DUALITY OF HOPE AND DESPAIR
RACING THE END OF THE WORLD
As the fireball leaves Hope's hands, Xena disappears from sight as if she were never there. The sphere of white-hot flame hits the ground before her with the force of a meteorite impact and sends debris flying in all directions. Where there should be a crater in the earth, however, can only be seen a circular opening through which a miasma of swirling colors and cacophonous sounds escapes. She looks down into the hole she has punched into the Dreamscape and laughs.
“Do you begin to see the extent of my power?” she says aloud to the one being she knows is listening in this place. “I walked right into your world and did as I pleased.” She turns her head up and looks around searching for something. “I know you're there somewhere. I've felt you tickling at the back of Gabrielle's mind for the last six years.”
She paces away from the point where she had Xena at her mercy to the center of the garrison's courtyard. She crosses her arms then ascends into the air. Turning her gaze first left then right then up she looks for the being that calls the Dreamscape home. But he is nowhere in sight. “What's the matter Morpheus? Are you afraid of me?” She pauses and awaits an answer though she honestly doesn't expect one. “You should be.” As she speaks she moves about the phantom Roman garrison, hovering in place then ascending and descending. “What? Did you feel sorry for Xena? Was this all some wonderful little fairy tale you created for her?” She points down to the garrison below her. “Complete with a Gabrielle for her to play with? Well, this isn't fantasy!” She summons a massive fireball above her that grows and grows until it dwarfs the garrison below. “This is reality!” With a gesture she sends it streaking downwards. It slams into the garrison and utterly obliterates it and everything around it. The Dreamscape crumbles and begins to dissolve back into the ether from which it was created.
“Xena doesn't get a happy ending!” Hope screams aloud. “Do you hear me? She will die! Just like the rest of this world! And there is nothing you or anyone else can do to stop it!”
Hope's form ripples like she were nothing but a reflection in a pool of water. She disappears just like she, too, were a part of the dream.
Standing on a pinnacle of rock near the borders of Heaven Morpheus watches Hope's departure from his world with trepidation. She has done the impossible. She has intruded without his consent into the Dreamscape. It has sealed his fate, as he knew it would. That day he spoke with the Fates he was certain a time in the future would come when he would have to sacrifice himself. That time has come.
“She nears the peak of her power,” the archangel Michael informs the King of Dreams.
“Indeed,” Morpheus agrees. “To enter the Dreamscape and wreck the kind of havoc she did requires power nearing or equaling my own. Soon she will be as a god. She'll need no hind's blood dagger to kill any of them.” She has killed me and not needed the dagger, he thinks.
“She'll certainly not need it if her plan succeeds,” Michael reminds him. “She draws closer to her ultimate goal.” The archangel turns to the Dream Walker. “Are you afraid?”
Morpheus speaks in a voice deep with purpose and strength. “No. I know what must be done. Are you frightened archangel?” He turns his gaze to the side to watch Michael's reaction.
Michael crosses his arms over his chest as if he is uninterested. “There is nothing to fear. Despite what Hope thinks Heaven will remain untouched even if she does succeed.”
“So you will hide?”
“I have been told not to interfere. The One has told me that the affairs of the Earth are the affairs of the Earth.”
“This is true. But will He watch as His creation is consumed by the Fire of Dahak?”
“There are those on Earth working towards His purpose. They will carry out His will.”
“You refer to the Avatar Eli?”
“There are others as well. But I think you know that as well as I. You spoke to the Fates after all.”
“I did. I know what I must do. And I must do it soon. The endgame draws near.” Morpheus turns to fully face the dark winged, armor clad warrior angel. “I do not think that we will meet again in this way.” The King of Dreams bows his head in farewell. Michael responds likewise. Then the Dream Weaver is gone.
Michael continues to stare at the spot where Morpheus stood. He ponders for just a moment the phrasing of his words. “In this way,” he repeats the words aloud. He becomes aware of another presence and turns to meet her.
“Was that Morpheus?” The dark haired angel dressed in a gown of white and gold asks as her pure white wings settle her next to the archangel.
“Yes,” Michael answers her simply.
Lila looks puzzled. “For the god of dreams I thought he would have been different. His presence scared me. He exudes a darkness that permeates the atmosphere.”
“You mustn't forget that he is also the weaver of nightmares,” Michael tells her. “A being such as that must carry an inherent darkness. But I sense that is not why you are here.” He can see the worry in her eyes.
“I overheard what you said,” Lila says standing before him. “Is what you said true? That you will do nothing to help them?”
“The affairs of the Earth are the affairs of the Earth,” Michael repeats his words. “Those were His words to me. I can do nothing.”
“So we can do nothing but stand up here while Hope murders the world and my sister loses her soul?” Lila asks in a dejected voice. “When you brought me up from the Elysian Fields you said I was one of the those who would help stop Hope. And now you tell me there is nothing I can do.”
“I repeat. The affairs of the Earth are the affairs of the Earth. There is nothing I can do.” He stares down at her and waits for her reaction.
The sister of Gabrielle meets the archangel's gaze and holds it for several moments. Her face takes on a defiant look as she speaks to him again. “I am of the Earth. I refuse to stand back and do nothing.”
“You are not allowed to physically interfere in the coming battle Lila,” Michael informs her in a tone that brooks no argument. “No hand in Heaven will be raised in anger against Hope or her servants. Do you understand me?”
She stares into his eyes and then begins to understand. “Yes. I do.” She turns and takes flight. Her white wings carry her out over the high pinnacles of Heaven before she suddenly turns and plummets towards Earth like a raptor seeking prey. She vanishes into the mist below.
Michael smiles. “God speed Lila.”
It has taken Caesar and Vercinix some time to restore order to their camp following Xena's scream. Many in the camp thought they were under attack. Others thought some natural disaster was occurring. But neither explanation was as shocking to everyone as the truth. Xena has done this? How is that possible? A question many, including Xena herself, are asking.
Caesar watches as one of his physicians steps away from Julia and approaches him. “Is she all right?” he asks the man.
“I am certain she is concussed,” the physician answers. “And I'm afraid there may be some damage to her hearing. It will be hard to tell until she wakes up. I'm sorry. There is nothing more I can do.”
“Thank you,” Caesar replies as he stares down at the sleeping face of his daughter.
As the physician leaves Vercinix, with his arm in a sling, enters. He sees Caesar standing over his daughter and waits for a few moments before speaking. “Order has been restored. There were a few injuries but nothing too serious.” He winces when he says the words as he realizes the potential injuries to Julia. “I'm sorry,” he says.
“There's no need for you to apologize,” Caesar says as he stands and turns to face Vercinix. “She is strong. And she will survive.” He walks past the Gallic chieftain to the tent flap. “Now I think we should visit Xena and try to find out just what the hell happened.”
“Agreed,” Vercinix replies.
In her tent Xena is sitting up in bed with her legs drawn up against her and her arms wrapped around them. “She's right,” Xena says. “It's all might fault.” She looks up to Iolaus who sits by her side. “I blamed you for this but it's my fault.”
“It's no one's fault Xena,” Iolaus tells her. “Not yours. Not mine.”
“No,” Xena disagrees. “Everything she told me in the dream was true. If I had been kinder to her then none of this would have happened. It's my fault Hope exists.”
“This is pointless,” Iolaus retorts. “We can try and blame whomever we like but it is no one's fault.”
“She only wanted to be my friend,” Xena continues as if she has not heard him. “But I was too arrogant to even contemplate a friend. And Draco? How could I have been so stupid as to believe him?”
“Xena,” Iolaus tries to find some words to comfort her. “Don't do this to yourself.”
“Would it have all turned out the way it did in the dreams?” she asks no one in particular. “Would we have been friends?”
The tent flap is pulled aside and Caesar enters followed by Vercinix.
“Caesar,” Xena says looking up at him. “Is Julia all right?”
“She'll be fine Xena,” Caesar says standing next to her. “I'm more worried about you. What happened? That scream? Where did it come from?”
Xena sighs and thinks of seeing Julia lying on the ground after she had recovered her senses. She vividly recalls the blood coming from her friend's ears. If I have hurt her I'll never forgive myself, she thinks.
“Xena,” Vercinix speaks. “You must tell us what happened.”
Xena looks at the three of them and lowers her head. “It was Hope.”
“What?” Caesar says in disbelief. “Are you telling me she was here? In this camp?”
“No,” Xena replies. She points to her head. “She was in here.”
“I do not understand,” Vercinix says in a puzzled voice.
“She was in my dreams,” Xena says.
“Your dreams?” Iolaus sounds just as confused as Vercinix,
Xena looks to Caesar for a moment. He understands. “Xena has been dreaming of Gabrielle for nearly six years,” he informs the others.
“I still don't get it,” Iolaus admits. “I mean if you've been dreaming of Hope all this time what was different about this one.”
“Not Hope,” Xena corrects him. “I've been dreaming of Gabrielle and of another world where she and I are friends and soul mates. I've dreamed of the two of us fighting armies. Battling evil gods and goddesses. I've dreamed of us dying in battles or on crosses.” She looks towards Caesar for just a moment. “But these dreams have been…” she pauses searching for what to say next. “Peaceful. In these dreams I've died with her and fought with her. But I always knew peace in them. I felt more at peace in these tragic times in those dreams than I did in Hercules's arms.”
Iolaus looks a little taken aback.
“That is why I've told no one about them except Caesar and Julia.” She waits to see what they will say.
“It seems strange that you would dream in this manner,” Vercinix says. “We do not often dream so often of the same people. Have you dreamed of anything else?”
“Every time I have closed my eyes and dreamed for the past six years it has been of Gabrielle,” Xena answers.
“Now I see why you reacted the way you did in Carthage,” Iolaus says with understanding.
“Yes,” Xena says.
“So what was different this time?” Caesar asks.
“It was like the other dreams,” Xena goes on. “Vivid. Clear. I could feel everything around me. Then something changed. It wasn't Gabrielle in the dream. It was Hope. Only I was trapped in the dream and I couldn't understand what was going on. I kept trying to talk to her thinking she was Gabrielle. She became more enraged. She kept beating me and beating me. I never knew there could be pain like that. A dream but I felt it like it was real.” She brings a hand to her face as she feels herself starting to cry again.
“Hope just walked into your dream and took it over?” Iolaus asks in a stunned voice. “How powerful has she become?”
“Powerful enough to infuse Xena's dream with so much of her energy that when Xena awoke she brought part of that power back to the real world with her,” Caesar concludes. “That was where the unearthly power behind your scream came from.”
Xena nods. “Yes. I think so. She was on the verge of killing me in the dream. She said it was my fault. And she's right.”
“What are you talking about?” Vercinix asks.
“Xena don't…” Iolaus begins.
But Xena cuts him off. “I met Gabrielle years ago in a small village not far from my home in Thrace. She wanted to come with me, to travel with me. Just like it happens in the dreams. But I rebuked her. I drew my sword then I drew her blood. Now she is making me pay for it. And I deserve it.”
“No Xena,” Caesar admonishes her. “You don't deserve this. No one does. And you must not blame yourself.”
“How can't I?” Xena says sitting up on her bed. “Especially when I've seen in my dreams the way it could have been. Maybe the way it should have been.”
“Xena. This war is nearing its end one way or another,” Caesar continues. “I am going to need you at your best. And you won't be at your best if you are blaming yourself and carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. Besides we all know whose fault this all is. Dahak's.”
“If not Gabrielle then Dahak would have found some other way into our world,” Iolaus says. “You are not to blame for Hope.”
Xena looks at them all still unconvinced.
“Would Hercules want you to blame yourself?” Caesar asks Xena. “Do you think he would want you wallowing in misery?”
“But…” Xena begins.
“No Xena,” Caesar interrupts her. “He would not want you to do this to yourself. He would want you to be strong. To be brave. If not for yourself. Then for Lyceus.” From under his tunic Caesar pulls the gauntlet that was torn away from Hercules when Hope cast his body into the Fire. He holds it out to her.
Xena stares at the leather gauntlet with its banding of metal forged by Hephaestus himself. A gift to Hercules from his father Zeus long ago. With a shaking hand she reaches and out takes it from Caesar's grasp.
“His last thoughts were of you and Lyceus,” Caesar says as he hands the last vestige of his close friend and distant cousin over to her. “He told me to make sure you lived. To get you back to your son. He would have wanted Lyceus to have this. Give it to him when he is old enough to understand.”
Xena stares down at the bit of armor and can see in her mind's eye the smiling face of Hercules. He had done so much for her. Pulled her back from the dark abyss she had plunged into so long ago. He had loved her when she surely did not deserve it. And in the end he had thought her life more valuable than his own. Caesar is right. He would not want her to be like this. She will honor his sacrifice. Though in her mind the lingering doubts over her part in Hope's genesis remains she will not let it consume her. “I didn't realize he spoke to you,” Xena says. She holds the gauntlet tight against her. “Did he say anything else?”
“He told me to watch over you,” Caesar continues. He is not sure whether to reveal his final words to her. But he knows he cannot lie or hold anything back. “He said that you're my family now.”
Xena looks at him with puzzlement. “I don't understand.”
“My family has longed claimed descent from Venus,” Caesar says. “From Aphrodite. But Hercules told me that it was not some legend created by my family to increase our standing. The goddess of love was my great grandmother. That makes Hercules and I distant cousins. As well as Lyceus and I.”
“Now there's a revelation to be sure,” Vercinix remarks. “Descended from a goddess.”
“Tell me about it,” Iolaus says.
Xena reaches across the distance between them and places her hand on Caesar's. “Thank you,” she says.
He looks down at the compassionate gesture and grins a little at first. Then he smiles broadly and then begins laughing aloud.
“What is it?” Xena says looking at his face.
“Now matter how many times you extend kindness and compassion to me I have to laugh,” Caesar says meeting her gaze. “Because I cannot help but think had Hope never come to power we would be the deadliest of enemies. But look at us now.”
“Then perhaps at least one good thing has come from Hope's reign,” Iolaus says as he places his hand on Caesar's shoulder. “Ironic but enduring friendships.”
Vercinix smiles and nods in agreement. “Indeed. That is true.”
And with simple love and friendship the despair of Hope's visit to her dreams is driven from Xena's mind.
Jett moves through the city streets towards the royal palace as fast as he can without drawing attention from any of the troops to himself. Upon leaving the Citadel he considered going right to the resistance but he felt that was not right somehow. Ephiny has to be told first. He is certain she left the Citadel not long after Alti and Hope's attacks on her. He is jostled and knocked around by all the people, soldier and citizen alike, crowding the streets of Athens. He feels a slight bit of pride when he sees that leaflets are still lying here and there on the ground. The campaign has not ceased due to Pompey's legion being brought into the city. A courageous lot those rebels.
He gets to the palace and pushes open the doors. “Ephiny!” he screams as soon as he closes the doors behind him. No servants are there to greet him. Apparently Ephiny has dismissed them all. Unless he is mistaken the only two people in the whole of the palace will be Ephiny and the man Nannan. As he moves down the hallways he continues to call out to her. “Ephiny!”
He pushes open one set of doors after the other until at last he finds Ephiny in one room sitting cross-legged on the floor across from Nannan. “Ephiny,” he says as he walks up to her. When she does not respond he reaches down and touches her shoulder. “Ephiny,” he says again. Still she takes no notice of him. He grabs her shoulder and shakes her to see if she is asleep. “Ephiny. Wake up.”
“She is not asleep,” Nannan informs him.
Jett turns to find the man on his feet and approaching them. “What do you mean she isn't asleep?”
“She is in deep meditation,” Nannan points out to him. “She is really quite amazing. She is attaining a level of clarity and purpose that took me months. She has done it in only a few days.”
“Well I need her to wake up,” Jett informs him.
“As I said she is not asleep,” Nannan leads Jett away from her.
“Meditating. Right. I get it.” Jett points to her. “But I have to talk to her. Now.”
“I'm afraid I can't help you,” Nannan informs him. “She is immersing herself in prayer in order to move past the pain of what has happened to her recently. She is asking the One for guidance. And until she comes back of her own volition there is nothing that can be done to rouse her.” Nannan stares at her once more. “Truly amazing. She understands the path of love, perhaps even understands the Way, better than I do.”
“Did she tell you what happened?” Jett asks leaning against a wall and resigning himself to waiting. “About Alti's attack on her. And then how Hope brought her out of it.”
“Yes,” Nannan answers. “She also told me of the vision the shamaness showed her.”
“Vision?” Jett says perking up at those words. He has long heard of Alti's power and of her ability to see into the past, present and future. And he knows that a vision from her is never a good thing. “What vision?”
“The vision of my death Jett,” Ephiny replies opening her eyes and turning to look at him.
“Your what?” Jett says in a shout that echoes throughout the empty palace.
“My death,” Ephiny says rising gracefully to her feet. “Very soon I will die.”
“You…” Jett starts but stutters over his own words. “You can't know that.”
“Yes I can.” Ephiny remains standing where she sat. “Alti's visions, though brought forth by her own evil will, are always true. I will die on the point of a sword in the Citadel some time in the near future.”
Jett shakes his head trying to banish that particular image form his mind. “How can you so calmly stand there and say that. Aren't you afraid?”
“I'm terrified,” Ephiny tells him in no uncertain terms. “But it is fated to be. Nothing I do will change it.”
Jett turns to Nannan. “This is the peace your Way offers. To just accept death without a struggle.”
“We all struggle against death,” Nannan says. “But it is futile. It will claim us all in the end. It takes a purity of strength and spirit to accept it as she has.”
“Let's hope the rest of Athens has that same purity,” Jett says turning back to Ephiny.
“What do you mean?” she asks.
“Hope and Ares are through planning,” Jett continues. “They're starting the beginning of the end as we speak.”
“What are you talking about?” Nannan asks him.
“Hope is going to summon all the priests of Dahak that she can to the city. She plans to sacrifice every man, woman and child in Athens to bring about the end of the world.” Jett awaits the inevitable reaction.
“What?” Ephiny screams.
“That's why she has been feeding the Eternal Fire all along,” Jett goes on. “Increasing her power was only part of it. She said that with enough sacrifices she can open some kind of gateway that will not only burn this world to ash but open portals to other worlds.” He pauses. He knows how Ephiny feels about Hope, or more precisely Gabrielle. He just hopes this next bit of information does not tear her heart to pieces. “Then she will send her children, monsters she called the Six Destroyers, through to those other worlds and conquer them as well. To bring it all under the will of Dahak.”
“Children?” Ephiny says in a heart breaking voice. She clamps her hand over her mouth as she feels she may be physically ill. “Conceived by Ares. The children of the Avatar of Dahak and the God of War.”
“Yes,” Jett says. “Ephiny. I'm sorry.”
Ephiny begins to walk erratically around the room. She emits sounds of despair and rage. She fights with herself for control of her emotions. She bites back screams of misery and anger. She raises her hand on more than one occasion as though she wishes to lash out at something, anything. Then she stops abruptly. With a steady hand she reaches up and removes the golden circlet from her brow. She drops it to the floor then turns. “I need you to contact Diana as soon as possible. We have to let them know what is happening. Then we have to formulate some plan to stop this. We have some time. I expect it will take a few days, or if we're lucky a week, to summon enough priests to perform sacrifices on the scale she is calling for.”
Jett stares in amazement. In the last few days her world has basically been shattered but she has the strength to do this. Nannan is right. Ephiny is truly amazing. He smiles. “I'll contact them at once.”
“Thank you Jett,” she says to him with a friendly smile. She steps closer and lays a hand on his shoulder. “I do not think I have told you just how much your friendship has meant to me. You have risked much and asked for nothing in return. I'm not sure words can convey my gratitude.”
Jett pats her hand on his shoulder then walks away to carry out her request. As he exits the room he glances back at her. “Don't thank me just yet. If we survive all this I may be sending you a bill for my services. And trust me. The King of Assassins doesn't work cheap.”
After he has gone Nannan stares at the doorway through which he left. “Did he say ‘king of assassins?' That man is a murderer for hire?”
“It's a long story my friend,” Ephiny says to him.
Nannan just shakes his head. “Of this I have no doubt.”
Suspended within the Eternal Fire, Hope chuckles at the ease with which she performed this last act. With childish effort she had cast her mind about in search of Xena. Then upon finding the warrior princess asleep, she has pushed aside the boundaries of the Dreamscape and stepped in as simply as she would walk into a room. It had been so amusing. Xena had thought it all some dream of Gabrielle. And so she had kept talking to her like she was that pathetic village girl. All the while she had used her power to literally tear Xena limb from limb. She had wanted to see what would happen to Xena should she kill the woman in the Dreamscape. But she had awoken too soon. It hardly matters. She has demonstrated her power time and again. Now Xena truly understands the nature of what she can do.
Then there is Morpheus. For what reason has he been sending Xena these dreams? As she said she has felt him trying to pry into Gabrielle's mind for years. But since Gabrielle's body and mind have not slept since Hope's advent, the King of Dreams has been powerless to do whatever it is he has been attempting. Now he too knows the power of Dahak's Avatar. And should he be foolish enough to interfere in her plans he will suffer the same fate as the Olympians.
From the fourth level of her Citadel she descends down into the third. She steps from the Fire to find that she is not alone in the audience chamber. Khrafstar awaits her there. She smiles at the high priest as he greets her with his hand over the triumvirate flame stitched into his red and black robes. His twisted visage contorts into a smile and his horned head lowers at her approach.
“Greetings High Priest of Dahak,” Hope says to him. “It is good that you have come. Our plans near their completion.”
The face of Khrafstar darkens with the deepening of his smile. “The Burning comes?”
Hope smiles and nods. “Yes. With the death of Hercules it has drawn so close I can almost taste the burning earth and flesh that will soon permeate this world.”
“Finally!” Khrafstar shouts. “The will of Dahak shall be fulfilled. What more needs to be done Avatar?”
“We must call to Athens as many priests as possible,” Hope says. “I do not wish to wait for the sacrifices to come from war any longer. We are too close. I will feed this city to the Eternal Fire.”
Khrafstar's joyful look sobers slightly.
Hope sees the change. “What is it?”
“Many in the city are no longer sure of your intentions,” he says. “The propaganda distributed by the resistance has done much to change the people‘s outlook on you.”
“The citizens of this city do not worry me,” she tells him. “They are cattle.”
“You must be careful,” he continues. “Your control of this city hangs on the edge of a knife. Your imprisonment of their chosen king has not helped. There are rumors among the people that you plan to depose all the kings you have helped place into power and declare yourself Empress over all the lands under your aegis.”
“Are you telling me that because I've thrown that useless simpleton into a dungeon that this city may turn against me?”
“Yes. There is unrest here. And it will spread.”
“It doesn't matter now. Soon none of it will matter.”
“But until that time we must maintain control here. So if we are to call the priests of Dahak here to finalize the will of the One God then we must summon as many as we can. Hundreds if not thousands.”
“Agreed.” Hope turns to look into the flicking flame of Dahak's Eternal Fire. She reaches out to caress the Fire with her hand. It forms into a snake like shape and slithers up her arm. She turns and whips her arm around so that the tendril of flame shoots past her to begin to encircle the monstrous high priest.
Khrafstar howls with joy as the Fire begins to wrap around him. More arms of flame come out of the first tendril Hope called forth and begin to encase him in Fire. Like vines growing over a tree they soon completely cover him. His form is barely visible in the wavering flames.
“Call our faithful to us, Deliverer!” Hope commands him. “Bring them here to this city that we may complete the task we were brought into this world for!”
The Deliverer roars like an animal as he calls out to those who follow the Avatar in Dahak's name.
“Priests of the One God! The time of the Burning is upon us! I, Khrafstar the Deliverer, call you forth to Athens to fulfill your duties! Soon we will all know the blessing of Dahak! Soon we shall all walk in the presence of the Eternal Fire and live forever! Bring yourselves into the presence of the Avatar! I command you all in the name of Hope and Dahak!”
The seething flames explode out from him and enter the Eternal Fire. He cries out in rapture, “It is done!”
“Excellent,” Hope says. “Soon. Very soon. I shall know an end to all of this. I will walk amidst the burning wreckage of this world. I shall stride among other worlds as a god. And the presence of Dahak shall be felt throughout creation.” Hardly noticing Khrafstar's presence anymore she steps back into the embrace of Dahak's Eternal Fire.
“They're all here Ephiny,” Jett informs her when the last members of the resistance have arrived.
It has taken them nearly all night to get everyone into the palace. After the initial contact had been made it had been decided to take as much time as possible and move only one at a time into the former royal palace of Athens. But now every person who had lived in the house near the Agora is within Ephiny's new home. This will be the new base for the resistance in Athens.
“All right,” Ephiny says. She sits upon the steps leading up a dais to the throne of the king of Athens. She hopes no one reads too much into it. The throne room is simply the largest room in the palace and is the best place to meet. “Make sure that Eponin leaves Amazons to guard the entrances.”
“Of course,” Jett inclines his head in a gesture much like a bow as he leaves the room closing the doors behind him.
“You look nervous,” Nannan comments from where he stands next to the dais.
“That is an understatement,” Ephiny replies. She looks over at the man. “When I was young all I ever wanted to be was a warrior. I never wanted to be a leader of any kind. I just wanted to hold a sword in my hand and know the exhilaration of being a warrior born.”
“Perhaps you were destined for greater things,” Nannan says in a voice that is neither flippant nor sarcastic.
“I'm destined to die,” she retorts.
“You have accepted death,” he says. “Then why is it so hard to accept this responsibility?”
“It's far easier to die than to live,” she informs him. “To die takes only a simple movement of a blade in a moment of time. But to truly live requires endurance and strength. To wade through your sorrows and be buoyed by your joys. To know pain and to have pleasure. It takes patience and perseverance. It means following the path you have chosen with purpose no matter where it leads or to whom it leads. To walk in light and darkness. To experience love and loss. And in the end to try and understand if it was all worth it or not. Compared to that death is a trivial thing.” She hears Nannan chuckling and turns to him. “What?”
“You never cease to amaze me,” he says with a smile. “In so short a time you have grasped the Way better than those who have been Eli's students since the beginning. May I ask you something?”
“Of course,” she answers.
“In the end,” he begins. “Will it have all been worth it?”
Ephiny meets his gaze. For a moment she is lost in thought. She isn't sure how to or even if she can answer that question. She closes her eyes and the one thing that has been worth it takes shape in her mind's eye. She recalls a day six years ago when she had been walking through the woods outside the village with Gabrielle. They had been deep in discussion about something and she had not seen a tree root sticking up from the ground. Her foot had caught and she'd fallen forward. But she did not hit the ground. She had felt Gabrielle's hand on her arm as the girl had pulled her back to her feet. The feeling of Gabrielle's flesh touching hers had made her start to sweat. Then she had turned her gaze to look at Gabrielle as she had helped her back to a standing position. The sight that greeted her eyes had been wondrous. For the first time she had seen a smile on Gabrielle's face as she had said with a laugh, “Are all Amazon princesses this clumsy?” At that point in time, that smile had been the most beautiful thing she had ever known. It seems funny to her to think that her life was worth living to see that smile. But she knows it is true. She opens her eyes. “Yes. It will.”
The doors to the throne room open and a small group steps inside. Diana and Eponin lead the group in. She sees Solari and several other Amazons enter. The roguish King of Thieves walks just behind Diana with a cloth wrapped bundle under his arm. A woman much younger than the rest but bearing the aura of a warrior enters accompanied by a burly bearded man with a shield strapped to his back. And behind them come two men deep in conversation. One of them is clean-shaven and carries a satchel filled almost to overflowing with scrolls and parchment. The other is a bit younger than his companion with a kind face framed by dark hair and a beard. As he enters he looks up and sees Ephiny on the dais. His eyes seem to grow twice their size as he raises one hand to point at her.
“It's you,” Eli says pointing straight at Ephiny. “It's your presence I've felt.”
All eyes now go to Ephiny and she stands on the dais. “What?” she queries.
Nannan smiles as he steps forward. “Ephiny. I would like you to meet our teacher. This is Eli.”
“Eli,” Ephiny says staring at the man she has heard so much about and whom she admires more than any other for his teachings. She steps down slowly from the dais to make her way towards him.
“Eli,” Nannan continues his introductions. “This is Ephiny. Follower of the Way and the path of love.”
As the man and woman near each other they seem quite unsure of how they should react to each other. Then Eli steps forward to embrace Ephiny like she is the sister he has never known. Everyone is staring in total confusion at this display of affection.
“Did I miss something?” Jett asks as he walks into the throne room.
“If you did it was the same thing as the rest of us,” Darnell says.
When the two of them part Ephiny is still a bit puzzled. “What did you mean you felt my presence?”
Eli looks past her for a moment to Nannan. His friend and student smiles at him. He steps back from Ephiny. “In a dream I saw a shining point of light and love here in this city that lies in Hope's shadow. That point was you. I didn't understand the dream at the time. Or maybe I didn't want to.” He points to Nannan. “So I sent him here instead. I wasn't sure what I expected him to do.” Eli steps up to Nannan and greets him with a brotherly embrace, “But it seems I may have done the right thing after all.”
“I'm glad I was able to help,” Nannan says with pride.
“This is all very touching,” Eponin says trying not to sound as annoyed as she feels. “But I believe we came here to devise a plan of attack.”
“Always to the point Eponin,” Ephiny says smiling back at the Amazon warrior. “You'll never change.”
Nannan nods his agreement. “She is right.”
“Indeed,” Eli agrees. “I think all introductions are completed. So now we have to decide what to do about Hope.”
“You all know what Jett informed me of?” Ephiny asks as she walks forward to stand amongst them all.
“Yes,” Diana answers for them all. “And Eli is the key.”
Ephiny turns her gaze to the man in question. She remembers how Nannan had first described him. A Devi and an Avatar. “You are an Avatar? Like Hope?”
Eli nods. “Yes. I serve the will of the One in this world. And it seems I am fated to do this.” He looks back over his shoulder at Caleb. “Show her.”
Caleb steps forward and removes an old scroll from his collection. He unrolls it then hands it to Ephiny. She skims the ancient Persian prophecy paying particular attention to the passage speaking of the Avatars facing one another. “I despise prophecies,” she says. “They are always so vague and ambiguous.”
“I agree,” Eli says taking the scroll and handing it back to Caleb.
“But you believe this one?” she asks him.
“Yes,” Eli replies.
“Destiny?” Ephiny says looking him in the eyes. “You teach that we must all seek our own purpose in life. We should serve that spark of the divine in us all. How can we believe that and also believe in foreordained fates?”
Eli is taken aback by such a question asked by one who has followed the Way for so short a time. He answers honestly and in one word. “Acceptance.”
Ephiny nods. “Acceptance.” She now looks to Diana. “You have a plan?”
“Yes,” the resistance leader says. She turns to Autolycus who hands her the wrapped bundle. She brings the item around and unwraps it for all to see. “This is the helmet of Hades. With it Autolycus will leave Greece and carry our message and our plan to Caesar.”
“We need to draw Pompey's legion from Athens,” Eponin continues. “We'll do that by getting Caesar to throw all his forces at Piraeus. Hope will be forced to send all her soldiers to defend the port city. Then we will attack the Citadel.”
“By attack I'm certain you mean enter by way of a secret entrance that you expect me to reveal to you?” Ephiny asks already knowing the answer.
“Yes,” Solari answers. She looks sternly into the eyes of her old friend. “Please Ephiny. You know what's at stake. This isn't just about her conquering people and subjecting them. This is the fate of the world we are talking about.”
Ephiny turns again to Eli. “You plan to, as this prophecy says, confront Hope?”
“Yes,” Eli says.
“Can you defeat Hope without killing Gabrielle?” she asks the question fearing the answer.
“What?” Amarice says from among them all. “You're kidding right? Like Solari said this is the end of the world that's upon us.”
Ephiny looks daggers at the girl.
“Amarice,” Eli admonishes her. “She follows the path of love. Just as I do. It is all together right for her to ask me that. And to answer you question honestly,” he continues turning back to Ephiny. “I do not know. I am still unsure as to what I can do to stop her.”
“The hand maiden of Hope is a follower of the Way?” Amarice asks.
“Yes,” Nannan says. “And has been in her own fashion for many years.”
Amarice looks from Eli to Ephiny then back to Eli. It seems impossible that someone so close to Hope could follow the Way. And to embrace the path of love no less. As much as she would like to hate the handmaiden, she knows that Eli only ever speaks the truth. She does not think on it anymore.
“You'll excuse me for being frank,” Jett says from where he stands by the doors. “But that plan sounds pretty far fetched. There are a ton of things that can go wrong with it.”
“It's the only plan we have,” Diana admits.
“There was something I've been meaning to ask,” Autolycus says. “I originally hired on to help free a goddess whom we all assume will be able to help us. I retrieved this to accomplish that end.” He takes Hades' helmet from Diana. “Now I'm going to be playing messenger boy. Is Aphrodite no longer a part of this?”
“The goddess of love will have a part to play but not the one you all think,” a voice not belonging to any of them answers the King of Thieves' question.
Everyone looks around to find the source of the voice. It takes a few moments to see that the speaker is already among them. Standing right between Solari and Darnell is a pale man dressed in a pitch black cloak with eyes that impossibly coalesce from one color to another.
Every Amazon present draws a weapon. Solari and Darnell step back with the points of their swords at the man's throat.
“Who the hell are you?” Solari demands.
The pallid visage of the man turns looking each of them in turn in the eyes for a moment. Then he turns his gaze to Eponin. “You dream of a love lost.” Solari looks to Eponin in mild confusion. Eponin's mind turns to Lila and the love she had felt for the village girl.
The man turns to Diana. “You dream of a bright future with peace and love in your life once more.” Diana thinks of the peaceful existence she had as a princess and the love of Philemon. She knows that now she dreams of a peaceful life again and the love of Autolycus.
He turns to Amarice. “You dream of blood and bone and viscera and death.” Amarice feels sick as she recalls the centaur village.
He turns to Autolycus. “You dream of gold and glory but also the possibilities of life without them” The King of Thieves wonders if he is turning red. While he has always dreamed of the big score that would put his name in the history books these days he ponders a life away from crime and with Diana.
He turns to Ephiny. “You dream of her. The one you love most.” Ephiny knows of whom he speaks of course. Her love for Gabrielle seems almost a physical force to her at times. And it seems it is that love that drew Eli here as well.
He turns to Eli. But before he can say anything Eli holds up a hand. “You are Morpheus.” It is not a question.
“Correct Avatar of the One,” Morpheus replies. “I am he.”
If this being's presence didn't unsettle them all enough the revelation of his identity certainly pushes them almost to the edge of hysteria. The fear is not lessoned when the god seems to waver like an illusion for several seconds. Solari and Darnell step back.
“Why are you here?” Eli asks. As he stands in the presence of the Dream Walker he can feel the power of the deity. He can also feel that power waning.
“I come with a warning. With counsel. And with a gift.” Morpheus steps closer to Eli as he speaks. “The first I think I need hardly remind you of. Hope's power is almost at its apex. She is nearly a god.”
“A god?” Caleb says shocked.
“With little effort she walked into my realm and nearly murdered the warrior princess,” Morpheus informs them.
“Xena?” Autolycus says. “First she kills Hercules now she's after Xena.”
“It was the death of Hercules that gave her the strength she now possesses,” Morpheus continues. “Early in her campaign against the gods she tried to give Hermes to the Eternal Fire. But it did nothing. The Fire of Dahak could not transfigure the god into power for her. But Hercules's human blood acted as a carrier for his Olympian legacy. Thus she attained that legacy and now she is more powerful than ever.”
“How are we supposed to stop that kind of power?” Darnell asks.
Morpheus ignores the question. “To you Avatar of the One I will share what I have known these past six years.” He reaches up and touches Eli's forehead with one pale finger.
In an instant Eli sees what Morpheus has to share with him. He nearly collapses with the enormity of it all. “This wasn't supposed to be? This world is a mistake?”
Morpheus's figure shimmers for a split second then returns to normal.
“What?” Diana says. “What do you mean a mistake?”
“Not a mistake,” Morpheus corrects them. “An aberration.”
“Why do you say ‘this world?'” Amarice asks.
“Because there are others,” Morpheus tells them. “I know it is difficult to understand. But as decisions are made whole worlds are created or paralleled. This world is but one of them.”
“And in one of those worlds there was no Avatar of Dahak.” Eli can hardly believe the words he is saying.
“A world where Gabrielle didn't become Hope?” Ephiny says as she can only imagine a world where Gabrielle is not the tortured soul she met that day as Tyldus attacked.
“No. In fact she became friends with Xena,” Eli says. “Friends and soul mates.”
“For over six years I have dreamed of this world,” Morpheus continues. “And since that time I have been sending the same dreams to whom it most deeply concerns. Xena and Gabrielle.”
“But Gabrielle hasn't dreamed since she became the Avatar.” Ephiny understands. “Hope doesn't sleep. But Xena does. She knew Gabrielle in here dreams.” She is surprised by the tinge of jealousy she feels at that fact. “That's why she reacted the way she did in Carthage.”
“And this helps us how exactly?” Jett asks.
“Knowledge and understanding are power,” Morpheus tells him. “And this you must know and understand. Even though this world is an aberration it can be healed. It cannot be made into that other world. But it can be made into a better world.”
“How?” Ephiny asks stepping closer to the king of dreams.
Morpheus turns to her and opens his mouth to speak but then he clutches his chest and falls to his knees.
“What's happening?” Diana asks rushing forward. Her courage shines brightly as she ignores the dark god's countenance and kneels before him taking his hands in hers. “What's wrong?”
Morpheus turns his eyes up to her and finds that he can smile at her fearlessness before him. “I am dying.”
“Hope?” Caleb asks.
“Yes,” Morpheus responds. “When she entered the Dreamscape and attacked Xena that act disrupted my power. I am dreams. They are meant to be mine alone. But when she entered into them with her own power and volition she initiated a process that is negating my very existence. With each passing moment I am diminished.”
“What can we do?” Diana asks him in a most caring voice.
“There is nothing you can do,” the dream god tells them all. “Now there is only my gift to bestow.” He tries to stand but finds much to his dismay that he cannot. Then he feels Diana helping him to his feet. Ephiny also comes forward to aid him. Supported by them he holds out his hand towards Eli. “Take my hand Avatar of the One.”
Eli reaches out to take the hand of Morpheus. As he does so he feels a cold sensation coursing into his hand. Like ice condensing in his palm he feels something solid forming in his grasp. As he feels this he sees the form of Morpheus fading before his eyes.
“Give this to Aphrodite,” Morpheus tells him as he forces his essence into the object he is generating is Eli's hand. “Only she can use it.” His voice becomes an eerie echo that screams around the room as he tries to speak. “Only she has the right to pass judgment.” With those words Morpheus, the King of Dreams, ceases to exist.
Diana and Ephiny are left standing there looking at the empty space between them. Eli looks down at the hand that had held Morpheus's to see a tear drop shaped sapphire in his hand. He can feel the power resonating from it. It practically vibrates in his hand.
Amarice turns to Caleb and asks, “What did he mean about passing judgment?”
Caleb shrugs. “I've no idea.”
“Autolycus,” Eli calls for the King of Thieves. “Come here please.”
Autolycus steps forward and his eyes go wide at the sight of the gem. Without thinking he starts to reach out for it.
“Stop!” Eli shouts with such vehemence that Autolycus steps back. “Don't touch it. It's Morpheus's power and essence given physical form. If you even so much as lay a finger on it you'll be reduced to ash by it.”
“But you're holding it,” Autolycus points out.
“It's because I'm an Avatar that I can touch it,” Eli says. “The power of the One protects me. He knew this would be the case. That is why he gave it to me like this. But I need you to keep it safe. Until you free Aphrodite.”
“Okay,” Autolycus says as he pulls out a small pouch. Eli drops the jewel inside and Autolycus closes it with some draws strings.
“Events are accelerating out of our control,” Eponin says to everyone. “We have to move and we have to move fast!”
“So I'll be rescuing Aphrodite then after all,” Autolycus says.
“Yes,” Diana says. “But only after you deliver out plans to Caesar.”
“All right,” the King of Thieves replies. “This is all becoming terribly complicated.”
“It's the end of the world,” Darnell says. “It's not supposed to be simple.”
“Good point,” Autolycus agrees. “I guess this means I should get going.” He holds the helmet over his head.
“You know everything you need right?” Diana asks him.
“Yep,” he says with a smirk.
“Not quite everything,” Diana corrects him. She leans in close and whispers in his hear. “I'm falling in love with you.” She smiles at his speechlessness then pushes the helmet down onto his head. She kisses the invisible cheek. “Now get going King of Thieves.”
“Yes ma'am,” Autolycus's disembodied voice replies.
Diana yelps and jumps as invisible fingers pinch her bottom. Then footsteps are heard running from the throne room.
“Quite a character,” Nannan says looking towards the doorway.
“That's putting it mildly,” Solari says.
“Until he returns I don't think there's anything else we can do,” Amarice says.
“We can keep doing what we've been doing,” Eponin says. “Who knows? We may turn enough people from Hope that when the time comes they might be able to help us.”
“You can start by scrawling some of that graffiti on the side of the palace,” Ephiny tells her. She sees the surprise in Eponin's eyes. “It will look suspicious if my new home is the only building that hasn't been defaced.”
Eponin smiles. “You got it.” She turns to a few of the Amazons with them. “Hurry up. Get something on the side of this place before dawn.” Two of the women nod then dart out the door.
“I hope you all sleep more peacefully here,” Ephiny says. “Jett. Will you show them to their rooms?”
“Of course,” Jett says again with that slight bow of the head.
Ephiny walks closer to Eli. “Can we talk later?”
“Of course,” Eli says laying his hands on her shoulders. “There isn't much I can do here until it's time to go to the Citadel. I'm no warrior.”
“Thank you,” Ephiny says. She watches the Avatar walk from the throne room. Though she isn't sure it is real, she is certain she can feel doubt and uncertainty in him.
Soon she is alone in the throne room except for Eponin. She sits on the dais steps once again and looks at the Amazon warrior.
Eponin walks closer before she speaks. “Terrias would be proud of you.” She sits next to Ephiny. “She made the right decision when she gave you the rite of…”
“I'm going to die Eponin,” Ephiny interjects. She waits for a few seconds as her words sink in.
“What are you talking about?” Eponin asks turning to look at her.
“Very soon. I think it will happen when we attack the Citadel.” Ephiny looks up at the ceiling as she speaks.
“You can't know that,” Eponin tells her.
“Yes. I can. I've already seen it. Alti showed me.”
“You can't believe what that witch shows you.”
“Her visions are evil but they hold only the truth Eponin. When we attack the Citadel I'm going to die on the point of a sword.”
“No,” Eponin says. “I won't allow that to happen.”
“There's nothing you can do to stop it,” Ephiny tells her. “And when the attack starts I don't want you trying to protect me. I'm a big girl now. I don't need you and Solari looking after me anymore.”
Eponin puts her arm around Ephiny's shoulders. She wants to say something, anything to comfort her childhood friend. She also wants to tell Ephiny how proud she is of her. There was a time when Eponin thought she was weak. And a traitor. Now she knows that Ephiny is every bit the princess Terrias believed she could be. So strong that she can face and accept her death seemingly without fear.
Ephiny leans over to lay her head on the other woman's broad shoulder. “You really think Terrias would be proud of me?” she asks.
Eponin feels a single tear fall from her right eye to slide down her cheek. “ I know it.”
“Hurry up!” Dagnine screams at the Roman prisoners who are currently gutting Caesar's palace. “You don't want to end up like them, do you?” He points back towards the Forum where a group of crosses display the bodies of people who haven't worked fast enough for his liking. The prisoners double their efforts at smashing through walls and floors and ceilings in the palace.
“Pathetic,” Dagnine says in disgust. A young woman rushes up to him and holds out a tray on which rests a goblet of wine. He snatches the goblet off the tray causing most of the contents to splash onto the ground. He swills the rest then spits it out. “You stupid bitch! It's warm!” He slaps her so hard she is lifted off her feet and lands on her back several feet away. He turns to one of his captains and shouts, “Have her crucified with the others!”
“No! Please!” the girl scream as two black clad men drag her away towards the Forum.
“This entire city is filled with useless aristocrats.” He walks closer to where several men work at knocking down an outer wall of the palace. He sees one fat idiot swinging away with his hammer at a load bearing section of wall. He calls one his men closer. He points to where the fat man works. “Make sure we don't have any of our men where that fool is working.”
The captain looks at the wall and knows what his commander is talking about. “Yes sir,” he says he walks into the palace. Soon afterwards the captain returns with three other soldiers.
“We might want to step back,” Dagnine says. The four men walk to the other side of the cobble street. Dagnine smiles as he awaits the inevitable. A few minutes later, the fat man's hammer knocks through the lower section of the wall he has been working on. As he does so the wall suddenly collapses downward. And the rest of the structure above it follows. Three stories worth of stone and rubble slide vertically down where the load-bearing wall has been taken out. Four men including the fat aristocrat are crushed under the rubble. Twelve other men and two women working in the upper floors near the supporting wall are killed when the areas they are working in pancake down onto the first floor.
“Well,” Dagnine says with a smile. “That saves us the trouble of clearing those sections. That damned fool saved us a lot of work.”
“I see that,” Ares says as he materializes next to Dagnine.
The scarred warlord nearly jumps out of his skin. “Ares!” he says trying to stop his heart from pounding. “I really wish you could announce your coming.”
“Nah!” Ares says. “More fun to surprise people this way.” He studies the demolition being done on Caesar's palace. “What exactly are you doing here?”
“Oh!” Dagnine says now anxious to impress Ares with his forethought. “I thought Caesar's palace would make a great temple for the first Eternal Fire in Rome. I'm having it cleared inside so that when Hope arrives it will be all ready for her.”
Ares smiles. He rubs his beard with his thumb and forefinger. “Good thinking. But I have to tell you it might be a while before she arrives. Other matters call for her attention.”
“I see,” Dagnine says a little disappointed. “Well then. That will give me even more time to prepare for her arrival. I'll have more buildings ready to be converted into temples to Dahak.”
“Good idea.” Ares claps the warlord on the back so hard that Dagnine is nearly knocked off his feet. “In the meantime, Rome is yours. Enjoy it.” While you can, Ares says to himself.
Dagnine smiles broadly. “Thank you lord Ares.”
The god of war vanishes.
Dagnine calls another captain to him. “Is that arena cleaned up yet? I want to have some more games.”
“We've barely got the blood cleaned up from the games last night,” the man replies.
“You have to work faster,” Dagnine orders him. “We need to hold these spectacles to keep the men's morale up. What? You think they're just going to stand around this city and keep themselves amused?”
“No sir,” the captain answers. “It will be as you say.”
“Oh and captain,” Dagnine gets the man's attention once more. “Find me a stronger companion for this evening. That little girl you sent last night broke too easily.”
“Maybe two tonight.”
The captain rushes off to fill his commander's wishes.
“So Rome is mine for a while huh?” Dagnine says aloud. “Dagnine, King of Rome. I like the sound of that.”
Another young woman arrives. This one carries a platter with a side of meat on it. Dagnine grabs the meat with his bare hands and takes a bit out of it. He spits the meat out in disgust. “It's cold!” He slaps this girl as well. He snaps his fingers and calls over a group of four soldiers nearby. Dagnine points at the girl as the men arrive. “Do what you want with her then have her crucified in the Forum.”
The four men grab the woman and drag her away kicking and screaming.
Dagnine shakes his head. “Why is it so hard to find good help these days?”
“Again,” Iolaus says. Octavia swings the short sword at Iolaus who blocks it then counterattacks. Octavia brings up her sword to block him then swings around with her own attack. Iolaus easily blocks this counter then grabs her by her sword arm and presses his blade against her neck. “You're still staying too far away.”
Octavia curses then steps away. “Damn it!”
“You've chosen to fight with a short sword,” Iolaus reminds her. “Your best advantage with it is to go in close quarters with your opponent. Do that and a longer weapon is useless.”
“All right,” Octavia says. “One more time?”
Iolaus nods. He sets himself and so does she. “Attack!” he shouts.
Octavia lunges in and Iolaus meets her attack. He parries the sword away and Octavia takes the opportunity to twist in closer to him. She rounds on him driving the short sword towards his side. Iolaus rotates with her attack and kicks out sweeping her legs out from under her. Octavia crashes to the ground.
“Not bad,” Iolaus says to her. “You improvised quite nicely. Just remember that if you're in close quarters you don't want to take your eyes off your opponent. You just experienced why.”
“I'll never be able to do this,” Octavia says through gritted teeth.
“You're fighting one of the finest warriors in the world Octavia,” Xena says as she walks up to them. “He's trained with warriors from Gaul to Jappa. He's fought in more wars than you have teeth. Don't expect to be able to beat him anytime soon. Just learn what he has to teach.”
Octavia gets to her feet and sheathes her brother's sword. “I will. Thank you,” she says to Iolaus.
“And just remember something,” Xena says as Caesar's niece begins to walk away. “The woman you want to kill doesn't know a sword from a frying pan. But she can kill you with a touch.”
“I know,” Octavia says as she walks away.
“How is she doing?” Xena asks.
“She's a fast learner,” Iolaus says. “But I don't know that she'll be ready. I don't know that any of us will be ready.”
“I know,” Xena says. “It's all unraveling around us. Gabrielle seems to be outmaneuvering us at every turn.”
“You did it again?” Iolaus says.
“What?” Xena asks.
“You called her Gabrielle.”
“I'm still not sure I can wrap my brain around Caesar's theory.”
“Xena. Can I ask you something?”
“Of course,” Xena says. “But ask me on the way. I want to see Julia.”
She begins walking away and Iolaus follows. “Do you still want revenge? Do you still want to kill Gabrielle?”
Xena chuckles humorlessly. “You mean if I could. She is invulnerable after all.”
“Fair point,” Iolaus says. “But if you could. Would you?”
Xena stops in her tracks. “If everything she said is true. And everything Caesar theorizes is true. Then I played a part in her creation.”
“You're not going to start in on this again are you?” Iolaus asks her.
“I once tried to blame Caesar for making me into the Destroyer of Nations. But he told me that I was wrong and that the Destroyer of Nations was the culminations of many factors. He was just one. There was Borias. Alti. Ming T'ien. Ming Tzu. Cortese. And so just like many factors worked together to create the Destroyer of Nations. So many people played a part in creating Hope. Me. Draco. That priest of Dahak we hear about. The one called the Deliverer.”
“Still doesn't answer my question,” Iolaus points out.
“It's complicated,” she replies. “But if you're asking me would I kill Gabrielle if I could? Out of vengeance for Hercules's death and the deaths of my family and friends? No. To stop her? Yes.”
“Do you think she can be stopped?” Iolaus asks her as they start walking again.
“Caesar has a plan,” she says. “We'll just have to wait and see.” She pauses in her words for a moment. “And maybe pray to whatever gods might still listen for a miracle.”
As they approach Julia's tent Caesar steps out. The look on his face is unreadable.
“How is she?” Xena asks. She watches his face carefully for any sign.
“I think she's going to be fine,” Caesar tells them both. “She says her ears are ringing pretty good but she can hear over it. So I don't think there is any permanent damage.”
Xena exhales loudly in relief. “Thank goodness. I was afraid I had really hurt her.”
“Even if she had been hurt Xena it would not have been your fault,” Caesar says placing his hand on her shoulder. “You should know that. Go on in. She's been asking for you.”
Xena nods and ducks into the tent. As soon as she is inside Julia has her gripped in a powerful hug. “Xena! Are you all right? I was so worried.”
“You were worried about me?” Xena asks. “You were the one that was hurt.”
“But when I came in and saw you,” Julia says still clinging to her friend. “The way you were writhing around on the bed. It looked like you were being attacked by some invisible demon. I was scared to death. It wasn't until I saw that your eyes were moving under your eyelids that I realized you were having a nightmare.”
“It's okay,” Xena tells her. “I'm all right. I just wanted to be sure that you weren't hurt.”
Julia points to her ears and says, “They keep ringing a bit but otherwise I'm fine. Will you tell me what happened?” She looks to Xena with anxious eyes. She wants to know that her friend will be all right.
“It was Hope.” Xena sees no reason at all to lie to the girl. They've been friends too long for that.
“Hope?” Julia replies. “You dreamed of Hope?”
“No,” Xena retorts wishing it had all just been a dream. “I was dreaming of Gabrielle. Then suddenly Hope was there. She invaded my dreams.”
“Xena. I'm so sorry. I know what these dreams have meant to you.”
“Thank you,” Xena says putting her arms around Julia and trying to draw strength from her.
“For what?” Julia asks.
“For understanding. I don't think I ever really wanted to admit just how much I loved the dreams. And how much I loved her in them.”
“What will you do?”
“I don't know. I have to say that I don't look forward to going to sleep anymore. Now I'm afraid she'll be there when I close my eyes. What she did to me in that dream.” Xena shudders as she recalls the pain of Hope's brutal assault on her. “I can't help but wonder if she can kill me in my dreams now.”
Julia opens her mouth to say some words of comfort when the tent flap opens and Antony steps in. “There you are Xena. Caesar wants us all to discuss what to do next.”
Xena backs away from Julia. “Sorry. I have to go.”
Julia just smiles though she is not happy in the least. But she wants to put on a strong face for her friend. “I know. Do you want me to check on Lyceus for you?”
It galls Xena that since arriving here in Gaul she's hardly had any time with her son. “Yes. Thank you.” She too displays a smile devoid of any joy as she exits the tent and follows Antony.
They enter Caesar's tent to find him sitting and chatting with Vercinix and Iolaus. She sees the injured Gaul's arm. “I'm sorry,” she says.
Vercinix looks at her confused for moment. Then he looks at his arm and shakes his head. “There is no need for apologies.”
“Xena,” Caesar says looking her in the eyes. “I want to ask you something. You may not have an answer but I must ask. Can she do it again? I mean do you think she can just walk into the dreams of any of us?” He spreads his arm to indicate the others.
“I'm not sure,” Xena admits. “You know of my dreams of Gabrielle and that other world. It might be that the nature of those dreams allowed her access into my mind. Or it might be that she now possesses the power to push aside the wall of sleep and simply walk in.”
“I had to ask,” Caesar says. He turns to Antony. “Have you managed to get a head count of our remaining forces?”
“Yes,” Antony says. “Including the desertions we've been having our men are down to just over nineteen hundred. The Gallic forces suffered the least. Vercinix barely lost a hundred men in the fighting.”
Caesar shakes his head. “It doesn't matter. I'll not involve his forces in our war anymore.”
“What?” Vercinix says staring at his Roman ally.
“I've already led too many Romans to their deaths in this war,” Caesar continues. “And I killed enough of your people when I invaded Gaul. I want you to begin gathering your warriors and taking them north.”
“No,” Vercinix says. “I told you before that my people have been preparing for the day Hope comes to Gaul.”
“Then take your people and prepare for her coming,” Caesar says. “Turn the northern reaches of Gaul into a place you can defend for years to come. But do not throw any more of your people's lives away in my campaign.”
“Your campaign became my campaign when I agreed to help you,” Vercinix tells him. “Your war, my war. Your enemy, my enemy. I will not just leave. My people and I will fight with you until this is done. One way or the other.”
Caesar can hardly believe what he is hearing. He is giving the Gallic chieftain the chance to take his people away from this war and prepare for the future. But Vercinix is having none of it. He stands and extends his hand towards Vercinix. “I would never have thought to hear such words from you.”
Vercinix takes Caesar's hand in a warrior's grip. “The truth be told I never thought to speak them. My friend.”
“This is all very touching but…”Antony says interrupting them.
“Of course,” Caesar says feeling a bit ashamed to have sidetracked their discussion.
“How many warriors do you have available?” Antony asks.
“I can have four thousand gathered here in a few days. And twice that number if given more time,” Vercinix replies.
“What about Germanium's legion on Sicily?” Xena asks.
Caesar considers that for a moment. “Yes. We may be able to use him and his men to our advantage.”
“In what way?” Iolaus says. “Do you plan to try and retake Rome?”
“No,” Caesar replies. “Trying to take Rome back from Hope's forces will be suicide. Not just for us but for the citizens in the city. Besides from what Antony told us Dagnine's army outnumbers us.”
“Then what can we do?” Xena says frustration heavy in her voice.
“There is only one thing we can do now,” Caesar admits though the very thought of it makes him uncomfortable.
“What's that?” Antony asks.
Caesar gazes about the room looking each one of them in the eye before he answers. “We attack Greece.”
Ephiny walks into the bedchamber she has shared with Hope for so very long and for the first time finds no comfort therein. It seems impossible to her that things could have changed so much so fast. But then perhaps she has only been deluding herself. Hope is the Avatar of Dahak. And she is evil. Has she always lived under this delusion? That somehow, someday things would turn out different? That Hope would go away and that Gabrielle would return? As she passes by the huge bed she knows the truth. She had not the courage to tell Gabrielle her true feelings when the girl had lived with them in the Amazon village. It was only after she had returned as Hope that she had spoken of her love for the girl from Poteidaia. She has never been brave enough to say the words to Gabrielle. Even during those attacks when Hope subsided and Despair emerged she was never able to say the words. And so she has lived with the fantasy of her love. Laid in the bed and arms of the Avatar to fulfill her desires of being with Gabrielle. The same face. The same body. The same voice. The same scent. All the same as the girl she fell in love with that day in the village. But not the same person. She can always remind herself of that by looking into Hope's eyes. While the green color of Gabrielle's eyes is there, they are wreathed in the burning inner fire of Hope. Not for the first time she hates herself for living so long with the alternative of her true love. She thought that if she could see, touch and be with the body she could someone how touch the soul. But she has been a fool. Hope is not Gabrielle.
She stands before the velvet draped stand on which they once rested their swords. Now only her sword remains or more accurately the sword of Terrias. The same sword with which she had started a war. The sword that ended the life of Phantes. The sword that became hers after she accepted the rite of caste from her friend. She reaches a hand towards it but stops just before her fingers touch the pommel. “It means never taking up a weapon in your hand again,” she says aloud to herself remembering Nannan's words.
But the sword is more than just a weapon. It is the embodiment of Terrias's legacy. It sits there in mute testament to her friend's trust in her. Eponin had said that Terrias would be proud of her. How could she be proud of me when I have ignored my responsibilities? When I have run away from the truth?
Terrias had lain there with the arrow protruding from her chest, her lifeblood flowing from the wound. Arrows continued to fall all around them. Ephiny had lain on top of her friend to shield her from further harm. A pointless gesture. Terrias knew she was dying. So did Ephiny. But it was the only thing she could think to do. They had been friends almost since birth and she had to protect her somehow. The sound of the falling arrows had stopped as quickly as it had begun. She had looked down into Terrias's eyes and seen the life draining from them. She had sat back to find that so much blood was flowing from the wound that it had stained the front of Ephiny's leathers. Reaching down with both hands she had applied as much pressure as she could to try and stop the bleeding. But the blood had welled out and covered her hands as she did so. The others were around them. But Ephiny could not hear anything they were saying. Her attention was only on Terrias. On her dying friend and sister. There was so much blood. She didn't know what to do. She had called out for the others to take Terrias so they could carry her back. But the princess had reached up with strength belaying her impending death and gripped Ephiny's arm.
“No,” Terrias had said through trembling lips. “There is no time. Ephiny. I want you to have my rite of caste.”
“Terrias. No.” Ephiny had tried to protest. “I'm not fit to be princess. I'm just a warrior.”
Terrias smiled then. Smiled! “You are my sister in every way but blood Ephiny. There is no one more deserving. Please. Don't deny me my dying wish. Be my sister's heir. I know that one day you will make our people proud.”
Ephiny had stared with tears filled eyes into the dying eyes of Terrias and nodded. “I accept my princess.”
Terrias's smile had widened. Her lips had moved as though she was trying to speak but no words were coming out. Then she had slipped away. Her hand fell from Ephiny's arm and the eyes stared lifelessly ahead. Ephiny had cried out in grief as her friend's soul was released into the afterlife. She had cried for what seemed hours but could only have been seconds.
Another of the Amazons had placed her hand on Ephiny's shoulder and said the words that had broken her form her grief. “Princess. We must go. The centaurs may return.”
Now she stares down at the sword remembering that sacred moment when her life was changed forever. And now she is acutely aware that she has betrayed Terrias's dying wish. For the rite of caste is inviolate. It cannot be broken by word or by deed or by royal decree.
She steps back in shock as the sword trembles then rises slightly into the air. Ephiny half expects Terrias's ghost to appear, take the sword and admonish her for ignoring her responsibility. Suddenly the sword shoots away from her and arcs across the room towards the door. There Hope catches the weapon in her outstretched hand. Ephiny looks at her and finds the Avatar dressed in the silver and gold armor complete with its red cape and the gold circlet that makes her look every bit a warrior queen.
Hope sheathes the eagle guard sword behind her back. “I hope you don't mind. I lost my sword in Carthage.” She displays a smile that speaks of a perverse joy.
Ephiny knows that Hope doesn't care whether she minds or not. Hope knows the sword is Terrias's. She knows what it means to Ephiny. And she will take it no matter what Ephiny may say. She sees no need to antagonize the Avatar so she nods. “Of course not. How could I mind?”
Hope looks at her and shakes her head. “You don't lie very well Ephiny.”
Ephiny feels the blood rush from her face at those words. She tries to recover and laughs as if it is all just a jest. “Lie? Why would I do that?”
Hope stares at her for a moment longer. “Where is your circlet?” she asks reaching up to touch her own.
Ephiny answers quickly. “I left it in the palace. I took it off to clean my hair. Then I decided to come here. I simply forgot it.” She can almost feel the burning eyes boring into her soul.
“You seemed afraid to touch the sword,” Hope says. “Why?”
Ephiny struggles to come up with an answer. She certainly cannot tell Hope the truth about the Way and the path of love. She searches her mind to find something to say. But as the seconds tick off she can't think of anything. So she says the only thing she can. “I don't know.” It sounds pathetic to her. She knows Hope can see through the lie as soon as it leaves her mouth.
Hope shakes her head and the look on her face speaks of disappointment. “All these years and you have never lied to be before. Why now?”
Ephiny braces herself, expecting Hope to use her power against her. And in fact, she sees Hope's hand begin to rise. What will she do? Crush her like she nearly did before? Perhaps burn her to ash? Then she remembers Alti's vision and her fear abates. She will not die by Hope's hand. She knows this. She will die in Hope's arms. “I'm sorry,” she apologizes. She steps forward and kneels before Hope as a slave would to her owner.
Hope stares down at her handmaiden. For an instant she can see herself drawing the sword of Terrias and using it to strike Ephiny's head off. But she knows it will be pointless. Soon it won't matter. She strides out the door.
Ephiny continues to stare at the door for several seconds after Hope has left. She stands and looks around at the decorated bedchamber. Her eyes fall on the crystal statue of Hope dressed as an Amazon queen. She walks over to it and removes it from its pedestal. She throws it to the floor where it shatters into thousands of tiny shards. “No more fantasies. No more delusions.”
Staring out a window in the royal palace Ephiny cannot help but feel her gaze drawn to the Citadel that rests atop the Acropolis. As she thinks of the person who resides within she asks a question. “Is it possible to love incorrectly? Or should I say is it possible to feel love for someone who doesn't deserve it?”
Eli glances up from where he sits on the floor. “Everyone deserves love, Ephiny.”
Ephiny doesn't turn to him as she replies. “I'm not sure I can believe that aspect of it.”
“Why not?” Eli stands now and walks over to stand by Ephiny at the window. He looks out with her and sees the Citadel. “Are you questioning your love for Gabrielle?”
“No!” Ephiny replies quickly and decisively. “Not my love for Gabrielle but my motivation for staying with Hope.”
“You stayed out of love,” Eli reminds her. “There is no shame or disgrace in that.”
“But. I…”Ephiny pauses. She brings her hands up and covers her face with them for a moment before she continues, “You see. I am not called the handmaiden of the Avatar just because I am at her side. In the Citadel…” She pauses again. She looks at Eli. She respects this man greatly as a teacher and as a friend. She is afraid that if she reveals the nature of her relationship with Hope, he will think less of her. Or worse think of her the way so many outside of Hope's domain think of her. As the whore of the Avatar. “In the Citadel, my chambers were Hope's chambers. My bed was Hope's bed. She and I …”
Eli holds up a hand to halt her words. “Is your love for Hope? Or for Gabrielle?”
“Gabrielle,” she answers. “But you must understand that I have laid in Hope's arms.”
“Ephiny.” Eli turns to look her in the face. He leans against the wall and casually crosses his arms. “I'm going to ask you a question that will most likely make you very uncomfortable. But it will dissuade your fears and misgivings I think.”
“Okay,” Ephiny says.
“When you were intimate with her did you see her as the Avatar of Dahak, the Dark one? As the harbinger of an evil that consumes the world? As a killer responsible for the deaths of thousands?” Eli raises an eyebrow in question and awaits her reply.
She feels herself turn a little red as he says those words. She takes a deep breath before replying. “No. Not once.”
“You saw her as Gabrielle. As the woman you love.”
She looks back out across the city at the Citadel. “Yes. And I know it was selfish of me to give in to my desires with her.”
“There was nothing selfish about your actions or your thoughts Ephiny. We all desire love. And we all deserve love.” Eli reaches out and lays his hands on her shoulders. “So never feel ashamed of your feelings. And always be secure in the knowledge that you can never love in the wrong way.”
“But she's not Gabrielle,” Ephiny says as she meets his eyes.
“Part of her is,” Eli says. “And no matter what Hope thinks part of her always will be. She can never truly win that battle.”
“I said something very similar to Hope,” she replies. “And she said that Aphrodite told her the same thing.”
“We can't all be wrong then,” Eli says with a hint of a smile.
“But what if Hope wins?” Ephiny says. “Then what happens to Gabrielle?”
“That I cannot say,” Eli answers honestly. “I do know that the soul can't be destroyed. Eventually Gabrielle will go on to her eternal reward.”
“I'm not sure that would be such a good thing,” Ephiny says as she recalls what she saw that day that Alti connected her to Hope. “Gabrielle's last act on this Earth before becoming Hope was to murder her sister in cold blood. Somehow I don't think that will qualify her to go to Heaven.” She looks at Eli to see his expression. “Do you?”
The Avatar of the One turns his gaze from her and that answers her question.
“So if we manage somehow to stop Hope it might be too late for Gabrielle.” That statement pains her more than she can say.
“There must be some other way,” Eli states. “According to the prophecy I am the one to face her. I will not kill so there must be some other way that I can stop her.” He holds up his hands and looks at them. “I just wish I knew what I was supposed to do. Do I heal her mind? Cure her soul somehow? If I put my mind and heart to the purpose I know that I can do what needs to be done.”
“But the prophecy doesn't tell you what.”
“We will only get one chance at this,” Eli says as he moves back to the center of the room and resumes his seated position. “And if I fail it won't be just me that dies. It will be the entire world.”
Ephiny sits before him and assumes the same position. “Then we must have faith that the One will show you the way.” She closes her eyes.
“We must have faith,” he repeats her words then closes his eyes as well.
“I don't want her to die.” Ephiny says the words aloud meaning them both for Eli's ears and she prays to be heard by the One. “And I cannot bear the idea of her going to everlasting torment. She has suffered enough.” She feels his hands on hers and opens her eyes.
“I will do whatever I can to save her Ephiny,” Eli speaks with purpose and determination. “Love is the strongest force in the universe. I know that through it anything is possible. So do not give up. Keep your love for her burning brightly.”
She nods. “I will.”
Eli replaces his hands to his knees and closes his eyes.
Ephiny closes her eyes as well. She prays silently. ‘Please. I know that you can hear me. I don't want her to die. I know that I am fated to die. But let her live. Give Eli the strength and the power he needs to make this possible. And I know it is selfish. But before I pass from this world, I want to see her one more time. Please. I beg of you. Let me see Gabrielle one last time.'
In silence Eli prays as well. ‘Show me the way. I beg of you to reveal to me what I must do. How do I fight her? There must be something that can be done. Gabrielle is a tortured soul. She does not deserve Hell. Please. Speak to me. Tell me there is something I can do to save her as well as save the Earth. Show me some sign.'
For a split second he sees something. A vision delivered to his mind in a burst of light that is come and gone in an instant. But the image is clear. From the west comes a great golden eagle. An impossibly large creature whose call shakes the land around it and whose mighty wings call up a massive gale force wind. As it descends from on high he can see weapons clutched in its huge talons. In one it holds a huge metal circle that gleams brightly. And in the other is a short, broad sword. Etched on that sword are four letters. SPQR .
“Once we get to Sicily we take on the minimum in supplies then go,” Caesar says pointing at the chart showing the island of Sicily in relation to the Greek mainland.
“Agreed,” Xena says. “We take only as long as we need to get Germanium's legion on board the ships.” She turns to Vercinix. “There may be heavy storms on the Mediterranean. Will your ships be able to handle it?”
“Yes,” the Gallic chieftain says confidently. “Have no doubt. We will get you safely to Sicily then to Piraeus.”
“Not sure if safely is the word I'd use,” Iolaus says. “I mean we are about to invade Greece. I think most people would view this strategy as fool hardy at best and suicidal at worst.”
“Spoken like a true cynic,” Antony says.
“I prefer the term realist,” Iolaus replies.
“We are all in agreement that this may be a futile gesture,” Caesar explains to them though he knows they are all aware. “But there is nothing else we can do. If we can gain control of the port city we may be able to cut off some of their supplies.”
“And then we pray that Hope will want to negotiate terms,” Xena completes the strategy though it leaves a bitter taste in her mouth. “Surrender.” The word hangs palpably in he air after she says it.
“It's all we can do now,” Antony says. “We surrender then ask that the remainder of Roman lands continue to be free and that Hope does not invade Gaul.”
“And we all realize that she won't be letting any of us go?” Iolaus interjects. “We'll be paraded through Athens like trophies of war. Then more than likely we'll be crucified.”
“Not necessarily,” Vercinix says. “It may be that we'll be sentenced to gladiatorial combat.”
“Thanks,” Iolaus says. “I feel much better.”
“If it secures peace for Gaul and other regions it will be worth it,” Caesar continues. “And it will keep our children safe as well.” He looks to Xena and Vercinix.
“That's the most important thing,” Xena has to agree.
“This is assuming that Hope will accept a conditional surrender,” Antony puts in.
“We're gambling on the fact that we've dragged this war out for five years and that we could draw it out for ten more.” Caesar sits down and looks at them all. “If I have to barter my life for peace then so be it. I do not fear death. And I know that none of you do either.”
“Then we draw a line,” Iolaus says with a sardonic smile. “We take the fight to Hope and see what our lives are worth to her.”
“Your lives aren't worth more to Hope than any others,” a voice from nowhere tells them.
Every single one of them draws weapons and searches the tent for the source of the voice. Xena and Caesar expect to see Ares materializing to have another chat.
“Who's there?” Xena shouts trying to lock onto where the voice came from. “Show yourself!”
“Surrender is no longer an option,” the voice continues. The air before them shimmers and a man appears from thin air holding a golden helmet in his hands. “As of this moment you are racing the end of the world.”
Iolaus alone among them recognizes the man before them. “Autolycus!” he shouts.
“Iolaus,” Autolycus says extending a hand to him. They shake hands for a moment. “I'm sorry to hear about Hercules. He was a good man.”
“Yes he was,” Xena says as she steps up to the man. She looks to Iolaus. “So this.” She points to Autolycus. “Is the King of Thieves? The one that nearly got you killed?”
Iolaus turns to the man. “Yes. That's him.”
“Oh,” Autolycus expresses a little bit of surprise. “I was hoping you'd forgotten about that. No hard feelings right?”
“I wouldn't be shaking your hand if there were,” Iolaus tells him.
“This is all very sentimental but who the hell are you?” Caesar says stepping in closer to this new arrival.
“He works with us,” Palaemon says as he steps into the tent. “I was passing by and thought I heard your voice Autolycus.”
“Good to see you again,” Autolycus says. “Seems your mission was a success. With any luck mine will be as well.”
“Just where did you get that?” Xena asks pointing at the helmet of Hades.
“Can we do without the small talk?” Antony interrupts. He turns to Palaemon. “So he works for the resistance?”
“Yes,” the Athenian rebel replies.
“That's the helmet of Hades,” Iolaus says pointing to the helmet.
“Quiet everyone,” Caesar says in a raised tone. He turns to Autolycus. “All right. What did you mean about the end of the world?”
Autolycus gestures to the chairs about them. “You might want to sit down.”
“We prefer to stand,” Caesar says in a tone that informs the man he needs to get on with it.
“Okay then,” Autolycus replies. “Let's see. Where to begin? You all know about the sacrifices Hope makes to the Eternal Fire?”
“Yes we do,” Xena remarks remembering vividly Hercules being cast into the Fire in Carthage.
“Actually you don't know the half of it,” Autolycus tells them.
“What do you mean?” Vercinix asks.
“Just that the sacrifices are meant to bring about the end of the world,” Autolycus continues his grim narrative. “One of our own overheard Hope speaking with Ares. She's been making these sacrifices for almost six years in order to fulfill the will of Dahak. She said that soon she'll have spilled enough blood to burn the world.”
“She plans to destroy the world?” Antony asks staring at him. “That's ludicrous! Even if it were possible what would it accomplish?”
“To open a portal to other worlds,” Autolycus states. “Other worlds to conquer for Dahak.”
“Other worlds?” Xena says thinking of that other world she has dreamed of for so long. It's not possible, she thinks. They were just dreams. But now that the idea has entered into her head she cannot shake the notion that what she saw in those dreams was the possibility of another world. A better world.
“This just isn't possible,” Antony retorts. “How can she possibly have the power to do any of these things? It doesn't make any sense.”
“Yes it does,” Caesar says. He stares at Autolycus for a moment. “It all makes perfect sense. This has been Hope's plan all along. Increasing her power and abilities has just been a side effect. Conquering all these lands and subjecting all these people has just been a means to an end. More people conquered means more people to sacrifice to the Fire. We all saw what happened in Carthage when Hercules died. The Fire erupted like a damn volcano. It nearly consumed the building.”
“You're right,” Xena says in agreement with him. “Why didn't we ever see it before?”
“Because we always believed exactly what Hope rebuked us for,” Caesar says. “We thought she was just some would-be tyrant after kingdoms and people to rule over. But she's not. She's possessed by Dahak and now she will soon fulfill his desires.”
“Did you say possessed?” Autolycus asks upon hearing those words.
“Yes,” Xena answers. “It's something she said to us in Carthage. ‘I am possessed of the spirit of the Dark One.'”
“And it's given us some clue as to who and what she is,” Iolaus goes on. “Her real name is…”
“Gabrielle,” Autolycus finishes the sentence for him.
“How did you know that?” Xena asks him.
“Ephiny told us,” Autolycus answers.
“The handmaiden of the Avatar!” Vercinix shouts. “This is where you got the information you are relaying to us?”
“Yes,” Autolycus says. “From her and a friend in her service.”
“This is another trap!” Antony says. “First she dragged us to Carthage now she's trying to get us to…”
Autolycus cuts him off. “Ephiny can be trusted. She's agreed to help us. Diana trusts her. So do the other members of the resistance. And so do I.”
Antony suddenly has his sword at Autolycus's throat. “Then you're a part of this scheme.”
“We'll not be lured into another trap,” Vercinix says guarding the man with his own weapon.
“Wait a minute guys,” Palaemon chimes in trying to defuse the situation.
“Were you part of this too?” Iolaus asks turning to Palaemon as he speaks.
“Enough!” Caesar shouts over them all. “All of you. Calm down. Right now.” All eyes go to Caesar. But his gaze is locked on Autolycus alone. “Now why did you ask me about Hope being possessed?”
The King of Thieves looks around at them all. His eyes rest on Xena for a moment because he cannot help but see that she is Diana's twin. His gaze travels to the sword being held to his throat. Then he looks to Caesar.
Caesar looks to Antony and Vercinix and gestures for them to lower their weapons. They comply but continue to watch the thief closely.
“When you said possessed did you mean literally?” Autolycus asks.
“Yes,” Caesar replies. “I meant literally. As in Gabrielle is possessed by Dahak. In Carthage she used those words. ‘Possessed by the spirit.' She also seemed to have some kind of attack and even cursed Gabrielle.”
“Ephiny has mentioned those,” Autolycus says. “It's when Hope subsides and Gabrielle comes out.”
“Gabrielle,” Xena says the name to herself. Is it truly possible that Gabrielle is the tortured soul some believe her to be? She still can't quite bring herself to totally believe it. While her desire for blood vengeance is gone she can't forget everything that Hope has taken from her.
“So that was what happened,” Iolaus says. “It wasn't Hope we saw Ephiny trying to protect. It was Gabrielle.”
Xena recalls the vision of the blond handmaiden stepping before Gabrielle to shield the girl's life with her very body. Ephiny sought to protect her, Xena thinks just as she have done so many times before in her dreams.
“So that means that Hope doesn't have total control over Gabrielle,” Antony says as he too begins to see the point of the discussion.
“A man came to us recently from the east. Drawn here by a prophecy.” Autolycus tries not to let the enthusiasm he is starting to experience run away with him. “His name is Eli. He's a teacher of something called the Way. He claims to be the Avatar of the One.”
“Avatar?” Caesar inquires.
“But Hope is the Avatar of the One God. The Dark One. Dahak.” Vercinix looks suspect at these words.
“The One and the One God Dahak aren't the same,” Autolycus corrects him. “Where Dahak grants Hope power to kill. The One has given Eli the gift of healing.”
“Healing?” Caesar says inquisitively again. “The body and the soul?”
“Yes,” Autolycus says. “And his last act of healing before coming to Greece was to exorcise a demon from a young girl in India.”
In a most uncharacteristic display Caesar throws wide his arms and cries out in a quite overjoyed voice, “Yes!”
Xena and Antony both look at him like he has lost his mind.
“Don't you see?” Caesar says now starting to move around inside the tent as he explains. “You said it yourself Xena. It would take more than some two bit priest to exorcise Dahak.” He points to Autolycus. “The man he is talking about isn't that at all. He's an Avatar. Just like Hope. And what's more it seems he is the Avatar of the deity that is the antithesis of all that Dahak stands for.”
Caesar's words strike home in Xena and she begins to believe. Could this all be true? Do they actually have a chance of defeating Hope?
“You said he was brought here by a prophecy,” Caesar continues his interrogation. Autolycus nods. “What does this prophecy say?”
“It's vague. Just something about the two Avatars confronting each other,” Autolycus says. Then a realization hits him like a bolt from the blue. “None of us in Athens have come to this conclusion. Not even Ephiny realizes that Gabrielle is possessed. I think she believes it's some kind of alternate personality. Eli hasn‘t reasoned it out either. He's been trying to figure out a way to fight Hope.”
“But we know!” Caesar shouts aloud again. He slams his fists down on the table. “I'll be damned! This might actually work! People! We have a plan!”
“But we have to hurry,” Autolycus informs them. “Hope is planning to sacrifice the entire population of Athens. She's certain it will be enough to achieve her goal.”
“So why did you bother coming to us?” Iolaus asks.
“Because they were about to take on Hope themselves.” Xena sees what the Athenian resistance was planning.
“Right,” Autolycus says. “Except Pompey has moved his legion into the city. We have no way to attack the Citadel with them in place.”
“So you came to ask us to attack Piraeus in order to draw them away so that you could go into the Citadel.” Vercinix sees the plan as well. “Ironic that that is exactly what we were about to do.”
“And so we shall,” Caesar states. He points to Autolycus again. “You! You're coming with us. And when we get to Greece some of us will be returning with you to Athens.”
On the first day few people walking the streets of Athens even seem to notice. After all there are temples to the One God in the city. Why should a group of priests walking through the city mean anything to anyone? It is only people who live near the city walls who notice the few priests who come in from outside the city. All those that do arrive head straight for the Citadel.
On the second day people begin to point and talk about the groups of black and red clad priests who are coming into the city. Murmurs go up among the population. Why are there so many? What are they doing here? For what purpose are so many of the priests of Dahak congregating in Athens? None of them stop to buy or browse in the Agora. They move with purpose towards the Citadel.
By the third day, the priests are arriving in groups of ten or more. Is it some sort of pilgrimage? If so why has it never occurred before? By midday no more go to the Citadel. Apparently there is no more room for them in Hope's stronghold. By sunset they are calling on the local inns for lodging. No payment is made. Any inquires or protests about this are referred to the Citadel.
By noon of the fourth day every inn in Athens is filled with priests of the One God. But even after that more arrive. Soon families are being displaced from their homes to make room for the priests. Rumors of every sort run rampant. Some secret ceremony is about to take place that will call forth the One God himself. Hope plans to crown herself Empress and seeks the blessing of the priesthood. The priests will initiate a ritual to indoctrinate everyone in Athens as followers of Dahak. For whatever the reason by the time the sun sets on the fourth day the priests of Dahak nearly equal the ranks of Pompey's legion.
Hidden away in the royal palace only Ephiny and the resistance know what is truly about to happen.
“This is insane,” Solari says as she paces about the throne room. “We know why they're here. We know what's going to happen. And there isn't a damn thing we can do?” She directs the question at Diana.
Sitting on the dais, the leader of the resistance shakes her head. “What do you think we can do?” she asks back at the Amazon. “There are too many of them.”
“We could warn them,” Solari says walking up to Diana.
Diana stands as she speaks. “How? Spread leaflets saying, ‘You're all going to be sacrificed soon.' That would create a panic that would, for one thing, lead to many innocents dying.”
“Many innocents are going to die!” Amarice shouts.
“And for another it would cause Hope to lock this city down more tightly than it already is,” Diana continues. “A rioting population would force Pompey's troops to remain here in control even if Caesar attacks Piraeus.”
“Damn it!” Eponin curses and punches the wall.
“So we have to wait for your thief to come back before we can do anything?” Darnell inquires where he leans casually against one corner of the room.
“Yes,” Diana replies. “Once he has returned we will begin to set our plan in motion.”
“Such as it is,” Jett interjects.
“What?” Eponin says stalking over to him. “You have a better idea assassin?”
“Eponin! Jett!” Ephiny calls out to them from where she stands by the throne. “That's enough! Bickering like this is pointless. We all know what is happening out there. We all feel helpless. But we have to have faith that Autolycus will succeed and that Caesar will come.”
From his spot by the door Eli smiles in pride at the courage and zeal of his newest pupil.
“You'll have to forgive me for saying that faith is in short supply around here,” Darnell states.
Eli looks over at the gladiator and does indeed see his point. He still has no idea what he can do. Is there really anything he can do? Hope's powers are extraordinary. A being that could kill the Olympian gods is never to be underestimated. And after Carthage her power has grown enormously. He takes heart in one fact. Caesar will come. That was the meaning of the vision he had. The golden eagle. The standard of the legions of Rome. The chakrum and the gladius clutched in its talons. Caesar and Xena will come to Athens. SPQR. The Senate and People of Rome. Caesar comes with the purpose of ending this and saving his people and their way of life. But he wonders at Xena's coming. Will she come seeking justice? Or revenge?
A flash of lightning shines brilliantly but quickly through the windows high up in the walls.
“A storm?” Amarice asks.
“Seems appropriate,” Eponin responds.
Thunder peals but to Eli it sounds very like the cry of an eagle magnified thousands upon thousands of times. A wind begins to blow outside. It comes in swift, powerful gusts that seem like the beating of massive wings. He stands slowly and everyone takes notice.
“What is it?” Ephiny asks. She walks down the dais past Diana and Solari.
Eli stares up at the ceiling listening to the sound of the thunder and wind. He looks down then into Ephiny's face. “They're here. Caesar and Xena are here. In Athens. At this very moment.”
“They're here!” Diana says. “Why? I told Autolycus to instruct them to attack Piraeus. Not Athens.”
“You misunderstand me,” Eli informs Diana turning his attention from Ephiny to her. “I don't mean that Caesar's army is here. I mean that Caesar and Xena are here. I believe the assault on the port is already underway and that they have come back with Autolycus.”
“But how can you know that they are here?” Jett asks.
“Call it a matter of faith,” Eli says smirking at the assassin. He looks at Ephiny again. The smirk melts away into a very somber expression. “It has begun. Are you ready?”
For one fleeting instant she can feel the pain of that sword in her guts and she winces. But then she remembers the other part of the vision. Looking up into those beautiful green as the life slips away from her. She closes her eyes and breathes in deeply. As she breathes out she opens her eyes. She feels a calm wash over her like a cool spring tide. “Yes.”
Four days ago…
Xena picks up Lyceus and tosses him playfully into the air as Hercules had done so many times in the past. The boy chortles with joy as he flies into the air and lands once more in his mother's arms.
“Again!” Lyceus cries out.
“Okay,” Xena replies bending over with her son in her arms and placing his feet on the ground. “You asked for it!” With all her strength she stands up straight and extends her arms up over her head. Lyceus flies into the air and holds his arms out at his side. For one delightful moment he believes he is flying and even calls out like an eagle in flight.
When he lands softly back into the arms of his mother he feels a little disappointed for the flight to be over. He wonders if that was how that boy daddy told him about felt. The one that made wings and flew towards the sun. Not for the first time he looks around wondering just where his father is. “Where's daddy?” he asks. He'd be overjoyed if his father could toss him up into the air. Then he might fly as far as Icarus. His father is so strong. He looks up to his mom for the answer and sees a frown on her face. He doesn't like that. His mom is the loveliest woman in the world but he has always thought that a frown makes her look ugly. He places his hands on the side of her face and yells, “No frowning! No!”
Xena smiles at his childish attitude but can still feel herself fighting back the tears. She doesn't want him to see her cry. Because she is sure that if Lyceus sees her cry then he will know that Hercules is dead.
“Where's father?” he asks her again.
She can't hold it back anymore. She is about to lose it.
“Your dad went to spend some time with your grandparents,” Iolaus says as we walks up behind Xena and quickly snatches the child from her arms. He spins the boy around and laughs with Lyceus. He sets the boy down between him and Xena but with Lyceus's back to his mother. He glances past the child and sees Xena crying silently. She rubs at her face to wipe the tears away.
“When's he coming back?” Lyceus demands placing his fists on his hips in a fashion he has seen Caesar use when wanting something from others.
“I'm afraid he's going to be gone for a pretty good while,” Iolaus replies. He looks past the boy again to see that Xena has herself under control a bit more. She is rubbing at her eyes trying to stop any more crying. When he looks back to Lyceus he sees an indigent expression on his face. But before the boy can say anything Iolaus places the tip of his finger on the tip of the boy's nose. “And that means you are the man of the family now.”
Lyceus looks dumbfounded by this statement. He points to himself as if to say, ‘Who? Me?'
Iolaus nods. “Yep. You.” He pokes the boy in the chest. “Think you can handle it?”
Xena reaches down and picks up her son. “Of course he can,” she states. “He's the son of Hercules. He can do anything.” She spins him quickly then tosses him up into the air. When she catches him she is staring straight into his face. The eyes, blue, are hers. But the rest of his handsome little face is all Hercules. She leans in and rubs his nose with hers.
Mortified by this girlish attention of his mother in front of his uncle Iolaus he playfully bats at her with both hands. “Mother!”
She laughs at him. She sighs now resigned to tell him what she knows can wait no longer. “Okay kiddo. Now you have to behave. Cause your uncle Iolaus and I have to go with Caesar to…” she pauses trying to think of what to tell him.
“Discuss something with this lady friend of ours,” Iolaus rescues her.
“You're always going away,” Lyceus informs her crossing his arms in childish disappointment.
“I know and I'm sorry,” Xena says once more leaning in close this time to rest her forehead against his. “But this will be the last time. After this no more of mommy running off to play with Caesar and his friends.”
“Promise?” Lyceus asks looking her in the eyes with a stare that would wither Hades if he were still alive.
“I promise,” Xena says smiling. She knows she will keep this promise. She just isn't sure she'll be coming back.
“Promise!” Lyceus says in a more demanding voice. He holds up his right hand and extends his pinky finger.
“Promise!” Xena says linking her pinky finger with his.
They laugh together and Xena tosses her son into the air to fly like Icarus again.
“But Octavia is going!” Julia shouts at her father sitting down on her bed and fuming in disappointment.
“Octavia is ten years older than you Julia,” Caesar tries to explain to his daughter.
“But I want to be with you,” Julia says. “I don't want to just be sitting here when you might…you might…” She jumps up and embraces her father in a crushing hug. “Please don't leave me alone father!”
Caesar looks down at his daughter and wraps his arms around her. He kisses the top of her head. “I don't want to leave you alone Julia. But I can't let you come with me. You and Octavia are the only family I have left.” As he says the words he envisions Aphrodite chained up in some cold cell under the Acropolis. “I can't change Octavia's mind. But you will stay here safe in Gaul.”
“But I don't want you to die!” she cries out looking up at him with tears pouring from her eyes
“I have to do this Julia,” Caesar tries to explain to her. “If there is a chance we can defeat Hope I have to try. I can't hide while other people suffer.”
“Yes you can!” she screams. “I don't care about other people!”
“You don't mean that,” Caesar says pulling out the ankh pendant she gave him. “Remember this? You gave it to me. The Egyptian Cross of Life. I have to fight for those who can't fight for themselves. To preserve life.”
Julia looks down from her father's eyes. Why does she feel this way? She hadn't been this upset when he'd left for Carthage. But then she'd still had her home. And they were going to Carthage. Romans always won in Carthage. Then her father had seemed indestructible. But after the fall of Rome, the crushing defeat in Carthage and Octavian's death she knows better. No man is invincible. Not even Gaius Julius Caesar.
She winces as the ringing in her ears kicks in again. She shakes her head to make it stop. There is no pain but every so often that cursed ringing starts and she can't hear a thing. After a few moments she is fine again. She knows her father will worry so she tries hard to hide it.
“Do you understand?” Caesar asks his daughter.
She sobs for a moment then nods. “Yes.” She looks up into his eyes. “Promise me you'll come back.”
He shakes his head. “I can't.”
“I know,” she says to him. “I just wanted to see if you'd lie to make me feel better.”
“I'd never lie to you,” he says leaning down to kiss her forehead.
The tent flap is pulled aside and Xena steps in. Father and daughter turn as one to watch her enter. The warrior princess turns a little red as she realizes she has intruded on a very private moment. “I'll come back,” she says.
“No,” Julia says stepping away from her father. “It's all right.” She can see the redness in Xena's eyes. Her friend has been crying. “What's wrong?”
Xena steps up to Julia and pulls something from her belt. It is a leather gauntlet with a shiny metal band fixed into it. She holds it out to Julia.
Julia looks down at it for a moment. “What's this?”
“A favor for your friend,” Xena replies. She indicates that Julia should take it. When she does Xena smiles and says, “That belonged to Hercules. If I don't come back I want you to give that to Lyceus when he turns twelve. And explain to him what happened to his parents. That we died fighting for the greater good.”
Julia looks back and forth between her father and her best friend. “Can the two of you at least promise me you won't do anything stupid?”
Both Caesar and Xena look at the girl and adopt the most innocent looks they can.
“Who am I kidding?” Julia says and actually begins to laugh. Soon Caesar and Xena join her.
Three days ago…
As Xena's knee had predicted as they'd left the shores of Gaul, a storm has come up. And a nasty one at that. But Vercinix's men have lived up to their leader's boast. They whether the storm well.
The same cannot be said for Octavia. Antony winces when he hears the sound of her being sick over the rail again. He places a hand on her shoulder. “Are you all right?”
“How can I still have anything to throw up?” Octavia demands. “There can't be anything left in my stomach!”
Antony tries his best not to smile. While he is sympathetic to her ailment he cannot help but find it amusing. “Maybe you'd be better off below decks,” he suggests.
“I feel the ship's movement more acutely below decks!” she shouts at him. Her last words are nearly drowned out as another squall passes over them dumping copious amounts of rain on the ships and their crew.
A swell catches the ship and pitches it starboard. For a second it seems as though the vessel might capsize. But the Gallic sailors work quickly and the ship rights itself. Octavia opens her mouth to say something but then clamps her hand over her mouth and leans over the rail again. Amazingly the sound of her being sick manages to drown out the thunder of the storm.
Xena walks up to where she sees Antony and Octavia near the rail. “Be careful you two,” she advises them. “A good sized wave could wash you right overboard.” Then she hears the ridiculously loud sound of Octavia being sick. “Oh!”
“Tell me about it,” Antony says.
“Take her below decks!” Xena shouts at him over the increasingly loud sound of the wind and waves.
“She feels the movement of the ship worse down there!” Antony explains to her.
“I think there is one thing below decks that might take her mind off her tumbling guts!” Xena retorts. She winks at him and takes a step away.
Antony is a little surprised by the suggestion. But he can't argue the logic that a few rounds of lovemaking might indeed make Octavia forget about her seasickness.
Xena turns back to him. “Until then tell her to press right here!” She points to a spot on the under side of her wrist. “But keep her away from any squid!” Xena chuckles as she walks quickly towards the stern of the vessel. But after a few steps she feels the dull ache in her knee and decides to move a little bit slower.
From his position on the stern of the boat Caesar observes his niece's plight. And as Xena approaches he can't help but remember the first time he met Xena. It had been on a vessel similar to this. She had treated him graciously and with much hospitality. He's paid her back by crucifying her. Before Carthage she forbade him to speak of it. But when they arrive in Athens he will have words with her.
Two days ago…
Dressed in her Roman armor Xena stands on the docks near the Roman garrison on Sicily and shouts at the top of her lungs. “Come on! Faster! Faster!” Men and women run to and fro carrying supplies from shore to ship. Usually she would never act like this but as the King of Thieves so quaintly put it they are racing the end of the world. So subtlety is out. “Once these legions are on board we are leaving! Come on! Move!”
Further down Antony shouts at other people loading more ships. “Don't walk! Run! You want to live to see tomorrow! Then move!”
Vercinix cries out to his men to aid in the re-supplying of his ships.
Iolaus never the type to bark orders carries supplies along with everyone else. He looks to his right and is surprised to see Autolycus also shuttling supplies to the ship.
Octavia stands beside Caesar on his flagship and watches everyone running around like ants trying to rebuild their damaged mound. “You are going to let me come with you? To Athens?”
“Yes,” Caesar answers her for the fifth time since leaving Gaul. “To Athens and then to the Citadel. But take Xena's warning to heart. Do not confront Alti directly. She wields powers you can't begin to understand. “
“She just one woman,” Octavia says griping the handle of her brother's sword.
“She is not,” Caesar contradicts her. “She's a shamaness with one hand in the underworld and the other at the throat of life. She's death to anyone foolish enough to underestimate her. She'll be your death if you for one second think of her as just one woman.” He turns to look into the eyes of his niece and sees the fear there. “You're afraid?”
She nods not trusting her voice suddenly.
“Good,” he says. “That fear will serve you well. When we get to Athens you stay close to Iolaus. Don't go running off by yourself. And if you see Alti walking towards you … run. And if he you see her walking away from you…stab her in the back.”
Octavia feels as though she may be sick but not from the sea this time. “Yes uncle.”
One day ago…
Antony kisses Octavia with a passion that causes anyone else watching to blush as well. When they part Octavia looks a little lightheaded. “You be careful,” he tells her leaning forward and placing a much gentler kiss on her lips.
“I will,” she says looking him in the eyes. “The same goes for you. We have some plans to make after all.”
Antony smiles. “That we do.” He looks past her to where Caesar stands. “Keep her safe.”
“That goes without saying my friend,” Caesar retorts. He steps forward and gives his oldest friend a brotherly embrace. He claps Antony on the arm. “Be safe yourself.”
“I will do my best,” Antony says.
“We're ready!” Iolaus calls out as a small boat is lowered into the water from the side of Caesar's ship. He climbs over the rail and drops into the ship next to Autolycus.
With Xena's aid Octavia gets into the boat next.
Vercinix steps up next to Antony. Caesar looks from one to the other. “You remember what to do?”
“Of course,” Vercinix replies.
“You have to make the attack last as long as possible,” Caesar informs them. “We need time to get into Athens and meet the resistance. But it needs to be fierce enough to draw out Pompey's legion.”
“We know! We know!” Antony exclaims. He points over Caesar's shoulder to where Xena stands waiting. “Now go! Athens awaits your arrival Caesar.”
Placing one hand on each of their shoulders Caesar nods. “May Fortune favor us all from this hour forth.”
“They say Fortune favors the foolish,” Vercinix says with a grin.
“Let us hope so,” Caesar says. Then without another word he turns and makes his way to the rail. He looks to Xena and says, “Time for us to go.”
Xena simply nods and the two of them climb down into the boat.
Antony watches the boat row away for a few minutes then he turns to a centurion stationed at the rear of the ship. “Signal the other boats! All speed for Piraeus!”
The centurion salutes then shouts, “Yes my lord.”
As the sun begins its downward arc towards sunset a lookout on Piraeus's southern wall spots a group of dots on the horizon. He turns to his companion on the watch. “Hey!”
The other man turns from where he is watching a lovely young lady make her way across the far docks and grunts, “Yeah?”
“What's that?” the first man points out towards the horizon.
The second man squints and stares intently. “Just some merchant ships coming in. That's all.” He turns back seeking the beauty he had been watching moments before.
“Yeah. Probably right.” The lookout shrugs and leans back against the wall.
A few minutes later he turns back to look out across the sea again. He is surprised to see more dots on the horizon. He takes the time to count them then turns back to his companion. “I don't think those are merchant ships,” he confesses.
“What the hell are you talking about?” The second man turns and looks out at the horizon again. Immediately he sees what his friend means. He casts his glance from left to right and counts close to eighty ships moving inexorably towards them. “Damn it! It's an invasion force!”
The first man rushes towards where a huge bell in stationed on the wall. He begins ringing it like mad as he stares out at the ships approaching the shore.
Hope stares down at Decius as he delivers the news coming from Piraeus. “How many?” she asks.
“They estimate between seventy five and ninety ships Avatar,” Decius replies. “Some are Gallic. Some are Roman.”
“Caesar is insane!” Pompey states loudly. “What can he possibly hope to accomplish by attacking Greece?”
“He wants terms,” Hope says leering. “He thinks that if he can occupy Piraeus that I might accept a conditional surrender.”
“What should we do?” Decius asks looking from Pompey then to Hope.
Among those present only Hope and Khrafstar know that it doesn't matter. Within a day it will all be over. But Hope knows that she cannot just let Caesar's assault go unanswered.
“Public sentiment is going against you,” Alti says in a hissing voice. “Caesar now gives you the means to recapture the people's support.”
“How?” Najara asks stepping up to the shamaness.
“Send word throughout the city with anyone and everyone you can spare,” Alti explains. “Tell the city that Rome is invading Greece. That soon Caesar will be leading his legions into Athens.”
“I see your point,” Hope agrees. Having the support of the populace would indeed be a great help to her. For the next day at least or so. Turning to Pompey she points to Decius. “Give him command of the legion. Then send them to Piraeus. And make sure that everyone in Athens knows why.”
Pompey salutes. “It will be as you command Avatar.” He gathers Decius and the two men leave the audience chamber.
Next Hope turns to Velasca. “Have Tonis released from prison and brought here. Once the legion has left Athens and the people know what is going on and what I am doing spread the word that I shall be making a public announcement in the Agora the day after tomorrow.”
Velasca salutes then she too leaves the audience chamber.
“And what will this announcement be?” Alti asks.
“I shall let the people of this city know what I think of them and their king,” Hope says staring intently at the Eternal Fire. “I will show them their true purpose in the world.” She extends a hand towards the Fire and several flaming arms extrude from it and begin to spin and writhe in a sinister dance. Hope begins to laugh. All those present join in her infectious laughter but only the Deliverer knows what is so funny.
Within the hour word has reached almost every one in Athens. The legion of Pompey the Magnus is on the move. Caesar is invading Greece. Even now he lays siege to Piraeus. Hope has commanded that Greece be defended no matter the cost. She will not see her adopted home under the rule of Rome. The citizens of Athens call out in support of the Avatar once more. The negative opinion that has spread through the city thanks to the graffiti and the leaflets is soon reversed. Surely Hope cannot be a monster if she sends her men to defend the people. She is truly their savior. Word has even spread that Tonis has been released from prison. Hope has admitted her mistake in incarcerating the king. In two days time Hope will hold a ceremony to formally proclaim the king's sovereignty once more. All of Athens is called to the Agora. The Avatar of the One God assures all will be safe. The tyrant Caesar will never set foot in Athens as long as she breathes.
The mood in Athens is joyous and gay. Even the dark clouds of an approaching storm on the horizon cannot dampen the spirits of the citizens. It is said that the battle in Piraeus is fierce but that Pompey's legions are holding back the Roman forces. The people of the city are so preoccupied with thoughts of the battle that most seem to have forgotten the virtual invasion of Athens by the priests of Dahak. Many now think it is a good omen. Yes. Surely the presence of so many of the faithful is a blessing at this time.
By midday the storm that has been threatening the city breaks. Rain falls in torrents turning narrow streets into shallow creeks and the Agora into a wide pool. The wind blasts through the city in short but powerful guts. Thunder booms loudly and often with such power that it rattles walls and windows. Lightning strikes with such frequency and brilliance it makes some wonder if Zeus is indeed dead.
Caesar and the others enter Athens with relative ease. Thanks in part to the storm and partly due to the efforts of an invisible thief who can cause quite a distraction when he puts his mind to it. The combination of a heavy storm and bodiless voices does a lot to unnerve even the hardiest of men. The guards near the east wall move a good distance away from their post for a few minutes. Amongst themselves they decide it would be best not to tell their captain that there seems to be ghosts near that location.
Caesar and his companions follow the now visible King of Thieves through the rained out city streets. Xena takes note of the number of red and black clad priests that mill about despite the weather. As they pass the few citizens who deicide to brave the storm they can hear them talking about the attack on Piraeus. Antony and Vercinix seem to be doing their parts very well.
They are near the center of the city when Iolaus realizes they are being led towards the royal palace. He grabs Autolycus by the arm and halts their march. “What are you doing? That's the king's palace,” Iolaus nods towards the structure they are heading for.
“Relax,” Autolycus says in his suave voice. “Tonis was imprisoned by Hope a while back. She gave the palace to Ephiny. The resistance has been using it as a headquarters.”
“You people are putting a lot of trust in the Avatar's handmaiden,” Octavia remarks.
“So are you?” Autolycus reminds them. “Come on.”
The group trudged through the muddy wet lanes until they stand before the former royal palace. And just as Autolycus reaches for the door it swings open before his hand can touch it. “Seems as though were expected,” he says.
The door to the palace opens and a face familiar to Caesar greets the group. “Jett,” he says recognizing the face of the assassin he had hired in Alexandria all those months ago. “I'm surprised to find you alive since you clearly failed.”
“A pleasure to see you as well Caesar,” Jett says stepping aside and allowing them entrance into the palace foyer.
As they enter they find themselves surrounded by a group of sword wielding Amazons.
“What the hell?” Xena says reaching for her chakrum.
“I'd advise against that,” a dark haired Amazon informs them.
Caesar too stares in shock at the Amazons. Has this all been a trap?
“Enough Eponin,” a woman says as she steps up to the group of warriors. “These people are allies. Though why they are here I don't understand.”
Caesar and his companions gaze into utter disbelief as they see that the new speaker is Xena! They look back and forth from the warrior princess to the woman commanding the Amazons.
“Oh,” Autolycus remarks when he sees the reaction. “Perhaps I should have mentioned that.” He walks up to and places an arm casually across the shoulders of Xena's look a like. “This is Diana. Leader of the Athenian resistance.”
Still looking a bit confused Caesar extends a hand to Diana. “We've corresponded on more than one occasion. It's nice to finally be able to put a face to the name.”
“It is an honor to meet you as well Caesar,” Diana says taking his hand shaking it firmly. She turns from Caesar to look at her mirror image. “And you would be the warrior princess Xena.”
“Yes,” Xena replies still staring at her. She can't help but recall the severed head that was sent to her a few years ago by Hope. She wonders not for the first time how many people are out there in the world that look like her. “It's nice to meet you too.”
“Perhaps all the introductions might best be saved for somewhere that our guests can warm and dry themselves,” Jett suggests.
The Amazons trail out of the foyer quickly and only Eponin remains. Her eyes linger on Xena then go to Octavia. “This way,” she says pointing down the hall.” Follow me.” she turns and walks down the hallway.
Walking along Xena is weary as they pass every intersection and open door.
“You've no need to be so cautious,” Diana explains to them when she sees Xena's actions. “You are among friends here.”
“You'll have to forgive us if we are cautious,” Caesar tells her. “We are in the royal palace in Hope's capital after all.”
“He has a point,” Jett says.
Diana turns to eye him. “You are not helping.”
After what seems an eternity of walking through the hallways they approach a door through which a golden wavering glow is emanating. Diana steps through first. As she does so she speaks to those inside, “You were right. Both Caesar and Xena are here.”
“You doubted him,” comes a female voice that sounds familiar to Xena for some reason.
“I'm sure she didn't mean anything by it,” a male voice replies.
As Caesar's group enters they find themselves in a spacious room devoid of any furnishings except a large table surrounded by chairs. A warm fire burns in a hearth by the far wall. Before the fire stands a man with black hair and a neatly trimmed beard. Beside him stands the Avatar's handmaiden Ephiny. Xena feels on edge seeing this woman who is so close to their enemy. Her hand trails down to her chakrum again and she runs a finger along the thick inner edge of the weapon.
“You'll have no need for that Xena,” Ephiny informs her as she turns to face the lot of them. “I promise you that within these walls no harm will come to you.”
“People keep saying that but we'll continue to be on our guard,” Octavia speaks up as she enters the room.
“As you wish,” Ephiny replies to the statement. She turns her focus to her friend by the door. “Jett. Would you mind bringing in some food and drink for our guests.”
Jett nods his head in a fashion Caesar sees as nearly a bow before he leaves the room without another word. “Quite a dangerous servant you have there,” Caesar says smirking.
“Jett is my friend,” Ephiny corrects him. “I have no servants. Only friends.” As she says this three more people come from the shadows. Darnell, Amarice and Caleb move to stand close to Ephiny and Eli. So too do Diana, Autolycus and Eponin. “Welcome to Athens Gaius Julius Caesar.”
Caesar does not reply to her at first instead placing his attention on the man by her side. But before he can say anything the man speaks.
“Have you had any more dreams Xena?” Eli asks her.
Xena looks at the man with misgiving. How does he know about my dreams? Xena asks herself silently. “You have the advantage of my name. But I don't know yours.”
“My apologies,” Eli says as he bows deeply to those gathered before him. “Where are my manners? My name is Eli.”
“You're the Avatar Autolycus told us about?” Caesar asks.
“Yes,” Eli answers then turns his attention back to Xena. “How has your sleep been these last few days?”
Xena feels uncomfortable talking about this subject with a complete stranger. But there is something about him that just seems to say he is trustworthy. “Uninterrupted,” is her answer.
“As I thought,” Eli replies. “That is not out of the ordinary as the source of those dreams in no more.”
“What do you mean?” Caesar asks now curious himself as to how Eli knows about Xena's dreams.
“You may have already guessed that they were not ordinary dreams,” Eli says. He can see by the look in Xena's eyes that he is right. “And so they were not. They were dreams of another world sent to you by Morpheus himself.”
“Morpheus?” Xena gasps. Dreams of another world. “What do you know about my dreams?”
“Only what Morpheus told me,” Eli explains. “That he began having them about six years ago. And that he began trying to pass them on to the two people the dreams mattered to most. You and Gabrielle?”
“Gabrielle?” Xena says remembering the many dreams she had involving the young girl.
“But while you received the dreams Gabrielle never did,” Ephiny interjects. “Hope does not sleep. Does not dream. Has not since that terrible day when she first came into the world. “
“So what happened to him?” Xena asks. “To Morpheus?”
“Gone,” Eli says. “He said that when Hope invaded the Dreamscape it began to kill him. But he had some further purpose. So he sacrificed himself.”
“Dead,” Xena says the word softly. Were he still alive she would very much like to thank the King of Dreams for his gift of the visions of that other world that gave her peace while she slept.
“As we may all be soon,” Diana says. She turns to Caesar. “Why are you here?”
“I'm here because I know how to defeat Hope,” he says.
“What?” Amarice says aghast.
“How?” Eli asks.
“I understand that you drove a demon from a young girl in India,” Caesar remarks. “We need you to do the same here. You have to exorcise Dahak from Gabrielle.”
“Exorcise Gabrielle?” Ephiny says the words in disbelief.
“Yes,” Caesar says. “I finally understand who and what she is. It's what she said in Carthage. Hope isn't some kind of alternate personality. Not a combination of Dahak and Gabrielle. She is quite simply possessed by the spirit of Dahak.”
Eli leans back against the wall with a look of trepidation on his face. Ephiny looks mortified. She cannot believe that she has never come to this conclusion. But then in the past years Hope has never been as vile as she has become since Carthage. It does indeed make perfect sense. She vividly recalls when Alti connected them and she witnessed the advent of the Avatar. She had seen the blood turn to Fire then enter Gabrielle's body. She had always just assumed that was Dahak infusing her with his power. Not in her wildest imaginations did she ever conceive that it was actually Dahak himself entering her friend's body.
“This is information you could have passed to us through Autolycus,” Diana admonishes Caesar.
“I have been fighting Hope for six years!” Caesar exclaims. “And now the time has come to defeat her. We have all lost too much at her hands.” Caesar turns and point to his companions. “And we will be there at the end. So whether you like it or not, when you attack the Citadel, we will be there with you.”
“We will need all the help we can get,” Eponin tells Diana.
Jett returns with a tray loaded with goblets and food. “Dinner is served I guess,” he says laying them on the table. He looks about and feels the mood around him.
Slowly everyone makes their way to be seated at the table. But they do not eat or drink very much. They are all too preoccupied now with what has been told to them.
“Our friend here,” Iolaus says indicating Autolycus. “Tells us Hope plans to sacrifice the entire city.”
“Yes,” Ephiny says in agreement. She nods to Jett. “He overheard Hope and Ares.”
“When will this take place?” Caesar asks.
“We aren't sure,” Diana says with fear lacing her voice. “But it must be soon. The city is crawling with priests of Dahak.”
“Hope will be speaking in the Agora tomorrow,” Ephiny tells them all. “It may begin then. But I'm not too sure. The sacrificial rites have always taken place at night previously.”
“Either way we have to attack as soon as possible,” Amarice says. “We can't wait.”
“Unfortunately we have to,” Darnell disagrees. He looks to Caesar. “Right?”
It occurs to Caesar that he has seen this man before. Many years back he recalls seeing him in a series of gladiatorial games he held to celebrate his first triumph in Gaul. “Yes. We will have to wait for her to initiate the sacrifices. Only then will we be certain of her being in the right place at the right time for us to strike.”
“Damn!” Diana curses slamming her fist down on the table.
The rest of the meal is taken in silence. After the table has been cleared Caesar brooks one more subject. “Aphrodite.”
Eli looks up. “She is held beneath the Acropolis.”
“She could be of great help in the coming battle,” Caesar says. He turns to Autolycus. “I understand that is why you are here King of Thieves.”
“Indeed,” Autolycus says pulling the helmet of Hades from his belt and holding it up. “This will make it a lot easier.”
“Morpheus implied she would play some part in all this,” Eli begins. “But he didn‘t elaborate. Just said something about passing judgment.”
“That's Morpheus for you,” Iolaus says. “Enigmatic to the end.”
“Should I leave soon to try and free her?” Autolycus asks.
“No,” Caesar says. “I'm afraid that will have to wait too.”
“Then what?” Caleb asks looking across the table at Caesar. “One assumes that you have a plan.”
“Who is usually present at these sacrificial rites?” Caesar asks of Ephiny.
“Any members of the Inner Council that are here will attend and participate,” Ephiny replies. “Priests from local temples are typically there as well.”
“What members of the Inner Council are here?” Caesar asks getting up from the table and starting his usual pacing while he thinks.
“Pompey is here,” Ephiny says first.
“Pompey?” Iolaus says in surprise. “He didn't go with his legion to Piraeus?”
“No,” Ephiny says.
“Good,” Caesar says with hate in his voice. “It is far past time that traitor paid for his crimes. Who else?”
“Velasca. Queen of the Amazons,” Ephiny says next.
Xena takes note of the way Eponin looks at Ephiny when she says the name of the Amazon ruler.
“Alti is here.” Ephiny sees the look of purest rage that engulfs the features of the girl Octavia. “She's always here. I don't think she's left Athens since she first arrived.”
“What about that warrior woman that was in Carthage?” Iolaus asks.
“Najara,” Ephiny says the name of the mad woman. “Yes. She is here too.”
Jett flexes his hands into fists at the mention of his brother's killer.
“And what about this high priest we've heard of?” Caesar stops to look into the flames of the hearth. “This Deliverer?”
“Khrafstar.” Ephiny says the name with revulsion. “He is always here for the sacrifices in the Citadel. Tonis is here too. But I doubt Hope will include him. He has fallen from favor with her. It seems strange to me that she will be announcing his reaffirmation as king tomorrow.”
“So they are all here.” Caesar walks back to the table. “We can kill Hope's empire once and for all.”
Ephiny shudders at Caesar's words. “If Eli succeeds. If you win. If Gabrielle is exorcised. What will happen to her?”
Caesar looks at the handmaiden for a moment. It only takes him an instant to see it. He remembers the way she had thrown herself in front of Gabrielle in Carthage. She truly loves Gabrielle. But he has no answer for her question. “I don't know,” he says. “Let's focus on defeating Hope first. If we manage to do that then we'll deal with Gabrielle afterwards.”
“She doesn't have to die.” Ephiny rises to her feet to look Caesar in the eyes.
“I don't think now is the time Ephiny,” Eli says reaching over to place a hand on her arm.
Ephiny wants to say more but she does not wish to seem so weak before all these people. And she knows she will break down if she begins telling them about what kind of person Gabrielle was before Hope. And what Gabrielle means to her.
Xena too can see the love that Ephiny has for Gabrielle. She wonders if it is the same love she felt for the Gabrielle in her dreams. Would it do anything for either of them if they were to talk?
Ephiny walks away from the table.
“Where are you going?” Eli asks her as she gets to the door.
“I need to rest,” Ephiny says to them all. “Then I must return to the Citadel. No doubt Hope will want me in the Agora with her tomorrow.”
As she passes Jett at the door, he holds something out to her. “Here.” In his hands is the golden circlet she had removed days before. She looks down at it hesitantly. “Take it. Or she'll wonder why you don't have it.”
She takes it from him. “Thank you.”
Jett smirks. “That's what friends are for.”
Ephiny smiles them leaves the meeting place.
Caesar stands. “I think we should all get some rest. Tomorrow will be a very hard day.”
“Agreed.” Xena stands.
“We have some rooms set aside for you,” Jett says indicating they should follow him.
As Eponin stands Caesar steps in front of her. “Your name in Eponin?”
“Yes.” She looks at him confused. She hopes he isn't going to start some tirade about the evils of the Amazon nation.
“And you're an Amazon?” he asks next.
“Yes,” Eponin answers with minor irritation.
“But you do not fight for Hope?”
“No!” Eponin practically yells.
“Fascinating,” Caesar says as he turns to leave. He falls into stride next to Xena.
“What was that all about?” she asks him.
“I was just testing a theory,” he responds.
“And what theory is that?”
“The theory that I don't know nearly as much about women as I thought I did.”
“I could have told you that.”
They share a chuckle as they continue to follow Jett down the hall.
When the sun rises the next day it is into a cloudless sky. No hint of the storm of the previous night remains save for the damp conditions in the streets. Merchants arriving in the Agora to set up their wares find that Hope's servants have been busy during the night. A wooden platform has been erected in the center of the marketplace and several of the red and black clad priests of Dahak surround it. Even as the citizens begin to emerge out in the streets they hear news of what is happening in Piraeus. Caesar's forces have managed to gain control of the docks and wharves. But Hope's defenders are keeping them from the city. The people have no doubt that Hope will keep her promise and that Caesar will not set foot in Greece.
Good news too is that Tonis will be crowned anew as king this day. It is whispered that he stayed the night in apartments within the Citadel. Many know that the royal palace was given to the handmaiden of Hope upon their return recently. This spurred rumors that Hope was going to crown Ephiny as queen of Athens. But it is assured that this will not be. For that is the purpose of the platform in the Agora. There Hope will place the crown on Tonis's head. The entire city has been invited to witness the event. And none have decided to be absent. The whole of the citizenry of Athens will be on hand.
While the people of Athens go about their daily activities secure in the knowledge of Hope's protection and good will, Ephiny sits awake and distraught in the bed she once shared with the Avatar. She returned late last night to their bedchambers in the Citadel. But of Hope she has seen nothing. She has no doubt that Hope is making ready for her final plans. She looks to her right and sees the velvet draped stand on which once rested their swords. It was always one of her greatest joys to duel with Hope. For in that way she could relive the days when she trained with Gabrielle in the Amazon village. She looks to her left and sees the crystal shards of the statue she destroyed the other night still scattered on the floor. Either Hope has not come back to this chamber since their return from Carthage or the Avatar has seen no reason to clean up the mess. She knows it is the former. She begins to wonder if there is anything left of Gabrielle in Hope since the events in Carthage.
She awoke hours ago as the storm has passed. She has sat unmoving since then listening to the silence all around her. Will this be the day not only of her death but the death of the entire world? Caesar's plan would seem to be the only way. She cannot help but think of the things that could go wrong. Not to mention that even if they do win she will not be around to enjoy the victory. As the moment draws nearer she finds herself a little less willing to accept it. It was easy when it was just Alti's vision. But now that the reality of it is running towards her, she is afraid.
She continues to sit there motionless for a time longer. She feels that as soon as she leaves the safety of the bed there will be no turning back. Destiny will take its course. And by the end of the day she will be dead. Will it have been worth it? That was what Nannan had asked her. She closes her eyes and once more remembers that day. Gabrielle smiling. Are all Amazon princesses this clumsy?
S he breathes in deeply to calm her nerves and her spirit. She stares up at the ceiling and wishes she could see past the cold stone façade of the Citadel to the sky above. “Give me strength,” she says aloud. Then she steps quickly from the bed shedding the shift she had worn. She walks carefully through the crystal shards to a large wardrobe on the far side of the room. She opens it to reveal numerous gowns, tunics, breeches and many other types and pieces of clothing. She looks over each and every article of clothing trying to decide what she should wear. She smiles at the twisted irony of it. What would I look best to die in?
She pulls down a sleeveless gown of silver colored cloth that has strands of gold weave sewn into the fabric in spiraling patterns. She carries the gown over to the bed and lays it down. Then she searches various chests and wardrobes for what else to wear. Romanesque sandals similar to the ones Hope favors. A belt that resembles a corded piece of golden rope. A pair of silver armlets and golden bracelets. Both are etched with Egyptian symbols and hieroglyphics. She has never seen them before. They are no doubt spoils from Alexandria. She finds a silver necklace with a ruby teardrop shaped pendant. She swings the necklace back and forth for a bit and notices the way the red stone catches the candlelight. She is mesmerized by it for a few moments as it reminds her of a drop of blood frozen in space and time. Morbidly appropriate, she thinks. And lastly she lays aside the golden circlet.
She attires herself then places the golden circlet on her head. She looks at herself in a full-length mirror for a few moments. The fabric of the gown reflects the light wondrously. The neckline of the gown in lower than she had at first thought and shows more of herself than she would find comfortable in any public setting. But in truth it hardly matters. Her mind keeps going back to the fact that she is going to die today. What does it matter what the people see her in or what they think? And, of course, in the back of her mind she wonders what Gabrielle would think of her if she could see her dressed like this.
Are all Amazon princesses this clumsy?
She smiles. “You'd laugh, wouldn't you?” she asks the memory of the girl she fell in love with. She turns, walks from the bedchamber and does not look back.
As Ephiny descends the stairs into the audience chamber she hears voices. As the chamber comes into view she can see Pompey, Najara and Khrafstar standing near the Eternal Fire. Pompey sees her first and staring finds that he cannot take his eyes off of her. Hope steps into view from around the other side of the Fire as Ephiny walks down the dais. She is dressed in the shining armor, flowing cape and golden circlet that makes her look like a warrior queen. The Avatar look mildly surprised at her handmaiden's appearance but says nothing.
“Good morning,” Ephiny greets them all drawing more surprised looks.
“Good morning,” Pompey replies with his gaze still lingering on her. “You look stunning.”
Ephiny isn't quite sure what to make of the compliment so she simply nods. She looks to Hope and sees that Pompey's comment has garnered no reaction from her. There was a time when Hope would have rebuked Pompey's attention. But Ephiny now knows that time is past. She sees the hatred smoldering in Najara's eyes as she walks past the warrior woman. She does her best to stay as far away from Khrafstar as she can without it showing that she is making that effort.
With Ephiny now standing right before her, Hope cannot ignore the presence of her handmaiden. She looks the blonde over from head to toe taking in everything that she is wearing. Hope manages a smile. “I was rather hoping you'd be joining me for the ceremony this afternoon.”
Ephiny prays that she does not show any outward sign of the trepidation she feels at the mention of the ceremony. She is certain of what it will lead up to. She cannot however let any indication slip that she is aware of it. Before she can respond they are joined by Tonis who approaches from the doorway leading down to the Citadel's second level.
“As was I,” he says drawing close. He too stares quite covetously at Ephiny. “You look like a queen,” he remarks.
“Thank you,” she replies with a nod of her head. She looks at him dressed in regal attire and returns the compliment. “And you look like a king.”
He nods to her in return. “I certainly hope so.”
“We should begin as soon as possible,” Hope says. She looks to Khrafstar. “Summon everyone. As soon as the ceremony is complete we have much work to do.”
“Of course Avatar,” the grotesque high priest says with a bow.
“Let's go then,” Hope says as she walks towards the doorway Tonis had just entered through. Ephiny falls in step behind her followed by Tonis.
The three of them descend through the Citadel then into the city itself. As they walk down the Acropolis, Ephiny finds it frightening that instead of the regular guard of Pompey's legionaries or Amazons they are flanked and guarded by priests of Dahak.
People begin to form a small army around them as they walk through the city streets. They call Hope's name once again and praise her for her defense of Greece against Caesar. They scream Tonis's name and rejoice that he will be king once more. By the time they reach the Agora it seems to Ephiny that half the city is following them. And it seems that the other half is present and waiting for them at the platform that was recently erected.
Hope and Tonis both greet people as they makes their way through the crowd surrounding the platform. Ephiny stays close by Hope as they move closer. She feels herself starting to sweat as they walk up the steps of the platform. A priest stands on the platform with a very ornate crown in his hands.
Hope comes to a halt next to the priest. She indicates for Tonis to stand to her right. Ephiny without being told or shown stands to the left and slightly behind Hope. The Avatar hardly seems conscious of her presence. And she finds that a blessing now.
“Athens!” Hope cries out in a voice that carries to every person in the Agora. Ephiny looks to the east and notices that the sun is not very far above the horizon. She prays that Diana, Caesar and the others are awake. And that they are somehow monitoring what is going on. She looks out into the crowd to see if she can spot any faces from the resistance. She sees none. What she does see is hundreds of red and black robed priests coming from every alley and side street leading into the Agora.
“At this moment Caesar and his allies are attacking Piraeus in hope of gaining a foot hold in Greece,” Hope continues. There is a general uproar in the crowd. “But know this. They will not succeed. Not today. Not ever.”
The crowd explodes into riotous applause.
“Now the time is come to renew my allegiance to this city,” Hope says turning to nod to the priest bearing a crown. “I wish to correct a grievous mistake. And to apologize to this man.” She turns to Tonis and nods to him. With a smile he kneels before her. She takes the crown from the priest and sets it on Tonis's head. “Rise. King of Athens.”
The crowd roars their approval as Tonis rises to his feet.
The king spreads his arms wide and basks in the adoration of his people.
“There is one last announcement I must make,” Hope tells all those gathered before her. She holds her hands high over her head and in a booming voice cries out, “Citizens of Athens!”
Ephiny now notices for the first time that her eagle guard sword is sheathed on Hope's back. She also sees that even more priests are emerging from every part of the city around them.
With her hands stretched high over her head it is easy for Hope to grip the sword on her back and unsheathe it.
“Hope! No!” Ephiny cries out in horror as she realizes what is about to happen. The sun is hardly above the horizon. She had thought the sacrifices would not start until moonrise tonight. But she is wrong.
Hope's sword slices through the flesh of Tonis's neck and decapitates him with no effort at all. The king's head falls from his shoulders and tumbles down the steps to come to rest at the feet of a woman who had until an instant before been cheering Hope's name. She stares down into open but lifeless eyes and screams. Tonis's body remains upright for several more seconds as if it confused about what has just happened. It falls forward with its neck dangling over the side of the platform. Blood pours from the stump and pools on the ground. All the eyes of Athens are now locked on Hope in shock and terror.
“I am Hope!” the Avatar continues the sacrificial rite. “Avatar of Dahak the Dark One! Your lives are now forfeit in my name and His!” She sheathes her sword. “Kill them all!”
What seems to Ephiny to be thousands of priests converge on the Agora. Every man, woman and child present is seized. Hope looks around her with joy and satisfaction. “My will be done,” she says.
Ephiny stares at Tonis's severed head for a moment then at Hope before turning and leaping off the back of the platform. She expects priests to grab at her as soon as she touches the flagstones. But no hands reach for her. Athenians and priests crowd around her but she manages to push through. The terror of the people is palpable. She still wonders at the reason why no one tries to restrain her. She shoves people out of her way as she does her best to pass through the throngs.
“Run all you want Ephiny,” she hears Hope's voice. For a moment she is terrified that she is hearing the voice inside her head. For if Hope can speak to her in this way might she also be able to read her mind. She turns for a moment and looks back towards the platform. She sees Hope standing there staring right at her. She sees the Avatar's lips moving then hears her voice again. “No one is going to stop you. But there is no where you can hide.”
Somehow Hope is speaking and casting her voice directly to Ephiny. The words are being carried through the air by Hope's power. Not by any psychic means.
“There is no one to protect you. Soon you will see why I have come. You will know the glory of Dahak. I will make sure that you live to see the end. The end of this world. The end of creation. The end of Gabrielle. So run. I will find you.”
Eli is discussing something with Nannan and Caleb. Autolycus is pointing to the helmet of Hades and telling Diana how he acquired it. Caesar is plotting their plan of attack with Xena, Iolaus and Eponin. Amarice, Darnell and Octavia are sitting by the fire. Jett leans against one wall lost in his own thoughts. Everyone's mind is preoccupied when the doors to the palace burst open loudly. From the room they are in all they can hear is indistinct yelling. Seconds later Solari comes into the room followed by a breathless Ephiny.
“It's begun!” she cries out.
“What?” Jett exclaims pulling himself form his relaxed position. “But I thought you said the sacrifices only happen when the moon is high. It's barely dawn.”
“Hope isn't standing on ceremony any more,” Caesar concludes. “She doesn't need to. Tonight it will be all over if she succeeds.”
“I think every person in the city was in the Agora,” Ephiny continues. “She used the sacrificial rite then and there. All that needs to be done is to spill their blood and cast them into the Eternal Fire.”
“We have to go now!” Amarice shouts.
“We can't,” Xena contradicts her.
“What do you mean?” Caleb shouts aloud. “Didn't you hear her?”
“Yes,” Caesar says in a pained voice. “We did.”
“Then what are you waiting for?” Nannan asks.
“It's mass confusion out there, right?” Xena asks Ephiny.
All Ephiny can do is nod.
“If we try to do anything now we'll just get run down or captured in the fray,” Xena continues. “We have to wait for Hope to gain control of the situation. Once she does she'll begin escorting people to the temples and the Citadel. With the streets clear then we can get into the Citadel.”
“This is insane!” Amarice cries out. “Innocent people are going to die while we stand around here.”
“And the world will die if we act too quickly or too rashly,” Jett retorts.
Amarice and some of the others look at him like he is the worst kind of human being. Then they realize that it is the truth. If they are captured it will be all over. Only Eli can stop Hope. And all will be lost if he is caught. “Damn it!” Amarice cries out. She turns to Darnell who takes her is his arms.
“Is there a secret entrance into the Citadel?” Caesar asks Ephiny though he is certain of the answer.
Fighting back tears and grief Ephiny affirms Caesar's speculation. “Yes. It's how Hope used to have the sacrifices brought in.”
“But she won't care now,” Diana adds. “She'll be taking them into the Citadel right through the main doors.”
“Where's this entrance?” Xena asks.
“No need for me to tell you,” Ephiny pushes her fear from her and grasps the calm she has learned. “I'm going with you.”
“What?” Nannan says aghast.
“No,” Eponin saying stepping up to Ephiny. “You'll be safe here.”
“No. I won't,” Ephiny retorts recalling Hope's words to her. “No where will be safe. So I'm going.”
“You don't have to do this,” Jett tells her.
“Yes. I do.” Ephiny looks deeply into Eponin's eyes. “I was there when Gabrielle first came to us. I was there at the beginning. I'll be there at the end. Please don't try and stop me.”
Eponin feels heart broken at the thought of Ephiny's death. For so long she had thought Ephiny a traitor. But she had remained true to herself through it all. “All right,” she says to her. “But please be careful.”
Ephiny can only smile at that phrase.
“Can you do this?” Caesar asks Eli.
“I will try,” Eli replies.
“We need you to do more than try,” Caesar points out to him. He turns back to Ephiny. “Does that entrance lead into every level of the Citadel?”
“Every one but the fourth,” Ephiny explains. “That is Hope's private quarters. But the third floor is the audience chamber. That is where the sacrifices will take place.”
“Once we get there we'll need to get some robes off the priests,” Caesar suggests.
“We should go through the first and second levels to get them,” Xena surmises. “Then we'll move up to the audience chamber.”
“Right,” Caesar agrees. He looked to Eli again. “This all hinges on Eli. So we are there to protect him. With our lives if need be.”
Eli holds up a hand for Caesar to stop what he is saying. “I can't ask you to do that.”
“You're not asking,” Iolaus informs him. “We're volunteering. If it means saving this world I'll gladly give up my life.”
“As will I,” Amarice says.
“And I too,” Eponin says.
“As will we all,” Xena speaks for the rest.
“What about the other temples?” Caleb asks. “Surely they will be making sacrifices there too.”
“We can't be everywhere,” Octavia says moving to stand beside her uncle. “There must be a dozen temples in Athens. We can't do anything for them.”
“She's right,” Solari adds. “We stop Hope and we stop it all.”
Caesar turns his attention to Autolycus. “I need you to leave as soon as possible. The sooner Aphrodite is free, the sooner she'll be able to aid us.”
“Got it.” Autolycus nods. He looks to Diana for a moment. “I'll just need a few minutes to get ready.”
Caesar looks from the thief to the resistance leader. He understands what the man is asking for. “Very well.” He walks to the doorway and stands there for a moment. “We have to wait. In the mean time I suggest you make peace. Either with each other or with whatever gods you happen to believe in.” He leaves the room in silence.
Palaemon curses when he sees another ladder tumbled down from the walls of Piraeus. The dozen or so men who were climbing it fall to the narrow patch of ground between the walls and the docks they have taken. Rocks and arrows quickly follow them down and only two of the legionaries who had tried to scale that ladder fall back from their position.
He sees a volley of scores of arrows arcing over the wall. “Shields” he screams when the arrows reach the apex of their flight. Every man on board his ship readies their shields then staggers back when the projectiles hit them. Turning he points to the group of archers behind him, “Loose!” Each man draws back his bowstring and fires. Their arrows sail back over the wall like a deadly rain of wood and metal.
Nearby volleys of arrows are sent flying over the walls by archers on other ships. He hears a thump behind him as Antony drops down from the stern rise of their ship and joins him. “I'm not sure how much longer we can keep this up,” he informs Caesar's Master of the Horse.
“As long as it takes,” Antony informs him. He steps forward and calls out to a centurion standing nearby on shore. “Centurion!” The man turns and salutes. “Order all the men to fall back from the walls to the docks!” The centurion nods then blows a blast in his whistle to signal all the others.
Antony holds his pilum high over his head and screams, “Loose!” This signals every group of archers on the boats and docks to fire in order to cover the retreat of their compatriots. Hundreds of arrows soon fill the air and fall upon the city's defenders.
Turning to Palaemon he points to the east of the city. “Take two cohorts with you to the east docks and set fire to as many ships as you can.”
Palaemon salutes then calls out to several nearby centurions to gather their men for the assault.
As Antony watches the Athenian rebel lead the Roman forces away he too must ponder Palaemon's words. How much longer can they keep this up? The only way they could conceivably win here would be to lay siege to the city. But that is not the intent. And besides it would be pointless. Hope will have murdered the world before they could succeed. All that matters is keeping Pompey's legion here and away from Athens.
Another volley of arrows sails over the city walls. “Shields!” Antony cries out. He covers himself with his shield and winces when the point of an arrow punches through it to stick out mere inches from his face. “Damn it Caesar! Hurry up!”
Amarice feels ashamed as she looks down and sees that her hand is shaking. A warrior's hand shouldn't be shaking before a battle, she tells herself. But her hand doesn't seem to want to listen to her reasoning. She tries to focus her mind and to find that calm she always feels before a battle. Tries to lose herself in the meditation of the Way. To find that peace that Eli taught her to embrace. This time, however, it will not come. “What's wrong with me?” she asks aloud. Thinking herself alone she does not expect an answer. She is startled when she gets one.
“This isn't just a fight,” Darnell says stepping into the small room she has set aside for herself. “It's a battle to decide the fate of the world.”
Amarice nearly jumps out of her skin when the fighter walks in and speaks to her. “Darnell? What do you want?”
“I wanted to see if you were okay.” Darnell sets down his ever-present shield and sits down beside her. He leans back and rests his head against the wall. “And you'll have to forgive me for being brutally honest since tact is not one of my virtues but you don't look too good.”
Amarice grabs her hand with the other to hide the shaking. “I'm fine!”
“Like Tartarus you are,” Darnell retorts turning his head ever so slightly to look at her. “You're terrified about what's about to happen.”
“I'm a warrior Darnell,” she says to him.
“And that precludes you from being afraid for what reason?” he inquires.
“I …” she begins but stops when she realizes she has no answer. She jumps to her feet and walks towards the opposite wall. She punches the stone wall hard but doesn't seem to feel the pain as it lances up her arm. “I'm a warrior! I'm not supposed to be afraid!”
Still sitting casually against the wall he eyes her with something very like pity though he's not sure because it isn't an emotion he's had a lot of experience with. “Let me tell you something. Fear is a healthy thing to have. Especially if you're a warrior.”
“Please don't belittle me with your empty platitudes Darnell,” Amarice says now leaning forward to place her head against the wall. “You can't begin to understand.”
“I'm damn sure willing to bet that not only do I understand but that I understand better than you,” he says
“And what do you know about it?” she shouts as she rounds to face him.
“I know that every day I took up a weapon to kill another man for the sport of the Roman aristocracy I was afraid,” he says continuing to stare at her. “I know that I was afraid to die.”
“You?” Amarice says not sure whether to be surprised by his admission or insulted that he might be lying.
“Yeah I know,” he replies with a roguish smile. “Me? Scared? Hard to believe huh?”
Holding out both her hands, she sees them still trembling. “It's just that I've never felt fear before a fight.”
“That's because usually there is no time to think about it,” he tells her. “Before the combat in the arena I always had time to think about it. So there you go.” He shrugs. “Maybe it's as simple as that. Now that you have the time to ponder it you're feeling afraid.”
“Feeling my own mortality is more like it,” she rewords his advice.
“Have you ever once doubted following the Way? I mean I'm plain sick of hearing you talk about it to be honest. But have you even for one single second regretted the path of the warrior?”
She walks back over to and stands over him. “You know I haven't,” she says looking down into his eyes.
“Then don't doubt it now,” he says holding out a hand to her. She looks at him for a moment before taking his hand and sitting next to him. He puts one arm over her shoulder and draws her in closer. With the other he continues to hold her hand. “Now is the time when your beliefs are going to matter most.”
She tilts her head so that it rests comfortably on his shoulder. “Thank you.”
He leans close and kisses the top of her head. “Don't mention it.”
Standing in the palace foyer, Autolycus prepares to place the helmet of Hades on his head once more. But he pauses instead to look deeply into Diana's eyes. His lip twitches and he rolls his eyes. “Now don't you look at me like that,” he says in a scolding voice.
“You are going to be careful, aren't you?” Diana asks pressing herself against the King of Thieves. “I've rather gotten used to having you around.”
Autolycus grips the helmet in one hand and wraps her in an embrace. “I am damn sure going to try and be as careful as I can be,” he informs her. With his free hand he tilts her chin up so their faces are inches apart. “Besides. I've kind of gotten used to the attention.” He leans in and kisses her tenderly at first.
But Diana gives more to the kiss and soon it is as passionate as either have ever felt. The two Amazons who guard the door groan and look away. The couple laughs when they observe the reaction in the warriors.
“Sorry,” Autolycus apologizes with all the sincerity of a slug. He winks at Diana then places the helmet on his head. He vanishes from sight with his hand still resting on Diana's cheek. “See you later your highness.” The door leading outside opens just enough for someone to slip through before closing again.
As she walks away Diana prays to the goddess he will try to rescue that he makes it back alive.
Eponin and Solari swing their daughter back and forth reveling in the happy little cries she makes. Solari has her feet and Eponin has her arms. Higher and higher they swing her. The higher she goes the more intense her laughter.
“Higher!” Varia shouts.
“You asked for it,” Eponin says. Soon they are heaving Varia up and over their heads then back down again. The girl giggles with unbound delight.
The two women meet each other's eyes as they play with their daughter. They smile and swing Varia up and over again. This may be their last day on Earth and they can think of no better way than to hear the laughter of their child. They hold their gazes for a moment. No words are needed. No words have ever been needed. They love each other and in that there has been no doubt in five years. So they just smile and revel in Varia happiness.
“Higher!” Varia shouts again.
“Any higher and we'll throw you through the roof little one,” Eponin informs her daughter.
“Don't care! Higher!” Varia demands of them.
Eponin and Solari just smile and spin her faster than before in the hope that she'll think she's going higher.
Varia laughs even louder.
Xena passes by the doorway and wishes she could see Lyceus one more time. Varia's laughter is so like him. They are the same age after all. Perhaps if they could have met they might have been friends. She knows they would have. She hurries away not wanting to draw Eponin or Solari away from their daughter.
Thinking of Lyceus makes her think of Hercules. She fights back the sob she feels forming in her throat. No more, she thinks. I've mourned him enough. I've mourned too much. It will be a gift for this to finally be over one way or another. She wonders where Hercules is. The Elysian Fields? This Heaven Eli and Ephiny have spoken of? She has no way of knowing right now. She may soon find him. She should have died in Carthage. Hercules should still be alive. She finds that part of her longs to be reunited with him no matter the cost.
As she nears the end of the hallway she is walking she sees Caesar standing there with his hands clasped behind his back. There is a stern look on his face and his eyes are focused. She has been expecting this. She really doesn't want to do it.
“The endgame is nearly upon us,” Caesar says.
“I know,” she replies.
“Will you hear me now?” he asks.
She points to an open door. She steps inside and waits for him to follow. They are in the throne room. Caesar walks up to the throne and looks at it for a moment. “A stepping stone to one of these,” he says pointing to the throne. “That's all you were. All the gold and plunder I took from you that day went right into my campaign in Gaul.”
“Caesar,” he says trying to stop him.
He turns around to face her. “When I left you on that beach you were nothing to me. Not even a conquest. And after that day I never thought of you again. Even when I began to hear about the ‘Destroyer of Nations' I didn't care. Only Brutus thought to remind me who that person was.”
“You don't have to do this,” she tells him.
“Yes. I do,” he corrects her. “I owe you this much. I have spent the last five and half years trying to make up for my past. Just like you have. Those many years ago you said we would make a formidable team. And so we have. But our alliance is something that pains me. For everyday I cannot help but be reminded of the kind of man I was. The kind of man who would betray a lover then leave her for dead.”
“You have done so much to help the world since Hope came to power.” Xena walks up to him stare him down. “Don't belittle yourself. The past is in the past.”
“I told Antony before that if Hope not come along and united us that you would be the death of me. This I know is a fact. You would have killed me that day in Athens if Julia hadn't walked in, wouldn't you?”
Xena hesitates for a moment. “Yes. I would have.” She sees him opening his mouth to speak again but cuts him off. “But you were right that day. I did blame you and you alone. And that was stupid. You didn't set me on the course that led me to become the ‘Destroyer of Nations.' I did that myself the day I chose to take up arms against Cortese. It was my destiny.”
“Now there's a word I don't like to use anymore,” Caesar remarks. “I thought it was my destiny to rule the world. As it is I rule nothing but a legion.”
“You are the greatest leader the world has ever known,” Xena says pointing at him. “Someday you'll eclipse Alexander.”
Caesar looks stunned by these words. So too for that matter does Xena.
“That remains to be seen,” he says. He turns ands runs a hand along the throne. “Once this was all I desired.”
“I initiated a war that led to the death of millions. The very fact that Vercinix can consider me a friend is a miracle liken unto those Eli's god can perform. I have been at war with someone or something for as long as I can remember. I don't know what my life would be without conflict anymore. It's as much a part of me as my heart beat. But since Hope rose to power I have seen more death and tragedy than even I can comprehend.”
“Doesn't answer my question.” Xena stands next to him, lays her hand on top of his and pulls it off the throne. “What do you desire now if not to rule?”
Turning to look into her eyes he speaks the truth. “I want to walk the streets of Rome with my daughter and never have to worry about where the next fight is coming from. I want to be able to feel love again. To look out across the country side and not worry that an army might be coming over the next rise.”
“You want peace?” Xena asks.
“Not just peace from war,” Caesar adds to her statement. “I want peace of mind. Peace of the heart. Peace of the soul.”
“Sounds like you need to talk to Eli.” Xena smiles. Her eyebrow rises as she thinks of something. “And what about the Republic? I thought you said that if you won that you had fought too hard to let it fall into the hands of idiots in white robes.”
Caesar chuckles as she turns his own words on him. “Impaled upon my own arrogance?” He smiles at her. “Perhaps with the right people the Republic can be reformed. With the right people in charge we can stop all the fighting at last. Have a lasting peace. A Pax Romana if you will. Not that there is much left to fight for. Hope almost has it all anyway.”
“But we'll make sure she doesn't get any more,” Xena says as she closes his hand in hers making a fist of it. She presses it over his heart and then places her own hand over her heart in the Roman salute. “We will end this. I promise you.”
“Will you accept my apology for what I did to you?” he asks with his hand still in the salute.
“Yes,” she answers him. He has waited a long time to ask it. “I forgive you for your betrayal and for the deaths of my friends that day.”
“Thank you Xena,” he says as he thumps his chest in salute.
She surprises him again by stepping close and hugging him. “Never apologize to me again Gaius,” she says to him being sure to call him by the familiar name. “You have no need to. We are friends.”
Caesar hesitates for a moment then returns the embrace. “Friends.”
“There's no need for you to go,” Jett tells Ephiny as she stands before the warm glow of the hearth.
“He's right,” Nannan agrees with him. “Just tell them where the entrance is.”
“You don't understand,” Ephiny tries to explain to them.
“You're right,” Nannan agrees with her as well. “We don't understand why you want to die.”
“First of all I don't want to die,” Ephiny corrects him.
“Then why are you doing this?” Jett asks her.
Ephiny sighs loudly then steps away from the hearth. “As I've said before Alti's visions are immutable.”
“You don't know that!” Nannan cries.
“Yes I do!” Ephiny shouts back at him.
“Ephiny. This is insane.” Jett walks up to her. “If you know for certain that you're going to die today in the Citadel then just stay here. Prove Alti wrong.”
“I don't want to prove her wrong or right Jett!” Ephiny exclaims. “I want to go. I've been with Hope.” She stops for a moment and shakes her head. “With Gabrielle since this all began. And I mean to be there at the end.”
“Even if it means your death?” Nannan asks.
“Even if it means my death,” Ephiny replies.
Jett's shoulders slump. He looks from Ephiny to Nannan then back to Ephiny again. “I can only imagine what it must be like to love someone that much.”
“It's the greatest blessing of my life,” Ephiny tells him with a smile. But the smile fades almost instantly. “And the greatest curse as well.”
“Do you think Gabrielle knows how much you love her?” Nannan asks her.
“I'm not sure,” she answers. She remembers that horrible day in Carthage. “But when I shielded her with my body, she summoned Hope to save me.”
“So maybe she does know,” Jett surmises. “And maybe she feels the same way.”
Ephiny looks again into the hearth. “Pity I won't live to find out one way or the other.”
Jett and Nannan share a mournful glance. They have both grown fond of the strong, young woman that stands before them. They both know it will pain them greatly when she is gone.
Octavia goes through the motions once more of a series of practice drills Iolaus has taught her. She sees the warrior from the corner of her eye as she lunges forward then pulls back into a defensive stance.
“This how you're going to spend your time?” Iolaus asks her as he steps inside the room.
“If I think about anything else I'm afraid I'll just break down,” she replies twirling the blade in a tight arc before spinning around to begin another drill.
Iolaus leans against the wall and watches her move expertly through the drill he has instructed her in. She is a quick study and has learned well. He prays it helps. She is far too young to die so violent a death as might be awaiting her in the Citadel. “You're probably right,” he says. As he says that he sees her misstep and nearly fall. She stops all movement and the sword drops from her grip.
“I miss him so much,” she says in a shaky voice. To her surprise she doesn't start sobbing or crying. “He was my little brother. I should have been able to protect him.”
“We can't protect everyone we love,” Iolaus says.
She looks at him for a moment before sitting down on the stone floor. “He died protecting us. Giving his life for ours.”
“There's no greater gift they say than to lay down your life for the ones you love.”
“Do you believe that?”
“I'm not sure. But I know Octavian believed it. Just as Hercules believed it.”
“I wish I could see Antony one last time.” She thinks of him fighting in Piraeus. “I love him so much.” She turns to look at him. “Have you ever been in love?”
He shrugs and sits down on the floor as well. “You know I don't think I ever have. I've loved people. Like Hercules. He was like a brother to me. But in love? No. I don't think so. Maybe it's just not for me.”
“You should try it,” Octavia replies with a somewhat girlish smile on her face. “It's the greatest feeling in the world. You can be at the lowest point in your life but when they take you in their arms it's like you're on top of the world. That's what it feels like in Antony's arms.”
Iolaus smiles broadly at the words. “Then I truly hope you get to be in his arms again.”
Octavia smiles but not so much as he. “So do I. So do I.”
Sitting alone in silent contemplation Eli prays wordlessly to the One. It soon becomes apparent to him that he is not alone. He opens his eyes. Sitting on the floor across from him is a woman dressed in gold and white with long dark hair. Her face is the portrait of serenity and calm. And from her comes an unearthly light that fills the room with its ethereal glow.
“Hello Eli,” she says to him in a voice that sounds more like a song sung than words spoken.
“Hello angel,” he replies to his Heavenly guest.
“I've come in answer to your prayers,” the angel informs him. Her voice soothes his unease and draws a peace around him like a warm cloak.
“Thank you,” he says to her in a voice that seems inadequate to him.
“You are troubled?” she asks it in the form of a question but she knows the truth. “Tell me why.”
“I am not sure that I can do this,” he speaks to her plainly and honestly. To hide the truth from her would be to blaspheme against the One and to say that all he has taught is a lie.
“Do you doubt yourself or your faith?” she asks him.
“I could never doubt my faith!” he says in a voice he is certain is raised far to high for dealing with an emissary of the One.
“Then you doubt yourself,” the angel says.
“Yes,” he replies honestly again. “To face Hope and do what Caesar asks. To drive the spirit of Dahak from her. I don't think I can do it.”
“You drove Tataka from that girl,” the angel reminds him in her singsong voice.
“That was a minor demon,” Eli reminds her. “This is Dahak.”
“There is no difference,” the angel tells him. She holds up a hand to halt his protest as she continues. “Was it your will that drove Tataka from the girl? Is it your will that heals the sick, the injured and the dying?”
“No,” Eli responds. “It is the power of the One that flows through me as His Avatar.”
“It is your faith in the power of the One that flows through you as His Avatar, Eli,” the angel explains to him. Her eyes gleam like stars as she stares into his face. “Without faith the power is useless. Without faith there is no power. So when you doubt yourself. You doubt your faith.”
“I…” he begins but stops and pauses. “I have heard of her power. I've been told of what Hope can do. She killed Hercules. She's slaughtered the Olympian gods. She's shattered the Dreamscape and now Morpheus is no more.”
“And she does these things because she has faith in her power.” The angel leans forward so that her nose nearly touches his. “Because Dahak believes he is all powerful. Now do you believe that Hope's faith is her ungodly power is stronger than your faith in the Way and the One?”
Eli holds his hands up before him and looks at them. With these hands he has cured the sick. Healed the injured. And even driven a demon back to the Abyss it came from. All these things he has done with his faith. All these things the One has done through him because of his faith. “No.” He lowers his hands back down. “But I also know that I cannot throw fireballs about like toys. I can't move stones with my mind. She can.”
“As long as your faith is strong she cannot hurt you,” the angel tells him. She leans back from him. “Her fire will not burn you. Her force will not touch you. You are unlike any man who has ever walked this world. For no man before you has had such faith in the unseen. Hope needs the Eternal Fire to worship and sacrifice to. You need only your faith. To believe.”
“I do believe,” Eli tells her. “My faith will protect me.”
“May I ask you something?” the angel's song like voice seems to drop so that it now sounds mournful and sad.
“Yes,” Eli answers.
“Do you feel pity for her? For Hope?” The light from the angel seems to dull as she asks the question.
“I pity Gabrielle,” Eli answers. “I feel sorry for the girl that Ephiny has told me so much about. I mourn her. And all she has lost.”
“I was her sister,” the angel Lila tells the Avatar of the One.
Eli stares into the angel's eyes but cannot find any words to say to her.
“I was the first to be sacrificed to Dahak,” Lila continues. “It was my blood that was transfigured into the Eternal Fire on this mortal plane. Blood and innocence. That was the sacrifice required. And that was what my sister gave to Dahak with my blood and my life.”
“I'm sorry,” Eli says to her. For a second he starts to reach out to her. But he stops unsure of what would happen to mortal flesh should it touch a body from Heaven.
She answers the question for him when she reaches out and takes his hands in hers. “There is no need for you to feel sorry for me. My pain was brief. My sister's is endless. From behind Hope's eyes she sees all that the Avatar of Dahak does and is powerless to stop it. So I ask you not only in the name of the One to bring Hope's reign to an end. But also to bring my sister peace. To release her from her torment. Can you do this?”
Eli squeezes Lila's hands and feels the angelic warmth coming from them. “My faith is strong. The Way and the One flow through me. I am the one true Avatar walking this world. And I shall see an end to this. When I lay these hands on your sister's body I will drive the spirit of Dahak from her. And she will know peace.”
“Will you do me one favor when you see her? Please tell her that I love her. And that I forgive her.” Lila pulls her hands from Eli's and crosses them over her chest. “Please.”
“I will,” Eli says in a voice now devoid of any doubt or misgiving but with a conviction born of the purest faith.
“Thank you,” Lila says as wings of the purest white spring forth from her back. The wings beat but there is no wind from them. She lifts into the air. She smiles and holds up a hand in farewell, as the air seems to rip open in a floating doorway to light. Her wings carry her into the doorway and then she is gone.
Eli holds up his hands to look at them once more. They still tingle with the warmth from Lila's hands. Hands that have healed. Hands that have driven out demons. Hands that will free a tortured soul. He stands to his feet. “It's time to end this.”