Part 3 Chapter 10
By Phantom Bard
For Disclaimer: See Part 3 Chapter 1
Part 3 Chapter 10
By Phantom Bard
For Disclaimer: See Part 3 Chapter 1
Xena's orders, given at the morning synedrion, had been eagerly welcomed by her troops. The first group had left on horseback immediately after the dawn meeting was dismissed. The twenty clones had ridden hard for Kavala, covering the thirty miles to the docks in an hour and a half. There they had greeted the guards and prepared the Miss Artiphys for sea. At 0900 hours, the acting captain had ordered the lines cast off, and the mission to observe the Thermaic Gulf began.
"Helm, make our bearing 180† and come to flank speed," the praipositos ordered.
The pilot pushed the annunciator forward and the reactor came to full power. She turned the wheel to port until the compass indicated a course of due south. The waterjets spewed high-pressure blasts as they gimbaled to maintain the optimum angle of thrust, and the hydrofoil's bow rose as she accelerated. In a short time she was nose up at 14 knots, and the hull rose on its pylons until only the hydroplane wings were beneath the surface. The Miss Artiphys leapt forward to 30 knots, still accelerating.
Shortly later the vessel was skimming over the Aegean's surface at 90 knots, making her way south on the first leg of her course to the Thermaikos Kolpos.
"Retract the shroud and arm the Phalanx," the acting captain ordered. The weapons officer flipped a series of switches and the gun turret snapped around to face forward in response. "Extend the mast to three feet and set it for IR sensing, with half- magnification and standard alarms."
The acting first officer elevated the periscope a yard above the roof of the bridge. She programmed it to rotate in a full circle once every minute, and set the infrared sensor to sound an alarm if any heat sources were detected.
Forty minutes passed and the praipositos ordered the first change of course.
"Navigation, confirm. Mt. Athos lies a league to starboard."
"Mt. Athos to starboard, Captain. Depth is 12 fathoms and two."
"Helm, turn to starboard and come to course heading of 240†. Maintain speed."
The Miss Artiphys would hold this course while skirting the peninsulas of Acte and Sithonia. At 90 knots it would take only about twenty minutes. Off the southern tip of Sithonia she would make an adjustment onto a more westerly course of 260† and run for another twenty minutes before heading north up the western coast of Kassandra. At that time, the praipositos would order the hydrofoil's speed reduced to a third. She would spy the bay at the north of the gulf where Therme, modern Thessaloniki, dominated maritime activities, sometime around 1300 hours. If her crew saw anything suspicious there, in the gulf, or in the small port towns along the way that they couldn't handle themselves, they would radio the Argo for backup. That backup would be a long time coming.
The fifty clones that would crew the Argo had started out from Amphipolis at a double-time jog. Having begun at 0700 hours, the thirty miles to Kavala would take an expected four to five hours, or until 1100 to 1200 hours. The submarine would be ready to sail by 1300 hours. It would begin its bombardment of Athena's camp as soon as it was safely clear of the port.
If the Miss Artiphys called the sub in for a torpedoing mission as well, then it would proceed at flank speed while submerged, stopping to surface each hour to launch another cruise missile. The process would be time consuming and unwieldy, and like most submarines, the Argo was actually much faster submerged. Unfortunately, once the first three hours had passed and the sub was firing once every half-hour, it would have to postpone any underwater actions. The time required to submerge, accelerate, decelerate, surface, raise the rail, charge the capacitors, load, and launch would leave almost no time for actually moving towards a target submerged. The best they would be able to do would be to move on the surface at a top speed of 16 knots. Realistically, it would be close to 2200 hours before the Argo could be in position to torpedo anything in the Thermaic Gulf.
At 1300 hours the Miss Artiphys rounded the cape where the town of Angalohoi overlooked the water. So far the crew had seen nothing suspicious. They had made their way north, examining the towns of mainland Chalcidice along the way, Nea Moudania, Magazara, Sozopoli, Nea Kalikratia, Nea Iraklia, Nea Mihahiona. Most were hole-in-the-wall fishing villages or resort towns. They hadn't seen a ship larger than 60 feet. Off their port side, the shipping lanes were deserted. There had been no container ships or traders, no passenger vessels or private yachts. Not even the fishing boats had left their docks. The water had been still and quiet all the way north.
The captain stared through the periscope and magnified the image. She was staring at the mouths of the Axios River. Nothing moved. Across five miles of water and land, she could even see the ribbon of highway E1 on its way to Thessaloniki. She observed the juncture with northbound E75. Nowhere did she see traffic. The land appeared to be dead.
At that moment, she and her crew heard the rapid-fire sonic booms of the first cruise missile. They were about 18 miles south of the target. Only moments after the booms there came a thunderous rolling crash, as if a meteorite had slammed into the ground. Though it was muffled by the distance, they all felt the concussion in the air. They would have sworn they'd felt it in their bones. The captain elevated the periscope and saw a distant column of dust rising into the sky. She could only imagine the terror it had struck into the hearts of their enemies. A grin curled her lips.
Ten minutes later, the Miss Artiphys approached the main harbor of Thessaloniki. They saw container ships and passenger ferries berthed, but no activity on the docks. All of the vessels were large enough to move troops in tactically significant numbers. They would all have to go. The captain had no weapons heavy enough to sink them.
"Radio the Argo," she ordered the communications officer, "there are five targets to be sunk at the port of Therme. Each is a potential troop transport. They aren't currently manned or ready to sail, but they can't be left intact."
The radio operator broke silence to transmit the message to the sub. Floating on the surface between Kavala and Thasos, the captain of the Argo acknowledged the message and requested the exact coordinates of the targets. Her next launch was scheduled in 58 minutes. She had both time and options.
"Stand off in the Thermaikos Kolpos around the headland at Angalohoi," the Argo's captain told the communications officer aboard the Miss Artiphys before signing off.
"Weapons officer, lock these coordinates into the guidance system of a cruise missile and have the ordinance detail load it on the rail."
The weapons officer looked at the captain for a moment before asking for clarification.
"Captain, our next launch isn't scheduled for 55 minutes. These coordinates are twenty-two miles southeast of the specified target."
"Exactly," the captain told her with a grin. "Hit it on the nose and we'll save ourselves a ten hour round-trip."
Twenty-eight minutes later a cruise missile shrieked from the launching rail at Mach 5.5. It came onto its course and the hydrogen injector went active, powering the scramjet engine to Mach 8. The weapon traveled for 52 seconds and slammed into the docks at the port of Thessaloniki. The impact left a crater a furlong in diameter, raised a shockwave in the harbor over thirty feet high, and briefly elevated the temperature at the impact site to 1600†F. It destroyed every craft berthed in the bay and flattened buildings in a six-block radius. A column of dirt and smoke rose 600 yards into the air.
The Miss Artiphys motored around the cape five minutes later. Through the periscope at maximum magnification, the captain scanned the destruction. The Argo had not only removed the potential threat of the ships, but had rendered the port useless as well.
"Radio the Argo, targets destroyed," the captain ordered. "Helm, make our course for Kavala and come to flank speed."
Having seen the aftermath of the attack on Therme, the captain could only imagine the terror of their enemies as the Destroyer's weapons slammed into their camp while they fell sick with plagues. She and her sisters would be doing them a favor when they exterminated them in battle.
Twenty-two minutes after the Argo received the radio transmission from the Miss Artiphys, a second scramjet cruise missile screamed into the sky headed for the enemy's camp on the Axios river. By then the hydrofoil was nearing Nea Potidaea at the narrows of the Kassandra Peninsula. In ancient times the site had hosted the city of Potidaea and the peninsula had been called the Pallene. There were memories there for all of them.
Just there, the captain remembered, at the southwestern end of the Glyunthos Highlands where the land dips to the Pallene. It was late afternoon and I wasn't intending to go to Potidaea at allÖhad no business there. But then I heard voices, spied a line of slaves being herded by Draco's men, and I was in the mood for trouble. I never really saw eye to eye with Draco, and I never took slaves. Too indirect, too much business. I was more for knocking off the rich, an' citizen or warlord, it didn't matter. Anyway, I had to do something to get the blood flowing since I didn't have an army anymore. So I attacked the guardsÖonly six of 'em as I remember. It wasn't much of a fight. They knew me on sight and they were terrified. Half of 'em fled without even crossing swords. That left me with the slaves. Have to admit, I was tempted to take 'em and sell 'em myself, just to have something to do. The captain chuckled but quickly fell silent. Then I saw herÖ.
It had been a long and unsetting day. On the road, the Gabrielles had witnessed eleven objects shrieking across the sky during a six-hour period between 1:15pm and 7:15pm. Other than the one suspected oddball flight that had been aberrant in its timing and course, they had discerned a regular timetable. The first four had come at one-hour intervals over three hours. After that, they had been overflown by the "things" every thirty minutes. The flight path seemed to be the same each time, and that had been their only source of comfort. Whoever was sending them wasn't aiming at them. The clones had continued up the road without stopping until they'd reached the city of Seres at 7:45pm. Their arrival had been interesting. For the first time there were people who would talk to them.
The city was subdued, but it was a pleasant evening and people were out on the streets. The Gabrielles entered from the west, pushing their shopping carts of food, all physically identical and all dressed the same. The people had seen something like this before, though on that occasion it had been just after midnight, and the invaders had been heavily armed. The incident had been a very frightening experience for them, but no one had been hurt. Like something out of a movie, it was far beyond anything they could have expected. It had been so odd that it was still the main subject of conversation.
When they'd first entered Seres, a group of citizens had approached them and asked if they should stay indoors again. This had puzzled the Gabrielles.
"What do you mean?" A curious clone had asked.
"Last time an army came here, the leader wanted everyone to stay inside," a man told her. "Of course it was after midnight, so it wasn't an unreasonable request." He had chuckled nervously and looked over the crowd of Gabrielles.
"An army came through here," the Gabrielle had asked, "whoÖwhen?"
"Well, like I said, it was just after midnight," the man had answered, "and they were all dressed in black uniforms. Ones I saw were carrying a lot of weapons. I really don't know who they were or exactly how many. I went inside like she asked."
"It was the early morning of April 22nd," a woman added, "and they came back the next night on their way south."
The Gabrielles pondered this news silently for a while. An army had moved through Seres going to and from a quick battle, perhaps a raid or an ambush. They looked north, up the valley.
"They went that way," a clone asked, pointing up the Strymon Vale, "and then back that way on their return?" She'd turned to point downriver towards Amphipolis.
"Actually, they went that way," the man clarified, pointing up the tributary into the highlands to the east, "but they left in that direction." He was pointing southeast where the Gabrielle had pointed. "Towards the sea."
The Gabrielles absorbed that news. The army had gone to the sea. They immediately thought of the submarine and the stilt boat they had later observed on the night of April 22nd. They thought of the atomic bomb someone had set off that evening.
"What did these soldiers look like?" The clone asked suspiciously.
The man answered nervously, as if someone would think him insane if he said aloud what they'd all seen.
"Like you, they looked identical, all of them," the man said, as he looked at the Gabrielles. "Wouldn't have known which was the leader if she hadn't spoken to us and ordered the others around. They were all tall women, with black hair and blue eyes, armed with rifles, pistols, and swords. Wore identical black uniforms. I don't know whose army they were. They spoke Greek to us but they weren't the Greek army. I know that because I'm a veteran."
The Gabrielles stood and stared. The description left no doubts in their minds. They were certainly clones and they could be clones of only one personÖXena. Mavican and Callisto were blondes, and Elainis had brown eyes. But how? Who had cloned Xena? For that matter, who had cloned Gabrielle herself? She'd been dead at the time and still had no idea who'd recreated her in this life. Had Xena also died like she had? The Gabrielles numbered 8,000; how many of Xena were there now?
"How many?" A Gabrielle asked.
"Thousands," the woman answered, "we saw thousands."
"Haven't seen them since though," the man added with obvious relief, "and there's nothing between here and the sea."
Not anymore, the Gabrielles thought. Not for a long, long time.
"The enemy has broken camp, Strategos," the praipositos of a company of kataskopoi reported at the synedrion Xena had called at 2100 hours. The scout had ridden in haste all the way to Amphipolis to bring the general her news. "We observed them evacuating under duress between 1500 and 1800 hours yesterday."
"How did the troops look?" Xena asked.
"They were organized enough that I'd hesitate to use the term rout, but there was abnormal haste and a lack of coherent companies," the scout said, allowing herself a grin. "They did seem to be transporting some infected troops on travois," she added.
"Carts? Heavy weapons?"
"No heavy weapons, Strategos, but there were some supply carts and large numbers of cavalry."
That's your one advantage, Athena, Xena thought, but they can be dealt with easily enough. Hippikon are a clear advantage only on open ground. Even then, large numbers are a mixed blessing. They need room to maneuver, pasture to graze, and lots of water.
"Where are they now?"
"They marched three leagues before stopping for the night about here," the scout said as she pointed to an area on the map.
"South and slightly west of Kilkis, at the margin of the Axios Plain, just shy of the highlands," Xena clarified for her other officers. "I want to force them onto highway E79 so they're heading for Seres. They'll hope they can enter the Strymon Vale north of us and drive us into the sea. I want them to come from the north, but letting them take the road all the way to Seres would be too easy. Their march should be demoralizing."
For several moments, Xena studied the map and then called up her memories of the terrain. Finally she reached a decision.
"Remember the Vertiskos Highlands in the eighteen miles of eastern Chalcidice before the land descends into the Strymon Vale? E79 passes into them between the modern towns of Karteres and Dorkada. Highway 12 parallels E79 to the south. I want to let the enemy get into the highlands on E79 so they're committed, then force them off the road so they have to struggle in the rough terrain."
She paused for a moment, improvising details for a plan.
"We have some explosives from airborne weapons taken off the Truman," she said, addressing the hecatontarches in charge of ordinance. "I want the charges from six of the Mk82s wired for remote detonation.* They should be sufficient to destroy the road. Plant a pair of charges three miles east of the towns, another pair eight miles east, and the last pair one mile further. Blow the westernmost charges once the army's past them. Blow the eastern charges as the lead companies walk over them. Save the last pair for if they try to return to the road. After that they won't trust the highway anymore. It'll be our way of saying, welcome to Thrace."
(*The Mk82 is a general-purpose, unguided, 500lb "dumb" bomb. It carries an 89lb high explosive charge. The Mk82 was wildly popular during the war in Iraq, being cheap, destructive, and capable of deployment on any fixed wing aircraft in the coalition. The USS Harry Truman carried several hundred of the ordinances for their air wing. The Destroyer's army had removed the high explosive charges from several dozen of them for use as general-purpose munitions.) ~Editor
Around the tent the officers smiled. Of their cloned enemies, Elainis was from Argolis, Callisto from Phocis, and Mavican from Arcadia. All of them had looked down on Thracians as barbarians during their lifetimes. The Xenas, of course, were all from Thrace, and weren't above paying back some ancient geographical prejudices.
"Send your teams on horseback," Xena told the hecatontarches, "so the charges can be in place by morning."
Next she spoke to the hecatontarches in charge of the kataskopoi.
"Keep the enemy under surveillance as you have. I believe they're headed for highway E79 on their own, but if they turn away we'll have to drive them there. Pass the word fast if that happens. You'll have backup in the field."
Last, Xena spoke to a chiliarchos.
"Dispatch two mortar squads with infantry support, under the command of a hecatontarches, to shadow the enemy. They are to fire at their discretion and keep them on course. Torment them. Force them onto E79 if necessary. Coordinate with the kataskopoi. I don't want to hear about any casualties of friendly fire." She reinforced her order with a stern look.
With that, Xena dismissed the synedrion. Finally, she thought, we are driving their army to battle on our terms. Now the offensive has clearly shifted and it lies in our hands. Every campaign has its turning point and this is it. But every campaign has its surprises too. There've already been a few in this war and I'm sure there'll be more. Still, I've seen the battle an' Ares' vision wouldn't lie.
It took the Destroyer of Nations' troops six days to drive the army of Athena across Chalcidice. As the strategos had predicted, the clones were heading for highway E79. They'd crossed highway 65 on May 8th, just 9 miles south of Kilkis, while traveling southeast under the watchful eyes of Xena's kataskopoi. Along the way they began burying the first of their plague dead in shallow unmarked mounds, unwilling to stop to gather wood or make pyres. By the second day out, their horses were thirsting for water and dragging their hooves. More of Athena's clones died of influenza and Ebola.
On the third day of the march, the troops Xena had sent into Chalcidice detonated the first and second charges they'd planted in the highway. A score of cavalry at the lead of the column were blown apart. For a quarter-hour complete pandemonium reigned before the Elainises managed to restore order. They directed the column off the road and sent a cavalry wing ahead to scout the highway. The Xenas waited and restrained themselves from blowing the third charge. When the riders returned and reported the road ahead clear, the enemy moved out, bypassing the site of the explosion and returning to the road. The Xenas let 2,000 pass before detonating the third charge right in their midst.
As their strategos had predicted, the enemy moved off the highway and refused to return to it afterwards. A carefully aimed mortar bombardment assured that they traveled thereafter to the north of the highwayÖopposite the spattering of deserted towns to the south along highway 12. The Destroyer of Nations intended to deny the enemy shelter, food, water, and a paved road to travel. They spent their fourth day in dry hilly terrain without a stream or spring for a dozen miles.
As per their general's orders, the Xenas began to bombard their enemies to torment and demoralize them further, once they'd come within 15 miles of the Strymon Vale. Throughout the fifth day they intensified their psychological assault. Now they lobbed mortar shells onto burial details, aimed for the margins of the pickets to traumatize the horses, and launched random shells into the enemy camp during their hours of sleep. They struck at the supply carts and into the midst of the marching columns during the day.
In the morning of the sixth day the enemy column met with a barrage of mortar shells, five miles west of the town of Strimoniko. The assault forced them south, back across highway E79, and lengthened their struggles in the rugged highlands west of the Strymon Vale. They were forced to shoulder their supplies and abandon their carts. The Destroyer's clones prolonged their march through the most inhospitable terrain in Chalcidice and drove them away from the city of Seres. In no way would she allow them the slightest comfort or relief, for Xena knew that Seres was inhabited, well supplied, and she had already spared it once.
So it was that on the evening of May 13th, the army of Athena almost tumbled down a long embankment into the Strymon Vale. They reached the river between the towns of Flambouro and Paralimnio, about 12 miles north of Amphipolis. The cavalry arrived first and began to drink and water their horses in squads while the rest kept a nervous watch. The first two score clones and their horses dropped dead within ten minutes, retching, convulsing, and finally falling into comas. When an Elainis arrived with the first of the infantry, she slew another six clones with her swords, recognizing the effects of Melampode, (Black Hellbore), poisoning.
"You idiots, Xena's famous for poisoning water sources!" She shrieked.
"Of course she is, the heartless bitch," one of the Callistos replied with a giggle, "that's why we let the Mavicans and the Achilleses test the water first."
"You might have just tested it with one horse!" The Elainis screamed. The Callistos had never been team players and she resented being shackled to them in her goddess' service. Many times she'd wondered what Athena had been thinking to clone them.
The Callisto nibbled on a fingernail and whispered "Oops," while expressing more amusement than contrition. She added, "Our dear Xena also uses Atropa, (Deadly Nightshade), which doesn't affect horses."
The Elainis stared at her.
"Wait a half-hour and it'll wash downstream," the Callisto said in a bored tone of voice, "I'll bet Xena's downstream dunking rats and waiting until they stop dying before letting her own troops drink again."
"You think she's downstream?" The incredulous Elainis asked. "She'd poison her own water too? Common sense says she'd be upstream in Seres. She just finished driving us away from there."
"My lovely Xena would have stored plenty of water for herself," another Callisto told her with a sigh of twisted longing, "and of course she's downstream. Amphipolis is downstream. She's been driving us here for the last week, bright one, and I'm sure she's got lots of plans for us." She sat down on a boulder and dipped a hand in the water, then brought a finger to her lips, tasting a single drop. "Mmmmmm, Xena," she moaned theatrically, "bad girl."
It took another two hours for the entire army to make their way into the Strymon Vale from the highlands. By then, the water was safe to drink. Twelve miles downstream in Amphipolis, a clone reported that the rats were surviving the Strymon, and the Destroyer of Nations declared the river safe for her troops. They, however, continued to drink from the tributary stream that ran past the strategos' tent for the rest of the night.
"Strategos, the enemy presents a curious organization for an army," Prima reported at the evening synedrion. "They appear divisive, without a coherent command structure, and grossly lacking in discipline."
Xena raised an eyebrow at her "special's" words, encouraging her to continue with her observations.
"I stood cloaked with four others only a dozen yards away after poisoning the water when the enemy went to drink. Clones of Mavican and Achilles drank and died. They didn't even bother to test the water first. Though it was the first time we'd allowed them free access to water, only the Callistos were suspicious. They looked on with gleeful anticipation while their comrades poisoned themselves. Then the first Elainis arrived and slew six more clones and cursed them for drinking. She and the Callistos argued. Though it appeared that the Elainis was in command, the Callistos knew us best but only shared their insights for the sake of belittling the Elainis. This can't be an efficient way to run an army."
In the command tent blue light flared, flickering in blinding flashes that peppered the canvas with shadows. The clones squinted but didn't flinch away. They had all seen this before.
Ares appeared before his Favorite, and he was laughing uproariously. It took some time before he was composed enough to speak to the clones. They waited indulgently.
"My sister, brilliant as she is, has created a large mob of individuals, not an army," he told them. "Think, Xena," he said to his Chosen, though all the clones took his words as directed to themselves; they were all Xenas, after all. "Elainis was a masterful fighter and Athena's Favorite, but she never fought at IliosÖshe never commanded an army. She and Achilles come from a time of heroic champions and hoplite phalanxes, when ranks clashed in lines of battle on cleared fields or fought duels for personal glory. They are not strategists as you were trained to be. Military command was conferred by royal birth, not martial ability. Callisto and Mavican, deadly as they are, were also never suited to mass military actions. Callisto thinks only of herself and her vengeance. This has not changed. She is not a 'team player' and thousands of her, even less so. They barely cooperate among themselves and regard the others with derision. Mavican is simply a follower, first of Callisto, and now of Athena. She was strong and violent but never a tactician. Athena's army has no ingrained cohesiveness. They are a mass of individuals only united by their allegiance to Athena and their hatred of you."
He turned to survey the officers in the tent around him and pride shone clearly on his face. This was an army! More cohesive, united, and disciplined than any that had ever moved to battle in all the long history of war. Individually they were brilliant. En mass, virtually unbeatable. His Favorite had foreseen the necessities of a command structure as if by second nature, and had bred and trained her troops to be an efficient unit. By the gods, they took the forms of military protocol as a given and most could conceive of no other way. A lifetime spent at war long ago had prepared Xena to command today. His brilliant sister had cloned a mob deadly fighters and killers. His recreated daughter had bred an army.
In all the long history of his existance he had never felt such pride, such certainty of victory, or such validation of himself. Without offering a prayer, the Xenas' very existance was a mode of worship. His WayÖthe values he personified, had been realized and perfected by the achievements of his daughter. Never before had an army been poised to reap such glory. Never again would an army so closely manifest his domain on Earth. Here, mortal and immortal merged in something he could only see as destiny. And it had been worth every slowly passing year of the long wait to see it.
A year after Xena and Gabrielle had died in Rome, Ares had still not chosen a successor to be his Favorite. Xena had been a hard act to follow. His primary candidate was his own granddaughter, Eve, a warrior of his blood, sworn to vex Rome. She was a natural choice, and as a warrior, her mother's lessons were beginning to bear fruit. It was then that the Moirae had appeared to him, something that had only occurred a handful of times, and only then when the necessity was dire.
"God of War, hear my words," Atropos the crone began. She often spoke first.
"Though dead your daughter's spirit must live again," Lachesis continued.
"And with her, her soulmate must live as well," Clotho added in her childish voice.
"To save yourself, their blood must flow," Lachesis the matron warned ominously.
"Down eternity's halls to future days," Atropos declared to Ares' relief.
"Into bodies identical to those in their graves," Clotho added, childishly pleased with her little rhyme. Here, the God of War's eyes had widenedÖthey spoke of destiny.
"For they are the vessels in whose molds shall be made," Lachesis said.
"The many upon whom your fate will be laid." Old Atropos finished.
"So you're saying both Xena and Gabrielle must leave descendants to form lineages that will be my salvation in the future?" Ares asked, hoping for clarification without the doubletalk.
The three Fates had stared at him, and as always, they seemed to have a secret.
"Your Favor in the present to the enemy must go," Clotho told the God of War.
"So that both families down the road of time can grow," Atropos completed the rhyme.
And with that he had known what he had to do. One did not ignore the Moirae's advice.
It had been in the spring of 43 BC when he'd appeared in the Amazon village. Only a single young warrior saw him, and this was his intention. Hope was 16, but already she'd displayed exceptional abilities. Her teachers had been the best of their generation. She had known him from her mother's stories of Xena and she had shown no fear, asking only what the God of War sought among Artemis' people. He had spoken plainly and without intrigue. She had accepted. The Warrior Princess had always been a hero to her.
Gabrielle's daughter became the next Favorite of the God of War. Ares had picked up training her where her mothers had left off and she became an acknowledged prodigy. Within two years Hope earned the rank of Amazon Master Warrior, joining veterans who were mostly in their thirties. And then only a year later she had challenged and defeated the reigning War Queen, Varia. Not since Antiope had ascended to that position 1,102 years before had one so young led the nation's warriors. Her first act had been to halt the nation's "Oath of Blood", the vendetta against Livia, by then known as Eve.
For the first time, the God of War had chosen a Favorite with no intention of inciting a string of conquests. Hope's mission was defensive. She was to preserve her mother's bloodline and indirectly, her mother's soulmate's as well. She was buying time for fate.
Eve had worked hard to absorb her mother's lessons, but she'd only had two years of training with Xena following her liberation from Rome. She became a highly competent warrior, but never anything close to what her mother had been. Ares had often wondered what she would have done with his Favor and his training. He suspected that her path would have been littered with the bodies of Amazons, perhaps Hope among them, slain as they'd tried to satisfy the vendetta. Instead, by the time both women had died, as the mothers of children with children of their own, he'd known his choice had been correct. The families of Xena and Gabrielle were on their way to their future destiny, somewhere down the road of time.
"We have no doubts that we will prevail," Xena told her god. "With your Blessing and our strength we will conquer."
"Yet one factor troubles you," he told her, for Ares knew her mind and he had seen the events unfold. But beyond this, there was still that ancient rhyme from the Moirae.
"There are always uncertainties in war," the Destroyer of Nations replied, "but we are prepared."
The God of War smiled. Yes, she was prepared. The army was prepared. But there most definitely were uncertainties, and the results of those, even he could not foresee. The situation reeked of fate, and how that fate would clash with destiny and be resolvedÖainissesthaiÖenigma. Still, his intuition spoke and he trusted it.
"They all live for you."
His words had sounded ambiguous. Athena would take them as references to Xena's clones, but he knew that eventually Xena would know. Another flash and he was gone.
Helios rose to light Amphipolis but the land there was empty. Not a soul moved. The Destroyer's army was gone, leaving only footprints, wheel ruts, and filled in waste pits. On May 14th Xena had led half her clones north up the Strymon while the other half broke camp. The rest had followed her that evening. She had pulled in her kataskopoi and combined them with the infantry. They had marched north for barely five miles.
As dawn opened the 15th of May, Xena stood on the hill she had first seen in Ares' vision. The sun behind her projected her shadow, long and dark, but it disappeared in the shadow of the slope below and she smiled. It was just as she had foreseen.
She gazed up the river towards Seres and the mountains to the north. The Strymon road wound beside the river, hemmed in for the next three miles by high cliffs to the east. Behind her those cliffs failed and a valley opened through which to Apollo's light poured, glinting off the waters of a small tributary stream. It lit the tents of her army, encamped near the valley's mouth. To the west, at the hill's feet, the Strymon road passed before a narrow field just over a furlong wide, and beyond that lay the vast swamp that had once been the bed of Lake Cercinitis.
Two shadows moved up beside her, having climbed the hill to join their strategos.
"Have the preparations been made?" Xena asked.
"Yes, Strategos," two identical voices replied.
"You know what to do," she told them, "may the hand of Ares guide you whether to victory or death. Today the final battle begins. Drive them here. Break them."
In the blink of an eye the shadows were gone.
In the encampment of Athena's army the troops prepared for battle. They had rested for a day to recuperate from their laborious march across Chalcidice. It hadn't really been long enough to regain their strength, but worse, it hadn't been long enough to repair their morale. They were not a boisterous or confident army. There was none of the boasting and oath making so typical of an army on the verge of a long awaited battle. They had been infected, forced from their camp with heavy casualties, and then driven across Chalcidice like livestock. In the last miserable week almost five thousand had died along the way, of influenza, small pox, Ebola, and hostile actions. Their horses were lagging, malnourished, still affected by dehydration, and skittish.
The Elainises had become determined to assault the Destroyer of Nation after being convinced by the Callistos that she lurked downriver in Amphipolis. Much as they hated the Callistos, Athena's Favorites had persuaded themselves to act on the crazed blondes' knowledge of the enemy. The decision itself grated on their ego and sense of superiority. Callisto had been a peasant even more so than Xena, having been born in a one-goat village in Phocis. Beyond the social strata aspect was the fact that the Elainises perceived Callisto's madness and had no sympathy for the insane. Such unfortunates were cursed by the Erinyes and the gods had turned their backs on them. Plus, they were annoying as hell.
The Callistos seemed to be perennially amused, having known Xena best. They didn't even pretend to care what happened to their comrades, for as in their original life, their sole obsession was achieving their personal vengeance on the Warrior Princess. They laughed at the hardships of the others, withheld information simply because they could, and maintained a flippant and derisive relationship with the Elainises. They regarded the Achilleses as dolts and blade fodder and the Mavicans as a waste of flesh since even Gabrielle could defeat her. The Callistos despised both equally, though for different reasons, and rejoiced in their suffering. The Cirrans expected to desert when it became advantageous to do so.
The Achilleses were the quintessential chauvinistic macho male prototypes. They chaffed under the command of the Elainises and looked down their noses at the other female warriors. They regarded the Callistos as undisciplined psychotics and the Mavicans as walking breasts. In camp, they'd found themselves segregated even more thoroughly than the other cadres. The fact that they were more deadly with ancient weapons than the Callistos or Mavicans had led to a number of duels and deaths. Their disposition had been worsening over the months of the campaign, in part because their memory was that of Iphigenia, a betrothed lover, not of Elainis, the Favorite of Athena that she had become after his debarkation to Ilios. When it became apparent that the situation between them was greatly changed, the Achilleses sulked and became bitter, violent, and disposed to drama.
The Mavicans kept increasingly to themselves. They resented being commanded by an elitist bitch, leered at by their male comrades, and humiliated by their one time teacher. They felt little connection to the others, wondered how the supposed destiny Callisto had once convinced her to grasp had landed them here, and entertained thoughts of simply walking away from it all. They'd never cared much for any of the gods, and their ancient loss to the Warrior Princess' soulmate in 59 BC had soured them on the God of War. If any of the cloned ancients felt lost in the modern world, it was the Mavicans. And they despised it, every minute of it. Now that they were alive again, they had no idea of what to do, and so they went along with the rest of the army for lack of better options. They would only be fighting because deserting would earn them a vendetta from the other clones in Athena's army while not making them any friends among Xena's.
All in all, it was a wonder that these mutually antagonistic elements had cooperated as far as they had. Only the Elainises were truly committed to their goddess and her war. Even they were beginning to have doubts. The army had already lost over 36,000 troops. They'd been profoundly shocked when their plan had failed so disastrously in April. Their goddess had been outthought by a mortal! Now the 29,000 survivors were preparing for a march on the city and an attack the following day. It was two hours past dawn and they would set out at the third hour.
A league to the south, 2,000 of Xena's clones waited in the steep wooded slopes beside the road to the east. Each was armed with a sword, dagger, chakram, and their recently completed bows. They stood invisibly cloaked, behind trees and boulders, silent and barely breathing. They waited and watched as mounted scouts from Athena's army passed up and down the road in advance of their march, searching for signs of their enemies. So far, they had found nothing, but that would soon change.
At 0910 hours, two-and-a-half hours after dawn, the watching clones saw a troop of scouts galloping north up the road. They were hastening back to their camp to report the sudden appearance of the Destroyer's army on the road.
It took the Elainises only a half-hour to goad their troops into order and march south to meet the Xenas. For once they would not be taken unawares in an ambush or assaulted while in camp. They planned to march out and meet the Destroyer's clones in battle where their superior numbers would win the day.
In the meantime, the Xenas had moved north to within a league of the enemy camp. They could see their sisters in the woods protecting their right flank, while the swampy ground and the river protected their left. Soon the enemy column appeared, fronted by the Achilleses in a full hoplite phalanx, twenty abreast across the pavement, shoulder to shoulder and shield to shield. They marched with their spears held vertical, helmets in place, in perfectly matched strides. Behind them came the others in no particular order, with wings of cavalry riding along the western margin of the infantry, in the grass just off the road. It was 1040 hours and they were now 9 miles north of Amphipolis, but only 4 miles north of the strategos.
The Xenas blocked the road, standing in a matching twenty abreast battle order with their swords drawn, but there were only 2,000 of them. They stood, 20 files wide per rank, and 100 ranks deep. The enemy advanced and the Xenas let them, standing frozen in pace like statues save for their hair, gently animated by the slight gusts of breeze. The armies closed to a furlong, then 150 yards, and then 75. At 50 yards, the hoplite front ranks lowered their spears to horizontal with a sharp whoosh and snap of ash shafts on callused palms. Still the Xenas waited.
At 25 yards, the silence was shattered. From within the formation of Xenas, 400 arrows hissed from bows hidden in the 2nd through 21st ranks. Bodies fell, shot in the necks or through the eye slits of their helmets. The front rank of Xenas never blinked as the arrows whipped over and between them, tousling their hair as they sped past. Instead, they raised their swords. The 22nd through 100th ranks executed a lateral movement to form a narrow "V" with 21 ranks at its forward point. Then the newly revealed ranks fired. A volley of 1,580 arrows slammed into the ranks of Athena's army and more bodies began to fall. The enemy continued to advance. The Xenas matched them, taking one step back for each step the enemy took forward. They maintained the same distance and continued firing; 20 paces, 400 arrows, 20 more paces, 1,580 arrows, and then 20 more paces again. In this way, they drew out the engagement with their limited supply of arrows. Their goal at this point was just to keep the enemy moving forward while frustrating them with casualties.
It was during the third round of archery that the enemy cavalry broke into a canter and moved to flank the Xenas on their left. They were hampered by the soft ground between the road and the river, and the uncertain footing it offered their horses. They maneuvered even with where the Xenas front rank had originally stood and suddenly a huge explosion tore the morning air. Bodies and parts of horses were flung skyward. The entire column shuddered, and for a moment their advance faltered. A charge, barely concealed in the weeds, had been tripped with a simple wire by a horse. It was another of the 89lb charges taken from a Mk82 bomb, one of many set along the road the night before. As the "specials" had assured their general at dawn, the preparations had been carefully made.
The march continued. Athena's army advanced. Xena's clones retreated. Arrows whizzed through the air. Every so often, a blast shook the ground, either tripped by the enemy or shot with an arrow. After half an hour, the column had completely passed the clones waiting unseen in the woods. At about the same time, the 2,000 Xenas who were acting as bait ran out of arrows.
Still retreating 25 yards ahead of their enemies, the Xenas pulled in the wings of their "V" and reformed into a column 20 files wide. Hidden by their sisters' bodies, the rearmost clones cloaked themselves and slipped away into the woods. This continued until only the foremost 20 ranks remained. At that point the remaining Xenas backpedaled double-time. Predictably, Athena's army increased the pace of its advance. This continued for most of a quarter-hour, with 28,000 mindlessly pursuing 400 forward, and the whole engagement accounting for about 3 miles of travel towards Amphipolis. Now high barren cliffs had risen beside the road to the east. It left only a mile to the battlefield chosen by the Destroyer of Nations.
Now the Xenas who had waited in the woods decloaked and moved onto the road. They jogged after their enemies, and as they advanced, the 1,600 clones that had slipped away from the forward company earlier joined them and drew their swords. These 3,600 fell upon their enemy's rear guard, shooting arrows at close range* and slaying the fallen wounded.
(*The Xenas had been ordered to fabricate both their bows and arrows when they'd first set up camp at Amphipolis. The Destroyer of Nations had known the value of toxotËs, but also knew their arrows wouldn't penetrate Athena's armor. Gabrielle had died because her last shot had failed to slay the Elainis at their school in Columbia. Xena opted for the psychological as well as tactical benefits of archery. Her clones had cast their arrowheads out of lead melted down from their rifle bullets. These would have had no chance of penetrating even ancient armor, and so they hadn't been formed like the sharpened bladed heads of bronze war arrows. They more closely resembled pointed raisins. Their rugose surface was perfect for holding a resinous coating of botanic toxins. This tar-like melange, taken from Mithridates' Pharmacopoeia of War, included aconite, black and white hellbore, and atropa. The wounds burned violently as soon as inflicted even through a glancing abrasion, and this effect declared their toxic nature. A very small dose affected a body's cardiac functions, bringing on heart palpitations and arrhythmias. It also produced a pronounced narcotic effect, with cardiac and respiratory depression, numbing, delirium, staggering, slurred speech, and vertigo. Xena had intended to use the archers only at close range and had never anticipated causing many direct fatalities. The tactical advantage was in terror and debilitation. It was another way to degrade her enemy's capabilities.) ~Editor
While Athena's front ranks chased the retreating Xenas, the rear guard fled those attacking from behind. The yards of the final mile slipped away uncounted as Xena's enemies advanced down the road. They would follow the Xenas all the way to Amphipolis and drive them into the sea beyond the river's mouth. This, in fact, had been their goddess' original battle plan, and some of them saw it being recapitulated now.
The cavalry cautiously paced the infantry, never knowing when the next explosion would rip through their column. None of them wanted to be in the lead. This was exactly the effect the strategos had hoped to promote, that with a handful of charges she could neutralize the very real threat of the hippikon. Her plan would have ended in a bloody disaster had Athena's cavalry thrown caution to the wind and ridden down the Xenas. The cavalry however, was made up primarily of Elainises and Callistos, neither of whom was overly willing to sacrifice themselves. Both preferred fighting individual foes on foot, face to face, where they could watch their victim's eyes and see their blades drawing blood. As yard after yard passed beneath their boots, the enemy clones failed to realize that the number of Xenas behind them was dwindling as clones cloaked themselves and slipped away.
The march had advanced to a scant hundred yards from the battlefield the Destroyer of Nations had chosen when a tremendous explosion ripped through the air. Clods of dirt, sod, smoke, and clouds of dust obscured all mortal sight. The report was louder than a thunderclap. Tremors in the ground and the concussion in the air deafened and staggered the clones in both forces. The blast was centered to the west of the road, about 30 yards behind the enemy's front rank, and not actually among the cavalry, but adjacent to them. Already skittish horses panicked and many threw their riders. Some bolted. All the remaining Xenas behind Athena's army cloaked themselves and disappeared. They hastened south, sprinting down the 30-yard corridor between the cliffs and the road.
When the dust and dirt cleared, Athena's clones faced the massed forces of the Hellene's Bane. Almost 8,000 clones of Xena stood on the road and among the trees in the narrow space beneath the cliffs that had risen to the east. They were motionless and they were silent. Each held a drawn broadsword in her right hand and a Combined Chakram in her left. They stared at their enemies from as little as 30 yards away, solemn, deadly, and projecting a palpable aura of menace. One among them stepped forward.
"In the name of the God of War," she yelled as she raised her sword, "victory or death!"
And then the 8,000 clones of the Destroyer of Nations charged. They hit their full stride still twenty yards from their enemies and they never stopped. They came on like screaming banshees, ululating that same bloodcurdling Thracian war cry that had chilled the stricken city of Rome on the night in 46 BC when Xena and her soulmate had retaken Eve from Caesar. From 8,000 throats it rent the air and the spirits of the warriors facing them. The diversionary explosion of a moment before was completely forgotten. As it had since 1,400 BC, when Thracian had fought Scythian, it struck terror into the enemy's hearts and paralyzed them for a crucial few seconds. In those seconds, all the previous weeks' suffering, fear, and frustration converged on the enemy's spirits like the fallen roof of the Temple of the Chakram. With it, all their courage evaporated like a dream.
The Xenas fell upon their enemies with sword and chakram; the momentum of their bodies slamming back those who opposed them as if they were mounted warriors rather than euzonos. They aimed for the eye slots in helmets, the throats, and the wrists. The unnerving warbling whine of cast chakrams screamed among the combatants. Here was the unstoppable violence and the katalepsis that was Ares' Blessing. Here was the advantage of the divine genetic gift a father had passed on to his daughter over 2,000 years before. Like Xena, every one of her clones was possessed of a metabolism 42% more efficient than an ordinary mortal's. Here was the terror of the Daughter of War. They swung with leaf-bladed swords and ring bladed chakrams, drawing blood, laughing, possessed by bloodlust, and reveling in the slaughter. They took wounds and kept coming without a glance at their own blood flowing. For the first time since their awakening, they truly lived.
What good was the Achilleses' hoplite ektaxis against a foe that could flip over them and apply "The Annihilation of the Line"? What good did the advantage of numbers avail the Callistos and Mavicans against warriors who knew "The Smashing of the Wheel"? And what hope had the Elainises against the mastery of the perfected "Katalepsis"?
Slowly at first, and then with increasing speed, Athena's clones gave way. 8,000 had faced off against 28,000, and still the larger army was overmatched. The tide of the Destroyer's forces was unstoppable in those moments. Never in all of history had an enemy faced such an overwhelming combination of skill and lethal obsession. In Xena, Ares had unleashed the closest thing to the wrath of the gods in the modern world.
To those facing her on the frontal and eastern flanks, even the appearance of a modern army wouldn't have encompassed the same measure of terror. This was the horror of ancient combat distilled. Phobos and Deimos walked the battlefield and bestowed their nightmare breath upon Athena's troops. The enemy backpedaled, trod over their own fallen, and finally turned their backs and fled. Infantry and cavalry alike turned blindly west off the road in a rout. They ran across soggy ground, their feet sinking ankle-deep in muck, tripping over waterlogged tussocks of coarse weeds and slipping on mud. Some fell on their faces and crawled. Some went knee deep into the swamp before the pursuit slacked off. Horses stood in water up to their bellies, wild eyed and shivering. Many of the warriors, Elainis, Callisto, Achilles, or Mavican alike found their legs wet with a warmer water of their own making.
By the time they'd stilled their heaving lungs and shaking limbs, the Xenas had drawn themselves up in a battle line back near the road. They stood still and silent, watching and waiting. Between the two forces lay scarcely a furlong of corpse littered ground. The Xenas stood until their defeated enemies sank to their knees and threw down their arms. Then they withdrew in ordered ranks down the road to the south. They would accept no surrender. The war was not over and the Destroyer of Nations had never taken prisoners for the sake of mercy. There was no place left in this world for the vanquished.
The actual battle had lasted all of fifteen minutes. The death toll, just over 2,000.
For the first time in weeks, clouds gathered overhead, and by evening, a slow and steady rain had begun to fall. Unlike a brief and singular thunderstorm, this weather was highly abnormal in the Mediterranean dry season. The Goddess of Wisdom weeps, the strategos thought, and she smiled. Like the battle, it had been foreseen.
Less then a half-mile south of the miserable, swampy camp where Athena's army had been driven, a valley opened to the east. The tributary stream swelled with runoff and raised the swamp's level slightly for the defeated army's torment, though most of its waters flowed south towards the sea. At the valley's mouth stood the tents of the Destroyer's army. They had been pitched within sight of the road and climbed the tall hill that bordered it. Upon the eastern slope of the hill, just shy of its crest, stood the command tent of the strategos. Rain pitter-pattered on its canvas. Gray skies hung above. But now that their katalepsis had receded, Xena and every one of her clones felt something that couldn't be seen in the weather. It was subtle yet pervasive. From the north, somewhere up the Strymon River, came a feeling of warmth more penetrating and constant than that of Helios. "Like a second sunriseÖ"
"Did you hear that?" A worried Gabrielle asked as she spooned up the last ravioli from her bowl. A faint thump had come to her ears. "It sounded like another explosion."
"Yes," a second Gabrielle agreed. They all heard pretty much the same things, camped in the open land southwest of Seres. The Strymon River flowed beside them and sounds traveled easily up the vale. "But I think it was more distant than the last one."
The first Gabrielle nodded nervously in agreement. They were all edgy. A disturbing sensation of impending trouble had been growing at an accelerating rate for over a week.
"I wonder if the people of Seres know anything about them?"
"They're all hiding inside their homes," another clone said as she walked up and sat down with a bowl of Spaghetti-Ohs. "They've been hiding for the last two days."
"Since we heard all those smaller explosions in the highlands to the south?"
"Yeah," the new arrival answered, "and they're convinced the army's coming back."
"Actually it sounds like they're moving away," the first Gabrielle noted. She squinted into the distance and added, "I'd guess there's a battle moving south down the river."
Over the next hour, the Gabrielles gathered on the riverbank, staring southeast towards Amphipolis and the sea. A faint breeze blew in their faces. The first faint shreds of clouds were forming overhead in whisps and tendrils that moved across the sky from the south. A sudden sharp thump came to them, both in the ground and through the air, a larger explosion from the battle. Subconsciously they took a step forward towards it.
And then their mouths opened in surprise and shock. They could feel the coldness of a soul-chilling power projected through the aether across an invisible link that no science could define. It rose in a cresting wave of malice, perpetrated by bloodlust and violent intent that were relics from the ancient world. A collective gasp rose from the gathered throng. 16,000 emerald green eyes were startled wide open. They had felt that chilling power before, but never in such an overwhelming measure, even when standing right next to Xena as it abated.
In a heartbeat that sensation crescendoed. The Gabrielles stood transfixed. Across the intervening miles they felt the aggregate aura of the katalepsis of 8,000 Destroyers of Nations charging into battle. It sang to them, raw, overpowering, and feral, a joyous celebration of terror. In that moment the confirmation of the survival of their soulmates slammed into their midst. There could be no possible doubts any longer, no way to deny the truth. The feelings that assailed them were all too familiar from their original life. And yet, they had only felt that projection of menace on a handful of occasions. They had never felt it so strongly, for in ancient times, it had never existed en mass.
For fifteen minutes not a single clone moved. They were petrified, frozen in a place between their memories and these sensations. Their soulmates had unleashed the full measure of Ares' Blessing upon some hapless souls whose wretched fate had been to stand against them. Woe be unto the doomed. Beyond the swords or the chakrams, their soulmate's power lay in that rage and the strength of her will. Gabrielle had foreseen this five years before in the clearing behind the Pappas house as she stood preparing Eve's pyre. Her soulmate's will was by far more powerful than even her sword arm, her tactics, or her physical strength. Seldom did such a will converge with such fury, and almost never when empowered by the blessing of a god. The blondes could almost see that power flaring in Xena's eyes; their sky blue chilled to primal glacial ice, inhuman, merciless, and utterly terrifying. In spite of themselves, they cringed before the vision.
In the wake of the battle the efflorescence of the Destroyer's katalepsis ebbed as the Xenas surveyed their defeated enemies. Their seething volcanic rage retreated to an uneasy simmering within the calderas of their souls. It would rest but not sleep, subdued for a time but not extinguished, awaiting the final battle.
Outside the city of Seres, the Gabrielles breathed again, their shoulders relaxed from the tetanous rigidity of their recent tension. The leaping conflagration to the southeast had progressed to a mature fire, with embers beneath and clean blue flames above. It was not the end, only a cessation for tactical advantage. A single Gabrielle took a single step forward onto the road.
"Are you crazy?" A more astute clone sharply hissed. "You'd have to be suicidal to get anywhere near them! She was bad enough when there was only one of her when she got like that. You felt it. There must be thousands of her, just like the Serites said, and now they've got Ares' Blessing. Do you want to end up on a cross and have her break your legs?"
The Gabrielle flinched at her sister's words. She turned her head and looked over, and the clone who had spoken so sharply saw the tears gathering in her eyes. Though she had somehow become more pragmatic during their journey, she still felt the same things as the rest. Her own feelings were tied in knots of heartbreak and foreboding.
"We can't go to her yet," she said much more softly, "we can't stop what has started now. She was never so far gone when we knew her, and if we're to have any chance at all, we'll have to be very careful and very fortunate, but most of all, we have to survive."
The first clone hung her head and slowly nodded as her tears overflowed. Like her sisters, she didn't fear death. She feared the separation of her soul from Xena's. When this life was finished, and it would certainly end one day, they would spend a time in the afterlife and then be reborn again. It had happened many times, for it was their destiny. And in each life, she had somehow met and kept her soulmate safe. In all those lives, Xena's soul had been ensconced in mortal bodies, without the influence of Ares' parentage or the threat of the katalepsis. She had never again slaughtered thousands. When each life had ended, they had found themselves together in the same place. They had been happyÖtogether.
Now Xena was a Destroyer of Nations such as the world had never seen, even in her ancient life as the daughter of War. She was doing things that the original Destroyer of Nations had never done. Could Xena's deeds in this contrived lifetime turn the great judge against her? Would Hades separate their souls in the afterlife? And what would she become in the future she was creating when she took up her mortality again?
This was Gabrielle's fear. That the destiny promised by the Moirae long before a Xena or a Gabrielle had lived would be rescinded for eternity. Having known the sweetness of a soulmate, Gabrielle didn't think that she could survive again as a soul alone and watch Xena become a monster. Like many things, once tasted, there was no going back. Once shed, naivete could not be regained.
"We'll just have to wait," the pragmatic clone told the others, "the time to act will come." And then more softly still, as if to convince herself, "It has toÖit's our destiny."
"So who's the bigger loser?" A Callisto purred, taunting a pair of Mavicans. "The idiot who leads or the idiots who follow?"
"You followed her here too," a Mavican shouted back, "you're just as much of a fool as the rest of us."
"She led us here because I told her Xena was here," the Callisto responded with a self-satisfied smirk, "and you followed her just like you followed me all those years ago."
"So that only means we're stuck in this swamp because of you!" The second Mavican screamed.
"You've been trying to get us killed again so you can have the Xenas all to yourself," the first Mavican accused.
The Callisto cocked her head and savored the fantasy. All the Xenas to herselfÖ.
"What a lovely idea," she mused, before turning her attention back to the Mavicans. "Do you think you could get together with the others and maybe tire her out by getting yourselves killed so I could have some fun, the Xenas and I*?"
(*Typical of the insane, the Callistos referred to themselves in the singular. It mirrored the more common phenomenon of a single lunatic referring to themself in the plural. Callisto, whether one or many, was supremely self-concerned, hence the "I".) ~Editor
"I've got a better idea," an Elainis said as she walked up. "I think I'll tar you all and set you afire, then force you to run through her camp to burn down the tents. At least that way you'd have contributed something to our goddess' plan."
The Callisto and the Mavicans stared at her with undisguised resentment.
"Why don't the lot of you just shut up and act like part of an army? That's why she beat us, you know," the Elainis griped, "her warriors are united, body, heart, and soul."
"Oh, I'm sure they are," the Callisto cooed, "all with that same body. I wonder if they find themselves exciting, at night, in their tents? Or if they get bored? Maybe it's too much like touching themselves."
She drew a deep breath to quiet the intrinsic arousal accompanying the images that came into her mind. She could almost smell their scent. A field full of naked Xenas, touching and writhing as they stimulated each other. The Callistos had found that being cloned was an exciting variation on their past life. Callisto had never trusted anyone else enough to allow them to touch her, but now, unlimited numbers of herself were accessible and willing. They were all the same, with the same desires and needs. It had become a surprisingly enjoyable addiction, especially when they ganged up and held her down. She shook her head to clear it. The Elainis was saying something.
"Öwill be appearing to her army tonight. She is not pleased with the way things have been going, I can tell you that. She may demand sacrifices."
At 2130 hours, as the army huddled in the darkness around smoldering fires of barely dry wood, a golden light flared in their midst. Into the wretched encampment the Goddess of Wisdom materialized with flashes and sparkles that rained down upon the soggy earth. Around her clones slowly rose to their feet with an utter lack of enthusiasm. Of the lot, only the Elainises began to move forward and gather around her.
The immortal turned in a slow circle, surveying the dismal conditions of the camp and the demoralized warriors. She had seen what had transpired, but it shocked her to actually experience their setting through her physical presence. Yet she had visited defeated armies many times before, and though it was disappointing now, it wasn't unfamiliar. But these other shocksÖwhat more was Xena capable of? Still, as in the past, she would do what she had come to do. She would rally the troops. The war wasn't over, and though none of these warriors would believe it now, victory was still possible. They just couldn't achieve it with their present divisive attitudes and defeatist outlook. She couldn't let them go to war like this again.
Athena would do her best to inspire her troops. The only problem was that she couldn't tell them everything she knew. The things she had seen, was still seeingÖincredible! But to report on them would be to violate the strictures on directly joining the combat. It would escalate the war, for it would no longer be a war by proxy if she acted as a spy. That would be active participation. To reveal all that she had observed would be the same as wielding a sword herself and she knew that her brother would follow. And Xena was provoking her to do just that! Athena understood how dearly Ares desired to join his Favorite in battle. She couldn't allow that to happen.
Ilios had been a mess as she remembered, with so many of the Olympians adulterating the development of the mortal's battle with their presence. From the start it had been a miasma of conflicting strategies, alliances, and obligationsÖtotally unacceptable.
Today the Goddess of Wisdom would restrict herself to inspiring her clones and sharing a possible strategy. She could not afford to share intelligence that had been gathered with her godly powers of observation and draw her brother into the combat. He had become unpredictable.
Ares was different now than he had once been. It was one of the first things she had noticed about him in the modern world. Maybe it had been his long sleep in the tomb. Maybe it had been his maturing over the last 2,000 years. She really didn't know. Somehow he had become cagier, less given to rampant and reckless reactions. He hadn't taken the bait as she'd taunted him in the aether after they'd both rescued their Favorites from the Temple of the Chakram. Xena was different too. The Warrior Princess' rage was greater than it had ever been in the ancient world. In a way, it seemed as if their changes had balanced out, leaving them both more deadly.
Athena thought of Xena's performance thus far. It was nothing short of exemplary. From the very moment the Warrior Princess had apprehended the nature of her enemy, she had proceeded on a planned course and brilliantly executed every step. She had forged an army of astonishing capabilities that the Goddess of Wisdom and Warfare would have been proud to call her own. The once "Hellene's Bane" had waged her war with perilous cunning and merciless precision. She had nullified most of Athena's technological advantages, destroyed her power base, and turned the world into a wasteland barely worth fighting over. And she had done it without the direct aid of her patron god.
Oh, Athena knew that Xena had called for Ares' Blessing and that her brother had granted it. That had always been a given for as long as gods had chosen mortal Favorites. Athena would do the same for Elainis and her army, but therein lay a difference. Xena had been born a commoner and had risen to her station, fighting tooth and nail for every step up the ladder of command. She accepted her father's patronage when it suited her purposes. Elainis had been born a princess and had never deigned to ask for anyone's aid. Her royal pride forbade it, even where her goddess was concerned. She was loyal and deadly and had been born to command, but she wasn't as well suited to lead. She certainly wouldn't stoop to sacrificing a goat.
The Goddess of Wisdom had cloned her warriors for the strengths each offered, not the least of which was their ability to torment Ares' Favorite by their very existance. But Athena had miscalculated the human personality factors that had become their weakness. She had envisioned the four groups of clones collaborating and burying Xena's forces with their superior numbers. The binding tie between them was her own presence as their goddess and creator. They should have been able to decide among themselves how to prosecute a winning campaign, especially against a foe limited to only one point of view. The tools were there, the raw materials in placeÖand yet, they had become fractious. And here, Athena belatedly realized another miscalculation.
She had cloned over 15,000 Elainises simultaneously. None of them was a primary clone; none of them was more highly placed or favored than her sisters. They were equals in every way. They worked together well enough, but grated against the others. And none of them was a strategos hypatos. Her army had no clear chain of command.
Her brother had always told her that an army could have only one general. She hadn't believed him. It had started when her patron city of Athens had instituted democracy as its form of government and become a power in ancient Hellas. It had been reinforced with the passing centuries, as teamwork, allegiances, confederations, and joint service command staffs had become the order of the world's military forces. It had even worked in a country where the supreme leader had been a civilian, elected for a finite term, and constrained by his congress for their funding and declaration of war. It had been her biggest success, and now it lay in ruins. Had the millennia proved her wrong? She still couldn't believe it.
Athena granted herself a moment of whimsy. Would that Elainis had been her daughter, not the granddaughter of Zeus. Would that her later Favorite, Gaius Julius Caesar, had lived to lead the empire he'd created. The world would have been hers two millennia ago, but Ares had discerned her intentions and opposed her by impregnating a Thracian innkeeper. Three years after the birth of Caesar, a man born and fated to be ruled by the destiny she offered, Ares' daughter had been born to thwart him.
Athena had helped Caesar all she could in fighting his war against Ares' Favorite, the Warrior Princess. Her Favor had augmented his own native cunning. In the end it had not been enough. He had failed to crush her despite having the resources of the west's greatest state at his command, and Athena had fallen to temptation. On that fateful day in March of 44 BC, she had cheated. She had helped the ungrateful Callisto triumph over Xena and Gabrielle in that alley behind her brother's temple. The Chakram of NightÖher invisible hand had guided its course. But some other force had touched the ring. It had not buried itself in Xena's back as it should have. Instead, it had broken, leaving the Warrior Princess helpless but still alive. There had been one last chance inherent in that outcome, but the goddess had declined it.
Ares had been furious at her direct intervention, but with Zeus' sanction he had offered her a trade. Cure and free Xena and Gabrielle, and destroy Callisto. When it was done, his daughter would retire to spend her remaining years as a mother and teacher to Eve and Hope. In pride she had refused, and in restitution Ares had acted with their father's blessing. Gaius Julius Caesar had died at the hands of the senate as the soulmates hung on their crosses.
Athena had renewed their war by proxy, attacking Ares' Favorite in the modern world. Now the goddess wondered if she hadn't made a strategic error. She had sent a Callisto into combat against Gabrielle at the tournament in San Francisco. Unexpectedly, the bard had defeated her. She had sent more clones to attack their school. And afterwards, the battle had escalated. Now Xena held the Chakram of Day and if Athena intervened directly, Ares would act again. Xena would render to her father the god killing ring, and he would use the weapon against his sister. Their shared blood would never stay his hand when balanced against attaining his goal of ensuring the supremacy of his way. Their father was long gone. There was no one left who could stop him. After 3,500 years, their sibling rivalry would reach its conclusion. It was a horrifying prospect. Athena shook it from her mind and thought of a greater mystery that had troubled her far more deeply.
Why had the soulmates reappeared? They had been cloned by Alti; she knew that, but why now? Why had they appeared just as her long plan had been coming to fruition? The timing was astonishing. 2,000 years ago Xena and Gabrielle had been instrumental in foiling her plans for Rome, but they had all been part of a chapter buried in history. Now they had reappeared. Athena had begun cloning her champions when she'd discovered Xena and Gabrielle's existance. At first it had looked like the work of her recently freed brother, taking up their sibling war again. She could only answer his actions with her own. And so their war had resumed.
But Ares couldn't travel time as she could. The original material to be cloned hadn't come from Xena and Gabrielle. It had come from their descendants, Janice Covington and Melinda PappasÖtheir identical descendants, 109 and 105 generations later. What were the chances of that? Almost nil. UnlessÖand Athena had pondered this question ceaselessly. Fate. Fate alone could account for the unfurling of a series of events so unlikely as to be impossible. The explanation left her chilled. Everyone had believed that not even the gods could change fate and only the Moirae knew what outcome it held. After 3,500 years she could very easily lose everything because she had never been meant to win.
Athena roused herself from her thoughts and prepared to address the gathered clones. They had been looking at her expectantly and her lengthy hesitation had unnerved them. Now they were fidgeting, their eyes darting, and their bodies tensing. Their minds would be tensing as well, she thought, ever less open to considering the words she intended to speak. That, she couldn't afford.
"Warriors," she began, choosing the word to remind them of their identity, "you have suffered a temporary setback, yes, but this is far from a final defeat. This war is not nearly over, and though you have sustained losses, victory is still within your grasp."
She surveyed the clones and saw that she had become their sole focus. They were listening to her with their undivided attention. It was a good start.
"Your enemy has shown great skills in vicious fighting, but hear me! She has but one mind. It is her strength and her weakness. Her army was bred only to obey. This army was created with options, with the possibility of pooling the resources of four great fighters. You have the potential, the abilities, and the numbers to destroy your enemy. You can do this, but to do it you must have the will to conquer.
Each of you has different reasons to fight. Each of you was included for the different skills you achieved in your original lives. And each of you must gain from the others to make your differences a benefit, not a liability. You must work together as an army to conquer, or you will fail together as defeated individuals.
I don't need to tell you that another defeat will mean your end. Xena has declined to finish you off at present because to pursue a much larger force into such disadvantageous terrain would be suicidal. She knows this. She chased you here but broke off her pursuit when she had backed you into this swamp. With nowhere left to run, you'd have been forced to turn and fight. She opted to avoid that confrontation, hoping that more favorable options would appear. But by waiting, Xena has ceded the chance to act first."
Give them a hint of hope, Athena thought. Around her she saw that the clones' eyes had brightened as they accepted her observations of their battle. They stood a little straighter and moved forward towards her. They hung on her words with expectation.
"So now you understand, it is up to you to take the battle to her. You will choose the time of the next conflict by marching out of this swamp and onto a field of battle. On the cleared field, it has always been numerical superiority that has conferred the advantage. The disparity is even more favorable because you have cavalry. Though Xena knows this as well, she has only her existing troops to work with. She has fewer choices.
I can tell you that her fondest dream would be to destroy you piecemeal, cadre by cadre, for then, she would have evened her odds. You must not allow that to happen! From seeing the battle today, I can tell you that facing her one on one will bring certain defeat. Her clones have a rage, a bloodlust that can only have come from Ares' Blessing. She claimed as much in her challenge at the end of April."
Athena thought of the message conveyed by the blinded Elainis. "With the Blessing of Ares, the true God of War, I will destroy your army and kill your goddess." A death threat from a mortal! She had very nearly choked when she'd heard it. Then she'd remembered the Chakram of Day and the threat had become real. It was not hubris.
"I offer my Blessing to this army at the request of my Favorite," Athena announced. The Elainises stared at her but remained silent. Not a one of them will ask for my help, she thought sadly, or perhaps none of them feel it's their place to be the one to ask before the others. "Only one of you needs to speak for you all. It is the only direct aid I can give you without involving other gods in this war."
The Elainises looked at each other, all of them deferring to the next. Not a leader among them, the goddess thought sadly. She sighed. I cannot confer my Blessing upon a Chosen unasked, no Olympian can anymore. She looked around at the clones of her Favorite, each indecisively remaining silent. The seconds stretched out. No one spoke.
"Very well," she finally said. "You already have the potential to defeat Xena and her army, even without my Blessing. The necessity is for you to decide how best to utilize your advantages as a group, to attack with a cohesive battle plan, and to choose the time of engagement that's most beneficial for you. Stack the deck in your favor in any way you can. Your survival is at stake, but beyond that, the way mankind will wage war will be determined. The victor will decide whether the world will cleave to Ares' way or to mine. Your victory or defeat will cast the ballot for either civilization or barbarism."
The clones stood spellbound, hanging on her every word.
"Xena's army is equipped as euzonos, and light infantry can be beaten on a field of battle by cavalry and more heavily armed troops. You have the numbers to outflank her forces. You have the mobility to cut off her movements. And among you there is the ability to organize a better battle strategy than a single commander can formulate. All these advantages are yours. Combined with the will to conquer, you will be victorious."
Some of the clones actually cheered. Morale was improving, Athena noted.
"If you fight with all your abilities and all your numbers wholly committed, you will take the field," Athena told them seriously. "The Xenas number only a third of your count. Can one in three of you slay an enemy?" She asked, her voice rising. "That is all it would take to wipe them out utterly. Yet even that isn't necessary. I say, if just one in five of you can slay an enemy you shall prevail. Surely the greatest warriors of two ages can manage such an outcome against a mob of Thracian peasants?"
Athena had shouted the last question, playing to her audience, and when she finished there was a moment of silence. Then the clones around her erupted, cheering and stamping their feet. Now they believed victory was possible. They began chanting, led by the Elainises, and they were chanting her name.
The goddess was sure that the Warrior Princess could hear their voices in her camp, but Xena would know what had transpired in much more detail than just by rumor. From the first moment of her arrival, the Goddess of Wisdom had noted the presence of spies. Several of the Xenas walked among her clones, carefully staying away from the fires and avoiding any touches. They froze when looked at even though they were as invisible as daemons, and she realized that it was to still the shifting of their shadows, the creation of footprints, and the swirling of smoke. None of them were carrying visible weapons. They stared at her with undisguised hatred and listened to every word she said, and she could do nothing about them. It was one of the worst experiences of her immortal life, being monitored and censured by her mortal enemies, lest she somehow give Ares an excuse to become directly involved. She fled in a flash of golden light at the first possible opportunity.
"Strategos, Athena appeared to her army. She offered them inspiration but divulged no secrets," a kataskopos reported at the synedrion Xena had called after hearing the eruption of cheering from the enemy camp.
The Destroyer of Nations allowed herself a grin. With her godly vision, Athena must have noted the presence of her spies, and yet she had said nothing. For a moment, Xena wished she had been there herself. She would have walked up in front of the whole enemy army and slit Athena's throat with the Chakram of Day.
"She fears her brother joinin' the battle so badly that she'll send her troops to their deaths rather than tell 'em our capabilities," she told her gathered praipositoi. "We've hobbled the goddess as surely as we've cowed her army."
"Can you tell us more about what was said?" Prima asked the scout.
"She spoke of our past battle tactics, speculated on our present and future actions, and exhorted her troops to work together. She assured them that victory was possible and then listed all of their shortcomings as advantages. In the end, she spoke mostly as a politician would to dullards."
Xena chuckled at the spy's synopsis.
"You're certain that this was the Goddess of Wisdom?" Secunda asked.
"Only because she was received so by her troops," the kataskopos admitted.
"Continue to keep an eye on the camp," Xena told her with a nod. "The rains will continue for a total of seven days. During that time the enemy will not attack, but we must prepare the battlefield for them," Xena told the group.
She spoke to a chiliarchos next. "Place a line of sentries along the fields to the enemy's southeast. That field must be rendered impermeable to cavalry and inhospitable to infantry. Both will try to attack our left flank there, but the cavalry's more worrisome. The less they see of our preparations, the better. Between the rain an' the sentries their observations should be minimal. Use as many troops as necessary to finish in two days.
Our enemy will arm for war on the 22nd, and that day will dawn sunny. On that day we will destroy them. It has been foreseen," Xena said as she surveyed her officers. Each of them acknowledged her words with a subtle nod. Each of her past predictions had been completely accurate. "In the battle's wake, Athena will appear, and when she does, she is doomed. This I see only in my mind's eye, yet it too shall be. I'll speak with each of you in the next few days regardin' the parts you'll play to achieve this final goal. There's no doubt in my mind that we'll succeed. Athena's scared, but she'll always have her pride."
Xena dismissed the synedrion. For a long time afterwards, she spoke with Prima and Secunda. In her encampment, troops were chosen to work in shifts, preparing the battlefield and guarding the workers. In Athena's camp, spies blended in among the shadows. The night drew on. The rain fell. Though the enemy didn't yet know it, they would decide to attack the morning the weather cleared, and that day would be the 22nd, just as the strategos had foreseen. Destiny was moving faster now, driving events forward towards a conclusion that was 2,000 years and more in the making. Neither gods nor mortals were immune. All had their parts to play, and only the Fates knew what was to unfold.
When she was finally alone, Xena let her thoughts wander. Of the battle she had no doubts. Her army would annihilate the enemy. The uncertainties of this war lay not in the combat, but in those factors she couldn't control, the Gabrielles and the gods.
In their original lives, Gabrielle had been wont to appear at inopportune times on occasion, and Xena suspected that one of those times was due. She only hoped that the blonde clones wouldn't suddenly march into the battle. It would be a disaster, upsetting her warriors' focus and providing their enemy with potential hostages. The Destroyer of Nations wanted the battle to be swift, and therefore decisive and safer for her troops, a clean kill. She recalled the words of the God of War, "They all live for you."
It had sounded like a reference to her own clones, but Xena had rejected that because of the context. They had been commenting on the uncertainty she felt. She had suspected that Ares might actually mean the Gabrielles. The more she thought about it now, the more convinced she became. Why would he state the obvious about her troops while discussing unknowns? Had he been giving her a reassurance about the cloned army that had disappeared and still remained undiscovered? Xena would breath much easier if she could accept that the Gabrielles weren't her enemies. Then she added the fact that originally Ares had broached the topic himself. "Yet one factor troubles you."
He knows something! She felt the truth of her realization with the gut certainty that had served her so well in the past. There was more that he hasn't or couldn't share. She sat straighter in her chair, riveted by the revelation. Direct intervention! He cannot act without freeing Athena to act too. He cannot share what he knows or has seen without being a spy! The Gabrielles are not my enemies! And Gabrielle knows war. She will not jeopardize the battle. Xena let out a long breath of relief.
Forewarned is forearmed, she thought, and now I know I won't have to order my army to fight my soulmateÖtheir soulmates. Even she would have shied from ordering the slaughter of the Gabrielles, for she'd suspected that her army might have balked at that command, whether they were the enemy or no.
A scratching at her tent flap alerted her to the presence of someone requesting entrance.
"Enter," she ordered.
The tent flap drew aside to reveal the praipositos of the detail she'd dispatched over a month before. And not a moment too soon, Xena thought. The clone bore a bundle, a bulging US Navy medic's bag. She walked in and set it on her general's table.
"We have completed our mission, Strategos," she stated.
"Report," Xena coaxed, trying to squelch her anticipation.
"We traveled by night to within 35 miles and then by night cloaked. We detonated no charges for fear of drawing attention, though the area is remote. The entrance was deeply buried and we excavated it only at night, covering and camouflaging our work by day. It took weeks to gain entrance. We entered and explored, losing two to traps. On the third day we located the objective. It took two more days to claim the weapon. We buried the dead in the tomb and used one of their uniforms to cloak the weapon during our return. I have just arrived. The mission was completed as ordered."
"Excellent," Xena said, "now eat and get some rest. We're on the verge of battle and I'll need to brief ya' further. You've succeeded just in time."
When the clone had gone, Xena opened the bag and stared at the object inside. The weapon was just as it had been described. Now, coupled with the revelation of Ares' comments, she could breath freely with the assurance that her uncertainties had been addressed. Returning to her native land had not been whim, it had been a strategic necessity. In war, there was no substitute for being prepared.
"I don't think I can stand this any longer," a miserable Gabrielle complained as she reclaimed her seat under a lean-to beside an Amazon hunter's fire. A pair of logs burned cleanly in a narrow rock-lined pit at her feet. Over its long rectangular opening, a grating supported a cook pot and a teakettle. It was a typical wet season camp.
The slow, steady rain had started the evening of the battle and it hadn't stopped since. After five days and nights, almost everything was soaked. It was remarkably abnormal weather. In response, the Gabrielles had built a thousand campsites, each with a small lean-to packed with dry wood and foods, a shallow pit-fire, and a larger lean-to facing it for shelter. They huddled in parties of eight, watching the endless gray skies and the falling droplets as their world became soaked. At least they didn't lack drinking water.
They'd long ago exhausted their topics of conversation. Since they all knew everything the others knew, there wasn't much room for personal revelations. They'd written down all their past impressions, and diary entries of, "today it rained", had gotten tiresome. It was the boredom, the waiting, and the inability to act that was weighing on their spirits.
"I'm going to make a cup of tea," another Gabrielle announced as she stood and moved toward the fire with her cup, "does anyone else want some?"
"I've had so much tea that I can taste it in the back of my throat," the first grouched.
"I want a Pepsi," a third suddenly blurted out, then examined her words in surprise. She'd never tasted a Pepsi in this life. "Huh," she muttered.
"I wonder when this will stop," a fourth clone asked no one in particular. It had become a mantra of sorts and she didn't expect an answer.
"You and everyone else," a Gabrielle grumped from the back of the lean-to.
The muttered comments brought a sigh from a silent clone at one end of the lean-to. She despised their forced inactivity as much as the others, but she'd found something to do while she waited. Inspired by the same memories of the Amazons that had guided them all in building the campsites, she had begun crafting a fighting staff from a segment of a sapling's trunk that she'd found. She had stripped the bark, smoothed the shaft and slowly fire hardened the six-foot length. Now she was wrapping the ends with strands of a supple vine, as a substitute for the rawhide she didn't have. She'd noticed that she wasn't alone in this work. Perhaps one in six of them were fashioning some form of simple weapon, a staff, spear, chobos, or club. She hoped that maybe when the weather improved, they could do some sparring.
As she worked, she thought of the Destroyer, Athena, and their armies. Another battle was coming; she was sure of it. Since it hadn't already occurred, she could only suspect that the generals were waiting for the rain to end. Then they would fight.
This Gabrielle had thought and wondered and thought some more. How would they approach their crazed soulmate without getting themselves crucified? It wouldn't happen before the battle, she was fairly sure of that. She knew Xena. The warrior was ever suspicious of surprises. The Gabrielle doubted that there could be anything more surprising than the appearance of 8,000 of herselves. Worse, she couldn't afford to distract her soulmate during a battle. She could cause her beloved warrior to lose the fight by breaking her clones' concentration at a crucial moment.
So they would have to wait until the battle was decided before appearing. Okay, she could live with that, so long as Xena's army won. She also knew that if Xena were losing when they saw her, every one of her sisters would throw themselves into the battle even if they had to use their teeth as weapons. She tied off the vine at the end of her staff.
She and the others had discussed the topic until it was as tired as a dead horse. They had conjectured and supposed and considered all the details they knew or suspected. Their consensus was that Xena had based her army in Amphipolis. Athena's army had approached from Chalcidice. There had been fighting in the highlands and explosions down the road. A horrifying battle had been fought and won by the Destroyer of Nations. Now the greatest likelihood was that Athena's army was stalled, camped somewhere between Amphipolis and Seres. The enemy lay between them.
The topic of scouting downstream had been broached and rejected. None thought it wise to send unarmed scouts into a battle zone, especially when they suspected the first clones they'd run into would be hostile. They'd decided to stay put and then move when the rain stopped. They'd try to keep out of sight and appear to Xena's army after their victory over Athena. Maybe then, they'd have a chance to live long enough to talk with their soulmate. Maybe there would be a chance of getting her back to "normal".
Xena stood up behind her desk and solemnly addressed the evening synedrion. Her tent was silent as the praipositoi waited to hear her words. Raindrops tapped on the canvas overhead, but the strategos had predicted fair weather and every one of them believed.
"This is the seventh night of rain," she began, "and I have foreseen a clear dawn to follow. In the morning's light Athena's army will move to attack. With the rumor of Eos we will await them. On the hilltop our troops will gather in a battle line matching theirs. The cliffs guard our right flank, your preparations in the field, our left. The battle will be simple, fought only on the plain. There we will fall upon our enemies at Apollo's rising. We will spill their blood under his chariot's first charge up the sky, and by the zenith we will have our victory. On this day, Apollo's Blessing too will be ours.
You all know the plan. Your troops know every tactic and the orders to signal them. It is simple. There is only one goal. Kill 'em all. They have no place left in this world. As Apollo's chariot rides down the sky, the world's nations will kneel to a new orderÖour order, which is Ares' Way. Nike will proclaim our victory.
Athena will fall. This is fated. It is our destiny to change the world. We cannot fail. I have discerned the hand of the Moirae blessing this army with victory. Somehow we are doing their work, though to what end, only they can tell. But that is not our concern. We are warriors. Phobos, Deimos, and Nemesis are our allies. Ares has given his Blessing. We will soak this land with their blood.
When the last enemy has fallen and we alone stand upon the field, the Goddess of Wisdom will come to meet her doom. She will be crazed in her defeat and ruled by a loser's pride. It will be her downfall. When her ichor joins the blood of her army to stain this land, our victory will be complete.
You all know what to do. No other army could have achieved what you already have. No other army could gain the victory that will be ours tomorrow. Await the morning. In its light we will truly live, but through the battle's glory we will live forever."
There was no cheering, no stamping, no applause. Xena herself was deadly serious. Her voice had never risen, and though she was surprised at her own eloquence, she had spoken no lie. Her absolute confidence was not hubris or self-deception. She had foreseen victory and had labored long over her plan to implement it.
The hard part was done. Mithridates had taught her this. A great leader may triumph with mediocre warriors, but the best warriors without a leader will fall. Wars are not won with the sword alone. They are won with the mind. Only when the cunning mind leads can the strong hand follow to gain victory. Hands without minds are corpses. At the age of 17 she had led ignorant farmers to defeat a warlord. And now, the hands were the most skilled in this mortal world, guided by the preeminent strategist of their generation, and blessed by their patron god and the Fates. The execution of their plan had become almost a formality.
She looked at her officers, meeting their eyes one by one with a nod that conveyed her own blessing. When she met Prima's eyes they exchanged a private look.
There were few things a Gabrielle hated worse than being shaken awake. All through their camp, Gabrielles shook other Gabrielles awake and then did their best to mollify their anger, biting comments, and sleepy, withering looks. From every lean-to, groans and protests could be heard as clones reluctantly rose. It was 2:45 am and the watch had reported that the rain had stopped and the clouds were breaking up. Already they could see a few stars through the rents in the overcast. It had been a week since anything had been seen above them but rain.
The Gabrielles grumbled into their boots, those who had weapons hefted them, and the throng set off down the road. They left everything else behind. Either they could retrieve their things later, or it wouldn't matter anymore.
They walked briskly to waken themselves more fully, but they maintained a stealth that had long been second nature. No one spoke. They staggered their footsteps instead of creating an audible beat by marching. On the paved road, it was easier than in the Amazon forest. For a group of 8,000, they made surprisingly little noiseÖless than three teens going to a party. As their strides ate up the miles, they saw and heard no one. The road and the lands around it were unsurprisingly deserted. It was a war zone. Except for the wariness of those in the lead, the rest were searching their memories for recollections about the lay of the land in the Strymon Vale.
Continued in Chapter 11
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