Part 3 Chapter 9

By Phantom Bard

For Disclaimer: See Part 3 Chapter 1


April 23, 2006 — The Actean Peninsula, Chalcidice

It was morning after they’d seen the submarine battle and gained a fairly good assurance that Xena, (and perhaps more than one Xena), was alive and at war. That night, after the stilt-boat had zipped off to the north and the sub had sunken out of sight without a single Xena so much as telling them to, "wait right here until I get back", the Gabrielles had realized that they needed to make some decisions.

Their course had been for Amphipolis by way of the mouth of the Strymon River, and their intention had been to find their soulmate(s). But their soulmates had seen them and not chosen to greet or meet. That had hurt, but after they’d gotten past their disappointment, the practical reasons for such behavior became a cause for concern.

The Xenas in the submarine boat had blown something up right before their craft had half-leapt from the water. Even worse, a couple hours before that, someone had set off an atomic bomb. The Gabrielles had not a single weapon among them. They had to question the wisdom of just sailing directly into a war zone. This was even more true since one army probably belonged to the Destroyer of Nations with Ares’ Blessing, and the other was loyal to the Goddess of War. It was literally a sibling rivalry of Olympian dimensions. Outsiders were almost certainly unwelcome. In fact the more they’d thought about it, (and being Gabrielles), the more they’d talked about it, the more it became obvious that they needed an alternative plan. They hadn’t come all the way from Olduvai Gorge to get nuked, and so they considered the geography.

To the east lay the width of the Aegean, all the way to Samothrace, Imbros, and the Dardanelles. To the west lay the peninsula of Acte, or Athos, the easternmost peninsula of Chalcidice. The Gabrielles remembered Acte. Back in her time it had been mostly deserted. Unlike the Pallene, which was relatively flat and fertile, or Sithonia that had at least rated a coastal road, Acte was mountainous right down to its shores. There was almost no arable land. Mountains rose straight from the water, and the peninsula’s interior was just more of the same, with steep, pine-dotted peak after peak. In her time, the Acte road had stopped at Acanthus, where the peninsula joined the mainland, and only a few outlaws and crazy ascetics on the backs of donkeys had ventured down narrow paths further south.

The Gabrielles had no idea what was there now, but it couldn’t be much. Acte was probably still isolated, marginal terrain, sparsely populated and unwatched. It could be the perfect place to hide out, and it could provide a route, though admittedly a difficult one, through Chalcidice to Macedonia and the Strymon. There was nothing for them in Turkey, and so after a short debate, they turned their flotilla of wooden ships to the west at 2300 hours.

Making their constant 4 knots, the 203 ships covered the roughly 25 miles to the coast in a creaking and gently bobbing six hours. They dropped their anchors in the shallows just off shore at 0500 and promptly went to sleep, intending to wake at dawn when they would be able to assess the land. They had arrived about 5 miles north of Mt. Athos, which rose to 6,670 feet at the southeastern tip of the peninsula. Ashore lay a narrow vale between mountains of lesser height, and nestled on a forested slope above its mouth sat the Holy Monastery of Karakalos.

The dawn of April 23rd slipped across the water and lightened the rising mountains, throwing harsh shadows inland from the coast. Somewhere in the monastery a bell pealed, calling the brothers within to their morning devotions. Upon the water, 8,000 Gabrielles stretched, yawned, and reluctantly left behind a woefully inadequate period of sleep. They rubbed reddened eyes, fluffed sleep compressed locks, and resettled their clothing. Finally they grudgingly appraised the all to quickly brightening sky.

The sun had painted the monastery walls with reds and oranges that progressed in a quarter-hour to gold. A thin column of smoke rose from a cook fire in a kitchen somewhere within the walls. It was the only thing that moved.

The Gabrielles noted that the monastery looked like nothing more than a small castle. In fact they had no idea that it was a monastery at all, and experience led them to assume that it was an isolated and fortified town. Around it, the trees had been cut back for a furlong to prevent approach by stealth. There was a tall wall of gray stone rising about four floors high, topped with two stories of windowed buildings built flush to the wall and even overhanging it in places. A lower section at one end, perhaps enclosing an entrance yard, presented the crenellated top of a typical battlement. From that end rose a keep, a square tower another four stories high.

Outside the wall stood a few buildings of the same austere architecture and constructed from the same gray stone. A road led between these and the castle, approaching it from the end with the crenellated battlement. In their mind’s eyes, the Gabrielles could imagine the strong gate that faced the buildings from the wall. The road would lead directly to it, probably ending with a paved square.

The structure could have been 100 years old or 2,000. The style, materials, and function were familiar. Here, an outpost of civilization had fortified itself against pirates, invading armies, and warlords. The choice of such a remote location bespoke either banishment of the inhabitants from the world, or rejection by the inhabitants of the world. This conclusion was supported by a complete lack of any boats or ships other than their own. This was not a trading post or a commercial port. Nor could they see no any farms or homesteads on the surrounding slopes. They saw no people, no livestock or flocks. Nothing moved in the castle or among the outlying buildings. No heraldic banners or colorful pennants fluttered above the keep. No sounds carried across the water to their ears. Save for the column of smoke and the bell, the place might have been deserted.

The Gabrielles decided the chances were very good that this was a remote military outpost or the somber lair of a petty despot. It seemed suffused with a guarded peace and a cheerless character, and while relatively safe, it would be a dismal place to serve or live. The blonde clones were all momentarily saddened by the thought that any children unlucky enough to call the castle home were probably miserable.

The Gabrielles had little doubt that their armada had been sighted from the keep and walls. Though they’d seen no lookouts and heard no alarms, only blindness would excuse ignorance of their presence. At this very moment, they imagined the inhabitants mustering and arming for a response to their threat. Here sat a small and isolated camp confronted by an unexpected armada that had arrived in the dead of night, potentially bearing many times the count of warriors such a place could house. Their boats bore no flags or identification declaring them either friend or foe. The castle would be awash with uncertainty, foreboding, and martial resolve. The Gabrielles expected, not a warm welcome, but a guarded if not paranoid reception at the points of spears.

Their only recourse was to appear before the gates unarmed, since they had no weapons anyway, and petition the inhabitants for information and safe passage through their lands. This became their plan, put forward, commented on, refined, and finally agreed to. To form a delegation, each of the 203 boats sent a representative ashore to make initial contact with those ensconced behind the walls. These chosen clones picked their way across a narrow, rocky shore to the base of the road, and then set off for the castle a half-mile away.

The 203 Gabrielles nervously walked up the road, looking around at the steep slopes closing in around them. They relished the feel of solid ground beneath their feet after all their time aboard ships on the water. Better still, this was Grecian soil, and the soil of her ancestral homeland of Chalcidice. Potidaea lay a scant 50 miles to the northwest, and though she’d never set foot on Acte, she felt a kinship to the land. All of her surveyed the "pelt of pines" that clothed the rising mountainsides. This too was familiar, typical of highlands throughout the Mediterranean where conditions supported vegetation with sufficient rainfall. Trees grew in the bottomlands as well, and these closed in alongside the road only a few dozen yards from the strand.

Sooner than she’d expected, the ascending road broke from the trees and entered the cleared furlong of land surrounding the castle. The Gabrielles looked up at the approaching fortress, expecting to see sentries pacing the walls, but they saw no one there at all. Again the thought that this place was deserted crossed their minds, but then, there was still that thin rising smoke from some cook fire, and at dawn they’d heard a single pealing bell.

The road finally crested the castle hill. The clones entered the paved square they’d expected to find and stood in uncertainty between the castle gate and the large building across from it. The building appeared just as empty and deserted as the castle. No sounds came from within. No faces peered from the windows. No figures moved anywhere in sight. Finally, seeing that they would get no welcome, the Gabrielles made their way to the gate.

Here they found a strange thing. Though they saw the expected massive wooden gate, reinforced with iron straps attached with rivets as thick as their wrists, it stood open and unguarded. Looking through the gate, they could see that the courtyard within was empty and the battlements deserted, leaving all wrapped in a pervasive silence.

Ghosts, they thought suddenly; a castle manned by the ghosts of some long defeated army and their massacred people. How sad. Such a thought was a reflex for their ancient souls. Perhaps only an errant breath of wind had rung the bell? Perhaps the smoke was spectral as well?

Fine, pale hairs rose on the backs of 203 necks. 203 tongues slipped out to lick suddenly dried lips. Vivid imaginations quickly populated the fortress with the restless shades of warriors, townsfolk, tradesmen, and children, all doomed in some undeterminable time long past. Now their discontented wraiths wandered the premises, reliving their defeat and enticing the living to join them forever in their lost home. Had Hades missed this enclave of recalcitrant souls? Did some other god hold jurisdiction over these dead?

Yet the shades of the deceased, scary as they were, could only freeze the heart and deceive the mind if the will allowed it. The best defense against the dead had always been courage. The Gabrielles swallowed and blinked, and then took deep calming breaths. 203 souls settled their hearts and renewed their resolve. 406 hands clenched and relaxed. 406 feet strode forward. The Gabrielles passed through the unguarded gate and entered the empty courtyard.

They had just drawn together in the center of the space when the bell began pealing. The doors of the keep swung open. Well, here we go…but will it be an army of the living or the dead? The Gabrielles could barely contain their surprise when they found themselves confronted by a mere 30 very alive monks, bearded, capped, and robed, who had just completed their hour of silent prayers at the opening of the day. They appeared akin to figures from antiquity, though unfamiliar and more modern than her original self by perhaps a few hundred years. The monks were no less shocked by the appearance of the 203 Gabrielles. Smack dab in the center of their courtyard, stood a huge crowd of identical…women!

It was a toss up as to whether the Gabrielles’ identical appearance or their sex was the greater initial shock. Karakalos was one of twenty monasteries that stood on the holy ground of Athos. Not a single one of them admitted women. Not as nuns, not as archeologists, not as guests…not for any reason. The purified ritual environment of these Eastern Orthodox monks of the Order of St. Basil included a tradition of non-contact with women in almost any context. Just about the only female figures present were the icons of the Virgin Mary and some images of St. Ann. There wasn’t a single living woman on the entire peninsula. For wholly different reasons, this was a modern mirror image of the old Amazon lands…just as exclusive, just as traditional, and just as legitimate.

The monks stared at the Gabrielles in horrified fascination, and the Gabrielles stared back with relieved good will. Like us, not a single weapon carried among them. Better yet, they’re practically from our time. The bell finished its tolling. Silence ruled in the courtyard for many minutes while no one moved. Finally a Gabrielle took a hesitant step forward and offered a salutation in ancient Greek.

"On behalf of my sisters, I wish you peace. We request safe passage in these lands. We’re looking for our soulmate. Maybe you’ve heard of her…Xena, the Favorite of Ares? The Destroyer of Nations?"

Before she was halfway through, the Gabrielle suspected that the monks had a problem. Their facial expressions had progressed from shock to incredulity, and then to dismay. It hadn’t occurred to her that the ancient word for "soulmate" had been generalized over the centuries into just another synonym for "lover". This lover was not only another woman, but worse, she was an important devotee of Ares, the pagan God of War. The monks couldn’t be sure, but her other title, "The Destroyer of Nations", certainly had a Satanic ring to it. And her initial sentence had sounded like a mockery of an important benediction. All this was spoken in language akin to the old liturgy of the Byzantine Church. Despite their reaction, the Gabrielle cocked her head, blinked, and gave them a hopeful smile. To the monks, her mannerisms seemed blatantly coquettish.

Here then, a creature manifesting a sex whose presence was forbidden had spoken in the old holy language, blaspheming a phrase of blessing. She had declared her quest to find her lesbian lover whose allegiance was to a pagan god and perhaps the devil. Not only this, but she represented a cadre of identical creatures numbering many times their own count. Surely they were demons! And they were demons who intended to traipse around, spreading their corruption through the holy lands of Athos! The evil speaker had finished by displaying the provocative mannerisms of a harlot, tempting the brothers with an implied dalliance that threatened to become manifest by night in a succubus visitation.

In a thousand years of existance, the monastery had never endured so dire a threat. The place had been razed to the ground in the 13th century, and again in the 16th. Like the other Holy Monasteries of Athos, Karakalos had weathered attacks by Latins, pirates, and history’s passing armies. The physical destruction and loss of life had been appalling, but the monks’ devotion to God had never failed. They had always turned to their saints and their Savior for spiritual strength and then rebuilt their places of worship. For hundreds of years, the monasteries of Athos had remained places where the Holy Spirit prevailed. Throughout all their tests, the holy community had persevered in their isolation and immersion in the Word of God.

Now these 30 modern brothers had been sent a trial more egregiously evil than any that had befallen their order before. Here their sanctions had been disregarded, their words lampooned, and their flesh tempted. They were outnumbered by cunning and appealing demons, manifest in physically identical presences, who had declared blasphemies to their faces with utter disregard for the holy ground on which they stood or the beliefs they profaned. Most disturbing was their air of innocence and naivete, and their guise of good will. This was far more dangerous than any spitting, rancorous monstrosity armed with deadly weapons and displaying vicious malice. Evil clothed fair had always been the most nefarious of the devil’s deceits, for it called out to the very spirit of Christian charity the monks worked to cultivate.

Breaking from his paralysis, the foremost monk thrust out his crucifix towards the demons as a shield. Seeing the crucifix, the Gabrielle who had spoken bent her right knee and crossed herself left to right as she had seen New World Catholics do somewhere, perhaps on TV. The brother recoiled. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, one crossed themself right shoulder to left. Though both the Eastern and Western Churches shared the words, "In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen", the two groups each considered the other to be misguided if not outright heretical. Even worse, the Gabrielle had recited, "Ateh Malkuth, ve Geburah, ve Gedulah, le Olam, Amen",* a phrase from Hebrew mysticism that was the only phrase Gabrielle knew that was accompanied by a gesture of crossing the body. Having died before the birth of Christ, it had been a gamble on her part.

(*Usually translated as, "Thou art the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory, Unto the Ages, So be it". By crossing her body left to right, Gabrielle had conflicted her actions with her words. Malkuth, the Kingdom, is ascribed to the feet, while Geburah, or Strength, is ascribed to the right shoulder and Gedulah, to the left shoulder. In fact, this interpretation is based on a "mage’s blind". Glory is actually ascribed to Hod and is signified by the right hip or thigh, while the attribute of Gedulah, or Chesed, at the left shoulder, is Mercy. A more correct translation would have been, "Thou art the Kingdom, and the Strength, and the Mercy, Unto the Ages, So be it.") ~ Editor

After processing their shock the monks galvanized their faith and began an energetic prayer. All pressed their hands together. All held up their crosses. All trained their eyes on the heavens. For the time being, they refused to even acknowledge the presence of the demons. They invoked the Holy Spirit to enter their souls, beseeched their Savior for protection, and called upon their Father in Heaven to grant them the strength to overcome temptation. The Gabrielles observed this behavior with curiosity and finally turned to comment among themselves.

"Well, I realize I didn’t connect that well with them," the Gabrielle who had spoken for the group said as she shook her head, "but if I’d known that they’re insane I’d have tried to understand their delusions and be more accommodating." She shrugged.

"You couldn’t have known," a Gabrielle next to her offered. "Its not like the gate was locked or there was a caretaker here." She looked around just to double-check.

"She’s right, Gabrielle," a third Gabrielle added as several others nodded in agreement, "don’t blame yourself."

"I guess I feel like I should have known," the first clone said hesitantly, analyzing her feelings and looking back at the monks, "I mean, just look at them. It’s so sad."

The other Gabrielles followed her gaze and regarded the brothers with pity. The "inmates" were deeply involved in a display of mass-hysteria, a shared delusion, abetted by their costumes and their isolation in this lonely asylum. Of course it was obvious…now. Hindsight always brought perfect clarity. Even the unguarded gate made a kind of sense. Where could they possibly go if they left?

The afflicted men didn’t seem violent or dangerous. They’d just retreated from a modern world that the Gabrielles themselves found crazy, seeking relief in obsessive ritual and withdrawal. The clones were immediately reminded of the nervous flute player, Allan, who they’d first met in the Puddingstone State Re-Creation Area. Yes, it was very sad. The nearest Gabrielle gently rubbed the first Gabrielle’s back and squeezed her shoulder in a comforting gesture of support.

"C’mon, let’s go," the first Gabrielle said, "it’s probably not good for them to be so upset." She had turned to face the others, but then she stopped and bit her lip and asked, "Do you think I should try to apologize?"

"To who?"

The first clone looked back at the monks. They were still praying and looking up at the sky. They weren’t paying any attention to the clones at all. Apologizing probably wouldn’t do any good, the first clone realized, but it probably wouldn’t do any harm either. They probably wouldn’t even listen, but at least it would make her feel better. She took a deep breath and walked over within a half-dozen paces of the monks.

"I’m sorry if I’ve upset you," she said, speaking ancient Greek again, and then, though they wouldn’t understand, she added, "We’ll be leaving now, but I’d feel guilty if I didn’t warn you that you’re really close to a war zone here. We saw an atomic bomb go off nearby two days ago. I’m afraid it’s the end of the world." The last word out of her mouth had been apokalupsis: apocalypse.

The Gabrielle turned away from the crowd of monks and never saw the looks of horror on their faces or noticed them stutter in their prayer. She rejoined her sisters and the group made their way out of the courtyard and through the gate. They walked across the square and started back down the road towards their ships. Sadly, they’d decided that the inmates and the asylum were probably a lost cause. Either the Destroyer of Nations or the Goddess of War would demolish this isolated site. The insanity of the monks reminded the Gabrielles of the hapless Joxer.

It had been in early in 70 BC, at the beginning of the soulmates’ involvement in the Mitoan-Thessalian Conflict. Following almost a year of increasing tension, trade negotiations between the two long-term rivals had degenerated into warfare. At first it was only isolated raiding and a few skirmishes. The main armies hadn’t met in combat yet. Xena had dragged Gabrielle along to answer a request for her aid from an old comrade, the self-promoted Mitoan General Marmax.

Marmax was, according to the Warrior Princess, an ambitious old pervert who had held the rank of hecatontarchea, or lieutenant in command of a hundred, in her army. She had flogged him several times for excessive blatancy when he’d engaged in nonconsensual carnal liaisons with young boys and girls. Still, his performance on the battlefield had been efficient and so she’d put up with his "foibles". The man had always prodded her to let him command a thousand, but Xena wouldn’t make him a chiliarchos because only similarly disposed warriors respected him enough to follow him into combat. She simply didn’t have enough pedophiles in her army to man a whole chiliarchia.

His request for aid had come as a surprise, more because he’d managed to scam his way to the command of the Mitoan army than that he needed her help. Xena had been undecided for two days as to whether or not to answer his pleas, while Gabrielle had vehemently argued against going. Finally Xena had decided, after relating to her partner how the man had once contrived to cross an entire field of battle to reinforce her position after learning that enemy troops had been redeployed to cut her off. In fact, he had saved her life. And so Xena had dragged Gabrielle south across most of Macedonia, finally reaching the Mitoan positions in the foothills of the Pindus Mountains on the border of Thessaly. This had been in mid-February.

The soulmates had barely met with Marmax when his scouts reported that the Thessalian army was marching to engage them. Xena had shaken her head, but a sparkle of battle lust had lit her eyes. Gabrielle had noted Xena’s expression with some trepidation, while Marmax had leered at the young blonde, even though at 18 she was a half-dozen years too old for his tastes.

The war began with massive casualties on both sides. Xena’s tactics kept the Mitoans from being completely routed, but the Thessalians were too numerous. As the wounded streamed into the physicians’ care, Gabrielle had made copious notes on Xena’s medical techniques. It was at this time that the soulmates had made the acquaintance of Joxer.

The man had been a common soldier in the Mitoan ranks, drawn to the army from some sod farm by stupidity and the lure of glory. He had never been more than an idiot. A skull-cracking blow to the head from a mace had rendered him a complete imbecile. When he was dragged into surgery, Xena had simply plucked bone chips from his cranium, drained a subdural hematoma, and sewn up his scalp after patching his skull with part of a turtle shell. After a month of healing, some said he was unchanged, while others swore that he was actually smarter than before sustaining his head wound. Xena had noted his cleft palate during her surgery, recalled his almost microcephalous cranial architecture, and wasn’t the least bit surprised when he manifested compulsions, obsessive behavior, and delusions of competence and adequacy following his recovery. She’d charitably termed him an amateur* soldier.

(*Note that there was no term in ancient Greek for a non-professional, the closest word being "idiotes", which also denoted a moron or anyone of meager skills.) ~Editor

Joxer fancied himself a great warrior and lady’s man. That he was as uncoordinated as a six-legged calf and as handsome as Calaban made no difference. Upon discovering who had saved his life, he became enamoured of the Warrior Princess and relentlessly tagged along after her. Predictably, he soon became jealous of Gabrielle’s close relationship to the object of his infatuation, and though Xena never gave him the slightest encouragement, he followed her like a shadow. Of course, being the grotesque that he was, he rapidly became the laughingstock of the Mitoan army. Predictably, he attributed the whispering and jeering at his expense to malicious rumors spread by Gabrielle, an aspiring bard. One night he’d denounced her at mess before the troops and had been shouted down with mockery and derision.

Gabrielle had been torn between feeling thanks for her vindication and sorrow at the pathetic man’s condition. Between his delusions about her, Xena, and himself, his link to reality was tenuous at best. This was a very dangerous situation in the ancient world and worse in times of war. Joxer had been an accident waiting to happen, for he was little more than fodder for some vicious bully. His insistence on following Xena placed him in even more danger. For almost a month, he survived on luck. Eventually his luck ran out.

The Warrior Princess and her companion had discussed Joxer many times. Despite his antagonism, Gabrielle had asked her partner to look out for him more than once. Several times, Xena had put herself at risk to save him and she was more than sick of it. Joxer took each incident as proof of her devotion to him and became ever more convinced she’d soon be his. It was a comedy without a shred of humor.

Finally the inevitable happened. Even after browbeating him into staying in camp, Joxer had snuck out after Xena when she led a scouting party to gauge the enemy’s deployment prior to an engagement. Gabrielle had discovered him missing and guessed what had happened. Xena would be livid if she found out.

In Xena’s recounting of events, she seems to have granted the fool a commendable if wholly unintentional last combat performance. Because he was following behind the scouts, it was he alone who encountered and engaged a trio of Thessalian scouts. His unmistakable battle cry, described as imitative of a goose’s call, rang through the woods along with the crash of bodies, screams, and cursing. Xena and her scouting party, the secrecy of their presence now completely compromised, had hastened to join the combat. When they’d arrived, Joxer was already dead. No surprise there. But along with him lay one enemy impaled on a spearshaft, one with a broken ankle, and a third knocked unconscious. Xena had interrogated the two survivors with the pinch.

The soldier with the broken ankle attested that a maniac had jumped them from the top of an embankment, knocking all three of them to the ground. He himself had sustained his injury in the fall, landing awkwardly on a cadaver in a trench. The dead man had fallen on the buttspike of a shattered spear and had died of the impalement. It had simply been bad luck. The man rendered unconscious had been the landing pad for their attacker, but he’d been carrying a battleaxe in his belt and this had cut their assailant’s throat. Joxer had died with his head half-severed from his neck. Again, simply bad luck.

The scouts had returned to camp with the two prisoners and Joxer’s body. He had been given a proper warrior’s pyre, and more glory than anyone would have expected him to earn. The prisoners gave up the information the scouting party had originally sought, saving them from having to put themselves in danger in enemy territory.

"What a waste," Gabrielle had whispered as the soulmates watched Joxer’s pyre.

"Best that coulda’ happened to him," Xena had responded. "I’ll remember the idiot."

Gabrielle had always suspected the veracity of the reports about the incident. It would have been just as easy for Xena to coerce the two prisoners into providing whatever story she’d dictated. They could have been taken in a separate fight, while Joxer could have fallen down a slope due to his own clumsiness and landed neck first on the axe. This version of the events had even been speculated upon by the Mitoan troops, for the impaled enemy soldier had been a Thessalian infantry regular, not a scout, and he had been dead for several days. And scouts did not carry battleaxes. Like the prisoners, they usually carried the short sword and the dagger.

A darker suspicion, one that Gabrielle alone may have entertained, was that the neck wound from the supposed battleaxe looked very much the same as a wound from the round blade of the chakram. Perhaps it had been a mercy killing, a harsh necessity of removing the weakest link to preserve the chain. She had never asked her soulmate about it. There would have been no point. Joxer had been doomed and wound up being remembered better than anyone could have expected. Had anyone died because of him, his body would have been dumped to feed the feral dogs that followed the army.

The monks’ behavior triggered the memory of Joxer. The Gabrielles recognized the same delusional relationship with reality, the same basic harmlessness, and the same doomed simplemindedness. In the middle of what could become a battlefield, they would cling to their mistaken notions of their survival potential. They would die surprised. Though the clones’ weren’t necessarily wholly correct, the parallels were obvious enough to them. They wondered if their soulmate would feel it necessary to dispatch the monks to safeguard her forces, or if Athena would do so because they would resist her demands for worship. After a few more minutes of walking down the road to the shore another darker thought came to them. Perhaps the victorious Destroyer of Nations would dispatch the monks for the same reason…because they would fail to properly submit to the Conqueror.

April 30, 2006 — The Strymon Vale, Macedonia

A handpicked squad of ten accompanied the Destroyer of Nations as she moved stealthily through open forest 52 miles northwest of Amphipolis. There were no roads here, only a few game trails, but the eleven clones passed among the tree trunks in total silence. The squad was marching in response to a report from the scouts that a company of the enemy had been sighted coming down the Strymon from the north. These were the first enemy troops to be seen since the battles on the 22nd, and Xena had been eager to meet them face to face. There was a message to send.

If the reports were correct, it would be a good place for an engagement. This was an area where the mountains formed a right angle to the west and north at the head of the Strymon Vale. The bed of the Strymon River had turned north between imposing highlands about 7 miles to the east. And so the squad’s quarry had backed themselves into the corner of a box. Their only exit was the bed of a tributary that ascended into the western highlands on its way to Lake Doiran in Macedonia. It would be a hard, steep flight. Xena had taken that route before. If the enemy tried to escape in that direction, she would cut them down as they fled. But Xena had no doubt that today Athena’s troops would stand and fight. The scouts had counted and identified them as two-dozen clones of Elainis, the Favorite of the Goddess of War. The Destroyer of Nations wanted them.

Now ice blue eyes scoured the lay of the land. The slightest tingle spoke a warning under her skin. The clone beside her caught her eye. No words. She felt it too. Ahead rose an uphill slope with low outcroppings at its crest. Broken morning sunlight filtered among the leaves, fragmenting the scenery into shifting sprinklings of light and dark. Leaves aflutter in a mild breeze, harsh shadows, the absence of birdcalls…ambush.

A flurry of hand signs sent four clones off to the right, silently slanting uphill out of sight to cover the flank. After another set of signals, Xena with two clones advanced straight ahead while the remaining four slipped out of sight behind tree trunks.

The Destroyer of Nations and her two clones moved in a wary crouch, silently focused, moving to draw the attack. Those waiting above would have seen her deploying her troops and they would move to intercept them. Their leader would be repositioning her forces to surprise those moving to flank her while sending out others to flank those left behind. They would find nothing to challenge and no one to fight.

A sudden hiss cutting the breeze, the telltale compression of air, and Xena’s sixth sense reported an object speeding towards her. With an almost negligent motion she snatched the arrow from the air and dropped it at her feet. The clone beside her exhaled softly. It had taken great control on her part to remain in position and not act to protect her strategos. She held an arrow of her own between her finger and thumb, as did the third clone on Xena’s other side. A second volley came at them with the same result.

Then the enemy attacked, breaking from cover and charging to close the distance, twelve against three. The Xenas drew their swords and chakrams. Running uphill would only serve to move them further from their reinforcements, and so they held their ground and waited. The dozen clones of Elainis of Mycenae were happy to race downhill on their quarry, knowing it conferred a psychological advantage. They didn’t draw their swords until the last moment, when they were ten paces away. Four went airborne, leaping high to strike down on the Xenas. Four moved to each side to hem them in. There should have been no way for the three clones of Ares’ Favorite to escape, and they didn’t try to evade.

Instead, the central Xena leaped to meet her opponents in the air. She split the foursome by passing directly between two pairs and blocking their sword slashes from either side. The cloned Xena on the left flung her chakram at point blank range into the neck of the closest airborne Elainis, where it passed beneath her kranos at an up angle and severed her throat. To recover from the cast, she spun and slashed at the other Elainis, slamming her swordblade against the Mycenaean’s to upset her balance. Surprisingly, she didn't pay the least attention to the four enemies threatening her from her left side.

On Xena’s right, the Destroyer’s clone acted just as unpredictably. Instead of meeting the two leaping enemies in front of her, she faced off against the four on her right flank and closed the distance between them faster than they expected.

The clones of Elainis were strong, quick, and deadly. They had bodies in perfect condition and a lifetime of battle experience behind them. They were armed with paired longswords, oxided black to kill reflections and disappear at night. In Columbia, just one of them had held her own against the Warrior Princess, the Amazon Bard, and all of their students. Elainis of Mycenae had been the greatest Favorite of Athena, and after leaving behind the life of Iphigenia at Aulis, perhaps the greatest machairophoros of her age. Here, four of her faced a single clone of Xena, armed with a broadsword and chakram, while two more were landing within striking distance to her left.

Suddenly the two landing clones were no longer within striking distance. The clone of Xena had moved to assault the row of four in the blink of an eye. A backswing slashed across the eye slot of the third Elainis’ kranos, blinding her, while the swing itself hacked off the left hand of their first sister. At the same time, a compound, warbling whoosh cut the air from beyond the engagement on the left and the other two Xena clones vanished. Now the remaining Xena was spinning, passing behind the wounded Elainis clone, her blade extending, but so fast…too fast, and the blade took the right hand of the Elainis standing second in the row. The Xena dipped and snapped her blade back and upward into the throat of the wounded first Elainis, then leapt the next two and beheaded the fourth before she could raise her swords in defense. The clone kept moving, far faster than Xena ever had, move blending into move as her blade sliced too fast to see, the glints of reflection on her sword only a tease in the broken light. For the first time, she performed the inhuman "Katalepsis" in combat. She leapt downhill and half-severed the wounded second Elainis’ neck as she tried to raise her remaining left sword in defense. Barely a handful of heartbeats had passed. The Xena clone slowed to watch the last of the four Elainis clones who had initially leapt to attack, die on the sword of an unseen foe.

To her left, four enemy clones lay with their necks severed by chakrams. After another minute, four of Xena’s clones decloaked and reappeared downhill behind them, near the bodies of six more enemies. The Destroyer of Nations reappeared in front of her. A sharp whistle from uphill pierced the air, and a few moments later the four clones who had moved to flank the ambush reappeared over the ridge where the enemy had lain hidden. Their blades and chakrams were bloody. With a nod to their general they confirmed that there were no survivors. Xena approached the prisoner.

"Blinded?" The strategos asked.

"Both eyes cut rough _ inch deep," Prima replied as she kicked the wounded Elainis’ swords from her hands and hauled her to her feet. A trickle of blood ran from beneath her black woven kranos.

The Destroyer of Nations grabbed her and ripped away the helm, then snatched her enemy by her long braid and wrenched back her head. In the light streaming down between the trees, she could see the ragged tear across both irises. The backswing had torn away most of her eyelids and the bridge of her nose was laid open between. Prima had turned her blade just enough to rip the lenses from her eyes and spill her ocular humors rather than cause a thin, clean slice.

"Perfect," Xena commented.

"Kill me," the Elainis asked in a hollow voice. Blinded, she had no purpose left in life.

"You are granted no quarter and will do as I command," Xena dictated without a trace of mercy, "you’re worthless as a warrior, but your life was spared for a reason. Give your goddess my message. With the Blessing of Ares, the true God of War, I will destroy your army and kill your goddess."

"Never, you peasant bitch," the Elainis spat.

Xena drove her fist into the blinded clone’s face. She pulled the straight punch at the moment of impact but it still would have broken a brick. It snapped the Elainis’ head back and knocked her unconscious. It did not crack her skull or cause a fatal brain trauma and swelling. Athena’s Champion collapsed in the shifting light and shadows under the trees.

"Leave her," the strategos ordered.

Nine clones nodded agreement as Xena’s eyes shifted to Prima’s with a question.

"She was blinded before she saw my speed against those dying next to her. She saw nothing else Strategos," the "special" reported after reanalyzing the action. "No one who did survived."

April 30, 2006 — The Actean Peninsula, Chalcidice

"Well, I guess that could have gone better," a Gabrielle said as she turned to the identical clones of herself waiting outside the gate of the Holy Monastery of Dochairios.

She’d just stood in front of a fifth monastery on the Actean Peninsula for over an hour and had experienced a variation on the same events they’d met with during each contact over the last week. The first encounter, with the mad monks of Karakalos, had been repeated with so little variation that she’d been able to predict its progression, like a diehard fan at the Rocky Horror Picture Show yelling shout outs and lines of dialog.

After their first experience at the Holy Monastery of Karakalos, the 203 emissaries had returned to their ships and told their tale to the rest of the Gabrielles. All of them had been saddened by the condition of the "inmates" and their prospects for survival. Every single one had recalled their depressing experiences with Joxer. They’d talked about it all, exhaustively, and then, with optimism typical of Gabrielle, had resolved to try again at the next place where they found people living.

The day after leaving the depressing insanity of Karakalos, they’d headed north up the coast to the Holy Monastery of Iviron, certain that they would find cooler heads there. It hadn’t worked out that way. If anything, Iviron’s brothers had seemed even more threatened and had acted with even greater eccentricity in response. This despite the fact that only one clone had entered the open gate. The apparent head of the monastery had flung water at the Gabrielle who had spoken for the group, shaken his cross at her like a juju, and ranted at her until she and the others finally left. During his performance, his solemn brothers had knelt in prayer, refusing to look at her or answer a word she said.

The Gabrielles had entertained a long discussion after visiting Iviron. Seeing that the response had become more fanatical to the north, the clones had turned south and sailed around the peninsula’s southern tip. They’d spent most of a day tacking back and forth to make headway against the winds. The clones bypassed the monastery of Magisti Lavra on Mt. Athos, and headed toward the western side of the Actean Peninsula. By nightfall, the ships were entering the mouth of the Siggitikos Bay, between the peninsulas of Acte and Sithonia, where they turned north again, following the Actean coast.

The first site of habitation the Gabrielles saw on the morning of April 26th was the Holy Monastery of Agios Pavlos. This fortress was composed of a collection of buildings; rising above gray walls up to six stories high, and located on a small plateau about a mile from the coast. Behind the monastery, the land continued upwards for several thousand tree clad feet. Below, it fell in cliffs and steep slopes to the shore. The Gabrielles groaned at the sight of another steep uphill walk to a greeting they could almost predict; wild-eyed, cross-waving, prayer chanting men in long dark robes, sweating in the sun and shaking with fearful condemnation. Never a smile, never a word of welcome, never an invitation to share bread and wine, or talk of their travels or their hopes. Hospitality had gone far downhill in the 2,000 years since their original life.

The 203 boats dropped anchor a few dozen yards offshore and yet another embassy of 203 representatives started out. These were different clones, and in fact, each embassy had been made up of Gabrielles who hadn’t gone ashore before. Although those who waited in the boats were in no hurry to experience the madness and rejection the earlier groups of visitors had described, they were all willing to share the emotional and physical burden. Unspoken was the fact that they were also willing to share any possibility of danger that awaited them from the hostiles ashore. As it was, they went unarmed into a land of known madness, anticipating an unfriendly reception, though for what offense, they still had no idea. At this point, they mostly chalked it up to xenophobia, isolationism, and delusions of persecution, abetted by compulsive paranoia and twisted devotionalism. In other words, the monks were cuckoo, though only a shade more so than some of the most isolated and provincial of the ancient Hellenes. Practically the only positive note was the absence of real violence so far.

The 203 Gabrielles made their way across a narrow rocky beach and onto the climbing road. It was mid-morning and the lands should have been populated by herdsmen and farmers, traders and townsfolk, all going about the business of living. Instead, the fields, the road, and the buildings all appeared deserted just as they had at Karakalos and Iviron. To the Gabrielles, originally from a farming community and more recently from American cities, it was unnatural and unnerving. They stared around as they walked, constantly alert, wary and on guard, their tension accumulating from their first moment ashore.

After a third of an hour, the group marched past a group of outbuildings and stood before the gates of the Holy Monastery of Agios Pavlos, though they had no idea of its name. Once again they were confronted by an open gate set in a strong, high wall surrounding an empty courtyard. Well, here we go again, they all thought, recalling the descriptions their sisters had reported from Karakalos and Iviron. This time, the whole group entered, since sending in one or all seemed to have made no difference in their reception and there was safety in numbers.

The 203 Gabrielles stood looking around the courtyard, just waiting for the frenzied rejection of the monks. The monks didn’t disappoint. Thirty-five robed brothers practically tumbled out of the doors of the Katholicon. They stopped dead in their tracks and confronted the Gabrielles in shock.

"Gynaikes!" Several monks gasped in surprise.

"Daemons!" Several others exclaimed in horror.

"Of all the stupid…" a Gabrielle groaned.

They all knew daemons as the invisible life companions that each mortal was assigned at birth by the gods, a guide of sorts…a conscience or inner voice. They were only dimly aware, (mostly from watching horror movies such as "The Exorcist"), that the word had come to mean evil monstrosities or minions of the Devil. This was a Christian corruption of the Greek word that had occurred after her time, to put a name to a Christian concept. Even the Devil himself wasn’t really familiar; he was just a later personification of evil, a force they’d known well. In fact, the Gabrielles knew him mostly from two Halloweens in Columbia.

This time the Gabrielles didn’t even get a chance to speak before the praying, crossing gestures, and crucifix waving began. The clones had noted that for a moment, at least a few of the inmates had recognized them as women, before joining the rest in ascribing them supernatural origins and the status of invisibility.

Well that explains some things, the Gabrielles thought, no wonder they act like they don’t see or hear us. Their denial and delusions are just too strong, too deeply ingrained. Even when they see us for an instant, the madness claims them in seconds and it won’t let them go. How sad.

After watching the display for a few minutes, the 203 clones departed. Though they hadn’t had any success in making contact, they’d learned something that their sisters hadn’t found out before. Bit by bit, they were unraveling the mechanisms of the monks’ madness…their delusional architecture. It probably wouldn’t help in any practical way, but Gabrielle had always been interested in people, and this was interesting. On their way back to the boats, the clones polished their observations and conjectures in their heads like gradually smoothing gemstones in a lapidary tumbler. Later they would talk about their observations together, and finally they would write them down.

Their experience had been repeated, with slight variations, as another group of clones had visited the Holy Monastery of Xiropotamos on April 27th. The monastery itself stood atop a terraced plateau, like Agios Pavlos, a mile inland from the shore. The embassy of clones resigned themselves to an hour of uphill walking under a bright early-afternoon sky. As their sisters had described, the land was eerily lacking in the sounds of humanity. The entire way, they could see the walls and buildings looming above them, silent, and devoid of visible activity.

Upon their arrival at the gate, they found the entire occupancy turned out to meet them. Thirty stern, bearded monks in black robes, identical to all the others stood in a row blocking the gateway. Before them stood their Superior, with a longer beard, a more elaborate crucifix clutched in his fist, and a sterner look on his face. It was the first time the clones had faced anyone other than the rank and file brothers.

The chanting and prayers began before the Gabrielles had even drawn up in a group to face them. There were more accusations about being daemons, cryptic references to the Devil, and repeated commands to depart. This time, several of the nearest clones were splashed with water. They sputtered in annoyance, tossed up their hands in exasperation at being otherwise ignored, and dispensed the same warning about the coming war to deaf ears. Finally they left.

"Did it seem like the leader was as crazy as the others?" A Gabrielle asked her sisters.

"It would explain some things," another answered.

"You mean that was the caretaker and he’s as crazy as the inmates?"

"Sure seemed that way to me," the first Gabrielle replied.

"Wish they’d quit throwing the water," another chaffed as she recalled being splashed in the face, " it’s so juvenile."

"I think it’s a ritual, not just bad manners," one reasoned.

"Weird," another remarked. "I don’t think I’ll ever understand the insane."

The armada had stayed put the rest of that day, wondering what to do. Finally, they decided to continue with their plan, heading north to the base of the Actean Peninsula. There they could debark and make their way to Amphipolis overland through Chalcidice. The land would be familiar and they could approach the Strymon Vale obliquely, from the west. Not a single one of the clones would miss the boats.

They spent the 28th in transit north, and when they spied another fortress, they stopped to discuss the value of bothering to stop. By the time they’d finished, the day had passed from noon to evening and they anchored their flotilla off shore near the Holy Monastery of Dochairios.

The Monastery of Dochairios was a collection of stone buildings practically right on the shore. In this respect, it was much like the monastery of Iviron. It was also a more sprawling construction than the monasteries of Karakalos, Agios Pavlos, or Xiropotamos. Dochairios gave the impression of having overgrown its original foundations through additions over countless years, and this was, in fact, the case. The building had started in the 10th century and hadn’t been completed until the 17th. Renovations had been done in modern times, adding to the impression of rambling.

Morning came and the Gabrielles awoke. For the first time, none of them volunteered to go ashore. In the end, they had to draw straws aboard each boat to choose their embassy of 203. These clones reluctantly went ashore and crossed the narrow beach to a gate. This was set in a building among many in a lower area, while the mass of the monastery loomed above on a higher portion of land. Foundations and walls isolated the inner spaces from the outside world, creating a closed enclave just as at the other monasteries. All had been constructed of the same native gray stone. All were basic blocky structures, regularly pierced with windows. As always, no sign of human life presented itself outside the monastery.

For once the gate was closed, but a bell hung on a wrought iron arm attached to the wall beside the hinges. A clone had rung it upon their arrival and continued to ring it every few minutes when it got no response. The Gabrielles stood waiting at the gate in growing irritation. As a half-hour passed, they continued to wait, periodically ringing the bell. In a final fit of frustration, when nearly an hour had passed, a Gabrielle took hold of the short rope attached to the bell’s clapper and began whipping it back and forth producing a constant din of clangs. She did this with gritted teeth and steam rising from her brow. The other clones shook their heads, fighting back grins, hard pressed not to laugh.

At last the cacophony provoked results. A window high overhead popped open. A single monk thrust his head out. He screamed something that none of the Gabrielles could understand and dumped a whole basin of water on the clone ringing the bell. Then he thrust out a crucifix, shouted something else at the top of his lungs, and slammed the window closed. And that was all the reaction the Gabrielles got at the Holy Monastery of Dochairios.

The soaked, bell-ringing Gabrielle screamed in a frustrated rage,* spun on her heel, and kicked the bell hard enough to snap off the arm that held it to the wall. It gave a final clang as it bounced off the gate.

(*Readers may wonder why the water upset the Gabrielles to such an extent. For them, it was all too reminiscent of the way townsfolk would empty their chamber pots out upper story windows and into the streets with no consideration of the consequences. Passersby beware. This foul habit was common everywhere that plumbing didn’t exist…in other words, almost everywhere except in certain parts of Rome. It was also common practice for defenders during a siege. The behavior persisted into the 19th century, and the act was adapted to become one of protest and degradation even long after toilets became commonplace. This explains why Xena had been so amused at soaking trick-or-treaters in Columbia on Halloween. One can almost see the youthful delinquent she might have been, marshalling other miscreants at some upper window, as they awaited the passage of their current object of torment, while clutching chamber pots filled with excrement. The monks, of course, were just using Holy Water as a ritual cleanser.) ~ Editor

"Lunatics!" She yelled towards the closed window above at the top of her lungs. Then she stomped off down the road towards the boats, not looking to see if the others were following or not.

"Well, I guess that could have gone better," a Gabrielle said as she turned to the identical clones of herself waiting outside the gate of the Holy Monastery of Dochairios. The others nodded in agreement.

"I don’t guess there’s any point in staying after that, huh?" another remarked. She shrugged and turned to follow the pissed off clone back to the shore.

For a few moments the rest of the Gabrielles stood outside the gate. The only differences between it now and when they’d arrived was the large puddle soaking into the cobbled road and the broken bell. They looked at the monastery and then down the road. There was no reason to believe that anything positive would come from waiting longer. Obviously this asylum was closed because it held the most deranged and perhaps potentially violent lunatics on the peninsula. It was the only conclusion that made sense. Finally in twos and threes at first, they began walking back to their boats.

"That’s it!" The soaked and aggravated clone declaimed upon her return. "There is no possible reason for us to stop at another one of these mad houses. Let’s just get on with our plan, shall we?" The clones on her boat looked askance at their sister’s rage.

Similar, if less vehement statements were voiced aboard the other 202 boats. No one could really find a good reason to stop at another mad house anyway. The results of their efforts had been consistent, if not progressively worse. It didn’t take the Gabrielles long to agree to proceed after lunch.

By the morning of April 30th, the flotilla had reached the narrow channel between the Actean Peninsula and Ouliani Island. After some discussion, the Gabrielles decided to anchor their craft near the town of Trypiti. Several miles before reaching the settlement, they’d spied a road running parallel to their course and almost a furlong inland from the shore. At Trypiti, the road seemed to turn north, inland, and the clones decided that they would be best served by following the road.

Geography and logic suggested that it would lead to the city of Acanthus and thence along Chalcidice’s eastern coast. If, in fact, this modern road followed the route of the ancient road they had known, it would wind its way along the shore and then turn inland at Stargirus. These were lands that the Gabrielles knew well, and they were confident that once they’d left Acte, they’d have no trouble making their way to the Strymon Vale.

To say that the inhabitants of Trypiti, (population 862), were surprised when 203 sundry Egyptian sailboats appeared at their docks would be a gross understatement. To claim that they were flabbergasted when the voyagers, 8,000 identical blonde women, came ashore would be an understatement far beyond gross. A statistically significant portion of the citizens passed out cold in the streets overlooking the dock. The remainder was rendered speechless. They stared at the Gabrielles. The Gabrielles stared back.

"A whole town full of retards," one muttered in English. "First we find fortresses full of madmen, and now an entire town of imbeciles…what are the chances of that?"

"It can’t be coincidence," a second reasoned. "Maybe all of Greece has gone downhill."

After considering the situation in silence, another clone ventured an opinion.

"Maybe this is all evidence of the war. Maybe it’s not just starting, and it’s been going on for a while. Maybe someone’s found a weapon that spreads madness and we’ve been seeing the civilian casualties."

A whole crowd of Gabrielles who had overheard the remark stopped in their tracks and stared at the speaker. Their minds were furiously whirling, weighing the possibility of such a weapon. It was insidious, horrifying, and felt all too similar to the attacks of September 11, 2001, which had happened only half a year ago to them. Could Athena’s forces have done this? Had science provided some germ or chemical that could steal peoples’ wits? Or worse, could this be the work of the Destroyer of Nations? The Hellene’s Bane, blinded by rage and lust for vengeance, encouraged by Ares, and bereft of her soulmate’s love…she would know no limits. Trapped in the depths of her katalepsis, kori Polemos would find any means to her desired end acceptable. The Gabrielles shivered with foreboding and horror. Had the duration of her absence allowed such savagery to take hold of her beloved warrior? Could Xena have done this?

The group, who with almost one mind had simultaneously followed this train of thought, stood stricken in the road. Around them the remaining clones gathered, wondering what had petrified their sisters practically in mid-stride. Their inquiries were half-answered with partially coherent suppositions and trembling hands making uncertain gestures. Bit by bit, the possibility was revealed and it struck the remaining clones to varying degrees, though all could imagine the scenario. For the first time, quiet dissention developed. Some of the Gabrielles didn't accept the hypothesis that linked the condition of the villagers and the monks. Others didn’t believe that what they were seeing was the result of a weapon. Yet a greater number didn’t accept that this was a result of war. And a final segment wouldn’t believe that Xena was responsible. Finally, one clone, perhaps having acquired more irritability or perhaps more pragmatic, stood on a fence of fieldstones, raised her voice, and addressed the indecisive mob.

"Listen all of you, this isn’t doing us any good, scaring yourselves with possibilities. You can’t prove this one way or another standing around in this village of mutes. Can’t we please just get on with our plan? We’ve still got a long way to go and we won’t answer anything if we don’t start. Now there’s the road," she said, gesturing to the dirt track leading north out of Trypiti, "so let’s get moving shall we?"

Though it would be impossible to tell visually, it was almost certain that this was the same incensed clone who had been drenched with water at the monastery of Dochairios. She stared down from her fence-top pulpit and her sisters stared back up at her. One by one, and then in increasingly larger groups, the Gabrielles began to turn towards the road. Eventually, the whole milling throng headed north.

May 4, 2006 — The Strymon Vale, Macedonia

Despite the Destroyer’s reiterated challenge, no evidence of Athena, her clones, or her army had materialized within the patrol range of the kataskopoi. Xena had never been the most patient of generals when waiting wasn’t a part of her plan. Now, waiting for a battle that she’d already seen in a vision was beginning to chaff at her patience.

Almost as irritating as the lack of her enemy’s presence was the virtual disappearance of the 8,000 Gabrielles. It gnawed at her that an army the size of her own could have eluded her so easily and vanished. Yet at the rate their boats had been traveling, only 4 knots, they couldn’t have gone far. Xena could have ordered the Miss Artiphys or the Argo to hunt for them, but to what end? She had no intention of approaching them or allowing her clones to disrupt their focus before the battle by doing so. Still, the mystery of the mob of cloned Gabrielles caused her to wonder endlessly. She spent a lot of her wondering time sitting alone in her tent. There, by herself, her mind sooner or later gravitated back to her primary concern…the Goddess of Wisdom.

If I were Athena, where would I gather my forces, she asked herself for the thousandth time. It must be a place close enough to allow deployment but distant enough to avoid discovery. In the past, her ground troops marched from the north, east, and west. Her ships came from the south. Where did they come from? It must be a place with resources and space for the encampment of over 56,000. It must have access to a port. Hostile approach must be limited, with routes of invasion few and easily secured. Where is Athena hiding her army?

Xena stared at the maps spread out over her table. She had long ago committed them to memory, having spent dozens of hours during the last weeks challenging them to yield up some insight. She closed her eyes and let out a deep breath. She could see Hellas, the lands surrounding ancient Thrace and the topography in the vicinity of Amphipolis, clearly in her mind’s eye. Where was the Goddess of Wisdom? Where?

As she had before, she let her eyes slide across the maps from east to west. Mile by mile, she examined and rejected the lands from the Bosporus along the northern coast of the Sea of Marmara to mouth of the Ergene River, (all too distant). Her glance moved along the coast of Thrace, (too narrow, being backed by highlands, and all of it vulnerable by sea), almost more of a trap for a large army. West of the mouths of the Nestos River, her scouts had reported nothing, all the way along the coast to the outlet of Lake Bolbe in Chalcidice. The interior of Chalcidice had been laid waste by Secunda’s actions on the 22nd. But on that day, Athena’s troops had marched from Therme, modern-day Thessaloniki.

West of Therme lay the Thermaic Gulf, the Thermaikos Kolpos. To the northwest lay the basin of what she had known as eastern Macedonia, which was the watershed of the Axios, (or Vardar), River. This was gently sloping land, shielded to the north by a crescent of mountains whose eastern highlands separated it from the Strymon Vale. It lay thirty-five miles across, with sheltered anchorage at the head of the Thermaic Gulf.

Xena had considered this space carefully before. It’s closest precincts, and the city of Therme, were less than 50 miles from her army in Amphipolis. Her mounted scouts had kept the area under surveillance and had reported nothing. Still, there was a lot of territory that the kataskopoi couldn’t watch from their vantage points in the eastern highlands. It was a desirable area, and it was an area with plenty of martial history.

Long before her time, those lands had been a battlefield of kings and conquerors. It had been an invasion route for the Spartans and for the Persians before them. The very soil was consecrated with blood, and Xena had always thought of it as sacred to Ares. In ancient times its one major city, Pella, had hosted a great temple to the God of War. This temple was an outgrowth of the earlier worship that had been centered among the warlike people of Thrace*, and had been jointly dedicated to both Ares and his own mentor, Enyo, the elder, (and later, largely forgotten), Goddess of War. As such, the God of War’s Favorite hadn’t thought the area receptive or favorable to his bitter rival, Athena. And yet, strategically, it was highly favorable. Xena was neither positively convinced, nor willing to discount the area as Athena’s base. Previously she had passed it by and continued to search for a more amenable location. Today, having still not found a better possibility, she was willing to make a test. She sat mentally reviewing the remaining available weapons gleaned from the aircraft carrier’s arsenal.

(*For centuries the Achaean Greeks regarded the Thracians as barbarians, not really proper Greeks at all, for they were war-mongering, brutal, and cared little for the learned and philosophical pursuits of Athens or Corinth. In those earlier days, the Thracians had been assigned a close relationship with the Scythians, with whom they often fought. From Thrace, the fearful worship of the war god, Ares, had been acquired, for Greek fought Greek century after century and the brutality of war was terrifying. It deserved no less than a terrifying and bloodthirsty god. Soon, Ares was enlisted into the pantheon as a comrade in arms of the older war goddess Enyo. Later still, Enyo was superceded by Ares and Athena, who personified the duality of battle, heated passion vs. cold calculation. Ironically, the Romans, more organized in their warmongering than the Greeks, worshipped both Ares and Enyo, as Mars and Bellona.) ~Editor

The noon meeting came and the tent filled with the officers and reporting scouts. As before, there had been no sightings of the enemy. The commanders reminded their general that after almost a month of deployment, the tons of rations from the USS Harry Truman were running low. They would have to be replenished if the campaign continued. In the modern world, there was no possibility of feeding an army on local game. For once, Xena was thankful that her forces numbered only 8,000, similar in size to a campaigning Roman legion with its attached auxiliaries and mercenaries.

"Very well," the Destroyer of Nations said to a chiliarchos, "I want a detachment of thirty to take the Miss Artiphys, with another hundred to shadow her in the Argo. Make a round trip from Kavala, stopping at Avdira, Maroneia, Alexandroupoli, and Enez. Gather any available stores and rations. Limit perishables. Pay for ‘em or take ‘em by force if necessary. Return in three days."

The commander of a thousand left to make the arrangements. Xena addressed the remaining officers, outlining a course of provocation for when the vessels returned. She intended to stir up the hornet’s nest if it truly lay in Macedonia.

"I want two detachments of scouts in the west to extend their range an’ enter the Axius plain. They’re to move by night and remain hidden during the day. They are to search for evidence of the enemy an’ return in three days with whatever information they’ve collected."

The hecatontarches in charge of the western kataskopoi nodded assent and left the tent.

"Next, I want special munitions prepared. Take six of the remaining plague canisters an’ attach ‘em to M720 shells from the M224 60mm mortar. Remove the HE charges. We’ll let the impact energy breach the canister seals. They’re pressurized for timed dispersal so they oughta spew out a nice cloud of germs all at once when they hit."

The hecatontarches in charge of the ordinance detail nodded and left to carry out the Destroyer’s orders.

Three days later when the officers met there was plenty of news. The praipositos, or commander, of the supply procurement mission detailed the actions she’d been forced to take. At Avdira they had purchased almost eight tons of canned goods and dry packaged foods. All this had been easily loaded into the Argo’s hold with plenty of room to spare. At Maroneia, the clones had been refused, but they’d seen a ship unloading steel shipping containers of supplies at the dock. The commander had ordered the Miss Artiphys to stand guard with her Phalanx while troops from the sub had forcibly loaded the contents of three containers into the Argo. The clones in the hydrofoil had been forced to open fire only once, against the town’s police force, which had arrived on the scene early in the action. The MK 15 had fired a burst of 300 rounds into a patrol car and then strafed the street bordering the dock in a demonstration of force. Afterwards, no one had interrupted the clones. Three crews of twenty had efficiently unloaded the containers.

At Alexandroupoli, the third stop, the clones had purchased six tons of food, mostly dry packaged, canned, and pickled. The praipositos had wondered about bringing back 400 lbs. of cake mixes, 300 lbs. of olives, and 600 lbs. of snack foods, but the 2,200 lbs. of canned meats was welcome. Spam would be a staple for a couple weeks. It would go with the 1,000 lbs. of pasta. The two tons of canned vegetables and 300 lbs. of sport drink mixes were also welcome.

Finally, the vessels had stopped at Enez. The town was ancient, like Avdira, (Abdera), and Maroneia, (Maronea), but it hadn’t fared as well. Enez, (Aenus), was a tiny village now whose main purpose was to support the archeologists excavating the historic town. There the clones had found a single grocery store selling food. They’d bought everything and paid the owner enough that he’d happily planned to close for a week. The man had been so smashed on Ouzo that he hadn’t even noticed that the four clones who had come in were identical or that the others who followed them weren’t the same four.

The ships had returned to the Strymon with a total of 28 tons of supplies. It amounted to 56,000 lbs., or 7 lbs. of victuals per soldier. They weren’t the balanced meals from a warship’s galley. Instead, they were civilian foods that could be stretched to keep the army fed for a week. The strategos was only mildly disappointed. There were other towns and they all had food.

The Destroyer of Nations was much more interested in the reports of the kataskopoi who had searched the area around the Vardar River. Two scouts were present, these being the commanders of each of two detachments. The first had moved in a northward curve beginning near the town of Kilkis. They had crossed the plain to the river within three miles of the site of ancient Pella, and then returned. The second detachment had traveled further south, staying within three to four miles of the coast.

"At first we saw old evidence of troop movements, Strategos," the leader of the southern detachment reported, "encampments abandoned, waste pits, rings from cook fires, and trampled stream banks. This was five miles northwest of Therme just east of the town of Sindos. As we moved further west, between highways 1 and 2, we tracked the army’s movement back toward its source. We crossed a river where the banks had collapsed from the passage of so much infantry, and then moved out onto the plain. The tracks veered north as they approached the Axios River west of Athanassios, and then abruptly followed its eastern bank north." The scout paused for a moment and then added, "The land was empty. We saw no civilians, no soldiers, and almost no wildlife. It appeared to be a deserted land. Homesteads and vehicles had been abandoned, fields and livestock pens denuded. We turned back and completed our mission after 70 hours."

The Destroyer of Nations understood that this was the movement of the army Secunda had destroyed on April 22nd. Her scouts had picked up their trail before they’d made their final camp at Therme…before marching to their deaths in Chalcidice. So, they had come down the Axios from some point to the north. Xena turned expectant eyes on the leader of the scouts who had spied out the lands to the north. The scout gave her report.

"Strategos, we moved from the highlands into the plain after skirting the town of Kilkis. It seemed to be deserted, however we maintained our distance outbound. Within three miles of the highlands, we first saw the lights of an encampment in the distance. We approached with stealth, and before crossing highway E75 we cloaked ourselves. The camp was near Aspros. We moved to within 100 yards of a massive bivouac with a palisade and ditch. There we observed clones of Achilles, Elainis, Callisto, and Mavican. We estimated their compliment at no less than 20,000, but we also saw groups of mounted clones leaving, destined for places to the north and west. We saw no mechanized vehicles, though they had pickets and horses for perhaps 1,500 cavalry. They are drawing water from the Axios and appeared to be well provisioned. The camp appeared to have been occupied for some time. On our return trip we took a different route, heading more southerly. From a distance we observed the remains of another camp, of comparable size, that had been abandoned. This was near Mavicnori. Tracks led south from its gate en mass, but they were old. We did not approach. When we returned to the highlands, we spied out Kilkis. Strategos, all the inhabitants had been slaughtered some time ago. We completed our mission and returned after 73 hours."

The Goddess of Wisdom had bred two complete armies! Unlike me, she had matured a full compliment of clones, but like me, her enemy had destroyed one army. Xena thought briefly of her primary cloning site in Mongolia, nuked by Athena’s clones in January of 2005. Now we’re even, she thought, our forces halved by the power of the atom before the final conflict.

Despite the numbers her scouts had observed, Xena expected 24,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry to oppose her in the battle she’d seen in Ares’ vision. They were there in Macedonia, mostly in one large camp. Now the Destroyer of Nations knew her enemy’s position, just as she assumed Athena knew hers. Bit by bit I am whittling down your advantages, Goddess of War, she thought, and on a level field you cannot beat me. Your only chance would be to challenge me one on one, and you won’t do that because in the moment you utter that challenge, it will be answered by my god. No, you will wage war using your clones to fight my clones, and I will destroy you. But in the hour of your army’s defeat, your pride will not allow you to resist confronting me, and in doing so, you will seal your doom. I am ready for you. Now I will drive your forces to battle, and my first move will be to degrade your troops.

"A 60mm mortar company supported by a dozen under the command of Secunda will move into position in the Axios Plain," Xena ordered. "They will bombard the enemy’s encampment with six plague shells and them withdraw. Avoid any engagements if possible. Each of you will carry an M-67 grenade. Capture is not an option."

Under no circumstances would the Destroyer of Nations allow the secrets of her uniforms to fall into enemy hands. The mission was necessary. The personnel as always, were expendable. The company would need to close to about 2 miles, no closer, to get within the M224 mortar’s range. They should have no trouble lobbing the six canisters of influenza, small pox, and Ebola into Athena’s camp from a safe distance, and they could do it quickly. Firing rates of up to 30 rounds per minute were attainable with the M224. Being cloaked, they should have no problem slipping away undetected afterwards. Yet every foreseeable contingency had to be addressed beforehand. The 6.5 oz. charge of Composition B explosive in an M-67 fragmentation grenade would destroy a body when held against the chest. In war, there is no substitute for being prepared.

Secunda nodded to acknowledge the order and made only one suggestion.

"Strategos, we could also take two high explosive rounds for diversionary purposes if necessary."

Xena nodded to approve the suggestion. "Leave with your company at 0600 hours. It should give you time to begin your retreat before dawn the second day."

The mission objective was about 65 miles away. Xena was expecting the clones to cover that distance, on foot and undetected, in 22 hours with the actual strike at about 0400 hours. They could cross about 35 miles of Chalcidice’s interior in 12 hours, reaching the plain in the early evening. The scouts had reported the area deserted, and Secunda’s company wouldn’t arrive in dangerous enemy territory until after dark. Unmentioned was the fact that the mission’s timetable allowed no time for rest.

May 4, 2006 — Eastern Chalcidice

"Oh, would you look at that!" A Gabrielle exclaimed in disgust to no one in particular, though there were only more of herselves around to hear.

"Someone’s destroyed the bridge," a second stated needlessly as the whole group of 50 clones stared into the defile.

It was about 80 feet almost straight down to a streambed, and at the bottom, rushing water boiled over boulders, shattered concrete, and fallen struts. They were standing at the new end of highway E90, where it ran along the eastern coast of Chalcidice just north of Nea Vrasna. It was the very same bridge that the Destroyer’s forces had broken with a barrage of Sea Sparrow missiles while on their way to Kavala.

The 50 Gabrielle clones who stood looking down at the wreckage comprised an advance party that had been trekking ahead of the rest by about three hours. They weren’t really acting as scouts in a strict sense, but now they had the dubious honor of informing their sisters that the road ended in a deep gully. The rest of the Gabrielles were back where highway E90 joined highway 16, which they’d taken all the way from the town of Trypiti. The first clone shook her head in disappointment and sat down on the roadside to rest. One by one the others gathered around and sat nearby.

In the four days since they’d abandoned the boats, the Gabrielles had only walked about 55 miles north. Part of that was due to most of a day spent in the city of Stratoni. The first 200 clones had trudged into town and caused a panic. The city was still reacting to the hydrogen bomb that had gone off just 30 miles away, in the interior of Halkidiki, as the moderns called Chalcidice. In fact, over half the population had fled, leaving only the most stubborn behind. These saw 200 identical women in military fatigues and assumed that they were an invading army, perhaps coming to plant another bomb. This fiction was reinforced as more and more Gabrielles caught up and entered the city.

Soon the blondes were everywhere, sitting in the park, lounging near the docks, standing in groups along the roadsides, and looking everywhere for food. By the time all 8,000 clones had entered Stratoni, they outnumbered the natives, and though they weren’t armed, the citizens thought the worst. They weren’t friendly or welcoming. Nobody greeted them. Where the people of Trypiti had simply stared in silence and the people of Ierissos just down the road had fled and left their town deserted, the people of Stratoni simply slipped away in groups or by families. After their receptions in Acte, Trypiti, and Ierissos, the Gabrielles were running short of patience, but mostly, they were hungry.

With half the population gone and more leaving by the hour, the Gabrielles filled in for them, occupying their houses and raiding their refrigerators and pantries. At several restaurants, scores of blondes would seat themselves, only to find that the employees had run out the back. They took over the grilles, kitchens, and bars, serving themselves and packing meals for the road. Unlike the people of East Africa, who had hidden their livestock and then greeted the clones, the people of Stratoni fled and left their food behind. Instead of helping where they could as they had done in Tanzania, Burundi, and Uganda, the Gabrielles simply ate everything they saw. Eventually, they invaded empty grocery stores and markets. When they finally left, a detail of five hundred pushed loaded shopping carts down the highway.

Now it was these same shopping carts that were the problem. The next morning they had reached the broken bridge. The Gabrielles could have scaled the defile and climbed up the other side to continue down the highway. Though it would have been dangerous and time consuming, they could even have accomplished it free climbing without gear. But getting their provisions and the carts they needed to transport them across the stream would be almost impossible. They didn’t even have any rope to lower and raise the carts to and from the stream at the bottom. Crossing the actual streambed, with all its boulders and ruined concrete bridge supports, was inconceivable. They would have to find another route north to Amphipolis.*

(*Of course all the gas stations had long ago closed and been boarded up when "the gas had turned to water", as the fisherman on the Nile had reported weeks before. In fact, they were the first businesses in Greece to fail from the war. As a result of this, the Gabrielles hadn’t found a single road map yet. They were navigating using a combination of dead reckoning, memories of the land from their original life, and road signs. Again, unlike the Xenas, they were not an army.) ~Editor

"We may as well go back and tell the others," a Gabrielle suggested as she stood. The other 49 clones looked up at her from their seats. "We’ll have to sooner or later."

With a groan another got to her feet, then another, and finally the rest.

"What the hell, may as well," one remarked, after taking a last wistful look down into the wreckage of the bridge. "I wonder where we’ll go?"

"Well, with the carts we’ve got to stick to the roads, and I guess that means turning inland," one answered.

"That means following the highway," another said, "at least at first."

"It goes west and we need to go north," a disgruntled clone pointed out.

"All we’ll be doing is detouring because of food we’ll have to eat during our detour," a Gabrielle reasoned. "We may as well eat what we can’t carry and go cross country."

The others walking nearby stopped and looked at her. She looked back and shrugged.

"It’s not as if that food’s going to last forever," she said.

"I think we’ll probably find a road heading north before too long," the clone who had suggested returning to the highway said. "I can’t imagine that highway goes all the way to Theme without a turnoff somewhere," she reasoned. "There were some settlements around the lakes. Maybe they’ve grown into cities."

The clones recalled the sparse homesteads and herders’ camps of 2,000 years before.

"That’s right," another agreed, brightening, "and if they’re like Stratoni and Ierissos, we can get more food so long as we find the towns. Our chances should be better on the roads than off." Several more clones nodded in agreement.

They continued to discuss the pros and cons as they walked, building a consensus. By the time they’d reached the junction of highways E90 and 16 where the rest of the clones were waiting, they had made up their mind. The Gabrielles would go west on E90 and look for the first road heading north. They would push their shopping carts and look forward to doing more shopping in the towns they entered. It was a good plan, and they embarked on it right after eating lunch.

Within less than two hours they found both a town and a road leading north. What remained of Rendina lay at the eastern end of Lake Volvi, which the Gabrielles knew as Lake Bolbe. It was deserted. The town lay barely 15 miles from Secunda’s ground zero. Most of what little still stood had been partially scorched by the blast and heat waves during the first minutes after detonation. The few lucky survivors had immediately fled before the shadow of the mushroom cloud.

The Gabrielles looked around in saddened amazement. There was little to be salvaged, but they did add some canned goods from a small market. More than anything they’d seen so far, the condition of Rendina convinced them that they were headed into a war zone. For some time they stood in silence, taking it all in. Then they turned to the north and started walking again, passing a slightly burnt sign that could still be read.

Nigrita 37 km Seres 62 km

"How many miles in a kilometer?" One clone asked rhetorically. If she didn’t know then no one there did. Sure enough, no one answered. "Nevermind," she muttered.

In fact, Seres was about 37 miles north by the road, and about 26 miles as the crow flies. It was perhaps 20 miles northwest of Amphipolis. It had never existed in Gabrielle’s original lifetime and she didn’t know it from Timbuktu. Still, the clones could reach it in two days, barring unforeseen delays, and they would happily find that it was adjacent to the Strymon River.

May 5, 2006 — Amphipolis to Macedonia

Eos was just a rumor when Secunda led 16 clones west from the Strymon Vale into Chalcidice. They took the same road she had taken on April 21st. They were already climbing the highlands above the Strymon when Helios cleared the horizon.

The strike team took turns carrying the M224 mortar and its ammunition. The weapon weighed about 44 lbs. The eight shells weighed almost 32 lbs. The load divided easily, with the mortar tube, its bipod, and baseplate each weighing between 14 and 15 lbs. Another four clones carried two shells each. An eighth clone carried the gunsight. The eight loads were traded off between the 16 clones every half-hour.

By 1300 hours, the clones passed Sohos, 22 miles out from Amphipolis. A gentle breeze carried the rank stench of decay from the town. They avoided it, marching past and maintaining a 200-yard margin, knowing all the inhabitants were dead, for Secunda had ordered their executions herself. Later they passed the crossroads where the battle to turn Athena’s army had been fought. There the grassland was scorched and the scent of rotting bodies mingled with that of smoke.

The clones looked to the south and saw a blasted land. The burning continued from where they stood to the far distant range of their vision. There, at the edges of their sight, a raw crater opened between the now joined lakes. After a short rest, they continued west along the road.

During the afternoon, the detail passed the deserted towns of Pende and Langadas, where people had fled the blast. At Langadas they left the road and moved cross-country, heading northwest. They crossed highways E79 and 65, about five miles southeast of Kilkis. By then it was 2015 hours, and Secunda called a brief halt. The clones rested and heated rations over cans of Sterno, drank water and consulted their maps. They discerned that they had another 22 miles, or almost 7_ hours’ march left. At 2055 hours they resumed their mission. So far, they were still in lands under the surveillance of the strategos’ scouts, and so they hadn’t bothered to cloak themselves.

Secunda ordered the clones to disappear at 2130 hours as they descended from the highlands of western Chalcidice to the Axios Plain of Macedonia. The "special" figured that her company would be within mortar range in about 17 miles. As the kataskopoi had reported, within three miles of leaving the highlands, the clones saw the first traces of light from the enemy camp. Now they moved forward more carefully.

At 0230 hours the clones crossed highway E75. The town of Aspros lay another mile and a half west, and a half-mile past it lay the Axios River. Secunda left her company hidden in a ravine at 0310 hours and went on alone to scout Athena’s camp. Again, she trusted to her speed, breaking into a flat-out run as soon as she left her sisters behind. Within two minutes she’d passed Aspros and she saw the encampment ahead beside the river. As she drew closer, she also saw a line of six enemy clones. They were a patrol, deployed to secure the perimeter at a distance of a quarter-mile from the palisade. An evil grin crossed her face and she put on a burst of speed, breaking into a sprint.

The "special" covered the hundred yards to the enemy line in under four seconds. She swept out her sword and simply held it at arms’ length to her side as she ran past the patrol. They never even realized that she was there, invisible and moving almost silently at 50 mph. The blade cleanly decapitated all six. Secunda never stopped. She slowed slightly to sheath her sword and turned back toward her troops. Still at her running pace, she completed the circuit of three miles in slightly less than five minutes. When she rejoined the other clones, she gave them the target coordinates.

"The target bearing is 265º, range is 3,485 yards."

The four clones in the mortar company set up the weapon, a 40" long tube supported on a round baseplate and a pair of telescoping legs. They calculated the incline for the bipod, checked the bearing with the sight, and then lined up their shells.

Secunda caught the company leader’s eyes and gave her a nod. The clone hefted the first shell and placed it at the mortar’s muzzle. Before releasing it, she checked the other clones to make sure they were aware that she was about to launch. They had all lowered their heads. She dropped the shell.

A heartbeat later there was a loud thump and then a whoosh as the shell leapt out of the mortar and into the sky in a shower of sparks. Her second handed her the next shell. She fired the six plague shells in a rapid succession of precise rhythmic motions. They shrieked towards their target, one after another, only seconds apart. When the last had gone, the clones could still hear the previous two falling in the distance, making the characteristic whistling sound of an incoming finned projectile. There was no report.

"Fire one M720 to confirm the targeting," Secunda ordered.

The leader of the mortar battery nodded and dropped a final shell into the tube. Everyone ducked. The shell screamed away into the night. For a handful of seconds, the clones waited. Secunda stared at the target area through a pair of field glasses. The shell finally landed and the detonation of the high explosive charge, somewhat larger than a hand grenade, marked the site with a quick flash of light and a cloud of dust.

"Good job," the "special" remarked as she rose to her feet. "Let’s pack up and get out of here."

Three minutes later the strike team was heading east with their mission accomplished. It was 0335 hours, May 6th.

May 6, 2006 — Eastern Chalcidice

"What happened here?" A Gabrielle asked rhetorically, since if she didn’t know then no one there did. She was looking around at the slightly burnt and abandoned town of Arethoussa that lay just off the road they’d been following north. As expected, no one answered her question.

"It doesn’t look as badly burned as Rendina did," another ventured.

"At least now I have an idea of what a kilometer is," a third commented. Arethoussa was supposedly 15 kilometers from Rendina, and they’d been walking for about three hours.

A clone walked up to the group and reported that the scavenging detail had picked the small grocery clean and they were ready to move out again.

"That didn’t take long," one of the Gabrielles remarked, then realized it wouldn’t take several dozen of her sisters long at all to clean out a place the size of the store she’d seen.

The clones began walking again. It wasn’t even time for an early dinner yet.

The next town they passed was Stefanina, which they could see from the road. It sat astride a short spur off the highway and looked like nothing more than a few shacks with a closed gas station. The Gabrielles didn’t even bother to stop. Another 11 kilometers north lay the town of Limni. They didn’t stop there either, only noting that it was smaller than Stefanina and slightly less scorched. Twenty minutes later, they came to a dead end where the road they’d been walking on ran into a road from the west. A sign pointing that direction said:

Sohos 16 km

In the opposite direction, pointing east, the sign said:

Nigrita 19 km

The Gabrielles filed past it heading east, and were pleased when the road began to curve north after an hour of walking. By then it was 1830 hours. Finally, at 1900 hours, the Gabrielles arrived at the deserted town of Therma. They had passed a road leading east a couple miles before, but had decided to stay on the road leading north. Now they were again confronted with a road leading east, headed to someplace called Ahinos, according to a sign. The clones decided that it was time for dinner. The ones at the head of the column stopped. The rest caught up. Soon, they were preparing meals in the abandoned restaurants and kitchens of Therma. They ate and left their dishes in sinks all over town. Afterwards, they went to sleep in houses, businesses, and yards.

Ironically, the road they had passed just two miles back led directly to Amphipolis. It was the very same road that Secunda had marched west by that morning. In fact, the Gabrielles had missed the "special" and her outbound mortar company by about six hours. More surprisingly, the Destroyer’s scouts had missed them, since the bulk of the kataskopoi were ranging further north and west in Chalcidice during the assault mission.

The Gabrielles had moved on paved roads, leaving no tracks. They’d spent the last two nights bunking in abandoned towns. They hadn’t made campsites, left hearths or fires, or otherwise disrupted the landscape with the passage of their numbers. A combination of circumstances and timing allowed the "not an army" of 8,000 blonde clones to pass unseen only 20 miles from the Destroyer’s encampment. The Hellene’s Bane would have been livid if she’d found out. As it was, only a rumor of their passing would reach her ears, and she’d soon have more immediate things to worry about.

May 7, 2006 — The Strymon Vale, Macedonia

"The mission was accomplished yesterday at 0330 hours, Strategos," Secunda reported at the dawn synedrion, "all six shells found their mark within the enemy encampment. We followed the prepared shells with one HE round to confirm the strike zone visually."

"Excellent," Xena remarked. "Once they start fallin’ ill, they’ll have to abandon their camp. We’ll force them to do that before they’re ready. Any engagements, Secunda?"

"I took the heads of six who were on patrol when I reconnoitered the target to confirm the range and bearing," the "special" answered without a trace of emotion. "It was purely opportunistic. Other than that, no." The strategos grinned.

"Anything further to report?" The Destroyer of Nations asked.

"Only an impression, Strategos," Secunda answered after a moment’s hesitation. "On our return march I was struck by an impression of warmth, as of Helios’ beams. It was more of a feeling however, than a physical sensation. I discerned no physical source. Upon analysis, I must liken it to the feelings I experience when contemplating memories of the one called Gabrielle. The impression persisted for perhaps a quarter-hour as we marched east. The others felt it too, though less distinctly. This was in the area east of Sohos, about 20 miles from Amphipolis. It came from the north."

Xena said nothing, though she had stared at Secunda for several moments. She immediately recalled an incident of similar sensations that she herself had experienced. It had been on January 21st and she had been aboard the Miss Artiphys, cruising south along the East African coast. There, off the shore of northern Tanzania, both she and Prima had felt an inexplicable…"something".

"You felt it too," Xena said. It was not a question.

"I felt…something," Prima acknowledged, making neither judgements nor conjectures.

Both clones eventually came to face towards the distant land off the starboard side. The enhanced "special's" finely tuned senses pinpointed what Xena could only feel vaguely.

"It comes from there," she stated with certainty, lifting her arm and pointing 60º off the starboard beam.

"Yes," Xena agreed, then, almost too softly to be heard, "like a second sunrise…"

It was the Gabrielles, 8,000 of them. The realization came to Xena with gut certainty and the clarity of a revelation. Secunda had triggered it when she’d likened the feeling of warmth to what she felt when she contemplated the memories of a soulmate she’d never known. It was the very warmth that had kept her own katalepsis at bay for a lifetime, and had allowed the Warrior Princess to be. That warmth she had once known was now magnified 8,000-fold; she had no doubt that any of her clones could feel its presence. It’s often called love, Xena thought, but a love that consumes yet doesn’t destroy; a love that can preserve the human soul in one born of a god to conquer, ravage, and slaughter. Yes, it’s more than just love, but there is no word…no name….

She resisted the urge to dispatch corps of scouts to search the hills of Chalcidice for the cloned Gabrielles and roust them out. What would she do with them if she found them? She couldn’t allow her army to be distracted, especially not now. She couldn’t allow herself to be distracted. This was not her Gabrielle, not her soulmate, not her love. And now, she realized, it’s a love that can never be. There’s already too much water under the bridge and too much blood on the road ahead. What I feel now instead of love is given to War. You, Secunda, and all my clones will never know a soulmate, the Destroyer of Nations decided. There is a war to fight.

"Take a crew of fifty and board the Argo," Xena ordered a hecatontarches. "Sail her clear of Kavala and then use the coordinates of Athena’s camp as your target. Fire a cruise missile every hour for the first three hours, then one every half-hour for the next three hours. Don’t bother with warheads.* I want the enemy driven out of their camp, sick, demoralized, and with only the supplies they can carry. At the same time, a crew of twenty will board the Miss Artiphys and sail to the Thermaic Gulf to observe the ports. Immediately call the Argo if there is any suspicion that the enemy can move by sea. Destroy any ship that could be used as a troop transport. Speed is our ally."

(*The impact energy of a 600 lb. cruise missile traveling at 6,000 mph is far greater than the explosive power of a conventional warhead small enough to arm the missile. A 300 lb. half-scale missile had caused major building collapses at USAMIIRID.) ~Editor

"I want the kataskopoi in western Chalcidice to move onto the Axios Plain and keep the enemy under tighter surveillance," the Destroyer ordered the commander of the scouts. "Move them into visual range. I want to know when they march and where they are." After a brief pause, she continued with, "None of the scouts are to enter the area north of the road in eastern Chalcidice unless they are shadowing the enemy’s advance."

Last, the strategos ordered, "Begin brewing the herbs that have been collected. I want the Pharmacopoeia of War prepared. There are a thousand ways to use plants as allies." Every clone present recalled the lessons of Mithridates.

Xena’s clones nodded their understanding and left the tent to carry out her orders. Finally the war would move toward its conclusion, and it would begin on their timetable, not the enemy’s. They would drive Athena’s army to fight on the strategos’ terms and they would calculate every factor for their foe’s detriment. As in the distant past, the Destroyer of Nations intended to take the field against an enemy half-defeated before they ever marched to battle.

As the tent stood empty and silent, the Hellene’s Bane allowed herself one more thought. Don’t get in my way, Gabrielle.

May 7, 2006 — Eastern Chalcidice

"I didn’t sleep very well last night, did you?" A sleepy Gabrielle asked as she tried to dig further under the blanket on a bed in a deserted home in Therma. It was already 10:00 am and no one else felt like moving either.

"I don’t think anyone did," the nearest clone replied, rubbing her eyes and yawning. She stretched and looked around with bleary eyes. "A few hours past midnight I had the strangest sensation. I wanted to get up and run back down the road the way we came. I felt like there was something out there in the dark…something I needed to find."

"That’s exactly how I felt," the first clone said. Not surprising since they were all the same and all felt the same things for the same reasons. "And I had a hard time going back to sleep even after the feeling faded away."

"I got up and went outside. A lot of the others were out there too, all staring south down the road. We talked a little. Everyone was awake. All of us wanted to go but something told us not to. Maybe it was a heart’s warning. After a half-hour the feeling faded and we all went back inside, but I don’t think anyone got back to sleep any easier than you."

Several other clones lying in the room sat up and nodded in agreement. They all looked sleepy. They had all been up in the dead of night. After a while, one gave in to necessity.

"I’ve gotta pee," she said, and climbed to her feet. She left the bedroom and headed to the bathroom. The others all realized that they had to go too. Not surprising, since they were all the same.

"Me next," another yelled after the departed clone, "and don’t take a shower until we’ve all had a turn." A chorus of agreement followed from the others.

It was almost noon before the whole mob of Gabrielles had washed, eaten, and was ready to continue on their way. They assembled on the road, checked the weather, and set out north towards Nigrita, about an hour away. They chatted as they went, and the only topic of discussion was the previous night’s disturbance. Somewhere along the way a clone said, "It was probably some of the Xenas…at least one or two. What else would feel like that?"

The whole "not an army" stopped in its tracks. They looked speculatively back the way they’d come.

"Oh, no you don’t," the same clone declared, "if it was the Xenas, they’re almost certainly at war, and this is not the time to go chasing off after them. You know how she got a couple of times. Remember what we’ve seen so far? Besides, every one of you felt the warning. This isn’t the time. Now let’s just get back on track, shall we?"

Though it would be impossible to tell visually, there was a good chance that this was the same clone that had been soaked with water at the monastery of Dochairios and had prodded the group onto the road at Trypiti. Perhaps the combination of individual experiences she’d had in this life had conspired to make her just a hair different from her sisters. Though they had all started out the same, they were each a separate person now. With each day that passed, each incident in their lives, they became more and more unique individuals. Of course, they had been traveling the same road together so far, so the differences had been minimized. Nevertheless, the first evidence of personality differentiation was beginning to appear.

The clones contemplated her words and slowly they turned back to face north. Every one of them wanted to go east in answer to the spectral call of their longing for their soulmate. But every one of them knew the truth of the one clone’s words. They all had memories of the Destroyer of Nations. Soon, they were trudging back up the road towards Nigrita.

Around 1:00 pm the Gabrielles were exploring Nigrita. It had been deserted like the other towns they’d come across in the interior of Chalcidice. Here they saw no fire damage. The large town was a good 20 miles from the blast. Still, something had made the people flee and the clones quickly came to the conclusion that it had been fear. A war was being fought nearby. The Gabrielles examined the markets and stores and began loading up their shopping carts.

They were still in town when they heard the first direct evidence of battle. It passed them at 1:15 pm, almost before they could look up. Something had streaked overhead somewhat to the south, from east to west, blazing incandescent orange, and shattering the air with a series of deafening booms. Whatever it was hadn’t been flying all that high, but it had covered the visible width of sky at many times the speed of any airplane they’d ever seen. It had moved far faster than anything they could imagine. Within seconds, silence returned.

"What was that?" More than one clone asked in alarm. Like many of their questions, it was rhetorical. If the speaker didn’t know, then none of them did. There was no answer.

"Let’s get out of here," another hastily suggested.

"It wasn’t aimed at us," the clone who had convinced them to continue their march observed. "It probably flew at least to Macedonia…maybe even Epirus. You saw how fast it was moving. If it had been aimed at us, we’d all be dead by now."

The clones around her shivered. One by one, they realized it implied that someone on one side of them was shooting at someone on their other side. They were in the middle. Accidents happened. Only the idea that the enemies were distant kept them from packing up and trotting north immediately.

"Let’s get the rest of the food loaded up," the same clone suggested. She moved to help stuff some cans into a shopping cart, but like her sisters, she couldn’t keep from glancing up frequently and checking the sky.

Slightly less than a half-hour later another "thing" shrieked by in a more southerly direction. At first the Gabrielles weren’t even sure if it had been another object.

At 2:15 pm the Gabrielles were on the road between Nigrita and the small town of Anthi, six kilometers to the north. The land was all downhill here. They had barely cleared the furthest edges of town when another "thing" shrieked by to the south. Again, the clones heard the rapid-fire series of sonic booms as the object traversed from horizon to horizon in a handful of heartbeats.*

(*The distance from Amphipolis to Therme is only 50 miles, while the distance from Kavala to the Axius River is about 88 miles. Mach 8 cruise missiles travel at 6,000 mph, or 100 miles per minute. At that speed, the total flight time from launch to target impact is only about 52.8 seconds. The time to traverse Chalcidice, whose highlands circumscribed the Gabrielles’ visual horizon, was about 30 seconds. What they were able to actually see from any given point, between landforms and trees, was probably far less.) ~Editor

The fourth cruise missile streaked through the sky an hour later as the Gabrielles were walking north from Anthi. They had barely given the place a second look. The clones were heading for the town of Skoutari, 13-km north.

This time, a clone had been checking the sky for several minutes before the missile appeared, having already worked out the time interval. She filed the information away for future reference, as a detail for her journal. Another thing she’d noticed was that no one had noted any explosions, any flashes of light, or any evidence of a detonation. If they were setting off atom bombs, then the explosions were far away. She took this as proof of the target being someplace distant…perhaps in Epirus after all. Bombardment of enemy positions was a precursor to other actions or a constant during a siege. It made her breath easier, believing that they were nowhere near the field of battle.

The Gabrielles were so preoccupied with the sightings of the cruise missiles that the stream they crossed on the road overpass barely registered at all. Having descended from the highlands after passing Anthi, they were crossing a wide valley now, and on the other side lay Skoutari and then Seres.

Continued in Chapter 10

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