Part 3 Chapter 3
By Phantom Bard
For Disclaimer: See Part 3 Chapter 1
"It's 8:50 am and the current temperature this morning is 11°C, headed up to 18°C, with scattered clouds…" He switched off the radio and ad libbed the continuation in perfect modern Turkish. "…and a gentle breeze from the west southwest at 4 km/h, blowing the salt air inland off the Gulf of Alexandretta. It's a beautiful late-fall morning."
Using the guise of Greek tourists, the couple had claimed Xena's reserved room the previous night after picking up her rental Jeep. Xena had been only moderately surprised to find that her money had transformed from US Dollars to Turkish Lira, somewhere in the aether that they'd flashed through between Columbia and Iskenderun. Now they were driving north from Iskenderun on highway D817, headed for the city of Osmaniye after a continental breakfast that Xena had scarfed down and Ares had only stared at.
The highway followed the curve of the bayshore for the first sixty-odd kilometers, passing resort towns and villages in the fertile sward of lowland beneath the brooding heights of the Nur Daglari to the east. The traffic was fairly light, certainly nothing like what Xena had experienced in California or even in South Carolina, though the abundant palm trees recalled San Diego. So far they were making good time. After a half-hour they passed a sign announcing Dortyol, and the Historic Site of Issos.
"Ya know, Ares, that's where a mortal changed the world," Xena reflected. Behind dark folding Wayfarers her eyes tracked east toward the ancient battlefield. "Granikos coulda' been a fluke, but after Issos the Persian Empire was lost. Maybe some folks think Alexander's triumph wasn't assured 'till he seized Babylon in 330 BC, but Issos is where everything really changed." The cloned warrior was thoughtful for a moment, and then added, "ya know, if he'd stopped after Babylon the known world still woulda' been a Greek world and he woulda' lived to enjoy it."
"Alexander was always obsessed with Persia, even before Chaeronia. After winning at Granikos the kid was besotted with his successes, and then after solving the challenge of Gordium he just became more grandiose," the God of War remembered. "Once destiny gets its claws in a man there's no limit. You know how it is, Xena. The thrill of victory is infectious. Conquest becomes an addiction. Phillip, Alexander…I always egged them on to glory, and now it seems like my sister is just as susceptible."
"You're right. I've felt it an' I gotta say I'm glad I was able to stop when I did. Somewhere along the way it started to feel empty. I guess I found that it wasn't the outcome of the battle that I treasured, but knowing that the things I was fightin' for were worthwhile. Of course I still love a good fight, but it feels so much better when it's for a good cause."
"Yeah, somehow, you were different." She'd been the first great one to walk away.
Ares looked sideways at his Chosen as she became reabsorbed in her driving. Long before her time, mortals had been happy with just the exhilaration of beating down an enemy, and they'd often used the flimsiest of excuses to start a war. They'd been adrenaline junkies, still flaunting their primate heritage. Somewhere along the road down the years things had begun to change. At first the gods hadn't really noticed it, since they were still being beseeched for favors, but it had changed. Mortals had changed. They had grown up and found their own priorities through the increasing use of reason, conscience, and ethics. Somewhere along the way, the gods had become, first an accessory, then an impediment, and finally irrelevant. Mankind had come to worship its own enterprises, founded on its own efforts, the efforts of mortals. And now it was coming full circle.
Mortal reliance on reason had led to the hegemony of science, a practice whose goal and basis was increasing knowledge. That knowledge was often applied to war. Knowledge eventually led to wisdom, at least sometimes. In the current foundation and exercise of science, mortals had become the worshippers of a deity who personified the attributes of wisdom and warfare. Ares idly worried the seam of his trousers between his thumb and forefinger…weaving has come a long way too, he realized, tied to the innovations of fiber and manufacturing tech-knowledge-y. Athena had probably never had so many devotees, even though almost all of them worshipped her unknowingly. Still, each time they made a decision favoring science over the ethics they'd once substituted for the gods, they laid a sacrifice before their goddess. The sheer amount of psychic energy that mortals were devoting to the applications of "The Three W's" was empowering his sister and leaving her subject to ambition.
That ambition had always been present. From the beginning, both she and Ares had questioned their father's decision to have two gods of war. From that decision, rivalry had been born. Both brother and sister were masterful and competitive personalities. They had each envisioned a world in which warfare was waged according to the qualities within their own domains. In the early years, Ares had held sway. Battles had featured the combat of champions, honorable codes of fighting, and the glorification of individuals for their courage and prowess. In those days, Athena had been occupied planting the seeds of the quest for understanding, knowledge, and wisdom. But as the years passed, things had begun to shift. Ever more often, war had been waged with espionage, poisons, and the tactics of massed ranks of uniform soldiers. The strategies of brilliant generals had decided contests instead of the peerless skills of a few individuals. Soon the Greeks had adopted the methods of the massed hoplite phalanx, and finally, there had come the legions of Rome. Athena's influence had grown beyond the battlefield as well, until in the modern world, science even more than warfare molded the world. And now at last, Athena seemed willing to embrace her ancient ambitions; she seemed to be poised on the verge of declaring herself to those who would follow her beliefs and conquer the world.
There were some other disturbing aspects of Athena's behavior that Ares dwelled on as the drive continued and the couple fell into silence. Long ago in Aulis, Iphigenia had been bled to death as a sacrifice to Artemis, in restitution for Agammemnon's killing of a stag sacred to the Huntress. She had been stone-dead, but not only had Athena wrested her soul from Hades, she had also managed to grace her with a perfected body, similar to, yet better than the one she'd been born with. The only gift lacking had been eternal life, which Zeus had forbade in a tantrum, shrieking that the girl was an abomination…and at the time, that was saying a lot. The ancient world had been filled with all manners of altered and contrived beings the gods had created. Ares had always thought it a bit…odd.
Then there was the fact that Athena, calculating as she was, had departed from the most efficient strategy for conquest by diverting resources to plague his Favorite with her long lost enemies. It wasn't typical of her to spend so much energy on a frivolous pursuit. It didn't make sense except in light of some vendetta the goddess was enmeshed in. Athena had succumbed to temptation in Rome, but that had backfired on her badly. In any case, it was all long ago. So what was it about Xena that had gotten under his sister's skin now? He had no answer to that, and in a way it didn't matter. The one mortal who had walked away had come back to do battle with the goddess who couldn't let go of her old ambitions for the mortal world.
After an hour and a half on the road, Xena turned onto highway E90 for a short stretch of two kilometers, before turning right onto O-52 at Toprakkale. Another fifteen-km quickly passed, and then a left turn led them onto a secondary road headed north towards Kadrili. Now the land was rising, but still lay mantled in the fertile citrus green that had surrounded the Iskenderun Korfezi, the Gulf of Alexandretta. The road followed gentle curves, and in the hazy distance seventy-km ahead, the heights of the Dibek Daglari were visible, rising in ochres and siennas bespeckled with the dark green of drought resistant vegetation. There the land ascended to the plateau of Anatolia's interior, where some peaks rose over 12,000 feet and the average was more than a mile above the level of the Mediterranean Sea. It was a landscape of ridges and valleys, crumpled and pleated by the hands of the Titans. It was a land that had long tested the hardiness of travelers.
What a trek it had been in ancient times. Two thousand years before planes and cars, the soulmates had walked almost the whole way to the highlands before Xena had left Gabrielle with four year old Eve in a town the size of a poor man's spittoon at the foot of the high trail. The altitude there had been about 2,000 cubits, (3,000 feet). Having lived their lives mostly at sea level wouldn't have made it an easy climb for the bard; for a child it was out of the question. Xena had continued on alone, expecting to be gone three or four days.
The landscape had become drier, the temperatures more extreme, and water had been harder to find. At night, winds whistled chill around the campfires she'd kindled out of twisted limbs and desiccated scrub. The thinning air had made every step progressively harder as the paths ascended in switchbacks that doubled the distance. Scree and sand overlying irregular rock had made her footing treacherous. Above 8,000 feet, the lack of oxygen had become more noticeable with every candlemark of hiking.
Xena had slowed her pace in deference to her constantly labored breathing and uncharacteristically shortened stamina. Poor rations, diarrhea from lack of good water, and the cumulative fatigue from having already crossed eastern Indus, Arachosia, Carmania, Persia, Media, and Mesopotamia, (or what are now Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the eastern states of India), had all conspired to weaken her. It had been a hard trip for the warrior, and the impact on Gabrielle and Eve had been almost intolerable. In reaching the southern borders of Cilicia, they'd traversed over 2,500 miles, most of it through mountains or skirting deserts, and most of it on foot. Incredibly, it had been the safest route. Xena hadn't known or trusted a single sea captain between Arabia and Indus back then, but she had known that the area was overrun with small-time pirates.
At night, staring up into a sky that seemed unbelievably full of stars, the Warrior Princess had begun to doubt the wisdom of the trip. Did she really need another chakram so badly that she was willing to subject her daughter and her soulmate to this? Would the creation of a combined weapon never before seen make such a necessary addition to her arsenal? No, probably not. But the vision of it had come to her during her purification in Indus, and she had felt that it was a part of her destiny…though that was reason enough for her to question this quest. Yet in the back of her mind she'd been gnawed by the conviction that she was doing the right thing. That feeling she couldn't ignore. By fusing the paired Chakrams of Darkness and Light, she would be removing from the world the Chakram of Light's potential to kill a god. It was a power that no mortal should possess, and unfortunately, these lands were now Roman territory. She'd finally convinced herself that it was better to have the chakram in her own hand, than have to face it in the hands of an enemy.
And so she'd left her soulmate and her daughter in a stinking three-goat town while she'd traipsed off to torture herself with thin air, no food, and meager water. Gabrielle would eventually forgive her, but Xena would probably never forgive herself for dragging her daughter along. On the way from Greece to Indus two years before, she'd carried the then barely two-year-old girl on her back. Now, two years later, Eve had walked more miles than most adult shepherds, so when she started whining, Xena gave her piggyback rides. At least leaving Greece had taken them beyond the easy reach of the Romans…for a while. Yet Xena had no illusions. News of their return to Thrace would quickly be heard in Rome, and then the hunt would be on again. Caesar would be waiting for the right chance to strike. When that time came, she had decided to end it, to recapture the chance she'd missed at Thasos almost fifteen years before, and to destroy Julius Caesar. She had a daughter now and she couldn't afford to have that obsessive bastard dogging her for the rest of her life. It would be a mercy killing, for Eve's sake.
In the silence the warrior's empty stomach had grumbled, so she'd gnawed on the scrap of leather that she'd relegated to the purpose of making her salivate to dull her hunger. It was an old soldier's trick that every campaigner had used at some point, though very few actually ate their sandals. Protecting their feet was far too important on the battlefield. In fact, many warriors had died from infected foot wounds. Xena idly remembered that yesterday morning she'd managed to pick off a rodent of some sort with a well thrown rock, and that it had been her last meal. She'd scraped the pelt clean with her teeth, much as one would an artichoke leaf. It had been a miserably stringy excuse for a creature.
She'd looked ahead to where the trail crested a ridge, judging it a bit under 7,150 cubits, or about 10,700 feet in altitude. Beyond it the land would dip perhaps 250 cubits, (375 feet), down to a small, talus choked plateau on which sat the Temple of the Chakrams. It was a forgotten and rundown temple that supported no clergy, conducted no rituals, and greeted no living pilgrims. Within the building sat an altar, supposedly carved by Hephaestos himself, and invested with a guardian spirit under the dominion of Hades*.
After the Second Titanomachy, Zeus had decreed the weapons off limits and contrived a defense that would not even suffer a god's touch. He knew his family's historic penchant for infighting and patricide, and would not arm them against each other or himself. In an act of divine hubris, the King of the Gods had commanded the guardian to surrender possession of only that chakram to which a mortal could lay claim by embodying it's essence; Day or Night, Darkness or Light. Such a situation was deemed as possible as that of a mortal breathing in Poseidon's realm or flying in Apollo's. Many had been tempted and many had failed. The surrounding landscape was reported to be littered with the desiccated remains of mortals who had attempted to enter unpurified. Yet the conditions were met three times before Xena's death.) ~Editor
The warrior calculated that it would be within her reach tomorrow, if she could get an early start and had a good day of hiking. Half a candlemark at the temple was all she'd need, and then she could head back downslope. It would be a faster trip, Xena promised herself, and three days from now I'll treat Gabrielle and Eve to a whole goat, cut into kebabs marinated in spices and yogurt, with olives, feta, grape leaves, couscous, and that sweet honeyed wine. And after falling asleep dreaming of food, she had.
Danielle Lefferts hadn't been able to reach her father all afternoon yesterday. It wasn't the first time, but it was rare that she couldn't even get a message to him. She'd dozed off early and started trying her phone again in the morning. When her call finally managed to get through she found her father in a tense mood. He was atypically irritable and seemed fairly disturbed about something.
"Dad, I need to talk to you," she'd said immediately, "so much has happened. I've been in the middle of things I think you should know about. I don't really understand what most of it means. I think my teachers are spies, just like you said. I'm pretty sure my next door neighbor is too."
"Is this line secure?"
Danielle's eyes started from her head. Her father had never begun a conversation with her that way. She double-checked the settings on the box she'd clipped into the line between Serena's desk phone and the wall jack. It was roughly the size of a pack of cigarettes. She breathed a sigh of relief as she noted the green indicator lights showing the scrambler's functions as nominal.
"Yes, Dad, the En-4P is operational and set at M."
"Switch to channel R on my mark," he said, "three…two…one…mark."
Danielle turned a knob on the box, changing the channel from the moderate to the fully restricted protocol. "Done," she reported.
"I want you out of there immediately," Capt. Lefferts ordered without preamble, "you're sitting on a damn powder keg and you'll be safer on a base. No one really knows what's going on and it's obvious to me that inquiry is being stifled at the highest levels. Do you understand what that means?"
"It means we've been blindsided. It means there are gaping holes in this nation's security and we are not in control. It means that what you've been seeing there is the tip of an iceberg whose true mass may well encompass the White House."
It was the most shocking admission Danielle had ever heard from her father.
"Dad, one of my teachers was killed last night. The killer was a stranger armored in material I've never seen except on the two who attacked last week. This one moved…too fast, too well…as well as my teachers ever did."
"Better than anyone you've ever seen in a tournament, right?"
"I've never seen anyone like any of them, Dad. They're all way too good. Far better than I am after thirty years of training. And then there's my neighbor…"
"That would be Harry Tasker?"
"Yes. Dad, what kind of operative could make a phone call and order an F-15 delivered in a half-hour? He was going to fly it to Incirlik himself."
Silence greeted her.
"And he had a VOX-scrambler like nothing I've ever seen. It was barely the size of a Tylenol caplet and it clipped onto his cell phone."
"Honeybee," Capt. Lefferts rarely called her that, "Harry Tasker is a computer salesman, plain and simple. He has a full history with details beautifully fabricated. When I tried to access further information, my queries were denied and the authorization code for clearance authentication wasn't a familiar type. He's definitely a spy, and one of ours, but I can't find out anything more about him. Ten minutes after my search was denied I got a communiqué on a red channel. Cease and desist forthwith."
"Like the one I got after the Miami Op."
"And my teachers?"
"My best guess is…" he paused, as though he couldn't bring himself to speak the words. In Columbia, Danielle held her breath waiting. "A new breed of operatives engineered in the dark."
Danielle decoded her father's words. ew breed akin to any existing agents from the known spy shops, and an order of magnitude more advanced, ineeredin, not trained in a conventional manner, …the darkom a place unknown to the twilit world of espionage. Her remaining teacher was a wild card. Her neighbor was a spy with an impenetrable cover, from a rumored super-agency that no one could even prove existed.
"And their enemies?" she asked.
"Without a doubt, the same."
"Dad, the day before yesterday Serena and Gabriella were gone all day and night."
Capt. Lefferts knew that the day before yesterday a Dept. of Energy installation in Georgia had been "assaulted by terrorists". The target was supposedly a coordination center for intelligence gleaned from Iraqi weapons inspectors, or so DOE claimed. It wasn't a target that made any sense, and so the captain assumed that it was a cover story. The details had been efficiently suppressed, but remote sensors reporting to ONI-6 had revealed the low atmospheric detonation of a weapon configured to produce an intense but localized electromagnetic pulse burst. It was not a weapon that was listed in the ordinance folio of the United States of America. Eighteen minutes later the DOE installation had been destroyed. The captain believed that US operatives had struck a US facility. It was the harbinger of an internecine government civil war. The first attack was provocation, the second attack and Gabriella's death were retaliation. It chilled his blood.
He only told her, "I'm not surprised, I think they were busy."
Danielle gulped. Her father knew something. There was another point he'd mentioned the last time they'd talked. It was related, and she asked him about that now.
"You'd mentioned having someone on the inside investigating Serena and Gabriella…"
"I think we've been had. That whole investigation was a clever con game; a perfectly executed op designed to buy time while forestalling our activities. I'd stake anything that it was orchestrated by Tasker's people. I thought we were giving them enough rope to hang themselves, and they left us with a dummy on a string. Now your teachers are gone, Harry Tasker's untouchable, their enemies are invisible…and we have nothing."
Danielle thought that her father had never sounded so bitter. After a long and successful career he'd been shown just where he stood, and it was a long step down from what he'd thought. The CWO could sympathize with that. At the tournament in San Francisco she'd felt the same way. Thirty years of training, over ten years as a world class competitor, and she'd been defeated by an unknown who had made it look easy. And they weren't the only ones. After the attack on the school and the killing of her partner, Danielle wondered if her teacher had felt just as surprised. She asked herself, what would Serena do?
The road had been rising more steeply for the last twenty kilometers. Xena and Ares were traversing the zone where the land began its transition to the scrubby heights of the Dibek Daglari, whose inhospitable droughtlands reached for the uncaring sky. The road followed the natural contour of a cleft between two ridges, taking the easiest ascent available and tracing the footpath the warrior had hiked two millennia before. It had been chosen for the postwar road builders by the bandits and herdsmen, who for over a hundred generations had followed the wisdom of their beasts. Thus the modern Turkish civil engineers had been guided in their planning by ancient goats.
In some places Xena recognized the jagged shape of the skyline. In other places a vista of the flatlands below triggered a memory. These dim assurances from another lifetime bolstered the warrior's confidence in her route, for she wasn't certain of how to get to the temple except by retracing a hike made long ago. The fact that her recollections of the way were coming back to her brought Xena great relief. After the road on their map abruptly ended, just past the town of Cokak, there would be another fifteen steep miles to traverse on foot. They would reach that point after another twenty-km.
Xena chewed on a Power Bar as she continued the drive. The wind whistled past the shiny black Jeep in a monotonous buffeting monotone that lulled her mind while failing to alleviate her tension. The Power Bar tasted like chocolate roughage, fit more for cattle than people. It was wholly unsatisfying and very difficult to swallow. Musty bottled water only helped a little. The cloned warrior wished for real food, any real food, even a stringy rodent. She spat the last mouthful out the window in disgust and pushed down harder on the gas pedal. Ares chuckled. The scenery slipped by.
Three km outside of Cokak her attention drifted to a dull roar that reminded her of rolling thunder. Her eyes tracked to the source of the sound. Overhead to the north, a gray silhouette quickly resolved into a jet; much smaller than an airliner, with undersized delta shaped wings and a dual tail. It was coming in low from the west, at barely 15,000 feet. On its underside, Xena could see twin air intakes and exhaust outlets and three streamlined external fuel tanks. It banked in a tight arc, coming onto a new heading, south by southwest. Then the roar increased in volume and the jet accelerated sharply away, trailing twin exhalations of fire and smoke from its flaming afterburners. In moments it was just a dot, dwindling in the distance.
"F-15E," Ares said after taking a quick glance up, "probably a US Air Force fighter out on training maneuvers and carrying no armament. It's heading 210°, to Incirlik Airbase."
They reached Cokak five minutes later.
The road comprised the town's narrow main street, flanked by a dozen and a half sorry buildings that ranged from modern cinderblock ugly to traditional mudbrick impoverished. A few goats walked the town. Fewer humans sat outside a nondescript café, smoking and drinking bottles of Izmit beer. The most colorful thing visible was a sun-bleached mural, painted on a pockmarked beige-washed wall, which advertised Hosni-Turkman oval cigarettes. The lurid face of a fez wearing Ottoman leered like a pedophile through a billowing cloud of smoke. All in all, it was pathetic. Xena expected their Jeep would be stolen and stashed in a container aboard a ship at the port of Adana before dinnertime. At least she'd left everything they weren't going to carry locked up back in her motel room in Iskenderun.
At the edge of town the road dead-ended as expected. The pavement stopped at a guardrail just before a precipitous drop-off of several hundred feet. Xena parked the Jeep with its front bumper to the railing and shut off the engine.
"Ready for a lovely walk?" She asked the God of War. She took a moment to stretch against her seat, and then rubbed a hand across her face.
"I can hardly wait," Ares replied sarcastically as he stared out the windshield at the veritable wasteland. Then he seemed to perk up. "As I remember, this is where I ditched that weasel, Sarphis 'the Bad'," the God of War pronounced the epithet with derision, "…he was the loser I picked to grab the Chakram of Darkness. At least he was evil enough to satisfy the requirements. If I remember correctly, he'd eaten his victims, primarily his own children…remarkably like dear old Granddad. Ha!" Ares seemed to ponder the past for a moment. "Sarphis…he liked to eat in the bath, after filling the tub with blood. He kept a harem of women pregnant, farming them for his table."
"What a charmer," Xena said, "he must've been perfect, I suppose that's why ya picked him for the job."
"Oh yeah, he was quite a find. Definitely the right person at the right time. His bones are probably still at the bottom of this ravine, scattered by the scavengers way back when. A fitting end for an ignoble bastard." Ares chuckled before adding, "Without his efforts I couldn't have gotten the Dark Chakram for you, Xena. Perhaps you should thank him."
"Or perhaps not," the cloned warrior said as she opened her door and stepped out. She grabbed a daypack off the back seat, shouldered it, and checked the placement of the short sword that was lashed to its side. The grip was in the same position her own sword usually took, perfect for an easy grab over her right shoulder. The Combined Chakram was clipped to her belt. Sarphis the Bad, Xena thought, if he was the personification of "dark" like the chakram, what does that say about Ares…or myself?
The God of War stepped out onto the road, made a subtle gesture towards the front of the Jeep, and then walked around the back to join Xena on the driver's side. He give her a self-satisfied smirk. An outlandishly heavy chain of welded links had appeared, attaching the vehicle's front axle and frame to the posts supporting the railing. The chain was continuous and there was no lock. Xena grinned when she saw a slight shimmer travel along it.
They ignored the glances from the few locals and made their way to a small trailhead, off to one the side of the railing. It led them down the embankment in a series of steep switchbacks, finding the bottom of the ravine and then climbing the far side before disappearing around a ridge. Looking back, the cloned warrior noted that a couple of the locals were already examining the possibility of auto theft and arguing over the chain. She suspected that even if they brought out a welding torch to cut it off, they'd find it impervious. They'd never believe it was due to divine enchantment. She was strongly tempted to send the chakram winging back at them to cut off their hands.
"Omega Special, you are cleared for landing on runway 18, heading 185º true, wind is steady at 1.2 knots from south southwest, Incirlik control out."
"Copy tower, Omega Special on final approach, thanks for the welcome."
"Negative final, Omega Special, you are at mach 1.35, advise you abort and reapproach, do you copy?" (Flight controller with her hand over the mic, "Is he fucking crazy?")
"Copy, tower, negative abort, landing on runway 18. Trust me."
The major in command of the control tower listened to his controller and ordered the emergency crews to stand by, then shook his head, expecting to see a $45 million aircraft crash and burn. The Strike Eagle was only two miles out and still traveling at 1,000 mph.
He'd been ordered to give this flight the highest priority, clear all other traffic, and have a MH-6J "Little Bird" helicopter waiting on the runway apron. His CO had termed the flight personnel, "non-officer/non-civ", rather than commissioned military officers, which meant they were almost certainly spies. The major guessed that they were CIA. With Syria only a hundred miles away, they wouldn't be the first spooks to fly themselves in since Sept. 11th. More incredibly, the flight origin was a commercial airport in South Carolina. Originally built to perform deep strike missions against high value targets, this F-15E "Strike Eagle" had been flown non-stop from the other side of the globe. Its flight crew must be completely deafened and dehydrated by now, he thought, not to mention jet lagged big time. Obviously their judgement was significantly compromised too. In layman's terms, they were suicidal. They'd reach the runway still doing better than 900 mph. The major wondered how many gallons of fuel still remained in the three external tanks under the plane. Whatever happened, it was sure to be dramatic. He watched the jet with morbid fascination. Beside him, the flight controller was chewing her nails.
The F-15E descended from the northeast and then banked south on its approach to runway 18. The standard left-hand flight pattern and the separation of downwind, base, and final approach legs all blurred together. The fighter had cut its afterburners only five miles out and had lined up still way hot. In a maneuver that would have made a Top Gun envious, the pilot jerked the nose up while only 1,000 feet off the deck, bleeding 700 mph of velocity by going almost vertical for several heartstopping seconds. He then corrected his pitch and deployed the landing gear, using their air drag to decelerate further. The fighter lowered its flaps, throttled down, touched the runway at 165 mph, and deployed its airbrakes. It came to a stop uncomfortably close to the waiting Little Bird's rotors.
The landing hadn't been anything like "by the book flying", but every flight adjustment had been admirably precise, despite the whole procedure having been flagrantly reckless. The major was suitably impressed with the agents' macho disregard for safety. He wished them continued success with whatever they were doing.
Without delay, the cockpit swung up. Two men deplaned and ran to the helo. One carried a briefcase, the other appeared slightly unsteady on his feet. Unlike any other pilots the major had seen, the men kept their helmets on and their visors down, protecting themselves from the rotorwash and remaining completely anonymous. The crew in the MH-6J never saw their faces either, nor did the sergeant who turned over the Humvee to them on the landing pad in Iskenderun.
In the back of the Humvee the agents traded their flight suits for casual wear, taking on the guise of vacationing businessmen. Harry and Al consulted their notes and then drove to the motel where Serena Pappas had made her reservations. It was time to be spies.
The Bahadirli Oteli was a two-star establishment on the Professor Muammer Aksoy Caddesi, a main avenue very close to the airport. It was neither ostentatious nor pricey, but it was convenient and relatively anonymous. Each of the five suites went for 37.00 USD a night, the thirty-two double rooms for 10.00 USD less.
Harry identified himself as an agent of the American CIA and showed the fidgeting desk clerk a photo of Serena Pappas. The man blanched and lit up a Hosni-Trukman cigarette. He began puffing furiously. These American secret police made him nervous. That woman had made him very nervous. He took the picture with shaking hands as if he'd become guilty of something by touching it. It helped that both Harry and Al were able to speak Turkish far better than the clerk could speak either English or Greek.
"Have you seen this woman?" Harry asked in a confidential tone, hoping that the man would relax a little. The clouds of smoke were making his head spin.
"Yes, she had been here just last night," the man told the agents, "in Suite Two, which is still being held with her reservation. You just missed her and her friend."
"What friend?" Al barked, making the clerk jump.
"She was accompanied by a man, yes? A man who, like her, had been traveling with an American passport, though both spoke Greek and had claimed Greek citizenship. Strange couple, eh?" The clerk didn't ask if they were fugitives…he really didn't want to know. They had been Greeks, and he was a Turk. Their countries were still at odds over Cypress, while the Americans were closer to being friends.
A thousand lira note changed hands, and the agents were provided with a key. Inside Suite Two, Harry and Al found an overnight bag containing some of Xena's clothes, and three hard-shell cases. The smallest was empty; the longest held Xena's sword and daggers. The medium sized one held one of Gabrielle's twin swords. Harry picked the cases up and carried them back to the desk.
"Hold these for their owner in the hotel's safe," he ordered the desk clerk, handing him several thousand lira, "tell her it's a precaution, with the compliments of a friend."
The clerk breathed a sigh of relief and nodded agreeably, then locked the cases in the massive vault behind him.
"Do you know where they've gone?" Al asked suspiciously.
"Yes. But why they go off to the Dibek Mountains," the clerk asked them rhetorically, shaking his head, "to be hiking in the highlands? Nothing is there. Why they go north, eh, instead of south, to the beaches in Arsuz, like any sensible tourist? They were strange people those Americans, no offense, eh?"
"Strange how?" Harry asked, curious about the man's impressions.
"They were courteous, but so cold," he told them, actually shivering at the recollection. "They spoke little, the man never ate, and the evil eye, yes, they had the eyes of killers."
After learning that Xena had rented a black Jeep, the agents returned to their Humvee and headed back to the airbase at Incirlik.
"Uh, Harry, I don't think Xena's going to appreciate us trailing after her, you know," Al commented as they sped north on highway D817.
"Al, you saw the video from the attack on the school," Harry replied. He was abusing the speed limit and staring ahead out the windshield with a grim expression. "You saw that woman who attacked them. She killed Gabrielle and now I'm really worried. Xena wasn't the same on the plane. You were there. She was on edge and looking for trouble. Whether she likes it or not, it won't hurt her to have some back up."
"Well, okay, Harry," Gib said, ever the agreeable sidekick. "So what's the plan?"
"First, we're going to have a look around up there in those mountains. We don't know where Xena's actually headed, who she's with, or what she'll find waiting for her. With the enemies she's got, there could be deadly trouble. After what she told us and the things we've seen…" Harry gritted his teeth with worry, "…we can't afford to let anything happen to her. She's the only one who knows what's going on. Maybe Xena will be fine, but I've got a bad feeling about this."
Albert Gibson looked out the window. He was nervous, and for a moment he wished that he were back in the van. "I know you're thinking of doing more than just having a look around up there…"
"Of course I am. Give Spencer a call. We're going to need the CO at the base to be in a cooperative mood. I'm going to need a couple favors."
The trail wound along ridges and cliff faces, switching back on itself and twisting to display the heights yet to be climbed. The afternoon sun beat down as the cloned warrior and the God of War steadily continued. So far they'd made good time by Xena's reckoning, covering slightly over two miles in the last hour. In the miles ahead though, the grade would steepen steadily, until it ended with an unmerciful climb up a broken, boulder-strewn escarpment that crowned the last mile. By that point, as Xena's clone remembered, the path had been indiscernible, and on her earlier trip she had been guided to the notch in the skyline above by a view that she'd only seen in a vision.
Today she had the benefit of prior experience. The harsh landscape was triggering an increasing flow of information from her previous climb, and from what she was remembering, the way seemed easier this time. Today the clone wasn't half starved, two-thirds dehydrated, and wholly fraught with doubts and worries. Two thousand years before, the original Warrior Princess had already been lagging, whereas now she merely walked with determination. She was very happy to note that the thinning air wasn't afflicting her with the abysmal fatigue she so clearly remembered. That state would have been intolerable, especially with the God of War nonchalantly pacing along beside her, completely unaffected.
Perhaps it was because she was a full five years younger than she had been on her return from Indus so long ago. Perhaps it was because this time she hadn't just traipsed across a continent, half the miles spent with her daughter on her back, bitching and moaning and digging her heels into Xena's flanks as if the warrior were a dying nag. Xena exhaled in amazement at what she'd endured. As the Warrior Princess, she'd accepted motherhood by extending the protectiveness and devotion she'd shared with her soulmate to her daughter. She'd loved them both with all her heart. As the Destroyer of Nations, she was astounded that she hadn't just left the whining girl by the roadside, way back in Arachosia. The clone shook her head in disbelief. What had she been thinking? A child had no place in the life of a warrior.
The modern Xena paced uphill, absorbed in her recollections, while sidestepping rocks, subconsciously choosing her footing, and adapting to the thinning air with 42% greater capacity than a normal mortal. Having finally accepted her birthright, its benefits were accessible to her in their full measure now. The realization never crossed her mind. As she had while standing before Eve's pyre, she'd split her focus. She remained somatically attuned to her surroundings, but at the same time, she concentrated on the memories that would aid her in the task of finding the Chakram of Day, somewhere amidst the ruins of its temple. Today's visit would be much different from that first visit in her original life.
Back then Xena had reached the temple so exhausted that she'd spent the first half-candlemark on the plateau collapsed prone after draping herself over a boulder. The ground had been littered with rocks and more. For a long time only her eyes had moved. Sure enough, the bodies of long dead men and women had lain all around her, scattered by the wind, the scavengers, and the passing years. Among the corpses she'd seen weapons and armor, talismans and jewelry, some of it so old or so foreign that it had appeared wholly alien to her eyes, widely traveled though she was. She'd identified Persians, Lydians, Medes, Cappadocians, Scythians, Carians, and Greeks, all dead for centuries. From details like boar's tusk helmets and crescent shields that she'd only seen in bas-reliefs, she'd guessed that others bore the war-gear of Mycenae, Tiryns, Gla, Themiscyra, and Knossos, cities gone a thousand years and more. Lust for the chakrams had taken hold almost as soon as the Titanomachy ended, and in all that time, none had succeeded. Here the ambitious failures had lain all those centuries, with shields riven, helm and curass buckled; heads and chests stove in by vicious impacts. The warrior had staggered past their corpses in the thin windy air and finally leaned against one of the pylons upholding the massive lintel bridging the gate, trying to catch her breath.
She'd clutched the Chakram of Darkness that hung from her waist. Alone among all mortal warriors, she had come to possess one of the weapons of the gods. In her time, almost no one knew the chakram as anything other than the signature weapon of the Warrior Princess. Almost no one knew that there was more than one.
Xena had felt it strange that the vision she'd received had prompted her to seek the possession of another; stranger still that it was the bright counterpart of her own weapon, rather than the second dark chakram. The warrior could more easily have understood a quest to take the Chakram of Night, Artemis' weapon, for she had ties to the Amazon Nation. The Chakram of Light was Athena's weapon, a "bright" chakram, deadly to a god even in mortal hands. Perhaps strangest of all, Xena didn't covet that power.
She'd had no ambition to kill any god. She'd had no ambition to conquer cities, to rule the lands, or to build an empire. She'd desired no army to command. In fact, those typical martial ambitions that still persisted within her had been burned out of Xena's soul in Indus. There she had finally recognized that, as a warrior, her skills engendered a moral obligation to extend her willingness to fight, not only for herself or her family, but also for the greater family of unjustly oppressed people. The power generated by her prowess conferred a responsibility to serve, not an opportunity for gain. The code Xena had learned demanded that she fight for justice. She'd had so much potential for good.
It was 63 BC, and as the common-born daughter of a Thracian innkeeper, a wandering ex-warlord, and a failed conqueror, it was damn near hubris for her to aspire to any form of nobility at all. Nevertheless, after eighteen years of fighting, Xena's heart was ready to be the heart of a hero. And yet she was still a mortal, still the God of War's Favorite, and deep inside, she was still the Destroyer of Nations.
Thus began the "Middle Years" of the soulmates' journey, which began in battle and ended in tragedy. Five years hence, Xena would be drawn into a war with the Roman Empire that would open with a frenzy of vengeance and consume almost all of her remaining life. If not for Caesar, the world might have truly been changed by the hand of the Warrior Princess. Xena might have been remembered as a legendary hero.
Even so, it wasn't as though no one benefited from her aid. Over the years Xena had come to the rescue of many people in many places. She had led and served, offering her strength, knowledge, leadership, and skills to win a better life for oppressed persons regardless of their wealth or standing. If a cause tugged at her heart, she would fight, literally or metaphorically, for noble or slave alike. But in the end, it was not her good deeds for which she was remembered.
From the time of her death in 44 BC, to the final fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, if Xena of Amphipolis was mentioned at all, she was recalled as "The Thracian She-Demon", or the "First Enemy of Julius Caesar". Generations of Roman citizens had regarded her as a barbarian savage, a bloodthirsty psychopath, and the slaughterer of countless gallant legionnaires. Later, in the Eastern Byzantine Empire of Constantinople, she was largely forgotten, and by the conquering Ostrogoths in the west, she was completely unknown. Though many had owed their lives and welfare to the Warrior Princess, Gabrielle's scrolls had been collected and hidden, and their stories were lost. Along with that best chronicle of her deeds, Xena of Amphipolis had been lost to history; her life eclipsed by the events and personalities of her tumultuous times. Had she lived to see it, the warrior wouldn't have been disturbed in the least. Among the many self-centered ambitions she'd outgrown was the desire to become a legend.
Staring at the temple from its gate on that long ago day had been uncomfortable. Being an ancient Greek, her frame of reference provided a wealth of ominous warnings. Had she been a hair more superstitious, Xena would have been cowed by the apprehension of finding Athena herself, and her father, Zeus, looking down at her with condemnation for what she would dare. As it was, their images were graven in the stone of the temple's pediment. Zeus sat enthroned, his great arms encircling his four immortal children, Ares, Athena, Apollo, and Artemis. Darkness and Light, Day and Night, their stern gazes were directed down on the portico where a mortal would be forced to tread. She felt as if they would see her as surely as if they were present. Portents of other gods were also evident to her eyes. For Xena, the dead lying all around had sanctified the ground to Hades, but the dryness proved that Poseidon had cursed and forsaken this land. Hephaestos had forged the chakrams that lay inside the temple. She saw nothing to directly evince the presence of Hera or Hermes, and of Aphrodite, all that was present lay deep in her heart.
Eventually Xena had roused herself and climbed the steps of the stereobate, reaching the stylobate and passing between the central columns of the peristyle. The spaces between the flanking columns had been inexplicably packed with piles of stones, all roughly the size of her head. Centuries of airborne grit had scoured away any traces of polychrome. Now the sun baked blocks of pale limestone stood naked, their décor reduced to a spotty pox of blackish lichen. The building had oozed a melancholy aura of age and dereliction.
The Temple of the Chakram was a smallish structure, built on a primitive version of the Doric order. The sidewalls of the cella carried the entablature directly, without side columns to form a pteron. The peristyle columns of the façade numbered only six, and these were squat, barely twice their diameter in height, with little taper and heavy capitols. The entablature measured vertically equivalent to the columns, and featured an oppressively massive architrave. It was, overall, a ponderous construction. The effect was one of crushing weight, constantly threatening to crash down. Xena had cringed at the necessity of entering it. A wrathful god could topple the edifice with a fingertip.
With so little verticality, the light coming through between the columns was minimal, and the interior space, the cella, was as dim as a tunnel. The temple could have been a fitting home for Persephone's bats, or an entrance to the underworld. Xena had stood for many minutes, allowing her eyes to adjust to the darkness, before she'd even been able to discern the altar that squatted in the shadowed depths along the back wall.
The Warrior Princess had cautiously advanced into the cella, feeling her way with her toes through an inch of dust, and hoping to keep from tripping over any more cadavers. The room was barely twenty cubits deep, and halfway there she'd jerked to a halt. Perhaps her eyes had finally finished adjusting to the darkness. Perhaps being closer had granted her the sight of the altar's details. Either way, Xena had been struck by a visceral terror that stopped her in her tracks. The altar was a living Hecatoncheire, an immortal hundred-handed son of Gaia, older than the Titans. Fifty of his hands had been loosely chained to the floor by Hephaestos. The other fifty bore weapons…swords, shields, and spears. Several had been poised to fling rocks the size of her head. Xena's vision had contained no such creature. He had eyed her for several moments before speaking.
"Like you I have only darkness. If you would possess light, then grant me the same. Otherwise, slay me if you can or get out before I kill you."
The voice was rich and beautifully melodic, almost soothing, and more surprisingly, it was understandable. Xena had gulped in amazement. The Hecatoncheire had spoken Attic Greek, a language she understood well since her home city of Amphipolis had been founded by Attic Greeks from Athens. Because she had no desire to slay him, die, or leave empty-handed, Xena considered his words. He'd obviously referred to both the chakrams and his living conditions. In that she couldn't blame him a bit. The temple was dismal, being chained here for centuries would be a miserable fate, and a fire wouldn't do him any good since he couldn't leave to find more wood. She'd squinted into the darkness as she'd pondered the situation for several moments.
"Okay," she'd agreed, "I've got a plan." Xena had fearlessly walked over to the deadly ancient creature and shared her idea. Like any good plan, it split the risks and demanded mutual trust for mutual gain. The Hecatoncheire had chuckled and nodded in acceptance.
Ya must've been crazy to do that, the modern clone chided herself as she remembered the incident, or maybe the thin air had affected the flow of blood to your brain. I wonder how Callisto managed to get the Chakram of Night from him? She never was one for teamwork.
"Well, we just crossed above 8,000 feet," the God of War commented as he paused to look downslope. A narrow cleft between ridges provided a slim slice of panorama. Far below them in the hazy distance it was just possible to make out the reflected light off the Bay of Alexandretta. Ares' comment brought Xena out of her musings.
"Are you sure?" She'd have guessed their present altitude to be no more than 7,000 feet.
"Oh yeah," he said, "no question about it." His face held the hint of a grin. "Does the walk seem easier this time, Xena?"
The warrior wasn't even winded after three hours of steadily hiking the steepening uphill grade. Could she have misjudged the land so badly on her first trip? She took a careful look around. They had already passed the spot where she'd camped on her first night after leaving Gabrielle and Eve, and that meant they were over halfway to the notch. Xena quickly walked forward around the projecting shoulder of a ridge, and sure enough, there it was. Several thousand feet above them the skyline showed a wedge of blue, like the gap of a missing tooth, above an escarpment of four hundred feet. On the far side of that gap sat the plateau that held the temple. On the near side lay seven miles of trail, climbing in meandering switchbacks that grew from the path at their feet.*
erhaps some readers have had the opportunity to hike in Arizona's Grand Canyon? From the south canyon rim, a trail called the South Kaibab leads down to the Colorado River. That path descends from 7,200 ft. to 2,500 ft., in 7.1 miles. The editor attests that the air at 7,200 ft. above sea level had no detrimental effects on a sea level acclimated metabolism, however the walk is much easier going down than coming up,
"I remember struggling for every furlong," she told him, "and it took me half a day to get here. We just passed the place where I camped the first night out, and reachin' the notch took me six candlemarks the next day." She checked her watch. "Today we've spent three hours to come half the distance, and it's higher than I'd thought."
Ares had smiled at her. "It's so much easier when you're not fighting yourself."
She'd shrugged in response and they'd resumed their hike, the clone pondering, the god eyeing her covertly and assessing her transformation with admiration. It had been so long since a warrior of her caliber had knowingly taken up his cause and accepted his Blessing. He'd spent all the years of her original life hoping for this, yet at the same time he'd been content to let her make her choices…though he'd always let her know there were options. In a long lost time and place, she had been born and trained for this.
"From the sucker of a barren tree comes the fruit once promised in the seed, and it's all the sweeter for the unexpected flowering." His words were whispered too softly for even her ears to hear, and her focus was turned deep within.
Xena could only wonder if the strength and stamina that she felt right now had also been available to her in her original life. Was the simple act of embracing the killer within her so profound that it could unleash the benefits of her divine heritage? No. That alone had never been sufficient. She had reveled in the bloodshed and slaughter during her years as a warlord. She had freed that aspect of herself to exact revenge after she'd become the Warrior Princess. On the day that she'd led the Amazons against Pompey she'd been unstoppable. Even at those times she had never felt so strong. What was different now?
In her past life, whether she'd been tied to human ambitions or warmed by human love, the Destroyer of Nations had been but a facet of her identity as a mortal. It had always been that most belligerent fragment of Xena. As a warlord, the goal of conquest had guided and limited the Destroyer's rage. In all the years since abandoning her army, she'd had Gabrielle's influence to ameliorate her martial heritage and facilitate her ability to cleave to her human inheritance. She had used only the shadow of her potential.
But now all that had changed. Xena's daughter had been brought back, only to torment her with a lost possibility. Her soulmate had been slain by the same evil, and that evil wore the face of a goddess who was vying for supremacy over mortals in an age long past her rightful time. For whatever reason, the Goddess of Wisdom had made a costly strategic error. She had negated the controls on the one who had been called the Hellenes' Bane.
Xena's clone wasn't simply embracing a violent aspect of herself anymore. She was no longer unleashing the killer for the duration of her rage. The heartstrings that had bound her to her human self had been sundered by the same sword that had taken Gabrielle's life. The Destroyer of Nations was no longer a fragment. She was no longer part of a whole. Now Xena was the Destroyer of Nations. She was the mirror image of the Warrior Princess, seen through a glass that reflected back her divinity, not her humanity. All the abilities that the blood of the gods could provide were hers by birthright. She was the killer, the general, and the child of war. Xena's clone finally understood that she was something her original self had never been. For the first time, she would truly be the God of War's Favorite and function as his mortal personification of war. The Destroyer of Nations would be uncompromising, unceasing, and merciless in battle, and she had her enemy. She would wage war in the modern world while bearing an ancient rage, and with the Blessing of her God, she would become its Conqueror.
She hadn't even noticed that while reaching this understanding of herself, she'd paced on up the path as easily as if she'd been strolling a sidewalk outside her house in Columbia. Without the slightest discomfort, Xena passed 8,500 feet. The notch lay six miles ahead.
In his office, CO of the Incirlik Airbase, USAF Brigadier General Lester Thatcher couldn't believe what he was hearing. A phone call had come from Washington, from the Air Force Chief of Staff no less, who had personally ordered him to comply with whatever demands the recently arrived CIA agents required. This apparent "blank check" had Level 1 authorization…from the Oval Office. Gen. Thatcher had heard about the agents' arrival in the F-15, and suspected they'd hatched a similar reckless scheme involving more expensive war material. Maybe they wanted to take an F-117 to Ankara?
When they arrived, the CIA agents actually appeared to be serious operatives, with the typical intensity of seasoned field agents. The pair seemed to be fully involved in the gravest of missions. If anything, he'd expected to see more evidence of stress. The two men entered his office and calmly presented their credentials. Then they quickly seated themselves and got right to the point.
"We need the immediate use of an AH-6J for spotting purposes," Harry Tasker said, "and authorization for a pair of F-16Cs armed with GBU-12 MK-82 laser guided bombs to be standing by."
The general gaped at the agents. They were obviously planning to do reconnaissance from the small helicopter and then call in the jets for an airstrike. Their request for 500 lb. precision munitions suggested a restricted size target rather than something large or heavily hardened. It also suggested a stationary target. They hadn't asked for missiles.
"It's perfectly safe," Albert Gibson confided, "there won't be any opposition aircraft."
What was he planning on attacking, a refugee camp? A rural village? A hospital? The general had begun to wonder nervously.
"Where's the engagement?" The general asked, curious about the mission radius and worried about the political repercussions. Syria and Iraq to the south were both hostile.
"Probably within 175 kilometers," Harry confided.
"In Syria?" Gen. Thatcher was beginning to dread this operation. These agents could very well precipitate a war between Syria and Turkey. That would be very bad.
"No, General, we won't be causing a war with Syria," Al said, appearing uncomfortable. General Thatcher raised an eyebrow. "The strike will probably be in the Dibek Daglari."
"In the Dibek Mountains?" The general actually choked. He sputtered and swallowed. "That's right here in Turkey!"
"There's a downside to everything," Al admitted, "but it's a pretty quiet area."
The base commander couldn't believe the scheme these CIA agents had come up with. They were planning to bomb the sovereign territory of an allied nation. His career was over…he just knew it. The Turks would riot when they found out.
"This operation is in support of American agents on a very important mission," Harry said. Gen. Thatcher gave him a questioning look. "It really is a matter of life and death. Unfortunately, everything's highly classified," the agent said with an expression of regret, "I'm sorry, but I can't tell you anything more."
"Sir, national security is at stake here," Al added. "I believe the Air Force has extended its cooperation to us. The use of your resources is vital."
Insane as he thought it was, the general was a soldier and he had his orders. The Air Force Chief of Staff had personally conveyed the directive. He really had no choice but to comply. Brig. Gen. Thatcher just wondered if anyone in Washington had any idea of what these two agents had planned. Finally he tossed up his hands in capitulation and punched a button on his intercom.
"Col. Blake, please come to my office," he ordered.
A moment later the door opened and the colonel entered, snapping off a salute. He thought the general looked a little…tired.
"Colonel, these gentlemen are with the CIA," Gen. Thatcher said, "and we are under orders to assist them. They need to borrow a Little Bird and an armed pair of Falcons. They'll fill you in on the details. Give them whatever they need."
The colonel stared at his general in dumbfounded silence, then turned and stared at the agents in disbelief. The two CIA agents rose from their chairs, and thanked the general. Col. Blake ushered them out of the office and they headed towards the operations center.
While the Omega Sector agents had been busy at Incirlik, the cloned Destroyer and the God of War had continued walking up the path into the Dibek Daglari. Another three hours had passed and they had reached 10,500 ft. They were within a mile of the notch, and Xena hadn't slowed a bit. She wasn't suffering from the thinning air. In fact, most of the way, she'd been planning the upcoming campaign, her footsteps guided by her split consciousness as her focus remained attuned to her thoughts. Finally she broke the silence and revealed what she'd decided to do. She'd have years to prepare the battlefield.
"Ya know, Ares, after I take the chakram, I'll have to lay low until Harry has my army ready. The biggest immediate task will be procuring weapons and support."
"Yes, you'll have to stay out of sight," Ares agreed. "Athena will be busy cementing her base of power before she can openly proclaim herself, but she won't forget about you. If she or her Champion can find you they won't stop until you're dead. I'm not sure why she's so intent on taking you out, but she'll be a constant threat."
"Even so, I can't do nothing. No army can function in a vacuum."
"No, it can't," Ares agreed. "You'll have to form an intelligence network, create a system of supply, and find a way to train and hide your troops until you're ready to strike."
"The same stuff as always," Xena nodded in agreement, "I remember."
"And there's another thing," Ares told her with certainty, "while you wait for your army, you've got to keep an eye on science. Whenever something new appears you have to be aware of it and ready to capitalize on it. Anything that could become a weapon is better off in your hands than the enemy's, so at the very least, if you don't gain an advantage from it, you won't be at a loss."
"I know," the Destroyer assured him, "there is no substitute to being prepared."
"I can tell you about two things I've noticed being developed," the God of War said, "the first is 'Chameleon Cloth', the mimetic fabric. It contains a sensor network woven into it that samples the nearest part of the environment; its colors, light and shade, and movement. The sensors send their data to a processor that signals the fabric to match the data's reflectance characteristics. The wearer is rendered almost invisible. It's being developed for deployment by US Special Forces ground troops by this decade's end. The second thing is a possible method of troop transport that will be faster than anything you can imagine. Remember how long it took you to get from Columbia to New Zealand?"
Xena nodded her head "yes". Starting at dawn, she and Gabrielle had spent most of a day just crossing the continental United States. That night had been spent crossing the Pacific. They'd arrived in Auckland in the mid-afternoon, and they'd been exhausted.
"You could make that trip in two to three hours. You could reach anyplace on the globe within three."
The cloned warrior looked at the god in utter disbelief. During her original life, three hours' travel at top speed meant running a horse to exhaustion to cover perhaps fifty miles, and that on a paved Roman road. With several horses in a relay one might make seventy-five miles and not kill her mount.
"There is a theory being tested, in which a specialized jet engine runs at supersonic speeds…all the air and fire within it moves faster than the speed of sound, and there are no moving parts. If you rode such an engine, you'd leave the screams of your enemies behind you on the wind."
"And how close is this engine to being built?"
"The scientists claim it will take decades," Ares told her, "but do not make the mistake of believing them. They first intend to use it for artillery projectiles and missiles. For use as human transport, they lack money and motivation. Still, they are close…perhaps within a year or two of having a working engine, and maybe four years from building a missile…maybe less."
Xena spent several dozen strides digesting Ares' news. It opened numerous possibilities and suggested strategies to her. Neither were things she'd want to face in an enemy's hands.
"I will watch…and I'll acquire the loyalty of those who are involved. The products of their labors will be mine," the Destroyer declared.
She was deciding on how to bring the best minds to her side and leave Athena with the dregs. A few years in development time would make all the difference. It would be even better if she could arrange a late phase sabotage of her opposition's facilities. Let them waste their time, she thought, and the more time they waste the better.
"There is one more thing," Ares said, interrupting her scheming," you must have at least one proprietary tactic. It must be something no one is working on…something that no one else suspects can be done. This is the factor that will assure your victory. It will be the weapon for which there can be no countermeasure because the measure itself is unsuspected. Find it and then bury it deep."
Xena listened carefully to her patron god's wisdom and found herself in agreement. When the time came, the makers of the weapon and all who knew of it would be killed.
"Make no mistake, Favorite. You are facing a goddess, and that enemy is the Goddess of Wisdom and Warfare. She was once Strategos Hypatos to Zeus himself and all of Olympus. Athena will have her own secret weapons; you may be sure of that." Ares paused and looked her in the eyes, binding her attention to convey the absolute necessity of what he was telling her. "Without a deciding factor, your chances of prevailing will be slim. With such a factor, you will change a costly uphill battle that could stalemate or bring defeat, into a decisive and unequivocal victory. Xena, in this war there can be no satisfactory outcome short of total domination. There is no place to retreat to and there will be no second chance. When you face Athena in battle, it must be with the absolute assurance of your complete victory. The battle itself will be decided quickly, perhaps in no more than a candlemark. There will be no place for shame or mercy; annihilate them all. Afterwards, there will be no place in this world for her…only you."
She had never seen Ares so certain of a goal, and in all her years of waging war, she had never opened a campaign without doubt. This time would be different in so many ways. Afterwards there would be no place in this world for Athena, Xena would make sure of that, but there was already no place in this world for Xena herself. There never had been.
"Do not open the war until you are ready, but when you do, end it quickly with overwhelming force," Ares added, "and always be aware that time runs against you."
It had always been so in the old stories of mortal against immortal. And how many times in all those stories had a mortal prevailed? Not often; not often enough. Perhaps that very fact could become a key…a weapon.
The cloned Destroyer came to a halt and Ares stopped beside her. The path had ended at 10,800 ft. Before them stood a near-vertical face of broken sandstone, threaded with natural cracks, loose boulders, and small shelves. Four hundred feet above their heads lay a gap in the ridge at the top. This was the notch they'd been making for. Beyond it was the continuation of the path from Cokak, which led down to the plain and its temple.
Xena eyed the surface carefully, recalling her original route up. She quickly saw that the endless repetitions of freeze and thaw, the abundant wind and infrequent water, and the occasional seismic tremor had almost completely recut the stone. The intervening two thousand cycles of the seasons had altered the topography enough that most of what she remembered no longer applied.
For several long minutes Xena searched for a new line of ascent. It wasn't a matter of "if", only a need to discern "how". No fortress was impregnable and every redoubt had a weakness. As she regarded the broken surface, a grin curled her lips. There was a route that could be free soloed, climbed without the aid of ropes, safeties, or a belayer…just as she had always climbed in the past. It had been one of the earliest skills she'd acquired as a young girl, conquering the cliff faces above the Stryma River near Amphipolis.
Ares had taken a seat on a boulder after having a cursory look at the cliff. It was roughly the height of a thirty-story building. When he saw Xena nod to herself and break her gaze from the rock face, he asked, "I suppose you want to do this the hard way?"
"It's a beautiful day for a little climb and it'll give me some more time to think. I'll see ya at the top."
The God of War gave her a smile and then swept a hand upward in a mocking gesture that said, "after you." Most mortals would have been terrified of tackling a four hundred-foot vertical without even a change of shoes, but not Xena. As he watched, she chugged down some water from a bottle, settled her backpack, stamped her feet, and then executed a standing front flip that landed her on the first shelf, a dozen feet above the path. From there, she latched onto a protruding rock and hauled herself over the top into a narrow gully that would serve as the start of her first pitch. A spattering of small stones cascaded down around the God of War. With a chuckle, Ares vanished in his trademark crackle of blue light. He didn't immediately reappear at the notch.
The cloned warrior worked her way up the gully with assurance, moving one point of contact at a time in a steady rhythm that ate up the distance foot by foot. She didn't really keep track of time. The climb would take as long as it took, and in the meantime, she could plan. To actually not be concentrating fully on her ascent might have seemed an example of insane overconfidence, but Xena had sometimes found that things actually went more smoothly without the interference of unnecessary decision making. Like any good leader, she knew when to delegate responsibility, and in this case, she trusted her body to handle the challenges that the cliff imposed. Soon, a hundred feet lay below her.
As she climbed she thought of the recent past, since it was the foundation for the future. She had made some friends in Columbia, South Carolina. But friends, she thought, were an extravagance she could no longer afford. Now all that the clone needed was allies. Harry and his people would be useful for a while, but eventually they would no longer be necessary. She didn't trust them and they would probably have to end up dead.
Among the other friends she'd made in Columbia were her students, one already dead, while the rest were simply insufficiently competent to wage war beside her. Those students were of no foreseeable use in the coming battles and they had no place in her plans. Like any other civilians, they might live or they might die. Like the house where she'd lived with Gabrielle, she would probably never see them again. All of that was part of an earlier life, a simpler life that had little bearing on the future. It had been the life of the cloned Warrior Princess. For the Destroyer of Nations, it was just history.
There had only been one person Xena had trusted unconditionally and she was gone. Perhaps it was better that way. Gabrielle had never been comfortable with the Destroyer of Nations. The Destroyer's wanton violence had always shocked Gabrielle, and sooner or later, the Destroyer would have hurt the Warrior Princess' soulmate. In the past, that act would have left Xena at war with herself, an intolerable and self-destructive situation. Now that possibility was moot. Gabrielle was dead and there was no Warrior Princess.
Xena came to a stop and blinked. She had reached the midpoint of her climb and her body was asking for her attention. Above her the gully had stopped dead at the underside of an overhanging shelf. To either side of her were flat, nearly vertical faces with scarcely an indentation large enough for a handhold. The nearest crevice was an angled fissure of perhaps four inches in width that lay slightly above and twelve feet to her left. That fissure ran upwards for a dozen feet, before becoming the underside of an overhang where the cliff face had sheared away. Fifteen feet above her, and completely out of sight from her present position, a narrow shelf continued upward into an irregular cutting that would lead her near the top. She had seen her present position from the bottom and had deemed it the only tricky spot. If she could make this traverse as she had planned, the rest of her climb would be almost easy.
The first thing she did was drink her remaining water and jettison the empty bottle. It dropped end over end as she watched, falling and bouncing off projecting rocks before it hit the path a long way down. The second thing was to snug the belt and shoulder straps of her backpack, then tighten its compression straps. She checked the lacing of her boots and then wiped the sweat from her palms. Finally, she looked up. The edge of the overhanging shelf was weathered smooth, but it was sandstone, sedimentary rock composed of compressed sand, rather than more highly compressed and metamorphosed metaquartzite. She unclipped the chakram and with a few strokes, gouged out a shallow groove just deep enough to provide a handhold. Chips of rock followed the water bottle down the twenty stories of cliff, striking the bottom with a distant pitter-patter. As expected, the chakram's edge showed no wear, not even a scratch, and Xena reattached it to her belt. Then she replayed her next moves in her mind's eye and took a deep breath.
Reaching back up over her head, Xena settled the fingers of her right hand into the groove she'd cut. She tested the feel of it, hefting her weight. And then she freed herself from her other three points of contact, taking her body's full weight on the fingers of one hand. Quickly she swung her torso from side to side to build momentum, and then she launched herself to her left while spinning in midair. She crossed the twelve feet to the crevice and extended her arms and legs, converting the rotational velocity of her spin into momentum that drove her feet securely into the narrow crack and held her body against the sheer rock face during the crucial moment she needed to change directions. For that heartbeat, while the physics of inertia aided her, she couldn't have fallen off the cliff if she'd wanted to. Then the energy was dissipated by the impact and gravity began to exert its effect.
The Destroyer of Nations felt the pull of her weight and she let it bend her knees, coiling them and storing the energy. Then, from a three-quarter squat, she reversed her downward motion, using the sheer power of her legs. She drove her body upwards and to her right, launching herself off the crevice, and diving towards the shelf that waited fifteen feet above the overhang she'd been trapped beneath.
Her body reached full extension with her arms and hands poised for contact like a diver's. Every inch counted. Two hundred feet below, the path waited mercilessly if she fell short by a hairsbreadth. Xena focused on the shelf hurtling towards her, tunneling her vision and willing it closer. It took a heartbeat to cross the distance, a car length and a half at a thirty-degree up angle. It felt like an eternity as she hung suspended in motion above empty space while gravity and inertia waged war over her mass. Those forces were governed by laws of physics that Xena knew only with the intimacy of practical application. She couldn't have predicted the dynamics of her movement with the formulae of a scientist. She knew nothing of theoretical physics, but she understood those tenets viscerally, like a gymnast or an acrobat. Now she could feel her body losing its momentum, slowing, the force of her leap dissipating to leave her hanging motionless, weightless for a heartbeat, before gravity took her and she began to fall. For a fraction of a second she dropped. Then the fingers and palms of both hands slammed down, finding the rock just as she'd planned, and she clamped onto it with a bone-crushing grip.
In gravity's thrall she let her body swing down smoothly from her hands, with arms outstretched, and then she bent her legs upward at the waist. Like a pendulum her body reached the apex of it's swing and then the motion reversed. Xena straightened her legs to maximize the force of her motion, converting the energy she'd stored into velocity. The backswing brought her body up, raising her hips above the level of the shelf as she again bent at the waist as her movement slowed. For a heartbeat she hung frozen in equilibrium as her upward motion ceased. Then she kipped, kicking her legs straight out while arching her back and releasing her hands. Xena completed her transit with a flip that landed her solidly, with both feet planted squarely on the shelf, and her back to the cliff face. Without even a glance down at where she might have died, the Destroyer of Nations turned and made her way up the cutting that led to the notch.
After another twenty minutes of climbing, she pulled herself up over the last lip of rock and stood at 11,200 ft., her back to the distant Bay of Alexandretta, her face to the notch. Ares was nowhere to be seen. She took a dozen steps and looked down onto the rubble-strewn plateau, 400 feet below. For a fleeting moment she saw it through the eyes of her original self, staggering in the thin air on that day over 2,000 years before. She traced the path downwards, through the talus slope to the level, rocky field, littered with the corpses of warriors whose armor glinted in the sun. Past and present cross-dissolved, focused on those persisting highlights, and Xena's clone saw the same dead still arrayed in the brightness and desiccating air. It seemed as if the passing seasons of the mortal world had held no sway on this parcel of ground, and that it was as subject now to the immortal will of the gods as it had ever been in the past.
One thing had changed. The Destroyer's eyes raked across the field to where the temple had stood. Now only a pile of rubble marked the spot where a soul, already ancient in her time, had guarded the weapons that had helped bring about his defeat and servitude.
Perhaps it had been an earthquake that had finally toppled the structure. Perhaps some ancient tremor had shattered the temple's walls, collapsing the roof that she'd so laboriously perforated by prying out a half-dozen of the heavy, flat, marble ceiling tiles, and thus granting the Hecatoncheire his coveted light. Or perhaps it had been the gods' wrath, visited upon the site when it became apparent that the chakrams were falling, one after another, into the hands of human warriors.
Following over a thousand years of failure, mortals had won three of the weapons within the span of about thirty years. When Callisto had taken of the Chakram of Night, it must have filled the Olympians with anger and dread. Perhaps they had sought to protect themselves by forever setting the last "bright" chakram beyond human reach. They must have held their breaths in terror as the once Destroyer of Nations had taken the Chakram of Light in 63 BC. Xena had been masterful, violent, and ambitious, and worse, she had been in Indus, beyond the sight of the Olympians, for over two years. Had she not combined it with the Chakram of Darkness, she could have killed them all.
Xena's clone made her way downslope, descending the path to the plateau. As before, she moved without sparing conscious thought to guide her feet. From above she had seen the ancient dead, but she had also noted that none of the bodies bore gear that revealed evidence of any attempted visits later than her own. Save for the collapse of the temple, the scene was barely changed from what she had beheld on her first visit. Had Callisto been the last to come here? Had the secret of this place died from mortal memory with her? After the soulmates' defeat in 44 BC, Callisto had taken possession of the Combined Chakram, while leaving the broken Chakram of Night behind. The Romans had found its pieces, and Callisto wouldn't have kept her great trophy, Xena's Combined Chakram, hidden. No, more likely she had displayed it with glee, flaunting it as the spoil of her greatest victory, the realization of her lifelong ambition and obsession of destroying her enemy, the Warrior Princess. Knowledge of the chakrams would have persisted at least for the duration of Callisto's life and perhaps many lives beyond. Yet no one had come.
Her musings brought another point to light. The fight that she and Gabrielle had lost to Callisto, back in that alley in Rome, had been filled with surprises. Most of them had been bad. Now Xena contemplated yet another. Why had the Chakram of Night broken against her back? She had been wearing her scrollwork armor, wrought of hard bronze that could turn a sword stroke. Even if it had been sufficient protection against a chakram, the god-forged weapon shouldn't have cracked in two. It should have rebounded, though Xena actually suspected that it would have cloven the scrollwork and severed her spine, embedding itself in her body rather than breaking her back from the force of the impact alone.
Early on in her own use of the chakram, Xena had sometimes sunk it into the flesh of her enemies, but that had been before learning that it was just as deadly when the blow glanced off the target while slicing the flesh it struck. Developing her expertise had allowed her to strike multiple targets and recover the weapon immediately on the rebound. And that was another thing about Callisto's attack. The Chakram of Night should also have rebounded and returned to Callisto's hand when it hadn't lodged itself in her flesh. The clone realized that the Chakram of Night had not behaved like a chakram! She was surprised that she had never seen this clearly before. The blow that had incapacitated her on March 12, 44 BC could as easily have come from a heavy club or a strongly cast lance. Had the Cirran been so inept with her chakram that she'd never developed even the most rudimentary technical prowess with the weapon? If that had been the case, she would have been at an even greater disadvantage with the Combined Chakram. In fact, she'd have been lucky not to kill herself using it. Perhaps Xena's weapon had avenged her death. The Destroyer of Nations chuckled at the thought.
Now she abandoned her reminiscing, for her steps had brought her to the place where the pylons had stood supporting the temple's gate. Here she had rested, exhausted by her climb, daunted by the reminders of the gods, and needing to collect her resolve. Today her body knew no fatigue as she passed the fallen pylons and lintel. She saw before her the shattered remains of columns and walls, architrave and pediment, cornice and capitols, all lying heaped together in ruin. This very outcome had been prophesized by the structure's oppressive design from the day that its stones were raised. It was as though the temple had crashed down under the weight of its own atmosphere of impending collapse. Xena had been struck at first sight by a perception of its doomed existence; almost a premonition of the building's inevitable destruction.
She picked her way among the fallen stones and blocks, observing that the courses of the stereobate and stylobate that formed the foundation still lay flat and true beneath the rubble. Here had stood the façade with its peristyle of six squat columns, and among their broken drums, Xena noted the piles of rocks, throwing missiles for the Hecatoncheire. Here too lay the fragments of the bas-relief from the pediment, and among them the clone could make out the shattered figures of Zeus and his four children. Their fallen depictions seemed to summarize the sense of lost grandeur and faded glory that had accompanied their reign into myth, leaving nothing but aging stone to commemorate their power to an unbelieving race of modern mortals.
The Destroyer of Nations lowered herself to her knees, taking a closer look at the carved profile of the Goddess of Wisdom and Warfare. Her enemy's broken visage reflected calm confidence marred by a measure of cold condescension. Had she seen that expression on a living face, the clone would have perceived willfulness and overbearing pride. It was the look of someone whom she would revel in bringing down a notch.
"You'll fall more than a notch before I'm done with ya," Xena softly whispered. The accompanying look of raw hatred on her face would have frozen a mortal's blood.
Just a moment later the thin wind of the Dibek Daglari spun up a spiral of dust, forcing the Destroyer of Nations to narrow her eyes as it whirled specks of grit into her face. Do you hear me and disapprove, O mighty Goddess of War, Xena asked herself as she rose to her feet. The petit gyre spun itself out a few yards away and the breeze returned to its general pattern, blowing up from the lowlands past the edge of the plateau.
Xena stepped up onto the stereobate, the lowest course of the temple's foundation, and then leaped onto a fallen section of the architrave that had come to rest atop a toppled column's barrel. From there she crossed from block to block with the surefootedness of a mountain goat, jumping from one ruined element to another, and finally gaining a position at the top of the cornice. She was standing on a portion of what had been the angled roofline, and she could see across the jumble of what had been the temple's roof.
Beneath a sheathing of flat limestone tiles lay a post and lintel frame of a few marble beams. The primary beam had been a central spine that ran the temple's length, supporting the peak of the roofline. Several lighter beams had crossed the cella transversely below it. Augmenting this stone framework had been a greater number of wooden timbers that distributed the weight of the roof tiles onto the main beams. The supporting members of the architrave, (those primary lintels that ran around the building's perimeter atop the sidewalls and peristyle columns), as well as those remaining elements that formed the front and rear façades, the columns, and the foundation, had all been of sandstone.
The clone looked down at the displaced and cracked limestone roof tiles that partially hid the wreckage underneath. Here and there she could see cracked marble ceiling beams and some of the ancient wooden timbers. Most importantly, the Destroyer could discern that despite its collapse, there was still space hidden beneath the fallen roof. What remained of the cella probably comprised a haphazard sequence of irregular chambers, each partially segregated from the next by debris. Xena imagined a warren of dangerous spaces, home to spiders and rodents, darkness and dust, ever under threat of possible further collapse. Somewhere within that ruin lay the Chakram of Day, perhaps still guarded by the bones of the Hecatoncheire, but forgotten by the world.
Xena moved across the fallen slabs of the roofing tiles, picking her way carefully towards what had been the back of the temple. Here and there she noted a gap below a tilted slab or between a tile and a fractured beam. They seemed to beckon her, offering a dark entrance to the spaces underneath. As she moved, the clone's confidence grew, for the rubble seemed stable. Nothing shifted or rocked underfoot as she passed. The slight weight of her mortal body had no effect on stone blocks that weighed hundreds or even thousands of pounds. When she went down into the darkness to search for her prize, she wouldn't have to fear a collapse trapping her like it had the temple's hapless guardian.
When she reached what had been the rear quarter of the temple's cella, Xena began to look more carefully into every gap in the rubble large enough for her to crawl through. In some places she saw a few details where the sunlight penetrated below her, before the darkness swallowed all in shadows. Her investigation of possible entrances ended when she found an opening, roughly two feet by three, where a tile was missing.
Perhaps it was one that she herself had forced out of place when she'd trusted the Hecatoncheire to lift her the twenty feet above the floor. With her legs braced securely in his grip, her height had allowed her to reach the ceiling that had been set beyond his reach. There she'd wedged her shoulders against a half-dozen tiles, one after another, struggling against their dead weight until she'd finally displaced them upwards and left their places open to the heavens. She had created a sequence of skylights across the width of the temple, and across them the sun had tracked overhead. The ancient creature had finally been granted the light he'd missed for a millennium in the temple, and for an age in Tartarus before that. He had lowered her safely to the floor, and in gratitude to his "Light Bringer", he had delivered to her Athena's Chakram of Light.
Now the Destroyer of Nations looked down into the dark well below the shattered roof. She drew from her backpack a handful of Cyalume sticks, and after activating their chemistry with a snap, she dropped them down into the darkness. Their light seemed faint compared to the brilliant sun overhead, but by shielding her eyes and looking only downwards, Xena's eyes adjusted until she could see. By the dim chemical glow of the light sticks the clone could discern the floor eight feet below her, the dust and rubble strewn floor of the stylobate. She saw chains wrought by Hephaestos himself, and still constrained within the manacles at their ends, the bones of several of the Hecatoncheire's arms. She saw a shield bigger than any that a mortal warrior would bear, a javelin ten feet in length, a long sword almost her own height, and a mace with a flanged head that probably weighed twenty-five pounds. So, he was certainly dead. Probably killed when the temple collapsed. An ignoble death, she noted without sympathy, after a lifespan that might have encompassed eight thousand years.
With that thought, Xena took a quick step forward and casually dropped feet-first through the roof. Her legs absorbed the shock with a slight bend of her knees before she straightened back up. The clone surveyed her surroundings with all her senses. She could smell centuries of dust, dry and gritty at the back of her throat. Inside the ruins the sound of the wind was imperceptible and silence appropriate to a tomb held sway. On a deeper level, she felt no tingling warning of the presence of a god, heard no other mortals, and discerned no threats. A moment later the beam of a Sure-Fire M-3 Combat Light stabbed into the darkness as she made an initial sweep of the proximal area.
With the halogen light she could see that remains of the cella. A much-interrupted space had been formed by fallen timbers and ceiling beams, broken roof tiles, and stray stones from the sidewalls. Here and there, a pool of light penetrated down from some gap that opened to the sky, theatrically spotlighting another tableau of destruction. She swept the beam around towards the rear of the cella and saw the crushed skeleton of the temple's guardian. Sure enough, the main ceiling beam had fallen squarely on his torso when it broke. Tons of stone had dropped the twenty feet with almost surgical precision, leaving the Hecatoncheire's chest impaled by the end of a marble beam whose immense weight had cloven the floor below.
Xena stepped towards the Hecatoncheire's remains. She reached what had been a sunken area where the guardian had been hobbled and cleared part of that space, dispassionately kicking aside chains, weapons, and bones. When she'd freed the area she sought, the clone lifted a discarded spear and used it as a lever to pry up a flooring stone. The spear point shrieked as it bit into a small recess in the marble slab. With her weight multiplied by the spear's length, Xena raised the stone until it sat displaced over the one adjacent to it. She repositioned the spear and shifted the stone a little further until, inch by inch, she had moved it enough to clear a space just big enough to slip an arm and shoulder through. In this way, she gained access to the hidden vault that held the remaining chakram.
The flashlight beam shone down through the gap Xena had created in the temple's floor. Just a couple feet below lay a smooth facing of white marble and black diorite slabs. The four square slabs alternated colors, black and white, like a row from a chessboard. Each square was engraved with a ringlike depression and bore a symbol at its center. Both black squares and the white square between them showed empty depressions. The final white square held a chakram. Centered within its metal ring, a black symbol with a dot in the middle of a circle was inlaid in the white marble. It was the ancient glyph of the sun and it signified the god Apollo. Even an illiterate from the ancient world wouldn't have mistaken it. The weapon was surely the Chakram of Day.
Xena claimed it with a quick snatch, wholly devoid of ceremony and dictated by economy of motion. Her senses had begun ringing an alarm. She slipped the chakram into her backpack, then silently regained her feet and hastened to stand in the shadows beside the rectangle of light that poured through the gap in the roof where she'd entered. After a moment, she noticed the Cyalume sticks and kicked them out of sight beneath the surrounding debris. Faintly she heard the very distant sound of a helicopter's rotors chopping the air, and more closely, the movements of several sets of feet.
The AH-6J Little Bird helicopter had taken off from Incirlik Airbase and immediately banked northeast. It climbed to 2,500 feet and sped over the coastal plains north of the Bay of Alexandretta, following highway D815, and heading towards the highlands that loomed like a brown wall ahead. At the controls, Harry Tasker pushed the Little Bird to 250 km/h, while beside him, Albert Gibson searched the approaching distance through 8 X 50 field glasses. The small helicopter's range of about 430 kilometers would allow them only a limited search time since their suspected roundtrip was about 350 kilometers. It wasn't a good situation, but only the Little Bird, almost identical in appearance to a civilian MD-530 or Alouette II, and carrying no external armaments, could fly over villages and towns without arousing unwanted attention.
After twenty minutes of flying, the Little Bird left the last of the agricultural lowlands behind. As it flew above the town of Kozan, the radio sputtered to life.
"Omega Sparrow, continue course heading 39° mag to coordinates 37°25'38" N by 36°18'43" E, do you copy?" Harry gawked at the radio while Al fumbled for a chart.
"Omega Sparrow, copy. Please identify, this is a restricted frequency," Harry asked. The voice had been that of an unfamiliar man. As Al pointed out their position and the one that they'd just been directed to on the map, Harry saw that the coordinates lay almost directly ahead. Who could possibly know where they were heading or what they were looking for? In fact, except for a few personnel at Incirlik, their flight did not exist. No one should even have known their call name.
"Omega Sparrow…trust me," the voice said with a dark chuckle, "scramble your fighters for a tactical strike at those coordinates and be there to direct the attack."
"Who is this?" Harry yelled over the noise of the rotors, but the radio had gone dead.
Now he was worried. If someone knew their plans and the position of their target, then they were a step ahead of the agents. Harry himself wasn't sure what he was looking for, or where it lay. If someone knew how to contact them, then they probably knew where the helicopter was as well. Harry searched the ground with a careful glance but saw nothing suspicious; no glint of reflected light off a spotting scope's lens, no truck with a radar dish pointed in their direction, and no trail from a shoulder launched missile.
Al made a choking sound and grabbed his shoulder, then urgently nodded forward. Harry looked ahead and grimaced, then he was pulling upward on the collective to gain altitude and adjusting the cyclic to raise the nose as the wall of the Dibek Mountains loomed dangerously close before them. Their forward view jerked upslope as the 'copter lurched upward, momentarily leaving their stomachs behind like a runaway elevator car. Harry was grateful that the AH-6J light attack helicopter was so responsive. He kept the heading constant, at 39° east of magnetic north on the compass, by controlling the tail rotor with the footpedals, while below the Little Bird, highway D815 slipped away to the north. Albert Gibson sat rigidly clutching at his chest, trying to slow his breathing. He could have sworn that the helicopter had scraped the ground with its skids. It was just such incidents that caused him so many misgivings about flying Tasker Airlines.
Below them a ridge was quickly rising. To either side, valleys were deepening and narrowing into gorges. The helicopter rose to trace the ridgeline; 3,500 feet, 4,500 feet, then 5,500 feet, and still it climbed to follow the land. Al breathed a sigh of relief and then typed the coordinates into the onboard GPS system. A moment later, a graphic display confirmed their position and destination. The expected transit time was less than twelve minutes. Harry concentrated on maintaining a safe altitude while Al searched the ground. Now there was nothing below the helicopter that hinted of human habitation; no roads, no farms, no houses or shacks. The land was too steep, too dry, and too difficult for surface travel. It was just barren rock, save for a few scrubby shrubs that appeared to be dried up and dead from the air. As far as Al could see, it was a wasteland.
As Al continued to hunt for anything unusual on the ground, Harry replayed the strange radio message in his mind as he piloted the Little Bird over the rising terrain. One thing he discovered, and confirmed by sneaking a quick peek at the chart, was that a road came within fifteen miles of the mysterious coordinates. It ended at a dot of a town called Cokak. More importantly, it sat at the end of an easy and continuous route by car from Iskenderun. It was possible that Xena and her companion had driven there and parked their Jeep before hiking the rest of the way. A thrill of excitement coursed through the agent. If Xena were headed towards the same coordinates he'd been given, then very shortly, he would arrive at the place that had been the repository of the chakrams. Harry wondered what Ray Fell would have given to see that site and discover the truth of what his colleagues dismissed as only a myth. He found that now, he believed what the radio message had said.
"Gib, call in the fighters," Harry ordered, "give them the coordinates we're using."
"Are you sure, Harry?" Al asked nervously. "We could start a war with Turkey."
"You got a better plan?" Harry chided. "We can always blame it on the Syrians."
Al groaned, but he got on the radio and transmitted the message. Incirlik responded.
"Harry, the F-16s are six minutes out. They'll arrive almost the same time we do."
The Omega Sector agent nodded and adjusted the collective for a more rapid ascent. The altimeter registered 8,800 feet above sea level. GPS calculated about ten miles to the target area. He nudged the cyclic, canting the helicopter's nose down and gaining a little speed. He wanted to have a look at the area before the F-16Cs dropped their ordinance. There wouldn't be anything left afterwards.
Six sets of footsteps, the Destroyer of Nations was certain of that. They were moving warily over the rubble of the temple's roof, maintaining a prudent spacing between them, and even more prudently, remaining silent. Hunters, Xena thought, or assault troops. Without hearing their voices though, she couldn't identify a language or get an impression of whose troops they were. She could only assume that they knew she was present and that she was below them, somewhere inside the ruined temple. Yet so far, they still hadn't pinpointed her position. Here she held the advantage of surprise. They held the advantages of numbers and possibly of armaments. She continued to wait and listen, tracking their progress overhead. In the background, the helicopter was getting louder.
Xena crouched, as still and silent as a statue, drawing in her arms and turning her body so as not to reveal a recognizable outline. On another level, she had blocked off all projections of herself. The clone had long ago noticed that under some conditions enemies would walk right past her in broad daylight and yet not registered her presence. Conversely, the warrior had often benefited from a "sixth" sense that allowed her to discern the presence of enemies when her physical senses couldn't. It was a sense that grew from "that feeling of being watched", though it was infinitely more refined, and it partook of a transcendental state. It was a subtle thing, sensing without the senses, and the blocking against it was a skill that very, very few warriors she'd ever met had even tried to acquire. Xena had practiced this skill with her soulmate, playing hide and seek in caves and tunnels. Eventually Gabrielle had also mastered it. That ability had come in handy often, not the least of which was during their rescue of Eve, in the Eternal City.
"Becoming invisible" had allowed them to move within an arm's length of Praetorians when they'd invaded Caesar's palace, remaining undetected and insubstantial as ghosts, until they killed. The soulmates had moved steadily and quickly through torchlit corridors, as unstoppable as the night itself, and as deadly as a plague. One by one, they had silently decimated their enemy's bodyguards, eventually leaving most of those on duty, nearly 200 soldiers, dead in their wake. Had Caesar been present in his palace, the Warrior Princess wouldn't have spared him either. As it was, she had settled for sending him a clear message; you cannot rest, my enemy, for even in your home you are not safe. I can strike in the heart of your city and wrest my prize from your treasury while leaving destruction behind me. Your hatred has brought the Bane of Hellas to Rome.
They'd recovered Eve, then called Livia, from her very bedchamber, dragging the hysterical girl, whom they'd bound and gagged at first, behind them. When she'd finally calmed down and come to her senses, Xena had cowed her with threats and she'd grudgingly followed them out of Rome. Caesar's Champion had been a whining brat.
From a copse on the south shore of the Tiber River, beyond the city's wall, they'd heard the anguished howls of Praetorian officers in the palace on the Palatine Hill, bemoaning their discovery of so many dead. In the darkness, Xena had cupped her hands to her mouth and ululated a bloodcurdling Thracian war cry. That demon's wail had carried over the tenements and forums until it had assailed the Romans' ears, declaring Xena's vengeance and the fulfillment of her Oath of War. The twelve "Bloody Years" had finally reached their close, and in their wake lay over 125,000 dead whose souls had been forfeit along the road from Endgame to the Eternal City. The soulmates had eluded the Roman pursuit and hauled the spoiled Livia back to Thrace for her rehabilitation, though Gabrielle had very nearly killed her along the way. But that had all been in another life.
If the group Xena faced now were truly hunters, she knew they would have developed that sense too, even if they weren't aware of it. So as a precaution, she executed a kind of dissociation and "became invisible", just as she had in Caesar's palace, while tracking the footsteps above her as they moved past. At one point, the partial silhouette of a head appeared in the rectangle of sunlight that Xena had dropped through to enter the temple. The hunter even stared directly at the place where the Destroyer stood, shrouded in darkness, but her eyes passed the clone by along with the tumbled stones all around her. After a moment she withdrew and moved on.
Xena remained where she was, listening as the six above her walked to the rear wall of the temple and the helicopter suddenly became louder, probably as it crested some ridge and came into view. Perhaps some fortuitous passage between the fallen stones aided her by channeling sounds from the hunters down into the ruined cella. For the first time, Xena heard a few muttered words above her, and now she knew what to expect. She drew Gabrielle's short sword with her right hand and unclipped the Combined Chakram with her left. Then she moved to stand directly beneath the open sky.
Harry was tempted to follow the ridge to its top before turning downslope and reaching the coordinates, but then he decided to shape his course to the map and seek the place he'd been directed to. The AH-6J literally popped over the ridge 250 feet shy of the summit, and suddenly, there below the agents lay their first view of the small plateau, littered with bodies and the ruined temple. Facing them at the nearest edge of the collapsed roof were a half-dozen figures taken directly from some movie set.
Her ears placed the helicopter at the ridge crest, and the voices she'd heard placed her antagonists between herself and it. Now, while their attention was directed away from her position by a distraction, was the perfect time to strike. The Destroyer of Nations coiled her legs, took a breath, and then launched her body straight up.
She burst from the opening in the fallen roof as if launched from a catapult, confirming her enemies' positions as her head cleared the rubble. Xena held her body vertical to the top of her leap and then tucked into a front somersault that brought her down to a whisper soft landing, four yards behind the hunters. The beating of the helicopter's rotors covered the faint sounds of her boots as she charged, and in a heartbeat she was upon them.
A hard thrust with Gabrielle's sword bit through the flesh below the woven armor of a cloned Callisto's back. It passed between her ribs just to the right of her spine and severed her inferior vena cava. Xena wrenched the sword free and slashed a second Callisto's neck with the Combined Chakram, sending up a fountain of blood. She spun quickly to her left and slammed the ring-bladed weapon into the throat of a cloned Elainis who had already begun to draw her swords in response. The other three hunters, another Elainis and a pair of Mavicans, were turning to face her, leaving the helicopter forgotten.
Xena immediately flipped over the remaining Elainis. She drove the ventilated short sword into the nearer Mavican's throat, twisting the blade as she withdrew it and nearly hewing off her head.
The element of surprise had served Xena well, allowing her to dispatch both the two most unpredictable and one of the most deadly. She'd killed the Mavican clone simply because she could, knowing that when outnumbered, sooner was better than later. Now the advantage of surprise was gone, but the Destroyer of Nations was in her element. She was facing an enemy who could actually challenge her in combat. She didn't have the time to notice that she was moving far faster than she ever had as the Warrior Princess.
The second Elainis was already charging forward, her twin swords drawn in an instant, while the second Mavican was still drawing her sword and moving to attack from the opposite side. The cloned Destroyer of Nations spun to face the clone of Elainis, knowing that she was the far more dangerous enemy. With a detached fragment of her brain, Xena noted that the helicopter was standing off and observing, hovering beyond the edge of the plateau. Even mortal combat couldn't constrain her entire being, for she was something more than human, more than a god's Favorite, and yet less than a god.
Elainis opened her assault at full speed, with a flurry of blows that even Xena was hard pressed to turn aside. The twin longswords of Athena's Champion gave her the advantage of reach over Xena's short sword and chakram. Despite her disadvantage, Xena held Elainis at bay…barely. It was all she could do to fend her off while avoiding the almost clumsy slashes that Mavican harried her with from behind. An effective counterattack would be almost impossible. Getting within the whirling cyclone of those black blades that Elainis wielded with such consummate skill was going to be harder than slaughtering a centuria of legionnaires. The Destroyer realized that her only recourse would be to gamble on the unexpected. To that end, Xena searched her options. And somewhere far away, the detached fragment that still monitored the surrounding world reported a roaring sound that was rapidly growing to a scream.
Xena lashed out with a back kick that slammed into the Mavican's belly and drove her back. The Elainis allowed the hint of a derisive grin to twist one corner of her mouth even as she lunged with her right sword to capitalize on Xena's divided attention. It was in just such moments of peril that Xena had always pushed herself hardest and forced herself to excel.
Xena caught the sword's blade between the S-curve and the blade ring of her chakram. She clamped down on it by rotating her forearm to twist her weapon, locking Elainis' blade immobile, and then she braced her elbow against her hip and launched her body upward into an aerial cartwheel. The strength of Elainis' wrist was no match for the leverage exerted by Xena's entire body. The sword was wrenched from her grasp. It flew out of the chakram and through the air, clattering to the ground well beyond the ruins and far out of reach. Xena landed three yards away, teetering on the brink of a gap between two roofing tiles, before she recovered her balance with a small hop onto solid footing. The Elainis shook out her right wrist and then raised her left sword vertically to salute the unusual move that had disarmed her. She didn't shift the remaining sword to her right hand, but immediately moved forward to continue her attack. Even as the Destroyer of Nations raised her guard in response, she registered the rising pitch of the helicopter's rotors. Her head jerked up. Behind Athena's Champion, Xena saw the helicopter rapidly backing away from the edge of the plateau.
In that moment, the roaring Xena had noted just moments before crescendoed as two jets streaked over the ridge. They were traveling so low and so fast that they drew dust from the plateau up into their wake as they passed overhead, and the combatants had to shield their eyes from the grit. Their engine wash rolled over the fighters like the blast from a foundry's furnace. Still squinting, the Destroyer of Nations took five rapid strides to traverse the roof and flung herself into space, tucking into a double somersault and landing amidst the rubble of the temple's sidewall. She hit the ground running flat out, as fast as she could, desperately trying to put distance between herself and temple.
She managed to cover almost three dozen paces. The F-16Cs had rolled and backflipped and were coming in again, but this time much higher. She was still running, never looking back, when a brief whistle was followed by a blast that flung her off her feet. Somewhere during the instant that Xena spent airborne, deafened as her body was slammed by the concussion, a blue light flared. She never landed.
Flickering blue flash. Bright glow of gold. Four figures flared into existence in a swirling landscape of colors and vapor that is devoid of anything concrete which would provide a reference of time or place. The God of War held his Chosen draped unconscious in his arms. Before him stood the Goddess of Wisdom and her frozen Champion, burned and blasted by the tactical air strike. They were passing each other through a neutral space that no mortal may experience. Here, in the limitless aether, only an immortal soul may speak.
"Rescued your Favorite, brother?"
"She was already clear of the blast, unlike your Champion, sister."
"Perhaps she would have survived…for a while. But sooner or later she will fall."
"Maybe she will and maybe she won't, but you lost six today. Perhaps your hopes are ill founded."
"My hopes, brother? No. It is you who pin your hopes on a trick of fate that should never have been. If not for Alti, she wouldn't even exist now, Ares. Besides, she's the clone of Melinda Pappas, not Xena, and even Xena was never a match for Elainis."
"And speaking of Elainis…now I finally understand why our father called her an abomination. You brought a clone back to Mycenae didn't you, Athena? Even back then you defied the order of things and traveled time. Her fate was to die at Aulis, but you couldn't let her go. So who's pinning their hopes on a fate that should never have been?"
"It make no difference, brother. My hopes are as good as realized. Look at the world you fool! The worship of Wisdom and Warfare is the obsession of mortals! No, Ares, my hopes are secure. The world of mortals has chosen me, and it's all the more obvious because they've chosen me without even knowing it. Never has a god enjoyed such a pure mandate. You should have stayed safe in your tomb, brother. In this world, heroism and glory are impotent rivals for science and technology. Now mortals kill with the push of a button, using weapons of mass destruction and the tactics of deceit. They don't call it cowardice, they call it expediency and battlefield superiority. Soon there will be no place in this world for what you offer, Ares. Soon there will be no place in this world for you…or your Favorite."
"We'll see, Athena. We'll see."
Flare of Blue light. Efflorescence of gold. Swirling vapor fills the emptied space, and then…
"So much was twisted and perverted…"
"…so much potential unrealized in the stream diverted…"
"…but even a god's meddling cannot undo what is to be …"
"…and even a stream diverted makes its way to the sea."
Continued in Chapter 4
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