XENA : DEFENDER OF THE FAITH
By Phantom Bard (J. Nakamura)
Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction, and is offered for non-profit entertainment. It may not be sold, may be downloaded for personal use only, and must contain this statement. The characters from the series Xena: Warrior Princess, including: Xena, Gabrielle, Eve/Livia, Solon, Lyceus, Argo, Janice Covington, Melinda Pappas, and the representation of the archangel Michael are the creations and property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. The characters Henry "Indiana" Jones Jr. and Prof. Henry Jones Sr. are the creations and property of LUCASFILM Ltd. and Paramount Pictures. No malice is intended to these characters or concepts. I would like to express my thanks to their creators for sharing them with us. This story is my own, and if other authors feel the desire to create sequels, its ok, but, it can't be for profit.
Feedback can be sent to me at the address above.
This story contains violence that may be disturbing to some readers, and presents some unconventional representations of religious concepts. There is no intent to offend, however, if you feel that these topics will make you uncomfortable, please read something else. The story takes place long after the fifth season episodes, but was written before the sixth season began. I hope you enjoy this story, it's my first.
The rain fell with a steadiness that had turned the late spring day in Washington, D.C. into a reminder that the city had been built on a swamp. Moderate heat, 100% humidity, and a constant drizzle as though the world had forgotten any other kind of weather existed. But in the nation's capitol, business went on, government continued to function, and friends enjoyed each other's company. In these first years after the Second World War, with rationing rescinded, and returned soldiers back in civilian life, the world seemed a little older and a little wiser. Another brush with great evil had, through hard work and harder sacrifice been kept from ending in a nightmare of fascism, Nazism, and militant imperialism. The peoples of the world were licking their wounds and trying to rebuild their shattered homes. Of all the great nations, only the United States had been spared from battle on the home front. And so, while much of Europe and Asia were being reconstructed, friends could sit in a restaurant, in sight of the U.S. Capitol, and reminisce about their experiences.
The middle aged man had arrived first. Leaving his trademark fedora and an overcoat with the coat check girl, and happy that his boyish smile could still charm a young lady, he was shown to a table near the windows, where he could keep an eye out for his colleagues. He was only half way through his first cocktail, (Johnny Walker red, straight up), when his friends arrived. Two women shaking off the rain, and shedding their coats, the taller one seeming much more at ease than her shorter blond companion.
"Mercy Janice, rain in spring is a tradition from Atlanta to Baltimore," the tall brunette drawled, "I've seen this weather all my life, and there's not a thing to do but carry an umbrella. Why we've practically drowned on some of those digs of yours. I can't tell you how miserable it was not being able to properly dry off, or change into fresh clothes".
"I know Mel," Janice Covington replied, "just seems uncivilized to have to deal with this constantly when we're in a supposedly great city. I guess I expect more here. I bet this town was built on a damned swamp".
"Oh Jan, cheer up look, there's Professor Jones".
Henry "Indiana" Jones Jr. was discreetly waving them over, trying not to become a spectacle by flapping too vigorously, but unable to hide his happiness at finally seeing his two colleagues and friends again. Although they worked in the same profession, and held teaching positions at universities, they rarely met. The archaeological conferences where they had first become acquainted, before the war, had been few and far between while the world convulsed in destruction. And while the war had gone on, all three had done work for the U.S. government, using their profession as a cover for covert operations overseas, or acting as consultants at home. It had left them little time to socialize. Still, through the academic grapevine, they'd been able to keep tabs on each other, if only from a distance.
"Why you are looking well Professor Jones," Melinda Pappas said with her patrician southern accent, "it seems like forever since we last got together".
"Hi Indy, disgusting weather we're having, huh?" Janice spat, still irritated, more so at the thought that her cigars might have picked up some mildew.
"Ladies, you are lovelier than ever, and a sight for these sore eyes," Indiana Jones said as he rose to pull out chairs for his guests. He managed to seat Melinda, but by the time he'd slid her chair in, Janice had seated herself and was scooting her chair forward, scouring the carpet.
"Noah would have felt right at home in his ark tonight I agree this rain seems to go on forever. Did you know that Washington, D.C. was built partly on land reclaimed from the Potomac, and much of the rest was once a swamp?"
"I would never have guessed", Janice muttered, "mind if I smoke?", she asked as she examined a cigar, squeezing it to check for water damage.
The hours passed quickly, with several cocktails for Indy and Mel, and two beers for Janice. Then a fine meal, served with the optimistic postwar hospitality so prevalent in the late forties. They told the stories of their exploits, how Indy and his father had managed to hold in their hands the cup of Christ, and then lost it, but only after the miracle of seeing the Grail heal the elder Jones' gunshot wound. How Janice and Mel had found and translated the scrolls chronicling the exploits of the warrior and the bard. Of the ruins they had seen around the world, and the amazing events that led them to the truths behind the myths. The web from which history is constructed, and the search for understanding of the past, that was their siren call. Though many in the academic world saw Indy as a treasure hunter, and Jan and Mel as crackpots, their love of the past was a genuine love. For Indy and Janice, only through the discoveries of fieldwork did they come into intimate contact with the great artifacts and people who shaped our world. For Melinda Pappas, whose expertise in ancient texts could be exercised in a library more easily than in the field, there was a sense of excitement which came only when a new discovery was unearthed.
"Of all my finds, the one which still haunts me, the one that I never got to really study, the one that got away, damn it, was the Ark of the Covenant," Indy said late in the evening, "I tried to make them see how important it was, how it should have been investigated thoroughly but they took it and crated it and put it somewhere with the files and furniture this overgrown government fills warehouses with. I doubt they even know where it is now. What an inexcusable loss".
Over ten years later he still obviously felt betrayed by the Feds who had sent him, nearly to his death, to retrieve the artifact. Having wrested it from the Nazis and seen its power, it was still close to his heart, for he knew that unlike the lost grail, it was probably somewhere here in this wet city, on this very night, maybe within a mile of where he sat with his two friends.
"Indy, we know how you feel," Janice offered, "you weren't the only one to lose a find to the Feds. Mel and I, well we aren't even supposed to talk about it, but it's something you should hear, and it eats at us. It eats at us the way the Ark haunts you still keeps me up at night". The bitterness was so evident in Covington's voice that Indiana Jones felt himself sharpen, as though he'd shrugged off the alcohol and was focused like an undergrad before finals.
"What are you talking about Jan", Indy asked quietly, "you found something bigger than the Xena scrolls?"
"We sure did Professor Jones, we damn well did," Mel said. It was the first time Jones had heard Melinda Pappas curse.
"I'm sorry Mel, Jan, I had no idea, I'm sorry," Indy softly said. Janice looked like she wanted to hit someone, and Melinda looked like she could start crying in frustration.
"Two years after the scrolls came to light, and after we'd managed to translate most of them, we came across a scroll in a private collection," Janice said slowly, "I think my father may have sold it to the collector to finance his work after the university gave him the boot. See, they never really believed him, and this scroll wasn't by Gabrielle it was somewhat later. It told of the death of the bard, of the last battle of Xena, defending Eli's followers, and Eve's escape from the battle when Xena forbad her to fight."
"It also mentioned a tomb, in Egypt, which was known as the Tomb of the Defender of the Faith, or just the Tomb of the Defender," Mel said picking up the story, "Through enquiry and research we were able to guess where the tomb had been, and as the war in North Africa had left the area in allied hands, we were allowed to go in and excavate,"
"Indy we found her," Janice said, her voice cracking, "we found the last resting place and the earthly remains of Xena the Warrior Princess. She was as real as you or me."
"Why we had barely raised the sarcophagus from the tomb when the Army Intel showed up. We never even knew they were around. They must have watched every move we made. Anyway they just packed up everything, hustled us off on a plane, and 36 hours later we were in an office being told they were confiscating everything on the grounds of national security. They said we couldn't tell anyone anything about the expedition or they'd prosecute us, " Melinda Pappas said in a voice filled with quiet indignation.
"After all we'd done for them they even took my notes," Janice added, desolate, "I just couldn't believe our side would do that."
"Well Janice, I guess it happens to us all. The government always wants the most important things under its control. They don't really trust citizens with anything important. When it comes down to it, no government anywhere is willing to feel it can't take what it wants it's the exercise of power. If history teaches us anything, it's that might makes right even when it's wrong." Indy spoke with bitterness, "Only thing to do is have another drink.
The sky was the high clear blue of the best days on Earth. A few fluffy clouds sailed placidly across the space between majestic mountains in the distance. Mountains no one felt interested in climbing. They were just nice to look at, and the truth was that if you rode towards them they never got any closer. A fine breeze blew, sometimes from the east, sometimes from the west. On other days it came from the north or south, but it was never harsh, never brought unwelcome rain, never chilling snow. Rain was pleasant, and snow fell for its beauty on the trees. Like all things in the Elysian Fields, the weather was for people's enjoyment. Nature, as it was represented here, was lush, accommodating, or dramatically scenic. Animals went about their business and their interactions with the people were benign.
Xena sat with Gabrielle, talking in a high meadow. Gabrielle helping herself to the delicacies surrounding them on their picnic blanket. Across the meadow, Solon rode a horse just like Argo, as Lyceus coached him on jumping the tree trunks which lay here and there. Without the once ubiquitous sword sheath across her shoulders, Xena could lie comfortably on her back and look up at the sky. There was a cloud that looked just like the skyline of the Acropolis, and another that reminded her of the face of Hercules. Whatever image she thought of, the clouds would shift into, as if to oblige her vision. For someone so used to conflict during her life, the very lack of challenges here had left Xena uneasy at first. It had taken time, (impossible to measure, though it seemed like years), for her to really relax. Of course Gabrielle had a lot to do with that, reasoning with her through endless good humor, so that in the end she could deeply enjoy the reward of bliss. It seemed all the good people whom she held most dear were here too, returned from the heartbreak of loss through death that had originally separated them. In time, even those she didn't at first find in the fields arrived, having finished their earthly spans. Sometimes she wondered about those few she knew had been good souls, but were not in the Elysian Fields. She debated the reasons for their absence with Gabrielle, since so many had been mutual acquaintances. Iolas wasn't here, and he should have been here before them. Certain of the Amazons were absent, probably off in various spirit worlds still looking after their sisters. (Gabrielle felt that when the Amazon Nation was at last no more, they would show up but Xena believed that though the nation might disappear, Amazons by blood would still roam the earth. She felt that those who were missing were trapped between worlds). Of all those they never found, there were two souls whom they missed most. One was the prophet Eli, and Gabrielle missed him terribly. The other was Xena's daughter Eve.
On this blessed day, (they were all blessed days here), they were reminiscing about Joxer, and his endearing, if annoying "assistance" in their adventures. With their attention engaged, though truthfully somewhat split, (Gabrielle's by the food, and Xena's by the cloud pictures), they failed to notice the approach of the blond man.
He was walking purposefully up the hill toward their part of the meadow. Handsome, strong, and smiling, his wavy hair ruffled by the breeze, he made his way closer. He seemed to glow with an inner light, and he projected an aura of power, which was what first brought him to their attention, feeling such things as they now could. As he saw them turn towards him his smile widened, and he raised a hand in greeting.
"Xena, Gabrielle it's been a long time since we were together. It gladdens my heart to see you found your bliss in the end."
"Michael " Gabrielle exclaimed, rising to embrace him.
"Michael, it's wonderful to see you again," Xena said with a wide smile, as she stood, "what brings an archangel of the One God to this pagan realm?" Then she too embraced him.
"Truly, you are the reason for my visit Xena." Michael said, becoming serious, "Although we once fought together, and then against each other, all that is past and forgiven. In fact, my Lord wishes you to know of his gratitude. You were the defender of Eli while he lived, and of his followers many times after his passing. It is not forgotten by the One God that you both later sacrificed your lives in defense of the fathers of the Church. But there is another reason for which you are held in undying love and the highest admiration."
Xena felt faint, as though she was standing on a high cliff above crashing surf. She had the feeling of something immense looming before her that would change everything forever. She looked over at Gabrielle and knew that she felt it too.
"What could we possibly have done that was more important than dying in defense of the faithful?" Gabrielle asked, not sure that she wanted to hear what his answer would be.
For her, the premonitions were more like seasickness.
"Your daughter whom you named Eve, who was redeemed by a vision from the Lord, and then reborn into the way of love by John the Baptist, lived a long life," Michael said, holding Xena's eyes, "what you don't know is that she changed her name yet again. From Eve to Livia, then back to Eve, and finally she was known as Veronica."
"I'm sorry Michael," Xena said quietly, "I don't understand. All I know is that she never joined us here. Did she return to evil?"
"Oh no Xena, just the opposite. She embraced the faith for the rest of her life, accepted the message of love and, on our darkest day, she showed compassion beyond any other mortal. It's a long story," Michael sighed, but smiling continued, "I guess you have time to hear a story that changed the world."
"I just love a good story," declared Gabrielle as she sat back down, "come on Xena, let's get comfortable."
So the two old friends sat with the archangel on a blanket in a high meadow in the Elysian Fields, and he told them the story. And none of them found the situation strange.
But rather they were absorbed into a tale in which they found they had a place, for it was the continuation of their story, and the story of Xena's daughter, and the story of the future of mankind. The hours passed unnoticed as Michael related all that had happened in the world only a few years after they had left it. It was a story which brought joy and tears and great wonder, hope and despair, and it lost little in the telling, for it captured their imagination, as it still does with people today.
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John, and he came to be a witness to the Light. And John baptized with water into the life of forgiveness, and people came to him, as you once brought Eve, to be purified and reborn into the light. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. And John bore witness to him, saying, 'this is the one of whom I spoke, He that came after me, yet is preferred before me Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the World, for I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode with him'."
"Wait a second Michael, are we talking about the son of God here?" Gabrielle asked.
"Are we talking about the son of a God, and he's a really good guy?" asked Xena, who had never been enamoured of the Gods, especially after they tried to kill her daughter.
"Yes Gabrielle, we are talking about the Son of the One Almighty God of the Hebrews, and yes he was a good guy, Xena. He came to prove the words of Eli by sacrificing himself in place of men, that they could be forgiven where John baptized with water, he baptized with his blood. All who believed in him could be forgiven, and live in eternal light."
With a gasp Xena asked, "Michael, is this why we never met up with Eve?"
"Yes Xena," Michael explained, "long ago she left the world and joined the kingdom of heaven you remember it from when you died the second time. There are many mansions in heaven which are not near the contested areas. They are far from the demons and the mouth of hell. Anyway, the Son of Jehovah Elohim, the Lord God, was called Jesus the Christ, or Jesus ben Joseph, of the house of David, of Nazareth, though he was actually born in Bethlehem. His parents happened to be there to pay taxes to your old friend Augustus."
"Will we ever see her, Michael?"
"Yes you will Xena, one day you will meet again. That is a Promise."
"Michael, tell us more about this Jesus," Gabrielle asked, "you say he came to spread the teachings of Eli's message of love?"
"Gabrielle, he was the message of love that Eli tried to get people to believe. He was God's love of mankind made into a living, speaking man most people couldn't believe it, didn't believe in him, felt threatened by him he still loved them. The priests and the lawyers who had the most to lose hated him the most. They managed to have him arrested and tried, although he managed to roam around teaching for three years, before they caught him through treachery. I saw the trial and it was a joke; the people almost hysterical, screaming, ' crucify him!' And eventually they did."
"They crucified him?" Xena's eyes grew larger, and she shivered from her own memories.
"They crucified him, but what was just as bad was the ridicule and cruelty they heaped on him before he was nailed up. After floggings and beatings, they put a crown of thorns on his head, and then they made him drag his cross through the streets for hours it nearly killed him before he got to Golgotha. And Xena, that was where Eve came into the story. As Jesus was struggling in the heat, with pain and thirst, as the mobs lined the streets to revile him, Eve came out of the crowd. She was the only one who dared of all those thousands. Even his disciples kept a low profile that day. But Eve came to him in the street, ignoring the soldiers, and she gave him water, and wiped the sweat from his brow. And none there heard it, but we did, when she said, "You are not forsaken, for there are those who love you still." Then the centurion came to take her away, and she looked him in the face, and he nearly dropped dead, for he knew her. He had served under her when she was Livia, Champion of Rome, and he feared her. So she was able to leave without being stopped. It was, maybe, the only thing done that day to make my Lord feel that mankind was worthy of the sacrifice His son made. And God spoke to us saying that if even one person accepted the Word, then the teachings were not in vain, and His love could truly take hold in the world. But He knew Eve, and He knew her conversion from evil was your achievement also, and so you have His love and esteem as well, for what you did was done from your love for her."
After a pause, Michael continued, "She didn't even notice at the time that the face of Jesus was forever etched on the cloth she wiped His face with. Yet afterwards she treasured it, and showed it to convince doubters that he really was the Christ. And when she died 50 years later, she left it to become the most powerful relic of the Church. They called it the "true image", the vera icon, and came to call her Saint Veronica. Xena, 2000 years have passed since that day, and still it is the most sacred object the church has."
When his words finally sank in, Xena almost leapt off the blanket, "2000 YEARS!!!"
"What a wonderful story, Michael," Gabrielle said, tears streaming down her cheeks, "and what a moving ending."
"Why Gabrielle, that's just the beginning of the story."
"Well, let me guess Michael," Xena said softly as she raised an eyebrow, and the corners of her mouth lifted in a familiar grin, "this story goes on for two thousand years, but it hasn't ended yet...and that's why you're here."
Michael sighed, and regarded her. There was amusement in his eyes, but there was also a seriousness, and a sadness as well.
"You haven't lost your edge Xena, and that's a good thing, because you'll need to be sharp. My Lord needs your help Xena. I was sent to request your assistance, because of all the quick and the dead, you alone have the abilities needed to succeed. It isn't something to be done by one like me. God himself cannot do what needs to be done on earth now. Only a living person can achieve this mission. You were the first defender of the faith. The Lord of Hosts asks that you be its defender again. Perhaps its last defender."
For awhile no one said a word. Xena had the strangest feeling that, in spite of having been dead for two thousand years, and in spite of the fact that she was being asked by an archangel to help a God, it was, when all was stripped away, someone asking for help. Her help, in a cause that was good, and it felt so familiar. Like the old times, during her life, when a poor farmer or villager would beg for her help against robbers or warlords.
Gabrielle watched her thinking. She looks like she used to when she was weighing the odds. When some poor farmer or villager would beg for her help against a robber or a warlord. In that time before she'd say, "Of course we'll help," when she was thinking up a plan. But she's dead now, and the world has changed, and this is supposed to be the enjoyable time she earned with her deeds while she was living. I'm worried about what could happen if she goes could she be killed, and never come back? How would she cope with all the changes in the world? Would she really leave me here? And what's so important that the One God of the Hebrews needs her help, yet can't do it himself?
"Michael, tell me about what needs to be done, and how can I possibly do it in a world that must have changed so much. I'll be a relic, two thousand years out of date. I've tried to help when I could, but this just seems like I'm the wrong person. Besides I'm dead."
Michael spoke, and he seemed to be changing the subject, for he asked, "Xena, do you know of the Ark of the Covenant?"
"Now you're talking really ancient history," Gabrielle said. "I remember hearing the story once when we helped David fight the giant Goliath. The ark was the container of God's law that he gave to the Hebrews a long, long time ago."
"That's right Gabrielle. But it was more than a container for the tablets of the law. You see, because God himself engraved those tablets, they were charged with his power. This was to make them a stronger reminder of the people's faith in their God. When a righteous leader chanted the words of a call to God, His power could be projected out from the Ark. It was even used as a weapon, unleashing the divine power, to smite the enemies of the faithful. But finally it was taken as a spoil of war. The victorious Egyptians feared it greatly. For that reason it was hidden at Tannis, for almost three thousand years. Then in a time of conflict greater than any the world had known, it was rediscovered, but again the victors hid it, and this was wise. Again it was buried in the heart of the greatest nation of its time, but now the world has changed again. It is no longer safe. Great evil has arisen in that nation, and is contesting with the righteous for possession of the Ark. It would become a weapon impossible to withstand, and would seal the fate of the world. And winning, evil would rule for a millenium, and then the God of Hosts would have no choice but to reveal himself in judgement, and destroy the world."
Michael paused, as if for effect, and then, taking a deep breath he spoke again.
"My Lord requests that you return to life, return to the world, and defend the Ark. Remove it from hiding, and take it to hallowed ground. Take it where evil cannot touch it. Yet it is not meant to become a weapon of the righteous, for there is no true holy leader to wield it. It would only become a temptation, and it would corrupt anyone now living. It must be hidden again, hidden until a leader blessed by my Lord arises to wield it, not as a weapon, but as a symbol to bring the faithful back to the law."
"Just one question Michael," Xena asked, "if its so well hidden, how will I find it and let me guess, its in a country where I've never been, right?"
Now Michael looked upset. Gabrielle would have thought he looked guilty if that had been possible of one so pure of heart.
"You're right Xena. The United States of America didn't exist until 1700 years after your death. By the grace of my Lord God you shall know their customs, and you shall understand their language. And you shall have no trouble finding the Ark. It is right next to you now."
Xena and Gabrielle looked around as if they expected the Ark to appear beside them in the meadow. Then they looked at each other, clueless. Finally they looked back at the archangel.
"Now I really don't get it," Xena said, "there's nothing here."
"Not here Xena, there," Michael looked even more like a cat with feathers in its mouth, but he continued, "did you ever wonder what happened to your body after you died?"
"My BODY!?!" Now Xena was on her feet. "It must have fallen into dust ages ago, if it wasn't laid on a pyre and taken by the flames as a warrior's body should."
Michael just looked at her.
With growing suspicion she asked, "Alright, what about my body? Tell me and we'll both know."
"When you died defending the faithful from the Legionnaires who were persecuting them, your body fell into the hands of the Romans. Augustus still acknowledged the debt he owed you for saving his life, and at his command a tomb was built for your remains. Remember that you died in the land of Egypt. Augustus commanded that the Egyptians preserve your body. Though the Egyptians were the most advanced at embalming, their craft was too crude for what was required. In that time my Lord God put forth his power, and your body was preserved uncorrupt. Your wounds were healed, though your soul had left. Then it was laid to rest in the Tomb of the Defender of the Faith, and as time passed, it was forgotten by the world."
Xena just looked at him. This was too much, and for once she didn't know what to say.
Gabrielle had never seen such a look of shock on her friend's face in all the centuries she'd known her. A child could have swatted her and she wouldn't have seen it coming.
"Of course there's more, isn't there," Xena barely whispered.
"Yes Xena, there's more. Just a few years after the Ark of the Covenant was recovered, two women, descendants of you and Gabrielle in fact, discovered the Tomb of the Defender of the Faith. They unearthed your mummy. Then agents of the rulers of the United States brought your body back to their capitol city, and stored it with other treasures, including the Ark. For fifty years they have lain side by side, hidden and almost forgotten."
Xena sat back down. The whole series of shocks washed over her and left her dizzy. Even when she'd fought the gods for her daughter's life they had only pulled a couple surprises in a row, and she'd always been able to foresee the first. Michael's God had numbed her with revelations one after another, and she hadn't foreseen any of them. She felt like a child could have swatted her and she wouldn't have seen it coming. I guess this is what happens when everything is rolled into one god, she thought. I'm sure glad he's never been my enemy. First there was Jesus the Christ, and Eve. Then there was that business with the ark, and the request to protect it from evil. And if all that wasn't enough there was the whole thing about being entombed as an eternal mummy. She felt her head starting to spin, and she didn't like it. Once upon a time she would have reacted by lashing out and destroying something, maybe destroying everything. Now a voice inside her spoke old wisdom from her time on earth, "act, don't react," and she knew what her path would be.
"Ok Michael, I'll do what I can to safeguard the Ark. For Eve's sake I will trust in your God, like daughter, like mother," Xena sighed, and she looked over at Gabrielle, "don't worry, I'll be back, I'll see you again when this is all finished, even if the world ends first."
Michael looked at Xena, then he looked at Gabrielle. He looked up at the clear high blue of the sky and smiled.
"Well, that's just what he thought you'd say Xena."
And he reached for the cups and the wineskin that lay on the picnic blanket, and filled them each a cup.
"I guess the only thing to do is have a drink."
What a long strange dream she'd had. She woke up feeling stiff from a night's sleep spent too long I one position. Sometimes she wished she tossed and turned in her sleep, but that had never been the case. This morning was worse than most. Every muscle and every joint felt like it needed all the grease a sizzling rabbit could provide. Even her eyelids were resistant. She lay still, coming up from slumber. At some point she realized she was restrained, in fact she felt like she was encased head to foot. Her instincts told her that if she was restrained she might be in a hostile place, and her awareness sharpened. She reached out with her senses, her ears told only of the low hum of air moving. Her skin told her the temperature was comfortable. Her nose told of dust, old cloth, and dry wood. She tried to move her fingers, and though there was resistance, she could wiggle all ten. Likewise, she could move her wrists, elbows, and shoulders. She repeated the test with her legs. She brought her hands together and felt wrappings of cloth covering her hands, her arms, her body. She found an overlap in the strips wrapped around her waist, and she worked to loosen it. It came away easily, as though it was so dry and old it had no strength. Strange, she thought, but it would make them easier to remove.
In twenty minutes she was free of the cloth wrappings, and realized she was inside a wooden box. She also realized she was naked. She felt around in the dark and found weapons: sword, daggers, chakram. The sheaths crumbled when she drew the blades. There was a stack of pages bound together. Again she listened, but heard no sounds except the moving air. Bracing herself against the bottom of the box she kicked upwards hard with both legs. The lid gave way with a screech, and a weak light fell around her. She sat up and looked around. More wooden boxes as far as she could see dim lights of a strange kind hanging from a high ceiling above her. But not a soul in sight.
Xena climbed out of the box and gathered the weapons. She also took out the sheets, and finding that she could comprehend the script, started reading quickly. They were the field notes of archeologist Janice Covington, and they related the daily progress of her work excavating the Tomb of the Defender of the Faith. That's me, she thought, and bit by bit, her memory jogged by the notes, Xena recalled everything that had gone before. She remembered her life, her death, the Elysian Fields, and her conversation with the archangel in the meadow. It seemed like it had been an age ago it almost felt like a dream. A long strange dream.
Sure enough, the crate next to hers was stamped with enough information that she had no doubt it contained the Ark of the Covenant. Xena tried to lift the crate to judge its weight. She could raise an end with effort, she would never lift it, and carrying it was out of the question.
Leaving herself a trail of dry rotted cloth scraps, Xena began to explore the warehouse. In her rounds she found a water fountain, a locker room, several doors, (one leading to a loading dock), and some offices. Everything was located along one wall.
As the archangel promised, she understood this world as well as she'd understood the writing in the field notes. From the loading dock she took a platform truck, and wrecking bar. In the locker room she found coveralls, and someone's lunch. Xena ate next to the water fountain, satisfying hunger and thirst. Then she wheeled the platform truck back along the trail of cloth scraps, until she returned to the crate that contained the ark.
The wrecking bar would let her loosen and lift the lid, for she intended to hide her weapons and the field notes in the crate with the Ark. With noisome complaint, the old nails pulled free of the dry crate wood, and she lifted the lid. Xena was surprised by the outpouring of bright golden light. Curious, she pried the lid up further, and looked inside. Xena realized she'd never even thought of what the Ark of the Covenant would look like she had no preconceived image of the relic. It was a beautiful thing.
The entire Ark appeared to be solid gold, though she knew from the weight that the metal must be a sheath over wood. The luster of its surface was mirror bright after 3200 years, and no scratch marred it though the metal must have been soft in its purity. Though box like, its proportions gave it grace. Bas relief panels on the sides depicted a procession of high priests with Moses at the head, bearing the tablets of the law. Rising from the ends of the lid were a pair of cherubim. They knelt facing each other, wings curved to encompass the central area of the lid. On the lid, worked in gold, with inlays of silver, was the outline of a man superimposed on a diagram of ten hemispheres joined by a network of lines. Hebrew letters were engraved on each hemisphere. Above all, crowning the outline of the man, was the face of an ancient king. Light seemed to come from the depths of his eyes, and, reflecting off the metal, poured from the crate.
In her head Xena heard a voice speak with unquestionable authority and power.
"Guard well thy righteousness and keep the law, for thou art in the presence of the Almighty Lord God. Before all that was, and is, and shall be, I Am That I Am."
Without thought or fear Xena answered, "All blessings flow from thee, and all praise be unto thee, for thou art the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, unto the ages."
The golden light was extinguished, and Xena felt as though she was released. She put her weapons and the notebook into the crate, and replaced the lid. Using the wrecking bar as a lever, she raised one end of the crate onto the platform truck. Then she slid the rest of the crate fully on. Tossing the wrecking bar onto the crate she began to push the platform truck towards the loading dock.
Xena had almost reached the loading dock when she heard hushed voices ahead. She pushed the Ark against a stack of crates and climbed on top of another crate about shoulder high. Her senses told her three men were approaching, and she could hear them discussing the ark.
"You got the storage number so we can find it Gamel?"
"Duh it's down this aisle about another hundred feet. You see every crate in this aisle is letter G, and these are the 400s. We need 487G. Just shut up and leave the thinking to me."
"Leave the thinking to you," the third man said, "you'll have us all in jail. You stole that van and didn't change the plates. We had to stop to do that ourselves. Now we're late."
"What are you worried about? The Ark has been here for 53 years and no one knows what it is. Only the boss knows where to sell something like that. I hear it's solid gold!"
"No it's not, stupid."
"Who are you calling stupid?"
"I didn't call you stupid."
"Did you call me stupid Sadam? I'll bust your skull."
"You're all stupid, and I'll bust your skulls."
"Wait a second, who said that?"
"No, it was me"
A shadow leapt over the three men from a crate behind them, landing in front of them so their backs were to a wall of crates. Without stopping Xena turned, and her spinning hook kick caught the center man on the temple, snapping his head around so the following back knuckle strike broke his neck. Of the two remaining, the taller man froze for a second, and became the next target. Having attacked high, Xena dropped and attacked low. Her leg sweep knocked the taller man off his feet, and as she continued to turn with the sweep she rose, switched feet, and caved in his skull with a low heel kick. The third man had taken three strides, fleeing back towards the loading dock, when the shadow flipped over him, landing briefly in front, and jumping back up snapped out a side kick that he ran into full speed. It felt like the shadow's foot went right through him.
Suddenly the shadow had a voice, low and threatening, face to face, leaning over him with its knee on his chest.
"How did you know about the Ark, Sadam? Don't bother pretending you don't know about it because I heard you mention it."
Sadam could have sworn it was a bitch's voice.
"Get fucked bitch. I'm not telling you shit."
"Wrong answer," Xena whispered to him, and she stabbed at both sides of his throat with her fingers, "I've just cut off the flow of oxygen to your brain. You'll be dead in 30 seconds if you don't tell me what I want to know."
She grinned at him and waited. At the count of ten seconds she got up and started to walk away. He was starting to faint. She was actually pushing a platform truck away from the side of the aisle. Twenty seconds and Sadam's vision was buzzing with little lights, and he could taste blood from his nose. Twenty-five seconds and she was moving down the aisle towards the loading dock.
"w..a..i t .I'll t..a.l .k,"
"Too late!" Xena called back over her shoulder as she rounded the corner at the end of the aisle. Sadam's vision was already black.
Driving was fun. Xena loved driving the stolen van. It had been the only vehicle at the loading dock with the keys in it, and it was pulled up with the rear doors open. Almost too easy, she thought. She'd snuck up on the driver, tapped him on the shoulder, and as he turned to face her she'd swung the edge of her hand into his throat. He'd collapsed with blood fountaining out of his mouth. No point in moving the body, so she left him in the widening pool of blood and urine. Maybe the police would think he'd been killed by one of his partners in a double-cross, along with the other three, Sadam, Gamel, and their nameless accomplice. Killed perhaps by a fifth conspirator who had escaped with whatever prize they'd been after. The only thing obviously missing was her body, from the opened crate. The ark might not even be missed. At least not immediately.
The warehouse was an anonymous building on the grounds of the old Washington Navy Yard. After observing the timing of the night guards' rounds, Xena had driven off in the van unobserved. Exiting the Navy Yard, she took a right onto 1st St., then turned right again onto M St. following the perimeter of the Navy Yard another block. She headed north on 2nd St., past the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court Building. Xena drove along the railroad tracks behind Union Station. She came to K St. where she took a left, immediately passing under the tracks. After 2 blocks she took a right, onto North Capitol St.. She really did love this driving, and at this late hour the city was surprisingly quiet. Washington, D.C. was largely a city of 9 to 5 office workers, and by 2am the streets around the Capitol were almost deserted.
Because there was almost no traffic, Xena had time to appreciate the fact that she was being guided. While she was suspicious at first, she remembered Michael had said she needed to take the ark to hallowed ground, and she figured that was where she was being led. She certainly didn't know her way around the city, but at each intersection she'd felt the irresistible need to make the turns she'd taken. She just went along accepting the directions as a gift from God. In fact that's exactly what they were, for God did know this town. He'd watched it grow from a cattle yard and swamp. In this he saw humor, and he liked the Americans for it. They'd demonstrated humility by taking the marginal lands for their capitol. He made sure they got plenty of rain.
When Xena reached Irving St. she took the exit ramp headed east. It crossed the grounds of Soldiers' Home and emptied in front of Trinity College. As she'd left North Capitol St., Xena had become aware of a great domed building, and as expected each turn brought it closer. Xena turned right and followed Michigan Ave. to the entrance of a parking lot. There she read a sign proclaiming, "The National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception". Another sign, directing traffic to continue said, "Campus of the Catholic University of America".
Well, Xena thought, if this isn't holy ground I don't know what is. She slowly drove the van along quiet streets in the cool night air, enjoying her view of the magnificent building. Byzantine in design, and rising 200 feet high, it dominated the grounds. Nearest the road there was a huge façade, with a recessed entrance flanked by a tower that rose 330 feet into the night sky. As she drove closer to the huge building, Xena's view of the mosaic covered dome was eclipsed by the structure's mass. Deep shadows along the textured flanks, and the night silence, gave the huge church the quiet air of a ruin. Here on the holy ground of the Western World's largest Catholic church the sounds of the city were muffled, distant, as though from another world, or another time.
Along one side there was a driveway which led up to a service entrance in the massive structure. Xena parked the van as close as she could. Though someone should have noticed and challenged her, she could only believe that her good luck was really divine intervention.
Xena opened the rear doors of the van, and slid out the loading ramp. Working quickly she rolled the crate containing the ark down to the street, then put the ramp back in the van and locked the doors. At some level she understood she didn't want the van stolen, and this really struck her as funny since it had already been stolen twice. As she passed the side of the van she read a company name in script, Artistic Restorations by Global Originals the capitols were in gold leaf, and spelled ARGO. Xena smiled at the memory of a faithful friend as she wheeled the platform truck to the service entrance.
To her amazement the wide doors were unlocked. Divine intervention again Xena thought the hall inside was deserted. Across from the doors was a freight elevator, and following the sense of direction that led her, she opened the doors and rolled the ark in. All the buttons were for floors below the ground level. There were three buttons, "Crypt Church", "Catacombs", and "Catacombs-sublevel 2". She pushed the lowest button on the control panel, and with a jerk the elevator started to descend. It seemed to go down for a long time, and Xena was starting to get worried when the elevator came to a halt. The doors slid open, revealing a dimly lit passage of marble, the ceiling barrel vaulted, the sides pierced by arched openings. A sign next to the elevator doors read "Catacombs-sublevel 2". Xena could feel the stillness, could hear her breathing, could hear the rubber wheels of the platform truck rolling on the smooth floor. She could sense the weight of thousands of tons of masonry in the building above her. She felt safe.
"Now I just need to find a place to hide the ark," Xena muttered to herself as she pushed it down the hall.
A couple hundred feet from the elevator the passage took a left turn, ending in a wider rectangular space. Xena was now under the north apse, and on the floors above there were great altars. Here on the lowest level of the building there was a block of marble set onto a platform, but it was plain, without carving or letters. Perhaps it was to be a chapel, as yet undedicated, the block-like altar awaiting the hands of a stone carver to give it identity. Xena studied the plain surface; the block appeared solid on three sides, and showed a faint seam on the side nearest the north wall. The seam ran from the platform up each end, and crossed the block 4 inches below its top surface. In the center of this northern face there was a single motif carved in low relief a raised, equal armed cross, inside a thick ring carved deeper than the area inside it. Something was very familiar about that ring; Xena traced it with her fingers, and spread her hand across it, tried to wrap her fingers around the negative form. Her chakram! By the gods! The circle was so close in size to that familiar ring that she knew she could set it into that carved hollow and it would fit snug.
Xena felt her excitement growing. She ran back to the crate, and with the wrecking bar lifted the lid. She retrieved all her weapons, and the notebook, and set them on top of the block. Then she held the chakram, and placed it carefully into the carved circle, and it was a perfect fit; though smooth to insert, it was so snug that it stayed in place with no play. The surface of the chakram was flush with the surface of the stone. Xena stroked her palm over it, marveling at the perfection, and in doing so touched the cross. It gave under her hand. At first she thought it was illusion, so she pushed against it harder, and it sank into the surface deeper than the stone within the chakram. There was a click and a soft rush of air, and a large panel in the north wall behind her shifted out 2 inches.
Xena turned to face it, rose to her feet and stepped over to the panel. She felt along the now protruding edge and found a deep groove. Slipping her fingers into the groove she braced herself and pulled. The panel, which must have weighed hundreds of pounds, swung silently out from the wall, revealing a room within. It was a simple chamber, lined with the same marble as the passage. It had no windows or openings that she could see. In the center of the floor was a low platform, like the one under the block in the passage. Without a doubt it was a resting place perfect for the Ark.
As Xena rolled the crate containing the Ark into the hidden chamber, she couldn't help but think that things were going too smoothly. At every step of the way her needs had been answered for the fulfillment of her mission.
"I'm missing something," Xena said to herself, "there must be more to this, or God never would have needed me. The only time this job required a warrior was when I had to fight the thieves at the warehouse, and Gabrielle could have taken them. Though she probably wouldn't have slaughtered them the way I did."
That thought made her stop. Had she needed to kill them? Especially Sadam who had finally said he'd talk? And what about the driver she could have knocked him out and tied him up. At the time she hadn't even thought about her actions, and that alone was odd. She was always weighing the consequences of what she did. After meeting Gabrielle she'd tried to spare lives when she could. Initially this was simply because Gabrielle was squeamish, later because Gabrielle valued lives, and finally because she'd been convinced unnecessary bloodshed was wrong. But in the warehouse, her actions had been dictated by ruthless efficiency and an economy of movement, and there had been the sensation of avenging sin against God very judgmental, very unforgiving. Xena knew that she'd have to think about this when she had more time. She'd already seen the results of the excesses of self-righteous crusaders.
Xena moved the crate next to the platform, and began uncrating the Ark. After twenty minutes she had the Ark resting on the platform. The platform truck sat in the corner with the disassembled crate on top. Her weapons and the notebook lay just inside the door. She took a last look around, and pocketed a dagger. Taking the notes with her, she left the room and pushed the door closed. Behind her, the chakram popped out of the block and hit the floor. Xena retrieved the chakram, and tucked it into the notebook. Again she felt there was something awry. She took the chakram back out and examined it. It was her old chakram, a plain ring, not the combined chakram of two pieces joined as one. Why this, Xena asked herself, and again she felt there was more going on than she comprehended. Having no answer, she turned and retraced her path to the elevator, and took it back up to the service entrance. Soon she was outdoors under the night sky and headed for the van. By her reckoning there was still perhaps an hour and a half before daybreak.
What was on Xena's mind in the failing night was food and drink. After that, she needed clothing more appropriate, and less filthy. She could smell the coveralls before she'd worn them. After fighting and working in them all night she knew an enemy could have smelled her coming. Finally, she'd need someplace to stay, someplace close by where she could keep an eye on the Ark and a lookout for its enemies.
She'd reached the van and started to get in when she heard the sounds of fighting across the parking lot. Her sharp ears guided her eyes to the shadows under some trees where there were figures moving in the quick dance of combat. Snatching the chakram from inside the notebook, and freeing the dagger she ran towards the battle. As she'd first suspected, it was an unequal fight; four against one, and unless she was mistaken, the one was a woman. Though she wore robes, her movements and slender physique told Xena that this was a woman fighting for her life against four larger men. The thing was, as Xena got closer, she realized that the woman was holding her own. Already one of the men was down, and recovering only slowly. A second was stopped dead by a heavy palm strike, and sank to his knees. Now the first man was up again, and there was a glint of light reflected as he pulled a blade. When he charged at her she sidestepped him, and shoved him into the nearest of his partners, then she threw back her robe and drew what appeared to be a short straight sword. The sword reflected a gold light as the robed woman parried the blows and slashes of her attackers. However, Xena noticed that on several occasions when the opportunity presented itself, she didn't strike killing blows, preferring to strike with the flat of the blade against the extremities. She had disarmed one man, and had struck two others, but they continued to press the attack, maneuvering for position. And Xena could tell the woman was tiring.
Although she was closing on the fight quickly, the men had managed to gain the advantage. They had positioned themselves, two in front of the woman, one behind, and one to her weaker left side. They were ready to strike together, and two of them still had blades. Xena knew she couldn't reach them in time. As the man to the left pushed the attack, and the first man in front closed in, Xena flung her chakram. It struck the man behind the woman on the temple, knocking him out, and rebounding, disarmed and paralyzed the arm of the man on the left. In the next second, as Xena caught the returning chakram, the woman slammed the short sword across the cheek of one of the men in front of her while landing a powerful front kick in the stomach of the other. Both went down. Xena knocked out the man with the paralyzed arm as she joined the woman, who turned toward her in a defensive stance, eyeing her warily.
"Wait, I'm not here to attack you," Xena said to her, "I saw you fighting and came to help."
Slowly the woman seemed to relax, lowering her weapon, but maintaining her guard.
"Who are you, and what is that weapon?" she asked, indicating the chakram. Still appraising Xena in her stinking coveralls, "you aren't a member of any sisterhood what are you doing here?"
"I would ask you the same question. Why is a Holy Sister bearing weapons and fighting in the first place? And who are these men who would attack a nun?" Xena replied.
For a moment they stood silent taking each other's measure. Finally the nun glanced at the men who were beginning to move again.
"With God's grace and your assistance these servants of Satan have been defeated, but soon they will arise, and if we are here they will attack again. Come with me and we can talk. I feel God's grace upon you, and I don't think this will be a quick conversation."
"Being servants of Satan, shouldn't we kill them now?" Xena asked, her warrior's blood heated, both by the conflict itself, and by the idea that the men would have killed the nun, "It would leave fewer enemies at our backs, and remove a threat to you."
"I will not kill them while they are helpless," said the nun, looking Xena in the eyes, "doing so will not measurably decrease the threat, for they are many, yet the blood would be on my hands, and there is the chance that even one of them may repent."
"Ok," Xena said shrugging, not wanting to appear as intrigued as she was with the fighting nun, she gestured, "lead the way sister."
After Xena returned to lock the van and retrieve the notebook, they made their way to a residence hall on the campus of Trinity College, across Michigan Ave. from the Shrine. After unlocking the door to her rooms the nun beckoned Xena to enter.
Unlike the austere cells of the holy orders of the past, the nun's apartment was comfortable. Though not ostentatious by any means it, was furnished with sofa, chairs, coffee table, and lamps in the living room, a desk and chairs in the study, and a single bed, and simple chest in the bedroom. In the living room there was a small tv, while the study boasted a computer and a telephone. There was a bathroom, but no kitchen.
Xena sat on the sofa, and the nun took an armchair across the coffee table from her. In the room light Xena could appraise the nun's appearance more closely; perhaps 5'4", with an athletic build, robed in black, her head wrapped in a snug black habit reminiscent of a turban. The nun appeared to be in her late twenties. She was fair of skin, and blue eyed, with a pointed nose and chin, and angular cheekbones. Her mouth curved up slightly at the corners, even at rest. Xena guessed she'd be platinum blond.
They regarded each other for a few moments, and then both began to speak at once.
"I am a Sister of the Order of St. Gabrielle " the nun said.
"It's sort of a long story, and you'll find it difficult to believe " Xena began with, at the same time.
They both stopped mid-sentence and smiled at each other like school girls. Xena hadn't realized how tense she'd been since she'd awakened in the crate. The last time she'd laughed was when she'd been reminiscing with Gabrielle in the Elysian Fields, before Michael had shown up. And speaking of Michael, did she dare speak of Michael? How on earth was she going to explain her story to this nun, and how much should she tell her.
Somehow she knew she couldn't lie to her. She didnt think she'd fool her anyway. The problem would be convincing her of the truth. Xena decided to let her speak first.
The nun seemed to arrive at the same conclusion, for after becoming serious again she resumed speaking.
"I am Sister Melissa of the Holy Order of St. Gabrielle, and we were for centuries attached to the Knights Templar. But in truth we predate them, tracing our origins back to the first century. Though it is regarded within the church as myth, we believe that the first sisters were inspired by the original St. Gabrielle, a Greek Christian who defended the prophet Eli at the time of his death, and who was the first Defender of the Faith. The Knights Templar was dissolved by Papal decree in 1312, but persisted in secret, and still exists outside the church. Today there are very few, of the knights, or our order remaining crusaders are unpopular, being politically incorrect in this age of misplaced tolerance. Most of the sisters are clerical or administrative. Since the earliest beginnings of the church, there has been a need for defenders of the faith, and although few take this calling seriously nowadays, yet the need is greater now than it has been for a long, long time. There is great evil arising in the world today mythic evil in fact, though it is not common knowledge." she paused, and calmed herself before continuing, "Though many in the church disagree, I feel we should have been recruiting for many years. But alas, this has not been done, and our ranks are badly depleted."
"How many of you are there," Xena asked, thinking that such people could become valuable allies, "that is, sisters and knights who can actually fight?"
"Of the knights there are only eleven who are actually combat capable," again the nun paused, and a sad smile crept across her face, quickly hardening into resolve, "of the sisters, I am the only one left."
With this the nun lapsed into silence, as if thinking of another place or time, but finally she seemed to shake herself back to the present. She smiled at Xena, almost as if she were amused.
"So tell me, what about your story will I find so difficult to believe?" Melissa asked.
"Well, its more like, what about my story will you believe at all," Xena replied, "the story is about two thousand years long, and I wouldn't believe it myself are you sure you wouldn't prefer a comfortable lie instead?"
"I just love a good story," declared Melissa as she leaned back in her chair, "but it sounds like a long story, and maybe you'd like to get comfortable first. If you'd like to wash up you can use my shower, and I'm just guessing, but I'll bet you don't have any other clothes. I think I can come up with something from the charity collections that you can trade those coveralls for."
Xena's jaw dropped. Somehow this nun could see right through her. Maybe she'll believe some of my story too, Xena thought, or at least she won't think I'm a raving lunatic.
When Xena had come out of the shower wrapped in a towel, she'd found an old sweatshirt, a pair of black jeans, and some running shoes with a few miles still left in them. She changed and joined Sister Melissa in the living room, where the nun was reading Janice Covington's notebook, and presiding over a tray with coffee and fried chicken. Xena's stomach grumbled the same way she remembered Gabrielle's did so many times in the old days, and the memory brought a smile to her lips.
"You smell much better," said the nun, "and you sound hungry. Now eat, and tell me your story."
So over Popeye's fried chicken, with french fries and rolls, and large cups of coffee, Xena related the story you've already read. And although Melissa thought she might be a raving lunatic, still there were details that rang true, and neither of them found the situation too strange. But rather the nun was absorbed into the tale in which she found her order had a place, for it was the origin of their story. And the hours passed unnoticed as Xena related all that had happened, and it lost little in the telling, for it captured her imagination.
"Ok Xena, I'll do what I can to help you safeguard the Ark," Melissa said, and she sighed, for they'd been up all night without sleep.
Xena looked at Melissa with drooping eyelids and reddened eyes. She looked at the chicken bones piled up, and the rubbery leftover fries, and smiled.
"Well that's just what I hoped you'd say Melissa."
And she reached for the cup with the last of her coffee, and poured half into her new friends' empty cup.
"I guess the only thing to do is finish this coffee."
His work had been slow, but he had patience. Time was on his side, because the humans lived such short lives, and what one generation learned tended to be the focus of rebellion for the next. He figured about 75% of the accumulated knowledge of a society was lost having to be relearned through pain and sorrow. Some lessons simply never sank in. There were tactics that he used which hadnt changed since the beginning, and they could be counted on almost without fail. Appeals to human greed were one, desire for power was another. In every age, they had been his most reliable methods of bending human behavior to his will. Over the centuries, as society had become more integrated and more complex, his strategies had become ever more subtle. On the personal level, the tactics were the same on a social level, his strategies were increasingly obscure.
In the beginning, he had only to appear to a person to scare them into doing his bidding. It still worked sometimes, and always left him in hysterics. Later, he'd added threat and finally bribery to his repertoire. Along the way he'd fostered rationality, culminating in science, to divorce mankind from spirituality. At the time when rationality had become accepted, he'd stopped appearing, except in rare instances. Nobody believed in him any more, and his appearance tended to result in madness. Now he worked through ethereal channels an idea that seemed to come to a person spontaneously, or as a logical conclusion from examples, which he made sure were tainted. Always these inspirations were in accord with the natural tendencies of the humans. Abetted by the rise of technology, which tended to separate people from reality, he had created a ubiquitous web of false values and hopes. These were eagerly embraced by the public in a way never before seem. It was succeeding beautifully.
The expectations of modern mankind now included freedom from want, struggle, and responsibility. Whereas once humans were willing to do anything for liberty and free choice, now they chose freely to give up self-determination for the sake of security. Two beliefs in particular he had promoted, and the resulting vicious cycle was his greatest source of pride. First, people now demanded that childhood, (once a time of testing), become a time of coddled nurture; second, the abdication of personal responsibility in favor of a continued parentage at the hands of the government. Children were the subjects of a fanfare of litigation. Not only the unhealthy were protected, but also the lazy, the criminal, and the deficient. As a result, the tyranny of childhood was invoked to justify all manner of greed, avarice, and malice, through tort and legislation. It became a sacred cow of politics, eagerly supported by an increasingly herd-like public. Having been protected throughout their childhood, the resulting adults remained dependent, demanding increasing numbers of laws, for safety. Children didn't even develop the natural immunity in their bodies, becoming prey to infections and allergies that God's design would have defeated with ease.
The rise to power of the doctors, (Ph.D. as well as M.D.), and the lawyers mirrored the supremacy enjoyed by the priests and scribes, back when he'd succeed in arranging the death of that perfect victim, Jesus. Once again, people deferred to authority, and abandoned self-reliance, and so were ripe to be led over a cliff. (He still laughed at the belief people held that they couldn't speak to God without a clergy "always call a specialist").
At the start of the 21st century, he maintained two armies. The low and the high, and both were useful for his plans. There was the hodge-podge of disaffected souls who identified themselves as Satanists. These ranged from the fanciful, (and somewhat cynical), posers who adopted Satanism as a lifestyle, to the fanatical cultists who sometimes sacrificed a baby, or a virgin. They were useful as a diversion, and a focus for social outrage. Much more valuable were the elite. Those captains of industry, science, and government, who by following their baser and self-serving instincts served him unknowingly. Most didn't believe in him, and would have denied his existence as an archaic fairy tail of moribund religion. They were the ones who corrupted the masses, filling their heads with avarice and fantasy. They were the ones who acted to concentrate power in their own hands. Already the ethics of the American Empire had been subverted. Politics had nothing to do with representation, and all to do with the extension of his will, through the influence of the elite. It had been many decades since a politician had been elected who was not the pawn of one interest or another, most choosing to ally themselves with as many interests as possible.
His contemplation was interrupted by the approach of one of the servants, a type assigned to watch and report on events in the world. This servant was one of many who, though fair of countenance, were rotten and black within from their consuming passion for gossip.
"It is with heartfelt regret that I must report the failure of Sadam and Gamel to secure the Ark, my master," the talking head pronounced in an oily manner, "they were thwarted and killed by a righteous warrior."
"A righteous warrior, slave?" he asked, glaring at the reporter, "and how was this possible?"
"Yes, my master," the reporter replied, with his annoying camera-ready smile, "an ancient warrior, returned from the dead by the Almighty Lord God."
"Don't call him that, weasel, it goes to his head." he said quietly, "So he is recycling his talent. Whom has he chosen to afflict us with, slave?"
"My master, it is none other than the first Defender of the Faith, Xena the Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations, the Lioness of Amphipolis, Conqueror of "
"SILENCE!!!" he roared, partially melting the slave with his rage.
He rose from his throne, and paced to calm himself, and when he felt composed he reconstituted the talking head from its meltdown.
"Did she know of the Ark, slave? Does it remain in the warehouse?" he asked, and thinking further, "Where is Xena now?"
The reporter edged over nearer a column, hoping to take refuge behind it, for all his news was bad, and he knew his master's temper. (Dodging was a skill learned the hard way, as he had been killed during an interview when the guest hit him in the face with a chair).
"Well slave, what do you have to say? Answer my questions, I command you."
"Merciful master, Xena was sent by the Almighty uhhh, the big guy, to safeguard the Ark. She has taken it from the warehouse to hallowed ground where your servants cannot see it," he fled behind the column as he said this.
Both the column and the reporter melted into a puddle.
"I also asked you, my melted slave, where is she now?" his voice soft and menacing.
"She has been befriended by a nun, my master," the puddle gurgled, "she rescued the nun who was to be exterminated, she being the last of the Order of St. Gabrielle."
"I don't believe this. How can this be happening?" he asked rhetorically.
"She has revealed her identity to the nun, master. The righteous will rally around her," the puddle predicted.
"I will, in my mercy, reconstitute you," he said to the reporter, "watch for the gathering of the defenders of the faith, slave."
"Thank you, thank you master," the reporter said, as he reappeared, "but master, could you separate me from the column. I can't perform at my best for you bent over this way."
But he was already walking away, deep in thought and ignoring the slave, who crouched with a large column protruding and dragging behind him.
On Sunday the sky was the high clear blue of the best days on earth. A few fluffy clouds sailed placidly across the sky. A fine breeze blew, sometimes from the east, other times from the west. Students went about their business and their interactions with other people were benign.
Xena, with Sister Melissa sat talking on a bench on the campus of Trinity College. She glanced up just in time to see a cloud that looked like the skyline of the Amphipolis, and another that reminded her of the face of Gabrielle.
"When I was a little girl, it seemed like whatever I thought of, the clouds would shift into, as if to oblige my vision." Melissa said, as she noticed the direction of Xena's attention.
Xena looked at her, chagrined, and said, "I'm sorry, I guess I'm drifting."
"Xena, I would be lying if I told you that your presence didn't fill me with foreboding," Melissa said eyeing her new friend.
"Well, thanks for the clothes, I can take a hint, see ya around sister." Xena jested, with a wide beautiful smile that showed her genuine happiness, and her enjoyment of her companion.
Her smile was reflected by Sister Melissa's giggle, and Xena revised her estimate down to mid-twenties.
'I'm serious, Xena," Sister Melissa finally said, still smiling, "there is a prophecy which is part of the esoteric doctrine of the church, and comes from an Apocryphal gospel. It doesn't appear in the standard Bible, but is known by some theologians. It relates to the cyclical nature of the universe being the mechanism for the evolution of souls."
"I'm sorry Melissa," Xena said quietly, "I don't understand. All I know is that God asked me to safeguard the Ark. But having brought it to hallowed ground I'm not sure what else I'm expected to do."
"Xena, the esoteric doctrine states that the relationship between God and mankind goes through cycles, like the seasons of the year. It is summed up in the saying, "As Above So Below", meaning that what happens on one scale happens on all scales. Mankind has gone from innocence, to evil, to redemption through agreements, or covenants, with God, several times already." Sister Melissa explained, "After God flooded the world, He set the rainbow in the heavens as a sign of His agreement with Noah that He wouldn't flood the earth again. Later He sent the tablets of the law to Moses to establish His terms for His patronage of the Hebrews. Later still He sent the Christ, Jesus to create the agreement with mankind that those who accepted Him as Savior would be forgiven their sins. Each time a new agreement was made, man eventually strayed from the terms God set forth, and embraced sin, giving their souls to Satan."
"I guess I missed a lot fighting Ares and the other Olympians," Xena answered, "with them there was no pattern, they were always unpredictable they were bored, and we were their amusement."
"The members of the church who are familiar with the esoteric doctrine also believe in the prophecy which says that when enough of mankind has again fallen to evil, then a sign will be given reminding us of our earlier agreements. If this sign is ignored, then God will come in wrath and judgement, and the Apocalypse will be upon us." Melissa was silent for a time, but then she continued, "Yet if mankind accepts again the Covenant our ancestors made with God, then a new chance will be given, for God is merciful, and a new age can begin."
Xena sat digesting the Sister's words, and she felt faint, as though she was standing on a high cliff above crashing surf. She had the feeling of something immense looming before her that would change everything forever. She looked over at Melissa and knew that she felt it too.
"Sister, there has been evil in the world during all the time I have known it is it so much worse now than before," Xena asked.
"There is evil in the world such as there has never been. It isn't even the commission of crimes that tells us the fate of mankind hangs by a thread. It is the constant, everyday disregard for the welfare of people for each other, and the acceptance by all, that this is right. This is the evidence that mankind has turned from the belief in love that was Jesus Christ's message. This is the evidence that mankind has broken its covenant with God. "
"You spoke of a sign," Xena asked, "a reminder of the agreement made in the past "
"Xena, I now know you were the first Defender of the Faith, and you bring to us the Ark of the Covenant. What greater reminders could there ever be? Now do you understand why I feel such foreboding? Xena, I have never been so terrified in all my life."
Melissa looked lost, she looked as though her world was falling apart as she watched. She looked like she would die of a broken heart.
To Xena she looked like a teenager. Slowly, making sure that she wouldn't upset her even more, Xena slid across the bench next to the nun, and wrapped her arms around her, giving her a hug that tried to transmit all the strength the warrior could send to her new friend. After a few moments, Xena realized that Melissa was silently sobbing. She rested her chin on top of the sister's head the way she'd done so many times with Gabrielle, and it seemed to help.
"Xena, one by one my sisters have been killed. I saw some of them die, and there was nothing I could do to save them I have fought this battle since I entered the sisterhood at sixteen, when my family was killed, and I have tried so hard .."
That night, after Melissa was asleep in her room, Xena went back to the Shrine, down to the room where she'd hidden the Ark, and she got her sword.
The sky was still black when they were awakened by gunfire. It came as single reports, and it came as bursts. It was still some distance off, but as they got dressed, it continued, getting closer. Now they could hear yelling, and an occasional scream. There were the sounds of vehicles moving in the night. Someone was pounding on the door.
Melissa stood to one side of the door and drew the short sword Xena had seen her use that first night. It was double edged, mirror honed like a razor, but the metal was colored gold. At the hilt was a figure of the crucified Christ. Xena stood to the other side of the door, to be behind it as it opened, chakram in her left hand, in her right the long sword she had wielded for so many years. The blade battered, reflecting almost no light, but the edges so sharp they could split a hair. Melissa reached over and released the knob. The door slammed open.
Three men burst into the room calling Melissa's name. They were dressed in black BDUs, but on their chests and backs were embroidered red equal armed crosses. The only other insignia were the letters Kn.Tpr. on the sides of their collars. No names, no ranks. Though they had swords in scabbards on their backs, they carried small assault carbines fed from drum magazines, and auto pistols in shoulder holsters.
"Sister, the battle has begun, we come to escort you to the Shrine where we will fight from Holy Ground. The army of Satan is on the attack, and has invaded the campus," one of the knights said, "they seek something, or they wouldn't have attacked so openly."
Another added, "Many monks from the Franciscan Monastery have been slaughtered, though they have resisted well, still they are unarmed."
"Who is your friend behind the door?" asked the first knight who had entered, though he had never taken his eyes off Melissa.
"I can't explain it all right now, but this is Xena, Defender of the Faith it is the prophecy, she has brought the Ark of the Covenant." Melissa said quickly, to be greeted by silence.
Three pairs of eyes examined Xena as she came out from behind the door. They were obviously unimpressed. She had on the old sweatshirt, and the jeans, and sneakers. She looked like a girl jock grad student, but for the weapons and the fire in her eyes.
"You're the Knights Templar," it was a statement, not a question.
"We are three of them the remainder are nearby on the grounds retreating to the Shrine. They will provide suppressing fire to cover our movements as we leave this building."
"Ok guys, guess we ought to get going," Xena said, and she turned and led the way out the door.
"Melissa, where did you get her?" the first knight asked the sister as they followed Xena down the hall.
When they got to the lobby the leading knight shot out the ceiling lights. Inside the entrance to the building two of the knights flanked the doorway. One pulled night vision binoculars from a shoulder bag the three had been passing among them, and observed the grounds. In the red glow of a wrist light he made some hand signals to the other two. The third knight who was a few feet back with Melissa and Xena spoke softly into a headset, and then held up his fingers counting. On the count of 5 there was a bright flash from outside which they had anticipated and turned away from. The knights at the entrance slammed the doors open and raked the area with fire from the carbines, hitting anything that could be used for cover. On their flanks other fire erupted, directed at the same areas.
"Move! Move! Move!" yelled the last knight, pushing Xena and Melissa beside him out the door.
They ran in a crouch around the corner, and down the side of the building, then turned towards the Shrine across Michigan Ave., and sprinted as fast as they could. Two knights brought up the rear, and when Xena turned, she saw them firing at movement near the building they had just left. Figures were running towards them in the dark, some dropping or thrown by the impacts of the carbine rounds. Even on the run, the knights' aim was accurate. Although they were firing a lot of rounds, they were hitting with a very good percentage. Xena could see they were not just shooting blind or laying down suppressing fire. They were picking their targets and firing short bursts. By contrast, the return fire was sporadic, inconsistent, and poorly aimed. Unlike the knights they were not a trained paramilitary force.
As they reached the open area of the road, there was a whistling overhead and a series of devastating explosions behind them. All pursuing fire ceased. Xena thought she heard screams from behind, but her ears were ringing from the 37mm M-79 rifle grenades. They crossed the road unchallenged. Finally they reached the trees by the parking lot where Xena had first met Melissa. And suddenly there were another eight figures around them. They had just appeared from the shadows, or dropped out of the trees. All were dressed the same. With a few hand signs they spread out and trotted across the lot, through a garden, and up to the main façade of the Shrine. Xena counted again, and two of the knights were missing, then she spotted them in the garden, placing things in the soil, setting wires between the bushes, and spreading something on the path. While she had been watching the knights in the garden, two others had entered the great tower that flanked the facade. They were dragging a sack she hadn't noticed before. She saw them knock the glass out of the lowest window in the tower. They were doing something up there, and the knight with the headset was communicating with them. They stuck what looked to Xena like a bundle of steel rods out the window pointed at the garden, then attached a box with wires and an antenna onto the outside of the tower facing the façade. In a few more minutes they rejoined the others at the doors.
"The mini gun is placed," one reported, "test the com link."
Another knight was operating what looked like a joy stick from a computer game attached to a wireless phone. Suddenly there was a whirring, and Xena jumped as a low pitched belching of flames jumped from the window of the tower. Across the garden a fair sized tree toppled to the ground, its trunk splintered.
"Link nominal." the knight with the joystick reported, strapping it to his belt.
"What the hell was that?" Xena asked.
"7.62mm M134 mini gun with wireless controller," a knight offered, "there are now 6,000 rounds in the tower, and the gun can fire 2,000 per minute."
In her time, a good archer might have emptied a quiver of twelve arrows, with accuracy, in about a minute. Xena estimated that perhaps 15 minutes had elapsed since they'd left Melissa's building. None of their company was even wounded, and she knew the enemy had suffered many casualties. Now the knights had booby-trapped the garden. As she watched, two groups of four moved out to flank the façade. It was an old strategy she'd used herself. They would assault the advancing enemy from the sides, driving them into the killing ground of the garden. There, the traps, and that fearsome gun in the tower would decimate them.
But there were so few of them to defend the Shrine and the Ark. If I had just 50 of these knights I could have conquered Greece, Xena thought. My god, how battle has changed.
Next to her the knight with the headset was speaking to the others, and as Xena overheard him, she realized he was offering a prayer.
" from Whom all blessings flow, to Whom all praise is due, we pledge our love, our lives, our fortunes, and our very souls, in defense of the Church and the faithful, in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ. Amen."
And the enemy came. Xena saw them crossing the road, and her quick eyes estimated that no less than 150 opposed them. In the streetlights she could see they were a motley collection of irregulars, various militiamen, armed civilians, and soldiers who had probably deserted. They didn't appear to have any comprehensive leadership or organization. Xena judged they were little more than a gun-waving mob, united only in their allegiance to the devil. Cries of, "Hail Satan", and "Defile the Ark", rang in the night. A couple vehicles accompanied them, pulling into the parking lot. They seemed to slow when they entered the grounds of the Shrine, as though they felt resistance on hallowed ground. Yet they advanced on either side of the garden, and through it as well. As they were encountering no opposition they came heedless, not seeking cover.
Almost all the enemy troops had crossed onto the grounds of the Shrine when the knights opened fire from their flanking positions. They fired prone, from the cover of bushes, moving at intervals for better targeting, and to give the impression of a larger force. As before, their firing was controlled and precise, and the effects were devastating. Increasing numbers of enemy casualties littered the ground. The remainder moved instinctively away from the knights, closer to the garden, without realizing that they were being driven. The evidence of their lack of leadership showed, as no one sent out sorties against the knights' positions. No one organized suppressing fire against them either. Xena saw that the knights were choosing their targets, and firing at will, moving for better position, or pausing to change magazines.
By her estimation, almost a third of the enemy force was killed or wounded during the first few minutes of the battle. Xena felt a warlord's contempt for these enemies who, without leadership or skill, were relying on their numbers alone to be a threat. She saw they were being restricted more and more closely to the garden, when the first trap went off.
There was a thump that Xena felt through the ground. She looked in time to see the movement of something jump out of the soil. In a heartbeat, it exploded at head level. There was a minimal flash, and the whizzing of shrapnel could be heard in the air. Around the spot where the explosion had occurred there was a circle of dead and maimed bodies. Xena could hear some of them screaming. The pop-up mine caused panic among the other troops nearby, and one must have tripped a wire in his flight. Slightly to the left, Xena saw an explosion, directed sideways from some bushes, at waist level. Again shrapnel cut the air, and more bodies fell. Now there was pandemonium in the garden. In quick succession she counted two more pop-up, and two more claymore mines detonating. Also, there seemed to be something burning on the paths, sticking to the legs and feet of any who walked there.
The knight with the headset was speaking to the flanking knights again, and Xena heard him giving commands.
" concentrate fire to keep them in the garden area, then withdraw to the Shrine."
Xena saw the knights on each side rise to their feet, raking the enemy's flanks with constant fire from their carbines. One after another they replaced magazines, never two simultaneously. Then, on each side one knight began firing 37mm M-79 grenades into the periphery of the garden. The blasts shook the air. As the knights began replacing magazines for the second time, they started to withdraw back to the façade. Their retreat covered by carbine fire from the knights who had launched the grenades. They moved quickly, never in a straight line, and never close together.
Xena saw the knight with the headset had his open hand raised, fingers pointing up. When the retreating knights were about fifty feet away he closed his fist. Again the gun in the tower window roared. Flames jumped from the spinning barrels of the mini-gun. The knight with the joy stick held his finger on the trigger button, and swung the gun in an arc, from one side of the garden to the other. She had never seen anything like it. In the garden, trees, bushes, and even the soil leaped in a chaotic dance. Chunks of pavement and bodies flipped into the air. The path of the impacting bullets could clearly be seen advancing back and forth. It seemed to go on and on, yet it was over in minutes. As an afterthought, the knight directed fire on the two vehicles in the parking lot. Xena saw them drop slightly and then explode. In the tower the flames stopped, and there was only the whir of the spinning barrels. The knight released the button.
In the garden there was silence. On the grounds, only the litter of enemy dead and wounded. Less than half a dozen of them rose from hiding, to flee back across the road. In a twelve-minute battle they had killed or wounded probably 145 enemy troops. And just nine of the knights had actually fired on them. Again, none of the knights were wounded. To Xena the outcome was a result of superior weapons, tactics, and leadership. Yet as she watched, the knights put down their weapons, and knelt facing the Shrine. With their heads bowed, they joined their leader giving thanks.
"Praise be unto thee O Lord, for by Thy grace we are victorious."
The slave approached his master, still dragging the column behind him. He was getting used to it there. In fact, there was an element of stimulation to it that he found not wholly unpleasant. It seemed to reinforce his sense of servitude, and that increased his sense of security.
"I have news, my master," he spoke in his most subservient tone, trying to look up.
"Speak slave, I command you," he said, looking down from his throne.
"Master, a company of the low army has been defeated at the Shrine. The righteous have gathered there to defend the Ark, Xena is with them, and the nun as well."
"That's not unexpected," he mused, "they have never been much for combat, but as a diversion they have just sufficient ability to play their part."
"But master, the righteous are victorious," the slave responded, feigning concern, "they retain the Ark, and their lives."
"Well, I'm sure we can fix that," he said, "the low army was decimated, for the sake of expending the knights' supply of weapons. Now the real assault can begin, and what good are a few bullets against despair?"
In the night, throughout the city, but closing on the Shrine, came the sounds of many sirens. Xena turned from the façade and scanned the sky. The thumping she'd detected came from helicopters approaching, sweeping the ground with powerful searchlights. Well, here they come again, she thought.
Xena, Sister Melissa, and the Knights Templar stood watching the approach of the police. It seemed like all the police in the city were arriving.
"Well, now what?" Xena asked the group.
"Lets go into the Shrine," Melissa said, "I believe the police will be preoccupied with the dead for some time. This battle can't be over yet. The devil wouldn't give up so easily."
"Satan will never give up his desire for the Ark," said the knight with the headset, "he has desired it since its creation, for it once housed God, and perhaps it could contain him again as a cell."
"Ok," Xena said, shrugging her shoulders, then with a smile, "lead the way, sister."
"Xena, that battle was only a test," Melissa said, looking at her friend, "this is the most serious conflict there has ever been. We'll be lucky to survive this night."
"I've heard that before," Xena muttered as she followed them into the Shrine.
Inside the Great Upper Church the space seemed to soar. Xena had known it was big, but the size and beauty of the church took her breath it was majestic. Behind them the huge relief, The Universal Call to Holiness, surmounted the entrance. Light from outside fell through the stained glass windows, weaving patterns of color in the shadows. In the low light the space looked even larger. It was cool and silent. She looked down almost 400 feet of the nave towards the high altar near the north apse. At the transept there stood a company of demons.
The two groups stared at each other for what seemed like forever. The demons opening and closing their clawed hands, vapors coming from their nostrils, bulging eyes blinking. The knights were dropping their guns and drawing their swords. The blades were double edged, black, and inlayed along their sides with letters in gold. In Hebrew characters they read "KhaMaEl" on one side, on the other "ElOHim GeBoR". Melissa had drawn her sword as well, and now Xena saw traceries inlaid in the blade that seemed to burn in a red fire it was an occult weapon. Xena drew her sword and took the chakram in her left hand. The knights began to advance towards the demons.
"Let righteousness fill your heart Xena, these creatures are entirely evil, and the strength and goodness we project is as deadly a weapon against them as these swords," Melissa whispered to Xena as they walked down the nave, "you must have faith in God."
"Don't worry sister," Xena replied softly, the menace in her voice making Melissa look at her, "I've killed things that weren't human before they all die the same."
"Xena, this may be different," Melissa said, "they will feed on your hate, becoming more deadly. Think only of your love and devotion to God, for they are weakened at the mention of His name."
Just like Indrijit, Xena thought to herself, hope I don't have to become Kali again.
Returning from her memories, Xena realized the knights and the sister had formed into four rows of three with Melissa in the center of the first row. They were chanting together. Xena listened, but some of it didn't make any sense strange words, and stranger names.
"Ateh, Malkuth, Ve Geburah, Ve Gedulah, Le Orlam, Amen. From Atziluth unto Assiah, beseech we thou, Elohim Gebor, command thine archangel Khamael, to marshal thine Holy Seraphim. Smite these servants of accursed Samael, preserveth Thine Holy Rule, thru we thy servants, Amen."
Xena brought up the rear. Her vision had become strange, and she shook her head trying to clear her eyes. Although the demons hadn't changed, her allies had. Melissa and the knights were a vision from some past age. No longer in modern battle dress uniforms, the knights wore belted robes of white, the red crosses emblazoned front and back. They wore helms of burnished steel, with chain mail hanging to their shoulders. Armored boots and gauntlets, mailed sleeves, and shin guards of overlapping plates; they were enchanted by the spell they'd spoken, as though walking down the aisle was walking down the centuries. And Melissa. She was double-robed and hooded in black, her hands and face were porcelain white, the short sword had become a plain white rod. Xena could just discern, as through haze or fog, the apparition of a war chariot, bearing the figure of a warrior king, crowned and armed, following behind. She looked past the demons, up to the high altar. Coiled over the communion rail was a huge black serpent with human eyes, and her heart faltered behind him the Ark slowly appeared.
The forces clashed at the transept where the arms of the church crossed the nave. Xena heard the sounds of a great battle from ancient times; battle cries and the clash of weapons, trumpet blasts and the call of a ram's horn. The knights and the demons were fighting, sword against claw, and they seemed to be evenly matched, being servants of God and Satan of equal orders. But Melissa was moving to challenge the serpent, and Xena knew this was not good, even though it looked as though the chariot was following her.
" I will do what I can to protect the Ark. For Eve's sake " her words to Michael in the Elysian Fields came back to her, and drove her into motion. She ran past the battle in the transept, hurrying to Melissa's side. In a single motion she flung the chakram at the snake and saw it bounce away. It rebounded in the apse, ricocheted off the Ark in a flash of light, and returned. Xena snatched it out of the air, and heard the serpent laughing.
"Well met Defender of the Faith," the voice was low and laced with cruelty, "No earthly weapon can harm even one of my scales, for I was, before all that is, one of the chosen of God himself."
"It shall not be through force of arms that Satan can be defeated," said Melissa, turning to face her, "the only weapon he fears is a pure heart."
"I fear nothing," replied the serpent, with too much conviction.
Both Xena and Melissa heard the lie. As Melissa held up the rod, the snake bared its fangs. Brightness projected from the sword held by the warrior in the chariot, focused through Melissa's body, and stabbed forward at the serpent. The serpent opened its mouth, baring its fangs, releasing a black light, which met and balanced the bright. As Xena watched, the balance point moved back and forth in space between the adversaries, yet Xena could see that slowly, the point was being driven closer to Melissa. Xena snuck a glance back to the battle in the transept, and to her horror saw demons feeding on the bodies of several of the knights. Eight of the original eleven were still fighting, but as she watched another knight was overpowered and fell, two demons bending over his body, tearing with their claws. And it just got worse. As Xena watched, the serpent raised what should have been its tail, and there was another head, identical to the first. It eyed her with amused malevolence, and swung toward the Ark.
"So, it is here. God taunts me with the prize."
Xena vaulted the rail, flipping through the air over the serpent's coil, to land before the Ark. The second head struck at her, and she parried its fangs with her sword. When she struck back, it dodged her blows with speed too great for something so large. Back and forth they fought, neither able to inflict a wound. Xena hoped Melissa and the knights could turn the tide of battle before she tired and fell. She hoped she could keep Satan from the Ark. Yet as they fought, the serpent also spoke to her, and truly despair was one of its chief weapons.
"Know Xena, the knights were ever outnumbered, for my demons are beyond count, and when one is struck down, so another shall appear. I limit them thus to allow them room to fight, and of course seeing enemy dead constantly replaced must make the knights feel a certain hopelessness, don't you think?" and the serpent chuckled.
"Your little friend Melissa is aging with the strain of focusing the power of Geburah. Do you see? She is already decades older. I need only outlast her to be victorious." the serpent said grinning.
Xena looked, and it was true. She could see Melissa had the face of a fifty year old woman, and her hand trembled slightly holding the rod. Xena remembered how young and vulnerable she'd seemed Sunday on the bench, and how she'd given her food, shelter, and clothing the first night they'd met. She had such a good heart, yet such courage and resolve. Truly she was a modern hero, and Xena had come to care about her. Of the knights, now only five remained. She remembered how disciplined and skilled they were in battle. As a warrior, she had come to respect them, and she was impressed by their devotion. She would have been proud to command such troops, and she felt they shouldn't die in such a hopeless fight.
"Xena, I would spare them all for your capitulation. Leave the Ark to me, and I will take it and withdraw. I do not need their deaths." he eyed Xena speculatively, "you fight well Xena, I would even see you join me. You could become mighty among the powers on the earth, no mere warlord, but truly a queen."
Once upon a time it had been her biggest dream, to become Xena the Conqueror, so no one would ever dare to attack her Amphipolis again. Even now she felt the siren call of power, but she had come to reject all that. Two thousand years ago she had disbanded her army, and with the help of Hercules, and the love of Gabrielle, she had outgrown the need for dominance. Now she could see his offer was no different than what Ares had offered centuries ago. And she trusted this serpent even less.
"What's the big deal with the Ark, anyway?" Xena asked the serpent, trying to distract him if possible, and discern his plan.
"The Ark was once a home to God, when he appeared in the tabernacle of the ancient Hebrews," the serpent replied, "it could become his home again, for a part of him still dwells there."
"Yeah, and you'd like to trap him there," Xena shot back, the knight's earlier suspicion confirmed, "well, not a chance."
"Oh yes, it shall be as I will, Xena." the serpent gloated, "He can be called to the Ark, just as the Hebrews once did, and once I have trapped him there I shall have dominion over the earth."
"You talk too much." Xena chided as she struck at the serpent's eyes, causing him to rear back, "and I've heard enough."
"Xena, not only shall I rule the earth. I already rule in hell, and by default I shall rule in heaven as well." he just couldn't resist taunting her, "I'll have your Elysian Fields and all your little friends to do my bidding, or even to torment for my amusement."
"When hell freezes over!" Xena yelled, and she swung the sword as a diversion so she could fling the chakram. From only four feet away it slammed into his snout, and to her surprise it split in half. It was her new chakram, the dark and the light combined. The halves flew out into the church, crossed each other and returned, embedding themselves in the back of the serpent's head. He reared up, and shook them out. They clattered on the floor.
"Well, I guess that's a no. Xena, you always let needy losers pick your battles for you," the serpent's contempt was palpable, "you died as First Defender of the Faith, now you will die its Last Defender as well."
The serpent struck with blinding speed and irresistible force. Even as her sword pierced it's skull and the blade broke, the fangs slammed into her chest, pinning her to the floor. There was a hiss, and the second head swung around to eye her. Xena saw the crumpled form in Melissa's robes, from which a skeletal hand still gripped a white rod. In the transept, the demons were fighting over the body of the last knight. Xena felt the terrible pain in her chest as the serpent ground its fangs in her body. She was wet with her own blood, and feeling faint. Pain, and failure, and terrible loss.
"Xena," the serpent whispered, its other head as close as a lover, "capitulate to me, surrender your faith, and I will restore you all."
As Xena sank into darkness, she realized something. He couldn't take the Ark. It had to be given. Just as people gave their souls by falling to temptation, so too the covenant had to be willingly forsaken. Even so, to bring back Melissa, and the knights, to ensure the safety of the Elysian Fields, to regain her own life a voice whispered in her ear, "You are not forsaken, for there are those who love you still." And she heard herself on a sunny day saying, "I will trust in your God, like daughter, like mother I'll see you again, even if the world ends first."
With the last breath of her earthly body Xena whispered, "Lord God, into your hands I commend my spirit." And then there was nothing.
She looks older than ninety, the young nurse thought. Some days I can't believe that she's still with us. Ever since she'd started working at the nursing home in Chapel Hill, this elderly woman had been one of her favorites. She'd come to them after a stroke had impaired her mobility, but her mind was still sharp. Over the last couple years, Melissa Chambers LPN, had spent many hours talking with her. She had the dignity of the older generation that Melissa found charming, rather than stuffy, and she told the best stories. They reminded her of the tales her grandmother had told about her own life, after she'd taken Melissa in and raised her, following the car wreck that had killed her parents. At sixteen, Melissa had started to learn the trade of a care giver, for in the next years her grandmother's health had begun to decline. Melissa shook off the memories, and greeted her patient.
"Good afternoon Ms. Pappas, I have your lunch." She smiled conspiratorially as she uncovered the tray and set it down next to the bed. "This is sooooo bad for you."
"Honey, at my age there are things more important than worrying one's health like a raccoon with a fish," Melinda Pappas said. The fried chicken once a week was a tradition even her doctor knew and disapproved of.
"How are you feeling today, ma'am?" Melissa asked, with genuine concern.
"Why I feel like things are fresh, like the world has a new start, another chance," she replied smiling, her eyes faded, but still blue, "I just wish Janice was here, it's a day that should be remembered forever."
The sky was the high clear blue of the best days on earth. A few fluffy clouds sailed placidly across the space between majestic mountains in the distance. Mountains no one felt interested in climbing. They were just nice to look at, and the truth was that if you rode towards them they never got any closer. A fine breeze blew, sometimes from the east, sometimes from the west.
Xena sat up, and saw she was in a very high meadow. Below her, on the slopes, clouds mirrored those in the sky above. There was a multitude gathered around her, and she realized she had been lying on an altar of white crystal. She was robed in white, and she felt wonderful. As she rose from the slab, the multitude turned toward her and they were smiling. There were the knights, and there was Melissa, all in robes of white. Next to them was her old friend, the archangel Michael, with his armor and sword. Behind him were other archangels, one with a chalice, another with a disc shaped shield, and a fourth with a wand tipped with crystals that flashed in the sun. Michael joined her, and helped her off the altar.
"Hail Xena, First and Last Defender of the Faith. You have made good on your promise and no one could have done better." He looked at her with eyes twinkling, his smile showing with the joy inside him, "We are so proud of you, Warrior."
"Xena, did I not tell you that it is not through force of arms, but rather by the power of faith that Satan would be defeated?" Melissa said as she joined them. Then she hugged Xena, and looking up at her, kissed her like a real sister, "By the grace of God you are victorious!"
"I'm a little confused," Xena admitted to her, "last I remember I realized I'd have to give Satan the Ark if it was to do him any good. But I was dying he killed me."
"At the moment of greatest jeopardy, you refused his temptations Xena you beat him." Melissa said, her eyes sparkling with admiration.
"Xena, if you're ready there are still a few details to take care of," Michael said, "but I think you'll like them. First, there's someone you should see."
Melissa and Michael stood aside, and Xena's vision blurred with tears. There walking towards her was her beloved daughter Eve. She opened her arms, and her daughter leapt forward to embrace her. She too was crying tears of joy as Xena swung her around. She didn't think she had ever been so happy, and old memories came flooding back. They hugged for what seemed like hours, and finally Eve looked into her eyes.
"Like mother like daughter." Xena heard her say, "You taught me everything, but most of all, you showed me the power of love. I will never be able to say what you mean to me, and I have missed you so much."
"Honey, I could never understand why you didn't come and join Gabrielle and me in the Elysian Fields. Then Michael told me about what had happened with Jesus, and I thought that what you did was worth our being apart. I was so proud of you Eve, I was just so proud and I love you so much." and she couldn't say anything more, she just held her daughter as tears of joy ran down her face.
"Mother," Eve said finally, "there is someone else you must see, and some decisions to make. Come with us."
Then Eve took one of Xena's hands, and Michael the other, and they walked her over to a bank of clouds, and they went in. After a short distance they dropped to their knees, and Xena followed their lead, bowing her head, as she had seen the knights do.
"Rise, please, all of you," said a voice filled at once with power and authority, but also love and understanding. There before them were three white thrones. In the center was the ancient king whose face Xena had seen on the Ark. On his right was a young man, bearded, and with long hair, who reminded her of Eli. On his left sat a woman of striking beauty, dark eyed and slender, on whose face was a look of tenderness and compassion.
"Xena, Defender of the Faith, you have our undying love, and our highest admiration. You have been involved with the last two covenants between myself, and mankind. In all of history, no one has done more for the good of man. Behold your daughter, whose compassion for my son once convinced me that his death was not in vain. And you have now brought a new covenant into the world. Truly the time was ripe for the dominion of Satan, and the fate of the world hung by a hair. Yet it is written, that if even one person can accept the word of God, then shall mercy be shown to all, and the cycle can start anew. With your last breath, you gave me your trust, and accepted my love." For a moment he paused, and regarded her, then he continued, "You have passed through the whole evolution of a soul in your short time on earth. At first you killed without a second thought, later you accepted the wisdom of Sister Melissa's mercy for her enemies, and finally you gave up your own life for the salvation of a world full of people you didn't know."
He stood, and came down to them, and he took Xena's hands in his own. Looking her in the eyes he asked her, "What would you have in the order of things, if it be in my power to give. For your service I would refuse you nothing I can grant."
Xena looked at him, and a thought came to her, "I made another promise before I went back to earth. I need to see someone I love, yet I don't want to be separated from those dear to me who are here. Couldn't these places connect?"
"Truly you know what is and is not important, Xena. In this your desire is my will, and as my will so shall it be. Call on me at need, for you are numbered among the righteous."
They took their leave of the King of Heaven, and they walked out of the cloud. Xena found herself with Michael and Eve in a high meadow, under a blue sky. A breeze ruffled her hair. There, sitting before her on a blanket was Gabrielle, the remains of a picnic lunch scattered around her.
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