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Having been recreated and set adrift in the modern world, the clones of Xena and Gabrielle were still the products of their age. They were creatures of the 1st century BC, not the 21st century AD. The core of their beliefs, morals, and expectations adhered to the time of their original lives, and all these things had more validity in the present than anyone in modern times would have believed. Though the trappings of society had changed, some realities from the ancient world had persisted. In the clash between the ancient world and the new, there existed the possibility for a recapitulation of a time line that had been avoided long ago. Now the combination of modern technology, the clones' existence, and the traumatic experiences to which they had been subjected made that alternate reality viable again. An ancient cause of strife would lead to a confrontation that would seek its resolution in a battle on contemporary soil.
Heroism on TV is often depicted as a struggle between good and evil, with positions clearly demarcated and conflict resolved according to some Greater Good whose values are concrete, eternal, and universal. In the real world, resolving conflict is more often a choice favoring the lesser of two evils. Idealism becomes theoretical while pragmatism demands compromise. The results form something more like a patch than a cure, and eventually the underlying wound festers and demands attention anew. Then an expedient solution is again applied, dictated by the prevailing beliefs or the exercise of power, and the cycle continues. TV heroes and TV dramas are more satisfying to the soul. The symbolism of conflict is simplified and the characters remain recognizable types, serving as models of inspiration for the real world. It has ever been so. Aesop's Fables, Biblical Parables, and the mythology and literature of every culture reflect those societies' values, and act as tools of acculturation.
The clones of Xena and Gabrielle, trapped in a strange modern world, found themselves faced with resolving an ancient conflict. Though they weren't the heroes TV had made them out to be, they were forced to become the heroes they had always been. They fought for a compromise guided by the Greater Good and accepted the self-sacrifices it entailed. This is the story of how a pair of heroes who should never have been saved a world that never was, and preserved the world that is from becoming a world that could have been, once upon a time, long, long ago.
It was the terminal hour of a nocturnal disaster, and appropriately, it proceeded an unwelcome dawn. By the wavering saffron light of a torch, the dismal night awaited its euthanasia by Eos, the inevitable harbinger of Helios. It would be a mercy killing of sorts, though today neither deity was welcome. Fittingly, it was the dark of the moon; Hekate's night?a good night for a funeral.
Through the dregs of the darkness came the soft ominous thunk of logs methodically being stacked. The slow hollow rhythm had measured the passage of time like a funerary metronome, as though sounding out the dying night's pulse in the peaceful suburban Columbia backyard.
The late hour's stillness and the flickering torch wafting its oily black smoke brought a timeless atmosphere to the small clearing under the boles of the ancient sentinel trees. The scene would have seemed familiar to the Macedonian Amazons of the 1st century BC. Perhaps their sympathetic ghosts even stood vigil among the shadows, called forth from their eternal rest to witness the somber doings of their old friends. But then, from beyond the property lines came the sounds of 21st century civilization; the groaning complaint of a garbage truck on a distant street, the whispered roar of a jet somewhere overhead, and the muffled whine of a motorcycle on SR-66, across the Broad River. Combined with the ambient glow of the city's streetlights reflecting off the irregular clouds, the sounds were sufficient to crush any temporal illusions and herald the present century. And yet, above the late autumn's ragged canopy of withered leaves, the morning star twinkled its fading light as it always had.
Within the clearing, the two women in black battle dress uniforms were the only living souls. One, a tall brunette, knelt beside a shrouded body whose soul had never been present. The other, a compact blonde, moved wearily about her duties. The activities of these two women were more appropriate to that time long past than they were to the modern world. With but a change of costume, a little faith, and the willing suspension of disbelief, the scene might have been set sometime in the failing years of the Roman Republic. The tableau was all too familiar in these women's memories, for they had "been there, done that". Although they lived in the 21st century now, they had grown up and lived their adult lives in the time of Julius Caesar. They saw their present through the memories of lives lived long ago, for the contemporary disturbances barely impinged through the surrounding sylvan acreage that had once been the core of the old Pappas plantation.*
(*As Alexander Williams had discovered, the Pappas family had owned the property since the 1690s, when it had been acquired from the proprietors of King Charles I's original land grant that had created Carolina in 1629. For 175 years, the Pappas family had planted mostly cotton and tobacco, and they had owned slaves. It had been an economic necessity of their way of life, as well as a legal and socially accepted tradition.
Like most landowners, they had lived on the land with their slaves; from the start they had never been absentee masters. Unlike many landowners, especially the coastal rice planters further to the east, the Pappas family had treated their people relatively well. It started with having 180 laborers rather than the minimum of 70 that were necessary to work the land, and those numbers had allowed for much more humane working conditions. Later, although the Pappas' were no longer British subjects when England abolished its Trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1808, the slaves found themselves being treated better. While Sherman Ezekiel Pappas' son William didn't emancipate his slaves, he did try to accord them a measure of respect beyond New World traditions and United States law. On the Pappas' plantation the slaves choose their overseers from among their own people, and their marriages and families were recognized and never split up.
Theirs was the only plantation where the Africans had real cottages to live in, not shotgun shacks or huts. These sat on land set aside specifically for them and held in their names even though they couldn't legally own it, for having been accorded the status of property themselves, the Negroes couldn't own property. Still, the slaves eventually built their own Baptist church, a school, and worked plots of land where they grew food crops for themselves. They enjoyed fare far better than the corn meal and fatty pork that were the more standard slave rations. Perhaps most incredibly, the Pappas heirs allowed the slaves to try offenses among themselves in their own court. In the crown's colony and later State of South Carolina, the newly American English descendants of ancient Greeks had encouraged the stolen sons and daughters of Africa to learn the rudiments of democracy, stilted and perverted though it was. On the Pappas plantation, slave deaths from exhaustion or chronic starvation, scars from the lash and the branding iron, and slave suicides and uprisings were unknown. Ironically, the Pappas' treated their slaves much more like the majority of ancient Greeks had, rather than as their American contemporaries did. It finally came to an end in 1865.
When Lincoln's emancipation had been enacted, each slave had been granted his or her freedom without rancor. They'd also been offered continued employment at a fair wage, but beyond that, the deeds to their parcels of land had finally been transferred legally to their names. After as much as six generations, they owned their own village adjacent to the plantation. Some of them left, most of those being freedmen who could read, write, and practice a trade, and these often sold their land to those who chose to stay. Over time, the ex-slave's village had become a comfortable suburban Columbia neighborhood.
In the century after Appomattox, the Pappas plantation had weathered many rounds of reorganization. By the end of the 19th century the family's wealth had ceased to be based on agriculture. By the mid-20th century, most of the original land had been sold off, leaving a parcel of 80 acres, mostly lying within the Columbia city limits. The 1890's guesthouse that the soulmates called home, sat at the head of a neck of land, which protruded into a suburban neighborhood from the bulk of the property, on which sat the original 1750's Pappas mansion, now a historic landmark site. Within the boundaries of the park-like estate there existed sufficient privacy to conduct a cremation.
The soulmates had discovered the clearing almost a year before. It had once been used for historic reenactments that included a bonfire and dancing slaves, but PC culture and budget cuts had put an end to the activities in the 1980s. The remnants of the firepit and the leftover cordwood were obviously indicative of a funeral site, easily recognizable to the clones from their original lives. They had found it sad and comforting.) ~Editor
During the preceding hour of darkness, cloned Gabrielle had carefully stacked a cord of poplar and locust to build Eve's pyre. She was still moving with a fatigued efficiency, a morose shadow in the black BDU she still wore from the raid. Her partner had lapsed into a brooding silence hours before, and hadn't risen from where she'd knelt beside the cadaver of her daughter since they'd entered the clearing at a little after 5:00 am.
The blonde had laid the seasoned timbers unassisted, in the traditional manner of the Greek Amazons; four tiers high and cunningly arranged so as to create an updraft that would eventually cause the pyre to collapse inward. The logs graduated in size, from small on the inside to large on the outside. #2 fuel oil would soak the narrower core timbers, and its runoff would be ignited where it seeped to the outside of the thicker logs at ground level. The deceased would be swallowed by the flames, honored within a heart of fire where her soul would be liberated, but equally important for a warrior, her body would be rendered inviolable by her enemies. Eve's corpse would never become a trophy.
Gabrielle placed the last of the wood, producing another hollow clunk; a sound that she felt mirrored the emptiness, the vacancy of life, in the body they had come to honor. The cloned bard stared at the finished pyre, and let her mind wander for a few moments as she raised a hand to her mouth and gnawed at an annoying splinter in her palm.
The deceased, (and here the clone wondered if one could truly be deceased if they had never been alive), was both achingly familiar and surprisingly alien. Gabrielle had known Eve's original self and had regarded her as a second daughter, but the body to be immolated at dawn had never known the breath of life. The bard had never seen her before finding her dead earlier that night in a secret cloning lab in Georgia. When she was honest with herself, the blonde knew that she didn't feel the same heartrending loss that she'd felt when Xena's original daughter had been kidnapped in 58 BC. Though physically identical to her soulmate's daughter, the bard couldn't really think of her clone as such. Eve's soul, her heart, the essence of what had once made her the cruel, irritating, and eventually beloved person Gabrielle had known, had never existed in this time. Eve had never existed in the 21st century. It wasn't the same, the bard decided, not nearly.
After finally succeeding with her crude surgery, Gabrielle spat out the splinter that she'd teased from her palm with her teeth. Then she absently reached into one of her many pockets and retrieved a malted milk ball. She popped it into her mouth to help her think.
So, Gabrielle pondered, waxing philosophical, had this clone of Xena's daughter ever had a soul? Was she just an empty body recreated from a stolen cell? And to what extent could she ever have been her soulmate's reborn second child? She'd died before she'd ever had a chance, any chance, like the one that she and Xena had been given, despite the mixed blessing that their present lives had been. Though her programming had indicated that she was to be the recreation of Livia, once long ago the Champion of Caesar's Rome had reclaimed her identity as Eve. It could have happened again, here in the 21st century, had she lived to confront the possibility. Gabrielle believed this without a doubt. But instead, the dead clone never had a chance to make the choice.
Gabrielle could only damn the new god that Alti had mentioned?Science. The Fates weren't without blame either, she noted with a touch of resentment. Their warped sense of purpose had repeatedly been evident in the recreated soulmates' current lives. Eve's clone had died because their assault on the clandestine lab had cut the power to her life support machines. The blonde sadly regarded the finished arrangement of logs as she dusted off her hands. With a sigh, she flexed her stiffening back under the shoulder harness that carried her twin short swords, and turned to look at her partner.
Xena was still kneeling a dozen paces away, beside her daughter's shrouded cadaver. Gabrielle doubted if she'd moved in the last hour, and she'd been silent most of the night. After her first heartbroken scream, she'd barely uttered a word since discovering the body. For the cloned warrior, words weren't really necessary, but Xena had made two initial statements. "First my daughter will have a warrior's pyre," the Warrior Princess had stated in a deathly calm, "and then I will have my revenge."
What had followed was more disturbing. Though it hadn't been declared formally, written out and signed in blood, her next statement had been the equivalent of an oath of war. "I will find them and I will kill them all." The words had been spoken before four warriors, Gabrielle herself, Harry Tasker, Albert Gibson, and Ethan Hunt. Three would have provided sufficient witness to a binding oath of vengeance among the Amazons. Thereafter, Xena had fallen silent.
The three covert operatives that had shepherded the soulmates on the mission to destroy the cloning lab in Georgia had understood the cause of Xena's sorrow, but they hadn't perceived the true meaning of her silence. What they'd interpreted as mourning had been recognizable to the cloned bard as something darker. She alone had seen this reaction before, and though Xena held her heart and half her soul, Gabrielle was beyond worried. The blonde had taken one chilling look into her beloved's eyes and had seen that the distillate of all the warrior's anger had become focused with single-minded intensity. She chomped on another malted milk ball without really tasting it.
In their original lives, a similar oath had led to a dozen bloody years and 86,000 Roman dead?and the eventual return of Eve to her mother. Yet that oath, the Sacramentum Bellicus that Xena had declared before the rulers of the Amazon Nation in 58 BC, had claimed the return of her daughter as its central goal. Now, in their recreated lives, it was too late for Eve. There would be no rescue in this era that would satisfy Xena's oath. Worse, the soulmates weren't even sure of exactly who their enemies were, or how high the chain of responsible "thems" rose.
The original Xena had been 38 when she'd declared war on the Roman Empire, but today, her clone was 26. Before she reached the age at which her original self had died, she could unleash over a quarter-century of mayhem. Extrapolation predicted 172,000 potential casualties, but this time Xena's oath was open-ended. Its goal was vengeance. The killing could go on and on with no volume of blood sufficient to appease it.
As in the past, the commencement of the oath that Xena had uttered was only a matter of time. Gabrielle knew that below her partner's silence lay a layer of sorrow as deep as the Aegean, but below that rested the bedrock of a terrifying wrath. Underpinning the heartbreak of a mother who'd lost a child that she hadn't even known existed, to a death that she blamed herself for, there seethed the volcanic rage of the Destroyer of Nations.
Even before discovering Eve's body, Xena had been indulging her darker tendencies. During their battle with the clones of Callisto and Mavican, flashes of the Destroyer had illuminated a combat that had left the Cirran's left hand almost severed from her body. Gabrielle realized that it would take a monumental effort to get her soulmate back to "normal", since everything about their present lives had been so very abnormal.
Cloned Xena had never been enamoured of the 21st century, believing it to be a time that was violently out of control; almost a lost cause that she'd felt no responsibilities to. She'd never asked to be here and didn't really belong. Xena had only begun to feel a kinship to a limited number of the living. Then the tragedy of September 11th had struck, and cloned versions of their ancient enemies had appeared. The Warrior Princess had reacted to that meddling by Fate's hand with decisive force. It was the cloned warrior's attempt to cauterize a wound that had festered since their first experiences in this lifetime, at the hands of their creator, Alti.
When she thought about it, the bard realized that so much of what had happened since their recreation had acted to drive her soulmate towards her darkest inclinations. Alti be damned; the Fates had taken up where the "Blood Shamaness" had left off, potentially reviving the Evil Xena at her worst. Gabrielle patted down her pockets and found the box of Cinnamon Altoids, and then popped one of the hot candies into her mouth. For a moment the blonde clone wondered what would go wrong next.
As if on cue a blue light flared in the quiet clearing, shattering the darkness with a harsh staccato of blinding flashes and leaping shadows. The effect was always so much more intense at night than in the light of day. Gabrielle's eyes instinctively snapped closed against the glare. When she reopened them, she couldn't stifle a groan. The person of the God of War was standing behind her soulmate. The blonde clone's level of concern leaped to a new peak of foreboding.
Oh perfect, she thought, just the person Xena needs around to egg her on when she's ready to go to war. Serves you right for wondering, doesn't it? She chastised herself.
Ares turned his head as he knelt beside Xena, sparing Gabrielle a warning glance.
Keep your distance and hold your tongue!
She heard his voice clearly dictate the command in her head. The words were accompanied by a pressure inside her skull not unlike a headache. For a moment her mouth hung open in shock, the pink candy disc scorching a cinnamon spot on her tongue before her jaw snapped closed. She nodded and stood her ground.
The bard had seen Ares angry or frustrated, but strangely, she had never really feared him.* More often she'd seen him as a confidant and advisor to her soulmate; wry and witty, and despite his enormous ego, indulgent, like a parent with a headstrong and mildly irritating child. Gabrielle had seen Xena argue with him, though not in the blatantly disrespectful manner depicted on the TV show. She'd argued with him herself when he was in a more personable mood?when he seemed above the mortal tribulations of their daily world. She knew Ares regarded her as a sidekick; a more than competent warrior, yes, but never worthy of his deepest consideration. He had always suffered her attachment to Xena, and in so much as a mortal could ever challenge him, he'd found her vexing. Still, Ares had always been cordial to her, and if a bit snide in his remarks, she knew they were meant to tease not damn her. She took them almost as a form of sibling rivalry. His advice had saved her life more than once, and she knew that at times she had received his patronage.
(*As a warrior, Ares was Gabrielle's patron god, just as Artemis was her patron goddess as an Amazon, and the Muses inspired her bardic activities. During her original life, Gabrielle had had occasion to thank them all for her blessings, just as anyone of her time would. Of all the Olympians though, it was Ares with whom she'd had the most contact?not surprising, considering who her partner was.) ~Editor
There was nothing playful about him now. The words in her head had been nothing less than a direct command from a very powerful god. It had been something unexpected, yes, but also something that no mortal of her background would have disobeyed. She froze, almost as much from the shock of receiving the command at all as from its content. Tonight Ares was beyond the anger he had displayed in their school on September 12th. Gabrielle realized that he was seething?something she'd never seen before, and she had to wonder why. It actually scared her. Xena had turned her head just enough to face him, but the rest of her body remained frozen. The bard overheard their terse whispered conversation.
"You have my sympathy, Favorite," Ares softly told the cloned warrior. After a pause he added, "I was occupied so I didn't know?and you couldn't have. Don't blame yourself, Xena. Lay the blame where it has been earned. If you want it, you have my Blessing."
"For what it's worth, I'm sorry," the dark god whispered, leaning in a fraction to let his breath brush Xena's midnight hair, "war is so much different from what I once knew?from what we once knew. It seems that now we both need to embrace the present and look to the future."
The God of War raised a hand and made a motion as if to cup the back of Xena's head, but stopped just shy of contact. In reaction, Xena's eyes slipped closed as the vision of a possible future appeared to her mind's eye. Ares concentrated on imparting what he had learned since hearing her scream. Events had gotten out of hand, yet he would still try to honor the constraints on a god's actions.
Anthracite hair shifted in a slight breeze, while eyes as heartless as chips of flint cut through the predawn stillness where the coming morning's moisture thickened the air and offered the land a carpet of dew. Selene's disc had set and Phosphor's star was fading. As promised, the weeklong overcast had broken up in the last candlemarks. The dawn would be clear. She waited, mantled in the stillness of discipline, but not at peace. Nations had fallen and half a world lay in flaming rubble. The survivors would enter a second Dark Age in servitude, their machinery silenced. Yet true silence could no more exist here than could the darkness of true night. It was too late for either now. In moments Eos would taint the horizon behind her, heralding Apollo's light as a clarion of battle. It would be a lovely day for a bloodbath.
Before her a narrow plain lay under the failing darkness, cleared and groomed as a field of battle. Facing her across that scant eighth mile of land, a hostile army of 24,000 soldiers waited. These enemies had been bred, armed, and inspired by a leader of inhuman ability, and yet she had already driven them to their present disadvantageous position, encamped on the soggy margins of a swamp and facing uphill against her from the west. She had left them to steep in that demoralizing environment for the past week.
With supremely acute hearing she marked the faint rush of air as it flowed in and out of their lungs. It was an ocean of rhythmic whispers, like waves lapping against distant shores, or the even more distant impressions, fainter to her mind than memories, of her mother's breath while she'd still rested in her womb. Over the intervening furlong, the slightest of breezes conveyed a fractional degree's warmth from their collective body heat to caress her skin, almost as an offering of their mortality. They were so close.
A glance to her right revealed a sheer cliff face rising four hundred feet in an imposing verticality of schist and gneiss, a magmatic darkness recalling its origin in Hades' realm. Born of earth's fire, the black rock was a fitting ally, a lithic equivalent of her unbending will and enduring darkness. Now its igneous hardness reflected sounds to her ears, and later it would simplify the battle. No troop movements would come from the right flank today, and there would be no escape up that escarpment for the vanquished.
From somewhere on her left came the shuffling of many hooves, horses softly chuffing, an occasional snort, and the scents of harness leather, the animals, and their dung. She marked them clearly in her mind's eye; hippikon, cavalry?2,000 waiting to crash against her left flank. With the foresight of a veteran general, she visualized the rear ranks of her enemies marching to follow the cavalry charge after the infantry lines engaged, hoping to mop up her shattered files. A good plan, she mused, but futile. The fallow field they would trample during their attack lay crisscrossed with thorn vines and netting and undermined by camouflaged trenches filled with wicked spikes whose points were poisoned with botanic toxins. No troop movements would come from the left flank today, and the vanquished there would be reduced to broken bodies and rent flesh.
The enemy outnumbered her forces by over three to one. They were far too numerous for stealth, yet far too few for victory. In a forgotten world, they would have comprised four Imperial Legions, complete with cavalry wings. No one could hide an army of that size in such a small space. No one could prevail against her fielding a conventional army within an order of magnitude of her own army's count.
Those soldiers across the plain were her enemies today; doomed soldiers who waited to fight and die as Apollo's chariot rode up into the sky. With a soul as cold as her pale blue eyes, she had no mercy to offer them. They had been bred to fight and they would be slaughtered to a man, exterminated utterly, leaving not even a memory worthy of tales or song. On this day their mortal souls would be rendered unto Hades' judgment, and their immortal general would die at her hand. This she had sworn. For a moment she wondered how a god would judge a god, and the thought brought a slight curl to her lips.
Now she turned and cast her gaze back upon her own army. There stood almost 8,000 warriors at parade rest, with hands clasped behind their backs and their feet set shoulder width apart. Their formation was 4,000 across to match the enemy's line, but only two ranks deep against the enemy's six. For this engagement they were equipped as euzonos, light infantry, each clad head to toe in black body armor woven of manmade spider silk and overlain with cyber-mimetic fabric. On their left collars, the Sigil of War was emblazoned in blood red; on their right shoulders, the Lion of Amphipolis was embroidered in gold.
In all the history of armed conflict, never had any general fielded an army so cohesive, so committed, or so deadly. She knew every fighter as intimately as she knew herself; she knew their abilities, their courage, and the uncompromising perfection of their training. Menace projected from them like a storm front, these fell and peerless fighters. They held every edge their general could give them save numbers, and today that would count for nothing, for they had the advantages of heredity, technology, and destiny.
In contrast to the army across the plain, her army was deathly silent. They stood frozen, bodies that metabolized at 42% greater than an average mortal barely breathing, without any nervous movements or even the slightest evidence of any diminution of their focus. These warriors mirrored their commander in every aspect. Each cast her cold eyes on their opposition, identical neutral expressions on their faces, and each stood as tall as the next. She was more than a strategos hypatos, a supreme commander, to them. She was the mother of them all. A finger absentmindedly stroked the patch on her arm where the cells had been harvested less than five years before. She had forged this army with the aid of her patron god, and with it she would conquer on this day?and on every day to come. She would defeat the immortal enemy leader and her army before Apollo reached the zenith. She would put an end to the rapaciousness of Science. Finally, after all the intervening years, she would change the world. It had been foreseen and she believed.
Beside her a tall figure flashed into her presence and gave her an unabashed look of approval. His Favorite. He leaned in and gave her a quick kiss on the lips, symbolic of his Blessing, and then he vanished in a flash of blue light. In his wake she fingered the razor sharp ring at her waist?the Chakram of Day?the only unbroken, uncombined chakram left in existence. It was as deadly now as it had been on that long forgotten morning when Hephaestos had first forged it. It was as deadly to a goddess as to a titan.
At last the long awaited dawn broke the horizon. Eos painted the landscape in hues of blood while sending greedy tendrils lashing like rents across the sky. From the plain below a trumpet bravely sent up the call to battle, yet on this morning it sounded plaintive and doomed. In answer, the tramping of boots in perfect synchronization split the stillness, announcing the enemy's advance.
The barest hint of a grin shaped her lips and the fire blossomed in her eyes as she felt the killer within unleashed. She saw it mirrored in the eyes of the 8,000 facing her, their faces now shadowed by the light of the dawn brightening behind them. Then Apollo's chariot cleared the horizon, backing her forces with his radiant disc, as if conferring his blessing too on her campaign.
The enemy came on, closing the distance against the blinding morning glare, and she let them come, awaiting them with her troops, still as the memorial statues of ancient heroes graven in stone. They had advanced to within a 100 yards of her now; scarcely 60 seconds' march away. Again their trumpet sounded, and with a shout, the 8,000 spears of their hoplite front ranks snapped from vertical to horizontal. Their shields lapped in a barrier wall of bronze. From the ranks behind them, 16,000 swords hissed from their scabbards with a demon's proud roar.
In answer, she raised her right hand, clad in black woven armor. Her 8,000 warriors snapped to attention, the stamp as they set their boots side-by-side resounding sharp as a clap of thunder. She clenched her fist. Each warrior reached up and lowered a single goggle-like filter over her left eye, enhancing their vision into the infrared.
Before her eyes and the eyes of her enemies, her army, 8,000 cloned warriors, each tall and obsidian haired, each bearing a spathe makra, (long sword), xiphidion, (a dagger), and a circular blade, shimmered and disappeared from mortal sight as if at the waking from a dream.
Then she turned and strode forward to meet the enemy line. For all appearances she was one against an army, yet it was the army whose advance faltered. Behind her the ground shook as her invisible forces followed, their every boot fall striking a tremor in synch with her own. She drew her sword and 8,000 swords shrieked from their scabbards in response. She'd heard the gasps from the enemy soldiers as her warriors had vanished, leaving the barren hill empty under the rising sun, its surface undulating slightly as if overlain by a rippling wave of heat. Hidden in the hill's long morning shadow, the shadows of her warriors could not be seen. Answering their adversaries' sounds of dismay came a full-throated challenge from her invisible army.
"In the name of the Destroyer of Nations! With the Blessing of the God of War!"
And before she lowered her filter and disappeared from living sight, she cried out a single command, "Kill 'Em All!"
Two heartbeats passed and then an aggregate warbling whine louder than a jet engine lacerated the morning as 8,000 chakrams cut the air? and the enemy's front rank fell.
"Ask yourself, what is Science?" A flash of blue lightning, and he was gone.
At its core, beneath all the boiling pits of brimstone and the mansions of naphtha fire, the heart of Tartarus was ice. So too was a human heart inflamed by fulminating anger. Beyond the heat of passion lay the frost of a soul struck frigid with grief. Gabrielle knew this intimately from long years of experience. She had seen the silent tears that the Warrior Princess had shed in her initial shock give way to the cold grimness of rage.
Xena's rage was a force that existed far out of its proper time and place. It was a rage from the ancient world of hand-to-hand combat, of blood spilled on shining blades with brutal disregard, in civilizations veneered gossamer thin over barbarism. In Xena's time, the grandeur of Mycenae lay over 1,200 years in the past, the power of the Delian and Peloponnesian Leagues had failed, and Rome was conquering the piecemeal remnants of Alexander's empire. What we now know as Greece truly was a land in turmoil. In that time, the ever-present threats to life, liberty, and personal dignity could only be defended against, outside the security of a city's walls, with bitter steel and fighting prowess.
Xena's prowess had been born in that time of relative lawlessness; a time of warlords, petty tyrants, and bullying local councils, all overlaid by the acquisitiveness of Rome. It had been forged in battle during her years as a warlord, when many of her own soldiers would have turned on her for an obol. Yet Xena had been a survivor, if something less than a prodigy, even in the beginning.
At 17 she'd led the defense of her home city of Amphipolis and had somehow beaten the warlord Cortese, with a force composed of ignorant farmers, shepherds, and slaves. In those bloody candlemarks, Xena had first tasted the exhilaration of bloodshed, and it had fed something deep within her. She hadn't been brilliant that day, just overwhelmingly violent, and Cortese had been appallingly inept. It had been a Phyrric victory though, for afterwards over half the defenders she'd inflamed with her rhetoric lay dead in the streets. Seeking a scapegoat for their sorrow, the ungrateful survivors had soon blamed her. Shouting that another such victory would ruin them, they'd driven her into exile with a hail of stones. Xena had left in disgust, seeking trouble. It was the spring of 80 BC.
That time period had encompassed the opening years of the Mithridatic Wars, as Rome expanded its empire eastwards, south of the Black Sea. The brutal and brilliant King Mithridates VI of Pontus had forged a confederacy of states in the new Roman Province of Asia Minor. In 88 BC the population had risen up at his command, and in a coordinated attack, they'd slaughtered over 80,000 Italians throughout the province on a single day. His ultimate goal was nothing less than the destruction of the Roman Republic. In the early summer of 80 BC, Xena had begun her apprenticeship in warcraft with Mithridates' army, which had overrun Thrace on its way to attack Italia. Xena was willing to serve, for like most Thracians, the angry teen had no love of Rome, even before she'd met Julius Caesar.
The King of Pontus was a master tactician, and the most knowledgeable man of his time with poisons and chemical weapons. Mithridates could also speak close to two dozen languages, a tactical advantage which allowed him to converse directly with envoys from Britannia to Indus. He could be creative, inspiring, and magnanimous, but also paranoid and ruthless. King Mithridates had executed the Roman Legatus Marius Aquillius by pouring molten gold down his throat; a suitable reward for his having initially instigated the war in hopes of sharing in the plunder of Pontus. Aquillius had quickly succumbed to acute heartburn. The method of execution had also addressed the crimes of Marius' father, Consul Manius Aquillius, who had poisoned the water sources of several Asian cities during a revolt in 129 BC.
The king's paranoia led him to believe that he was in constant jeopardy of being poisoned, and so he subscribed to a regimen of homeopathy, ingesting a cocktail containing traces of every poison he knew, in order to prod his body to develop a natural immunity to the toxins. According to ancient reports, his conditioning had been successful, for later he was unable to commit suicide with poison. To escape capture by the Romans, he was forced to fall on a sword.
King Mithridates had quickly recognized Xena's value, first as a skirmisher in the lines, and later as a lieutenant. She had the spark of inspiration, and perhaps even a destiny. Two seasons after meeting her, he became a mentor to the violent girl from Thrace. In those days the king enjoyed the patronage of the God of War, and the god always had his eyes on the king's army. He would watch and wait as the years proved the young lieutenant's measure.
Xena learned, absorbing the king's lessons like a sea sponge. It was from Mithridates that Xena acquired her basic martial skills, along with the ambitiousness that ruled her for many years. In any case, he taught her the uses of external resources, the exoteric military science of the times. It would fall to Lao Ma and the mages of Indus to teach her the subtler inner resources many years later. In the meantime, Xena began learning the first of over thirty languages she would eventually speak. She also seemed to have picked up something of King Mithridates' dark sense of humor.
During her first 2 years after leaving Amphipolis, Xena learned by doing and became a warrior. It was astonishing that she hadn't been killed in the process. Perhaps it had been the unsuspected and unseen guiding hand of the God of War that preserved her. Perhaps it had been her own genetic advantages. In any case, during that time she had become brilliant. Soon Xena's apprenticeship ended, when Mithridates signed a non-aggression treaty with the Roman Consul Sulla and withdrew to Pontus. The girl from Thrace was on her own and she made the best of it.
Everyone has to start somewhere. At 19, Xena deposed the syphilitic leader of a gang of sullen thugs, ambitious morons, and violent sociopaths. They were a sorry crew, but they were the best she could do at the time. By playing to their natural inclinations, she'd transformed them into an army of greedy pirates patterned after Mithridates' allies, the Cilicians. Her first lieutenant had been the assassin, Thersites; it had kept her on her toes. Xena had been manic and grandiose in those days. Still, before the year was out they had nearly taken the city of Corinth?after laying waste to Cirra along the way.
Xena had used surprisingly unorthodox tactics against Corinth. First, she'd sent a quack oracle into the city, prophesizing a plague from Hygea, the Goddess of Health. Next, she'd captured a con man named Salmoneus, and had browbeaten him into selling the soap that she'd laced with the concentrated juices from poison sumac to the quartermaster of the Corinthian army. She not only got a good price, but the plague became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The unsuspecting Corinthians had washed themselves fervently for a week. The resulting rashes and itching had kept the city's soldiers from donning armor, or counterattacking outside their walls. Ironically, Xena and the con man became friends.
Xena had attacked the Corinthian army using arrows poisoned with the venom and juices from decomposing vipers. Understanding the value of drama, her catapults had rained the city's walls at night with firebombs; clay pots filled with sulfur and turpentine that had been thickened with bee's wax. When they ran out of proper shot, she and her artillery crews had gotten creative. They'd launched chamber pots, rabid dogs, rotting chickens and fish, flaming trees, waterlogged bags of cats, the butchered carcasses from their kitchens, bushels of mice, and ceramic jars of skunks. The defenders had been unnerved by the loud fits of hysterical laughter accompanying the attacks, and had cowered in uncertainty about what would next crash down into their midst from the sky.
Before a thunderstorm, Xena's army had bombarded the city with the bodies of dead Corinthian soldiers, coated with bitumen and then rolled in quicklime. When the rain soaked the cadavers, the quicklime had ignited on contact with water and the tar had been almost impossible to extinguish. The horror of the spontaneously burning dead had crushed the Corinthians' morale. And as always, from outside the walls there had been that demoniacal laughter. Corinth had almost been ready to capitulate. It was 78 BC.
Unfortunately the siege had simply taken too long. Xena had learned that an army of 6,000 was marching from Nemea to reinforce Corinth. Even if she'd taken the city, she didn't have the manpower to defend it. Rather than be caught between the hammer and the anvil, Xena had withdrawn. Knowing that she'd never take the city, she'd ordered the water supply inside and outside the walls poisoned. It was her way of saying farewell to the Corinthians and hello to the Nemeans. Her troops slipped away during the night of the new moon, and the relieved Corinthians had never understood that they'd been besieged by a force numbering only 800. Though the campaign had ultimately failed, Xena's soldiers had loved her ruthlessness and sense of humor. Still, some had grumbled.
Her later loss to Julius Caesar in 77 BC had come at the age of 20, with her pirates outmanned 10 to 1 by the Roman Navy. She had barely escaped to regroup. During the battle she'd somehow made sure that her lieutenant, Thersites, succumbed to a wound from a dagger dipped in black hellbore extract. The grumbling had stopped.
Then Ares had openly declared himself to her and she had accepted his patronage. The later gift of the Chakram of Darkness and his Favor had elevated her warcraft in every respect. The Evil Xena had become the Destroyer of Nations; the preeminent fighter, master tactician, and unparalleled strategist of her age. For almost a year, the girl from Amphipolis had rampaged across the eastern steppes, all the way to Chin. She was the God of War's Chosen now, but there had always been something more, something innate. Soon, she had returned to Greece. She was 21 And it was late 76 BC.
While Rome vacillated, obsessed with her mentor Mithridates'* latest plots and crippled by internal politics, Xena took Thrace, Macedonia, and Chalcidice, and then jeopardized most of Thessaly and Euboea, just a stone's throw from Athens itself. In battle she was unstoppable. No champion could withstand her in combat. Her strategies allowed her army, small even by the standards of a city, to overwhelm any defense arrayed against it. Many of their tactics and weapons had never been seen before, and they were applied with ruthlessness and a dark sense of humor. Warriors recognized the Favor of the God of War that mantled her, and in despair they named her the Destroyer of Nations. Thus her enemies chose for her the same title given to her by Ares himself. The terrified populations in the besieged cities had called her the Hellenes' Bane.
It was during this period that Xena first had contact with the Amazons of Macedonia, and for some reason, she resisted engaging them in battle. Perhaps it was because their territory was remote. Perhaps it was because there were few spoils to attract her. For all practical purposes, Xena and the Amazons ignored each other at that time, though there are some cryptic references in Gabrielle's scrolls to the existence of lost verbal accounts of her visits to several Amazon villages. Apparently some individuals had welcomed Xena rather warmly. Among these had been the queen and a spirit of evil from the northern tribe, the ectoplasmic projection of the long dead "Blood Shamaness", Alti.
(*In an example of irony that might be construed as destiny, it fell to the Roman general Pompey to finally defeat King Mithridates in 65 BC. For his victory in the Third Mithridatic War, Pompey earned the title Magnus, "The Magnificent". Forced to flee, Mithridates killed himself in 63 BC to avoid capture. It would be only five years later, in 58 BC, that Xena would avenge her old mentor by slaying Pompey the Magnus and slaughtering his legions, thinking that he had been responsible for Eve's kidnapping. Of all the poxes that the King of Pontus devised and sent against Rome, Xena was perhaps the worst, for in her, he had helped to create a weapon far more destructive than his poisons or his pirates. It may also be interesting to note that as Xena became increasingly deadly, Mithridates became increasingly prone to defeat. Perhaps in that historic trend we see evidence of the shifting patronage of the God of War.) ~Editor
By the time she was 24, Xena had been regarded as such a threat by the Greeks that a coalition of Athenians and Corinthians, reinforced by their slaves and Italian mercenaries, and numbering over 78,000 men at arms, had finally defeated her primary army of 6,500. Even so, she had decimated them while retreating across Euboea, her troops slaying a tenth part of the Greek army and wounding another fifth. Finally Xena's forces had been forced to withdraw, slipping away after stampeding burning cattle into their enemy's ranks and igniting caustic smoke pots to provide cover while boarding their ships.
Xena had disbanded and scattered her 4,800 survivors to preserve their lives, and had given up being a warlord. For the rest of her days, she would sometimes meet a warrior who had served under her, and many of these former soldiers remained faithful allies almost thirty years later. It was a testament to the inspiration of her leadership and the force of her will that in 44 BC, when she came to Rome to destroy Callisto, she and Gabrielle were aided by old comrades from the army she'd disbanded in 72 BC.
After retreating from Euboea, Xena realized that she'd been surprisingly unfulfilled by the battles, sickened by the moral compromises that military practice demanded, and revolted by the aftermath of war. What scant glory she'd reaped didn't justify dying for, and running an empire was more trouble than it was worth. Xena recognized that conquest had become an unhealthy obsession, an end unto itself. It had become her master and she had always resented servitude. When she was honest about it, she discerned that it had never really been her goal anyway. In fact, the entire experience had snowballed out of any reasonable proportion, into an avalanche of unseemly and cliched bloodletting. There'd been no meter or verse to it, only rationalizations for continuing on to another campaign. Maybe it had been the constant immersion in her katalepsis.
When she'd stepped back from it, the spectacle had surprised her. She'd become nothing more than another thug, cynical and basically predictable, though more successful than most. Xena had never felt infected by a great destiny either. That had been Caesar's affectation, and she'd despised him. A touch of egotism had revealed that she was perhaps following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, and he had ended up dead. It had all been done before?many times. As a way of life, it lacked originality, and worse, it lacked nobility. She'd found herself laughing at inappropriate times.
The warrior had been disillusioned and jaded, and yes, confused. Xena had never awakened one morning and decided to become a hero because what she'd done was "wrong". Being the violent product of violent times in a violent world, she hadn't been crippled by a guilty conscience over her past. She hadn't been obsessed with atonement.
The TV show had applied a modern Judeo-Christian moral perspective that hadn't existed in ancient times. This was especially true outside of the greater cities, in landscapes populated with astonishingly simple peasants. There were the herders scarcely more learned than their beasts, farmers with more dirt in their skulls than on their hands, and townsfolk so provincial that they regarded the inhabitants of adjacent valleys as foreigners. If Xena had been borderline brilliant, then the people she moved among were merely borderline.* It was almost a truism that half the people possessing a sword had been willing to use it on those that didn't, while the other half of the armed population were so stupid that they'd been most likely to cut themselves. Despite the high ideals preserved in literature and philosophy, morals in Xena's time were rarer than goats' beaks and even more seldom lived up to. The common denominator of society was selfishness, its corollary, greed, and both were expected with more certainty than old age. Xena's behavior was hardly out of place, nor was she considered exceptionally "bad".
(*In fact, by modern standards, perhaps a quarter of the population of Hellas would have been institutionalized and medicated, and another quarter incarcerated in prison. Someone like Gabrielle, not only beautiful, but also literate and capable of thinking, was such a rarity that of course Xena found her intensely attractive. This also explains the cloned warrior's comments about certain moderns being "retarded". And yes, the ancients would often spontaneously gather like gaggles of malicious children, to gawk at and ridicule the mentally deficient or insane.) ~Editor
Back then, the rural poor regarded warlords as normal. Like a flood, a drought, or an early frost, Xena was accepted just as those before her had been for the last 1,000 years. The common people actually saw the weather as more capricious and hostile. The slave population couldn't have cared less about who was riding through the countryside, skimming wealth that was beyond their grasp anyway. Yes, there were some elements of society that had considered her "evil", but truthfully, these were mostly rich city folk with a vested interest, who stood to lose their status. They and the other warlords had been her preferred targets, and most of the dead had been combatants, not unarmed villagers*. (*Cirra had been an embarrassing aberration really, burned to the ground during an ill-conceived pyrotechnic experiment that had run out of control under Thersites' direction. Their plunder, the wealth of the village, had amounted to 137 obols, or about $1.37, sixteen chickens, two casks of bad wine, a lame goat, and seven pigs with trichinosis?hardly worth the effort of a day's sweat.) ~Editor
Xena's army hadn't usually ridden through hamlets and villages slaughtering and burning. For the most part, she passed such places by. There was seldom a strategic advantage to rural campaigns, very little plunder to be gained, and such actions only increased the danger to her troops by alienating the populace, most of whom despised the rich far more than her. Such behavior was generally relatively rare and had been grossly exaggerated in the period dramas popular with the upper class. The misrepresentations of warlords had persisted and wound up in movies and literature long after the realities of the times had faded past recall. Very few literary works mentioned that the sanctioned armies of the old time city-states had treated the commoners no better.
When Xena quit, it was for practical and philosophical reasons. She certainly hadn't been suicidal with remorse, as the TV show had presented her. Xena had only been sure that she didn't want to be just another marauder, no matter how proficient, but she was still Ares' Favorite, and she still retained the Destroyer of Nations' katalepsis, along with the chakram and all her hard won prowess and rage. She would always be a warrior.
Now that same rage existed again in the Warrior Princess' clone, ready to lash out at a modern world that had no framework to comprehend its uncompromising potency. No one in the modern world believed in or understood the profundity of a god's Favor. No one living in the 21st century had any way to appraise the inevitability of results that it conferred. Knowing these things, Gabrielle fretted and worried.
In New Zealand, Ares had declared that, "She still has my favor whether she wants to be my Chosen Warrior or not?." It was an individual and unique recognition beyond the God of War's patronage, but now there was more. "If you want it, you have my Blessing." The cloned bard had overheard Ares' words, and they had sounded so simple, so benevolent, but Gabrielle was one of only two living souls who knew from experience just what had been offered. Patronage was one thing, shown to many outstanding warriors, and a God's Chosen, or Favorite, was the mortal embodiment of a god's domain, but Ares' Blessing was another matter. It was the God of War's promise of unconditional support, within his sphere of governance, during a campaign.
In New Zealand, Ares had claimed that, "Though I can still meddle a little here and there, mankind has their precious free will." Despite that, there had been something different about him tonight. Maybe it was the rage she'd felt from him, maybe it had been his use of command to negate her own free will, or maybe it was the gravity of his words. Something had changed in the God of War as surely as discovering Eve's body had changed Xena. Gabrielle realized that by offering his Blessing, Ares had declared that he was willing to act directly and decisively in the modern world. The implications were horrifying, especially with Xena in her present state of mind.
Gabrielle could only wonder how many tens of thousands would die by Xena's sword and the masterful will that drove it. And that was the real point. Her soulmate's will was by far more powerful than even her sword arm, her tactics, or her physical strength. Seldom did such a will converge with such fury, and almost never when empowered by the blessing of a god. Xena could claim the God of War's Blessing with a word, and he would grant it willingly to his Chosen. To see her magnificence revealed again in battle would be irresistible to Ares. With that Blessing, almost nothing would be impossible. The cloned bard wouldn't have been at all surprised to find Xena capable of subverting the HRT to her command, or all of the US Marines they'd seen in Quantico.
Though no modern mortal believed, Xena believed without reservation, and Gabrielle believed too. Such belief was second nature to their ancient souls, an unquestioned and established fact. It was a given that had been proven over and over again in their original lives. The God of War's Favorite, the ancient Destroyer of Nations; this time she would be conducting a divinely sanctioned war whose goal was vengeance alone, whose cause was beyond amendment, and whose pool of enemies was vaster than the Roman Empire.
As she stood gazing at her silent soulmate, Gabrielle recalled a character variant from the TV show, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, that had been the sister production of Xena: Warrior Princess. In an episode entitled "Armageddon Now Pt 2", there'd been an appearance by Xena the Conqueror, Ruler of the Known World. It had been the nightmare foreshadowing of a path not taken long ago, lost to eternity.
The world was bigger now, the populations more numerous, and the weapons more deadly, but what could become the determining factor was the revisitation of a destiny that had never been more than a distant possibility in their original lives. Though the clones had found the episode hysterically implausible, the image of her beloved soulmate having her crucified and then ordering a soldier to, "Break her legs," had given Gabrielle nightmares. Now her bardic imagination helplessly gnawed at the possibility of a modern Conqueror, ruthless and efficient. The thoughts made the blonde's stomach churn.
Stop it, Gabrielle, the bard sternly told herself, you'll end up with an ulcer, or maybe even a fistula* like Joxer. Yuck! You know that worrying and planning are two different things, and so are brooding and conquering. Anyway, Harry Tasker blew up the lab, and Xena didn't accept Ares' offer?yet. Now get a move on. Dawn's close. Focus on that.
(*In a time of ancient medicine, hygiene, and inflammations, a land without modern antibiotics cried out for a cure. Local infections often ate away tissues and the resulting perforations could lead to new connections between organs, usually those opening onto the outside world where the germs had gotten in to begin with. It was relatively common before the advent of penicillin. So pick any two pelvic organs and imagine the leakage, the smells?the inappropriate discharges. Like she said, "Yuck!") ~Editor
Gabrielle lifted the gallon cans one after another, splashing the #2 fuel oil onto the wood. The vapors wafting up smelled very much like kerosene, and she held her breath until she could step away. To the cloned bard, the scent recalled the mixture of distilled naphtha, wax, quicklime, and sulfur that had been called "Greek Fire". It was another disquieting thought. Finally the blonde moved clear of the fumes and took up the torch.
"Pyre's ready, Xena," she mumbled, feeling overwhelmed. "It's almost dawn."
With a nod of acknowledgement the cloned warrior lifted the shrouded cadaver of her daughter. Xena paced to the pyre and gently placed Eve's corpse atop the logs. For several moments she stood in silence looking down at the body, seemingly immune to the vapors, and then she stepped away, coming to stand next to the bard.
Cloned Gabrielle gave her a quick glance and then tossed the torch into the runoff fuel. Together they watched as the flames raced in an impatient trail along the ground to the pyre. A couple of heartbeats passed and then the stacked wood went up in a violent whoosh of ignition. A wall of fire leaped into being as the oil fumes flashed, surging upwards two-dozen feet, a blinding dance of heat and light that stabbed out into the last of the darkness. It threw the clones' shadows lurching back against the trees, where they strobed and cowered like fitful shades seen through rapidly blinking eyelids. The rapacious pyre suctioned the surrounding air into a roaring updraft, snapping and crackling, and flinging up showers of sparks and eddies of smoke as the wood caught. The clones could feel the radiant heat of combustion on their skin as their eyes adjusted to the brightness. Soon they could smell the mixed scent of smoke born from both oil and wood.
For a few minutes they stood in silence. Then the light of Eos graced the eastern sky. First in violet and then in hues of rose, the brightening dawn painted the wisps of clouds far above the black silhouettes of the trees. Somewhere overhead a jet faintly roared, like the cry of a soul ascending from the mortal realm, and a steady voice rose to meet it.
Xena offered up the melancholy notes of the requiem clear and strong, singing the haunting melody that followed the flames and smoke into the dawn blushed sky. Despite her sorrow, her voice never wavered or faltered. There was no flaw in her pitch or in her memory of the words. They were sung in the Thracian dialect of the Attic Greek colony of Amphipolis, a city founded in 437 BC by the Athenians. By Xena's time, the language had picked up the cosmopolitan taints of the Hellenistic era, along with Roman slang, but Xena had composed the lyrics devoid of foreign vernacular. It was the equivalent of a 21st century American singing in the King's English of the 1700s.
The Warrior Princess had sung to honor many pyres, and Gabrielle sometimes felt that she had listened in silence too many times over the years. Hades had probably known that tune by heart, she thought, and perhaps Persephone had sung it in some dark and lonely moment as she wished for the blue of the sky. So many friends and allies had been sent on their way to judgement as she'd listened to Xena perform. The song still chilled Gabrielle and brought tears to her eyes as it carried her far into a past life.
Perhaps the first time she'd heard that melancholy strain was as she'd stood beside the funeral of her cousin Perdicus, slain by the maniacal Callisto in 71 BC. The hapless militiaman of Potidaea had been one of the "Warrior Queen's" early casualties during her first escape from custody. Xena had been wracked with guilt and Gabrielle had been crestfallen, wishing that she'd never urged the warrior to bring the Cirran to trial.
At the time, the bard had thought the song was traditional in Thrace. Only later had she learned that Xena had composed it herself for the death of her brother, Lyceus, nine years before. The funeral requiem had been born amidst the rubble of Xena's first battle, attaching itself to her like a war orphan and dogging her footsteps through a lifetime of fighting. It had represented beauty in the wake of carnage and heartbreak, offering her a measure of solace after the violence.
That same song had accompanied Xena's 5-year-old son to his rest a year later, following an attack by the warlord Krykus against the Macedonian Amazons. It had been less than two candlemarks after Xena had returned to the village with a bag of meat that dripped the warlord's blood. The Destroyer of Nations had avenged both the Amazons and her doomed child, but it had been the Warrior Princess who'd sung.
Somehow Xena always managed to honor the dead with a flawless rendition, no matter how devastated she'd been by the person's death. The blonde listened in silence yet again, knowing her soulmate was sublimating her emotions into a tapestry woven of notes and words, expressing her sorrow in a tribute that demanded the unwavering focus of a warrior. Singing the requiem was as much a discipline as what she did with a sword. Xena rendered it with the same sense of focus and technical perfection. And as always in the aftermath, when the last word had been held and the last note faded, the bard found her ears hypersensitive, and all the mundane noises of the world leaped at her with discomfiting ferocity.
For perhaps another half-candlemark they stood side by side in silent tribute to the dead, and then Gabrielle turned to her soulmate with a questioning glance. The sun was up now, and she was dog-tired. The previous day's emotional drain had been worse than the nearly 24 hours of constant activity on a miserably unsatisfying amount of food. Besides the malted milk balls, she hadn't eaten since a hasty lunch of energy bars and Gatorade, and she was exhausted. As Xena turned to answer her, she snuck a glance into her soulmate's eyes and saw a weariness and sadness greater than she'd seen at any time in their present lives. It gave the blonde a temporary feeling of relief. For a while yet, Xena could still be the Warrior Princess, not only the Destroyer of Nations.
"Think I'll stay a while longer," Xena answered, her voice roughened by fatigue and sorrow. The warrior held the bard's eyes for a moment and then softy advised, "G'wan back to the house, Gabrielle. Ya look tired." It was the most she'd said in hours.
"I'd rather wait here with you, Xena," Gabrielle replied, "but I could use a nap."
The blonde clone gave her soulmate a sad hinted smile of support, and then she turned away. Her steps took her to the edge of the clearing where she picked a tree at random, kicking away a couple stones and a stray fallen branch at its base. From yet another pocket, Gabrielle withdrew a survival blanket and unfolded the thin crinkly sheet of metalized Mylar, wrapping it around herself like a chrysalis of golden foil. Then she lay down on her side with a drift of leaves beneath her and the trunk at her back, partially curling her body, caterpillar-like, and putting a hand under her head. Her eyes revealed a sideways vista of Xena standing stock-still before the flaming pyre a few yards away. Slowly the exhausted bard let her eyelids slip down until they shut. She abandoned her worries and let Hypnos take her down into the velvety healing metamorphosis of sleep.
Amidst the banks of high tech communications equipment that lined the walls in a spacious air-conditioned room, four men nervously sat around a conference table. The almost chilly air did nothing to cool the emotional atmosphere, heated well beyond any comfort range by their collective tension. This room, this table, and the technologically gifted environment surrounding it had witnessed many mission debriefings over the decades that it had existed. Seldom had the events of the outside world and the impending threats they signified created such a palpable air of uncertainty.
In most cases, Omega Sector could rely on its capabilities and assets to resolve whatever situations it faced. The agency was the elite player among the free world spy shops, regularly hoodwinking the rest of the intelligence community, both friend and foe. No Sector operative had ever been compromised and no attribution of any of their operations had ever been confirmed, so that for all practical purposes, the agency did not exist. Though some informed members within the family of covert bureaus did suspect the presence of an independently functioning "factor", none had even a shred of evidence to support their beliefs. Omega Sector enjoyed complete invisibility. It was subject to no legal oversight by any authority, and in theory, answered only to the President of the United States. In fact, since its creation, three administrations hadn't even been appraised of its existence.
Being as it was, above the law, the situation could have been a recipe for disaster, but Omega Sector had one unbendable control. Since its inception, it had been under the sole direction of Spencer Trilby, a man of unimpeachable character and resolve. Like any wise dictator, Trilby had built safeguards into his creation. Upon his retirement, Omega Sector would cease to exist. Its funding would dry up, its files would be scrubbed and opened, and its personnel would be relocated. It would not become a dynasty or empire, and it would never be allowed to threaten the way of life it sought to protect.
Yet now, Omega Sector had uncovered a threat so unique and so unexpected that even Spencer Trilby knew doubt and fear. The current debriefing had rendered such a loading of uncertainty, and prophesized such danger, that he was at a loss as to how to proceed. After 45 years in covert operations, Spencer felt that he might finally be out of his depth.
For a wistful moment he allowed himself to long for the counsel of his one-time mentor, Alexander Waverly. The old spymaster, who had headed the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, had died in his sleep of a massive coronary over 20 years before. Trilby realized that wishing for his guidance now was just a product of maudlin sentimentality rooted in his own uncertainty. No doubt it was symptomatic of an unbecoming subconscious desire to shirk his duty to make a decision. To his credit, Spencer Trilby shrugged off his small lapse of focus and concentrated on the information that his team had provided about the raid.
The head of Omega Sector turned the discussion to the disc that had been taken from the cloning lab in Georgia the previous night. It had been removed from a machine in the curtained alcove where the cloned body of Xena's daughter had been found. They had watched it in silence after their lab had finished with an extensive and intensive technical analysis, and the material was highly disturbing.
"Harry, you're absolutely certain that the contents of the disc included information that was never part of the series?" Spencer Trilby needed to be sure of this point.
"Sir, I've watched every episode that included an appearance by the Bitch of Rome or the Messenger of Peace. What we saw on 'Livia 3.1' was never part of the series."
"Could it have been outtakes?" Albert Gibson's question was a good one, but?.
"I don't think so, Gib," Harry answered slowly, "the costumes, weapons, and settings were completely different from those on the show. They were much more authentic to the late Roman Republic." Harry Tasker fell silent for several moments, gathering his thoughts. "Also, the choices of camera angles, movements, and lenses weren't consistent with those used in the episodes. There were too many details included, and the framing wasn't composed aesthetically. It really wasn't cinematography. It's almost as if?" uncharacteristically he trailed off.
"As if what, Harry?" Trilby wanted his agents' impressions as well as the facts.
"Sir, it's as if the point of view was omniscient. The camera's positions don't appear to have been restricted to what dollies, booms, or cranes are capable of. In the opening mass battle scene the camera movement includes what would have to have been shot from a helicopter, a dolly track, and then a crane up at the end to a close up on Livia's face. The last parts would have required equipment placed within the crowd of fighters, but it wasn't visible at the start. It's not done with cuts or cross dissolves between matched shots, and the focal length of the lens doesn't shift. The lighting levels aren't consistent either. It should have required several adjustments of the exposure, but that would have affected the depth of focus, and it doesn't change at all. The shot's seamless."
"Uh, sir, the lab hasn't been able to discern any grain structure in the footage," Faisil added, uncomfortable as always and speaking for the first time, "and that's consistent for the whole disc. They, uh, don't think it was shot on any filmstock they've ever seen."
"Could it have been shot with a high quality video system?" Spencer asked.
"No," Harry said, "the resolution is too high for any known video recording system. Each frame holds more information than a 35mm cine frame. The disc format is double DVD?9.4 GB, and the running time is only one hour."
"I see," Spencer mused. He stared off into space, his gaze unfocused as he tried to decipher what the information meant.
"One other thing," Harry added, somewhat tentatively, as he recaptured his boss' attention. It wasn't anything concrete that was subject to analysis; just an impression he had. "The gestalt of the experience is more documentary than dramatic. It's as if one is being treated to a view of real history, not the expression of an interpretation or concept. It's not creative, it doesn't tell a story, and there's no 'message'. It shows vignettes of Livia's life as a Roman, nothing more. It's simply background, raw information, like a file without a summary or a conclusion."
That made sense to Trilby, since the disc's purpose was to trigger memories in a clone, not to entertain an audience. The main point, the one that disturbed him most about the disc, was the same point that had come up throughout their debriefing. Clones of Callisto, Mavican, and Livia?all long dead, their remains forever lost in the dust of time. Even science had its limits.
"Where did it come from, Harry?" He asked.
"Sir, I don't know."
"I see," Trilby said, falling silent. At least they still had the hair samples.
For a long time Xena stood, staring into the flames of her daughter's pyre, just brooding in silence while her audience of shadows inched closer to their sources as the morning sun rode up into the sky. The hypnotic movements of the fire, short-lived shapes so random in their single-minded intent to devour, seemed to hold the attention of her unblinking eyes. It was such a characteristic activity for the warrior. She had spent uncounted hours at innumerable campfires, seemingly absorbed in skrying for meanings amidst the changeling forms that leapt from the wood. The warrior appeared to be lost, disassociated from the world. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Instead, her consciousness had elected to run on two parallel levels, both fully aware. Rather than silence her internal dialog as she did while in a meditative state, Xena had split herself, conducting two simultaneous dialogs, one internal, the other interfacing with the world.
On one level Xena's senses had focused outwards, and she was aware of everything around her with a crystalline clarity gifted to her by a god. She marked the stench of burning hair amidst the woodsmoke, the direction of the fitful breeze that nervously brushed her skin, the brittle traverse of leaves across the ground in its wake, and Gabrielle's soft even breathing rustling the Mylar of her survival blanket. Thirty paces to her left a wary squirrel had circumnavigated a trunk on its way to forage among the litter and leafmould. It's tiny clawed feet skittered in another clutching transit across the bark, bringing it to nine feet above the ground. From a quarter mile away she heard a door bang open, and shortly she discerned Danielle's voice calling her name and Gabrielle's, softened by the distance to a ghost's whisper. And as always, the warrior scanned her surroundings for threats.
On another level, Xena was far from the clearing on the Pappas estate. On that level she sifted information, scrutinized and rejected plans, analyzed actions, and examined motives. She had focused on her resources, mapping the near past and present like the topography of a battlefield in a war yet to come. Here she functioned as a strategos, marshalling the landscape of her knowledge as she would the assets of an army before a campaign.
The bits an' pieces of the plot Harry suspected are leading to somethin' bigger than what he'd mentioned, Xena acknowledged. Even I can see that. Harry's plot starts from the clones' threat. Doesn't really explain the presence of the enemies Gabrielle and I've encountered though. Certainly doesn't explain Eve either. Science couldn't have created those clones without somethin' to start from.
Whether Harry saw it or not, Xena did, discerning it as the crux of the problem.
Even she and her soulmate hadn't been recreated using genuine material from ancient times. They'd been grown from cells left behind in Ares' tomb by Janice Covington and Melinda Pappas in the 1940s, a scant 60 years ago. But Callisto, Mavican, and Valesca must all have arisen through the manipulation of DNA taken from their original sources.
But Mavican and Valesca left no descendants. I'm sure of it, Xena thought. We knew that in our own time, having witnessed their deaths. Science can't explain this by itself 'cause Valesca and Mavican were cremated. There was nothin' of them left to clone from, even back then. And somehow, I just can't see Callisto pregnant, let alone as someone's mother. Dead end?next point.
Ares said that war's different nowadays from what we knew. Well, from what I've seen, human nature's as bad as it's ever been, but the weapons have gotten worse. Harry's tactics were pretty much the same as what I'd have done, but his technology was updated. That's what's changed most ?the technology of warfare. And there's so much more of that, in warfare and in everyday life. Janice'd had a kidney replaced. We drive around in a car. We've got hot water and electric lights. We've flown in airplanes. Science did all that. The cloned Warrior Princess shook her head in amazement. The whole world's run by science now?it's like it's takin' over.
Well, Ares said we needed to embrace the present an' look to the future now. Then he showed me that vision of myself leadin' an army of clones. Of course, he saw them armed with swords and chakrams, fighting in ranks and files like in ancient times, Xena recalled, allowing herself a smile at that. Huh, we are pretty much the same deep inside.
It was obvious to Xena that the God of War was as much a product of the past as she was when it came to how they thought and the way they imagined things. Yet, the army of clones had worn body armor like Callisto and Mavican's and they'd had a way of vanishing from their enemies while still being visible to each other. They'd recovered the Chakram of Day and duplicated the Combined Chakram. They'd done it all in five years?grown, trained, armed, and deployed her clone army, and then prosecuted the war to its final deciding conflict on that battleground in Ares' vision. Xena could guess what was to come after. No longer the Destroyer of Nations, she would rule all nations as the Conqueror. But where had Gabrielle been? She hadn't appeared in the vision at all.
These thoughts occupied Xena's concentration for some time while the outside world continued without her participation. Clouds came and went, plants slept, animals foraged, and somewhere an enemy counted her losses. Xena pondered as the morning progressed and the pyre burned. There was a lot in that vision to think about, quaint as it had been. It was more than the God of War's fantasy of having his Favorite leading an unstoppable army in conquest. There were details that she'd overlooked at first, and now they clamored for her attention.
This was something Xena had always been capable of, and it had astonished Gabrielle many times, even after years together. Mnemosyne had blessed the Warrior Princess. With concentration she was able to recall incidents in detail and conversations verbatim, even after years had passed, and even when the original incidents had occurred during times of stress. Many times it had solved her later dilemmas by providing some crucial piece of information. Many times it had changed her course and saved her life.
In 67 BC Eve had been a burbling one-year-old. The soulmates had been spending most of their time among the Amazons of the new Queen Terreis since returning from their second trip to Chin. With the new baby, Eve, both Xena and Gabrielle had hoped for a more peaceful lifestyle, a respite of sorts from their ongoing adventures, in the somewhat insulated environment of the village. They were both weary from a string of traumatic experiences the year before. That previous year, 68 BC, had not been pleasant.
That trip to Chin had been a series of moral compromises in which the Warrior Princess and the Amazon Bard had participated in a travesty of justice and wound up temporarily directing a war. In defeating Ming Tien's black powder army, over thirty thousand had died. Xena and Gabrielle had captured Ming Tien and turned him over to the Laos for a "trial", (in absentia and sans council), whose outcome had been so preordained that his execution was a foregone conclusion. As soon as Ming's army surrendered, Lao Tzu and Lao Ma had summarily dismissed the soulmates with barely a "thank you". Forced to swallow a hundred pounds of lead, Ming Tien's corpse had barely dropped from the gibbet before the Laos proceeded to slaughter another ninety-one thousand people. The additional victims who'd literally "lost face", (from the removal of noses, lips, ears, tongues, or eyes), had been beyond count. The soulmates found that they'd traded a foreign country's present for their homeland's future in a gamble on the lesser of two evils. Greece wouldn't face the Green Dragon's black powder army, but the results of their choice had made them both sick.
Upon their return to Greece, the soulmates had been greeted by the etheric simulacrum of Alti, who was again plotting to force Xena to aid her in the destruction of the Amazon Nation. Xena was within a half-moon of giving birth to Eve and was in no condition to fight, regardless of how the TV series portrayed her pregnancy.
Alti had enlisted the assistance of a grandiose malcontent, the Amazon warrior Valesca, to whom she had provided the venom of an asp from Numidia mixed with the narcotic honey of Colchis. Valesca, chafing ingrate that she was, had managed to poison her adoptive aunt, the reigning queen, Melosa, with the neurotoxin tainted wine sweetener, causing her death and destabilizing the nation. The queen had been found collapsed at her table the next morning, beside a cup and a wineskin. Poisoning had never been in doubt, but the culprit had been uncertain. This knowledge was restricted to a few while the regicide was being investigated. That same morning Valesca had challenged Princess Terreis for the throne, renewing Xena's suspicions.
In fact, Xena had been suspicious of Valesca for years, having never really liked her. She'd twitched with an ambition that was very recognizable to the ex-warlord, and she'd been the leader of the few warriors to have spoken against her soulmate being made a friend of the nation in 70 BC, after Gabrielle had defended Terreis during Krykus' attack.
Now it was early winter. It had been a bad years for bees, for the previous spring had been very dry and flowers hadn't been abundant. What little honey that had been collected from the Amazon combs in late summer had been used up weeks before, mostly in brewing mead. Being the adopted niece of the queen had put Valesca in a position of access to Melosa's wine, and her challenge to the princess displayed the goal of her ambitions. Terreis would never have poisoned her mother. The young woman had been distraught since discovering Melosa's body and was in no shape to fend off a challenge. Xena had pondered the mystery.
The night after Melosa's death, Alti struck. Her spirit emanated an ectoplasmic "fetch", an astral projection of her original body, which had been dead for over three hundred years. For a short time, she could act in the physical world without manifesting a real physical presence. Her actions amounted to a poltergeist activity.
In the very same clearing in which the soulmates would later kill Mavican in 59 BC, the "Blood Shamaness" had performed a ritual for the theft of a soul. She'd slaughtered a pregnant mare, drank its unborn foal's blood, and entered the etheric strata of the mortal world to capture the soul of Xena's child. Alti's actions would be anonymous on the physical strata, but the ritual itself would reveal the magick as Amazon.
From the very start, she had no intentions of allowing Eve to live. The baby would be forfeit, embittering the Destroyer of Nations and making her all the more receptive to Alti's dark influences. By inflaming Xena with grief through the use of an Amazon ritual, she sought to turn the warrior against the nation, a nation whose defense would be marshaled by the incompetent Valesca. Perhaps Xena would even place the blame for the ritual on Valesca herself, ridding Alti of a "loose end" in a fit of vengeance. But Alti had never figured Gabrielle into her calculations. The blonde wasn't even a real Amazon.
That night a strange thing occurred, but by then, strange things were a way of life for Xena and Gabrielle. The soulmates dreamed the same unnatural nightmare, for where one went the other followed, even into the hidden realms of the mortal world.
"Who's there? Show yourself!" Xena challenged. Her finely tuned senses screamed that she wasn't alone, but the brooding soot-black silence surrendered no clues as to the identity of the interloper. A shiver skipped down her spine, chilling gooseflesh from skin that crawled. She felt evil. Confident evil. A dark chuckle answered her. "Alti."
A torch sputtered to light, blinding in the previously cave-dark dreamscape.
"Hello, Xena," Alti taunted, displaying a crooked grin. "Looks like you have something for me?looks like you've been growing something for me." She stared at the warrior's belly with malicious intent.
"I'll kill you if you even try to lay a hand on this child," Xena told the shamaness through gritted teeth, "by Hades, I'd kill you as soon as look at you," she swore as she reached for her sword. She found that she couldn't move a muscle.
"Ah, ah, ahhh, Xena. I've been there and done that, and death is my friend. Besides, Hades has no hold on me and you can't kill the dead?not while I control your dream."
Xena struggled, but it was all in her mind. In this dreamscape, she was immobilized. Alti drew closer, smirking down at her with relish and gloating over her helplessness. She reached out with a shriveled hand and raised Xena's cotton shift, baring her legs and her swollen belly. The baby kicked, wise to feel the fear, as Alti's birdlike claw stroked Xena's body in a caress more of cold appraisal than passion. A jagged curved dagger appeared in her other hand and she moved to begin the cutting.
"You'll feel everything, and you'll remember nothing," Alti promised, "and like Valesca, you'll help me do what I couldn't do at home. Melosa's death was as sweet as Cyane's."
A scream cut the silence, jabbing Gabrielle's heart and shocking her very bones. She'd been walking with the silent stealth of a hunter, through blackness darker than any night. The atmosphere felt close, oppressive with fear, and she'd swallowed convulsively as a torch had flared up somewhere ahead. Urgency seized her. Muttered words she couldn't make out teased her ears with a sense of danger and malicious intent. She felt that immediacy with her warrior's perception, and it was a threat to her very soul. With the scream came a need that obliterated any caution she'd held. She knew that voice. Xena!
"By the gods?."
Mindless of any danger, Gabrielle charged forward towards whatever lay ahead.
She crossed the distance in heartbeats. Horror awaited her. Her beloved partner lay pinioned on the ground as if staked out, and over her crouched a monster in the guise of a northern shamaness. Xena was writhing in anguish, wild-eyed, panting and whimpering as she helplessly struggled, her belly already a pool of blood that flowed in rivulets down her sides. Her tormentor was cutting at her with a crude ritual blade.
Gabrielle didn't stop to think. She may have been screaming as her protective instincts doubled?her heart, their child. The sais were in her hands and she plunged the spike blades into the attacker's back with all her strength. Bones cracked under the shoulder-flesh as the weapons went in hilt deep. She felt the tips gnashing against each other somewhere inside. Then the bard leaned in and used the leverage of her embedded weapons to haul the monster backward off of Xena's body.
The enemy tilted her head up, seeking eye contact with her, and Gabrielle looked into a dissolving horror. A death's head glared at her with heart-stopping hatred. She saw shriveled mummified skin, dried by its frozen barrow on the Siberian tundra. It was centuries dead, but animated with malign guile and potent evil. The fading eyes bored into her own, seeking a hold on her soul, seeking to capture her through her rage and use her even in this moment of defeat. The blonde looked back at the apparition as it became translucent and cocked her head. She marked the rapidly diminishing danger.
Defeat was defeat, and Gabrielle's only concern now was for Xena, for the baby?for the living. The threat was vanquished and the young Potidaean had never been one for gloating. She turned away from her enemy offering only dismissal.
In that moment, Gabrielle handed Alti a defeat such as she had never endured in all her three and a half centuries of conjuring. The blonde hadn't even paused to project a delicious wave of hate that would have sparked her healing. Gabrielle dragged her weapons from Alti's fading flesh and cast them aside, and without a word to the sorceress, she lunged to Xena's aid. Tears had streamed down her cheeks as her trembling hands had touched the wounds before the spell broke.
In the next moment both of them vanished from the dreamscape, leaving Alti to crawl home down an ectoplasmic thread through the ether and begin the slow process of recouping her power. With the ritual interrupted, the shamaness hadn't been able to complete her spell. Xena's child was safe. Xena and Gabrielle remembered everything. They'd awakened simultaneously in their hut in the Amazon village and had begun to compare notes.
Alti's gloating, as she'd hacked at Xena's womb, had revealed Valesca as an accomplice, but it hadn't explained the mechanism or the specifics. Those had become clearer later that morning. "?like Valesca, you'll help me do what I couldn't do at home. Melosa's death was as sweet as Cyane's." The plot had begun in the northern tribe, 350 years ago.
Alti had been both a tribal shamaness and Queen Cyane's niece, and like Valesca, the second in line for the throne. But Cyane was no fool. She'd perceived both Alti's evil and her growing power, and she'd understood the threat she was to her own daughter, Brysia. Xena knew this story from the time of their first meetings, back during her warlord days, eight years before. Alti had poisoned her queen but failed to win her challenge. Princess Brysia had maimed her in combat and banished her in defeat, then become the next Cyane. Now Alti was attempting to recapitulate an imperfect past, seeking to avenge herself and drag down the Amazon Nation. Valesca was her modern surrogate. Sweet poisoned death?.
Ten years before, in 77 BC, Xena's pirates had been defeated by the Roman Navy, under the command of the recently ransomed Gaius Julius Caesar. During the fighting an opportunity had presented itself, and the "Evil" Xena had arranged to dispose of her first lieutenant, the assassin, Thersites. Plunging a dagger coated with black hellbore into his belly had been a good career move. Afterwards, the grumbling among her men, which had begun following the unsuccessful siege of Corinth the previous year, had abruptly ceased. Nevertheless, Xena had gleaned valuable information during her association with Thersites, adding it to what she'd learned from King Mithridates.
"We paint the whore's lips with the venom of the cone shell from the Indus Sea held in Colchian honey*, bringing to the general a poisoned kiss like sweet ambrosia." Thus Thersites had assassinated Linius Verellus, a concupiscent henchman of the Roman, Marius Aquillius, whom Mithridates later executed with a draught of molten gold.
(*In Colchis, bees made honey using nectar from the poisonous rhododendrons of the Caucasus, and this honey included a neurotoxin with narcotic effects. It was both potent and deadly, and had brought down whole armies, leaving them incapacitated for slaughter. The poisoned honey was known throughout the lands around the Black Sea, but it was an environmental hazard for foreign invaders and a tool of assassins.) ~Editor
As Xena lay in bed idly tangling her fingers in Gabrielle's hair, she remembered Thersites' words, and that Melosa seldom drank wine, and only then if it had been sweetened. The queen had always preferred mead or ale.
"When ya went to see Terreis yesterday after they found Melosa, you said there was a cup and a wine skin on the table, right?" she'd asked her partner, just to certify a fact from the bard's account of the death scene.
"That's what I saw, Xena," Gabrielle had answered, "but they're keeping it quiet until they learn more. I guess Melosa had a deadly nightcap."
"I think I can work with that."
"Alti said that Melosa's death was as sweet as Cyane's. Alti murdered Cyane with wine laced with poisoned honey. If Melosa drank wine the night she died, it must have been sweetened. So where'd the honey come from?"
"Wish it was summer," Gabrielle had remarked, "all we'd have to do is follow the ants."
Xena had gone to the herbalist's hut and procured a small handful of Adonis*, which she brewed into a weak infusion and added to a skin of wine onto which she'd sewn the royal pattern of beads. She then set about observing Valesca's actions, while her soulmate, being a "friend" and not a full Amazon, assisted the kitchen help.
(*Adonis autumnalis, also called "False Hellbore" and "Red Chamomile", is a source of Adonidin, a glucoside that was sometimes used warily in place of digitalis.) ~Editor
Around mid-afternoon Valesca had strutted into the dining hall and made her way to the kitchen. From her seat on a bench outside the hut that she and Gabrielle shared, Xena raised a single eyebrow and watched more closely, the baby blanket she was knitting forgotten in her hands. Valesca was in her glory, barely concealing her glee at the death of the queen, the despondency of the princess, and the apparently successful progress of her plot. Like any megalomaniac, she was intent on celebrating with her inner circle of lackeys. She was so predictable that Xena couldn't help curling her lip in a sneer.
Being the condescending bitch that she was, Valesca didn't miss the opportunity to bully Gabrielle, whom she considered not only too short to be a warrior, but an Amazon poser and peasant-bred peon as well. Having a measure of royal blood hadn't graced Valesca with graciousness. As soon as she'd seen the bard in the kitchen, she'd demanded a skin of wine, bread, cheese, and fruit, in the most demeaning fashion she could muster. Gabrielle had been only too happy to oblige, since it solved her problem of how to deliver the tainted skin to Valesca's table at the evening meal without raising suspicions. Valesca had accepted the victuals with a remark about the "peasant knowing her place", and left to rejoin her entourage under a shade tree on the village common.
From her bench, Xena had whispered, "good work, my love." The beads on the skin had told her all she needed to know except how irritated her soulmate probably was at Valesca's treatment. "I'll make it up to you somehow," the Warrior Princess had promised with a chuckle.
For another quarter-candlemark, she'd watched in silence as Valesca and her three thugs had picnicked. She'd also kept an eye on which Amazons stopped to speak with them as they passed by, tallying them up like hostiles in a combat situation. Valesca's faction; they seemed to be a distinct minority in the village and included none of the senior warriors or non-combatants.
Suddenly the group of celebrants had begun retching and crying out that they'd been poisoned. The four women were flailing and heaving. At that disturbance, Gabrielle had hastened out of the kitchen and joined a rapidly forming crowd. Xena had set down her knitting and ambled over towards the developing "situation".
"We've been poisoned!" Valesca had shrieked in a spittle spraying rage. She heaved again, and when she'd looked back up she'd seen Gabrielle and immediately pointed at her in accusation, waving the now empty wine skin. "You?you poisoned me!"
"Nonsense," Gabrielle had stated calmly, "that's the same wine everyone drinks, from the queen on down?it might even be the same skin."
At the mention of the queen's wine, Valesca's had eyes had started from her head in horror. She'd looked at the royal beadwork and reeled, nearly passing out.
"Something wrong with that?" Xena had asked innocently from the sidelines.
"It can't be hers?it wasn't sweetened?"
Behind Valesca, the crowd had parted. A nearly full wine skin bearing the same pattern of beads had landed on the ground next to the sick woman, tossed by the angry young Amazon who had just walked up at the head of a half-dozen guards.
"Why don't you have a drink, Valesca? I know you want to be queen. You may as well sample the queen's wine." It was Terreis, and the princess had been livid, her face flushed with anger and her eyes reddened by tears. "I'm sure you'll find it sweet."
"No, no, no! I'm not drinking from that," Valesca had yelled, shrinking back from the skin as if it were a living snake. She'd been shaking and wild-eyed, hugging herself in terror.
"Why ever not?" Xena had asked. "It should be an honor to share Melosa's wine."
Around them, some of the warriors had nodded in agreement and muttered confirmation. It would have honored the late queen's memory for a member of the royal line to toast her thus.
"Drink it, Valesca," Terreis had demanded, her voice hardening with command, "that's an order."
"No, Terreis! I refuse!" Valesca had screamed in panic. She'd finally focused on the hatred sizzling in the princess' emerald eyes, and her beautiful grim face framed by her flaming red hair, and she'd understood. "You're trying to kill me. That's poison!"
She'd been pointing at the skin that lay beside her while cringing away from it. The gathered Amazons standing around had looked at her in shock. She had refused a direct order from the princess. Some had read deeper, understanding the implication that their queen had been poisoned and that Valesca knew something about it. Terreis had narrowed her eyes.
"Solari, Eponin, detain Valesca for refusing my order, and take her friends with her" Terreis had ordered the heads of her guard. "Ephiny, I want this wine sampled by a pig," she'd told her closest friend, nudging Melosa's wine skin with the toe of her boot.
Two royal guards had hauled the gasping Valesca to her feet and began pulling her away. As they'd passed the princess, Terreis had looked her in the eyes and whispered, "your fate will be the same as the pig, Valesca. Perhaps you have some things to tell us about the wine and Queen Melosa's death, or perhaps you'd prefer that a trial decide."
After Valesca and her friends had been dragged off to a cell in the stockade, Terreis had lifted the counterfeit wineskin and fingered the beadwork. A sly grin had curled her lips and she'd searched the slowly dispersing crowd until she'd caught Gabrielle's eye.
"I want to talk with you for a moment," she'd told the blonde who had once saved her life, and then she'd paused for a moment, again searching the crowd. Her eyes had lit on Xena, the wily Warrior Princess even her mother had admired, and this time a chuckle had actually escaped her lips. "You too," she'd said, beckoning to the warrior.
The next day, after the pig had keeled over dead, a recovered but resentful Valesca had appeared before the Amazon leadership, shackled hand and foot with heavy chains. Princess Terreis had conducted her inquisition before the Council of Elders, demanding answers to questions that she'd discussed with the soulmates. Valesca had volunteered nothing, her bearing remaining sullen and disrespectful throughout the proceedings, only speaking to curse Terreis' future and Melosa's memory. The inquisition had given way to a trial before the now unsympathetic council.
Valesca had maintained her silence when the shackle chains were set in a brazier. Her actual confession hadn't been heard until it had been forced from her as the trial by fire escalated. In the end, she'd screamed out her declaration of the plot she'd executed with the aid of a strange shamaness she'd met, after iron needles heated to cherry red had been forced under her fingernails. She was found guilty of a capitol crime whose dishonor was above that of murdering a sister Amazon and on par with treason.
Valesca had been summarily cursed and executed for regicide. The nation witnessed her vivimmolation. Her ashes were defiled and flung into the bottomless sinkhole at the far end of the Amazon lands. The warriors that Xena had seen associating with her had been required to swear fealty to the new queen and were watched for many moons thereafter until they'd proved themselves in battle. Xena and Gabrielle's relatively benign use of herbs on Valesca had never been mentioned, and it had actually caused the couple very little guilt under the circumstances.
For her part in revealing Queen Melosa's killer and defeating Alti, Queen Terreis had proclaimed Gabrielle a full Amazon sister and a warrior of the nation. Xena had declined the same honor for herself, informing the new queen that her patron god was Ares, not Artemis, and it would only lead to trouble. Terreis and Xena had understood each other well, and the queen hadn't pressured the God of War's Favorite. Instead, she'd offered Xena sanctuary on Amazon lands for life, and for many years the village had intermittently been the soulmates' home.
Now cloned Xena stood before her daughter's pyre. The oil had been consumed and the wood Gabrielle had so carefully stacked was fully involved. The youthful rage of the inferno had matured to an efficient blaze. As though her heart were one with the flames, Xena no longer seethed with suppressed rage and grief. Instead she reviewed everything Ares' vision had shown and everything he'd said during his visit.
Xena asked herself, why the Chakram of Day? Does it even still exist, and who was the goddess I opposed? I thought they were all long gone and Ares had only survived by bein' in that tomb. In his vision I was destined to change the world by endin' the reign of science. His parting words were, "Ask yourself, what is Science?" So, what is science?
In the modern world, where mankind makes it's own choices and creates its own destiny, science is a tool, she answered herself. It's about testing ideas and understanding things usin' experiments and reason. The proof of the conclusions comes by repeatin' the results. It's a far cry from understanding the world through the visions of oracles an' the blabber of philosophers. That stuff was really only words anyway. Weather an' war were real. The gods were real.
Xena had grown up learning history that had later passed into myth. She'd accepted the existence of the gods long before she became Ares' Favorite. Their presence was something she couldn't refute and remain sane, for Xena trusted her own experiences. She had also dealt with the world of spirits and the magick of several cultures, and she accepted those phenomena as well, science be damned. The ancient world had been filled with evidence of the supernatural.
Natural and supernatural are just separated by what science can prove, she thought. Now everyone buys into science an' they don't really believe in anything else. Well, are they ever in for a surprise! People have always believed what they've convinced themselves to believe, myself included. I was pretty sure the world was flat, and I never woulda' believed about telephones or TV.
Since awakening in Alti's lab, Xena had come to accept science as a modern social trend, a parallel to what foreign trade, democratic government, or the rise of Rome had been in her time. They were things that could be changed by actions; cut off trade by causing hostilities between source and market, dissolve a senate and institute a monarchy, or replace one empire with another. To Xena, science was not an unassailable given or an absolute truth, but a product of the times. But what could she replace science with, magick, oracles, philosophers? Replace experiment with talk, and technology with craft? No, she couldn't see expunging science from the world. Its methods were valid. She'd used them often enough herself, testing weapons, strategies, and inventions.
Xena knew that even if she figured everything out today, she still wouldn't be able to just charge out and finish the job anytime soon. This wasn't like a fight with a band of cutthroats. It was the equivalent of a major campaign?probably bigger than her seizing half of Greece. It would require extensive planning, definite goals, and a workable strategy. It would require time. It would require technology and knowledge, as much as warriors, to win this battle. It would require?science.
The Warrior Princess heaved a sigh and blinked, then shifted her state of focus, reintegrating herself and consciously rejoining her surroundings. By the shadows she reckoned that two hours had passed since Gabrielle had curled up and fallen asleep, and though she'd made progress, she felt ready for a meal and a nap. Flexing her muscles in sequence from her extremities inwards, Xena finished returning her concentration to the world around her. With it came the sadness, the anger, and an unresolved longing for missed opportunities.
She took a last look at the pyre. The raging flames had settled down now that the oil was long since spent. The fire had progressed to a steady burn, dancing over a growing bed of coals. Almost no smoke wafted skyward among the shimmering heat waves that crowned the clean blue flames.
Like a person, a fire lives its life in stages, Xena observed philosophically as she so often had. From the tenuous infancy of a spark on smoldering tinder, to the boisterous conflagration of youth; the measured determination of adulthood, consuming its life's fuel, and leading to a lingering dotage of coals?then finally the cold death of ashes. Mortal, she thought, short-lived. So we must appear to the gods, so quickly consumed by the passions of our lives.
The shrouded body was no longer recognizable as a figure among the embers, and Xena whispered a final message before departing.
"Oh, Eve. Honey, I wish I coulda' been a mother to you, but you were taken from me again, though in a way, I'm glad ya didn't have to live in this world. I just hope your soul finds peace and happiness somewhere beyond the shadows of this life. Guess I'll be busy here for a while straightening this mess out, but I'll always love you, and maybe I'll see you again someday, on the other side."
Finally she turned to awaken her soulmate and return to their home.
"Gabrielle," Xena called, softly at first, noting a shift in the bard's breathing in response. She stopped a couple of paces away* and repeated herself, a bit louder. "Gabrielle."
(*It was known that the Warrior Princess had trained her body to respond with lethal force when threatened while sleeping. That response functioned at the subconscious level as an acquired reflex. This ability often appeared on the TV show, and it has been mentioned many times in fan fiction as well. What was never shown in the series was that over the years, Gabrielle had taught herself the same reflex. It would have been a foolish risk to approach her stealthily as she slept. She was very quick, and she could apply the nerve pinch accurately by subconsciously "sensing" her target while still opening her eyes. For all practical purposes, she was as deadly as Xena herself in this situation.
In what can only be considered an ironic twist, the bard had actually done this to a would be attacker who had tried to ambush the blonde in her bedroll while Xena was out scouting a Roman army camp. This had been in Italia in 56 BC, during the "Bloody Years". Not wanting to draw Xena's attention, the man had knelt to slit the bard's throat as she slept. Gabrielle had snapped into a state of semi-consciousness just long enough to apply the deadly nerve attack, and had then fallen back asleep when her senses reported that the threat was past. She woke up on her own two candlemarks later, face to face with a strange corpse. It had startled her witless and she'd reapplied the nerve pinch to the cadaver by reflex.) ~Editor
After their years together, Xena knew that Gabrielle liked to "ease" into wakefulness, and with a basic consideration for her lover, she simply didn't want to startle her awake unnecessarily. Now Xena stood and patiently waited for her soulmate to awaken. Though neither of them had killed the other yet on those occasions when one would join the other already asleep in bed, this was a foreign setting, the bard had been exhausted, and Xena didn't want to chance having to catch her hands if she reacted. Besides, she wanted Gabrielle up, not herself snuggled around her partner on the ground.
Sure enough, the blonde reacted to Xena's voice calling her name. She unfolded her body and stretched, indulging herself in a luxurious yawn before taking a glance at the pyre, casting a quicker glance at the sky, and then meeting Xena's eyes. A smile of greeting shaped her lips as Xena moved closer.
"Hey," she said, "thanks for letting me sleep a couple hours. It really helped." She rolled to her feet and ran her fingers through her hair, then began crumpling the survival blanket into a ball. "Did you figure anything out?" she asked hopefully.
"Let's go back to the house," the cloned warrior said as she draped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and steered her towards their home, "we'll talk later."
The house had been deserted when they'd walked in through the kitchen door. They'd found a note from Danielle laying on the dining table, stating that she'd gone shopping with Karen Williams and would be back before class. The CWO had wondered where the soulmates had been, having not seen them the entire day before. Now she suspected that they were planning to disappear again. After griping about having a worrywart looking over their shoulders, Xena and Gabrielle had scarfed down a large breakfast, left the dishes in the sink, and taken a nap. Several hours later, the clones reawakened and sat down at their desks in the study to talk.
Xena related the details of the vision Ares had shown her. Predictably, Gabrielle had been horrified at the thought of a cloned army of Destroyers of Nations loosed upon the world. She also pointed out the fact that the vision implied "mission creep", having escalated from a quest for vengeance on Eve's cloners into a jihad against science. Xena acknowledged that the idea of suppressing a worldview as pervasive as science was unrealistic. The bard was relieved to know that her partner realized this, even if it appeared that the God of War didn't. The conversation continued, with Gabrielle incredulous and Xena exasperated.
"Xena, science has been developing and changing the world for thousands of years. It was at work long before mortals formalized it. I think it's inescapable because reasoning is a part of human nature. Besides that, a lot of what science has done is good. Now Ares believes you're going to change the world with one big battle, by fighting science with science? What's he thinking?"
"Change the world?ha! It ain't changing overnight, Gabrielle, even for me an' Ares. Science is too big. It's increasing knowledge and warfare. It's weaving body armor that swords can't cut and it's breedin' evil clones. It's that and all the other stuff that makes the modern world what it is. Kraken's milt!" Xena exhaled in frustration and stared at the ceiling, finally slumping in her chair and seeking a respite by closing her eyes.
Gabrielle sat and blinked. Words, in association and in combination, had always been important to her beyond the literal. Often they revealed deeper meanings than what had been intended. Now her soulmate's words sifted through her mind, filtered by the frame of reference of an ancient Greek bard who'd been schooled in the mythology of her time. As usually happened when she was on the verge of an uncomfortable discovery, the blonde chewed her lower lip and defocused her eyes while rolling the tidbits of information into a mental concretion, distilling and condensing it into a concept. This one was sure to give her an ulcer. Unfortunately, it also accounted for everything in Ares' vision, and explained everything that had happened to them since day one.
"Xena," she whispered, looking at her soulmate who was still directing her closed eyes up toward the canopy of parachute cloth, "I'm getting a really bad feeling about this."
The Warrior Princess didn't move. Usually Gabrielle was optimistic, but she was also quite capable of envisioning disasters. Xena knew how her partner's imagination could run rabid and border on the apocalyptic. What transpired in the dark crannies within the blonde's head sometimes created one of the few realms that was worse than their reality.
"Xeeena," Gabrielle repeated a bit louder. Now her fingertips were thrumming on the desktop in a plebeian's drum roll, "knowledge?sub wisdom, and warfare, and weaving. Does that sound like anyone you know?er?knew?"
Gabrielle's words actually caused Xena to groan out loud. Sure enough, the product of the bard's imagination was not only apocalyptic, it was worse than their reality had ever been. And once again, instinctually it felt true. "Change the world?ha!" Xena thought. She might as well contemplate undoing the growth of agriculture by squashing a fig.
The warrior quickly asked herself, could she really still exist? Xena answered herself just as quickly. If any of 'em besides Ares do, it'd most likely be her?count on it. It's the strong and the crafty that survive. It's ironic, damn it. Long ago I woulda prayed for her favor, but I was always more attracted to the passion and violence of war, the glory and the bloodshed. Ares was always more my style. It's all water under the bridge now anyway.
Xena of Amphipolis had been the most deadly warrior of her era. She had been the Destroyer of Nations, Ares' Favorite, and later, the Warrior Princess. In her time she had successfully waged war against the might of the Roman Empire. As a clone, she had the original Xena's decades of experience combined with a body in its prime. She had access to weapons that her original self had never imagined. It wouldn't be nearly enough.
Often she had been accused of being daring, reckless, and even insane, but she'd always judged her chances for success by her own abilities, not by what other mortals believed was possible. In doing so, she had seemed to defy both fate and common sense time and time again. However, even while in the possession of katalepsis, a part of her had gauged the situation against her resources and calculated the odds. Xena's clone knew that she was in no way equipped to wage a war against the Goddess of Wisdom, and yet her oath had committed her to just that. "I will find them and I will kill them all." Unwittingly or not, she had sworn to exact her vengeance on Athena.
Act, don't react, never become predictable, and accept no substitute for being prepared. They were the most important lessons Ares had ever taught her. Now Xena would have to act unpredictably to be prepared. There was no doubt that her oath had been heard and all she could do was prepare for the battle ahead. It would seek her out as it had already been doing. Callisto and Mavican had attacked their school before the soulmates had infiltrated the lab in Georgia. The first Callisto had fought Gabrielle in the tournament back when they'd still thought they were the world's only cloned warriors. Athena had been on the offensive for months. Now Xena had no intention of waiting like a sitting goose for the Goddess of War's next move. The first step towards Ares' vision would be taken this very evening.
Finally Xena sighed and returned her attention to her partner. Gabrielle was watching her with uncomfortable anticipation.
"So what's the plan?" the blonde muttered by force of habit.
"First, we suspend classes at the school," Xena said. "There's no way we can endanger the students any further while this is goin' on. Second, we've gotta get to the mountains north of Issos. You remember the place, east of the Cilician Gates?"
"I remember. It was at the tip of a triangle with Issos and the Cilician Gates as its base. Xena, nowadays that's all part of Turkey. I doubt if Issos or the Cilician Gates are even remembered by anyone but a few historians like Ray. We have no way of knowing if the temple still exists. It's been over 2,000 years?."
"I'll deal with that, Gabrielle. The temple may not be standing, but what I need to find will be there. It was in the vision and a god doesn't have to lie."
"I'm going with you, you know."
With her simple words, Gabrielle had declared that she'd stand with her soulmate, even against a goddess. As in the past, there was no threat they wouldn't face together.
"Wouldn't have it any other way, Gabrielle," Xena said, giving her soulmate the widest smile she'd produced in two days. Despite all the modern world's changes, their devotion remained undiminished by the abrading sands of time.
For almost three decades, the bard had been a best friend, a loyal partner, and a fellow warrior, but compared to being the love of her life, those factors were almost superficial to Xena. Gabrielle was the focus of Xena's heart. Since rescuing the blonde from Draco's slavers in 72 BC, they had only grown closer over the years.
Unlike the events portrayed in the TV series, Gabrielle had never betrayed Xena, and throughout the warrior's life, she was the only one who hadn't. It was the love that they shared, the emotional entwinement of their hearts, and the symbiosis of their souls that gave the Warrior Princess the edge she needed to control the Destroyer of Nations. Violence was so deeply ingrained in her being that without her soulmate, Xena would have resorted to slaying as a reflex, whether in the service of the Greater Good or for her own gain. Being what she was, a child of war, Xena required Gabrielle's humanizing influence to offset her inherited asociality.
There should be no mistake about Gabrielle either. She had killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, with her own hands over the years. She was not the font of uncompromising idealism depicted on the TV show. That character would never have survived the life the pair had led, even with Xena protecting her. What the blonde did was unceasingly question the necessity of killing, and unfailingly feel some measure of regret for each life she took. It was this basic valuation of life, this intrinsic humanity that Xena constantly saw in her lover, that had initially drawn her to the Potidaean teen, and had kept her heart shackled to the Gabrielle's for the rest of her life.
Even the gods had not been immune to the attractions of mortals, craving some inherent trait or quality that mortality conferred, that short-lived, fleeting passion that immortals lacked. When combined with physical beauty, it fascinated and drew them, from Zeus on down to those of long-mingled blood, much like a green plant seeks Helios' caress with a vital compulsion. The old myths overflow with the tales of such liaisons.
In her relationship with Gabrielle, Xena found the warmth of heart that ameliorated the killer she carried inside; the curse that she bore in her very blood. In loving Gabrielle, Xena could find love for humanity in general and became more human herself. The bard brought out the best of mortal life that resided in Xena, and Xena inspired the bard to achieve what was believed to be impossible for a mortal. It would have been anathema to either of them to lose her partner. Both had been thankful in March of 44 BC, even while lying in their filthy cell in Rome, that they would die together and neither would have to live on alone. Their suffering on Caesar's crosses had been a trifle by comparison.
"I'll make the travel arrangements for us right away," Xena said, starting the computer.
"I wasn't just talking about the trip," Gabrielle replied, "I was talking about the war."
"Wouldn't have it any other way," the warrior repeated, turning back to face Gabrielle.
She leaned towards the blonde and found her movement being mirrored by her partner. Their arms wrapped around each other, unerringly finding the points that brought them into the fullest contact, in an embrace that was wholly second nature after a lifetime of loving. Xena brought her lips to Gabrielle's, softly at first, but then with increasing fervor. Their tongues met, caressing each other as their mouths opened, and the soulmates reveled in the sensations of loving contact, communicating the melding of their hearts. At first the women breathed ever so shallow through their noses to prolong the kiss, then took in air in gasps as the wave front of their intimacy enveloped them.
For a brief time they were alone together, submerged in that single place in the modern world that was the same as it had been in their own world 2,000 years before. Though everything else had changed, this precious place of sanctuary was inviolate and enduring. It transcended time and place and destiny. It was the one thing hinted at that the TV show had gotten right. The clones clung to it and to each other for many minutes, then finally they broke the kiss and held each other, foreheads together, arms entwined, simply absorbing each other's warmth and being. When they parted they were at peace despite what had come and what they faced.
"I'll take care of the students tonight, Xena," Gabrielle said, turning her attention to their Thursday night class. "I'd be willing to let them use the space to practice while we're gone, but I guess that wouldn't be safe either, would it?"
"No. Callisto and Mavican could come back anytime for some recreational slaughter, just because they can. I don't want anyone sufferin' 'cause our enemies exist again. If the place is deserted it'll leave 'em wondering what we're up to. We surprised 'em with the raid last night and we need to keep the initiative." Xena thought for a moment and then added, "I'll come to class with ya tonight. I owe the students an explanation this time, or at least an excuse."