UNTIL IT ENDS THERE IS NO END


By Phantom Bard (J. Nakamura)

jn401160@aol.com

Disclaimer: This is an uber tale, based on the TV series, Xena: Warrior Princess, and its characters and concepts, which are the creation and property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No malice is intended towards the characters or concepts of this excellent production. I would like to express my thanks to their creators for sharing them with us. As always, this work of fan fiction is offered for non-profit entertainment only. It may not be sold, may be downloaded for personal use only, and must contain this statement.

This story is a sequel to my earlier story "CYCLES", and relates to characters and events in it, as well as to characters and events in the TV series, Xena: Warrior Princess.

This story contains violence, personal trauma, questionable language, and relationships based on the subtext present in the TV series. There is no intent to offend; however if you find any of these topics uncomfortable, illegal, or undesirable, please read something else. There's plenty.

¤

CANON AND SYNOPSIS

For those who have not read the earlier tale "Cycles", let me clarify some background. Xena, the Warrior Princess of Amphipolis was the daughter of the innkeeper Cyrene, and throughout her childhood and youth believed herself to have been fathered by the warrior Atrius. Her quick mind and prowess in battle became twisted by the cruelty of her fate, until she became a ruthless and ambitious warlord. Yet through the intervention of the demigod Hercules, and the mounting guilt inside her, she resolved to leave the destructive life she had lived. Her resolve was supported by the love of her soul mate, Gabrielle, the Bard of Potidaea, later the Amazon Queen. There came a time in which Xena was trapped in the body of her archenemy Callisto of Cirra, and during that time she briefly held the Sword of Ares, the God of War. It had lasting consequences, for as was later explained, Xena held a special heritage. She had never been the daughter of the cuckold, Atrius. She was, in fact, the daughter of Ares himself. Contact with Ares' sword activated a latent divinity, and she became the Goddess of War and Strategy. For two thousand years she managed to conceal this fact, a task made easier when Ares became mortal and died.

Eventually, sensing the threat of an unknown enemy, and frustrated by the progress of mankind, she created a defense force. In 2006, there came two invasions, and with a resurrected Ares, she defeated challenges from the last of the Gods, and the aliens under their dominion. Eventually she was reunited with Gabrielle and became mortal again. Then followed generations of reincarnations, and the growth and partial destruction of mankind's empires in space. Finally, the 64th reincarnations of Xena and Gabrielle returned to Earth in the year 8,722. Eventually, they died. It is now Anno Domini 9,392.

UNTIL IT ENDS THERE IS NO END

Begun 4/20/2001 Completed 5/13/2001

Revised 5/16/2001 First Posted
 
 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

PART 1: THE 65TH RETURN

In which a tavern girl becomes a warrior, the 65th reincarnation of Xena of Amphipolis.

CHAPTER 1: THE FALL OF STRYMA VALE pages 3-12

In which Dena of Amphilios and her mother flee their home before invaders.

CHAPTER 2: THE ROAD TO THERMA pages 12-26

In which Dena acquires a horse.

CHAPTER 3: WHAT DREAMS ARE FOR pages 26-32

In which Dena meets Priestesses and the Goddesses

CHAPTER 4: WINNING THE ROAD TO CORINTHIA pages 33-42

In which Dena acquires a sidekick and follows a dream.

CHAPTER 5: OF UNDERGROUND SPARATA pages 42-54

In which Dena learns nerve attacks and names her horse.

PART 2: MEETING DESTINY

In which a young warrior becomes a hero and prepares for her destiny as a Goddess.

CHAPTER 6: ONCE IN A LIFETIME pages 54-61

In which Dena celebrates her 18th birthday, and overhears a plot.

CHAPTER 7: THE TEMPLES OF ATHENAE pages 61-70

In which Dena saves the King, a Priestess, and assorted innocents.

CHAPTER 8: MOHEGALA THE RED KHAN pages 70-81

In which Dena meets unexpected allies.

CHAPTER 9: THE WRATH OF THE PRIESTESS pages 81-91

In which Dena loses a friend.

CHAPTER 10: I WILL BRING YOU COMFORT pages 91-106

In which Dena finds a soul mate.

PART 3: DESTROYER OF GALAXIES

In which a Goddess fulfills her destiny.

CHAPTER 11: ALL THESE WORLDS ARE MINE pages 106-114

In which Dena confronts Ares in battle.

CHAPTER 12: THE MOMENT OF TRUTH pages 114-119

In which the Destroyer of Galaxies is born.

CHAPTER 13: 135 B.C. pages 119-120*

In which a new cycle has begun.

*Page numbers relate to the original MS Word document.

?PART 1: THE 65TH RETURN?

CHAPTER 1: THE FALL OF STRYMA VALE

In the 19th year of the reign of King Liasis II, Overlord of New Hellas, it being the 205th year since the Death of the Goddesses, a girl child was born in the city of Amphilios, trading center of the province of NeoSerres. It was the Year of Our Lord 9,392. It is said that her mother bore her pregnancy with unusual comfort until the final month, at which time the babe began practicing the kicks she would one-day use in battle. It is said that her birth was rapid, as though she could scarcely wait to engage the world. Of her father, little is known save that he was a liege-warrior in the service of the Overlord, who died in battle defending his city in the 22nd year of his lord's reign. Of her mother it is well known that she was keeper of an inn frequented by soldiers, travelers, and locals alike. It was from guests at the inn that the girl learned the legends of the Gods, and the history of times long past. Through the years of her girlhood, she increased her love of ancient knowledge, and yet like her older brother, she felt her father's blood in her veins, and so she committed herself to learning the arts of war.

At the age of 5, she joined her elder brother in his practice with weapons, always determined to match his prowess, and overcome his 4-year advantage. Her devotion to the eventual mastery of the sword, bow, spear, staff, and other arms of her times drove them both forward, and by their will they became known as prodigies. On his 18th birthday her brother accepted a commission as a liege-warrior in the army of the Overlord, now in the 33rd year of his reign, and followed his father's ghost to war.

At the age of 14, she was bereft of her training partner, for no other youth was near her match, and indeed she would soon best several grown warriors at sparring to first blood. So, using the knowledge of the legends she had heard she began to develop the inner focus, and the weapons of the mind. In the next three years, she learned to read what was hidden in the hearts of those around her, to see what passed in distant places by the rumors in events, and to perceive the true consequences of actions. She sharpened her senses and her intuition, learning to trust both, to aid her reflexes and strength. What she taught herself in those days gave her the advantage of strategic thinking, the tactical advantage of knowing the future course of available options, whereby she could often bring her will into reality. Yet the wisdom in the legends she had learned restrained her, forcing her to weigh her desire against the greater good.

By her 17th year, she was known to the army, assured of a liege-warrior's commission on her 18th birthday. She hoped to rejoin her brother in the king's ranks, and live her dream of following in their father's steps. Yet fate had greater plans, and on the night of high summer, the solstice of the sun, the eastern barbarians returned from the steppes, 16,000 strong. It was 14 years since their last incursion, the very invasion in which her father had died defending Amphilios. Within two weeks they had fought their way from the Straits of Constantine into the lands of Thracae, crushing the army garrisons, and laying waste to the lands in their path. Their ferocity bred mortal fear, and in terror people fled, like forest creatures before a wildfire, ahead of their enemy. Behind them the battlefields stank of the blood that had soaked into the once fertile soil, now rotting in the summer heat. In each overrun city or town the bodies impaled on spike or cross fell to pieces as they decayed, the sated carrion birds unable to further gorge on their flesh. Fields of grain, trampled down by the armies, now ripened their crops of bloated carcasses, of both horses and men, and rather than the songs of the field workers, the air was split by the fighting of feral dogs as they contested over the bounty of meat. A fell wind drove the stench west into unconquered lands, announcing the barbarians' advance. In the third week of the invasion, her mother closed the inn, and took flight with the majority of the population of eastern Macedon. It was the Year of Our Lord 9,409, the 36th year of the reign of King Liasis II, and the 222nd year since the Death of the Goddesses.

The refugees withdrew beyond the vale of the Stryma River, which the king's retreating soldiers turned into a no mans land laced with myriad cunning traps. Where the land rose on the western side from the valley, the army created defensive fortifications and awaited reinforcements from the king. The undefended section of Eastern Macedon was overrun by the barbarian cavalry and then secured by their infantry in the following days. On the third day after the evacuation of Amphilios the enemy tried to advance across the Stryma. Seeking to cross the river under cover of night's last hour of darkness, the barbarian cavalry fell victim to the traps of King Liasis II's army, and as dawn broke, the enemy counted the loss of over 500 horsemen. Some drowned in quicksand pools, some in pit falls lined with spikes. Auto-bows killed dozens as the horses released trip-wires. Trenches filled with fire ignited, and their banks crumbled, dumping advancing troops into flames that clung to their bodies. Log drops and rock falls killed scores of others. As the invading infantry hastened to join them in the gray morning, the pent up waters of the Stryma were released, surging down the riverbed to carry almost a thousand foot soldiers' bodies to the sea. The enemy retreated to the far side of the vale, regrouping for the next attack. For the first time their advance was halted bitterly. On the western side of the river the troops of King Liasis II breathed a sigh of relief, and prayed for added forces. Their warriors numbered less than 300, they being the garrison of Amphilios and a few dozen wounded survivors of the defenders to the east.

?

"Stand! Who walks there? Answer on you life!" the sentry ordered as he whipped his spear towards the telltale squish of a footstep in the soft earth of the path and held it ready.

"Hail, Marik, and well met. It is Dena, daughter of Cyrea and Atraeus of Amphilios," she answered formally.

"Ahh, Dena, hail and well met," replied the sentry, relaxing as her tall figure became visible in the light of the watch fire, "what brings you to the camp so late."

"Well, I've settled mother with the other refugees after this morning's scare, and I've finally had some time to come by. I hope to ask the eastern garrison survivors if they know anything about my brother, Taris. He was barracked at Neopolis. I haven't heard from him, and my mother fears the worst."

Marik's heart softened at her request, for he knew a little about Dena and Taris, and their father Atraeus. In the six months since his posting at Amphilios he'd spent a few evenings leave with his friends at Cyrea's inn, and he appreciated the friendly atmosphere she promoted. She'd made them feel welcome, though they were just young liege-warriors. On a couple of those visits he'd met Dena briefly. He'd heard soldiers who'd been in the garrison for a full tour talk about her weapons prowess, and mention her brother. He appreciated her beauty and her poise. It was hard to believe she was still too young for the army, yet he'd heard she'd beaten soldiers in armed sparring on several occasionsŠwhen she was 15 and 16. He wasn't sure what to make of that.

"Dena, I don't know any of the survivors myself, and I've not had the chance to talk with them," he said, "Lt. Hagnon is commander of the watch. You could ask him if you could talk with them. I think since you're seeking news about your kin he might approve."

He sighed, for he knew the chances her brother still lived were very slight. If he hadn't contacted his family already then he was either lost, or was gravely, perhaps mortally wounded. Marik glanced up and caught the worry in her aquamarine eyes. She glanced down, her face shrouded in the shadows from the fall of her ebony hair. The flickering light of the watch fire danced across her shoulders as they straightened, evincing her resolve. Ever the young are hopeful, he thought, and catching himself wondered when he'd become so dour.

"My thanks, Marik," she said, "I will speak to the lieutenant. May the Gods grant me good news. Gods' fortune, and blessed be."

"So mote it be, Dena," Marik replied in sympathy, "give this soldier's regards to your mother. Like many here I fondly remember her hospitality. Gods' fortune, and blessed be."

Like second nature she had read his heart while they talked. His doubt of her brother's survival added to her own and she barely felt her steps as she made her way to the commander's tent. All army encampments were much the same and she walked towards the center, finding the tent she sought by the standard atop its pole outside. She presented her request to the sentry on guard and he relayed her words to the lieutenant's aid inside. She had come in the late hours of the "dog watch", knowing this was the least busy time, and hoping her request would stand a better chance of being granted. Now it was four candle marks before dawn, and the camp was quiet. Shortly she was bid to enter, and the tent flap was held aside.

"Hail, Lt. Hagnon, and well met," she said giving the formal military greeting, "I, Dena, daughter of Cyrea and Atraeus of Amphilios greet you."

"Hail and well met, Dena," Lt. Hagnon replied with a smile as he rose from his desk and indicate a chair, "have a seat."

He had been posted in Amphilios long enough to become a family friend, having spent many evenings relaxing at her mother's inn. He had watched her grow from a serious and driven girl of 11, into the young woman who stood before him. He felt almost like an uncle, and when his captain had asked his opinion, he had wholeheartedly recommended she be offered a liege-warrior's commission, as he had three years before for her brother. He'd seen the sparring she'd done, and he'd won money betting on her against his own men. The last time he'd sparred with her had been over a year ago. He'd nicked her arm, as slight a wound as he could inflict to win, but he didn't kid himself. It had been close. He'd killed many men in real battles with less trouble, and he wouldn't have wanted to fight against her if it was to the death. Not then, and certainly not now. He'd always suspected she wasn't fighting with her full intensity. Like most of the soldiers in his command he also thought she was gorgeousŠthey'd be lining up when she finally turned 18. He shook off his woolgathering and returned to the present.

"So what brings you to the camp this time of night, Dena?"

"Sir, I am searching for news of my brother Taris," she said hopefully, "he was garrisoned at Neopolis before the barbarians attacked, and we've had no word of him since. My mother and I bear faith that he's survived. I request to speak with the survivors of the eastern garrisons in hope of news."

"I see," Lt. Hagnon sighed, "the survivors have been in the care of the healers, and only a few have been debriefed about the battles. We have simply been too busy, and many of them were badly wounded. Also, it is the fourth candle mark of the third watch, and most are sleeping."

"I understand, sir," Dena said, looking down at her hands, "Taris is a soldier, and he has sworn his life to our king and our land, even placing them above family. If he lives I know your officers should question him first. I don't wish to cause a problem."

"Hmmm," the lieutenant thought for a moment. He remembered Taris well, having spent his first three years at Amphilios while Dena's brother was still at home. He'd been a strong fighter and he'd impressed the lieutenant with his good heart. Lt. Hagnon knew how close the brother and sister were. He realized that he too would like to know if Taris had survived. Finally he asked, "You have some knowledge of the healing arts don't you, Dena?"

"Yes, lieutenant. I studied battlefield aid with my brother when we were younger," she answered, "we dressed each other's wounds, and helped with neighborhood accidents."

"I seem to remember you saved several children in the spring flooding a couple years back, and you and your mother helped that family after the fire they had at their farm."

"Yes, sir, mother knew their father. He was a liege-warrior and died with my father defending Amphilios," she said with pride, "we had to help them. They stayed with us until they healed and could rebuild their farm."

"Well, Dena, as you may know we are low on man power," the lieutenant said with a grin, "and I believe the healers would be grateful for help from someone who has had practical experience. I think it would give you a chance to ask a few questions as you treat the wounded."

Dena's eyes lit up, and she had to keep herself from bounding over the table to hug the lieutenant. Though she recognized the practical value of her skills, she knew Lt. Hagnon was doing her a favor. She'd always felt he was a friend, and over the years she'd listened to everything he'd taught her. She had always been grateful for the tips and the coaching he offered her through the years when he came to the inn. Her brother had looked up to him, and she understood he was concerned about Taris too, though his duties had prevented him from doing anything to find out about him. If she heard anything she could set his mind at ease as well.

"Sir, I'd be glad to help the healers," she said with a heartfelt smile that lit her eyes as well, "and I'll let you know anything I hear. Thank you, sir. So when do I start?"

"Start in the second candle mark of the first watch, Dena. In the meantime, tell your mother about our agreement, and get some sleep."

"Yes sir, lieutenant," Dena said, placing her right fist over her heart in salute, "I'll be back to serve as long as needed."

"Ok," he said, smiling and returning the salute, "now get going."

?

General Garza had been ordered to appear before his Lord. As always the subject of his audience had not been revealed, leaving him with a twinge of uneasiness, for he knew his Lord's temperament, and some who had displeased him had been roasted aliveŠat least so the stories went. Gen. Garza had few doubts about the stories he'd heard. His Lord was all-powerful, and had ruled since before the general was born. The general was a successful member of the military, in a society dominated by warriors. He was in charge of the weapons development program for the new generation warships, and as in everything he had ever done, he was determined to succeed. Failure was never an option. He felt certain the status of the weapons was to be the subject of this audience. If not, he had a willŠnot a comforting thought, but rather a realistic precaution.

The doors of the throne room opened before he reached them, and he saw no one there to open them. This was the case every time he'd ever come here, and it always gave him the creeps. He immediately bowed his head, and saluted by placing his right fist over his heart. Then he walked forward, approaching the throne at a stately pace, his eyes cast down at the floor. To either side stood the figures of warriors from the past, black marble statues twelve feet high, silently commemorating the heroes. A hundred of them watched the approach to his Lord's throne. The throne was a fantastical celebration of conquest and death, frozen phantasms of the battlefield, carved of the same black marble as the statues, and raised on a dais of many steps, increasingly wider toward the bottom. When the general reached the bottom step he knelt on one knee, again saluting with his fist.

"My Lord," said the kneeling warrior, his eyes cast at the patterns in the granite floor before him, "you have commanded my presence, and I obey."

"I command you to speak, general," his Lord's voice rumbled, "What is the status of the ships?"

"The construction of the first thirty is underway, my Lord. The redesign factors are being incorporated as we speak."

"Have the scientists succeeded in testing the new weapons?"

"Not yet, my Lord." The general said with disgust. "They report that their power sources are insufficient to bring the carborundum to lase. I have chastised them as ordered, my Lord, and they promise to correct the problem by upgrading the on-line fusion capacitors. At present they have only been able to produce 1.5 x 1011 joules."

"I see, general. Know that when such weapons were first developed, almost 7,500 years ago, it took those scientists 14 years from concept to execution," the figure on the throne said, "their facilities were primitive compared to ours, but they had the incentive of their survival to encourage them. Tell them that if they don't produce a working class 11 weapon in the next thirty days they shall all die."

"Yes, my Lord. It shall be as you command," the general promised. He would relish terrifying those sniveling whiners. Like most of the warriors of his world he had little sympathy for failures. It would almost be worthwhile to see them fail. It would be a good lesson to the other civilians.

"And, general," his Lord added, as if reading his mind, "if they don't seem impressed, you may also offer them the lives of their families, their friends, even their petsŠuse your discretion."

"Why yes, my Lord," the general said, and he couldn't keep the smile off his face, "it is a pleasure to serve."

"May the Spirit of Battle guide you, general, you have leave to go."

The general rose from his knees, keeping his head bowed, and saluted with his right fist held over his heart. He backed away from the throne, showing the proper respect by never turning his back on his Lord. Somehow he didn't think he would even if it was acceptable.

"Thank you, Lord Ares."

?

The keeper of the watches had just announced the second candle mark of the first watch when Dena entered the healers' tent and presented herself for duty. The chief healer was glad to have another pair of hands. His patients ranged in injury from the walking wounded who could be back on duty in a week, to men who would be lucky to recover at all. The triage had been done, but while the defenses held, even the worst cases would be given maintenance. The emergency treatments had also been done, in the last couple of days, and now most of the work was in changing dressings, distributing medicines, and assisting with the feeding and washing. The officers were slowly beginning to question the wounded about their battle experiences, but they were still pressed for time, and most of their attention had to be given to renewing the traps in the Stryma River valley. No one knew the hour when the next attack would fall, but there was no doubt it would come. Without reinforcements there could be only defense. Attacking the invaders was out of the question. There simply weren't enough troops to mount an offensive across the open ground of the valley. Their small force would be too easily outflanked, cut off, and destroyed, leaving the refugees at the barbarians' mercy, (a jest, for they had none), and the lands to the west open to invasion.

Dena was put to work from the moment she arrived, carrying meals, washing bandages, changing dressings, and emptying bedpans and chamber pots. Like a good soldier she did what was requested of her, regarding it as her duty, and performing what she knew, or learning what she didn't. She found the healers and the patients alike to be friendly and for the most part willing to talk. The soldiers in particular were willing to tell their stories, for none minded having the helpful and very pretty young woman nearby, and as the morning passed into afternoon, they found themselves competing for her attention. It reminded her of nights in her mother's inn, when the common room filled with soldiers and travelers, telling tales, and drinking, and vying for her company at their tables. She had long ago become adept at fending off the occasional lewd advance, but here, where the alcohol was only for cleansing wounds, and military discipline prevailed, the level of courtesy was actually higher than at home.

Dena was taking a lunch break, for the keeper of the watch had just announced the sixth candle mark of the first watch. She sat gnawing a lump of hard cheese, an apple, and a quarter of a round loaf of sourdough, standard camp fare for the noon meal, which she washed down with cider, a treat from her mother that she'd brought in a small skin. With her back against the trunk of the oak tree that shaded her, she was near the healer's tent, in easy earshot if they called her, and quite comfortable. As she chewed she closed her eyes, watching the dappled light play on her eyelids as it dodged the leaves above, and sensing the camp around her with every sense save vision. It was a type of training, and she had gotten better at perceiving her surroundings without sight. She heard and smelled the man approaching her while he was beyond striking range, and she opened her eyes, seeing he was a soldier with his left arm in a sling, and his head bandaged. She remembered he'd been badly sword cut, and the healer had spent half a candle mark stitching his wounds.

"Hail and well met," she greeted him as he came close, "I'm Dena, healer's assistant."

"Hail, Dena, and well met," he said, smiling at her, "I'm Castor of the Neopolis garrison. The shade here looks good, would you allow me to join you?" he asked, holding up his meal sack.

"Sit please, Castor," Dena replied, scooting over and offering to share the trunk if he wanted to use it as a back rest.

"Thanks Dena," he said as he settled against the tree trunk, pulled out some bread and cheese, and set a water skin by his side. He smiled at her and took a bite of bread, chewing slowly to spare the stitching in his scalp, and thinking, she has the most beautiful eyes. Close up he found the rest of her very attractive too.

"You were garrisoned at Neopolis?" Dena asked, to confirm his earlier statement, and he nodded 'yes' in reply. "Did you know Taris of Amphilios, a liege-warrior stationed there for the last year and a half?"

Castor swallowed, and washed the bread down with some water before speaking, but he nodded 'yes' again as he swallowed, and he knew his news would make her happy.

"I got to knew Taris well since I was posted to Neopolis at winter solstice, and I like to think of him as a friend. I heard the other men say you are his sister, and search for news of him, so I felt I should seek you out," Castor told her, marking the expression of hope on her face as he spoke.

"I saw him last after the garrison was overrun, and we were in retreat. I had already been wounded, and was being evacuated with the other casualties. Taris was in the rear guard covering us, being handpicked by the captain for his sword prowess. His company held off the enemy as we crossed the bridge at Krostas Gorge. Then when we broke the bridge behind us, they retreated into the steep wooded hills inland where the cavalry couldn't follow. I lost sight of them as they crested the first ridge of those hills, but they were uncontested. I didn't see him fall in the fighting, and I believe he escaped the battle that day. Have faith Dena, for their plan, if they were separated thus, was to circle north of Lake Cercin, and cross the Stryma before marching south to rejoin us. Though the enemy holds the coastal lands, they have not secured the inland. They have had no time."

Castor was about to bite into the lump of cheese, when he was startled by Dena grabbing him into a tight hug and planting a kiss on his cheek. Then she leapt up, giving him her most beautiful smile.

"Castor, bless you for the best news I have heard in weeks. I thank you, and my mother thanks you. If we return to our inn in Amphilios you will be welcome there at any time."

Then she ran off to try to find Lieutenant Hagnon and report her news. Castor sat back and bit into his cheese. He'd just been hugged and kissed by the most beautiful woman he'd ever sat next to, and it had happened so suddenly that he felt he had missed it. Still a smile settled onto his face, and he scarcely noticed his wounds as he finished his noon meal. He didn't realize it at the time, but her actions meant more to him than he could have believed, for they condensed the hope and love that are the cause of faith. When the invaders took him and tortured him, and finally impaled him on a six-foot spike, that faith would stay his tongue in defiance from answering the questions they would ask. And his defiance, and that of those he would inspire, would be rewarded by the salvation of many who otherwise would have died in torment, and these souls would commend his courage in the fields of Elysia.

Now Dena made her way through the camp in search of Lt. Hagnon, and she went from the commander of the watch's tent, to the mess tent, to the officer's bivouac, but she didn't see him anywhere. Finally she asked a soldier who was armed for duty, and he told her she might find him on the rallying grounds, for the troops had been called to action. It was at the rallying ground that she realized most of the camp was mobilized, and it was there that she found the lieutenant as well. He was standing with some other officers waiting for the troops to amass in formation when she approached him, and his expression was grim.

"Lt. Hagnon, I have searched all over for you," she said, still joyful, but concerned by the activity, "I have met a soldier who gave me news of Taris."

"Gods' fortune is granted you, Dena," he said smiling, "speak to me of this quickly, for time presses and I have much to do."

"Sir, Taris was seen retreating into the hills with the rearguard of the Neopolis garrison, after they broke the bridge at Krostas Gorge. He was unpursued, and planned to go north of Lake Cercin to cross the Stryma and then come south to rejoin us," she reported quickly, noticing how this news made him think deeply.

"I rejoice that you have news of your brother," he said, "and I pray for his safety, but I don't know if he will find us here. You describe a four-day march, and he could be close to our position, but soon we may have to retreat. Scouts report the enemy on the move both to our north and south, flanking our position, and bypassing the vale of traps. Already I have sent a company of men to escort the refugees into the highlands. They will guide them to the city of Therma, and report to the commander there. We will attempt to buy them time, and harass the invaders here and along the coast, but we can do little better than slow them, for our force is too small."

Dena looked at him absorbing his words. "Sir, allow me to take arms and join your soldiers. I know I can help, and every hand would add to the defense. I would be here when Taris and the others join you from the north, andŠ"

He cut her off, "Dena, I can't allow you to fight with us here. First you are not old enough to join the army, though I know your abilities surpass many of these soldiers. But ours is most likely a suicidal fight, to stand then run, again and again, and to fall in a battle of attrition against a force still almost fifteen times our size. Our reports suggest this company of the enemy may number over 3,500, and we can muster barely 250 against them. Theirs is but one company of many. And I fear your brother may already be separated from us by the invaders to the north."

But, sir, I canŠ" she started.

"No, Dena," he silenced her, "I would order you to join the refugees, and help protect their retreat. If you would help us, then do this and free a soldier I have sent there." His voice softened from its tone of command, "If I had a daughter she would be like you, Dena, strong, brave, and good. Live to fight another dayŠgrow up to be a warrior like your father and brother. Your time will come, 'for in this world without Gods, battle ever rages anew, and it is the lot of mortals to struggle, to fight, and perhaps to conquer'. Go now, Dena, for already the refugees are departing their camp."

Then he turned away from her and began shouting orders to the soldiers. She stood looking at him while his words sank deeper, and against her desires, she accepted the wisdom of what he had spoken.

"Gods' fortune to you Lieutenant Hagnon," she whispered to his back as he moved towards his troops, "blessed be."

She turned and ran from the field, to leave the army's encampment, and race along the path to where the refugees had stayed. He felt her leave with the sixth sense of a battle wary fighter, and though he knew she would not hear, the lieutenant whispered, "Gods' fortune be with you, and keep you safe from the darkness of this day. May you walk with the sun, and dream with the moon. May the Great Power bless thy eternal journeyŠSo mote it be." It was an ancient prayer, and Lt. Hagnon was not used to praying.

The enemy came swiftly, barely two candle marks later, their cavalry over running the defenses from the north and the south. 1,800 horsemen laid siege to the camp of King Liasis II's soldiers, and they were worsted in the battle. When the infantry assaulted their position, the fighting became yet more bitter, and even the wounded bore arms in desperation against them. Within three candle marks it was over. The tents burned and the dead were left where they had fallen, to feed the packs that now followed the army.

Of the few defenders who had survived, only a handful outlived their wounds long enough to be questioned. Castor was one of these, and though he had been run through the shoulder with a spear, he was beaten and burned to extract the secrets of where the refugees had gone, and where the remainder of the soldiers lay in wait. The barbarian commander believed a much larger force of king's soldiers were prepared to ambush his army nearby, and he was loath to advance against their threat. In all the time they tormented him, Castor said nothing. No word of anger or pain passed his lips, for he had retreated into his dreams, leaving behind the world of pain that crushed his body yet a while longer. And in his dreams he saw a young woman's smile, and the flashing beauty of her deep blue eyes. He heard her voice as it thanked and blessed him; he felt her touch and her kiss. Against these memories, his anguish as they tore at his belly and hoisted him onto the stake became the dream instead, and he said no word to them. Then the four other soldiers who had watched and waited their turn for torture felt his strength, and his resolve, and it kindled a fire in their hearts that burned in defiance against the cruelty in their last moments of torment. And to the amazement of the enemy, not one gave up any information, neither confirming nor denying the commander's false fears, and in this way they bought precious time for the refugees to widen their lead towards safety.

For the first time in their campaign, the barbarians removed their victims from the stakes, and to show respect for these five silent men, their enemies, they gathered wood, and built pyres, and sent the smoke of their bodies to the heavens, and their spirits to Elysia with honor.

"Šfor in this world without Gods, battle ever rages anew, and it is the lot of mortals to struggle, and to fight, and perhaps to conquer. But always, it is the lot of mortals to die. Yet in death one may conquer, though the victory is celebrated with pain and tears, and then, in memory, one may live forever." -Ancient quotation attributed to Chelle Martin, "The Way of the Warrior". Anno Domini 2,084 : 28 A.D.

So it was that when Taris and the company of the rearguard of Neopolis came down out of the hills by night, they found not the camp of the king's soldiers, but the thousand watch fires of the enemy. They perceived the dark slaughter that had befallen their comrades-in-arms, and they climbed back into the night, scaling the heights above the vale of the Stryma, and turning west to march for the city of Therma. They were a half-day and more behind the refugees, and though they traveled faster, they never caught up with them before they reached the city six days later.

?

CHAPTER 2: THE ROAD TO THERMA

It is written that in ancient times, the fathers of men attained to the mastery of space, and with their wives and sons and daughters, their livestock and their crops, their books and their machines, they fled to the heavens. But of all the things they took from the world, none were missed so sorely as the Gods, for these they took as their leaders, and the fathers of men followed them into the void. Then there was chaos in the world, and nations fell, and the wonders of the fathers of men slid down into ruin. The bright world that was faded, and as night dawned again, the light of campfires spread across the world. Into this world countless generations were born and died, but the slow steady struggle that was the legacy of men asserted itself anew, and in the absence of the Gods, mankind regained a measure of its ancient accomplishment. So it was that when the Gods returned they found not an empty world, but a world of small cities, and small nations armed with sword and spear, bow and staff, dagger and shield, constantly waging small wars.

The Goddess of War and her favorite, who came to be known as the Goddess of History and Knowledge, lived among the people for 465 years, rekindling the light of ancient days, and teaching the people about the Spirit of Battle, and the Balance of Dark and Light. During that Golden Age they ruled from Mt. Olympia, and all mankind benefited from the lessons they taught. They, and the Colonists who accompanied them, gave to men a measure of prosperity, and a civilizing influence that had been absent through all the Years without Gods. But like all things golden it was not meant to last. On a day of winter, in the Year of Our Lord 9,187, there came a great storm, borne on a fierce wind from the far north, and in its midst fell a time of calm, the eye of the storm, and the sky opened all the way up to the clear high blue of heaven. Then for a moment, a golden light shone down on Mt. Olympia. As if in response, the priestesses of the temples on Olympia reported a white light, which rose from the mountain and ascended to heaven through the opening in the clouds. Then we knew that the Goddesses had died. All felt the loss in their hearts, and afterwards, the lands began their slide back down into the darkness, for the legends say, that when no God of War holds wrath in check, then the common man is ruled by anger, and each fights for himself alone.

Within decades the temples on Mt. Olympia became abandoned, for they were remote, and they stood empty but for the occasional pilgrim seeking to stand where the Goddesses had stood.

Shortly after the Death of the Goddesses a priestess of the Goddess of History and Knowledge came to the city of Athenae and spoke a prophecy before returning to her temple.

"Two rings that hold the dark and light, and through eternity remain. What mortal hand shall claim the right, and join them in the Goddess' name? Cycles since the dawn of time have brought them back where they began, to seek the one whose Spirit holds the Balance in her righteous hand." -Prophecy of the Goddess of History and Knowledge, delivered by her priestess at the City of Athenae. Anno Domini 9,187 : 7,131 A.D.

The words meant little at the time, yet through divination, and spirit dreams, and ancient legend, it came to be believed by some to foretell the return of the Goddess of War, for in her had lived the Spirit of Battle, and the Balance of Dark and Light. Many hoped to see this resurrection in their lifetimes, but the decades wore on, and the nation splintered into kingdoms, and the kingdoms into city-states. And with the splintering came war, fought between the cities and the kingdoms, and against the barbarians to the east. Accompanying war other cruelties reappeared from the Years without Gods; slavery, human combat for sport, baiting of dogs, bulls, and other beasts, and the rise of warlords.

One of these was the son of a deposed king, named Phillip of Attica, who rose to power at the head of a mercenary army, and succeeded in conquering the Mediterranean states surrounding the Gulf of Corinthia. He proclaimed himself King of New Hellas, taking the name Liasis I, in the 183rd year after the Death of the Goddesses, and died in combat two years later in Thessal. His son succeeded him in the 186th year after the Death of the Goddesses, taking the name Liasis II, to honor his father, and consolidating the kingdom of New Hellas. Unlike anyone who had ruled before, he looked to the teachings of the Goddesses for guidance, and governed with justice, trying to balance force and mercy. Though it could not be proved beyond doubt, King Liasis II claimed an unbroken line and a heritage from the Colonist Pilot who had helmed the Goddess' ship across the void. His subjects and his army were loyal, beyond the expectations of any warlord, and by conducting himself like a great king became revered as a great king. He ruled for 42 years, and New Hellas enjoyed peace within its borders for most of his reign.

The greatest enemy of King Liasis II, and the people of New Hellas, was the Barbarian Horde of the eastern steppes. Like their ancestors over 8,000 years before, they were nomadic horsemen, brought together under charismatic and powerful military leaders like the Khans of old. Their border raiding was constant, but they also attacked in larger numbers on many occasions, and two of their invasions into Thracae and Macedon brought about their eventual and utter destruction.

?

Dena rejoined her mother and the refugees at their camp above the vale of the Stryma River after her offer to fight was refused, and she aided any who needed help to ready themselves to travel. Her mother greeted the news of her son Taris with tears of joy, yet she guarded her heart against false hope, knowing the fickle nature of fate. She rejoiced that her daughter was safely returned from the army's camp, for she had a bad feeling about the coming battle, a sense perhaps developed when she had been the wife of the liege-warrior Atraeus.

In the time before the refugees moved, Dena put off the everyday clothes she had worn as a healer's aid, and dressed herself in black fighting leathers, attaching the four dagger sheaths for the throwing daggers. She buckled on the bronze breastplate the armorer of Amphilios had made for her that spring, and slung her broadsword across her shoulders. On each forearm she laced a bracer of hard leather with a half-dozen half-round steel bars sewn to the surface. These she knew could turn a sword blow, or break the arm of an assailant when she used her forearms to block. She pulled on the tall boots with their steel toes and built in lamellar grieves, added the boot knives, and lastly strapped the coiled braided whip to her waist. She covered all with a traveling cloak, and from that day on she dressed and conducted herself as a private warrior, the equivalent of a knight errant, in the service of none save the Greater Good, and owing allegiance to no rulers save the Spirit of Battle, and for a short time, the king.

In that time private warriors were not uncommon, but most were little more than brigands of varying skill who had mostly fallen to the dark side of the balance, and made their livings as mercenaries. A few were renowned heroes, sought for their prowess by kings and the ruling councils of cities when the need arose. They sometimes charged exorbitant fees, and functioned as commanders of local armies or militias, but truth be known, many spent more time on the roads aiding those they found in need, often earning nothing but good will. Dena's intent was simpler that day when she finally took up the garb of a warrior. She knew her weapons intimately, and intended on helping in any fight the refugees encountered. The column of roughly 2,200 civilians, men, women, and children, were setting out over the highlands guarded by twelve soldiers, and possible pursued by 3,500 murderous barbarian invaders. Dena figured they'd need all the help they could get.

She came out of the tent she had shared with her mother and began pulling up the stakes, preparing to pack it for the trip. As she worked, the summer heat added to the heat of her labor, and she soon stripped off the cloak, working in the more comfortable if somewhat revealing fighting leathers. It wasn't long before she drew the attention of some of the soldiers assigned to protect them.

"Well, what have we here," one of the four soldiers who had come towards her said, leering at Dena, and speaking to impress his friends, "a pretty girl playing dress up for the journey?"

The others laughed, but one said, "Leave her Jarras, we have to make sure these civilians are ready to move within the candle-mark."

The remark affected the one called Jarras like a challenge, and he was determined to show off at the expense of the tall and very pretty girl who stood before him dressed as a warrior. He didn't notice the refinements of her gear, or the intense focus in her gaze as she appraised him. He was young, inexperienced, and had he been a seasoned warrior he would have noticed and understood things like the sword nicks on the rods in her bracers, or the wear on the weapon sheaths.

"I asked you a question, girl," he said loud enough for many standing nearby to clearly hear, "are you playing dress up?"

"I'm dressed as a warrior," she replied evenly, raising her left eyebrow into her bangs, and giving him a small smile that looked more like a sneer, "are you playing dress up, trying to look like a soldier?"

His friends started laughing at him, and their ridicule drove him to his second mistake. He strode towards Dena with a cruelly twisted smile, intending to humiliate her in front of the small crowd that was starting to gather.

"I'll teach you to talk back to me you underdressed wench," Jarras exclaimed. He made a grab for her right shoulder with his left hand, but she wasn't frozen in fear as he had thought.

Dena brought her right arm up, snapping her forearm into the underside of Jarras' left arm, the bracer striking his forearm hard enough to knock it away and bruise his flesh. It was a simple block, and she didn't move anything but her arm, looking him in the eyes the whole time.

"Looks like I'll have to teach you to keep your hands to yourself," she said with a wider smile that somehow looked threatening, "unless you behave and go on your way."

If he'd been a seasoned warrior he might have noticed the subtle shift in her weight as she spoke to distract him, but he was young and inexperienced, and so he made his third and last mistake of the afternoon. He pulled back his fist to strike her in that insolent mouth of hers, but as he shifted his weight behind the blow, Dena stepped forward with her left foot, turning slightly, then her left arm shot out. Jarras had expected her to try to duck away. Instead his right arm flew uselessly along the outside of her left, and his body weight moving towards her helped drive her lead jab into his jaw, snapping his head back, and tearing his lips open against his teeth. Dena's fist snapped back to guard position as her weight shifted back, and she stood looking down at him unconscious on the ground, his bleeding lips and nose rapidly swelling.

Jarras' three companions were rooted in shock and hadn't moved, but Dena was ready to counterattack from her guard stance if they threatened. To her right someone laughed loudly, and while still facing the three soldiers ahead of her, chin down, hands up, her eyes alone snapped over to find his identity. When she saw who it was she let a smile spread across her face.

"Hail and well met, Dena," the approaching soldier called out to her with a smile, "I see you're dressed for the occasion. Do you have to go picking on these green kids?"

"Hail and well met, Aliksander," she replied, relaxing her guard a bit, "one of your guys didn't like my sense of fashion. Couldn't let him grab me, though, or take a swing at me either, sergeant."

The remaining three soldiers had come to attention when they realized who she was talking to, and the fact that their detail commander knew her made them more uncomfortable. They really got nervous when the dour sergeant actually hugged the girl.

"So," he said addressing them sternly, "ganging up on a girl, huh? You're lucky she didn't sweep the path with all three of you."

"Actually it was just him, Aliksander," she said, pointing to the soldier on the ground who was just beginning to regain his senses.

The sergeant turned away from his men, and winked at her, saying, "I have to maintain discipline Dena, your father and brother were liege-warriors, I'm sure you understand."

Dena just smiled back, looking over his shoulder at the very uncomfortable troops, while he continued his lecture.

"This is Dena, daughter of Atraeus and Cyrea. Her mom runs the inn, and her father was a defender at Amphilios in the last invasion. You haven't been at the garrison very long, so I'll fill you in. She started weapons training at five, fighting her brother who is a liege-warrior. She has beaten five soldiers in sparring to first blood with swords, myself included, I'm sorry to sayŠlost half a week's pay on that bout." He turned and gave her another wink before continuing, "no hard feelings. Anyway, that was two years ago when she was fifteen, old history. Now where was IŠOh yeah, she'll kick your asses if you give her a hard time. And if I hear of you giving her a hard time, I'll kick your asses too. Now pick him up and get out of here." He finished, pointing at the groggy Jarras who was finally sitting up.

After they had looked at her sheepishly and left, Aliksander spoke to her. "I'm sorry about Taris, I guess he was at Neopolis when the barbarians overran the garrison. I remember him, and I liked him a lotŠ"

Dena cut him off, "Aliksander, I think he's still alive. A wounded soldier from the Neopolis garrison told me he'd seen him escape the battle." She quickly related the story Castor had told her, and he smiled broadly at her.

"Well, Gods' fortune smiles on you and your brother, Dena. I'm sure your mother must be very relieved." Then he clasped her forearm warrior fashion, and turned to leave. "I think you'll not have any more trouble from those kids after this, Dena." And he chuckled as he walked off.

Sergeant Aliksander was right, she didn't get any more trouble from the soldiers on the way to Therma. It made sense. She'd beaten two of them, including their commander two years before, and another three she knew were no threat, but the twelve soldiers were too busy with the refugees to brawl with her. She kept her place with her mother, helping the others when she could. At first they seemed to make slow progress, climbing into the highlands above the Stryma River Vale, though fear of pursuers hastened them, yet the sergeant seemed satisfied with their pace. Dena had never been on a forced march like this, and when they talked, his contentment with their progress quelled her fears, and she stopped constantly looking back down the trail they'd taken. On the fourth day out the sergeant took her aside at the noon meal, and spoke to her in a low voice.

"Dena, I don't want to frighten you needlessly, but our flight is being followed," he told her, watching her reaction. When there was none but an attentive look in her eyes he continued, "look back up the mountain towards the notch we passed through last night. Watch and wait."

She looked between the trees where he pointed, and he heard her exhale a little more sharply, "I just saw a flash, sergeant, as of the sun reflected on a buckle or sword blade."

"Yes," he said, "I have seen several such the last few minutes on that slope, and yesterday I saw several as well."

"They would be 14 candle marks march behind us if they rest at night as we do," she stated, then asked, "Have they drawn nearer since yesterday?"

"They have drawn only two candle marks closer in the last three watches," he told her, pleased with her question, "we shall make Therma 12 candle marks ahead of them if they keep their pace. What else?"

"Well, they are too far behind us to waylay with the number of troops we have," she said thinking, "so unless they close the gap tonight, I say we continue as we have."

"Very good," he smiled, letting her know she'd reached the same conclusion he had, "unless they close to 8 candle marks by the morning, I will not even tell the refugees of them. They are not a threat, and I will not spread panic needlessly."

"Yet if they do close on us overnight, then we should walk two candle marks later, and start two candle marks early in the morning of our last march," she said, looking at him.

"Exactly."

Neither Dena nor the sergeant could have known then that they fled from Taris and the rear guard of Neopolis, or that the flashes they saw were a signal from them as they followed in their trail. Taris and his companions could not tell for sure where ahead of them the refugees walked, for there were no roads and many trees in that upland. So their signals could not be aimed at any certain place ahead, but rather were flashed at the whole wide space in which travelers going to Therma might be. He hoped they would either know their backs were guarded, or hasten faster thinking themselves pursued. In order to provide that rearguard cover for the refugees, they pushed no closer, but rather paced them, and if assaulted, would start a smoky fire, and hope its meaning, by association with war and destruction, would be guessed, and cause them to flee for their lives.

It was the changing of the third watch to the first the next morning, and Sergeant Aliksander was checking the perimeter as was his habit at dawn, when he came to a tree under which he saw a pile of weapons and a breastplate. He recognized them at once, and reading the signs of displaced leaves and scraped bark, he stepped close and looked up the trunk. Sure enough she was about thirty feet up, sitting comfortably where the trunk split into three large branches. Trust her to pick a perfect lookout tree, he thought to himself. She glanced down at him and smiled, and in a hushed voice reported that the flashes had held position since first light, still 14 candle marks march behind them. He smiled up at her, and moved away, far enough to avoid being bombed by chunks of bark as she climbed down, but still close enough to appreciate her legs from below.

"Glad you thought to remove all metal before you went up," he said, then recoiled in mock pain when she slapped his shoulder.

"That's for staring up my skirt when I was climbing down," she scolded with joking indignation, "and you should know I'd never give away our position with a reflection."

Then they laughed together, but the sergeant's admiration for her had gone up another notch. None of his soldiers had thought to spy the position of their pursuers at dawn when the sun was low, and the shadows it cast were long. He never mentioned to her that he hadn't bothered to tell anyone in the camp but her, and if that seemed unfair, well the sentries he'd posted hadn't seen their pursuers either. Knowing everything around his post was his job as a commander, but knowing how much to tell his soldiers was his prerogative as a sergeant, and after twenty-three years in his king's army he was very good at his job. Next to him she was rearming herself, and humming a tuneless song.

"Sergeant," Dena said, breaking him away from his thoughts, "I think the pursuers are friendly."

He hadn't expected her to come to this conclusion, and he wanted to find what she had realized, so he asked, "Now you are making a judgement, what do you base this on?"

"Well, sir," she said, "the flashes have come at regular intervals since first light, and the pursuers have paced us for several days."

"Yes?"

"The flashes are intentional, meant to let us know their position, and they make no move to close the distance to assault us."

"So?"

"So they hope to let us know they cover our retreat, and they pace us at a speed expected of such a march, confirmed by the condition of our past campsites. I believe they are the rearguard of Neopolis, and if so then the Vale of Stryma is lost, and the enemy may have moved far down the coast. Yet even on horseback they will take another 16 days or more to reach Therma, for the coast is rough in Chalcidic, and they will have to overcome the garrisons at Argil and Stargir."

"And what would be your course for us?"

"To continue as we have." Dena said with a sigh, "If they are the rearguard, then they will either follow us to Therma, or fight at our backs. We should not delay while we have the refugees, yet I would do anything to know if my brother lives, and if they are also pursued then he may die fighting a half-day behind me."

Aliksander sat digesting all she'd said. His heart went out to her, for what she said of her brother was true. His decision was simpler than hers, for he had his orders, to guard the refugees to Therma, and report the status of the war. Her observations would be added to the report though, he hadn't known the flashes were regular, or so intentional. His guess that the pursuers were friendly was based on their constant distance as they paced his march.

"Dena, you will be a commander of soldiers one day, mark my words. I have fought for most of my life, twenty-three years in our king's service. In that time I have never met anyone near your age with your abilities, and I don't just mean with a sword. You think, and you know what to look for before a battle so you have the information you need to make the right decisions. If your brother is like you, then I believe he will join us in Therma the night of the day we enter the city. Have faith Dena, the God's fortune is with you."

He looked into her glowing eyes, watching her weigh the words he had spoken, and he saw the looked for smile grow on her lips.

"I believe you Aliksander, in fact I know you're right."

"How do you know that, Dena?"

"I think they were never followed. Pursuing us wouldn't be worth their timeŠthat army has bigger fish to fry."

"Speaking of which, let's get some breakfast."

?

They were nearing the end of the fifth day's march, and the keeper of the watch had announced the fourth candle mark of the second watch. Dena was near the middle of the refugee column with her mother, and they spoke of the city of Therma, which Cyrea had traveled to once, as a young wife on a holiday with her husband Atraeus. She was describing the size of the market place, and the caged beasts from strange lands, when a commotion broke out at the column's rear. Dena could hear men yelling, and the sounds of people screaming, then came the push of bodies as refugees fled forward towards them. Dena pulled her mother with her, out of the column to stand between several large trees, where they couldn't be trampled. Looking back at the rear of the column she could make out fighting, and several men closing in from behind on horseback and brandishing swords.

Without a second thought, Dena ran towards the action as fast as she could, and as she drew closer she saw about a dozen men on foot attacking the four soldiers who guarded the column's rear. With the horsemen rapidly approaching, the situation looked bad, and it was about to get worse. She saw the attackers were roughly dressed, wearing no standard uniforms, but rather a variety of uniform parts from different armies, scruffy fighting leathers, and civilian clothing. Their weapons were just as varied in style and quality, but against unarmed civilians any sword would be deadly. They were brigands, criminals outlawed by the king, intent on banditry, and all too willing to victimize helpless refugees who had already lost so much.

She was closing in on the fighting quickly, but already one of the soldiers had fallen, and several refugees were cowering on the ground. Dena looked past them and saw a bandit swing his sword, cutting an old man across the chest. Nearby another was slamming the pommel of his sword across the cheek of a large woman who had defied him, and she crashed to the ground. The slaughter had begun. She drew her sword. The first bandit she got to was a dirty looking young man barely older than Dena herself, and she drove her sword into his ribs from the left, then kicked his body off her blade. He hadn't even seen her. The man standing next to him turned from threatening a boy as his body fell, and Dena sliced him across the neck as he raised his eyes from the corpse. He sprayed her with his blood. She heard hoof beats behind her closing fast, and she turned to see a horseman preparing to ride her down. She dodged away, spinning, her blade lashing out at a footman coming towards her from the other side. Now she was behind him, shoving him away. The horseman tried to turn his horse to follow her move, and ended up running down his own man instead. Dena spun her sword, reversing her grip, and stabbing down to finished him. The horseman was wheeling his mount around, to come back for another try. Dena switched her sword to her left hand, and pulled her whip off its hook. As the horseman finished turning his steed, she lashed out and cracked the whip before the horse's face. The horse was spooked, rearing violently, and throwing the unprepared rider. He struck the ground hard, hitting his head and shoulder first. He didn't move. Dena could tell from the odd angle of his head that his neck was broken. The horse had shied away from her, prancing into the group of bandits on foot, and scattering them away from the refugees. She saw two more soldiers had joined the original three, and they were fighting two horsemen and four bandits on foot. The last horseman was riding towards them, and with the riderless horse hiding her, she approached him. As he closed on the soldiers, she struck with the whip, and the end curled around his sword arm. She gave a violent jerk, pulling the whip hard, and dragging him out of the saddle. He fell right in front of a soldier who impaled him by reflex, as surprised to kill him as the bandit was to die. One of the other horsemen had retreated, the leg of his pants showing a widening stain of blood. A soldier had managed to slash him deeply on the thigh. Another of the bandits had been run through, and sat, dazed, holding the hole in his stomach before slowly falling over onto` his side.

The remaining bandits turned tail and fled. Dena sheathed her sword, coiled her whip, and after several tries, snagged the reins of the riderless horse. It was still skittish, and pranced nervously, the whites of its eyes showing as it stared at her. She stood still, speaking low, and trying to sooth it. She studied it, noting the spur cuts in its flanks and the marks on its hide from an ill-adjusted girth. The saddle was an abomination no beast should have been subjected to, she decided. It would have to go. Slowly, the horse calmed down, and she gradually moved nearer to it, now humming the tuneless song she used to occupy her own mind while concentrating on something else. It was a habit she'd had so long she couldn't remember when it started. It seemed to set the horse at ease, and she reached out a tentative hand for it to sniff. It sampled her fingers with its lips, and allowed her to stroke its nose. Soon she was able to stroke its neck and sides, and she worked her way to the saddle girth, unbuckling it and heaving it to the ground. The horse sniffed it, regarded it, and peed on it. It turned to look at her, and she could swear it was smiling at her, then it nickered softly, and laid its neck across her shoulder. And that was how Dena got her first war-horse.

That night, when the column stayed its march, Dena learned the mutual comfort of grooming the mare she'd acquired, and in doing so, satisfied herself that it wore no brand, and if it had been stolen originally, well, no one could make a claim for it now. After the session with the brush, she was amazed how good the animal looked. She was also amazed how thirsty it was. Luckily it could graze nearby. Cyrea was completely taken by the horse, but she really loved animals in general. The horse also seemed to like Cyrea, nuzzling her, and drooling on her, and offering its head for scratching. In the twilight of the camp, the horse's coat seemed to glow, like a ripening field of wheat in the afternoon sun. Its mane and tail had the color of corn silk. Both she and the horse were happy it had decided not to follow the other bandits when they had fled. Dena found herself thinking of names for it as she ate her evening meal.

In the evening, after their meal, Sergeant Aliksander came to speak with her. He thanked her for helping during the attack, asking if she was alright, and giving her a look that said he understood the possible reactions a person could have to killing in battle for the first time. Over the years he'd seen it all, from hysteria and bedwetting, to disassociation and bloodthirsty mania. He found Dena as calm as could be expected, and realized that taking the horse was a therapeutic distraction. Still, he could see the tremor in her hands when he mentioned the dead bandits, and the uncomfortable look in her eyes. Aliksander saw she had cleaned her weapons and set them aside without inspection or sharpening. A few speckles of blood still clung to her neck and the scrollwork of her breastplate. He thought she'd be ok given time.

"Dena, you did what was needed with speed and efficiency," he told her, searching her eyes, "a first kill in battle makes one think, wondering at the necessity and the waste of life. Never hesitate when you must act, yet never stop questioning the need. By doing thus you shall save many lives, but more important you shall save your soul. You see, Dena, it is easy to learn how to take a life, harder to know when mercy should be shown instead, but it is near impossible to redeem your own soul. Such redemption requires a special kind of love, and in this time without Gods, such love is often sought, but seldom found. So guard your soul, show mercy when you can, and kill without hesitation when you must. This is the wisdom I have learned in my lifetime of war."

Dena nodded, a tear overflowing and tracing her cheek, catching a glint of firelight, then dropping from her chin. She drew a deep slow breath, sniffling slightly, then closed her eyes and slowly let it out. She raised her eyes, seeing the sergeant's concern, and let herself give him a small smile, then she said, "Thank you, Aliksander, I'll try."

He also let her know the soldiers who had seen her fight were telling their fellow troops about how she had come out of nowhere, killing the first two attackers before they even knew she was there. Pulling down the two riders with her whip was also becoming a story for the taverns on future nights. Now he was sure she'd be admired rather than threatened by his troops.

Though they were still in the highlands it was summer, the weather was warm, even at night, and few pitched their tents, knowing they would have to strike them first thing in the morning. Most of the refugees simply found a comfortable spot and wrapped themselves in a blanket on the ground. Dena and her mother found a place near the edge of the camp where she could tie a rope around the horse's neck and wrap it around a tree nearby. Using their bags as pillows they lay down and drifted off to sleep. Sometime that night the fact that she had killed four men, and pulled a fifth from his horse to die at a soldier's hand came to haunt her dreams.

She was in a clearing with the carnage of war surrounding her, and by her prowess she had bested many men, yet when she finally stood alone, the voices of the dead assailed her, and their shades rose from the corpses to accuse her. There was the young man she had first killed, and his voice wheezed with the lung wound, saying he had left his parents' farm for a richer life as a warrior, and he had never actually killed anyone. Here was the second man, blood still spraying from his neck, demanding a fair contest and wishing to die facing her with his sword ready. Next the man ridden down by his ally's horse, holding his chest where her thrust had finished him, saying he had died in her place. Last came the man fallen from his horse, his neck still unnaturally bent, calling her horse thief, and upbraiding her cowardice for scaring the animal rather than fighting him. They surrounded her, speaking all at once, closing in from all sides, speaking louder and louder, coming closer and closer, until she could smell their corpse breath in her face. Her pulse pounded at her neck, and her head throbbed. She thrust her hands over her ears, and finally to escape their glare, stared upwards at the sky.

Above her was the dark vault of night, gateway to the endless void, lit by a billion stars, and in it hung a giant moon. Then in the void above her a constellation outlined itself, a ring encircling an s-curve, and this glowed revealing its shape, burning its form into her mind. Next the constellation separated into the eight points of the compass, and these glowing points fell to earth. She was back on the battlefield with the shades of the dead around her, but behind them the eight points of light glowed, encircling them all. Then the points widened, and the glow began to fade, and each multiplied into eight again, so that now they were encircled by sixty-four. And each was a figure, and their glow was gone, and she saw they were the figures of women, dressed from all ages of the lost past. Dena saw they were alike in form, they were like her twins, and the first and last were dressed alike as warriors of her own time, and they smiled at her, and all of them spoke with one voice, her voice.

"Daughter of the ages, you are called to walk the blade's edge, between vicious brutality and helpless passivity, balanced between the dark and light by your commitment, and your iron will. Before you stand the generations of warriors who have given their lives, with courage when even hope was lost, and behind them stand the millions through the ages who have died in the service of the Greater Good. You shall be compelled to act by the Spirit of Battle, and you shall be constrained from action by the Balance of Dark and Light. To you is given the choice to fall or to fly, and such is the choice given to all mankind. If you fall you shall fall lower than any living thing, yet if you fly you shall touch the stars."

Then one dressed as a warrior of her own time came forward, and with a glance forced the shades to their knees. And in her dream she took Dena's hand, and spoke softly to her so that no one else heard her words, as though for her such talk was hard.

"Dena, I was the first, and I lived in an age so long ago that it is forgotten on all worlds save one. You are here because of your conscience and your doubts, and without these you would be lost, and this vision would not have been. I will tell you that your actions were right. You are called to stand, and to bring back to the world that which was lost, and perhaps even that which was never found. You have a destiny which comes down to you from above the Gods, but you will not have to face it alone, and together you will succeed."

Then she stepped away from Dena to rejoin the others, but as she turned away she whispered in a voice barely heard, "Beware the God of War."

Then Dena saw visions of war throughout the ages, and in strange times and places she saw women so like herself fight and die. Like a kaleidoscope the fractured pictures filled her vision, and she saw generations that had traveled the void, and fought in space, on alien worlds, and in strange lands. But through them all, and more often than not joining her in the fight, there stood beside her a compact woman with emerald eyes and pale hair, and Dena thought her beautiful. The vision exploded in a blaze of light and a blast of air, and she opened her eyes.

The horse had pulled its rope and had leaned over her, shading the bright early morning sun from her eyes. It blew through its lips, its breath like the wind blowing her hair. Then it raised its head, and the sun blazed into her eyes again. Dena covered her face with her hands and shook her head. She could still see the dream, and even years later she would be able to clearly recall it to her mind. Her empty stomach grumbled and her full bladder grumbled, and with a sigh she got up to start the day.

It was the final day of the refugees' march to the city of Therma, and Dena walked beside her mother, the horse following them with no rope or halter. Like the others she was excited, for their flight would soon be over, and they would be seeing a city greater than most had ever seen. Behind them the flashes came, closer now, yet still beyond threat, and the sergeant didn't hasten them. Between the second and third candle marks of the second watch they came down out of the highlands, and soon rounded a point of land. There spread before them in the distance, still two candle marks march away, lay the great city of Therma and its massive walls. Within them stood a hill with temples to the Goddesses from which the smoke of incense rose heavenward, and before the temples a wide market space bustled. But Dena's eyes, and the eyes of the soldiers were drawn not to the wonders of the city, but to the area outside the walls. There before the gates stood an encampment of many thousand tents, and about it a palisade with sentries, and towers with watchmen, and troops drilling on the plain before the city.

"Dena," said Sergeant Aliksander, who had come to stand beside her, "before you is the Third Army of New Hellas, with the Lion of Macedon on their standards; 15,000 men at arms, and 3,000 liege-warriors, three full divisions. They mass to drive the barbarians from the king's lands, and my hope is that it will be with such slaughter that the land shall be free of them for a generation to come. Fourteen years ago but one division drove them back to the Strait of Constantine, but now I think King Liasis II tires of their incursions, and means to crush them to dust."

Dena could only stare in wonder at the sight before her, for in all her years she had never seen so many people in one place, let alone so many men at arms. The army only massed on rare occasions, a single division being sufficient for most engagements, and Dena wondered what kind of man would have the will and the strength to command so many fighters. What sort of mind made the decisions and maintained discipline in his king's name? Who was it that with a word could give life or death to thousands, both the enemy and his own, in an afternoon on the field of war? What would such power be like, and how would a soul escape being crushed by the responsibility and the guilt and the horror?

As she watched, a mounted column left the camp, and twenty horsemen in two rows came towards them. From a watchtower on the near side of the camp came a series of flashes, and as Dena looked back she saw them answered from the highlands behind, no random pattern, but true coded words crossing the miles between. She watched Aliksander's lips as he read the words the flashes carried, and then she saw him smile.

"They report our number, and our composition, and it seems they have marked you and your horse."

He drew his sword, and catching the light of the sun on the blade tilted it rapidly, sending his own message to the highlands and its watchers. Shortly he had his reply.

"I have assured them we are safe, and can make the city unassisted. I have reported those following us for the last three days, and the presence of the bandits to them as well," he told her, then added with a grin, "and I have also said you are on our side, and the horse is yours. No one will try to commandeer it for the army."

He looked at the shock on her face, and then he burst out laughing, rapidly covering his head as she slapped at him when she realized his jest.

"Ok, ok," he said through his laughter, "I told them you had distinguished yourself fighting against the bandits. Don't worry about your horse, the army breeds its own, and is loath to accept untrained steeds."

So it was that on the sixth day of their march, nine days after fleeing their homes, the weary refugees of Amphilios entered the city of Therma. There they found comfort and aid, and healers treated those who had taken injury in their flight, but none could heal the losses of their homes, or their livelihoods, or their dead. They were given rooms in the city hostels, and when those were filled, in private inns. In one of these, Cyrea took work as a hostess, managing the inn in its owner's absence, and thereby providing room and board for herself, and her daughter, and her daughter's horse. Dena found a used saddle she could afford, and which the horse consented to bear, and she took comfort in caring for the animal and bonding with it through riding and grooming. But the highest point in their stay those first days was when Taris returned late the first night, with the remainder of the rearguard of Neopolis, and his joy was as great as hers and their mother's, for he had seen the destruction of the Vale of Stryma. Then he was off to the army camp, to be debriefed about his actions and the status of the war, and afterwards he was reassigned to the Fifth Corps of Liege-Warriors, Second Division, of the Third Army of New Hellas, the Army of Macedon, for the army was preparing to move.

On the third day of their stay, Taris, having finished duty joined them for the morning meal, after which the three spent two candle marks telling each other all that had passed, and sharing in the affection of a family beset by war. Then Dena took Taris to see her horse, and the instant trust between them warmed Dena's heart.

"Has she a name?" Taris asked his sister, stroking the horse's neck and offering a slice of apple.

"No, I've not found one that appeals and seems to fit," Dena replied, studying the horse as it crunched the slice of fruit, then looked to Taris for another, "it needs to feel right, and I'm still learning her temperament."

"Well, just make sure itąs a name you feel attached to as well, so it will comfort you to call it. Many times, a horse is a warrior's best friend."

"I'll think about it. I find myself talking to her, and at those times I know she needs a name. Quit looking at me like that, a lot of people talk to their horses. Don't they?"

He kept looking at her with a raised eyebrow and a hint of a grin, saying nothing.

"Well, they do don't they?" she asked, a little less certain, "wellŠ?"

Finally he couldn't keep from sniggering, and she blew up in mock anger, slapping his shoulders and swatting his back. He gave in to his laughter, for though he loved his sister dearly, he could never pass up an opportunity to tease her, though never in a way that hurt. For all the years since their father had fallen in battle, he'd felt responsible for her and their mother. From the time he was a boy of seven he'd been the man of the house, and their house had been an inn filled with strangers. It had driven him to learn the arts of war, as much as his desire to make his father's spirit proud, and it had driven him fast and hard. The army had offered him a commission as a liege-warrior on his eighteenth birthday, an honor, for such appointments usually had to be won in sparring matches. The captain of the garrison at Amphilios had known him for years, and when his lieutenants had both concurred, the offer had been made and accepted. In the three years since, he had challenged and advanced his position within the liege-warriors' corps at the Neopolis garrison, so that by the time of the invasion he commanded a squad of ten warriors. He had managed to bring nine of his ten men, and nine men at arms out of the retreat from Neopolis, through the highlands, then to the city of Therma while protecting the flight of the refugees.

Dena was still smacking him, but now she was laughing as she did it. "Very funny warrior, teasing a helpless girl about her horse. I ought to beat your ass to teach you a lesson."

"You and what army, little girl?" Taris shot back like he had a hundred times before, though now she was only three inches shorter.

"I don't need any help to take you down, you aren't so tuff little boy."

They had walked out of the barn and were headed down the street towards the city gate, both knowing where this argument would lead, and both grinning through the insults they hurled, finding it hard to wait.

"You think I'll take it easy on you 'cause youąre just a girl, well don't bet on it."

"Hey, I can take anything you've got. You think you're a big deal 'cause you're a warrior, well let me tell you, I'm not impressed."

They were starting to get the attention of some passers by, and heads were turning, some puzzled by the harsh words and familiar smiles. Most thought it was a lover's spat.

"I don't have to impress you," Taris said, "your opinion isn't worth horse feed."

"Leave my horse out of this," Dena threatened, grinning, "or you'll be sorry you got up this morning."

"I've killed warriors way meaner than you just to work up an appetite for breakfast. I'll shut you up twice as fast."

"Yeah, you and what army, little boy?"

"I don't need an army to take you down, you aren't so tuff little girl."

And so they continued back and forth, accompanied by a small crowd of curious onlookers, until they found an empty space outside the city walls and drew their swords. They circled each other warily, wondering what the other had learned in the last three years, wondering if old habits and faults were still there. They heard voices in the crowd exchanging small wagers over the outcome, and their grins widened. Then Dena opened with a high attack, swinging at Taris' head, and recovering quickly when he ducked and jabbed his blade toward her legs. Instead of withdrawing, he pressed her, bringing his blade strait up where she blocked it to the side with her bracer, and continuing the turn slashed with her blade at his neck. Taris knelt, bending one knee and sweeping his sword across his back, but instead of blocking Dena's slash, he just redirected it over his head. Her momentum carried her past her target, and Taris leapt up, the strength of his bent legs propelling him into the air where he flipped completely over Dena to land behind her and swat her back with the flat of his blade. It was over.

"Wow," she said in admiration, "when did you learn that?"

"Two years ago," he said sheathing his sword, "a guy from Illium, the windy city. I learned a whole style of fighting from him."

"Teach me everything," she demanded.

He spent four candle marks showing her the aerial swordplay of the swordsman of Illium, and by the end of their session, both were soaked with sweat and exhausted. It had been like the old days of their youth at home, and they had missed it dearly. They went back to the inn, and after soaking in baths joined their mother for the noon meal. In the heat of the afternoon Taris slept, preparing for his duty on the third watch, and Dena helped her mother until the day's heat faded, and then she went for an easy ride.

She was walking the horse down a street towards the inn when a young woman in a black robe approached her. The woman's robe fell half way to her knees and she was girt with a sash, but across her back she carried a sword, and the cords attaching the scabbard crossed over her chest. On the front of the robe an emblem was embroidered in gold and silver threads, and this more than anything else held Dena's attention, for the emblem was a ring, divided across its center by an s-curve. The woman was of medium height, with pale blond hair, cropped short like a boy's, and ice blue eyes. Dena could only describe her features as sharp; pointed nose and chin, angular cheeks and brows, her expression appraising and focused.

"Hail and well met," said the woman in greeting, "you are called Dena of Amphilios, I have heard."

"Hail and well met," Dena replied, curious that anyone knew her, "you've heard right, but I don't know you. What's your name?"

"I am Najilla, priestess of the Goddess of War. I was sent from Her temple by the Priestess Inquisitor to request your presence. The Priestess Inquisitor wishes to question you about your dreams."

Dena was shocked silent. How could anyone know what she dreamed, well, what she had dreamed once, for she could only imagine one of her dreams being of any interest to anyone, especially the priestesses of the Goddess of War. Suddenly she was wary; the warrior in her dream had said, "Beware the God of War", just before vanishing. Dena narrowed her eyes.

"This is a request Dena," Najilla reassured her, "we wouldn't try to force you into the temple, but you might find some answers if you come. The choice is yours."

"Well, I wish to stable my horse, and care for it after our ride. Where is the temple? Maybe I could come there afterwards."

"Come to the city center. The temple is marked with the symbol of the chakram," she said indicating the emblem on her breast as she regarded Dena intensely, "you can't miss it. Just tell anyone there your name."

Dena turned towards the horse, stroking its neck, and giving herself a moment to think. She was curious about the dream, and it was a temple to the Goddess, and it was a request, not a demand. She decided to tell Najilla she'd be there, and turned back to find her gone. They were in an open lane, but the priestess in her distinctive robe was nowhere to be seen. Wish I could vanish like that, Dena said to herself, and turned to lead her horse back to the inn.

?

CHAPTER 3: WHAT DREAMS ARE FOR

It was the sixth candle mark of the second watch when Dena came to the city center and found the temple of the Goddess of War. Above the stylobate Doric columns rose to the architrave, carved with a design taken from the scrollwork of the Goddess' breastplate. Above this, in the metopes, the emblem of the chakram was carved a dozen times. Topping all, in the cornice below the slanting roof, was a tableau of figures depicting the Goddess and her favorite with the leaders of the colonists. The central figure, of the Goddess of War, was a portrait of the woman in her dream, identical in her gear and features. It could have been a statue of Dena herself. I look pretty good, she thought to herself, grinning. Then she noticed the chakram at the Goddess' side where she wore her whip. That sobered her.

She climbed the steps and passed into the temple between the central pair of columns, finding the interior lit by many lamps, and scented with incense. Priestesses went about their business moving purposefully through the space, and Dena understood the disappearing trick. Though the fronts of the robes were black, the backs were white. Dena realized she had probably looked right at Najilla as she walked away, and never recognized her. The Balance of Dark and Light she thought, remembering the words from her dream. Several of them glanced at her as she stood near the entrance, most doing a kind of double take that they tried to suppress. Dena grinned and approached one who stood close by.

"Hail and well met," Dena began, "I am Dena of AmphiliosŠ"

"Here to speak with the Priestess Inquisitor," the priestess finished, "please come with me, we have been hoping you would come."

She followed the priestess through the antis and into the cella, where the priestess bid her wait while she hurried into a side chamber. She soon returned and ushered Dena into a larger chamber that they reached by descending a flight of steps. Here the light was subdued, and the incense of a different and spicier scent. They passed through a curtain that gave privacy to a small space that was bare save for a statue of the Goddess and her favorite, and a bench before it. The figures were painted in lifelike tones as was the style, and Dena felt she was looking at another portrait of herself. She was possessed by the thought that she had stumbled into the lair of someone who had the world's biggest crush on her, and she stifled a bark of laughter. Things seemed a little strange. Maybe it was that incense, Dena thought.

"I guess you appreciate the décor," a voice behind her said, carrying a touch of humor, "I can imagine what you must be thinking, seeing yourself venerated in stone all around this place. I suspect you'll get used to it."

"It is a little strange," Dena admitted, then asked, "are you the Priestess Inquisitor?"

"Yes, I am Diana, Priestess Inquisitor of Therma," she answered directly, "and I'm interested in dreams, yours and mine."

Dena digested this while appraising the priestess. She was dressed like all the other women she'd seen in the temple, and she also wore a sword. She was perhaps 4" shorter than Dena, with a medium build and graceful movements. Dena guessed her age was in the mid-thirties. Her hair was a mass of dirty blond curls, draping her shoulders and falling down her back. Her reddened eyes were a medium brown and conveyed intelligence and focus, though they also held a light of humor, keeping her from seeming severe and balancing her somewhat imposing title. She seemed at ease, though she looked tired, displaying an open and slightly lopsided smile, and the direct manner that put Dena at ease. Diana sat on the bench and indicated that Dena should join her.

"My dreams and yours?" Dena asked, sitting down, and thinking that maybe the conversation wouldn't be just an interrogation.

"Well yes, Dena, I've been dreaming about you a lot," she stated, "and the Goddess, and the God of War."

"The God of War?" Dena repeated, thinking of the whispered warning in her dream.

"You have a tendency to repeat me," Diana said, with a smile at Dena's momentary confusion, "that's not actually a bad thing, if it means I'm understood."

Dena laughed. "Guess you think I'm kinda dumb, and you might be right. I'm having a little difficulty absorbing all this," she said gesturing at the statue of the Goddess.

"Well, let me give you some background." Diana said. She paused, collecting her thoughts, then began an extended monologue which Dena found mind-boggling.

"According to legends taught by Val, the Goddess of History and Knowledge, the story starts long, long ago on a planet far, far away. About 14,000 years ago, Zeus, Father of Gods, brought his wife and two brothers from their home world. They fled here as renegades, carrying two rings of steel, stolen from their father, which had been passed down from the dawn of time. They were created by the Great Power to hold the Essences of Dark and Light. They could be joined to create a weapon of surpassing potency, but only by one holding the Balance of Dark and Light in their soul, and only such a person could keep the combined chakram. For millennia the separated rings lay on the altar in their temple, and all attempts to remove them were fatal. Finally they were taken by a mortal born warrior woman, though she had to personify first the dark of evil and then the light of innocence to remove them unharmed. It is said she had to die to do it. She had also become the Goddess of War and Strategy. She was the daughter, favorite, and beloved of Ares, son of Zeus, and God of War. It is said that she lived for over 2,100 years before giving up her godhood, and dying as a mortal woman. She passed the chakram to Ares, who had died as a mortal and was resurrected by the Great Power as a god, and he kept it for the next 6,666 years. In that time it is said that mankind founded a great empire in the void, and when Ares led them to the stars, earth fell into the Years without Gods. Finally, there was war between the worlds of the void, and worlds were destroyed. The God of War fell into the darkness, and losing the Balance of Dark and Light, the chakram was taken from him by Dale who became the Goddess of War. She came from the stars with her favorite, Val, whom we know as the Goddess of History and Knowledge. They brought the Balance back to the world, and they lived at Olympia for 465 years. Then in 9,187 they died. The chakram was separated into the rings of dark and light, and the world began to fall into the twilight we live in now. That's the quick version. It's really more complex, but I guess you get the idea. Mankind gets unbalanced without a God or Goddess of War. The Spirit of Battle is dispersed, and conflict gets out of hand. The Balance of Dark and Light fails, and people act out of selfishness and greed without the constraint of conscience. Usually that means civilization falls apart for lack of cooperation and fear of violence. I must say though, King Liasis II is doing a great job considering the times."

Diana shook herself, and took a few deep breaths, then she looked Dena in the eyes and asked, "Well, any questions?"

Dena just looked at her. That incense was making her feel thick headed, and she was numbed by all the information she'd just gotten. She'd listened to every legend she'd heard growing up at the inn. It all amounted to nothing compared to what she'd just heard. Almost everything except Dale and Val's reign and death was unknown. The stuff about the chakram was totally new. The God of War she'd never heard of, and the idea of an empire of worlds out in space was pretty much unbelievable. At least she agreed that King Liasis II was a good king.

"OK, since there are no questions I guess its time to share," Diana said, throwing another lump of resin on a brazier and inhaling deeply, "as I said, I've been having some very busy nights in my sleep. For the last few weeks I've been seeing you, mostly walking and killing people, the Goddess, showing me things I don't understand, and a couple times the God of War building weapons I can't comprehend. It all adds up to trouble I'm sure, and I'm really hoping that you can help me see what's going to become of us. Ok?"

"Well, I had been walking a lot lately, but now I have a horse," Dena stated, realizing how dumb that sounded as soon as it was out of her mouth. That smoke was making her feel giddy, "and I did kill a few bandits recentlyŠdoes that help?"

"It's a start," Diana said in encouragement, "since I know you had to march for six days from Amphilios, why don't you tell me about the bandits."

So Dena told the story of the bandit attack, and the four men she had killed, and how she got her horse. Diana asked her about various points that seemed to interest her, until they finally reached the part about Dena's dream. Diana sat in rapt attention throughout the story, absently chewing her lips, and cracking her knuckles. When Dena finished the priestess sat motionless, closing her eyes, then she threw more resin on the brazier and calmed herself with a few deep breaths.

Finally Diana spoke. "Well, I have never met a Goddess before, but it seems clear to me that one day you will become the Goddess of War." Then the priestess looked at her with an intensity that made Dena very self-conscious, and without thinking about it she began smoothing her hair. Seeing this, Diana started laughing hysterically, and this made Dena even more uncomfortable, for she was now convinced she was in the company of a mad woman who had snappedŠno one was near, and she had a sword. The other priestesses who filled the temple seemed to hold Diana in high regard. Not good, Dena thought, getting paranoid, only one exit and I'm badly outnumbered here.

"Maybe I'd better go," Dena muttered, rising from the bench, "sorry I upset you." And she began retreating uncertainly towards the stairs, unwilling to turn her back. She reached the cella while Diana was still laughing, so remembering that self-preservation is often the better part of valor, she headed for the peristyle at a dead run. Dena didn't stop until she was out of the city center. On her way home in the dark, in a strange city that had just gotten stranger, Dena knew she didn't feel a bit like a Goddess. She was spooked, and she longed for the company of her horse. Instead she did what she had done at home when she needed to be alone. She climbed the walls of the city, and found a place where she could sit and gaze at the stars. Eventually the clean air cleared her head. Thus by chance she sat in that high place at the changing of the watch, and below her in the camp of the Army of Macedon there was a great movement of troops. And she sat without moving, humming a tuneless song as the candle marks passed, and below her the First and Third Divisions, 10,000 men at arms, and 2,000 liege-warriors, marched out of the palisade. Down the west road they marched two short miles to the sea, and there they took ship, and at the fifth candle mark of the third watch, the armada sailed from the port of Therma, disappearing into the east to prosecute the war.

At the opening of the second watch, in the afternoon the next day, Dena sat again in that high place on the city walls, and she watched as the Second Division, of which her brother was a part, marched into the foothills of the highlands to the east. Each of the 5,000 men at arms carried on his back a two-gallon jar filled with a mixture of oil and fat, and each of the 1,000 liege-warriors carried a pouch of iron nails, or a carpenter's tool.

?

There was a place on the eastern coast of Chalcidic, south of Stargir, where the highlands ended in cliffs above a narrow plain before the sea. A little further south there was a low massif jutting into the waves, the headland sheltering a bay to the south, and in that bay there landed the armada of the king's army. Then 12,000 strong, the kings forces awaited a signal from the ships keeping watch at sea. In the highlands the Second Division labored, and after their march from Therma, these 6,000 had constructed 200 small trebuchets easily capable of lofting a two-gallon firebomb to the plain below the cliffs. An expeditionary force landed at night near Stargir had kept the enemy from passing the fort.

When all was ready, and the preparations confirmed by signal flashes between the highlands and the ships, the forces at Stargir retreated south along the coast, moving slowly with the enemy massed behind. Soon they reached the cliffs, and there the king's forces fled from their enemy at highest speed, drawing them in pursuit into the killing ground. The enemy's cavalry and infantry found themselves bombarded from the cliffs above by thousands of firebombs, their retreat cut off by a solid wall of flames. Then, as the bombardment dwindled, 12,000 of the kings men poured over the headland, charging north to slaughter the enemy survivors. As that battle raged, the Second Division came down from the highlands several miles north and began a march up the coast towards Argil, slaying any invaders they met. Behind them the First and Third Divisions wrought a bloodbath on the coast, and by nightfall no living barbarian remained from Argil south. At Argil on the next day, the three divisions reunited, and then they marched north clearing the land of the invaders. In a week they retook all the land below the Stryma Vale, and in another week they had passed Neopolis. Three weeks after Dena watched them marching from Therma, they stood at the Strait of Constantine. Behind them the bodies of 16,000 invaders had been thrown as fish food into the sea.

The Army of Macedon, having learned of an enemy stronghold fifty miles from the strait, marched north into battle on foreign soil, and arriving at the barbarian's city, besieged it and broke its walls. Then with great slaughter, the king's men burned and leveled the city, leaving the ruins as a warning to the enemy to respect the border.

?

Twenty-three cowering men stood before him, their eyes downcast in fear after his tirade. Correct that, he thought, these aren't men. They are living tools for the achievement of my Lord's desire.

The scientists had this last chance to save their lives, and the lives of their miserable families, and their miserable families' pets. If the laser failed to produce a beam this day, they would all surely die. General Garza couldn't decide which he'd enjoy more, seeing his Lord's will achieved, or slaughtering these sniveling scientists and ending their endless excuses. He'd even dreamed of having both. Perhaps he could make sure the weapon worked, then report a failure and get permission to slay these whiners. Later he could demonstrate a working prototype for his Lord's pleasure, and reap the praise himself. It was tempting, but he'd heard stories of men roasted alive after failing to deceive their Lord. He wasn't sure about those stories, but he didn't want to take the chance, especially when his Lord could simply appear anywhere he chose, anytime he chose.

Below his observation platform, the scientists retreated behind a force-wall and put on shield helmets. A klaxon sounded. Suddenly there was a whump, but no visible beam sizzled the air. Still, in under a second the x-ray laser had pierced a six-foot thick steel plate. The beam stopped dead where it met a force-wall, then it ceased. He could smell ozone. The scientists examined the plate, and congratulated each other. One of them looked up and made a "thumbs-up" sign. General Garza was disgusted by that puerile display. Next to him the air shimmered, and with flames and lightning his Lord appeared. General Garza fell to his knees, bowing his head, nervous due to his proximity.

"Rise General," his Lord's voice rumbled, "you are to be commended on the success of your underlingsŠa good thing too, for their failure would have been your own as well."

General Garza gulped, and he nearly lost control of his bladder. "Thank you my Lord Ares. We all had motivation to achieve your desires."

"Yes, it's always that way, isn't it." Ares said with a smile like a shark.

"My Lord, I live by your command!" General Garza replied by reflex.

Ares favored him with a smile, which made him feel like a prey animal, and vanished with flames and lightning. The general looked down and searched the floor for the scientists, but they had fled.

?

"I dreamt of battle impossible to behold, of warships in a sea of night bedecked with endless stars. And they fought for worlds that I shall never see, their valor passed in an ancient age before I came to be. For though these heroes spent their blood in wars I cannot comprehend, none in later times will their honor strip, nor years fade the triumphs of one red ship."

"Aggghh damn! That's not it either," Dena exclaimed in exasperation as her horse watched with mild interest. "I guess poetry just isn't one of my skills. Too bad, that dream was so vivid it deserves to beŠoh never mind, lets go."

She mounted her steed, and they galloped back to Therma.

I dreamt of war, the timeless void,

Impossible to behold.

Of ships that flew the sea of night,

Where space is heartless cold.

They fought for worlds I'll never know,

Beyond the stars I see.

Their valor passing in an age,

Before I came to be.

These countless heroes spent their blood,

For honor we cannot strip.

Nor fade through years the triumphs won,

The flights of one red ship.

-Opening stanza, Anonymous, "A Dream of War". Anno Domini 9,409 : 7,353 A.D.

?

In a narrow bed, in a nondescript inn, in the city of Therma, Dena of Amphilios turned and twisted in her dreams. They were becoming a nightly occurrence, and she looked forward to them with the same thirst she had once had as a girl, for the legends and tales of travelers at her mother's inn. Tonight she had quickly fallen asleep, and soon the dreams had come.

Dena stood in a temple, and looking through the colonnade of the pteron she could see the tops of clouds. The site had to have been on the heights of a mountain taller than any she had ever climbed. It could be only one place. Mt. Olympia, home of the Goddesses.

"Very good, daughter of the ages," her voice spoke from behind her, "you stand in my temple on Olympia, and to you I shall reveal the secret of this temple. One future day you shall stand here and you shall find what I show you now."

Dena turned, and she looked into her own eyes in the face of Dale Sherril, the Goddess of War. Next to her stood the Goddess of History and Knowledge, Valerie Havarr. Dena tried to be discreet in her drooling over the blond goddess, who grinned at her, then turned her expressive eyes to her partner. The look that passed between those two let Dena know she was busted, and she barely overheard a comment between them about "youthful hormones". They turned their attention back to Dena, and Dale beckoned her to follow them.

Together they walked through the antis and the cella, finally entering the pronaos, with its monumental statue of Dale. Dale led them around the back of the colossus where a panel in the wall was inscribed with a cutout of the chakram. Dale pulled the weapon from its hook at her waist and set it into the receptacle in the wall, then she grasped the s-curve, and turned the chakram to the right. Dena heard a click and a panel in the base of the statue popped open an inch. Before leading her further, Dale cautioned Dena not to make the mistake of turning the chakram to the left.

"If you turn it the wrong way you will die, cutie," Valerie said, winking at her and causing Dena to gulp.

Dale made a comment about "cruelty to children", and pulled the panel open, revealing a stairway cut into the stone of the statue's base. Leading the way she guided them down the stairs to a passage that also sloped down. They came to a round spiral of metal that blocked their path, and Dale pressed her palm against a small window inset in the red wall. Dena nearly jumped out of her skin as the spiral sprang open like an iris.

"Welcome aboard the Colonial Warship Ares." Valerie Havarr said from behind her as she prodded her into motion with a slap on the butt. Dena was mortified, and turned a deep red as she walked into the most advanced warship in the galaxy. Behind her Val giggled.

"So what you do is just push this button," Dale said, indicating a red button on the console next to the captain's chair, then she hissed, "NOT NOW!" as Dena's finger started towards it.

Dena pulled her finger back like it had been burnt, and asked Dale, "What does it do?"

"It blows up in your face," Val deadpanned, then lapsed into hysterics as Dena blanched.

"Enough, Val!" Dale admonished, "This is serious."

"Yeah, yeah," Valerie said, still chuckling, "couldn't resist ya know?"

"OkŠDena, this button activates the auto control modes for the ship's systems. After that you just have to think of what you want it to do, and it does the rest. We did some upgrades. It's not actually the Ares anymore, and it's really pretty smart for a machine."

"You have to watch this holo," Val said seriously, "you have to know what it can do."

Dena spent the next half candle mark watching a 3-D movie of the warship Ares on exercises, the images moved in the air above a round translucent dish in the counter top. It was utterly amazing, but she managed to absorb it. Well, what are dreams for, she thought to herself. Behind her, Dale and Val were whispering, but she managed to catch a few phrases, like "robbing the cradle", and "get what you deserve / promise?". While she was watching the holo, Val slipped a scrap of paper into her hand, and she absently tucked it into the bodice of her leathers. Dena decided to watch part of it again, and she pushed the button on the holo projector, but it blew up in a flash of sparks and light. She woke up with the sound of Valerie's laughter ringing in her ears. Something was scratching her between her breasts, and when she reached for it she came up with a note on a kind of paper she'd never seen before. Dena unfolded it, and read the script. It was the poem she'd tried to write after her dream the night before, the one that just wouldn't come out right. Except now it worked. At the bottom Val had penned a short message.

"Poetry is one of my skills. Copy this verse, and then destroy this note. Eating it wouldn't be a bad ideaŠto make sure it doesn't fall into enemy hands."

Dena could almost hear Val laughing at the thought of her eating the note, but with her heart beating a rapid tattoo she copied the lines on a parchment, and grinned as she chewed the paper no one on her world could make. It tasted like chocolate.

?

CHAPTER 4: WINNING THE ROAD TO CORINTHIA

The runner had come down from the hills east of Therma in the fourth candle mark of the second watch, and though he staggered through the gates of the city, he went first to the temples and offered incense to the Goddesses for his safe return. Then, having had water and a little food, he went before the council of the city and proclaimed his news. Moments later the bells of the city began to ring, announcing the victory of the army over the barbarians, and the freeing of the lands of Macedon and Thracae by the warriors of the king. People ran into the streets, and there was a celebration that the citizens spent two days recovering from. There was feasting, processions giving thanks to the Goddess of War, more feasting, and dancing in the streets. Wine flowed freely in every tavern and inn, people reeled through the streets, and the gutters ran with vomit. Fine citizens and beggars alike shared the public spaces, sleeping in the parks, too inebriated to find their ways home. Dena and her mother were overjoyed, for now they could return to Amphilios and take up their lives again. They waited only for word of Taris before they headed east to their home. So they thought.

That night Dena lay in her bed, listening to the revelers in the streets, turning from the window in disgust as someone began heaving in the alley outside. She heard him hit the cobbles, and then relative quiet returned. She gathered her blanket around her and drifted off to sleep.

Dena found herself on a field of battle, and the most ancient of her "ancestors" approached. Somehow Dena only met this one on some battlefield, in the quiet after a slaughter, with the corpses and cadavers underfoot, and the stench of blood assaulting her nostrils. She'd have to ask her about it some time. To her right a dead horse lay like a toppled statue, bloated, stiff, and with its legs sticking straight up in the air. The warrior woman came closer, giving her a slight smile that could almost have been a sneer. Dena returned it, and saw the woman's left eyebrow rise.

"Don't get uppity just 'cause your alive," she said, "you've got a lot to learn if you want to stay that way for long."

"I intend to be around a lot of years, thanks for the concern," Dena replied, "and what's with all these scenes of mayhem we always meet in anyway?"

"This is the aftermath of the battle of Kratis," Xena said, in a menacing tone of voice while staring into Dena's eyes, "my army destroyed the forces of the city, cheap mercenaries. I was a month younger than you are at the time, and I already had 200 men at my command."

"What did you do then?" Dena asked, a little awestruck.

"I raided the countryside, pillaged and stuff to keep the men happy, and then went south to attack Corinth."

"I don't think I'm really interested in bringing chaos and slaughter to my own peopleŠ"

"Good. It was a mistake." Xena said, looking down for a moment, "I haveŠhad a lot to make up for, and I was never sure if it really balanced out. Anyway, I'm here to tell you that you can't go homeŠ"

"What!?!"

"Like I said, you have a lot to learn, so you need to head to Sparata in Peloponnesia."

"Sparata??? That's practically on the other side of the world."

Xena was looking at her and tapping her toe impatiently, hands on her hips, brow furrowed. Dena knew she was about to snap at her, and decided to wait her out. Sure enoughŠ

"You spoiled little snit, Sparata is less than 250 miles as the Odin's crows fly, and over land by horse it should take you less than two weeks." Xena was gesturing with her index finger, leaning forward as if she was looking down on someone shorter. It was comical because they were the same height. "It's not like you have to slow down for someone walking with you."

As she said the last, Dena became aware of the short blond woman coming up and standing unnoticed next to Xena. It was her version of Val. She was pretty much the same except she showed more skin, and she usually acted more mature than Valerie. Dena liked her.

"Xeeena, quit trying to scare her," the little blond said, "we need her. Mankind needs her, and at the rate you're going you're going to give her a sleep disorder. And I heard that comment about slowing you down."

"GabrielleŠit was true for the first four years, and anywayŠ"

"Don't change the subject," Gabrielle said, "she's still a kid mostly, just like I was, so have some patience with her."

They stared at each other for a few moments, then Xena sighed and turned back to face Dena.

"Alright, look, I know you planned to go back to Amphilios with your mom, but you need to learn how to use pressure point attacks. In Sparata there is a woman named M'lanta who will teach youŠtrust me, I knowŠknew someone like her once, and history tends to repeat itself in some respects. Take care of your legs. Was that ok, Gabrielle?"

"Much better," Gabrielle said giving the warrior a big smile, "see, she's convinced, aren't you?"

The last was directed to Dena, and wasn't really a question. Dena shook her head "yes", thinking to herself that learning another fighting technique might make it worth going to the armpit of New Hellas. She did wonder what Xena's comment about her legs was for, it had sounded a little ominous. Gabrielle and Xena were already walking off across the battlefield in an animated discussion, both gesturing vigorously, and Dena woke up to a drunken brawl outside her window. It was morning, and in Therma the party was still going on. She contemplated emptying the chamber pot out the window, but settled for slamming the shutters closed instead. Then she sat there for a while trying to figure out how to tell her mother she'd be heading the other direction when Cyrea started back to Amphilios. An opportunity presented itself.

As Dena sat thinking, she heard the brawl outside getting louder, punctuated by the sound of something hard striking meat, a yell, and another hard blow. Then quiet. Dena went to the window to investigate. Suddenly the shutters swung open. Dena grabbed the hooded figure outside and hauled it through the window, locking one of its arms behind its back and slamming it to the floor. She held the person down with her knee, and twisted their head around. It was Najilla, the priestess of the War Goddess. She was dazed and Dena checked the condition of her pupils. They were still the same size, if a bit dilated.

I don't have time for this, Dena thought, slapping the groggy priestess.

"Wakey, wakeyŠwhat are you doing coming in my window?"

"Huhhh, uhhhh," the priestess sputtered, then her eyes focused on Dena, and she recoiled in terror, "Goddess, Please Don't Kill Me!"

"What are you doing here?" Dena hissed.

"I had to talk to you and I can't let anyone know I'm here and I had to tell you I left the temple 'cuase Diana's nuts except she dreamed you're going to Sparata and I want to help you get away from here and I had to beat up those two drunks outside but they're just like a guard dogs aren't they."

"Yeah, they are," Dena said, getting up and letting go of the priestess. She was beginning to get the idea for a plan, "and you're going to help me alright."

"Really?"

"Really, and here's what we're going to do," Dena said, helping the priestess to her feet.

?

It was the second candle mark of the first watch, and Dena sat with her mother in the common room of the inn having their morning meal, when a priestess of the temple of the Goddess of War entered the room. She scanned the tables, studying the faces of the seated patrons until her eyes stopped on Dena and her mother.

"Another one," Cyrea muttered, as she swallowed her mouthful of eggs, "I'll be right back, Dena, I've got to seat someoneŠthe serving wenches will take care of her after that."

It wasn't necessary, Najilla came right to their table, looking at Dena and ignoring Cyrea.

"Can I help you young ladyŠ" Cyrea asked, before Najilla cut her off."

"You're Dena of Amphilios, aren't you?" Najilla asked, still ignoring Cyrea, "You are just as the Head Priestess described you."

"You mean me?" Dena asked, as her mother looked on in silence.

"Yes, Dena. She wants you to meet with the Head Priestess of the temple in Athenae. She has dreamed that you will become a great priestess."

"Me," Dena asked, acting incredulous, "a priestess of the Goddess of WarŠin Athenae?"

"I will take you to Athenae, where the main temple to the Goddess of War is." Najilla offered, "Those were her orders to me."

"Why would I want to become a priestess of the War Goddess? I always planned to join the army."

"Well, you would be fighting evil in the Goddess' name, serving justice, helping people, learning ancient wisdom." Najilla persuaded, "The Head Priestess thinks you have a destiny with us, to become a champion in the service of the greater good. In the army you could win honor and the peoples' thanks, but as a priestess you could win honor and the Goddess' thanks."

"Uhhh, I have to think about it, I mean go to Athenae?" Dena asked, "I was going home."

Cyrea shook her head "yes", looking back and forth between them.

Najilla looked at Cyrea, staring into her eyes, and said to Dena, "You have to decide soon. Our ship leaves from the port of Therma tonight. It sails for Athenae at the sixth candle mark of the second watch. If we miss it, it will mean a much longer trip on horseback. I think we need you."

Cyrea thought of all the things that could happen to her daughter in the long ride to Athenae. Then she thought of all the things that could happen to her daughter in a boat on the sea. She thought of her daughter dying in the wars the army fought, just like her father, and maybe her brother, and she thought of her daughter as a priestess, off to Athenae with this crazed girl standing at their table. In the end she couldn't make up her mind, and just sat shaking her head.

"Let me think about it for a while," Dena told Najilla, "I'll tell you what I decide soon."

"I hope you'll join us, Dena," Najilla said to her. Then she smiled at Cyrea, and walked out of the common room and into the street. Once outside she circled around, walked down the alley, and climbed back in Dena's window.

"Well, Mom, it sounds like there might be something to it. I mean I'll get to learn all about the ancient legends. I don't know, what do you think?"

"It's kind of sudden," Cyrea said, trying to deal with what had just happened, "I mean I'd always thought you'd join the army, still, she made being a priestess sound good. But you'd have to go off tonight?"

"Yeah, it is kind of suddenŠI'm interested though," Dena mused, "I mean it's something I never thought ofŠthey don't have priestesses in Amphilios."

Cyrea clamped down on a sick expression and looked away. She knew her daughter, impulsive, willful, and always intrigued with something new. She had a feeling she'd get swept away with this new idea of becoming a priestess, and go off with that crazy girl. Cyrea didn't think Dena's independent streak would be an asset in the clergy, but she had a feeling about this for sureŠmother's intuition.

"I have to think," Dena said, "I'm going to go groom my horse. Talk to you later, Mom."

Dena got up and left, leaving her mother staring at the walls and wondering what would happen. She went to the stable, picked up the brush, and started brushing the horse. She tried thinking about names again. So far so good.

"You did great," she told Najilla when she got back to her room, "I think Mom's completely convinced."

"I hope it works."

"It will, trust me," she said, practicing a menacing look she'd learned from the "Ancient One", "by the time she sees through this, we'll be a week away." She watched Najilla flinch, then she started packing. She knew better than to take much besides her weapons.

At the second candle mark of the second watch, Dena came down from her room and found her mother in the kitchen. They spent most of another candle mark talking and arguing over Dena's decision before Cyrea finally gave up in frustration and wished her daughter well in her attempts to become a priestess. Then she did what mothers have done since the dawn of civilization; she started stuffing food into a saddlebag for her daughter to take on the road.

Dena went out into the market and bought a few things for the trip, a length of rope, a couple of blankets, water skins, soap and maps. At the fourth candle mark, she met Najilla at the corner of the market to coordinate. Najilla had her horse, and it was already packed. Najilla had been on a few missions for the temple and had her standard traveling gear. Dena noticed a second sword at the front of her saddle, with a curved blade like a falchion but more slender. A short bow and a quiver of arrows were attached to the back of her saddle, with a couple bags and a bedroll. She carried two water skins, one large and one small, the smaller one strapped to a shoulder bag. Dena also noticed that Najilla had a pair of large, curious looking boot daggers. She'd have to ask about them sometime.

Back at the stable, Dena packed her things onto her horse, and went back into the inn to say good bye to her mother. It was the fifth candle mark of the second watch. It started as an uncomfortable and self-conscious meeting, Dena feeling guilty, her mother feeling confused. Finally they both managed to say the heartfelt things they'd rehearsed, and broke down crying, holding each other. Dena said she thought she'd have news to send in a couple weeks, when Cyrea was safely back in Amphilios, and she promised to come home as soon as she could to visit. Cyrea promised not to touch a thing in Dena's room, (a joke, since they both believed the inn had been burned by the barbarians), and she assured Dena she'd tell Taris everything. Then she walked out to the stable and hugged her daughter, and watched her get on her horse and ride out to meet the road, she and that crazy priestess girl who she now noticed was bristling with weapons. Gods, they're just a couple of teenagers, she thought, as the two heavily armed young women rode off into the sunset.

"Well that was easier than I thought it would be," Dena mused as they headed down the west road into the evening.

"You're great at tactics," Najilla said, "I could never fool my Prioress...still can't usually. But then you're the Goddess."

"Yeah, well I'm just glad I won't be around when she figures it out. I really hope by the time I get home she'll be happy to see me. Anyway, you did great, Najilla, thanks."

"I am pleased to serve, Goddess."

"And will you quit with that 'Goddess' stuffŠjust call me Dena, I don't want to give my identity away."

"Oh, ok. I got it."

It wasn't that Dena was particularly crafty that day. She'd usually failed at fooling her Mom. It wasn't that Cyrea was particularly gullible that day. She had raised two kids, and knew how Taris and Dena had hatched the most ludicrous plots. She knew how her daughter was given to scheming and getting her way. She wasn't fooled by Najilla's act either. They were off to party, no doubt about it. All those weapons, she thought, shaking her head, what is it these days with kids and weapons?

As a God had once said, "Many powers inhabit this planet, but they inhabit different planes. Some we can see, and some we cannot see." So it was that the Spirits of 64 generations of Warrior Princesses concentrated their wills, and Cyrea's skepticism remainder in check, and Dena started her journey to Sparata in the company of a hero worshipping teenage priestess bristling with weapons. And Dena followed the call of her destiny; to follow the Way of the Warrior and the Spirit of Battle, yet be tempered by the Balance of Dark and Light.

?

They had been on the road two nights when Dena brought up the topic of Najilla's boot daggers. They had been sitting by their campfire inspecting and cleaning their weapons, and Dena had been watching as the priestess absently spun them in her hands.

"I've never seen daggers like those," she said, indicating the spike blades and the curved guards.

"Well, " Najilla replied, "they're called Sai, and they were the weapons of the Goddess of History and Knowledge. They're a great defense against a sword."

"How do they work?" Dena asked, always intrigued by new weapons.

"Come on, I'll show you," Najilla said, as she stood, and gestured to Dena to draw her sword.

So Najilla demonstrated defenses and attacks to a very attentive pupil, and then she left the weapons with Dena so she could practice. And eventually she fell asleep to the sounds of Dena practicing in the dark. The next morning Dena was still there, and Najilla was beset with requests to, "attack me, again, now from the other side, faster, harder, that's good." Dena had managed to gain a working knowledge of the weapons overnight. Najilla wasn't surprised. After all, she was the Goddess of War.

The next day, in the fourth candle mark after dawn, the entered Methain, a fishing village near the mouth of the Haliacon River. The town stank, of rotting fish, and drying fish, and curing fish, of glue factories, and midden piles of shellfish, and dead animals floating in the river. It was a funky town of irreputable types, swindlers and quack doctors, black marketers and carnival denizens. Everyone was either con man or shill, and strangers were unwelcome except as marks. The town's fisher folk were a depressing lot of chronic drunks, who reeled out to sea in leaky ships. They sometimes didn't come back, and often weren't missed. Dena and Najilla decided to do some dining.

"Ya got anything besides fish?" Dena demanded of the sweating blob of a waiter in the tavern they'd stopped at. The seats and tables were greasy. The air was worse.

"Uhhh, no." The man replied, picking his nose in nervousness, "No one here does."

"This is disgusting. Najilla, lets get out of here, I'm getting the creeps," Dena whispered to her friend, motioning towards the door with her brows.

Najilla knew better than to argue, and she didn't think she'd trust this filthy little man in front of them to feed her horse. She got up, with Dena backing out behind her, apologizing for their lack of appetite, and shoving her out the door.

"I hate this whole town," Najilla confessed, "I want to get back on the road. This whole town is creepy, everybody leering at us and shit. They were eyeing our horses too, did you notice that?"

"Yeah, that was really disgusting. And those old men rubbing up against us in the market."

"I know, I felt them trying to touch me," Najilla said, "I really hate this town. Can we just leave, please."

"Ok, ok. I thought it would be better than this, I mean, Gods, Amphilios was out in the sticks, and people didn't act like this. Ok, we're going."

They mounted their horses after checking the gear, and rode out of the town, following the road to Pydnum. There it was worse, for Pydnum was the center of the slave trade in northern Thessal, and Dena and Najilla had two altercations and an armed skirmish before they got away from the city that night, galloping down the road towards Dium in the dark. They stopped midway between the two cities, and made a quick camp on a hill above the road, where they were hidden between large rocks. The next morning they debated their plans. Najilla was getting hysterical and Dena slapped her to shut her up.

"Look, you can't just stop going into towns. They can't all be as bad as those two," Dena reasoned, "and anyway, yes we can skip Dium. I need to go on to Olympia. There's something there that I need to see."

So they bypassed the city of Dium which was fortunate, for they were having their first harvest festival and they sometimes stoned people. And the carnival was on, and the drunken mobs were out pillaging and raping, and there was even cannibalism. It reenacted the worst of the Years without Gods, and it relieved the tensions of the people in a free for all. In truth, most of the bad things happened to strangers and travelers. But Dena and Najilla bypassed Dium in a five-mile detour, and headed upland towards Olympia and the ruins of the Goddess' temples.

Two candle marks after starting their ride, Dena and Najilla approached the ancient temples of the Goddesses. The two buildings were set side by side on the mountaintop, and were totally unlike in structure. The Temple of the Goddess of War was a larger version of the one in Therma, a rectangular block with columns. The Temple of the Goddess of History and Knowledge was a circular colonnade, with an entablature and a low dome above. On one side was a façade, and attached to the façade was a tower.

Dena went to the Goddess of War's temple, walking up the steps of the stereobate and passing between the columns of the pteron. She entered the antis, walked through the cella, and finally into the pronaos. She and Najilla stood and stared at the statue of Dale, Goddess of War, 30 feet tall, looking exactly like Dena. It gave Najilla the creeps. Dena walked to the statue and went around the back of the base where she checked the wall. Sure enough, carved into the wall panel was the chakram, the s-curve dividing the circle vertically. In the base of the statue Dena could faintly see the outline of the door she knew led down to the warship, hidden beneath these tons of stone.

Dena walked across the mountaintop between the temples, Najilla following behind with the horses, and came to the façade of the temple of the Goddess of Wisdom and Knowledge. An open doorway between the central columns led to a hallway within. Dena followed it, and found herself following a maze of passages, confusing until she finally closed her eyes and followed the slight breeze she felt on her face. They ended up in the center of the temple, in a soaring space like a park, under the center of the dome that was open to the sky. Dena went to the statue of the Goddess in the center of the park and stood before it on the glass chakram emblem embedded in the base. The statue of Valerie was life size, bronze, and held a media crystal in her right hand. Dena touched the crystal, completing a circuit through the glass emblem she stood on. The machines long dormant under the temple recognized Dena's combination of brainwaves, DNA, and physiology as being the match it sought for one of several messages, and began to play it back.

"Hi Dena," Val said, smiling at her in a suggestive way, "I'm glad to be able to talk to you besides in dreams. Well, since I know Dale will never do it, I'm going to fill you in on a couple things. A little history I guess, huh, cutie? Anyway, this is how it was when Dale and I started out."

And the hologram played on showing Dena the training and flight of two teenage girls from a long destroyed world in the void. It showed them training in the warships, and their battles in the company of the God of War. How Val had destroyed a planet, <cool>, and how Ares fell from the Balance. It showed Dale destroying the attack ships with her new powers, <way fuckin' cool>. It showed the final duel between Ares and Xena, fighting in Dale's body, <awesome>, and then their flight to Earth. It showed their reign and the establishment of the colonies. Then, too soon, it showed an aged Val, lying in Dale's arms as she died, <really sad>, and Dale's disincorporation, <freaky>. It showed finally, the separated rings on an altar, but it didn't show where.

"Not yet, young one," Val teased, "when you're ready they will be there. But first, you need to name your horse, and you then need to find your counterpartŠyour me."

Dena had committed every detail to memory, which was good, because, having played the message once, the machines under the temple deleted the file, and the words and images of Valerie Havarr were lost forever. Dena looked over and saw Najilla asleep under a tree. She noticed the shift in the shadows and realized the massage from Val had taken several hours. She shook Najilla awake.

"Come on, let's get out of here."

"Uhhh, ok." Najilla muttered, "what was all that about anyway?"

"It was a message from the Goddess Valerie, didn't you see anything?"

"Just a shimmering in the air. You were petrified. Eventually I fell asleep waiting."

They left the temples and rode a few more miles, then pitched an early camp. Dena was lost in thought replaying the images from the message. The thing she kept dwelling on was the look Dale and Valerie had when they looked at each other. It was the same thing she saw between Xena and Gabrielle, and a couple of the other incarnations she'd dreamed about.

Eventually she drifted off to sleep. She was aboard a warship in the void, and she knew she commanded that warship, and that it was the Ares. It could kill two dozen worlds. She was lifting from a planet, having just won a great duel, and the Spirit that had won that duel was receding, letting Dale return to command. The warship knifed through the atmosphere, parting the clouds as it accelerated away, just a red blur in the afternoon sun, shields rendering it impervious to the hungry lasers tracking it from the planet. Soon it greeted the black of space by jumping across the void, to rejoin the deserters and her beloved. Now she was aboard the Icarus III leaping back and forth across the void, finally bringing the Colonist's ship to Earth, a Cardinal planet, a world without end, fulfilling the promise in Gabrielle's directions from 9,000 years before. And then came a lifetime of 465 years together, helping their adopted people, a long lifetime of love.

Dena awoke the next morning with tears on her face, feeling strangely at peace. Najilla was sullen. They packed in silence and started south into Thessal. They traveled in silence most of the morning, and finally Dena had had enough.

"So just what is your problem now," she demanded, never very good at sensitive chats, "you've been pissy ever since we were at the temples, and it's getting me down, so spill it, now."

"Well GoddessŠ"

"I said enough with that Goddess stuff!" Dena snarled, getting a reflexive recoil from the priestess.

"Yes, Dena," Najilla said, contrite, "I'm ok."

"Oh, bullshit! Don't give me that crap!"

"OkŠOk! I'm just jealous, I mean I'm a priestess and all, and you get visions and dreams of the Goddesses, and messages from them and stuff, and I don't see anything, and you don't tell me anything, and I really feel left out, and I'm depressed, I'm not feeling well, ok?"

"Oh, ok I guess. Well, most of it had to do with the personal background of the Goddesses before they became the Goddesses you know. Anyway, they were really nice, and yes, I've met them in my dreams, and I'm just overwhelmed by how normal they were, even though they went through all this stuff together."

"Really? Will you tell me about them?"

"Well ok, I guess." Dena said. "People should know, maybe not every one, but a few people who really know about the Goddesses."

"I want to hear everything!!!"

"Uhhh, well, I'll tell you some of it to start with."

And after that, the sense of camaraderie returned, and Dena found Najilla a great listener, absorbing every detail she presented, and questioning her at many points. She was insufferably nosey though, and Dena had to say, "she didn't know", more often then was believable. Still, she stuck to her bows, and never gave Najilla more information than she wanted to. So it went, ride after ride, settling into a comfortable pattern of travelling days and camping nights, staring up at the stars. And Dena found herself seeing patterns in the constellations; the bow, the eagle, the dragon, the horse, the cross, and many others, which she recorded on a chart that she added to every night, drawing a line as the sky advanced each night. As Gabrielle had done on a march nearby, 9,400 years before, Dena made the star chart, knowing one day it might bring someone home.

They passed through Thessal without incident, and began crossing the peninsula of Boetia, riding towards the city of Thebes. It was a misnomer. It should have been called the city of Thieves. At the first inn they came to their horses were stolen by children, and for two blocks, the tykes thought they were getting away with two laden warhorses. They might have gotten three blocks if they had actually given the horses the apples they'd tempted them with, but being dinar wise and drachmae foolish they hid them. Then the horses had turned on them, kicking two, and scattering the rest, before returning to they mistresses. In the mean time, the girls had beaten up three men in a brawl at the inn. The dispute began over the "traveler's lunch special", which they soon discerned was a combo platter of spoiled cheese, stale bread, and rancid meat. The inclusion of watered cider was the final straw. Their anger turned to glee as they trashed the dining room, and the host, waiter and cook spent the next week nursing bruises, cuts, and minor burns. Right after this, the innkeeper's family tried to attack them to even the score, and they fought their way past seven of them, cutting several, before finally meeting their horses on the outskirts of town. They fled with their lives, and their property, and headed south, across the isthmus to Corinthia.

"I hate cities," Najilla whimpered, tossing in her sleep and clutching at herself, "save me Goddess."

Unbelievable, Dena thought watching the priestess writhe in her nightmare. I hope I don't look like that, or worse. The priestess was high strung and accumulated a lot of tension over the course of a day. She released it in her sleep. Dena rolled away, feeling like a voyeur peeping at Najilla's performance. Over her shoulder she heard the moaning start. It was much the same every night. Pretty soon the priestess would come to a climax, and then she would sleep. Dena pulled her blanket around her shoulders and dozed off.

She was on a battlefield. As far as the eye could see there was scorched earth and crumpled bodies, many on spikes. Beyond them stood the walls of a great city. Dena knew it was Corinth, and the time was about 100 B.C. Xena strode across the wasteland, invincible, imperious, totally feral, completely in her element, a blood spattered sword held in her right hand, the chakram in her left. It was terrifying. Xena was an eighteen- year-old maniac, war crafty, worshipped by her army, feared by her few living enemies, and she had no friends. She figured she was two days from breaking the siege and taking Corinth, thereby freeing Amphipolis from its growing influence. It took three days, but in the end, she was victorious, and she entered the city at the head of 2,000 men. Then she slaughtered the royalty, dissolved the council, and proclaimed herself military ruler. In the end she executed 7,000 people.

"Glad you could join me," Xena said, gesturing at the mayhem around them, "it's as terrible as anything I remember, but it allowed me to free Amphipolis and Potidaea."

"It's pretty extreme," Dena agreed, " but I guess the strategy achieved its goals, so you're to be commended, general."

Xena nodded, a glint in her eye that spoke of bloodlust. This was not Dale, or even the later "reformed" Xena, who had a balance within. This was the power obsessed, animalistic, killer the histories had described. There was definitely a lesson here.

"That's the thing, young one," Xena told her, "you have to be willing to do what ever it takes to win a battle once you start it, using every tool you have, the military, terror, poison, disease, fire, explosions, intrigue," she was panting now, "atrocities", she proclaimed, gesturing at the heads on spikes. Dena was getting the idea. Total war.

"That's it!" Xena agreed, "Total War!"

Then she turned away to rally her troops, and supervise the catapults preparing to launch decomposing soldiers' bodies into the city. 100 Baskets of Rats bearing the Plague had been launched earlier. Later they'd throw the horses. The water supply was already poisoned. Dena was chilled, and she woke up shivering. Total War.

?

CHAPTER 5: OF UNDERGROUND SPARATA

Corinthia was one of the largest cities in New Hellas. It had been founded some 11,000 years before as a trading center and port, controlling the land routes between the Peloponnesia and the rest of Greece. It was said you could buy anything in Corinthia, jewels and gold, slaves and animals, books and foods from many lands, weapons, musical instruments, clocks, telescopes, even schooling. People bought and sold in Corinthia with a mania and obsession reserved in other places for religion. It was a city populated by salesmen, swindlers, con artists, traders, hustlers, and quacks, always looking for the next sucker. Surrounding the city were the partially finished development schemes for foreigners to invest in. In the city, empty real estate sat everywhere, these tail ends of various schemes rotted in various states of completion, and tax collectors roamed the streets in packs. Many of the people were lawyers, and most of the lawyers sleazy, and the rest were gossipmongers and usurers and thieves. Dena and Najilla soon found conflict.

They had stopped at an inn for the noon meal, and had found a table in the back, away from the floor traffic. Having finished thick horsemeat sandwiches and diluted cider, they decided to check out the rest of the establishment. The inn was a front. After passing down a narrow stair, the space widened into an underground arcade, a true den of inequity, and the first chamber featured animal baiting. Below, in a dug out corral, a pack of five feral dogs circled, eyeing the spectators with hatred and viciousness, yapping and snarling, while some of the bolder gawkers pounded on the sides of the pit. As Dena watched, a young boy returned to his parents with a struggling ball of fur. It was a cat, but one of its hind legs had been wrenched, and it scampered awkwardly when he flung it into the pit and jumped up on the side to watch. The pack of dogs flung themselves at the injured cat, which shrieked and launched itself straight up the pit wall. For a timeless moment it hung in mid air at the top of its leap. Then it started to fall, screaming and clawing, down into the jaws that awaited it. The dogs drew and quartered the cat, pulling it apart from the limbs, and the fifth pinned the struggling torso with its jaws, then crushed and shook. Then all five crazed hounds descended on the carcass, tearing and shredding and fighting for their share. After a few minutes, the pack returned to circling, and the boy returned to his parents, and they went off into the arcade.

Dena dragged Najilla further into the underground. A candle mark later, they'd both gotten their belly buttons pierced, and they each sported a small tattoo. They were a little tipsy from some wine they'd had at a café where drunken men leered at the girls who danced naked on the bar. Dena had left a mortified Najilla, and danced with the girls, collecting tips even though she hadn't stripped completely, and Najilla was embarrassed by how obviously the girls liked Dena. She finally sat down, flushed, and breathing fast, and reported to Najilla how they had offered her work, and wanted to buy them drinks. Najilla was horrified, and dragged her away. They were both naivetes and country yokels, and they were teenagers.

Dena was sitting on a park bench, while her horse grazed nearby. She had a nice buzz from the wine. Najilla's horse was peering at the priestess as she heaved in the bushes behind the bench. Dena giggled. Najilla retched. The wine had been pretty cheap. Dena had had a good time, especially dancing with the girls who were mostly really cute, and watching the dogs eat the cat, and wagering at another pit where a bear killed three dogs. She was liking the big city alot. A grimy man in a threadbare rat skin overcoat sat down next to Dena on the bench, staring off into the distance. Dena decided he was harmless, or at least unarmed, and she looked back to see if Najilla was feeling any better. The priestess was lying on her side gasping, sweating, shakingŠguess not, Dena thought.

When she looked back at the man on the bench, she caught him smiling at her, and she started to return his smile, until she noticed his coat was open, and he was rubbing his... She gaped at him, and he just shrugged and keptŠewwwww, Dena thought, disgusted, but only becoming angry when he slid alongside her and started stroking her thigh. She twisted his wrist until she heard the bones grating, then she kicked him in the ribs, knocking him off the bench. He lay on the ground, holding his damaged wrist against his side, and rubbing his ribs with is other hand. Dena watched him warily. He lifted his head and noticed Najilla, on her side in the bushes. Dena saw him start again, and drew her sword. She slid down the bench until she could hold the blade to his chin.

"You'll lose more than just Mr. Weeny there, if you don't find another bench, you perv," Dena threatened, glaring at the grimy man, and prodding him with the sword, "and don't you even think about bothering her."

The grimy man got up, grinned at her, and slunk off, like a jackal, to the next bench. Dena hauled Najilla onto their bench, and gave her water to rinse her mouth out with.

"I hate cities," she whimpered, "and I want to leave, like right now." She'd eaten some meat pastries that Dena had thought smelled funny, and with the wineŠ

"Those things were dog meat, Najilla, and they were probably at least a week old, out there sitting in the sunŠyou're lucky to be alive."

"I didn't know, they seemed ok to meŠI don't feel well, Dena." And she started heaving again. Dena patted her back and tried to keep from giggling out loud.

What a killjoy, she thought, but regretfully she said, "Ok, we'll go."

As they rode towards the highway leading south from the city, Dena stopped at an armory shop. Leaving Najilla, queasy in the saddle, she hunted around the stalls and tables, until she found what she wanted. They were old, rusted, and they had no sheaths, so she got a bargain, and she left with a pair of the Sai. She lashed them to the outsides of her boots the way Najilla did, moving her boot daggers to her thighs. Then, taking the reigns of Najilla's horse, as she nodded in the saddle, she guided them out of Corinthia. Less than a mile down the highway, Najilla had a final heaving fit, shivered violently for a few minutes, and then started to feel better. She looked like a sweaty drowned rat.

About time, Dena thought, spinning the Sai absently, now very accustomed to the feel. She'd also bought a few more of the bronze curlicues she kept sewing onto her leather armor. She was looking more like the "Ancient One" all the time. Ok with me, Dena thought, she was totally awesome.

Because Najilla was skittish, Dena consented to skipping Nemaea, and Tegaea, and at last they made their way into the long valley that led to Sparata. The Eurotas River flowed down the valley, as it had for perhaps 160,000 years, and the sides of the valley rose to peaks that weak children had once been left on 10,000 years before. They immediately felt hemmed in and watched, with a background of depression pervading all, and these sensations increased as the valley narrowed and they approached Sparata. Dena rode in the lead, absently humming a tuneless song, eyes shifting over the road ahead. Najilla trailed a couple yards behind, staring around in increasing nervousness as the valley walls rose on either side. High above, falcons snatched songbirds in flight, and wolves howled in the nearby mountains. They encountered few other travelers, mostly soldiers, for Sparata was what it had always been, a city of warriors.

In the first candle mark of the second watch, Dena and Najilla came to the gate of the city of Sparata. Before them a wide moat was spanned by a drawbridge, and the drawbridge ended in a massive fortification. It held a monumental gate of iron, counter weighted cunningly and hedged on either side with towers. A portcullis backed the solid gate, and this had a large door-sized cut out, next to which stood a guard with a spear. Past the towers the walls continued in a rough circle, enclosing five miles, and the walls were 60 feet high, and 30 feet thick. Massive towers rose from the walls at intervals, and in front of them in a continuous work, the wide moat, filled with disease, guarded all approaches. Dena was fascinated, Najilla was terrified.

The guard tested them. Najilla defended against all five of his standard attacks with the spear, and then she rolled up his weapon, stopping with her blade across his throat, eyes wild with fear. That was disturbing enough. The tall one was worse. First, she didn't draw her sword, she just stood there insolently, and she slipped aside, leisurely confronting his first two attacks. Second, as he pressed his third attack, she leapt completely over him, and before he could recover, he felt the flat of her sword slide from the base of his skull to his hips. When he turned towards her, the look on her face was absolutely feral. That was fucked up. He granted them entry. He didn't want anything more to do with them. They were both dangerous, and very heavily armed.

"Well, that was easy enough," Dena remarked, as they walked their horses up the road from the gate.

"You think that was a game?" Najilla said, showing a lot of the whites of her eyes.

"Of course it was, loosen up, geezus!" Dena said, appraising her companion, "are you feeling alright?"

"I'm ok," Najilla gulped, swallowing a mouthful of bile, then breathing deeply.

"Good," Dena said, playing along, "lets go find somewhere to eat."

Najilla gagged, Dena giggled, Najilla heaved. Dena stroked her back and gave her water.

"I just hate cities," Najilla whimpered.

Dena wanted to slap her around. Instead she picked up the priestess and dragged her to a tavern. Najilla feared it would be another one with the dancing girls, but it appeared nondescript. Dena ordered them a mid-afternoon meal, went to a booth in back, and then leaned into the shadows, waiting for the food. Najilla glanced at the crowd. They were mostly warriors from various provinces, and soldiers of the city. Utilitarian men at arms so common in the armies of New Hellas. She did notice a priestess of the War Goddess, who scanned the room, stared at Dena, and left. Since they weren't looking for trouble, it found them in a hurry.

Dena had just finished the last of her goat pot pie, having deemed the meat inedible, and Najilla had managed a few bites of bread and water, when a crew of five filthy mercenaries entered the room. They were loud and obnoxious, and elbowed their way to the bar. Dena eyed them discreetly. Almost on cue, four priestesses of the Goddess of War entered the tavern, staring around at the crowd. Najilla tried to hide Dena, sure they were looking for her. Dena tried to watch for the start of the brawl. Sure enough, a mercenary tried to fondle a priestess, she kicked him, his buddy swung at her, and the fight was on. The nine of them were doing a pretty good job of wrecking the room, and to Dena, raised at an inn, these were the best of times. Najilla was pretty sure Dena was trying to shove the bodies that came her way into the tables of uninvolved warriors, hoping to widen the conflict. A couple soldiers had already entered the fray when their table had been knocked over. Dena was crouched on a bench, yelling advice to the fighters, laughing, eyes wild, swigging, oh my Gods no, Najilla thought, that's port. She's getting drunk. By the time the military police arrived to restore order Dena was way drunk and disorderly, and Najilla supported her as they staggered through the ruins.

"You egged those fighters on, and now you're sloppy drunk, andŠoh you're so horrible," Najilla scolded, as she dragged Dena across the room. Dena looked at her, trying to focus her eyes, then gave up, giggling.

"Not so fast there, miss," one of the police called, motioning to Najilla, "what happened to your friend there."

"Self-inflicted wound, officer," Najilla offered, "toxic overdose of port, sir."

The cop laughed, Najilla smiled, then his face turned stern, and he directed them to a bench.

"Those two are to be questioned," the policeman told a pair of guards, indicating Dena and Najilla sitting on the bench, "I'm sure they're guilty of something. Keep them here."

The mercenaries and the priestesses had already been removed to holding cells.

Najilla happened to be looking away when a small figure in a cloak was escorted into the room by two guards. The figure surveyed the room and its gaze fixed on Dena and Najilla sitting on the bench. Suddenly the figure broke away and began fighting the guards for its freedom. Dena was transfixed, watching this wraith evade every attack, even when their two guards left the bench to join the fight. It seemed to be able to anticipate every grab, every attack, dodging even the swords and spear of the guards. At one point the cloaked figure leapt into the air, grabbed a post and spun around it, ending up behind a guard. Then, with a blinding fingertip attack, it rendered him unconscious. As he slumped to the floor, the figure jumped over him, kicked another soldier in the neck, and landed beside him. The guard to his right tried to stab the figure with his spear, but he was too slow, and gouged his comrade instead. Then the figure stabbed him in the throat with its fingertips, and he dropped to the floor. It knocked the wounded guard out with a kick to the head, and slammed an elbow into the lower back of the last guard, causing him to stagger. Then, to Najilla's horror, the figure used its pointed fingertips as a spear and impaled the fourth guard, the hand penetrating his abdomen, blood gushing from the wound, entrails uncoiling onto the floor.

The figure approached them, whispered something to Dena and walked to the door. In an act beyond comprehension, Dena staggered up and followed.

"Are you crazy?" Najilla raged, as she followed Dena and the cloaked figure out of the tavern, "what are you doing, where are we going, who is this person?"

"Trust me," Dena reassured her, giving Najilla her most sincere smile, "anyway there're four dead cops here, wanna stick around to explain?"

So Dena and Najilla dragged their horses down a series of alleys into the heart of Sparata, following their cloaked and anonymous guide. Eventually they came to the back of a large building, and stabled their animals there. Then, taking a few items, they followed the figure down several levels and into the maze of hallways and rooms inside.

"Do you have any idea where we're going?" Najilla whispered.

"I lost track a long time ago," Dena claimed, having been so drunk she didn't really remember arriving at the building, "I have no idea."

"Oh great!" she whined, "We are so going to die."

The cloaked figure turned to examine them more closely. Najilla grinned, Dena stared, the figure snorted and motioned for them to continue. They followed through large open chambers and connecting hallways, rooms built into walls so thick they had to be at the base of the city. Dena noticed the silence, cool airflow, and the smell of thousands of tons of masonry above. They came to a large chamber lit with many lamps. The figure beckoned them to the center.

"Attack me," it said.

"Like, now?" Dena asked, still not sober even after the walk, "Really? Oh fuck!"

Najilla grinned and shook her head, 'no', feeling ill.

The figure chuckled and shook its head, 'yes'. "Now."

Dena opened with Iranian boxing, driving the figure to dodge in one direction so she could kick it. Najilla attacked from the side, trying to sweep the figure's legs. As the figure leaped over Najilla, Dena leaped into the air, landing behind the figure, and striking the base of its neck with her knuckles. Then she leaped back in front of it and spun, kicking solidly to the head. The figure went down. Dena and Najilla gathered by the figure as Dena lifted the hood. It was a girl, possibly fifteen, certainly no older. Dena cradled her head, stroking her hair.

"Well, I see you have beaten the gatekeeper, and shown her compassion," a woman's voice said from behind them, "don't worry, she'll be fine."

Dena and Najilla whirled towards the voice. It was an exotic looking warrior woman, a short brunette, probably in her late twenties, and two attendants in hooded cloaks. She motioned to her helpers to lift the fallen gatekeeper and take her away. Dena looked at her expectantly.

"M'lanta?" she ventured.

"Did the ancient one send you?" the warrior woman asked, ignoring her question.

"Sort of," Dena admitted.

"Dreams?"

"Yeah," Dena confirmed, shrugging, "well, she's dead."

The warrior woman looked at her like she had three heads, then chastised her, "Oh no honey, she's anything but dead, her and that blond sidekick of hers. All of them, actually. They talk to different people in different ways."

Dena was entranced. Anything having to do with the "Ancient One" captivated her. She was hooked.

"Teach me everything you know," Dena asked, her eyes sparkling.

"Not nearly," the woman said, "but we will teach you what we have been asked to teach."

"Well, ok," Dena said, figuring it was a start, while Najilla nodded, "yes".

The warrior woman, who introduced herself as M'Kronta, took them to quarters in the wall near the field they'd fought on, and they were warned not to stray. The apartments in the wall were a nightmare beehive warren of tunnels, long narrow stairs, twisting chambers, and low passages, dimly lit with untrustworthy lamps. It seemed to go on forever. No window ever looked out of the building, though some looked into rooms or passages. They didn't stray far. A person could die in some of those rooms, the beating rooms, the rape rooms, the torture rooms, and the humiliation chambers. The screams of the tormented occasionally pierced the air. Those screams became one of the worst parts of their stay. The labyrinth went on and on and on.

Meals and chamber pots were brought, along with cider. A couple books had been left in the room, and they set to work reading them in their spare time. One was a history of the Order, which had been around practically forever, and had stayed on Earth when the Gods went to space. Millennia before they'd crossed paths with the Destroyer of Nations. They still talked to her, most often when the "Ancient One" wanted someone trained. It happened every couple hundred years or so, someone looking exactly like Xena would appear, and the Order would provide basic training. Then the person would leave, and the Order never heard anything more about them. "The Xenas", M'Kronta called them, and now they had another one, youngish, naive, and impulsive as always, but as good a fighter as the others. Her friend the priestess was coming along nicely too.

Three times a day they were given instruction on the field. Najilla was learning the aerial fighting Dena already knew, and Dena was learning the secrets of pressure point attacks. She spent many hours hardening her fingers by striking a side of beef. She spent more time striking a bag of steel shot. They both spent time learning how to evade multiple attacks. After two weeks of basic conditioning, Najilla was learning how to focus her strength by breaking bricks, and Dena was training with a nerve site dummy, striking all the vital points, striking the release points, striking the killing sites. After another two weeks, they were staying on the field, long after their usual lessons, when they would practice and show each other what they'd learned. Najilla had been striking the bag of steel shot, and Dena had been breaking bricks. M'Kronta came towards them.

"Well, I need to see how much you've learned," she said, as she attacked Najilla with a flying kick.

Najilla sidestepped the attack, and countered with a kick to the stomach that M'Kronta leaped over. Dena jumped in front of Najilla, allowing her to recover, and attacked M'Kronta with a series of kicks, which she evaded, weaving in closer. Najilla attacked again from the side with a series of finger stabs that M'Kronta barely managed to evade. Finally she sprang forward to attack Dena's solar plexis, and Dena leaped over her blow. While still in the air Dena attacked, striking down with both hands against the sides of her neck. She landed behind M'Kronta, who stood gasping, then crumpled to her knees. Finally Dena released her nerve attack, and M"Kronta lay wheezing and choking on the field. Slowly she caught her breath and sat up, regarding them for several moments.

"Pretty good you guys," she finally rasped, "you've been practicing hard. Still a few things to teach you though."

"Well, thanks, I guess," Dena said, offering her a hand up.

A couple more weeks, M'Kronta thought, then they should be ready for what ever the "Ancient One" has in store for them, Gods rest their souls. It wasn't like they ever returned in triumph or anything, and the last one had been a long time ago. Well, of course there'd been Dale, but she just remembered everything, being the wild card with all 63 past lives stockpiled like cordwood in her head. In the end, they hadn't taught her a thing, and she was the only one who'd ever told the Order anything about their lives.

That night, while Najilla lay in her bunk, whimpering and moaning, Dena dozed off over a book of ancient lore, the only other book they had. It was a translation of the scrolls of Gabrielle of Potidaea, dealing with the adventures of the reformed Warrior PrincessŠthe "Ancient One" these people all looked up to. What would they think of the blood-crazed killer Dena had met a couple times? If anything these congenital warriors would have loved her. Everything about Sparata had to do with war. It was a pervasive obsession in every aspect of popular culture. In Sparata a lot of people went over the edge on group inertia, the warlike culture bringing out the violence in a brutish people, and they wound up committing murder and atrocities. In Sparata it was best to be part of a gang.

Dena was on a battlefield, and it was dawn. Somewhere below her the army of Sparta had fallen, the last 300 hand picked warriors were all dead, and now the Persians were advancing. She was outside a tollhouse by a bridge, and the gorge below it was of sickening height. Inside the house Xena's soul mate lay dying of a poisoned wound. Somewhere out there a sniveling little skank had a vial of antidote. Shit's life was worthŠ

Xena thought about the inventory of weapons she'd stashed here years before. Yes, she'd make a stand against their elite guard. There were two or three dozen deaths she could count on. At least. If Gabrielle diedŠnoŠshe would not think about thatŠshe would just kill until she had the vial of antidote. She would kill them all if Gabrielle died! She would become a demon. Her senses told her they were coming. A lot of them.

They came, and Xena killed, dozens, and the whole time she was flying through the air, or spearing or stabbing or kicking, she was thinking of Gabrielle's life slipping away. She slaughtered the enemy, and finally, with the antidote, Gabrielle was saved. Xena flung bodies from the roof. Then she taunted them, telling them there were thousands more like her waiting for them. It was a great military victory, but it was won in the war of love, and for Xena, beating the Persians had become secondary to saving her friend's life. It was very much like a story in the book. She woke briefly, then dozed again.

She was on a warship, and she was in command of that warship, and she knew it was the Ares. It was the Ides of March, and the year was 2006.

"Xena, we are crossing the Hellespont, forty seconds to Athens." Lt. McClellan, her Executive Officer, reported before she left the ship. Then, "I watched my ship from a cave on the north side of the Acropolis as it wheeled over the city. There was a resounding blast, and one of the enemy ships exploded, then the Ares back-flipped and hurtled towards the ground, coming in low over the city to continue its attack. I worked my way into a courtyard behind the ErchtheionŠfinally I had a straight line of sight. For a moment I was a young warrior again with a freshly bloodied sword. There under the canopy, in the light of the sun, stood Ares, the God of War." Then came a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Archangel Gabrielle. Then standing beside Ares in combat on the White House lawn all those ages ago, and the return of Gabrielle and the chakram, and the resurrection of Ares as a God. Gabrielle and I becoming mortals again. Living and dying together, and living again. And there came a montage of lifetimes, images from each one flickering past: Diana Miller watching Michelle Martin winning an award for her writing. Mariel Havarr watching Annika Sherril dying as Ares whispered in her ear. The starship Osiris breaking up in space. Dale and Valerie terminating a jump in a stolen starship above a dead world, and being saved by a red warship flown by the God of War. The Balance of Dark and Light passing from Ares to Dale. The chakram and the Goddesses returning to Earth. Dena hovered above Ares as he gave his army a pep talk before a battle. There were sixty-four warriors, and they all had Dena's faceŠDale's faceŠXena's face. They all drew their swords, and as they raised them overhead they screamed, "Kill Them All!" A transport scuttled in near space, and a squadron of twenty-seven warships waiting, never sleeping, each capable of destroying eighteen worlds. Dena woke up petrified.

How could a person command the Third Army of New Hellas, with all those lives hanging in the balance? Those warships could destroy 486 worlds, and the Ares another 24. 510 all together, Dena thought, as she shivered under her blanket. Of course they had other weapons, but how could a person command such warships? Total War, Dena thought, Total War.

Dena and Najilla spent the final two weeks of their training learning the finer points of the nerve attacks, and the evasions, and the breaking. They practiced almost constantly, and Dena continued dreaming. In the six weeks they spent in underground Sparata they became very proficient with the Order's fighting system, and at last M'Kronta tested them severely. This time they each managed to overcome her separately. They were lucky they did, for losers ended up suffering in those rooms in the walls. M'Kronta told them the "Ancient One" knew a destiny awaited them, and they would be more ready to meet it now. What that destiny was hadn't been revealed to M'Kronta. The "Ancient One" told her very little beyond what she wanted done. So their training concluded, and they were shown back to their horses, and they never did meet M'Lanta.

They were feeling pretty good as they left Sparata, until they were accosted by a surly gang, the same five mercenaries they'd watched fighting the priestesses in the tavern on their first day in Sparata. They recognized Dena as that drunk chick whose yelling had brought the attention of the military police. While Dena and Najilla had been training for six weeks, the mercenaries had spent six weeks in jail, and they were ready to settle the score. Dena remembered vaguely about some disturbance she'd seen before following the cloaked figure into the underground of Sparata, but she'd been too drunk to remember anything so specific as faces. Najilla remembered them, though she'd been more concerned about the police, since she and Dena had been, "removed from custody", by the cloaked figure, which had killed four officers. Still, the present danger is the present danger, she thought.

"Hey, she's the girl with the loud mouth at the tavern," Segli, the first mercenary to spot them yelled, pointing Dena out to his buddies.

"Yeah, the drunk chick. Cops showed up because of her," agreed the second, Marko the Mighty, reaching for his sword.

"Because of you we spent six weeks in jail, and I wanna flatten your face for that," Big Gary said as he pulled out a war club.

"And I wouldn't mind entertaining her little friend," a fourth mercenary, "The Gaul" boasted, leering at Najilla and clutching his crotch.

"Yeah, especially since she's a priestess like the ones that started the whole fight," the fifth mercenary said.

Having convinced themselves it was a good idea to attack, the five advanced on Dena and Najilla brandishing their weapons and egging each other on. Having been convinced it was a good idea to defend themselves, Dena and Najilla drew their swords and stood ready to meet them. The first three converged on Dena, propelled by hate and vengeance. The remaining two came after Najilla, driven by lust and opportunism. The third mercenary swung an overhead blow at Dena with his war club, and the fight was on. Dena cut his hand with her sword and kicked him in the stomach so he staggered into the first mercenary, Segli. Najilla kicked "The Gaul" in the crotch, breaking his hand, and dodged a punch from the fifth mercenary, Capt. Sam, who styled himself a pirate. Marko the Mighty and Dena were fighting sword to sword, and though she had managed to inflict some minor cuts, she'd been pressured when Big Gary and Segli recovered. She had to keep kicking and punching just to keep them away so she could swing her sword. Najilla had managed to knock Capt. Sam down, but he was staggering back to his feet as she slammed "The Gaul" across the cheek with her sword pommel. As Dena traded blows with Marko, she heard a voice in her head. It was the "Ancient One".

"What the hell are you doing?" Xena's voice demanded.

"I'm fighting, thanks for asking," Dena replied.

"Not if you're listening to me you're not. You should be so focused on taking out this worthless excuse for a fighter that you wouldn't even think about talking to me."

"What's the point, I'm busy?"

"If you don't get your ass in gear, you'll be dead. Kill this worthless fuck!"

"Total war?"

"Damn right!" Xena's voice chortled. Then she muttered to herself, "they're getting dumber every year."

Dena's awareness came back to the fight, and for the first time she focused every sense, every muscle, every nerve on one goal, the goal Ares troops had when they'd yelledŠKill Them All! For the first of many times, the Spirit of Battle possessed her. Marko saw it in her eyes, as though she'd just woken from a trance. It was the scariest thing he'd seen in twenty-two years on the fields of battle, like suddenly being revealed to an enemy camp, miles from his own troops, and with a screaming wound. She was right there in front of him as he swung his sword, then she was gone. She'd back flipped over him. A sword slid into his back from behind, then he was flung from the blade, clearing it as it spun in a full circle when reversed in her grip. He watched as she turned away from him, slashing the reversed blade across the belly of Big Gary, passing it to her left hand where she spun the grip back and impaled Selig without a glance. It was like she'd known where he'd be. Then she was moving again, two strides up the wall, and a back flip completely over Capt. Sam, but she dragged her blade across his neck as she came down, dropping to sweep "The Gaul's" legs. She leapt up a last time, spinning the blade again, and impaling "The Gaul" as she landed. Then she lifted Najilla with one arm as she resheathed her sword, and in a moment they had taken the reigns of their horses and led them away. This is what he told the police moments later when they responded to the disturbance, and they gave chase, trying to capture the Warrior and the Priestess.

Dena and Najilla kept to the back streets and alleys, wrapping their heads in scarves, and covering themselves with robes. Behind them they could hear the shouting of the pursuit. They finally made their way out the city gate, though they had top knock out the guard. This started another uproar and brought more police, who chased them on horseback for miles down the valley from the city at a breakneck pace.

They didn't feel safe until they were in a room at a large inn in the city of Argos, far from Sparata, and the Eurotas River valley. "I hate those freako bastards", the host had said, a sentiment echoed by many. Argos and Sparata had been rivals since before Christ, the Sparatans believing the Argonauts to be decadent, promiscuous, effete, and heretical. The Argonauts thought the Sparatans crass, bigoted, bloodthirsty, and heretical. At ground level, this meant the Argonauts were friendly, helpful, and kind. The Sparatans were drunk, distrustful, and obsessive. Dena and Najilla spent several days in Argos, regaining their sanity, doing mostly mindless touristy things, and sticking to good basic food. After a few days of relaxation they ceased checking all doors and windows every time they entered a room. They threatened fewer people in the course of a day. They bathed more frequently, and they went about wearing fewer weapons. Najilla got a second tattoo. Dena made friends with some dancers who took her out drinking and got her in trouble. They had a great time, and Dena returned with scratches, bruises, no memory, and a lot of money.

"Dena, where have you been?" Najilla scolded, when they dropped her off, laughing. "It's already the second watch."

"Oh my Gods, Dena where did you get all this money? Dena you're totally drunk!"

"Dena what did you do? What do you mean you don't remember!"

"Are you like, going to end up having a baby now or something??"

"Well what if you got an infection???"

Argos was good for them after their immersion in the paranoia and martialphilia of underground Sparata. Anyplace would have been. They were both still haunted, and their nights were still shattered by the screams from those rooms. Some nights it had gotten so bad that Dena had to hold Najilla and rock her to sleep as she shivered and whimpered about how she, "hated cities, and all that screaming", or, "two dozen goons lined up for that rape room." Eventually she'd sink into the usual nightmares, the embarrassing ones, but now Dena was trapped, holding her as she bucked and thrust with her hips. Soon she'd go rigid, and then she'd relax and sleep snuggled against Dena. It was weird and embarrassing. The next mornings Najilla always felt good and Dena always felt used. One afternoon Najilla dragged Dena into the temple of the Goddess of War in Argos. She wanted to visit a temple like the one she'd trained in, and introduce Dena to the inspiration of the services. Conduct was lower key than in Therma. Priestesses actually did double takes when they saw Dena. Worshipers stared at her. Najilla sprinkled incense that made her head spin. Dena was uncomfortable, and Najilla was manic. Dena gave Najilla the slip at a small shrine and escaped from the temple into an alley, then onto a main street. She was half way through a meal when Najilla finally caught up with her at the street side café.

"What happened to you? I looked for you but you had disappeared. I think you would have liked the service."

"Sorry, but that incense was making me sick and I had to get out of there." Dena said. "What's in that stuff anyway? It always makes me feel confused and dull witted."

"It seemed ok to me," Najilla objected halfheartedly, "it's hashish mostly, but I don't think it was as good as the incense in Therma."

Her clothes stank of the incense, and she looked like she had just escaped from somewhere, sweaty, cow licked, and wild-eyed. Temple worship looks unhealthy to me, Dena mused as she looked Najilla over, that service definitely took a lot out of her. She can have itŠand now that I know what's in that incense, I don't think I'll ever set foot in a temple again. Najilla joined Dena at the table and ordered all the available kinds of pastries, which she immediately started scarfing down. Dena watched in amazement. Her friend seemed to gain weight on her hips, butt, and thighs as Dena looked on, and though she knew it was an illusion, it was a constant fear and remained convincing. Najilla was bolting her food like a dog, guzzling cider between mouthfuls, and saying nothing. After clearing most of her plate she seemed to calm down, eating slower and losing the manic frenzy that had possessed her. Eventually she yawned, belched, and regarded Dena with bloodshot eyes.

"I always feel better after praying." Najilla confided, and Dena looked over at her skeptically, "and now that we've completed our training, I guess we're ready to be heroes of the Greater Good."

"Well of course," Dena agreed, "that's always been my plan."

It was their last night in town, and Dena did one final thing before they left Argos. She was in the stall where they'd stabled their horses, and she had talked her choice over with her mare. In deference to the city which had welcomed them, and in which they had relaxed after the fanaticism of Sparata, she'd decided to name her horse Argo. And she thought it was a really original name too, after all, who would name a horse for a city, especially when the horse hadn't been foaled there. It was really the only town they'd come to that they had liked. She drank a toast to the good fortune of the name, gave Argo a whole apple, and anointed her forehead with olive oil. It seemed right, and Dena was happy as she drifted off to sleep.

She woke abruptly, having been lifted from her blankets and shaken violently.

"Šand you just think you're so smart," Xena yelled, her face an inch from Dena's, "of all the possible names for a horse you had to choose Argo."

"What's the matter with Argo?" Dena groused, shaking herself free, "It's a good name, and the people there treated us good, and she liked the name, andŠ"

"There's only one Argo, wise ass," the "Ancient One" said, in a quieter more threatening tone of voice, "and that's MY horse!"

"Your horse? You named your horse Argo too?" Dena questioned. "Of course you did, and I'm supposed to be a mind reader! What are you getting so bent for anyway, they're like 10,000 years apart?"

"I don't careŠand what's with you anyway? Don't think I haven't noticed you sewing bronze curlicues to your leathers, just like mine, and you've been using MY expressions too. What is this anyway, 'somebody's gotta be Xena' this lifetime?"

"Well, itąs a cool look, and that's kinda been the drill so far, learning all your fighting techniques, dreaming about the past so I'm impressed with your legacy, and being taught stuff so I can fill in for youŠsince you're dead."

"It's a good job if you can get it." Xena sneered at her.

"It's your job and it sucks!" Dena yelled back. "The only time I've been happy was going out to party with the dancers. But of course I have to come back and catch your attitude about naming my horse."

"I don't care if you name your horse, just don't give it MY horse's name!"

"Your horse was done with that name 10,000 years ago, and now you're bitching like you own it. Just can't let go can you?" Dena accused. "Well that was then and this is now. My horse is named Argo, and that's that."

And when I get pack animals I ought to name them Argo II, III, IV just to spite her, Dena thought, as she and Xena regarded each other through slitted eyelids.

"What are you two arguing about now?" a sleepy voice from inside the bedroll by the fire asked, yawning a couple times, "waking the dead over nothing probably." The bedroll stretched, and an arm appeared, pulling the blanket away from a groggy Gabrielle who looked at them accusingly and rubbed her eyes.

"Uhhh, sorry Gabrielle," Xena said turning toward her, "just correcting our guest here."

"Yeah, sorry Gabrielle," Dena added, "seems I didn't consult her first before naming my horse."

"Oh," said Gabrielle, rolling back up in the blankets, "just name her Argo, Xena had a horse named Argo once, and she was a really great horse."

Xena and Dena just stared at each other as Gabrielle started snoring softly.

"Look, you aren't supposed to be me exactly." Xena finally told Dena after they calmed down. "Every time I'm resurrected, Gabrielle gets resurrected too, and we continue our fight for the greater good. Each lifetime has had a purpose, and some have taken longer than others. Seems like we have a deal with the Great PowerŠeternal lifetimes together in trade for being the good guys. You have a mission in life too, and anyway, you need to be yourself, not just a copy of me. A lot of the skills you'll need are the same as mine, so you tend to be more like me than like Annika or Dale. Just remember Dena, you have a destiny to fulfill, yours, not mine, but until you meet your version of Gabrielle, it's all still training anyway."

Dena was fading out of the dream, for in her world the sun had risen and they would be leaving Argos that morning.

"Just make sure you take care of my horse." Xena muttered as Dena's dream ended.

?

?PART 2: MEETING DESTINY?

CHAPTER 6: ONCE IN A LIFETIME

It is in the Year of Our Lord 9,410, being the 37th year of the reign of King Liasis II, and the 223rd year since the Death of the Goddesses, that we begin to hear heroic tales of the Warrior, Dena of Amphilios, and the Priestess, Najilla of Therma. They grow in renown as the tales progress, and they are accounted as heroes in the service of the Greater Good. In many places they fought for the justice of oppressed people, but one of their most famous adventures began when Dena celebrated her eighteenth birthday. They were in the seaside city of Piraetum, just a few miles from Athenae, relaxing in the trendy end of town, far, far away from the fishmongers. The two had arrived the night before, after spending half the previous day helping a family recover a kidnapped son, and the other half at one of Najilla's temples. After they were settled at an inn, somehow Dena had coaxed Najilla out for drinks, and in typical fashion, Dena had met a group of dancers. They'd be getting together with them after lunch to celebrate Dena's birthday.

"Oh Gods No! We do not need this," Najilla had thought out loud, "just what is it with her and strippers anyway? She is sooooo going to owe me if we end up in jail, again."

They'd examined the lunch menus in the cafes and taverns, rejecting Indian, Greek, and Chinese before deciding on Mex. Horse meat tacos for Najilla and a goat burrito for the birthday girl. Neither trusted the dog meat. It was a good choice, and they skipped the rice and beans for the margaritas, served in goblets the size of fishbowls. By the time their new friends arrived they were on their second drinks and their third order of nachos, and they were giggling and cracking up at the guys who were eyeing them. The three dancers Dena had met were born party girls, they were gorgeous, and they traveled in a pack. Katrina, Alyssa, and Britney thought Dena and Najilla would fit right in with their other friends. Soon the five of them were drinking, telling bawdy tales and stories of mayhem, and laughing hysterically. They compared tattoos and body piercings. They confessed stuff.

In the mid-afternoon they staggered down to the beach to spend some time roasting in the sun. Everyone on the beach was naked. They soon had a pile of their clothes and weapons in the sand. Dena and Najilla's grumbling about how pale they were, and tan lines, and wishing they'd shaved more was replaced by giggling as the five slathered each other with olive oil. Eventually they settled down to enjoy Helios' bounty of healthy rays. Dena figured it would take Najilla, and the equally fair complected Britney about a quarter candle mark to burn. She gave herself about a candle mark, and the well tanned Katrina and Alyssa perhaps two. At least the sun was half way to the sea and the most intense of the sunlight was passed. She remembered to tell everyone to turn the first time, but then, against her better judgement she dozed.

She found she was standing in a field, with not a single corpse or cadaver as far as the eye could see. Definitely not Xena's style. It was a landscape of rolling hills, bountiful with near ripe crops. A short distance away stood a farmhouse, a barn, and an enclosure with chicken coops. Several large trees shaded the house, the sounds of livestock came from the barn, and she saw chickens scratching in the dust for feed. It was a productive homestead in a good year, and there would be no starvation this winter if this family's luck held. It made her happy, for though she had been raised in a tavern in town, she knew well the uncertainty and cruelty of the farmer's life, at the mercy of weather, illness, accident, crop prices, warlords, taxes, and just about anything else that could possibly go wrong.

Dena moved through the field, closer to the house. A hill blocked the curve of the road, but Dena heard the hoof beats before she saw the riders. At least a dozen she figured, and the hairs on the back of her neck stood up in apprehension. A distant bell began ringing, perhaps in the nearest town. Ominous Dena thoughtŠit rings from the direction of the riders' approach, as if in alarm. If so, then it's too late. 13 riders galloped over the crest of the hill, followed by a wagon with two soldiers aboard. They were coming down the road towards the farmhouse, and slowed to a canter as they drew near.

As Dena reached for her sword a hand stayed her arm, and looking to her right she saw Gabrielle standing at her side.

"Watch and wait warrior," the Bard said firmly, "you are dreaming and you cannot act."

The riders had reached the yard of the house, and a man came out armed with a sword. Behind him five of his sons and hired hands joined him to stare down the threat. They had good weapons, Dena noticed, but they were outnumbered almost three to one. They would have to be very good at using them unless the bandits were pushovers.

"They are part of General Kerlig's army, seasoned battle troops seeking supplies, nothing more," Gabrielle said, "but Nardis and his sons work their fingers to the bone, and they feel they must protect their home. The results will be heartbreaking."

Dena watched as the tragedy played out. The soldiers' captain asking for supplies, and offering to buy what could be spared, yet making it clear they would not leave empty-handed. The farmer refusing, claiming that their army were invaders in his area, come to threaten the local city council. Their captain denied being an invader, saying the army was enroute to battle on behalf of their allies to the north, and had no intentions locally. The farmer refused to believe him, calling them outlaws who had been condemned by the king. The captain was enraged, for the allies to the north were loyal to the king as were they themselves. He would not see his men ride to battle half-starved. The farmer demanded they leave at once, and that he would not feed invaders.

"If this captain were a real outlaw he would never have asked for, nor offered to pay for supplies. If he were really an invader he would have slaughtered first and collected food afterwards. If he were simply a warlord he would have been happy to be condemned by the king and would have counted the charge a credit to his fame."

The Bard commented on the ongoing exchange in the farmyard, but to Dena the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Soon this soldier would lose patience, the farmer already had none, and now he couldn't back down in front of his sons and hands. Likewise the captain couldn't back down in front of his men. At 6 against 15 the fight would be short. The soldiers were much better equipped and trained. When it started, the yelling had already ended. The captain had turned to address his troops and the farmer charged at his back. An arrow brought him down, still yards away from the captain. Then the sons and hands engaged in battle with the soldiers, everyone's tempers inflamed by the attempted treachery and the killing. In minutes the fighting was over. Soon the soldiers were loading a wagon with supplies, never taking more than necessary. The captain entered the house only once, and when he left his helmet was in his hands and sorrow lined his face. Then the troops rode back up the road, more slowly now, but before they left, they had laid the bodies of the farmer and his men aside under one of the great trees, closing their eyes, laying their arms across their chests, and their weapons at their feet.

For a while Dena and Gabrielle watched the aftermath, and Dena turned to Gabrielle in query but the Bard simply held up her hand and they continued to wait.

Slowly the door of the farmhouse opened. A woman in an apron and two young girls fearfully edged their way onto the porch, while Dena and Gabrielle moved closer. The woman and the girls had noticed the bodies, and though they already knew what had transpired, they broke down wailing and sobbing, clutching the bodies and stroking the cold hands and faces of their family members. The mother flung a pouch of coins into the dirt.

The older girl, whom Dena could now tell was perhaps just starting her teens, finally stood and looked down the road where the soldiers had gone. She was shaking her head, the tears sliding down her cheeks. Dena felt compelled to comfort her, and moved across the yard to stand beside her. The closer she got, the stronger the feeling became. Dena looked carefully at her and noticed the emerald color of her eyes, though it was darkened by her tears. She recognized the hair that would darken a shade with the coming years. She knew how her face and body would look in the future. Dena looked at Gabrielle and received a nod in return. No, this was not the distant past, nor the life of a long-dead reincarnation of the Bard. This tragedy was happening in the world she lived in, at the present moment, and to someone she would someday love. She reached out to wipe away a tear, but she was a phantom and couldn't touch the girl's face, and the scene blurred as her own tears for her future lover's pain overflowed.

"One day I will bring you comfort, for I have known your darkest hour. That road will not always bring you sorrow," Dena swore, "one day it will bring you my love."

Katrina was shaking her awake. They had all burned, and Dena knew Najilla would hate riding for a week. On the other hand, Dena knew wearing her armor was going to be a torment. She looked at the sun, and decided they'd been asleep almost three candle marks. Oh well.

They took a quick dip in the sea, washing off the olive oil and cooling their skin to stop the burning. Then they got dressed and went to town to decide on a place for Dena's birthday dinner, shaking out sand, and commenting on how red they'd gotten.

?

Being locals, Katrina, Alyssa, and a sunburned Britney took Dena and Najilla to their absolutely favorite restaurant. It was a small, pricey, intimate dining room specializing in seafoodŠreal seafood, rather than the oil permeated, over cooked, and nearly tasteless fish burgers so ubiquitous in seaside towns. It was nothing like Methain.

As she sat finishing her scallops poached in white wine and served in a mildly herbed cream sauce, Dena began to overhear a conversation at a table nearby. Though she wasn't really interested in eavesdropping, the words seemed to seek her attention, and soon the conversation at her own table faded as she focused her hearing.

"Excellent meal, Lasir, I am indebted by your hospitality. Now to business."

"The ceremony falls at the new moon, ten days hence."

"I well know the date, I crave assurance the arrangements are complete."

"They shall be completed tonight. My representative is meeting with the head priestess as we speak. I assure you, Zalek, nothing shall fail. This you may tell your lord.

"Lasir, his concern rests on the possibility of the priestess being discovered, or having a relapse of conscience, hehe. He shall gain much influence with completion of the ceremony."

"She shall have no such lapse, be assured. She is persuaded, believe me."

"The knowledge of what holds her cooperation would be an appreciated token of faith by my lord."

"I see. Then Lord Sikopolis should know that she is compelled by the captivity of her sister and sister's son, by the evidence of her past deceits on our behalf, and by the threat of poison in the water of the temple hospice. Oh yes, and by the threat of her own death, of course."

"My lord shall be pleased by the depth of your preparations."

"When he is given the Favor of the Goddess, your lord shall be second only to King Liasis himself."

"And that, my friend, is itself a problem to be overcome in time."

"I agree, for the king ages without an heir, and he celebrates his 64th birthday 12 days henceŠit shall be a bitter celebration, I think."

"Lasir, my report shall bring my lord great relief. I shall speak well of your efforts."

"My thanks, Captain."

Dena couldn't understand all the references, but she knew a plot when she overheard one. The two things that underlined the gravity of what she'd heard were the mention of treason against King Liasis II and the fact that the plotters were liege-warriors. From their insignia she could see that Zalek was a Captain of the Second Army of Thessal, the other, Lasir, being assigned to the garrison of Athenae, was therefore of the First Army of Attica. To anyone else they would appear to be two soldiers relaxing on leave, recounting their actions in the service of the king. Dena discreetly watched them toast each other, pay their bill, and leave. These men were dangerous traitors. They had corrupted a priestess, kidnapped her kin, they were quite willing to commit murder, yet somehow she would find a way to stop them. Somehow, in the next ten days she intended to rescue the priestess's family members, remove her from the clergy she had betrayed, and save the hospice from a poisoned water supply. After that she would reveal the plotters to the king's justice. She needed to ask Najilla some questions about the temples in Athenae, and she was starting to get an idea for a plan.

Her friends had ordered some really ambitious drinks to go with a grilled whole fish stuffed with shrimp, and Dena delightedly joined them in devouring it. As someone had once said, respect the future, learn from the past, but live in the present. Dena intended to do just that, for tomorrow would be another day, but tonight was her birthday celebration, and after all, she had ten days to save the king, but she only turned 18 once in a lifetime.

?

He watched his hand stroke the smooth surface with a sensitivity that was unmistakably a caress. There was strength in his hands, and it had been there all the years of his adulthood. For all those years his strength had served him well, yet never well enough, for though sufficient to keep millions in fear of him, his strength had never sufficed to keep the one he wanted in love with him. It was the paradox of their natures. Joined by the Spirit of Battle, parted by the Balance of Dark and Light, attracted as opposites always are, and repelled by a shared force. He had no doubt they were bound to a destiny together, and therein he perceived the cruelty of the Great Power. For what reason should he be afflicted by the obsessive love he felt when he was created to be the eternal villain in their endless play? The evil required of him would be so much easier to carry out if he had not this passion forever burning within his heart. That was it, he thought, why, in its infinite wisdom, had the Great Power given him a heart? A heart that warred against his nature and left him weak. For all the strength in his hands, the heart in his chest constrained him, and like the Spirit of Battle, to play out his part he needed to be able to focus his will undistracted. In the deep places of that traitorous heart he knew that if he didn't fight a total war he would certainly fail, and this was the Great Power's plan. It had happened before, and it would happen again. He could see no reason for the whole charade, except as mindless conflict. Here he allowed himself a grin. The Great Power generating mindless conflictŠwhy, it was his own job on a larger scale. Could there be truth to the old saying, "As Above So Below"?

Below his hand the hull was iridescent and glass smooth, colored red like many before, yet unlike any ship before it bore an emblem. In black, emblazoned on top and bottom so it could be easily read, the sigil of the God of War branded this ship as his own. In decades of slow labor his new worshippers had created a warship very much like the Colonial Defense Forces warship Ares. Very much, yet not exactly, alike.

The New Kingdom had provided the means, and he the will and the knowledge. To achieve the building of the new warships some changes to the structure of the New Kingdom had been necessary. In the first centuries he had deluded and then deposed the Leadership. They had plotted against him and they had failed. Next he had restructured the military, and given his people a new direction. The New Kingdom had awakened the dormant darkness in him, and he had awakened the New Kingdom to a new light. Though he had lost the Balance, the Spirit of Battle had always been the source of his drive, and with it he inspired his people to dreams of conquest. Now they were convinced that by following him they would rule both Kingdoms, the old and the new. In the fifth century he had begun to drive them to the creation of the new warships, and he was almost pleased that Dale had destroyed all the old attack ships, for they had been inferior, and that would have been unacceptable. For almost 200 years they had labored on the new ships and the new weapons to arm them with. Now he could see the hulls before him, sixty-five similar warships, and each an improved version of the Ares.

His thoughts turned to Dale, usurper and Goddess of War, and with the long view of an immortal, he realized she had played a part as surely as had he. It seemed like yesterday, their duel on the launch field, and yet it had been 688 years ago. He had watched as she had lifted in his ship, accelerating into the heavens as the lasers had tracked the hull, and he was proud to see their failure. He knew that ship would show no mark from such an attack. Then he had felt it jump, and she was gone. At that time it had been the most advanced warship in the galaxy, and on its wings had fled a piece of his heart. As he had shaken off the last effects of the fireball she'd pinned him with, his own words had come back to haunt him, and he had perceived the great scope of destiny, of strategy on a scale so long none had comprehended it.

"And maybe one day, just maybe, oh say ten thousand years and a hundred lifetimes down the line, someone like Diana will manage to steal the chakram, and flee to the stars."

In sixty-four generations it had come to pass, and a cycle had been completed. In that he had found comfort, for he had the one clue he needed. Yet change too was the nature of the universe, and even a cycle could be altered. The chakrams symbolized the forces of dark and light that had been separated in the creation, and Ares believed their destruction, when joined, would obliterate that separation. The joining of the chakrams could only be done by someone who held the Balance of Dark and Light, but once joined, they could be destroyed by anyone with sufficient power. It had never been attempted, but Ares believed it was possible, for there was also a saying, "Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust". So it became a question of proper weapons and tacticsŠin other words, war. And he was the God of War. Realizing the first clue had confirmed his strategy as destiny. As his father had before, his "daughter of the ages" was also been driven by destiny, and as surely as Zeus, Dale had certainly fled with the chakram to Earth.

?

In the dark of the Aegean night a million stars burned in the heavens, and below in an inn five souls slept the sleep of the drunk. After a few hours, one had burned away enough of the solvent in her blood that her eyes began to shift beneath her lids, and to her Morpheus brought the gift of dreams. Again it was a dream of the void, and Dena looked upon the beauty of the billion suns of creation, and tears came, born of the awe she felt at the manifestation of such power, in a work above our understanding of good or bad. The universe simply was. Its organization was the primary model, with change so slow as to be perceived as stasis, yet so constant as to overwhelm all in time. It was duplicated at every scale of creation. She drew near to a star, and it was a sun, and about it were planets, and she neared one, a Cardinal world with a giant moon. Then from the void there appeared 65 warships terminating their jumps, and they were marked with the sigil of war, and she could see their darkness. Then from below her, up from the planet, came a streak of red, blazing to blue-white, growing to a defender that came to challenge the warships above. And in the void there was war, and red ship fought red ship. Then came a squadron from the long wait of centuries, and 27 engaged in battle with 64, and flashes and destruction filled space around the Earth.

Dena found herself on a warship, and she was in command of that warship, and she knew it had once been the Ares. It was the Ides of March, but she didn't know the year. She had pushed the red button. The ship had taken her into battle where the words of the "Ancient One" returned to her, "Beware the God of War". She could feel him out there in his warship and she knew his ship was faster, more maneuverable, more powerful, and his victory was only a matter of time. Yet to lose was not an option, and there was no excuse for not being prepared.

Then she was watching the ships, and the ship Ares flew began to glow, and from it came a blast of darkness, and it struck her ship. Then the dream changed, and in the dark vault of night a constellation outlined itself, a ring encircling an s-curve, and it glowed revealing its shape. And the chakram began to spin, until it was just a glowing blur, streaking through the void, and from within it spoke the voices of all her ancestors.

"We shall bring you comfort, for we have seen your darkest hour. Only with love and faith can there be a cause for hope."

?

Dena thought the day after her birthday was one of the worst of her life. As her head pounded and her skin screamed she briefly wished she were seventeen again. Najilla was worse. She lay in her stomach, her arms mantling her head, groaning at every sound, and cursing the daylight. Dena took the opportunity to question her, and neither enjoyed the conversation.

"Najilla, are you awake?"

"Only for the sufferingŠI will never eat fish again."

"What's the fish have to do with it? It's all those weird drinks Katrina kept ordering."

"I should kill her, wanna help?"

"Absolutely, but I need to ask you a couple things first."

"NoooŠno questions, please? We kill first, maybe tomorrowŠI don't feel to wellŠquestions later."

"Najilla, please. I need to know about the temples in Athenae, and a ceremony soon."

"Ohhhhhh."

"NajillaŠ?"

"Shhhhh. It hurts to think."

"I know where they work."

"Huhhhh?"

"Katrina, I know where she dances tonight, and tomorrow night."

"Ohhhhh."

"Najilla, answer me!"

"Owwwwwwww! Too loud, not fair."

"If you don't answer my questions I'm going to sing."

"Oh Gods no!"

Here Dena gritted her teeth against the pounding in her head and began humming a tuneless song. Najilla put her hands over her ears, them removed them when the pain of pressing on her head was worse than Dena's humming. It went on for a few minutes.

"Alright, alright, stop, please, or I won't live long enough to answer anything."

"So the ceremony, coming in nine days at a temple in AthenaeŠa head priestess is to name a Favorite of the Goddess."

"Huh? Where'd you hear that? You never had any interest in the worship or the calendar of ceremonies."

"Well, I need to know this nowŠhumor me will ya?"

"It's the Choosing Ceremony, and it commemorates Dale officially choosing Val as her favorite. It's held at the equinox every spring, at the main temple of the Goddess of War in Athenae. Now good night."

"Wait a second! The person chosen, what do they get?"

"Well, mostly it's an honor. I guess the favorite that year has some influence, being as they are supposed to be a symbolic stand-in for the Goddess of History and Knowledge."

"That's it?"

"Look, this started after the deaths of the Goddesses, when people feared the return of the Years without Gods. They usually choose the most important warrior as Dale's stand-in, and a leading priestess, thinker, doctor, businessman, or something to be Val's."

"So who's Dale's?"

"It's been King Liasis II since he took the throne, and it was his father before that. That doesn't change."

"Who's Val's?"

"Right now it's the Seer of Attica, a priestess at the main Temple of the Goddess of History and Knowledge."

"And I guess they get along together?"

"They have to. The relationship between the stand-ins has to be good because discord between them is believed to herald the return of the dark years."

"Then I guess it's a good thing they don't fight orŠ"

"Dena, don't even think that! Most of the people in this country are completely convinced this is for real. The priestesses know it's just a festival and symbolic, but the average person really believes the country will fall apart if the stand-ins quarrel."

"You have got to be kidding!"

"Sadly notŠNow Good Night!"

"Najilla, how'd you like to spend a week and a half without having to ride anywhere?"

Najilla actually raised her head to look at Dena, then thinking she'd heard wrong she put her head back down. Dena giggled, then cursed herself for the pain it caused.

"I think I'm going to need some time in Athenae, and we can walk there. Then I'd like to look around and stay for the ceremony."

"Yeah, right. You, at the Temples of the Goddesses? With all those priestesses and worshippers staring at you? And the incense making you sick? That's about as real as you actually becoming a priestess."

"Well, actually I was thinking about becoming the Goddess."

?

CHAPTER 7: THE TEMPLES OF ATHENAE

The next morning they were on the road leading from Piraetum to Athenae, tormented by their sunburns, for the hangovers had receded. Behind them trailed their horses, happy to loaf for a day. Najilla had asked a lot of questions, and Dena had given her some answers. Now she had a good idea of the plot Dena had overheard, she just wasn't quite as clear on her plan to foil it. Najilla had been able to tell Dena about the Head Priestess of the Temple of the Goddess of War. Her name was Velora, and Najilla had heard she was a tyrannical bitch, although she'd never met her. She did have a sister with a seven-year-old son, so that detail fit. Velora had practically been raised in the temple, for her mother and grandmother had been Head Priestesses before her, yet like King Liasis II she had no heiress, and it seemed their lines would end. Najilla had heard she was in her mid-forties, had been excellent with her sword, and was the best informed living person about the Goddess of War.

After about two candle marks they reached the city of Athenae, and Dena was amazed by its size. Corinthia was a good sized city, and even Sparata was many times the size of Amphilios, but Athenae dwarfed all of them, for within its walls lived the major part of the population of Attica. Though in distant times this city had hosted greater numbers, in New Hellas, a city of nearly 750,000 was a metropolis. Dena could look from their viewpoint, and see the miles of walls, the massive gates, the watchtowers, and the markets. In the center, on its high hill, stood ruins so ancient they were accounted a wonder of the world. Below that hill, near the way that had once led through the Propylaia to the Acropolis, stood the temples of the Goddess of War, and the Goddess of History and Knowledge. They appeared to be grander versions of the original temples on Mt. Olympia.

"In the time of the Goddesses these temples were built to accommodate the Dale and Val when they came to the city. After their deaths, the temples on Mt. Olympia were abandoned, and pilgrims there are rare." Najilla said. "These are now the main temples of New Hellas. They will be very aware of you."

"That's the plan." Dena replied.

From the time they passed the gate of the city, Dena was the subject of much attention, for she was the image of the Goddess of War, and she came in the company of a priestess of the Goddess of War, eight days before the Choosing Ceremony. If some noticed the absence of the chakram or her sunburn, few grumbled, for the hope of the return of the Goddesses was great. Indeed, the most frequent question, yelled from those they passed, was if the Goddess of History and Knowledge would also soon appear. They answered nothing, and made their way directly to the temple.

When they were still some distance away, they were met by a company of priestesses of the Goddess of War, who knelt in greeting, and then escorted them to the temple. Dena completely convinced them, and as they stood on the steps before entering, she played out another part of her plan, addressing the gathering crowd.

"People of New Hellas, hear my words. Your faith is your strength. The Goddesses hear the voices of your hearts, and your devotion shall be rewarded in this life and the next. Faith with hope, honor with courage, devotion with victory, betrayal with death."

As the crowd cheered, Dena and Najilla, escorted by 16 priestesses, climbed the steps and entered the temple. They were greeted by the Velora, the Head Priestess, her Priestess Inquisitor, Chalara, and many of the priestesses of the temple. All bowed in greeting and Dena saluted them, right fist above her heart. Then she went to the altar, below another huge statue of Dale that looked exactly like her, and she put incense in the brazier, avoiding the smoke as much as possible. She made a point of neither kneeling nor bowing. Then she turned to the life-size statue of Val that flanked the altar, kissed her fingertips, and gently touched them to the figure's lips. The temple was silent behind her.

Later, she sat with Najilla, Velora, and Chalara, in a conference room behind the altar, asking and answering questions. Throughout the conference, Chalara became more excited as Dena revealed details Val had shown her on Olympia that were unknown, and Velora became more nervous. Dena took a subtle offensive, from time to time pinning the Head Priestess with her gaze as she spoke.

"Dale Sherril came to the world of Dell at the age of nine, and met Valerie Havarr. They were soon best friends. In their last year of school, Val discovered the knowledge of the disbanded Colonial Defense Forces, and together they learned the ways of those warriors. After a conflict at school they were jailed, escaped, and made their way to the world of Terminus Prime in a stolen starship. There they became the pupils of the God of War. Shortly afterwards they followed him to battle in the void.

"The Kingdom of Man had fallen from the Balance of Dark and Light, renouncing the Spirit of Battle, and those who saw the evil in this were exiled. In their New Kingdom, these exiles forged a power, and built an armada, and eventually destroyed their enemies. Soon they too had lost the balance. Then the dark of the New Kingdom fell upon the light of the Old, and the slaughter drove the God of War to battle. Now accompanied by his favorites they defeated the New Kingdom, but at the crucial hour, Ares fell into darkness. Then Dale took up the mantle of the Goddess of War, retrieved the chakram, and now the Balance of Dark and Light lived in her. She destroyed the attack ships of the New Kingdom and defeated Ares in combat.

"Through all this we see the evil that accompanies the abandonment of the Balance, and the defeat of those who cleave to either of its single forces. Betrayal of this first principal of balanced force will always bring death, be it of the body, or the soul, or the spirit." Here Dena fixed her gaze again on Velora and saw her squirm, then she continued.

"Know that what happens in the universe happens also in the hearts of men, and the work of Gods is like the work men. Even the Great Power acts in a similar fashion, for events are driven by imagination and will, only the scale of power is greater. King Liasis II has followed the Goddesses' teachings in his rule, and has achieved a balance of force and mercy in New Hellas, greater than at any time since the rule of the Goddesses. To oppose him would be to abandon the balance of man, and that of the Goddesses, and that of the Great Power itself. I have come because I feel the rise of forces plotting against the king, and I shall not allow them to succeed."

"Someone is plotting treason against the king?" Chalara asked in horror, "Who?"

"It begins with the ambition of a noble, abetted by discontents in the army, but it will end here," Dena answered, watching Valora paling out of the corner of her eye, "the plot threatens all, but its first threat we will avert today. I direct you to close the hospice and relocate the patients among the hospices of the city."

Chalara and Velora stared at her while her words sunk in. Finally Najilla spoke.

"Do not defy the will of the Goddess, for the lives you save will number in the tens of thousands, and the safety of the nation is at stake."

Finally it was Chalara who answered. "It shall be done. Those in the hospice will be moved."

"Excellent," Dena said, "I know this cannot be done in a day, for there are hundreds in the hospice. While any still remain within, post your best fighters to guard the water supply."

By this point Dena could detect Velora trembling, and so she pressed her attack.

"Chalara, I need to confer with the Head Priestess about our plans, would you and Najilla please begin the arrangements."

Najilla and the Priestess Inquisitor withdrew, leaving Dena alone with a very nervous Velora. Dena wanted to continue to apply pressure and compound her guilt, and at the same time keep her from undermining her response at the hospice. Dena kept the Head Priestess off balance.

"Velora, tell me of your sister."

The Head Priestess looked at her, eyes as big as saucers. She was visibly trembling, debating within whether or not to confess all, for nothing seemed to have escaped the Goddess, and her appearance just before the Ceremony of Choosing couldn't be coincidence. Already she was sick with worry about her sister and nephew, and the threat to the hospice had been making her weak with guilt. Alone against Lord Sikopolis' henchmen she had been paralyzed by the threats, and had been contemplating suicide. The moments stretched on in silence as she wrestle with her fear and her conscience.

"Velora, tell me of Captain Zalek of the Army of Thessal."

Velora choked. Was their plot so transparent, or had the betrayers been themselves betrayed? Then the full impact of what was happening struck her like a bolt from a ballista. The plan to increase the influence of Lord Sikopolis would bring ruin to the nation, and before her sat the incarnation of the Goddess of War, driven to action in part by her own cowardice and treachery. For many generations her family had served the Goddess, and she was the third Head Priestess. The small favors she had done for certain nobles had gotten out of hand, each being used against her to secure the next. By increments she had sold her honor, mocking the trust so many gave her, but worst of all, she had betrayed the Goddess, and she realized it was her own lack of faith that had allowed it to happen. Tears began to fill her eyes as she felt the disappointment of her ancestors. Finally they overflowed.

"Velora, I cannot allow the Ceremony of Choosing to be debased in the service of a mortal's ambition. I cannot allow a challenge to the right king of New Hellas to be born in my temple. I cannot allow your participation in the destruction of the fragile balance he has achieved. I give you this choice for your life is already forfeit, for by the plotters' hands or my own you shall surely die if you do not abandon this scheme and aid me. Your life is mine and I shall use it better than you yourself have. By your choice your life shall be remembered and your soul shall be judged."

Under the steady gaze of the Goddess the sobbing priestess slowly fell from her chair and collapsed on the floor. Her world had fallen into rubble in the space of a candle mark since the Goddess had appeared in Athenae, yet already a threat was being removedŠtwo really, for now the threat against her own life was moot. Finally she composed herself enough to speak.

"Goddess, I have nothing left but regrets and guilt. I would save the lives of my sister and her son if I could. For myself I ask nothing. Use my hands as you will, for my will shall be your will."

?

"So what's it like traveling with the Goddess?" Chalara asked Najilla as they headed for the hospice with a detail of 16 priestesses armed for battle.

"Well I've learned a lot of things, and I've seen a lot of places." Najilla told her. "Mostly she's pretty normal, but she's definitely the Goddess. In Sparata we were in this fightŠ"

"She threw fireballs?"

"No, she didn't have to. She did get this weird look in her eyes, and then she was flipping over people, and she killed all five of our attackers with as many strokes. It only took seconds. It was the most terrifying thing I have ever seen."

"So did you meet her at Olympia, or did she appear in the temple at Therma?"

"No, actually she came guarding the refugees from the barbarian attacks. She was originally from Amphilios andŠ"

"Amphilios? Najilla, what do you know about that town?"

"It's just a trading town in eastern Macedon, not far from the border of Thracae, why?"

"That town is ancient, Najilla, some reckon it over 11,000 years old. But the reason we remember it is that it's where the "Ancient One" came from all those ages ago. Najilla, we don't even know her right name, and she is only referred to a couple times, but some believe she was the original source of the Goddesses."

"Really? She's the one called Xena that appears in her dreams. Dena says she only comes to her on the fields of her battles, and her spirit is hard, but she does seem to be the strongest, and speaks before the others."

"Dena really looks like the statues of the Goddess Dale." Chalara said, entranced by the insights Najilla was sharing.

"No," Najilla said, "they all look exactly like Xena."

?

In the darkest hour two nights before the new moon, a shadow slipped through a window and crossed in the shadows to the bed where the Head Priestess lay sleeping. He bent over her, and the sliver of moon reflected off the blade he brought to her throat. Then he clamped his hand over her mouth and shook her awake. He was to pressure her, for the removal of the patients from the hospice was a clear attempt to change sides, and he was here to remind her of the fate her sister and nephew would meet. In the dark he saw her eyes open, but there was no dullness of sleep, and he thought he'd never noticed Velora's eyes were blue. Then, although his reflexes were sharp and the blade was already placed, he found himself on the floor, his arm broken. She had attacked the nerves in his neck. He was paralyzed, and couldn't even breathe.

"I have cut off the nerves below your neck, and you will asphyxiate unless I release you."

She was standing above him, and his terror was complete, for he would surely die. The figure above him was not Velora, but the Goddess of War herself. He nearly passed out.

"Oh no you don't," she said, striking a nerve just below his ear, "you're staying awake for this. Now tell me where they are."

A candle mark later, in a shoddy part of town, a man dressed as a thief, cloaked and masked, was found by a shopkeeper on his way to work. The man could have fallen trying to burglarize a second story shop, for his arm was broken, yet the building housed only a factory for dyeing cloth. Later he was discovered to have been a liege-warrior of the Army of Attica, and he had died for lack of air.

In another part of town six warriors guarded a woman and her son. The building was on a quiet street and none came to visit, for the house belonged to a minor noble in the service of Lord Sikopolis. They were bored, having held this duty for almost two weeks, rotating in shifts of three, and soon they would kill both hostages, for they knew too much. Suddenly there came a demanding knock on the door. A warrior went down the hall to check it, leaving two companions on guard while three more rested upstairs. He put his foot behind the door and opened it a crack. No one was there, so he shut the door, double-checking the lock. He was extremely suspicious.

Dena watched him from a window that looked into the hall. He turned to walk back, and Dena slipped away, backing up several paces. Under her breath she counted to five, figuring he would pass the window at the last count. Total war, she thought, calling on the Spirit of Battle. Then she counted off the paces at a dead run, and launched herself through the window in a tuck and roll.

She came through the window right behind him, and in that instant he knew what had happened. He was still turning, drawing his sword, when some one struck him from the opposite side, slamming his body into the wall so hard he dropped to the floor. Dena had rolled, come to her feet still moving, and launched herself as high as she could jump. Her hands struck the wall just below the ceiling, and she pushed off hard, legs bent. She came down on the soldier as her legs snapped out, both legs kicking him and driving him head first into the wall. She recovered, and noted sounds both upstairs and down the hall. Since the guard had been returning down the hall she moved that direction, closing the distance in three strides. She cleared the doorframe drawing her sword, and immediately slammed it through the door, hearing the groan as the blade pinned someone behind it to the wall. Across from her a warrior held his sword above a woman and boy, but he had a second of hesitation as she turned towards himŠit was the Goddess of War. Something struck him hard in the chest. He knew the hostages were no longer his concern, for as he looked down to see the hilt of a throwing dagger in his chest, he realized his part in the game had ended in defeat.

Dena stayed just long enough to see the sword falling from his hand. Then she was out the door and moving down the hall towards the staircase. Six strides and the banister was three feet above her head. Two more and she leapt, reaching to grab the railing and haul herself over onto the stairs. She was halfway up, and above her there was movement. A warrior came out of a room, calling to those below.

"They're dead." Dena told him as she threw the second dagger, and his words drowned in a gurgle of blood as the blade pierced his throat. She pulled his sword from its scabbard as she passed him and saw two more warriors coming out of the room he'd left earlier.

The first warrior had cleared the door when he stopped dead, his companion running into his back. Rapidly moving towards him was the last person he'd ever expected to see. His mind registered that they were being assaulted by the Goddess of War herself. Then she did the last thing he'd ever expected her to do. In mid-stride she spun a sword, reversing the grip, and she launched it at him like a javelin. The blade struck him, ramming through his belly, and continuing to the hilt. It was long enough to have impaled them both. The Goddess didn't even honor them by watching their deaths. Instead, she was turning back to vault the stair railing and return to cut the hostages free.

They left shortly, Dena, two freed hostages, and the first guard, his hands bound, walking unsteadily as his head cleared from its impact in the hall. Dena couldn't wait for the interrogation. He couldn't understand how this could be happening. To him the whole history of the Goddesses had always been hogwash.

?

On the night before the new moon two figures entered the Temple of the Goddess of History and Knowledge. One was dressed in the robes of a priestess of the Goddess of War. The other was cloaked and hooded. The priestess brought her companion to the center of the temple, before the statue of Valerie Havarr, and there requested an audience with the Seer of Attica. When she appeared she came to the visitors and her attention was riveted on the tall anonymous figure, from which she felt a radiance of power. The figure came towards her, and appraised her with such intensity that she was frozen in place, and she felt herself transparent. She did not waver.

"You have a true heart, and true faith," the figure said, "I would have you for another year as the representation of my favorite."

Then the figure reached up and pulled back the hood, and she was revealed. The Seer of Attica, though she saw many visions, had only heard the rumor of the return of the Goddess of War, yet here she stood before her. And then, before all the priestesses standing near, she kissed the tips of her fingers, and as she had done that first day in Athenae, she touched them to the lips of the stand-in for her favorite, removing all doubt as to her choice.

?

"So Dena, the plan goes forward flawlessly." Najilla said, as they stood together in the temple watching the final preparations for the ceremony.

"Well, the easy parts have been a success," Dena replied, to Najilla's astonishment, "now for the exposure of the plot. I guess our hostage will be helpful."

"So you'll be with Velora when she names the Seer again as the Chosen?"

"No, she'll do what she's been told. After our visit to the Seer last night the word is out that I have given her my favor. The ceremony is really only a formality this year. No, I have to protect the kingŠhe's in attendance, and when the Chosen is named, I think he'll be attacked as a last option by the plotters."

"Assassins?" Najilla was horrified to think of anyone assaulting the king, and especially in the temple.

"Afraid so. When Lord Sikopolis' plans fail, I believe his henchmen will be desperate enough. I think they already know what his wrath will be like, and they may have some suspicions about mine. Anyway, I expect they don't feel they have much to lose. It's what I'd do."

Najilla shivered. She had work to do tonight as well, another part of the plan. She left Dena and went to get ready.

The Temple of the Goddess of War had seen many crowds over the years, but never had so many gathered as did tonight. The Ceremony of Choosing was a major event, but tonight many had come to catch a glimpse of the rumor they had heard, for the news that the Goddess of War had returned had spread widely in the last week. Perhaps half the city was in the streets before the temple, and within, the crowd was packed. In a section to the right of the altar the First and Second Corps of Liege-Warriors of the First Army of New Hellas held back the crowds, for in the center of their cordon sat the throne pall of King Liasis II and upon the throne sat the king. Above him a baldachin had been erected, painted on its underside with the night sky. About the king's throne were gathered nobles from various states, many with a handful of retainers. Among these, Dena's eyes picked out the weasely figure of Lord Sikopolis, perhaps a dozen feet to the king's right, and among his followers, stood Captain Zalek and five liege-warriors. By their placement they could easily watch the altar, being closer to it than the king himself, and they were shielded from the full view of the crowds by the king's throne.

Dena pulled the cloak closer about her shoulders, and began to edge slowly around the cordon. She needed to be within quick striking distance of Sikopolis and his men. After some maneuvering Dena was able to approach the cordon of liege-warriors to the right of the king, about six feet from Lord Sikopolis and about twenty feet from Liasis II. Not close enough, she thought, it would require a standing leap over the warriors and a stride and a half, too far. She would probably have to depend on her throwing daggers if it fell to her to act. From behind her there was a disturbance, and an honor guard of eight priestesses of the temple marched through the cordon, approaching and finally standing behind the throne and symbolically guarding the king's back.

As the crowd finished settling itself, there came a fanfare of trumpets, and the temple grew quiet. From behind the statue of the Goddess, the Head Priestess and her attendants entered and proceeded to the front of the altar to start the ceremony. Velora knelt before the altar and offered incense. Then she rose, making a ceremonial bow, and turned to salute the king. Dena studied her, and decided she seemed calm, dignified, and in control. The ceremony opened with the priestess recounting the origins of the Goddess and the ceremony.

Dena's mind wandered, her eyes absorbing the situation, observing the crowd. She quickly checked to see if Najilla was ready, and their eyes met. Najilla winked. Dena returned her attention to the plotters and she noticed that Zalek had worked his way to the edge of Sikopolis' entourage closest to the king. Now Dena knew her suspicions were correct. Zalek had managed to get within seven feet of the throne. He'll try to close in another two feet before he attacks and his forward movement will be my signal, she thought.

At the altar the Head Priestess was concluding her opening. Now she would proclaim the name of this year's chosen.

"Hear now the choice of the Goddess, for as was once, so shall it ever be, for the reign of the Goddesses is eternal, and each Goddess claims the love of her chosen that the balance shall be sustained. Behold people of faith for the time of choice is at hand and the will of the Goddess shall be heard.

"This year the Chosen of the Goddess of War is Lacerya, Priestess of the Goddess of History and Knowledge, andŠ"

Dena saw Zalek move as soon as the Head Priestess spoke Lacerya's name, and she launched herself over the liege-warrior standing next to her. He made a lunge for the space where she had stood but was way too late. She had a throwing dagger in her hand before she landed, and as she saw Zalek reach for his sword hilt she flung it into his shoulder. He was within striking range of the king when several things happened. The liege-warriors of the cordon closest to her grabbed Dena, but she spun away leaving them with her cloak, revealing herself. From above, a body crashed through the baldachin, the rope around its waist snapping the drop to a halt a foot above the floor directly in front of the throne, and the liege-warriors accompanying Lord Sikopolis began to draw weapons. The eight priestesses behind the throne leapt to surround the king, drawing their weapons to face off against anyone who threatened him. In the confusion Dena seized the advantage.

"All stand and hold your weapons! There is treason here against the King and the Goddess!" Dena proclaimed, and without her cloak, most believed they were being commanded by the Goddess herself. Those who had seen her moving seconds ago were convinced of it. A few of the plotters hedged nervously, and Lord Sikopolis looked bored.

"Let none defy the words of the Goddess," the Head Priestess said from the altar, right on cue.

Dena moved towards the body hanging from the rope, and the figure struggled in alarm at her approach. She reached up and yanked the gag off his mouth, and with the king watching closely, she stabbed the sides of his neck with her fingertips. Then speaking loudly enough for everyone to hear, she questioned him.

"I have cut off the flow of oxygen to your brain. In thirty seconds you will die if you do not speak. I can kill you with a single finger, but you can die without a word. Know that your torment will be for all time, and your soul shall be stripped and burned in the eternal fires of Tartarus, and I shall deliver your torment myself. Will you speak?"

The man was the first guard of the hostages and he was in mortal terror of Dena following his earlier experiences. He shook his head 'yes'.

"Very good. How did you first come to the attention of the Goddess of War?"

"I was taken prisoner when she freed hostages held against the Head Priestess."

At this the king rose from his throne and the Priestesses closed a circle around him, swords pointing out in all directions.

"And for what reason were the hostages being held?" Dena asked.

At this, one of Sikopolis' liege-warriors raised a dagger to throw. Whether aimed at Dena or the captive, even Dena couldn't be sure. Suddenly an arrow slammed into his chest, driving him back. It had come through the same hole in the baldachin the prisoner had been dropped through, and looking up Dena saw Najilla knocking another arrow in her bow. She had Lord Sikopolis at arrow point, and when he looked up he was staring eye to eye with her down the shaft. The warrior she had shot finally crumpled to the floor shot straight through the heart, blood gushing rhythmically from around the arrow.

"Answer, I command you!" King Liasis II roared, "For what were the hostages held?"

"My Lord," the prisoner said, for by his own count he was at 27 seconds, "they were to ensure the choice of Lord Sikopolis as Chosen."

Dena stabbed the sides of his neck with her fingers, releasing the nerve attack.

King Liasis II though only days from his 64th birthday was a strong ruler and stronger in his will. He had dealt with traitors before, but never had a plot been so well concealed that he had had absolutely no foreknowledge. Now the dark side of the balance rose within him, and though he didn't know how widely the plot extended he would take no chances.

"General Calais, seize Lord Sikopolis and his entourage, take this prisoner with you. Do not take them to the Athenae barracks. Take them to the royal dungeons. They are to be held in irons and chains at star points, and guarded only by handpicked liege-warriors under your command."

"By your command My Lord." The general responded, without hesitation.

General Calais had served King Liasis II since before he had conquered Thessal 37 years before, and would gladly chain the treasonous bastards by the wrists, ankles, and neck, and stretch them across a star shaped frame which could be spun. No one below the rank of a captain would guard these prisoners, and those would be officers to whom he had already trusted his own life in battle.

So it came to pass, in the 37th year of the reign of King Liasis II, the 223rd year after the Deaths of the Goddesses, that people reckon the reappearance of the Goddess of War. Dena became a hero in Athenae, and she and Najilla earned honor from their king, and the love of the people. In time bards sang ballads of their triumphs, and among all their tales, the story of "Dena's First Triumph Over Treason" remained ever a favorite. In the next two years Dena and Najilla roamed New Hellas as private warriors under the king's blessing, and they did many acts in the service of the Greater Good, both large and small. But like all things, even the Reign of the Goddesses, good things too must end, and the next tale is a sad one, for in it the heroic priestess of the Goddess of War loses her life. "Yet in death one may conquer, though the victory is celebrated with pain and tearsŠ" and so Najilla, Priestess of Therma, is accorded honor and renown by the souls in the Fields of Elysia, until the end of days.

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CHAPTER 8: MOHEGALA THE RED KHAN

This is the tale of the destruction of the barbarians of the eastern steppes, and although there remained afterwards some scions of that kingdom, still their power was broken, and never since have they arisen to threaten New Hellas. It was the Year of Our Lord 9,412, the 39th year of the reign of King Liasis II, right king of New Hellas, and the 225th year since the Deaths of the Goddesses. In the lands there had been peace more than war, the rule of law more than lawlessness, and prosperity more than privation. For the last two years the heroes, Dena of Amphilios and Najilla of Therma, had increased in renown, and their adventures in the service of the Greater Good had inspired bards in taverns across the land. It has been wondered why Dena did not claim residence at Olympia as the reincarnation of the Goddess of War, but her time had not yet arrived, for there were still lessons for her to learn, and she was still a mortal woman.

All seemed well, yet before the leaves fell there would be war, and great devastation, and the deaths would be numbered in the hundreds of thousands. To the east the barbarians had fought amongst themselves for the two years following their defeat by the Third Army of New Hellas, the Army of Macedon, for their ruler, the Khan, had died, and the succession drew challengers like hyenas. Yet finally, into the vacuum rose Mohegala, the Red Khan, bloodthirsty, merciless, craving power above all else, and completely consumed by the darkness in his soul. And having consolidated his power, he regrouped his armies, and he premeditated the destruction of his peoples' ancient enemies to the west.

"The human capacity to find conflict is endless. There are hatreds simmering the world over, ancient and recent. At any time they can come to the surface..." -Ancient quote attributed to Xena: Goddess of War, Year of Our Lord 2,006.

In the spring he mustered his army, and he called for the blessings of his Gods, and he sacrificed many prisoners to ensure his success. Then with the smoke of the offering pyres still rising into the heavens, he led his men to war. They crossed the steppes, gaining in numbers as the local militias were conscripted, until they approached the Straits of Constantine in early May, their army 180,000 strong. It is said that the ground trembled under the hooves of their cavalry, and the land was scoured under the boots of their foot soldiers. Their own people fled before them, and desolation followed in their wake. Not since the Years without Gods had such a force moved to battle. Mohegala and his generals were confident, for they knew that New Hellas maintained five standing armies, each of three divisions, and each division numbered 6,000 men; 90,000 total, plus a scattering of private armies and warriors, making perhaps another division under various commands.

As the sun rose behind them on the 7th of May, the 1,000 trumpets of the Red Khan blew a fanfare, and then, led by shadows that shortened before they had all passed, the army of Mohegala crossed the border and besieged New Hellas with war.

From town to town, and garrison to garrison the warning of invasion was passed, by horseman, or runner, or the flashing of bright reflections off swords. Swiftly Mohegala's army advanced, yet swifter still did the warning pass, and in but four day's time the news of war was heard in Athenae by the king. Within the hour he had ordered the massing of the armies, and again he chose the city of Therma as the staging ground, for the plain about the city was wide, and the harborage was good. On the next day, the first divisions of the Army of Attica took ship, and in the following days so to did the armies of Thessal, Macedon, and Peloponnesia.

Though the king was in his 66th year, the state of his people and his nation was always his first concern, and so, being a good king and an honorable man, he put away his ceremonial sword, and his robes of office, and took up the battle sword with which he had once united the kingdom. On his armor was the Eagle of Attica that flew on the pennants of the First Army, for Liasis II would go again to war as its First General. In the hours before he boarded his ship with his officers he wrote several letters, calling on the loyalty and patriotism of the private armies and requesting aid. Also he wrote a letter to the Goddess of War, praying for her blessing and guidance, and requesting her presence in battle to inspire the troops. This letter he committed to the Head Priestess of the Temple of the Goddess of War, but he sent the message by military channels as well. Then, doubting that he would survive, yet unwilling to send others where he himself feared to tread, this noble king sailed into the east to lead his armies to war.

?

The night was ending, and on the eastern horizon there was a hint of a glow that promised the rising of the sun. The clouds, hanging like ghosts in the last of the darkness above, would soon be roused by Helios to shades of crimson, pink, and blue. Atop the eastern walls of the town of Amphilios, Dena and Najilla sat close together, side by side, waiting to view the sunrise. It was the 9th of May. After two years of adventures Dena had desired to visit her mother, and as the land had been at peace, they had arrived a few days before to a warm welcome at the rebuilt inn. Cyrea had been overjoyed, even welcoming Najilla as a daughter, and this touched her deeply, for she had been brought to the temple as a year-old orphan and had never known her own kin.

In the last hour of their journey to Amphilios, as they crossed the Stryma River Vale, Dena had been increasingly nervous, unsure what her mother's reception would be. Najilla had tried to cheer her, and had succeeded in getting her to smile as she told the priestess some stories of her childhood. The two had become closest friends in the two years they had traveled together, each knowing the other would risk their life for her, and each cherishing the traded life debts they had accumulated.

Dena had continued to dream, being visited by many of her "ancestors", and learning much about her pasts. Najilla too had begun to dream, and her dreams caused her trepidation, for among her past incarnations was a crusader, possessed from childhood by spirits she had called the jinn. And between this "Crusader", and Dena's "Ancient One" there had been conflict over methods, and competition for the heart of Xena's beloved Gabrielle. Many campfires had witnessed their discussions about this issue, yet in the present there was no conflict, for where the Goddess led, the Priestess would follow, and their mutual devotion was implicit. Both felt the calling of the Spirit of Battle, and both were driven to the service of the Greater Good, and if neither yet held the perfect balance, it was an ideal and a goal for them both. In this lifetime they were of one heart, and yet they were not lovers, for both understood Dena's destiny, and looked towards her reunion with the 65th reincarnation of the Bard. But though they were not lovers, they had no discomfort over physical contact, and so against the morning's chill they leaned into each other and each wrapped an arm around the other's shoulders, speaking softly together as they awaited the dawn. Such scenes of physical contact, often witnessed by those around them, compounded by the fact of their desirable appearances, led to the ambiguity about their relationship that recurs, in stories about them, as subtext.

Now with the singing of the first birds came a lightening of the sky, and the promise of the clouds was fulfilled in colors fleeting and wondrous, that reflected from the heavens to tint the land below. It shone on their faces as the radiance in the east intensified and the sun's disc lit the horizon with the coming of the day. Then, as she had years before on the road to Therma, Dena saw flashes from the highlands to the northeast, where an outpost of the Army of Thracae kept watch on the coast. The flashes cried a warning, and her heart pounded in horror at the words that she read. When the message began to repeat she leapt to her feet, and Najilla, having followed the focus of her eyes and read the words of the message as well, joined her and they roused the entire garrison in the last candle mark of the third watch.

As the morning progressed the garrison received word that they were to withdraw, and soon the westerly road was clogged with refugees, again fleeing the barbarians from the east. With these refugees came the greater part of the garrison of Neopolis, and even many soldiers from Avdira yet further east. And these soldiers carried a count of the enemy taken by troops from Maronae who had been unable to flee, for the flashes that gave wings to their reports out flew the advance of the attackers. Then the message was sent speeding on to the next watch point and the next, until just two days hence it would be heard by the king himself. But the message spared no false hopes, and the enemy forces were said to cover the land in numbers never seen before, and they were unstoppable. To oppose them with the available forces would be suicidal, and so the soldiers of the Army of Thracae were busy assisting refugees, and when these were gone, they poisoned the water supplies and the crops they could not burn. Then they booby-trapped the road, breaking the bridges behind them when they finally withdrew.

Dena and Najilla went to the inn, and they found Cyrea already starting to close and pack, making her preparations for flight with silent tears. Both spent the rest of the morning shuttering the building and aiding their neighbors, for having been so long on the road their own packing was a simple matter of minutes. The people of Amphilios were reliving the terror of the invasion just three years before, and they went light, knowing the hardship of the road to Therma through the highlands. By the start of the second watch they were ready, and they mounted their horses, and they left the inn, Cyrea riding one of her pack horses, the other two bearing mostly food and clothing.

They joined the stream of refugees, crossing the Stryma River and climbing the foothills of the highlands to the west. The column of people stretched mile after mile, their numbers much greater than three years before. But this time the soldiers would not wait for reinforcements. Rather they would proceed to the muster of the armies at Therma, assisting the flight of the civilians. They figured that even if the larger crowd spent seven rather than six days marching, still they would reach Therma by the 16th of May, while the armies would not be there at full strength before the 24th. During the three weeks between the start of the invasion and the beginning of the counterattack, the army of Mohegala was expected to advance to the coast of Chalcidic, the same area in which their last defeat had begun. By the evening of the first day's march the entire column had cleared the Stryma Vale, made their way into the highlands above, and pitched their first camp.

?

The days of May passed too quickly it seemed, but just past mid-month, nine days after the invasion began, the refugees had safely reached Therma. The remains of the Fifth Army of New Hellas, the Army of Thracae, built their encampment outside the city walls, and their strength was reduced to 8,500 men at arms, and 1,800 liege-warriors. 7,700 of the king's soldiers had died as Thracae was overrun, and their comrades hatred of the invaders boiled in a red rage, for always it was the Fifth Army that bore the brunt of their assaults.

In the morning of May 17th the first of the king's armada arrived at the port of Therma, bearing the First and Second Divisions of the Army of Attica, and with them came the king. Dena and Najilla watched from the walls of the city as the army enlarged its encampment, and they saw the pennant of the First General raised over a large tent at its center. They sent word of their presence to the king. Cyrea found herself welcomed at the inn in which she had stayed three years before, and the owners were only too happy to have her experienced help again, for the city was packed with people. Both Dena and Cyrea hoped to see Taris when the Army of Macedon completed its arrival. Najilla had met with the Head Priestess at the Temple of the Goddess of War, and she found she had become something of a legend. She found the deference of her sister priestesses amusing. She found the absolute awe with which they regarded Dena hysterical. Diana, the Priestess Inquisitor was stranger than ever, for now she spent most of her time besotted with incense and dreaming. In the evening of the 17th of May, a messenger came to the inn and informed Dena and Najilla that their presence was requested by the king, for he asked for their council, and he had some ideas to discuss.

During the next week the ships of the king's armada choked the port, and the army debarked to camp beside the walls of Therma. Taris briefly visited Dena and Cyrea on the 21st of May, the day after the arrival of the Second Division of the Army of Thessal. The last of the king's army arrived in Therma on the 24th, and the palisade of the encampment stretched for miles around the tents of 82,300 soldiers. Never before had the full armed forces of New Hellas converged since the kingdom was founded, and the valley rang as the troops drilled, with the clash of swords, the marching of boots, and the testing of artillery.

On the 24th of May the Red Khan, Mohegala, stood on the shores of the Stryma River and burned 200 of the king's soldiers alive, as an offering of thanks to his gods. The gains that had taken three weeks in the last invasion took only 17 days this time, due to his vastly superior force and the lack of resistance as the Fifth Army fell back. As he stood watching the offering the Red Khan smiled, for his gods would be pleased by the screams and the struggling of the sacrifices.

On the 25th of May, Dena bid her mother goodbye, and at the request of the king, she and Najilla rode into the highlands to the east of Therma in search of allies most did not believe existed. For the first fifteen miles, watchers in the highlands flashed messages of good luck to them, and reported their progress to the city. Beyond that limit they were back in the wild highlands, but soon they left the path they had taken with the refugees, and headed north, skirting Lake Koronae. The sun shone bright through the trees, and birds called in the woods. They rode in haste, encumbered only with weapons and a little food, and on the second day they passed Lake Diora, and left the realm of New Hellas. These lands were untraveled by command of Dale, the Goddess of War, and no citizen or soldier of New Hellas had set foot here since before the nation's founding.

In the afternoon of the second day they rode through heavy wooded uplands, and Dena had raised her hand to slow Najilla, feeling the presence of others nearby. As she passed the trunk of a great tree an arrow passed no more than an inch before her horse, and embedded itself in the trunk. Immediately she halted, and reaching from her saddle pulled the bolt free.

It was a long arrow, black shafted, and tri-fletched, and the head was of bronze, heavy enough to penetrate armor. It was unlike Najilla's smaller arrows, and Dena knew the bow that shot it would have to have been very long, over six feet in height. Yet Dena detected no movement in the woods, and the shooter's stealth was complete. Dena held the arrow and closed her eyes, reaching out with her inner senses until, at 30 yards she felt a heartbeat. Her eyes snapped open, and there, eighteen feet above the ground was a blind, cunningly made so as to be invisible in the branches. Unseen within it would be a single archer, yet the blind was only a yard wide and less than two feet high, not even large enough to hide the weapon.

"Hear me! We come in peace as emissaries of King Liasis II, right lord of New Hellas," Dena called to the archer, "we seek an audience with the queen!"

"Who comes here in the guise of the Goddess," a voice called from another direction.

"Craving audience with the queen?" called a voice from yet another direction.

"For what would you disturb us," a third voice called from behind them.

"After the passing of so many lives?" a voice called from almost above them.

It was profoundly disturbing, for they knew they were surrounded, and though they knew the directions the voices had spoken from, there was still no one to be seen. Such stealth, Dena thought, King Liasis II was right to hope for aid from such warriors.

"I am Dena, Heiress of the Goddess of War, and my companion is Najilla of Therma, my priestess. We seek council and aid in our nation's darkest hour, and we beseech your queen to hear us."

"If you are the Goddess of War, then show us the chakram." Said yet another voice.

"I am the Heiress, not the Goddess. I have inherited the Spirit of Battle, but the Balance does not reside in me, and the resting place of the chakram is unknown."

"The Spirit of Battle is yours you claim? We would see proof by testing."

Dena felt the air compression of the arrow and leapt straight up, out of her saddle to grasp a branch above, and swinging her body around it, she launched herself up and back. Sixteen feet above their horses, and in the tree just behind them she slammed feet first through another archer's blind, grabbing the archer, and bringing them both to the ground. By the time they landed, Dena had struck the archer in the back of the neck, paralyzing her from the neck down. Najilla had leapt from her horse, and now stood between her horse and a tree, her bow bent, aiming an arrow behind Dena, covering her back.

"Speak, by the Goddess I command you." Dena demanded.

"She has evaded and attacked with nerve point techniques, I cannot move below the neck, such is the prowess of the Spirit of Battle."

For a minute there was no movement, but a succession of bird calls moving off into the distance were heard, growing fainter until the faded into the north, then, one by one, eight warriors dropped from blinds on all sides. They were all women, dressed in suede, decorated with beads and feathers, and they wore masks carved of wood. Each carried a bow unlike any either Dena or Najilla had ever seen, less than three feet, but with the bowstring tripled as it passed through pulleys at its ends. Their quivers carried several kinds of arrows including the large one they had first fired, and lighter ones more like Najilla's. They came in silence to encircle Dena and Najilla, but they had not knocked arrows, nor had they drawn the swords they wore at their backs.

"Release the nerve attack, Heiress of the Goddess of War." One archer said, granting acceptance to her claim of identity, and Dena snapped her fingers against a spot at the base of the captured archer's neck.

The archer slowly stretched her arms and legs, and got to her feet, and said, "Wait with us here a moment for the permission you seek. Word has been sent to our queen, and the answer should be returned shortly." She seemed to be in command of the archers.

For a few more minutes they regarded each other in silence. Disciplined and formidable warriors, Dena thought, not even the king's liege-warriors are so proficient. Small wonder the Goddess forbade her people coming here, a misunderstanding could have started a very serious war. Soon the call of birds again broke the stillness of the forest, and one of the archers answered, whistling from under her mask. Then they removed their masks, and slung them off the scabbards at their backs like shields.

"Two of us are to escort you to the queen. Her name is Cyane XXIII, and she is High Queen of the United Amazon Nation." The commander said. "She has heard of you. Now walk with us. It will take three candle marks, since we will be four, and you have only two horses, and we cannot reveal the faster road."

Dena and Najilla reckoned they covered nine miles, and Dena was impressed by the Amazons' ability to communicate so quickly. She knew it implied the woods were full of sentries, and at every step they were covered by archers. Nothing could be seen, and an invading army could have walked far into this land unknowing, never to return, while beyond the invisible borders their fate would remain ever a mystery. It was by far a more warlike state than even Sparata, depending on constant vigilance and expert stealth, for it had no walls. At the time, it was the most terrifying place Najilla had ever been.

They reached the Amazon city near the fifth candle mark of the second watch, and below them in a valley, buildings camouflaged through decades by living plants and trees could be recognized only with effort, even when they came close. Once they were actually among the buildings, they saw many warriors and civilians, they heard voices on all sides, and here and there saw the smoke of a fire. The city was large and confusing, for no street was straight or paved, and without a city wall, Dena was never sure just how big the city was, or how many called it home. Though it was the city of the queen, it was but one of many, for the Amazon Nation had united and grown through all the Years without Gods, and this was the zenith of their civilization.

Finally they came to a building, like the others covered with vegetation, and no straight line of wall or roof betrayed its size. There was a guarded opening between two trees, and the inside was lit with oil lamps. Dena and Najilla were admitted, and led through a series of halls and chambers, until they came to a large room through which a stream ran, while part of the roof was open to the sky. It reminded Dena of the Temple of the Goddess of History and Knowledge on Olympia. On one side was a platform, creating an elevated floor, and they ascended three steps to reach it. The platform held a large round table, surrounded by chairs, and several women sat around it. One chair had a taller back, and arms at the sides, and in it sat a woman with straight blond hair, cropped in front and shoulder length at the sides and back. Her eyes were deep brown streaked with gold, and her gaze was intense as it focused first on Najilla, and then on Dena. She looked to be in her thirties, but there was a sense of timelessness about her, and no guess closer could be made. Her air of command was unmistakable, yet she conducted herself with restraint, and her position was signaled only by the deference of those around her, and the construction of her chair. Among her warriors she would be invisible, and no enemy would discern which of these reserved and focused warriors was the leader. Dena was again very highly impressed. She waited for the queen to speak, and after a short interval she addressed Dena in formal military fashion.

"Hail and well met, Dena of Amphilios, Heiress of the Goddess of War, inheritor of the Spirit of Battle, and seeker of the Balance of Dark and Light," she said, rising from her chair.

"Hail and well met, Cyane XXIII, High Queen of the United Amazon Nation, and keeper of the Word of Power," Dena replied, saluting her with her right fist over her heart.

"Our Seer has revealed many visions of your bravery and service in the calling of the Greater Good. Also she has seen the march of your enemy, and their path of destruction." Cyane paused, cueing Dena to speak.

"We come before you at the request of King Liasis II, breaking the ban of the Goddess only at great need. We seek council and aid against the invaders from the steppes, for they come against us with great force, and their evil knows no bounds."

"Know that our nation has never worshipped the God of War, but the Goddesses we accepted and revered. At our request Dale Sherril proclaimed the ban in the 34th year of her reign, and the people of New Hellas have honored it ever since. We are not allies of the king, but we respect the truce the ban implies. With King Liasis II we have peace and none defile our lands. With the invaders we would have war." Queen Cyane declared. "The Council of the Amazon Nation has agreed that our warriors will fight to drive the invaders from the lands you call Macedon and Chalcidic, for those lands are adjacent to our own. Of Thracae we have no concern."

"Queen Cyane," Dena responded, "the Council's decision is wise, for the invaders would honor no ban or treaty. The king hoped your love of your homeland would lead you to aid us before the threat is at the doorstep of your nation. Let the battleground be the scarred and wounded lands of New Hellas. As has been truly said, 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend'."

"Dena of Amphilios, when you return to New Hellas tomorrow you shall be accompanied by a division of the army of the Amazon Nation. They will confer on tactics with the king's army, but they will be under their own commanders, and when the lands in question are free they shall return home. Is this agreeable?"

"The terms are welcome and accepted. In this I have leave to speak for the king. But Queen Cyane, I do not know the organization of the Amazon Nation's army, what strength constitutes a division?"

"None outside the nation need know the constitution of the nation's army, yet I will tell you that a division is the strength of a city, and the division to accompany you is from the north, far beyond the threat. We would never draw away the defenses of the areas most in jeopardy, but when you return to Therma, you will be accompanied by 20,000 warriors."

My Gods, Najilla thought, a division of one city stands at 20,000. If the nation has five cities their army outnumbers the entire army of New Hellas, and if they are all like the ones we met, the ban was never for the sake of the Amazon Nation. To most they are a mythŠnone even know the extent of their territory. And this was true, and if the people of New Hellas had wondered why the invaders of the steppes came west only through the Strait of Constantine, they would have begun to appreciate the hidden nation that protected all of the northlands. For as was said, the Amazon Nation was at the zenith of its power, and from the borders of New Hellas in the south, it stretched to the arctic in the north. From the Black Sea to the White Sea in the east, to the Great Sea in the west, all the lands once named for Europa were held by the United Amazon Nation, and their cities numbered over a hundred, and their warriors numbered in the millions. And before them sat the High Queen, unaffected by the power she held, dressed as a warrior of her nation, yet she commanded far more subjects than the Goddesses had ever had worshippers.

As dawn broke on the 28th of May, Dena and Najilla set out for Therma, and they walked in the company of Amazon Warriors. Though they displayed no rank, there were five who issued orders, and with whom they conversed most, and by the end of their journey they had discerned that the leader of the Amazons accompanying them was a dark haired woman named Solaris. One thing Dena and Najilla found disconcerting was that at the end of their day's march they found an encampment already prepared, and the strength of the Amazon Division was awaiting them.

"I don't understand how they beat us here and set up so quickly," Najilla confessed to Solaris when she saw them.

"They were here. They watched you outbound from Therma three days ago. They have been here since the 14th of May, when refugees were reported in the highlands again."

"But we saw nothing," Najilla said, dumbfounded, "the land was empty for miles around."

"They gave you wide berth and let you pass in peace. Our Seer and our Queen are very wise, young priestess, and our warriors are now the most skilled in our history. We come from a land where there are no trees and it is windswept and often cold. Hiding ourselves in this riot of growth is no challenge at all."

Najilla didn't know what to say, so she sat down on a rock and started to prepare an evening meal for herself and Dena, shaking her head and wondering what she'd been missing in New Hellas.

?

At the third candle mark of the second watch the Amazon Division came out of the eastern highlands, down into the valley of Therma, with Dena and Najilla at their head. It was the 29th of May. Long before they arrived at the encampment of the army, riders had come forth to meet them, and among them rode the king. The riders dismounted and great was their rejoicing, and the king expressed his thanks to Dena and Najilla, and his welcome to the Amazons.

"Accept my gratitude on the accomplishment of your mission." King Liasis II said to Dena and Najilla.

Then he turned and addressed the Amazons. "I offer my thanks, and the thanks of the people of New Hellas, to the High Queen and the Amazon Council, for sending you to our aid in this war. Though in the past, few of our people have known of, or believed in your existence, soon none shall doubt the strength or bravery of the Amazon Nation."

Then the king met with Solaris and her lieutenants alone.

"My forefathers came across the void with the Goddesses, and in the early years learned much of what passed in their new home world. Among those who came in embassy with the Goddess of War, to her meeting with the High Queen, was the pilot of the Colonial Starship Icarus III, for he held the office of High Chancellor to the Goddesses. They met on the plain of Lake Diora. There was the High Queen Melosa XVIII, and with her 200,000 warriors, the strength of her southern army. They warned the Goddess to keep clear her people from Amazon lands. Before she agreed to impose the ban, Dale revealed the Ares, that had flown high above them from Olympia and stooped upon the army, hanging in the sky like a red cloud, and she commanded it to level a mountain.

"And she proclaimed that our nations would be best served in mutual segregation, and the High Queen agreed. Thus for over 650 years the contacts between our nations can be counted on the fingers of a single hand, and for both our peoples this has been good. My hope is that when the enemy is defeated, my people and yours can continue in the peace of the ban, yet your presence will breed stories and legends, and stoke the curiosity of the people. Though true allegiance between our nations may not be desired, yet in the coming years I pray for closer rapport between our nations, for there is a prophecy, and this too is not common knowledge.

"It was said by Valerie, the Goddess of History and Knowledge, and confirmed by the Seer of the Amazon Nation, that when the Amazons came again into Hellenic lands, the Goddesses would reappear, and shortly there would be war. Not such as the local conflict we now face, but a true war, of magnitude undreamed in the whole of the histories of both our nations. So now the omens come to pass, and the prophecy is enacted, and in the years close ahead we shall need each other as never before."

"King Liasis II," Solaris answered, "we remember the prophecy, and we see the time we call Armageddon drawing near. For the last four generations our nation has been strengthening itself. The army now stands at 2 ½ million warriors, yet what good can they do against an enemy from beyond the stars, in a battle fought above the heavens?"

"I know not the answer to your questions," said the king.

"Nor do we," replied Solaris.

?

That night the Amazons encamped in the valley near the city of Therma, and unlike the army they set no palisade, but kept watches and guarded their position, and none could approach. As the king had said, the curiosity of the people was very great, for outside their city stood an army greater than the whole Army of Macedon, and it had come out of myth and legend. When a throng of the curious approached the encampment, they were instantly surrounded by sentries who had appeared, it seemed, from the ground itself, as spirits risen from their graves. And they were encouraged to go back to their city and not to return. This was seen by watchers on the army's palisade, and tense moments passed until the city folk were seen walking back to Therma. Then, before their eyes, the sentries vanished.

Few of the Amazons entered Therma or the camp of the army, preferring to restrict their contact, for they were there to offer aid in battle, not to make friends. Yet in the company of Dena and Najilla, Solaris and her lieutenants attended a council of war in the tent of the First General of the Army of New Hellas, and his commanders.

"Generals of the five armies," the king said, opening the council of war, "I want you to meet Solaris, commander of the Amazon Division, and her lieutenants. They have come at my request, to aid our fight against the invaders. They will be under the command of their own officers, and will fight their own front in the war."

The generals looked at the five women before them, wearing no insignia or uniform. They really didn't know what to make of them, so different were they from any friend or foe they had faced. Finally one asked leave of his king to speak.

"Like many here, I have only thought of the Amazons as subjects of ancient legend, and before this afternoon would have denied their existence, yet I see you do exist, and I am thankful." General Solon of the Army of Peloponnesia declared, "I count your army near the strength of my own, and I am grateful to your leaders for their aid. Like many I am curious about you and your lands, but now is not the time. I would ask, what part would your forces best play in our strategy?"

"General, we number 20,000, and we are a division of our army, but one of many. It is our custom to fight with stealth, killing from concealment with bolts, bitterly poisoned. It is our mission to clear the lands of Macedon and Chalcidic." Solaris answered.

"But commander," General Calais of Attica said, "there may be 100,000 invaders in those areas when we engage them, and you could be outnumbered five to one."

"Then our warriors need each count only five arrows blessed," the Amazon Lieutenant Terreis replied, "we do not shoot without a clear target, and we do not miss."

"Yet you will not be waiting in ambush for enemies to approach unawares," General Arkos of Macedon said, "you shall be driving out invaders already in possession of the territory we wish to free."

"Do they press their advance at night? Our scouts say not. Rather they encamp as you do, and rest, waiting to battle in the day," Lieutenant Ephiny observed. "We shall approach within the range of our bows, not theirs, picking them off from the dark as they are revealed by their own campfires."

"Generals, our tactics are proven through centuries against hordes on the northern steppes," Solaris told them, "we protect a frontier over 1,200 miles long by these tactics, and our border is impenetrable. Our forces will surely destroy the invaders in Macedon and Chalcidic, and we shall do so in about a week. We expect very few casualties."

For a while there was only silence as these things sunk in. Before them stood five women in suede costumes hung with feathers and beads, not having the appearance of soldiers. Yet they claimed to hold a frontier of 1,200 miles. From the north of Macedon, to the south of Peloponnesia was perhaps 330 miles. And they claimed they would kill 100,000 enemy in a week without sustaining significant casualties. It bordered on preposterous. Extra warriors were welcome, but where had their king found these? And yet, they had claimed their force of 20,000 merely a division among many, and they had for centuries held lands not two days march north, yet were almost completely unknown.

General Arkos thought back to his childhood, when as a boy of eight he had accompanied his father, a captain of liege-warriors home on leave, into the highlands of Chalcidic to camp. As they had walked on that summer day near Lake Diora, his father had come upon an arrow freshly shot into a tree, and he had examined it, and looked into the woods to the north. He remembered the calls of birds. Then his father had picked up his son, placing him on his shoulders, and he had fled.

"We will take with us an observer," Solaris said, understanding their doubts, "I too would be uncomfortable leaving my near lands to untested allies, while going into battle further from home, never knowing if the enemy at my back had lived or died. I understand your reservations about our claims."

"You mean you would allow one of our soldiers to accompany you, to report on the progress of the war?" King Liasis II asked.

"I was thinking not of a regular soldier, but rather one who shoots, and could learn to shoot as we do. One who could absorb our methods and then teach them to your own men someday."

"Who would you choose, for we have many archers among us, and I would let you take your pick, for it would be an honor to any of my men."

"I had in mind Najilla, Priestess of Therma." Solaris said.

In the corner of the tent Dena and Najilla had stood in silence, and they passed a look between them, and it was decided. Najilla would accompany the Amazons, while Dena rallied the troops further east. It was the last major decision they would make together.

?

CHAPTER 9: THE WRATH OF THE PRIESTESS

In the predawn of the 31st of May, Najilla accompanied the Amazon Division back into the highlands of the east, while Dena remained behind with the king and his generals. The armies were prepared at last, and the strategy was decided, and with the dawn of the 1st of June, the armada would sail. All day they loaded ships with weapons and supplies, and Dena observed there were ships of a kind unseen before. Not much to look at, they would be towed by the galleys, for by themselves they were barely sea worthy barges, large, but of shallow drought, and provided with a minimum of oars. Of these, Dena counted forty, and upon each stood a rolling trebuchet with an arm of fifty feet in length. Such an engine of war could throw a shot of 250 pounds perhaps 250-300 yards. The missiles they would hurl were standing along the sides of the barges, casks filled with a mixture of oil and fat. She thought back to her dream, in which Xena had prepared to launch pestilence and horror into Corinth to break the siege. These machines were double their size, and would assail the land bound troops of Mohegala, standing out to sea well beyond the range of any retaliation, and raining fire upon the enemy. Total War Dena thought, and she smiled.

It was the changing of the watch, and the early afternoon sun shone brightly through the trees, the light fluttering in the leaves, bringing to the highlands of Chalcidic a beauty unspoiled by the war. Najilla sat with Solaris, Terreis, Ephiny, and the lieutenants Narciles, and Lahar, eating a strange trail food the Amazons had given her to try. They each ate a block less than fist size, washing it down with fresh water, and Najilla thought it not unpleasant, though a bit heavy.

"What is this anyway?" she asked.

"Pemilcan," replied Terreis, "it's a compact trail food, highly nutritious and can be carried long unspoiled."

"It's not bad, certainly beats dried meat, though the flavor isn't great."

"Najilla, we've eaten enough to march or fight from now until tomorrow," Solaris told her, "you can survive on a half ration for two weeks before weakening noticeably."

"Incredible," Najilla thought, just like everything else about these warriors.

"We will resume our march in a quarter candle mark, and there's something I want to show you," Ephiny said, standing, "bring your bow and come with me."

So Najilla picked up her bow and quiver and followed Ephiny to a place a short way from the resting Amazons and the trees grew further apart. There Ephiny readied her bow, and indicating a tree about 50 yards away, shot an arrow. It was a smaller arrow than the warning arrow first shot in front of Dena's horse, and it stuck, quivering in the trunk about chest high.

"Can you hit such a mark?" Ephiny asked.

"With ease," Najilla replied, knocking an arrow, and sticking it in the trunk next to Ephiny's.

"Nice shot, priestess," said the Amazon, her blue eyes twinkling, "now, match me again."

This time Ephiny indicated a tree at twice the range, 100 yards, and the trunk was but 4" in diameter. Najilla was doubtful, yet Ephiny stuck the shaft with little effort. Najilla took her turn, concentrating, and compensating for distance with the trajectory. Her arrow struck the trunk, lower than she would have liked, perhaps waist high. Ephiny smiled.

"Third shot is the teller," she said, adjusting the pulleys on her bow. When she fired. Najilla had to look for where the arrow had gone, for Ephiny had fired an almost flat trajectory, compensating not at all for the increase in distance. The arrow had covered the distance without the delay of the rise and fall of a ballistic arc. Her eyes widened as she saw the shaft quivering, and stuck securely in a trunk, 6" in diameter, and 130 yards away.

"I might hit such a mark, and perhaps with enough force for it to stick," said Najilla, "but the shot would be unsure, slower and weaker at impact. I would not shoot against an enemy at that distance, rather I would move closer."

Ephiny didn't answer, but made a final adjustment. She sighted, and shot a fourth arrow, giving a slightly greater arc to its flight. Still the arrow flew swift to its mark, and Najilla saw it stuck in a trunk of the same size, distant to her eyes, 160 yards away.

"Beginning at a range of 200 yards," Ephiny said quietly, "I have shot at a scouting party of ten, and one by one killed them as they charged, dropping the last at a distance of 20 yards."

Najilla digested this information. A soldier charging an enemy might cover 200 yards in less than forty seconds. To make ten kills in that time, with the pressure of charging enemies, would be a feat of which stories would be told. Somehow she didn't think it was that uncommon for them. She was intrigued, with the bow, and with the archer, for Ephiny, with her reddish blond ringlets and flashing blue eyes, her quick smile and relaxed manner struck a chord inside her.

"How is it that your bows can fire with so much power?" Najilla asked, looking at Ephiny's weapon.

"It is partly in the materials, and partly in the design. It is very ancient, yet uncommon in these days," Ephiny told her, "a recurved bow like yours will fire with a draw of about 40 pounds. Our bows draw with a similar force, but they fire at the force of a bow drawn at 150 pounds."

A bow of 150 pounds was unheard of.

"Would you like to try it?" Ephiny asked her.

"Absolutely!" Najilla jumped at the offer.

Ephiny handed over her bow, and Najilla hefted it, and tested the draw and the sights. It felt comfortable, and the flex was natural. At 34" it was fully 20" shorter than her bow. She reached full draw and then surprise grew on her face. The resistance against her draw actually decreased.

"As you draw to full, the stress drops off but the power increases. It can be drawn further, but the power will drop off somewhat. It must be adjusted to your draw length," Ephiny stated, and Najilla let off on her draw slightly, feeling for the point of strongest resistance.

Najilla knocked an arrow, and drew. She reached the point of greatest power, aimed and released. Ephiny laughed at the shock on her face, as the arrow, flying flat and true, slammed into the trunk of a tree 120 yards away.

"Ephiny, thank you. Never have I made such a shot in my life!" Najilla exclaimed as she handed the bow back to her.

"You shall make many such shots. We have brought a bow for your use." Ephiny told the priestess, grinning as a smile lit Najilla's face, "If you're to aid us in battle you must be prepared. At least we don't have to teach you to shoot."

Najilla didn't know what to say. A weapon like the Amazon's bow was, in their time, an expensive and precious possession. Her own laminated recurve bow was a cherished piece of equipment, useful in hunting as well as war. For the Amazon to offer one of their bows to her, practically a stranger, touched her heart. She couldn't stop the tears of happiness and gratitude that started to overflow and trace a path down her cheeks.

"What's the matter?" Ephiny asked, alarmed.

"Ephiny, your offer is special to me, and by making it you have made me feel honored, and special as well. It is a remarkable weapon. Thank you so much." Najilla choked out.

"Well, dry your eyes priestess," Ephiny said with a radiant smile, "let's retrieve those arrows, and then it's time to get back and return to the march."

It took her a few moments, but Najilla composed herself, and together they rejoined the other Amazon leaders. Solaris gave a whistle like several notes of birdsong, and it was passed through the troops, then they picked themselves up and continued on their way.

As the afternoon's march continued, Najilla found herself speaking mostly with Ephiny, and their conversation ranged to many topics, and both learned much about the worlds in which the other lived. Najilla was amazed by the extent of the Amazon Nation, and its long history of ups and downs. Ephiny was amazed by the differences from one city to another within the nation of New Hellas, which Najilla had seen in her travels with Dena. In spite of the differences in their lives they found they had much in common. Both preferred the less crowded country to the press of the cities, both loved to travel, both enjoyed their roles as warriors, and both had come to their present stations as orphans. By the time the day's march ended, neither realized they had spoken to no one else for several candle marks, and around them attention was discreetly paid to this by their fellow warriors, who winked at each other knowingly. It surprised no one when they continued their conversation through the evening meal, and as they settled into sleeping spots for the night, their speech punctuated by laughter, and occasional tears.

?

Dawn broke on the 1st of June, and the ships of the king's armada cast long shadows on the waves in the harbor as they weighed anchor and stood off from shore. They left the port of Therma, slipping away down sea roads into the gulf, and passed south to the Aegean. Aboard the king's flagship, Icarus XXIV, Dena watched the progress of the armada. Behind them, stretched across twenty-five miles of water came the might of the nation of New Hellas, over 82,000 soldiers, 12,000 sailors, 30,000 horses, and 440 ships. The sea was speckled with the armada, and Dena found herself wishing for the sight of the Gods, that she might watch their progress from above, then rise higher still and spy out the position of the enemy. And also, had she the sight of the Gods, she would have searched the highlands of Chalcidic for the stealthy march of the Amazons, and her closest friend, Najilla.

As dawn broke on the 1st of June, the highlands were quiet under the rising sun, and here and there came the call of a bird. Already the Amazons had been marching two candle marks, and had passed Lake Bolba, and would soon approach the coastal scarp between Argil and Stargir. By their whistles they knew from scouts that the enemy held these lands, and all the eastern coast of Chalcidic. These scouts had remained in the highlands while the division had marched with Dena and Najilla to Therma, and for two weeks had watched the advance of Mohegala's forces from Stryma Vale. What they had seen of their cruelty raised their blood to boiling. In the mornings the soldiers of Mohegala would find, often as not, several of their officers dead, arrow shot by foes they never saw. Over the length of their column the killings were more an annoyance than a strategic threat, yet in two weeks they had lost 140 officers, about ten a night, and now these companies were commanded by less experienced soldiers, promoted in the field, and often resented by their comrades. To the Amazon scouts, it was the opening of their war of attrition, and if 140 deaths in a force of 180,000 seemed like little, to them each arrow which found its mark was blessed, for they intended to kill the invaders one by one. And always they picked their targets, looking for the badge of rank, passing opportunities to shoot common soldiers, for they sought to degrade their enemy's moral, if even by a degree. So in the days they watched, and in the nights they killed.

"Even the greatest army is but a sum of its warriors, and as an army is forged, man by man, so too can it be destroyed, man by man. Yet an army, like a man, has a head to lead and a body to follow. Cut off the head, and the body shall die. Each arrow that finds its mark is blessed, and the most blessed arrow finds its target, right between the eyes. -Quote from the "Wisdom of Artemis: Amazon Warfare", anthology of strategy and tactics, compilation still in progress. Begun 1,037 B.C.

As the candle marks of the watches passed, the armada of the king and the warriors of the Amazons moved forward towards their destiny, and by the middle of the second watch, the armada rounded the first peninsula of Chalcidic, and the Amazons looked down on their enemy. From the highlands the warriors of the north saw a narrow coastal land, black with the troops of Mohegala, between the cliffs and the sea, and Solaris and her lieutenants confirmed their strategy.

That afternoon Solaris, with Ephiny and Najilla, led 10,000 warriors south, while Terreis and Narciles took another 7,500 warriors north. The remaining 2,500 Amazons, under Lahar's command remained in the highlands, holding them against incursions from the invaders.

Solaris brought her troops to the end of the highlands above Acanthus, where the narrow neck of the third peninsula of Chalcidic jutted into the sea, and there they stopped for the night. To the north, Terreis and Narciles led their troops to the vale where a river drained the waters of Lake Bolba into the sea, about midway between Stargir in the south and Argil to the north. The day was fading, and the army of Mohegala was pitching camp. Up and down the coast watch fires and cook fires were kindled as the invaders rested after another day of conquest. Soon night would fall, and the war would begin, and many who took an evening meal that night would never greet the morning.

It was the third candle mark of the third watch, midnight, the witching hour, and by stealth the Amazons under Narciles and Terreis descended to the valley floor. Passing in silence, as shadows and shades, shooting sentries as they went, they slaughtered the enemy who had camped in the valley as they slept. Such was their stealth, and their war craft, and their prowess with bow and sword, that though 2,000 of Mohegala's soldiers died, none raised an alarm. Soon they were at the coastal plain, and they heard the waves of the sea, and they looked on their enemies. And as a spreading stain in clear water, so they advanced, under cover of darkness, shooting and hewing as they went, and another 6,000 enemy died before an alarm was raised. This was their plan, that each Amazon take at least one enemy life, and having accomplished that, they withdrew as the alarms broke the stillness of the night. And as waves of reinforcements arrived, their rear guard slew them at 120 yards in the dark, and few came closer to the retreat. In the sixth candle mark of the third watch, the Amazons returned through the valley to the highlands, leaving a wall of bodies to block the advance of their pursuers, and they disappeared into the night. But behind them, in the valley and on the coast, there lay the bodies of 8,500 dead, and of the Amazons, eleven lost their lives, and their bodies were brought back, so none knew for sure who the enemy was.

In the south Solaris led her forces down from the highlands, and they came to the land above Acanthus, and there they began their slaughter. Solaris left Ephiny and Najilla with 1,000 Amazons, and these waylaid the neck of the peninsula so that none might re-enter the mainland. Then taking 9,000 warriors, she descended on Acanthus, shooting sentries, and moving into the city in the shadows. In the city of Acanthus that night, the Spirit of Death walked, and from the dark came the silent attack, and in a candle mark it was over. Solaris and her forces retreated, rejoining Ephiny, then climbing back to the highlands. But behind them the city of Acanthus was silent, and in it 10,000 soldiers slept, never to wake in this world. And the Amazons, having killed every soul in the city, took away with them 3,000 horses. These they brought into the highlands, and though they slowed the retreat, Ephiny and Najilla's troops guarded the neck of the peninsula, only 900 yards wide, giving them ample time to retreat. Upon the neck of the peninsula the bodies piled deep, and none gained the mainland, and then these Amazons withdrew as well.

And the sun rose red on the 2nd of June, and of Mohegala's army, 24,000 were slain in the night, and he counted the bodies, and cursed his gods. The king's armada passed in the night, rounding the third peninsula at dawn, and from the highlands came flashes from Najilla's sword, and all rejoiced, but none so greatly as Dena, who had feared for her friend. At the king's council that morning, all heard that in the night the Amazons had opened the war, and they marveled at the count of the dead, for it was better than the eighth part of Mohegala's army, and the fourth part of those in that land. But if they marveled at the destruction wrought in the night, more amazed were they to hear that in all the battles less than three dozen of the Amazons had fallen, and they had taken 3,000 horses, depriving Mohegala's cavalry. Then any doubts left the king's generals, and in confirmation there was the silence of Acanthus, broken only by the howling of dogs, and the circling of buzzards and calling of crows.

During that day, Mohegala tried to regroup, and when he heard the ill news of the slaughter to the north he was greatly vexed, and burned an offering of another 200 to his gods, and this time he burned his own men. And he came to believe the east coast of Chalcidic cursed against him, for here the last invasion had failed, and in a night he had lost far more men than the prior invasion force had totaled. Now he had doubts, and though he could show no fear before his men, still he wished he could withdraw back to Stryma. The dead, his dead, had been slain with sword and bow, and the tales his men told of the firefights and the stealth of these enemies left him no doubts who had taken the field against him, and he cursed. He reviewed the lore of his people, counting legend and history as one, and the tactics he recognized from the tales of his people to the north, and when he was brought an arrow he was sure, and he feared the return of night. Yet Mohegala had not risen above his brothers by slaughter alone, and he began to formulate a plan, knowing he could never defeat the Amazon Nation, but hoping to avenge his soldiers and repair his pride.

In the day the Amazons rested in shifts, keeping close watch on the enemy below, and shooting any that tried to approach. A detail took the horses past Lake Bolba, and there freed them to graze in Chalcidic. And one other duty they performed. As the sun rose to the zenith, they raised their voices in a dirge as the smoke of 32 pyres rose to the heavens.

Afterwards, some wanted to return that night to exact further casualties on the enemy. But Solaris in her wisdom forbade them, saying that, "This night few will sleep for fear, and by tomorrow's night we will face men both afraid and asleep, while we shall rest this night and battle them fresh."

In truth she had spoken wisely, and among Mohegala's men few slept, tormented by fear and doubt, and longing for their homes. Yet Mohegala used the time in plotting, and redistributing his forces, forsaking his advance while consumed with hatred for the Amazons, and forgetting the king.

So in that night it was the king's forces that carried the unforeseen attack on the invaders, and from out at sea came a barrage, a rain of fire upon Argil, for through the day the armada had sailed far up the coast. In the 1st candle mark of the third watch twenty of the king's artillery barges flung 100 barrels into the walls of the city, and these burst into a clinging flame which burned long and hot, and could not be extinguished. And being a city built largely of wood, Argil was burned to the ground by the 100 barrels of oil and fat. Though many of Mohegala's troops escaped their barracks, yet their supplies and their horses and their lodgings were lost. Over 2,000 perished in the flames, but the final results were worse, for 20 of the hundred barrels contained not only oil and fat, but also ground minerals and salt. When these burned they released a mixture of gases; sulphur dioxide, hydrochloric acid, and chlorine, which sickened many more troops, rendering them unfit for war.

When dawn broke on the 3rd of June, the Amazons were ready to continue the war, and the king's armada had reached the Stryma Vale.

As Mohegala had on the 7th of May, so King Liasis II greeted the dawn of June the 3rd with a fanfare of trumpets, and their sound crossed the waves, and shook the walls of Amphilios three miles inland. Aboard ship, troops armed and prepared to assault the lands of Macedon and Thracae, while the artillery began its barrage. Fifty barges had been towed close in, and they lofted their barrels of death at the encampments of the enemy. Behind them troop ships made for shore. For half a candle mark they fired, until the coast was awash with flame and deadly vapors, and then the order to cease-fire was given. The king and his generals watched the burning subside, and the clouds of vapors dissipate, and then gave the order to attack. Again the trumpets sounded, but nothing moved on the shore in answer, and the troops landed without resistance, for all about them were bodies burned beyond recognition, and many felt sick at what they saw.

Then having established a beachhead, and moving inland a mile, the army divided. The Army of Macedon and the Army of Thracae marched to seal off the Stryma Vale, protecting the landing, and denying passage east or west to the enemy. The armies of Peloponnesia, Attica, and Thessal began their move east down the coast, slaughtering any they met, and their goal was to reach the Strait of Constantine in 10 days. They rode swiftly through that land, stopping only for battle, and in the evenings they obtained their rations from the supply ships that paced them down the coast, for any food they encountered they deemed poisoned. They encountered resistance, and when they overcame it they drove before them a flight of invaders, wavering between retreat and rout. In the first day they came within ten miles of Neopolis, having cleared nearly twenty miles of Thracae's lands of invaders.

Dena accompanied the Army of Thracae in the liberation of Amphilios, which had become a stronghold of the barbarians. The rage of the Army of Thracae was a blood haze, and they spared none, for this was their homeland, and they had the deaths of 7,700 of their comrades to avenge. Yet before them went Dena, and soon her cry was taken up by the troops, men-at-arms and liege-warriors alike, and they came against their enemies screaming, "Kill Them All". The two miles from the beachhead to the walls of Amphilios were strongly contested by the enemy, and they fought bitterly against the king's men. But the rage and the prowess of the Army of Thracae carried the battle, and by the opening of the second watch they prepared to besiege the city.

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In the highlands on the 3rd of June the Amazons again divided their forces, and again Terreis and Narciles took 7,500 warriors north, while Solaris, with Ephiny and Najilla came south with 10,000. As before, 2,500 Amazons maintained guard in the highlands under Lahar. In the north and south they took up positions and watched the movements of the enemy.

In the north Mohegala's army was moving back up the coast towards Stryma Vale, in answer to the king's attack. But in the south the troops were vacating the peninsula and moving across the crescent of land between the second and third peninsulas of Chalcidic. The enemy appeared to be advancing, to threaten the now deserted towns of Toron on the second peninsula, and Sermyla west of its base. They were moving towards their ultimate goal of Therma, only 50 odd miles to the west, and in this Solaris saw the intent of Mohegala's threat. He would know of the king's assault, and would be cut off from retreat into the east. His force was no longer large enough to threaten New Hellas with occupation, but he could cause vast suffering if his army besieged Therma, and Solaris perceived he would sacrifice his army to spite the people of Macedon. Already the coastline below the highlands was widening, and if Mohegala could win past the peninsulas his cavalry could ride swiftly up the coast to attack.

"The enemy moves his forces west in hopes of winning to the plain past the cliffs," Solaris told Ephiny and Najilla, "and should he do so, he will be well placed to strike at Therma while the king's forces are to the east."

"I count his forces at 55,000 on foot, and perhaps 17,000 on horse. 72,000 total." Ephiny said.

"They can't be allowed to pass the peninsulas," Najilla agreed, "we would be hard pressed to stop them afterwards, for they could reach Therma in less than two days march."

"Stopping them on open ground while on foot would be difficult," Solaris said, "and they have enough cavalry to destroy Therma while leaving their infantry to engage us. We will lose too much advantage on the open plain. This must end here."

They began to move west through the highlands keeping watch on Mohegala's troops below, and as the candle marks of the watches wore on, they went further and further from their sisters in the north. When dark fell they would be far from aid, and facing the enemy, outnumbered more than seven to one. For this reason, Solaris declined to engage them in the light of day, counting every advantage a necessity, and waiting for nightfall. To every warrior the day seemed over long, and the candle marks of the watches crept past, as the enemy advanced down the coast. At the entrance to the second peninsula a column of cavalry broke away, 7,000 horsemen rode down the peninsula out of sight.

"We must ignore them for now," Solaris told them, "I cannot diminish our forces by engaging both these riders and the main force still heading west. At their current pace they will be 12 miles distant at nightfall. No, we must continue our march."

So they continued to follow the main army of Mohegala, still 65,000 strong. And though their odds were now marginally better, none fooled themselves, for they would have a mounted enemy at their backs. In the fourth candle mark of the second watch, just two candle marks before the sun would set, a group of 5,000 riders broke from the mass of the army and rode west at higher speed.

"There they go," Ephiny said, "on their way to assault Therma as the vanguard of Mohegala's army. And on foot we can't catch them."

Najilla began to feel sick, for Therma was her hometown, and with the king's army way to the east, it was defenseless. Ephiny saw her sad expression and squeezed her shoulder, and Najilla, grateful for the comfort, gave her a weak smile.

"These too we cannot chase. No, we must remain to destroy the main force, which still numbers 60,000," said Solaris, "I'm sorry Najilla, there's nothing more we can do. With hope the city will stand safe within its walls until we can come to their aid."

No one spoke their doubts of the coming battle, or the possibility of being worsted, or the consequences that such a defeat would bring. At last the army stopped its march and pitched its camp. And finally the sun made its descent, reddening and growing as it dipped to the horizon, filling the sky with the hues of blood, and then twilight passed to night. They waited in the dark in the highlands above the bay, closer to the first peninsula than the second, and below, on the narrows lay the town of Potidaea.

At the second candle mark of the third watch they filed down out of the highlands, and shot the sentries around the camp. Then the slaughter began. The Amazons had slain four times their number when an arrow was shot, aflame into the sky, and Mohegala's trap was sprung. Still 20,000 strong, the infantry was roused and panic drove them to a desperate counterattack, and the Amazons began to sustain casualties of significance. Still they fired arrows to their marks, and about them the bodies piled higher. But then they heard hoof beats in the night.

From the town of Potidaea came Mohegala's cavalry, for they had only made a feint in their ride up the coast, and now 5,000 riders joined the battle. The Amazons were forced to chose between the nearby targets of the infantry, or the rapidly approaching faster targets of the cavalry.

Now Solaris read the trap, and she signaled her warriors to retreat, and they began to make their way back to the highlands. And they continued shooting, maintaining a distance between themselves and their enemies. They figured they had killed 43,000 and they couldn't do more without great losses. They had won back within a quarter-mile of the cliffs when there came against them the cavalry earlier separated at the second peninsula. These had begun their approach to the battle at dark fall, moving close in silence, and now these 7,000 charged, having waited to cut off the Amazon's retreat. And their situation was desperate, caught without good cover on the flatlands above the beach, facing the surviving cavalry, perhaps 9,000 riders, and another 19,000 on foot.

So the Amazons were finally driven into a circle, shooting out into the night in all directions, and by their skill they brought down another 6,000 enemy, mostly infantry, while the bodies of their sisters collected around them. As the night progressed and fewer were left to hold the perimeter, a rider would now and then penetrate their circle, forcing them to dispatch him with swords. As the last candle mark of darkness passed, the Amazons counted their losses at over half, and about them still 22,000 remained against their 4,000.

When the sun lightened the horizon to the east, the Amazons were taking arrows from the dead, and from the quivers of their fallen sisters, making each find a mark, but some had already had to cease shooting for lack of arrows. As they ran out they began to draw their swords, and some took the duty of scavenging arrows for the others, and the enemy closed in. Soon each remaining archer had a sword wielding Amazon standing beside her to kill any who came too close, and fewer and fewer were shooting.

Now the sun was fully above the horizon. On the battle ground only 2,500 Amazons remained, but though they had brought the invaders' numbers down to 15,000, still they were outnumbered six to one. Then came the beginning of the first watch, and Najilla fired her last arrow into the throat of a captain of the cavalry, and drew her sword. Beside her Ephiny continued shooting, having recovered a quiver from a fallen sister, and Najilla protected her as the infantry sought to overwhelm them. Ephiny turned for a moment to watch Najilla's swordplay, and what she saw amazed her, for though the Amazons were competent with their swords, never had she seen one wielded with such mastery. When six lay dead before her, Najilla looked over and read the admiration in Ephiny's eyes and her heartbeat raced.

"I wish I could have had the time to learn the sword from you," Ephiny said quietly, and by this she acknowledged the hopelessness of their situation.

"I wish I could have spent more time with you," Najilla answered from her heart.

"As do I," Ephiny confirmed.

They returned to the battle, Ephiny shooting and Najilla standing beside her wielding her sword. The morning wore on, and the war of attrition continued, and now 1,000 Amazons faced 6,000 enemy.

Finally Ephiny shot her last arrow, and drew her sword, and they stood side by side, and in their desperate camaraderie each felt a closeness neither had experienced before, and the feeling bit at their hearts for their time was short. The Amazon's position could no longer be held, and they were over run, and fought the enemy all around them. And Ephiny and Najilla stood back to back, hewing down all who approached, and in the final candle mark the odds actually dropped, for the Amazons were much deadlier with their swords than the invaders. They were among the last 50 standing, and the number of their enemy was reduced to 250, but none would surrender, for it was not their way. Of the enemy, even the officers had joined the fight, for their men were mostly dead, and the Red Khan drove them on. Then a press of men assailed them as they fought, separated from the others, and in that moment one managed to close with them, and stabbed Ephiny in the back. Najilla heard her gasp in pain, and she turned and saw her wound. Then a red haze took her, and she slaughtered four attackers in as many strokes, as Dena had once done in Sparata. Najilla dropped to her knees and held Ephiny's head, tears blurring her vision as she watched the blood running from her mouth, and her heart broke, and she closed Ephiny's blue eyes, for they had become glazed with death.

When Najilla stood again, the Spirit of Battle possessed her, and if it was a final gift from the Gods, or the Fire kindled by the loss of a love so doomed she could not tell. She was among the last twelve standing, and before they killed her she took another twenty to Hades gates. At last a warrior in a general's uniform opposed her, and the fatigue of battle was affecting her greatly. While she fought him she noticed the other soldiers held back, ringing them, and acting as if this were a duel. She made a lunge, her sword arm burning from sustaining the fight for so long and against so many. He managed to knock away her blade, disarming her. She could see the triumph in his eyes as he advanced, and she knew she had no strength left, yet she swore she would take this general with her to Tartarus. As he advanced he began his back swing, meaning to cleave her head from her shoulders with a stroke from the side, and she played her final card. As his weight shifted, committing him fully, she fell back on the ground, pulling a dagger from her boot. His sword flashed above her, slicing empty air, and she threw the dagger with the last of her strength, watching as in slow motion it turned end over end, and buried itself in his throat. Blood exploded from his mouth, and a look of wild anger filled his eyes, and he spun his sword, reversing his grip, and he drove it down into her chest.

Najilla felt the sword pierce her sternum, like being punched, but then there was a feeling of hard steel in her body, pinning her to the ground. She felt blood choke her, and she coughed, and felt it fountain up. Above her the general lost his grip on the sword hilt and toppled over backwards. She turned her head to the left, away from the bright sun, for it hurt her eyes, and there next to her was the body of Ephiny. She watched her hand as the fingers crawled, spider like closer and closer, finally touching, grasping, and holding as her vision darkened and sound faded, and her breathing stopped. On the ground around her the last of the Amazons had finally been killed, and of the invaders but 110 remained of the 72,000 who had started that march the day before; doomed men who would die far from their homes.

The spirits of the Amazons gathered above the battlefield, and they looked down on the carnage, and they felt a bittersweet sense of triumph at the outcome of the battle. But Najilla looked down, and saw that the left hand of her body grasped the right hand of Ephiny's with their fingers entwined as the warmth left them. And she saw the last of Mohegala's soldiers carrying off the body of the general she had slain, and the spirits of the Amazons rejoiced over her as they watched. For her dying act, spurred not by patriotism, or battle lust, but by the breaking of her heart, had been the killing of Mohegala, the Red Khan.

"Yet in death one may conquer, though the victory is celebrated with pain and tears, and then, in memory, one may live forever."

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CHAPTER 10: I WILL BRING YOU COMFORT

In the first candle marks of the second watch, Dena and the soldiers of the Army of Thracae stood before the walls of Amphilios and prepared to lay siege. From the ships they had brought an engine of war, a massive ram with a canopy shrouding those who would drive it forward. With it they battered down the city gates, and Dena led the charge through the shattered remains, and in a fury of battle, she slaughtered all whom she met within the town. With the soldiers of the king, she liberated the town of her birth, and her hatred for those who had killed her father and twice driven her from her home kindled her to a wrath none could withstand. Soon the enemy fled before her, and with the king's men she ran them down, and none were spared. By the sixth candle mark the town was free of Mohegala's men, and as the sun set on the 3rd of June, Dena stood again on the walls of her town, and viewed the carnage.

All through the night she was possessed with a sense of foreboding, and it tainted her victory, and it caused her to be jumpy and ill at ease. When she finally slept that night her dreams were of battle, bloody, fierce, and doomed. In the morning of June 4th she was greatly agitated, and paced the walls endlessly, looking first east, and then west. It was at the second candle mark of the first watch when a pain stabbed her heart, and she sank to her knees, filled with a sense of loss and sadness. She reached out with her senses, but she couldn't feel her friend.

In the daylight of the 3rd of June, Lahar and her Amazons watched from the highlands as the enemy drew away to the north and south, leaving the lands below them silent. As per her orders, she maintained her watch on the coast through the watches of the day. And all through that day her sense of concern for her sisters grew, until by nightfall she paced at her post, and snapped at her sisters. This disturbed them greatly, for Lahar, though not a Seer, was known to have strong intuition regarding those close to her, and her troops were filled with nervousness.

Terreis and Narciles returned from their mission in the early hours of darkness, having again gone into the valley below Lake Bolba, and slaughtered 4,000 of the rearguard of Mohegala's army as they withdrew to the north. Then they had pursued them as far as Argil, shooting at their columns, and the total of their vanquished foes numbered 9,000, so that the total of the enemy, fallen to the Amazons, numbered 105,000. Narciles estimated that fewer than 5,000 of the enemy survived below Stryma Vale, and these they would dispatch the next day.

As the candle marks of the night passed, and Solaris did not return, Lahar's concern grew to worry, and finally to fear for her sisters. At the third candle mark of the third watch she could stand no more, and ordered her Amazons to march south. They marched through the night, and they followed the trail of Solaris and Ephiny and Najilla. They passed the third peninsula, and the bay it sheltered. They kept to the trail as Lahar's fear grew, and her fear for the welfare of her sisters spread to her troops. And they passed the second peninsula in the dark.

In the hour of dawn they passed the bay between the first and second peninsulas, and then in the distance they heard the sounds of battle. Now they ran, their shadows long in the dawn as they raced to join their sisters. They arrived but half a candle mark after Najilla's fall, and from the highlands looked down on the carnage, and their anguish overflowed, and quickly changed to wrath. Down to the beach they came, and they read the signs of what had happened there, and they grieved, for their sisters were dead, all dead. And one among them marked where Ephiny lay, hand in hand with Najilla, and she marked the footprints of men leaving the battle, headed for Potidaea. This she reported to Lahar, and she, consumed with wrath, led her warriors down the neck of land towards the town.

So it was that less than a candle mark after the battle, Lahar and 2,500 Amazons fell upon the last of Mohegala's men as they prepared their leader for his pyre. Not even five minutes passed before the last of the enemy were slain, cut down as they stood, without a word. Then Lahar saw the body they had been preparing, and she marked the insignia he wore, and she knew the Red Khan was dead. She looked for the killing wound, wishing to know the manner of his death, and in his throat she saw a dagger, and she tore it from his body, and upon the pommel was the symbol of the chakram. The Amazons hewed off the head of Mohegala, and jammed it on a pike, and this trophy they would present to the king, dear bought by the blood of their sisters.

The Amazons returned to the field of battle, and they gathered their sisters, and they built a massive pyre. And Lahar found the bodies of Najilla and Ephiny could not be separated for their fingers were death-locked together, and together their bodies were placed on the pyre. But Najilla was not an Amazon, she was the companion of the Heiress of the Goddess of War, and Lahar noted the circle of dead around her that had fallen by her sword, and she memorized all. Then before placing Najilla on the pyre, she drew her second boot dagger, and saw it was the twin of the one she had taken from Mohegala's body, and the tale of her death could be completed.

In Amphilios Dena kept watch on the walls, her heart crying in loss, and she looked for omens. At the changing of the watch she looked southwest, and from far away she saw the smoke of a great burning rise to heavens, and she sank to her knees, tears filling her eyes. Then, because all was secure in Amphilios, she spoke with the General of the Army of Thracae, and with a company of liege-warriors she took her leave.

They went west, across Stryma Vale, and left the holdings of the king's men, and climbed into the highlands. Only once did they meet a company of the enemy, twenty strong, in the western uplands above the vale, and of these she slew fifteen, and the liege-warriors were amazed by her fury. All day they traveled south through the highlands, and finally they came to the encampment of the Amazons, and Dena met with Terreis and Narciles, and learned that Lahar had gone south, and Solaris had not returned. And the Amazons had seen the smoke of the pyre and feared the worst. Dena and the liege-warriors spent the evening in the company of the Amazons in the highlands, awaiting news from the south.

In the hour of dawn, on the 5th of June, Lahar returned with her troops, and before her sisters she recounted all that she had seen. Then a great wailing and lamentation rose, yet the Amazons felt proud of the achievement of their comrades, for they had destroyed the southern army, and they had killed the Red khan. And Lahar spoke with Dena, telling her the tale of the signs she had read, and she handed over the dagger that had killed the Khan, and she gave their trophy to the liege-warriors to present to their king. In that moment a piece of Dena's heart died within her, and she mourned, for she had loved Najilla as a dear friend. But through her tears she rejoiced that her friend had won such renown, and more still that she had found a mate for her heart.

In the afternoon she set out with the liege-warriors, bearing their news and their grisly trophy, and they went north to report all that had happened to the king. Quickly they passed through the highlands, and camped for the night near the valley of slaughter below Lake Bolba. On the 6th of June, they returned to Stryma vale, and they met with the king.

King Liasis II was amazed by the feats of the Amazons, and moved deeply by the tale of their sacrifice. In wonder he heard how they had destroyed the enemy in Chalcidic and Macedon, keeping their word in five days, and in honor of their achievement he proclaimed that, for their people the ban was void. In future days, any Amazon wishing to pass through New Hellas would have free passage, for he said they had bought the right with their blood. To Najilla he would render honor as well, for her service to the kingdom was great. When he returned to Athenae after the war, he commanded a statue be carved in her honor, and in the Temple of the Goddess of War it stands, 12 feet tall, in a chapel to the side of the high altar, in memoriam to the Heroic Priestess of Therma.

In the following days, the Armies of Attica, Thessal, and Peloponnesia achieved their mission, driving the invaders from Thracae, and freeing the lands of New Hellas. So total was the loss to the barbarians, and so complete their defeat, that in their histories they refer to "Mohegala and the Lost Army", for none returned to their lands bringing tidings of the war. For generations the loss of their greatest army diminished their pride and honor, and the terror of New Hellas was a constant fear.

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After the land was freed, Dena returned first to Therma, and she was reunited with her mother, and met her brother as the Army of Thessal returned home. Both found her subdued, quiet, and harder of spirit, for her nature had been tempered by battle and loss. On her second day in Therma, she went to the temple of the Goddess of War, and there she went before the altar, and she offered incense, and she prayed for the spirit of her friend, that she find peace and happiness in the fields of Elysia. But the spirit of Najilla came never to Elysia, though many there honor her memory, for by the love she shared with Ephiny, she was admitted to the Amazon's Spirit Realm, and there she lived in bliss.

And finally, when again the refugees set out to return to Amphilios and the towns of the east, Dena took leave of her mother, and went into the west. For two years she fought evil in every place she encountered it, and the tales of her adventures filled the taverns of New Hellas, yet she was not at peace. Within her was a restlessness of spirit, born in the war, and fed by the knowledge of the destiny that awaited her, she knew not when. And she feared she would not be ready to meet it, for she was still a mortal woman, not a Goddess, and the Balance eluded her, and the chakram remained hidden. Often in her travels as she sat alone by her fire, she watched the stars, and she thought of that long ago dream in which Gabrielle had shown her a farm, and a young girl in tears. In her travels a part of her read the land, seeking for the road that led over a hill to that farmhouse in her dream. But never did she find it, and she remained alone, and the years passed, and she became harder of spirit, and stronger in her will, and her prowess with arms was unmatched. And the Spirit of Battle forged her into the greatest mortal warrior New Hellas had ever known.

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It is the Year of Our Lord 9,414, being the 41st year of the reign of King Liasis II, Beloved King of New Hellas, and it is the 227th Year since the Deaths of the Goddesses. In the spring Dena marked her 22nd year of life, and it passed while she was traveling alone in the wilds of northern Macedon. There she met again with the Amazons, for now they sought her, and the High Queen, Cyane XXIII, spoke with her alone, for her Seer had proclaimed the time of Armageddon drew near.

"Dena, I am glad we have met, for the time draws close when all will be changed in the world," Cyane told her.

"In my dreams I have seen an enemy from beyond the stars, and with him great strength of warships, and weapons I do not understand," Dena replied.

"Such are the visions of our Seer," Cyane confirmed, "yet this will not come to pass before you ascend to the status of a Goddess, and in her visions you yourself wield weapons of incomprehensible power."

"These things I have seen as well, yet to become the Goddess I must achieve the Balance of Dark and Light, and win the chakram. But there is more. I will never find the temple of its resting place alone. I will be guided there only after I find my soul mate, the reincarnation of Valerie Havarr, and though I have seen her home in a dream, I have not found it in all my travels."

Cyane pondered this, and accepted it as part of the prophecy.

"Dena, the time is not yet ripe for the achievement of your destiny. Yet it will be soon, of this the Amazons have no doubt. And it shall be done, for this is the Will of the Great Power that comes down from above the Gods."

"Then I shall await its revelation, for what more can a mortal do?"

So Dena took her leave of the High Queen of the Amazon Nation, and she returned to the north marches of New Hellas.

In that time a number of warlords roamed the hinterlands, hunted and desperate men, outlawed by the king, and hunted by the Army and the Amazons alike. One of these was Gorthus, who ranged about the lands of northern Macedon, having raised an army of near three hundred men. He preyed on small towns and isolated farmsteads, knowing the cities were beyond his reach, and he lived in fear of the Army of Macedon and the rumor of the Warrior Princess.

In the late spring, Gorthus plundered the town of Markal in the north of Macedon, and taking his spoils and the slaves he captured, he returned to his stronghold, west of the Vardar River. This report came to the ears of Dena, whom people now called the Warrior Princess, and she resolved to end his predations. She enlisted the help of the local militias of the towns most at risk, and rode to meet them where they had agreed to muster their strength.

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The hamlet of Lintell held the market for the farmers of the surrounding countryside, and the shops of a few tradesmen, but little more. It was Friday, the 27th of May, and it was market day. From the outlying homesteads came farmers hoping to sell their wares and buy the things they could not produce themselves. Among them a girl, days shy of her seventeenth birthday, entrusted by her mother to sell some chickens, and contract for the smith to shoe their horses. By midday she had sold the chickens, getting a good price, for she was sharp at bargaining, and she wandered among the shops, window shopping for what she couldn't afford, and daydreaming of places she couldn't go. She heard the hoof beats of riders entering the hamlet, but thought nothing of it, for many came through on the road, and many came to market. Before she realized what had happened they were under attack, and the attackers, gritty desperate looking men, drew swords, and slew several who resisted. She herself had grabbed up a pole, the handle of a hoe, and attempted to escape, but she was taken, a dirty rider knocking away her makeshift weapon as if it were a joke.

Along with fourteen others she was tied at the wrists, and all were roped together in a line. The leader of the dozen men who had attacked them told them to do as they were told or they would be slain, for they were now slaves, and he was their master. Then they were marched away down the road.

They walked for hours it seemed, and her legs grew tired, but the slavers drove them on, hoping to reach their stronghold by dusk. She felt the hopelessness of a captive, who having lost her freedom, fears what the next moment and the next day will bring. Her life had brought her ups and downs, and though there was sorrow in her past, she felt most of her life had been good. Yet always inside her there had been a longing, and the knowledge that she had a destiny, and her dreams had given her hope and faith. Yet now her dreams seemed to be falling to ashes, and she doubted she would ever be a free woman, for she had heard tales of slavery, and the slave's life was neither long nor happy. They had come many miles when she heard behind her the swift beats of a horse's hooves, and their captors looked behind where they came from, and she saw the fear in their eyes. To her amazement, half the slavers fled into the woods. Then things moved quickly, for a warrior rode down their line, and to her horror the heads of three of their captors were hewn off and rolled in the dirt at their feet.

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Dena was a day from the massing of the militias when she met fleeing farmers on the road, and they told a tale of an attack, in which some men of Gorthus' army had despoiled their hamlet, and taken prisoners as slaves. Then Dena, although she was alone, sped towards the hamlet on Argo, for she knew that to free these prisoners she would have to engage their captors before they reached their stronghold. She crested a hilltop, and below her in the valley she spied a train of fifteen captives, and the outlaws who drove them numbered a dozen. Then she charged Argo in pursuit, and she ate up the distance between them, and the men heard the approach of the war-horse, and they turned to offer battle. Thundering towards them down that isolated country road was the specter of their nightmares, Dena, the Heiress of the Goddess of War, for all knew her gear. Then half of them fled into the woods on the sides of the road, and the six who remained did so not out of courage, but because they were petrified with fear. Dena rode down their line, and in her first pass beheaded three with her sword from horseback. Then she leapt from Argo, and though all three remaining bandits attacked her at once, to her they fought like children, and she slew them in as many strokes.

Now Dena went to free the prisoners who rejoiced at their unlooked for liberation, and she hewed the ropes that bound them together, and that bound their wrists. Ninth in the line of fifteen captives was a girl in her teens, shivering from the violence she had witnessed, and when Dena saw her she stopped dead, and looked at her, trapped by her eyes. No threat or bond had ever held her so immobile, for these bonds surrounded not her limbs, but her heart. The moments passed while for each of them the outer world ceased to be. Then Dena freed her of the slavers' ropes and again neither could escape the other's gaze. And Dena wrapped her arms around the girl until her shaking stopped, and she finally felt the empty place inside her filled with a glow of warmth. For some minutes they embraced, yet finally it was the girl who spoke first through her tears of happiness and relief.

"So many years I looked down the road from my home, longing for the return of the one in my dreams who has held my heart, but always I have been alone."

"I have dreamed of you also, years ago," Dena replied, feeling her heart thaw, "and I have searched for you for these last years, knowing I would find you, and missing you each day I did not."

"I have watched you in so many dreams over the years, and in my darkest hour I felt your spirit close by. I have waited for my destiny all this time, with faith and with hope."

"Our destiny lies together in this life, as it has so many times in the past, and I too have been waiting for my destiny with faith and hope."

"My name this time is Varielle."

"My name this time is Dena."

Dena almost forgot to cut the other prisoners free, so focused was she on Varielle, and her heart had never been lighter, nor had she ever felt so complete. And that night, after the prisoners returned to their hamlet, Dena sat with Varielle in the kitchen of the farmhouse she had searched for so long, talking far into the night. There Dena learned that since childhood Varielle had been given prophetic dreams, and that these always came true, and she shared many revelations, for she had seen much of Dena's past. And on that night, in the hidden city to the northeast, the High Queen of the United Amazon Nation and her Seer rejoiced, for they had witnessed the meeting in their visions.

In the morning, Dena rode to meet the militias, and in the following week she captured the army of Gorthus, taking him and dragging him to the nearest city council in chains, rather than hewing off his head as she had expected. Then she returned to the farm where Varielle waited, for it was the night of her birthday celebration, and the people were honored by the presence of the Warrior Princess, their liberator. Thus Dena finally met Varielle, "her Valerie, her Gabrielle", and her destiny moved forward, for the time of Armageddon approached, and there was much yet to be achieved.

?

All through the summer Dena and Varielle traveled together, sometimes riding on Argo, and sometimes walking side by side. Even in her journeys with Najilla, Dena had never felt the closeness or the fierce protectiveness she felt for Varielle. The teenager had a raging curiosity about almost everything, and soaked up every bit of information Dena gave her, but always her particular interest was in the history of New Hellas, and the lore of the Goddesses. Dena was so happy to share what she knew, for she was reminded of her early years, eating up the stories of the travelers at her mother's inn. For the first time in years, Dena was content to lay up in an inn, spending days simply telling Varielle of their history, their past lives, and how these lives had shaped the world they lived in. At times, Dena was surprised when Varielle filled in some detail based on her own dreams, and any dreams either had, they discussed together. As the summer flew by, Dena also instructed Varielle in the basics of weapons, and two in particular, the staff and the Sai. To Dena this was necessity, and Varielle learned quickly, as though remembering rather than learning afresh. The Sai, as Najilla had once convinced her, allowed one to defend against a sword attack, while the staff gave reach over a sword, allowing a defender to maintain a safer distance. Dena had no doubts that a time would come when Varielle would need to defend herself if she continued to follow the Heiress of the Goddess of War, and neither questioned that she would. For Varielle was the Heiress of the Goddess of History and Knowledge, and she walked in the image of Valerie Havarr.

?

In the New Kingdom, after the demonstration of the weapon, the preparations moved along faster, and the warships were nearly complete. The squadron of 64 warships would fly within days, fully armed. His own warship, which he christened the Spirit of Battle, had been completed months ago, and now, more and more often, he would feel the call of the stars, and he would lift from the planet and haunt the void. At times he was content to speed through space, jumping when the fancy took him, and flying maneuvers for his pleasure at other times. And sometimes, when the mood was upon him, he would find a system with a world whose ill fate had left it circling too close to its sun, and he would blast that molten world to vapor.

All the centuries of development had not been wasted, for his memory let him compare these new ships with the old, and between his ship and the Ares there would be no contest. His new ship was faster, more maneuverable, and better armed. M/AM torpedoes? He had those aboard. X-ray laser? Yes, and his could target six hostiles at a time instead of four. Shields? His ship could disappear at will. Sensors? He would know the Ares at 10 parsecs. All was well in his world, and soon, very soon, he would again wage war. It had been too long. And what was a War God without a war? Bored.

?

The summer had progressed, and July was gone, and August was in its final days. Dena and Varielle had come to Thessal, and Dena had met her brother Taris, at the garrison of the Second Division, in Larissa, and they had celebrated his 26th birthday together. She had introduced him to Varielle, and smirked at the smitten looks he gave her, for to her eyes she was even more desirable than Val was in her dreams. They spent the night in mirth and the warmth of sibling affection, finally parting late in the night, for Taris had duty in the first watch. That night Dena and Varielle lay sleeping in the inn they had chosen, and they dreamed, and for the first time their dreams were the same.

She had the eyes of the Eagle of Attica, and on its wings of gold she flew, spiraling up from the city of Athenae into the heavens, rejoicing in her freedom and her mastery of flight. Below her the lands of Attica passed, and far to the south, the blue of the sea she could discern, and the islands of the Cyclades and Kritis, and further still, on the horizon a hint of the realm of Aegypt. Then she turned north, and the wind ruffled the feathers of her wings as she banked, and with powerful strokes propelled herself over the kingdom of New Hellas towards Thessal, where the mountains broke the clouds. And the miles passed swiftly beneath her, and in what seemed an instant, there before her was Olympia, of all mountains, most blessed. She circled its heights, the clouds a puffy blanket below, and she saw the majesty of the temples of the Goddesses on the summit, their marble twinkling in the sun, and she rejoiced in them, but they were not her goal. Now she dropped, losing the great altitude to favor of the acuity of vision with which she was blessed, leveling her flight at a height which would show her the passage of a man below. Over woods she flew, north by west from the temples, and she came to a place of sheer cliffs where the side of Mt. Olympia fell 2,000 feet into a valley below. And in the woods she recognized two figures, a warrior and a farm girl, moving with stealth through the trees. She followed their progress towards the cliff, and they arrived near the edge of the woods, and before them was a temple within a walled compound. She circled the temple watching the figures approach, watching as they passed through the gate, and watching as they entered the building. Time passed, and then came flashes, and lightning struck, up from the temple and into the sky. Finally the figures left the temple, but now they had an aura of power that hadn't been there before. The Eagle rose into the sky, marking where the temple stood, and committing to memory everything about it. Then she flew higher, and the world dropped away. Higher still, and the blue of the sky darkened, and yet higher so that she saw the black of the void and the billion stars of the firmament spread out forever, for by her choice she flew to touch the stars.

Morning came and they woke, both wondering at what they had dreamed, and when they discovered they had deramed the same dream they were convinced of its prophetic nature. And Dena discerned that something at the temple offered her a change, and she felt the force of her destiny driving her, and so they decided to turn their steps toward Olympia, for the Eagle had shown them that they would walk there. The trip from Larissa to Mt. Olympia was scarcely 30 miles, but all of that was uphill, and the closer they came the steeper the path. Still they expected to reach the temples on the second day.

After breakfast they packed, and riding Argo while the land still lay gently sloping up, they left the inn at the third candle mark of the first watch, and took the north road. They stopped at the opening of the second watch, in a clearing under oaks near a stream, and they shared an afternoon meal. Here the land began to turn rise in earnest, and the road grew steeper, and being not in haste, they chose to spare Argo and walk. They saw few on the road save a group of pilgrims returning from the temples on Mt. Olympia. They admired the country that increased in scenic beauty with the altitude. The candle marks of the second watch passed without incident, and they walked at peace, talking together of many things, but mostly of their destiny.

"For years I have lived with the knowledge of some impending doom," Dena said, "and that I must fight a war in the heavens. I still don't know how I can do this beyond what Dale and Val have shown me in dreams."

"In my dreams I have seen the battle," Varielle commented, "and the ship bearing the sigil of war is defeated. The problem is, I don't really understand what I've seen."

"Even my dream was pretty confusing, and that was with the Goddesses there to show me things. Without them I'd be completely baffled."

"It seems like these dreams have a common theme. When the conflict comes you will find yourself prepared to meet it."

"I guess that makes me uncomfortable. I've spent all my life learning to control my body and my weapons. I've worked hard to control my senses. I've spent years on strategy and tactics so I can control situations in battle, and the biggest battle of my life I can't prepare for because I don't understand anything about it."

"Well, it sounds like this is going to be a matter of faith. Didn't you tell me the Amazon Queen said, this destiny comes from the Great Power, from above the Gods?"

"Yes, that's what Cyane told me her Seer said." Dena confirmed.

"Then that's it. I think everything you've been doing is in preparation for this war. I mean, if you are the champion of the Great Power, it wouldn't let you fail would it?"

"I see your point. I guess I feel a lot of pressure about this. The really unnerving part is that I don't know what the objective is. I couldn't tell victory from defeat. What am I supposed to protect? What am I supposed to prevent?"

"Well, I think that will become evident when the battle starts. After all, the enemy has to want something, right? So whatever he wants, don't give it to himŠsimple, right?"

Dena gave Varielle a smile, for her logic was simplistic but irrefutable. The things she said did make sense, and without better information she couldn't understand more.

"Until I find out otherwise, I guess you're right." Dena agreed.

At the fourth candle mark of the second watch they stopped, having found a camping spot under spreading trees with the stream again nearby. Now the stream ran faster down the grade, and it spoke softly over the stones in its increased haste, giving a sweet background to their words as they unloaded Argo's bags and removed her saddle. Dena attended to her horse while Varielle began to set up their camp, and in truth there was little to prepare. Deadfall littered the ground for a fire, and the stream provided water a couple dozen paces away. She cleared rocks from a space for their bedrolls, and used them to make a circle for their cook fire. Then, placing tinder and kindling under some larger sticks, she struck sparks with steel against a flint, and gently blew the smoldering tinder to flame.

Dena watched Varielle work, as she absently brushed the mare, captivated by her movements and even the simplest things she did. For this hardened warrior there was a revelation of sublime beauty in the everyday activities her soul mate performed, like a sunrise, she thought, or the rainbow hues in the scales of a fish. The wonders of creation that surround us at each turn are there before us, to appreciate if we are willing to see them for the treasures that they are. It was a priceless moment, one of those that come without warning, unplanned and unforgettable, and giving rise to myriad associations within the mind. It left her in a contemplative mood that lingered throughout the evening, not melancholy, but rather appreciative and sympathetic. If it could have been seen, one would have testified that Dena's heart grew larger, and this was achieved, not as softness at the expense of her warrior prowess, but as an added layer next to it, increasing her complexity, not diminishing her resolve.

Argo had never looked better, and she nickered her thanks for the attention Dena gave her, and after stroking her neck, Dena came and joined Varielle by the fire. Soon they were sharing the contents of a pot of stew, made from dried meat, onions, mushrooms, and carrots. Varielle had added herbs she found near their site. It was better to their palates than many meals from taverns, for eating under the stars always makes food more satisfying. After their meal and the cleanup, they lay on their bedrolls, staring at the stars and quietly talking. And sometimes they would lapse into a comfortable silence, each with their own thoughts. The stream whispered, and the fire crackled, and their soft breathing completed the lullaby, and before they knew it they slept.

Dena found herself aboard a warship, and she was in command of that warship, and it was the Moment of Truth. To do or to do not, to be or to be not. "Before the Will of a Great Power even the Gods may be scattered in the wind of its passing." Her finger hovered over the button. Before her the warship of the God of War charged to fire again, and her shields were destroyed. "Two rings to hold the dark and light." To stay her hand would mean the destruction of her ship, and soon Ares would hold all the worlds in thrall. To push the button would unleash a power never seen in this galaxy, perhaps in the universe, and what then, no one knew. "One day we shall bring you comfort, for we have seen your darkest hour". The warship of Ares reached full charge. It was now or never. "Only with love and faith is there a cause for hope". And her finger slammed down.

She started awake with a gasp, tears running down her face, and she didn't know why. For a moment, while the feelings of the dream lingered, but after the images had fled she was lost, whimpering and hugging herself and rocking. Never had a dream affected her so profoundly, even childhood nightmares paled next to the feelings of fear, and uncertainty, then hopelessness, and crushing loss. Beside her Varielle awoke, and the condition of her soul mate broke her heart. From what nightmare of torment, or bloodshed, or violence she came so damaged, she did not know. At that moment it didn't matter. Here was the one who had saved her from slavers, the one whom she had waited for all her life. She came to Dena and grabbed her, crushing her to her chest, stroking her head and back, burying her face against her shoulder, and muttering nonsense to her in a calming tone. Gradually she relaxed, and her breathing slowed from racing, and the rocking stopped, and whimpering, but the tears continued to fall, and they didn't stop even when Dena fell back down into sleep. Varielle held her far into the night, wrapped tight around her as if to protect her from her fears, and whether it was from the warmth of her body, or the motion of her breathing, or the beating of her heart, Dena slept, and dreamed no more.

"One day I will bring you comfort, for I have seen your darkest hour," Varielle whispered, as she wiped away Dena's tears.

Eventually Varielle drowsed, and then she slept, and under the stars it could have been at any time, or in any place, for it was a scene played out again and again, in a succession of lives reaching back over 10,000 years. And finally she dreamed.

She stood in the Temple of the Goddess of History and Knowledge on Mt. Olympia, in the center where the dome was open to the sky, and before her stood her twin, Valerie Havarr.

"Hi Varielle, glad to meet you finally," the Goddess said, with a wide smile, "you're really cute, no wonder Dena's so whipped."

Varielle blushed a deep red.

"I really need to talk to you," Val said, "and embarrassing you was only part of the reason."

"Val, Dena had a really bad dreamŠ"

"Yeah, sorry about that. She saw another vignette of the battle you call Armageddon. A lot of pressure in that one, but she's better off with some foreknowledge. We don't want her going into this one cold."

"Does she have a chance at all?" Varielle asked.

"Oh she'll win if she doesn't freeze up at the critical moment. It's just a matter of faith. But that's not what I need to talk to you about. I need you to bring her here after you visit that temple tomorrow. I have another message for her."

"Well ok, sure."

"Another thing I need you to do, " Val said, looking into Varielle's eyes seriously, "we made many modifications to the warship we have for her. Dale had 465 years, and she did some amazing things, but the main thing is that Dena will have to make a choice, and she'll have to push a button, because the weapon Dale built can't be activated automatically. There just wasn't any other way."

"What weapon?"

"Well, it's hard to explain. I'm not a science major, but I can tell you it's a negative weapon, or an anti-weapon, I guess you could say. Oh hell, I know that doesn't make much sense to you. I barely understand it myself. Dale said that matter and energy are really the same thing, like ice and steam are really just water, so anti-matter and anti-energy are the same. Does that make any sense?"

"Uhhh, what's anti-matter?"

"It's what's in the torpedoesŠDena saw a holo of them when we showed her where the warship is, and if you tell her what I've told you she'll have an idea of what you mean. She really doesn't need to know anything except that it's there, and it can destroy the whole galaxyŠmaybe the whole universe. We really aren't sure."

"Geeez. You mean she's going to have to decide whether or not to destroy the universe?" Varielle asked in horror. No wonder Dena had woken up so traumatized.

"Yeah," the Goddess answered with a smile, "but she'll be ok. Dale wouldn't let anything happen to her, I think."

Varielle woke up in a cold sweat. No one had ever told her such horrible things in such a nice way. She watched Dena sleeping and she pitied her.

In the east the sun had lit the sky, and the light was reflected back on the land in a glow that promised the coming of the day. Soon it would rise, blazing, above the horizon as it had since the world began. And my love could destroy it all, she thought, and all the billion stars.

Not ten miles away, on the summit of Mt. Olympia slept the warship. What had the Goddess of War created? She'd known in the moment she'd spared his life, on that distant world of the New Kingdom, that one day Ares would return. He would come from the depths of the void, armed as never before, consumed by darkness, and demanding vengeance. It had happened before.

Over the centuries Dale Sherril had changed the warship, and it was no longer the Ares. She had gutted the Icarus III for parts, and she had created something even she had feared. She was grateful to go with Val when she died, never having had to activate her creation. But the ship had slept on, waiting for the red button to be pushed, bringing it to life. And perhaps the black button too would be pushed, and the ship Dale had rechristened as the Ides of March would change into something never seen in all the years of the Kingdom. It would become the warship Moment of Truth.

?

The sun rose above the horizon and all the east blazed in its light. The world took on its colors, and Varielle and Dena awoke and took on their destiny. After a quick meal they broke camp, and leading Argo, they walked uphill on the road towards the summit of Mt. Olympia. The day was bright, but the air was cool, for they were already at 7,400 feet above sea level. There was a pleasant breeze, and they would have enjoyed the scenery but for the turmoil in their hearts. They compared their dreams, and neither found comfort in what they learned, for the foreknowledge of unavoidable suffering taints the present with apprehension of the future. They stopped at midday but neither felt hungry, and soon they resumed the journey. Now they had reached 8,800 feet, and the temples lay only two miles distant. They could see the sun reflected off the white of their columns.

They reached the temples at the changing of the watch but didn't enter. Now they followed the vision of the Eagle, and made their way northwest through a woods. As they approached they moved with increasing stealth, for this was unknown territory, and both were jumpy. Here and there the remains of bodies littered their way, many long dead, crumbling to dust. Too soon the trees thinned, and ahead they could discern a place where the land ended, and beyond it, clouds. Dena tied Argo to a small tree, and she and Varielle moved forward. Ahead a stele stood, the right side white marble, the left side black granite. And upon it they saw a carving depicting a scale, evenly balanced, and in the pans of the scale two rings were carved. Behind the scale was the symbol of the chakram, the s-curve horizontal. Beside the stele were the remains of many men, those who in their ambition had come to claim the chakram, and found their enemies ahead of them with the same desire. It had happened many times in the years after the Deaths of the Goddesses, and after the fighting the victor would proceed to the temple to die.

"At last," Dena said, "the resting place of the chakram is revealed. Now surely destiny plays its hand and our lives will never be the same."

"It is your destiny to win the chakram and become the Goddess of War, Dena. This was fated by the Great Power. I guess it's the very reason you were born."

"I'd prefer to make my own destiny and have a few choices."

"From what my dreams have shown, you'll have to make plenty of choices. A lot of them pretty hard."

"You know," Dena said after a few moments, "I've wanted to find this place my whole life, and now I think I'd like to just take you and turn around and leave."

They looked at each other and both could see a simpler life together in their minds' eyes, and though it tempted them they both knew that it could never be.

"You are called to walk the blade's edgeŠ" they had told Dena. "To you is given the choice to fall or to fly, and such is the choice given to all mankind. If you fall you shall fall lower than any living thing, yet if you fly you shall touch the stars".

There would be no refusal, and there could be no going back.

Dena drew her sword and they made their way from the cover of the trees. Ahead of them stood the temple they had seen in their dream. Beyond it the land fell away and there were only clouds. Warily they advanced, for Dena's senses were afire. They crossed a cleared space and came to a gate set in the wall encircling the temple. It stood open, and they flattened themselves against the wall beside it. Dena slowly moved to glance through the gate, first with one eye, then with her head alone exposed. She saw no movement, heard no one, and she felt the presence of no living thing. Together they entered the courtyard and quickly made their way to the temple doors. These too stood open, for having entered, those who had come here had died, and none had remained to close them. Above the doors the same symbol of the scale was carved into the frieze below the cornice.

Again Dena cautiously glanced around the threshold. The interior of the temple was deserted, and the light inside was dim, filtering into the space from clerestory windows above. They stood on the threshold letting their eyes adjust to the dimness, and soon they could make out the interior, every surface covered thick with dust. Here and there lay the desiccated remains of those who had sought the chakram and failed its test. Many bodies mummified in the dry mountain air. Varielle shivered, and Dena stroked her shoulders and gave her a weak smile. She too was nervous, but she focused on the space, concentrating, immersing herself in her surroundings, living in the present.

In the center of the temple was a circular altar, and upon it Dena could see the glint of metal. They entered the Temple of the Chakram.

"Two rings to hold the dark and light, and through eternity remainŠ" she muttered. She took a deeper breath, and her resolve hardened as it did before the challenge of battle, and then she whispered, "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."

Varielle was standing next to her, hugging herself against the chill air, and looking at the altar. Dena felt a wave of tenderness for her, and the fierce protectiveness it often led to. If anything happened to her Dena knew she would never forgive herself, not in this life, and not in the next.

"If this doesn't work, I want you to take my sword, and sell it, then pay for your passage home. My ghost would find no rest if I knew I'd brought you to harm." In truth the sword of the Heiress of the Goddess of War would have fetched a city's ransom.

"I know you'll succeed," Varielle said, looking into her eyes with certainty, "You've dreamed this, and so have I, and my dreams always come true, you know that."

"You're right," Dena replied, moved deeply by her certainty, "it's just a matter of faith."

Dena sheathed her sword, for if there was an enemy present it was the enemy within.

She moved to the altar, standing where Dale Sherril had stood in the message Val had shown her so long ago. She took a breath and lifted her hands over the chakrams, lying on the symbols of their elements, one dark, one light. For this I was born, and for this I have been trained, she thought. She took a deeper breath, clearing all from her mind, and as she exhaled away the confusion and conflict and doubt, she let her hands drop onto the rings. Dena registered the chill of the metal, and it remained cool to her touch, as metal should. She felt none of the burning that had killed all the others who had tried. She lifted the rings from the altar, both at the same time, and still she felt nothing, save their weight in her hands. Slowly she lifted them, and bringing her hands together she held them up, superimposed upon each other, as the "Ancient One" had done 10,000 years before.

And then the lightning the Eagle had seen began to radiate from the rings. The bolts fired in all directions, some striking the temple walls, some striking her body. Against the wall Varielle was struck, and she sank to her knees. The bolts increased in intensity and number, blasting through the roof into the heavens, declaring to the world that at this moment a Goddess is born. Then came a flash, blinding to the eyes, of pure white light that even the sun at noon could not produce, and then there was silence.

Dena opened her eyes, and in her hands she held a single ring, in its center the s-curve like the design on the altar, and it was comfortable in her hands. She clipped it to the clasp at her hip. For several moments her eyes glowed like those of a newborn Goddess, and then they faded back to blue. Behind her Varielle had regained her feet, blinking to clear her vision, and shaking the strange sensations from her head. She watched as Dena turned towards her, and she could see the Flame of Immortality that burned within her, and she rejoiced.

Dena turned from the altar, concern for her soul mate returning, and she looked to see Varielle standing by the temple wall, and she rejoiced, for with the sight of a Goddess she saw the Flame of Immortality burning within her soul.

"Hail and well met, Goddess of War," Varielle said, saluting her, right fist over her heart, a radiant smile on her face.

"Hail and well met, Goddess of History and Knowledge," Dena replied, smiling as she saw astonishment grow on Varielle's face.

Dena moved to where Varielle stood, and taking her in her arms, she kissed her with the passion of a Goddess, and she gasped as the kiss was returned with equal strength. They parted, and turning, made their way out of the temple, through the yard, and back into the woods. And again, to the northeast, in a hidden city far away, the High Queen of the United Amazon Nation, and her Seer, and half-a-million gathered warriors rejoiced, for the shaft of light that blasted up from the temple was seen throughout the lands, and they alone understood the significance.

?

From the woods they made their way back to the temples bringing Argo, and they entered the Temple of the Goddess of History and Knowledge, and they navigated the passages, and they entered the open center under the dome. No uncertainty clouded the way any longer, for what simple maze could confuse the Goddess in her own temple, or her consort, the Goddess of War.

They walked to the statue of Valerie Havarr, and again Dena stood on the glass symbol of the chakram embedded in the statue's base, and reaching out, touched the crystal the figure held. This time the machines under the temple recognized the energy signature of the Goddess, and they selected a message, and played it back.

"Hi sexy," Val said in her provocative way, "glad you made it. Now we've got a lot of work to do. If you're standing here that means you've taken the chakram, and soon Ares will be coming."

Dena glanced at Varielle, who was standing with her hands on her hips regarding Val's image.

"If your sweetheart is here she can see me too, so I guess I shouldn't do anything lewd," she said, giggling.

"Val, this is serious," Dale Sherril said, entering the hologram, "they're going to have to fight Ares, who they've never met, in a warship they've never seen, using weapons we've never tested, and we're not sure when, except that it's going to be soon."

"Ok, ok, just trying to keep them from freaking, ya know," Val said looking at her lover.

"Dena," Dale said, "I'm going to tell you some very important things, and you have to remember what I'm going to say. First, we showed you how to find the warship, and now you have the key. The holo you watched was of the ship when it was still the Ares, but it's a different ship now, I made a lot of changes. Call it the Ides of March. The name has significance to us all, and since it's under thought command it has to be commanded like you would a horse, by its name. Second, you saw the red button. That activates the ship. There's also a black button right next to it, and that activates the weapon. Don't Push It Until You're Ready To Fire. Once you do, it will charge, and it will wait for the incoming radiation signature of at least a class eleven weapon. I know that means squat to you. Don't worry, the ship will take care of that part. It will fire automatically when the precise conditions are met. After that I'm not completely sure what will happen, but I can guarantee it will destroy the warship that fires on it, and a lot more besides. Understand? Good. Third, I have a theory, but no way to prove it until you fire. All through the ages, the Spirit of Battle has pitted Dark against Light, forcing a search for the Balance. It's worked well enough, but the "Ancient One" claims we can't afford this kind of conflict anymore. She feels a new enemy. That's what I've based my weapon on. I think the Cycle ends here, and I hope you prove me right. Well, that's it, and good luck."

"Yeah, good luck," Val added, and the hologram vanished.

?

Above the world of the New Kingdom 65 warships lifted into the sky, and they accelerated through the clouds, following their God. The squadron leaped to meet the black of the void, and the billion stars greeted them. The warriors aboard them had spent a relatively short two months in training, but their Lord was impatient. They entered the cold of the void, reaching for the threshold speed, and achieving it, they jumped.

Ares had provided the coordinates from memory, and they were flawless, for what is 7,000 years to the memory of a God. In an instant the squadron terminated, appearing at the trailing Lagrange Point behind a giant moon, and they rested in its gravity shadow as their Lord scanned for clues on the planet below. They remained on station as his warship edged closer to what they realized was a Cardinal world, and they suspected it was the original home world, the world without end. They would have rejoiced, and perhaps even mutinied, rejecting their mission of destruction, if they had still been human.

"Home at last," Ares thought, "and the place doesn't look much the worse for wear. Oh, it's not the world we left behind. It's much more primitive. But it reminds me of the world I grew up in, and that's just fine with me, for all it matters. Now, let's see about the chakram."

Dena and Varielle stood digesting the information the hologram had shown. They had more questions than answers. Dena still didn't understand the objectives of the upcoming battle, and she didn't have any idea how she'd know when to push the black button. Only about a quarter candle mark had passed when from the temple of the Goddess of War came an alarm. It was so loud it could be heard for miles, and it was Dale's voice speaking.

"Alert, Incoming ships. Alert, Incoming ships. 65 ships have terminated jumps at the trailing Lagrange Point. Colonial Defense Forces Configuration; modified variant 144. Active shields at level 6. Squadron of 64 ships: Weapons detected in classes 11b, and 12b. Flagship: Weapons detected in classes 11d, and 12b. Analysis; Invasion force, flagship scanning planet from 900 miles altitude, speed 35,000 mph. Squadron on station at Trailing Lagrange point. Response; Imperative."

They listened to the message the first time it played, but when it began to repeat they vanished, and reappeared in the antis of the Temple of the Goddess of War, while Argo returned to grazing in the center of the temple

It was the end of their world.

?

?PART 3: DESTROYER OF GALAXYS?

CHAPTER 11: ALL THESE WORLDS ARE MINE

In the wars of men against men there stood the mirror of the cosmos, and it reflected the forces of the universe at a level comprehensible to mankind. For fifteen billion years the experiment had played out, and it had been good. At each order of magnitude the same forces worked the same magic, and the balance of forces was not stasis, but rather the long-term average of its extremes. "As above so below"; the saying described the phenomenon perfectly. It was simply conservation of energy, the application of a single pattern to govern forces at every level of creation.

Only recently had the humans and their Gods comprehended the small cycle, and what it implied. Many such cycles had passed since the great cooling, mostly in the last seven billion years. Across the vastness of mankind's galaxy, nearly 60,000 light years, empires had risen and fallen, each having associated cycles, sometimes interacting in spasms of destruction, sometimes burning out in isolation. Among all the billions of billions of planets only a small percentage were Cardinal worlds, and on each of these, a Great Power ruled in supervision of the experiment. In a galaxy such as the Milky Way, several dozen Great Powers watched over several dozen Cardinal worlds, observing the achievements of that world's progeny. Every so often, and the number of these occurrences could be counted in the tens of thousands despite the vastness of time, some race would ascend to the mastery of travel between galaxies, and this was always closely observed. By such attainment, a race moved an order of magnitude closer to the nature of a Great Power, and the result of such evolution was a fledgling. Very rarely, and the number could be counted in the dozens, did a race ascend to a level whereby it was welcomed to the ranks of the Great Powers themselves. Most such chances were squandered in grasping for power, a sign that the Balance of Dark and Light had not been attained, and technology had outstripped spiritual development. Of course there were other pitfalls, but none so common as unmanaged aggression.

And now a race had attained the means to conquer the problems of time and space, and moved towards another galaxy. Across nearly 2.2 million light years they came from the galaxy of Triangulum, (M33). Already they had visited Andromeda, (M31), 0.25 million light years from their home, and they had wrought great destruction, and held all Andromeda's worlds in thrall. They had long ago accepted a merged consciousness, and they had forgone presenting a constant physical presence. The Great Powers watched with interest as they moved towards the Milky Way, and at random chose a world as their destination. They were 40,000 light years away, closing rapidly on the Orion Arm.

Cycles could exist over time, or at different levels of magnitude, and only very rarely were they broken. Never with a transition to chaos, only by transmutation into a different cycle. And so the Great Powers watched.

?

Long before, the "Ancient One" had taught the Amazons a benefit of the closeness of their sisterhood, and they had utilized that benefit many times in the growth of their nation. So on the day the Goddesses were reborn, there were gatherings of warriors throughout the Amazon Nation, for their shamanesses were preparing a ritual at the direction of their Seer, and by order of the High Queen. The inspiration had come to the Seer the night before in a dream, and she had spent the candle marks since then studying the chants and preparing the blood. In the gathering of the Southern Army, and the cities to the north, east, and west, the Seer had instructed the shamanesses in the performance of the ritual of shared consciousness.

Their strategy was sound, for there had been no Amazon Nation at the time the God of War had last stood on Earth, just women who shared a heritage passed from mother to daughter, and a secret allegiance. It had only been when civilization had imploded in the Years without Gods that the nation had risen to visibility, and started its rise as a political power. Thus, the existence of their nation would be a surprise to the God of War, and the Goddesses would not stand against him alone. When he attacked he would find himself fighting as well, the combined power of the spirits and minds and hearts of 2,570,000 Amazon warriors, directed through the spirit realm, to be focused by their shamanesses, and wielded by the High Queen.

?

In the Temple of the Goddess of War on Olympia, Dena led Varielle through the cella to the pronaos where the statue of Dale stood. The alarm was deafening, but when she thought to demand that it cease, it did. Dena barely noticed. As in her dream she fitted the chakram into the cutout in the wall panel, and then grasping the s-curve, turned the chakram sharply to the right. The panel in the base of the statue popped out, and she grasped the edge and dragged it open wide. She didn't know if she had to leave the chakram or could take it, then she heard Dale whisper to her, "Yes, by all means take it, you don't want to leave that lying around for just anyone to come along and find. Besides, later you'll need it." So she grasped the chakram, and lifted it from the cutout in the wall.

The stairs led down under the statue's base, just as in her dream, and she led Varielle by the hand in haste, down the stairs and through the short tunnel. At the iris port she placed her palm against the sensor screen as she had seen Dale do, and the port sprang open. Varielle jumped, and Dena gave her a pat on the butt to move her into the ship, remembering Val prodding her in the same way. She grinned when she saw Varielle blush. The port snapped shut behind them, sealing out the world they had known.

Over unseen speakers Dale's voice greeted them. "Welcome aboard the Ides of March. Please proceed to the control room."

Dena led the way at a fast walk, forward through a passage, through the blast doors, and there it was, just as she had seen it in her dream. On the console next to a padded chair were two buttons, one red and one black. When she sat down the chair took the shape of her body, and she gestured Varielle to the chair next to hers. There were soft sounds now, and vibrations in the walls, and a low hum. She never wondered how the ship would get out from under the temple. Those thousands of tons of marble and limestone, which had concealed it through all the centuries, were simply not her problem. She glanced over at her soul mate, and received a grin.

"Let's do it," Varielle said, "wouldn't want to keep Ares waiting after all these years."

"Ok, here goes," Dena said as she pushed the red button, "Get up, Ides of March, Yaah."

"I don't think she meant you have to literally talk to it like a horse," Varielle said.

"Well, you can never be too sure," Dena replied, "she said it's pretty smart, and Argo's pretty smart, so I just thoughtŠ"

Above them the simulacrum of the temple shimmered as the machines under Val's temple closed its program. The temple vanished. After 692 years the hull of the red ship lay revealed under the sun. And the Ides of March lifted from Olympia, and instead of a smooth double convex shape, the hull was partially curled around a flattened black tube that ran fore to aft. The tube tapered slightly, and it was sealed and smoothly rounded aft, and it showed a gaping maw in front. Within the opening of the tube was a nebulous brightness that no eye could bear, for within the tube was a power unknown since the time of the creation.

The Ides of March tilted nose up into the sky, and as it accelerated into the heavens the air shook with sonic booms, and friction caused the hull to incandesce, then the shields initiated and the Ides of March vanished. Dena and Varielle sat in their chairs, staring in wonder as New Hellas was revealed below, and its form amazed them. Then their expanding field of vision encompassed the Amazon Nation, and soon half the Earth lay below, and the curve of the horizon could be discerned. And the Ides of March reached full attack speed, 120,000 miles an hour, and Dena commanded it to "close with target", and it did, rolling to show them the black of space.

Ares saw a speck appear above his old home at Mt. Olympus, a single speck that accelerated towards him from the planet, now glowing from the atmospheric friction before it vanished in its shields. His challenge had been read and accepted, and he prepared himself for battle, closing his own shields, and accelerating to attack speed. His squadron moved from the Lagrange Point, spreading out into a crescent that would close its flanks around the Ares when it approached, keeping watch for the squadron of the deserters' ships. And when they revealed themselves his warriors would engage and destroy them, for a Colonial Warship of that variant would be no match for the ships he had built.

In the lands of the United Amazon Nation over 2 ½ million warriors lay in the trance of joined consciousness, and their High Queen viewed near space, and watched the movements of their enemy. Then she felt another presence, and Dale, the Goddess of War, appeared to her, and asked her to use weapons she had prepared long ago, and Cyane XXIII accepted, joining her nation to Dale's strategy. Then from below the surface of the gas giant, Jupiter, called from their sleepless wait of centuries, 27 warships accelerated toward Earth, and Cyane reveled in their command. For the last time they advanced to battle, the Thermopylae, Olympus, Pride of Athens, Valkyrie, Marathon, Sword of Amphipolis, Archangel, Marathon, and all the others. From her vantage point in space she stood off from them, willing their movements, yet not endangering her sisters with direct contact, lest the ships be destroyed. They reached the threshold speed, protected in their shields, and they executed a micro-jump.

Soon the squadron of 27 would engage the squadron of 64, and these numbers were not random, and there was great fortune in them. Earth was the third planet, and the cube of its number was 27, and this was the number of its defenders. Mars was the fourth planet, given to the God of War, and the cube of its number was 64, and this was the number of the attackers. And 64 was also the number of the reincarnations of the Warrior Princess and the Amazon Queen, and this was destiny, for it was the number of their enemies.

Ares, the God of War, felt confident in the Spirit of Battle, as the warship Ares closed with him, and he scanned his enemy with sensors, and the results gave him pause.

"Incoming ship: Configuration unknown. Active shields: Level Undetermined. Weapons detected: Classes Undetermined. Analysis: Incomplete Information. Presence of anomalous materials detected. Course and speed: Converging at 120,000mph.

He chose to probe his enemy in another way, and he hailed the incoming ship.

"Warship Ares, this is the Warship Spirit of Battle, acknowledge."

"Spirit of Battle, Ares is dead. This is the Ides of March."

It was the voice of a demon, and no Colonial Defense Forces ship had ever sounded like that. And the choice of wordingŠGods what a sick sense of humor. So Dale had renamed her ship Ides of March.

"Surrender or be destroyed, you are outnumbered and surrounded." He broadcast to her.

"You have no idea." Came the return message, and then the channel was cut.

He shifted course by 4 degrees, and his sensors reported the Ides of March matching his heading, altering its trajectory to continue converging with his ship. With his shields this wouldn't have been possible for the Ares he had known. Dale had modified the warship, but how could she have modified it to such an extent that his sensors could tell him almost nothing about it? The planet below was primitive. People still sat around campfires. No electricity, no real industry, no radio, no TV, no aircraft, hell, they didn't even have guns as far as he could sense. What in Tartarus had the mad bitch done? What had he gotten himself into? And then his ship was rocked by an attack from some kind of laser, and though his shields held there was a power drop.

"Evasive maneuvers, charge the x-ray laser, fire control, target-lock incoming hostile."

The Spirit of Battle possessed him and he stopped wondering what to do and did what he knew. His ship rolled and spiraled, and as the Ides of March turned to follow, the fire control auto-dropped his shields, and his ship fired. His sensors reported a direct hit but no degradation of the enemy's defenses. Not surprising. Such an attack wouldn't have caused damage even if it were still the Ares he had known. The Spirit of Battle turned to fire again, but the fire control locked the shields, and again he was hit, not once, but by a series of twelve pulses, each a quarter second apart. If he hadn't altered the fire control from the Colonial Defense Forces model, that tactic would have tricked his ship into auto-dropping the shields to fire, and he would have been struck eleven times. Ares gulped. But for a small adjustment he had made, his ship would have been destroyed. Damn that bitch Dale. She'd had all those years to fiddle with that ship, and she was out to kill him, no doubt about it. Again the Spirit of Battle fired. The laser struck the Ides of March, and again no damage. And then his sensors sounded an alarm.

"Alert, Incoming ships. 27 warships have terminated jumps at the trailing Lagrange Point. Configuration: Colonial Defense Forces variant 143. Active shields detected at level 5. Weapons detected in classes 11 and 12b. Course and speed: converging with New Kingdom squadron at 100,000 mph."

It was the deserters, coming to be slaughtered. All his ships had received the alarm.

"Engage hostiles and destroy at will." Ares ordered his squadron.

Again the Spirit of Battle was struck by lasers from the Ides of March, but the pulses were of longer duration and further apart as she probed the programming of his shields. He knew what she was trying to do, and what angered him so much was that her strategy would eventually work. Sooner or later she would find the interval that would be read as a gap in her attack, and his auto-fire control settings would betray him to ruin. With a snarl of anger Ares made the only sure response he could.

"Auto-fire control, off line," he commanded the Spirit of Battle, "engage manual fire control."

?

The New Kingdom squadron moved to engage the 27 warships of the deserters, and they outnumbered them almost 2 ½ to 1. They accelerated to attack speed, and as the deserters moved from the trailing Lagrange Point, they altered their formation to outflank them. The deserters were holding formation in a wedge shape, and the New Kingdom squadron discerned their strategy. They would attempt to punch through their line, firing on their closest opponents as they passed. They prepared to open their line in a maneuver that would encircle the tight deserter formation as it approached.

Cyane XXIII recognized their plan, and saw they had taken her bait, and fallen into her trap. Though these warships were like nothing she'd ever seen, battle was still battle, and whether in warships in space, or on horses on the steppes, tactics were more alike than not. She closed with her enemy, thinking let's see who flinches first. She held her ships in formation until the last moment, her intuition informing her of the capabilities of the warships. Then, less than a second from the point of no return, her squadron scattered, the ships radiating out in all directions, forming a sphere of moving targets around the New Kingdom warships, and raining them with bolts from their x-ray lasers.

Quickly the New Kingdom pilots moved to capitalize on their numerical advantage, and splitting into groups of two or three, they singled out deserter ships and engaged them in dogfights. And each New Kingdom warship was invaded by the spirit of a warrior; a presence, undetectable and wholly unsuspected, which worked to subtly degrade their responses. The New Kingdom pilots became consumed with the intent of destroying their enemies, to the exclusion of all else, and so they paid no attention to the fact that the field of battle was drawing away from Earth. Every so often, a New Kingdom or a deserter ship would succeed in concentrating its fire on an enemy long enough to deplete its shields, and when this happened, the doomed ship would incandesce momentarily, and then flare up as it was destroyed. Because of their superiority in numbers, and shields, and weapons, it was more often deserter ships that illuminated the void in their destruction. Yet Cyane had no fear, for already the battle had moved well beyond the orbit of Earth's moon, and her strategy required but three ships to survive.

Eventually the battle stood with 12 deserter warships facing 51 from the New Kingdom, and the New Kingdom pilots focused on the destruction of their enemies like a wolf pack running down a tiring deer. Now Cyane's unseen allies completed the undermining of their enemies, and the New Kingdom pilots would follow blindly wherever Cyane led them. Therefore, Cyane commanded her squadron to flee, and they regrouped and accelerated to attack speed, and drew off the New Kingdom warships in pursuit towards empty space. As they passed the orbit of Mars, they linked weapons controls, and tightened their formation, spiraling through space, and the new Kingdom ships closed around them, raining them with laser fire. Finally they reached the distance Dale had recommended, and within one of the deserter ships a sequence of commands was initiated, and a weapon was activated, and the strategy culminated.

When it came, the blast was of unimaginable magnitude, and its concussion brought landslides and tremors which were felt even in New Hellas, and the flight of the deserters, and the pursuit of the New Kingdom warships ended in a blinding flash. For in each of the 12 remaining deserter ships, even after Dale's modifications, there remained a M/AM torpedo. All twelve of these class 12b projectiles detonated, one on command, eleven by proximity, and they were augmented by the weapons carried by the attackers, yielding the greatest blast the galaxy had seen since the destruction of Terminus Prime. So ended the product of Ares' long labor in the New Kingdom, and the last warships of the Colonial Defense Forces. Yet it could be felt poetic, that after so very, very long, the Earth was again defended from invaders by twelve ships.

?

Aboard the Ides of March, Dena was consumed by the demands of control. She had found the warship Dale had created more responsive than Argo ever was, and they were now of one mind. Less like commanding soldiers, it was more like the command of her own body, and she sank deep into the union. The Ides of March twisted and rolled, bringing its weapons again and again to bear on the Spirit of Battle, and the Spirit of Battle did the same. They traded laser fire, each scoring direct hits, and their shields held. The firing tactics she had used had come as an inspiration from the ship itself, for it taught as well as obeyed, and Dena accepted its suggestions as a young officer might the advice of a veteran sergeant.

Yet as the battle progressed, Dena became aware that Ares held a slight advantage in speed and maneuverability, and his laser had more power. Dale had made extensive modifications, giving the Ides of March near parity which the Ares never had. But she had been constrained to the available raw materials, and though no one else could have done as well, still she could not overcome the resources of the New Kingdom. She had directed her work to capitalize on certain weaknesses of the Colonial Defense Forces design, and of course her new weapon. Her first tactic was to force Ares to abandon the advantages his auto-fire control conferred, relegating himself to the slower manual control. As the battle raged this factor proved its value, and the fight was greatly prolonged. Still, with each hit, Dena felt her shields deplete more quickly, and she spent increasingly greater time in evasive maneuvers, and decreasing time on attack.

Ares congratulated himself, for though he would win no rapid victory, still he discerned that the Ides of March was faltering, no longer meeting him shot for shot. He fired at every opportunity, for even a glancing hit would degrade the Ides of March, depleting its shields, and furthering his chances for victory. Few battles had ever been as consuming or as dear to his heart. This was a grudge match, payback for his defeat all those years ago, for his stranding on the New Kingdom planet, and the betrayal that still stung his heart. Dale had made her greatest mistake in sparing him after their duel, and the battle had not ended there. It would stretch across time and space, for now his goal was not to return Xena's heiress to his side, but rather to destroy the chakram, and the Balance it signified. And in this war there was no place for sentimentality, for memory, or for the betrayal of his heart.

He brought the Spirit of Battle about, closing on the Ides of March, and commanded the weapons control to fire. Another hit, and his attack was not returned. The Ides of March rolled away, and dropped beneath his course. Suddenly, there was a flash, and a radiation spike, and a shock wave following it, and the concussion rocked his ship. For a moment the control room dimmed, then the systems reported nominal again. He checked his sensors, and he screamed in rage. Both the deserters and his new squadron had vanished, and from the expanding radiation halo he knew what had happened. That lunatic bitch Dale had sacrificed all her ships to destroy all of his. The Matter/Anti-Matter blast was unmistakable. His fury crested, and he wrenched the Spirit of Battle hard about in pursuit of the Ides of March. In his ears he heard the taunts of Xena and her descendants down through the ages; whispered threats, reminders of foiled plots, the taunts and recriminations, and their laughter that bit him with its ridicule. He could almost feel their presence in his control room, and he was distracted, his responses slowed by the rage that boiled in his heart.

The Spirit of Battle was struck again, this time by a sustained bolt which tracked him for almost five seconds, and he saw his shields drop to 85%. How in Tartarus had Dale managed to do that? He returned fire, reveling when the sensors reported a hit, and then another. The Ides of March was moving more sluggishly now, diverting power to maintain its shields, and it was an easier target. Ares fired again, and again the sensors reported a hit.

Dena knew she was losing it. She knew the sustained laser hits depleted the Spirit of Battle's shields much faster than several hits of short duration, but they also required more sustained power from the Ides of March, and her ship was depleting its power too fast. She had been struck again and again. The Ides of March stood at 63% capacity, and she was forced to divert power from the drives to maintain her shielding. It was a no win situation. Move or be hit, maintain shields or be destroyed. It was just a matter of time. She understood now how many of her opponents had felt as she worked them with her sword, cutting them and bleeding them, forcing them to defend and knowing the effort hastened their bleeding more. It was a hopeless situation. She thought of the black button, but the Ides of March said "not yet". Again she turned and fired, tracing the Spirit of Battle's course with her laser, keeping the beam in contact for four seconds as her ship's power reading dropped. The Ides of March moved only slowly to follow, and she could not maintain the attack. She saw the Spirit of Battle come about, and her shields charged slowly to 51%.

Ares was in a lather. The bitch had scored another sustained hit and his shields were at 77%. Soon he too would have to choose between the drives, the shields, and the weapons. He saw how slowly the Ides of March turned to follow, and he smiled. It would be over soon. Her ship was practically crippled, just a few more hits would bring her down and leave her helpless, unable to flee or attack, powering her shields as he wore them down firing point blank. He brought the Spirit of Battle about and fired. He fired again, and again. And slowly the Ides of March listed, drifting under the impact of his lasers. She had cut her drives. No return fire came from her ship. She was powering only her shields. Ares practically crowed in victory. It was merely a formality now. The thought that she would arm for self-destruct crossed his mind and he rejected it. She was too close to the Earth to risk a M/AM blast.

With a few more hits I shall destroy you, he gloated. After all the centuries you will be gone, and all these worlds; Earth, the New Kingdom, and the Old Kingdom as well, all these worlds shall be mine. Yet to rule them is not my goal, and if you knew what I planned to do you would activate a M/AM, and sacrifice the Earth to stop me. Yes, I know you, Xena, and Dale, and all the others. You have never shied away from hard decisions. But this time I am the wild card, and you have missed your chance to stop me. He fired, and the Ides of March lurched from the impact.

And now before him his enemy lay revealed. The shields had fallen, and the Ides of March was visible to his eyes. Never had the God of War seen anything so possessed of menace. He gaped at what Dale Sherril had wrought, for even though it was a helpless hulk, adrift, and target-locked at point blank range, even though he was a God safe behind his ship's shields, still he knew fear. Gods oh Gods, Dale had gone completely over the edge. Even in the depths of war and hatred for the enemy there were things that simply were not done. And she had crossed far over that line.

And now it was the moment of truth. Dena knew the Ides of March was finished. Its time had passed. It had fought heroically but it had been outclassed. As in her dream she had seen his ship glow, and the blast of darkness had come, drawing the last of the power from the shields and leaving her defenseless. Her finger stood a quarter inch above the black button, and Varielle was staring at her like a hawk. "To do or to do not, to be or to be not", she had once wondered how a man could command the Third Army of New Hellas. "Before the Will of a Great Power even the Gods may be scattered in the wind of its passing", and by the works of Dale Sherril, fugitive from the world of Dell, she would assume the force of a Great Power's Will. Before her the warship of the God of War began to glow, charging its capacitors and preparing to fire. "Two rings to hold the Dark and Light", and through eternity remain. Her finger touched the black button, and she knew what hung in the balanceŠthe Balance itself. "One day we shall bring you comfort, for we have seen your darkest hour". The Spirit of Battle reached full charge. "Only with love and faith is there a cause for hope.

And her finger slammed down.

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CHAPTER 12: THE MOMENT OF TRUTH

"Behold, I am the Moment of Truth!" And the Immortal Flame burned bright within it.

No longer a whisper in her mind's ear, the ship declared itself, and Dena was flung from her chair like a scrap from the butcher's block. She lay on the deck, stunned and convulsing, and Varielle leapt to help her.

In the black tube below the body of the ship, the nebulous and blinding brightness grew, and within the ship a Will directed it with cold and heartless calculation. Energy and matter are the same, Dale Sherril had said, and matter and anti-matter will cause mutual annihilation, for on this the fearsome power of the M/AM is based. But in the trillionth of a nanosecond, after the Will of all the Great Powers had spoken, there had been a time when other forces had existed. In the Great Bang in which the universe had been born, matter and anti-matter, energy and anti-energy, had existed side by side, and then the winnowing had begun. The remains we can see, still expanding 15 billion years later, and it is a poorer universe, for by the cancellation of opposites matter and energy came to dominate.

Provided with the anti-matter gleaned from 483 M/AM torpedoes, Dale had conceived and built a weapon. And to direct that weapon she had created the Moment of Truth. There was no turning back. Dena had no influence, for the ship was its own master. In the black tube it directed the fractionation of the atoms of anti-matter into their component anti-quarks, and it converted these anti-quarks by energizing them, with a controlled annihilation, into a coherent beam of anti-energy.

Varielle was the Goddess of History and Knowledge, and she was the Heiress of Valerie Havarr, fugitive from the world of Dell, and she owed a blood debt. She vanished from the Moment of Truth.

Ares saw the roiling glow in the tube below the Ides of March, and he knew it was now or never. Perhaps it was already too late. The thing Dale had created had to be stopped, of this there was no question. All the turmoil in his mind was silenced, and clarity returned. All his plots fell aside, and willingly he shed them before the greater menace. What had he been thinking? And now there was only the moment. There was only one course of action he could take, and with the intent of a God he commanded the weapons control.

"Lock to target and sustain fire. Rescind all limits and sustain fire to depletion."

He had done all he could do and there was nothing more anyone could do. He closed his eyes and awaited the end. Almost 15,000 years of life, a pretty good run, he thought. Then there were warm arms around him, and he felt himself lifted, and he vanished.

The bolt came from the Spirit of Battle, and the Moment of Truth absorbed it, directing it to power the weapon. For a hundredth of a second it accepted the Spirit of Battle's energy, and then it fired. Directly ahead, at point blank range, the Spirit of Battle ceased to exist. No debris, no explosion, it was simply gone. And the beam lanced out into the void. It was the first anti-energy laser ever created, and it wrought annihilation of both energy and matter as it went. In its wake was a dark space, the true void, akin to the unimaginable negative existence that had proceeded the Great Bang, a void where not even light could shine. It was a rent in reality itself. Then like the air filling the space where lightning has struck, the matter and energy of the universe slammed in the fill the gap. Like the concussions we hear as thunder, the universe rocked with the shock waves, and like a ripple in the surface of a pond, they spread in a sphere, causing a disturbance in space and time.

In half a candle mark it passed the orbit of Jupiter, and in a little under 7 candle marks it left the orbit of Pluto behind. Its duration was 5 seconds, and it drew attention. From the void Great Powers drew near to see the phenomenon, a first of its kind. And at a distance of 25,000 light years, a fledgling altered its destination to investigate the possibility of a new weapon to acquire. The "Ancient One" had baited her trap.

?

He opened his eyes and he was aboard a warship, and it was the Moment of Truth. He was numb from the whole chain of events, not yet realizing the significance of his presence, the shock of his displacement leaving him capable only of observing his surroundings. Varielle released him from her arms and ran to the figure of Dena, who lay on the deck, her wounds already healing. He looked around and saw the control room was little changed from when he'd known it as the Ares, but beside the captain's chair was a console with two buttons, and a small readout had extended from it. It was the controls for Dale's creation, and on the readout he saw something that froze his blood. The number "482" glowed in red on a black background. His mind whirled with theories and memories of the Defense Forces warships of the deserter squadron. That number had significance, and he knew it as surely as he lived.

Then realization hit him, and the impact staggered him, like falling into a pool of cold water while still fresh from sleep. By all rights he should have been dead, reduced to less than ashes, yet he lived. At the last moment Varielle had saved him, just as he had once saved Valerie Havarr when she had turned a New Kingdom planet into the midnight star. He turned to look at them, huddled together on the deck. He'd seen those two figures like that so many times before. He took a couple tentative steps towards them, and Varielle looked up into his eyes, and he was trapped in them, for they looked straight into his heart. And yes, now he realized his heart could feel sympathy, remorse, love and regret again, not just ambition and a craving for power. It felt like 7,400 years ago, and he still couldn't think of anything better to say. There were no better words, for the words came from the depths of his soul, and from the bottom of his heart.

"Thank you."

?

"Congratulations, Dale," Xena said with a smile, "the Moment of Truth lives."

"So far so good I guess," Dale replied, "how close is the enemy now?"

"It/They are about 14,000 light years away," Xena told her, "they travel fast."

"They travel faster than light without jumping," Dale said in awe, "that was never believed possible."

"We only believe what we can imagine," Xena said, "and we've got too many limits. We can't go on like this you know."

"Well, that's what the Moment of Truth is for."

"You did a good job."

"We all did."

?

Dena slowly got to her feet, and Varielle helped steady her. Her contact with the Moment of Truth had damaged her inside, and the healing was taking time. She looked around the control room and saw Ares standing near the captain's chair. He was looking at them, and she could see his darkness had left. He was much as he had been when Xena had died, Darkness and Light were balanced in his soul. It made her happy and she smiled at him.

"I'm glad you saved him," she said to Varielle, "I feel that we'll need his help."

"I repaid Val's blood debt," Varielle told her, "it was our moment of truth."

Under them the deck shifted as the Moment of Truth came about, and all around them systems powered up. The ship was no longer immobilized. It was moving away from Earth, accelerating to attack speed as though it had shrugged off the effects of the recent battle.

" By the Gods," Ares exclaimed, "this ship was dead in space. You lost your fight with the Spirit of Battle because your power was depleted. This ship can't be moving!"

But the ship was moving, and it was moving fast. Already it was passing the orbit of the moon, and still it was accelerating. They crowded around the navigation readouts, and they watched as the velocity readings increased. The readout was in fractions, not mph. The Moment of Truth was its own master.

0.06 vL, 0.09 vL, 0.15 vL, 0.24 vL. Outside the ports the appearance of space changed, the stars taking on a bluish hue. The numbers continued to rise, 0.36 vL, 0.51 vL, 0.69 vL, 0.90 vL. And then they were no longer aboard a warship. Around them the stars were blue streaks, and the Moment of Truth spoke.

"Transition complete, velocity is moot, preparing to engage the enemy presence at 600 light years from Earth."

"What in Tartarus...?" Ares' voice said.

"Initiating firing sequence, Armageddon is now, and I am the Destroyer of Galaxies."

Dena was frantic. Destroyer of Galaxies? She had once been the Destroyer of Nations, and in her guilt Val had called herself the Destroyer of Worlds. But Destroyer of Galaxies? She had to do something, but all around her was space. She had no body, and there was no ship. Nothing in her experience had prepared her for this. There was nothing that could have prepared any of them. Of all those who had ever lived, only Dale Sherril would have begun to understand what was happening, and only the "Ancient One" would have embraced it without reservation.

"Wait and watch warrior," Gabrielle's voice whispered, "you cannot act."

Ares was beside himself. Dale had created a doomsday machine. No one had ordered it to move; the warship had acted without orders. The Moment of Truth had accelerated away from Earth, and those readings, he suspected, were calibrated in fractions of the velocity of light. That would explain the red shift he had observed; the color of the stars ahead had shifted to blue as their speed appeared to compress their light, shortening its wavelengths, while the stars behind them were a deepening red. But now they were without physical presence, for the readings had passed 1.0 vL, and that meant they were traveling faster than lightŠand that was impossible.

And yet it was possible, for they stood off from the sun, and the near stars they had left behind. Around them more distant stars appeared to streak by, their color growing a deeper blue, now verging on violet. Then finally they could sense a presence ahead, racing towards them, projecting menace before it, and a voracious acquisitiveness. They could feel its consuming self-regard, and its imperiousness struck them like an affront. It was the opposite of everything they had striven for in attaining the Balance of Dark and Light. If it was possible, it had achieved a negative Balance.

"Anti-radiation metering completeŠparameters lockedŠFiring!"

This time the bolt from the Moment of Truth was an order of magnitude greater than what had destroyed the Spirit of Battle, and in his mind's eye Ares saw the readout change from "482" to "472". He perceived it was a counter, showing the remaining anti-matter, in units derived from the M/AM torpedoes. The power was appalling. In his mind he shivered. Dale had definitely lost it back there. No one put that much anti-matter in one place at one time. Even shielded in the torpedoes it had been a mixed blessing, and what he had seen boiling in the tube under the hull had been a reservoir of anti-matter and anti-energy. It was nothing less than a potential destroyer of galaxies.

The bolt ripped through the fabric of the universe, eating energy and matter as it went, it's velocity was the speed of light plus their own. And they felt the bellow of rage and pain as it found its mark, illuminating space in a spasm of annihilation in the midst of their enemy. For a moment the hole it tore in space and time stood revealed, and then the stuff of the universe slammed in to fill it, and the stars convulsed around them. The counterattack was devastating in its intent, but it was part of the physical universe. The enemy created a gravity well and launched it at them. They felt its attraction as it passed, missing them by 0.1 parsec, but at the velocity they were moving it barely even affected their course.

"What by Hades was that?" Dena yelled as it passed, a darkness blacker than space that swallowed light and tried to pull them in.

"It is the mark of their defeat," Dale whispered to her, "it is a weapon of value mostly against physical beings. I don't think they've ever had to fight anything like us before."

"What are we?" Dena asked, confused as usual by Dale's statement.

"She means we don't exist as matter anymore," Ares told her. We gave up our bodies when we breached the speed of light."

"WhatŠ?"

The Moment of Truth was coming about for another attack. Again they could feel the presence ahead of them, but it felt smaller now, if that made any sense.

"Anti-radiation metering completeŠparameters lockedŠFiring!"

The Moment of Truth fired again, and again it had increased the bolt's strength by an order of magnitude, the readout dropping to "372". This time the bolt struck the enemy, and it illuminated a whole nebulous area of space in an annihilation that would have engulfed a small galaxy. The howl of pain and fear that reached them from the wounded enemy was deafening, and the weft of reality opened before them. Then for a moment they looked beyond that which is, out into the gulf of a night where there had never been, into the primal dark everlasting. It called to them, seductive, offering oblivion of a finality that mocked death. And then it began to slam closed. Stars, gas clouds, novae, and even galaxies jumped towards the hole in space like water released from a dam.

The enemy turned to flee, and the Moment of Truth came about and gave chase.

"There is no alternative to being prepared, and if you start a war you must be willing to finish it." It was the Moment of Truth, but it spoke with the authority of a God.

"Anti-radiation metering completeŠsupplemental reserves requiredŠ"

Dena, Ares, and even Varielle felt something taken from them, and it was something they had each struggled to master.

"Parameters lockedŠ"

Their souls began to cry out at the loss, and their anguish was like that of a parent that watches helpless as their child is carried off.

"Only with love and faith is there a cause for hope." Gabrielle whispered to them.

"We shall bring you comfort, for we have seen your darkest hour," the choir of their ancestors sang.

"The Cycle ends here." Dale proclaimed.

"Firing!"

And the meter read "-628". Then Dena saw the vision from the dream that had come on her 18th birthday. The blast from the Moment of Truth was a blinding haze of destruction. And the haze formed itself into a constellation, and it was a ring, and in its center was the s-curve, and it spun until it was a just a blur of brightness streaking through the void. The image of the chakram pursued the fleeing enemy, and velocity was moot. It closed to a parsec, and there it stayed, chasing the fledgling across almost 2.2 million light years. The fledgling sought its home, and just as a New Kingdom pilot had once brought a M/AM to its home world through a jump, so the enemy brought destruction to its home galaxy. The blast followed the enemy, and found it, and destroyed it, and the rent in the universe it tore swallowed the galaxy of Triangulum.

"It is done." Dale Sherril reported to the 63 generations that had come before her. "Now our cycle is closed, and a higher cycle begins."

?

The Moment of Truth came hard about, and it laid its course for Earth, and when it was four light minutes distant it began its deceleration sequence. Dena, Varielle, and Ares viewed the stars as they shifted from violet to blue, and finally the blue tint too died away. The control room shimmered into existence and surrounded them, and they watched the velocity readout as the numbers dropped, 0.87vL, 0.66vL, 0.48vL, 0.33vL, 0.21vL, 0.12vL, 0.06vL, 0.03vL. The Moment of Truth took station above the Earth and held position in orbit above New Hellas. They watched with dull eyes.

"Well, it looks like we're home," Varielle said, numbed by their experience.

Dena and Ares were too drained to speak for they had lost the most. They sat in the control chairs feeling exhausted and empty, staring out the view ports at New Hellas below them, silent and unmoving. Their adjustment would take a little time.

One by one the ship's systems powered down. Indicator lights flickered and went out, and the throbbing hum fell silent. The ship drifted in orbit, inertia maintaining its position. The weapon readout folded back into the console, startling Dena for a moment, and then it too went blank. Last to shut down was the command computer, Dale's finest creation, and the Flame was extinguished as it closed its program. The warship spoke for the last time.

"The Moment of Truth is past."

?

CHAPTER 13: 135 B.C.

It is the Year of Our Lord 9,549, being the 135th Year of the Gods, and it is the 135th Year of the Balanced Cycle, the year 135 B.C. From their temples on Mt. Olympia, the God Ares, and the Goddesses Dena and Varielle rule the lands in peace. Not since Reign of the Goddesses, has mankind benefited so greatly, for the Balance they hold in themselves flows down to the people, and the old forces of Dark and Light which were taken from them in the Moment of Truth are no more. They were an anti-force, in opposition to the Balance, even as they composed it. The Spirit of Battle now leads mankind to master the elements of nature, for there are no conflicts of man against man within their lands. And over time, the influence of the God and the Goddesses spreads ever more widely.

The God and Goddesses fought an epic war in the founding of the Balanced Cycle, and its first year was spent in their healing. They returned to Earth, battered and soul weary from their losses, and Healers of the Amazon Nation supervised their recuperation. Then they returned to New Hellas in triumph and proclaimed themselves before the people with miracles. Yet in truth, the influence of the Balance was felt in many lands from the first day of their return, for at that time, many outlaws turned from evil, remanding themselves into the custody of the king. And King Liasis II, then in the 42nd year of his Blessed Reign, offered them pardon for their crimes, in return for their lifelong service to the people. Many other excesses of both Dark and Light were healed in that time, and when the God and the Goddesses proclaimed themselves in the year 2 B.C. the king died, for he was tired from his labor of ruling, and the number of his years was 69.

Mankind under the God and the Goddesses lives first by the breadth of its Imagination, and second by the application of its Will. This is the Foundation. By the application of the Will are the desires of our Imagination brought to reality. In the realm of possibilities are our battles fought, for the conflicts of the Kingdom have been forsaken. No longer do we fight the uncontrolled forces of nature as men had done since the dawn of mankind. Our motto, "As my will so mote it be", explains much of the change, for the Foundation is above the Kingdom, and it is a higher cycle in which we now exist.

The God Ares tells us that far across the reaches of space lie the remnants of two ancient empires of mankind, and that one-day their representatives may visit our world. They are empires of the Kingdom he assures us, and pose no threat. Even across the vast distances that separate us from them, the ideas conceived in the Foundation shall filter down, for these men too have a human consciousness. Given long enough, they may be very much like us when they arrive.

So now, when the crops need rain, the farmer concentrates his Will on the rain he sees in his Imagination, and the rain falls, and the crops are watered. Strange it would have seemed in the Kingdom, to see the rain falling on three fields, and leaving the fourth dry with the sun it needs, yet now this is our way, and the crops prosper. So too it is with the birthing of livestock, and the finding of ores, and the making of music. Magic people once called it, sorcery, the Will of the Gods.

Of the technology known to Varielle, the Goddess of History and Knowledge, we pick and choose, using only that which is required, and rejecting the frivolous and injurious, or tightly managing how widespread it becomes. Thus one may find a computer assisting in the record keeping of a factory, but no personal motor vehicles, and very few plastics. They are undesirable to us, and they are an embarrassment to those who must use them. Eventually, the Goddess tells us, they shall no longer be needed.

Here then, in the Foundation, mankind has taken a step toward Godhood. What we do by our Will was once ascribed to the powers of the Gods, for we command the forces of nature. We draw closer to the powers of the ancient Gods and Goddesses, closer all the time. Someday we shall surely be their equals, surpassing them eventually, for it is much in our Imaginations, and it shall surely come to pass. It is just a matter of faith. And on some distant day, after a higher cycle or two has come and gone, we shall ascend to the majesty of the Great Powers.

?

"Watching the kids?" Dale Sherril asked the "Ancient One" as she walked over to join her, noticing her gaze was directed at the temples on Mt. Olympia far below.

"Yeah, can't help it now and then." Xena confessed.

"They've come a long way in the last 135 years," Dale observed, "I think Dena and Varielle have done a great job."

"And they make a really cute couple too," Valerie Havarr added with a wink.

"They sure do," Gabrielle agreed, "Aphrodite would have been proud."

"I'm proud of all of you," Xena said, smiling at them, "they'd never have made it without the Moment of Truth, Dale."

Dale Sherril, once fugitive from the world of Dell, actually blushed from her ancestor's praise. It wasn't common, and was always heartfelt.

"And none of us could have done it without you, Xena," Dale said, truthfully, "you were the original wild card, the first to achieve the Balance."

"We were all wild cards," Xena said, thinking out loud, "and yet I have to wonder if it wasn't all part of a plan."

For a while they were silent.

"I guess we'll just have to wait a couple more cycles to find out." Gabrielle finally said after some thought, and they pondered on that as the world turned below them.

?

THE END

"Gods' fortune be with you, and keep you safe from the darkness of this day. May you walk with the sun, and dream with the moon. May the Great Power bless thy eternal journey that you one day find your way. So mote it be."

Phantom Bard, Brooklyn, N.Y., May 2001



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