Melys put her head in her hands, striving not to just break down and weep. The birth had been relatively easy, a beautiful son for Lucina. Then Anaxilea burst in the door, brandishing that damn sword - the only blades permitted in an Amazon birthing room were those necessary for cutting the birth-cord. Ares had been standing just outside, waiting. He had tried to intervene, but was badly cut. Either Anaxilea had Dahaks power to kill other gods, or her divine heritage - courtesy of Ares himself - gave her that power. Either way, she was dangerous to him. Still, he had to try. He advanced again, but was thrown backward, further into the chamber.
"Get out of my way," Anaxilea growled. Lucina was holding her son, beaming proudly. CyrenL grabbed one of the bloody birthing knives and stepped in between Anaxilea and Lucina.
"Old woman, do you really think <that> is going to stop me?" laughed the warrior. She made a quick, dismissive gesture with one hand and CyrenL was thrown against the far wall of the room, falling unconscious to the floor. Hypsyple went to her.
"Shes alright - Melys do something!" said the <shamenki>. Melys looked up from her hasty bandaging of her brothers arm and stepped forward. "Anaxilea, listen to me," she began.
"Oh, shut up, Priestess!" snapped Anaxilea, but it was not the warriors voice. Instead, it was low and gravelly and definitely masculine. "I will deal with <you> later."
"You," said Eve, stepping, her voice a mere whisper. "It was your voice. Melys was right - you are evil."
Again the entity threw Anaxileas head back and laughed unpleasantly. "Evil is such a relative term," it said. "You, for example, Evie - at one time you were considered evil, but then Eli showed you the one true path to righteousness and salvation, did he not?"
"Yes, he did, but theres a deeper truth to his words, Dahak," said Eve. "One I didnt see at first, but now ..."
"Yes?" said Dahak, smiling expectantly.
"Like Gabrielle said, peace is good, but until everyone believes that, some of us have to be warriors," Eve leaped up into the air, somersaulted, then hit Anaxilea in the middle with both feet, sending the entity flying backwards. She turned, grabbed the baby from Lucinas arms and ran past the fallen warrior, bending to grab her sword, then she ran out of the birthing chamber and headed for the woods.
"Stop her!" Melys called to the guards, but Eve evaded them and ran out of sight. "After her - go, go!"
Melys started to give chase herself, but Anaxilea grabbed her ankle and stopped her. Grinning evilly, the entity spoke.
"I told you I would deal with you later - its later <now>!" Melys felt dizzy, the world spun out of her control for a moment, then all was black and the priestess knew no more.
Xena stared at the god for a moment, then Ares grinned. "Oops! Dont want to turn your back on that fella too long, Xena!" he said.
"I could say the same about <you>, Ares," said the warrior, dryly, before turning back to the great green dragon which was now bending its head, spewing flame as it went. Xena managed to jump back in time to avoid being singed. "You know Ares, you <could> give me a hand here."
"Ooohh, are you asking for my help, Xena?" said the god, grinning, widely.
"No," said Xena, jumping back once again to avoid the jets of flame from the dragons nose. "Just making a suggestion - unless, of course you want to be the one to tell Melys you let me be turned into charcoal ..."
"Uh, Xena, thats another thing," said Ares, casually tossing flame back at the dragon. "Melys is gone. Thats why I came to get you."
"Ares, what do you mean, gone?" asked Xena, as calmly as she could manage.
"Shes just ... gone," said the god, trading flames with the dragon. "Too bad, too, cause we could sure some lightning to throw at this big guy here."
"Ares, damn it, where is she?" said Xena.
"Anaxilea grabbed her and said something I couldnt hear and she just ... disappeared," said the god.
"Son of a Bacchae!" the warrior said with a growl.
Gabrielle whirled around and saw the dragon. She looked at Callisto through narrowed eyes.
"Are <you> responsible for that?" she asked. Then she shook her head. "No, forget I asked - if you were going to kill Xena, youd want to do it yourself."
Callisto giggled. "Or better yet have <you> do it," she said. Gabrielle looked into Callistos eyes and her heart softened. The hatred drained from her as she remembered that Callisto had become Eve and images of Eve as a sweet baby came pouring over her.
"I dont understand," said Gabrielle. "Callisto, I thought you had changed. What happened?"
"Maybe <Callisto> has, but I have <always> been Daddys girl ... Mummy." Gabrielles eyes grew wide at the sight of Hope appearing where Callisto had just stood.
"But thats ... but youre ..." said the bard.
Suddenly, the fighters were distracted by the sound of horses.
"Xena!" The warrior whipped around at the sound of her name and saw Aryn and Joxer riding up. "What are you doing? We have a treaty with the dragons!"
"This is no ordinary dragon, Ryn," said Xena, turning back to her battle. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Gabrielle and Hope.
"What in Tartarus ... ?" Ares looked in the direction of Xenas gaze.
"Is that who I think it is?" asked the god.
"None of these opponents are who we think they are, Ares," said Xena, twirling her sword, her eyes narrowed as surveyed the scene.
Aryn and Joxer dismounted, and drew their swords. Aryn turned to Joxer. "Stay here and guard the horses, Joxer," she said as she walked over to Xena and Ares. "Xena whats going on?"
"The Destroyers," said Xena. "Ares, you remember when you first told us about them?"
"Yeah?" said Ares.
"You said they were insidious creatures," said Xena, remembering. "How much more insidious than to attack us with our own destructive emotions?"
"Thats brilliant," said Ares. He saw the look from Xena. "In a completely evil and deranged way - of course."
"Jealousy, hatred, mistrust, guilt, fear - and now, despair," said Xena, nodding towards Hope and Gabrielle. "Theyve all made an appearance." Xena turned and spit on the dragon and he shrank and withered into nothingness. "Hes nothing - none of these are what they seem - Dahak has taken the images from our memories and created these things - things which have no souls because the people they resemble have moved on. Only their images remain in our memory."
"So, what do we do?" asked Aryn, sheathing her sword.
"We move on, too - past all these memories and emotions which have clung to us," said Xena, walking over to Gabrielle. She felt the pull of despair radiating off of Hope and fought it. "Come on Gabrielle, lets go."
"Xena, its - " began the tearful Bard.
"No, it isnt," said xena. "Come on. Walk away."
"You ask me to walk away from my own daughter? My firstborn?" said Gabrielle. "Its not enough I killed her - more than once - for <you>?"
"You didnt kill her for me, Gabrielle," said Xena. "You killed her for all of us."
"Xena, I cant," said Gabrielle, covering her face with both hands.
"Tanti, listen to Xena," said Aryn, approaching the bard to embrace her. "This isnt Hope. Its a Destroyer. Hope has moved on - "
"Ephiny!" said Gabrielle, looking up, her teary eyes wide. She looked at the entity who stood before her in her eldest daughters guise. "Theyre right. You are not Hope."
"Mother look at me," said the entity. "How can you say Im not your daughter? I look just like you."
"Walk away, Gabrielle," said Xena. "Thats the only way to defeat her."
Gabrielle turned and started away.
"You <never> loved me!" screeched the Destroyer. Gabrielle hesitated a moment, but Xena put one arm around her shoulders and Aryn stepped closer yet, Ares right behind her, covering her back. "You always loved Xena more."
"Xena, I cant ..." said Gabrielle, trying to pull away.
"Yes you can, Gabrielle," said Xena. "That is <not> Hope. When we get back, well go to Lykastia and spend some time with Ephiny."
"Ephiny," said Gabrielle, starting to walk again. Then again she hesitated.
"Dont look back, Gabrielle," said Xena, softly.
"But Xena, I <did> love her," said the bard, her voice breaking. "I failed her, but I did love her."
"We both failed her, Gabrielle," said Xena. "But well talk about that when this all over, okay?"
"You did wha - ...?"
"We will talk about this, Gabrielle, I promise you," said Xena. "But right now, we have to get out of here, okay?"
Gabrielle nodded. The walked to the horses where Joxer waited for them.
"Everything alright?" he asked. "Because I can - "
"Everythings fine, Joxer," said Aryn, even as Gabrielle grabbed him and hugged him tightly.
"Come on, lets get back and then I want a report, Ryn," said Xena.
"Theres nothing to tell, Xena," said Ryn, with a shrug. "Your friend, Josiah showed up and told me I was needed back here, offered to escort the others to Amphipolis."
"Josiah?" said Xena, brows raised in surprise. Then she smiled. <Thank you, Hekate,> she prayed silently, acknowledging the gift.
"Yes, he showed me a letter from you," said Aryn. "Gods, Xena, he sure is <huge>. He didnt have any weapons, but he looked liked he handle it without them."
"Yeah, he can," said Xena. "What about him?" The warrior nodded towards Joxer, helping Gabrielle - who didnt need help - to mount his horse.
Aryn rolled her eyes, then smiled affectionately. "As soon as he heard you were in trouble, there was no convincing him to stay with the family. I know what kind of warrior he was from Gabrielles stories, but Ill tell you, Xena, I dont think Id worry about my back with him guarding it."
"Yeah, hes a good guy," said Xena, distracted. She whistled, then cocked her head, listening.
"Xena whats wrong?" asked Aryn.
"Your mother ... its complicated," said Xena, watching through the trees.
"What about Mother? asked Aryn, alarmed.
"Evidently, she has disappeared," said Xena. "Ah, there she is."
"Mother?" said Aryn, confused.
"No," said Xena, as Argo thundered into the clearing. "Come on, we need to get back to AemetzainL."
They mounted up, Gabrielle riding double with Joxer. Ares disappeared in a flash, saying he would meet them in AemetzainL. They rode furiously through the trees, Gabrielle grateful she was steering the horse she shared with Joxer as they narrowly avoided crashing into a great oak. Aryn pulled up next to Xena and shouted.
"Xena, what happened to Mother?"
"Not now, Ryn," Xena shouted back. "I need you focussed."
"On what? Xena if you dont tell me - "
"Okay! According to Ares, Anaxilea grabbed her and she disappeared." said Xena.
"Son of a Bacchae! If that bitch has harmed Mother, Ill - "
"Ryn - focus!" said Xena, riding on ahead.
They arrived in AemetzainL to see the warriors assembling into battle ranks with Melyss cousin, Pitana, leading them, calling out orders from horseback. She saw Xena and Aryn arrive and rode over, saluting.
"Just in case, Warrior Queen," she said, gravely.
"Good job," said Xena. "Remind me when this over to promote you, Pitana."
The warrior beamed proudly, then dismounted to join the ranks. Xena rode up and inspected them.
"Good!" she called out. "Stand by. At ease. Ryn, come with me - Pitana, fall out - youre in charge till we get back."
Xena and Aryn rode to the House of Mothers where Lucina was, still in the birthing chamber, weeping bitterly. Hypsyple and CyrenL, her head bandaged, stood over, trying to console the new mother.
"Mother, Hypsyple, what happened here?" asked Xena.
"<Primeia> - CyrenL, what are you doing here?" asked Aryn, shocked.
"What do you mean, Dear?" asked CyrenL.
"If youre here ... then who went to Amphipolis with Meg and the kids?" asked Aryn.
Xena frowned. "Mom? You <were> supposed to go," said the warrior.
"I know, but at the last minute, I just decided that with Lucina so close to her time and Eve not ... here ... I changed my mind," said CyrenL.
"But if youre here ... then who was in the wagon? asked Aryn, alarmed.
"I ... dont know," said CyrenL, looking to Xena.
"I have a pretty good idea," said the warrior. "Its alright - listen, Mom, what happened here?"
"I dont know - that nasty warrior showed up and knocked me into the wall," said CyrenL.
"Melys tried to stand up to her, then Eve stepped in and actually fought her," said Hypsyple. "She knocked that ... thing down, grabbed the baby, then grabbed a sword and ran for the woods. Melys tried to go after her, but Anaxilea grabbed her and Melys just disappeared."
"Was there a ... a flash or something?" asked Xena, hopefully.
"A flash?" said CyrenL.
"Yeah, like this." The women saw Ares appear with a flourish.
"No, no nothing like that," said Hypsyple. "One moment she was there and then she was not. Just like that."
"Okay, first things first," said Xena, grimly. "Ares, I want you to look for Melys. The Amazons will hunt for Eve and the baby."
"What about Anaxilea?" asked Aryn, her voice quiet and dangerous.
"Can I trust you to go after her, Aryn?" asked Xena, one eyebrow raised.
"Oh, yeah," said Aryn, quietly, her face a mask.
"Ryn, I mean it," said Xena.
"Oh, believe me, Xena, there is nothing I would like better than to ... never mind," said Ryn, her smile eerily reminiscent of Xenas in her warlord days. "I give you my word, I will not harm Anaxilea ... until Mother is safely back."
"Good enough," said the warrior, nodding. Xena had heard the qualifier Aryn added to her promise, but felt that she knew the young woman well enough; Aryn was Melyss daughter. She would keep her word and do no harm to Anaxilea without cause, even after Melys was found. Unless ... but Xena would allow that thought to go no further. Lys was alright; she had to be.
(To be continued)