The Last Conqueror
Kamouraskan and Lariel
For disclaimers and credits, please see part 1
The hardened face of the young Destroyer of Nations swam again through her mind, and Gabrielle felt the rage inside her boiling, even as the vision changed and Xena morphed from the tavern into battle. The visions were coming quickly, intermittent scraps which fuelled Gabrielle's fury, but there was also a growing sense of frustration that she was missing the whole picture. Even as she watched the story of Potadaia unfold, she realised that she still didn't understand exactly what had happened and why, and that knowledge reminded her of all the impotent anger that she had felt as a child coming home to find her world destroyed. And somewhere, a voice told her that what Alti wanted of her was that angry child she had once been. But it had been so hard to be that child, and it had taken so much for her to fight to become more than that through the years that followed. Dammit, that isn't who I am, and I'm not going back. She pulled her hands away from her face and grabbed Xena's shoulder while reaching up, shocking Alti by matching her position and clutching the Shamaness' throat. "Don't give me pieces of your truth. I've waited too long to find out why this happened, and it's burned up too much of my life already. I want to see it all."
Alti attempted to pull away, but as Gabrielle's grip tightened on both of the women, the vision continued.
Xena was seated at a table as a dark shadow loomed over her. The younger Xena banged down her goblet. "So, what do you want now?" she slurred. "Are there more helpless farmers to slaughter? Did some of their pets survive and you want me to behead them too? What's the great plan?" Xena reached for another mug of oblivion as she waited for the next orders from her Shamaness.
"Not so much a plan," came the gravelly voice. "More of a prophesy..."
Even before Alti pried her fingers away, Gabrielle knew. She dropped her hands to her side and gasped as the realization travelled through her.
"It was me, all along. I was supposed to die. You wiped out the entire village." She stared hollowly and her breath came in short panting gasps. "They all died... because of me."
Alti barked a laugh and moved away. "You kept telling people you clean up your messes, Xena, this is all yours. Let's see how you handle it."
Cursing the woman, Xena moved cautiously towards the broken girl. " Gabrielle, this wasn't your fault, don't ever think that. I didn't even know about the prophecy then, I swear, Gabrielle. And I'm the one..."
"I killed everyone in my village! My own family... I should be dead, and they..." The girl slowly sank to her knees, shock whitening her cheeks as she collapsed onto the rank floor of the cell.
Xena grasped the shuddering Gabrielle into her arms and searched her mind for something to say. This was not the time for apologies or excuses, she knew; the only thing they could do now was look forward, as hard as that would be for them both. The only words that came were not her own, and she spoke them clearly and softly into the girl's ear. "Responsibility isn't hiding away, Gabrielle. Or wallowing in guilt. It's about caring, and acting." There was a sob from the girl, but Xena continued. "And if I'm willing to risk losing my life, then you should be willing to risk living yours."
Something between a laugh and a hiccup came from within Gabrielle and Xena pulled back to look into her tear streaked face.
"Do you believe that?" asked Gabrielle.
Xena gave a small grin and said, "If it gets us both out of this cell, I'll believe it." There was another broken laugh and Xena asked with concern, "Can you stand?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath, and gave a tiny smile. "I can if you can."
Despite the chains making her balance awkward, the two women managed to help each other to their feet, and then they stood facing the waiting Empress.
Solari was one pissed off Amazon. After spending two days travelling throughout Corinth and its environs gathering information, the scout had thought her journey was over when she reached the main Amazon quarters of the palace. Instead, exhausted, she'd been redirected to the dungeons, not her favourite place in the palace. Though the building was relatively new, the caves below it seemed ancient, and she had to drag her leaden legs carefully down the stepsof the winding stairwells whose surfaces were worn to a slippery shine by generations of hobnailed boots. Muttering to herself, she grabbed a torch from the wall at the base and began to search for her commanders. To her surprise, they were grouped in a corridor at the end of the high security cells with the male warders. Each group were in their own separate huddle, both sides appearing to ignore the other while being very suspiciously aware of each movement.
"What is going on here?" Solari demanded as she was pulled to a corner away from the males.
"I think you were supposed to be reporting to us?" Ephiny protested, but Terreis waved her back.
"She has a right to know," the redheaded leader interjected.
"Fine," Ephiny allowed, sulkily. "Gabrielle charged in there about a candlemark ago, then the Empress came out a few minutes later holding that little brat Solon."
"Solon? I thought he was dead?"
Ephiny shrugged. "The reports may have been a little premature."
"She ordered us to take him to the healer, and then went back inside. The rest of us, including these guys," the warders were indicated with a curt wave, " were told to wait and stay back. So we're waiting. Now, what have you got for us?"
Solari gave a glance to make sure they could not be overheard before beginning her report. "None of it's good. According to our scouts and spies, there's a series of armies headed this way, including a special one from Rome about a days march out of the city."
"How large?" Terreis' eyes narrowed anxiously.
"It's not the size of it that's scary. It's the composition." Again Solari looked about before continuing. "We grabbed one of their supply people and worked him over. They have a group of experts, art traders, demolition people, packers..."
Terreis wasn't surprised. "So they're here to strip and steal whatever is valuable in Corinth. We can assume with typical Roman efficiency there will be transport following for all the valuables?"
Ephiny interrupted. "What's so scary about that? So what if we watch the legions of Rome pick clean this carcass? At least it means we'll be finally free of it, too."
"This guy also mentioned something else. The Decimators. He didn't want to talk about it too much, even though we tried to get it out of him."
"Decimators? What's that, like ten soldiers?" asked a confused Ephiny, displaying her skimpy knowledge of Latin. "What's so scary about that?"
Terreis shook her head. "It's a charming Roman custom. You want to punish a village for rebelling, you line all the people up and have them count to ten. Then you kill each tenth person."
"Oh." Ephiny's mouth had hardened into a thin line. "Nice."
Solari nodded. "Well, these guys are supposed to be in command of the rest of the party. Two centuries with more in the next wave."
Terreis' eyes hardened. "There's usually only one cohort of Decimators - but with a force this big, this won't be every tenth person, will it? They're going to herd them all like sheep and kill everyone."
Again, Solari nodded. "Meanwhile, there are forces from Germania and Gaul heading this way with much the same ideas. Just not as organised as our Roman friends. And let's not forget, the Persians are still advancing."
There was a short silence, as the news sank in.
"Any good news?" asked Ephiny hopefully.
Solari shrugged. "I could make some up."
"How many soldiers are there within Corinth now?" asked Terreis while waving over the tribe's weapons master.
"Maybe two thousand belonging to all of the different provinces," answered the dark, stocky Amazon who had joined them.
"Eponin? If we..."
"Don't even think about it," Eponin said flatly. "Yes, we outnumber them, but we'd have to get into the city first. And then what? We're not street fighters. We'd lose half our sisters and most of the city would burn before we could stop them anyway. The Council of Elders would never accept it. I wouldn't accept that."
Ephiny nearly exploded. "So what are we supposed to do? Wait?" The gathered Amazons hurriedly hushed her, fearful of her outburst carrying to the small group of male guards who were clustered not too far away. Ephiny quietened reluctantly, and continued in a hoarse whisper, "What about Gabrielle? Are we leaving her to get drawn into Xena and Alti's plans? Or are we supposed to sit around here and just hope that those two bitches are killing each other off right now? Because a dead Alti is the only thing that will free us from our oath of loyalty to her."
"Not the only thing." The usually relaxed Terreis was clenching and unclenching her hands around an ornate obsidian staff.
"That's the Empress' staff," Solari realised, aloud.
"Uh huh," Terreis agreed.
"You think that Xena might challenge her?"
Terreis rolled her eyes. "That would be like falling out of the frying pan into the fire."
"Not Gabrielle...?" Solari's mouth dropped. Terreis said nothing "You can't be serious. Alti's powers alone... she's killed every Amazon that stood against her."
Terreis turned on the scout. "What would you have me hope for? Death? Continued slavery?" She paused, and swept the little group with a piercing glare before continuing, in a subdued tone, "Just maybe the Fates are working to give us our chance..."
Solari shook her head in wonderment. "She's just a trainee. A child."
The hard look was back in Terreis' eyes, and thrust the staff into Eponin's hands. "Maybe. But if Alti asks for her staff, I want you to give it to her and have two senior Council Amazons there to witness any fighting as an official challenge. And that's all. They will stand and witness, and will not take part, no matter what the outcome. Got that?"
Alti sighed dramatically. "Together at last. And it seems that the prophecy is right again. You do give strength to each other. Well, fortunately that's easily changed." She thrust out her hand and there was a rushing noise, but the two were not affected. Again she tried, and there was no movement at all.
"What's the matter, Alti?" taunted Xena. "Nerves finally giving out?"
"Maybe being together makes you both more powerful than I expected," was Alti's reply, a small tremor in her voice betraying her wavering confidence. For a third time she thrust out her hands, and still there was nothing.
"You're just not used to fighting people who are still able to look you in the eye."
A fleeting look of confused fear appeared on Alti's face, but it was soon replaced by a snarl. "A temporary setback. Fine, if that isn't what works, then I'll just have to use more... physical means."
"You mean beat up a chained woman?" Gabrielle questioned, gesturing towards Xena.
"I'm not leaving the two of you together, sane and whole. Xena's the more dangerous, but a few blows to the head are all that's needed, I think. Then we'll see how much of a team you can be with a drooling fool as a partner."
Gabrielle left Xena's side to snatch up her staff. She held it firmly to her body and took a fighting stance in front of Xena
"Then you go through me first."
Momentarily astonished, Alti began to laugh. "Oh, little girl. I was hoping you'd say that. Beating you first will be fine by me." She called behind her, her voice carrying out the cell door and down the corridor. "A staff! Our little Amazon wants a challenge!" Seconds later there were the padded footfalls of Amazons, and she was presented with her staff. The Amazons stayed in the doorway, but she ignored them as she turned to Gabrielle. "You know, ever since I first saw you I wondered which would be more enjoyable; hearing you scream in pain, or pleasure." She ran an appreciative eye over the girl's slim form, adorned in close fitting Amazon suede. "It never mattered to me which it was though. And remember, dear one. It was your choice."
Gabrielle stood firm. "No one is screaming yet, Alti."
"So confident after a few lessons with a staff?" Alti laughed. "See, I was raised a true Amazon, little girl. Not a weekend warrior like you. And that was before I could do this..."
Alti had been standing two body lengths away from Gabrielle, but at the last word her figure became a blur of motion and she was instantly beside Gabrielle, her staff closing in on her shoulder. In her surprise, Gabrielle stumbled back before attempting to defend, and missed the full force of the blow. Before she could strike back, Alti had vanished again. Xena cried out 'behind you!' This time the wood smashed her face and Gabrielle tasted blood. She raised her staff in time to block the second blow, but it too rocked her. She realised that she was being forced into a corner of the cell, and slid sideways to evade being trapped, but received another painful blow to her right leg. An attempt to use the limits of the cell and draw Alti towards Xena, with the hope that the former Conqueror would be able to participate, failed. Alti merely sidestepped and waved a gnarled finger Gabrielle's way. "Naughty, naughty," she admonished grinning. Gabrielle's next attempt was rewarded with another direct hit to the shoulders.
"Not like the sparring you're used to," Alti mocked.
Swallowing the blood and her own fear, Gabrielle fell back against Xena and muttered half to the warrior, half to herself. "How do I do this?"
"Watch her eyes," Xena said under her breath, "and you can beat her."
Alti stood between her and the door again, smirking. "Not so cocky anymore? I can smell your fear, Gabrielle. Come closer so I can taste it..."
Then she saw it. The subtle shift of those black eyes to Gabrielle's right hand side, and in the second Alti vanished, the girl struck her left hand palm onto the base of her staff while holding it loosely in her right. The staff shot out, and the blur that was Alti stumbled over the end and fell to the ground. Gabrielle turned and swung, but there was no force in her blow, and Alti swivelled on the floor and leapt out of her reach.
"You can't kill me, can you? Not because of morals, but because you're too weak," the Empress spat.
Xena pulled Gabrielle to her and whispered close to her ear. "You're not using your best weapons."
"What?" panted Gabrielle, never taking her eyes of the blurring figure before her.
"Your mouth and brain."
Gabrielle nodded and stood slowly, trying to gather her wits. She began hesitantly, but gathered momentum with each word. "So maybe you can beat me, but you'll still lose."
That earned an incredulous chuckle. "Oh, really?"
The staves crossed with a cracking sound.
"The treaty I brought back," panted Gabrielle as she whirled her staff around her body, ready for another offensive. "It's made out to Xena."
"A dead woman? He'll have to change that then, won't he?"
"The Green Dragon was most insistent it be Xena. You were never a choice for his support." The staves clashed again, with a bone rattling crack which shuddered down Gabrielle's forearms. She ignored the pain in her wrists, and followed up with a quick blow to Alti's head that was barely blocked in time.
Xena pitched in, enjoying each word. "So even if I am dead, when your pet generals find out that the Dragon is looking for allies against you, how long do you think it will take before they are crawling over your dead body to make a deal with him?" Gabrielle punctuated the verbal shot with a solid blow to the back of the Empress' calves.
"They're fools," panted Alti as she staggered, caught slightly off guard by the verbal as well as physical blows. "They can be... swayed. They won't be able to harm me."
"Why? Because of your powers? Seems they aren't quite up to scratch." Xena laughed, contemptuously. "Or maybe you're expecting protection from your loyal Amazons?"
Gabrielle shot a concerned look at Xena, who simply mouthed, "All or nothing, Gabrielle," in reply.
Alti halted to consider the words for a moment. "Now that you mention it, they have been less than precise in following orders." She glared at the clothing worn by her opponent. "That will also have to change." Another blur, and Gabrielle was left doubled in pain and clutching her ribs.
Xena grabbed hold of the gasping girl and held her steady. "It's gone too far for you to make any changes, and you know it. You're finished," she shot back
Alti laughed, but took advantage of the break by leaning against a wall. "You think you two can use my own tactics against me? You know nothing. Maybe I win, maybe I lose - doesn't matter. This is only one battleground of many to come. You never realised the whole of the prophecy, did you? I've seen our futures, and we're reborn again and again, and each time we'll battle for each other's souls. If I don't win this time, I'll win the next. Each time our lives will be reshuffled, and I'll come out on top. Again and again, and again!" she shouted defiantly, her black eyes soaking up the weak light from the guttering torches that sputtered in the alcoves in the hallway.
Gabrielle saw the blur out of the corner of her eye, and reflexively jerked up her staff as Xena grabbed out, lashing Alti with her chain. The force of the combined blows catapulted the Empress across the cramped cell; she crashed into the wall and slumped in the doorway, scattering the two Amazons who were guarding the space.
"If that's true then you're in for an eternity of failure," ground out Gabrielle as she rose to her feet and stalked across the cell.
"Why?" husked Alti.
Gabrielle gave a short, humourless laugh. "Think about it. You had everything. The God of War helping you, me with every reason to hate Xena, and her buried deep in your cells, with no reason to trust anyone again. And with all that in your favour, you still lost. Xena built an empire that could last decades, and in just one year it's fallen apart around you. You had everything, and you wrecked it. What lifetime could possibly offer you more chances than the ones you've just blown?"
"There'll be other lifetimes, other chances... other prophecies..." the defiant woman countered as she rose to her feet and stood in the cell doorway, still guarded by the two stonefaced Amazons.
"The fault isn't in your prophecy, Alti. It's in you," sneered Xena. "You just aren't bright enough or strong enough to beat us. Ever. On any ground. In any time."
"You'll always lose," added Gabrielle. "Because we'll always be stronger together. And you'll always be alone. Because of who and what you are. Time and again, through each lifetime."
Alti screamed her rage and made a rush towards Gabrielle with the staff raised to swing like a club. Gabrielle waited until the last moment before ducking under the enraged woman's blind strike, and gave a backhanded swing of her stave, propelling Alti straight into Xena's waiting fist. There was a sickening crunch as knuckles connected with cheekbones, and the woman collapsed onto the floor.
Gabrielle gripped her staff tightly and dropped to one knee beside the prone Empress, anticipating any sudden move. She felt something sharp prick the soft skin of her calf - it was the knife Alti had tried to force upon her. She wiped a trickle of blood from her lips, then picked it up and stared at it wonderingly for several seconds. Then, quickly swinging a leg over the prone Empress, she squatted on her mid section, holding the twisted blade with both hands.
Alti opened dazed eyes; they froze in hypnotic fascination on the blade that was held in front of her, its shaft glinting with speckles of candlelight. Gabrielle seemed to notice her focus, and smiled cruelly. She traced the knife's edge through the blood that was pooling at Alti's lips, and then carried the blood along her throat. The Empress shivered slightly.
"Do you know what happens to a deposed King in the traditions of the outlying countries?" Gabrielle mused as she moved the blade across shivering skin. Alti didn't stir, but shifted her open eyed stare to the girl's face. "They slice off the ears..." the knife left a slight trail of drying blood around Alti's ears, "and then they cut off their nose." The edge of the blade was run under Alti's nose, and came to rest at the tip.
"Gabrielle..." Xena spoke, warningly.
"How degrading," Gabrielle continued, speaking half to herself. "To be desecrated like that. To end up as nothing, with people laughing at you... that would be a fitting end to your reign." She saw a flicker in the black eyes, and leaned in close. "This is fear, Empress. This is helplessness. What do you think of it?"
For a moment there was no reply from the prone figure below her; the only response was the constant movement of the eyes as they glanced between Gabrielle, Xena and the knife that was still held to her nose. Then the lips parted slightly, and one word was heard by all in the cell: "please..."
Gabrielle shifted her weight slightly, and raised her head towards Xena. "Can you sense it?" she asked. "The fear? It's pouring off her - I can feel it. It's like walking through deep water."
"Yes," came Xena's pensive reply as she leaned down and captured Alti's stare. "I can almost touch it..." She smiled coldly into the dark eyes that stared back at her. "Is this what it was like for you, taking your victims? Is this what you felt like?"
Alti swallowed, and nodded slightly.
"This is what she does, Gabrielle. She paralyses her victims with fear, like a poisonous old spider stunning her prey, and then she reaches in and sucks the life from them. But no more." Xena smoothly shouldered Gabrielle away, and took her place. "This moment isn't yours, Gabrielle. I've waited so long for this. To see her at my feet, begging for her miserable life. I could just reach in, and take her." She moved her hand down towards Alti's chest. "Take that power. Beg me, you bitch. Beg for your worthless life!"
Alti's mouth opened and closed, but no sound came out, save for the hissing of her breath that seemed to echo through the confines of the darkened room. Dimly, Gabrielle became half aware of the watchers at the door; they were transfixed by the play before them. She held her own breath as Xena's palm connected with the Shamaness' breastbone, and she shivered as she saw the humourless grin spread across Xena's lips.
It was a smile of revenge, desire... and inevitability. And it was all wrong. Somehow there was no satisfaction from having this powerful woman broken.
The spell was snapped.
"Xena..." Gabrielle grabbed hold of the arm, and yanked the warrior off Alti's chest. "Don't! We don't want to be her. There's no hope, no life for any of us in that. We are not her, remember? "
Xena snarled, and in frustration stabbed two fingers into the base of Alti's neck. The Empress' eyes rolled and her body went limp. Xena stared down at her enemy for a moment before she rose slightly, saying, "She's not dead. Just unconscious."
"Okay," said Gabrielle and Xena let the girl pull her away and both huddled in against each other, aware of little but their own physical and mental exhaustion.
That was how the half dozen warders found them when they burst in, swords drawn.
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