"How are you holding up, Reed?" Rosie asked once the bedroom door was closed behind Randi and Gwen. She'd felt the shudder run through the seer's body and winced in sympathy at the look of pain that crossed Reed's face.
"My God, I'd forgotten how much that hurts," gritting her teeth. "I hope they get the wonkiness worked out soon. I liked the shielding they had in place before."
"Can you see what is wrong?"
"Ares' binding potion has changed the balance. They still have their bond, but the shielding is skewed enough to let that energy through. Fortunately, I don't think it will take them long to fix it, but my God in the meantime."
"You realize they are probably gonna make love...."
Reed covered her eyes with one hand. "Yes. I imagine that is what it will take to seal it completely. I need to get out of here before they do that. Just the thought of it sets my hair on end." They rose in tandem and headed towards the door, reaching it just as the rest of the contingent started to enter. Rosie just shook her head.
"They need to be left alone for a while." The Sabres turned to Reed as a single unit and she nodded.
"Set up an outer perimeter to keep the Nation out of this area and let's move our meeting space outdoors for the rest of the day." Her face crumpled in pain again. "Those of you not on immediate duty, join me and Rosie out side. The rest of you I'll expect to hear from at regular intervals. We'll rotate in and out every two hours. I know that makes for short shifts, but I don't want anyone in one place too long. Things will be coming to a head pretty fast now, I expect." Reed winced again and started moving down the corridor.
Reed nodded at Jess who assumed command and started handing out orders. Without a word, Lacey took up her post on Reed's other side and together, she and Rosie ushered Reed outside. The rest scrambled into their new assigned position.
"You all right?" Lacey asked under her breath. Reed nodded but the look on her face told another story altogether. "I'll see if we can set up a circle for you to help block them until they get their shielding back in place." Lacey grinned at the surprised look on Reed's face. "Yeah, I can feel it too, though it isn't painful for me – just weird."
The Sabres were quick to respond to the new arrangement and shortly they were seated in the meadow once more supporting Reed and she raised her barriers into place once more. There was little else for them to do but wait until she was stable.
After a bit, Reed opened her eyes and released a shuddering breath. "Thanks, guys," she said quietly. "Where are we at?"
"The first shift is ready to rotate inside. We haven't heard anything from Gwen and Randi since we came out here and now a majority of the Nation is down because of the antidote. The rest seem to have gone underground. And Corky is going to recover, but I sincerely doubt she will ever challenge anyone or anything ever again. She will be given the serum as soon as she is physically able to handle it. Seemed kinds hateful to make her sick as miserable as she already was."
Reed nodded. "Thanks, Jess. Good job, guys. Has anyone contacted Tiny?"
Lacey shook her head. "We figured you would prefer to do that personally. Besides, we didn't want to freak him out and you know if he saw me or Jess especially he would have."
"Can someone set up a comm unit out here, please? I want to keep him in the loop as much as possible since he is stuck in the capital holding everything else together." She turned to Rosie whose exhaustion was clearly written in her face. "Thank you, Rosie. I don't know what I would have done without you here."
Rosie smile wanly at her. "Wait til you get my bill." Her words drew soft chuckles from the surrounding Sabres. "I think you girls are gonna be on your own for dinner tonight though. I feel like I could sleep for a week."
Reed's grin was drained, but the intent was clear. "Me too. Do yourself a favor though – don't let Randi give you any hologram adventures for your vacation when this is over." She shook her head. "I thought she was trying to kill us until I found out she had warned Tiny away from what he programmed in."
"He couldn't resist, huh?"
"Of course not. He is a red-blooded man and a Sabre to boot. Nothing he can't do... but I bet he listens to her the next time she warns him away from something."
Shanti laughed. "C'mon Reed. You know better. We're as bad as the guys are when it comes to resisting anything that we think is a challenge."
"Yeah, well the most challenging thing I want in my future is to find patterns in the stars."
"I hear that." Then the first shift of Sabres headed out to relieve their sisters and Reed prepared to contact Tiny. She had lots to tell him, but mostly she wanted the comfort of the contact... even long distance.
Randi was slow to come up from the deep sleep she was in. It was warm and comfortable, but there was something tugging her towards wakefulness. The first thing she felt was Gwen's touch, tracing her face as she had always done since Randi's return from the dead – except for during their estrangement. It made Randi smile in her sleep and she absorbed the love she felt flowing from Gwen.
Then the touch changed and became both sensual and sexual in nature. Randi struggled to open her eyes, then found it easier to keep them closed when Gwen's lips covered hers and her tongue asked for immediate entrance into Randi's mouth. Only when Randi pulled back slightly to catch her breath did she open her eyes, and in doing so realized she had passed from the dreamscape back into the real world and there....
There, Randi was buck naked and spread eagle on the bed. She wondered briefly how Gwen had managed all that without waking her. Then her attention was demanded by Gwen's insistent touch as her mouth and hands claimed Randi's body and the love in her eyes reclaimed her soul once more.
Neither woman was aware of how much time had passed; only the feelings of being exhausted and satiated registered in either consciousness. But it was satisfying and neither of them had any desire to escape the lassitude they felt lying cuddled up together.
Randi ran her fingertips along Gwen's arm and hip. Gwen traced up Randi's torso, smiling when she tried not to squirm in the wake of the goosebumps that followed her touch. Randi returned the favor by sliding her fingers down to Gwen's ribs. Gwen conceded defeat by turning her touch more sensual than teasing and Randi felt her breath catch in her chest. She brushed a kiss over Gwen's hair.
"How you doing, love?"
"I think I should be asking you that, Randi. Are you all right? I wasn't too rough?"
"I'm fine, Gwen. In fact, I'm better than fine – I'm wonderful. Stop worrying about it. You know I like for you to take charge sometimes. And I definitely understand the need to work through battle lust."
"Is that what this is... or was?"
"Yep. How do you feel?"
"Strange," leaning up on an elbow so she could look down into Randi's face. "I still want you with an almost burning intensity, but it is more what I always feel when I look at you. Desire with control."
Randi smiled and threaded her hands into Gwen's hair, pulling her down into her lips until they were only a hairsbreadth apart. "There is something to be said for control," letting Gwen feel the bare movement of her lips and breath. "However, I don't think now is the time to say it," not giving Gwen a chance to respond before pulling her down completely and capturing her lips. Then there was no more time for words.
"You sure you're all right, baby? I can feel the shakiness in your voice."
"I'm fine, Tiny... just tired. Rosie has been a godsend, and the Sabres have really pulled together for me, even if they don't really understand the phenomenon." She felt an unexpected warmth flush through her veins and smiled. "Fortunately, I think Randi and Gwen just found their own healing, so it should be easier now."
"How about everything else?"
Reed shrugged. "She hasn't issued the challenge yet, but expect her to contact you for worldwide access when they come up for air from this one. You didn't see her face when that Amazon acknowledged Gwen had been infected. If she hadn't been so concerned about Gwen, Randi would have killed her with her bare hands."
Tiny frowned. "I thought she was past that; I thought she defeated the serum he infected her with."
"She did, but she is still really close to the edge with anything that threatens her happiness – namely, Gwen. She hasn't crossed any lines yet, but Gwen has had to hold her back more than once."
"You don't think Ares can use that lack of control against her?"
"He wishes he could. It has only made her stronger, Tiny."
"All right," he nodded, accepting her words. "I'll let Jill and Tommy know what's going on. Ya'll just be careful."
"You too. Expect a call from Randi later, all right? See you soon." And the screen went dark. She looked around at the Sabres who had managed to give her a modicum of privacy for her vid call. "C'mon guys – let's pack it in. It's safe to go back in now."
"How can you tell?"
"Lots and lots of practice reading the signs," Reed said wryly. "Trust me – I have learned to know when to stay away from those two. The pain is excruciating otherwise." She looked around. "Make sure those inside know we have shifted our headquarters back to the queen's residence. And tell them to keep their guard up – if they tried to poison the queen, they are likely to try it with any one of us."
"They already have," Lacey said as they moved back to the complex. "More than once. It just didn't work because we were physically inoculated against it. Gwen's antidote is Randi and the love they share, so it was something she had to work through on a physical level."
The women were silent as they crossed back into the mountain and their wing. Only when they were safely ensconced in their bug-purged rooms did anyone speak again did Shanti speak up.
"I almost wish the Commandant and the queen weren't going to defeat Ares." Shocked expressions met her eyes and finally Iroque voice the question they were all thinking.
"Why the hell not?? Don't you think they, and we all, deserve some peace??"
"Oh, absolutely. I definitely think he needs to be kicked off the pedestal he seems to think he lives on. I would just like to be able to take a shot at him, and we all know they won't need anyone but each other to be able to kick his ass."
"Be glad they have each other, Shanti. You are still very young. You haven't seen what they have been through in order to be together. If you think we all owe Ares something for what he was doing with the rebellion. Randi and Gwen owe him a hundredfold beyond that."
Shanti sighed. "I know that... I really do. Personally, I am looking forward to experiencing peace for a change. I am just ready to be done with this whole mess and I wouldn't mind being able to contribute to its ending. I want to go home, settle down, maybe raise some chickens. Is that so wrong?"
Shibata smiled. "Not at all. I think we all want that at some level. But I am going to miss the adrenaline that comes with combat and dark ops, and I know it. I think the first thing I am going to do when this is over is look for some sort of substitute activity. Somehow, I don't think being a peacekeeper is going to have the same sort of allure."
"No, but how nice to be able to choose how and where and why you get an adrenaline rush instead of constantly being in danger and fighting all the time."
There was agreement on that point from all over the room and the Sabres settled down to the various takes that needed to be accomplished before Randi and Gwen made their next appearance among them.
"Is she all right, Tiny?"
"Yes, Mrs. Goldman. I just wanted you to know so you would be prepared in the unlikely event word got out about it."
"You don't think Gwen would tell me?" Tiny leveled her a look and she couldn't help the chuckle. "I know, I know," she said. "Moms are always supposed to be the last ones to know stuff like this."
"Actually," he said drolly, "Moms aren't supposed to know this sort of stuff at all... especially moms of the queen." He leaned forward conspiratorially. "Most queens don't fight like that ya know."
"I know... I'm glad that Randi taught her to take care of herself."
"Yeah, she had absolutely the best teacher if she had to learn." He paused. "How are you doing otherwise?"
His kindness brought tears to her eyes but Jill smiled at him through her tears. "I'm doing all right, Tiny. Geoff left me some holochips with thoughts and memories on them and I have been going through them slowly." She chuckled. "Some of the things he remembers...." She shook her head. "I am going to have to show them to Gwen when she and Randi go home. Do you know when that will be?"
"I wish I did," he said with sincerity. "None of us get to go home either until everything is in place for them to."
Jill nodded. "I'll keep my fingers crossed."
Ella spoke up from behind her. "Tiny, have you told Tommy about this?"
He shook his head. "He's the next call on my list."
"I'll do it if you don't mind. I haven't talked to him today."
"All right. If he has any questions, have him call me. You have the number here?" He gave her the codes, just in case and they shut off the connection. Jill and Ella exchanged looks.
"It is still so weird for me think of Gwen as a queen, much less an Amazon." She shook her head to clear her thoughts. "Thank you. You and your mom have already made such a difference for me, even in just the few days you have been here."
"Have you decided what you're gonna do once you get things sorted?"
"Not yet. I wanted to talk to Randi and Gwen first, but obviously that's still a few more days away."
"Well, I have some ideas, but I need to talk to Tommy first."
"All right. I'll leave you to it. I think your mom was fixing some tea for us a few minutes ago. You take whatever time you need. We'll be in the kitchen."
Ella nodded and turned her attention to the vid phone. Tommy wasn't going to believe this.
"You know, we're gonna have to leave this bed and this room eventually."
"Nope... don't wanna." Randi chuckled and Gwen slapped at her. "Bad mattress... bad, bad mattress. I don't wanna be the queen no more. I just wanna stay here with you."
Randi bit her lip. It was hard to argue with that kind of logic. Still.... "Gwen, sweetheart – I'd much rather stay here with you too, but whether we like it or not, we've got responsibilities outside this bedroom, and the sooner we discharge those, the sooner we can stop being the queen and the empress and go home and back to being just Randi and Gwen." She felt Gwen smile against her breast. "What are you smiling at?"
"I love the way that that sounds. I love the thought of going home and I really love the thought of being just Gwen again." She tilted her head to look into Randi's eyes. "Does just Gwen get to be just a bard again?"
"If that is what just Gwen wants to do, then absolutely."
Gwen couldn't stop the laughter that bubbled up. "We sound completely ridiculous, ya know. Most people would love to be where we are right now."
Randi sat up just enough for Gwen to get the picture and looked pointedly at their twined, naked bodies before giving Gwen a rakish smirk. "Oh, I'm sure any number of people would kill to be where we are at this particular moment. Of course, I'd have to kill them for trying. Oof - ow! Whaddya do that for?" glaring down into green eyes glaring back at her.
"You know what I meant."
Randi chuckled. "Yeah, but I couldn't let that one go by either... 'cause you know it's true."
"Maybe, but they wouldn't envy the true treasure; most people couldn't even begin to understand what we have together. All they get the 'all-powerful' thing."
"They can have it," Randi replied, wrapping Gwen up in an embrace that was heartily returned. "I'll keep this." She sighed. "But first we really do need to go and do that all-powerful thing." Gwen echoed her sigh and sat up.
"All right, but I'm only doing so under extreme duress... and because I want to be done with this." Gwen stood and offered a hand to Randi and pulled her off the bed. "C'mon... we need to get cleaned up before we go back out there. They may know what we've been doing in here, but I see no reason to advertise it either."
"Heh heh heh...." Randi chuckled evilly, but she followed Gwen into the bathroom and closed the door securely behind them.
"I hear water running."
Reed and Rosie exchanged wry looks. "We knew it had to happen sooner or later. At least we're ready for it now." Reed looked around the room. Most of the Sabres had left, moving on to other assignments or catching some sleep to pull a later guard stint.
"And it should be quiet in the Nation at least until sometime tomorrow," Lacey added. "We've finished inoculating everyone, so a majority of the population is down sick for the next twenty-four hours or so and then we should have a little bit of time for them to recover. Lorac said she was still really drained this morning."
Rosie shook her head. "This has been a very surreal experience. I am looking forward to experiencing this place when things are back to normal."
Laughter followed her words. "Rosie, this is a nation of women; this *is* normal. With all that estrogen and a majority of the population cycling at the same time, it's always just a little bit insane – just not usually to quite this extent."
"Besides," Gwen said, walking out of the bedroom towel drying her hair. "Though no one else would say it, Randi and I are here. And things are never completely normal with us."
Reed looked at Lacey. "I'm glad she said that," muttered under her breath. Lacey nodded.
Gwen couldn't hear their words, but she recognized the expressions on their faces and laughed. "C'mon guys. I know you wouldn't say it, but we all know it's true." They shrugged sheepishly and laughed with her. Randi stepped out of the bedroom and wondered what the joke was. Even she had to smile at the truth of Gwen's words when she shared.
"So where are we?" crossing to the kitchen and digging around in the refrigerator. Gwen joined her and they began to prepare something for dinner. The rest watched the movement that was so in sync, it was like watching a choreographed dance.
"The Nation has been completely inoculated, so we can move ahead whenever you're ready."
"Twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Twenty-four for it to work through and out of their systems; forty-eight if you want them to feel like human beings."
"All right then. I'll issue the challenge tomorrow night," putting a plate down in front of Lacey and Reed while Gwen put one in front of Rosie. "How is Lorac doing?"
"She's really tired. The antidote took a lot out of her."
"Can we bring her in to eat with us? I'd like a chance to talk to her... make sure she's okay."
Reed looked at Randi who nodded before she rose and crossed to an interior door. She disappeared into the other room, then reappeared a moment later with a dazed looking Lorac. Gwen walked over to her while Randi prepared another plate. Then they all sat down to eat. For a change, it looked like they might manage to have a peaceful, quiet evening.
"How're you feeling, Lorac?"
"Much better, my queen. The sleep really helped immensely. How did things go with Corky?"
Gwen looked away and Randi clasped her hand. Gwen smiled and covered Randi's hand with her own. "I don't think she or anyone else will challenge my authority or my right to be queen for a very long time to come."
"Even though Corky cheated."
"Excuse me?" Lorac repeated, eyes wide. "Did you say Corky cheated?"
"She tried to...."
"She did," Randi cut into Gwen's excuse adamantly. "And she will pay for it... dearly."
That brought a quick halt to that conversation and Reed cleared her throat before changing the subject. "I'm just glad you fixed the shielding." She shook her head. "That leak was an unpleasant surprise."
"For us too," Randi commented. "Are you all right? I meant to ask earlier, but...."
"Yeah, Rosie and the Sabres who were off duty at the time helped me set up the barriers I needed until you two got it under control again. Thank you for that, by the way. I know you did it so quickly for Gwen, but I appreciated it as well." Reed grinned. "Ares sure won't though. My sight shows your shielding is even stronger and it was impenetrable before."
"I think it will continue to strengthen over time," Rosie said. "As the relationship grows, so will the bond you share."
Lacey nodded. "That makes sense." She turned to Randi. "So when are going to challenge Ares?"
"Tomorrow. I want the Nation to be awake and aware for it, as it was. They deserve that much."
Lorac turned to Gwen. "Can you let the council know? They should be able to round up the rest of the Nation on some pretext or other. No one is going to want to miss this."
"Actually, we thought we'd let you do it." Reed and Lacey exchanged amused, knowing glances. Lorac and Rosie simply looked perplexed.
"Tomorrow morning you're going to call for a meeting of the entire nation. Not everyone will be able to make it, but a majority will do anything they have to do to be there, just to see for themselves that you are actually all right and unharmed. Now that the poison is mostly out of their systems, the largest part of them will understand pretty quickly once they see you with their own eyes. But if they ask, feel free to tell them the truth."
"Thank you, my queen. I can't tell you how glad I am that this is almost over." Lorac rubbed her eyes. "It feels like I am waking up from a long, ugly nightmare, except it hasn't really been that long, has it?"
"In some ways, you are and it doesn't take long for bad to feel like forever," Randi said softly.
"What is going to happen when this is over? I know you and the queen have no desire to stay here, but I'm not sure how the knowledge of what Ares did to everyone is going to affect the Nation. I don't want this to destroy us – either as women or as a sovereign nation."
"It won't, Lorac... not if we can do anything about it. We talked to Lacey and she is assigning a squad of Sabre women who also have all types of medical training to stay here as long as they are needed. And Rosie has volunteered to stay as well. She is a priestess of Athena, and she has a lot to do with the fact that Randi and I survived our spirit walk. Had it not been for her and Reed and Lacey especially...." Gwen cleared her throat. "Anyway, you'll be in good hands."
"Thank you, my queen."
"Lorac, even though I can't stay here and truly be your queen, I owe to the Nation to do the best I can for you. All of you put your faith in me and I feel like I let you down by allowing Ares to do this to you."
"NO!!" The word echoed around the room as every single woman stated it emphatically as soon as the guilt left Gwen's lips. Lorac looked at Randi before she spoke.
"No, my queen. You didn't *allow* this to happen; no one *allowed* this to happen. No one could have foreseen this – not even the other gods. You couldn't know he would come here or that we would be fooled by him. And I'm fairly certain no one would have guessed his revenge would take the form it did. We're warriors – anyone with half a brain would have expected him to use *that* aspect of the Amazon Nation... not the fact that a majority of us are of breeding age."
"And how does the rest of the Nation feel, Lorac? Are they gonna blame me for what happened here? There was a lot of hatred and anger directed my way when we got here."
"No one blames you, Gwen; you and the Empress came as soon as you knew there was a problem. The anger was something Ares implanted; we all felt it as something tangible. I remember feeling anger directed specifically at you and wondering why it was there... and then just not caring as the poison took control. That feeling was one of the first things to disappear after I hurled my guts out."
"We're going to get through this – we all will. And then we are going to host the biggest party this nation has ever seen. We want to hear our queen become a storyteller for us again. It has been a very, very long since we've had that opportunity."
Gwen smiled through her tears. "I'd like that. I've missed that part of my life lately."
"I think the world has," Rosie chimed in.
"We'll see. Tommy wants me to do some storytelling for kids and I'd like at least one of those sessions to be here." Gwen paused thoughtfully. "I'm looking forward to those actually. Tommy thinks I tell my stories differently when my audience is just children."
"I'm sure you do, Gwen. All adults relate differently to kids than they do to other adults. It's natural."
"You do tell stories differently when you tell them at band practice," Randi said unexpectedly. "But not for the reasons Tommy thinks you do."
"You know something?"
Randi shrugged. "I have my suspicions. But in the meantime," turning back to Lorac, "I think we should definitely plan that party. It has been a long time since I attended a true Amazon blowout."
Lorac smiled, a genuinely pleased expression on her face. "I'd like that; we all would. Once you defeat Ares, we'll do that. It will definitely be something for us to celebrate. Any special requests?"
"Yeah... no challenges. I think we've had enough of that for one trip."
"No problem... anything else?"
"I have one," Gwen said. "I know it is unheard of for men to be welcome here for any reason outside of brothers in arms, but I would really like it if Randi's band could join us. It seems like forever since I've heard her sing with them and I've missed it."
Lorac looked at Randi. "Are you any good?"
"Yes," succinctly, without modesty or embarrassment. Lorac nodded.
"All right; I'll get it through the council. You just have to deliver."
"It's been several months since we've practiced together, but if you can convince the council to go with it, we'll bring it home. In fact," she added after a moment's thought, "if you want to see Gwen at her best, we can set it up like a regular band practice. Then when we finish, she can do her bard thing for the kids. I think you'd really enjoy it."
"What the hell," Lorac replied. "Let's do it. I'll take care of the council, though I don't think I'll have to hard sell very much. They're too happy to be rid of Ares and his vile little potion. Besides, we've heard reports about your singing from some of the sisters who live outside the Nation. Apparently you are very good; haven't heard anything about the band though."
"You'll like them Lorac... I promise. They really are good."
"Looking forward to it, then. And thank you... all of you. I know we haven't said much, but we really do appreciate all of you rushing out here to put a stop to this. And I feel better after this; it's good to be looking to the future again. Ares took that ability from us. Everything was about the here and now. It's wonderful to feel like there is a future to look forward to."
"We all feel like we are finally looking to the future," Reed said. "It really is a unique experience."
Then the talk turned to hopes and plans for the future and Randi and Gwen sat back and listened, glad for the chance to simply relax among friends in a place that had been exceedingly hostile. Tomorrow would bring new problems and challenges, but today had been a good day.
The village square inside the mountain was filled to capacity when Lorac slowly made her way through the throng to reach the dais. Every Amazon who could walk, crawl or otherwise maneuver were waiting to hear why they had been called together. Rumors had been flying and realization of what Ares had done to them simply fueled the fire. Lorac didn't have to call for silence once she was standing in front of the Nation; the silence was so complete not even breathing could be heard.
"Sisters, as you can see, rumors of my treason and subsequent punishment have been greatly exaggerated." She paused, waiting.
"Lorac, what really happened? What's going on?"
"Take a seat, ladies. This is going to take a little while and we may as well be comfortable." Before she could say anything else, blue sparkles coalesced beside her and Ares stood proudly in all his splendor.
"Well, well.... What do we have here? I don't recall asking for an assembly. Don't all of you have things to be doing to prepare for war? Your queen should be joining our cause soon and we want to be ready when she declares war against the Empress."
"Why exactly would I want to do that, Ares?" Gwen asked as she made her way through the path that had suddenly opened in front of her when the Amazons realized she was among them. "I am hers body and soul, just as she is mine. Did you really think you could break our bond and pit us against one another so you could claim her for yourself?"
The look on Ares' face would have been comical if Gwen, and the entire Amazon Nation, had not been furious at what had been done to them. Then it shifted from shocked dismay to superior outrage. But before he could open his mouth to say anything, Gwen had marched up onto the dais and began poking him in the chest.
"You got a lot of nerve coming here... thinking you could claim Artemis' chosen people and start a new race of warriors by force and coercion. And if that wasn't bad enough, you thought you could lay claim to Randi's soul without repercussions." She poked hard at the last and he winced and took a step back, surprised by her aggressiveness against him. Something had gone very wrong; he needed to get out of there and find out what Randi had done during the brief time he had been unable to monitor the Nation to cause this.
He knew Artemis didn't care about these women; otherwise she would have done something before now. Ares smirked. He would have them back under his thumb again soon enough, and this time, Gwen and Randi would be on his side first.
He glared down at Gwen when she poked him again, reaching for her finger – only to find his hand caught in Randi's. He looked around and realized he was no longer the only god in the room. All across the dais stood the entire Pantheon that had stood with Randi and Gwen against him before. Both outer glare and inner smirk faded. This could be real trouble for him.
However, Ares was nothing if not cocky and self assured, so he jerked his hand from Randi's grasp. Then he crossed his arms over his chest and smirked at them. "Something I can do for you, Empress? You ready to dump Blondie and admit you need me to help you out with that whole world domination thing you've got going on?"
He didn't even see it coming he was so focused on Randi. But the rest of the Pantheon just watched in amazed amusement when Gwen stepped between them and pushed Ares back another step. He tried to move back into Gwen's personal space, but she didn't budge. She raised her hand to him and he echoed her movement, a fireball forming. Randi put her hands on Gwen's hips and leaned forward to whisper something in her ear. Ares couldn't hear the words, but the blush that traveled up Gwen's face and the sly grin that followed infuriated him. But when Randi slid Gwen out from between them and walked right into his personal space, he grinned cockily.
"You wanna know what you can do for me, Ares?"
"Absolutely, beautiful. You name it, you got it."
Gotcha, you bastard. Bout goddamn time this cat and mouse game ended between us. Randi turned to make sure his words had been heard by the entire Pantheon. Heads nodded down the line, acknowledging his words and grant her their blessing to proceed.
"Then I want a code duello – between you and me - with conditions I get to set."
He laughed. "I don't think so."
"You said *anything*, Ares, in front of all these witnesses and the whole world besides. Are you saying you're not up to the challenge?"
"You can't be serious; I'm a god – I can meet any challenge you can dish out."
"So you're agreeing to this?"
"What are the conditions?"
"No – either you agree or you don't."
"And if you don't," Zeus spoke up unexpectedly, "you will lose your godhood until such time as a majority of the Pantheon decides you have earned the right to be a god again. Given your track record, I would imagine you're looking at a millennium, minimum."
"WHAT?!? You can't do that!!!"
"I can, I have and I will. You crossed too many lines this time, Ares and we're all agreed on this. You think the rules don't apply to you anymore. And quite frankly, you've been riding a dead horse for a long time trying to separate the warrior and the bard. Time to pay the piper." Zeus shrugged. "Besides, you do have a chance to win."
"A chance??" Ares snorted and shook his head. "And if I win? What exactly am I going to get out of this? Not that you've given me much choice in the matter."
Randi took instant note of his use of the word 'if'. It made her smile, but she remained silent. This was between Zeus and Ares at the moment. It would come back to her soon enough.
"If you win, you get possession of the warrior's soul."
"To keep... forever."
"And if I...." He paused to chuckle, his entire appearance one of patent disbelief. "If I lose?"
"If you lose, you lose any right to the warrior's soul in this lifetime. And you have to give up your godhood until both she and the bard pass from this life."
Ares looked at Randi, amusement at her audacity and hatred for his predicament fighting for space in his expression. "You're gonna pay for this for a very long time, warrior."
"So you agree?"
"Yes, just so I can watch your soulmate die from the rending that will happen when I make you mine in front of her eyes."
"Very well," Zeus proclaimed. "Warrior, name your conditions."
"Ares has to lose his god powers to fight. Not just have them bound or whatever, but have them completely stripped away. He has to fight as a mortal, with only the skill he possesses. This isn't a fight to the death either; I only want to make him yield.”
"You think you can? Even as a mortal, I have millennia of experience to draw on. You really think you can defeat me... especially given the stakes that have been set??"
"No, Ares. I *know* I can. I'm gonna kick your ass."
Her confidence was unnerving, but he wasn't going to give her that knowledge. "Name the time and place, baby. I'll be there with bells on."
"You betcha you will, bro," Dite spoke up as she clasped his wrist. "Cause you're totally sticking with us until time," motioning to the gods still on the dais. "You owe us."
"Yeah... whatever," he snarked at her, though he knew better than to pull away from her. He turned back to Randi. "So when?"
"Sunset... today. The sooner this is over with, the sooner Gwen and I can have peace to go home in."
"Fine." Ares glanced at Zeus. "Can we go now?"
"Yes, but not to Olympus. We're going down to your little hideaway here. That will suffice until this is over." Then in blinding flash of light, sparkles and sundry confetti, the entire Pantheon shimmered out of the village square, leaving the Amazons staring in silence at the emptiness they had left behind. Randi gave a short hand signal and after a mere heartbeat, Reed gave her a nod to let her know the transmission had ended. Then Lorac turned to Randi and Gwen with her eyebrows raised.
"Well, that was unexpected but very satisfying."
"Not as much as punching him in the nose would have been," Gwen grumbled.
Randi chuckled. "It will be, sweetheart. I promise you that," sliding her hands from Gwen's hips around her middle and squeezing. "Then we can go back to the capital for a few days to wrap things up there before we go home."
"Actually, first you owe us a party," Lorac said with a smile. "Then you can go home."
The Amazons cheered; Gwen laughed. Randi cut her eyes towards Gwen. "I did say that, didn't I?"
"Yes, you sure did. In fact, you promised them the real deal."
"In that case, I better go make a few calls."
"My queen, before you do...." One of the Amazons near the front spoke up. "Would one of you please tell us what exactly just happened here? I know that whatever Ares did to us to make us... receptive... to his ideas and advances is gone, but I still don't understand what or why or how or just what exactly happened here. Could you explain it for me... for all of us?"
Gwen nodded. "Ya'll deserve that much. Take a seat, guys. This is going to take a little while." And it was quite some time later before Gwen finished her tale. Rosie and the Sabres had long since moved to the community kitchen to prepare lunch for everyone. By the time Gwen had finished her story, they were ready to serve it. Rosie caught Randi's eye and with a word, Gwen directed the Nation to start the queue for lunch, making it clear it wasn't optional for anyone. She wanted these women to feel better and Rosie had cooked specifically with that in mind. Gwen promised to answer every question she could once lunch was over.
Randi took Reed aside, knowing she had been in contact with Tiny. She nodded her head at the report she got then excused herself to go make a call to Tommy. If they were going to do things right for the Amazon Nation, Randi was going to have to set things in motion now and delegate most of the work that would need to get done. Otherwise, it would be a while before they got back here to celebrate and it wasn't fair to ask these women to wait to celebrate – not considering what they were going to be celebrating.
When Reed brought her dinner, Gwen looked around for Randi. Then she raised an expressive eyebrow in Reed's direction and waited patiently for Reed to speak. When she did, Gwen nodded her understanding and asked Reed to make sure there was another plate ready as soon Randi returned. No way was she going to let anything happen to Randi because she wasn't taking care of herself... especially now. There was too much at stake and they were so close to being done.
He smiled. He couldn't help it. Once more she was so much like the kid he remembered growing up with and he suddenly realized just how much he had missed her. "Hey, short stuff!" knowing the greeting would at least get him a look and not being disappointed by her reaction. "How's it going there? You coming home soon?"
"I hope so, Tommy... within the next few days. We're gonna wrap things up here by in the morning and then we have to head back to the capital city for a few days before we can finally come home to stay. God, I am so ready for that."
"Most people would do anything to be where you are in the world."
Randi snorted. "That's because most people don't know the shit you have to wade through just to get anything done. There is not enough of any sort of reward to make this worth it. I'm glad I've figured out a way to make it work without me, I hope. We're gonna give it a try at any rate... but that's not why I called."
"So why didja call? What can I do for you?"
"I need you to make some calls for me – set some stuff up. Then you and a crew need to hightail it out here with the band. We're having a party and you're gonna wanna record this one."
"You think so?"
"I know it. Trust me on this, Tommy."
He nodded. She didn't often interfere, but he had never regretted it when she had. Randi's instincts tended to run true, especially where Gwen was concerned. "All right, Randi. Tell me what you need and when you need it by and I'll make it happen." She gave him the details and he nodded again. "That's easy enough. Is she gonna be up to it though? I heard about the challenge."
"She's okay, T. We're working it out."
"Good... you too? You're okay?"
"I really am," she said without hesitation. "For the first time in forever, I feel alive again – complete."
"You make sure it stays that way, all right? We miss having ya'll here."
"No more than we miss being there," Randi assured him. "Make sure you bring Ella and Randall when you come out here. And have the boys bring their kids... just like they would for a regular practice session. We'll put everyone up here – somewhere. The Amazons have agreed to it."
"All right. I'll have to get Ella back from up north. But we'll be there whenever you give the word, ready to go."
"Up north? Why is she... did she go up to Gwen's folks place?"
"Yeah – Jill called and asked for a little support, and before you even ask – she didn't call ya'll because she knew you were both up to your eyeballs in other commitments. She is waiting for things to settle down a little for you both first before bothering you. Those are her words, before you go berserker on my ass. But to be fair, she does have a point, and Ella and her mom were glad to go up there and help her out."
Randi nodded. "All right. You get Ella home so she can come out here and I'll talk to Jill. Busy or not, she is still family, and I gave Geoff my word as a Sabre to see she was taken care of. I don't intend to break that promise."
"All right – you go get to yours and I'll get started on mine and we'll meet you there in a few days. Can I still reach you...?"
"Through Tiny, yes. The Sabre comm system is the most reliable one in the world. And I'll let you know as soon as I have exact details."
"I'm glad everything is going so well, Randi. Lots of love to you and Gwen."
"Lots of love back to ya'll, T. Later."
"Bye, short stuff," cutting off the transmission before Randi could make a biting comment.
"One of these days," she muttered. Then she decided to go talk to Gwen before she called Jill. Randi figured Gwen might want to talk to her mama as well once she knew what was going on. Besides, Randi knew she needed to eat and get a little rest and the best way to do that was make sure Gwen knew she needed it. Gwen would assure that Randi got the food and rest she needed and that would give them some time alone in the afternoon to take care of talking to Jill.
Then all that would be left would be to defeat Ares.
“Everything okay?” Randi had taken her plate from Gwen and sat down beside her, eating quietly.
“Hmm? Yeah, everything’s fine. I was just thinking. Tommy was funny when I told him about this party. He’s pretty excited about it. He’ll make sure everyone gets here, including a crew to record your performance, though he’s gonna have to bring Ella back from your mom’s house first.”
”What? Why is Ella at my mother’s house?”
“I thought we would call her once we were done eating and ask.”
“Good plan, but I am not rushing lunch either. Rosie made fried apple pies for dessert.”
Randi grinned and waggled her eyebrows. “I like those; I like what those do to you.”
Gwen blushed, but looked up from beneath blonde lashes with an expression of angelic innocence. “I can’t imagine what you mean.”
“Uh huh... you just keep telling yourself that. I’ll keep your portion for myself.”
Green eyes went wide and round. “You wouldn’t....” pouting for good measure.
“I sure would. What’ll you give me not to?”
The wickedness that glittered out of Gwen’s eyes should have warned Randi before she spoke. “Maybe you should worry more about what I’m gonna keep away from you if you don’t share with me.”
Blue eyes widened comically. “You wouldn’t... would you?”
“No fair,” Randi complained as she scrambled up to go snag more than two of those pies. There would be payback for this eventually. But for now, she had a hungry Amazon queen to appease. She would deal with the bard later.
“That was pretty slick.” The comment was whispered and completely unexpected and Gwen jumped when the speaker knelt at her feet with head bowed. The action caused immediate silence in the room and that reaction caused Randi to move back to Gwen’s side at a very rapid pace – a pace that redoubled again when she realized exactly who and what had created the silence.
She didn’t step between them, but took her place as the queen’s champion and waited for Gwen to make the next move. To her astonishment, the first thing Gwen did was reach for her hand. Randi took it and twined their fingers together. The Nation continued to watch the tableau play out in front of them, curious as to the outcome.
“Speak your piece, Amazon,” Gwen directed after another very long moment of silence. Corky raised her head but kept her eyes firmly on the ground in front of Gwen’s feet.
“I came to apologize.” Her words sucked the air out of the room and what had been mere silence became deafening. “I have no excuse, really. I... I... I thought I was past this; I mean - I *was* past this... this anger/jealousy thing I had going for so long. I know I still had work to do, but I was making progress; you can ask anyone here.”
Gwen looked around to see several of the elders and Dalia nodding their agreement. She let out a sigh and turned to Randi, but anger was still sparking out of her eyes. Gwen pressed Randi’s hand gently and waited for the blue to track to her, then she smiled and waited, knowing Randi would calm. Only when she received a reassuring squeeze in return did Gwen turn back to Corky, to find her watching them with undisguised interest.
Gwen cleared her throat. “So what happened?” asked loudly enough for the entire congregation to hear. Corky held her eyes this time.
“Ares,” Corky said with bitterness. “Whatever it was he gave us to make us cooperative, also brought out our most aggressive, warrior-like tendencies. And he gave us a focus for the burning hostility we felt... which was supposed to be you, my queen.”
“That obviously didn’t take in you, though.”
“No. Ran... the Em... your consort had been the focus of my rage for so long that my focus naturally gravitated to her. You only became a target as a by-product... a way to get to her and hurt her by hurting you.” She rubbed her arm unconsciously. “Of course, that was before I learned the hard way you can kick butt and take names without help from anyone else.”
Gwen couldn’t stop the smirk. “Yeah... guess who taught me.”
“Figures,” Corky muttered, though her lips were twisted in a wry smile. “I should have known she’d prepare you to fight your own battles. It’s what she did for the Nation.” Corky stopped talking then and the silence lengthened as Gwen considered her words.
“So what exactly are you saying here, Corky? What do you expect to come from all this?”
Corky shook her head. “I’m not sure I expected anything. I just... once that shit was out of my system, I just wanted you to know the whole truth. I do still have some unresolved issues where your consort is concerned, but I was working through them before this happened, I wanted you to know that what you heard was coming from old jealousies I haven’t dealt with yet.”
“I see,” Gwen said after a pause. “I’ll take that into consideration, and so will Randi, when the time comes to pass judgment on you for your actions. You do agree there needs to be some sort of consequence?”
“Yes, my queen; it was part of the challenge agreement.”
“Very well... you are free to go about your business until such time as I decide otherwise. However,” she continued before Corky could stand to her feet. “Please do not be stupid with this chance. And I would like you to resume your sessions with whoever is helping you work through your problems where Randi is concerned.”
“I will, my queen. Thank you.”
Gwen nodded and Corky rose and bowed her head again before moving towards the serving line to collect her lunch. Gwen turned to Randi, who hadn’t moved since assuming her place at Gwen’s side. They stared at one another for a long moment – until Rosie’s approach broke the tableau. Without a word she offered Randi more of the fried apple pies she had been collecting when Corky made her appearance. Randi accepted them with a nod, then she and Gwen clasped hands and headed out of the mess hall without a backwards glance.
It was quiet as they walked back to their quarters; their escort gave them a bit of space, recognizing their need to feel alone. When they arrived, two took up stations on either side of the door and one each on either end of the hall. No one accompanied them inside – with the Nation finally inoculated, there really was very little threat to them. The Sabres kept a small contingent as an honor guard for appearances, but otherwise, security had been completely scaled back.
Randi set the pies on the table and flung herself gracelessly onto the room’s leather couch, bouncing a little before settling into place. Gwen was a little more dignified about taking a seat, lifting Randi’s head up before sliding into place beneath her and cradling her head in her lap. Randi butted against her stomach a couple times and Gwen tweaked her nose before she started trailing her fingers through the dark hair. She felt Randi purr deep in her throat and smiled.
“Well, this is a right proper mess, isn’t it?”
“Hmph!” was Randi’s only response.
“C’mon, Randi... how do you punish someone who was being influenced by the drug Ares administered? You know yourself how potent it is. Not everyone is as strong as you are; not everyone can resist the pull of power it offers.”
“Not everyone uses it as an excuse to be an asshole and threaten you either!”
Gwen sighed. She knew this was going to be an uphill battle. Randi and Corky did have a long, ugly history together and Corky had done the one thing Randi found unforgivable.
“She didn’t have a chance against me, Randi. Not only was I trained by the very best, I had motivation she couldn’t possibly understand. You came back from the dead for me... she can’t even remotely begin to compare to what you make me feel. In fact, the only thing she made me feel was irritation; Ares’ potion made me feel so out of control, so I can sympathize with her a little.”
“I can’t,” with harsh bluntness. “There is no excuse for her actions!” She would have gotten up to pace, but gentle hands held her in place and Gwen started a tracing of Randi’s face that automatically caused her to relax.
“No, on the one hand, there really isn’t, but on the other, it is understandable. However,” Gwen went on when Randi opened her mouth to retort. “Her fate is solely in your hands, love. I promised you both that you would determine her punishment when she lost and she agreed to the terms. I’m not gonna try and influence you one way or another; I am just asking that you look at it from both sides first. You offered the rebels a chance.”
“They didn’t make it personal.”
Gwen had no argument for that. The rebels that had been pardoned *hadn’t* made it personal. The ones who had been stupid enough to make it personal had died a horrific death. Gwen had heard the stories though she had not been subjected to witnessing them first-hand.
“All right, sweetheart. It’s not like you have to decide right this minute. Good thing, too,” Gwen teased, trying to lighten the atmosphere in the room. “I thought we were going to call my mom. I’m curious why she called Ella instead of us.”
“Tommy said something about her not wanting to bother us because we’re so busy with everything else.” She noted Gwen’s outraged look and nodded. “I know – I thought the same thing.” Randi swung her legs down and sat up, not losing tactile contact with Gwen. Randi grinned when Gwen snuggled up into her, situating herself until she was sprawled in complete comfort over Randi’s body. Then Randi keyed in her comm unit and within seconds was spiraling through the security codes that would put her in touch with Tiny. After a few moments and a brief greeting, he was connecting them to Jill.
Her image popped up on the large screen and she blinked in surprise when she realized that they really were at the other end of the call. She smiled at the picture they made together, thanking Geoff again for protecting them.
“Well,” Jill said, “this is a pleasant surprise. I’d ask how you’re doing, but I think I can see that for myself. How are things going there?”
“Pretty good, all things considered,” Gwen admitted. “How are you, mama?”
Jill shrugged. “I’m getting along. Your father and I had a very long life in this house. There are a lot of memories here.”
“Are they good ones, Jill?”
Jill smiled at Randi’s tentative question, wondering why they were back to names again. “Yeah... mostly they are. But my goodness, we are serious packrats. I am finding stuff we’ve had since before we got married,” she shook her head. “I’m not sure why we kept a lot of it.”
“Mama, do you need us there?” Gwen asked frankly. “We heard you called Ella to come help you.”
“No, Gwen, no. You and Randi have far more serious work to take care of than sorting through years’ worth of junk.”
Jill held up her hand to stop their protestations. “It’s true, and we all know it. I don’t begrudge that, except as it bothers you. The world needs something; maybe what you have planned will make it better... make the peace real and lasting this time. Besides, Ella brought Ruth... her mother. We’ve been having the best time getting acquainted.”
“Is Ruth leaving with Ella or is she staying with you or are you all going to go home... back to Tommy and Ella’s?”
“We haven’t really discussed it yet. Ella just talked to Tommy and I know she is headed home in the next day or so, but other than that we haven’t made any plans. I still have a lot of work to do here before I can make any decisions about anything.”
“Come out here with them,” Randi directed.
“Excuse me? Randi, I can’t just drop everything....”
“It’s not a permanent move, mama. We’re going to have a party for the Amazons... a band practice party. Tommy’s gonna come and record my storytelling time as part of that series he wants to do with me telling just to kids.”
Jill bit her lip – she loved practice. It had always been good fun. And she had enjoyed listening to Gwen tell a story from the time she had been a small child. But was she ready for something like that so soon after Geoff’s death? He would understand, but would anyone else?
“I’d like to... I just don’t know if I can.”
Randi nodded. She had expected the answer by the indecision she saw in Jill’s eyes. “Well, the invitation is open. Just let us know so we can be sure there is a place for you if you decide to come. I imagine you would prefer a room of your own just to escape to sometimes.”
“Speaking from experience?” Jill asked with a cheeky grin.
“Yes,” Randi confirmed succinctly. “Too much estrogen floating around here some days.”
Jill gave her a genuine laugh. “Thank you, Randi. I needed that, and I’ll keep the invitation in mind.”
“And you’ll call us if you need anything?” Gwen asked. “We know we have other responsibilities, mama. It doesn’t mean you’re not important to us or that we don’t want to be there for you if we can be.”
“I know, Gwen, but honestly, this is easier for me to do without you here right now. So it’s all good. But I will try to call you a little more often...” she shook her finger at them. “Though you can do the same. Don’t wait until you think something is wrong, all right?”
“All right,” Gwen agreed with a smile. “We love you, mom.”
“I love you both too. Now try to behave and not cause any trouble, okay?”
Randi snorted. “I have never caused trouble a day in my life.” She finally had to sever the connection herself as neither Gwen nor Jill could manage to do so through their laughter.
Despite the less-than-stellar health of the Amazon Nation, they had no problem setting up a temporary arena in the meadow. So by the time the sun was setting, every single Amazon who could stand, walk or crawl to the meadow was there, waiting for the fight between Randi and Ares to begin.
Surrounded by his family, Ares popped onto the field in a showy flash of blue fire meant to impress his audience. It was unfortunate for him that he chose the exact moment Randi and Gwen were striding towards the meadow with a full contingent of Sabres dressed as an Amazon honor guard. They themselves were also in full Amazon garb, decked out as the Queen and Consort Champion they were.
When they arrived in the arena, every Amazon stood to her feet, then knelt in a show of respect. The Sabres did likewise. Ares curled his lip in contempt.
“Can we get on with this?” snarling, then turning away with disgust at a look from his father.
Aphrodite bumped elbows with Artemis and Athena. “This is so gnarly,” motioning to the deference being shown to her two favorite mortals. “But I think I am gonna totally hurl my cookies.”
Athena took her by the arm. “No, you’re not. You’re just a little excited. Take a deep breath and remember we are ALL pulling for Randi. It’s time he got his, and she is just the soul to do it”
Dite nodded. “I’m glad Hephie had time to build this though,” holding up the box that would hold Ares’ powers until the contest was over and a winner was declared. Not even Ares could break into it. “I don’t want him to cheat.”
“I don’t think Zeus will let him; he was pretty pissed when he found out what had really been going on with them.” Then their attention was taken by Gwen’s stepping forward to address the Amazon Nation.
“My sisters... my friends... honored guests,” with a nod towards the gods and goddesses which they all, with the exception of Ares returned politely. “We are gathered together today to bear witness to the final confrontation between Ares, God of War and Miranda Valiant. This is not a fight to the death – it will last until one of the opponents yields.”
Zeus walked up beside her. “The conditions have been set and agreed to by both parties as have the consequences for each if they lose. Ares, step forward.” He did so grudgingly, mumbling beneath his breath the entire way. “To make the odds fair, Ares will fight as a mortal human. The fight will end when someone yields or is completely incapacitated. Ares, unsheathe your sword.”
The look should have melted Zeus where he stood, but instead he returned it with one of his own. Ares rolled his eyes and slid the sword from it covering, holding it up in front of him in salute. Zeus raised his right hand and extended his left for the rest of the Pantheon to join him. They built a pyramid behind him, focusing their strength as a single unit.
Slowly, blue light emerged from Ares’ body, flowing trough the sword before forming a ball of light in Zeus’ raised hand. When the flow ended with an audible pop, Aphrodite stepped forward with the open box. Zeus placed the orb into the box and shut it firmly and locked it with a distinctive snick.
“Okay, that was really weird,” Ares muttered. Zeus took the box and then he and the rest took their seats on one side of the makeshift arena and Ares stepped into the middle of the cleared space. He leered in Gwen’s direction.
“Let’s go, sweetcheeks. I’ve got a warrior to claim, body and soul.”
Gwen returned his look stare for stare, waiting. He was the first on to look away. Then she turned her back to him deliberately and gave Randi her sexiest smirk. Gwen ran her hands up Randi’s torso and locked them behind her neck, smiling hugely when Randi pulled them together at the hips. “You ready?”
Randi gave Gwen a cocky grin, charming in its rakish assurance. “He has no idea how ready I am for this. He’s not gonna know what hit him.”
Gwen pulled on hand back to tap on Randi’s chest. “Just don’t be too cocky – he is still strong and he does have millennia of knowledge to draw upon. I’d rather not have to spend half the night waiting for you to get out of the regen unit; I have much more interesting plans for the evening that don’t include that sort of down time.”
A dark brow arched. “Oh really?”
“Uh huh,” tangling the free hand through the dark tresses and urging Randi’s head down to meet hers. “So don’t play with him for too long, but make him hurt. I want him to remember this for a very long time to come.”
“Til our dying day, love... I promise.”
The kiss went on until Ares cleared his throat and snarked, “You said the match was at sunset. So either we start fighting in the next thirty seconds or you will be considered forfeit and I will claim my prize. Make your choice.”
Randi released Gwen’s lips and pushed her gently to stand out of the arena. Then she stalked right up to Ares and got into his face. “You want me so badly? Bring it on, big boy!”
“Your choice, as the one challenged.”
Ares look at the table that had been set up with two of every-kind-of-non-shooting-personal-weapon-ever-invented and he couldn’t help but be impressed. He hadn’t seen some of these things in years and he itched to get his hands on them. First however, there was the little matter of this challenge.
“These,” he said, holding up his hands. “Nothing but these for now. Maybe if you can manage to last a while, we can entertain the masses with the toys.”
“Then remove your sword.”
Ares covered his chest with his hands and his expression became one of mock surprise and feigned anguish. “I’m hurt. Don’t you trust me?”
“Not even if you swore on your mother’s life, Ares. Give it up.”
He frowned but removed the sheath from around his waist and placed it on the table. “Good enough?”
“Good enough,” stepping into the center of the cleared space. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Ares walked towards Randi, close but not within touching range – not yet. He circled around her like a hawk, trying to view her from all sides, but she naturally pivoted with him. Finally he stood still and gave her a wicked grin. He held his arms out away from his body. “C’mon, beautiful. I’ll give you a free shot. No strings.”
Randi rolled her eyes and snorted. “Ares, with you there have always been strings. It’s just how you do things.” But before he could formulate a response, she spun, and with a strong, roundhouse kick, sent him flying a good five feet before he landed on his ass.
“So that’s how it’s gonna be, huh?” putting his hand to his lip and pulling it away covered in blood. “There will be paybacks, you know,” extending his hand and cursing when he remembered he was human and there would be no fireballs.
He jumped to his feet and stalked over to her, shooting his arm out in a straight from the shoulder punch. She ducked, as he had anticipated and he hit her hard in the gut, causing Randi to double over. “You can’t beat me, little girl. Even without my power, I am still the God of War.” Then he howled and jumped back, gasping and glaring even while he covered his privates.
“Uh huh, and you still have boy parts for me to grab and twist off,” Randi wheezed, slowly straightening. Ares also stood slowly, wincing at the pull on his groin. She swung at his chin and he dodged her fist. He swung against her, but she had already moved out of range. “This is not about there being a fair fight between us, Ares. It never has been. For a Sabre, it’s all about winning.”
“And what about duty and honor?” Ares caught her leg as Randi kicked out at him again. He tried to twist it, but she rolled with him, taking them both to the ground unbalanced.
“It was my duty to win, remember? The honor came from protecting the innocents and making the world a safer place to live.” They climbed to their feet and regarded one another warily.
“You’re making me cry here, what with all that bleeding-heart liberal crap you’re spouting,” walking slowly and wiping the blood off his lip where he had bitten it again when he fell. “You didn’t do it for the world and you didn’t do it for the Sabres or Blondie over there or anything else. You did it because you are a warrior – you’ve always been a warrior, and all warriors need a battle to fight or they just shrivel up and die.”
Ares swung hard and connected with Randi’s jaw, causing her to stagger and step back a pace. He tried to follow through, but she wasn’t where he had expected her to be and the next thing he felt was a wicked blow to the side of his head and then a punch to the nose that made him see stars he had never seen in the night sky before.
Randi spit out a mouthful of blood and Ares shook his head trying to clear it. He had never imagined such pain before and he decided there was no way he was going to live with the ability to feel this for the next fifty or sixty years.
“C’mon Ares,” Randi taunted. “Is that all you got?”
“You think you can handle more?”
Randi grinned at him saucily. “I’m just getting warmed up here, war god. I can take anything you can dish out.”
“You think so? I haven’t even gotten started,” he snarled. “Choose a weapon,” motioning to the laden table. Randi reached over and grabbed a staff, then stepped back to allow Ares to do the same. He frowned at her choice, but picked up the second staff, twirling it to get a feel for it. Finally he nodded in satisfaction.
Randi didn’t wait for an invitation this time, but went on the offensive immediately. Ares barely had time to get his staff into a defensive position before Randi swung her staff at his head. He caught the top, but missed the backswing that nailed him in the ribs.
“Oof,” feeling the air whoosh out of his lungs. “Bitch!” backing away from her holding his side. “No more games!!” He swung overhead, using the staff as a club - concentrating on defeating her with sheer brute strength. Randi read his intention easily, sliding her staff into place and bracing her legs to hold him.
The staff blow seared through them, sending shock waves across both bodies. Ares’ eyes widened when he realized he wasn’t moving – despite himself, he was impressed. Then Randi gave him a maddening grin and he got angry. And he let the anger build and flow through him, utilizing the strength it gave him and pushing her back. He didn’t appreciate that she was letting push her for her own reasons... until those reasons became clear.
He felt her feet come up and connect with his chest a millisecond before he went flying. It was quite enlightening when his ass hit the grass. It was also more than a little painful. But he scrambled to his feet, spinning the staff at an incredible speed and moving towards Randi with determined steps.
She met him halfway and the blows fell so quickly, they couldn’t be seen – only heard. SMACK!! THWACK!! CRACK!! WHOOSH!! THWACK!! SMACK!! CRASH!!
There was a brief pause as they backed away from one another, re-evaluating strategies before they moved back together in a tangle of staff work. Spin, parry, thrust, parry, slash, backslash, thrust, parry, spin. Over and over in a smooth rhythm like a dance with neither opponent gaining any ground. Both were sweating hard and breathing heavily.
SMACK!! Spin, parry. THWACK!! Parry, thrust, parry. CRACK!! WHOOSH!! Slash, parry, spin, thrust. THWACK!! Slash, backslash. SMACK!! Backslash, thrust. CRASH!!
Finally, completely frustrated by his lack of progress, Ares threw the staff aside and snatched up his sword. “Time to get serious, warrior. Come on... let me see what you’re really made of.” Randi looked at him a moment and Ares rested his sword on his shoulder. “C’mon. You know you want to. It’s always been your weapon of choice.” Not quite the truth, but not worth quibbling over either.
She didn’t move – not her body or her gaze – from him. Instead, she waited relaxed until the pommel landed in her outstretched hand. Only then did she spare a quick glance away from him, knowing he would need a moment to collect his eyes and jaw from the ground. She and Gwen exchanged a ghost of a wink; then Randi assumed a classic defense position.
“How did you...?” Ares eyes grew almost black with anger and hatred as it occurred to him just exactly what had happened. “Gods be damned!!” bellowing. “You don’t get to have a second!”
“Why not?” Randi taunted as she beckoned him forward with her fingertips. “There was nothing in the rules agreement that said I couldn’t have Gwen watching my back. It’s not like we’re double teaming you, Ares. The fight would be over if we were; she wants to kick your ass as bad as I do.”
“Worse, actually. Jackass deserves a lot worse than he’s getting,” Gwen muttered, though it was loud enough for those on the field to hear. The gods actually tittered, especially Ares’ counterparts.
He huffed and puffed so hard, Randi imagined she could actually see steam coming from his ears. “No! This is between you and me.”
No one could have said who was more surprised when Gwen stepped between their raised swords, halting his tantrum as surely as water thrown on fire would. It grew deathly quiet in light of the fury writ clearly across her features. Even Ares was forced to pay attention, just from sheer force of her presence. But even through his irritation, there was a tiny kernel of awe for her spirit and complete lack of fear, and that irritated him even more.
“No, Ares. It’s *not* between you and her – not anymore... and it hasn’t been for a long time. It’s not about you and the warrior’s soul. It stopped being about you and her long before she was Miranda Valiant. But she became an obsession with you – it became all about winning... all about claiming something you thought you deserved. And when that happened, it became about me too. Because that soul... *HER* soul... belongs to me, just as mine belongs to her.”
“So you can stand there and try to act all self-righteous in front of the world and make believe her defeat at your hands is something you deserve. But don’t you dare, for even a minute, think you can do that to me. I know how long this has been going on; I wrote the stories. I’ve lived through lifetimes with her while you tried over and over to claim her soul for yourself, even though it hasn’t been yours to claim in millennia. I’ve been part of the reason she has always defeated you and I always will be.”
“But this time she gets to do more than refuse to play your game... refuse to join you. This time she gets to physically defeat you, and in doing so, she will accomplish more than you can possibly fathom. Because with you gone, the world will get a chance... a real chance... to live in peace for a while. And maybe they can learn how to do it right, so by the time you’re returned to godhood, they will choose peace over conflict.”
“She can’t do that.” His eyes shifted to Randi’s proud gaze. “You can’t do that.”
“Oh, I can, and I will,” shifting Gwen to one side and moving to stand within reach of Ares’ sword. “Who knows – maybe you’ll become a better deity or at least a decent person because of it. At least you’ll have plenty of down time to think about it.”
Ares snorted arrogantly. “You really think you can defeat me... beat me at my own game? Especially with these kind of stakes?!?” He laughed malevolently. “I don’t think so. I am the God of WAR!!”
“... who has completely lost his focus on the big picture. Maybe you’ll be able to find it again, but in the meantime, the human race will have a chance to grow and evolve without your interference. Maybe we’ll grow to the next level; or maybe we’ll completely wipe one another off the face of the planet. But either way, it will be because it was our choice... our decision – and not the machinations of a being who is so goddamn selfish that he has trekked across thousands of years killing and maiming for the singular purpose of claiming something that was never his to begin with.”
He swung, but Randi was ready and their swords met in a clash of steel and sparks. “You don’t get to choose!” Ares shouted as Randi pushed him away from her. “It’s my birthright!!” He swung at her head and she slashed at his arm, drawing first blood and causing him to hiss in pain.
“No, Ares. It isn’t; it never was,” meeting his next down stroke and pushing him away from her again. He stumbled as he backed up and decided to rush her. Then they got down to serious work, exchanging blow for blow with sparks flying. He saw an opportunity and kicked out, hearing her bones creak and feeling the air rush from her lungs as he made contact. She went down hard and lay dazed and unmoving. Eager to capitalize on what he perceived to be a tactical advantage, he hurried to Randi’s side, intent on making her surrender.
He didn’t consider she might be playing possum, and the crack of his knee when her boot heel connected with it was heard across the whole field, as was his keening in agony as he slid to the ground. No one moved – not even Gwen, who held still at a hidden hand signal from Randi.
Finally, after a long, deep breath, Randi rolled to her side and then pushed her body up gingerly to stand. She groaned at the pull on her mid-section and a hand automatically went to her side to touch the bruising that had already started forming. Damnation, that hurts. Then she took a deep breath and stepped towards Ares, ready to have the fight over and done with.
For his part, Ares lay where he had fallen, mustering his pain and allowing it to course through him so he could harness the power it created. Then with a scream, he rose up and hurled his sword – but not in the direction anyone expected.
Reed drew a deep breath when Gwen crossed the field to step between Randi and Ares and dress Ares down like a child. She radiated fury, but beyond that, Reed could feel the pride and possessiveness she felt for Randi flowing from Gwen in waves. She let it wash over her; it was by far the most pleasant experience she had ever shared from them and Reed relished the strength it lent to her.
“You all right?” Rosie asked, though her eyes never left the field or the interesting tableau that was taking place.
“Yeah.” She paused. “Better than all right, actually – this is amazing.” Rosie turned to look at Reed briefly and Reed returned the glance before they both refocused their gazes on the action. “For some reason, their shielding is letting me feel the warmth and strength of their bonding, and I have to tell you – it’s really nice.”
“Wonder how long it will last.”
“My feeling their bond?” Randi went flying and Reed rasped again. “About that long,” she responded. “But at least the shielding is still in place.” A full minute of deliberate, measured breathing while she kept her eyes on the two fallen combatants, then... “Oh shit....”
Silence reigned over the entire congregation when Ares collapsed beneath Randi’s boot. Then they gasped as one body when Ares screamed and the Sword of War was hurtled through the air, waiting to see if it reached what appeared to be its intended target.
The gods were an odd anomaly – a part and yet not of what was taking place on the field. The Greek Pantheon had been invited; Ares was a member of their number and as such, responsibility for his judgment and punishment rested in their collective hands. Only they could remove his godhood... or restore it and so they had come to the challenge as one body, intent for once on seeing justice done. They had all suffered at his hand or for his actions for years and it was time they got their due from him in return. It hadn’t taken the three sisters much effort at all to convince their father of the rightness of affording the warrior such an opportunity.
As for the rest... there were a number of other gods in attendance from almost every celebrated religion on the planet. Some came for the sport – the entertainment value of seeing Ares lessened to mortal status. Others came to be seen – not willing to miss out on what would likely be the most talked about event to happen to any of them in a thousand years. Still others came to see that justice was served, though whether they were looking for justice for Randi or Ares or themselves, no one quite knew.
Not that the ‘whys’ particularly mattered to anyone but the individual god. The fact remained that there were many deities watching the action take place between Randi and Ares. Some were pulling for the war god, just because the stakes were unimaginable and the thought of having to become mortal was unbearable to them. The rest, however, they were pulling for Randi. They had watched the saga between warrior and god for lifetimes and felt it was long past time for Ares to put that particular obsession to rest.
And then there was Aphrodite, Artemis and Athena, who each had a more personal stake in the outcome. Not in any material sense, but in the wrongs Ares had brought upon their chosen. Randi was their sword of vengeance and they wanted her to make him suffer at least a little – to make him feel what others, and Randi herself, had felt due to his machinations. If nothing else, it was hoped that with his defeat at Randi’s hands and the subsequent punishment he would face, Ares would learn to play by the rules the rest of them, however grudgingly, functioned under.
So they watched the action taking place in front of them, amazed at both Randi’s ability to hold her own against a mortal God of War and Ares seeming madness over her. How had something so obvious escaped their detection for so long – for it was clear his fascination with her had long since become detrimental to him and his ability to function dispassionately in his capacity as a war god.
Randi baited him and he responded, anger clear in the taut lines of his face and the fire in his eyes. And so the battle raged on, fighting round and round in a clash of fists, staves and swords.
The silence that fell as Randi hit the ground was palpable – so much so that the crunch of Ares’ knee beneath her heel echoed across the field a moment later. They watched as the two opponents gathered themselves to enter the fray once more, feeling hope when Randi got to her feet first, sure the fight had neared its end. Surely Ares would be forced to capitulate victory now that he was unable to stand and fight.
No one could imagine how far beyond reason he had actually gone and when he shifted, no one expected his chosen course of action.
The sword flew from his grip as he unleashed a mighty roar, but it did not head for Randi. Though surprising to some - given the intensity of their fight, it wasn’t astounding to a majority of those who were observing; after all, he had coveted this woman for her lifetime and her soul for lifetimes before that. Why would he seek to destroy her when he finally had a chance to legitimize his claim on her for all and sundry to see? And gods knew Randi had opened up the opportunity for him to take out Gwen when she had acknowledged her as her second.
But that was the easy way, and Ares wanted Gwen to suffer – to watch as he claimed Randi for his own forever... as he had watched her do over and over through the millennia since the warrior’s soul had been lost to him. There would be no quick death by the sword for her. He has special plans in mind for the bard’s soul, and each and every one of them were slow and painful and something he intended to enjoy to the fullest.
So as though in slow motion, they all watched in shock as the Sword of War flew straight and true towards Aphrodite. In real time, however, it happened so fast and so accurately, even Athena didn’t have a chance to react before it was done.
Aphrodite didn’t even get a chance to scream.
The sword hit the box Dite held dead center. When the metal of Hephaestus met itself with such force and velocity, it could not help but collapse. The tip of the blade destroyed the lock and the box opened when it fell to the ground, knocked free of Aphrodite’s grasp. And in the blink of an eye, the essence of Ares’ godhood escaped.
He waited with an evil, twisted smirk on his face. He figured if Randi could loophole the conditions of their agreement to suit her, then he was entitled to do the same. After all, he had followed it to the letter, fighting her as a mortal without being defeated. No one had said how long he had to fight as one... only that the fighting would continue till one or the other of the yielded.
Now he waited, knowing his essence would heal him and the godhood would allow him to defeat her with barely a raised hand. Of course, he would make her suffer first, as payback for the humiliation she had already caused. Not much – they did have a planet to rule together, after all. But enough, so she could feel his pain and know who her master truly was.
The essence did indeed hover over him, its blue light filling him with healing warmth and angered strength for a long moment before it moved away from him, leaving him behind with a confused look on his face.
Then it moved over to Gwen, assessing her from a distance before drawing closer to her, intrigued by what it found in her eyes and her heart. The essence washed over Gwen, filling her with a sense of power. Randi made a movement towards them both, but a hand from Gwen halted her progress.
But the movement was enough and the light moved away from Gwen to envelope Randi. She glowed long enough to make everyone look away to save their eyesight. Ares screamed in fury and frustration, realizing he had become the author of his own defeat.
Randi stood stock still, taking in the sensations and power as it literally flowed through her veins like a heady wine. Then she turned flaming blue eyes towards Ares and he understood all too clearly she was going to defeat him with his own power. Fear filled him; for the first time in longer than he could remember, he was honestly afraid. Not of dying - that was secondary in his thinking. Instead he was afraid because she would be what he had always wanted... without him.
Lazily she lifted a hand, staring at the sparking blue ball that floated just above it. She drew back, preparing to lob it toward Ares and end the nonsense once and for all. Only a touch on her arm made her pause, and Randi looked down into intense green eyes gazing back at her with complete love and trust.
Randi hesitated, her eyes reflecting the passion she felt for Gwen. She started to reach up her hand to cup Gwen’s face before realizing she still held the fireball in her hand. Randi stared at it, then turned to Ares who was watching her with undisguised, enthralled with the vision she made despite himself. The globe grew in intensity and he saw his end in it.
A touch on her arm again brought Randi’s attention back to Gwen and for a long, long moment they spoke without words. Everything and everyone was forgotten but each other; Randi extinguished the ball and extended her hand to trail along Gwen’s face and thread into her hair. Gwen let Randi bring them closer together until they were breathing one another’s air.
“I can end this,” Randi whispered against Gwen’s lips. “I can make it so he can’t hurt anyone else ever again.”
Finally Gwen took the initiative, cupping Randi’s face in both hands, pulling back just enough that their eyes could meet without crossing. “Randi, love... you already have. You’ve beaten him at his own game. But if you kill him, he wins.”
“No, Gwen... I can make you a god. Then nothing can hurt us again.”
Gwen shook her head, but never let her eyes leave Randi’s. “No, sweetheart – that’s not who I am, and it’s not who you are. You only have to make Ares yield, and it’s over. We can go home. No more being the Empress, no more queens or consorts, no more gods interfering or Sabre missions; we can be just Randi and Gwen again.”
“Just us... no one else?”
Randi brushed her lips over Gwen’s briefly, then leaned their foreheads together and closed her eyes. When she opened them again, Gwen saw the warrior she had always loved at peace and she smiled. “Hold that thought, love,” Randi whispered. “I’ll be right back.”
Randi turned away from Gwen and marched to where the gods remained frozen by the astonishing turn of events. Without a second glance, she retrieved the Sword of War from where it lay, separating it from the box with a strong, firm pull. The smile she gave the assembled gods was disconcerting, but they recognized her right to act as the new God of War. Then she strode back to where Ares was still lying, cradling his broken knee.
“Yield to me, Ares.”
“I don’t think so, sweet cheeks. You want to win, you’re going to have to kill me.” He grinned evilly. “And I don’t think you want to live with those consequences.”
Without warning, she sent a bolt of lightening through his entire body, watching dispassionately as he writhed in the throes of agony. When he finally quit twitching, she took his chin in her fingers and forced him to meet her eyes, and her voice dropped to a whisper that only he could hear. “Let me explain this to you in very simple terms – you are all that stands between peace for me and Gwen. Now, either you yield to me, or I will ensure that your life as a human being is a very long one fraught with pain and agony. I will not allow you the release of death until it is my time to cross over.”
She leaned so close he could feel her breath on his ear and he shivered in reaction that was both arousal and terror. “You wanna know the best part? I don’t need to be a god to do that. If you don’t yield, I will scatter your power to the four winds. There won’t be a God of War... ever again.”
“Try me,” she hissed, backing away far enough for him to read the truth in her eyes for himself. She raised the sword and gathered her power, causing the blade to glow with the reflection of it.
“You would,” he muttered incredulously. “You would let all that go... give up all that power... just to be with her.” His tone was flat, defeated.
“In a fucking heartbeat.”
His shoulders slumped. “I yield,” he said, his voice a mere whisper.
“Louder, Ares. The whole world has to hear you.”
Randi stepped back and crossed her arms, waiting. This victory had been a long time coming and she intended to savor every single moment.
“I, Ares, God of War, YIELD the field of battle to Miranda Valiant!” Ares shouted his voice trembling, though whether it was due to rage, pain or frustration, only he could have said. And then it didn’t matter, for as soon as the words left his mouth, a cacophony of sound rose around the world as the world cheered Randi’s victory. She didn’t notice; she only had eyes and ears for Gwen. Gwen rushed into Randi’s arms and the world faded out for a blissful moment while hearts, minds and bodies reconnected in a spinning hug and laughter.
They kept their embrace brief, knowing Randi still had things to wrap up before she and Gwen could go home. And Randi had determined that when they celebrated *this* victory, no one would be witness to their shared passion but each other. They had been on the world stage long enough.
Randi turned to the gods who had surrounded Ares to wait for her final dispensation of him; they still did not know what she planned to do with the godhood she had suddenly inherited. She pinned Zeus with her eyes. “Let’s get rid this godhood thing.”
He blinked; her words were completely unexpected, but he didn’t question her seriousness. That could clearly be read in her expression. “And then?” not knowing what else to ask.
“And then we’ll tie up the last of the loose ends. It’s time to be done with this. I wanna go home.”
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