Nannan says standing. “Love is not something Hope can understand. But it seems your Gabrielle does. You say she called on Hope?”
Ephiny shudders as she recalls Hope telling her how she could feel Gabrielle lessened by her summoning of the Avatar in Carthage. “Yes.”
“She did this because she loves you,” Nannan says. “She called on the one person she knew could save you. She did it without thought for herself or anyone else. It was a reckless act but a selfless one nonetheless.”
“Gabrielle dims within her by the day. I know it. And it tears me apart inside. Once I thought I could be content serving Hope because I knew that Gabrielle was still in there.”
“But now you fear the dissolution of the one you love,” Nannan steps closer. “You are afraid that she may cease to exist. That only Hope will remain.”
“I don't think I could live if that were to happen,” Ephiny admits. “I've loved Gabrielle almost since the day I met her. At first I thought she was dangerous. It took me a while to understand. She wasn't dangerous. She was damaged.”
“A lost soul?” he suggests.
“Yes,” she agrees. “A lost and tortured soul.”
“Then she is truly fortunate to have one such as you to love her,” he says laying a hand on her shoulder in comfort.
“It hardly seems to be doing any good now,” she says.
“Do not be so quick to doubt. You must have faith in the Way and the One.”
“You're right. I've chosen this. I must have faith as you say. But it is hard. It is difficult.”
“I know,” he says with comfort in his tone now as well as his touch. “But adversity cannot continue indefinitely. And there is always peace afterwards.”
“I will be praying daily for that peace,” Ephiny tells him. She looks at him a little embarrassed. “I'm sorry. I know I've only just begun to learn.”
“It is all right,” Nannan corrects her. “You have a better understanding of the path of love than I did on my first day or my first year for that matter. Because in your own fashion you have followed it since joining Hope.”
“I would not presume to understand any of this better than you,” she explains.
“There is no need to say such things,” he counters. “I see that you truly are a follower of the Way. So if it eases your heart then pray.”
“Thank you,” Ephiny says. “Hope has given me this place for my own.” She spreads her arms to indicate the palace. “You may stay here if you like.”
“That might be best,” Nannan says. “Considering what is going on in the streets.”
Ephiny thinks of the rebellion that Eponin and the others have initiated in Athens. She hopes it doesn't end badly for them. Whether they believe it or not, she is their friend.
“And if I stay here I will be available to teach and advise you whenever you like,” he says.
“And I thank you again for the opportunity to learn from you,” she says. “I have to go for now.”
“You are returning to the Citadel?” he asks.
“Yes. I know it is selfish. But I want to be with her.”
“There is nothing selfish about wanting to be with the one you love.”
“I've had some quarters prepared for you down that far hall.” She points in the direction of a narrow hallway that runs the length of this wing of the palace.
He bows graciously. “Thank you.” Nannan begins to walk towards the room.
“Nannan,” she calls to him. He turns. “Before I don't think you trusted me enough to tell me. Will you tell me the name of your teacher.”
“ Our teacher's name,” he begins making a point of emphasizing the first word. “Is Eli.”
Xena awakes from a dream in her own tent and begins screaming. “No more! Damn it! I don't want to dream about her anymore! Stop it! Why won't you leave me alone?” She proceeds to smash everything in sight in her rampage. In this dream she had held Gabrielle in her arms while people danced around and a funeral pyre burned. It had been someone close to them both. But to Gabrielle she had been like a sister. Gabrielle had at first been strong, not showing her grief. But she could not hold it in. She had sought solace in Xena's arms while she cried. Xena can almost feel the sensation of Gabrielle's head resting on her shoulder now.
But she doesn't want the dreams to come to her anymore. They aren't peaceful outlets from the harsh reality of war. They are sick, twisted jokes that keep throwing in her face that a woman she thought she might be able to care deeply for is the cause of all her suffering.
She looks up at the ceiling of the tent as if she can see through it. She calls out to whoever will listen. “Why are you doing this to me? She's a monster! She's killed everything I've ever loved! So stop sending me dreams about her! She's not a dream! She's a nightmare!”
“Xena?” a worried voice calls her name. Julia steps through the tent flaps. “Are you all right?”
She stares at Caesar's daughter for a moment. Only she and Caesar know about the dreams after all. I should tell her, she thinks. Xena sits back down on her palate. “She's Hope.”
Julia frowns in confusion. “Who's Hope?” she asks.
Xena looks to her and exhales loudly. She really doesn't want to say it. But she has to. “Gabrielle, the girl in my dreams, is Hope.”
“What?” Julia could not be more stunned. “But. I…she…” She trails off not knowing what to say. She sits down next to Xena.
“The girl in my dreams is the murderer of my family,” Xena states. “She's the reason my husband is dead. To have me dream about her for almost six years, what kind of sick joke is the universe playing on me.”
“I'm sorry Xena,” Julia says putting an arm over her friend's shoulders. “I don't know what to say.”
“There isn't anything to say Julia,” Xena retorts. She feels tears starting to steam down her face. “When I closed my eyes at night I would want the dreams to come. I wanted to see her. Gods! I think I loved her.”
Julia leans in close and lays her head on Xena's shoulder. She knows the dreams meant something to Xena. She never knew they meant this much. And now that she knows the truth about Hope they will be only nightmares for her. Whether the warrior princess will admit it or not she has lost something very important to her. Unsure of what else she can do she encircles her friend in her arms and holds her tight.
A little while later Xena leaves her tent with Julia beside her. They have just entered a clearing near Caesar's tent when she feels a disgusting sensation crawling up her spine. “Get back,” she says to Julia pushing the girl behind her and drawing her chakrum from her belt.
In a flash of light and sound Ares appears. “Hi there Xena.” The god of war says with a smirk.
“Get out of here Ares!” Xena screams at him. “I thought we made our point last time.”
“Yeah. You tried,” Ares admits. “You and Caesar and … “ He gives her a mocking frown and shrugs.
She can feel the hand holding the chakrum trembling. More than anything she wants to cut him open with the weapon even though she knows it will do absolutely nothing.
“Ah, my dear brother. How I'll miss him.” Ares smiles and watches for her reaction.
“I said get out of here you sack of…”
“Whoa! No need to get nasty with me. I just came to …”
“Talk? I don't think so.”
“Well actually I came to warn you.”
“Warn me? About what?”
Ares starts to circle the two women as he continues. Around them legionaries and Gallic warriors notice the god of war's presence and begin to back away. “To warn you that you need to stop this or you are all going to die.”
“That's my choice,” Xena tells him.
“You saw what happened to Hercules,” Ares says. “You can't kill her.” He chuckles. “Even if she wasn't powered by Dahak you wouldn't be able to kill her.”
“Why's that?” Xena snarls at him. As he circles them Xena continues to spin always keeping herself between Ares and Julia.
“Gabrielle's been trained by the best warriors in the world Xena,” Ares explains to her. “She learned to fight from Amazons, from Najara, from Pompey and from me.” He says the last with bloated pride tucking his thumbs behind his belt. “She would kick your ass so bad it would be a horror to watch. Not that I wouldn't want to, of course.”
“Is this all you've come to say Ares,” Xena says. “To boast about Gabrielle. To tell me how dangerous your master is.”
“Master?” Ares laughs. “Look Xena. She and I have similar goals.”
“Yes,” Xena says. “Your goals are death and destruction. You're succeeding beyond your wildest imagination.”
“Xena. I came here to give you this last warning.” Ares stops his walking and faces Xena directly. “Because. Well. I used to have a thing for you.”
“She doesn't care Ares,” Caesar says walking up behind Ares with his sword drawn. “She doesn't care about what you felt for her. She doesn't care about your pride in Gabrielle. She doesn't care about your goals. She only cares about the same thing I do. Seeing you and Hope dead.”
Ares opens his mouth to say something else but is cut off by another arrival.
“Nobody here cares about anything you have to say Ares,” Iolaus says as he walks up to Ares left with his sword in hand.
“What?” Ares says looking at the man. “You're going to take Hercules place in their three way attack now?”
“Who said anything about just three?” Antony says walking up on Ares right. He draws his sword and stands ready.
“You people have got to be kidding me,” Ares says looking at them all. “I am a god!”
“We don't care!” Vercinix says stepping up and hefting his ax onto his shoulder.
“Besides you're not a god,” Palaemon says as he steps up next to Antony.
“Oh really,” Ares says.
“No,” Octavia says as she steps up beside Iolaus. Her brother's sword is now sheathed at her waist. “You're a murderer.”
Ares looks around at all the opponents now gathered around him. He may be a god. But he isn't stupid. He knows he could kill them all but not without them doing a lot of harm to him. Harm that he would easily heal. But he tries to avoid pain as much as possible. He's made his point to Xena.
It is Julia who gets in the last word. She steps from behind Xena and says, “I think it's time for you to leave now Ares.”
He practically growls as he vanishes from sight.
As she makes her way up through the second floor to the third Ephiny discovers that Hope is correct. The Citadel does indeed make her uncomfortable now. She can't ascribe it to any one thing. Is it that she knows Gabrielle is losing to Hope? Is it that she has now seen too much death to tolerate it anymore? Is it the fact that she has chosen to follow Eli's teaching? For whatever reason as she enters the audience chamber she finds it hard not to just turn around and leave as she lays eyes on the Eternal Fire. For so long this place has felt like home. Why? She wonders. But the answer is obvious. This is where Gabrielle is. But for how much longer? A terrible price was paid by all at Carthage.
But the very idea that what Hope said might be true horrifies her. Will she see Gabrielle again? Or did her summoning of Hope bring to an end the attacks of grief and pain that Alti calls Despair? And what was the meaning of Hope's enigmatic words in Carthage and in Tonis's palace.
It's closer now. I can feel it.
There'll be no need for a king soon.
She ponders the words as she walks around the Fire towards the steps leading up into Hope's chambers. Perhaps she will declare herself Empress over all the lands under her aegis. But what was closer? Some goal she has planned for? Her strategy to take Rome has worked flawlessly. She had kept it secret from everyone but Ares, with whom she planned it. What else is she hiding?
“You look like you've lost your best friend,” the voice of Alti ridicules her from the dark. The shamaness steps from the shadows near the steps and blocks Ephiny's path. “Or have you lost something more?”
“I don't have the time or the desire to bandy words with you Alti,” Ephiny informs her.
“Testy are we?” Alti responds. “Am I to understand that the Avatar has told you to leave the Citadel?”
“She has done nothing of the sort!” Ephiny shouts loosing her composure rapidly.
“Testy and angry.” Alti moves closer to her. “So it is true then.”
“No! It is not!” Ephiny wants more than anything to strike the woman just like she had wanted to hit Najara. But she knows that attacking the powerful shamaness will only lead to pain. And the path she has chosen does not allow it. “She has given me Tonis's palace as a gift to use as I want.”
“You don't actually believe that do you?”
“And what is that supposed to mean?”
“Only that you are falling from favor with her.”
The crone is testing her patience and her will to its limits with these words. But she will not rise to the bait. She will be strong. “I have never had her favor Alti. I don't need it. I have her friendship.”
“Friendship?” Alti says the word with disgust. “She doesn't need friends.”
“Regardless she has one,” Ephiny replies.
“Do you honestly think she will tolerate you for much longer?” Alti asks with a leering grin.
Any happy look on Alti's face makes her sick. “This is pointless,” Ephiny says as she moves past Alti without another glance.
“Don't turn your back on me you bitch!” Alti screams in a rasping voice.
Before Ephiny can place her foot on the first step Alti grabs her neck from behind.
She cries out as she feels the point of Tyldus's arrow hit her in the leg. The pain is so quick and sudden she falls to her knees with it.
“That's pain from the past,” Alti informs her with disappointment clear in her voice. “Let's try again.”
Her chest shudders with the pain of Hope's power as it crushes her against the wall. She draws her arms up to her chest as the pain courses through her in waves. Bones bend. Muscles compress. Internal organs are squashed like over ripe fruit. She tries to cry out but as with the real event her breath cannot be forced out of her lungs due to the compression.
“Now that is interesting,” Alti says seeming to be more satisfied with this vision and pain of the past she is imparting to Ephiny. “So you are falling from her favor. Was the touch of her power anything like the touch of her flesh?” She laughs while watching Ephiny tremble on her knees with the painful phantasm. “But that pain is quite recent. Let‘s see what your future holds!” Alti screams.
Ephiny cries out in mortal agony as a sword is thrust deep into her abdomen. She feels the blade slice through her guts, bursting organs and shattering bones to exit from her back. Then she feels herself shudder when the sword is twisted inside her. Her spine is severed by that malicious maneuver and her legs give way beneath her as all feeling below her neck ceases. The sword is pulled so savagely from her that it cuts into and mangles more bone, muscle and flesh. She can't feel her body anymore but she can see her view of the ceiling of the Citadel's audience chamber shift as she falls back. But she does not touch the cold stone floor. Instead she is caught. Her head rolls back and comes to rest on something. Her eyes gaze up and she finds herself looking up into the eyes of Hope. Her vision begins to blur as death finds her and starts to pull her soul from her body. Everything before her becomes a blur. She realizes she is speaking but for some reason cannot understand what she is saying. The pain is obviously overwhelming all her senses. Darkness creeps into her vision. She has only moments left. She has to say the words. She has to say them even if they are to Hope and not Gabrielle. “I … lo…” A vast emptiness consumes her.
“You'll die in her arms,” Alti chuckles. “How ironic.”
Jett grabs Alti by the shoulders and slams her against the wall. He watches with no little satisfaction as she slumps to the floor unconscious. He turns back to Ephiny to find the handmaiden still kneeling down with her mouth open in a silent scream. Her hands are clutching her stomach and her eyes scream of untold pain. He kneels down in front of her and seizes her shoulders. “Ephiny?” he says shaking her. Tears fall from her eyes but other than that she does not respond. “Ephiny?” he says again trying to get some response form her. But there is nothing. “Damn it!” He picks her up in his arms. He can clearly hear her breathing but she is dead weight in his arms. He climbs the stairs up into Hope's chambers.
“Hope!” he shouts as he kicks open the door into the Avatar's bedchamber. He ponders what will happen if Hope finds her shamaness out cold in the audience chamber. Will she put things together and know that he attacked her. He hardly cares at this point. Only Ephiny matters. “Hope!” he shouts again as he lays his burden on the bed.
Ephiny's hands still clutch her stomach. Her eyes and mouth are still wide open. He wonders what the hell the witch has done to her. He places his hand on her neck and finds a hammering pulse. It seems to grow faster and faster as he feels it. He turns from the bed and runs back to the door. He nearly knocks Hope over as she enters the bedchamber.
“What is it?” she asks clearly annoyed at being interrupted.
Jett points to the bed. “It's Ephiny. She collapsed,” he lies. The reaction he gets is hardly the one he would expect. Instead of rushing to help Ephiny the Avatar of Dahak tilts her head curiously to gaze upon the still form of her handmaiden. When she makes no move to help he speaks again, “I think she's dying.”
Hope looks at him and her face seems to say, ‘And your point is?' He can hardly believe she is doing nothing. “You have to help her,” he says.
Hope turns her gaze back to Ephiny. She walks slowly past him taking what seems an eternity to get to the bedside. He expects her to sit on the bed and perhaps touch Ephiny with gentle hands and sooth the handmaiden's pain. He certainly doesn't get what he expects. Hope grabs the front of the gown Ephiny wears and hauls her up to a sitting position. The same sickening look of imminent death is etched on Ephiny's face as Hope stares into it. “Wake up!” Hope shouts in a tone that makes Jett jump. Then she slaps Ephiny across the face with some much force it tears her away from Hope's grasp. The front of the gown is ripped open to expose her chest and she rolls off the bed onto the floor in a heap.
Ephiny lies on the floor dazed but no longer trapped in whatever vision had rendered her near death. But Jett stares in disbelief at what he has just witnessed. He has heard Ephiny talk so much of Hope's gentle treatment of her. Of how she and Hope are friends. Or more than friends from what Jett has seen and heard. But what he has just seen is hardly an act of friendship or love. It was more like the brutal action of a master demonstrating her dominance over a slave.
When Hope approaches him she is still holding the torn piece of fabric from Ephiny's gown in her hand. As she nears him on her way out she tosses the scrap of cloth to him. “Is that what you wanted?” she asks pushing him aside. But before she leaves she speaks again. “Joxer?”
He stares at Ephiny lying on the floor with one hand on her face and the other covering her chest for another moment before turning to face Hope. “Yes.” He tries to keep the shock from his voice.
“Don't ever call out for me in my own home again,” she tells him. The tone of her words makes clear the threat. “Understand?”
Jett can find no words to reply so he just nods. Hope leaves without another word.
He goes to Ephiny. “Are you all right?”
“Leave me alone,” she mutters. She continues to hold her hand to her face and hide her exposed chest.
“What happened?” Jett asks. “What did Alti do? Why did Hope…”
“I said leave me alone!” she screams at the top of her lungs as she stands to her feet. “Get out!”
Jett looks at her for a moment longer. The entire left side of her face is bright red. He can already see a bruise forming from the corner of her eye down to her cheek. “All right,” he says calmly and leaves the room.
Ephiny despises herself for treating Jett this way but she can't talk about it right now. Too much has happened too fast. She sits on the bed and rubs her face. It stings like mad and feels hot to the touch. She has never known the kind of pain and humiliation that has just been heaped upon her. Hope healed her and brought her out of Alti's vision. But she had done it in the most brutal way possible. She begins to know that Hope did speak the truth. Gabrielle is weakening. Soon she'll be gone.
The pain of both the slap and Alti's power keeps her heart racing. She has only experienced the shamaness's power that once when she asked to be connected to hope in order to know what made the Avatar. Never before has Alti turned her power personally on her. But now she has felt it. The pains of the past revisited as well as a vision of the future. She looks down at herself past her naked breasts to gaze at her stomach. She half expects to find the sword wound. Not yet, she thinks. That is still to come. She has heard many say however evil and conniving Alti is that her visions always hold truth. She will die and soon. She could see herself as if viewing it from outside her own body. She did not look any older. It will be soon, perhaps in a few months. No longer. And it will happen in the Citadel. She will die on the point of a sword in the Citadel chamber very soon. Only one thing keeps her from totally breaking down. The fact that when she does die, although she knows it is Hope, that she will at least die in Gabrielle's arms.
“Not quite the way I remember it,” Eli says looking around the streets of Athens. There's hardly a corner on which a guard cannot be found. Groups of soldiers march through the streets as well. The citizens of the city move warily to and fro doing their best to avoid the soldiers who seem to be making no attempt to avoid them. It's like a moving labyrinth.
“You've been here before?” Darnell asks shifting his shield on his back. Both he and Amarice draw concerned looks from some nearby guards. He assumes it is because they are armed. Even though his sword is sheathed inside his shield and Amarice's short sword is concealed on her back under the short jacket she wears both of them have the look of warriors that any soldier worth his salt could pick out of a crowd.
“Once,” Eli replies. “I was much younger then.”
“I might be best if we headed for the Agora,” Caleb suggests.
“I agree,” Amarice replies. “The bigger the crowd hopefully the less likely these soldiers will be to try anything.”
The four of them move purposefully but not too rapidly towards the huge marketplace.
“There are so many soldiers,” Caleb states. He turns his head from side to side and cannot gaze in any direction without seeing soldiers garbed in red and black.
“Are they all Athenian infantry?” Eli asks.
“No,” Amarice answers. She steps a little closer to him to continue her response. “The soldiers in red and black are Pompey's legionaries.”
“There must be a whole damned Legion in the city,” Darnell says watching the soldiers all around them.
“I noticed the remains of many campfires outside,” Amarice says. “Until recently I think the legion was outside the city.”
“Hope ordered them inside?” Caleb inquires. “I wonder why.”
“That might have something to do with it,” Eli says pointing casually towards a wall facing out onto the Agora. Several men are busy scrubbing the red brick building but the remains of a human like figure are still discernable in black paint.
Amarice stares for a moment then turns away. “Graffiti on the walls in Hope's capital.”
“Seems things are changing here,” Darnell surmises.
“And not for the better I think,” Eli retorts as a group of ten legionaries pushes through the crowd they are gathered in. The soldiers pass them without a glance or a word and continue on.
“Darnell,” Caleb says drawing the gladiator's attention. “You said you had a contact here. You and I should see about finding him.”
“Splitting up?” Darnell says looking towards Amarice and not liking that suggestion one bit. “Are you sure that is such a good idea?”
“It will draw less suspicion,” Amarice explains in agreement with Caleb. “Eli and I will remain here and wait. One of you come back and get us when you've made contact.”
Darnell still looks concerned but nods. “All right. We'll see you in a little bit.”
Caleb nods to Eli and Amarice then he and Darnell move away through the crowd.
Amarice turns to Eli. “Fancy a bit of shopping?” she asks with a wink.
“Perhaps some better clothes,” Eli says pointing down at himself. Unlike in the east here he is dressed in tan breeches and a black tunic over which is slung a patched and frayed coat. His long hair has been cut to shoulder length and his beard has been trimmed.
Amarice sighs. “We've been over this. Your eastern look, what with the long, colorful robes and the very long hair, might have attracted more attention than we wanted.”
“I know,” Eli replies rubbing the short beard on his chin. “It just took me a long time to grow all this out, you know.”
“You'll get over it,” she promises. “I'm hungry. You?”
Eli glances around and spots a nearby produce stand selling fruits, vegetables and herbs. “I think I could go for some olives or an apricot.” He walks towards the stand with Amarice following. He walks up to the vendor and points to a bushels of bright yellow apricots. “How much?” he asks.
The vendors look him and his companion over for a moment before replying, “Two dinars.”
“Sounds fair,” Eli replies fishing a couple of coins from his pack. He hands over the money and the vendor smiles.
“Thank you sir,” the man says. “Have a good day.”
Eli picks up the small basket of fruit. “To you as well.” He hands one to Amarice then places the rest but one in his pack. As he takes a bite he sees a tall muscular woman dressed in a brown cloak walk up to the vendor and ask him for something. They talk for a few moments then the woman leaves carrying in her hand a bundle of herbs that Eli recognizes as being used in the treatment of someone in serious pain. As she pushes past other patrons he can see the concern clearly on her face.
“What is it?” Amarice asks when she sees Eli distracted.
“What?” Eli responds. “Sorry. It's nothing.”
The two of them walk out into the Agora and try to find somewhere to sit. “You said you were here before,” Amarice says. “What was it like then?”
“For one thing that wasn't here.” Eli nods towards the Acropolis and Hope's Citadel.
She glances to the structure in question for just a moment then turns away. “Can you,” she pauses for a moment. “Can you feel her?”
“You mean Hope?” he asks. When she nods he has to be honest and shake his head. “No. It's not that I don't know that she isn't here. It's that her presence seems to permeate the atmosphere. Like the way this city lives under the shadow of her Citadel. It's oppressive. Like a storm gathering its strength. I know she is here. But I don't know where.”
“Must be unnerving either way,” she says. She nearly trips when her foot sinks into the dirt of the Agora. “What the hell?” she looking down to where her leg has sunk into the ground almost half way up her calf.
“Best be careful young miss,” an older vendor displaying strips of brightly colored cloth from a cart says. “You could easily break a leg in those. My fault really. I usually have my cart over that one.”
“What is it?” she asks the man.
“A posthole,” the old man replies simply.
“Posthole?” Amarice pulls her foot loose. “For what?”
The old man suddenly finds something very interesting in the opposite direction from the two strangers.
From the man's reaction Eli knows their purpose. “For crosses,” he says leaning in close to whisper the words to her.
Amarice pulls her foot and herself away from the posthole like it were something alive about to attack her.
“I hate this city already,” she states looking back towards the Citadel. She recalls the slaughter at the centaur village. “That is an evil place.”
“Not entirely,” Eli says with his eyes on the Citadel as well. He sees the disbelief in her eyes. “Just as I saw in my dream. I can see a point of light in the darkness of that bastion of evil. The reason I sent Nannan here. Though now I know I should have come myself.”
“Point of light?”
“Light and love. Believe it or not within those walls is a soul with only love in their heart.”
“In there? Hardly seems possible.” She looks from the Citadel then back to Eli. “But this dream. You said it came from the One. So then it must be true. What does it mean?”
“It means that we are not alone in our struggle here,” Eli says his eyes taking on a far away look. “It means that the Way has led one onto the path of love who will, when the time is right, do what needs to be done no matter the cost.”
She watches him for a few more seconds. “Eli?”
He turns to face her. “Sorry.” He looks back to the Citadel one last time before turning away. “Come on. We can browse some more while we wait for them.”
“Right,” she says walking closely by his side.
It isn't long before Caleb returns. “Okay. We found them. Come on.” He gestures for them to follow. They walk not far from the Agora to a building just off a side street. Caleb walks up to a stone wall. He points to Amarice. She understands and leans around the corner to keep watch. Caleb taps on a particular stone in the wall once. Then he raps on it twice in quick succession, then twice again then once more.
The wall then parts open like a door and a hooded figure leans out. A hand gestures them inside. Eli reaches back to touch Amarice and the three of them dash inside. The wall slides shut once more.
They find themselves inside a small room with a few chairs. Waiting for them is the hooded and cloaked figure. Along with Darnell and an attractive woman with ebony black hair and piercing blue eyes.
“This way,” the woman says. They are led into a larger room with a table and more chairs. No one else is present.
The hooded figure draws back her hood to reveal a woman with dark hair and a solemn look about her. She pulls off the cloak as well and Eli is surprised to find the woman dressed in bits and pieces of leather. He is further surprised when Amarice draws her short sword from its hiding place and attacks the woman.
Solari is so caught off guard by the girl's reaction she hardly has time to react. She sidesteps her attacker and seizes the girl's arms in an attempt to wrestle the blade free.
“Amarice!” Darnell cries out in confusion.
“What are you doing?” Caleb asks.
Still struggling with the woman Amarice shouts, “These are Amazons!”
In one fluid movement Darnell has slide his shield d\off his back and drawn his gladius. Two more Amazons come in from a side door with their weapons at the ready. Darnell prepares himself for a fight. “Damn savages!” Amarice shouts as she continues her fight with the other woman.
“Amarice! Darnell!” Eli shouts. “Stop it! Now! You will not fight these people.” The authority in Eli's voice seems to transcend the aggression and anger in the room and draw all eyes to him.
Solari and Amarice cease their struggling and Darnell lowers his blade, as do his potential opponents.
Caleb exhales loudly as he feels the tension diffusing in the room.
Eli turns to the dark haired woman and apologizes. “I am sorry. You gave us sanctuary and we repay you with violence.” He bows his head to her. “We ask your forgiveness.”
Amarice watches Eli's actions then looks back to the Amazon. She can feel only loathing for who this woman is and what she represents. But she will follow the example of her teacher. “I'm sorry. Please forgive my rash actions.”
Solari stares at the woman and is unsure what to say.
“It's all right,” Diana says to the strangers.
Eli and his companions gather by the table. Diana nods to the two Amazons who had entered before. They leave the same way they came in. She turns to Darnell. “Might I ask how you know about this place?”
“Friend of mine named Palaemon told me about it the last time we met in Rome,” Darnell replies.
“You are a friend of his,” Diana says somewhat impressed. “Very well. Might I inquire as to why you are here then?” She turns her eyes to Amarice.
“That is a complicated tale,” Caleb says.
“How can you be a part of the resistance if they are here?” Amarice asks pointing towards Solari.
“Amarice,” Caleb says in a voice he hopes sounds at least a little chastising.
“And just what the hell is that supposed to mean?” Solari asks glaring at the girl.
“Solari!” Diana says berating the warrior for her words.
Amarice jumps to her feet. “I saw what your people did to the centaurs. I stumbled into the village that you massacred.”
“Amarice,” Eli says in as calm a voice as he can.
Solari's eyes go wide at the mention of the centaur massacre. Now she understands the girl's attitude. “Not all of us blindly follow Hope. There were many of us branded traitors and many killed for not participating in that act of carnage.”
Amarice stares into the woman's eyes seeking for any hint that she is lying.
“She's telling the truth Amarice,” Eli informs her. Amarice turns to look at him. “I can see the shame and the pain in her at the very mention of the centaurs.”
Amarice looks from the Amazon to Eli then back again several times. While she has no doubt that her teacher's words are true it is not so easy to cast aside her preconceived notions about the Amazons that she has harbored all these years. “I'm sorry,” she manages to say before sitting back down and looking at the tabletop. Darnell reaches over to lay his hand on top of hers.
“So then,” Diana says. “Why are you…”
Her words are cut off by another Amazon's arrival. “What in hell's name are you yelling for in here?” Eponin asks.
Eli recognizes her as the woman he had seen in the Agora purchasing herbs. “Is your daughter in much pain?” he asks.
Eponin turns on this stranger with disgust in her eyes. “How do you know that? Diana. Who are these people?”
Before the resistance leader can reply Eli answers Eponin's question. “I know you have a child because of the pain I see etched onto your face. I know it is a daughter because you are an Amazon and your tribes do not raise male children. I know she is in pain because I saw you buying herbs in the marketplace.”
Eponin stares at the man with something akin to fear. “What the hell are you? Some kind of damned mind reader?”
“What is her name?” Eli asks. He stands to his feet and approaches her.
Though she is not sure why Eponin answers him. “Varia.”
“What's happened to her?” he asks.
No one in the room seems to care or notice anything else but the two people conversing.
“She fell,” Eponin replies. “Damaged her spine we think.”
“Is she in much pain?”
“Constantly. But she can't move either. No one knows what to do.”
“May I see her?” Eli asks.
Eponin looks from this man to her lover. With her eyes she seems to be asking Solari what she should do. Solari nods and walks to Eponin. “Follow us,” she says.
The entire room empties as they follow Eli and Eponin out. Down the hall Eponin opens a door and gestures Eli inside. Lying on a bed he finds a young girl fighting like the member of the warrior race she is to not let the pain she feels show. But the agony is plain on her face. Her body trembles with it.
“Mama?” Varia inquires when she hears the door creak open. She doesn't turn her head to look towards the entrance knowing it will only cause more pain.
Eponin approaches the bed and kneels by it. She takes her daughter's hand in her own and smiles when she sees Varia's courageous attempts to hide the pain. “I'm here Varia.”
Eli watches as the toddler manages to turn her head to look at her mother then cries out in pain. The sound makes Amarice wince. Even Darnell seems to empathize with her. Eli steps forward and lays his hand on Eponin's shoulder. She looks back at him. He nods and she seems to understand what he wants. She steps away and Eli kneels by the girl.
“Hello,” Varia says to the bearded man by her bed. She grits her teeth and bites back another cry of pain.
“Hello,” Eli replies with a smile. “My name is Eli. What's yours?”
“Varia,” the girl answers.
“Hello Varia,” Eli continues. He reaches down to place his hand on Varia's forehead. “Can you tell me what happened?”
“I fell,” Varia says. She makes a whimpering noise as another surge of pain races up her back and out through her extremities. She cries out in pain but recovers a moment later. “Solari said I did something to my back. She & Mama have been real upset.”
“That's because they love you very much.” Eli removes his hand from her forehead and slides it under Varia's neck. He frowns when he notices that she does not react to the touch. Paralyzed from the neck down, he thinks. But the fact that she can still experience such intense pain speaks of other injuries. Perhaps even damage to her brain. No amount of medicine will help her. No matter how many trips she takes to a healer, it will do her no good. “ Try to relax. Okay Varia?” After she nods he slips his arm from her neck to under her shoulders. Then he slides his other arm under her legs. Still supporting her head with his hand, he picks her up off the bed.
Eponin sees him picking her up and is appalled that he would do such a thing. Doesn't he understand that he could injure her further by moving her? She starts to take a step forward but feels a hand on her arm. She looks to her right to see the young woman meeting her gaze. “Give him a chance. Please.”
She sees in Amarice's face a look that speaks of faith and loyalty in this man. She does not reply but turns back to where Eli stands holding her daughter.
“Do you love them?” Eli asks the child in his arms.
“Yes,” she replies. “They're my parents. I love them more than anything.”
“That's good,” Eli tells her. “And they love you more than anything too. In fact, they would die for you.”
Varia's eyes widen a little at that. “They would?”
“Yes.” Staring into the eyes of this brave little girl he feels himself opening up to the power that he has called on in the past. “Because you see love is a powerful force in this world. It can do amazing things. It can make friends of the worst of enemies. It can end wars. And it can make miracles happen.”
“The way that I feel about mama and Solari can do all that?” Varia asks with childish wonderment.
“Yes.” Eli leans close and whispers to the girl. “If you believe it can. Do you?”
Varia looks past this kind man's face for a moment to gaze into the tear filled eyes of her parents. Both Eponin and Solari stare back at her with a love that she is sure can do all the things this man says it can. “I do.”
Eli smiles. “Good. Now can you do something for me?” He waits a moment for her reply. She nods but as she does so it causes her little body to shake in his arms. She grits her teeth and holds back the outcry of pain. “Close your eyes. Then I want you to think about how you feel about your parents. Focus all your thoughts on the love you feel for them. And on the love they have for you. Can you do that for me?”
In response Varia closes her eyes.
Eli too closes his eyes and begins to speak. “I speak for the One and the Way. Grant to me this favor in the name of selfless love. Work through my body to heal this child so that she may know no pain. Let the light of Heaven shine in her smile. Make whole her body and mind. Feel her love and let it continue always from this day forth. I ask this in the Name of the One.” He says one more word but as it is spoken his voice seems to twist and echo in such a fashion that it is impossible for any present to comprehend it.
After a moment, Eli turns to the others. He opens his eyes and looks into the eyes of Eponin. “This is the power of love.” He leans down and sets Varia on her feet. The girl does not fall or cry out in pain. “Open your eyes Varia.”
Varia does open her eyes. Then they open wider when she sees that she is standing upright. She doesn't dare to move for a moment for fear of the pain. But then she realizes that she can feel her arms and legs again. She holds her hands up to look at them. She wiggles her fingers and starts to giggle when she sees them move.
Both Eponin and Solari stare at their daughter is disbelief. Diana, too, cannot believe what she is seeing.
Varia lowers her hands then picks up one foot and tentatively places it back on the floor. She takes another step. There is no pain. With a yelp of excitement she jumps into the air. She turns to look back at Eli. The smile on his face is surely the smile of the kindest man on earth. With his eyes Eli gestures to where Eponin and the others stand. Varia turns and runs into the arms of her mother.
“Mama!” she screams as the Amazon picks up her daughter and spins her around.
Solari leans in close to embrace them both. She looks to the man who has just worked this wonder. She does not speak the words aloud but her mouth forms them: Thank you.
Eli sits down on the bed and smiles that knowing smile of his. For several minutes there is rejoicing in the group by the door. Eponin and Solari take Varia so that they can show to the others present that their daughter is healed. Darnell and Caleb accompany them. Amarice remains, as does Diana.
The leader of the resistance turns to the young woman. “Who is he?” she asks. “I thought only the gods could heal in that fashion. Is he a god?”
“No,” Amarice smiles at the woman. “He is a mortal. Just like you and I.”
“But he healed her,” Diana says pointing to the bed on which Eli sits. The bed on which recently Varia had laid paralyzed and in pain. “That is not the work of any ordinary man.”
“I said he is mortal but there is nothing ordinary about him,” Amarice replies.
“Then who is he?” Diana asks again. She turns to Eli. “Who are you?”
Eli looks up. The smile is gone from his face to be replaced by a look of purposeful determination. “My name is Eli. I am the Avatar of the One and the teacher of the Way. And I have come to this place to fulfill my destiny.”
“I'm not sure that I am comfortable with that,” Antony says as he watches Iolaus run through a series of sword drills with Octavia. He has seen Iolaus fight and he can tell the warrior is taking it easy on Caesar's niece. But that is beside the fact. He would rather she never know how to use a weapon. That she never fight.
“There is no one better to teach her,” Caesar says. “Iolaus has the abilities of a warrior tempered with the wisdom of a philosopher. It was why he was so close with Hercules. Both fighters but with a reverence for life that requires killing one‘s foe as only a last resort.”
“I was referring to her learning to fight at all,” Antony remarks. “She should not be anywhere near a battlefield. She should be…” his words fade as he tries to find the right words.
“What?” Caesar says turning to look curiously at his oldest friend. “She should be at home tending to your household, raising children and entertaining guests. If that is what you believe you have chosen the wrong woman to give your love to Antony. Octavia is of my blood. She is not weak. She is strong. Like her brother was. She has set her mind to this. You had best support her. Or get out of her way.”
Antony regards his friend with confusion. “You are not going to try and keep her from this mad quest for revenge?”
Caesar turns his gaze from Antony then back to the sparing partners. “Who am I to tell her that vengeance is wrong? I still seek vengeance for Cleopatra. And now I will seek it for my nephew. Make no mistake Antony. I want Hope to die for what she has done to my friends and family. Just as Octavia wants Alti to die.”
“Problem is you can't have it,” Antony says grunting with disgust. “Since she can't be killed.” He turns and goes back into the tent they are using as a headquarters.
Caesar watches Octavia and Iolaus for a moment longer before following Antony inside. Xena and Vercinix are there as well. The Gallic chieftain is standing by one of the support posts lost in thought. Xena is using a whetstone to sharpen her sword. Antony sits down by a small table on which are spread charts of Rome and the rest of the peninsula.
Caesar decides he may as well tell them all what he suspects. “What if there was a way to defeat her regardless of her invincibility?”
Xena looks up from her work with a frown. “And what is that supposed to mean?”
“I hardly think there is anything we could do that will cause her to surrender,” Vercinix observes. “Regardless of what is done we cannot defeat her even if we destroy her armies and her allies. She would still exist.”
“That's not what I mean,” Caesar says as he sits down by Antony.
“Then what do you mean?” Antony asks. “How is it possible to defeat someone who can't be killed?”
“You saw what happened to her in Carthage?” Caesar asks Xena. He hates to remind her of that bloody day and the death of her husband. But he is determined to make this point now that it is gnawing away at his brain.
“Yes,” Xena replies her face going a little pale. “She had some kind of attack.”
“Attack?” Antony says confused. “What? Like the ‘Falling Disease' you suffered from?”
“Yes,” Caesar says. “But there was something else. When she was having that attack I heard her cry out. She shouted, ‘Damn you Gabrielle.' Doesn't it seem strange that she would say such a thing?”
“You said that her real name is Gabrielle?” Vercinix asks Xena.
“Yes,” Xena replies once more. “She was a girl in a small village the first time I met her. I think she wanted to travel with me. But I didn't want to do anything but go home.”
“ ‘Damn you Gabrielle?' Why would she say that?” Antony looks perplexed at Caesar. “Why didn't you mention this before?”
“I wanted to think about it,” Caesar answers. “Because I think it all means something. One second she is the invincible Avatar of Dahak. Then the next second she is cursing herself and collapsing.”
“So she cursed herself,” Xena says not sure where Caesar is going with all this. “She's obviously mentally unbalanced.”
“But there was something else she said,” Caesar continues. “Right after Hercules stabbed her. She was gloating and said, ‘I am possessed of the spirit of the Dark One.' It didn't mean anything to me then. But know it has led me to conclude something quite extraordinary.”
“And that is?” Vercinix asks.
“That Hope and Gabrielle are not entirely one and the same,” Caesar tells them.
Antony and Vercinix looks confused. Xena however looks enraged.
“Don't be stupid!” she exclaims. “I told you she is Gabrielle. Even Iolaus knows it's her. She even said so. Are you telling me that Gabrielle has some evil twin who knows everything about her? That is the most idiotic thing I have ever heard.” Xena rises to her feet and walks towards the exit of the tent.
“Xena. Wait.” Caesar stands and blocks her way. “Let me finish.”
Xena glares at him for a moment. As far as she is concerned if Caesar is denying that Gabrielle is Hope he may as well be saying that Hercules isn't dead. The truth is the truth. Hercules is dead. Gabrielle is Hope. “Fine,” she says giving in but not moving from the spot on which she stands.
Caesar nods. “What I am saying is this, as strange as it may sound. One body. Two minds.”
“You can't be serious!” Antony says. “That's impossible.”
“It goes further than that.” Caesar walks to where Antony sits. “She said she is possessed of the spirit. What if she was being literal? That the spirit of Dahak is inside her?”
“You are saying that at some point in the past, after she met Xena, that Gabrielle was overtaken by Dahak and that he now has control over her body?” Vercinix asks. He does not seem so dubious as he says it. “That he works his will through her?”
“Precisely!” Caesar says pointing to Vercinix. “She calls herself the Avatar of Dahak. Avatar. The living embodiment of a deity.”
“Caesar,” Antony says as he too stands up. “This is very far fetched.”
“Not so far fetched as you might think,” Vercinix says. “There are many tales in my lands of evil spirits who have in the past possessed people in order to wreck chaos in this world.”
“There's just stories!” Xena exclaims.
“Every legend has some basis in fact,” Caesar points out to her. “You saw it in Carthage. She was so helpless that her handmaiden had to defend her.”
“So what?” Antony says starting to agree with Xena's assessment. “If she is possessed by Dahak. What good does that do us?”
“Evil spirits can be driven from the people they possess,” Vercinix says now seeing Caesar's plan. “I begin to see what you are driving at.”
“You can't seriously be considering this?” Xena says. She looks at all of them.
Now even Antony begins to draw his conclusion. He looks to Xena. “What if he is right? And it does make sense. It's hardly out of the realm of possibility. No more impossible than a woman who bleeds lava and can toss tons of stone around with her mind.”
Xena relents at that statement. “Fine. Gabrielle is possessed by Dahak. So what?” She looks at Vercinix. “I've heard stories and legends of it too. But in those scary little stories it was always an evil ghost or vengeful spirit. Somehow I hardly think some two bit priest will be able to exorcise Dahak, the Dark One.”
Caesar sits down and pounds his fist into the table. Even though he now has a plan however improbable it is, he knows Xena is right. No priest of Zeus or Apollo would have the ability, let alone the faith since the Olympians are dead, to drive the spirit of the ultimate evil in creation from Gabrielle. It would take a being with powers unheard of on this world. It would probably take another Avatar just as powerful as Hope herself.
Jett has spent the better part of the day avoiding both Hope and Ephiny. Not to mention he has had no desire to run into Alti. Though he is sure she cannot know that it was he who attacked her he prefers to avoid the shamaness on general purpose. So he has spent the last few hours on the first level listening to people discussing what is going on in the city. He wonders how Ephiny would feel if he knew that the leaflets and the graffiti were his idea.
Now he returns to Hope's fortress. He wants to speak with Ephiny and understand what is happening. As he ascends the stairs leading from the second level of the Citadel up to the audience chamber he hears voices from within. He lays flat down on the stairs just below the level where someone looking towards the archway could see him. He glances back and listening warily to the sounds behind him as well as the voices in front of him.
“You still insist on keeping your toy?” The voice of Ares asks.
Jett hears Hope laugh. “What's the matter Ares? Jealous?”
“Don't be ridiculous!” Ares exclaims. “Why would I be envious of a mortal woman?”
“Because she has shared my bed for the past six years,” Hope replies to him with another laugh.
“Damn it Hope!” Ares shouts. “Why do you insist on keeping her around? She's nothing to you. To us. In the end she'll die like all the rest.”
Jett is sure they are just talking about Hope's relations with Ephiny. He is preparing to leave when Ares last words garner his attention fully.
“She amuses me Ares,” Hope says. “That is all. You need not worry. Your legacy is assured.”
Legacy? Jett says to himself. What legacy?
“So you plan to keep your promise to me?” Ares asks.
“Of course I do Ares,” Hope replies. “Ephiny's companionship is satisfying but obviously nothing can come of it.”
“I'm not stupid Hope,” Ares says his voice simmering with anger.
“Then stop acting that way,” Hope tells him. “My mission is nearing its completion.”
“So it will happen soon?”
“Yes. I can feel it nearly within my grasp. After I gave Hercules to the Fire it caused a surge of power that nearly overwhelmed me. But then I knew it was nearly there. I could almost reach out and take it.”
“How many more?”
“Patience Ares. You're immortal after all. What is time to you?”
“I'm also impatient. How much longer?”
“With one mass sacrificial rite it will be done. The gate will open and the Fire will consume everything!” Hope says the last phrase with a nearly orgasmic joy. “This world will burn and with its death the pathways to other worlds will be open.”
“And then?” Ares asks with anticipation in his voice.
“Then the time will be right,” Hope says now with lust heavy in her voice. “With your help I will give birth to the Six Destroyers. And from this ravaged earth our children will spread the will of Dahak to other planes of existence. Then not just this world but all of creation will belong to Dahak.”
Jett feels an emotion running through him that he has not felt since that day he ran to the battlefield with his father looking for Joxer. Fear.
“How are you going to perform this mass sacrifice?” the god of war inquires.
“I will summon as many priests from the temples as I can,” Hope answers. “Once they arrive I will give this entire city to the Fire. In every temple in Athens and here in the Citadel the floors will be stained red with blood.”
Ares and Hope both laugh. Jett wants more than anything to run away screaming with the knowledge he now has. But he overcomes his fear and calmly slides back down the stairs. As he does so he hears Hope speak again.
“Now if you don‘t mind Ares. I‘m going upstairs. I want to put my powers to the test and pay a visit to an old friend.”
Diana puts down the parchment on which the Persian prophecy was written over five hundred years ago. She looks at Eli. “So this other Avatar. The one meant to confront Hope. Is you?”
“Yes,” Eli says steeping his fingers before him as he thinks. “I did not want to believe it at first. But I can no longer avoid it.”
“And what will you do when you confront her?” Eponin asks. She holds Varia in her arms as if afraid to let the girl go. They are sitting around the kitchen table and the damage to the table that is the result of Varia's fall is plainly visible. Just seeing it unnerves her.
“I don't know,” Eli admits.
“You don't know?” Solari says stunned.
He points to the prophecy. “Even as far as prophecies go that is pretty vague on what I'm meant to do.”
“Indeed,” Diana agrees. She holds up the parchment again and reads one line in particular. “In her bastion of power will the Avatar of Light come face to face with the Avatar of Darkness. Vague doesn't begin to cover it.”
“So you propose to go into the Citadel without any idea what you are going to do?” Eponin asks.
“I believe that the One will show me what to do when the time is right,” Eli explains.
“You have far more faith than anyone I know,” Solari admits. “And just how do you plan on getting in? Get yourself captured?”
“Bad idea,” a red haired Amazon says from one corner of the room. “The last guy that was picked up for preaching anything around here was taken before Hope and executed. I heard Alti killed the poor bastard with those damnable powers of hers.”
Eli looks up at her. “Do you have any idea what his name was?”
The Amazon shrugs. “No. I just heard he was older and was wearing these brown, dirty robes.”
Eli's eyes widen. “Lyander,” he says the name of the oldest of those who followed him in the beginning. In order to fully dedicate himself to the Way, Lyander had given up all material possessions even the clothing he had owned. The old drab clothes he wore had been given to him while he had sat out in the street nearly naked speaking of the path of love. They were the only things he possessed afterwards. He lived off the charity and the good will of others. And then had come the day when he had heard of Hope. He told Eli he must leave so that he could spread the word of the path of love amongst the lands ruled by the Avatar of Dahak. Eli had begged him not to go for surely he would die. Not only did he refuse but also his zealous enthusiasm led one other, a young man named Kale, to follow him. They had left over two years ago. To discover that Lyander is dead pains his heart.
“Letting you be captured is out of the question,” Diana says vehemently.
“What else can we do?” Darnell asks. “The only other option would be to storm the Citadel in the hopes that Eli could get close enough to her to … do whatever it is he's supposed to do.”
“Impossible,” Solari tells him. “Pompey has an entire legion patrolling the city. You've seen them.”
“What if we could call the legion away somehow?” Amarice inquires. She looks around at the blank stares.
“You propose to do this how?” Eponin asks her. She notes the way since her arrival that even when she is speaking to the Amazons Amarice looks elsewhere. She must really hate us, Eponin thinks.
“Attack somewhere else,” Caleb suggests. “Say Piraeus. If you were to attack the port city Hope would have to send all available troops there. She can't afford to lose that city. It's the one of the main pipelines for supplies coming in and out of Greece.”
“It might be a good plan except for one thing,” Solari begins speaking. But before she can continue the door to the kitchen opens. All eyes go to it to see who else is arriving. But there in no one there.
Diana walks over and looks out into the hallway. Nothing. “Must be a draft,” she says.
“And this one thing?” Caleb asks.
“We have barely fifty fighters in this city,” Solari points out to him. “And even less than that in Piraeus.”
“What about Caesar?” Amarice says turning her full attention to Diana as she speaks. As she opens her mouth to speak she feel something brush past her. She turns quickly to find nothing and no one. She shakes her head and continues talking. “He could send his forces against Piraeus. And that would give us the opening we need.”
“Except that Caesar was soundly defeated in Carthage,” Eponin points out to her.
Amarice does not look at the Amazon as she continues. “But not destroyed. He still has some men left. Not to mention there is a Roman legion stationed on the isle of Sicily.”
“She has a point,” Eli says feeling just a little bit of pride at his friend‘s idea. “But then that brings up the question of sending out a messenger to get to Caesar in Gaul.”
“True,” Diana agrees. “When we sent Palaemon to Rome there was just Tonis's troops patrolling the streets. Now we have Pompey's legion. We have barely been able to get more leaflets out since they came. In order to get a messenger out of here and into Gaul he would need to be…”
“Invisible,” a voice from within the room says. Everyone with a weapon draws one.
“Who said that?” Solari shouts searching the room.
Diana looks around for a moment. Then her face is overcome with joy. “Autolycus!” she cries out.
In one corner of the room the king of thieves appears lifting a golden helmet off of his head. “You called?” he says with a wink.
Diana rushes to him and kisses him with such passion that it makes everyone in the room blush and look away. When they part even Autolycus is a little red. “I may need to make an entrance like that more often.”
Varia claps and points to Autolycus. “That's a good trick. Can you show me how to do it?”
“Not now Varia,” Eponin scolds her daughter in her least scolding voice. “This is important.” She turns to the thief. “So you got it after all?”
“Was there ever any doubt?” he asks laying the helmet on the table before them and then taking Diana in his arms. He sees the four strangers in the room. “It seems we have guests.” he brushes his mustache arrogantly. “Name's Autolycus. The King of Thieves.”
Before anyone can say anything Varia points to all four of the new arrivals. “Caleb. Amarice. Darnell. And that's Eli. He made me all better.”
Autolycus looks curiously as Eli. “I'll explain later,” Diana promises him.
“So what's this about sending a message to Caesar?” Autolycus asks.
“Amarice here suggests we ask Caesar to attack Piraeus so that Pompey's legions will have to leave the city,” Solari repeats the plan to him. “Then we can get Eli in to deal with Hope.” Solari glances to Amarice and sees her looking at Darnell instead of at her. She wonders if talking with the girl will make any difference.
“Deal with Hope?” Autolycus says flabbergasted. He looks to Eli. “And you can do this because?”
“That is a long story,” Caleb says.
“Okay,” Eponin says before anyone can start discussing any further plotting. She looks at Eli. She respects the man and is grateful for what he did with Varia. But she still has her doubts. “Armies have been useless. Gods have been slaughtered. Caesar has been crushed. What will you do that can stop her?”
Eli looks at the Amazon. She doubts him and he can understand why. “You just have to trust as I do that the One will show me the way.”
“The One?” Autolycus inquires.
Diana places a finger over his lips to silence him. “I promise I will explain everything to you later. Now stop interrupting.”
He kisses her finger and winks. “Yes ma'am.”
“Even if the distraction works and our friend here figures out what to do,” the red headed Amazon says pointing to Eli. “That still leaves us with one problem. Getting inside. Even with Pompey's legion gone we are not going to be able to just walk up into the Citadel through the main gate.”
Eponin ponders something deeply for a moment. “Maybe when can ask Ephiny to help us. She‘s sure to know of some hidden way into the Citadel.”
“Ephiny?” Eli inquires looking up from the table. “Who is she?”
“She is Hope's handmaiden,” Solari replies.
“And why precisely would she help us?” Darnell asks bitterly.
“That too is a long story,” Diana tells them. She turns to Eponin. “Send someone to the Agora tomorrow. Find Jett and tell him we have to talk to Ephiny.”
“Jett?” Darnell looks shocked when he hears the name. “You people know the King of Assassins?”
“Well we already have the King of Thieves working for us,” Diana says pointing to Autolycus.
“And a princess leading us,” Autolycus points to Diana.
“And I'm the Emperor of Chin,” Darnell says sarcastically. “Nice to meet you.”
“Darnell. That's enough,” Amarice says.
“You realize that this plan is totally ridiculous and that the chances of it actually working are astronomical,” the red haired Amazon says.
“You think we don't know that Cora?” Solari says to her. “But we are running out of options.”
“I think we need to all get some rest,” Diana says standing to her feet. “We don't have a lot of room for guests. You'll probably have to bunk with Eponin or the others,” she informs the four of them.
“I'll sleep here on the floor,” Amarice says in a harsh monotone voice.
“Don't be ridiculous,” Diana retorts.
“Come on Amarice,” Darnell says stepping up next to her. “Just relax.”
The look she gives the gladiator speaks volumes that her voice could never convey. He takes a step back.
“We'll arrange something,” Diana says. She points to the helmet of Hades. “Eponin. Have that guarded closely. It's our greatest asset.”
“You got it,” Eponin says. She reaches out and picks up the helmet. As she moves towards the door following Solari, Varia wriggles in her arms. “What is it?”
“I want down,” Varia says with a frown. “Now.”
“Okay. Okay.” She sets Varia down and looks around. It occurs to her that Varia may just spend the next hour hunting for sweets in the kitchen. “You be careful. You hear me?”
Varia nods. “I promise.”
Eponin looks across the room and sees Amarice having a quiet argument with Darnell. She sighs. Could they ever make her understand? We aren't all killers, she thinks. She turns and leaves the kitchen.
Eli and Caleb watch Darnell and Amarice argue for a few more moments. “Best to let them sort it out,” Caleb says and he too leaves the room. Eli has to agree. He is unsure if anything will change the young warrior's opinion of the Amazons. He walks out just as Autolycus and Diana leave.
“So who are you?” Autolycus asks as the three of them leave. Diana sighs.
Darnell exhaled loudly. “Amarice. This is stupid. Why are you doing this?”
“You can never understand,” Amarice says to him. “You didn't see that village. The blood. The bodies. Centaurs. Men. Women. Children.” She thinks of the fair-haired boy reaching out for his shattered sword. “I will never be able to forget that.”
“No one is asking you to forget it,” Darnell says. “But these women had nothing to do with that.”
“They're Amazons!” Amarice shouts. “They followed Hope and committed that butchery.”
Darnell throws up his hands in defeat. “I can see this is pointless. Good night!” He storms from the room.
Amarice turns to stare at the wall. She stays that way for several minutes. Then she realizes she is not alone. She turns to find the child Varia glaring up at her.
“Why don't you like my mama?” Varia asks crossing her arms.
“Look kid,” Amarice says in a tired voice. “I don't have time to talk to you.” She starts to step around the girl.
But Varia steps back into her path. “Why don't you like my mama?” she asks again.
“Will you just get out of my way,” Amarice says trying once more to get around the child.
Again Varia blocks her path and asks, “Why don't you like my mama?”
The visages of all those dead in the centaur village come back at her in a rush. She sees the dismembered bodies. The piles of corpses. The bloody carcasses of children left among the huts like garbage. Severed limbs scattered like cordwood. Heads stuck up on pikes. Bodies impaled and crucified. She can feel herself crying. “Because your mother's an Amazon!” Amarice screams at the girl. “And the Amazons are butchers! All of them!”
Varia stares back into Amarice's angry eyes and says four words, “I am an Amazon.”
Amarice stares at the child before her. She sees the innocence and the love in those eyes. She sees the innocence of the child that she was so long ago. And the love of a child for the mother she sees as a perfect being on this earth. There is nothing she can say in response to those words. Nothing now comes to mind that drives her hatred of the Amazons so much that she can do anything to contradict this little girl. She drops to her knees before Varia.
Varia looks into the eyes of this stranger and can see the pain in them. She's too young to understand that kind of pain she is sure. But she knows the one thing that always makes her feel better when she hurts. She steps forward and embraces Amarice. The woman begins weeping loudly and Varia can feel the tears falling from her eyes. She hugs the woman tightly and says the words her mama says that always make her feel better. “It's all right. I promise you. It will be all right.”
From the darkened hallway beyond the kitchen door Eponin and Eli watch as the five year old Varia comforts Amarice. She looks from the pained scene to Eli. “That's my girl,” she says in a quiet voice.
The pain she felt after the chakrum had struck her in the back was searing and intense. Then the sensation of her paralysis took her and she collapsed to the ground. Both were traumatic. But they are nothing compared to what she now sees. Never would she have thought Gabrielle capable of it. As her blonde bard takes out Roman legionaries left and right around her she cannot deny it. Gabrielle is a warrior. Never has she wanted this for her friend. She cries out to Gabrielle to stop. But the bard will not. She tears through her opponents like she is possessed. They fall one after the other before a rage that Xena can only guess has been boiling inside of Gabrielle since birth. It galls her to think that even Ares would be proud of the brutality with which Gabrielle is dispatching those attacking her.
For a moment she looks down at the ground as she tries vainly to push herself up from the ground. But her legs are useless and even her arms are loosing sensation. Then the area is inundated with a blast of hot air that feels to Xena like the precursor to a volcanic eruption. She manages to look up again and finds a phantasmagorical sight before her. Everything around has been burned almost beyond recognition. The walls are scorched black and the wood around is charcoal. The bodies of Roman legionaries are scattered everywhere. Some are in pieces. Others have their armor melted to their flesh and are crying out in mortal agony. A few more are even imbedded in the walls of the garrison.
“What?” Xena manages to mutter through her pain and paralysis. She looks around for Gabrielle and finds her standing right next to her. But something is wrong. Gabrielle's hair is not shoulder length and pale blond. Neither is she wearing the bright, golden clothing she purchased in India. Instead, she is wearing Amazon leathers and her hair is long and strawberry blond. And there is a scar on her right cheek. “Gabrielle?” she says in total confusion.
Xena watches as Gabrielle kneels down before her and sneers. “You dream of me? How sweet.”
Hope slaps Xena with enough strength to split the side of her face open. The force of the blow rolls Xena onto her side and she cannot understand what is going on. What has happened? Why does Gabrielle suddenly look different? Why is she attacking her? Was the demon not truly exorcised from her in India? Has it taken control of the bard once again?
“Do you still think this is some pleasant dream Xena?” Hope says in a sweet, melodious voice. She kicks Xena in the gut and the warrior princess is stunned to find that she can feel it. Moments ago she was paralyzed. Why can she feel the pain?
The kick puts Xena on her back. Hope stands directly over her and looks down into the blue eyes. “Is this the delusion you've been living under for six years?” She stomps on Xena's chest right at the breastbone and is satisfied to hear it break. Xena cries out in pain but can do nothing since she still thinks she should be paralyzed. The dream has her trapped in a delusional that is working in Hope's favor.
“So I'm part of some silly fantasy you have every time you close your eyes?” Hope reaches down and grabs Xena by the neck. She hauls Xena up and holds her off the ground. She delights in watching Xena's eyes bulge as she squeezes tightly on her throat.
“Is this why you were so shocked to see me in Carthage?” She hurls Xena away from her. The warrior princess slams into the wall with bone breaking force. She feels her vertebras shatter upon impact. Why is she feeling the pain so much? She wails with the sheer agony of so many broken bones. Why is this happening?
“Gabrielle,” she mutters the name of her friend and soul mate. “Please. Listen to me.”
“In reality I couldn't be your friend,” Hope says as she steps up to Xena's prone form. She reaches down to take hold of the fallen warrior's arm. “But here, in your dreams, you care about me?” She wrenches Xena's arm and breaks it with such ferocity that its dislocates the shoulder and punches shattered bone through flesh. Xena calls out in a pain she has never known before.
“Gabrielle,” Xena says in a groaning voice thick with pain and suffering. “Why are you doing this?” She cannot comprehend what is happening here. The pain is unbelievable but she should not feel it. Before she felt the paralysis cascading down her body. And moments before Gabrielle had abandoned the new way of life she had embraced in India to help her. But now something is terribly wrong.
“Why am I doing this?” Hope repeats Xena's question. She pulls Xena's limp form up by her hair. She punches Xena straight in the face and feels the woman's nose crushed beneath her fist. Blood flows from the shattered nose covering the bottom half of Xena's face. “Because I want you to understand the meaning of pain.” She spins around with inhuman strength and quickness. She feels Xena leave her grasp. She looks at her hand and smiles at the clump of hair and flesh there. She tosses it aside.
Xena hits another wall at such an angle that her leg hits first and is bent back and broken in so many places she can't even guess. She bounces off the wall like a child's plaything and hits the ground. The pain rushing through her is incomparable to anything she has ever known. She can feel the blood oozing down from her head onto her face. “Gabrielle. Please. Stop this.”
“You see Xena I offered up my friendship to you six years ago,” Hope continues as she looks down at the bent and broken warrior princess. She reaches down and grabs the front of Xena's bronze cuirass. She tears it loose like it was paper and throws it away. She steps back and delivers a savage kick to the area between Xena's legs. She kicks there again and again until she pulls back her foot to find the toe of her boot soaked in blood. “You repaid me by spilling my blood.” She leans over to grab Xena's leather armor and pulls the woman up a bit. “Now. I'm just returning the favor.” She slams her forehead into Xena's face and feels bone give way beneath. When she looks at the face before her again she sees that the right eye is a bloody orb set into a broken socket. She drops Xena.
Xena tries to pick up her arm and reach out to Gabrielle somehow knowing that if she can but touch the bard this will end. But her arms will not respond. No part of her body will respond. She is paralyzed. Then why the hell can I feel the pain! Xena screams to herself.
Hope reaches down with both hands and tears off the leathers Xena wears exposing her chest. She digs her fingernails into one of Xena's breasts and lifts the woman up off the ground by it.
“Gabrielle,” Xena manages to mutter through her ruined face. “I don't understand.”
Hope brings the warrior princess up to a vertical position. “Of course you don't understand. You're too stupid to understand.” She twists her hand and in doing so rips off the breast she was holding. She laughs as Xena falls back to the ground and cries like a child.
“Why Gabrielle?” Xena wails. “Why?”
Hope stomps down on Xena's other leg exploding her kneecap and bending the leg back at an unnatural angle. She turns and picks up that leg then starts dragging Xena behind her. “Why? Why? Why?” she repeats Xena's words mockingly. “Because I hate you Xena.” She hauls Xena up behind then throws her over her head so hard that she sails the length of the courtyard and lands on top of the garrison with a sickening impact. She rolls off the roof and lands on a piled of charred wood near the base of the wall.
Xena is beyond screaming or crying out in pain. Every bone is her body is broken. Her skull is cracked open and she can feel her brain rupturing in her head. The organs in her chest and guts are pulped and pouring out of open wounds covering her body. Her right arm has been torn clear of her body and rests just a few feet from her. Her jaw is dislocated and part of it is spiked up into her brain. Ribs shattered have impaled what remains of her heart and lungs. She can only see from her bloody right eyes since her left one is gone. She wishes she were dead so the pain would stop. She wants to speak but can't. She wants to tell Gabrielle that she is sorry for whatever has brought out this anger in her. To tell the bard that she loves her. She cannot understand that she is trapped in her dream and that this Gabrielle is not her beloved bard from Poteidaia.
Hope stands over the mangled heap of flesh that is Xena of Amphipolis and leers down at her. She begins to raise her hands over her head. As she does so white-hot energy begins to collect between her hands. “Because had you just been kind to me all those years ago I would never have become Hope!” A sphere of blazing incandescent fire burns like the sun in Hope's hands. “This is all your fault!” Hope's hands descend sending the fireball straight towards Xena.
“Xena!” Julia screams shaking her friend and trying to rouse her form the nightmare she is caught in.
Xena sits bolt upright and lets out a scream so loud it shatters clay jars and plates lying around the room and causes Julia to fall back clutching her ears in pain.
“Good gods!” Antony shouts as a sound unlike anything he has ever heard pierces the night. A small glass mirror near him he uses for shaving shatters. The sound is so loud and high pitched it upsets his balance as he tries to stand.
“Xena,” Caesar says from his tent as he recognizes the ear splitting cry. The sound of her scream pounds into his head and his ears start ringing. A clay bowl he had been using to wash his face explodes sending shrapnel in all directions. He just manages to cover his face as the flying debris reaches him. He darts out of his tent a second later.
Octavia and Iolaus still training in the moonlight lose their footing as the sonic vibrations of Xena's scream upset the balance of their inner ears. Octavia stumbles as she tries to walk. Iolaus drops his sword and clamps his hand over his ears. “Is that Xena?” he asks.
Vercinix is just finishing his meal when a blast of sound louder than a volcanic eruption tears through the camp. The plate on which his food sits vibrates for a second before exploding and sending a shard of clay into his shoulder. He falls back onto the ground and cries out in pain.
All around the Romano-Gallic camp glass, marble and clay implements crack, shatter or explode. Anyone standing upright is unbalanced or sent to the ground by the wailing of the warrior princess. Birds, wolves and deer call out in pain and tear away from the human camp as fast as their wings or legs can carry them. Backed by a supernatural pain that no one living can understand Xena's scream travels all along the countryside like a wave inundating the land. By the time it subsides Caesar's camp is in more disarray than if they had been attacked.
Caesar, Iolaus and Antony make it into Xena's tent. Caesar nearly trips over his daughter who lies unconscious on the floor with blood streaming from her ears. He bends down to take Julia in his arms. He looks up to see Xena writhing on her bed and screaming in some sort of ungodly seizure. He pulls Julia close to him as Iolaus and Antony try to hold Xena still. But her strength defies any chance of that. The two men can barely keep a hold of her as she spasms wilding with tears of blood pouring from her eyes and screaming continually, “NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!”
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART SIX…
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