Part 3 Chapter 2
By Phantom Bard
For Disclaimer: See Part 3 Chapter 1
Every step you take,
I'll be watching you.
"Harry, look at this," Albert Gibson exclaimed as he hurried into Harry Tasker's office. "Just came through the monitor on the Pappas' cable modem. They're traveling."
Harry took the printout from Gib and scanned the report.
"Two tickets to Ankara, via Atlanta, London, and Athens. Another flight from Ankara to Adana and then a commuter flight to Iskenderun. Room arrangements and a Jeep rental there too," he muttered. "What're they up to now?"
The agent sat in deep concentration for several moments, then turned to a terminal and called up information on Iskenderun. He found that the costal areas of southern Turkey hosted a combination of tourist and port/industrial cities nowadays, and Iskenderun was almost at the Syrian border. The Crusaders and Alexander the Great had come through long ago, and Alexander had defeated the Persian Emperor, Darius III, at nearby Issos, in 333 BC. He had founded the city itself, calling it Alexandretta. It had been centuries before Xena and Gabrielle's time. Harry needed information more specific to them."
"It's a damn shame that old Dr. Covington passed away," he said to Al, "she'd probably have an idea of what they'd want there."
"Well, Harry, I think I've got the next best thing," Gib told him with a wide grin. "Back when we were doing our initial research on the clones, there was a file on one of Dr. Covington's students. He was a loser who based his dissertation on her work. Lemme check some things and I'll get back to you."
"Sounds good to me," Harry muttered absently as he continued to stare at the screen.
Eight minutes later Harry's intercom came to life. It was Albert Gibson with his news.
"Harry, the guy I remembered is Dr. Raymond Fell, Ph.D., currently part owner of the Congressional Diner in Columbia, South Carolina. You want me to pick him up?"
Harry Tasker could barely believe that Janice Covington's one-time student had been so easy to find, or that he was haunting his old college town. He made a quick decision.
"No," he told Al, "we'll go talk to him. Meet me in five minutes with last night's mission video. I'll clear it with Spencer."
"What a classic," Harry commented to Al as they stood together on the sidewalk, staring at the Congressional Diner. The establishment was a pristine survivor from the 1950's, smoothly formed of gleaming stainless steel, and so absolutely faithful to the era that it could have been a movie set. Even the red, white, and blue neon on the name sign above the door, and on the trim above the windows looked authentic. The diner was both comforting and disturbing, possessed of a palpable Twilight Zone atmosphere, as though unsuspecting patrons might cross the threshold and find themselves trapped in the era of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. Harry knew he'd stick out like a sore thumb, carrying his laptop. "Let's go in and have a cup of coffee," he suggested to Al.
It was early evening in Columbia, and the two agents had driven straight to the diner after landing at Owens Municipal Airport. The flight time from Washington, D.C. in the agency's Gulfstream V had been about two hours. Despite napping on the plane, neither man had gotten even three hours' sleep since the mission the day before. Coffee would help replace the bracing cool of the November night, prodding them to stay sharp. Harry pulled open the door and held it for Al, noting how smoothly it moved on its hinges.
Habit guided their steps to a rear booth near the counter gap and the door to the kitchen. Like Xena, Harry opted for the seat facing the entrance, leaving Al to sit facing the kitchen. Within moments, a remarkably cute girl had bounced out of the door, cocking her head at them as she approached their table. The waitress wasn't unfriendly, but she was obviously appraising them. It seemed that she was curious rather than suspicious.
"Hi y'all, I'm Angie," she bubbled with a slight Texas drawl, "ya look like you could use some coffee." She smiled, looking very much like Britney Spears at 17.
"Hello, Angie, I'm Harry, and this is Al," the agent said, returning her smile. He found the young waitress' pleasantness infectious. It was also refreshingly different from the somewhat cynical attitudes that some of his daughter's friends displayed. "Coffee would be a real life saver, thanks."
Angie grinned at Harry and asked, "light cream for you, right? Cream and sugar for Al?"
Both men nodded in surprised agreement and she bounded off, energetically swinging around behind the counter towards a large shiny coffee urn.
"It really is like the Twilight Zone in here," Harry whispered. "How'd she know what we take in our coffee?" Al shrugged in response, more interested in admiring Angie's trim figure as she walked off.
"We've got a real tasty pecan pie tonight," she tossed over her shoulder to them as she pulled a pair of mugs from a stack.
"I'll have a slice," Al easily agreed, "and bring one for Harry too…he'll grumble at first and then eat it."
When she returned a couple minutes later, balancing two mugs of coffee on saucers and two dessert plates bearing slices of pie, Harry decided to ask her about Ray.
"Angie, actually we're here to speak with Dr. Fell. I'm hoping he can help us with some questions we have about the Xena Scrolls that he once studied with Dr. Covington. Is he around tonight?"
Angie looked at them again, momentarily confused by the names, then cocking her head as she'd done earlier, before answering as she set down their silverware and napkins. "Well like, you mean Ray, right? He went out, but he should be back any minute. Why don't y'all hang out and wait for him and, you know, enjoy your pie?"
They were halfway through their servings when Harry noticed two women enter the diner, one black, the other white. They were chattering happily, obviously good friends, and the agent recognized them immediately. He tapped Al's shoe to get his attention as Angie passed their table to greet her newly arrived customers. From the kitchen came the sound of a door closing as someone entered through the back.
"Karen Williams and Danielle Lefferts just walked in," Harry muttered. Al checked them out in the window reflection next to him as they sat down two booths away. He recognized them from his surveillance of the Columbia School of Martial Science. "They're students at Xena and Gabrielle's school. This could get uncomfortable."
Sure enough, Danielle looked up and instantly recognized her next door neighbor. She waved to Harry, causing Karen turned around to see who it was. After a moment Karen recognized him from the Halloween party. "Hi, Harry," they called out in chorus.
"Hi, Danielle. Hi, Karen. How are you?" Harry responded, adding a wave of his fork.
He was saved from offering conversation when a late middle-aged man appeared out of the kitchen bearing a large carving knife. He was wearing a clean white apron and had a towel draped over his left arm. Despite being dressed as a cook, the man carried himself with a subtle air of self-possession and moved with unhurried precision. Both factors conveyed a measure of dignity more appropriate to a master chef than a diner cook. He gave the agents a glance, as he moved past them behind the counter to a chalkboard, on which he scrawled, "Congressional Home Style Meatloaf", in a calligraphic script at the bottom of a list of specials. Once finished, he turned to greet his two regular customers.
"Hello, Karen. Hello, Danielle. Will you be staying for dinner?"
Al deliberately controlled his movements as he turned his head, but his eyes bugged out at the sight of the man. His voice was cultured, low pitched, and sent a chill up both agents' spines. Not only was Dr. Fell a dead ringer for Anthony Hopkins, he also sounded exactly like the distinguished actor had in one of his most memorable roles. The large knife and culinary costume completed a real life portrait of Hannibal Lecter on a break. Perhaps his last customer had been rude and he'd just finished roasting her.
Al found himself wanting to ask the man to say, "Hello, Clarice," while wondering just what he'd cooked into the meatloaf. He grinned at the impulse, realizing it was a result of fatigue. In the meantime, the agent had missed the women's answer, but saw that Harry had gotten to his feet and walked over to the counter to talk to the man.
"Dr. Fell, I realize that you're busy, but I hope you can spare me a few moments," Harry asked. The historian was regarding the agent with some interest. Almost no one greeted him with his academic title anymore. In fact, almost no one knew that he held a Ph.D. Harry continued. "I need the benefit of your expertise, in particular, about the Xena Scrolls and the importance of Alexandretta to Xena and Gabrielle."
"Let me carve a couple of servings in the kitchen and I'd be glad to speak with you," Ray said. Almost no one asked about those scrolls anymore, at least with any sincerity or actual knowledge. Most of the people who had ever come to him about them had been fans, or writers for fan websites, looking for sensationalist tidbits. Ray didn't believe for an instant that this man's interest was academic, but he was articulate and polite and had asked a specific question. Ray had always valued the ability to properly phrase a question in order to get a specific answer. A question well asked revealed knowledge rather than ignorance. He gave the man a slightly lopsided smile and turned back to the kitchen, saying, "please indulge me and I'll return in a moment."
Harry nodded in agreement and walked back to his booth. A quick glance showed that Karen and Danielle were engrossed in their own conversation. That was a relief.
The agent retrieved his laptop from the bench seat and set it on the table, then picked up his fork and continued eating his pie. By the time he was done, Ray had come back out of the kitchen. He'd removed the apron, revealing khaki slacks and a comfortable argyle sweater with elbow patches. He joined them in their booth, setting down a carafe of coffee. Before starting their talk, he refilled their mugs and one for himself.
"Dr. Fell, I'm Harry Tasker, and this is Albert Gibson," Harry said. "I'm Serena Pappas and Gabriella Covington's next door neighbor. My interest is personal…I became curious about Xena and Gabrielle after meeting my neighbors and learning about the work their great aunts, Melinda and Janice had done."
"First of all, please call me Ray. I haven't gone by 'Dr. Fell' in over a couple of decades. Second, I can easily understand becoming interested in the history of Xena and Gabrielle. I always found it captivating myself…still do, actually."
"I've read the transcripts of the scrolls on the university's website, but some of the points elude me. In visiting Alexandretta, I'd wondered if they were retracing the steps of Alexander the Great. As fellow Greeks, it would have been inspiring, I'd think."
"So, that's why you're interested in Xena and Gabrielle's trip through Alexandretta, or modern day Iskenderun," Ray began. "That would have been in 63 BC, during their return from Indus." He sipped from his mug and regarded the two men with sharp intelligent eyes. "In fact, they had no intention of following in Alexander's footsteps figuratively or literally. Xena had renounced her activities as a conqueror a decade before, in part, because she had no intention of repeating his history."
"So their being in Alexandretta was coincidental? They were only there because it was on their way back to Greece?"
"No, not at all. Xena and Gabrielle almost always had a goal in their travels," Ray said. "At that time, their intention was to take possession of a very special weapon. You see, this story starts more than a thousand years before their time. Are you familiar with Greek history and mythology in general, Harry?"
"Some of it, yes, though I'm no expert," Harry admitted. "1,600 to 1,200 BC was the Heroic Age, while 1,100 BC would have been the tail end of the Mycenaean Age. The whole culture died out or vanished."
"That's how it appears," Ray said, realizing that although Harry wasn't ignorant, he didn't have the intimate knowledge of a scholar. "But in fact, that was the time of the Second Titanomachy…the second great war between the Olympian gods and the Titans."
Ray chuckled at the look of disbelief on the faces of the two men sitting across the booth from him. Like his old teacher, he'd come to accept the existence of the Olympian gods. What he'd learned of ancient history could only make sense in conjunction with that belief. In those times, many, many things had been different.
"You see, after his victory over Cronos, Zeus imprisoned the defeated Titans in Tartarus, yet after a time that Dr. Covington guessed was around 500 to 600 years, he granted them amnesty and set them free. Eventually, angered by her husband's dalliances with Io, Hera contrived to incite the Titans to rebellion. Zeus quashed that rebellion with the aid of Apollo, Artemis, Ares, and Athena. To arm them, Hephaestos forged the four chakrams, assigned to day and night, darkness and light."
"Four? Everything I've ever read only mention the two Xena combined."
"You have to read more carefully, Harry. When Xena became Ares' Favorite, he gave her the Chakram of Darkness, his own weapon. That would have been about 77 BC. In Indus, Xena accepted the Way of the Warrior, an ancient code of ethics much like the later samurai's bushido. It was on their way back from Indus that Xena took possession of the Chakram of Light and combined it with the Chakram of Darkness to create her Combined Chakram. This was in 63 BC. Now, if you read Janice and Melinda's expedition notes, you'll recall that in Ares' Tomb they encountered a broken chakram, an uncombined chakram. This is almost certainly the same chakram that Callisto used to defeat Xena in Rome, in 44 BC. In combat with Xena's descendant, Melinda Pappas, Ares showed no fear of it. Therefore, I believe that this was the Chakram of Night, Artemis' weapon, which Callisto took sometime after her escape from Shark Island Prison in 52 BC."
"So the Chakram of Day is unaccounted for, and in theory, Apollo's weapon could still exist?"
"In theory, yes," Ray agreed. He and Janice had spent years wondering about it.
For a while, Harry fell silent, digesting Ray's information along with his pie. 2,064 years ago, Xena and Gabrielle had gone to Alexandretta to take the Chakram of Light. Now it appeared that their clones were going to back, to Iskenderun, to take the Chakram of Day. Once again there was a goal to their travels. But why would they bother, and how could they know that it would still be there after all the intervening years.
"Ray, how widely known is the existence of the chakrams?"
"Oh, I suppose that while almost any well versed scholar could eventually understand what I've told you, almost no one would believe it. Like much of ancient history, it's regarded as myth, and therefore of suspect veracity. Most academics discount the existence of the chakrams…a significant portion of them discount the existence of Xena and Gabrielle as well. I know of no archeological expedition that was ever aimed at investigating the chakrams or where they came from."
"So then, who would believe in them enough to mount an expedition?"
At this, Dr. Fell stared at Harry Tasker in shock. After a few moments, he answered.
"Other than a few diehard fans of the TV show and myself, no one."
"Would Xena and Gabrielle have gone back?"
"Nothing in Gabrielle's scrolls indicates that they ever went back to Alexandretta. They were too busy; Xena's daughter was almost five years old when they returned from Indus, and three years later, Gabrielle gave birth to her daughter, Hope. The Romans considered Xena and Gabrielle enemies of the Republic and hunted them sporadically. The only time that I know of them having returned to Asia Minor was when they went to Pergamum to capture Najara, the Crusader, in about 61 BC. They never got within two hundred-fifty miles of Alexandretta then, and they were desperate to avoid the Roman legions of Pompey the Magnus."
"I see," Harry said. Again he fell silent, thinking. Finally he opened and turned the laptop towards Ray, then tapped a key to start the DVD player.
"Dr. Fell," he said, purposely using the archeologist's formal title, "what you are about to see must remain in the strictest confidence. It is nothing less than a necessity of national security. Divulging what you are about to see will result in prosecution with extreme prejudice." Anyone who had served in the military would understand this choice of words, and Harry knew that Ray had served in Viet Nam over thirty-five years before. "Although this is highly classified, I believe you will find it fascinating."
Ray gave Harry a hard stare and then focused his attention on the small screen. The footage was surprisingly clear, but had obviously come from a body mounted camera. It showed scenes that had been shot at night in what looked like a guarded installation. He could see the spotlights, and the high fences forming a perimeter in the background. Four figures were visible, and he realized that a fifth had been bearing the camera. All of them were wearing the black battle dress uniforms and gear of a covert assault team.
Two of the figures were male, bearing Heckler and Koch assault rifles, but it was the other two figures that drew his attention. They were distinctly female, the short one bearing a pair of ventilated short swords, and a taller one carrying a shrouded body on her shoulders. Ray gave Harry a momentary questioning look, but remained silent and then continued watching. As the group neared the inner perimeter fence, they were approached by a unit of US Military Police. For a moment there was a stand off. Some words were exchanged, and then an MP raised his rifle at the taller woman. The shorter woman moved in a blur, flipping entirely over her laden companion and attacking the MPs with her blades. She dispatched them in only moments, but a second company came charging towards the group, having seen the confrontation.
It was then that the taller woman had snatched something from her belt. While still carrying the corpse, she flung it sidearm at the approaching soldiers. The object crossed the intervening space in a heartbeat, split in two, and ricocheted among the troops, rendering them unconscious. The weapon had incapacitated the six MPs in only a few seconds, and then even more incredibly, the halves rejoined and returned to the tall woman's hand. A heartbeat later the scene was shattered by explosions. Light flared the camera lens, rendering the screen white. Harry stopped the DVD.
Ray was silent, sitting and staring at the blank screen, petrified in shock. A chakram had been used in combat in the modern world. It had behaved much as it had been portrayed on the TV show, though it had moved much faster. Harry looked at him and then past him at the movement of Karen and Danielle leaving their booth. He offered them a wave goodbye, and then returned his attention to the archeologist.
"I was there last night when this happened. The operative you just saw used a chakram against modern troops. Now she has arranged to travel to Iskenderun. You've led me to believe that she may be trying to recover the Chakram of Day. I need to know why. Please, it's very important."
Ray looked up and met Harry's eyes. He saw sincerity in them, and desperation. The man might be an amateur historian, but it was only to obtain background for his work as a covert agent. It was obvious to him that Harry Tasker and Al Gibson were spies. The two women were almost certainly the clones of Xena and Gabrielle that he'd met over a year and a half ago in the Puddingstone State Recreation Area, outside of Los Angeles. He hadn't seen them now in over a year. They'd certainly found their share of trouble in the meantime, just like the original Xena and Gabrielle. Last night, they'd fought their way past US Military Police, in what was almost certainly a secured American installation. Despite all that, one thing decided whether or not he would help; he believed that Xena and Gabrielle would not be aiding an evil cause. Ray tried to focus his mind on Harry's question, grasping for an answer. Finally an idea presented itself.
"It would be the only remaining uncombined chakram," Ray said, "and it is a 'bright' chakram. Remember that these weapons were originally created to slay Titans. In a god's hands, all four were fatal to immortals, but only the 'bright' chakrams give a mortal the capability of killing an immortal. They are as deadly to a god as to a Titan."
Now it was Harry's turn to fall silent. As a modern man, it was almost impossible for him to conceive of a need for such a weapon. There were no immortals. But…Xena and Gabrielle were ancients. They believed in the gods and the Titans. They would accept the need to possess a weapon capable of slaying them, and they knew where such a weapon could be found. Harry knew that sometimes when assessing a subject's probably actions it was more important to understand their motives than to judge their options logically. The whole field of profiling had developed because of that wisdom.
"Dr. Fell, in your opinion, hypothetically speaking, would Xena and Gabrielle have tried to recover the Chakram of Day because they'd intended to slay a god or a Titan?" Harry couldn't believe that he was seriously asking this question.
Ray's answer was just as incredible.
"I would say that it is the only reason they are going to Iskenderun. In fact, I can think of no other reason that they would consider a sufficient motive." He winked at the agent.
Again, Harry Tasker fell silent. Ray Fell had used the present tense in his answer, and by that, Harry understood that Ray knew that Xena and Gabrielle were currently living. So the clones believed that they were going to war with an immortal, and their immediate course of action had become clear. Find me their enemies, Harry, Spencer Trilby had ordered. He was still working on it, but he needed sleep. The affair had taken on hallucinatory overtones and it was becoming more outlandish by the hour. Coffee wouldn't cut it much longer.
Stay with me baby And that's all I ask of you And I know that someday You won't remember The way that this moment feels to you Don't let it go Don't turn your back on what you think you know You never know you know Don't leave it alone Cause I need you to cling to
Cause you are my kind You're all that I want Here in this life Until we are gone Our breath and our skin Our hearts and our minds They're one and the same You are my kind
(Partial Lyric from, "You Are My Kind", ©2002, Santana)
The class had been in session for half an hour. At the start of the session, the soulmates had told their students that they'd be making an announcement after the warm ups and stretching. For the last half-hour, cloned Xena and Gabrielle had been dreading the disappointment their students would feel when they revealed that the school was going to be suspended until further notice…again. Especially after having been back in session for only three weeks. Now the time had come. Gabrielle bit her lip and Xena grimaced as they called the students over to sit in a semicircle in front of them.
In a second story room across the street, a surveillance camera was recording.
The soulmates stared down at the expressions of anticipation on the faces of the six people seated before them and searched for the words to make their news understandable. For another moment they stared at each other. Xena shrugged. Gabrielle began.
"I'm sure you're all wondering what we're going to tell you now," the blonde said. It was a lame introduction and she knew it. She rolled her eyes as the words slipped out. "I guess the easiest thing to do is just come out and say it. Because of certain unforeseen circumstances, Serena and I have decided that it's necessary to suspend classes until further notice. We'll be leaving the country tomorrow…on business…and it won't be safe for any of you to be on the premises until after this business is taken care of." She stopped and glanced at the semi-circle of faces looking back at her in shock.
"This is about those two women that attacked you, isn't it?" Ronnie Chu asked. The others nodded in agreement, all of them curious.
"Yes it is," Xena answered.
"So, who were they? Why did they attack you?" This from Debbie Ryan.
"We really can't explain all this easily," Gabrielle answered, "and it may be better if you don't know. They are very dangerous…people…and the less possibility you have of contact with them the better."
"Just what's going on here?" Alexander Williams asked, using the not-really-a-question tone of a policeman. "Those women were out to kill you and they said some pretty incredible things. So did you. It's rather disturbing to know that those psychos are out there and that they could come back at any time. They would have killed an ordinary citizen. You two know about them, and I want to know just how much of a danger they pose. I'm worried about you, and if nothing else, they're a menace to the public. At that point, it's part of my job."
After that, silence descended on the group. Xena and Gabrielle mentally groaned while the students awaited their answer with rapt attention. This was better than Oprah. The cloned warrior looked at her soulmate and shrugged again, as if to say, "what the hell".
"Well ya see, it's like this," Xena began, "they're old enemies…."
"Really old enemies," Gabrielle interjected, and then bit her lip.
"…and they're out to settle some old scores," Xena resumed. "They attacked us here because it was convenient…semi-private, and with room for combat. I don't think they'll threaten anyone else unless they think they can get to us by doin' it. I don't expect 'em to go on a rampage and slaughter the public, Alex, if that's what you're worried about."
"It's a vendetta and we have to settle it ourselves," Gabrielle said. "But until we finish with this, it wouldn't be safe for any of you to be here, just in case they came back looking for us."
"You saw them," Xena added, "would you wanna face 'em by yourselves?"
"Hell no," Alex said, "but all of you were talking about things like they happened thousands of years ago and it just didn't make sense. There's more to this than a dispute between two couples that don't get along. And what was all that talk about thousands of dead? Anything that big would have been on the news." He paused to collect himself and then continued, trying to affect sympathetic concern. "Look, since that first day when Marcus and I came in here, I sensed that something odd was going on. It was mostly little things you two said, but then you started showing us stuff no one knows. Sometimes it seemed like you related to the past more than the present.
Then those two psychos showed up and suddenly it's like some twisted bit of history being relived. I know what your great aunts studied and I know about the TV show. Isn't this really all about the four of you being so immersed in that ancient reality that you feel compelled to act out? You're validating yourselves by living the anachronisms of heroes from the ancient world. It's an aggrandized form of role-playing that borders on delusion, right? Well, I suppose it's mostly harmless, until someone gets hurt. But now that's happened, and you've got to stop this. It's gone beyond fun and games and I think you need help."
At first the clones could only stare at Alex Williams in amazement. Xena was reminded of the FBI agents in Quantico, who'd assumed that she was a spy herself. Yup, people believe what they want to, she thought, no matter how ridiculous it is.
"Alex, this is far more serious than play acting," Gabrielle said. "As our most senior student, you can help most by watching out for the others. Don't worry about us."
"Yeah," Xena agreed, "the best way for you to help us is to stay away from here an' let us take care of it. Ya don't wanna get involved in this," she warned, "'cause believe me, you're nowhere near ready."
The teachers and their students were staring silently at each other in a contest of wills. Everyone was uncomfortable. Across the street the camera was recording the visual though it was too far away to record the sound. The standoff continued until the newly replaced front window glass shattered inward, spraying the room with shards.
Xena and Gabrielle had ducked and covered by reflex but the students were frozen in shock. Then everyone was scrambling. The students, oblivious to the minor cuts they'd received, were leaping up and tripping over their feet as they retreated to the back of the room. Xena and Gabrielle quickly stood side by side, facing the single figure that had stepped through the window frame and was pacing towards them.
This time their enemy was a stranger. An unfamiliar female warrior, she was as tall as Xena, just as powerfully built, and she moved with the habituated grace of a deadly predator. The soulmates sensed that this enemy was a prolific killer, confident and efficient and focused. Like Callisto and Mavican, she was dressed in black woven armor, but this time it formed a full kataphractes, covering her body from neck to toe in a figure-hugging, lightly quilted jumpsuit. She wore the same material covering her head, fashioned into a kranos, whose design harked back to the Corinthian helms of the Peloponnesian hoplites. Over it, a bronze headband bearing the emblem of Medusa's head encircled her temples. Her face was hidden by the long nose-guard and wide cheek protectors, revealing only her dark eyes and her mouth, which was set in a grim line. Like the clones, she understood the menace that came with silence. She didn't speak as she continued towards the soulmates, but at about a dozen paces, she drew twin black-bladed longswords from scabbards crossed over her back.
"Get out the back!" Gabrielle yelled to the students in warning, "Now!"
The students began to move, but instead of starting for the back door as ordered, they moved to the weapons rack. The shock that had affected them when Callisto and Mavican had appeared didn't paralyze them again. Instead, it had been replaced with resentment. This time there had been no taunts or bragging, and their teachers didn't have their own swords. There was only one enemy, not two. Every student had been stung by their teachers' words of dismissal, and now they intended to be a part of this battle. Alexander Williams began handing out the weapons.
The inexperienced students thought that the odds were in their favor, for they outnumbered their enemy eight to one. To the soulmates, who didn't have the time to correct them, the six students were a liability who would have to be both protected and avoided in the fight. Xena and Gabrielle knew from long years of experience that a single warrior could prevail in this kind of engagement by using their opponents' numbers against them. The stranger was perfectly armed for that kind of fighting; her two long blades could preserve her personal space and threaten all quarters held against her. If anything, the stranger held the advantage since they didn't have their personal weapons.
"Keep her in the center," Xena ordered, "and don't let her get behind you. Attack in threes. Do not fight her one-on-one."
It was all the advice she had time to give. The students quickly encircled the stranger in a ring of swords, spears, and staves, forming a perimeter about a dozen paces across. Unfortunately, the stranger wasn't distracted by the students. She kept her focus on the soulmates and only gave the others her peripheral awareness. As she continued forwards, Xena and Gabrielle stood their ground and let her come.
Rather than backing up to maintain the circle's size, Ronnie and Danielle who flanked the clones remained at their teachers' sides, while Alex, Karen, Debbie, and Owen closed in behind the enemy. The circle tightened and the clones mentally shook their heads in exasperation over the students' inexperience.
At four paces the unknown fighter struck. She lashed out with both blades as she feinted right and then attacked to her left. Debbie and Owen hesitated for a split-second. They were disarmed and knocked unconscious in rapid succession after only a couple of moves. The stranger's recovery included a leaping spinning hook kick that dropped Karen Williams with a precise blow to the back of her head. The enemy controlled her landing with exquisite balance, planting both feet evenly like a gymnast while letting the impact coil her legs, and then she rebounded powerfully upwards.
She went airborne, somersaulting over Alex and leaving a long gash across his right arm with one of her swords. He jabbed at her with his spear and grazed her back, but the point couldn't penetrate her woven armor. At the same time, Gabrielle was backflipping towards the weapons rack as Xena leapt into a forward roll and recovered the sabre Owen had lost. The stranger engaged Alexander Williams with two swords against his spear. She was moving forward and driving him back as Danielle Lefferts joined him, brandishing a second spear. The two students worked together well, covering each other and forcing their enemy to defend as well as attack, but they were only buying their teachers time and they knew it. The stranger was moving too fast, she had too much practical combat experience, and she was a far more talented fighter.
Xena saw Gabrielle reach the weapons rack, and she smiled with approval when she saw her soulmate's choice. The blonde had snatched up the gorytos, slung it over her shoulder, and withdrawn the bow. The cloned warrior charged forward to join Alex and Danielle, hoping to buy Gabrielle the time she needed to prepare. As she came at the stranger's shield side she saw the blond already placing the toxon against her foot and bending it to hook the string. Surprisingly, she had actually become a more proficient toxotès than Xena, having spent long years practicing her archery with the Amazons. Xena had always had the chakram.
Danielle and Alex were retreating slowly towards the front of the school, giving ground and leading their enemy away from the fallen students and Gabrielle. Xena attacked the stranger from the other side, hoping to drive her in the same direction while taking some pressure off her students. She was only mildly surprised that this unknown warrior was able to fend her off with one sword while holding the two spears at bay with the other.
For a few moments the cloned warrior continued to probe her enemy's abilities, and then she accelerated her attack to her normal fighting speed. Her powerful blows came in a smooth and continuous assault, forcing her enemy to commit more attention to her than to the spear fighters on her other side. In the moments while she was adjusting her defense, Danielle slipped through the stranger's guard, jabbing her weapon forcefully into ribs exposed below the sword-arm that was raised to counter a high attack by Alex. The spearhead had struck cleanly, jerking the woman's body around, turning her partially away from Xena, but the woven armor didn't allow it to penetrate. Instead, the enemy went with the impact, rotating her body to shed the blow's force, and lashing out in a wide arc with both swords.
Her technique was flawless and she was moving so fast. The first blade sheared off Danielle's spearshaft a foot below the head as it withdrew, and the second opened a deep gash across the top of the CWO's left thigh, her leading leg. As she fell, the stranger continued her rotation to meet Alex. Xena leaped in from the other side scoring a slash across her back, yet the woven armor held again and she remained uninjured. Even so, the strength of the cloned warrior's blow broke the stranger's continuity and her first sword glanced off Alex's spear. The second blade whistled harmlessly a hand's width above his head and he jerked back away from the blade by reflex.
Xena moved forward and drove the hilt of her sword into her enemy's lower back, knocking her off balance. Had Alexander still been in position, he could have had her. Maybe even a direct thrust in the chest with his spear wouldn't have penetrated the armor, but the force of such a blow could have driven her backward onto her knees. It could have provided Xena with an opening to wrench her head back and cut her throat. Instead, she staggered a half step forward, recovered her balance, and then leapt into the air in a spinning move that would have brought both swords down against the cloned warrior.
The stranger was a yard above the floor, her leading sword extending, the second on the backswing. Her rotation was bringing the first blade to bear and Xena knew she'd barely get her own blade up to meet it. She expected the force of the blow to drive her off her feet since it was carrying her attacker's entire bodyweight behind it, and she intended to immediately roll out of range of that second sword. At the same time, she sensed the air compression of Gabrielle's first arrow crossing the space behind her.
The bolt passed within inches of Xena's left ear. The bard's shot was perfectly aimed, perfectly timed. With a resounding crack it shattered the bronze band that encircled the stranger's helm, tearing the entire kranos off. The force of the impact slammed her head to the side. Her sword went off target as well, and Xena deflected it easily with the spine of her sabre. The stranger made a barely controlled landing in front of the warrior, despite having taken a heavy blow to the head. It should have stunned her or maybe even snapped her neck. Xena drove her left fist into the woman's belly with enough force to shatter a brick and it felt like striking a wall. The blow's only effect was to drive the air from her lungs with an audible huff before she straightened.
Then for a few heartbeats Xena was face to face with the stranger. She was definitely no one the cloned warrior had ever met in any lifetime. The woman's face held an aristocratic beauty, with planes strongly delineated by angular cheekbones, a widow's peak at her hairline, elegantly arched eyebrows, a straight nose, and generous lips over even white teeth. Skin that shone with health and vigor lay smooth and warmly tanned. Her eyes were as deep and ancient as a midnight sea, filled with power and mystery. Like her aunt's, it was a face that would have launched a thousand ships and driven kingdoms of men to war. That face was framed by a long fall of wavy hair, colored like fine dark chocolate, that hung below her breasts in a tight braid where it had flipped forward over her shoulder.
Xena, the daughter of an innkeeper from Thrace, had the distinct impression that she was confronting a woman of high noble birth; a princess or a queen perhaps, for this stranger possessed that intangible aura of aristocracy that a common born person of the ancient world would have viscerally recognized. Xena felt dismissal in the stranger's eyes, though the expression on her face remained neutral, set in a beautiful, cold warrior's mask as complete as her own had ever been. She would never have forgotten that face.
"Who are you," the Warrior Princess whispered without even hearing her own words.
The woman's return blow drove Xena backward off her feet. She hadn't even seen it coming. The stranger had telegraphed absolutely no intent and the strike had come so fast that she hadn't even been able to start clenching her stomach muscles. It had been years since Xena had been taken so completely, and she lay on her back willing the nausea and pain down so she could get back to her feet. The woman was moving again.
She turned as she ducked below the path of Gabrielle's second arrow, meeting the advancing Alexander Williams with a slash across the chest using the sword in her left hand. Then she turned back and advanced on Gabrielle.
Xena saw Ronnie Chu move between the stranger and her soulmate, armed with the sais Gabrielle sometimes used in practice sessions. He was standing only a couple yards in front of the blonde and slightly to her left. Gabrielle had knocked a third toxeuma and had drawn as her enemy approached. She had chosen the weapon knowing that a fighter with a sword in each hand can't catch an arrow no matter how quick their reflexes. Her first shot had uncovered the stranger's head, providing a target. Now she intended to send this shaft into the stranger's eye from only a couple body lengths away, while the bolt was still accelerating from the bowstring, and when it would be hardest to avoid.
Xena lurched back onto her feet as the woman charged past her. She could see the potential disaster unfolding as she desperately tried to close the distance. Even if she screamed for Ronnie to get clear, he wouldn't be able to move fast enough. She charged after the stranger, but the woman needed only the heartbeats while she was still too far away. The enemy feinted to her left and Ronnie reacted by reflex to counter her movement, blocking Gabrielle's line of fire. And as Xena launched herself forward, the horror unfolded.
The woman took to the air again, leaping high and turning away from Ronnie. She hung in space as she drew in her arms and legs, almost motionless for a heartbeat, and then she snapped her hips into the turn to initiate a counterclockwise rotation that left her spinning fast. She lashed out with her right foot as she completed her first rotation, delivering a roundhouse kick that sent the student flying. Then, as her second rotation began, she deployed one sword outward like a scythe, it's slight mass only barely slowing her spin. Her long braid whipped outward as if counterweighing the extended sword, while she held the second sword defensively across her back. She was a blur, probably moving at eight revolutions per second, her technique displaying lethal perfection.
Almost as soon as she'd left the ground, Gabrielle had stretched her stance forward, lowering herself to become a smaller target and turning the bow sideways. She never let off of the tension on the string, keeping the arrow steady and waiting to reacquire her target, but with the bow held horizontally at waist height she couldn't sight down the arrow's shaft. It would be like firing a sidearm from the hip at a major league fastball. When Ronnie Chu obscured her line of fire, and she'd been forced to hold fast. She was still waiting for a clear shot when the blade came down from above the bow and slashed her neck. Almost as an afterthought, she released the arrow. It impacted on the woman's collarbone, deflected harmlessly off her armor, and lodged in the nearest wall.
The stranger's feet hadn't even touched the ground when Xena tackled her around the calves with both arms as she extended her body fully in a flying leap. The two women crashed to the floor, landing hard only a body length from the stricken bard.
Xena went berserk. She crawled up the stranger's body, clinging to her with clawing fingers, pummeling her with both fists, and finally slamming her in the face with her forehead so hard that she herself saw stars. She used knees and elbows, staying too close for her enemy's swords to be of much value, shrugging off the blows that rained on her in return, and venting the madness and rage of her protective instincts for her soulmate. She barely remembered a bit of it afterwards, but at some point she managed to disjoint the woman's left elbow with a satisfying crack. It only ended when the stranger smashed Xena's left hand between the floor and the pommel of the sword in her right hand, and then backhanded her solidly with the hilt, leaving her dazed. She staggered to her feet.
For a moment she stood unsteadily, bleeding over the cloned warrior, and then Ronnie Chu jumped her like a madman, screaming hysterically and raining a flailing whirlwind of undisciplined blows on her with the sais. He blocked her sword twice, mostly by luck, then laid her cheek open with a wild slash, and finally she retreated, crashing into the weapons rack before fleeing the school and disappearing into the night. Ronnie dropped his weapons, crumpled to his knees, and promptly threw up.
Cloned Xena scrabbled across the floor to where Gabrielle lay still, near the upended weapons rack. She had no idea how much time had passed since the blonde had been wounded, or even how badly she'd been hurt. Seeing the stranger's sword slash across her partner's neck had made her snap inside, and only now, after the fight was over, did she begin to come back to her senses. She dimly registered pain in her hands and looked down. Her right thumb was dislocated, and the first two knuckles on her left hand were laid open so that she could see the bones. Vaguely, she noted several bruised or broken ribs as well. She grabbed her disjointed thumb and forced it back in place, then blocked the rest of the damage out as much as she could and kept moving, crawling over and finally collapsing next to her soulmate.
At a glance she could tell that Gabrielle was badly hurt. The neck wound was pumping weakly and her skin was pallid. When she rested her hand on the blonde's forehead she found it clammy and all too cool to the touch. The bard was suffering from shock and severe blood loss.
"Gabrielle…" Xena croaked through swollen lips, half question and half plea.
The bard's eyes were slow in shifting to her face and even slower to focus. The warmth of recognition in them was quickly fading. In the distance there were sirens wailing.
"Xena?" Gabrielle's whisper was airy and weak, "…never saw her before…don't want to leave you…"
"I'm not letting you go!" Xena choked out in desperation. She found that she could no longer see clearly. She blinked angrily, but still didn't suspect tears. "I won't let you go!"
Somehow Gabrielle found the strength to give her frantic lover a sad smile.
"…so lucky to have found you again…" she whispered, "…so happy to have a little more time, love…cold now…going."
"Oh, Gabrielle, no. If you go then I'm coming with you. You know I'd rather be on the other side with you than livin' in this miserable world alone. I'll meet you there…I'll...I need you…"
"No," Gabrielle said with surprising strength, "no, Xena, not yet…still a battle to fight… now I know why I…I wasn't in Ares' vision…"
She gasped and closed her eyes; her breathing labored and shallow. Blood was barely pumping from the neck wound anymore. She knew this feeling…Caesar, the cross, the darkness calling, enveloping her in its silken cradle. She felt so light. Just one last moment in the world…
Xena leaned down and brought her lips to Gabrielle's one last time, revisiting the kiss they'd shared on that Ides of March before being separated for their crucifixions. Her outpouring of love and anguish met with the last traces of its counterpart as the bard's soul left her body. For a blessed moment Xena's clone felt herself enveloped by a warmth she had never felt in any life, a pure embrace of the spirit that held her with care and love in such measure as to overwhelm even the heritage of the blood she'd been born with. And then it fled to the next world, leaving the warrior with only a shocking cold emptiness that rang with loneliness and despair. Her heart felt hollow in the wake of its passing; just the vacant shell of some dead sea creature, stilted, hardened, and beyond hope, a husk that would never realize its potential in this life and existed now only as a receptacle for sediment.
In the heartbeats before she raised her head, everything that had changed when she'd found the dead clone of her daughter was reinforced, and more besides. Within Xena's clone, the hungry void that Gabrielle's love had left in her heart began to fill with the fire in her blood, her soul desperately needing to somehow fill the vacuum. The humanity and warmth that being in love had conferred, in sharing both the receiving and the giving, were sloughing away like a snake's shed skin, until only the most tenuous link remained. Now her wounds were nothing. This modern world was nothing. She no longer saw the injured students or the damaged school. She no longer heard the sirens.
She lifted Gabrielle's body as she'd lifted her daughter's body the night before, stopped only to retrieve the cowl her soulmate had shot from their enemy's head, and walked away from the school, heedless of the tears drying on her cheeks. On the street she ignored the sirens and flashing lights as the police cars raced past her. In their haste, they ignored her as well. Xena paced the mile back to the house in silence, undisturbed and in a state of shock. She didn't stop until she was again standing in the clearing on the Pappas estate, where the remains of Eve's pyre still lay unscattered but cold. That she had borne Gabrielle's body all that way didn't register at all. She felt no fatigue. Physical sensation had been blunted by her will, by her blood. Somewhere along the way, her ribs had ceased to bother her.
Over the next half-hour Xena raised a pyre for her soulmate using all the remaining stacked wood. It would burn for hours; rising into the night with an intensity that she hoped would be visible on Olympus half a world away. She had no oil but it wouldn't matter. Kindling was abundant in the clearing. Xena lay Gabrielle's body down with the kranos below her feet but said no farewell, then she lit the pyre and watched the creeping flames engulf the logs, wrapping the body of her beloved bard as if in the blanket of her love. Xena's clone stood silent, for once not singing the requiem, but simply stroking the lock of Gabrielle's hair that she had cut, endlessly through her fingers.
Sometime during the pyre's life, as its hungry flames rose and fell, the last of cloned Xena's human warmth burned away as well. The last of the bond that she had shared with mortals through her love for Gabrielle stretched thinner and thinner until finally, with the pop of an ember, it sundered.
Never before her death in Rome had she freed her will so completely. In doing so now, she became, not unleashed, the Destroyer of Nations, embracing her not just long enough for a fight, nor in the monitored way that she had when she intended to recage the beast. In the ancient world, the Destroyer of Nations had lived to achieve ambitions of which self-preservation had been an integral part. Now Gabrielle was gone. This was not her world. She was adrift with nothing to ground her save the coming conflict with Athena. In this life, there was nothing left for her but vengeance. Now the modern world would see a Destroyer of Nations that the ancient world had been spared; one who sought to build no empire, relished no conquest, and had no intention of living beyond her revenge. She would take the fated path of destiny that had been lost to eternity over two thousand years before.
Hours later, with the first crescent of the waxing moon slipping by overhead, she whispered to the crackling flames a formal Sacramentum Bellicus, with all the stars in the heavens as her witness.
"By all the gods still living, and all of those long dead, I shall bring destruction on my enemies and I shall see their blood flow. Upon the livin' and the dead, and those of immortal blood, I shall visit my wrath in vengeance for the wrongs done at their hands. May the gods hear and bless my deeds."
The words were barely uttered before the familiar blue light flared into the clearing. Before her stood Ares, her patron god. He looked at her for long moments before he approached, and when he stood beside her, he raised her left hand. The gash across her knuckles that had shown down to the bones only hours before was already closed and pink with new-grown flesh. A slight gasp escaped her. She hadn't bothered to tend it. Despite having always been quick to heal, never had the process of regeneration moved so rapidly. She looked up in question at the God of War and he explained.
"You have freed yourself from old constraints, Xena," Ares said, "and now your true potential reveals itself. The blood in your veins can only exercise its full virtue in concert with your will. Through your loss, at least something was gained." Surprisingly, his voice was wholly devoid of gloating or satisfaction. What had transpired this night, awaited for millennia, was far too grave a change to demean with ego, even his.
"So it's true?" Xena dispassionately asked. Always a suspicion yet always in doubt, her parentage had been a question that she'd mostly tried to ignore. Wondering about it had had no practical value, and knowing the answer would have made no difference in the past. Now, knowing her potential had become strategically important. "The blood of the gods runs in me."
"You are a child of war," Ares answered decisively. "You have never before embraced your birthright. Do you accept it now?"
"Yes. I accept it and I ask for your Blessing on my campaign," Xena answered just as decisively. Anything that would have stopped her lay dead in the past. "I prepare to fight Athena and her forces, whatever they may be."
"Then you have my Blessing, Favorite," Ares said as he briefly leaned forward and gave her a soft quick kiss. He pulled back and told her, "but now there's a lot to do. Expect trouble from the modern world at the start, but I don't doubt that you'll be victorious in the end. You'll also have allies in your fight." Before she could continue, he cocked his head towards the house, and when she projected her senses, she heard people moving towards them. "Some minor trouble is coming, but your allies will assist you."
Ares flashed out of sight and Xena waited by the pyre, silently watching the flames. Five minutes later a dozen Columbia policemen surrounded her. They asked her questions and she stared at them as if they were speaking a foreign language. They insisted that she accompany them and bound her hands with shackles she knew she could snap with a twist of her wrists. When she saw that they weren't going to try to put out the pyre, she went with them, got into their car, and went to the station. They sat her in an interrogation room and spent the rest of the night asking more questions. During the entire time, she looked at an imaginary point somewhere behind them and said nothing. The Destroyer of Nations was busy premeditating war.
Columbia Municipal Police detectives Mark Castors and Virgil Polick stood in the hallway outside interrogation room #3, sipping cups of bad coffee. Castors and Polick were tired and frustrated. They'd spent almost five hours in a marathon questioning session and had yet to get any kind of response from their subject, Serena Pappas.
Just a week before, they'd questioned her under much more cordial circumstances, concerning the prior invasion of the karate school she ran with a partner that several witnesses claimed had been killed in the previous night's attack. Last night, the witnesses stated, a lone female stranger had entered the premises and begun assaulting the occupants with a pair of swords. Their account of the events had been outlandish, and the body of the teacher they'd reported killed had yet to be found. It had last been seen in Serena Pappas' arms as she'd left the scene of the crime.
Patrolmen hadn't found either woman at the couple's home and had only later discovered the Serena Pappas deep in the spacious backyard, standing beside a bonfire that looked suspiciously like an old time funeral pyre. It had already been burning for many hours by then and no bodily remains had been visible at that time. Still, the woman hadn't been cooperative since. She'd sat silent and unmoving, as if deep in shock, blankly staring straight ahead, and for all practical purposes, ignoring them.
"She's a basket case," Castors muttered, "and this coffee sucks." He stuffed the half-full cup into a bullet can standing a few paces down the hall.
"I think she knows stuff," Polick said with certainty, "she's a hostile witness, maybe she's even involved somehow. Did the Covington woman have life insurance?"
"We're checking that," his partner said, "and looking over their estate. You know that at one time her family owned most of the land Columbia sits on? Anyway, prelim looks like they shared the inheritance equally."
"Maybe it was a crime of passion."
"Maybe…she certainly seems unstable now," Castors claimed, "but the students said they were fighting together against the assailant…it doesn't add up. No, I'm guessing traumatic grief. We've just gotta get her talking."
"Maybe we should try harder," Polick suggested, "be a little more forceful…."
Mark Castors looked at him for a moment, somewhere between disbelief and disdain.
"You heard the students," he said, "she dragged down that woman and pummeled her with her bare hands, and that after the woman had been cutting up the others with those swords. You want to get killed and then have to face a lawsuit for brutality? Next there'd be an IA investigation. Hell with that. Anyway, she's loaded…old money. You know how that works. It's not worth it."
"So what do you suggest?" Polick asked. "Give her sympathy and understanding? Do a touchy feel-good interrogation? Get a shrink? Bake some cookies?"
"No. We wear her down, keep her awake, no water, no rest breaks, no getting out of that chair until she talks. Maybe we can play on her conscience or her grief. We'll get her to talk eventually. Time's on our side."
Even as he said the words, the detectives heard a commotion in the station's reception area. There were loud voices, one of them the captain's. Out of curiosity, the pair walked out of the hallway and stood in the day room where they could see the goings on.
Two men in dark tailored suits were talking with the captain. They were sharp looking enough to be either Feds or mobsters. In the reception area behind the men, they counted eight Special Services officers in black BDUs, all armed with HK MP5s. The men wore Kevlar helmets and full assault gear. Definitely Feds then, and deadly serious, they decided. The detectives moved closer so they could overhear the conversation, but the captain spotted them and made the effort moot by waving them over.
"Detectives Castors and Polick, these are agents Phillips and DeMarco of the FBI," the captain said. "They're here to take over the Pappas investigation and transfer the suspect to their facility." He consulted a sheaf of official papers and specified, "You're to hand over the 'witness', any physical evidence, all the files, all your recordings, and any other pertinent information pertaining to last night's incident, and the incident of November 2nd. Is that clear?"
"Yes, sir," the detectives said in unison, their relief at dumping the case outweighing their resentment at this Federal Bureau intrusion. They could be done with it in time for a long Friday lunch break. The detectives suppressed matching smiles.
They looked the agents over. One was in his mid-forties with rounded facial features and a slight paunch, the other appeared to be about the same age, with chiseled good looks and a solid muscular build. The two agents returned their gaze evenly, all business. They were obviously field personnel, not desk jockeys.
"If you'll direct me to Serena Pappas, agent Phillips here will gather the evidence," the stocky agent said with a slight European accent. "I'm sure we can transfer the subject without difficulty." He gestured to the Special Services officers, using a series of hand signs. Four of them broke off and approached, falling in behind him.
"I'll show you to the room where we're holding Ms. Pappas," Detective Castors offered. He turned to face his partner and asked, "Virgil, would you pull the case files from records, and get what we have on the desk?" Detective Polick nodded his assent and led the other agent away to get the paperwork.
Mark Castors entered interrogation room #3 and found Serena Pappas just as he'd left her. She hadn't moved. He sat down and explained that she was being released into the custody of the FBI, and that she was to accompany one Agent DeMarco who was waiting outside. There was no reaction. He sighed and got up to leave. At the door, he signed some paperwork for the transfer and briefly whispered to the FBI agent.
"She's in there, and I'd say she's almost catatonic. Hasn't said a word all night. I'll go and get the tape recordings. Hope you have more luck with her than we have."
Even when Harry Tasker entered the room, the FBI ID badge hanging from the pocket of his suit jacket, she only gave a slight twitch of her left eyebrow in recognition. When the four Special Services officers surrounded her, she got up and followed them out in silence. Within minutes, Harry rejoined them, carrying a stack of cassettes. As they walked through the reception area and out into the chilly morning, they passed a pair of patrolmen coming in off their shift. The cops gave them only a passing glance of curiosity and boredom as they headed to an extended black van. Shortly later Al and the other four operatives joined them, carrying a box holding bagged evidence and folders of notes. As they drove away, Harry and Al tossed their FBI IDs into a briefcase.
Back in the police station, one of the recently returned patrolmen was lounging at a table with a cup of coffee. He noticed Detective Castors passing by and questioned him out of idle curiosity, hoping for a tidbit of gossip.
"So what did that DEA agent want with the Pappas woman?" The patrolman asked.
"Whatcha mean DEA?" Detective Castors asked. "The captain said those two suits were FBI. That's what their IDs said…Special Agents Phillips and DeMarco."
"Two agents? Well, the big guy I just saw showed up with his muscle at the school last week and searched it for evidence before you guys got there with the CSI," the officer told him, "so last week at least the big guy was DEA." After a moment's thought he wondered, "unless they change departments really quick up there in Washington."
"Or unless we've been had," Castors said, looking towards the door as if he'd catch a glimpse of the long departed black van. Finally he turned away and dumped his coffee cup into a nearby bullet can, muttering, "this coffee sucks."
The black van drove directly to Owens Municipal Airport, where Harry Tasker and Albert Gibson took the evidence and led their "prisoner" to their agency's Gulfstream V. The Special Services officers drove off in the van. A quarter-hour after leaving the police station, the jet was in the air, headed for Reagan International Airport in Washington, DC.
Fall upon my knees
Find a way to lie
'Bout a home I'll never see
It may sound absurd
But don't be naive
Even heroes have the right to bleed
I may be disturbed
But won't you concede
Even heroes have the right to dream
it's not easy to be me
Up, up and away, away from me
Well it's alright
You can all sleep sound tonight
I'm not crazy or anything
(Partial lyric from "Superman", Recorded by Five For Fighting)
Aboard the private jet, Harry and Al ushered Xena to one of the four mid-cabin seats surrounding a small conference table. They took two more of the seats for themselves and placed the briefcase on the fourth. Now that they were safely in the air, with neither the Columbia police nor their own operatives nearby, they could frankly discuss recent events. Since last seeing her after their mission, many things had changed.
"We're taking you to our headquarters, Xena," Harry said, "things have progressed so far that I think it's time we pooled our resources."
Xena said nothing, and though she was listening carefully, she continued to stare out the cabin window next to her seat. Far below them lay Columbia. The home where she'd briefly shared her recreated life with her soulmate dwindled in a distance composed of both space and time. Even if she returned to the Pappas house there would be no homecoming; Gabrielle was gone and the rooms would feel empty, the walls cold.
A whisp of cloud interposed itself, obscuring the landscape below. For a moment she pondered, is this how the gods see us an' our world? Is this how she sees us? Small, distant, an' insignificant; a toy world on which to impress her will?
"There are a lot of things we've found out since the mission," Harry continued, "and I think there are a lot of holes you can fill in. The black body armor is made of spider silk from genetically engineered goats. We don't know how the Livia DVD from the cloning lab was filmed. We blew up the lab but we never caught the people responsible. I know finding Eve's body hurt you, and then when we learned that Gabrielle had been killed…. Xena…?" He paused, noticing that she hadn't responded at all. Harry watched her. He saw her blink once, and then slowly turn her head to face him.
"Have you any idea at all about what you've become involved in?" She asked.
Her voice was cold and almost without expression, but her gaze had taken on an intensity that pinned the agent to his seat. He met her eyes and found his world focused on them alone, his peripheral vision narrowing down to a tunnel, excluding the cabin. The muffled roar of the engines faded. It was a timeless place whose boundaries were demarcated by her personality. He became intensely aware of his breathing, the sudden dryness of his mouth, and the beating of his heart. Harry Tasker had seldom felt such a demanding presence, and he had long since become immune to personal magnetism. Next to Xena, Albert Gibson sat equally enthralled.
"Everything ya know is insufficient to prepare you for the battle ahead," Xena said, "all your technology and tactics won't save the world, 'cause you're facing an enemy that no one in this world believes in. Even your greatest army with their most powerful weapons can't harm her."
"That's why we need your help," Harry said, surprised that he could speak at all after hearing what she'd said. After what he'd seen on the disc, and what he'd seen on the surveillance recording, he couldn't discount her claims completely. "We don't know…"
"No." Xena's voice had sharpened. "That's why I need your help. I need your peoples' resources, nothing more. I will fight the battle…this enemy is mine."
"Xena, you can't fight an enemy like this alone. We can give you weapons and intel. We can provide support anywhere in the world, but we don't have large numbers of troops. At some point we'll have to bring in outside assets…."
Xena heard what he said, but her attention slipped to the edgy sensation she felt running across her skin. It was like the tingling precursor to an electric shock, when a body becomes a charged pole counterpoised to its environment. The cabin was not secure and they were not alone. With the infallible sense that she had always enjoyed, the warrior shifted her attention to a seat across the aisle at the front of the cabin. Its back was to her, but as she watched, it swiveled around revealing the God of War. She gave Ares a slight nod of acknowledgment. Harry took a quick glance in the direction she'd looked and having seen nothing, returned his attention to her. Her eyes awaited his truant focus.
"You're right, Harry," Xena softly conceded, "I can't fight a war against this enemy alone." And then her voice lowered to the tone of uncontested command that had once ordered a few thousand fighters to conquer half of Greece. "You will build me an army."
Harry could only stare at her in drop-jawed amazement. At the same time, he felt the reflexive impulse to comply. This was not the woman who had bolted across her yard, dodging her car and leaping a hedgerow, to confront him about his motorcycle on moving day. In all his life the agent had never faced a will so dominating, so imperious, or so utterly compelling. Across the table, Albert Gibson was unconsciously nodding his head in agreement, already completely bewitched.
"How?" He whispered.
"We fight fire with fire, Harry. You already know what I am, and ya know what Eve was." Again her glance momentarily strayed to the seat at the front of the cabin. "You take the cells from me and grow 'em. I know you can figure out how it's done. I need 8,000 clones. I need the woven body armor for 'em. I'll handle the weapons and trainin'."
Harry Tasker could only groan. Yes, it probably could be done…eventually. Yes, such an army would be devastatingly lethal. Yes, the strategy was sound. And it was the scariest proposal he'd ever heard. What he knew about Xena and Gabrielle told him that such an army would be genetically enhanced, capable of being trained to a level unattainable by regular troops. After what he'd just experienced in the past few minutes, it was obvious that they would be inspired by a personality that would make the charisma of Hitler or Kennedy seem like a shallow pantomime.
He remembered the files he'd read; at 17 she had led a band of farmers to defeat a warlord, at 19 she had almost conquered Corinth with only 800 men. At 20 she had captured Julius Caesar. At 24 she had held Thrace, Chalcidice, Macedonia, and half of Thessaly and Euboea. It had taken almost 80,000 men to defeat her 6,500. She had gone on to battle the Roman Empire and wrest her prize from Caesar himself. And along the way she had slain tens of thousands. For a moment he thought of his own daughter; Dana would be 17 in a month, and she was nothing like Xena. To loose 8,000 like her would jeopardize the world like nothing else he could imagine. In a few years there would be neither checks nor a balance of power.
"There is no other way," she told him, addressing the misgivings she could sense in his mind, "no matter what you want to believe, you are fightin' a goddess, and that goddess is cloning her own army. They'll be psychopaths like Callisto, Mavican, Livia, Valesca, and another fighter I don't know who's deadlier than any of the others ever were. She killed Gabrielle…."
For a brief moment, emotions flickered in her cold eyes; pain and loss, and anger. All of it was quickly suppressed; gone in a heartbeat.
What she'd said dovetailed precisely with what Dr. Fell had told him. Xena intended to kill an immortal, a goddess. The agent lifted his briefcase to the table, thumbed open the locks, touched a hidden switch to deactivate an explosive, and withdrew a set of prints from a folder.
"These are from a camera that was watching over your school last night," he said as he handed over the photos, "maybe they'll help."
The cloned warrior leafed quickly through the prints. They were clear, close-up, 8X10s of the strange woman who had invaded the school the previous night. She held them loosely in her hand as she watched the God of War pacing towards her down the aisle, reaching out and offering her his hand. When he reached them she rose to join him, then leaned on the table with both hands, recapturing Harry's eyes.
"Thanks, Harry," Xena said, her voice softening slightly to convey her trust, "You know what you have to do. The world's depending on ya, and so am I." Then her demeanor hardened again to that of the uncompromising Destroyer of Nations, "You have four years…I'll be checkin' on you."
The agents saw only a momentary flash of blinding blue light, harsh like a raw electric arc. Their eyes slammed closed in a reflex reaction, and when they opened them again they were alone in the cabin. Xena was gone.
Harry leapt to his feet and ran forward to the cockpit where he burst in on the pilot and copilot. They jerked around, shocked by his frantic entrance. The plane gave a lurch and dropped a stomach heaving two hundred feet before the pilot steadied the stick. Braced in the doorway, the normally cool agent was practically foaming at the mouth and they had never seen him so upset.
"Turn this plane around now," he yelled, "we're going back to Columbia!"
With a flash identical to the one aboard the Gulfstream, Xena and Ares reappeared in the study at the Pappas house. In the parlor at the front of the home, they could hear the TV tuned to All My Children, and more softly, Danielle's muffled sobbing. The cloned warrior walked over and sat at her desk, gesturing for Ares to take the chair in front of it as she unlocked and searched the drawers. Passport, cash, maps, and her reservations for Iskenderun, she jammed them all into a belt pack. The cloned warrior took a few moments to scrawl a note to Danielle, just to let her know that she was welcome to stay, and to look after the house for a while. Xena had no idea when or if she'd be back. Finally she took a breath and stopped, and then looked down at the photos Harry had given her. She slid them across the desk.
"Who is she, Ares?"
Xena looked up from the print of the woman who had devastated her school and sought the eyes of her patron god. The top photo showed the unknown warrior, dressed in her black woven body armor, captured in a frozen instant while gracefully executing a spinning slash as she flipped through the air. The rotation of her body had been as fast as an Olympic figure skater performing a triple Axel. Centrifugal force had caused her long braid of dark hair to lash out in the direction opposite her extended blade, while she held an identical second sword tucked against her body in a defensive position across her back. Her face was slightly blurred by the speed of her movements. The God of War took only a heartbeat to identify the subject.
"Elainis of Mycenae." His expression was dark with apprehension.
The name wasn't familiar to the cloned Warrior Princess. She shot him a questioning look, prompting him to continue.
"1,150 years before your time, King Agammemnon of Mycenae had three children, two daughters, Iphigenia, and Elektra, and a son, Orestes. Agammemnon was determined that Mycenae's rule would remain in his line, so he trained both Orestes, and his elder daughter, Iphigenia, as leaders and warriors. Iphigenia was Helen's niece and shared her looks, but she also had her father's will and prowess. She was a contemporary and friend of Achilles, Ajax, and Odysseus. She was their equal, but she never fought at Ilios.
You probably know Agammemnon as the Greek's strategos hypatos in the war against the Dardanians. Before sailing his ships to Ilios, the armada was becalmed and he was commanded to sacrifice Iphigenia to Artemis. Though he prayed to the gods, he ended up having to trick his queen, Clytemnestra, into sending their daughter to Aulis for the sacrifice. Well, the sacrifice was made and Artemis was appeased, but Athena saved Iphigenia, whom she'd long favored, and gave her the name, Elainis. The only reason she wasn't made immortal is that my father specifically forbade it, even though she was his granddaughter through Leda. Instead, she became the greatest Champion of Athena."
Xena sat silently, absorbing the unlikely story. Ares read the doubt in her eyes.
"Xena, in those days the Olympians were much more active among mortals. If you need proof of that, just think about all those old stories from the 'Golden Age'. We were all over the place back then," Ares told her with a wistful smile. "As the centuries passed our direct involvement with mortals became more and more rare. Even back then, mankind was already on the road to creating its own destiny."
Xena shuddered. The idea of the gods appearing on a daily basis and having their hands in everybody's lives felt weird and repugnant to her. Their infrequent meddling had been bad enough in her time. Ares' voice dragged her back from her ruminations.
"Xena, you were the best warrior of your age," Ares said, "but in Elainis' time things were even more brutal. Warriors often faced non-human enemies, and mortals would wage a major war for almost any reason. Pride and arrogance drove them like adolescents. It was as if the whole world was hair-triggered and hormone driven." He answered her incredulity with, "Xena, a lot of warriors were running around with divine blood back then and civilization was still in its youth. It really was something to see." After a speculative pause, he continued. "I guess what I'm telling you is that Elainis was very, very good. Her technical skills were flawless, whether armed or barehanded. She was very strong, very fast, and very beautiful, but also cold and calculating like my sister. She would have eaten Callisto for breakfast. Now she's back. You wouldn't have beaten her as the Warrior Princess. As the Destroyer of Nations, maybe I'd give you even odds."
Xena took his assessment to heart. Though Ares could be boastful, prideful, and grandiose, he also knew warriors and could judge their mettle. His opinion rang true. She'd fought the woman last night and taken a blow that had knocked her off her feet. The stranger had been a very impressive and disciplined fighter, a new and deadly unknown enemy. But now this enemy had a name; Elainis of Mycenae, niece to Helen of Sparta, granddaughter of Zeus himself, and the Champion of Athena.
How had the Goddess of Wisdom and Warfare managed to clone her? Or Callisto? Or Mavican? Or Livia? Or even the failures of Valesca that they'd seen in the lab? They were all long lost to the ages; every cell, every atom, and every memory ground to dust two millennia ago and lying far beyond recall. And what had disturbed Harry so much about the filming of the Livia disc that he'd taken from the lab?
The warrior reached behind her chair and lifted the hard-shell cases, stacking them atop the desks. Her hand settled softly on the one that held Gabrielle's twin swords. With her bardic imagination and her gifts of deduction and induction, her soulmate could have figured the mystery out. Using only a few clues, she'd been the first to identify their enemy. Instead, Xena applied the facts to a mental diagram, using the flowchart method that she'd learned from Mithridates and later utilized as a military commander. Eventually she reached an appalling conclusion.
"Your sister treads the roads of time," she said, "but not with complete freedom."
"No god ever acted with complete freedom," Ares replied. "There were always limits. If I had the power to pass through the years, I'd still be limited to revisiting those times and places where I was exalted. Other times belong to other gods. A rule of thumb would be that I could visit times when I had temples full of worshippers. For Athena, this would include the period from the Dorian invasion of about 1500 BC, to the rise of Rome …or later, maybe 400 AD, if she went to Roman lands in the guise of Minerva."
"Could she bring stuff back?"
"Oh yeah. I can bring you across space if we're in contact. If Athena has the power to cross time, then she can bring back whatever she can carry."
Xena sat for several moments thinking about what Ares had said. If she hadn't seen the cloning lab or known that there had been two Callistos, then she would have suspected that Athena had brought her original enemies to the present. It would have been too good to be true. Athena had only needed to transfer a hair or a few cells from the ancient world to recreate her warriors. Time and her science would do the rest, and for a god, time is an ally. In fact, Xena realized, Athena could simply wait until old age removed her as a challenger. The fact that she wasn't willing to wait probably meant that she felt she had a score to settle. With that thought in mind, Xena realized that it was up to her to force the confrontation. That was fine with her; she'd always preferred offense to defense, acting rather than being forced to react. So she would take the battle to Athena, but to do that, she needed an army and a special weapon. For now, Xena had done all she could do about the army. As for the weapon, her next goal lay halfway across the world outside of Iskenderun.
"Ares, I have to go to Alexandretta," she said, "I have to believe that it's still there."
"I'll take you. It'll be better if your trip goes unnoticed. There are too many computers nowadays…too many records kept, and way too many eyes watching. You're already at war, Xena, and for now, you must disappear from the world."
"You're right, an' I wouldn't be able to travel on a plane armed. I'll be ready in ten minutes." Xena got up from her desk and hurried upstairs to her bedroom to change into clothing appropriate for exploring the rough uplands to the east of the Cilician Gates.
Thirty-five minutes later, Danielle Lefferts dabbed her eyes, peeled herself off of the sofa, and answered the pounding at the door. It was Harry Tasker, frantic with haste, and he was accompanied by another man she didn't know. The CWO stared at them. After her injury during last night's attack on the school, she really wasn't in the mood for more drama than she could cry over in her afternoon soaps.
"Serena!" her neighbor barked into the depths of the house, before questioning her. "Where is she? Has she been here?" Danielle cringed. Her neighbor seemed possessed.
"Haven't seen her since last night," the CWO answered shakily, "I don't know when she'll be back. Last I'd heard, she was being questioned by the police."
He shoved his way past her into the house and she was too startled, (and dulled from the codeine she'd been given along with her stitches), to stop him. Instead, she limped after the two men in narcotized amazement as they practically ran to the study. It was empty, as she expected, but on Serena's desk lay a set of photos and a note. Harry scanned the note quickly and then handed it to the stunned naval officer.
"For you," he said. He turned to Gib and ordered, "check her room upstairs. Master bedroom at the end of the hall."
The agent hurried out. Harry and Danielle could hear his footsteps on the stairs and then as they tracked down the hall. In under a minute he was on his way back.
"She's gone," Gib reported, holding up the clothes Xena had worn on the plane less than an hour ago, "changed and left quick as Vanna." He tossed them on the desk.
Danielle could hardly believe her eyes. Serena had been home and hadn't even bothered to see her. She'd been so quiet that the CWO hadn't even known she'd been in the house. It took her all of fifteen seconds to read the note Serena had hastily written. The words made it sound suspiciously like she was going to disappear again.
It was bad enough that their school had been attacked on a weekly basis and that all the students had sustained injuries last night. It was worse that Gabriella was dead and Serena had disappeared. Practically the first thing that she'd learned about the Pappas woman was that she'd foiled a terrorist hostage situation at a bank in Quantico. Danielle had come to believe that the tall woman spent half her time running around God-knew-where, amidst a whirlwind of violence. She'd been dragging Gabriella with her into danger for who-knew-how-long, but last night had been once too often. The blonde teacher that she'd come to admire since they'd met in San Francisco had become the casualty of some clandestine animosity she couldn't understand. Danielle hadn't even known Gabriella for two months, but in that time she'd perceived a well of knowledge that was astonishing in someone so young. Through her Vicodin stupor, the CWO realized that she blamed Serena for Gabriella's death. Yes, she thought, everything had happened too fast, since she'd first arrived here in Columbia. It was more tragic than an afternoon drama.
The sequence of events had left her stunned; she'd finally accepted that her hostesses were almost certainly spies after talking with her father. From the behavior of her neighbor, she was beginning to suspect him too. The CWO wondered just what the odds were of her, the daughter of a Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence, having fallen into a den of covert operatives in the midst of a shadowy crisis. She resolved to have another talk with her dad. Danielle shifted her weight onto her right leg to ease the tugging on the stitches in her left thigh.
The movement of Harry snatching a cell phone from his belt drew her attention. From his inside jacket pocket he retrieved a small device and clipped it over the microphone. Naval CWO3 Danielle Lefferts, whose area of expertise was communications encryption, knew a digital VOX-scrambler when she saw one. She had never seen one so small. Harry speed dialed a very long number. He made no attempt to hide his conversation.
"Harry Tasker, 1-0-0-2-4. I need an F-15E with conformal and external fuel tanks at Columbia Metropolitan in thirty minutes. Arrange in-flight refuelings, one over the Azores, another over the Med. I'll need landing clearance at Incirlik Airbase and a chopper once I get there," Harry ordered. "From Incirlik it's only 75 miles to Iskenderun. Have a Humvee standing by in Iskenderun for me." He flipped the phone closed and replaced it on his belt.
"Ready to enjoy my flying again, Gib?" He asked the second agent.
Danielle noticed that the man looked very worried. He'd begun fidgeting as soon as Harry had spoken on the phone.
"Now Harry, you haven't flown an Eagle in what, twelve years? Maybe we should get two planes with pilots? Wouldn't want to end up looking like pigeon droppings on Gibraltar. Besides, Helen'll shell your nuts."
Harry smiled at his fellow agent with genuine amusement etched on his face.
"What's the matter, Gib? I'll make sure they leave you an airsickness bag. Just make sure to pull off your oxygen mask before you try to use it. C'mon…trust me."
Even as Al Gibson groaned and resigned himself to being trapped in a small cockpit with Harry, they turned to leave. As they reached the door of the study, Harry looked back at the stunned CWO.
"Take good care of the house, Danielle," the agent said, "I hope to see Serena again."
Continued in Chapter 2
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