"Series Finale Challenge: Protecting One's Legacy"
By David J. Duncan
(Note: Xena, Gabrielle, Eve/Livia, the Green Dragon/Ming T'ien, Callisto, Solen, Joxer, Virgil, Meg, Yakut, Amarice, Varia, the Amazons, Argo, Argo II, Callisto, Ephiny, Alti, Eli, and Lao-Ma all come from Xena Warrior Princess which is under StudiosUSA and was created by Rob Tapert and John Schulian.)
Chapter 1 (Egypt)
Eve looked nervously over her shoulder as she hurried along the dusty path. On her left side, the Nile flowed toward the Mediterranean. On the right, farmers tilled their fields. In essence, all was as it had always been, on the surface at least. Yet, she still felt the icy chill running up and down her spine. Ever since the first encounter with her pursuer back in Indus, the Messenger had tried to evade the other. But, these attempts had proven futile.
Finally, outside of the walls of Karnak, she could go no farther. Falling to her knees, she cried out in exhaustion, "Eli...please forgive me. I...I tried."
"It will take a lot more than that, my Dear," a sinister voice hissed from behind her.
Eve managed to look back at the stalker. At first, the figure was that of a middle-aged man, well-built and seemingly in his thirties. Then, the air shimmered and his form reformed into the familiar figure of Alti, the shamaness of the Steppe. Despite the fact that she had never seen her enemy, the Messenger knew immediately who she was. "Alti."
"Yes," the witch grinned and, before Eve could react, grabbed the back of her hair. Suddenly, Livia's bloodlust and multiple injuries crashed across her consciousness. The overwhelming flood of memories swept away her awareness, sending her into blessed oblivion.
For her part, Alti shook her head and a satisfied smile spread across her face. "I would have thought that you would have been made of sterner stuff. Now, we'll have to wait for your mother's arrival."
Chapter 2 (Anatolia, along the Mediterranean coast)
It had been a long, hot ride across the Asiatic steppe. Yet for Xena and Gabrielle, the time had been well spent. The scars from their skirmishes with the Japanese samurai were slow to heal. In addition, Xena's visit to Chin and, in particular, Lao-Ma's lands, proved emotionally distressing as well. But, with the last of the Green Dragon's followers routed, the two warriors had continued on their way.
Xena leaned on the front of Argo's saddle and sighed deeply. The trek had dragged on endlessly. On top of the tedium, fear had been gnawing at her gut. Somehow, she knew that something was wrong. But what was it? The sky was bright and sunny. A pleasant breeze blew out of the north. It seemed a perfect day for riding yet she still felt bothered.
"What is it?" she groused to herself. "Whatever it is, I wish to Tartarus that it would just happen!"
The warrior-bard rode up to her companion, accessing the other's moods. "Xena has been too twitchy since we left Chin," she mused. Then, tapping the Warrior Princess on the arm, she probed, "Hey, Xena, are you okay?"
"Hmmm?" her friend stirred. "Oh, yeah...I'm fine."
Gabrielle smirked in spite of herself and continued, "You've been so out of it for the last week. What is it?"
Xena shrugged and looked out toward the Mediterranean. "The ocean, good to see it, huh?" she posed, effectively dodging her friend's inquiry.
The Potadeian bard frowned, sensing that Xena wouldn't answer her query. Despite everything, the warrior still didn't trust her with sensitive information. "I wish you'd tell me..." she muttered aloud.
"Yeah, I..." her companion started.
Suddenly, a bright light appeared in front of them, coalescing into the image of their friend, Eli.
"Eli!" Gabrielle started. "It's good to see you."
The ebon bearded prophet smiled warmly, "And it is good to see you as well."
Xena sensed that his appearance might have something to do with her brewing discontentedness. She asked, "What's wrong? Can you tell us?"
He nodded and continued, "As usual, Xena, your instincts serve you well. It's Eve."
The warrior felt an icy pang of fear as her maternal instincts surfaced. "What about Eve? What's wrong?"
"What is it?" Gabrielle pressed.
"It's Alti," he noted.
"But, she's dead," the bard protested.
Xena growled, "Yeah, but she's still capable of getting back at me especially through my kids." Turning back to her spectral friend, she pushed, "So, where is Eve now?"
"Egypt," he noted. "Outside of the temple of Karnak."
Gabrielle looked at her friend once again. Tired as they both were, they would do anything to insure Eve's safety. Then, to Eli, she smiled and expressed, "Thank you, Eli."
"Yeah, thanks," Xena added sincerely, the worried frown on her face carving deeper channels into her features. "C'mon, Gabrielle," she urged her friend and headed south.
The bard nodded, smiled one last time at her spiritual mentor, and headed down her friend's path.
For several minutes, Eli watched as they vanished over the horizon and long afterwards. Then, he wished, "May the Light be with you both." Finally, with the sun setting overhead, he faded away into nothingness, leaving no trace of his appearance for others to find.
For several days, the two warriors followed the dusty trail along the great sea.
With each passing day, Xena's fear intensified. Her run-ins with Alti had been bad enough. During one of those encounters, the witch had tried to steal Eve's soul. In the ensuing battle, Xena had preserved her daughter's essence, but only by the slimmest of margins. Now, her enemy held her daughter captive. "This ends now, Alti," she swore to herself. "You cursed Solen. I won't let you do it to Eve!"
Pushing farther and farther, the two companions rushed through a pass in the Taurus mountains and galloped hard along the Roman road ringing the Levantine coastline. Normally, they would have stopped in one of the various towns which popped up on the way. However, given their current situation, the riders wouldn't stop until they had reached the land of the Pharoahs. Finally, a week after passing through the Sinai, they arrived at the sea port of Alexandria.
"C'mon, Xena. Let's get something to eat," Gabrielle advised wearily. "Then, we can bargain for passage down river."
"Yeah. I guess we can spare some time to eat a good meal and keep our strength up," the concerned warrior conceded. "C'mon, I know a decent place in the marketplace.
Gabrielle nodded and followed her friend into the bazaar in hunt of a suitable meal.
The sun set and the desert kicked up a whirling sandstorm. About 10 miles from Karnak, a crudely-shaped yurt of animal hides buffered these elements.
Within its protective expanse, Alti meditated on her past experiences with the Warrior Princess....Everything had gone so well between them...until that bratty son, Solen, had turned Xena away from her influence. Since that point, the battles had proven particularly frustrating as Xena somehow pulled out miracle victory after miracle victory. "Once again, Xena, it will be between us. This time, it will be different," she promised to the air.
Glancing over her shoulder, the shamaness noted that Eve was sitting on the floor with her hands bound. Despite the Messenger's initial fear, the young woman had proven herself of stern stuff. "It will be a shame to kill you. You have such potential," Alti stated.
Eve shook her head defiantly, "I don't think so. You have no idea what the darkness is capable of."
Alti chuckled malevolently, "Oh, but I do. Remember, I tapped your mother's darkness and I can do the same to you." Having said that, she stared deep into the younger woman's eyes, grabbing hold of her mind in the process.
Eve recoiled as the images began to play in her mind's eye. Within seconds, she saw herself as Livia riding across Germania, Italia, and Amazon lands. Bodies lay across the path where she had been and horrified screams announced to any who followed where she would go next. Then, the scene shifted to Eli's Ostian temple. With every remembered blow from Xena, her real body received an equal bruise. Finally, she felt herself fall from the drapery and hit the cold unfeeling granite far below. Feeling numbness settle in, she lapsed back into unconsciousness...
Alti observed her anew. While Eve had resisted her thusfar, it would only be a matter of time before she broke down under this stress. All the shamaness had to do was wait for it to happen.
Xena and Gabrielle climbed off of the Nile barge and headed east across the desert. Finally, after a day's ride, they reached Karnak. Upon first sight of the temple, it was evident that despite the Roman occupation, the traditions of the Old Kingdom remained strong.
"Hang in there, Eve. I'm coming!" Xena hoped.
Gabrielle rubbed her friend's shoulder and reassured her, "She'll be fine, Xena. You'll see."
"Yeah right," the Warrior Princess glowered purposefully. "But, I am sick of that bitch taking shots at my kids!"
"The love of a child would pull her away from the darkness," the bard noted to herself. It was for that reason that Alti struck first at Solen and now, at Eve. Without the hope of her children, Xena would once again be vulnerable to the shamaness's dark influence.
"I'll never let her backslide like that again," she promised.
Meantime, Xena stared towards the horizon. Although the desert sands looked the same in all directions, her instincts told her that Alti would be straight ahead. "Eli, protect her if you can."
Within her head came a familiar voice's refrain. "I have not left her nor you nor Gabrielle. Trust in the Light, Xena."
"If you say so," the Warrior Princess agreed. "I will do my best."
"I know," Eli's voice supportively reassured her. "And you must remain strong. Of anyone, you know how Alti feeds on the weaknesses and fears in everyone. Trust in me....Trust in yourself...."
With that, the presence faded, leaving Xena alone with her thoughts. The prophet was right. She would have to keep going...for Gabrielle and Eve both.
The battling bard stacked some dried wood in a circle and started a little fire. While there was some risk of their adversary spotting it in the deepening shadows, the need was justified. Given how temperatures could plummet after sunset, the heat would be necessary.
Xena walked back over to her and sat across the flames. Gabrielle could see the lines etching their way even further into her companion's features. Still, there was a glimmer of hope which had not been there previously.
"I wish Eli would give us another sign," the Potadeian sighed.
"He just did. He told me not to loose hope," the warrior explained.
Gabrielle grinned. At least he was still there with them. "That's good advice. I hope you're thinking about it."
"Oh, I am all right," Xena agreed grimly. "And he's right. We're gonna get Eve back no matter what."
"Now, that's the spirit!" a voice announced from behind them.
The women spun to see another familiar spirit sitting on a rock about five feet away. Judging from the scrawny build and the make-shift armor, it had to be Joxer.
"You gotta keep going," he continued. "For Eve's sake as well as for your own."
The Thracian warrior looked at the spirit of their long-dead friend. Given the circumstances surrounding his death, Joxer's encouraging words meant a great deal to her.
"Are we headed in the right direction?" Gabrielle inquired.
The slender ghost nodded solemnly, "Yeah. You got about 10 miles to go before you find Alti."
"And then what?" Xena pushed. "Is Eve...?"
He shrugged, "Just as Eli said, she's alive. Alti's been playing with her head, but other than that..."
Xena snarled in spite of herself. So, the shamaness was playing her usual games. "When I get ahold of you...."
The bard grabbed her shoulder and urged, "Xena, calm down...We can't charge in half-prepared!"
The warrior stared at her friend and burst out, "My daughter's being tortured by that hag...and you're accusing me of going in half-assed?" Turning from Gabrielle, she stalked off, clenching her hands in the air.
Suddenly, Joxer's ghost materialized in front of her. "Stop it," he urged.
"Or what?" she challenged.
"Or you'll lose yourself as well," he continued. "Look, Xena. I may have been a real pain in the rear to you and Gabrielle when I was alive, but you two are like family to me. And, if I can help you to stay calm and focused, then I'll do that. I wish I could help further, but...."
"But what?" Gabrielle probed, rushing over to her friend's side.
"But, I have to go back. I wish I could stand with you two one last time. And, by the way, can you do me a favor when this is finished?" he stated.
"Sure," Xena agreed.
"Give my best to Virgil. Tell him...that I'm proud of him and that I love him," Joxer requested, a tear forming in his eye.
"Absolutely," the Warrior Princess agreed. "He knows that, but I'm sure the reminder will be nice."
Joxer nodded and started to fade out. Just before he disappeared totally, the deceased warrior called out, "What ever happens, really consider all of your options before and after this battle!"
After he had vanished, the two companions looked at each other with a cautious eye. What did he mean by that comment? Was there some other twist awaiting them? There would be enough time later to ponder such things. Right now, it was time to focus on the matter at hand.
"C'mon, Gabrielle. We both need to rest. I don't know if I'll actually get to sleep, but lying down will be good," Xena commented as they walked back to camp.
The Bard nodded, "If you want to take first watch, I'll relieve you at midnight."
"Sounds good," the warrior agreed as they headed back towards their lodging area.
Gabrielle slept uneasily that evening. Perhaps it was just because she and her closest friend were so close to the evil shamaness, but the Bard tossed and turned like a fish on dry land. Finally, after two hours of effort, she resolved to close her eyes. "Even if I can't relax, I might as well rest my eyes," she thought.
About ten minutes later, a familiar voice called, "Gabrielle...Gabrielle...."
The Bard felt a moist breeze brush across her face. "A moist breeze in the desert?" she inquired and opened her eyes. Amazingly enough, she was back in the village of her sister Amazons. "What in Tartarus?" she thought and investigated the scene.
The village seemed deserted and devoid of life. The buildings were scorched and only a sole funerary pyre burned in the center.
"What happened here?" she wondered to herself.
"An unexpected attack," a voice advised from behind her.
Gabrielle spun, scythes in hand, to face the ghosts of two women. One was a rather short woman of slender build who wore deer skin and the headdress of the shamaness. The other spirit was taller, with fiery red hair, and dark eyes. "Yakut? Amarice?" she asked.
"Yes, Gabrielle. We are glad to see you," the shamaness greeted.
"Wha...What happened here?" Gabrielle inquired.
"In this reality, the Amazons were attacked anew by raiders. Their villages were destroyed and they were scattered like dandelion seeds on the summer breeze," Yakut explained.
"But the Amazons wouldn't fall so easily!" the disbelieving bard doubted.
"Without effective leadership, they were an easy target," Amarice noted. "They never recovered from Livia's attacks or the high cost of the battle at Helicon. Look, Gabrielle, it's up to you. You and Xena must defeat Alti and then, you must return to Amazon lands and rule as queen."
"What about Varia? She could rule. I forgave her of any wrong doing," the Potadeian asked.
"Observe...." Yakut told her and, waving her hands, created an energy-viewing screen.
Gabrielle saw the events unfolding. How the new Amazon queen had ruled in Gabrielle's stead for three years. Then, like a summer monsoon, a new army marched up from the southeast, destroying all in its path. In the first skirmish, the regent had taken a fatal blow along with a quarter of the tribe. Retreating into the forest, Varia had declared herself the queen. With no other proven options remaining, the other sisters reluctantly supported her claim. After a heated council of war, the remaining sisterhood attacked the army anew. For three days, the battle raged and both sides took heavy losses. Finally, a fresh sortie reinforced the invaders and they swept over the defenders. In the ensuing offensive, the Amazons were routed. Only twenty percent of their initial numbers managed to escape. The others were either cut down or sold into slavery. Unfortunately, for Varia, she was prevented from falling on her sword, and was led away in chains with the latter group.
"How? How could this happen?" the Bard demanded anew.
"We told you," Amarice repeated herself. "The Amazons had no effective leadership at the time."
"If you come back, you can prevent this atrocity...You and Xena both could," Yakut added.
Gabrielle sighed deeply and considered her sisters' words. Would she be willing to return to the restrictive life of an Amazon queen? Would Xena be willing to accompany her back here? And, if not, how would she be able to leave her dearest friend's side?
The shamaness rubbed the Bard's shoulder. "You must," she urged, as if sensing the other's doubts. "When you accepted the right of caste, you took on the royal mantle. Now, you must lead...."
"But, we will be with you for your fight with Alti. No matter what...we are always with you...you...you," Amarice grinned as she faded away.
Yakut nodded, "Remember what we have said. Have faith and self-confidence in yourself...that will enable you to defeat Alti...." With those words, she vanished into the rising sun as well.
Gabrielle's head continued to spin with these revelations. Then, a cloying mist surrounded her and she felt herself being whisked away. Minutes later, the dry, arid wind told her that she was back in the desert...and that it was time to fight anew.....
Xena stirred first from her restless slumber and looked about the camp. On the other side of the still smoldering embers, Gabrielle still fidgeted restlessly. Although she wished that she could help her friend, the Warrior Princess sensed that this was a battle which must be fought alone.
Still, something was out of place. No, it was something she couldn't place. Sliding her breastplate over her midsection and readying her sword, she considered every angle warily. "All right...show yourself!" she challenged.
"As you wish...." a voice from the dim landscape indicated.
A moment later, three riders appeared on horseback. The leader was a man of regal bearing, carrying a scimitar and wearing dark flowing robes. The second man looked much like the first save for his light complexion indicating that he hadn't spent much time along the banks of the Nile. The third companion impressed Xena the most. As with the first companion, her manner seemed to exude royalty. She hugged something closely to herself under her flowing white robes. Her coal black eyes burned deeply into the warrior's soul, seeking to identify her. A thin eyebrow arched over her right eyes, and she smiled satisfied.
"You must be Xena," she stated.
"Yeah. And you are?" the warrior challenged.
"I am Cleopatra. These are my bodyguards, Antonius and Claudius," Cleopatra identified herself and her companions. "We are on an errand to Thebes and saw your fire. Might we share it?"
"We aren't going to be staying very much longer," Xena explained. "My friend and I have a mission."
"Friend? Ah, you mean Gabrielle!" Cleopatra assumed. "Yes, the legends speak of both of you. I must say, Xena, you look much the same way that you did when you fought Antony here so many years ago."
"What do you know of that?" the Warrior demanded testily.
Antonius, the dark one, stepped in between them. "Please, Xena...my mistress meant no harm. We were children living in the royal palace during those days."
The warrior frowned and shrugged, "Yeah, I guess that could be. Sorry, my mind is on other things right now. Come, please...."
The newcomers followed her to the campsite. There, the Bard had awakened and had stirred up the fire.
"Oh, Xena! There you are. I was just getting breakfast. Who are the others?" she inquired.
"Gabrielle, this is Cleopatra, Antonius, and Claudius. They're on their way to Thebes and wanted a fire, I guess," Xena introduced, still keeping a wary eye on the guests.
Gabrielle stared at the woman in front of her. It took her a minute, but yes, she did recognize the woman as one of the young girls at the first Cleopatra's court. "I remember you...from the royal court, right?"
"Indeed you do," Cleopatra nodded. "For you gave me some very good advice on prudence and patience in all things. Your words have always guided me. I see your reputation for detail is well deserved."
"It comes with my craft," the bard replied noncommittally, stirring something in the cooking pot. "So, if you're on your way to Thebes, why are you so far off the trail?"
Xena turned her head at the three riders still wondering the same thing.
"We picked up this box at Philae," Antonius indicated, pointing at the bundle concealed under his companion's white robes. "And we are trying to avoid conventional routes."
"Why?" Xena questioned. "What do you have that's so valuable?"
"A necklace," Cleopatra indicated, opening the box. Inside of it, a great sapphire shard was inlaid in gold and rested on a gilded chain. "Legend has it that it can imprison those with evil in their hearts."
"Really?" Gabrielle jumped in. "Is that the Necklace of Nefirtiri?" Turning to Xena, she explained, "I've heard the rumors too...."
Claudius cleared his throat and stated, "The legends say that the necklace revealed a great evil taking place during the reign of Ramses I. The criminal, a renegade priest, it is said, was imprisoned in the fiery part of the underworld for all eternity. This jewel is very powerful and so, should be placed among our sacred artifacts at Thebes."
"Well, you might wanna be careful," Xena warned. "There's great evil around here. Her name's Alti and she's a shamaness that'll wreck your day really quickly if you aren't careful."
"The Shamaness of the Steppe. Yes, Gabrielle's scrolls tell of her monstrous deeds," Antonius replied anxiously. "You go to face her, then?"
"That's right, why?" Xena probed, still being wary.
"Every bearer of the necklace must pass a trial of great duress," the former royal consort indicated. Looking at her two companions who nodded back at her, she continued, "If you would agree, helping you would be our rite of passage. "
Antonius bowed his head, "It would be a great honor to fight alongside the Warrior Princess."
Claudius nodded, "As say I."
Gabrielle looked anxiously at her friend. Certainly, if they had the necklace, the three companions would be of great service to their rescue mission. "So, what do you think, Xena?"
"For some reason, my gut is telling me to trust them," the warrior shrugged. "And you?"
"I agree," the Potadeian concurred. "More strength in numbers." Then, leaning closely to her confidant, whispered, "Still, let's keep an eye on them."
"Right," Xena stated. Then, she turned back to the group. "Okay, get yourself something to eat. We're out of here in an hour."
"That is acceptable," Cleopatra smiled, dismounting from her horse and motioning for the two men to do the same.
Despite her still grinding nerves, Xena had another sudden infusion of hope. Looking up into the morning sky, a single white dove darted against the clouds before disappearing into the ascending sun. A sign from Eli perhaps? In any event, the battle wouldn't be that far off and having their newfound allies close at hand could only help matters.
Alti meditated outside of the yurt...scanning the area for any sign of her adversaries. Yes, Xena was nearby. That was good. Unfortunately, so was the irritating blonde sidekick. That was bad.
"I'll have to deal with her again," she snarled to herself. Then, the thought of shredding the bard's mind brought a big smile to her face.
"I can't wait to see the look on Xena's face. It'll be priceless," she chuckled and walked back toward the yurt to see if Eve had awakened yet.
For her part, Eve stirred about an hour earlier. While her head still ached from the last set of memories caused by Alti's touch, the Messenger had managed to keep her composure, albeit by the slimmest of margins.
"Thank you, Eli, for helping me," she murmured softly and began to pray....
The small band made their way across the desert, heading east toward the ridge. Finally, at noon, they spied the small shelter perched on the peak of a particularly tall dune about a half-mile away.
"That's gotta be it," Xena announced.
"Okay, so what's the plan?" Gabrielle probed.
"Plan?" her friend chortled. "We burst in there and get her out! That's the plan!"
"Xena...." The bard shook her head. Although she knew that the warrior was petrified over the thought of what Alti could do to Eve, there needed to be another way.
The Warrior Princess sighed deeply and shook her head. "You're right, Gabrielle. I am losing perspective."
"It's okay, really," her companion advised. "I was going to suggest splitting our forces. Antonius, can you come up from behind the yurt and get Eve out?"
He nodded, "If that is what you wish. How are you going to distract the witch?"
Gabrielle looked at Xena, "Controlled frontal assault. We'll go in first and weaken her a bit....Then, Cleopatra, can you use the necklace to imprison her spirit?"
"Consider it done," Cleopatra agreed. "What about Claudius?"
"I think they want me to stay with you just in case Alti breaks through their defenses," he replied.
"Right," the bard concurred. "Antonius, when you're within ten yards of the yurt, can you use your ring to flash-signal us?"
"Indeed, I shall," he agreed.
"And then, can you do the same once you get Eve back here?" she continued.
"Consider it done," he and, mounting his steed, took off on the circuitous route to the back flank of Alti's defenses.
Xena smiled warmly at her friend's tactical abilities. How many lessons had she taught the young bard and never even knew it? But then, they had been through so much together. After the events of the last few years, what was one more skirmish? Reaching out, she hugged her companion tightly. "Thanks," she said.
"For what?" the bard probed.
"For being you," the warrior grinned. "Now, let's go."
From within the tent, Alti smiled menacingly. Yes, her opponents were here...including a few new minds which she had not sensed previously. "Interesting," she considered.
Eve tensed as she watched the shamaness pace to and fro. "Now, what?" she thought. Then, somehow, she sensed Xena's presence nearby. "Mother," she thought.
The former Amazon laughed incredulously, as if sensing her captive's thoughts. "It won't be long now, Little Girl. Soon, I'll bring the Blonde's head to you on a platter and your mother's body as well!"
"I doubt it!" the Messenger contradicted, despite knowing that the other woman could make good on her threat.
Alti nodded, "I do admire your spirit, Eve. Rest assured, when I'm done with the two nuisances, you're next...." With those words, she picked up her sword and walked out of the tent, leaving the Messenger to her own somber musings....
Xena watched the dunescape surrounding the tent. How long had it been? Certainly, it had been an hour at least. "Get a hold on yourself!" she thought to herself.
Finally, the signal came...three flashes of bright white light in succession. "Finally!" she huffed.
"Are we ready?" Gabrielle inquired.
Everyone nodded in agreement.
"Then, Xena...let's go. Cleopatra, you and Claudius, take care," the bard directed.
The male traveler stood tall beside his companion. "I will let no harm come to her," he swore.
The former consort looked up at the other rider and smiled. She had no doubt that he meant exactly what he had said.
The two warriors, without a further word, hustled off toward the rise. For almost twenty minutes, the two women sprinted through the hot sand, heading toward the shelter.
"This is too easy," Xena pondered. "She's gotta be up to something."
As if on cue, they both heard the taunting cackle rising on the arid wind. About fifty feet in front of them, the Kurgan priestess was observing their progress. Her eyes had already started to burn into their psyches.
"Congratulations on making it this far, Xena!" she challenged. "Now, you and your little girlfriend get to die!" Pulling her sword, Alti charged her two opponents.
"This is it, Gabrielle! Now!" the Warrior Princess advised her friend. "Don't give her any openings!"
"Right!" the Bard directed. "And don't let her touch you!"
As one, the two companions dodged their adversary's attempts to grab them. Then, Gabrielle scored a deep stab wound with her scythe in the shamaness's side. Xena followed with a sharp kick into her midsection, sending the witch reeling.
Alti staggered to her feet and reconsidered the situation. Perhaps, this wouldn't be as easy as she had thought. "Interesting...."
After signaling the rest of the party, Antonius moved silently across the desert wastes until he reached the back of the shelter. Putting his head up against the wall, he listened carefully. The only sound that he heard was of a woman chanting in prayer.
"Xena's daughter. It has to be her," he thought and began to cut through the tough animal hides.
Eve worried for her mother's safety after Alti had stalked out of the tent. For the next hour, she prayed to Eli for assistance...hoping that all might be set right.
Then, she heard a sawing noise coming from the back of the shelter. "What? Who?" she asked.
A strange man stuck his head through the newly-opened hole in the tent. "Eve, right?" he asked.
"Yes? And who might you be?" she asked nervously.
"The name's Antonius. I'm here with Xena and Gabrielle," he replied.
"Thank you, Eli," she stated to the sky.
The male traveler cut the ropes around her wrists and ankles and asked if she was all right.
"Other than a few headaches, I'm fine. Where are my mother and Gabrielle?" she demanded.
"They're dealing with the witch. Come on, we need to get out of here!" he urged.
She nodded in agreement and, picking up her staff and prayer scrolls, crawled through the open hole in the back of the tent. Once they were both safely out of the shelter, he helped her mount his horse. Then, they rode back toward the spot from whence he had come.
While Eve and Antonius sped away from the yurt, the three combatants circled each other, watching for the others' moves.
Xena scruntinized Alti's motions. She wasn't about to let her adversary touch her again.
"What's the matter?" Alti snarled and then, realized her opponents' plan. "Ah, I see...." Then, she locked eyes with Gabrielle. "Try this, Little Girl....I know what makes you tick!"
Suddenly, the Bard saw painful memories cascading across her consciousness. Suddenly, Callisto stood there with Perdicas' dead body. Then, it was Hope laughing at her. Thirdly, she was on the cross once again being crucified.
By now, the tears were starting to well in her eyes, her hands had bloody splotches as did her feet. However, there was no way that she was going to give the harpy any satisfaction.
Alti merely smiled and continued probing....
Then, she was in the dreamscape, being pummeled by the shamaness herself.
As the visions continued, Gabrielle's body twisted and torqued itself as if a drunken puppeteer directed its strings. Pain burned across every nerve, but still, she kept going.
"I will break you," the witch hissed.
Xena, having watched this display for the past minute or so, tackled their enemy, "Enough, Alti!" Then, she delivered a vicious haymaker.
"You're going to have to do better than that!" the shamaness growled and started burrowing into the warrior's mind.
Now, visions of past events and beatings flashed through Xena's mind as well.
All at once, she endured the crucifixions, beatings, humiliations, and deaths taken by those around her as well. She staggered under this onslaught, but refused to fall. "Is that all ya got?" she hissed and, willing everything up into one last triple flip, kicked her opponent to the ground.
Still, Alti managed to struggle to her feet once more. "You're getting tired. What's the matter?"
Xena looked over her left shoulder. The tell-tale flashing signal from Antonius' ring told her that Eve was safely out of harm's way. "Nothin'," she replied to her adversary. "I'm just getting warmed up!"
Alti laughed, "Really now. You and what army?"
The Warrior Princess grinned and staggered aside to reveal Cleopatra's presence. The former royal consort now wore the necklace.
"And who are you supposed to be?" Alti scoffed defiantly. "Step aside or I'll turn your mind inside out!"
"I don't think so," Cleopatra affirmed and placed her hands on the necklace's jewel and raised it towards the heavens. The crystal caught the sunlight, turning it into a bright onyx glow which surrounded Alti.
"Arrgh!" the shamaness complained. "Stop it! Make it stop!"
But, Cleopatra paid her enemy no mind and continued the onslaught.
It took several minutes, but eventually, Alti slumped to the ground and fell unconscious.
After making sure that she was indeed unconscious, Xena and Gabrielle bound their adversary with thick chains secured from the shamaness' own yurt.
"She will be secure until we reach Thebes," Cleopatra noted. "Still, we should hurry."
"I have one thing to do first," Xena indicated and turned to her daughter with tears of relief. "Oh, Eve!" she exclaimed and embraced the Messenger.
"Mother!" the younger woman cried and gripped her mother's slumping body. "How badly...?"
"Not to worry," the Warrior Princess assured her. "I have taken worse in my time."
"And so have...I," Gabrielle managed to laugh shakily. "Good to have you back, Eve."
"It's good to be free of her," Eve indicated, looking down at Alti's comatose form.
"Yeah, I can sympathize," Xena shivered, remembering the hold that the woman had on her mind decades earlier and how much that it had cost her. "Well, let's get to Thebes and take care of business."
"Right," Gabrielle agreed, albeit with a bit of reluctance. The moment of truth would soon be at hand.
After a lengthy ride across the desert, Xena and her companions reached Thebes. The city's massive stone structures, already thousands of years old, seemed to defy the elements and stood tall against the desert landscape. In addition, the sacred energy still seemed to charge the air. This place, after all, was the "city of the living" in the pharoahs' day. Accordingly, the group hoped that the great temple would be a formidable enough prison to contain Alti for all time.
When they had reached the temple, Cleopatra held her hand up and indicated, "Here we are."
Xena dismounted from Argo II cautiously and admired the great granite structure. It looked solid enough all right and, despite not understanding the hieroglyphics on its fa┴ade, still held great admiration for the civilization which built it.
"Let's hope that your forbearers' influence was strong enough to contain this evil, Cleopatra," she stated to her companion.
"I hope so," the Egyptian woman concurred. "Bring the body and follow me."
Xena, Gabrielle, Claudius, and Antonius picked up the shamaness's form and carried it into the stone structure. For more than an hour, they descended stairs, walked through twisting hallways, and stalked through spiraling passages. Finally, they reached a great chamber with a single stone sarcophagus in the center.
Cleopatra passed her torch in front of the wall, scanning the hieroglyphics and announced, "This is the place. Place her in the sarcophagus."
The four pallbearers lowered their charge's body into the stone resting place.
"Now what?" Xena inquired.
"We seal her in, I hope," Eve sighed.
After a nod from Cleopatra, the lid was placed on the tomb. Once this occurred, the jewel shard in the necklace was used to lock it in place. Whatever happened after that point, only the jewel would be able to unlock the crypt.
"Come!" she stated and left the chamber. Once everyone had followed, Xena, Antonius, and Claudius closed the chamber door. For an extra flourish, Cleopatra turned the complicated locking mechanism in several directions.
"It is finished," she noted. Turning to her companions, she explained, "Now, the witch will not break free again...at least not in her present form."
"Why is that?" Gabrielle asked.
"The great god, Anubis," Antonius added, pointing to the dog-headed figure on the doorway. "He will keep her in here. Only if his seal is broken and the crypt opened, will Alti come back."
Xena nodded in understanding. "By the gods, I hope they're right. I've had enough of her to last two lifetimes," she mused silently to herself.
"Now, come, my friends. I must give the necklace to the priests for safe-keeping. Then, we can go," Cleopatra mentioned.
Everyone readily followed her lead out of the chamber area and back into the passages, leaving their adversary to sleep unwillingly for all time.
Several hours later, the group stood in the center of the old city. Everything had been taken care of in the temple. Now, it was time to go their separate ways.
"Thank you, Xena and Gabrielle, for your assistance in this endeavor," Cleopatra expressed.
"No, thank you, all of you, for helping us rescue Eve and imprison Alti," Xena stated, shaking each of the travelers' hands in turn.
"Likewise," Gabrielle agreed. "Without you, we might not have beaten her."
"The gods set us all on a common path," Claudius mused, throwing a caring glance at his female companion. "Once our roads intersected, it was an easy matter to help each other."
"In any event," Eve assured them. "I will pray for your safe travels."
"Thank you," Antonius smiled warmly and, with one last glimmer in his eye towards the Messenger, spurred his steed toward the city's gate.
"We'd best be going as well," Cleopatra commented. "Go in safety, my friends." With that, she and her remaining male companion rode off after Antonius.
The three women watched their new friends disappear from sight. Then, Gabrielle noted, "Wasn't it funny how they came along at exactly the right time?"
"It wasn't coincidence, Gabrielle," Eve stated. "Eli guided them to us."
"I'll buy that," Xena agreed. "Now, c'mon, we need to be heading back to Greece. Eve, would you come with us?"
The Messenger hesitated for a second. Although there was a great deal of missionary work left to be done, perhaps some time with her mother and Gabrielle would be good for her. "Okay, just for awhile."
"That'll do," the Warrior Princess replied pleasantly as she mounted Argo II. A few minutes later, the three companions rode away from the city, heading north along the Nile.
Three weeks later, Xena, Gabrielle, and Eve rode up to Joxer's old farm. The recently rebuilt house and barn looked much as they had before their battle with the Olympians. From within the barn, the sounds of livestock could be plainly heard.
"I wonder if they're home," Gabrielle commented.
Eve sighed deeply and wondered if accompanying them to this place was such a good idea after all. She remembered how Virgil had not forgiven her for his father's murder. What would Meg think of her?
Xena rubbed her daughter's shoulder and assured, "Hey, Eve. It's gonna be all right."
"You think so?" the Messenger wondered. "I still feel ashamed for what I did to poor Joxer."
"And you will probably feel that way for the rest of your life," her mother explained. "But, you have to move forward."
Just then, Virgil walked out of the house's front door and grinned at the sight of his friends. "Wow! I thought it sounded like you three, but I wasn't sure! It's great to see you! I had heard that you were in Asia someplace," he greeted.
"Japan, Chin, Anatolia, and Egypt," Xena deadpanned playfully. "And how are you, Virgil?"
"Oh, between the writing and keeping up the place, I'm always busy," he replied. "Say, Gabrielle, if you have a minute, could you look at the piece that I'm writing?"
"Sure," the Bard agreed, dismounting from her horse and walking over to him. After a friendly hug, she took the scroll from him and began to read it. After about five minutes, she asked, "Can I keep going? I really like this!"
"Absolutely. Let me get you all something to eat in the meantime. Come with me," he consented and guided Xena and Gabrielle into the house. "By the way, I'm thinking of calling it The Odyssey."
Eve tarried behind for a minute. Something was still eating at her, but she didn't know what it was.
"Perhaps, it is your conscience after all," a voice advised.
The Messenger spun around to see Joxer's spirit floating in front of her. "Joxer, that's you, right?"
"Yeah, it's me. Listen, Eve, I only have a minute....but I wanted to let you know that I forgive you for my death. You're not Livia anymore and I really admire what you've been doing to redeem yourself," he smiled and explained. "In light of who you've become, I can't hold the past against ya."
"Really?" she inquired.
"Really," he affirmed and embraced her. "You heard me, right, Xena?"
"Absolutely," the warrior nodded as she, Gabrielle, and Virgil stepped back out into the yard. "Thank you, Joxer."
"My pleasure," their old friend grinned. "One last thing...Virgil..."
"Yes, Dad?" the scribe asked, stepping toward the ghostly figure.
"I just wanted you to know..." his father started. Then, he paused momentarily to brush something out of his eye before continuing, "...that I'm proud of you and what you're doing as well."
Virgil's eyes started to water as well. "I know, Dad. Thanks. I love you." The young man put his arms loosely around the spot where the apparition was.
"You don't know how much that means to me, Son," Joxer told him. "I wish I could stay longer. Take care of your mother and the others. Farewell, Everyone!" With those words, the warrior's spirit returned to the Elysian fields from whence it had come.
"He loved all of us. Even to the end," Gabrielle sighed, remembering how Joxer had felt about her so long ago.
"He's a great friend," Xena added.
"He's too kind to me," Eve shrugged. "After what I did to him."
"You have to move on, Eve," Virgil assured her. "It took me a while, but I forgave you. My mother has as well. Give people time to see the new you."
"Absolutely," Xena chimed in. "C'mon, let's go inside and get something to eat, shall we?"
"Sure," the Messenger concurred and managed a small smile. It was true what her mother had said on that fateful day. It would take time and frightful responses would come with the territory, but those were to be expected. After riding out those feelings, she had begun to heal the wounds.
"Eli, thank you for such great friends," she thought while entering the house with the Warrior Princess.
For a long time during that evening, Gabrielle stood by the fence of the old horse stall, looking at the empty space where Argo must have exercised so long ago.
"I have wondered what it must have been like for you," the Bard mused aloud. "And now, I may have to part with Xena as well."
"Part with me? Why?" the warrior's voice inquired from behind her.
Gabrielle looked over her left shoulder to see Xena stride towards her from out of the darkness. "So, you heard me. I guess the cat's out of the bag, then."
"I guess. So, this is why you've been so detached for the last month?" the warrior asked.
Gabrielle nodded curtly and let out a deep sigh. "Xena, do you remember the night before we met Cleopatra and her friends?"
The Warrior Princess nodded, "I remember you were having problems sleeping...and you were moaning."
"I had a vision," her friend revealed. "Of the Amazons' destruction at the hands of invaders unless I become queen directly. Yakut and Amarice appeared to me and told me that it would be so."
Xena studied her companion's face carefully. In the very beginning of their travels together, she might have questioned Gabrielle further, thinking this dream a possible flight of fancy. However, she knew how seriously the Bard took such things. Knowing the bond between the deceased shamaness, their former sister-in-arms, and themselves, it would have to be so.
"I would like you to come with me. Please, Xena," Gabrielle pleaded, her eyes burrowing into those of her dearest friend. "I'm going to need an experienced warrior and a friend as counsel. And you're the best on both counts.
The warrior never hesitated. "Absolutely, Gabrielle. I would be honored to go with you," she accepted.
"Oh, thank you, Xena!" Gabrielle cheered and threw her arms around her companion.
"My pleasure. Now, let's get back to the house. Virgil's making a really yummy dessert and wanted you to have some," the warrior chuckled and, just as she turned to walk back into the house, a familiar whinny came from the stall. "What in Tartarus?" she wondered and looked again.
And Argo, or rather, her spirit, looked back at her. For a long moment, the two friends studied each other's faces silently. Then, with another whinny, the old horse's spirit faded into the night air.
"Thank you, Girl," Xena whispered wistfully to where her friend's spirit had been. A tear came to her eye. Her loyal friend had wanted to say goodbye as well. Now, everything seemed complete.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked. "Are you okay?"
"Huh, oh yeah. Let's get that dessert," the warrior smiled.
"Whatever you say," the blonde bard accepted and followed her friend's lead back into the house.
Xena, Gabrielle, and Eve left the farm well before dawn and rode northwest for several moons. The sun rose and set, Spring came and went. As they rode across Dacia and into Germania, Gabrielle grew increasingly stoic, ever more serious. Even before she reached Amazon lands, the Bard had begun to undergo the mental transformation needed to become queen.
The Warrior Princess considered her friend throughout their journey. What would be the end result of her friend's ponderings? Would she still be the same person?
Eve, sensing her mother's concern, rode up alongside her relative. "What is it, Mother? You seem to be concerned."
The warrior shrugged, "I'm fine, Eve. "
The Messenger wouldn't be dissuaded. "It's about Gabrielle, isn't it? You're worried that she won't be the same person, aren't you?"
Xena saw that Gabrielle was still too absorbed in her thoughts to notice their conversation. So, she continued, "I...I guess so. It's seems like it's always been a choice between the Amazons and me."
"And you're concerned that she'll cast you out of her life for them," Eve supposed. "Mother, you have nothing to worry about. The change in roles don't necessarily mean that the person will forget previous relations. I loved you before I became the Messenger of Eli. I love you even more now. Gabrielle will feel the same way. Trust me."
Xena grinned warmly at her daughter, "Thank you," she expressed and rubbed the other's hair.
Eve blushed, "I'm glad that I could help you feel better." With that, the two women continued to follow the soon-to-be queen.
On the next evening, the three travelers camped just outside of the borders of Amazon lands. Eve sat on the edge of the area, meditating and praying. Xena sat by the fire watching it flicker and crackle...and wondering what would happen on the next day.
"Xena?" Gabrielle inquired. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. How are you doing?" the warrior replied matter of factly.
"I'm okay. Sorry I haven't been more talkative on the trip up here," the Bard apologized.
The warrior smiled and rubbed her friend's shoulder, "That's okay. You've had a lot on your mind," she assured her friend. For the first time in a while, she studied the other's appearance. "I noticed that you've been letting your hair grow again."
Gabrielle ran her hands through her blonde tresses which hung down to just beneath her shoulders. "Do you like the way it looks? I didn't want it to be too long, but I felt it would help me to fit in better with the other Amazons," she noted.
"I'm sure they'll think you're fine no matter how long your hair is," Xena cracked.
Her friend smiled at the observation. "That means a great deal coming from you. Your word always has meant a great deal to me. I was wondering if you would continue in that role?" she offered.
The Warrior Princess shot the Potadeian a surprised glance. After all of her worrying, was she hearing what she thought she was hearing? "You mean...I could be on the council? But how?"
"Well, after Helicon, the Amazon sisterhood's respect for you was firmly established. They'll value your presence and you are an honorary sister for the tribes. While the damage done by you under Alti's influence will never be forgotten, you have redeemed yourself, Xena, in every sister's eyes. While you may not be a major player on the council, you are my pillar and my right hand and will be viewed as such. That's why I asked you to come with me," Gabrielle explained.
Xena sighed, "Now it's my turn to apologize to you....I wasn't sure if you would need me to step back in light of your new duties."
"Never," the other stated. "We are sisters and our bond at least as deeply as my ties to the Amazons themselves." With that, she embraced her warrior companion.
Xena grinned at hearing her friend say these words. It appeared that the more things changed, the more they would stay the same....
Within an hour of starting out from camp that morning, the three travelers encountered the first Amazon warrior-guard along the dusty path.
"Halt! State your..." the red-headed warrioress started her challenge and then, fell to one knee. "Queen Gabrielle! Xena! My apologies!"
"Nonita," Gabrielle replied pleasantly. "No apology is needed for doing your job well. Please stand up."
"Y...Yes," the young guard agreed and did so. "Please follow me to the village. The council is expecting you."
"Expecting her?" Xena wondered.
"The council will explain everything. Please come with me," the Amazon repeated.
Twenty minutes later, the four riders stopped their mounts in front of the Amazons' council hut. All of the sisters gathered to see Gabrielle's arrival as she dismounted and entered the chamber.
"Queen Gabrielle," Memosia greeted and bowed slightly.
"Memosia," the Bard indicated. "I guess you know why I'm here."
"Yes, we saw our former sister, Amarice, along with the deceased shamaness, Yakut, three moons ago. They foretold your coming. Are you at last ready to assume your throne?" Memosia probed.
"It will be a honor to rule and to work toward reunifying the Amazons," Gabrielle replied confidently.
The other Amazon councilors smiled at her statement. Despite her wanderings and extended absences away from the tribes, Gabrielle was a true Amazon in heart and spirit and would make an excellent queen over them all.
An Oriental Amazon stood up and turned to Xena. "Yakut also mentioned that you would be the queen's advisor, Xena. Will you serve in that role acting in the best interest of the tribe?"
"It will be a great honor to be able to do so," the Warrior Princess agreed, shooting her friend an enthusiastic smile.
"And what of you, Eve of the Elisians, once Livia of Rome?" a Circassian councilor asked.
"My duty is to spread the word of Eli in the world. Of course, I wish you well and offer Eli's blessings to you...." the Messenger replied politely.
"Your convictions and devotion to duty serve you well, Eve," Memosia complemented. "May they one day totally redeem you as they did your mother."
"That is my greatest hope as well," Eve responded humbly.
The head Amazon councilor smiled and nodded. "Now come. Let us wash you and prepare you for the ceremony ahead."
The three companions, feeling dusty from their travels, allowed the sisters to guide them to this part of the ceremonial preparation.
Two hours later, Gabrielle, Xena, and Eve stood with the congregated Amazons in the village center. Directly in front of them stood the throne and on each side of it, an Amazon stood watch.
Gabrielle couldn't help but remember the last time that she assumed the queenship. She recalled taking the mask and accepting her role to spite Valasca. Now, it was time for her to do so for the purpose of renewing the tribes.
The ritual chant stopped and Xena nudged her friend, "That's your cue."
"Thanks," the Bard smiled and walked up to the throne. Once there, she stood before it. "Varia?" she called.
The pardoned former queen approached the dais with the unique mask for Gabrielle. Although she wouldn't have been allowed to participate in this ceremony under normal circumstances, at the new queen's insistence, Varia was included in this important role. "Here is your mask, my queen," she noted, handing her friend the symbol of the office.
Gabrielle smiled warmly at her friend and took the mask. Holding it high over her head, she surveyed the audience. Everyone hung on the moment, waiting for her to finalize her commitment. One last glance at Xena brought the other's smile and a nod to her attention. With that signal, she donned the royal headgear and became the queen in fact as well as in title. The rite of caste, so long ago received as an act of bravery, was at last fulfilled.
Raising the mask so that it rested on top of her head, Gabrielle looked at the assembled Amazon sisterhood, Xena, and Eve. Then, beside her two constant companions, she spied the luminiscent forms of Eli, Yakut, Joxer, Amarice, and a fifth figure, Ephiny, observing the coronation. The five spiritual forms smiled warmly and nodded in approval to her. After only a minute, they faded as well.
"Thank you all for bringing me down this road," Gabrielle mused to the heavens and descended from her throne to meet with her sisters. Making her way through the crowd, she reached Xena and Eve.
"Your Highness," Xena stated drily, a smile tugging at the sides of her mouth. Despite the tone, she beamed with pride over her friend's accomplishment.
The two companions hugged each other tightly.
"Congratulations, Queen Gabrielle," Eve added.
"Thank you, Eve," the new queen accepted, embracing her friend's daughter as well. "And, as my first act, I extend safe passage through Amazon lands for you and Eli's followers."
"You have my thanks," Eve replied gratefully.
Gabrielle smiled at the Messenger once again and rubbed her shoulder. Hopefully, this act would build a bond between the Elisians and the Amazons for all time. Only future events would tell if this move was a success or not....
Early the next morning, Gabrielle leaned on a post near the entrance to her hut. After all of the festivities and ceremony taking place on the previous day, the reality of the situation was hitting her: she was the queen of the Amazons-not just over one tribe but all of them. She took a deep breath and surveyed the sleeping village. Already, less than one day into her reign, she was feeling the burden of the position.
"Dinar for your thoughts, Queen Gabrielle?" Eve asked as she approached her friend.
The Bard smiled and indicated, "When we're in private, Eve, please call me "Gabrielle". As for my thoughts, I was pondering how I'm going to unify all of the tribes. It's a big task."
"If anyone can do it, it's you," the Messenger assured her. "I feel better knowing that some of the damage that I did to the tribes will be repaired by a capable leader. I will pray for you, Gabrielle."
"Thank you," the new queen beamed and hugged her friend. "Are you sure that you won't stay longer? You know that you're welcome here."
"I know and I'm grateful for that. However, my place is out in the world, preaching the word of Eli. I will be back from time to time to visit you and my mother. If you have need of me, you know how to reach me," the younger woman declined graciously.
"Right," Gabrielle agreed and noticed that Xena was standing directly behind them. "Oh! Morning, Xena."
"Morning, Gabrielle," the Warrior yawned. "I just wanted to say goodbye to Eve before she left us."
Eve smiled warmly. Yes, her mother was overprotective at times...but her heart was in the right place. At least the Warrior Princess wasn't fighting her on resuming her preaching duties. Being the daughter of Xena as well as an itinerant missionary had its risks, but the rewards were far greater. "You know I'll miss you."
Xena embraced her daughter tightly. "Come back and see us soon, okay?"
"You know I will," the Messenger smiled. "I'll be back as often as I can."
"Be good," the queen jabbed playfully.
"And stay out of trouble," her mother added.
Eve raised her right eyebrow and allowed her eyes to sparkle at the two companions. What a foundation they had provided for her. The Amazons were indeed lucky to have them both here. Something told her that they would indeed reforge the Amazon nation into something wonderful to behold. "I will," she promised. "Be well, both of you." With those words, she mounted her horse and rode away toward the rising sun and her next missionary effort.
Xena allowed a single tear to crease her cheek. No matter how many times she would assist her child, Eve was truly an independent woman with her own desire and yes, Callisto's fire. But, it was time to move on to her new role...helping Gabrielle to rule the tribes. After a long minute, she turned to her closest friend and said, "Don't you think it's time we started discussing the Amazons' next course of action, Your Highness?" she smiled.
Gabrielle nodded. Despite everything that had happened and the events to come, she had Xena at her side as they walked down the road together on their next journey. And that would make it all seem worthwhile. "Come on, let's get to work on that policy, Counsel," she teased as they walked back into the hut and toward their new roles.
THE END (for now)
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