DUALITY OF HOPE AND DESPAIR
The citizens of Athens try at first to struggle and fight back against Hope's priests. Families stay together and attempt to resist. Groups of men and women band together and battle with those trying to capture them. But this resistance is short lived. Hope watches it for only a few moments before deciding to do something about it. She focuses her attention on a family of seven that is grappling with three priests at the edge of the Agora. From atop the platform she lets loose a feral scream that draws all eyes in the city to her. She raises her hands over her head and concentrates her power into a writhing orb of reddish flame that she then hurls at the family. The fire ball impacts the chest of a small boy then like a living creature it coils around him. The boy cries out in hellish agony. The boy's mother steps closer to her burning son. As she gets within arm's length of him the fire rears up like a serpent preparing to strike. And strike it does. The fire leaps from the boy to hit his mother in the chest as well. In an instant she is engulfed in flames. The remainder of the family, the woman's husband, their other four children and the woman's elderly mother, try to back away but the searing red flames arc out from the two still burning bodies and lash out at them. All seven are being consumed alive by the fire Hope has summoned. Worse yet they are dying slowly. They continue to scream and writhe in pain far past the time someone on fire should be dead. It seems to take an eternity to for them to finally cease their agonizing outcries and struggles. But when at last they are dead, their suffering has had the effect Hope desires. Not a single person in the Agora has not seen or heard the torturous end of this family. All stand as still as statues.
“A swift death by the blade!” Hope shouts in a voice that is carried to every ear in Athens. “Or the suffering of my rage! The choice is yours!”
There is no further resistance. Family and friends try to stay together so that they might spend their last hours on Earth with those they love. People who have never spoken to each other in the streets before now clasp hands and embrace each other. Everywhere the people of Athens try to take some sort of comfort as they face certain death.
After some time the Agora is empty except for Hope who still stands on the platform. She looks around at the quiet solitude of the marketplace. Her thoughts turn to Ephiny for a moment and she smiles. When the Burning is but one death away from its initiation she will call a halt to the sacrifices. Then she will seek out her handmaiden and drag her kicking and screaming if she must into the audience chamber of the Citadel. There she will make Ephiny watch as the last sacrifice is made and the end of this world is brought about with the Eternal Fire. She has yet to decide what to do with the blonde then. Perhaps she will let Ephiny live so that she can witness the absolute triumph of Dahak over all of creation. Maybe let her watch as she consummates her bargain with Ares and they conceive the Six Destroyers.
She feels something stirring at the back of her mind once more. Whereas before she had to fight Gabrielle for control, now she just pushes the girl's soul back to the pit inside her. “I don't think so Gabrielle,” she tells the soul still residing within her body somewhere. “You can't fight me anymore. You gave up that right when you called me in Carthage. Perhaps I won't let Ephiny live. Maybe I'll just gut her like a fish and make her the final sacrifice so you can watch your precious Amazon princess die.” She laughs as she hears the anguished screaming within.
By midday the sacrifices are underway. In minutes hundreds die with their blood coating the floors of the temples in Athens. But only their blood remains as their lifeless corpses are cast into the Fire where they are consumed in an instant.
In the Citadel, Hope presides over the sacrifices in her audience chamber. Standing on the dais she cries out in euphoria as each man, woman and child is murdered for her cause and fed to the Fire. Priests fill the chamber with the same chanting that was heard outside the temple in Britannia six years ago when she came into this world. Those being led to their deaths can only understand two words being said: Dahak and Hope. The members of the Inner Council are gathered near the Fire as usual with Khrafstar taking center stage. The sacrifices are brought to him one at the time and he raises high the dagger that Meridian had given Gabrielle years ago to slaughter her sister with. “For the glory of Dahak!” he cries out as he slits the throat of those brought before him. No one is spared as has been done in the past. Each and every person dies on the same blade as Lila. Their bodies carried away to be cast into the voracious Eternal Fire. The audience chamber is massive and could possibly hold close to a thousand people within its confines. As it stands there are close to two hundred within it as the sacrifices proceed.
As Diana had predicted the secret entrance into the audience chamber is unused. Hope has the people brought into the Citadel through the main entrance like cattle being sent to the slaughterhouse. Priests of Dahak line the walls to facilitate the sacrifices more efficiently. Three stand before the secret entrance that leads into and out of the chamber. The first has no inclination of what is happening to him as Xena grabs his head and twists it quickly and savagely. The sound of his cracking neck and his gasp of death is not heard over the chanting. The priest to his left looks to his companion. Before he can say or do anything he too is silenced as Iolaus grabs him from behind and drives a sword up and into his back piercing his heart and killing him instantly. The third notices that the man to his left slumps for some reason. Ready to admonish him for slacking in his priestly duties he doesn't notice Eponin rise up behind him. She grabs him by the head and drives her dagger into the base of his skull.
The three dead men are dragged into the passageway and are instantly replaced by Octavia, Diana and Caesar wearing identical robes. Xena, Iolaus and Eponin strip the priests of their robes and after donning them step into the audience chamber. In a move nearly too fast for the human eye to follow Jett, clad in the robes of a priest, steps from the passageway, strikes a priest to his right across the throat, crushing his larynx and silencing him forever then pushing his limp body back into the dark passage. The next priest in line turns to see what ails his fellow and is none the wiser about what has just happened. Ephiny pulls the robes from this priest and passes them to Amarice. She puts them on quickly then steps out into the chamber. Darnell, Eli, Solari and Ephiny remain in the passageway for a moment. Jett places his hand behind his back and gestures for them to come out. Also clad in priestly robes they emerge into the audience chamber.
Almost as soon as she sets foot in the massive room Ephiny recalls the vision. The sword thrust into her gut, the blade twisting savagely then being wrenched from her. She looks about at all those present. Her eyes linger on Hope for a moment. Of all those present it is she alone that Ephiny knows will not be the one to kill her. She tries her best not to think about it too much. But she is filled with that morbid curiosity about whom in this place will end her life.
Caesar looks all around him and calculates their odds. The audience chamber seems filled with people. But the vast majority of those present are people to be sacrificed. Xena leans in close to him. “There are about fifty to sixty priests,” she informs him.
Even Caesar knows those odds are not good. There are only twelve of them and two of them are not combatants. Outnumbered six to one. Those are bad odds in any situation. But then he has faced worse and emerged victorious. Plus they have the one advantage that the priests are not fighters. But then he has to take into account the presence of Pompey, Najara , Velasca and, of course, Hope. All of them are proficient warriors. And it is not to be taken lightly that Hope could just start throwing fireballs around or bring the entire Citadel down on top of them. But they are the sacrifices she needs. And she needs their blood to be spilled and their corpses cast to the Fire. She may not risk using her power in that fashion. Just as he is about to speak to Xena there is a burst of blue light beside Hope and Ares stands with the Avatar on the dais.
“Damn it,” he mutters.
A cry is cut short as the monstrous high priest of Dahak slits a young girl's throat. Velasca casts the girl's body into the Fire.
“We have to act quickly,” Ephiny mutters to Solari.
“Not yet,” the warrior tells her. “We have to get Eli as close to Hope as possible.”
“She's right,” Eli says.
“Just stick close to me,” Darnell tells the Avatar of the One. He shifts his shoulders for a moment to readjust the shield on his back. He reaches up under the loosely worn robes to slide his gladius from the concave inner side of the shield.
“You'll get no argument from me,” Eli tells him.
Darnell and Solari flank Eli as they begin to move in closer. Ephiny moves away from them to stand with Xena and Caesar. “They're on their way,” she says.
“Good,” Caesar says. Their group begins to move forward as well to mingle with the moving mass of humanity in the audience chamber. “With any luck Eli will be right in front of Hope before she realizes what is going on.”
“Fortune favor us then,” Xena says.
Eponin and Diana find Amarice and they begin to mill about with everyone. Octavia finds Iolaus and they walk slowly about. Caesar's niece keeps turning her attention towards the Fire. There she sees Alti standing with the other members of the Inner Council. She turns her head when Khrafstar slits an old man's throat then passes his body to Alti and Najara for them to cast to the Fire. Jett stays by the passageway for a moment. When he sees that their stealthy and lethal entrance has drawn no attention he moves away from the wall.
Caesar's cunning plan seems to be working. No one is aware that they have entered the Citadel. And no one is the wiser that the one person who may be able to stop Hope is getting nearer to her with every second. But it all unravels by one chance encounter.
A priest pushing his charge forward towards the center of the room and the Fire sends the woman into Darnell's back. In such closer quarters the priest hears the hollow thump his captive's impact with the man before them makes. “What the…” the priests says. He reaches past the woman to grab the shoulders of the man. Darnell is spun around unexpectedly and his hood falls. Not only does it reveal the blond hair and beard but the very top of the shield on his back. The priest's eyes go wide at the sight. Solari moves quickly but not quickly enough. The priest has the time to scream, “Intruders!” before her dagger cuts his throat.
Ephiny steps back as the blood spray hits her. As she does another priest grabs her by the arm. “You're not getting away,” he tells her. He raises a dagger preparing to strike.
Unsure of what else to do Ephiny pulls down her hood to reveal her identity.
“Handmaiden,” the priest croaks upon seeing who she is. He lowers the blade held in his hand.
Apparently Hope's will that no one harm her is strictly enforced now. She gestures for the man to stand aside. She removes her robes revealing herself in the royal looking gown she wears. As she walks away she finds the priests parting to let her pass. She looks back over her shoulder and finds Eli looking at her. She turns her glance towards Hope on the dais then walks away melting into the crowd.
Several priests and their captives back away from the commotion caused by the dying priest. This draws the attention of Hope and her allies. “What is going on?” the Avatar cries out.
“Damn!” Caesar curses. He turns to Xena. “Now!”
Xena tosses off her disguise and lets loose her screaming war cry. With her sword in one hand and her chakrum in the other she dispatches two priests near her in an instant. Then she sends the chakrum sailing away from her. The deadly circle whines loudly as it hits one priest on the side of the head cracking open his skull then ricochets over to open up the throat of another before it returns to her hand.
“Xena!” Hope and Ares shout at the same time.
Caesar drops his robes and draws his sword. The gladius cuts open the stomach of one priest before he spins and slams the pommel into the face of another. Looking over the heads of many priests and Athenian citizens he spots Darnell and his companions. He points towards the dais. “Go!”
Hope's audience chamber explodes into a battleground.
Solari spins with lethal grace spilling the blood of several priests before they are even aware of what she is. Darnell slips from his robes and shrugs the shield from his back with practiced ease. He hammers a man next to him with the shield then stabs another with the gladius through his thigh. Both drop, not dead but definitely unable to fight.
Octavia and Iolaus pull off their robes and toss them on the priests nearest them. Enshrouded the men have no way to react. Iolaus slams his foot into the face of one man sending him to the floor. Octavia drives forward pushing her blade into the side of the man before her. She has no time to think on her first kill as another priest draws close behind her. She spins and sweeps his feet from under him them stabs him through the chest. She pulls the weapon free and turns to face another priest who leers at her with her death on his mind. Iolaus cuts the back of the man's leg and he collapses in a heap. “Come on!” he yells to her. The two of them begin moving forward side by side slashing at their foes while protecting each other as well.
Eponin, Amarice and Diana shrug out of their robes and draw weapons as one. They begin to attack any black and red clad priests near them. Diana nearly beheads one priest as he attempts to drag a woman towards the center of the chamber. The woman looks up into the eyes of the resistance leader. “Who? Who are you?”
“That is unimportant right now,” Diana says as she fends off the attack of another priest. She opens his guts and turns back to the woman. “Just get out of here! Take as many as you can with you! And tell them and any who will listen that Caesar is here to fight for your lives ands your freedom!”
The woman runs away as fast as her feet will carry her.
“What the hell was that?” one of the mercenaries guarding the entrance to the tunnel leading under the city asks his companion. “Did you hear that?”
“Oh please,” the other man groans. “Have you been talking with those guards that were on that outer wall? The ones that said they saw a ghost?”
“I'm telling you I heard something!” the first man complains.
“And I'm telling you you're an idiot!” the second man screams at him.
Autolycus smiles as he creeps past the arguing guards. Too easy, he thinks. As he enters the tunnel Diana told him about he finds it lined on both sides with more guards. At least twenty. They are spaced pretty far apart and the torchlight is pretty sparse. As he prepares to take his first step into the tunnel he sees the loose nature of the soil leading into it. With each step he'll leave a visible footprint. And while these men might think as others have before that he is a ghost, all it will take will be one lucky thrust of a sword or spear and he'll be dead.
He thinks for a moment. It occurs to him that everything in contact with him is also invisible such as his clothes. And perhaps even his grappling hooks. With a flick of his wrists he has them both in his hands. He can't see them. This will be risky and it will take him a hell of a lot longer than walking down the tunnel. He throws the first grapple a little ways down the hall where it embeds itself in the ceiling.
“What was that?” a guard a little ways down the tunnel says.
“Don't start!” the guard across the hall from him says.
“What?” the guard replies. “We have no idea what's at the end of this damn tunnel. I mean come on you've heard the noises coming from down there.”
Autolycus swings the short distance his grapple allows. He finds himself dangling between the two arguing guards and hanging bare inches from the floor.
“I don't care!” the second man says. “I just like getting paid!”
Still keeping hold of the first grapple Autolycus casts the other a little ways down the tunnel. It hits the ceiling again.
“Huh?” another guard says near where the grapple hit. But he just seems to ignore it.
Trying his best not to breathe too loudly Autolycus waits for a moment then swings down to dangle before the bored guard. The man's smell is nearly overpowering as he hangs there. Twisting just slightly he pulls the first grapple from the ceiling behind him then casts it ahead of him. It hits into the ceiling but doesn't garner the attention of a fat guard who seems to be asleep at his position.
Thanking Fortune that mercenaries are never the smartest lot to be found in Greece, the King of Thieves continues what he is certain will be a very long and nerve racking journey.
“Continue the sacrifices Khrafstar!” Hope screams from the dais pointing at him.
The Deliverer nods and draws the dagger across the throat of a child before passing her corpse to a priest. The members of the Inner Council have left their positions by the Eternal Fire to engage Caesar and his allies in battle.
As the battle intensifies Caesar and Xena are separated. Caesar is pushed away by a small mob of priests who he manages to deal with in a rather brutal manner before regaining his bearing.
Xena slashes open the throat of a priest and spots Darnell and Solari still defending Eli. Caesar is no longer at her side. She finds she will be best used defending the Avatar. But as she stakes a step forward her path is blocked. Najara brings her sword down and Xena blocks it. She attacks with her chakrum but Najara blocks her attack with a dagger drawn from her belt. Their weapons locked together for a moment, the two warrior women glare at each other.
“Xena Warrior Princess,” Najara says her face drawn up into a sadistic and some might say insane grin. “I've dreamed of this moment.”
“Dream on!” Xena shouts as she spins herself to come back around at the other woman.
But Najara is ready and moves in close to both block Xena's attack and to show the warrior princess she is a formidable opponent. Xena feels the edge of Najara's dagger cut into the skin of her upper right arm. She steps back and stares at the woman.
“It won't be that easy,” Najara informs her.
Xena smiles as she feels her bloodlust rising to the surface. She grins in a fashion very similar to her opponent's. “Good,” she says. “Cause easy is no fun at all.” She shouts her battle cry then moves in again.
While Diana focuses on trying to free the captives in the audience chamber, Eponin sees that some are actually trying to exit through the main entrance that is jammed with priests and other victims to be sacrificed. She grabs the arm of one young man running towards the main entrance. She points over to the dark corner where the secret passage is. “That way!” she yells at the man. The man looks at her a little confused. “Go!” Eponin roars.
Amarice slashes and hacks like a maniac trying to kill as many of the priests as possible. Ashamed of her earlier fear, she now gives into the battle lust that always seizes her in combat. Sending one man after the next to his death she makes certain to scream at any citizens she comes across to run as hard and as fast as their feet will carry them.
She senses another attacker and turns to meet this new foe. Her short sword and dagger cross in front of her to block the attack of Velasca.
Velasca looks into the eyes of the girl before her. “And who might you be?” she asks.
Amarice recognizes the leader of the Amazons and is somehow glad that of all the people in the Citadel she has met this one in battle. “My name is Amarice. And I come to claim vengeance for the Centaurs.”
“Centaurs?” Velasca says staring into the hate filled eyes of the young warrior. “Oh. You must mean that village in northern Greece.”
Amarice released her hold with Velasca's sword and tries to drive her other blade into her gut. The Amazon parries the attack and counters with her own. Amarice catches the blow between her blades again. “Yes!” she cries and begins to twirl and spin with her twin weapons in an attack that seems more like a dance than combat.
But Velasca has been a warrior since she was old enough to hold a weapon. She meets and counters each of the girl's attacks. Soon they are locked in a twisting, gyrating combat that no one is willing to even get close to.
Still clad in the red and black robes of a priest of Dahak Jett moves with ease through the throngs of battling warriors and priests. He sees Ephiny walking close to the wall. She is circumnavigating the audience chamber. He has no doubt that she is heading for Hope. Though what that will avail her, he cannot fathom. He sees their allies all engaged in tight combat. He also sees the number of priests dwindling. While hundreds more wait to enter the chamber few seem inclined to enter now that they see so many of their fellows dying.
But the sacrifices still continue. Khrafstar draws the sacred blade across the throat of a woman before tossing her body into the Fire himself. “More!” he cries in that animalistic voice of his. “More for the glory of Dahak!”
A few priests seem adventurous enough and enter the chamber dragging their captives with them. He focuses his attention on Khrafstar. That is whom he will kill. With a deliberately slow pace he begins to move towards the center of the chamber. Running he is certain will only get him killed or worse. He glances back at the dais. Hope stands there watching everything with a look of utter frustration on her face. He can tell that she wants to stop all this and just lash out to kill everyone. But she can't. She needs the people for sacrifice to the Fire. A definite twist of irony, he thinks.
Caesar battles his way to the center of the chamber and soon finds himself standing before the Eternal Fire. But to his frustration he finds he is on the side of it opposite the Deliverer. A priest rushes him and he stabs the man in the gut. As he pulls the weapon free another sword hammers down onto his right arm. Only the thick metal gauntlet he wears keeps him from having his hand severed. However it doesn't stop the impact from breaking his arm. His sword drops from his hand but he snatches it back up with his left hand before it even touched the floor. He turns to face his attacker.
“Caesar,” Pompey says.
“Pompey,” Caesar responds.
“I've waited a long time for this,” Pompey says twirling his sword fancifully,
“You've waited a long time to die,” Caesar informs his one time friend and ally.
Pompey looks from the broken arm of Caesar to the hand wielding his sword. “I don't think so.” He attacks with abandon expecting to easily overwhelm his foe. But finds instead each of his attacks blocked or parried.
“Think again” Caesar retorts. Movement behind him alerts him to another attacker. He turns and kills the approaching priest with ease then turns to face Pompey once more. Their swords clash together time and time again with neither being able to gain the advantage.
They smile at one another. “Just like old times,” Pompey remarks thinking of how they used to duel each other to see who was better. As he recalls Caesar always won. “But this time it's gonna be different.” He launches another series of swift attacks.
“How so?” Caesar inquires as he still manages to thwart each of Pompey's attacks.
“Because this time I'll kill you!” Pompey says gripping his sword in both hands and beginning to hammer at Caesar's defense.
With Solari and Darnell clearing a bloody path before him, it is not long before Eli finds them closing in on the dais where Hope stands. He shrugs out of his robe revealing himself before calling out, “Gabrielle!”
Hope looks at this man is shock. How does he know that name? There is something about him: something elusive and mysterious. At a glance she cannot understand him. She doesn't like that. She turns to her godly companion. “Ares.”
The god of war looks down and sees the strange man flanked by the man and woman warriors. “No problem,” he says as he vanishes from sight.
When he reappears he is striding towards the three of them. Like a child tossing rocks Ares hurls a fireball from each of his hands. Darnell holds up his shield to block the fireball racing towards him. The god projectile slams into the shield with the force of a boulder dropped from a cliff. The gladiator is hurled backwards into a throng of priests and sacrifices knocking them all down. Solari sees the fireball heading towards her and dives out of the way. The fireball races past and strikes a priest unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is engulfed in flame and soon screaming in agony.
Both Solari and Darnell realize they have failed. Eli is now helpless before the wrath of Ares.
“This is the best Xena and Caesar could come up with.” Ares continues to stride forward. Were he not so full of his own ego he might find it odd that Eli too is continuing to walk forward seemingly regardless of his presence. Ares halts a step before Eli.
The Avatar of the One looks into the eyes of the war god and says in an almost conversational tone, “Stand aside.” The words come out like a request.
Ares laughs. “I don't think so.” He reaches out and grabs Eli's shoulder. As soon as he touches the man he is seized by a fear unlike anything he has ever known before. Coursing through this stranger is a power that he does not understand. Nor could he if he even knew about the Way and the One. Ares has met gods, demons and demigods of all kinds and races. But never has he felt anything containing the kind of power that he senses in this man. He meets the gaze of the stranger and sees something behind those eyes. Behind the eyes of the Avatar of Dahak he can see Fire. Behind the eyes of this man he can see Light. A Light so intense that were it to projected here in this world it would blind any and all would saw it.
Eli stares into the eyes of Ares. And this time his voice is backed by the same power that Ares sees behind his eyes. “Stand. Aside.” Now the words come out as a command. And Ares, terrified to his immortal core, obeys. He vanishes in an explosion of blue white light.
“Ares!” Hope shouts in rage that the god has retreated. “You coward!”
“Gabrielle!” Eli shouts as he draws closer to the dais.
An unnatural light surrounds Hope. “I don't know who you are!” she shouts holding one hand over her head. A blazing white sphere of fire forms in her palm. “But you're dead!” She hurls the ball of fire straight at Eli.
Ephiny nears the dais when she witnesses Ares' retreat. She is shocked to see it. Eli is more powerful than any of them believed if he is able to make the god of war simply run away. Then she sees the ball of fire forming in Hope's hand. She watches as the Avatar of Dahak hurls it at the Avatar of the One. “No!” she cries out.
The fireball explodes with such intensity it throws anyone close by off his feet. Where Eli had previously stood is now a column of white fire. Hope chuckles. “Fool.”
But Eli steps unscathed from the fire. Neither his hair nor his clothing is even singed.
“What?” Hope cries out in total and utter disbelief. “That's impossible!”
“Gabrielle!” Eli calls out again.
“How do you know that name?” Hope cries out. From the corner of her eye she sees Ephiny moving against the wall not far away. “Ephiny! You traitorous bitch!”
As soon as the fighting had broken out Alti had cloaked herself in shadow and moved away from the center of the audience chamber to the wall. She is no fool and she's not a fighter. That is best left to the others. She is more suited to the shadows after all. This attack was the height of stupidity. There is nothing Caesar can gain by this except his death. She looks around the chamber trying to find some target for her powers. But there are too many people. She can't focus her attention on Xena, Caesar or any of the others. From her hiding place she can see Xena battling Najara. She has always wondered which of them is better. Velasca is fighting a young woman who is possessed by a battle lust that rivals Xena's. Near the Fire, Pompey struggles with Caesar. That was inevitable.
What she sees near the dais surprises even her. She watches Ares attempt to stop this bearded stranger. There is something about him. Even she can feel it. Her power comes from hate and fear. She draws from all the negativity in the world. But this man seems to be drawing from a power that is the opposite. From love and compassion. Ares vanishes from sight and as he does so she can feel his fear.
Then Hope turns her rage on the man. A fireball capable of reducing a boulder to pebbles hits him and he is unharmed! Who is he? she asks herself. She hears Hope curse Ephiny and she smiles. Who cares about Ares running away like a frightened child or all the combat going on? Ephiny's death is imminent. And that is what she wants to bear witness to.
Ephiny refuses to let the anger in Hope's voice hurt her. That's not Gabrielle, she tells herself. It's Dahak in Gabrielle's body.
Hope focuses her power on the man. If he won't burn that way then he can burn in the Eternal Fire. As she tries she finds that he is not lifted into the air and hurled back into the Fire as she intended. “Who are you?”
Eli continues his march forward. A priest tries to attack him but finds a sword in his back as Solari recovers from her evasion of Ares' attack.
“I've come for Gabrielle,” Eli says. “Return her Dahak.”
“This is ridiculous!” Hope states loudly. She summons her power and throws a wall of force at him.
Eli senses the power's approach and confident in his faith merely holds up his hand. The audience chamber reverberates with a sound like two boulders made of metal striking each other. To Eli's left two priests of Dahak are swept up by Hope's power and slammed into the wall. The wall cracks.
Seeing what has just happening and knowing what is to come Eli turns to Solari. “Get out of here!” he shouts at her.
The Amazon seems puzzled but finds that she has no wish to disobey Eli or that voice. She runs from the dais and throws herself into the battle going on near the Fire. Darnell has witnessed the event as well. He doesn't need to be told. He follows Solari into a fight that he can understand.
Iolaus and Octavia fight furiously. He hears the sound of the two Avatars' powers clashing. He just manages to see the two priests crushed against the wall. And he sees the crack that forms. “Oh my god,” he mutters. In his travels with Hercules he has seen many powerful being fighting amongst themselves with little regard for the mere mortals around them. And while he is certain Eli wishes harm to no one, the same cannot be said for Hope. Dispatching another opponent he turns to Octavia. “We have to get these people out. It isn't safe here anymore.”
“What do you mean?” she asks him.
“Just trust me,” he replies turning from her and running for the main entrance. She follows close behind.
Diana, still trying to get as many free as possible, sees the two of them running like mad for the way in. The distraction costs her as a priest's dagger makes its way through her defense and goes into her side. She spins cutting open the man's neck. She grabs the dagger intent on pulling it out but is stopped by Darnell who closes his hand on hers.
“Don't,” he says. “If you pull it free you'll bleed out.”
“But,” Diana says pointing to where Iolaus and Octavia are going.
“I see them,” Solari says as she too appears at Diana's side. “Let's Go.”
Diana looks around. She wonders what is taking Autolycus so long. They could certainly use Aphrodite's help right about now.
“Who are you?” Hope screams at the man who dares to challenge her.
“My name is Eli,” Eli informs her. “And I am here to free Gabrielle.”
“My name is Hope!” the Avatar of Dahak shouts. Extending both her hands forward she sends her power hurtling towards Eli.
He in turn extends his hands out before him. Metallic thunder echoes again and this time there is an explosion to Eli's right where the wall meets the ceiling. Chunks of stone fall from the inner walls and cracks spider web across the ceiling. The sound of stone grinding on stone can be heard. “Stop this!” Eli shouts.
“Hope please!” Ephiny implores the Avatar to stop when she too realizes the destruction this may cause.
“Shut up!” Hope cries as she lashes out with her power towards Ephiny.
Alti sees this and grins. Could her vision have been wrong? Is Ephiny destined to die at the hands of Hope?
“No!” Eli screams and extends his hand towards Ephiny praying for the power that protects him from Hope's power to protect her as well.
Metallic thunder and suddenly the wall behind the dais where Hope stands explodes outward. When the Avatar turns she is staring out at the city below and beyond the Acropolis.
“Stop this!” Eli shouts again. “Please Gabrielle!”
“My name is Hope!” she screams again drawing her hands over her head to gather more power to herself.
The Deliverer is oblivious to everything going on around him as he shouts again, “For the glory of Dahak!” He slits the throat of a man and hurls his body into the Fire. The Eternal Fire roars with a life all its own and grows brighter with each body cast into it. Khrafstar can feel it moving closer and closer. Soon this world will burn. “More!” he bellows. Terrified by the high priest , the others bring him more.
Xena and Najara's weapons slam into each other time and time again. Sword against sword. Chakrum against dagger. Neither has ever faced a foe so skilled. And each of them revels in it. Both made mad by bloodlust they do not hear the metallic thunder nor notice the structural damage occurring to the Citadel.
Najara lunges forward and Xena catches her sword in the ring of the chakrum. She twists her weapon and pulls the other woman's sword from her hand. Najara turns with the action and hammers her elbow into Xena's midsection. Xena doubles over and Najara brings her knee up into Xena's face. Xena lashes out with her sword and Najara ducks. Xena kicks out to land her foot into Najara's chest, which sends the woman stumbling backwards. Xena presses her advantage and rushes forward. Najara falls backwards to the floor and reaches back to plant both her hands on the stone floor. Then she kicks forward using her arms to propel herself forward. Both her feet strike the advancing Xena in her chest. Najara completes the move by coming to her feet as Xena now stumbles back. She punches Xena in the gut doubling the warrior princess over again. With her other hand she punches Xena in the side of the head as hard as she can. Then she brings her knee up once more driving it into Xena's face.
Xena falls back onto the cold stone floor stunned and unable to react. Najara stomps her foot and the sword that Xena had wrenched from her grasp is in her hands once more. She raises the weapon up preparing to deliver the killing blow. Movement behind and to her left makes her swing in that direction.
A robed form ducks at the last second and slides into Xena with his full weight. The warrior princess and the interloper skid a few feet away , robbing Najara of her kill.
Jett stands and pulls the priest robes from himself. Xena is getting to her feet behind him. With his eyes fixed on Najara he points behind them. “Stop Khrafstar!” he shouts.
Xena looks at the center of the room and sees the Deliverer still butchering people and giving them to the Fire. She takes off in his direction without another word.
Jett draws himself into a defensive martial arts stance that one of his teachers in Chin had taught him long ago. It occurs to him that he should have just stuck with his task of getting to Khrafstar. But when he had seen Najara about to kill Xena he had chosen instead to save her and face the murderer of his brother.
“You can't be serious Joxer,” Najara says brandishing her sword and dagger.
Jett smiles, hiding his trepidation. Facing this maniac might be his death. She did just defeat Xena after all. But while he had approached them he had seen something in the way she fought. Both of them were going all out offensively. Neither trying to defend. Just doing their damnedest to kill each other. Perhaps that is the weakness in this woman who has killed so many. Going mad against someone who is also only out to kill you might be her way of fighting.
Najara rushes in and Jett moves in for close quarters. But he doesn't try to attack. He simply defends himself against her wild lunges and slashes. In so close her weapons are blocked and any attempt to strike him with her knees or feet as she did with Xena are blocked as well. She steps back from him. “I'm impressed Joxer. Did Callisto teach you that?”
“My name isn't Joxer,” Jett informs her. “He was my brother. I'm here to claim revenge for my family.”
“Oh really,” Najara says going at him again. Using his arms and legs to block her every attack Jett begins to see that his theory may be correct. And if it is he may be able to win after all. It will require him doing something he has never done before. A technique he vowed many years ago to never use.
Najara moves back from him cursing. “Coward! You can't defend yourself forever. If you want to beat me you'll have to attack!”
“Not necessarily,” Jett says moving his hands through an elaborate form taught him long ago. “All I need is one hit.”
“Ha!” Najara laughs. Her head tilts as though she is listening to someone. “I agree. He is a fool.” She looks at him. “One hit? Prove it!” She assaults him like a woman possessed.
Amarice is holding her own against Velasca but she feels the battle lust in her heart diminishing. She knows she isn't as skilled a fighter as the Amazon. Her intensity in battle is what is making up for this. But with each passing second she is losing that advantage. With each passing second she is losing to Velasca. She tries to imagine the centaur village in her mind in order to use that grief to power her rage. But while her mind is filled with the hate she feels for this woman, her body has never sustained a fight of this intensity for this long. The arms holding her weapons feel heavy. Her legs are moving slower. And she can hear herself grunting with fatigue now when Velasca's sword hits her weapons.
“Getting tired?” Velasca asks. She continues her barrage of sword strikes and can see her opponent growing tired indeed. “How can you avenge the centaurs if you're too tired to fight?”
Amarice lets out a halfhearted battle cry and attacks with all her might. Velasca parries the attack then steps into Amarice and elbows her in the face. The force of the blow nearly knocks her unconscious and she drops to her knees. Her weapons slip from her grasp.
“Maybe you should join them,” Velasca tells the would-be avenger of the centaurs. She draws back her sword. Amarice looks up into the face of the woman about to kill her. Velasca smiles. She'll drive her sword right through one of the girl's eyes as she did one of the centaurs in that village.
“Velasca!” a voice calls to her.
The Amazon leader turns away from her victim. She has just a moment to look stunned. “Eponin!” She shouts.
Eponin's sword opens up Velasca's neck and blood cascades from the wound like water. The mortally wounded woman drops her to knees then falls onto her side. Her head turns slightly and her eyes see her killer. “But …” she says as blood pools about her head. “Melosa said … you were …dead…” Her eyes once ablaze with blood lust glaze over in death.
Eponin helps Amarice to her feet. The young warrior looks from the corpse at her feet to the Amazon warrior standing before her. “You saved my life,” she says.
“It's what friends do,” Eponin tells her.
There is a sound like metallic thunder and they nearly lose their footing.
“What was that?” Amarice asks.
“Nothing good,” is all Eponin can say. “Come on.”
“You have to get out of here!” Darnell shouts to the priests that try to push into the audience chamber.
“More!” they hear the voice of Khrafstar booming.
A priest pushes forward with a young man. Darnell kills the priest then pushes the man aside.
“We can't stand here and kill everyone that comes in,” Diana tells him.
“Right,” Solari agrees. “We get as many out as we can through the secret passage.”
The Eternal Fie blazes higher and Khrafstar roars again. “For the glory of Dahak!”
“Not that it will matter if he keeps killing people!” Darnell says.
“We have to try,” Diana says. She groans in agony as the dagger in her side gets twisted when she moves.
“Enough,” Darnell says. “Get her out of here.”
“No,” Diana retorts.
“Yes,” Eponin says as she and Amarice approach them. “You're no good to us dead.”
“We'll do everything we can,” Amarice says.
“All right,” Solari says without waiting for Diana's agreement. “We're leaving.” Her eyes linger on Eponin for a moment. No words are needed between them. Eponin nods and so does Solari. She practically drags the resistance leader towards the secret passage. They find Iolaus and Octavia already there directing people.
“Come on!” Iolaus says pushing a couple through the passage.
“Go!” Octavia yells at two women who duck through the passage as well. She doesn't realize they are Solari and Diana.
Darnell looks around the chamber. “Well. There are still a few more priests.” He twirls his sword.
“More!” they hear the Deliverer.
“And there's still him,” Amarice says.
“Let's go!” Eponin says leading the two of them back into the battle.
Pompey continues his best to get the better of Caesar and he feels he is doing so. While Caesar's skill with the blade is extraordinary he is not used to fighting left handed and that is showing. The movements of his left arm are getting more erratic and slow. He has only to keep up his attack and he will be victorious. Hope will reward him well for finally killing the greatest thorn in her side.
Caesar knows he cannot keep this up for much longer. His arm is growing tired. He's never fought with it this long. He trained himself to be proficient a fighter with both arms. But that cannot make up for the fact that he is right handed. Well then if he cannot win with strength, he'll have to win through strategy. He circles Pompey who does look rather imposing back lit by the Eternal Fire. And in that he has his winning strategy. He starts a rapid series of overhead strikes that Pompey counters likewise. He throws all his strength into the attacks and finds Pompey taking a step or two back. Then he angles his arm over to try and attack Pompey high from his opponent's right. Pompey sees the moves and tries it himself. Both men block the other in exactly the same fashion.
Pompey catches Caesar's left wrist in his right hand and Caesar catches Pompey's left wrist in his right hand. Pain goes up Caesar's arm as he holds Pompey with his broken arm. Though he can close his hand around Pompey's wrist his arm hurts like hell.
They struggle with each other for a moment. “You can't win Caesar!” Pompey shouts practically spitting the words at him. “Don't you understand? Hope is eternal!”
“Maybe she is Pompey,” Caesar says. He stares deeply into the traitor's eyes. “But you are not!” Leaning his head back momentarily he drives it forward slamming his forehead into Pompey's face.
The impact clouds Pompey's vision with stars and he can feel blood running from his nose. His sword falls from his grasp. Caesar lets go with his left hand and grabs Pompey by the face. He locks his right leg behind Pompey's left and then begins to push.
It is only now that Pompey realizes how close he is to the Fire. It is right behind him and Caesar is pushing him back towards it! He tries like mad to gain the leverage he needs to fight back.
But Caesar will not let him. He drops the sword in his left hand and seizes Pompey's right wrist. He bears his weight forward and with his leg locked behind Pompey's continues to push forward.
Pompey begins screaming like a mad man and begging for mercy. “Caesar! No! Please!” His screaming becomes audibly unbearable when his hair catches fire.
Caesar can feel the heat of the Fire as his hand presses inexorably forward. As the flesh on top of Pompey's head is being consumed he feels the flesh on his hand starting to sizzle but still he will not let go. Pompey tries vainly to grasp at Caesar with his left hand but all he can do it slap at the other man's chest like a child. “Caesar!” Pompey screams as the hellish heat of the Fire rapidly boils the liquid in his eyeballs.
Caesar pushes once more with all his might driving Pompey's already burning head into the Fire. His hand is seared and then consumed by the Fire as Pompey's head disappears into the Eternal Fire he has served all these years. But he does not cry out in pain. Pompey's body goes limp and tumbles lifelessly back into the Fire. Caesar withdraws the charred stump of his right hand. “Traitors die,” he says staring into the Fire.
Hope releases another fireball from her hand straight towards Eli. Eli again holds up a hand and sends the ball of fire arcing off in another direction. This one impacts the floor several yards away and tears a gaping hole in it. Around the hole more stone breaks off and falls into the level below.
Becoming more frustrated with each passing second Hope gathers still more power to her. “I will kill you!” she bellows to Eli before sending a tidal wave of her power cascading across the distance between them.
Eli places both hands palms out before him. When the force of Hope's power meets the force of his faith it drives him back several feet but results in no harm to him. The Citadel does not fare so well. Rebounding from Eli the power rises up and smashes into the ceiling of the audience chamber. The fourth level above them is actually lifted free for a split second and dropped back into place. The impact dislodges load bearing walls and nearly one quarter of the upper level, Hope's private chambers, collapses into the audience chamber.
What falls into the chamber stuns several people as the skeleton of a centaur falls down through the ceiling followed by various other items stored in Hope's trophy room. But that is soon forgotten as huge chunks of rock fall from the upper level onto unsuspecting citizens and priests alike. A group of two priests and their three captives are killed when the largest of these pieces falls on top of them. The piece is boulder sized and does not stop after killing them. It smashes through the floor and falls into the second level where it kills two more and leaves a massive gaping chasm in the audience chamber not far from where Khrafstar continues the sacrifices.
“Gabrielle!” Eli calls out to her again. “You have to stop this!”
“My name is not Gabrielle!” Hope roars like a wild beast as she now begins to descend the dais steps. She draws back both arms and hurls two fireballs at Eli.
The Avatar of the One holds out both hands and the fireballs are once more deflected away. One hits a priest and turns him into a living torch. The other spins away to smash through the opposite wall letting in more daylight from outside.
“She'll kill us all at this rate,” Ephiny says. Hope's power cannot touch Eli. But she doesn't care. She continues to assault her opponent heedless of what she is doing.
“For the glory of Dahak!” Khrafstar screams again.
“Of course she doesn't care,” Ephiny says. “Her purpose here in nearly fulfilled.”
“Die you insignificant mortal!” Hope cries out as she reaches the bottom of the dais and releases still more of her unstoppable power at Eli.
“No!” Eli shouts as he sees her attack again. While he is protected her power is lashing out all about him bringing chaos to the chamber in which they are.
Hope's power smashes into the shield of Eli's faith and splits apart like water on rocks. The force of it blasts away in several directions. It shears away the wall to Eli's right further weakening the structure where it has been damaged before. That section of wall falls away into the daylight and the ceiling that is already under stress from previous damage splits like it is being torn open by an earthquake. More of the Citadel's upper level collapses into the audience chamber. More people die as boulder-sized pieces of the structure crush them before it breaks through the floor and fall further.
“Stop it!” Eli shots at Hope. “You'll kill everyone!”
“I don't care!” Hope replies and forms another enormous fireball in her hand.
Darnell just manages to jump aside as the roof comes down. “Look out!” he shouts.
Amarice leaps into Eponin knocking the woman off her feet but saving her from being hit by a massive chunk of the ceiling.
“This is insane!” Darnell cries as he stands to his feet. A priest tries to attack him but he casually guts the man as if annoyed. “What are we supposed to do now? She's trying to bring the building down on top of us!”
The roaring voice of the Deliverer catches Eponin's attention. “It doesn't matter!” she tells the gladiator.
“She's right!” Amarice agrees. “We have to stop the sacrifices! That's all that matters!”
Darnell sighs loudly. “There had better be some kind of eternal reward for me in all this!”
“For the glory of Dahak!” Khrafstar screams raising the dagger once more. But he finds his arm immobile as he tries to use it. “What?”
“I don't think so,” Xena says twisting the Deliverer's arm with hers then coiling her body about and throwing him to the ground. A priest moves in to aid him and Xena slings the chakrum at close quarters. The weapon impacts with his chest and stays there. When she turns back to Khrafstar he swings a clawed hand at her that slices open the flesh of her upper arm in four straight, parallel lines.
“You will pay for interrupting my work!” the malevolent priest bellows at her like some hound from Hell itself.
“Work?” Xena swings her sword and he blocks it with the sacred dagger. “You're nothing but a killer. A rabid animal that I intend to put down right here and now!”
Khrafstar laughs. “You cannot defeat me! I am the Deliverer! Soon I will stand at the right hand of Dahak Himself!”
Xena parries the dagger away and then cuts off the high priest's right hand at the wrist. The severed hand and weapon clatter to the ground. “Too bad you don't have one of your own,” Xena tells him.
Khrafstar holds up the stump of his right hand. Flame shoots out of it and takes the shape of a hand. When the flame is extinguished a second later his right hand is back. “You mean this!” He roars with laughter.
Xena lashes out at him with her sword but he ducks and spins cutting furrows in the flesh of her leg with his taloned hand. His picks up the dagger and steps away from her. Xena looks at the wound he has inflicted on her and feels that they burn like boiling pitch has been poured into them.
“What's the matter Xena?” Khrafstar chuckles. “Things getting a little too hot for you?”
There is an explosion and a massive section of the ceiling falls near them. One slab of stone barely misses Xena as it falls through the floor into the level below. The shaking of the ground causes her to nearly lose her balance. Khrafstar advances ready to push her through the gaping hole behind her.
But Darnell slams into him from the side with all his might. The high priest is rocked but stays standing. He swings the dagger and the weapon sacred to his religion tears Darnell's shield in half like it is paper. The fighter is shocked by the ferocity and can hardly react as Khrafstar slashes his chest with his clawed hand.
Amarice pulls the chakrum from the priest's body and does the only thing she can to help Darnell. She throws the weapon clumsily at the creature attacking him. The weapon hits him and bounces off without doing any harm. But it distracts Khrafstar from his attack on Darnell. The chakrum arcs away but Xena manages to snatch it from mid air and runs back to the fight now joined by Eponin who slashes at the priest only to find her attack blocked by the gleaming claw of Khrafstar. She barely manages to jump back and avoid being cut like Darnell and Xena.
The Deliverer looks around at the four of them. “Hardly fair odds,” he snarls.
“As long as we stop you it doesn't matter,” Eponin says as they start to circle him.
But as they prepare to attack the entire Citadel shudders as if it were sitting on top of an active volcano.
As the massive fireball leaves Hope's hands Eli knows this will be bad. The huge roiling sphere of power reflects from him and sails back towards Hope. The Avatar of Dahak ducks and her ethereal missile slams into the stairs leading up into the fourth level. The area near the dais has already been damaged before. And now the Citadel can take no more. One entire side of the massive structure atop the Acropolis begins to crumble. With no more structural integrity the walls break apart and fall both into the Citadel and away from it. Everyone standing in the audience chamber is thrown to the floor as the weight of the descending fourth level causes the third level to tilt to one side. With all the weight being shifted to one weakened side the levels collapse in on each other towards the west side of the Citadel. In a pancake effect the fourth level on the west crushes the third level then starts to smash down into the second.
Iolaus and Octavia still helping people out through the passage see the impending disaster. While the passage is on the east side of the chamber the entire structure is shifting and no one will be safe in any enclosed spaces. Screaming can be heard from the lower levels as the upper levels shift and fall. A large section of the ceiling cracks open and falls. Octavia sees it and pushes Iolaus out of the way.
When he regains his feet and his senses a moment later, Iolaus can find no sign of Octavia. His first thought is that she is crushed under the debris. But he sees no blood or body. He looks all around but sees her nowhere.
Solari and Diana exit through the secret passageway into the city itself just as the Citadel begins its apparent collapse. For one moment they are paralyzed with fear and indecision. Then Diana screams, “Run!”
As they move away Solari looks back. To her it seems as though some invisible giant is just pushing the Citadel over. “Eponin,” she says her lover's name and prays that she somehow survives that.
The Eternal Fire roars high and as the Citadel shifts and goes to one side the otherworldly flame cuts through the roof like a hot knife through butter. Sunlight pours through the opening in the roof as it does so.
Far beneath the Acropolis, Autolycus finds he hardly has need of stealth as dust and rocks fall from the ceiling of the tunnel. The mercenary guards grumble and move about unsure of what they should do.
What the hell is going on up there? He asks himself as he casts another grappling line down the tunnel. He is nearly there. He only prays he rescues the goddess of love in time for her to do anything.
Miles away in Piraeus, Antony, Palaemon and Vercinix hear a sound like thunder coming from the east.
“What on earth is that?” Palaemon asks.
“Sounds like an earthquake,” Vercinix says.
Staring in the direction of Athens Antony is certain that sound has no natural origin.
Holding his maimed arm close to him Caesar moves through the panic stricken mass of people in the audience chamber. People fall and run everywhere. The priests of Dahak run about as terrified as the people they sought to sacrifice. Still more debris falls from the ceiling as he tries to find his allies in this mess.
Tangled in close quarters combat, Najara and Jett are thrown to the ground as the Citadel begins to sway like a tree in the breeze. They roll on the ground for a moment before regaining their footing. Najara twirls her weapon menacingly.
“I think it's time we ended this,” she tells him.
“I agree,” he says. He takes a defensive stance once again and beckons her to attack.
Her swords are a blur of motion that few could keep track of. But Jett blocks them every time. The warrior woman screams in rage at her inability to defeat him. She lunges with both blades and Jett pushes them aside. The world moves in slow motion for him as for one instant her chest is exposed and vulnerable. It is a moment in time that lasts forever for him. But he has the opportunity and he takes it. The blow is swift and precise. His fist slams into her chest just above her left breast and over her heart. He pulls away and takes a step back.
Najara is confused to see that he is not in a defensive stance anymore. He is just standing there with his arms at his side.
“It's over,” he says in deathly low tone. “I've won.”
“Please!” Najara laughs. “I hardly felt that.”
“Then come and kill me,” Jett stands there now holding his arms out to his side.
“Idiot!” Najara shouts. “I will!” She takes a step forward. But as soon as her foot hits the ground her chest explodes in pain. Her legs tremble and her arms quiver. She can barely remain standing. Her vision blurs for a moment and she stares at the man before her.
Over a decade ago in Jappa, Jett had learned from a legendary assassin a technique that could kill a person with a single blow. A punch straight to the heart delivered with perfect concentration and application. The hit itself would feel like nothing just as Najara believes. But the strike would begin a chain reaction in the victim's heart that would cause the organ to practically overload after only a few steps. The process is agonizing and torturous. He has never had cause to use to before. But then he has never hated anyone as much as he hates this woman: he murderer of his naïve and innocent brother.
“Come on!” he screams urging her to advance knowing that with each step she will die more.
Najara screams as well and takes another step forward. As soon as her foot touches the floor the pain in her chest doubles then triples in intensity. The pain is unfathomable. Her arms go numb as her weapons fall from useless hands. Sweat flows from every pore on her body and her head pounds with the rapid increase in her blood flow.
“What's the matter Najara?” Jett asks her as he sees the killing strike beginning to take its full effect on her. “What do your Djinn have to say to you now?”
She opens her mouth to respond to his blasphemous words but discovers that her voice will not come. She manages to lift one arm towards him as she lifts her foot to take another step. Before she can even place that foot back on the ground her other leg gives way beneath her and she collapses to the cold, stone floor. The pounding in her head is a constant humming now that she wishes she could tune out. She hardly feels herself hit the floor. She wills her limbs to move. Tries to get her legs and arms to do something. But they are numb and useless. Still she tries with all her might to get her body to do something. She is still trying when her heart, beating faster and faster since Jett struck her, explodes in her chest.
Jett stares down at the corpse at his feet. “For you brother.”
Xena and Eponin barely manage to avoid falling into the Fire as the floor of the audience chamber continues to shift and tilt. Darnell and Amarice move to try and intercept Khrafstar who is still intent on getting to more sacrificial victims.
Just when it seems the entire floor will slide down from the Citadel's superstructure and down the Acropolis, the shifting stops. Chunks of rock and debris still fall from the floor above. Massive holes and cracks in the floor make moving around the chamber now perilous.
Eli regains his footing and looks all around him at the ruin of the audience chamber around him. If there was ever any doubt about the extent of Hope's power it is gone now. He focuses his attention back on his foe and finds that she too is rising up from where the destruction she has wrought knocked her from her feet.
“We don't have to do this,” Eli says in a pleading voice as he makes his way around a small pile of rubble to get closer to Hope.
“Yes,” Hope announces to him. “We do.” Holding her hands before her she prepares once more to launch another pointless attack against Eli that will result in only more death and destruction.
“In mercy's name stop this Hope!” Ephiny cries as she too moves closer to the Avatar of Dahak. “Please!”
“Shut up Ephiny!” Hope says as her power continues to gather between her hands. “I don't care about mercy. Soon you and him and all this will be irrelevant.”
“Gabrielle!” Eli calls out again to the soul he wishes to save. “I've spoken with Lila.”
The intense hatred in Hope's face turns to shock at the mention of Gabrielle's sister. For just a moment there is hesitation. “Lila?” the voice of Hope is an erratic mixture of sadness, confusion and rage.
“She wanted me to tell you that she loves you,” Eli speaks with compassion as he walks still slowly forward. To his right he can see Ephiny closing in on Hope. He is fairly certain he knows what she will try. He prays it doesn't get her hurt or worse. “And that she forgives you.”
“Forgives?” Hope mutters in a voice thick with so many emotions it is impossible to understand what she is thinking.
In that instant Ephiny leaps upon the confused Avatar and grapples with her. Now seeing this for the ploy it is Hope lashes out at Ephiny striking her across the face and sending her senseless to the floor.
But it is the opening Eli has been waiting for. At a run he closes the remaining distance between himself and Hope. He grabs her head between his hands and begins uttering a silent prayer to the One to aid him in his endeavor.
As soon as Eli's hands touch Hope's flesh she cries out like she is dying. The power she had been summoning is gone as if it never was. Her body goes rigid as though she is in one of the seizures that were a signal of Despair's appearance. In the center of the Citadel the Eternal Fire begins roiling and seething like a living creature writhing in agony.
Khrafstar, who has seized another boy in his clawed hand and is about to murder him for his god, senses the change about him. He turns to face the Fire and sees its strange reaction. “What?” he shouts. He feels that something is terribly wrong. Xena punches him in the face and he stumbles. Eponin steps in close and kicks him hard in the back. He pitches forward just as Darnell moves it to uppercut him under the chin. The blow lifts the Deliverer from his feet and sends him into a pile of rubble nearby. Amarice grabs the boy he was about to kill and sends him away.
As Khrafstar rises back to his feet he finds the four warriors closing in on him from all sides. With blade, hand and foot they deliver blow after blow against him. Some he is able to block but many more connect. Enraged he lashes out like the animal they know him to be. Xena and Eponin collide with him at the same time and he goes down hard. Darnell kicks him in the side and Amarice stomps on the side of his head. He rolls over and manages to knock the young woman's legs out from under her. He stabs the sacred dagger into her leg and she cries out in pain.
“Amarice!” Darnell screams.
Khrafstar draws the blade from her flesh and grabs her leg. He drags her to him and rises to his feet again. With his clawed hand at her throat he points to his opponents with the dagger. “What will you do now?” he taunts them. He uses one claw to open the flesh at his victim's throat and blood seeps from the shallow wound.
Amarice cringes in pain but manages to say through it, “Just kill him.”
“Silence!” Khrafstar demands. The mouth full of elongated teeth opens into a savage smile. He cackles and places the dagger against Amarice's throat. “Die you fool.”
Eli's eyes meet those of Hope's and he stares deeply into them. He can see the Eternal Fire of Dahak not just reflected in her green eyes but behind them as well. “Get out of her Dahak! She's yours no longer!” he shouts in a voice backed by his undeniable faith.
The green eyes staring back at him suddenly erupt into spheres of reddish flame that undulate within the eye sockets. Hope's mouth opens to speak and as it does a heat like that at the mouth of a volcano spills out with each word. “Never! She's mine!” The voice is not Gabrielle's or even the twisted interpretation of her voice that has come from Hope's lips for six years. This one is a roaring that should not be coming from a body as small as the one he holds. This is the voice of Dahak.
“No!” Eli shouts back at the evil addressing him. “She doesn't belong to you!”
“She gave herself to me!” the voice of Dahak states. “She came to me and asked for the power to take her vengeance!”
“You used her!” Eli retorts loudly. “You never had any intention of granting her what she wanted! All you wanted was a vessel to work your will! But she'll serve you no more!”
“And who are you to command me!” the voice of Dahak demands of Eli.
There is no doubt in Eli. “I am the Avatar of the One! And I command you to leave her body!”
“She is mine!” the voice of Dahak declares once more. “Her body and her soul belong to me! To The One God Dahak!”
Ephiny gets slowly to her feet. She watches this battle of Avatars going on before her and wishes there was something she could do. She does the only thing she can do. She closes her eyes and prays to the One for the salvation of Gabrielle.
Continuing to stare deeply into the flaming eyes Eli wills his faith to do all that it can. His belief is absolute. His desire to help and to heal is without question. He is the Avatar of the One and the One's will shall be done.
“I cast you out Dahak!” Eli intones. “Back to the void from whence you came!”
“Never!” the voice of Dahak cries.
“In the name of all the powers of Heaven I command you to leave the body and soul of Gabrielle!”
“I shall not leave her! She is mine! Hope is Eternal! As am I!”
“In the name of the One I cast you out of this body Dahak! Back to where you belong!”
“No! I'll never leave! I am the One God! I cannot be stopped! Soon this world and all worlds will be mine!”
“ This world belongs to us Dahak! It will never be yours! Leave her now!”
“I! Will! Not!”
“In the name of the One I cast you out!” Eli screams as loud as his lungs allow him. Then just as he did when healing the Varia he utters a single word. But it is heard by no one as the very breath that leaves Eli's lips to speak it distorts and twists the fabric of life around it. He has spoken the True Name of the One. Incomprehensible to any mortal save him it is a power unto itself. The True Name of the One represents Eli's faith and power in the Way and the path of love. It is love itself. Coupled with his undying faith in the One it is capable of nearly anything.
The voice of Dahak erupts from the mouth of Gabrielle as it hears the True Name. Hope goes limp in his grasp for a moment then her body rises up into the air out of Eli's grasp. Hope's body halts, just short of touching the sagging ceiling of the audience chamber. Her head lifts up and her eyes open. Her arms stretch out straight from her body and she lets out a horrific scream.
Ephiny opens her eyes and looks to Eli. But he is alone now. Then she looks up and sees Hope floating in the air with her arms outstretched like she is on some invisible cross.
Fire blazes out of Hope's mouth like a coiling serpent. At her wrists the skin splits open and fire begins to seep from them.
Eli watches in awe at what is occurring. “What is this?” he asks no one in particular.
The three tongues of flame coming from Hope's mouth and wrists move about like living creatures before they suddenly move rapidly towards the Eternal Fire in the audience chamber. But before they reach the Fire, the tendrils of flame transform into a thick crimson liquid. The streamers of blood enter the Fire and suddenly the column of Fire is transfigured into a column of blood that explodes through the roof of the Citadel with the sound and force of a tidal wave.
Hope's body drops back to the ground at Eli's feet. The Avatar of the One watches the column of blood shooting up through the roof. “In Heaven's Name,” is all he can say at the sight.
Khrafstar screams in pain as something strange begins to happen to him. He forgets the victim in his grasp and Amarice takes her chance. She slams her elbow into his gut and his grip on her relaxes. She pushes away from him to stand with the others.
“What is happening to me?” the high priest of Dahak wails.
Xena, Eponin, Darnell and Amarice watch as the Deliverer undergoes a painful transformation.
The horns protruding from his head begin to crack all along their length. Then they snap and fall off. His chitenous skin splits and a thick yellow ichor seeps out. His body contorts as chunks of his inhuman skin begin to drop off like a snake shedding its own skin. His fanged teeth crack and pieces fall from his mouth. The long claws on his hands turn gray and brittle then begin to crumble.
“No!” Khrafstar calls out in a raspy and pained voice. “How is this possible? I am the Deliverer!”
Eponin is the first to see the change in the Eternal Fire. One second it is a column of flame and the next it is a gushing fountain of blood. “The Fire!” Eponin says pointing to the blood column. “Look!”
Her three companions turn and stare in shock at what they see.
“The Eternal Fire is gone,” Amarice says knowing what has happened. “Eli did it!”
“No!” Khrafstar screams in denial once more.
“That means the blessing of Dahak is gone,” Darnell surmises.
“Impossible!” Khrafstar shouts as still more of his skin sloughs off and falls to the floor in clumps. “Hope is eternal!”
“Afraid you're wrong about that,” Xena says. Directly behind the high priest she sees a section of the floor that has been caved in by the collapsing Citadel. Letting out her battle cries she leaps into the air and kicks the flailing creature with both her feet. Still screaming like a monster, Khrafstar sails back through the air to disappear into the gaping hole in the floor. Xena lands next to it and stands to her feet. Through the gap in the floor she hears Khrafstar's screaming abruptly cease with a bone shattering crash.
Extremely tired and feeling all the wounds she has received in this battle, Xena leans against a pile of rocks dislodged from the upper floors. She sheathes her sword and hooks her chakrum to her side. “I think I'm going to rest here for a second.”
“Okay,” Darnell says. He looks around and sees all the priests running around like chickens with their heads cut off.
Amarice moves away as quickly as her wounded leg will allow her to see what has become of Eli. Darnell follows and puts an arm around her to keep her up.
“You going to be okay?” Eponin asks. As she asks she feels what seems a drizzle of rain falling on her. But when she looks at her hand she sees it is dotted with blood.
Xena too notices the blood falling. “Well this is certainly not something I expected,” she admits. She points towards where Amarice and Darnell have run off. “Go on. I'll be fine.”
“All right,” Eponin walks away.
Xena exhales sharply. Can it finally be over, she wonders.
From behind the rock pile Xena is resting against a dark shape rises. Alti reaches out and grabs Xena by the back of the neck with such ferocity that her fingernails draw blood from the warrior princess. Xena gasps in pain and is rendered helpless as the shamaness causes her to begin to relive a lifetime of pain in a matter of seconds. “Oh no Xena,” Alti hisses. “I don't think we are through here just yet.”
In every temple in every city under the aegis of the Avatar of the One God, it is the same. Where once the Eternal Fire roared it is transmogrified into a fountain of blood that bursts through the ceiling of each temple with titanic force. From Greece to Syria. From Asia to Palestina. Hundreds of temples in scores and scores of cities become massive fountains that erupt like volcanoes sending back all the blood of those who have been fed to the Fire. In Troy, the main temple to Dahak is awash in blood. The Amazons stare in horror at the macabre miracle. In Palestina's capital, a former Roman governor placed in control of the Hebrew lands by Pompey watches in horror as red liquid blasts through from the roof of Dahak's temple. In Piraeus the temple to Dahak's roof is blown off and blood soars into the sky. Moments later it begins to rain down on the Roman, Gallic and Athenian troops fighting there. Every single man and woman fighting in the port city ceases what he or she is doing when the blood falls on them like some rain from Hell. Even those facing each other over their swords stop when they are awash in the lifeblood of those sacrificed in Piraeus. Antony and Vercinix standing on the docks of the city stare up in morbid fascination as the blood falls.
In every city that the blood falls there is absolute silence. All combat stops. Weapons are dropped or sheathed. Armies begin to disperse. Who can fight with the blood of so many slain for Dahak falling upon them? It is not official but in the hearts and minds of everyone they know the truth. The war is over. With this bloody downpour, six years of war and conflict are brought to an end. In the following years the event will be given a name and will be observed as a religious occurrence. It will be known as the Rain of Blood.
Eli looks from the form lying motionless before him back to Ephiny. He looks back to where the Eternal Fire had been. It is gone. And so too is the blood. He has to admit to himself that he is utterly perplexed by what has just occurred. He points up to the opening in the roof that had allowed first the Fire then the blood to erupt forth. Blood still coats the ceiling around the opening. “What just happened?”
But Ephiny does not seem to hear him. Instead she is staring down at the still form at Eli's feet. She walks slowly to stand over Hope's form. She sees through the rise and fall of the chest that the woman is breathing. Can it truly be? She kneels by the head of the woman. With a shaking hand she reaches out to touch her cheek. The eyes flutter open. Green eyes look up at Ephiny. Not burning green eyes. Just green eyes!
“Eph…” the lips move trying to say something. “Ephiny?” The voice is not Dahak's. The voice is not Hope's. The voice is Gabrielle's!
“Gabrielle?” Ephiny says with a tremor in her voice.
Then it all comes rushing into Gabrielle's mind. Six years of horrors and atrocities worked through her body and all thanks to her desire for revenge. She screams for all of it. She covers her face with her hands as tears stream from her eyes like rivers.
“Gabrielle!” Ephiny shouts as she wraps her arms around the woman and tries to hold her still.
“Dead!” Gabrielle cries. “They're all dead because of me. Lila. The centaurs. Hercules. Oh gods! What have I done?”
“You've done nothing Gabrielle,” Ephiny tries to reassure her. She kisses the top of Gabrielle's head. “It was Dahak. You were possessed. None of it is your fault.”
Gabrielle tries to respond but she breaks down in loud sobbing and crying.
“Ephiny?” Jett says as he walks up on the strange tableau before him. There are many drops of blood on him. He sees her holding Hope and wonders. “Is that…” he pauses for a moment.
“It's Gabrielle,” Eli assures him. “Hope is gone. Dahak is gone.”
“Then it's over at last,” Amarice says as she approaches with Darnell and Eponin.
Eponin sees the way that Ephiny holds Gabrielle. Gabrielle is exorcised. Eli did it. And Ephiny is unharmed. She shares a look with Jett. They both nod knowing that Alti's vision was just a lie.
“So it seems,” Caesar says as he approaches.
Jett sees the condition of Caesar's arm. “Your hand? What happened?”
Caesar feigns a smile. “It's nothing. Pompey looks much worse I assure you.” He sees Gabrielle held tightly in the arms of Ephiny. He looks to Eli. “So you did it.”
“Indeed,” Eli agrees. He sees the drops of blood on them all. “But I don't know what happened to the Fire.”
Ephiny looks up from Gabrielle to address her teacher. “You reversed the process I think.”
“Reversed?” Darnell says befuddled.
“Gabrielle became Hope when she murdered her sister to gain the power to take her revenge,” Ephiny begins.
“Lila,” Gabrielle mutters as she hears Ephiny speak of her sister.
“Lila's blood and innocence were the sacrifice needed to allow Dahak to come into this world,” Ephiny continues. “Her spilled blood became the Fire through that act of murder. I always thought the Fire was just the power of Dahak. But it was Dahak himself invading and possessing Gabrielle. Using her hatred and Lila‘s blood as a conduit.”
“And from there she ignited the Eternal Fire in this world,” Caesar guesses.
“And when you drove Dahak from her,” Ephiny says turning to Eli. “The Fire was driven from her and turned back into Lila's blood.”
“Then it returned to the Eternal Fire of Dahak,” Eponin says seeing what Ephiny is meaning. “And the Fire was turned into the blood of all those who have been fed to it.”
“Heaven's name,” Amarice says. “Do you think it happened everywhere? In every temple?”
“I hope so,” Caesar says. “If it was an event witnessed by multitudes it will go far in turning those that followed Hope.” He turns as he sees Iolaus approaching. But he is dismayed to see the warrior alone. “Where's Octavia?”
Iolaus looks around in dismay as well. He had thought to find her here with the others. “I lost her.”
“You lost her!” Caesar shouts.
“A section of the ceiling came down,” Iolaus explains. “She pushed me out of the way. I haven't seen her since. I thought she'd be here.”
“We have to find her,” Caesar says looking all around him.
Alti is sickened when she sees the happy moment between Caesar and all his allies not far away. Hope is gone and with the Avatar of Dahak goes her plans for the future. Even from here she can feel Despair's presence. Though she can just call her now Gabrielle since Hope is never coming back. She felt Dahak evicted from this realm. It galls her that she never knew exactly what Hope was planning. Now she'll never know. And now more than anything she wants revenge for all that she has lost this day. She smiles knowing that she has the perfect instrument for her vengeance right in her hand. Xena twitches in pain as Alti floods her with past pains. But she has a different idea now.
She turns Xena's head so that the warrior princess can see everyone gathered around Gabrielle and Ephiny. “Look Xena. They're all happy.” Her voice is like honeyed venom in Xena's ears. “And look. There's Gabrielle. You remember Gabrielle?”
Xena's lips move but no words come out. The pain she is experiencing is the totality of her world now.
“Well then let me remind you who she is,” Alti cackles. Then she uses her dark powers to flood Xena's mind with images of death and horror.
Amphipolis burns. The smoke is black and acrid. The stench of human flesh on fire is choking. Men, women and children are lashed to stakes around which heaps of wood have been stacked. Whole families are tied to one another at the stake. They burn and scream as one. Every citizen of the small village in Thrace is burned alive. Tied alone to one stake at the center of town Cyrene wails as her skin is blackened by the fire. Watching it all and laughing is Hope.
“Mother,” Xena mutters in anguish as she relives her mother's last moments on Earth.
In the woods outside of Amphipolis a dark haired young man runs for his life. He trips and stumbles many times. He breaks out into a clearing certain he has lost his pursuers. As he turns he finds himself facing a young woman with strawberry blond hair and a scar on her right cheek. He looks shocked to see her out here. “What are you doing just standing there?” he asks her.
She walks up to him and smiles. “No where left to run now,” she tells him. She draws a slender dagger from her braided hair and rams the weapon under the man's jaw with such force it is driven up into his skull to impale his brain.
“Toris.” Xena feels a tear slip down her face when she sees her brother die at Hope's hands.
Confusion reigns in the domed structure in Carthage. Hope speaks some words Xena doesn't quite catch then her chakrum flies back towards her killing an unsuspecting man standing in front of them. But her husband knocks her aside and takes the killing blow meant for her. As she regains her senses and her balance she sees her beloved held up by Caesar. He is speaking but she cannot hear him. Then he is pulled from Caesar's grasp and thrown into the Eternal Fire where he is consumed.
“Hercules,” Xena moans in anguish as she witnesses his death again. But she begins to feel a subtle alteration. Her grief is fueling a rage that is growing deep inside her.
The centaurs are being slaughtered like animals. A young blond boy races away from the carnage. In his hands is the sword of his father, Borias. He can hear his adopted family dying behind him but he dares not look back. Kaleipus had told him to run and not look back. To escape at all costs. He is nearly at the edge of the village when some invisible hand knocks him down to the ground. His sword slips from his grasp. When he regains his senses he finds a woman dressed in Amazon leathers looking down at him. She smiles and studies him. “You don't look much like her,” the woman says. She turns and walks away from him. His sword is between her legs. “You must take after your father.” She points at the sword at her feet. “You want this?” she asks. She gestures for him to come and get it. He stands and starts to walk cautiously towards her. “Silly boy,” she says. Another invisible hand slams into his face and he drops to his knees. He slumps forward to the ground and manages to grasp the handle of the sword. His father's sword. His most prized possession. All he has left of his parents in this world. She stomps on the blade of the sword and it shatters. He begins to cry. She looks at him. “You're crying. Are you unhappy? You look like you're in such pain,” she tells him. She reaches down to grab him by his throat and lifts him off his feet. “Allow me to end it for you,” she says in a sickeningly gentile voice. With a twist of her hand, she snaps his neck. He quivers in her grasp and then he is just a corpse in her grasp. She grabs the sword and finds it caught tightly in his death grip. She manages to pull it free at last. She drops his body to the ground and he lands with one hand outstretched as if reaching for something. She studies the sword for a moment and the blade and pommel explode. A large yellow gemstone falls into her hand. “The Ixion Stone,” she says. She drops the handle of the weapon to the ground among its other shattered pieces. She studies the gem in her hand that would cause wars should anyone knows it exists. It is a talisman of a time and people long past. She crushes it to powder. Hope walks away laughing at the death of the son of Borias and Xena.
“My son.” Her grief is now blotted out by a rage she has never felt before.
“His name was Solon. You see Xena,” Alti hisses in her ear. “All your sorrows. All your pains. They are all the fault of that girl over there that your friends are comforting like a new born child.”
Xena trembles with the rage Alti's vision have infused her with.
“She doesn't deserve that does she?” Alti asks.
“No,” Xena growls. She sees her family dying at Hope's hands again courtesy of Alti's powers.
“She deserves to die, doesn't she?” Alti asks the enraged warrior princess.
“Yes,” Xena says the hate clear in her voice.
“Then kill her Destroyer of Nations,” Alti whispers the words of encouragement to the darkness within Xena. “Kill her and have your revenge.” She releases her grip on Xena's neck. The raven-haired woman stalks with purpose towards the gathering of men and women surrounding the object of her hatred.
Alti laughs with delight. She wonders for a moment if it will be Xena that kills Ephiny. She will soon see. Breathless with anticipation to see what her ploy will cause, Alti hardly feels the sword as it plunges into her back. So enthralled in what she has initiated she is only aware of the fact that she has been stabbed when she glances down and sees the point of a sword protruding from her chest. Shocked she just stares as the bloodied end of the weapon. She tries to breath but when she opens her mouth blood rolls out and courses over her lips.
“When you meet whatever gods you worship in the Hell reserved for you,” Octavia whispers into the shamaness's ear as she leans in from behind. “Tell them were sent there by Octavia. Sister of Octavian. Niece of Gaius Julius Caesar.” She twists the blade and pulls it from the woman's back.
Alti drops to her knees and tries in vain to staunch the flow of blood from her wound. But it is no use. She is dying. No! she thinks. I want to see Ephiny die! I want to see Gabrielle die! But it will not be. Using the last of both her physical and spiritual strength she turns her head to face her killer. Intent on using her powers to kill or at least maim this upstart girl, she focuses her will and prepares to give Octavia the pain of lifetimes. But she never gets the chance. Before her eyes are on Octavia, the young woman has swung her brother's sword with all her might. While the blow does not decapitate the loathsome shamaness it cuts deeply into her neck shredding muscle, bone and sinew. So before she can have her revenge Alti is a lifeless heap at the feet of Octavia.
She jerks the sword loose and spits on the body. “Rot in Hell,” she tells the bloodied corpse.
Iolaus is the first to see Xena approaching but he doesn't see the look in her eyes. “Xena,” he greets her as she nears.
With strength that seems superhuman Xena steps in amongst them all and with one flurry of movement she scatters all those gathered around Gabrielle and Ephiny. Ephiny looks up just in time to be punched by the warrior princess. Everyone is too stunned to realize what is happening as Xena grabs the ankle of the still sobbing and grieving Gabrielle. She drags her by the ankle across the debris littered floor of the audience chamber.
At first oblivious to what is happening Gabrielle becomes painfully aware of her situation as her head collides painfully with a protruding piece of the floor. The blow knocks her senseless but she still feels the pain as first her elbow then her ankle is slammed against more stone and debris. A jagged piece of rock cuts deeply into her back as Xena continues to pull her across the floor to her destination. She tries lethargically to grab onto something to stop her movement. Her left hand latches onto a narrow break in the floor but Xena's strength is too much and she is jerked loose with a deep gash in her hand for her troubles. In a spot where the floor has heaved up several inches the side of her head is struck against the rock rendering her unconscious.
“Xena!” Caesar says as he stands and watches Xena dragging the prone form of Gabrielle across the debris-strewn floor.
“What is she doing?” Eponin asks as she gets to her feet and helps both Eli and Amarice rise as well.
As she nears a massive hole in the floor Xena slings Gabrielle's unconscious form up and around her with one mighty heave of her arm. A second later she is holding Gabrielle by the leg and neck over her head. She looks down into the hole and sees jagged and deadly pieces of rock standing like stalagmites below her. In a voice teaming with pain, rage and madness she screams, “Vengeance!”
“Xena! No!” Eli shouts as he runs forward to try and stop her.
“Gabrielle!” Ephiny wails as she sees what Xena is about to do.
Dangling helplessly in Xena's grasp with death fast approaching Gabrielle becomes aware of a voice speaking to her. It is passionate but overflowing with a malice that she finds familiar.
“Are you really going to let her do this?” the voice of Ares asks inside her delirious brain. “She's about to kill you, you know? Xena. The warrior princess.”
A hate begins to grow within Gabrielle as she hears that name. “Xena,” she mutters in her mind.
“Yes! Xena!” Ares exclaims. “The cause of all your pain. The reason you have suffered for six years!”
Like a forest fire set in a dry wood, Gabrielle's hate and rage begin to burn out of control within her. “Xena,” she says again.
“You would never have become Hope if it weren't for her!” Ares screams into the tortured mind of Gabrielle. “You would never have become a monster! You would never have murdered your sister!”
“Lila,” Gabrielle groans in pain at the memory of her sister's bloody corpse being tossed away from her like refuse. The hate and rage are soon burning as brightly as a star.
“And now she is about to end your life,” Ares explains to her. “Are you going to let her kill you? Are you going to die without getting your revenge on the woman who is the cause of all your sorrows?” The voice of Ares calls to her. His voice rises in passion and intent with each and every word spoken.
“No,” Gabrielle states.
“Then don't hang there helpless in her arms!” Ares roars. “Break free! Show me the strength of your spirit! Let me see the rage in your heart!”
“Xena!” Gabrielle screams as her eyes snap open and she lashes out with both her legs and arms.
Gabrielle's action causes Xena to stumble and drop the young woman in her arms. She in fact nearly trips into the hole she was about to throw Gabrielle into. She manages to retain her balance by widening her stance and adjusting her center of gravity.
Gabrielle rolls away from the hole and Xena. She gains her feet just as Xena does. Cobalt blue and emerald green eyes meet in truth for the first time in six years. Gabrielle's eyes are seething with hate and rage. Her lips draw back in a feral snarl. Xena actually smiles as she sees Gabrielle rising to her feet. It is not a smile that makes her look happy. It makes her look mad. And indeed she is. Indeed they both are.
The smile makes Gabrielle snap. “I hate you!” she screams then drives towards the warrior princess with all the speed and power her legs can muster. At the last second she bends slightly at the waist and slams into Xena's gut with her shoulders. In the same instant she wraps her arms around the other woman's midsection and carries them both over the edge into the gaping hole.
“No!” Ephiny screams and runs to the hole passing Eli as she does so.
“My god,” Eponin says when she sees them both go over.
The force of Gabrielle's attack carries both women over the edge but miraculously over and past the protruding rock spires that surely would have been their deaths. They hit the floor hard and roll apart. It takes several seconds for them both to regain first their senses and their footing. Then they face each other. While the physical distance between them in negligible there is a gulf of hatred between them. They both tremble with a rage so potent it can be felt by the other. Xena draws her sword from its sheath in one smooth motion. Likewise Gabrielle pulls her eagle guard sword from its sheath. For one instant they look at each other. Veritable strangers but linked by hate and an all-consuming desire for revenge. Xena screams her war cry. Gabrielle screams at the top of her lungs. They charge each other.
Eli stares down and witnesses both women rise to their feet. There is little distance between them when they are both finally standing. For several silent moments they just stare at each other standing as immobile as the very rock around them. Then they draw their swords and charge each other screaming like wild beasts.
Amidst the clanging of swords and the wild shouts of the two combatants Eponin speaks. “I thought it was over.” She grabs Eli by the shoulder. “What? It didn't work?”
“It's not Hope,” he tells the Amazon warrior.
“It's Gabrielle,” Ephiny says as she watches the battle unfolding below them. “The hate for Xena that consumed her and drove her to seek out Dahak has finally been turned loose on the object of that hate.”
“And Xena's driving hatred for Hope has now targeted Gabrielle,” Caesar says.
A sudden and terrifying realization comes to Eli. “We have to get down there!” he shouts. “We have to stop them!” He turns every which way looking for some way to descend down to the Citadel's next level. He dashes off towards the secret passageway.
“Wait!” Amarice shouts as she takes off after him feeling the pain in her leg but ignoring it. “Eli! They'll kill you if you try and get in the way!”
Ephiny chases after them as well without a thought.
“Are you people crazy?” Darnell says as he starts to follow Amarice. “If you even try to get between those two…”
“You don't understand!” Eli yells cutting him off. “Gabrielle and Xena are soul mates! It's something Morpheus showed me!”
“So?” Darnell says as he catches up to Ephiny.
“Their souls have been intertwined since time began!” Eli shouts as he gets to the passageway and starts to move down the now cracked and battered steps. “And they're supposed to be together until the end of time!”
“Heaven's mercy!” Ephiny gasps, as she knows what drives Eli so. “If one of them kills the other…” She doesn't have the stomach to finish the thought.
“Yes!” Eli says as he jumps and leaps over any obstacle he finds. “It will unravel fate! Undo destiny!”
“Are you kidding me?” Darnell screams as he follows after them.
“You're saying that if Gabrielle kills Xena or Xena kills Gabrielle it will negate fate and destiny?” Amarice shouts in horror.
“Yes!” Eli replies as he nearly trips over a section of fallen wall. “It will pull the threads of Fate apart like papyrus and this world could very possibly collapse in on itself!”
“Well then run faster!” Darnell shouts as he catches up to Ephiny.
It feels to Autolycus like the entire Acropolis is shuddering. Finally at the center of the catacombs crossroads he drops down and retrieves both his grapples. They are no guards at this point. Without looking back he dashes right and towards the cell holding Aphrodite. When he arrives before the cell he has a hard time believing that the pitiful being slumped to the floor and shackled against the wall is indeed the goddess of love. Strips of cloth are all that remain of her clothing. She is dirty and her hair is a mass of sodden tangles. And her flesh is so pale it seems translucent. She bears absolutely no resemblance to the goddess that is supposed to be the most beautiful being in the entire world.
He takes a moment to examine the lock on the cell door. It's nothing special. No doubt Hope didn't think anybody but fools would blunder into these catacombs. Unfortunately for her, the King of Thieves is no fool. The door he can have open in no time. But the manacles holding her to the wall are a different story. They aren't the typical version of manacles used to keep common criminals from escaping their confinement. They don't have any locking mechanism. As far as he can tell they are made from single pieces of metal. Possibly forged by Hope herself using her powers.
A heart wrenching call from down the opposite passageway draws his attention. That way lays the last golden hind. But he can't think about that now. Aphrodite is the priority especially if she is to help them in the battle. A battle that he is certain has already begun if the rocking of the Acropolis is any indication.
“Who's there?” the chained goddess says lifting up her face.
He is shocked also by how her face looks. It is pale with lips that are cracked and dry like someone who hasn't had a drink of water in days. What must have been delicate features at one time are now indistinct and sallow. But the worst part is her eyes. Both eyes seem sunken into her head. The left has the dull sheen of someone who has not the liquid in the their body to even produce tears. The pupil is dilated almost to the point it obscures the iris making it look black. And the white of that eye looks red from all the enlarged vessels in it. But when he looks at the right he feels sick. Her right eye is not dry like the left. It is wet. But wet with blood that even as he watches weeps out down her cheek. There are several dried lines of blood going down the right side of her face. It looks like nothing so much as a bloody sphere set in the socket.
Autolycus removes the helmet of Hades and hooks it on his belt. “Aphrodite?” he says her name as a query more to be certain that she remembers it than to discover her identity, which he already knows.
It is an effort for her to try and bring her head up again. She sees the man standing before but mostly she sees the helmet of her dead uncle draped on his belt. If she could show rage she would. “How did you get that?” she asks.
“It's a long story,” Autolycus replies. From a pouch at his side he pulls a ring on which dangle many sets of lock picking tools. “But believe it or not, I'm here to rescue you.”
The goddess does not reply but instead lowers her head again.
“Okay,” Autolycus says a bit confused by the reaction. He looks back down the passageway just to be sure no one is there. He begins work on the lock and just as he thought it takes him less than a minute to have the cell door open. He cringes when it makes a creaking sound as it opens. Grabbing the helmet he waits to see if any of the mercenaries come running. After a few seconds he relaxes.
When he steps into the cell with the goddess he sees just how small it really is. He reaches out but is afraid to touch her. After all he's never touched a god before. He takes his hand back and instead decides to try and find a way to get the manacles off of her.
“Why are you here?” she asks him in a weak voice.
“To rescue you,” he replies. “Like I said.”
“A mortal never aids a god without expecting something in return,” she informs him in a voice that speaks of lifetimes of pain.
He almost wants to weep at her pain and sorrow. He could lie but he can't. “You're right. We need your help against Hope.”
Aphrodite chuckles but it is a humorless sound. “Perhaps you have not noticed. But I am in no condition to help anyone.”
He continues to examine the manacles for several moments before he comes to the conclusion that it is hopeless. The metal bands around her wrists are indeed one solid piece of metal. Nothing to pick.
“I couldn't even help my husband or my son,” she tells him. “I just want to die. If I could kill myself I would. But Hope just wants to torture me.”
Frustrated beyond words Autolycus tries to come up with something that will help. He turns quickly again to make sure that no one has come to investigate. As he does both the helmet and the pouch containing the gem from Morpheus slap against his leg. He curses himself for a fool for having forgotten the gemstone. He removes a gauntlet he brought with him just in case and slips it on. Then he opens the pouch and the sapphire like stone drops into his hand. He holds it out to her. “Perhaps this will help,” he says.
As soon as the stone is near her Aphrodite can feel the power emanating from it and she recognizes the power it represents. “Morpheus,” she moans knowing that if she can feel his essence here in the stone then he is dead as well.
“He said to give this to you,” Autolycus informs her. “That only you can use. That only you can pass judgment. Whatever that means.”
With great effort she lifts her head to look into his eyes. Her face contorts in pain as she speaks. “Touch it to my flesh.”
Autolycus swallows loudly. “Your flesh?” he says. He looks over he nearly naked body. “Um…where?”
“Anywhere,” she gasps.
Closing his eyes he reaches out and places the gem stone against her chest. He draws his hand back and opens his eyes when he hears her gasp in pain. The sapphire has grafted itself to the flesh over her breastbone. As he watches black veins begin to creep out from it like the marks of a spreading infection. Her body begins convulsing and he backs away. The sapphire starts to glow with a light of its own. That light blinks once. Then twice. After a few seconds it is pulsing like a heart beat. Her arms tremble faster and faster. Then in what appears more like a spasmodic reaction than anything else she jerks the chains from the wall. He can see the black veins spreading down her arms and legs. Where the black veins don't cascade across her flesh her pale skin stands to turn as white as marble. And when the black veins reach her wrists the manacles start to rust and in a second that turn to reddish dust and fall off. The veins go up her neck and start to crawl across her face. When they reach to her hairline and continue up her scalp her matted, dirty blond hair seems to recede back into her head and darken. She doubles over and disgorges what seems like gallons of dark crimson blood.
The tattered bits of clothing still on her turn to ash and fall off. Now staring at a naked goddess Autolycus tries to turn away but feels compelled to watch. He is certain he is witnessing something spectacular. He just isn't sure what. The black veins cease their march across her body and appear almost to melt into her now pure white flesh. But as they recede something else comes forth. Coming from her like a dark sweat, a foul smelling ichor starts to coat her chest, neck, forearms, waist, legs and feet. As the strange substances begins to take shape on her she stands. The dark hair sprouting from her head grows out longer until it is nearly the length it was before. Whereas before Aphrodite had curled hair this new mane is straight and just touches her shoulders. Her lips are such a deep red they are nearly back. Both eyes in her head are now black spheres that sparkle with minute points of light as if the sky itself now resides within them. A long red streak runs from the corner of her right eye down across her cheek ending at her jaw line.
The strange liquid that exudes from her body begins to harden and a blue, black armor adorns her body. A breastplate extends from her neck down to below her ribcage but allows full view of her shapely stomach. The sapphire rests where it had before and continues to beat like a living heart. Dark gauntlets etched with swirling interconnected circles cover her from wrist to elbow. A flowing battle skirt made of many dark strips of what seems leather is wrapped at her waist and trails down to just past her knees. Boots that shine like metal but appear as supple as velvet are on her feet. Metallic shoulder clasps resembling wings sprout from the breastplate and a cape as dark as the night sky extends down to the floor.
Autolycus stares at her in awe and in fear. He watches her hold up one of her hands and stare at the ghostly white complexion and the black fingernails.
“Aphrodite,” he says trying to draw her attention back to the here and now.
The goddess turns her dark eyes upon him. Then says in a voice that washes over him like a flood, “No.”
Ares materializes by the far wall of the Citadel's second level and watches as Gabrielle and Xena battle each other. He puts his hands together and rubs them in anticipation. “I have waited a long time to see this,” he says.
Their swords slam into each other and ring out loudly within the confines of the Citadel. Lashing out with hate and rage they attack, counter, parry and block with hardly any real sense of what they are doing. Reacting almost out of pure instinct they match each other stroke for stroke. The ringing of the swords keeps pace with the pounding of their hearts as each strives for the death of the other. Neither can hear much except the sound of the blood pumping in their ears. Through the red haze of their lusts for revenge they can see only one another. Everything else is insubstantial. Nothing else matters.
Xena parries a thrust from Gabrielle then slashes out horizontally with her blade when she finds the other's chest exposed. Bending backwards at the waist Gabrielle arches back like a dancer to avoid Xena's attack. When she has bent back far enough she places her free hand on the ground then throws her weight back so that she cartwheels backward. In the process she brings both of her feet up and back catching Xena under the chin with first one foot then another. Xena stumbles back from the attack, rebounds off the wall and is barely able to react as Gabrielle rushes forward to cut her down. She bends and rolls to the ground under the other's attack and is on her feet in a moment. She spins and swings her blade at the other woman's exposed backside. But Gabrielle is not there. The blonde continued her forward motion and has basically run up the wall. She is in the process of flipping backwards over the warrior princess when Xena turns to attack.
Gabrielle hacks down at Xena's back but is thwarted when the other woman reaches over her back with her sword to block. Xena pushes the attacking blade up and away then drops and spins. She takes Gabrielle's feet out from under her hard and fast. But Gabrielle moves with the motion of her fall and flips back to land on her feet with her sword at the ready. She moves in close and tries to run Xena through again with the sword. Xena parries once more then steps in even closer. Placing one foot against Gabrielle's stomach she runs up the smaller woman's body kicking as she goes. At the apex of the run she flips back then lashes out with her foot again to smash it into Gabrielle's face.
Leaning back out of the range of Xena's foot, she reaches out and grabs it with her free hand. Jerking down she slams Xena onto her back in front of her then leaps into the air drawing her feet up as she does so. Xena rolls to her left just as Gabrielle's feet impact the stone with enough force to make the entire floor shudder. She kicks up to her feet and faces the object of her hate once more.
Seeing the impressive aerial displays Ares looks up to where he sees Caesar and the others watching. He points to the two women locked in mortal combat. “You have to admit!” he shouts. “That was awesome!”
The swords meet in fury once again as Xena and Gabrielle hammer away at the defenses of the other. Then Gabrielle attempts to sweep Xena's legs out from under her. Xena avoids the attack by cart wheeling over Gabrielle's leg and slamming one of her feet against the side of her head. Gabrielle is spun by the hit but she doesn't arrest her movement. Instead she continues to spin and lifts herself into the air to performing a jumping spinning back kick that Xena doesn't quite manage to avoid. She looses her footing and falls to the ground again.
Gabrielle reverses the grip on her sword and raises it high to drive it down into Xena. But as she does so Xena rolls away again. The tip of her sword brings up sparks as it hits the floor. Xena doesn't wait to stand before attacking again and slams her fist into the side of Gabrielle's face. The punch puts Gabrielle on her back who without a moment's pause draws her feet back then pushes up driving both feet into Xena's midsection while jumping up to her feet in the same motion. Xena is hurled back several feet but lands on her feet with that same insane grin plastered on her face. But behind that borderline insanity she remembers something Ares told her in Gaul:
“Gabrielle's been trained by the best warriors in the world Xena,” Ares explains to her. “She learned from Amazons. From Najara. From Pompey. From me.” He says the last with bloated pride tucking his thumbs behind his belt. “She would kick your ass so bad it would be a horror to watch. Not that I wouldn't want to, of course.”
But she ignores the warning in the sane part of her brain and presses on.
“Now this is entertainment,” Ares states.
“I never thought it would be possible,” Iolaus says as he watches them fight. “For someone to be able to keep up with Xena.”
“Believe it my friend,” Caesar says.
“She was a devil with a blade when she lived in the village with us,” Eponin says to them. “In a matter of weeks she could beat nearly all of us. She was a natural. Like she was born to be a warrior.”
Ephiny and Eli arrive at the nearly blocked entrance to the second level. Ephiny squeezes through a small opening that Eli has no chance of getting through.
“Ephiny! Wait!” Eli calls out to her knowing that she may be within harm's reach soon.
“For what?” Ephiny replies wriggling through a tight aperture. “We have to stop them.”
Amarice and Darnell arrive and start pulling rocks out of the way without saying a word.
The combat between Xena and Gabrielle seems to escalate as they now attack with swords and fists simultaneously. Gabrielle blocks a thrust from Xena then punches the warrior princess in the gut. Xena parries Gabrielle's blade away then hits her with a left cross that staggers her. Xena steps in and spins intent on taking Gabrielle's head off. Gabrielle performs a perfect split in front of Xena then stabs upwards. Xena turns just in time to avoid the blade slicing her open. She lifts her knee and it hits Gabrielle in the side of the head sending the woman rolling away. Her sword slips from her grasp.
Seizing her advantage Xena runs to her and hacks back at her opponent's neck. Using her arms and legs to push off Gabrielle performs a kick up that allows her avoid Xena's attack and come to her feet just behind her. Putting her hands together she hits Xena in the small of the back as hard as she can. Grimacing in pain Xena spins around to attack again. Gabrielle dives beneath the circling blade then grabs her sword where it lays and rolls through to come to her feet just out of Xena's reach.
Ephiny finally gets through and finds herself on the second level. The shifting fourth and third levels have crushed the walls that once formed the rooms for everyone living in this part of the Citadel. Even now she can hear stone grinding on stone. She wonders just how much longer the structure will remain standing. She crawls over piles of debris and rushes as fast as she can to where she prays Gabrielle and Xena are.
After a few moments Darnell, Amarice and Eli have moved enough rock to get into the second level themselves. Just as they enter Darnell pulls Eli away just as a large chunk of the ceiling falls to the floor with a loud crash.
“This place hasn't got much longer,” Darnell states.
“Then we have to get them and get out,” Eli replies as he makes his way in the direction he is sure Ephiny has gone.
“Them?” Darnell queries.
“We aren't going to leave Xena and Gabrielle here to be pulped,” Amarice tells him as she follows Eli.
“That's assuming we can get the two of them apart!” Darnell shouts as he runs after her.
Gabrielle watches Xena for a moment then growls like a beast before charging straight at her foe. Xena readies herself but she is hardly prepared for Gabrielle's tactic. When she just gets within range of Xena's sword Gabrielle drops down and slides between her legs. Gabrielle spins and rises after she passes Xena. But she has overestimated her momentum. As she lashes out with her sword she finds she has gone too far from Xena. While the tip of the blade slices open the flesh of Xena's back it does no serious damage.
Xena hisses in pain then turns first attacking with her sword then seeing Gabrielle duck kicks out with her left foot hitting her opponent in her side. Gabrielle goes to one knee but manages to block Xena's downward stroke. With her left hand she drives her extended fingers into Xena's thigh.
As soon as Gabrielle's fingers touch her Xena feels her entire right leg go numb. She stumbles back but manages to stop herself from falling by using her sword to support her like a cane. She stares at Gabrielle in disbelief and utters the first words since the fight began. “Pressure points.”
Gabrielle rises to her feet with a smile. “A little something Sinteres taught me.”
“This just keeps getting better and better,” Ares says.
Xena slams her fingers into her thigh to restore the blood flow. She twirls her sword in her hand and Gabrielle copies her. Xena lets loose her battle cry and surges forward. Gabrielle bats Xena's sword away then much to the surprise of the warrior princess performs the same maneuver she had earlier. Placing one foot into Xena's stomach Gabrielle runs up her kicking as she goes. When she reaches the apex of the run she flips backwards just as Xena had done. Xena extends her left hand to counter the attack just as Gabrielle did. But the blonde warrior has other plans. At the last instant she shifts her weight forward so that instead of her foot coming for Xena's face it is her sword. Xena jerks her hand away and steps back. But Gabrielle's sword still slices Xena's palm open. Xena's back is against the wall and Gabrielle attacks savagely, her desire to impale the object of her anger against that wall clear by how she holds the sword.
Xena places one foot against the wall behind her and kicks off from it with unnatural strength. She flips vertically into the air just as Gabrielle reaches the wall and rams the point of her sword into it. Xena has built up enough force to spin herself vertically one hundred and eighty degrees into the air. Her feet touch the ceiling and she pushes off to drive down towards Gabrielle. The blonde looks up and sees the falling form of Xena. She steps out of the way but not quite fast enough. Xena's sword gashes open her back near the shoulder blade.
Gabrielle rounds on Xena and charges her again. The swords of the two warriors meet again in such blinding confluence that those watching can hardly see the movements. Gabrielle gets an opening and drives her forehead into Xena's. The golden circlet she wears gives her a distinct advantage in the attack. Xena's forehead is split open and she staggers back with her vision momentarily blurred. Instinctively she swings out with her blade and manages to parry Gabrielle's attack. She jabs her hand forward and drives her extended fingers into Gabrielle's left armpit.
Gabrielle feels her heart skip a beat and her entire left side from her chest down goes numb an instant later. As she starts to fall she lashes out with her blade deflecting Xena's sword. As she hits the floor she drives her right thumb into the same spot Xena just struck. Feeling returns and she rolls away from Xena's foot that tries to smash in her skull.
She jumps to her feet and swings her sword in a wide arc. Xena hits the sword in mid move with her own and Gabrielle's sword goes down and cuts into her own leg. Xena's sword falls again but Gabrielle seizes the wrist holding the sword in her hand and makes a stab at Xena's face. The warrior princess turns her head to the side but the tip of the blade still cuts a deep gash into Xena's right cheek. Should she live through this the scar that remains will ironically mirror Gabrielle's own. Lifting her foot she kicks Gabrielle in the back of her leg driving the woman to her knees. Gabrielle drops her sword but then slams fingers into Xena's bicep.
Xena loses all feeling in her right arm and her sword falls. She backhands Gabrielle and sends the other sprawling away. Xena presses her fingers into her arm restoring the feeling.
Gabrielle grabs Xena's fallen sword as she rolls away them comes to her feet holding it. Xena stomps her foot and Gabrielle's eagle guard sword is in her grasp. Again they come together in a blinding display of swordsmanship that leaves all watching in awe. They move and dodge each other's attacks. They parry and block each other's swordplay. For every attack there is a counterattack.
Eli, Ephiny and the others arrive within sight of Gabrielle and Xena. Amarice stares in utter disbelief at the skill being displayed by both women.
“There is no way we'll be able to separate those two,” Darnell states.
“They'll kill us as soon as we're near enough to touch them,” Amarice agrees. “They probably wouldn't even notice if they did.”
“But we have to do something,” Ephiny says in frustration and helplessness. It isn't fair. Gabrielle is finally free of Dahak. Now she might die at the hands of Xena.
“Pretty good show,” Ares says to them from where he leans against the wall. “Don't you think?”
Eli rounds on Ares. “This is not funny Ares. Do you have any idea what will happen if one of them kills the other?”
“I don't think it will come to that,” Ares says smiling and nodding back towards the two women.
Amarice watches for a moment and knows the truth of what Ares says. “He's right.”
“What?” Eli says turning back to her.
“They're too evenly matched,” Amarice explains. “Both the best. This is only going to end one way.”
“With them killing each other,” Darnell completes her summation.
Eli turns from them to look back at Ares. The god of war just smiles and shrugs. He turns again to see Xena and Gabrielle locked in combat. What will happen if they do kill each other? Eli asks himself. Will that still unravel fate? He looks around not for the first time wondering where Aphrodite is. Did Autolycus fail?
Xena and Gabrielle clash swords and are in so close to one another that they can feel the breath of one upon the other. They push off from each other and are soon many paces apart.
Xena as if suddenly remembering a sword is not her only weapon pulls the chakrum from her waist.
Caesar stares down. This might be the end, he thinks. Aside from gods he has yet to see anyone survive an attack from Xena's chakrum unless the warrior princess wished them to live.
“Xena!” Ephiny cries out when she sees the raven-haired warrior readying her unique weapon. “Please! No!”
As Xena draws back the chakrum she recalls the pledge she made on it as she retreated with from Carthage. I will not rest until Gabrielle's lifeblood is on this. Now she can make that vow a reality. With all her strength she throws the weapon and sends it hurtling towards Gabrielle.
Everyone watching expects the death of Gabrielle including Ares. When the chakrum is at arm's length from Gabrielle she brings her sword down in a vertical arc directly in front of her. Xena's sword shatters in her hand upon impact with the weapon. But the chakrum's deadly course is altered. The weapon tumbles end over end passing over Gabrielle's head. And without looking she reaches above and behind her to seize the weapon in midair. She drops the ruined sword and lifts her eyes up to look at Xena. The warrior princess can only stare back at the blonde warrior in total and utter shock.
The sound of the sword shattering upon the chakrum echoes through the Citadel. Then it is followed by a momentarily silence. Everyone stares at Gabrielle standing there holding Xena's chakrum. They are all as stunned as Xena.
The silence is broken when Ares throws up his arms as if in triumph. “Oh yes!” he shouts. He points to Gabrielle with both hands and exclaims, “Who's my girl?”
Gabrielle ignores Ares. Her attention is solely on Xena. She watches the other woman's stunned expression for a moment longer. Then she attacks. Spinning her left arm back and around she throws the chakrum back at its owner in an unusual underhanded throw that has the weapon whirring back to Xena vertically. Xena doesn't have the time to react and catch the weapon. Neither is she certain she could catch it without losing fingers. With both hands on the eagle guard sword she swings the weapon like a club as the chakrum reaches her. The eagle guard sword that had at one time belonged to the Amazon princess Terrias shatters into dozens of metallic shards when the chakrum hits it. The circular weapon itself spins off in an upward direction. A moment layer it is heard embedding itself in the stone of the Citadel somewhere. Neither Gabrielle nor Xena care where it has gone.
“Whoa!” Ares shouts clapping. “I was not expecting that!”
Now weaponless the warrior women scream at each other and charge. Soon they are engaged in hand to hand combat that moves at such a fever pitch that they are essentially blurs to all those watching.
“You should all settle back,” Ares says laughing. “This might take a while.”
As the god of war settles back to enjoy his entertainment everyone watches and wonders just what they can do to stop Xena and Gabrielle. Caesar decides he must do something and shouts for the others to follow him as he runs for the passageway that leads down into the level below them.
Understanding does not come to her immediately. Not understanding of her power. Not understanding of her purpose. Not understanding of herself. The man before her had called her Aphrodite a moment ago. A statement to which she had to reply in the negative. For though she is unsure of what she has become, she is certain she is no longer the goddess of love. In some way she is no longer even an Olympian god. But some part of her clings to that aspect. Some part lays claim to the goddess who was wife to Hephaestus and mother to Cupid. A part that though it accepts this change begs her not to forget who she once was.
She has been reborn. This she knows for certain. The essence of Morpheus has invaded every fiber of her immortal being. His dark powers and personality have worked their way deep into her heart and mind. Her poisoned body has been reshaped and remade into a new image. She is remade into a countenance that reflects the dreams and nightmares of all. Yet still retains the beauty of a goddess who once washed up on the waves of great Poseidon. Now she wears a dark beauty that will stir fear in all who look upon her.
This pleases her. She should be feared. Though she is not sure why. It both annoys and amuses her that she can't quite comprehend why she is here. She is now unique in all the world, the merging of two gods but far more powerful than either or both. She is similar to both in many ways but not like them at all. The duality of her nature reminds her of another. One to whom Aphrodite spoke who was also of dual natures. “Hope,” she says the name of the being she recalls.
“Yes,” Autolycus says. “We need your help to defeat Hope.”
She takes notice of him fully and turns her eyes upon him. He steps back and is afraid. This is good. She studies him for a moment. Her perception shifts from world to world. From reality to dreams. She tilts her head curiously to one side as she scrutinizes him. It occurs to her that he is brave and strong, stout of heart and courageous in spirit. And he is in love. “You have no need to fear me King of Thieves,” she informs him. His dream flashes before her eyes. There is a beautiful woman with dark hair and sparkling eyes. She is the eternal princess in his eyes. A beauty unequaled by any in this world or any other.
“That's all well and good,” Autolycus says with a laugh trying to mask his uneasiness at being so close to this dark entity that he can't and probably doesn't want to understand. “But you have to help us with Hope.”
Her head tilts up and her eyes stare up at the ceiling then through it to what lies beyond. Understanding dawns. “Hope is no more,” she says to him. “My help is not needed.”
“What?” Autolycus says with his mouth hanging open. “Are you telling me I've gone through all this for nothing?”
She does not answer his question. Instead she touches the pulsating sapphire imbedded in her flesh. Contact is made and she is flooded with a singularity of purpose. She is given the dream of another world. A world in which Hope did not rule. A world into which Dahak never came. A world much better than the one in which they exist now. The totality of it is hers just as it was Morpheus's. She looks to the ceiling once again and her perceptions pass through the solid matter seeking what she desires. She finds two souls linked by mutual hatred and anger. These two souls that should not be fighting. They should be bound together by an all-consuming love not an all encompassing hate. These are the ones she seeks. It is for their good that she has been remade. Not to save the world. But to save two lost souls. She knows what she must do.
“Who the hell are you?” the lead mercenary demands as he leads his fellows into the corridor.
“Uh oh,” Autolycus says turning to face the men. He wished to the gods he had brought some kind of weapon. He starts to reach for the helmet of Hades. But what good will that do him? He's trapped. The men block the passage. Even if he is invisible he won't be able to get past them. “I guess I should have known I'd die an ignominious death in some dark passageway.”
“There is no reason to be afraid,” she says as she holds up one arm and stretches it out before her.
“Really?” Autolycus says nervously. “You'll have to forgive me if it's in my nature to feel fear moments before death.”
“Who is that?” another mercenary says pointing past Autolycus to the dark woman behind him.
“This day holds no harm or misfortune for you Autolycus,” she explains to him in a voice that seems to lack any emotion at all. “The same is not true of these men.” What can only be describes as dark lightning cascades along her arm then shoots out to strike the nearest of the mercenaries in the face. He goes as rigid as stone and his face stretches into a mask of terror. His eyes open wider than it seems possible and then they begin darting left and right and up and down. The dark lightening arcs out from his head and strikes the next mercenary. He too goes as stiff as a board and the same horrific visage appears on his face. The dark lightening jumps from man to man until in moments it has hit each and every one of them. All twenty are standing there like macabre statues with their eyes darting to and fro.
Autolycus stares at them for a moment. “What did you do to them?” he asks not sure he actually wants the answer.
Her arm remains held out before her as she answers. “I have given them over to the nightmares that plague them when they close their eyes to sleep. That place of their darkest fears is their world now. And shall be until they die.”
“Yep,” Autolycus says. “I am sorry I asked.”
Her hand moves slightly and he finds her arm extended towards him.
“Hey! Hey!” he shouts jumping back against the wall. “King of Thieves who helped you escape here,” he says pointing to himself.
“You have something that is mine,” she tells him. The helmet of Hades leaps from his belt and lands in her hand. As soon as it touches her flesh it melts like metal in a smith's forge. The golden material convulses and moves like it has a life all its own. Then it begins to reshape. Soon it resembles a diadem crown with ten curved points atop it. She slips it onto her head and as she does so several golden chains extend from it to flow back down against her black hair. She stares at him for a second more then speaks. “I hope that your dream comes true.” She turns her head up so that she is staring at the ceiling again. “Xena! Gabrielle!” The names echo through the passageways.
Autolycus watches her outline shimmer like a mirage then she fades from sight all together. “On that note I think I'll go,” he says turning to leave the catacombs. He finds himself face to face with one of the dreaming mercenaries. He takes a step back from the man whose face is frozen in a silent scream. He steps carefully among them all not wishing to touch a single one. He is at the intersection when he hears a low whining coming from the other passageway. “Right. Guess I should free her too.” He glances back once more towards the cell where he is certain he just witnessed the birth of a new god. Then he runs for the cell holding the last golden hind.
Ephiny can't stand it anymore. She has watched Gabrielle and Xena pummel each other with fists and feet long enough. She doesn't care if they beat her to with an inch of her life she has to stop them. She is only a few paces away when she sees a dark form begin to coalesce between the two women. To her eyes it looks almost like a rip in the very fabric of the space between them. But they are so obsesses with killing each other that impossibly they don't notice it. Is Eli correct? Is this what he talked about? Is the world starting to collapse because of Xena and Gabrielle attempting to kill each other?
Her assumption is proved erroneous when the dark tear explodes with what she can only describe as black lightening. It causes her vision to blur for an instant. When her sight returns to normal she sees a pale as death woman clad in black holding both Xena and Gabrielle by their throats.
“That is enough!” the dark woman calls out in a voice that causes the Citadel to shudder. Dust and rocks shake loose and fall all around them.
Everyone watching is dumbfounded by what is happening now. Only Ares, Eli and Gabrielle have some notion of who this being is.
Ares moves away from the wall against which he has been leaning when the dark woman appears. He knows he must be losing his mind but she looks insanely familiar.
Eli having been in contact with both Morpheus and the gemstone into which he transferred his very being is immediately aware that this foreboding creature before them possesses the dark essence of the Lord of the Dreamscape.
Gabrielle can feel the fingers crushing her throat as she looks into the nightmarish features of what appears to be the goddess Hope had imprisoned under the Acropolis for so many years. “Aphrodite,” she manages to gasp.
“It is time that you both understood who you are,” the dark goddess says as she forces both women to their knees. “What you should have been to each other. And what you still can be. This is the gift given to me. And now it is the gift I give to you.” With those words she releases the dream of that other world fully and completely into Xena and Gabrielle.
It is painful to behold. Another world in which they were the best of friends. Sisters in all but blood. Soul mates. Xena has seen the dreams before. But now she is given it all. Not just bits and pieces. Over five years of what her life would have been with Gabrielle had she not abused the girl from Poteidaia. She sees every day. Every hour. Every minute. Every second. In the space of moments she lives those years. The dream of that other world is seared into her mind like the memory of this world.
Gabrielle has never known the dreams that Xena has had. They pour into her mind like molten rock and overlay the life she has led with the life she could have led. Every single moment of a life spent with Xena for so many years is burned into her soul. Joy and sadness. Loyalty and betrayal. Love and hate. It fills her so much that she feels like she will burst from it. It pains her heart to know that she has lost that life. But as she witnesses all those days and weeks and years in mere seconds she feels this dream merging into and melding with the soul shattering reality of these past six years.
They both experience that other world as if it were real. The shock of it sends their minds into near overload and blood begins to flow from their noses and ears. Then it is done. The dark woman releases them and steps away. Green eyes meet blue and for the first time they feel something other than hate for one another. They know what should have been. The gift of Morpheus has shown them what was truly meant to be. Before there was a gulf of hate between them that could only be bridged by death. Now with their minds overflowing with the dream of that other world they find there is something else that can bridge it. Love. Both reach out their hand towards the other.
Ephiny watches the strange confrontation unfold before her. She doesn't have the slightest clue what is going on. But what she does understand is the look she sees pass between Xena and Gabrielle. Never in her wildest imagination would she have thought to see a look so full of love pass between these two who have been the bitterest of enemies for so long.
“Xena,” Gabrielle says with remorse and sorrow in her voice.
“Gabrielle,” Xena says with shame and regret in her voice.
“Now at last do you understand?” the dark goddess asks them.
Ares materializes before the interloper and hits her with a punch that could fell a mountain. She falls to the floor several feet away. He turns and slaps both women kneeling before him. “Oh yeah!” he shouts. “I understand that every last one of you is a damned bleeding heart basket case!”
“Ares no!” Iolaus and Caesar shout as they enter the open chamber with the others close behind them.
“I could have given you everything!” he exclaims pointing to Xena. “And you! “ he shouts pointing to Gabrielle. “You had everything!” He draws his great dark sword. “Now you'll have nothing!” He takes a step forward driving the sword towards Gabrielle. But his blade does not hit his intended target.
Ephiny cries out in mortal agony as the sword is thrust deep into her abdomen. She feels the blade slice through her guts, bursting organs and shattering bones to exit from her back. Then she feels herself shudder when the sword is twisted inside her. Her spine is severed by that malicious maneuver and her legs give way beneath her as all feeling below her neck ceases. The sword is pulled so savagely from her that it cuts into and mangles more bone, muscle and flesh. She can't feel her body anymore but she can see her view of the ceiling of the Citadel's audience chamber far above through one of the massive splits in the ceiling shift as she falls back. But she does not touch the cold stone floor. Instead she is caught. Her head rolls back and comes to rest on something. Her eyes gaze up and she finds herself looking up into the eyes of Gabrielle.
“Ephiny?” Gabrielle says looking down into the eyes of the woman who has been her friend for so many years. Though she was trapped within her own body as Hope she felt the love Ephiny had for her. Through Hope she had known the caring and compassion of Ephiny's spirit and even the touch of her body. Confined within her own body she had been unable to tell her closest friend what she felt. Ephiny had said to Hope on many occasions that she loved Gabrielle. And even though she had been able to push through Dahak's control over her every so often she had never been able to move past the grief and the despair to speak with Ephiny directly. Now she can. And now it is too late. She sees the crimson stain blossoming and growing through the gown Ephiny wears.
“Ephiny!” Eponin screams in grief as she too witnesses Ares' attack.
Just as she had in Carthage Caesar watches Ephiny shield Gabrielle with her body heedless of the danger to herself. But this time there is no Avatar of Dahak to save her. Ares' blade pierces her effortlessly.
“No!” Eli screams when he sees Ephiny fall prey to the god of war. He stands rooted to the spot unable to move. She is his friend. His student. She has shown him that the path of love is indeed powerful. In the short time he has known her he has grown to respect and admire the woman despised by so many as nothing but a whore to the Avatar of the One God. Now he can do nothing but stand there as Ares twists the sword in her body then jerks it free.
Xena too stares in horror at the bloody scene before her. She sees the pain in Gabrielle's eyes and is heartbroken by it. A dream memory of that other world comes to the forefront of her mind. She and Gabrielle are in the Amazon village. Ephiny's body is burning on a funeral pyre and Gabrielle is leaning against her crying like a child at the loss of her friend. Now a similar scene plays itself out before her.
“That was unexpected,” Ares admits looking down at Gabrielle holding the bloody handmaiden to her.
Gabrielle taking notice of Ares for the first time turns eyes filled with grief and hate on him. “You!” she screams.
Ares has the gall to smirk at her.
Reaching back she draws the hind's blood dagger from where it is slipped into the tight braid of her strawberry blond hair. She throws the weapon right at his black heart.
The god of war catches the dagger just before the point touched his flesh. He whistles. “That was close.” Then something shimmers before him and a cold hand grips his. He looks into what was once the face of Aphrodite. But now she is something else entirely. And she has the hand clutching the hind's blood dagger in hers. He seeks to hold his hand in place but finds that he can't. She is stronger than he is! And she is slowly forcing the hind's blood dagger towards his chest and his heart. “Aphrodite!” he shouts as he feels his hand pushed closer and closer to its target. “No!”
“I am not Aphrodite,” the dark goddess says to him.
“Please!” he shouts aloud. “Don't do this!” Fear laces his words then he cries out in pain as the point of the dagger pierces his flesh.
“Understand Ares,” the dark goddess continues. “This is not vengeance. This is judgment.” She slams the dagger home into Ares' chest piercing his heart with the weapon.
Ares' eyes and mouth widen then he crumples to the floor. Dead. The ground shudders and the Citadel quakes as the Earth marks the death of the god of war. So passes the last of the Olympians.
The shuddering of the Citadel causes still more debris to shake loose from the walls, floors and ceiling. But the dangers of remaining in the Citadel are gone as everyone stares at Gabrielle holding Ephiny in her arms. Blood coats them both heavily.
So Alti's vision was true all along, Ephiny thinks to herself. Her vision keeps going in and out. She hasn't much time left. But there are some things she must do before she passes over. She can see Gabrielle leaning over her. It fills her heart with the greatest joy to know that it is not Hope's arms she will die in but Gabrielle's. Eponin too is within her field of vision. She wants more than anything to reach up and touch Gabrielle's face with her hand. To touch the warm flesh of the woman she loves instead of the Avatar of Dahak. But nothing works. Her arms and legs won't move. She can't even feel them. Ares' sword severed her spine.
“Gabrielle?” she says it is a voice barely loud enough to be heard.
“I'm here Ephiny,” Gabrielle responds and takes Ephiny's hand in hers. “Don't talk. Save your strength. It'll be all right.”
“I want you to…” she begins but pauses, as she feels exhausted just by speaking. She feels so tired. She wants to close her eyes and sleep. But she knows that if she does she'll never wake up. This is something she has to do. “I want you to have my rite of caste.”
Gabrielle looks at Ephiny in confusion. “But Melosa stripped you of it.”
“No,” Eponin says in a pained voice. “She didn't. She couldn't. The rite of caste is inviolate. Melosa couldn't take it from her. Even Artemis cannot take the rite from whom it has been given to. Ephiny has been queen since Hope killed Melosa.”
“No.” Gabrielle shakes her head. “You can't give me this Ephiny. Just stop talking and rest.”
“Please,” Ephiny groans. “I want you to have it. Please Gabrielle. Grant me this last wish.”
Gabrielle blinks her eyes and tears flow. “All right. I accept the rite of caste.”
Ephiny smiles. One last thing, she thinks. She prays she has enough strength to say the words at last. She wants Gabrielle to hear them. She tries to speak but at first nothing comes out. She works her lips feverishly. “I…” she manages to stammer. “Lo…” But she doesn't get anymore than that out before she slips away.
“Ephiny?” Gabrielle says shaking her friend to rouse her. There is no response. Ephiny's eyes are open but they see no more. “Ephiny?” Gabrielle says again. She takes Ephiny's face in her hands and looks deeply into her eyes. “Ephiny!” She screams desperate to see any glimmer of life in her dearest friend. But there is no glimmer. There is no life in her. Ephiny is dead.
“No!” Gabrielle wails.
Antony, Palaemon and Vercinix stand on the wharf that leads up towards the city gates. They are alone. All Roman and Gallic warriors are on board the ships they arrived on. They have come not to fight but to call a truce. The gates open and a single figure dressed in the red and black Romanesque armor of Hope's forces steps out and walks stoically towards them. As he draws near he removes his helmet to reveal a man younger than Palaemon.
“You are Antony?” the young man asks.
Antony steps forward and removes his helmet as well. “I am.”
“I am Decius. Adjutant commander for Pompey the Magnus.” Decius looks from the Roman general to his two companions. “You are Vercinix?”
The Gallic chieftain nods and replies, “Yes.” He turns to indicate Palaemon standing beside him. “This is Palaemon. A member of the Athenian resistance.”
Decius smirks at the mention of the resistance. “Hope tried so hard to hide that there were any in Athens who opposed her rule. She had much of the population fooled.”
“We are here at your request Decius,” Antony says stepping a little closer to the man. “If you wish for nothing more than to engage in small talk then we should go back to fighting. It will be time better served.”
The smirk melts from Decius's face to be replaced by a morose and dejected look. He turns his head down and sees the many scattered droplets of blood that had some time ago erupted from the temples of Dahak in the port city then rained down all about them. “I think enough blood has been spilled today. Enough blood has been spilled these last six years to last us lifetimes.” Decius draws his sword and drops it to the wooden docks. He looks back up into the eyes of the Roman commander. “Did you see it? The blood as it fell?”
“We all did,” Vercinix replies. “And we all know what it means. As you said, enough blood has been spilled.”
“I come to surrender to the forces of Rome,” Decius says kneeling before the three men standing before him. “I only ask you that you leave this city unmolested. Do no harm here.”
“That was never our intention,” Antony says placing a hand on the young man's shoulder and bidding him to rise. “We never wanted to take this city.”
“A distraction.” Decius understands. “All a diversion. It seems you succeeded. So what will you do now?”
“We will leave,” Antony declares. “Once we have collected our dead and our allies in Athens this fleet will sail from here into the Adriatic then to Rome. We have business there.”
Puzzled by the remark Decius stares at them. “You wish no plunder? No garrison to be placed here? No Roman lords placed in control of this land?”
“No,” Palaemon answers him. “Greece has never been our enemy. Our enemy was always Hope.”
Feeling ashamed and disgraced by the words of a native Greek he reaches up and touches the triumvirate flame etched on his armor. He wishes now that he could pull it from his armor. He slams his fist over is heart. “My lord Antony. I will escort you to Athens myself.”
Antony returns the salute. “That would be most agreeable my lord Decius.”
“People of Athens!” Caesar shouts standing upon the very platform from which Hope had decreed the death of the city's population. He stands alone amidst a people he once sought to conquer. But he feels no fear.
The people are not so crowded into the Agora as they were before. For the simple reason that so many of their population has been slaughtered this day. As they move about they are aware of the slick coating of blood that covers so much of the city. Blood from the temples of the One God that they had trusted for so long. The blood of many innocents sacrificed for a purpose they may never understand.
He keeps his maimed arm hidden beneath his cloak as he speaks. “My name is Gaius Julius Caesar! It may be a name that some of you fear! A name that some of you hate! And you have that right! But know that I came this day to aid you in a deadly struggle! I know that you will find little joy in victory! With the loss of so many sons, daughters, husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers! You may believe me or not but know that I share in your grief! But it is over! Hope is dead! Her reign of terror is over!” He does not expect any applause or cheering. And he gets none. For how could there be happiness after such misery. He thinks of Cleopatra and his unborn child. He thinks of Octavian. He thinks of Hercules. He thinks of Ephiny. So many lives lost.
“I came to this city to stop the Avatar of Dahak! This I have done!” He walks to the edge of the platform. “So now I shall leave! By noon tomorrow no Roman will stand on Greek lands! This I promise you!” He jumps down from the platform and begins to walk towards the crowd.
He expects them to part before him out of loathing or hate. After all he had once captured this city and intended to make it his own version of Alexandria. But instead the people begin to move in closer to him. He feels a tremor of uneasiness. But not fear. If they intend to attack and kill him, he will not fight back. He did not come to this city to save its people only to kill them. But there is no attack. No fists strike him. No blades cut into his flesh. A child not much older than Lyceus walks up to him and stares up with big brown eyes. “Thank you,” the child says.
Caesar stares down at the child with incomprehensibility. A woman steps up behind the child and picks him up. Again Caesar expects antagonism. He is sure the woman who is obviously the child's mother will scold her child for speaking to this monster. But with tears in her eyes the woman smiles. “Thank you Caesar.”
Hands touch him as still more people move in close. All around him he hears words he has never thought to hear in his life.
“Thank you so very much.”
“You have saved us all.”
“You are a good man Julius Caesar.”
“We pray that you retake your home.”
“Our thoughts are with you.”
“We are sorry for the lose of your wife.”
“Wish all your men well for us.”
“We are forever in your debt.”
“You and your allies fought bravely for us.”
“Forgive us for our ignorance.”
“You are welcome to stay as long as you need.”
“We are sorry.”
Caesar's vision becomes blurry and he wonders what is happening. A woman steps in closer than any of the others and wraps her arms around him. She does not thank him with words. Instead she embraces him with love and forgiveness. Unsure of what to do Caesar places his arms around her. He realizes that his vision is blurry because he is crying. Then all the grief that has been building within him all these years is released in a torrent of emotion. Tears flow freely and he sobs loudly as he mourns all that he has lost.
Still more people move in close to him and show him compassion and understanding.
“Forgive me,” Caesar says still clutching the woman who embraces him.
The woman turns his head up and looks into his eyes. “There is nothing to forgive,” she tells him.
A small girl moves in to clutch at his leg as an older man clasps him on the shoulder like an old dear friend. He looks around at all these people who have lost so much and he shares their pain. As they share his. “Thank you.”
Eli sits alone on the east face of the Acropolis. He had wanted to stay in the Citadel. But Amarice had convinced him to leave. So now he sits on the hill with his face buried in his hands. He did it. He defeated Hope. Exorcised Dahak from Gabrielle. But in the end that seems like nothing compared to the loss of one so dear to him. He had broken down when Eponin had lifted Ephiny's lifeless body from the floor. He had saved the soul of Gabrielle. But it had been at the cost of Ephiny's life. It is a cruel twist of fate that Gabrielle should finally be free of Dahak only to lose the woman who loved her so. He trembles with the pain of it. Ephiny had been trying to tell Gabrielle something as her life had slipped away. He knows she had been trying to say only three words: I love you. But death had not even allowed her those three short syllables.
As they had gathered to leave he had sought words with the dark goddess who had been Aphrodite. He had asked and begged her to do something. Surely she could restore Ephiny to life. But the newly reborn goddess has looked at him and shook her head. “I am sorry,” she had said to him. “It is not within my power to call the dead back.”
For the first time in his life he had wanted in that moment to strike someone in anger. More than anything he had desired to slap the dark thing that stood before him. But he would only be dishonoring the memory of Ephiny by betraying the Way. She had believed in it so fervently. How could he even for one instant in time walk away from that which he taught and that which she believed in. But that doesn't make it any easier to accept. And he cannot accept it. The pain of it tears at his soul. How could the One have allowed this to happen? What had Ephiny done to deserve death? And why couldn't he have helped her? He can exorcise demons and heal the sick. But what good is that now? Enraged by the loss and his inability to do anything about it he rises to his feet. Then looking Heavenward he shouts, “What good is this gift if I can't at least protect the ones that I love! Why did you even give it to me? What am I supposed to do? You show me! What am I supposed to do?”
Light shimmers brighter than the sun and Lila stands before him. She is dressed in the gold and white she wore before and her wings are spread behind her. “Why do you say such things Eli?” she asks him floating closer. Her radiance warms his skin. “Is your faith suddenly so diminished that you cannot understand?”
“Understand what?” Eli says feeling somehow insulted that she would ask him this.
She spreads her arms and her wings before him and he can sense the Light and Love of Heaven coming from her. “That Love…” she begins.
“Is the Way,” he completes her statement.
Lila smiles. “Go to her,” she says as she shimmers like a mirage and vanishes.
As fast as his feet can carry him Eli races down the Acropolis into the city itself. Amarice had said that they would be returning to the royal palace. So he makes for that place with all the speed that his legs can supply.
In one of the palace's many guest rooms Autolycus tries to tend to the wounds on the golden hind. But the creature does not trust him. Each time he draws close to her with a cloth to clean her wounds she kicks and rears at him. She hardly has the strength for that and falls every time.
“Please,” he begs her. “I just want to help.”
A pitiful whining noise comes form her as she tries to crawl into a corner of the room.
The shadows in the room seem to expand and stretch like clay for a moment around them both. Then the dark goddess steps forth from the writhing shadows.
The golden hind goes wild kicking and screaming.
“Peace Serena,” she says as she approaches the terrified creature. “You know me. I am not here to harm you.”
“I'm trying to help her,” Autolycus states as the goddess draws nearer to the hind. “She's hurt.”
She turns her dark eyes on the cowering being before her. “I understand your pain. I've come to take it from you. If you will let me.”
Serena stares at the goddess for a few moments. Uncertainty and fear swim in her eyes. She looks at her bloodied and burned body. The pain Hope inflicted on her all for the sake of her god killing blood has indeed taken its toll over the years. Whether she lives or dies, she doesn't care anymore. She just wants the pain to end. She looks back at the goddess and nods.
The dark goddess steps forward and holds her hand open before her. A sphere of darkness forms there then slowly moves towards the hind. It enters her deer like torso and vanishes. The dark goddess then begins to raise her hand as she does so darkness begins to surround Serena and the hind rises form the floor. The dark goddess closes her hand into a fist and streamers of darkness surround Serena like a cocoon. When she is completely enclosed inside the cocoon it begins to spin. Slowly at first then soon it whirls around like it is caught in a tornado. The dark goddess opens her hand and the cocoon explodes into nothingness.
A naked woman with olive skin and long curly brown hair drops to the floor.
“Help her Autolycus,” the dark goddess says to him.
Autolycus grabs a big towel and uses it to cover the woman's nakedness.
Serena shivers with cold but she no longer feels the pain. She feels the man who was trying to tend to her wrap a towel about her and help her to her feet. Feet? She is shocked by that realization. She locks down at herself. I'm human, she thinks. She is the last golden hind no longer. Now she is just Serena. She looks into the dark eyes of the goddess who has saved her. “I don't know how to thank you.” She is surprised at how easily the human words come to her.
“There is no need to thank me,” the dark goddess replies. “Now if you will excuse me. There is something else I must do.” She turns and walks back into the shadows of the room.
Autolycus glances at the woman beside him. He turns his face away blushing. “Let's … um…”he stutters. “Let's find you some clothes shall we.”
In an unused chamber of the royal palace many have gathered to mourn the passing of a courageous and compassionate soul. The grief in the air is palpable. Some have known her since childhood and others for years. Some only made her acquaintance days ago. But everyone knows that the world has lost something precious with the passing of Ephiny. Her body rests on a stone table covered by a simple white cloth.
Eponin holds tightly to Solari while Varia stands before them. Each rests a hand on her shoulders. Varia is too young to understand the loss her parents have suffered. But she knows they do not cry often. When they do it is for something very, very bad. She does not know the woman under the shroud. She remembers her coming to the home they shared with Diana. She looks up to stare once again into the tear-streaked faces of her parents. She doesn't like seeing them like this. She reaches up and places one hand on each of theirs. They look down at her. She says the only thing she can think of. “I'm sorry.”
Autolycus , having left Serena to rest, has come to Diana. Her wound has been tended to and bandaged. He is careful nonetheless when he steps up behind her and wraps his arms around her. She turns into him and buries her face in his chest. He lays a hand upon her head and just holds her. He looks past her to the shrouded body on the table. He had not known her well either but he had seen her strength and passion. He hopes that wherever the souls of the Amazon dead go that it is a glorious place to spend eternity.
Jett stands alone in a dark corner trying to hide his own grief from the others. He knows, of course, that if he had truly wished to that he would not have come with them into this room. He has not cried in a long time. Not since Joxer's murder. Even then he had not wept when he had found the body. It had taken weeks before he had cried for the loss of his inept yet innocent sibling. He had been walking through a market when he had come across a man selling a pasta strainer. Jett had stared at the utensil for several seconds. Then he had wept remembering that ridiculous suit of armor Joxer had always worn. He does not cry now either. He knows, however, that at some time in the future something will remind him of this brave woman who became such a close friend in such a short period of time. And he will weep like a child.
Caesar stands close to the door with his arm across the shoulders of his niece. Octavia like several here had hardly known Ephiny. Regardless she sees the pain and loss in the eyes of those who knew her well. It mirrors the way she feels about the loss of Octavian. That she can certainly understand. So she feels their pain and it tears her up inside. Caesar looks down at his niece and sees the tears. He knows her well. She is not mourning the passing of the woman on the table. She is empathizing with those who have lost someone they loved. Thinking of Cleopatra and Octavian he feels the same. He does not cry however. His grief is his own.
Caleb and Nannan wish Eli were here. Perhaps he could say something. Surely he could say something that would at least give meaning to their grief. They both know him so well. He could do or say something that would ease the pain of everyone present somehow. Caleb feels that he has been away from his sanctuary for too long. He needs to return to bury himself in his books and his faith. To forget about the horrors of war and the death that walks hand in hand with it. After he speaks to Eli one last time he will go. He has fulfilled the purpose he left his home for. Nannan can't help but feel he could have stopped it somehow. He knew about the vision. What Alti had shown Ephiny. He should have made her stay. He knows inside that he could not have halted Ephiny. No matter what was said or done she would have gone. He bows his head and prays for the soul of his dearly departed friend.
Iolaus stands with Darnell and Amarice. The two warriors with him hold onto each other in a most familiar way. Clinging to one another for strength. There is something else in the way they hold each other. Something that speaks of a passion denied for some time. Of love unsaid. He has seen this many times over the course of his life. Over the course of his life he has buried many friends. War comes with a high price. Peace often comes with a much higher toll to pay. They have won this day. But too many have died in his opinion. Too many good people have been lost. Octavian. Hercules. Now Ephiny. He has fought too long. Xena called him one of the greatest warriors alive. After six years of constant combat that title has little meaning for him now. Especially when standing in a room with the body of a woman who gave everything to protect what mattered to her most.
He turns his head to look at Xena and Gabrielle and the utter irony of the scene before him. Once they wanted nothing more than the death of one another. The deadliest of enemies they are now seemingly as close as sisters.
Both have their arms wrapped around the other. Gabrielle is pressed against Xena and sobbing loudly. Her eyes look dry and red. She has cried so much for the death of Ephiny that she has surpassed her body's ability to generate any more tears. Xena has her head tilted over and resting on top of Gabrielle's head. She is stroking the smaller woman's back with her hand in an effort to sooth her pain. Gabrielle gazes at the shrouded body of the woman who had meant so much to her. During her time with Ephiny in the Amazon village she never had any idea of the princess's feelings for her. Back in those days she was still blind with hatred and rage for Xena. She had forged a friendship with Ephiny but had been too arrogant and stupid to see the love in the other woman's eyes whenever they looked at each other. It was only after Dahak's possession and her transfiguration into Hope that she became aware of Ephiny's true feelings. Hope had used those feelings and even encouraged them. But the Avatar of Dahak had never loved Ephiny. Hope had used her like a toy both physically and emotionally. Through the burning eyes of the Avatar Gabrielle had witnessed it all and howled in impotent rage. In the beginning there had been something of her left in Hope. It was that love and kindness that showed through in Hope. But as the Eternal Fire was fed she faded more and more. She had tried to be strong. But that day in Carthage she had surrendered herself to Hope knowing that only the Avatar could save Ephiny. After that only Hope existed. She was shut away in her own body forever. Or so it would have been had it not been for all these brave people. And Ephiny. She starts sobbing again. She wishes she could cry. She wants to cry. But she can't anymore. She turns from the body and presses her face into Xena's chest.
Xena looks down at Gabrielle and wishes there was something she could do to ease the girl's pain. She understands the insanity of this whole situation and accepts it. Less than an hour ago they had tried to kill each other. And came damn close to it. But the dark goddess's dream of that other world had shown them both that this was all wrong. No more war. No more death. That was all swept away in the realization of what they are. Soul mates. Her dreams had not been dreams at all but visions of another world, another reality where she did fight side by side with the girl from Potedaia. Where she did die on crosses with her and feel at peace with that fact. It is easy to accept. Because it is the way it should have been. Had simple mistakes not been made it would have come to pass. She takes strength from the fact that somewhere it did come to pass. She feels Gabrielle sobbing against her again. She leans down to kiss the top of Gabrielle's head. “I'm sorry,” she says as she too fights back tears.
The door leading into the room opens and Eli walks in. All eyes go to the Avatar of the One but his gaze does not go to any of them. Instead he is focused on the shrouded body of Ephiny. He walks past his friends and goes straight to the stone table. Standing at the head of the table he reaches down and pushes the shroud back to reveal Ephiny's face. Her face is pale but peaceful as though she knew by her death that Gabrielle would live. Perhaps that was what she always wanted. To die protecting the one she loved. Perhaps but he will not let it be. Reaching down he places a hand on either side of Ephiny's face. He feels the stone cold of death in her cheeks. He ignores it.
“Eli?” he hears Caleb say.
“What are you doing?” he hears Xena say.
He ignores them and focuses on what he must do. Closing his eyes he begins a chant in prayer to the One. Asking Him for the power to do the impossible. Asking Him to grant him the ability to do what only gods can do.
His lips move and speak hushed words in a language none of them can understand. They all watch in confusion as he prays over the body of Ephiny. Is he performing some last rite in accordance to his religion?
He begs for the power to do this. Silently asking and pleading for the One to grant him this boon. In the name of Love he asks for it. He thinks of Gabrielle mourning the loss of the one who loved her so. And he knows the one that she loved as well. He will give up everything if He will allow Ephiny to return. There is no greater gift in this world than to lay down your life for the one you love. These words he has said many times when teaching the Way and the path of love. But perhaps it is a far greater gift to live for the one you love. “Please,” he says in a voice so low it can hardly be heard. “Live.”
He feels it behind him. It is the warmth and the love of one whose compassion has transcended hate and rage and murder. Even with his eyes closed he can see the angelic light. Love is the Way. That is what he has been telling everyone for so long. It is time to fulfill that promise. To show that through love anything is possible. He thought he would need to do this alone. But he is not alone. He never is. The One is always with him. And now so too is Lila.
He opens his eyes and stares down into the face of Ephiny. “Live,” he says in a much louder voice.
Anyone who was not watching Eli before now has their attention on him.
Casting his eyes up his vision pierces the ceiling above and the sky beyond. For one instant he sees the celestial eternity of Heaven. “Live!” he shouts as he sees it all.
Lila, her arms and wings outstretched, steps up behind Eli and leans in close to him. She lays her hands on Eli's and enfolds them both in her wings. She allows the Light and Love of Heaven to flow through her and through Eli. Together they act as a conduit for the omnipotent power of the One. And through that power anything can be accomplished.
Eli pulls his hands from Ephiny's face a split second before the woman sits bolt upright! Alive! He takes a step back and then sits himself down rather unceremoniously on the floor. He feels Lila's presence within the room but cannot see her. Turning his attention back to Ephiny he is overcome with a joy unlike anything he has ever known. He did it. The One, working through he and Lila, restored Ephiny to life.
Disoriented Ephiny looks around her and finds nothing but stunned faces. Almost everyone has their mouths hanging open in the greatest display of shock she has ever seen. Then her eyes find Gabrielle's. For one second they just stare at each other.
Gabrielle takes a tentative step away from Xena's comforting arms. She walks ever so slowly towards the stone table on which Ephiny sits upon now instead of lying on. With each step she expects it all to evaporate and to wake up from a dream. She doesn't want this to be a dream. She wants it to be real. More than anything she has ever wanted she wants Ephiny to be alive. When she is nearly to Ephiny she extends her arm out and then brushes the other woman's cheek with her finger. She feels soft, yielding and warm flesh under her fingertips. Her eyes go wider. This is no dream. She is alive! She steps closer still and places her hands on Ephiny's slender neck.
“Gabrielle,” Ephiny says when she feels the contact of their flesh. The words flash through her mind again Are all Amazon princesses this clumsy?
“Ephiny,” Gabrielle replies. Her lips start to form a smile. It is the first true smile to cross her face in six years. “Say it. Please.”
Ephiny doesn't need to guess what Gabrielle wants to her. What she needs to hear. And what Ephiny needs to say. “I love you.”
Gabrielle does not respond with words. No. She leans in closer and presses her lips to Ephiny's with a passion she has never known and never thought she would know. She loves this woman with all her heart and soul. She has waited six years to express that love. She feels her words will be inadequate. So she shows her love with action instead.
Stunned by the kiss at first Ephiny soon gives into it wholly. How she has longed to feel the touch of Gabrielle in this way. She was foolish to give her body to Hope just to feel it the touch of Gabrielle's body. Love is not in the body. It is in the heart and the soul. As it lingers on Ephiny feels more alive than she has ever felt. Ironic since she is pretty sure she was just dead. She is a little confused. But she is certain of one thing. Hope never kissed like this. She slips off the table and wraps her arms around the woman she loves and gives herself over into the passionate embrace they share.
Xena smiles too as she watches Gabrielle and Ephiny demonstrate their love for one another. She tries not to laugh when she sees some faces turn red at the sight of two women sharing so intense a kiss. She notes that Eponin and Solari are beaming with joy. She looks down to where Eli sits on the floor. His teeth show through in the wide smile he displays. His gaze turns to meet hers. “Thank you,” she says to him.
Happy beyond words Eli can only nod at Xena's thanks.
Both women are breathless when the kiss ends. But Gabrielle still manages to say, “I love you too.”
Ephiny smiles like she never has before knowing a happiness she didn't think possible.
Gabrielle caught up in the moment before is now aware of everyone staring at them. Her gaze first goes to Eli. She can never thank him enough for all that he has done for her. She doesn't think she can put it all into words. She nods to him. He winks. Her eyes then go to Caesar. She knows there is one last thing she must do. She's not sure if she can do it. Then Ephiny's hand takes hers. She turns and looks deeply into the eyes of the woman she loves. There she finds the strength to do anything. Hand in hand they walk towards the Roman dictator. As she passes Xena her eyes convey her wish without words. Please come with me, they say. Xena falls into step behind the couple.
As they draw near Gabrielle can see the pain in Octavia's eyes. She has caused so much pain. She may spend her whole life atoning for it. She will start here. Standing before Caesar, Gabrielle reaches up and removes the golden circlet that through everything that has happened today has somehow managed to stay in place. As she pulls it off her head she sees Ephiny do the same with her circlet. Holding the circlet in both hands she offers it to Caesar. Both she and Ephiny kneel before him. “As overlord of all the forces following the Avatar of Dahak I surrender to you, Gaius Julius Caesar.” She bows her. “And I submit myself to Roman justice for my crimes.”
This causes a gasp that runs through everyone present. Except for Caesar who stares down at the two women kneeling before him. He looks up from them at Xena who stands behind them. The warrior princess shakes her head. Caesar nods agreement to her unspoken statement. “Rise,” he says to them both.
“But,” Gabrielle starts looking up at him.
Caesar holds up a hand to silence her. “My war was with Hope, the Avatar of Dahak. I have no quarrel with Gabrielle of Poteidaia.”
Ephiny stands first and has to help a shocked Gabrielle to her feet. As she pulls Gabrielle up however she notices that Gabrielle is unsteady on her feet. Her arms and legs are sluggish to move. She steps in close and places her arm around Gabrielle's waist. Anyone watching will take it for affection. She is doing it because she is afraid Gabrielle may just collapse. She takes the golden circlet from Gabrielle's hand and hands them both back to Xena. “Thank you,” she says to Caesar.
“What will happen to them all?” Gabrielle asks. She looks closely at Caesar's face as she awaits his answer. She finds it odd that her vision seems a bit blurry.
“The legions that followed Pompey are guilty of treason,” he explains to her. He frowns as he says the next words, “They will be decimated.”
“I understand,” Gabrielle replies. For a moment she feels as though she may fall over. Only Ephiny's arm around her keeps her from doing so. “There is something I must ask of you.”
“What?” Caesar asks.
“The lands under Amazon control must remain so,” she tells him.
“Excuse me?” Caesar says suddenly appalled that she would say this. She is asking that people conquered by the Avatar of Dahak and her Amazons keep the lands they stole. Perhaps Gabrielle and Hope are not that dissimilar after all.
“Northern Greece. Thrace. The islands of the Aegean. Asia. Let the Amazons…” she pauses as she remembers that due to the rite of caste she is speaking of her own people. “Let us keep those lands. We will ask no tribute. We will conscript no soldiers. We will rule those lands justly and fairly. The people will be under the protection of the Amazon nation. I promise that neither you nor they will regret it.”
“I do not think that the centaurs would agree with you,” Caesar retorts.
Amarice cringes at the mention of the centaurs.
“The massacre of the centaurs was horrible,” Gabrielle agrees. “But those responsible for it are gone. Hope ordered the attack. Velasca led the assault. Hope is no more and Velasca is dead.”
“And what about any others involved?” Caesar asks her.
“I promise you that they will face Amazon justice for the atrocities they committed,” Gabrielle promises him. “Please. The Amazons were a dying people before Hope came to them. But she lifted them up again. In that one thing she lived up to her name.”
“We shall see,” is Caesar's response.
“Thank you,” Gabrielle says. She and Ephiny turn to find quite a crowd now gathering around them. She looks at them all and is relieved to see nothing but love and joy in their faces. Miraculously they bear her no ill will. Her eyes settle on Eli who rises and walks over to them. “I don't know how to thank you,” she says to him turning to look at Ephiny.
“No need to thank me,” Eli says. “Besides I didn't do it alone.”
“What do you mean?” Ephiny asks.
In the center of the room near the stone table on which Ephiny's body so recently resided a flash of little appears and grows steadily. Soon it engulfs the room. When it subsides a being dressed in white and gold stands before them all with her wings resting against her back.
Gabrielle stares at her and breathes out one word. “Lila.”
“Hello Gabrielle,” the angel Lila greets her sister. She turns to Eli. “Did you tell her?”
“Yes. I did,” he replies.
“Lila!” Gabrielle shouts. She wants to run to her sister but her legs feel so weak she is uncertain whether she could take two steps before she fell to the floor. “Oh gods! Lila! I'm sorry!” She wants to cry again. Here is her sister. The sister she murdered in cold blood to gain the power of Dahak. “Please! Forgive me!”
Ephiny has to struggle to hold Gabrielle up as she moans to her sister. She too stares at the angel. Both Nannan and Eli had mentioned the messengers of the One. But she never thought to see one. And judging by the looks on everyone's faces neither had they. She takes note of the pained look on Eponin's face.
“Didn't you hear Eli?” Lila asks tilting her head to one side and looking curiously at her sister. “I already forgave you. You are my sister. We're family. And I will always love you.”
Gabrielle gazes upon her sister's glorious form and is amazed at the extent of a love that can allow her sister to forgive her for what she did.
Lila steps so close to the two women that they can both feel the warmth of her love. They are bathed in it and both feel all sorrow melt away.
“And if it's all right I'd like to be a part of your family again,” Lila says clasping her hands together in front of her chest in that manner Gabrielle remembers from their childhood when Lila would ask her for the last sweet bread on their dessert plate.
“Again?” Gabrielle inquires in confusion. “I don't understand.”
“Lila,” Eli says as he moves to stand behind the angel. “I'm not sure if you can…”
Lila looks back over her shoulder at him. “I can. The One told me so. I can be a part of this world again.” She smiles. She turns back and this time meets Ephiny's gaze. “You are a pure soul, full of love and compassion. You love my sister more than your own life. I can think of no better mother.”
“Mother?” Ephiny says with eyes as wide as the day is long. What is the angel asking of her?
“Yes,” Lila asks. She holds out her hand and it hovers over Ephiny's stomach. “If you agree I can be reborn into this world. Reincarnated as your daughter.”
“My daughter?” Ephiny says still not quite believing this.
Gabrielle finds Ephiny's hand and squeezes it. “Our daughter.”
Ephiny turns her eyes to Gabrielle at those words. “Our?” she says not daring to believe what Gabrielle is suggesting.
Gabrielle raises Ephiny's hand to her lips and kisses it. “Yes.”
Ephiny nearly loses herself in the emerald green eyes. She turns back to Lila and nods. “Yes.”
A luminescent tear falls from Lila's eye. She looks at Gabrielle. “We will meet again soon.” She moves to place her hand on Ephiny's stomach.
“Lila,” Eponin says stepping away from Solari and Varia to approach the angel. Gabrielle's sister is even more beautiful as an angel than she was in this world. And when those angelic eyes turn on her she feels herself blush. She never had the courage to tell Lila that she loved her. Now she still isn't sure she has the guts. But she summons all her courage. “I…” she begins.
“I know Eponin,” Lila says. The angel looks from the dark haired warrior to her lover and their daughter. “Are you happy?”
Eponin nods and smiles. “Yes.”
“I'm glad,” Lila replies. With a girlish giggle Lila says, “I'll see you soon.” She touched Ephiny's stomach and suddenly her physical form turns into a silhouette of light. It coalesces into a shaft that is absorbed into Ephiny.
Ephiny's reaction nearly knocks her off her feet. She stumbles away from Gabrielle. Gabrielle now unsupported falls backwards. She would hit the floor hard if it were not for Xena catching her in her arms. Ephiny recovers quickly and comes to their side.
“Are you all right?” Xena asks Gabrielle.
“Tired,” Gabrielle mutters.
“Hope never slept,” Eli explains. “Her body has been awake for six years.”
Both Ephiny and Xena look down into Gabrielle's face.
“It's all right,” Ephiny says laying her hand on Gabrielle's face. “It's all over.”
“You can rest now Gabrielle,” Xena reassures her. “We'll watch over you.”
Gabrielle wants to say something to them. But she's too tired now even to speak. Six years of never resting or sleeping comes on her like lightening. She is deeply asleep a moment later.
“Hey!” the voice of Palaemon screams as he runs through the palace. “Caesar! Diana!” He dashes into the room where they all stand. “Come on! You guys have to see this!” He dashed from the room as quickly as he came.
Everyone leaves the room. But Xena and Ephiny do not follow Palaemon and the others. With Gabrielle in her arms Xena follows Ephiny down another corridor.
“Now that is something you don't see everyday,” Antony points out to all the others as they exit the palace. He is pointing towards the Acropolis. As the others look where he points they all make similar sounds of awe.
The dark goddess that was Aphrodite hovers over the Acropolis with her arms outstretched. Below the Citadel of Hope is breaking up into chunks of stone all shapes and sizes. But the stone is not tumbling down the hill. Instead after they are dislodged the stones are launching skyward like falling stars ascending back into the cosmos. The pieces of rock whistle and howl, as they are sent skyward.
“What is she doing?” Jett asks.
“Destroying the symbol of Hope's power,” Caesar says as he watches. “Removing the reminder of her rule from Athens.”
“It would have taken us years to tear that thing down,” Diana says.
“She's going to do it in a matter of minutes,” Autolycus says.
And indeed in a matter of minutes the Acropolis is a bare hill in the center of the city of Athens.
The air shimmers before them and the dark goddess is there. She looks at them but her dark eyes linger on Caesar. “I know you,” she says to him but her words ring of uncertainty.
“Yes,” Caesar replies. The amalgamation of Morpheus and Aphrodite that stands before him is something most men should fear. He does not. Some part of her is still his great grandmother.
“I am…” she muses for a moment and tilts her head to one side. She studies him for a moment. Then the barest hint of a smile touches her lips. “Proud of you.”
With a practiced but feigned arrogance Caesar replies, “I know.”
She holds up Xena's chakrum. “Give this to the warrior princess.”
“I shall.” Caesar takes the weapon from her.
“What are you going to do now?” Eli asks the dark goddess.
“I am leaving for a time,” she explains.
“Where will you go?” Solari asks her.
The dark goddess holds up her hands and looks at the pallid color of her flesh. “I do not know. I have yet to understand truly who I am. What I am.”
“Will we ever see you again?” Diana inquires. She still remembers her as the goddess of love she prayed to for so long to bring her true love.
“I shall return some day,” the dark goddess assures them. “With a new name. And a new purpose.” She turns and looks into the sky. Then she rockets into the air with such force it pushes them all back and cracks the ground where she stood.
Eli watches her form become smaller and smaller as it ascends higher and higher. “God speed.”
“She looks so peaceful,” Ephiny says as she watches Gabrielle sleep. She has been asleep for over a day now. It adds another dimension to Gabrielle's beauty to see her at peace. It isn't something Ephiny has ever seen before. She leans back in the chair she is seated in and looks back at Xena who leans against the wall by the doorway. “How long do you think she'll be asleep?”
“She's been awake for six years,” Xena replies. “I imagine she'll sleep for days possibly more than a week. Just remember to wake her up every few hours to get some food and water into her.”
Something about the way she speaks clues Ephiny into something. “You're leaving soon. Going with Caesar? Back to Rome?”
“We have to free Rome from Dagnine's control,” Xena responds. “He's too much of animal to just surrender now that Hope is gone and Ares is dead.”
“When?” Ephiny asks.
“As soon as Antony is ready to leave,” Caesar answers the question as he enters the room. “We're going to go east for a time. Gather reinforcements from Pompey's legions.”
“Will they follow you?” Ephiny asks him.
“I won't be giving them any choice,” he informs her.
She sees a leather gauntlet where his hand should be. “Is there nothing that can be done for that?” she asks.
Caesar holds up the hand. “No. I doubt even Eli could heal it. Burned away by the Eternal Fire of Dahak. If nothing else it will serve as a reminder to how far the most powerful and the most innocent can fall.” He looks down at Gabrielle. He finds it so hard to believe that this is the creature he fought for so long. It isn't, he reminds himself. He turns to Ephiny. She has changed from her bloody gown into Amazon leathers. But he sees that she still wears the golden circlet. Gabrielle's rests by the bedside. “Tell the queen when she awakens that Amazon lands will remain Amazon lands.”
“You are a good man Julius Caesar,” Ephiny tells him.
“People keep telling me that,” he says with a smile that makes him look handsome indeed. He pauses by the door to speak to Xena. “Rest easy. We won't be leaving until dawn. We need to straighten things out in Athens before we go anyway.”
“Such as?” Xena asks him.
“Well for one thing there's no ruler here at the moment.” Caesar smirks. “But I know a certain princess that looks a lot like you that is perfect for the job.” Caesar leaves the room to go in search of Diana.
Passing Caesar in the hallway Jett sees the smirk plastered on his face. He walks up to Xena. “He looks rather proud of himself.”
“Jett,” Ephiny says recognizing her friend's voice. As Jett walks into the room she can see by the look on his face that he is leaving too. “And where will you be going?”
“You've gotten good at reading people,” he says. He looks at Gabrielle before turning to face her fully. “I have no idea. But I don't think the King of Assassins is the type of guy to hang around for all the pomp and circumstance which I'm sure will be beginning anytime now.”
Ephiny holds out her hand to Jett. “Thank you. You have been a true friend.”
He takes her hand in his and kisses the back of it. “Please don't tell too many people about that. It will ruin my reputation.”
Ephiny just laughs.
“Tell her I wish her luck,” he says pointing to Gabrielle.
“I will,” Ephiny responds.
Jett passes by Xena who catches his arm. “You did a good thing here. You know that?”
“I know,” he says gently pulling his arm from Xena's grasp. “Not sure how I should feel about that.”
“You should feel good,” Xena tells him. “Just do me one favor?”
“What's that?” he asks.
“Don't ever give me a reason to come looking for you,” she says narrowing her eyes to glare at him.
Jett smiles and performs an elaborate bow. He turns and walks down the hall and soon disappears among the shadows.
“So you're really leaving?” Octavia asks Iolaus.
“I think I've had enough,” Iolaus replies. “Enough war. Enough death. Enough fighting.”
“What are you going to do then?” She has learned to respect him over these past weeks. He has been patient and caring in training her. “Where will you go?”
“East I think,” he replies looking away from the setting sun. “Maybe seek out someone to teach me all those mediation techniques I was always too arrogant to learn when I was younger. What about you?”
As soon as she asks the question she grips the sword at her waist. “I'm going to Rome with Caesar and Antony.”
“I thought as much.” He is not surprised at all. “The soul of the warrior within you has been awakened. There's no putting it to rest now is there?”
“No.” She feels no shame in telling him. She began this out of a need for revenge. But she found no true satisfaction in killing Alti. “I'm going to fight for what I believe in. For the greater good. As Xena and uncle always call it.”
“I'm glad to hear that.” He extends his hand to her.
She takes the hand in a warrior's grip. “I am glad to have known you. And it was an honor to fight beside you.”
“Hold onto that honor,” he tells her. “Sometimes it's the only thing that will separate you from killers like Alti. Fight with honor and fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.”
“I will.” She puts her hand to her chest in the Roman salute.
He responds in kind. They part walking in opposite directions with opposite purposes.
Caleb laughs and points at Darnell. “I don't think he is going to go over very well in an Amazon village.”
“They better get used to the idea,” Amarice says. “Because he is staying with me.” She clutches at his arm to make her point.
Eli laughs as well. He is happy to see that Amarice has finally given up her hatred of the Amazons. She will be joining Gabrielle, Ephiny and the other Amazons when they return to Amazon lands to begin restructuring the culture. He is also happy that she has at last admitted her love for Darnell. She has not said it in so many words but it is obvious by the way they look at each other now. Were he her father he is certain he would have preferred someone a bit less caustic in demeanor than Darnell. But she loves him and that is all that really matters.
“I wish the two of you the best of luck,” Eli tells them both.
“Do you have to leave?” Amarice asks in a voice that is deliberately whiny.
“I'm afraid I must,” Eli responds in an overly stern voice.
“You two knock that off,” Caleb interjects. He readjusts the pack on his shoulders.
“I've done what I came here for,” Eli says. He looks to the Acropolis and its bare summit. “Time for me to go back. But Nannan will be staying. He can teach the Way here.”
“I'm going to come visit you,” Amarice says pointing at him. “I'll turn up when you least expect it.”
“Thanks for the warning.” Eli smiles. He embraces Amarice. “The blessings of the One be upon you.”
She looks up at him. “It already is.” She steps away from him and takes Darnell's hand.
The gladiator points to Eli and winks. “Be seeing you.” The two of them walk into the Agora that is filling up with many people who have decided to try and continue living their lives as normally as they can despite the recent horror visited on them.
“I hope you don't mind a traveling companion,” Eli says picking up his own pack from the ground.
“Not at all.” Caleb starts walking as he speaks. Eli falls into step behind him. “Sure you won't stay in my sanctuary for a while. I'm sure the other members of my order would like to meet you.”
“I think I best get back to the enclave.” Eli looks back as they leave the Agora. “But it was good to come home even if for a little while. Besides. I'm sure I'll be back.”
“No doubt,” Caleb replies. He pulls a scroll from his pack. “You know it's the weirdest thing. I was looking through my scrolls and I found this three hundred year old Spartan prophecy. It talks about this great woman warrior and the Twilight of the Gods.”
Ephiny stands on the docks of Piraeus and says the last of her good byes. She isn't sure what to say to Xena. So she embraces the woman like a sister.
When they part Xena holds the other woman at arm's length. “When she awakes tell her that as soon as Rome is free I'll return.”
“I shall,” Ephiny says. “And you be careful.”
“Have no doubt that I will,” Xena replies. She turns her head to look in the direction of Athens. “She'll make a wonderful queen.”
“Yes. She will.” Ephiny agrees.
“I want to tell you something.” Xena reaches out to lay a hand on Ephiny's shoulder. She isn't really sure she wants to tell her this. But she knows that it is important. It is to her at least. And she is sure it will be to Gabrielle.
“What?” Ephiny asks not liking the look in Xena's eyes.
“In that other world,” Xena begins. “The world I dreamed of. You were our friend. You and Gabrielle were sisters in every sense of the word. It's a long story. And maybe one day I will tell you.”
“We are friends here as well,” Ephiny points out to Xena. “And more.”
“In that world you died,” Xena goes on. “Not defending her. You were murdered on the end of a Roman blade and we were on the other side of the country. I held her in my arms while your body burned on the funeral pyre.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Ephiny asks remembering the pain of Ares' sword piercing her.
“Because if she remembers it all as vividly as I do she will remember that. There may be times when she looks at you strangely. And she won't want to tell you why. I'm telling you so you'll know. When she looks at you like that you won't need to worry. Never doubt her love for you.” Xena finds that she feels better after telling her.
“I won't,” Ephiny says simply. “I can't doubt it. It was love that brought me back.”
“Take care,” Xena says.
“You too,” Ephiny replies. She watches Xena walk the dock then leap onto the deck of a ship moored nearby. The vessel is loosed and begins to drift into the harbor. She sees Xena's hold up a hand and she waves in return. “Return to us safely my friend.” She walks back towards the palace with hope in her heart.
4 months later …
Over seven years ago when she was dragged from this place behind a horse half dead, Xena never thought she would be returning. Nevertheless return to Amphipolis she has. Then she had come back dressed in her leathers and armor. This time as she enters her home village she is dressed in a simple blue dress that makes her look more like a villager's wife than a warrior. But that is the way she wanted it. The look of Xena in known throughout Greece almost as much as the name. And she did not want to be delayed as she kept her promise to return. Neither does she return to Amphipolis with just Argo this time. She walks beside Argo because Lyceus sits atop the warhorse.
The differences in Amphipolis are striking. Even before she got to the village proper she saw and was greeted by men, women and children tilling and seeding the earth. When Hope destroyed Amphipolis, she had wanted no reason for anyone to settle there ever again. Scorched earth was all that she had left in this part of Thrace. Now the people that once lived in these lands have returned at the request of the new ruler to make of this place what it once was.
The village itself looks nothing like the place she had called home. There are no wooden houses or ramshackle huts. Nearly every structure is made of stone now. And what buildings are constructed of wood are made of dense hard wood that is nearly as hard as stone. It is nearly four times the size it was in Xena's childhood. The lanes and roads are wide enough for several wagons to drive through with ease. And of course there is the wall. Nearly two stories high it encircles Amphipolis all the way around. Wide gates allow entrance every quarter mile around its circumference.
“Not quite how you remember it huh mom?” Lyceus asks with a chuckle upon seeing her startled glances.
“Very funny,” she says looking back over her shoulder to scowl at her son. Her steed nays in that way that says she finds Xena's predicament amusing as well. “Oh. Both of you be quiet. Of course it looks different. It wasn't the capital of Amazonia then.”
The gate through which she entered is left open as she walks deeper into the village. “The Amazons have certainly been busy,” she says to no one in particular.
“So how come no one is here to greet us?” Lyceus asks crossing his arms over his chest.
“So I'm no one now!” Eponin calls out as she approaches them. Varia walks along besides nearly having to run to match the pace of her mother's long strides.
“Eponin,” Xena says reaching out a hand to the woman. They grasp their wrists and shake.
Eponin looks at the other woman's clothing. “In disguise?”
Xena chuckles. “I just didn't want to get harassed on my way here.” She kneels down and musses Varia's hair. “And how are you?”
Varia tries to push Xena's hand away. “Stop that! I'm doing fine.”
Xena stands, turns around and pulls Lyceus from the saddle. “Lyceus. This is Varia.” She sets her son down on the ground and points to the girl. “Varia. This is my son Lyceus.”
“Nice to meet you Lyceus,” Varia says walking up to him. She holds out her hand. Lyceus grips her hand with his.
“No,” Varia says shaking her head. “Like this.” She pulls his hand further up so that their wrists are gripping one another.
“Varia,” Eponin says squatting to look her daughter in the face. “Why don't you show Lyceus around?”
“Okay,” Varia says and with a strength belaying her small size proceeds to drag Xena's son with her.
“See you later,” Xena says waving to her son.
“Xena,” Eponin starts to walk down one of the wide lanes and indicates Xena should follow.
Still leading Argo she follows the Amazon. She sees some trepidation in Eponin's eyes. “What is it?”
“When we first arrived here the first thing she had us do was try and find the bodies,” Eponin says. “But it's been too long. We found bones but no way to know if any of them was your…”
“It's all right,” Xena cuts her off. “It means a lot that you tried. Maybe the past is best left buried.”
“I suppose you're right,” Eponin replies. She turns to look at the warrior princess as they walk. “We received news about what happened in Rome. If we can help in anyway I hope Caesar knows he has only to ask.”
Xena stops in the road as she remembers what happened when Caesar led them back into Rome. The city was littered with bodies and with the rubble of close to half the structures in the city. Even she had not thought Dagnine capable of that kind of carnage. The battle in the city with Dagnine's army had lasted days. Retaking the city had come at a high price and after it all Dagnine had escaped. “Dagnine is Rome's problem now. Not mine.”
“Not yours?” Eponin says not understanding her meaning. When she had come to Athens she had been Caesar's Mistress of the Horse. Second in command to Caesar and equal in rank to Marc Antony. She was practically royalty.
“I have left Caesar's service,” Xena tells her as she turns to look around the inner city. “This is my home once more. I promised Ephiny I would return once my work with Caesar was finished. Besides he needs no Mistress of the Horse or Master of the Horse now. The people have crowned him King of Rome.”
“King?” Eponin responds to that with much surprise. “After all that the senate rambled on about how they needed no kings.”
“The senate did Rome no good when Dagnine brought his army to the city.” As Xena talks she removes a saddlebag from Argo. “They were all dead when we got there. The people that remained praised him as their savior and placed a crown of laurel leaves on his head.”
“Extraordinary,” Eponin remarks. She sees Xena tidying her horse's tack and whistles. “Caesar a king.”
“And that makes Julia a princess.” Xena hefts her saddlebag onto her shoulder as a teenage girl arrives from a nearby stable. “I think my friend Gaius is going to have his hands full with her.”
“Take Xena's horse to the stables please,” Eponin says to the girl.
The girl nods and takes the lead from Xena. “Yes you majesty,” she says before leaving with the horse.
“Your majesty?” Xena says looking at Eponin.
“She made me queen regent over this part of Thrace,” Eponin explains to her.
“Queen regent?” Xena looks unsure of what she is hearing. “I don't understand.”
“That might take a while to explain.”
“I am here. And I am not going anywhere anytime soon. Explain it to me.”
“Very well.” Eponin draws a deep breath in order to explain the situation regarding the current monarchy among the Amazons.
The massive wall does not border one small section of the city. There the city borders the sea where a sheer drop of nearly one hundred feet goes down to the water. Between the edge of the cliff and a two-story granary is a small clearing that she remembers well. It was here that she and her brother Lyceus used to practice their fighting skills out of sight of their mother who would always scold and punish them for such barbaric behavior. At the far end of that clearing rooted precariously on the edge of the cliff is an ancient tree that she and Lyceus used to climb. Like the fearless children they were the two of them would scramble up the limbs like monkeys heedless of the fact that a simple misstep would have meant their deaths.
Standing by the granary she finds Amarice watching intently across the clearing. She turns when she sees movement but her concern turns to joy when she sees the warrior princess. “Xena,” she says and clasps the other woman's hand. “When did you get back?”
“Just now,” Xena explains. “I would have been here sooner but I've been having a long talk with Eponin.” She looks around for a moment. “Where is she?”
Amarice at first just points to the base of the tree then her finger rises until she is pointing up into the top branches of the monstrous oak. “Up there.”
“Of course,” Xena groans. She smiles at Amarice. “I'll talk to you later.”
“Right,” the young warrior says.
Xena runs quickly towards the tree then leaps up onto the lowest branch and flips herself up onto it. She stares down and looks at the narrow shoreline below and the rocks in the water beyond. “Okay. Further down than I remember.” She decides it would serve her best not to look down anymore. Looking straight up she begins to leap from branch to branch. Once or twice the hem of the dress she is wearing gets caught in the branches. “Hated this thing anyway,” she says as she rips most of the skirt away.
After a few more moments of perilous climbing she finds the object of her search. Gabrielle is sitting on a branch with her back against the trunk. The first thing Xena notices is that her hair has lightened in color losing the strawberry tint to her blond hair and she has cut it to shoulder length. Nestled still on her brow is the golden circlet. She is staring at her right palm, which bears a scar that was not there in Athens. But Xena knows what it is. And unlike the scar on her cheek that was a branding of hate, the scar on her hand is a symbol of love. She opens her mouth to greet Gabrielle.
“Hello Xena,” Gabrielle says turning her head to look at the warrior princess. She sees that Xena's right cheek is scarred from their battle in the Citadel. It is almost in the exact same place as the scar Anya gave her years ago. She seems to be mulling over in her mind what to say next. She draws a blank.
Xena moves in to perch on a branch nearby. She nods to the scarred palm. “How does it feel?” she asks.
“I think Eponin was a little too enthusiastic during the ceremony,” Gabrielle replies holding up her hand so Xena can see it clearly.
“I didn't mean the scar,” Xena says looking deeply into the green eyes.
Gabrielle smirks and blushes slightly. “You mean how does it feel being married to Ephiny?”
“Yes.” Xena watches her reaction.
The blonde leans her head back against the trunk of the tree. “It has made me happier than I ever thought possible,” she says. She presses her upper teeth down onto her bottom lip in a nervous gesture.
“But?” Xena inquires.
“It reminds me of how I lost Perdicus,” she replies. “You remember? When Callisto killed him right before my eyes? But then I remember that I was never married to Perdicus. Not here in this world.” She points to her head and returns her gaze to Xena. “But in here I was married to him. And I loved him.”
Xena nods her understanding.
“I know that what she gave to us stopped our hate,” Gabrielle says she turns to perch on her own limb. “It made us both realize what could have been. But I think it's a blessing and a curse. Sometimes I have a hard time separating my memories of this world and the dream memories of that world. Close to six years of another lifetime that I didn't live is a part of me.”
“I know that it's hard sometimes,” Xena agrees. “Fighting by Caesar's side every so often the memories of what happened in that other world would surface. I'd remember that he ordered us crucified. And that I pretty much engineered his death.”
“And sometimes when I look at Ephiny I remember her funeral.” Gabrielle holds up her right hand and runs a finger along the scar. The Amazon bonding ceremony calls for the two women to have their palms cut open and to clasp hands. Sharing blood as they will share their lives. “I don't want to imagine my life without her. But I know a life without her. And it hurts sometimes.”
“What she did to us was for the best,” Xena explains. “We would have killed each other if she hadn't.”
“I know,” Gabrielle agrees. “But I lived as a prisoner in my own body for six years. Then nearly that many years of memories get dumped into my head. Makes it hard for me to know who I am every now and then.”
“It's a difficult thing to know exactly who you are,” Xena says as she steps onto Gabrielle's perch and sits down next to her. “Take it from someone who searched for their purpose for a long time.”
“How do you begin to understand something like this?” Gabrielle asks. “It's so complicated.”
Xena places her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. “A very wise woman once told me this. To conquer others is to have power. To conquer yourself is to know the way. It won't be an easy journey to understand yourself. But no journey worth taking is ever easy.”
Gabrielle looks at her from the corner of her eye. “Sound advise,” she says smiling.
“Indeed.” Xena slips her hand from her friend's shoulder. “So what's this I hear about you becoming high queen?”
Gabrielle nearly loses her balance when Xena asks that question. “What? How did you…”
“Even going to let you change your name,” Xena remarks. “That's a tradition that hasn't been done in centuries.”
“Eponin talks too much,” Gabrielle growls. “We reign over more land now than we ever have. But I can't rule it all directly or effectively as I promised Caesar we would. So I have six regents ruling the lands under me.”
“And what name has been chosen for you?” Xena asks. “Unless I am not recalling correctly the high queen's name is decided for her by…”
Gabrielle cuts her off. “By a committee of her peers. I am well aware of this.”
Xena is enjoying teasing the information out of Gabrielle. It reminds her so much of the way that other Xena teased her Gabrielle. And it is an aspect of friendship she intends to cultivate with the Amazon Queen. “And the name is?”
Gabrielle groans before answering. “Gabriella Cyane Artemisia.”
Xena recalls the last Amazon queen named Cyane. “It's a strong name.” She thumps the circlet. “I assumed your new status was what this was about? Does Ephiny still have hers?”
“Yes,” Gabrielle replies. “I wanted to get rid of them at first. They reminded me too much of Hope. But Ephiny wouldn't let me. Said she wanted them to stand for something good.”
“And they will.” Xena smiles broadly. “So how is she?”
“Fine. She keeps waking me up in the morning when she tears out of bed to get sick in the basin.”
“That happens in the first months. She'll be over it soon.”
“So she'll be better after that?” Gabrielle asks with relief in her voice.
“Oh no.” Xena tries not to laugh at the horrified look on Gabrielle's face. “She's going to get a lot worse over the next few months.”
“Xena,” Gabrielle says her face and voice full of disappointment. “If you are trying to make me feel better I just want you to know that you're failing miserably.”
“Just wait until the mood swings and bizarre food cravings kick in.” Xena waggles her eyebrows.
“I know you two are talking about me up there!” Ephiny's voice drifts up to them.
Xena looks down through the branches and sees Ephiny staring up with her fists on her hips like a scolding mother. It reminds Xena so much of her mother and she finds that the memory of Cyrene doesn't hurt anymore.
“I think we're in trouble,” Xena says. She looks back to Gabrielle and finds the green eyes looking thoughtful again. “What is it?”
“It's just that I've seen what could have been,” Gabrielle says as she turns to look down at Ephiny. In that other world she and Ephiny had not had the relationship they have now. “I know what you and I were meant to be.” She looks back up into Xena's blue eyes. “We've lost so much.”
“It's true,” Xena says. “But we've the rest of our lives to make up for our mistakes. And you want to know something that fills my heart with joy.”
“What?” Gabrielle asks with anticipation.
“That somewhere out there in another world there is a Xena and a Gabrielle that are living that life,” Xena says pointing to them both. “And that it was thanks to their lives and their memories that you and I are friends.”
Gabrielle places her hand on Xena's arm. “Thank you my friend.”
Xena smiles. “Any time.”
“I will not ignored!” Ephiny screams up at them.
“We better go,” Gabrielle says.
“Yep,” Xena agrees. “Shall we?”
Gabrielle smirks and then pitches herself forward to tumble down through the branches. Xena follows behind her and seconds later they are both standing before an aghast Ephiny.
“Heaven's name!” Ephiny says in the scolding voice both women were expecting. “I really wish you wouldn't do that.”
“Sorry,” Gabrielle apologizes with all the sincerity of the fox caught coming out of the hen house.
“Liar,” Ephiny replies in a voice that doesn't totally hide her amusement.
“Come on you two,” Xena says throwing an arm over each woman's shoulder. “Let's go home.”