Disclaimer: “XENA: Warrior Princess” and all characters are property of Studios USA, Pacific Renaissance Pictures, and/or Universal Studios. The following story is strictly non-profit fan-fiction, and absolutely no copyright infringement is intended.

Disclaimer #2: The following story contains adult language.

Comments to the author can be e-mailed to bloodyvisigoths@charter.net

“The New Adventures of XENA: Warrior Princess”

Return of the Warrior Princess”

By Ernie Whiting


            The blazing sun beat relentlessly on the parched and panoramic desert landscape, sucking the moisture from everything in sight and giving nothing in return but baking misery. The man in black watched with mild interest as a solitary vulture, silhouetted against the stark, blue sky, circled high in the air as it searched in vain for lunch while a lone, small lizard lay unmoving in the shade of a large rock, hiding from that vulture as it watched the small black beetle slowly crawl closer and closer. The bug evidently recognized the shadow of the rock as a relief from the glaring sun and the intense heat, and was unaware of the threat that patiently awaited it. It was absolutely silent out here, without even the gentlest of breezes to relieve the excruciating heat or the equally intense silence, as the man in black watched this miniature drama from Nature play itself out.

            And then a sound could be heard in the distance. It was faint, at first, very faint, but it gradually grew louder as its source drew closer. In a moment, one could tell it was a combination of music and the high-powered roar of a V-8 engine, and quickly after that a gleaming red convertible came up and over a slight rise and raced down the unbending, gray strip of highway. Molly Hatchet’s “Rag Top Deluxe”--described by the driver as “kick-ass, Southern-fried rock ‘n’ roll”--blasted from the four speakers of a 2001 Mustang GT, whose speedometer’s needle was currently pegged at a steady 120 miles per hour, with horsepower to spare. The driver, with her long, golden blonde hair tied back into a French braid and with her bangs blowing in the sports car’s slipstream, lip-synced enthusiastically with the tape, her head and shoulders bouncing up and down in time to the music. Every so often she would pause to take a sip of iced tea through the straw that was poked through the center of the large paper cup’s plastic lid--the ice was long gone and the tea was diluted, but at least it was still liquid--and then she would slip it back into the plastic cup holder and resume her lip-syncing, grinning broadly as she took a quick look to her right and then laughing gleefully. It was hard to tell which was more dazzling--her spirited grin or the bright sunlight that reflected from her dark gold aviator’s sunglasses.

            The Mustang was traveling north, somewhere between Las Vegas and Ely, Nevada, when another vehicle approached it from the opposite direction. She recognized it as a late-model and ill-cared-for black Pontiac Trans Am that was pockmarked with gray primer spots, and warily took note of the plethora of heavy-metal band stickers--all adorned with inverted pentagrams and other similarly evocative symbols--that had been slapped across the front bumper and all over the hood. Yuck, she thought as she caught a glimpse of the T-top’s occupants and overheard a fragment of their head-banger’s rock as they raced by. Black Sabbath? she wondered. Megadeath? Slayer? Who can tell? They all sound the same. With long, greasy hair and battered dark clothing, the four of them looked about as friendly as venomous scorpions. Good thing they’re headed in the opposite direction, she thought as she took note in the rear-view mirror of even more such stickers that had been slapped all across the back of the Trans Am. A few seconds later, though, her heart sank as she noticed that the Pontiac’s tail lights flared to life as the car quickly braked and then made a tire-screeching U-turn.

            “Oh, shit,” she softly said to herself.

            The car quickly pulled up alongside the Mustang. One of the men waved a bottle of tequila in an invitation to join them for a drink while the others made obscene gestures and hooting noises.

            Hoping to avoid a confrontation, the blonde smiled and waved politely, and then stepped on the gas, leaving them behind. But not for long; the Trans Am soon pulled up alongside the Mustang again, and this time the invitations weren’t quite as friendly. The blonde shook her head again and tried to pull away, but the Trans Am didn’t fall back this time. Instead, it suddenly pulled forward, and one of the passengers threw an unopened beer can at the Mustang, hitting its windshield and cracking the glass. With a yelp, the blonde hit the brake and pulled the car over with screaming tires, narrowly avoiding running the car into a ditch. The Trans Am stopped a few yards ahead of them, and the four men got out.

            So did the blonde. She wore rust-colored jeans and white running shoes, and a lime-green T-shirt with an olive-green denim vest. Whipping off her sunglasses to reveal angry green eyes, she roared with an unrestrained Texas accent, “You stupid assholes! What the hell are you tryin’ to do, get somebody killed?” At only five-foot-four, and even though she was in remarkably fit condition, she knew what kind of a risk she was taking by brandishing such an openly hostile attitude; but damn it, she was mad!

            “Now, is that any way to talk to someone who just wanted to stop and say hello?” one of the scorpions asked, his smile more like a leering grin. “We thought you might like to party.”

            “You thought wrong, weasel-dick,” the blonde replied.

            “Aw, come on,” said a second scorpion. This one seemed to be under the combined influences of meth and alcohol, and his voice exuded silky venom. “Don’t you want to party with us?”

            “Look,” the blonde woman said. “I’m a doctor. I’m on my way to a medical conference, okay? So if y’all don’t mind, I’d like to get there some time this year.”

            “Doctor, huh?” said the third, with an even more lascivious grin than the second man wore. “I’ll play doctor with you!” The other men laughed threateningly as they all slowly converged on the blonde.

            Weaponless, and with no telling what kinds of weapons these men might be carrying, the young blonde had little choice but to back away from them. A moment later, she bumped against the Mustang’s fender.

            One of the men held a dangling, unlit cigarette between his lips. In one hand he held the bottle of tequila, and in the other a Zippo cigarette lighter. “Come on,” he said, “let’s party.”

            Then the Mustang’s passengers’ door opened. One foot, clad in an expensive black leather boot, planted itself firmly on the dusty ground, and was soon followed by the other. As the passenger stood straight, a pair of slim but strong hands brushed off the black denim jeans and adjusted the black leather belt on which there hung a pair of double-edged combat daggers, then straightened the bottom of the black Harley Davidson T-shirt before moving up to settle the black leather vest more comfortably on her shoulders. Her long, brown/black hair was tied back with a simple silver-and-obsidian clasp, and the brilliant sunlight reflected from her own pair of dark gray pilot’s sunglasses.

            “What seems to be the problem, boys?” she asked with mild and friendly curiosity.

            “Whoa, dude!” one of the men said, his raspy voice filled with both astonishment and lust as he gazed at the six-foot tall, ebony-haired Amazon.

            She approached the man with the tequila and the lighter. She regarded him silently...and then suddenly she spun and threw out one leg, and swept his feet from beneath him. He went flying with a yelp of surprise, letting go of the booze and the lighter, and landed flat on his back. With effortless, lightning speed, the black-haired woman caught the bottle and the lighter well before they could hit the ground.

            The other three men rushed toward her.

            She took a swig from the tequila bottle, held it in her mouth, and then flicked open the lighter with a metallic clink! and spun the wheel.

            The effect was like a flamethrower. With panicked yells, the men turned and ran, abandoning their car, as a massive gout of blue and yellow flame reached for them.

            The dark-haired woman tossed away the bottle and the lighter, chuckled, and wiped cheap tequila from her chin. “Come on, boys,” she announced with a dangerous grin and a loud voice, “let’s party!”

            The young blonde folded her cell-phone shut and pushed the short antenna down with the palm of her hand, assured that help would soon be on the way--not for herself or for her friend, but for the four miscreants who were about to pay very painfully for their stupidity. Sitting on the Mustang’s fender with her feet dangling, she smiled at her friend as she slipped the phone into a small holster that was clipped onto her belt. She folded her arms beneath her breasts, and with a patient sigh she softly said, “Xena...”

            The tall, black-haired woman slowly removed her sunglasses to reveal cool blue eyes that twinkled merrily. Regarding her companion, she smiled a tiny, playful and questioning smile as she arched one eyebrow slightly. “Gabrielle?”

************

            The police officers surveyed the charred remains of the Trans Am’s interior. “Now, let me get this straight,” one of them said skeptically while his partner stood close by, his hand resting casually on his sidearm. “A tall woman with black hair and dressed all in black, and riding in a red sports car, breathed fire on you?”

            “Yeah, man!” a short, stocky, and swarthy Latino scorpion replied. With a red bandanna wrapped around his head and a black, droopy moustache that nearly covered his mouth, he looked and sounded like a stereotypical gang member from east Los Angeles. “She breathed fire on us, man!”

            Another of the scorpions, who spoke slowly and deliberately on account of the drug-induced haze behind his eyes, uselessly added, “She was the Devil, man!”

            The police officers felt as though they had just stepped into the middle of a stoner’s comedy skit. “Uh huh,” the other cop said dubiously as he surveyed the suspects. One had a broken and bloody nose, another had recently pulled the blade of his own hunting knife from his own thigh, and the Latino had scorched, smoldering, and crispy black hair and a sooty face. The slow-talking one had been too stoned and befuddled to do anything, and had therefore avoided injury.

            The first officer continued to examine the Trans Am. In the back seat there were a number of empty whiskey bottles and beer cans. The rest of the car’s interior was decorated with a variety of Satanist symbols, more heavy-metal rock band stickers, a couple of crack pipes, and other similar paraphernalia. Sitting on the floor of the front passenger’s seat were the remains of half a pound of crack cocaine.

            “You gotta get ‘er, man!” the scorched Latino said. “She’s a...like a...” He fumbled in vain for the right words, then glanced at one of his buddies for help.

            With bloody wads of cotton stuffed up his nostrils, the broken-nosed punk offered, “She’s a bedace to society, bad!”

            “Yeah, man!” He turned back to face the cop. “A menace to society, man!”

            “Right,” the cop said. He had already decided that these guys had been smoking too much crack. “All right, guys, you know the drill--hands on the hood, feet back, and spread ‘em.”

            “You gotta get her, man!” the slow-talking punk wailed.

            “Sure.” He cast an amused glance at his partner as he added, “We’ll put out an all-points-bulletin.” Then he returned his attention to the four punks. “In the meantime, you have the right to remain silent. If you give up that right, anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law...”

            While the one officer finished reading them their rights, the other began to wonder whether or not these four had actually been sharing some kind of transferrable and drug-induced hallucination which had resulted in them fighting with each other. But almost immediately after that thought he had to ask himself, Who bandaged the wounded man? None of these clowns looked capable of applying a simple band-aid, let alone the disinfectant, gauze padding and white adhesive tape that could be seen peeking from beneath the bloody hole in his pants leg.

            Unseen, the man in black grinned malignantly.

************

            The sun had dipped below the distant mountains some time ago, bathing the small motel in shadows. The red Mustang was parked in front of it. Just below the newly acquired spider webbed crack in the windshield, tucked into the lower left-hand corner, were two window decals; one was blue, gold and white with the logo US Navy, and the other was the red-and-gold decal of the United States Marine Corps. Had the carload of punks seen them earlier, they might not have tangled with these two women. On the other hand, maybe they would have anyway; none of them had been particularly bright, and none of them had known just who these two women really were.

            Major Gina Ryan, USMC, was in the steam-filled bathroom, standing naked before the mirror and brushing out her damp, dark hair. “Y’know,” she said, her voice echoing slightly from the tiled walls and floor, “it’s too bad we couldn’t have taken Ares and flown in; now I’ll have to find someone to replace that windshield.”

            “With a helicopter that size,” Lieutenant Commander Gabriella Duncan replied distantly, her soft voice coming from the bedroom, “I don’t think you’d have found enough room in the parking lot for a landing zone.”

            “With that kind of armament,” the Marine replied with a grin, “I could’ve made my own LZ.”

            Without breaking her concentration, the young Navy doctor pictured the scene in her mind: a fully occupied parking lot with a wide variety of very expensive foreign cars suddenly blown all over Hell and beyond, and reduced to little bits and pieces of smoldering, charred and twisted metal while their owners looked on in sheer horror as the sleek, black combat helicopter settled in for an easy landing, its turbines roaring and its thudding rotors chopping at the air like the thundering voice of a true god of war. She grinned wryly and shook her head slightly as she continued to type, never missing a key stroke. Typical Marine, she thought. “That’s very true,” she conceded, “but not very environmentally friendly.” She was silent for a moment, and then she added with a change of subject as her grin slipped away, “Y’know, I really do wish you’d be more careful when getting into fights. That little bit of ambrosia we found--”

            “I know,” Gina replied mildly. “It may have extended our life expectancy, but we can still get cut, we can still bleed... and believe me, I’m not about to go taking any shotgun blasts to the head or heart just to see if I can survive them. We may heal fast, but I don’t know if either of us can heal quickly enough from a mortal wound before our lights go out.” She was silent for a moment, and then she added with a grin, “And I also promise to do my best to avoid decapitation.”

            The typing stopped.

            Ryan couldn’t see them, but she could most definitely feel a pair of jade-green eyes staring coldly at her; that was still a touchy subject with her partner.

            The Marine winced and cringed slightly. “Sorry.” Neither of them could remember too much of their previous lives; but one memory they did share was that of the Warrior Princess’s death in Higuchi. The hardest thing that Gabrielle had ever done was to find her soul mate’s nude, arrow-riddled and headless corpse hanging in the rain, and her head resting on a short, small table, on display as a grisly trophy before a band of wannabe Samurais, and then to cremate the lifeless and mutilated body of the one person in the entire world that she had loved more than life itself. Even today, some two thousand years later, the memory of that night still occasionally invaded the young blonde’s dreams to viciously wrench her from her sleep.

            The Navy doctor went back to her typing. “I’m just worried about the kinds of weapons people use these days,” she said. “I mean, we didn’t have to contend with hollow-point or armor-piercing bullets, high-powered firearms, AIDS-tainted blades, or any of that kind of stuff back in ancient Greece.”

            “I know,” Gina said. “All we had back then were swords, arrows, spears, battle axes--all of which could still have killed us just as dead. You worry too much, Gabrielle,” she added fondly. “You need to relax.” She stuffed her brush back into the small accessories bag.

            The former bard sighed, and smiled a little bit. They occasionally called each other by their old names; sometimes it was to emphasize a point, and sometimes it was just out of special fondness at a particular moment. While both women were aware of who they used to be and of the lives they had once lived, they were also acutely aware of who they were now, and of the lives they lived today. The idea that they had lived and traveled together and loved each other more than two thousand years ago still took a little getting used to. At times they felt as though their previous lives were nothing more than dimly remembered roles they had played long ago, and at other times--especially in dreams--some of those dim memories would suddenly come flooding back with shocking clarity. The pragmatic Marine also knew how particularly fond the sentimental young doctor was of the old days, and was also aware that the young doctor felt that the more they used their old names, the more they might remember of their old lives. But for herself, Ryan was content to...not forget the past, but rather to acknowledge it and move on to live in the present. As far as she was concerned, she used to be Xena, the Warrior Princess of Amphipolis; now, she was Gina Ryan, of Cheyenne, Wyoming.

            “Yeah, maybe so,” Brie said, her soft, east-Texas drawl wafting like a gentle summer breeze from the bedroom. “It’s just that bein’ a doctor has made me a lot more aware of the dangers that are out there. On top of the increasin’ criminal element, we’ve also got a whole bunch of brand new, bright ‘n shiny diseases to contend with. If a mugger’s blade doesn’t getcha, the bug on it will--and it won’t be a quick death, either. Have you ever seen what some of these new diseases can do to the human body?” Dr. Duncan had, on many occasions, and the memories made her shudder with dread.

            When Gina stepped out of the steamy bathroom, she found her partner sitting cross-legged on one of the twin beds. Her golden hair was loose now, falling about her shoulders, and she was dressed in a snug black tank-top and black cotton panties, and a pair of gold-rimmed reading glasses. With her golden bangs brushing against a brow that was furrowed in deep concentration and her eyes focused on the small monitor, she was in the middle of keying information into her lap-top computer. Gina grinned, quietly pleased that her friend was getting back into her writing. She leaned against the doorway with one shoulder and shifted her weight to one foot while she watched her fondly for a long, silent moment. “Hey there, sailor,” she said at last as she began to twirl the small accessories bag as though it were a hooker’s small purse. “Lookin’ for a good time?”

            Mildly annoyed by this minor distraction, Gabriella breathed a barely perceptible sigh of exasperation as she finally looked up from her computer. With one finger, she slid her glasses down the bridge of her nose a bit and peered over the tops to observe her friend. A slow smile began to creep across her lips. Without even looking at the computer, she clicked on “Save Document” and took the glasses off.

************

            Later, they spoke in the darkness with soft voices.

            “Let’s see now,” Brie said softly. “We blew up an Iraqi government complex, we stole a top-secret combat helicopter and went AWOL, we flew it to Greece and found the ancient Hall of Ambrosia, we kept Ares and hid it... Do you think the Department of Defense would be pissed off at us if we suddenly resurfaced?”

            “Probably,” Gina replied with a lazy chuckle. “According to my Company contact, GPS reconnaissance satellites picked up the explosion of Saddam’s little breeder reactor when we blew it to hell. Since we flew out of there below everyone’s radar detection, as far as the DoD knows Ares and its crew went up with it. So let them keep on thinking we’re dead.”

            That idea saddened Gabriella because she had envisioned an entirely different life for them. Some nights, while waiting for sleep to claim her, she would ruminate on the day she and Gina finally left the military with honorable discharges after the awards ceremony. She could see the two of them--herself radiant in Navy dress whites and Xena resplendent in Marine Corps dress blues, and surrounded by loving family and friends--standing at attention and receiving medals of honor and commendation, and smiling congratulations before moving on to rediscover their past and build their future together. Instead, they wound up living an underground existence, dead to all who once knew and loved them. The only thing that kept the loneliness at bay was each other.

            “But what if we get found out?”

            “It’s all being taken care of by my computer-hacking CIA mole,” Gina replied. “The man’s a genius; he’s already infiltrated about a dozen different agencies to change our records.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “How do you suppose the international community would react if two American military personnel were found to have taken it upon themselves to deliberately destroy a sovereign government’s property--to commit an act of terrorism, if not outright war--and not be prosecuted and punished for it?”

            “It was a breeder reactor, Xena!” Duncan replied, her Dallas accent rising, along with her ire, from that gentle summer breeze to a roaring Texas tornado. “Those bastards were producin’ plutonium so they could build nuclear missiles! If anything, we did those butt-scratchin’, pointy-headed rectal polyps in the UN a goddamn favor!”

            “I agree, Gabrielle, one hundred percent,” Gina replied, gently yet earnestly, and with a wry grin. God, she just loved that Texas accent. “But the problem is, we violated international law doing it--”

            “Screw international law,” Brie muttered in contempt.

            “--and these days, it seems that obeying stupid laws written by equally stupid legislators and government bureaucrats is more important than doing what’s right. The Iraqis claimed it was an electrical energy plant that was providing power for schools and hospitals. Nobody believes them, but since we blew the shit out of it, there’s no evidence left for anyone to prove anything, one way or the other.”

            “So we’re the ones who have to live like criminals on the run,” Duncan said with a mild snort of contempt as the tempest died down. She lay on her back in the narrow bed, and stared angrily at the ceiling. “Shee-it, is this world upside down, or what?” she grumbled.

            “Yeah...” Gina said as she, too, gazed at the ceiling. “This world has definitely been turned ass over cranium. I used to think that the warlords and kings of the old days were insane; they were nothing compared to the lunatics we have today.”

            Technology marches on, Gabrielle thought with a sigh, but society just never seems to catch up.

             “Things were so much simpler then,” Gina said with a soft sigh. “It was a harder life, but far less complicated. People could wander the known world, doing what they knew in their hearts was right in spite of royal mandates, and it was damn near impossible for anyone to track them. Nowadays, the authorities don’t even have to get up off of their fat asses to look for anyone; they track you by your Social Security numbers or your credit card numbers. Our entire lives are registered in some government computer, and we leave an electronic trail wherever we go.” Then she smiled slowly. “But consider this: While we would be hunted down like criminals if word ever got out, the only person who knows the connection between us and our former lives is my Company contact.” She mused silently for a moment. “I’m just wondering what he put in our new files...”

            “You trust him?”

            She turned onto her side and gazed at her. “As much as I trust you,” she replied with utmost seriousness. “We’ve known each other for years, but...it feels like it’s been so much longer than that. He can be as exasperating as hell at times, but I know his heart is always in the right place. And he’s crafty as hell, too,” she added with a grin. “Not only does he know how to make things happen, he also knows how to make them go away. And he knows how to cover his tracks. Not only has he hidden us so well that he makes even the Witness Protection Program look like it’s run by a bunch of flatulent dorks, he’s also gotten us complete and total access to Ares. Any time we need it, weapons, or fuel replenishment--or any other kind of help, for that matter --it’s all just a phone call and a password away.”

            The young Navy doctor sighed deeply and closed her eyes, and snuggled in closer. For now, all she wanted to do was silently reminisce. It was almost like being outdoors again, wrapped in their bed rolls and gazing at the stars. There were several memories that they shared of those ancient days, but there were also many gaps in those memories. Too many, brought on not only by the passage of two millennia, but also by too long of a separation. This road trip, and the time they had spent together after they had found the Hall of Ambrosia and had tasted of that small remaining bit of the Food of the Gods, was meant to jog some of those memories, and to help them get to know each other all over again in this new life.

            “He’s a strange little guy, though,” Gina went on as she rolled back onto her back. “Kinda geeky, kinda dorky...sort of like someone who never really mentally got out of high school. Sharp as a razor, though. And for someone so nerdy, he seems to get laid more than carpeting.”

            “Does this mystery spook have a name?” Brie wondered. With a wry grin, she shifted under the covers and settled a little more comfortably alongside her. “Or would you have to kill me after telling me?”

            Gina also grinned. “Nah, I’ll let you live. Actually, his name’s Jack--” She suddenly stopped in stunned realization, and her blue eyes went wide. “Oh, my God.”

            She rose up on one elbow, her green eyes suddenly concerned. “What? What’s wrong?”

            Gina looked at her. “His name... You’re not gonna believe this, but his name’s Jack Sawyer.”

            Gabriella stared at her as she raised one eyebrow in mild puzzlement. “Jack--” She stopped and thought for a moment, and then she raised the other eyebrow as her green eyes widened in sudden realization and mute shock.

            Gina stared silently back at her. “It never struck me til now.”

            With one elbow against the mattress, her hand supporting her head while her other hand rested over Gina’s heart, the young bard stared off into space as she thought for a moment. Her mind balked at the idea that their former and incredibly bungling traveling companion from days long gone might possibly have come back as a computer expert for the Central Intelligence Agency.

            She looked at Gina. “Y’think?”

            Gina silently shrugged her shoulders against the mattress as the expression in her eyes conveyed the idea that they had made it back, so why not...

            Brie thought it over for a long, silent moment. “Wow,” she said at last, softly and quietly. “Is life weird, or what?”

************

            The comforting sounds of the late forest night north of Nevada City, California, were suddenly shattered by the bleating of an animal in agony, and the deep, guttural roars of a savage predator. The lights of the nearby ranch house suddenly blazed to life all along the upper floor, and bare feet were quickly heard running downstairs with shouts of, “Get the guns! Get the guns!!”

            Two men--one with a lever-action 30.06 Winchester hunting rifle and the other with a bolt-action Remington .308, and dressed in pajamas and robes--quickly burst out through the front door, quickly followed by a blonde woman with a long, four-cell flashlight, it’s bright white beam sweeping the mist-shrouded area before them. Their vision was limited to maybe only a hundred feet or so by the slowly thickening fog, but it was still only a few moments before they found the mutilated remains of one of their sheep.

            “Damn it!” one of the men swore. “Son of a bitch!”

            “Oh, my God,” the woman said. “It looks like a mountain lion got to it.”

            “Mountain lion, my ass,” the man with the Winchester said. “It’s those damned witches and their animal sacrifices again. Somebody ought to go over there and--”

            “Now wait a second, Travis,” the woman said. “Would people be making noises like what we heard? We don’t know if it’s them or--”

            He whirled on his wife. “I sure in the hell know!” Travis said. “With all the weird drugs they take, they could be totally out of their fuckin’ minds and roarin’ like animals. And I know you don’t want me going over there and handling matters myself, but you can’t stop me from reporting this to Sheriff Jennings. I’m gonna have those damned witches jailed! Jailed!”

            “Okay, all right,” Pamela Tate said. “But you know he won’t come out at this time of night for a dead sheep. C’mon, let’s go inside; there’s nothing we can do out here tonight.”

            Standing unseen in the darkness, the man in black grinned once more as he silently said to himself, That ought to get their attention.

************

            It was just a little after noon the next day when they stopped for lunch in the small, northern California foothill town of Peyton. Nestled comfortably against a backdrop of impressive mountains on the western side of the Sierra Nevada range, just northeast of Nevada City, it was a clean and picturesque town that was surrounded by wilderness and looked like an Alpine village. The breeze was cold and crisp, and the air was clean and smelled of a wide variety of firs and pines, and the overcast sky, which threatened more fog for tonight--if not rain for this afternoon--brought out all the richness of Nature’s colors.

            After having traded their vests for jackets, and after lunch and a leisurely round of window shopping, they found themselves stepping into a small New Age bookshop. Gina didn’t want to go in. She found nothing worth her time and attention in such shops, but Gabriella could always find something of interest--even if it was just for what she considered to be its laughable leisure value. “Come on, Xena,” she said with an encouraging smile as she slipped her arm through the warrior’s, and tugged gently with her other hand at the black leather sleeve. “Let’s see just how wacked out they really are with all this stuff.” With a sigh of resignation, the tall brunette reluctantly allowed herself to be dragged inside.

            The air was redolent with a variety of oils, incenses and scented candles, and there were incense burners of brass, ceramic and wood that decorated a number of glass shelves. Small porcelain statuettes were everywhere, and rings, necklaces and other silver and gold jewelry--mostly bejeweled pentacles--rested inside of jewel cases, lying against black velvet and reflecting fluorescent white light. Even more pentacles--wrought iron, wood, and stained glass--hung from the ceiling on long cords along with a multitude of wind chimes. Against the walls of the shop were scores of shelves, all containing books of just about every New Age subject imaginable that included--but certainly was not limited to--Witchcraft, Greek and Roman mythology, Buddhism, Hinduism, yoga, transcendental meditation, alternative Christianity, spirit channeling, remote viewing, UFO studies, and alien abductions.

            “Oh, please, Gabrielle,” she said sourly, “you don’t really buy into any of this crap, do you? You’re a doctor, for God’s sake!”

            “Of course I don’t buy into it,” she replied as she continued to study the label on the box she was examining. “It’s just fun to look at.” She turned to her friend and shook the rattling box gently. “I mean, look at these--healing crystals?” She waved a hand, indicating more paraphernalia that rested on glass shelves behind her. “Aroma therapy? Guided meditations and tarot readings in the diagnosis of diseases? Come on!” She didn’t know whether to be dismayed or amused. “It’s like reading tabloid papers!”

            The black-haired warrior leaned close to her, keeping her voice low. “I wonder if they sell great big pyramid hats, made out of papier-maché, that people can wear to cure their migraine headaches,” she muttered with a grin.

            “Or nice shiny aluminum foil ones to keep the space aliens from taking over their minds?” the young blonde quietly added with a grin of her own. They both bubbled over in soft laughter that was about to get out of control.

            “Hi!” said a soft yet eager voice from behind them. “Can I help you find something?”

            They sobered immediately, like two school girls trying to avoid the unwanted attention of their domineering teacher. “Not really,” Brie replied quickly as she and Gina silently appraised the woman’s appearance. The doctor found the bright psychedelic colors of her T-shirt, the wide legs of the bell-bottom jeans, the frayed condition of the open poncho, the beaded head-band, the moccasins, and the over-sized wooden peace symbol that hung from a leather lace around her neck to be more than just a little pretentious. On the other hand, she thought that perhaps this slender young woman with the soft voice and the wide, friendly and innocent blue eyes might really be sincere in her efforts to discover her own true identity in these cynical days of the early twenty-first century. So there were some sixties throwbacks out there; so what? Everyone, including Gabriella Duncan, admired the spirit and devotion to peace and love that had become so popular during those days. But she was also familiar with the not-so-peaceful aspects of those turbulent years; the antiwar campus protests which had later led to riots, the demonstrations in the streets during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the beatings at the hands of the authorities, the tear gas, the shootings of university students who thought they had been protected by the right of free speech, the resultant arson and vandalism, and the violent destruction of draft boards had all come close to resulting in an all-out, bloody and violent revolution.

            Ever the cynic, Gina Ryan’s reaction to this attempt to emulate-–or, perhaps more appropriately, to romanticize--that generation was a wry and inward smile. The sixties are over, kid, she thought. Deal with it.

            “We were just looking around,” Brie said as she successfully concealed her quiet amusement.

            Gina, however, had to excuse herself. “Listen, I’m gonna check out the sporting goods shop across the street,” she said as she fought down the urge to laugh. The proprietor’s appearance wasn’t so much a hippie stereotype, the warrior concluded, as it was an unconscious caricature. “Maybe I can get a deal on some nine-millimeter ammo or something...” She headed quickly for the door, chuckling softly. She barely made it outside in time.

            Right-wing gun nut, the woman thought disdainfully as she watched the black-haired woman exit the shop. “Your friend doesn’t think much of all this, does she?” She indicated their surroundings. “Not many people do; mostly I just get curious tourists. Luckily, I sell enough to get the bills paid, if not much else.”

            Raucous laughter came from outside, and quickly faded as it moved off across the street. Through the window, Gabrielle cast her retreating partner a sharp look. “Well,” she said as she brought her attention back inside and thought back on her own spiritual quests over the years, “I guess when one comes into enough contact with a variety of religions and philosophies and gets to know them...it’s pretty easy to lose faith in most of them.” She returned her attention to the shelves and lifted one of the small statuettes. “Although I do find this kind of interesting.”

            The shop proprietor smiled. “Ah,” she said. “That’s one of my favorite characters from mythology--the Greek goddess Diana. She’s the goddess of the moon and--”

            “Roman,” Brie corrected her, softly and absently.

            “Excuse me?”

            She continued to gaze at the statue, her green eyes darkening as she remembered one of her encounters with the ancient Romans. She could see the spikes again as they were hammered into Xena’s hands and feet, nailing her friend--her companion, her partner, her soul mate--to the cross, and she shuddered at the nightmarish memory. “The Romans appropriated many of the Greek gods and goddesses. They called her Diana, but her Greek name--her real name--is Artemis.”

            The young woman raised her eyebrows slightly in surprise. Perhaps she had found someone who could teach her more. “You know the Greek gods?” she asked with a growing smile.

            She shrugged one shoulder noncommittally as she continued to gaze at the statuette.

            Smiling in mild excitement, the young woman stuck out one hand. “My name’s Flower,” she said. The gentle inflection of her voice made it sound more like a question.

            Fighting off her own sudden urge to laugh, the young doctor accepted the offered hand, and they shook. “Gabriella Duncan,” she replied. “Nice to meet you.”

            That was when Flower’s gaze finally noticed the neck of Gabriella’s black, crew-necked T-shirt. On the left side of the neck, stenciled in gold, were the words US Navy...

            Her eyes widened in awe. “You’re a SEAL?”

            “Huh?” she responded, momentarily confused. And then she remembered which shirt she had selected to wear this morning, and dismally thought, Oh dear. The shirt had been given to her by the SEAL team she had accompanied on a covert mission. The emergency mission--the recovery of a mutated form of hanta virus that had been created by Middle Eastern terrorists--had required the presence and expertise of an actual doctor, which had meant there was no time to train a SEAL adequately to microscopically identify and then gingerly handle the deadly biological weapon. On the other hand, there hadn’t been sufficient time to train an expert in virology for a SEAL mission, either, so as a compromise Lieutenant Commander Gabriella Duncan, MD, had been assigned to the mission and had received her training in the field. After the successful completion of the mission and the medical care she had provided for the two wounded team members--and for having shown remarkable bravery under heavy enemy fire by crawling out belly-down to drag a wounded man to safety--she had been awarded the shirt and the nickname “Li’l Sister” by her team mates, and made an honorary member of SEAL Team Seven.

            “Oh, you mean this ol’ thing?” she drawled lightly while indicating the shirt. She smiled fondly at the memory of the following two-day drunk she and the guys had gone on after they’d given it to her. “It’s...just a gift from a couple of friends.”

            The glass door suddenly slammed against the wall with an explosive shattering of glass, and a moment later four men armed with baseball bats and clubs stormed in. One of them indicated Flower with the business end of his bat. “She’s one of them!” he shouted. “Get her!” Scowling dangerously, they moved toward her in a swarm.

            “Hey!” Gabriella shouted. “What the hell--”

            “Stay out of this!” the apparent leader of the group shouted. “This is none of your business!”

            “She’s probably one of them,” another said. “Let’s get her, too!”

            Uh oh, Brie thought. This is about to get really hairy.

************

            Now this is interesting, Gina thought with a pleasant smile. Archery equipment--simple and compound longbows, crossbows, and crossbow pistols--was all over the place. There were daggers and hunting knives and folding knives, all on display inside of glass cases and glittering brilliantly under fluorescent light, and there were even swords; sabers, rapiers, and Japanese-styled katanas, hanging on walls and resting in wooden racks. The Marine’s eyes wandered over the wall-mounted rifle racks that stood behind the glass counters. Resting vertically in those racks was a wide assortment of lever- and bolt-action rifles and even a few semiautomatics, and a number of pump-action shotguns. In the glass case was a vast variety of handguns, both stainless steel revolvers and matte black semiautomatics. With bright fluorescent light gleaming from them, they beckoned silently to the warrior; and the warrior couldn’t resist. Feeling like a kid in a toy shop, she let herself be drawn toward the cases.

            “Afternoon,” the shop’s owner said as Gina gazed fondly at the weaponry. “Is there anything I can help you find?”

            “Just admiring the collection,” she replied.

            The shop owner appraised her quickly. “My, you’re a tall, strappin’ young lady, aren’t ya? In the market for a handgun? God knows you can’t be too careful these days. Got a great little self-defense weapon for ya.” He unlocked the back of the case and slid the panel open. He removed a snub-nosed revolver and gently placed it on the counter top. “I think you can handle a .38 revolver--”

            “Actually,” Gina said dryly, “I’m more of a nine millimeter semi-auto fan. Mind if I take a closer look at that Glock 19?”

            The shop owner’s jaw dropped in surprise (wimmin-folk weren’t s’posed to know nothin’ ‘bout all these manly guns, he believed) but he recovered quickly. “Uhh...sure.” He removed the selected weapon and handed it to her, and his eyes widened even more in surprise when this woman began to professionally field-strip the weapon. “This is...uh...a particular favorite with...” he began, but his voice trailed off as he watched her quickly remove the slide from the frame, remove the barrel from the slide, and then inspect the barrel’s interior with a professional eye. She winced and tsked! slightly in disapproval; the weapon had been fired extensively, and no one had bothered to clean it.

            “...the military,” he finally finished.

            “Actually, the American military contract went to Beretta,” she said. “The 92-F is a pretty nice weapon, although a lot of personnel use Glock 19s. They can squeeze in a couple of extra rounds in the magazine, and they like that smaller and lighter, high-strength polymer frame. Makes it a little easier to carry.” She quickly reassembled the weapon and racked the slide back to cock it, much to the shop owner’s stunned astonishment, and aimed at the floor with both hands. “I find that a steel slide and steel barrel on top of a polymer frame makes it a little wobbly and top-heavy, though. Not that you can’t compensate for it.” She slowly squeezed the trigger and let the internal hammer click on the empty chamber. “It’s just a personal preference, but the Beretta feels like it’s got a better balance, it can fire both single and double action, and it has a shorter trigger pull. And it’s got a much nicer safety.” She handed the weapon back to the very much surprised shop owner, butt first. “What’ve you got in a...” Her voice trailed off as she happened to glance outside through the large front window and across the street.

************

            Raising the bat high, he started toward Flower, but Gabrielle stepped between them. “Hold it!” she shouted. “Wait just a--whoa!!” She ducked just in time to avoid getting slammed across the side of her head. The bat missed her by scant inches, and slammed into an upright glass case with a sharp explosion. Sparkling, razor-edged shrapnel flew everywhere.

            Bringing all of her military training into play, she first pushed Flower out of harm’s way before ramming her fist into the man’s abdomen. With a loud expulsion of air, the man doubled over, and Gabrielle met his face with her elbow, crunching his nose and staining the sleeve of her jacket with his blood. Then she backhanded him across the face with a rock-hard fist and sent him rolling onto another display case, which collapsed beneath him in another shattering explosion of glittering shrapnel. Spinning with the momentum of her blow, she brought up both hands and blocked the swing of the second attacker, and caught his arm. She pulled it down and twisted hard, and relieved him of his club, and then slammed her right knee into his rib cage. She sent him away with a hard shove, right into Number Three--

            --and then slipped on the broken glass. She landed hard, flat on her back, and the fall knocked the wind from her lungs.

            Number Four swung his bat and shattered another standing display shelf, sending a shower of glass flying everywhere and spraying Gabrielle with glittering razor shards. Instinctively, she turned her face away and covered it with the crook of her elbow to protect her eyes.

            He approached the prone figure on the floor and raised the bat in one hand. “Think you’re hot stuff, don’t you?” he growled. “You gonna beat me up, too, witch?”

            She looked up at him with wide eyes, and raised a hand defensively. “No,” she said, “I’m going to patch you up.” Her green eyes flicked over his shoulder, and then back to him. “After she beats you up.”

            He turned his head with a sneer of contempt to look where she was looking, expecting to see nothing more than Flower’s pale and terrified face. Instead, he saw black hair, cold blue eyes, and a fist the size of a meteor as it impacted with his face.

            The blackness dissolved and his vision returned as the sound of the explosion gradually faded from his ears. He found himself lying flat on his back with his entire head throbbing in unimaginable agony, and looking up at the young blonde. Her face was very close to his and out of focus, but quickly clearing as she gazed with concern into his eyes. Eye. Only one was open, and that was because she had peeled the lid back with a thumb. “Yeah, he’s okay,” he heard her dim, echoing voice saying. Then he opened his other eye, and slowly looked around the spinning room until he saw the tall, dark-haired Amazon with the deadly blue eyes. He slowly struggled to rise.

            “Speaking as a doctor,” Brie told him, “I’d suggest you not move until you’re feeling a little more oriented.”

            “Speaking as a pissed-off Marine,” Gina growled at him, “I suggest you do exactly as she says.” She turned to look at her partner. “I can’t leave you alone for five minutes, can I? What the hell kind of trouble have you caused this time?”

            “Hey, don’t look at me!” Gabrielle said defensively. “He and his buddies are the ones who started it!”

            With a growl of exasperation, she reached down, grabbed the front of his jacket in one fist, and hauled him to his feet. Gabriella observed her silently, watching for any signs that her partner might be getting a little too excessive in her interrogation of her patient. There was little to worry about, though. Gina usually knew when to back off because she knew how committed Brie was to the care of her patients, regardless of who that patient might be; in return, Gabriella knew how committed Gina was in getting to the heart of any matter that came their way. Each understood how deeply dedicated the other was to her beliefs, so there was almost always room for compromise.

            “Xena...” she said, her soft voice mildly warning.

            “Don’t worry, Gabrielle, I’ll just fuck him up a little bit.” Still clutching his jacket in one fist, she lifted him until his feet danced madly in search of the floor. “All right,” she snarled, “now just what the hell’s going on here?”

            Jesus Christ, this woman is strong! he thought in surprise. Then, with a strangled and gurgling voice, he said, “These damn witches slaughtered another one of my sheep!”

            “We didn’t slaughter any of your sheep; we don’t do that kind of thing.”

            Gina and Gabriella stared at her for a moment, then stared at the man in Gina’s grip, and then at each other with puzzled eyes. What the hell are these people carrying on about? they silently asked each other.

            “Oh, bullshit! Everybody knows you witches and devil worshipers--”

            “We don’t worship the devil, either,” Flower said. “We’re--”

            “Wait a second,” Gina said as she lowered him to the floor. “Hold on. Can we start from the beginning, please?”

            The other three men had already risen, and were sullenly keeping their distance. However, one of them mumbled, “We don’t need any interference from any damn strangers.”

            Gina cast him a sharp look, and he immediately shut up. She surveyed the rest of the group. Clearly, they were angry about the loss of one of their livestock, and it was equally apparent that Flower was incapable of committing such an act. There was obviously some kind of a misunderstanding going on.

            She eased her grip on the man before her. “Look,” she said calmly. “There’s obviously been some kind of a mistake here. Maybe we can help.” She finally released him. “My name’s Gina Ryan, and this is my friend, Gabriella Duncan. Can one of you tell us what’s going on?”

            “My name’s Travis Tate,” he said as he straightened his jacket. “That there’s my brother Brad, and those are our boys, Brian and Keith. (Big boys, Gina thought as she eyed them.) And what happened is, I lost another damn sheep--”

            “Wait a second, you’re losin’ me here,” Brie said, a puzzled look on her face. “Lost a sheep?”

            “It was killed,” Travis said. “Its throat and belly were cut wide open. And it ain’t the first one, either! These goddamn people and their animal sacrifices--”

            “I told you we don’t do that kind of thing,” Flower said, cutting him off. “We’re peaceful Pagans. We worship the Goddess and nature, and we don’t sacrifice animals.”

            “Hang on a second,” Brie said as she turned to Travis. “Look, I’m a doctor. Can I get a look at this sheep? Maybe I can determine what really happened to it.”

            “I don’t know what the hell good that’ll do,” Brad said from a safe distance.

            Gina gave him a cool look. “Well, it beats the hell out of getting beaten up again, doesn’t it?” She glanced around and saw that no one was in disagreement. “Come on, what do you say? We all want a peaceful outcome to this, right?”

            Travis watched her for a moment, and finally concluded that she was being sincere. He sighed and said, “All right.” Then he glanced at Flower again. “But if I find out different--”

            “Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it, okay?” Gina said.

            He watched her a moment longer, then nodded. “Okay,” he said.

************

            A blue, late model Chevy Blazer and the red Mustang convertible were parked in front of Travis Tate’s cabin. So was Sheriff Phillip Jennings’s black-and-white Jeep Cherokee. Behind them all was a tapestry of tall pines and firs, and the rising Sierra Nevada mountains, and above them was a gray, overcast sky. A cold and restless wind blew in from the north, playing with their hair and clothing, and making them shiver as the small group--including Flower and Sheriff Jennings--approached the remains of one of Travis’s sheep.

            “Has anyone touched this?” was Gabriella’s first question.

            Tate shook his head. “No reason to. It’s obvious what happened to it.”

            “No kidding,” Flower muttered, her face pale and sickened.

            “Don’t anyone touch this, okay?” Brie said. “Just hang on a second.” She went back to the Mustang, opened the trunk, and shoved Gina’s assortment of weapons aside to reveal a large nylon traveling bag with a red cross emblazoned on one side. In it, she kept a well-stocked medical kit. She slung the bag over one shoulder, slammed the trunk lid shut once more, and returned to the group that surrounded the carcass. She and Gina went down on one knee, and the blonde handed her a pair of latex exam gloves before donning a pair of her own. She slipped on her glasses and leaned in for a closer look.

            “These aren’t knife wounds,” Gina said plainly as she and Gabriella poked and prodded the open, glistening wounds.

            “Of course not,” Gabriella agreed. To Travis, she said, “Look at the punctures. Look at the macerated tissue. Look at the ragged edges. This damage wasn’t caused by any blade; these wounds were caused by teeth and claws. It’s a predator attack, pure and simple.” She leaned in even closer and thought, Damn; look at the size of those punctures!

            Travis Tate snorted skeptically while his wife Pamela asked, “Do you think it was a cougar?”

            Gabriella squinted thoughtfully. “Can’t see why not,” she said. “Of course, it’d be nice if I had some cougar teeth to compare these wounds with. I’d also like to take some tissue samples and scope ‘em, and send the rest of the body off to the county lab.” She sighed and looked up at Sheriff Jennings. “I don’t think rabies is involved here, but I’d like to make certain.”

            “I’ll set it up with Pete Murdock,” Jennings said. “He’s the county coroner.”

            “Good deal.”

            “And if you want to compare these wounds to cougar’s teeth,” Travis said, “I got a skin hanging in my den.”

            Gabriella glanced up at him. Her first reaction was to tell him precisely what she thought of people who killed these magnificent animals just to hang their skins in their homes; but she held it back. Right now, the most important thing was to clear Flower and her friends, and to find out what had killed this animal.

            And then an idea came to mind.

            “Could y’all get that for me, please?” she asked, calling up all the heart-melting sweetness and innocence she could without overdoing it. “That would be a great help!”

            Travis smiled. It was impossible not to smile at her. “Sure,” he replied, eager to please her. Whenever Gabriella Duncan smiled like that, it was like being showered by a warm, golden ray of summer sunshine that warmed the heart. As a result, people--including Gina, much to the young blonde’s delight--just naturally wanted to please her; they couldn’t help it.

            He rose and headed for the cabin.

            “I’m going to look for prints,” Gina said, “and see if I can get an idea where this thing went. Anybody care to help?”

            Travis returned in only a few minutes with his trophy slung over one shoulder. “I managed to nail this guy before the public passed that stupid ‘endangered species’ referendum,” he said with quiet pride. “You’re not allowed to kill ‘em anymore. My dogs had this guy treed one day, so it was--”

            Brie quickly snatched the skin away from him. “Thank you!” she beamed as she immediately tried to position the head in accordance with the appearance of the bite wounds. “Let’s see now...is that about how he did it? Or was it this way?” She repositioned the head several times, and found it necessary to drape and drag the skin across the bloody carcass from a variety of directions. The more she moved it around, the bloodier it got, both on the surface and on the underside.

            “--an easy enough shot...” he continued, his voice fading and his smile slipping away, as he took note of the young doctor’s lack of care in handling the skin. She was getting blood all over it. “...to bring him down,” he lamely finished at last.

            The young Navy doctor found something disturbing. She looked up at Travis. “Is this about an average-sized cat?”

            “Actually, he was bigger’n most,” Travis replied somberly as he gazed at the ruined remains of his prized trophy. Maybe he could get the blood stains out if he took it to a professional cleaner...

            “Damn,” Gabrielle said softly as her mind raced. Not only were the punctures themselves larger than those of a cougar’s fangs, but the spacing was much greater, as though the jaws were wider than those of a normal puma. Whatever killed this sheep, she thought, was a lot bigger than this cat. And most other predators. These punctures look like they were made by the teeth of a damn dinosaur!

            Then she noticed that Travis was moving to pick up the cougar skin. “If you’re gonna handle that, I’d suggest y’all wear gloves.”

            Travis looked at her.

            “I mean, the chances are that whatever got to your sheep didn’t have rabies, but... Well, hey. Ah’m just one doctor talkin’, right?” She smiled and nodded reassuringly. “The tests’ll probably come back negative.” Then her smile became apologetic. Maybe a little too much so. “I’m sorry I got so sloppy with it.”

            Travis wasn’t sure if she was sincere or not. But he did know that rabies was not that uncommon in these parts; just a couple of weeks ago, as a matter of fact, Sheriff Jennings himself had to shoot a rabid raccoon. With a heavy sigh, he went into his barn and came back out with a can of barbeque starter fluid and a box of matches. He hosed the skin down, lit a match, and tossed it. The entire skin went up with a soft whumph! as it was suddenly consumed with flames.

            Gabrielle smiled inwardly as she gazed at the funeral pyre. Now you can rest in peace, cat, she thought.

************

            With a sleek, black, Beretta 92-F semiauto handgun holstered at her right hip and a 9mm Heckler & Koch MP5-A submachine gun hanging by its strap from her shoulder--both of which she had retrieved from the trunk of the Mustang while Gabriella had been inspecting the carcass--Gina was a few yards away, down on one knee and carefully examining the ground. “I’ve got tracks,” she called out. “Big ones.”

            Brad Tate approached her and squatted to examine the prints. “Damn,” he said. “These sure don’t look like any cougar tracks. Too damn big. And look at the claw marks. Too big for a black bear, even.”

            Gina studied them for a long moment. They fit no description of any animal that she knew of, yet somehow she had an uncanny feeling that she had seen these before. She thought back and tried to remember where and when, but nothing came to mind. But there was definitely something disturbingly familiar about them.

            “They head off that way,” she said at last, indicating with the muzzle of the H&K. Darkness was slowly creeping in, and she wanted to search the area while she could. Glancing over her shoulder to where her partner was inspecting the carcass, she called out, “Brie? I’m going to check out these tracks and see where they lead. Where do you want me to meet you?”

            “You guys can stay at my place,” Flower quickly offered. “It’s not that far, and I’ve got plenty of room.”

            She shifted her eyes from Flower back to the doctor. “Flower’s house by full dark?”

            With a pair of long, surgical forceps and a small pair of surgical scissors, she was taking tissue samples from the mangled sheep and carefully placing them inside of small specimen jars and test tubes. Once she had set up a makeshift laboratory, she would prepare slides for microscopic examination. “Roger that,” she replied without pausing.

            She rose and started off into the trees, reluctantly followed by Brad.

************

            Sitting in his patrol vehicle, Sheriff Jennings spoke into the microphone of his radio. “Listen, Sarah, after you arrange to have Pete Murdock pick up the remains and check them for rabies, I need you to do some computer searches for me. I need you to look up Gabriella Duncan, MD, and Gina Ryan.”

            “Sure, Sheriff,” the dispatcher replied, her voice small and electronically distorted by the radio’s small speaker. “You looking for anything in particular?”

            “I’m not real sure just yet,” he replied. “It just seems a little too coincidental that an alleged doctor would show up with the apparent sole purpose of clearing our only suspect, and I want to learn more about them. Run a DMV check, criminal background, check with the universities to find out where this doctor went to school, military check, and anything else you can think of.”

            “Gotcha,” Sarah replied. “I’m on it.” She was gone with a quick burst of static.

            He sat silently and stared out through the windshield for a long time, and thought. There was something about these two strangers that he just didn’t like. Something about them wasn’t right. For one thing, he wanted to know where the tall brunette had picked up a fully automatic assault weapon. Those weren’t available to the general public; only law enforcement and military personnel were allowed to have them. Evidently, she had connections. The question was, were these connections legal or not-so-legal? And if she was a cop--whether local, state or federal--wouldn’t she have mentioned that when introducing herself? Who was she? Who did she work for?

            And what about the blonde? Was she really a doctor? If so, it would be easy enough to verify. A quick check with universities, medical schools and state licensing boards would-–

            Another short burst of static came from the radio, breaking into his thoughts. “Sheriff?”

             He thumbed the mike. “Go ahead, Sarah.”

            “I’ve got the results of those background checks,” she said, and the sheriff noticed an odd tone in her voice. “I started off with a DMV check on both of them, and neither has anything outstanding; not even as much as a parking ticket. A criminal background check turned up the same; nothing. On further investigation, I found that Dr. Gabriella Duncan is indeed a real doctor. According to the info I got, she’s the youngest graduating student in the histories of the University of California at Berkeley and UC Irvine. She had a 4.0 grade point average all through school, and skipped a couple of grades in high school to get into UCI. At Irvine she went pre-med, simultaneously majoring in biology and chemistry, and later she entered UC Berkeley medical school. She graduated at the top of her class and completed her internship and residency by age twenty-four.”

            “Jesus,” Jennings said, clearly impressed.

            “Yeah, I’d say so,” Sarah agreed. “She’s been in private medical practice for the last three years, working for Mercy General Hospital in San Francisco, California, as an ER doctor and trauma specialist.”

            “What about the Ryan woman?”

            “I was just getting to her. The search on her was a little simpler...and a lot more mysterious.”

            “Mysterious?”

            “All I could find on her was that she’s a ‘military consultant.’ Occasionally works in the movie industry, and lectures at military schools, war colleges and military bases.”

            “What, that’s it?” Jennings asked, clearly annoyed. What the hell was a military “consultant” doing with a trunk full of automatic weapons?

            “She’s obviously ex-military, so I did a military background check to see what I could turn up. And...and that’s when things started to get interesting.”

            “Just make it short and sweet.”

            “First, a red flag came up from the FBI. They wanted to know why I was investigating Ryan and Duncan. I never mentioned anything about Duncan; I’d been concentrating my military search on Ryan, but their names popped up together. I gave them a brief run-down, and then they said ‘Thank you very much’ and told me I didn’t need to investigate any further. When I pressed them a little further, they repeated their reply, but gave me no real answer. I asked why the FBI should be so concerned about protecting a military consultant and a doctor, and they cut me off.” Her tone then took on an even darker note. “And then it got genuinely creepy.”

            He thumbed his mike again. “How so?”

            “Within half a minute, I got a message from the Central Intelligence Agency,” she said softly, almost as though she might be afraid that someone shadowy and dangerous might be overhearing their conversation. She was so nervous that, for the moment, she had forgotten that she was speaking over public radio waves. Even Sheriff Jennings’s blood suddenly ran cold. “Some guy named Jack Sawyer told me that those records were sealed, and that he would be ‘very appreciative’ if I ceased my investigations of Ryan and Duncan.”

            Jennings took note of the short but significant silence. “You okay, Sarah?”

            She sighed. “No,” she said at last. “No, I’m not okay. The guy sounded friendly enough, but...damn it, Sheriff, he read me my home address, my driver’s licence and Social Security numbers...and the names of my kids. He knew their ages and which school they go to, he knew my parents’ names and where they lived...he even knew their medical histories!” She shuddered audibly. “I can handle federal law enforcement, okay? I’ve worked with the FBI and the DEA before, and even with those cowboys at the BATF without breaking a sweat, because even they have to work within certain confines of the law. But this is the CIA, Phil; covert ops. Spies. Why are they so interested in protecting Ryan and Duncan--even more so than the FBI? I don’t know, and I don’t think I want to know. If I get too nosey, well...the CIA’s got ways of doing things without having to answer for them.”

            He sat silently, thinking furiously. A cold, nervous sweat suddenly broke out on his brow. A civilian doctor and a military consultant, both with Company ties...and evidently Company protection. Damn! he thought. Holy Christ! Who the hell were these two women?

            “What do you want to do, Sheriff?”

            “You kiddin’?” he quickly countered. “We stay out of their way.”

************

            A thin, swirling mist had begun to creep across the ground shortly after the last of the sun had dipped into the distant Pacific Ocean. Gina shivered in the cold and gathering darkness as she examined the tracks. Down on one knee and cradling the machine gun in her arms, she squinted against the darkness, sighed heavily, and thought. These tracks looked too familiar. She knew she had seen them somewhere before, but she couldn’t remember where. Certainly not in the jungles of Southeast Asia, nor in the mountains of Central Europe, and definitely not in the deserts of the Middle East. But, damn it, she knew she had seen them somewhere before! Their taunting familiarity scratched incessantly at the back of her mind like a bothersome little rat.

            “They lead into that cave,” she said at last. She was tempted to follow them in, but she was ill-prepared for a nighttime venture; the only flashlight she had brought was a small one that was strapped beneath the machine gun’s barrel.

            “You aren’t really planning on going in there, are you?” Brad Tate asked.

            She gave him a wry and playful little smile. “How’s your sense of adventure?”

            From somewhere deep within the cave, amid the darkness and the swirling fog, something big with glaring, glowing red eyes growled dangerously.

            She immediately shot straight to her feet and brought the muzzle of the machine gun to bear on the cave’s entrance, the metal stock braced firmly against her shoulder and her eyes sighting down the barrel. “On second thought...” she said, with her finger resting gently on the trigger. She began to slowly back away. “I think maybe we’d better pick up a few extra weapons.”

            “I’m way ahead of you,” Brad said. Together, they quickly backed away and started for home.

************

            “Hey, Gabriella?” Flower said as the young doctor began to set up her makeshift laboratory on Flower’s dining table. “How’d you--hey, what do you prefer to be called? Gabriella or just Brie?”

            There was only one person in the entire world who was allowed to–-or, more accurately, could get away with-–calling her “Brie,” and this wasn’t her. “Actually, I prefer Gabrielle,” she softly replied as she placed a plastic rack of slides next to a microscope. She glanced up from her project and discovered Flower to be accompanied by three other young women. All four of them were dressed in purple ritual robes. Gabrielle arched one eyebrow. “What’s up?”

            “The coven and I were going to cast a Circle and try to invoke the Goddess,” she replied. “You seem familiar with the Greek gods, which happen to be some of our favorites, and we thought maybe you’d like to join us. And maybe help us out,” she added with an embarrassed little smile. “We haven’t had much luck in getting any results.”

            “I’d like to help out, but I really need to get started on analyzing these tissue samples.”

            “Aw, come on!” one of the other women pleaded with a sudden--and annoyingly familiar--whine. “I’m Rhiannon, that there’s Lilith, and that’s Astarte,” she added by way of introduction. “Flower’s told us so much about you; you’ve got to help us!”

            The Navy doctor watched them for a moment, about to tell them she had more important things to do than to mess around with some would-be, ancient Greek throwbacks in a useless ceremony, but then she thought better of it. They’re just kids, she reminded herself with a patient sigh. None of them was more than twenty years old. They’re searching for a spiritual path; I can’t fault them for that. She thought back on her own searches back in ancient Greece, and she remembered how nuts she had driven Xena with every new philosophy that had come her way. Najara, Aiden, and Eli all came immediately to mind.

            And then she realized why they sounded so familiar; she suddenly remembered the group of Amazons that she and Xena had once met, and she had later written about in a scroll she had entitled “Kindred Spirits.” They had all been young and inexperienced, and desperately in need of someone to show them what it was like to be a true Amazon (not to mention ready to remove Joxer’s eyes because he had been spying on them while they had been bathing in the river). She scrutinized them closely, her eyes flicking from one to the next, looking for any familiar features among them. Reia? she thought. Eris? After a moment, she dismissed the idea with a shake of her head, and finally acquiesced. “Sure,” she said at last, with a patient sigh and smiling in spite of herself. “Sure, why not?”

            “Oh, cool!” Lilith said. “This is going to be so great!”

            Flower rushed to a closet and took out yet another ritual robe. “Here!” she said excitedly. “Go on into my bedroom and get undressed, and put this on. It may not seem all that important to someone who isn’t initiated, but to us ritual is very important.”

            “Just so long as I don’t have to smear mud all over myself and howl at ‘Sister Moon,’” she said softly as she examined the robe.

            “‘Scuse me?” Flower asked.

            “Nothing.”

            When she re-entered the room, she found that all of the furniture had been pushed aside to make room for a ritual circle. The lights had been turned out, but the colored candles provided ample light. Upon a small altar there rested a bowl of smoking incense, several wands, a chalice of water, a small dish of salt, a variety of pentacles and colored burning candles, and a double-edged dagger with a black hilt. In the center of it all stood a small statue of one goddess or another. She recognized the trappings as a rather incomplete variation of a Wiccan ritual circle, and smiled. During her Navy days, she had traveled extensively throughout Europe--especially through England, Greece and Italy--and had met several real Witches, and had become quite familiar with their rituals and beliefs. One of these days, she would have to introduce one or two of them to these kids.

            Flower took Gabrielle’s hand and eagerly led her to the circle, almost yanking her off her feet. Each of the young witches took her turn at invocation, and as she did she would carry one ritual tool around the Circle; Flower first traced the circle with the athame, the double-edged dagger; then Lilith traced the Circle again with the smoking bowl of incense; then Astarte did the same with the chalice of water, and Rhiannon did the same with one of the pentacles. With their Circle now sealed, they sat around the altar with their legs folded beneath them.

            “What do we do now?” Gabrielle asked.

            “We wait for the Goddess to answer,” Flower replied.

            “I see...” She waited patiently with a tiny smile on her lips.

            Nothing much happened.

            “So how long does it usually take for the goddess to answer?” Gabrielle asked. She already knew the answer, but there was a bit of a playfully irreverent streak in her that made her ask anyway.

            “Well...we’ve never really succeeded in invoking Her,” Flower replied, “but that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop trying.”

            These poor kids, she thought. She admired their determination, but she had some important work to get done, so she thought she’d try something that might speed things along a little bit. “You mind if I give it a try?” she asked.

            Flower glanced at her friends, then shrugged. “Sure, go ahead.”

            The other three glanced quickly at each other with skeptical smiles that plainly said, “Yeah, right. As if an uninitiated outsider could summon a goddess...”

            Gabrielle rose to her feet and held her hands behind her back, and gazed somewhere beyond the ceiling. Out of all the gods and goddesses she had met, there had been only one that she truly liked...even though she had been a vain and self-centered goddess. “Aphrodite?” she said. “Can we talk?”

            Once again, they exchanged an unbelieving smile...which was quickly wiped from their faces by a flash of pinkish-gold light. “Sweet Pea?” said a familiar voice. “Is that you?”

            Gabrielle turned, and her eyes fell on a very unfamiliar Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love.

            “Look at you!” squealed the bald, flat-chested and silver-suited goddess.

            Gabrielle hid her shock behind a facade of smiles. “Look at you!” she said. “This is a little different for you, isn’t it?”

            The four witches stared with wide eyes and open mouths. Flower finally managed to point with one finger and quietly stammer, “Th-th-th-that’s a guh-guh-guh...”

            “Yeah!” she said excitedly. “This is the latest fad in 2200! Isn’t it cool?”

            Afraid she might hurt her feelings, Gabrielle cautiously replied, “Not really, no.”

            She was crestfallen. “But this is all the new rage!” she said. “Everyone’s the same--everyone’s finally achieved total equality! No more ‘mister’ and ‘miss’ crap and all... I mean, if you think about it, people are already heading in that direction!”

            She arched a puzzled eyebrow. “Yeah? How do you figure?”

            “Spokesperson,” she replied as all eyes now turned on Gabrielle. She and the goddess were carrying on as though they had known each other for years. “Chairperson. Congressperson. No more spokesman or spokeswoman, no more chairman or chairwoman... All in the name of ‘political correctness’--which is also really big a couple hundred years from now--no one is a man or a woman anymore; everyone is just a person, totally devoid of those inconvenient separations by gender. Even sex has become so much neater and cleaner; no more sweaty bodies, no more messy fluids, no more twisted sheets... And believe me, it’s going to get carried a lot further than this.”

            “I happen to like the differences,” Gabrielle said. Silently, she added, And I happen to enjoy working up a good sweat.

            “Don’t you believe in equality?”

            “Equal rights? Yeah, sure. Absolutely. But when equality becomes androgyny...well, as those who promote cultural diversity are so fond of saying, I prefer to celebrate our differences.” She suddenly grinned. “How’s that for ‘political correctness’?”

            Aphrodite laughed gleefully. “Y’know, come to think of it, you’re right.” She snapped her fingers and in another flash of pinkish-gold light she was once again the buxom, gorgeous blonde bombshell she used to be, dressed in translucent pink silk. With another squeal of delight, she caught Gabrielle in an enthusiastic embrace that nearly crushed the air from the bard’s lungs. “So how ya been? Whatcha been doin’ with yourself?”

            “I’m fine,” she replied, trying to get her wind back. “I’m doing pretty good.” Suddenly, she remembered the other four women. “Listen, I want you to meet some people. That’s Flower, that’s Rhiannon, Astarte, and Lilith.”

            Aphrodite cast the four mute, wide-eyed and astonished young women a quick and dismissive glance. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Hi.” She turned back to Gabrielle. “So I hear you’ve become a healer! How do you like it? And are you still doing the bard thing?”

            “Being a doctor is great,” Gabrielle replied. “It’s very rewarding. And yes, I’m still writing...and get this: Xena’s here with me.”

            Her eyes widened. “No shit?!?” she asked in very un-goddess-like surprise. Part of her wanted to see the Warrior Princess again; after all, she had been her mortal friend’s partner. Yet another part of her was disturbed by the continued existence of the slayer of the other Olympians. At best, she regarded Xena with mixed emotions. She knew she had acted out of love for Gabrielle and her daughter Eve; and Aphrodite was the goddess of love, so she had to understand. But still, couldn’t there have been some other way to deal with the situation?

            Probably not, the goddess silently and sadly admitted to herself.

            “Listen,” Gabrielle said, “I was wondering if you might do me a small favor...”

            She arched a disparaging eyebrow. “This is the first time we’ve spoken in two thousand years, and already you’re asking me for favors?”

            Gabrielle cringed slightly in discomfort. After all, the goddess did have a point.

            Then she grinned a sly grin. “I’m just razzing you,” she said as she gave her a playful shove. “Name it.”

            Gabrielle lowered her voice slightly. “Could you kind of keep an eye on my friends here? They’re kind of new at this, and they could really use some help.”

            Her sly grin became a slightly misty-eyed smile. Leave it to the young Bard of Poteidaia to ask a favor of a goddess for someone else rather than for herself. That was just one more reason why she liked Gabrielle so much; she was so much more than your typical mortal. “Sure,” she said. And then her eyes widened as an idea suddenly occurred to her. She whirled around to face the other four women. “Hey!” she said excitedly, causing them to jump nervously. “You’d need a safe place to hold meetings, right? So how about you build a temple? A great big temple dedicated to me? If you’re going to worship a goddess, you’ve got to dedicate a temple to her. And I know just the place, too! Mount Shasta would make a great temp--”

            Gabrielle placed a calming hand on the goddess’s shoulder. “How about they just start out with a modest shrine first, and see how things go from there?” she asked. “After all, a temple is kind of a huge undertaking--and there’s just the four of them.”

            She thought it over for a brief moment. “Yeah,” she said thoughtfully. “Yeah, that’ll work.”

            “Terrific.”

            “All right then!” the goddess brightly told the small group. Then she turned to Gabrielle. “Listen, I gotta run. If I’m going to make a comeback in the twenty-first century, I got things to do.” And then her tone took on a more somber note as she regarded her mortal friend seriously. “Listen, you be careful, okay? There’s things that...well, I really can’t say more.” She glanced around quickly, as though she thought there might be someone listening to them. “You and Xena just watch out, okay?”

            Puzzled, Gabrielle replied, “Okay. Oh, and one more thing...”

            “What’s that?” she asked, with mild eagerness and half-expecting another selfless favor.

            “Don’t be a stranger, okay? I’d really like for us to keep in touch.”

            Aphrodite grinned fondly as she gently stroked the bard’s cheek. “You got it, babe,” she replied. “It’s good to see you again, too.” She gave her another hug and a quick kiss on one cheek, and then was gone in a shower of golden sparkles.

            When she finally returned her attention to them, the bard found that the four women--still tracking her with their eyes still wide and their mouths still open in mute astonishment--hadn’t budged an inch. After all, it wasn’t every day that they had seen someone holding hands and casually chatting away with a real live goddess.

************

            By the time Gina returned, Gabrielle was dressed in faded blue jeans, white sneakers, a white tank-top and a brown plaid flannel shirt, and peering into a microscope. “Hey,” she said. “Find anything?”

            “Not a thing,” Gabrielle replied as she leaned back in her chair. “Which is really weird. I’d expected to find traces of saliva or something. There’s not a damn thing here. Not a trace of anything that might provide an ID, so it obviously wasn’t any damn cougar. It’s more like...” She shook her head with a sigh of exasperation. “...like something supernatural.”

            Gina arched one eyebrow as she sat down. “Supernatural?” she asked. She unloaded and cleared her H&K before hanging it by its strap on the back of her chair.

            “Hey, before we met in Iraq, I was as much a skeptic as you are.” She returned her attention to the microscope. “Nowadays, I don’t know what the hell to think. Until recently, I always believed that there were aspects of Nature that we will never understand, and that those are the things that most people refer to as ‘super’ natural.” She rotated the lenses and readjusted the focus. “While I believe that science can explain everything in Nature, it never will because ‘everything’ is the entire universe, whether it’s finite or infinite. Either way, it’s a mighty big place. And science is just a tool used by fallible humans whose intellects are, unfortunately, limited by their very existence.” She changed slides and peered back into the microscope.

            Gina rested her arms on top of the chair, and slumped forward slightly. “So how do you explain the gods?” she asked. “Are they a part of Nature? Perhaps forces of Nature personified?”

            “I don’t know,” she groaned. “Who the hell can explain a god? Whether we manifest them or they manifest us is kind of irrelevant; we just have to put up with their antics.”

            “That sounds kind of familiar,” Gina said with a wry smile.

            “It ought to; I got it from you a few centuries ago.” Then she growled in aggravation. “But this...” She indicated the slides. “...I don’t know what else to call it. I can’t find a goddamned thing, and it’s drivin’ me utterly batshit.” She leaned back again and rubbed her fatigued eyes. “Christ,” she groaned softly, speaking more to herself than to anyone else. “Maybe I ought to just give up the practice of medicine and join Flower’s coven.” She finally looked up at Gina. “What about you? Any luck out there?”

            “Found some really big tracks that led into a cave, in which there was something that had glowing red eyes and a really big growl. I came back to pick up a few extra supplies before...heading back...out...” Her voice trailed off as she noticed the silent and engrossed activities of the four women nearby who were energetically scribbling notes in leather-bound volumes of blank pages. “What’s with them?”

            “Hm?” She glanced over her shoulder at them. They were writing up tales of their encounter with the goddess in their Books of Shadows. “Oh.” She returned her attention to the microscope. “They met Aphrodite tonight.”

            “Oh, yeah?” she asked with mild surprise and a slight smile. “How’s she doing?”

            “She’s doing good. She says hi, by the way,” she said as she adjusted the focus once more. “These four girls are trying to practice Witchcraft--goddess-worship, spiritual environmentalism, and ritual magic. After I introduced them to Aphrodite, it left them a little stunned.” Without looking up from the microscope, she suddenly grinned. “They made me their high priestess.”

            Gina’s smile expanded into a grin of disbelief. “You’re kidding!” she said with a soft chuckle.

            “Yeah... Can you believe it? Me? A high priestess?” She shook her head slightly with a mild chuckle of her own. “Man...”

            “Did they make you smear mud all over yourself and howl at ‘Sister Moon?’”

            “No...” And then her smile slipped away as she looked up from the microscope. “But Aphrodite did tell us to be careful. She either couldn’t or wouldn’t elaborate, but she did tell us to watch our step.” And then she suddenly thought, Aphrodite! If one ancient god was still around, working her form of magic, then how many others might there be?

            “It’s nice to be warned,” Gina said. “I told Brad I needed to pick up some extra weaponry; I’m meeting him and Travis back at their place, and then we’re heading back out to that cave. Want to come along?”

            “It’d sure answer a lot of questions.”

************

            They silently approached the entrance to the cave and spread out. Travis and Brad stood nearby, armed with his bolt-action Remington .308 rifle while Brad stood by with a pump-action 12 gauge Mossberg shotgun nicknamed “The Persuader.” Crouching by the cave’s entrance, and armed with the H&K MP 5 and a short-barreled AR-15 carbine with a collapsible stock, Gina and Gabrielle crouched together as the Marine slipped the strap from her shoulder, and set of the nylon bag on the ground. She reached inside and withdrew a pair of flash-bangs, and handed one to Gabrielle. “These are gonna be bright, and they’re gonna be loud,” she whispered to the other two, “so shut your eyes and cover your ears when I give you the word.” She slipped her finger into the ring at the end of the flash-bang’s pin and glanced at Gabrielle. “You ready?”

            Gabrielle prepared to pull her own pin. “Ready,” she whispered.

            “Right.” They pulled the pins simultaneously. “Fire in the hole!” Gina yelled, and together they tossed the flash-bangs, turned away from the cave entrance, and squeezed their eyes shut as they covered their ears.

            The purpose of the grenades was not to kill the enemy, but rather to disorient them and render them harmless, and therefore make it possible to take prisoners that could be interrogated for valuable information. In this case, they wanted to drive out whatever was in there so they could find out what they were up against. The flash was nearly as bright as a solar flare, and the loud, sharp bang--like a large-caliber gunshot magnified tenfold--hammered at everyone’s eardrums. A moment later, when the light and the sound faded, the small hunting party took up their weapons and flashlights, and prepared to enter the cave.

            An incredibly huge roar--actually, it was more of a cross between a lion’s roar and the hiss of a huge reptile--came from the darkness as those glaring red eyes appeared once more, floating in the inky blackness. The rest of the creature materialized around them a moment later as it stepped from the absolute blackness of the cave’s entrance and into the relative brightness of the moonlit night.

            The coal-black creature stood five feet tall at the shoulder, and looked like a hairless, scaly and massive bull mastiff with the head of a T. Rex. And when it peeled back its black lips to snarl at them, it exposed a mouthful of yellowed fangs that must have been a good four inches long. Whatever the animal was, the flash-bangs had done absolutely nothing to disorient it; instead of leaving it stunned and helpless, they had only enraged the monster as it stepped from the cave’s entrance and immediately looked for someone to kill.

            The two women stared at the creature in both horror and fascination...and then in shocked recognition as Gina suddenly remembered where she had seen the tracks before. She brought her MP-5 to bear as Gabriella raised her AR-15.

            “Oh, my God,” the young blonde said, her voice a shocked whisper. “It’s--”

            “Graegus!” Gina finished, her own voice shocked. “I don’t believe it! It’s Graegus!”

            Travis and Brad stood nearby, their weapons trained on the creature and their faces frozen in terror. “Graegus?” Travis managed to ask. “What the hell’s a ‘Graegus’?”

            Gina continued to stare at it in shock and disbelief, yet she knew that the thing was real and that she’d seen it before, as dim memories of the distant, ancient past suddenly came to life and flooded into her. “It’s a pet that used to belong to--”

            “Hello, Xena,” the man in black said with a dark smile. “How’s my girl?”

            She spun around to face him, and her face registered yet another shock. “--Ares!”

            With his bare and muscular arms folded across his leather-clad chest, he let his bearded smile expand into a full grin. “I had a feeling it might be you when I saw you handling those idiots out in the desert; especially when you did your old fire-breathing bit. But I still needed to make absolutely certain...and I knew Graegus would get your attention.”

            “Aphrodite told us to watch our step,” Gabrielle muttered to the ex-Marine, “and now I know why; you never know where shit’s gonna turn up.”

            Ares glared dangerously at her. “Hey!” he barked as he placed one hand on the hilt of his sword. “I heard that, blondie!”

            Gabrielle took an involuntary step backward and trained her assault rifle on him.

            “So what the hell are you doing here?” Gina asked.

            “Making a comeback,” the God of War replied as he waved a hand to send Graegus back to his otherworldly lair. As the monster disappeared in a flash of blue-white light, Travis and Brad stared in mute astonishment. “Your annoying little friend there has already seen how some people are beginning to worship the old gods again; and maybe, just maybe that will bring Hera, Athena, Hades, Discord and the rest back from the other side.” He paused for a moment. “What was it you once said? ‘Whether we manifest the gods or they manifest us is kind of irrelevant; we just have to put up with their antics.’ As a god, I know the answer to the mystery of who came first. I also know that more and more people are growing dissatisfied with these comparatively new religions that speak so highly of peace and love, yet have caused some of the greatest wars this world has ever known. My followers back in the old days may have been conniving and manipulative, and even downright malicious--but at least they weren’t hypocrites. So if people of this era really want the Old Gods back, they’re going to have to take the bad along with the good.”

            The Old Gods? the Tate brothers silently asked themselves. If they were truly standing in the presence of a god--a god of war at that--then what did that make of... Suddenly, just about everything they had ever believed in was challenged, and they had no idea of how they could possibly respond to it. Feeling as though they were standing at the brink of an unimaginable abyss, with all of their previous beliefs crumbling beneath their feet, all they could do was stand and stare in dumbfounded shock, and try to understand.

            “Why should they?” Gina wanted to know. “Why would anyone need someone like you?”

            “Balance,” Ares replied. “It’s all about balance. I know about Aphrodite, and I know about those silly women who are going to bring her back. If you’re going to have a goddess dedicated solely to love, you’re going to need a god of war, too, because you know as well as I do that without darkness, there’s no light.” He took a dangerous step toward them. “Without hate, there can be no love...and without war, there can be no peace.”

            Gabriella thought it over for a moment, and it left her with an uncomfortable feeling. “Bullshit,” she finally said.

            “You just keep on telling yourself that, short-stuff,” Ares said to her, “and maybe you’ll convince yourself.”

            “Forget it, Ares,” Gina told him, sick at the slim possibility that he might actually be right. “There’s no room for someone like you in today’s world.”

            “Oh, really?” the God of War countered. “Where the hell have you been living, in an ice cave under the South Pole? Have you ever heard of Saddam Hussein? Of Osama bin-Laden? Have you been keeping track of what’s been going on in Belfast, Beirut, and Jerusalem? Jews and Muslims are killing each other in the Middle East in the name of religion. Christians and Muslims are killing each other in what’s left of Yugoslavia for the same reason. Catholics and Protestants are killing each other in Northern Ireland--yet both sides cling tenaciously to the same damn Bible, so what the hell’s their excuse? You were a Marine in this life, Xena; putting religion aside, how many battles have you been in?” Then he turned his attention on Gabrielle. “And what about you? You’ve seen for yourself that the only thing that’s advanced in this world is its technology. Remember your little SEAL mission in Afghanistan? Remember that mutated hanta virus you recovered for your superiors? Do you really think they destroyed that weapon, and that only your country’s bad guys have those kinds of biological weapons? I’m as much a part of your country as I am of your enemies.” He smiled a dark yet captivating smile as he turned his attention back on Gina. “There’s plenty of room in this world for someone like me.” He took another step forward, and suddenly his smile disappeared. “Like it or not, I am here to stay. And I swear on the memory of Zeus Himself, I will not be ignored.”

            “No way,” Gina said as she raised her MP-5 to her shoulder and aimed at his face. “Say g’night, motherfucker.” She fired a single round, hitting Ares right between the eyes.

            He crossed his eyes in an attempt to see the non-existent bullet hole in his forehead, then focused them back on Gina once more, and smiled pleasantly.

            Standing several yards away, Travis and Brad stared in horror and disbelief. What in the hell was going on here?

            “I don’t know who the hell you are, mister,” Brad said as he raised his shotgun, “but--”

            Ares sighed and shook his head in mild exasperation, and with a casual wave of his hand he redirected the shotgun’s barrel as the weapon went off--and the blast caught Gabriella square in the chest.

            “Gabrielle!” With a wild scream, she ran to her fallen partner.

            Ares gazed without concern at the young doctor’s fallen form, and said, “Oops.”

            She cradled her partner against her as tears of anguish streamed down her cheeks. “Gabrielle! Oh, God, please! No, no God, no...”

            Ares sighed. “Oh, relax, will you?”

            “You bastard!!” she screamed at him. She suddenly lunged toward him in blind rage. “I’ll fucking KILL you, you BASTARD!!” But before she could hit him with a full body block, he brushed her aside as though she were a mere child, and sent her flying.

            “You’ve gotten soft, Xena,” Ares told her. “You used to be a lot tougher than this.”

            There was an explosion of pinkish-gold glitter behind the God of War as Aphrodite suddenly appeared behind him. “Here!” she called out to the Marine as she tossed her something.

            Ares turned and regarded her sourly. “What the hell are you doing here? Don’t you have something to bake?”

            “I’m here to help an old friend, you major-league asshole,” she spat contemptuously as she headed toward Gabrielle’s fallen form. “It’s something you wouldn’t understand.”

            Rising to her knees, Gina quickly reached out and snatched the black leather scabbard out of the air with one hand, and as her fingers touched the familiar-looking hilt, she was suddenly engulfed in a flash of blue-white light and a thousand crystal-clear memories. She pulled the blade from the scabbard, and her eyes widened in astonishment as she found herself clutching a sword. Her sword. The very same one that she’d carried some two thousand years ago. Had Aphrodite been keeping it for her all this time? Gina wondered.

            She slung the scabbard across her back, clutched the sword in both hands, and slowly rose to her feet with a look of cold and deadly determination in her ice-blue eyes.

            “There’s the look!” Ares said with a grin. “There’s that old look!” He drew his own sword and assumed a fighting stance. “Come on, baby, let’s have some fun!!”

            With a high-pitched, ululating war cry, she threw herself high into the air in a forward somersault, and struck with the sword as she landed in front of him. Crackling blue lightning flashed from their blades as steel rang against steel.

            Ares quickly found himself slowly retreating before the warrior’s onslaught, and blocking each thrust and blow rather than delivering any. Damn, he thought as he suddenly found himself on the defensive, maybe I’m the one who’s been getting soft!

            Travis and Brad were kneeling next to the goddess, who was cradling Gabrielle against her, wanting to help but uncertain of what to do. All they could do was watch the fight and try to understand, and hope for the best.

            With their blades locked, their teeth gritted and the muscles of their arms bulging, the god and the warrior stood in each other’s face, practically nose to nose.

            “‘We just have to put up with their antics,’ right?” Gina said, her voice a deadly whisper. “As long as we’re going to have to put up with your antics, Ares...you’re going to have to put up with mine!”

            “You know you can’t win, Xena. Why are you doing this?”

            “As you said; it’s all...about...balance!” With a grunt and a sudden surge of superhuman strength, she shoved him away. “As long as you’re around, Ares...I will be, too.” With a wild yell, she renewed her attack, beating him farther and farther back. One blow after another hammered him backward, and all he could do was raise his own blade to block hers.

            She raised her sword for another downward strike, and Ares raised his to counter it, and suddenly she swept it around and downward, and swept his feet from beneath him. With a yelp of surprise, he went flying and landed flat on his back, and suddenly found the point of Xena’s sword at his throat.

            “You killed her,” she growled. “You killed her, you goddamned son of a bitch. And now I’m going to kill you.” With a deep breath, she shoved the blade--

            --and found it piercing only dirt. The God of War had disappeared in a flash of light.

            Aphrodite, Travis and Brad were all kneeling next to Gabrielle as the warrior approached. She let her sword drop to the ground from her nerveless hand, and she silently knelt next to her. Gently, she took her shoulders and pulled her close as the young blonde’s head lolled lifelessly. She held her close, and cried. They had been together for such a short time, and now the young bard was gone. “Gabrielle,” she sobbed gently.

            “I’m sorry,” Aphrodite said, her eyes damp with tears and her voice filled with emotion. “There’s nothing I can do.”

            Some fucking god YOU are! she wanted to scream in her face. You have the power of life and death in your hands, and you say there’s nothing you can do?? FUCK YOU!! Instead, she said nothing, because she knew that the goddess would help her friend if she could. Sadly, there was nothing that Aphrodite could do.

            Gina said nothing. As the crickets chirruped! in the darkness, she held Gabrielle’s limp form as she gently stroked her cheek and shook with silent sobs. “Gabrielle...”

            Her green eyes suddenly flew open as she bolted upright with a deep, desperate gasp of air. “Shit!” she screamed. “Holy shit!!”

            “Gabrielle??”

            “Son of a bitch, that hurts!”

            “Gabrielle!!”

            She squeezed her eyes shut as tears rolled down her cheeks, and tried to hold herself as she shook with sobs of agony. “Oh, Jesus, it hurts...”

            She gently cupped her face in one hand and kissed her forehead, and then began to work on the buckshot-tattered shirt so she could check her wounds. It was scorched black and full of ragged holes, but for the first time she noticed there was no blood. “Easy, Gabrielle,” Gina said. She worked her shirt open to check her for damage, and all she found was a dark and massive purple bruise that even now, as she watched, was quickly fading. By the Gods! she thought.

            Gabrielle began to shake again, but this time it wasn’t from sobs of pain or even from cold. “I don’t believe it,” she chuckled. “Shotgun blast, straight to the chest.” She began to laugh in sheer relief, but the more she laughed, the more it hurt--and the more the pain reminded her that she was alive, the more she wanted to laugh in absolute, total relief. “Remember...remember when you said you weren’t about to go takin’ any shotgun blasts to the head or heart just to see if you could survive them? Don’t do it, babe, it ain’t worth it to find out. It hurts like a motherf...”

            Grinning through her tears and sobbing in relief, Gina gently held the doctor’s face against her breast, muffling her last couple of syllables. She stroked her face and kissed her forehead again. “Take it easy, babe,” she said. “You just take it easy...”

            “Oh, God, Xena, I am pissed off,” she said, her voice choked as she struggled to rise. “I am really, truly and sincerely pissed.” She looked around with red, teary eyes. “Where is that no-good, jackrabbit sonofabitch?”

            “Easy there, sailor,” Gina said, laughing gently in relief. “You just take it easy for a--”

            “Where the FUCK is he?” she roared, her face suddenly twisted with rage. “I’m gonna kill his fuckin’ ass, goddamnitt! I’m gonna eat his fuckin’ liver! I’ll suck his fuckin’ eyes out! I’ll--”

            “Calm down, Gabrielle...”

            “--eat his fuckin’ brains right out of his fuckin’ skull with a big fuckin’ wooden spoon!”

            Gina continued to hold her close, and rocked her gently. “You just take it easy,” she said again.

            “...roll around in his fuckin’ guts,” she strained to finish as the wind finally drained from her sails.

            “Okay, okay,” Gina said with a soft chuckle. “You’ve made your point.” She watched her for a moment. “You feel ready to get to your feet?”

            With her rage finally purged, she quietly groaned, “Yeah, I think so...” She slowly struggled to rise, with Gina helping her on one side and Aphrodite on the other. That was when they noticed that the goddess was still there with them, along with Travis and Brad.

            “You didn’t tell me you’d had some ambrosia,” the tearful and grinning goddess said gently. “You got any more secrets you need to share with me? Don’t go scaring the shit out of me like that again, okay?”

            “I’ll do my best not to,” Gabrielle promised.

            There was another flash of blue-white light, and Ares appeared before them once more. “As I was about to tell all of you, before I was so rudely interrupted,” he said, “she’s fine. I knew about that little bit of Ambrosia the two of you found after you’d been flying around in my namesake. Did you really think that I’d--”

            “Can it, Ares!” Aphrodite snapped at him. “Just shut your pie hole!”

            He was shocked into a stunned and surprisingly obedient silence.

            Gabrielle slowly approached him. Reaching down into the bottom of her soul, she pulled up one more patient, forced, sweet smile. “Y’know, Ares,” she drawled, “there’s always been a little somethin’ that I’ve wanted to give you.”

            He raised a mildly curious eyebrow. “Oh, yeah? What’s that?”

            “This!” She swung and gave him a hard, right jab straight to the nose; the blow actually snapped his head backward, and for a moment he felt as though he’d just been punched by Xena herself. Feeling lucky, she followed it with another blow to the stomach, but that one seemed to do no good; it was like hitting a brick wall. So she delivered a solid left cross and then a matching right one to his face, and with considerable satisfaction she thought she heard the crunching of bone. The rapid succession of blows actually staggered him back a couple of steps.

            He shook his head to clear it, and carefully worked his jaw a couple of times to make certain that it was functioning properly. Then he fixed Gabrielle with a typical Ares smile. “Not bad,” he said. “Not bad at all.” Using both hands, he straightened his nose with an audible crunch, then cast his eyes to Gina. “She’s a real tiger, isn’t she? Damn it, I like her!”

            “No, she’s not a tiger,” the Marine informed him as she smiled fondly at her partner. “She’s a SEAL.”

            Aphrodite draped a protective arm around their shoulders. “You two take care of each other,” she softly told them. “And don’t worry about that ass-bite; I’ll handle him.” She approached her brother, and seized him painfully by one ear. “You and I are gonna have a little talk, bro.”

            “Oww! What the hell’s the matter with you people?!” he demanded as they strode away. “She’s fine! Didn’t I try to tell you she’d be okay? What’s a little pain? It doesn’t last long–”

            “Oh, yeah?” she said. “Then you shouldn’t mind this!” She gave his ear another savage twist.

            “OWW!!”

            With their bickering voices fading as they retreated into the distance, they disappeared in a flash of light.

            She took a deep breath, winced only slightly, and let it out in a long sigh. “Ares,” she muttered derisively with a shake of her head. “Son of a...”

            “Yeah,” Gina agreed. She bent down to pick up her sword, then slipped an arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders. “This old sword has seen a lot of action,” she said as she examined it. “I’m thinking it’s about time I got a new one. They’ve got some of those really nice Japanese katanas across the street from Flower’s shop...”

            “Oh, please,” Gabrielle said sourly as she placed a hand gently against her painful ribs, “not with the Japanese stuff again. Haven’t you had enough problems with Japan? Have you forgotten Yodoshi and Higuchi, and that wannabe Samurai asshole who--”

            “Okay, all right,” she said, her voice soft and placating. And then she couldn’t help adding: “Don’t bite my head off.” She slipped the sword into its scabbard.

            Gabrielle gave her The Look again. “Your jokes about losing your head are really tiring,” she said.

            “Sorry.” She gave her an affectionate, one-armed squeeze around her shoulders.

            Gabrielle finally smiled at her as she slipped her arm around her waist. “You think the twenty-first century is ready for a ‘warrior princess’?”

            “It better be,” she replied, “because I’m not going away.”

            They turned and prepared to leave, and found themselves in front of Travis and Brad Tate. Brad took a step back and crossed himself, but Travis couldn’t help asking them, “What the hell just happened here? Who the hell are you two?”

            She regarded him with cool blue eyes and a small, amused smile. “This is my partner, Gabrielle of Poteidaia,” she said. “My name’s Xena.”

************

            It snowed the next day. Part of the day had been spent shoveling a path from the door to the road, but the rest of it had been spent in joyful, uninterrupted leisure--which had included a lively snowball fight, complete with hysterical screams of glee. But the sun had finally set, and now the young doctor was sitting comfortably in an overstuffed chair with a glass of rich, red Merlot and a mellow buzz, and with her feet propped up on an ottoman. She was dressed warmly in a white woolen turtleneck sweater, faded jeans and thick white gym socks as she gazed in deep thought at the crackling fire in the fireplace. They had decided to accept Flower’s invitation to stay with her for a few more days, but they would have to be moving on soon.

            Sitting not far away, Xena slipped her freshly polished sword back into its scabbard and lay it on the dining table. She sat silently for a moment and watched Gabrielle, and then smiled as she thought back on their snowball fight of that afternoon. She really wasn’t sure of which had surprised her more; Gabrielle’s joyous and youthful exuberance, or her own. Now she seemed to be sitting in a deep contemplation that Xena was reluctant to disturb.

            At last, she softly asked, “What are you thinking about?”

            The young doctor sighed and sipped at her wine. “All that stuff that Ares was talking about,” she replied as Xena rose from the table and approached with her own wine glass.

            “What stuff was that?”

            “His little speech about balance. ‘Without hate, there can be no love, and without war, there can be no peace.’” She looked at her partner as she settled down next to her. “Do you think that’s true?”

            She sighed deeply and thought it over. “I don’t know,” she said at last. “I’ve been thinking about it myself ever since he mentioned it, and about all I’ve concluded so far is that it’s giving me one big headache.”

            Gabrielle reached for the wine bottle and silently offered the last of its contents to Xena. The warrior declined wordlessly, so the bard drained it into her own glass.

            “You’ve had quite a bit of wine tonight,” Xena said softly.

            “Yeah, well...” She thought for a moment. “Wine’s good for the heart. I’m a doctor; I know these things.”

            Xena grinned at her. “I hear it’s pretty good for the soul, too,” she added.

            They looked at each other. They raised their glasses in a toast, and as the flickering firelight danced against the glass and through the wine, they said together, “Here’s to heart and soul.” They clinked their glasses together, sipped, and then held each other close as they settled down to gaze into the comforting fire.
 

 

The End

            No drugged-out, head-banging, heavy-metal fans were harmed during the writing of this story, although one swears that he has found Jesus and is now a Jehovah’s Witness.


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