Disclaimers can be found in Part 1
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Also, a bit of incentive to get you to read this: The first chapter of this story won the 2011 Battling Bards contest at the Xena Movie Campaign 2011 facebook page.
Sparta, capital city of the region Laconia in the south-eastern Peloponnese
Melaina opened her eyes, squinting against the sun pouring through the gossamer curtains that covered the large floor to ceiling opening that separated her chambers from the balcony. She rose quickly, naked, and padded over, following the thin line of light that painted the floor. She grasped the peach colored curtain, and threw it open, bathing her body in warm light.
She didn't worry about being seen, as her chambers were in a high tower, one that gave her an excellent view of the Eurotas River, the lifeblood that fed her home city. If she looked at the far horizon, she could just see the tall hills that separated Laconia from Arcadia, a vast wilderness. Sparta was landlocked, though there was a modest port to the south, called Gytheion. As such, Sparta had no navy to speak of, but a formidable land army. Their hoplites were known far and wide for their prowess and fearlessness.
Melaina, however, was not looking out over the balcony to contemplate geography. She was assessing the position of the sun, and in a moment, knew she had overslept. Leaving the curtains open, she hurried to her wardrobe to find a suitable dress. She was mildly annoyed that one of her servants hadn't come to wake her, but then she thought they might be busy attending the envoy that had arrived the previous night.
That was why she was in a rush. She wanted to meet her brother for breakfast so she could discuss last night's proceedings with him. Though she was the princess, she was also a woman, and consequently, was not allowed to attend meetings concerning military proceedings. In Sparta, that was every meeting, as it was required by law that the council address three subjects at every meeting: grain supply, defense, and to make an account of the helots. Helots were state-owned slaves; a group that outnumbered free citizens nearly ten to one on some areas, and therefore had to be monitored closely. Melaina was far from a fool, and knew the law was a clever ploy to keep women out of politics. She would only be allowed in council if she were the ruling party, and she would only be that if all male heirs to the throne were dead. In the history of Sparta that had never happened, as a king with no natal heirs could adopt a son, even posthumously.
A good thing, then, that her usually brash brother had a soft spot for her, and would permit her to speak privately with him. Since their father, King Hedras, had taken ill, her brother Marius had assumed power. A soldier before he was a politician, he lacked subtlety, preferring the articulation only a sword's point could provide.
Melaina liked to say that swords were far better at disarticulation, and her brother agreed. He had no head and no patience for the intrigue politics could demand.
She rifled through the fine fabrics, selecting a deep blue dress that contrasted well with her pale skin. She didn't bother to arrange her hair, knowing that she would have to catch Marius before he left to attend council, and shut the door against her.
Her soft-soled sandals were nearly soundless against the marbled floor, but the heavy wooden door that led to her brother's private dining area creaked loudly as she entered.
He looked up from the scroll he was studying and smiled. Marius and Melaina looked almost nothing alike. Where she was tall and spare, he was a hair shorter and muscular. Her hair was a thick auburn, like their mother's, but his was close-cropped and a deep black. His skin was also tanned, after many hours spent in the sun, when he trained with the army. Her emerald eyes met his brown ones, both intelligent, but skilled in different arenas. But the smile, that they shared.
He placed the open scroll on the wooden table and rose to pull out a chair for her. “I was beginning to think you weren't going to come,” he said, motioning for her to sit. As she sat, Melaina noticed that the plate in front of him had already been cleared away.
A servant skittered over with a serving tray, but the princess waved him off with a grateful smile. “I had trouble sleeping,” she answered, “and then great success at it.”
Her brother sat down again and laughed, shaking the leather armor he wore. It was not something one might wear to battle; it was black leather with brass studs, large on decoration but lacking in defense. “Are you sure you don't want anything to eat?” He began to motion the servant back over.
She gently laid a hand on his thick forearm. “Really, I'm fine.”
He gave her a worried look, and snagged a biscuit from the serving tray the man brought over, placing it on her plate defiantly. He motioned for the servant to leave the room. “You're looking thin. Eat, then talk.”
She rolled her eyes, but did as he asked. She understood his concern. They had both seen their mother waste away before her death, watched her eat but never gain weight, until she became a living ghost. Now with their father ill, her brother feared losing her, and he was overly fastidious.
As she finished the biscuit she licked the honey from her fingers, then asked, “What was the meeting about last night?”
He pushed the scroll toward her. “Terms of an alliance.”
Melaina angled the scroll so she could read it, her slightly sticky fingers clinging to the parchment. Her eyes absorbed the words written in thick, deep indigo ink, the regal letters bleeding into one another like veins seen under very thin skin. Beautiful, but shocking.
Melaina carefully lay the parchment down, and let her green eyes drift up to meet her brother's. “You can't be considering this,” she said, her voice losing all hint of humor.
Marius' head cocked. “Why not?” He seemed interested in her opinion, as he always was, but she detected a hint of annoyance there. Perhaps he had expected her to agree.
“This is not an alliance. An alliance implies an equal partnership.” She pointed a finger at the scroll. “What do we gain from this?”
“I was thinking more along the lines of what we wouldn't lose,” he answered stiffly.
“Aside from our pride, you mean?” She spoke harshly, but she knew that wasn't the way to get through to Marius. She softened her tone. “This suggests we assist from the south while Persia invades Attica. Persia has been our enemy for generations. Why not defend Athens?”
Marius bristled. “Where was Athens when the Persians invaded Laconia?” he queried, “When they burned the Temple of Ares? Did Athens help us drive them out?”
“No,” replied Melaina, trying to remain calm, “But they were not the boot upon the heel that crushed us, either.”
Marius stood and turned away, obviously troubled. “Perhaps they should have been.”
“Oh?” Melaina raised an auburn eyebrow, a flash of fire against her alabaster skin. “And you expect Athens to fall so easily?”
Marius turned again to face her. “Artaxerxes' fleet is thousands strong. And the councilors cower behind their wooden wall, growing fat.” He referred to the wooden structure that surrounded Athens and stretched to the harbor, Piraeus. It protected the city, from siege on land and sea. If an army invaded from the western fields, Athenians could import goods through Piraeus, and weather the attack indefinitely. The converse was true for a naval assault. If both attacks occurred simultaneously, however, Athens would be trapped, and forced to fight a war of attrition.
Melaina shook her head. “Not all Greeks are so feeble. I seem to remember a warrior who defeated the Persians single-handedly.” She shrugged. “Or so the stories say.”
“Xena?” he laughed, waving a dismissive hand. “I have heard she is dead.”
“I believe we've heard that twice before,” Melaina replied, then added, “Regardless, I wouldn't discount Athens so quickly. What will you do if Persia loses?”
Marius paced, his leather armor creaking, his heavy boots making loud clunks against the marble. “I see no way they can.” His voice had lost its acidity, and became almost weary.
She sensed the change, and got up, placing a hand on his shoulder. The action stopped his pacing, and he faced her, his expression awash with emotion.
“Is that why you are so quick to join them?” she asked.
“I won't lose what little I have.” His brown eyes met hers, and she knew he was talking about more than land. His father was dying, and soon, she would be the only family he had left. The pressure of ruling was getting to him, she could tell, and she put a hand on his cheek.
“You want an easy answer,” she said softly, “But there aren't any.”
He pulled away, sighing. “A Spartan never shies from battle,” he said, “but I don't know which side to take. I'm a soldier, but I'm afraid to fight.”
“You could do nothing,” she suggested, “And perhaps Athens would defeat them.” She hoped he would come to the conclusion she was fishing for on his own.
“Athens can't defeat them alone, that is certain. A siege may last for years, but when the fields go to dust and the rivers run dry, Persia will be victorious. And when Persia wins, they will destroy us.”
She stepped forward. “And if we join Athens? Can we not defeat Persia together?”
She shook his head, and ran his hand through his dark hair. “We have no navy. Our hoplites are strong, but Persia will not attack by land. We will be defeated.”
Melaina cocked her head. “And if we join the Persians, and they win? What then? Will they allow us to keep our borders? A former enemy at their back?” He turned away, but she circled around to face him. “I do not think they will honor their agreement.”
He turned a sad eye toward her. “What would you have me do?”
She grasped his strong shoulders. “Fight, but fight honorably. Do not allow Persia into our lands, this scourge from the east. We may not be brothers of Athens, but we are all Greeks.”
“And we will die as such.”
Incongruously, she smiled. “Perhaps. But we will die knowing we fought bravely, which is all a Spartan asks.”
He smiled back, that smile that reflected her own. “You are more brave than I.” His voice was quiet, and proud.
Melaina hugged him, feeling tears gathering in the corners of her eyes. “A fool's bravery, maybe.”
“No,” he replied, and she could her his voice breaking.
Pulling away and wiping her eyes quickly, she asked, “How long do you have to reply?”
“Seven days,” he said.
She squeezed his arms, feeling the thick muscles underneath. “Let them wait.” She laughed suddenly, desperately, startling him. “We may get lucky. Perhaps Xena is still alive, and we won't have to fight at all.”
Xena's eyes drifted down to regard the pulsating, cracked coverstone that was supposed to hold some kind of spirit. Then she let her gaze pass over Freya's small form before she met her with a cool look. Xena's sharp features lengthened in the glowing light. “I ain't afraid of no ghost.”
Freya held her defiant eye, recognizing the inherent challenge. This brash woman was not to be dissuaded from her goal. She wished that she could persuade her to move on to Eternity, but when she looked in those cool blue eyes, she saw the force of a personality that would not bend. She sighed defeatedly.
“You cannot stay here, that is certain. Your presence is disrupting the barrier.” She thought for a moment, weighing a decision. “We cannot send you back ourselves; our souls are tied to this place, and to Eternity.”
She paused, and Xena waited, watching Freya carefully. This was something the small blonde had not wanted to reveal, and Xena wondered why. If there was a way out, why hadn't she said so?
“It is not necessary for both souls to remain intact. You may kill Alti.” Freya put up a hand, and her voice deepened in warning. “However, there is a chance that the rending of one soul may cause the rending of another.” Her voice changed again, and Xena could hear the past in it. “You could return mad, or...become another person altogether. Something dark.”
Xena held her gaze for a long moment, seeing something there that she admired, and something that she pitied. “I have so much darkness in me that a little more wouldn't make a damn bit of difference.” Her response was flippant, but Freya, too, could hear the history.
The Queen's blue eyes narrowed just slightly, and she asked, “Who are you?”
There was so much unspoken between them that Xena had nearly forgotten about the other queens. She almost didn't want to reveal her identity, but some part of her told her that Freya already knew, or at least suspected.
Xena exhaled, and straightened, raising her chin. She said in a clear, resonant voice, “My name is Xena.” Once, she had been ashamed of who she was, ashamed of the reaction she would receive upon disclosing her identity. But not anymore. Her final act had been to redeem her past, but how had that helped her? How had it helped those she loved? It hadn't.
No. She was who she was, past and present, good and evil. Redeemed and damned.
In Freya's face she saw a familiar dance. Disbelief. Fear. Awe.
Her small mouth dropped open a fraction. “The Destroyer of Nations.”
It was difficult to tell whether or not it was a question. “Some have called me that,” Xena responded. Some still did.
The queens standing behind Freya shifted uncomfortably, but the small woman made a forestalling gesture as she composed herself. “As we have heard of Alti, we have heard of you. You have been our enemy in the past, though of late you have been a friend to the Amazon Nation.” She stepped back, turning toward the dias, the green light showing her delicate features in relief. “It is ironic, then, that our salvation hinges on a woman who once portended our destruction.” Her head turned, and her eyes once again met Xena's. “But such is the nature of your existence.” Her head tilted to one side. “Light...” She faced the fissure again. “...and darkness.”
Xena felt as though this tiny woman knew her very well. She respected the fact that Freya did not seem to hold a grudge against her, as many Amazons did. Perhaps Freya understood duality better than most.
Freya let the thought hang in the air before taking a long preparatory breath. “I will escort you back to the forest,” she announced, “This spirit cannot be allowed to escape.” She turned to face Xena, her expression grave. “If it does, you would not be Xena, Destroyer of Nations, but Xena, Of a Nation Destroyed.”
Aryn swiped her forearm across her brow and sighed. Though the air was not hot, they had been traveling all day, and she was sweating. Due to the scar tissue that covered most of her back, her body had trouble regulating heat, because large portions of it didn't sweat. Still, the hardy young thief kept pace just behind the swiftly-moving Gabrielle, while Neva trudged along at the rear.
“Let's take a short break. I hear water over here,” Gabrielle's voice called, and she angled between the trees toward a hidden trickling stream. As they traveled the past few days the forest had become quite thick, and it was clear that they were leagues from civilization. It was both liberating and isolating. If anyone were looking for them, they wouldn't be found, but then again, if they needed help, they were on their own.
The thief plopped down heavily on the water's edge, pulling out a skin, which she filled with the stream's cool water. She took a long draught, licked her dry lips, and tried to calm her breath. Though the trees did provide shade, they were also too closely packed for them to take turns riding Argo. Aryn was no stranger to foot-travel, but she had never gone further than the space between the closely situated cities near Athens. This was a different monster.
“You were not kidding when you said this road was hard,” Neva commented, as she crouched down to fill her waterskin. Gabrielle lead Argo over and the horse bent her head to take a drink while Neva patted her golden nose absently.
“You may have been kidding when you said it was a road,” Aryn japed, between gulps. She smirked and wiped the water from her mouth with her forearm. It tasted salty from sweat, but the tiny bit of water cooled it slightly.
Gabrielle chuckled lightly as she sat down. “It could be worse,” she said.
“Right...” the thief said, “It could be...I dunno, made of broken glass?” She shrugged exaggeratedly, trying to making her companions laugh. “Bear traps?” She turned to Neva, who was now trying hard to suppress a chuckle. “Bears?”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “There aren't any roads to the Northern Amazons, by design. They're pretty mistrustful; their numbers are too few to rebuff an attack.” Inwardly, her thoughts flashed to the assault at Helicon, which had decimated their ranks. The Amazons would be even more wary now.
Aryn nodded slowly. “I trust you and everything, but how do you know where we're going?” Every tree looked the same to Aryn.
“I've been there before.” Gabrielle looked down at the water, seeing her reflection skittering by in the trickling stream, dancing, appearing and disappearing in the blink of an eye. Her hair was long now, and she looked almost the same as she had when she and Xena had first met, but it was not a reflection she recognized; she could scarcely remember her life before she knew the warrior.
She was glad of the two girls. As silly as it might sound, this was not a road she wanted to travel alone. She remembered that Xena had, when she thought Gabrielle was dead. What strength that must have taken, she thought. But then she realized, it wasn't only strength, was it? It was what she was feeling now. A thousand emotions, swirling and eddying like the waters of the stream, mixing and becoming one, all flowing in a single direction. North.
She was becoming more nervous as they approached their destination, the burden of urgency weighing on her. With a war brewing, they needed Xena. And Gabrielle needed her to be at the end of this road.
“You keep going North, and then you see signs of them,” Gabrielle continued knowledgeably, “their territory isn't one small village in the middle of the forest. Their hunting lands stretch for leagues, and when we enter them, I'll be able to track back to their village to find them.” She paused, and a smiled ghosted her face. “Or more likely, they'll find us.”
Freya waved an arm, and the heavy stone doorway began to part before her like branches bending to the will of a strong wind. The doors scraped slowly against the stone floor, and Freya spoke as the sound echoed against the cavern walls.
“I'm afraid I can't give you a weapon,” she said, regretfully. In her peripheral vision she saw Xena smirk, and flex her hands.
“Alti doesn't have any weapons either. It'll be a fair fight.”
Freya grinned slightly, surmising that the warrior was more dangerous with no weapons than most people were with many of them. “Will it?” A breathy chuckled escaped her. “When you kill Alti, a portal will open, and you may return to the living.”
“And if she kills me?” Xena's blue gaze turned to Freya, and all mocking was gone from her tone.
“That will not happen, will it?”
Xena shook her head once, but her eyes remained fixed. “I like to know what contract I'm signing, especially if it's in blood.”
Freya nodded slowly, for the first time finding the warrior truly intimidating. This was not someone she wanted to cross, not even in the underworld, which she knew well.
“Alti would go through the portal then. But the coverstone would be sealed. The demon would remain trapped.”
Xena eyed her coolly. “And all your problems would be solved. No Alti, no demon.” She paused, and a smile quirked her lips. It made a chill run through Freya. “No me.”
“Does that bother you?” Freya wondered what Xena was doing. She was the one that wanted to go back to the living. Why did Xena question her now? “Truly, you have the most to gain from this bargain. And the most to lose,” she said honestly. She looked at Xena for a long moment, watching a muscle work in the warrior's jaw as she returned the scrutiny. “You could pass to Eternity, though you are not an Amazon. Yet you would risk all to return. Why?”
Xena didn't answer for such a long moment that Freya thought she wouldn't. The warrior's sight moved to the open doorway. “I have a promise to keep,” she finally said, her voice low, and steeped in honesty.
“A promise?” One of Freya's blonde eyebrows disappeared beneath her headband. “You risk your soul for a word?”
Xena turned back toward her, and for a moment, the warrior's expression faltered, and Freya saw something there she knew well. It was carefully hidden, but Freya could see it in the warrior's eyes.
“Not a word.” Xena's chin lifted. “A person.”
It was hard for Freya to meet her eyes. A tiny scoff issued from her lips, but it was not at Xena she laughed. It was at herself. “That is folly.”
Suddenly, Xena's vulnerability was gone, and Freya realized what the warrior had done. While she thought she was reading the warrior, Xena was reading her.
“Then we are both fools.” Xena chuckled, a low sound deep in her throat. “Who was it?”
Caught offguard, Freya gasped, tasting the cave's damp mineral air. “Why?” Her voice was plaintive, and sounded foreign to her. “Why must I tell you?”
Xena's head tilted to the side, her eyebrow raised, and she crossed her arms. “Because you've been hiding things from me, and I don't trust you. And I won't help you if I don't trust you.” She paused, pinning Freya with a stare. “ Make me trust you, or that demon's knocking at these doors.” She pointed at the nearby opening.
Freya's mouth opened then closed, trying to find the right words before finally choking out, “My sister. My true sister.” Her eyes dropped to study the rocky floor, no longer able to withstand Xena's powerful scrutiny. “She was killed, and attempted to return.” Her head lifted, and she looked past Xena, her vision locked on a different time, a different place, centuries previous. “She became mad. Her soul was split, and from it only darkness shone. She killed many before...before...” Freya was visibly quivering, and her hands clenched and unclenched in anxious succession. “I had to kill her.” Her eyes met Xena's, and her inward thoughts returned to the present. “And now I am cursed, to forever guard against her escape.” She paused. “The other Queens arrived to assist me, when my power proved inadequate.”
Xena's expression did not change, except her eyes widened minutely. “She's the demon?”
Freya nodded. “Yes, she is.”
There was a long silence then, when Freya gathered herself.
Xena said nothing, then dropped her arms. Her expression altered, becoming softer, the hard lines around her jaw lessening, her furrowed brow relaxing. She inclined her head toward the smaller woman and said, “Thank you.”
With that, she turned, leaving for the liminal forest.
Melaina entered her father's chambers, squinting as her pupils adjusted to the low light. The only illumination issued from candles set on small tables near the bedside.
His deathbed. Melaina approached, taking a seat on an adjacent stool. A slave used a cloth to sponge her father's forehead, and she took it from him and set it aside.
The princess paid him little mind, though she noticed a scar on his neck, but that was not uncommon. Melaina idly wondered how it was a helot became a healer. Or perhaps he was a healer who became a helot, sold into slavery to pay debts.
Was watching men die not payment enough?
With one hand she smoothed her father's hair back from his forehead. It had grown too long, and too gray. It was moist from sweat. He stirred at the touch, but did not wake.
“How long does he have?” she asked in a whisper. Though she knew he could not hear, she did not want to disturb the king. Still king, she thought. The king and the realm, until death do us part.
The helot's voice came from behind her, just as softly, though un-tinged by grief. “Not long, my princess. A few days, a sevenday. Hard to say.” Her eyes remained on her father, but she heard the rustle of his tunic as the man shrugged. “A strong man.”
Yes, he was, though you couldn't see that now. She took his hand. It felt light; the atrophied muscles and brittled bones barely resisting gravity. Translucent skin stretched tight over blue veins, running like rivers over his sword-bearing hand. It reminded her of the Persian's letter. A letter which brought death, just as surely.
Would he live long enough for Marius to give his answer? Would he see Sparta fall? And Sparta would fall, she knew, certain as death, no matter what answer her brother gave.
She sighed, her breath stirring the candles, and the whispering curtains that canopied the bed. It didn't matter. Her father would hold a sword only once more, when they placed him on a pyre.
“Even the strongest of us cross the Styx, and Charon ferries us all, kings and slaves alike.” We are all equal in Hades' realm, she thought. Until he chooses Tartarus or Elysia for us, that is. Was that what she feared? A fiery eternity, for joining the Persians? What about a painful death, for fighting them? It didn't matter that they wouldn't allow her into council meetings, a war would kill her just as dead as the rest of them. He auburn hair fell over her eyes as her head dropped forward.
“As you say, my lady,” came the slave's voice.
Her hand tensed. In her grief, she wanted to slap him. She could, if she wanted to, she knew. You couldn't strike a free man, but a helot? A helot you could strike, or even kill, if you wanted.
Why did she want to hit him? Because he did as he was bid. And here she was, with no one to tell her what to do. Her brother didn't know any better than she did, and the man who might have given her an answer lay comatose.
She wanted to scream.
“What do I do?” her voice came out an angry whisper. She told Marius that they should fight, but she was afraid. He called her brave, but she wasn't, not really. She just didn't see another choice, one that would let them keep their honor. Or their lives.
Surely there was something she was missing. She leaned forward on her elbows, cradling her head in her hands. “By the gods, what do I do?”
Aryn ruffled a hand through her wet hair as she picked her way through the woods on the way back to the campsite. She held her boots in the other hand. It was senseless to be walking around barefoot after she'd just bathed in the river, but she liked the feel of the earth against the soles of her feet. She didn't often wear boots, because the thicker soles made a lot of noise, no matter how softly she tread, and her profession valued silence. Besides, in city streets, sandals served as adequate footwear.
She hopped over a root, but overbalanced when she landed, and stumbled a little. She kept standing, though, and chuckled at her mistake.
“I don't know what she sees in you,” said a deep male voice behind her.
Aryn turned, startled. A tall man was leaning casually against a tree, a small smirk on his handsome face. His chin was framed by a beard, and his black hair was a little long, curling near his ears. Muscular arms crossed over a black vest, and booted feet crossed at the ankle. His posture wasn't threatening, but the huge sword that hung at his waist was.
For a moment Aryn was stuck dumb, unsure if she should call for Gabrielle, or if that would provoke an attack. Surely, he could cross the distance between them before Gabrielle could arrive, fast as she was.
His brown eyes were mocking. “The irritating blonde?” His smirk grew wider, exulting in some private joke.
She shook her head, still speechless. Did he mean Gabrielle? Aryn didn't think she was irritating.
He rolled his eyes. “Aphrodite. My sister.”
Finally, she found her tongue. “You're Ares. God of War.” Her voice sounded squeaky. Uh-oh. Aryn tried to remember what Gabrielle had said about him. Wasn't he on their side? That made her feel a little better, but he still scared her.
He pushed off the tree, and rested on hand on his sword hilt. “Surprised to see me?” He laughed, a deep bass rumbling that seemed to shake the leaves. “You shouldn't be. Xena and the irritating blonde attract gods like a battlefield does flies.” He paused, and took a step forward as he clarified, “ that time I meant Gabrielle.”
Aryn took a step back, and he put a hand up in a placating gesture. “I'm not gonna hurt you. Like I said, my sister likes you.” Then he paused, and scoffed. “Or maybe she doesn't like you, and that's why she got you into this mess.” His big shoulders moved in a shrug. “You've got some potential, I'll give you that. I saw you put that harpoon through that guy's cheek.” He poked his own cheek, and then mimed removing the harpoon, making a noise with his mouth. “Nice one.”
Aryn grimaced, and didn't know what to say. “Uh...thanks?”
He waved a hand. “You're too skittish, though. Not like that Neva. Setting that fire? She's got some style, even if it's a little out of control.” He sighed.
Aryn was silent again. Why was Ares here? He wouldn't be here just to talk about fighting, would he?
“Anyway,” he continued, “You gotta tell Gabrielle that if she wants a weapon that can kill the dead, she's gonna have to find it herself. I got her letter.” He presented an open hand. “But I got no weapon. I just don't have the juice to muster up some undead killing super sword.” He shrugged again. “Wish I did.” His eyes left hers, and Aryn noticed that his voice had softened, and become regretful.
“Oh...um...” Aryn fumbled for words. Somewhat vaguely, she remembered Gabrielle mentioning that she needed a special weapon, that night Aryn had woken from her nightmare. “Well, I hope we don't have to fight any dead people,” she said meekly.
He laughed. “Yeah. Or dead gods, huh?”
Aryn wondered what he meant by that.
For a second, Ares was quiet. “Anyway, there's a war brewing. Busy, busy.” He took a step back, as he prepared to leave. “Hey, uh...you tell Gabrielle good luck, okay?” His tone wasn't mocking in the least, and Aryn saw sincerity in his eyes.
She couldn't help but agree. “I'll tell her.”
With a nod, he disappeared in a blue flash.
Aryn shielded her eyes with her free arm, then blinked as they readjusted. She let out a breath, and began walking back toward the campsite.
A small pop sounded behind her, and once again, she turned, startled.
She put a hand over her hammering heart, and cursed soundly as she recognized her visitor. “Damn it! You guys gotta knock, or something.”
Aphrodite's lips quirked, and lifted a hand to rap it against the nearest tree trunk. “Anybody home? Can I borrow a cup of sugar?” She hopped over a root and blew Aryn a kiss, shooting her a beatific smile. “Never mind, take mine.” Brightly, she said, “Sorry I scared ya.”
Now aware there was no danger, Aryn smiled back. “It's okay.” She paused before asking, “So am I just really popular or what?”
Aphrodite laughed, and pointed at the boots in Aryn's hand. “With those shoes? Not likely!”
Aryn laughed but protested with an affronted expression, “Hey! You gave me these!”
The goddess' nose scrunched. “What was I thinking? Oh yeah, that you'd be walking, like, all over Greece.” Taking a step, she pulled a tiny pink heel from the earth, and disentangled her billowing robe from a protruding root. “These nice duds'd be ruined before you got, like, anywhere. ” She snorted. “I don't know how you mortals get from day to day.” Her head shook, making her blonde curls bounce in perfect harmony. “So, what'd you think of my brother?”
Aryn considered the question. Though Ares had frightened her, it had been pretty clear that he wanted to help, but couldn't. He'd seemed sad about that, somehow. But she hadn't liked what he said about her having “potential.”
“He was kinda scary,” Aryn answered honestly, “but he seemed okay. He told me to wish Gabrielle good luck.”
Aphrodite's smiled faded. “That musta been hard for him,” she said, mostly to herself. Ares, a powerful god, would have to rely on Gabrielle, a mortal whom he had largely cast aside for years, and had only recently come to respect. But Aryn wouldn't know any of that.
The love goddess sighed. “There is no greater curse for a god, than to fall in love with a mortal,” she said sadly, shaking her head slowly.
Aryn didn't understand. “Why?” she asked, her voice quiet. There was no sound between them but the whispering woods, and even those had gone silent, awaiting the goddess' answer.
Aphrodite's expression turned sympathetic, and she gave Aryn a sad, affectionate smile, that reminded the thief just a little of her mother. “Mortals die.”
Xena found a rock, smashing it against a tree with enough force to break it in half, rendering one edge sharp and jagged. “No weapons my ass.” She gripped it like a dagger, and, so armed, sat on a log.
Alti would show up soon enough.
Almost as the thought passed through her head, Xena saw a shape materialize in the fog.
“Reconsidering my offer?” said that familiar rasping voice.
“Nope,” replied Xena, standing, “reconsidering how I said no. Don't think I got my...point across.” Tossing the dagger in the air and catching it, she smirked.
“You've come to kill me again?” Alti laughed that grating laugh. “How many times will it take, Xena?”
There was a pause, and then a gravelly voice to Xena's left said, “One?”
“Two?” That came from the right.
“Three?” That was straight ahead.
Xena bent her knees slightly, preparing for a fight. “As many times as it takes, Alti.”
That awful laugh rang out, echoing in the eerie forest. “I only have to kill you once.”
All three Altis rushed her, jabbing at Xena with kicks and punches. The warrior was prepared, though, and was accustomed to fighting many foes simultaneously. Every punch was parried, every kick returned, and in just a moment, Xena had the upper hand. Despite Alti's powers, she could never defeat Xena in a physical fight, and Xena thought that must have been why she tried to bargain with her earlier.
With a powerful jab, Xena stabbed one Alti in the chest, and she exploded in a puff of shadowy, foul-smelling smoke. That left only two, rattling in their animal-skin and bone clothes.
Xena engaged the nearer one, feinting with a jab, then bringing her foot up to crack across her jaw in a blow so forceful it twisted the shamaness' neck. She too, merged with the fog in a smoking cloud.
“One left,” Xena taunted, dodging a punch.
“Oh, really?” Alti redirected her arm, which was already in Xena's guard, and grabbed the warrior around the throat.
Xena felt a surge of energy, which brought her to her knees. She was assailed with images that stormed across her mind's eye, as Alti plied her with visions of death. It was not something she knew, however. Not at first. This was not her own death.
Burning. Screaming. The scent of searing flesh, and an intense pain. Thin, rice paper walls catching like kindling, and thick, heavily brocaded robes trapping their wearers in nets of fiery death.
Xena saw a thousand buildings burn in the blink of an eye, and knew there were thousands living inside. She could hear their cries, and feel their terror in her bones. She cried out with them, until her voice was hoarse. It was all chaos and confusion.
And then she knew. These were the 40,000 souls she had burned at Higuchi. The souls she had died for were now killing her. Again.
Xena felt a strange sense of calm, as she focused her senses. Her ears pushed away the screams, her eyes avoided the flames. Her skin deflected the pain, and then she could feel again. She felt the grass under her knees, the roots biting into her skin. Alti's hand on her neck. But most of all, she felt the rock dagger, and her fingers tightened.
“Can you feel them Xena?” came Alti's voice, filtering through the vision as though through water. “All the souls you killed? Can you feel their pain?”
Xena felt a rush of rage, that which had fueled her so many times, in so many battles. In a single fluid motion, she stood and brought her arm up, thrusting the dagger through Alti's clothing, past her ribs, through a spongy lung, until the point stopped just shy of her black, dead heart.
The visions were gone, and the world came rushing back instantly as Alti fell to her knees, and Xena towered over her. “I'm over it,” the warrior snarled, and she felt warm blood coating her fingers, making them slip on the stone dagger. Still, her grip was firm.
Alti laughed, making blood drip from her lips.
Xena felt a hand circle hers where she held the dagger.
Alti laughed again. “It takes two souls,” she choked out, propelling bloody spittle onto Xena's black tunic, and onto the warrior's face. A crimson bubble appeared at the corner of her mouth as she smiled. “It wasn't yours I wanted.” The shameness laughed one last time as she shoved the dagger the rest of the way into her heart.
As soon as it punctured the organ, Xena jerked her hand away as the shamaness' body began to blacken and deform, twisting and shrinking upon itself, like paper in a fire. It cracked and snapped as her bones broke, then shattered. Then the air was rent by a horrible screeching, more terrible than any banshee.
Xena flinched from the sound, and felt a moment of true terror as she sensed a great evil rushing toward her from the direction she had come.
“Oh, shit,” was all she managed before the fog parted, and she felt more than saw a great black force gather Alti's soul, absorbing it like a battlefield might a drop of blood. Then there was a loud ripping noise as the ground parted in a massive fissure, and the being disappeared into it. Xena dove for the opening, but was met only with hard ground.
“No.” She was already on the ground, and she struck it with her fist, uselessly. “No!”
But then she had much bigger problems as the ground bucked and the trees creaked, moving closer, like a crowd trying anxiously to hear a great orator. The forest was closing in on her.
Melaina's green eyes snapped open, and she stared at the ceiling for a long moment. Was that a noise? Or a dream?
Either way, it paid to be careful, especially with enemies in the palace. Technically, they were guests, but they were guarded, and not allowed to roam freely. Still, Melaina threw off her bedsheet and stood, feeling the cool marble on her bare feet. She was glad that she had chosen to wear a sleeping shift, because it seemed unusually cold in the room tonight. Shivering, she padded over to the door, finding it locked. Through it she could hear nothing. She made her way over to the large window, pulling back the curtains to reveal an empty balcony. She stepped out into the moonlight, surveying the area, finding nothing amiss. Her hair tumbled over her eyes and she brushed it away as she leaned out over the edge to make sure no one was clinging there by their fingertips.
The sleeping city stretched before her, then blended into the farmlands where the helots toiled, before it finally became the wilderness, somewhere far in the distance.
“They have no idea,” she grumbled, then slipped back inside, shutting the curtain and climbing back into the warm bed.
Sleep had almost taken her when a chill snaked up her legs, next her torso, then she felt a weight, like someone sitting on her chest. She opened her eyes, and saw a black shape, like a shadow, with the semblance of a face. It may have been smiling.
The princess opened her mouth and breathed in so she could scream, but she inhaled the shadow; she could feel its icy grip moving down her throat, through her stomach, and pervading her limbs. It felt like she had fallen in an icy lake, and drawn a breath, only to find herself drowning and choking. Her muscles contorted, and her back arched to a point where she felt it might break. Her body tried to reject the invasion, but its battle was futile. Finally, her body relaxed, going still, as the being within her consolidated its control. Melaina tried to struggle, but it was inside her, and even though she willed herself to move, she could not. Its will was stronger.
Trapped, she felt her body rise, commanded like a marionette. Her legs carried her to the side table where she kept a candle, a looking glass, and a washbasin. Hands that were hers and not hers found the flint and striker, and lit the candle. One hand lifted the looking glass, and green eyes studied a face that was hers, wearing an expression that was not her own.
The eyes reflected the candlelight, but nothing else, no empathy, no compassion. In her own eyes, Melaina saw only cold, empty malice.
“Free,” said her voice.
Melaina wanted to scream, but instead she laughed.
Aryn awoke shivering beneath her bedroll, and opened her eyes to discover the fire had burned down to embers. She cursed softly. She didn't want to get up, but her internal sense told her it was a few hours before sunrise, and she knew it would only get colder.
Damn it, it had been days since she told Gabrielle about their godly visitors. Weren't they getting close by now? Aryn shook her head as she rose, trying to flip her hair out of her face. She wished she had a strip of leather to tie it back, but she hadn't thought to get one. Maybe Gabrielle could make her one out of the next rabbit she killed.
Aryn was a fair hunter, using her stealth and speed to good effect. But she hadn't had nearly as much practice as Gabrielle, so Gabrielle caught most of their food. And she could catch fish without a rod, which Aryn thought was really neat. She didn't really care for having to clean up the guts, though, but she would if she had to.
They were out of kindling. Aryn made a face, and looked toward the woods. The fire was burning so low it would be out soon, and then the world would be steeped in darkness. There was a waning moon, but the trees were so thick that it was ineffectual, and Aryn regarded the inky blackness with a critical eye. She could wake Gabrielle, or Neva, and ask them to come with her. But that'd make her look like a coward. Neva would laugh. Gabrielle wouldn't; she was too nice. Maybe Aryn was a coward, but she didn't want Gabrielle to think so.
She had to go now. Barefoot, Aryn stepped away from the campsite, gathering all the little sticks she could see.
It's only darkness. There's nothing out here. Just animals and birds. And you, and Neva, and Gabrielle. And sometimes the gods. But mostly the first two.
Aryn's heart was beating quickly, and she felt silly for being so terrified. In the city, darkness was her ally. It hid her, allowing her to move unseen, to steal, to slip away.
But here...here it hid more than her. Aryn was picking up another stick when she heard a cracking noise. She jumped, dropping a few sticks. She stood frozen, listening hard. A rustling in the leaves. The wind through the trees. There were no owls, none of the ambient noises of the forest night. Either something was close, or she herself had scared them.
A shape darted in front of her, and she started again, then exhaled as she realized what form of creature it was. “Damn raccoons.” Still she waved one-handedly at the tiny bandit, recognizing a kindred spirit.
Now she felt even more foolish for her childish terror. She turned back toward camp, relaxing a little.
Without warning, she felt a searing pain in her back as claws ripped into the back of her tunic, bearing her to the ground. Her face smashed against the sticks she'd gathered as she screamed, “Gabrielle!” She wasn't far from the camp, Gabrielle would hear.
Aryn tried to turn over, but the weight of whatever was clawing her held her down. She yelled again, scraping her hands against the forest floor, trying to gain purchase. When she lifted her head she could see Gabrielle running toward her, then she ducked as she saw the bard cock her arm and loose the chakram. The disc whizzed over her head, making solid contact with her attacker. Aryn's body popped off the ground as the weight pressing against her disappeared, then she felt smaller weights thumping against her shredded back and clattering together. The chakram zipped by her head, cutting off a lock of her hair before returning to Gabrielle's waiting hand.
Aryn rolled over painfully, displacing the objects that had landed on her back. When she squinted in the low light, she could she that they were bones. “What...?”
Gabrielle was at her side in an instant. “Are you okay?” she queried, putting a judicious hand on the thief's shoulder.
Aryn nodded quickly. “Yeah, uh, can we get back to camp?” Her head jerked around, looking for more creatures.
Gabrielle helped her up, then bent to examine one of the bones. When she touched it, it seared her fingers, and she jerked her hand back. Then she used her tunic to gather them, while Aryn gathered the kindling.
They hurried back to camp. Aryn tossed the kindling onto the fire, which then blazed anew. Gabrielle dumped the bones out, leaving them for later investigation.
Neva stirred, but did not wake as they passed by her bedroll. Aryn had no idea how she hadn't been awoken by the clamor, but then again, the girl was used to sleeping in a city, where noises were commonplace.
A long, tense moment passed as Gabrielle and Aryn stood in the fire's glow, tense as bowstrings, listening. Aryn could hear nothing but the beating of her own heart, a drum played by fear, the night's skilled musician. Blood ran down her back in warm familiar streams.
Gabrielle kept a hand on the chakram. Were there more creatures? What was that? There had been no time to think, only to react, but Gabrielle had seen it, and it had frightened her. A grey thing, with bones sticking from its thin skin like spears. Long, gangly limbs protruded from its thin body, but its face, its face, had been what set her heart to hammering.
It didn't have one. Only skin stretched tightly over eyesockets, depressions where eyes should have been. No nose, but a mouth, a mouth that took up half its face, with rows and rows of teeth like lines of pikemen on the battlefront.
When the chakram impacted it, the creature burst and became vapor, melting into the darkness, leaving only bleached, smoking bones.
Gabrielle kept listening, and for an endless time all she could hear were the crackling flames, Aryn's rasping breathing, and the rapid thumping of the thief's heart. The wilderness held its breath. Then... “Hoo.”
Aryn jumped, and both women exhaled in relief. An owl. Wildlife had returned to the area. Perhaps now they were safe.
Gabrielle waited a moment longer, then motioned for Aryn to sit down. “Let me look at your back.”
Aryn was reluctant, but her back hurt a lot, and Gabrielle would know if she needed stitches. Aryn had felt the lash often enough, but she had never been clawed by some dark, skeleton dog, or whatever that was. She sat in front of a log, which Gabrielle sat on after retrieving her medical kit from her bag.
Aryn leaned forward, resting her arms on her knees, feeling the stretch in her scar tissue, and the sting in her fresh wounds. She felt Gabrielle cut off the rest of her destroyed tunic and move it away. Her ears heard the sharp intake of breath as Gabrielle got a good look at her back, the scars plainly visible even in firelight. Aryn shut her eyes. They stung a little, but not from the firelight. “Ugly, isn't it?”
It took Gabrielle over a dozen heartbeats before she realized what it was she was actually looking at. Aryn flesh was ripped in several places, two pairs of four parallel lines running down from her shoulder-blades to the middle of her back, where the animal had pulled her down. Six of the cuts were deep; the outside ones were more superficial. Blood seeped from her wounds, and ran down her back in crimson rivers, glinting scarlet in the firelight. Beneath that though, were scars, layers and layers of knotted tissue, that were rooted at the small of her back and then grew, branching onto her shoulders. A tree, an ancestry of agony, a tapestry of pain woven by the lash. These were old scars, as well. Years old, by the look of them. They were white and flat, flush with the skin, and stretched slightly, from years of use. Aryn's history, and the history of countless slaves was told here, more eloquently than any scroll Gabrielle could ever write. It had its own beauty.
“It's not ugly,” replied Gabrielle, her voice close to a whisper, low, and reverent.
Aryn didn't reply, but opened her eyes. She looked at Neva, who was still asleep. “They called him the Doll-House King,” she said finally, “the man who did this.” Her mouth was pressed against her arms, and she was difficult to understand. Her body was shaking, from pain or memory, Gabrielle didn't know. “Because he was a warlord, who pretended to be a king. He wasn't any good at it.” And I killed him. I killed him because I was afraid, because he took my life from me. I killed him so I could be free. I killed him because I wanted revenge. I killed him because I hated him. She wanted to say it all, but the words would not come. They stung more than her back.
There was a long pause, and Gabrielle set to her task. She used a waterskin to rinse the wounds, then took out a packet from her medicine kit, and pinched out a white powder. “This'll sting a little,” she advised Aryn, receiving a wry chuckle in response. Gabrielle winced at how hollow her warning must have sounded. Aryn was no stranger to pain. She dusted the white power over the red streaks, seeing Aryn's muscles tense as it fizzled and bubbled.
She rinsed the wounds again, then used a clean bit of linen to dry them. Most of them were still seeping, and she determined that Aryn needed stitches. She bent down to retrieve gut and a bone needle, seeing the creature's bones out of the corner of her eye as she did so.
What were those? Where had it come from? Gabrielle knew she'd have to take the bones with her, to get any sort of answer. She could ask the Northern Amazon shamaness.
Her needle poked through flesh, and Gabrielle detected no reaction from Aryn, save the tiniest tensing of her muscles. It reminded her of the first time she had done this for Xena, so long ago.
She had been traveling with Xena for...how long? It must have been months, Gabrielle thought. It would have taken months for Xena to trust her enough, for Xena to let herself be that vulnerable in front of another person.
It had been a tough fight, against a lot of guys, but Gabrielle was proud that she'd used her staff. She thought she was doing pretty well with it.
She whacked a man across the face as he came at her with a shortsword, them she tripped him using the sweeping motion Xena had taught her. It dropped him, and he stayed down. She would have cheered, but then two guys apparently realized she was a threat, and moved their attacks from Xena to her. Gabrielle got her balance over the balls of her feet, like Xena said. But then she found out she didn't need to fight, because Xena swooped in. The warrior grabbed one man from behind, and threw him down bodily, and in a swift motion she elbowed the second man in the face. She shot Gabrielle a grin and a wink, but then the happy expression was gone as the man she had abandoned in order to defend Gabrielle struck her in the back with a mace. Xena didn't skip a beat, instead of crumbling, she rolled with the blow, then with a growl, ripped the mace from the man's grip and hit him in the head with it.
The fight was over, and she gave Gabrielle what the bard later realized was a pained smile.
Later, at the campsite, Gabrielle thought she noticed Xena was moving a bit more stiffly than usual, but she didn't know how to broach the subject. At this point she felt that she and Xena were friends, but sometimes the warrior could be prickly, especially if you tried to talk about something she didn't want to talk about. From what she knew about Xena, she figured being hurt was one of those things.
However, she had moved past being afraid of the warrior's reaction, and was now worried about her friend, who looked like she was injured.
“Hey, Xena?” Gabrielle ventured, from her position on her bedroll.
Xena paused in removing her armor. “Hey, Gabriellllllle?” She smirked, and extended the word, something she always did when she knew Gabrielle was about to ask a delicate question. Xena had a weird sense of humor, and thought it was funny when Gabrielle was uncomfortable. Gabrielle also thought it might be a ploy to make Gabrielle more at ease with her. Xena could be subtle sometimes.
“Uh...” Gabrielle shifted nervously, and picked at a loose strand of her bedroll. “Are you okay?”
Xena gave her a puzzled look, and continued removing her armor. “Fine,” she replied, but Gabrielle could hear the strain in the word as the warrior moved her arms over hear head. Then Xena turned to put her breastplate down, and Gabrielle saw a rust colored line at the top of her leathers.
“No, you're not, you're bleeding!” Gabrielle exclaimed, and she was up and at Xena's side before she really thought about what she was doing.
“Am I?” Xena looked over her shoulder at Gabrielle, who was trying to get a good look at her back. “Oh, I guess some of my armor cut me when that guy hit me with the mace.” She walked away to sit on a nearby log, and began removing her greaves. “It'll be fine. Don't worry about it.”
“Don't wor-” Gabrielle sputtered. “Xena, you're hurt!” Xena just shrugged, and took off her boots.
Gabrielle had no concept of this. Xena always tended her when she was hurt; shouldn't she do the same?
Gabrielle searched in Argo's saddlebags to find the medicine kit. She recovered it quickly, then popped it open and sat next to Xena. “Just tell me which ones to use,” she said determinedly.
Xena gave her a tolerantly affectionate look. “Gods, Gabrielle, you act like this is the first time you've seen me get hurt.”
“Well, I haven't-” Gabrielle started to say, and then she realized. Her mouth opened a little in surprise. “You get hurt in every fight, don't you?” Xena saw something like pain and anger cross Gabrielle's features, and she suddenly felt guilty. Why would Gabrielle be mad if Xena didn't tell her she was hurt? Shouldn't she be happy she didn't have to deal with it?
“Not every one,” Xena demurred, and she felt the sheepish look grace her face.
“Why didn't you tell me?” Didn't Xena trust her? Gabrielle thought she had earned that.
Xena was tempted to give a flippant answer, but heard a note in Gabrielle's tone that told her to be serious. “I don't know,” she began, then paused, thinking. Gabrielle could see her brow furrow as she puzzled out an answer. “When you're a warrior, you can't show any weakness, or your enemies will exploit it.”
“I'm not your enemy. I'm your friend.” Gabrielle still sounded hurt.
Xena's eyes dropped. “I know. But I have more enemies than there are rats in Athens.” She lifted a closed fist. “And I can count my friends on one hand.” Her index finger uncurled.
Gabrielle stared at her, and the young bard's expression changed. “Xena, that's not true, you have more than one friend.” What? Did Xena really think Gabrielle was her only friend?
Xena's lips moved into a sad smile. “True friends. The kind I would let see me get hurt? My weaknesses?” She kept her index finger out, and poked Gabrielle in the nose. “The kind I would let stitch me up?” Pointing at the medicine box, she indicated the bone needle and gut. “It's that one and that one. Try not to give me a crooked scar, farmgirl.” She turned, and presented her back to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle knew that Xena probably had said as much as she was going to, but she wrapped an arm around the warrior and hugged her from behind, not caring if she got blood all over her tunic. “You don't have to be strong all the time.” Gabrielle felt tears stinging her eyes. “You don't have to be strong with me. You're stuck with me.”
She felt Xena's body shake as a chuckle rumbled through her. “I guess I am.”
Gabrielle finished stitching and bandaging Aryn's back and was putting away her supplies when she said, “I have a mark on my back, too.”
Muscles shifted as Aryn's back straightened, and she lifted a hand to clutch her ripped tunic to her chest. “You do?” the thief asked, without turning. There was surprise and interest in her voice.
Gabrielle walked into the thief's line of vision, and pulled back one sleeve of her blue tunic, revealing the back of one shoulder. A dragon's head nested there, so majestic and vivid it seemed living, ready to leap off of the bard's back and fly away, spouting fire. Its scales were rendered in many hues, a stark contrast to the bard's relatively pale skin.
Aryn was shocked. The tattoo was beautiful, but from the way Gabrielle presented it, it seemed like the bard wasn't very proud of it. “Did that hurt?” she finally asked. It must have; it was so intricate.
Gabrielle turned, readjusting her tunic. Her green eyes glinted in the firelight, for the moment, hard as dragon scales, and then, as tender as new leaves. “A little,” she said quietly. The tattoo was a protection ward, a powerful magic. Its magic must be limited though, because the tattoo on her calf had faded and disappeared after her fight with Yodoshi. But even its magic hadn't saved Xena, and now its presence was a reminder of a far away land Gabrielle would rather forget.
Aryn's brown eyes were understanding, reflecting a level of knowing that went deeper than any scar. “Me too,” she said, with the thinnest of smiles. Then she stood, and moved to her bag to find a fresh tunic. “I don't think I'll be able to sleep with those bones sitting there.” Her chin jerked to indicate the pile.
Gabrielle dug in Argo's saddlebags to find several bits of cloth, extra blankets and whatnot, then she wrapped different parts of the skeleton in each one. The cracked skull in one, ribs and leg bones in another, arm bones and vertebrae in yet another. Then she put each group in a separate saddlebag. Aryn cocked her head as she watched Gabrielle, then the bard explained, “I don't know what this thing is, but these bones burned my skin earlier, and I'm not taking any chances that it can put itself back together again.”
The thief shuddered visibly. “Great, now I'm definitely not getting any sleep.” But she was feeling lethargic, and having trouble remaining upright. She was a little dizzy, and she sat on her bedroll.
“You should try,” Gabrielle said kindly, “I'll stay awake, and watch.”
For what, though? she thought.
Thank you very much for reading Part 8! I thought about making this chapter extra long, but I instead decided that I shouldn't keep you waiting any longer than I have (I'm sorry it has been so long!) I've been writing a lot more lately, so I will be posting faster, I promise. Thanks for sticking with me!
Don't forget to send any feedback to email@example.com . I appreciate it immensely.
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