The Irresistible Flame
“Where are we going - the White House?” Peter exclaimed as the car turned a corner and rolled through an ornate granite archway.
Iron gates were swung open as though someone had been expecting them to arrive. They cruised up the driveway, passing a row of poplar trees tall and stiff as sentinels, and Peter nearly choked at the size of the mansion that came into view.
“Forget the White House! Make that Buckingham Palace!”
Evelyn didn’t bother to reply but turned the wheel to guide the car around a long, sloping curve. The vehicle glided smoothly along the circular driveway and coasted to a stop just behind a sleek black limousine parked at the front door.
The driver-side door of the limousine opened and the chauffeur slipped out. He ambled over to the passenger door of Evelyn’s car and swung it open with flair, bending at the waist to peek in.
“Evelyn … Peter,” the driver greeted with a smooth, calm voice, “Welcome. We’ve been expecting you.”
Peter froze at the mention of his own name. “How did you …?”
“Thank you, Eli,” Evelyn interrupted and knocked Peter in the shoulder with her palm. “Get out, Peter. They’re waiting for us.”
“Hey!” Peter grabbed his shoulder and glared at her for a moment before jumping out of the passenger seat. He stood, rubbing his arm as he stared at the driver. The man was tall, he realized looking up. Sympathetic blue eyes returned his gaze with a kind of compassion that was downright unsettling.
“Do I know you?” Peter asked, uncertainly.
The chauffeur nodded and smiled. “Our paths have crossed before.”
Peter backed away from the strange look the driver was giving him and almost tripped over the first step leading up to the house.
“Hey, Evelyn!” He slipped on the next couple of steps, stumbling into a run up the rest. “Wait up!”
Evelyn, already at the front door, was being greeted by a dark haired woman. Peter stopped dead in his tracks.
He had never laid eyes on this woman before in his life, never met her – certainly never bought drugs from her - but somehow he knew her.
“Good to see you, too, Joxer,” the beautiful woman said in greeting and smiled. Her expression was kind and pale sky blue eyes twinkled with a bright, honest pleasure at seeing him.
“Joxer?” Peter stood at the top of the stairs dumbfounded. “Who the heck is Joxer? Do I know you?”
“My name is Eve.” His clueless expression only made the woman’s smile wider.
“Come on in, both of you. Obviously, there’s a lot to explain and a lot we have to do …”
“And we’re running out of time?” Evelyn added.
“Yes. Unfortunately, after two thousand years, there’s no more time left.”
“Then let’s get to work,” Evelyn stated as she stomped impatiently over to Peter and grabbed his arm. “Come on, Peter.
They entered the foyer and Peter’s attention was immediately drawn to a row of statues that lined the antechamber on either side. A series of white marble angels greeted them with benevolent expressions. He tagged after Eve, feeling as though chiseled eyes were following him as he scurried past.
Peter froze. He could have sworn he saw one of them move. The stone angel on his right had bowed its head in humility and gestured with an upturned palm in the direction they needed to go.
“Peter, what is it now?” Evelyn huffed, annoyed.
“It moved!” He stared up at the statue.
The corners of a sculpted mouth lifted into a small smile.
“Did you see that!” Peter exclaimed, pointing. He felt a warm, gentle hand on his shoulder and turned to see the dark woman, Eve, smiling at him with genuine affection.
“This way, Peter. We don’t have much time.”
Reluctantly, Peter turned away, but not before taking one last suspicious glance at the figure. The beautiful angel stared back at him benignly.
Evelyn grabbed his arm and tugged, pulling Peter after her. Their benefactor followed, pausing a moment to a wink at the sculpture.
And the angel winked back, its smooth white marble face flowing into a smile as Eve strode away.
Eli walked up to the statue and scowled at it sternly. White marble features shifted and intricately carved wings returned to their original position as the angel settled into place. Eli nodded with approval and followed after the group.
They entered through a second archway into a large hall. Peter was immediately reminded of a church, minus the pews. It even smelled like one, he mused, scrunching his nose against the stale odor of incense. He stared up at the high, vaulted ceiling and then down the long expanse of tile floor that ran the length of the room all the way to an altar at the far end. If he listened hard enough, he swore he would be able to hear the distant voices of ancient chants.
The hall was bathed in gold and reds, painted by alternating beams of sunlight and shadow that filtered in through a series of stained glass windows. They walked into the cavernous room, stepping along a path of sun-kissed colors that tinted the marbled tiled floor.
Peter squinted through the sparkling dust dancing in the sunbeams to stare at the altar. In its center loomed a tall, dark wooden cross. At first, he assumed the half-naked savior nailed to the cross was the same one hanging in most churches. But as his eyes grew accustomed to the dramatic differences in lightness and dark accentuated by the painted glass picture windows, Peter realized someone else entirely was nailed up there paying for their sins.
It was hard to make out the features as the head was slumped downward, bowing in defeat to death. Strands of long hair carved of white marble hung down obscuring the face. One feature, however, was perfectly clear.
Make that two, Peter corrected his thought as he stared at the representation in surprise.
The white statue nailed to the dark wood cross was indeed half-naked, but clearly a woman.
“Xena?” Peter whispered in alarm. “That’s her, isn’t it?”
“Yes, that’s Xena.” Eve confirmed, stepping up to stand beside Peter “Xena's darkness led her down a path of destruction.† She died a tragic and painful death, her memory forgotten, the credit for her skills as a warrior and her accomplishments as leader given to others.† Worse, she died alone and with an empty heart.† Without love, Peter, the soul starves, withers and dies.† Without love, Peter, there is no eternity. Many things happened that shouldn’t have, just as there was much that never came to be that should. I was never born, for one.”
“You were never …,” Peter’s head did a double take, “What?”
“I was never born. Eli never found his true calling, was never sacrificed.”
The prophet looked down at his chauffeur’s uniform and shrugged, grinning ruefully.
“And I was never saved.”
A lyrical voice spoke from behind them. Peter turned to find the white angel statue, now manifest into human form, standing there bathed in gold by a streaming shaft of light.
Peter’s jaw dropped as the angel walked toward them breaking the beams of shadow and sunshine as it glided through the room. The beautiful angel’s white marble form was shifting into more natural tones of flesh and fabric with each stain-glass painted ray of light it touched in passing.
The angel glided up to Peter, smiling. “Do you remember me, Joxer?”
“I don’t think so,” Peter answered, transfixed.
“You don’t? I’m hurt.” The angel’s hair had transformed to lush blond strands that fell about her shoulders. Large brown eyes greeted him filled with friendship and compassion.
Peter snorted. “If I had ever met a walking, talking marble angel before, I think I would remember her.”
“My name is Callisto,” she said, her smile faded, her face became serious. “Does it ring a bell?”
Looking at the beautiful woman standing before him, Peter could have sworn he heard bells going off, but he ignored them. “Nope, no bells. Not a ring. Hey, you said you were never saved. Saved from what?”
“From myself.” Callisto turned away from Peter and walked over to stand between Eli and Eve. “A great evil has entered this world and has opened a chasm between what was and what should be. Everything has been twisted into a reality that should not be happening. Separated like this, we are much too weak to fight it. I would be burning in hell right now, if not for …”
“If not for other forces at work,” Eli interjected quickly.
“Yes,” Callisto smiled widely. “Other forces. Forces that care about Xena … care about you … and about the world.”
“And about Gabrielle?” Peter asked, concerned.
“Yes, of course … about Gabrielle, too. We have all been brought together to fight this evil – send it back to the fiery depths where it came from and hopefully heal the wound in all of our souls.” Callisto smiled and turned to Evelyn, nodding. “It’s time, Yakut. Are you ready?”
“I’m ready,” Evelyn replied with conviction.
Peter scurried up to Evelyn concerned. “Ready? Ready for what? What’s going to happen?”
Callisto looked up with regret at the stark white marble image hanging sadly from the cross. “I owe Xena a great debt. Xena saved my immortal soul from eternal damnation. Once upon another time, I did her a great wrong. A great, great wrong. Gabrielle, too.” “I hurt them both, very badly. Yet, they forgave me. Their courage and compassion saved my soul. Now, it’s time for me to do the same.”
She walked up three short steps onto the altar and stood before the martyr. “Are you ready?” she asked, turning to look at Evelyn.
Evelyn nodded and then all hell broke loose.
The first shot broke one of the large stained-glass windows, shattering the pane and scattering shards of painted glass everywhere.
Peter ducked to avoid being sliced by flying pieces of red and gold debris. He ran to the far side of the room, but there was no real place to hide.
A second volley nicked the tiles at his feet. He danced away, realizing somebody was shooting at them. Peter took off for the altar and dove for cover into the alcove.
More shots rang out and the blast of gunfire echoed throughout the hall. Another window cracked, falling in huge pieces of glass that shattered on the hard stone floor.
Bullets were whizzing everywhere now, thudding into the walls, leaving rows of deep gouges in their wake. Dust from shattered marble drifted in the air, dancing in daylight that bled in through the blown out windows. Peter used his elbows to crawl behind the cross on the altar, cringing with every shot. He covered his head with both hands and tried his best to make himself invisible.
Just as suddenly as the attack had begun, it stopped.
The silence that followed might as well have been thunder.
Peter stayed where he was, flat on his stomach, behind the cross. He could hear pieces of stone cracking off the warrior’s effigy and falling to the floor. Cowering in fear, he waited in the unnerving silence until the last bit of dust settled. Slowly, Peter parted his hands and lifted his head.
Everything was still save the sound of an occasional bit of marble falling from the cracks in the walls.
Still on his belly, he slid out from behind the cross and looked around.
There wasn’t a soul in the room. Everyone was gone. Eve, Eli, the angel Callisto. All gone as though they had never been there.
Peter appeared to be the only one left in the room, and then he noticed a crumpled form lying on the floor amid the debris of broken marble and stone.
He dashed off the altar and ran to her side, dropping to his knees in the dust.
Gently, Peter lifted her head, cradling her in his arms. There was blood everywhere. Splashes of it colored her blouse. Lines of it ran from her nose and mouth.
“Evelyn.” Sadly, he touched her cheek in bewilderment. Her eyes stared straight up at the ceiling, blank and empty. “Oh, Evelyn.” Peter’s hand dropped from the cold cheek to the floor.
“How sad,” a deep voice stated and was followed by the sound of a semi-automatic pistol being cocked to readiness just behind his left ear.
Peter turned and found two dark-suited men standing there, both had guns aimed at his head.
“You killed her,” he accused, eyes tearing up.
The agent shrugged. “Nothing personal. Just following orders.”
“Are you going to kill me, too?”
“Like I said,” the agent responded, his expression unreadable. “Nothing personal.”
As though in extreme close-up slow motion, Peter watched the agent’s forefinger squeeze against the trigger of the pistol.
He closed his eyes and hoped for a miracle.
Then threw a handful of dust at the face of the agent and didn’t wait to see what happened before bolting from his knees and ramming into the midsection of the other.
He crashed into the second agent and they both thudded down to the hard marble floor. Peter heard the very distinctive sound of metal hitting tile and skittering away. He sat up, made a fist and socked the agent right in the face as hard as he could. It was enough to knock the agent out cold.
“Oww!” Peter shook his punching hand, looking at it and at the agent, who was lying with a blood-splattered nose unconscious on the floor.
But he didn’t have time to gloat. A frustrated growl caught his attention and he turned. The first agent was almost finished wiping the painful bits of dust, dirt and marble from his eyes. Peter only had a moment before the dark suited man would be aiming the gun his way again. But the agent had stumbled too far back for Peter to make another diving leap and the dust trick would only work once.
His only hope was the black metal gun that lay off to the side, not too far away.
Peter dove for the gun and the agent followed his body trying to line up Peter with the sight on his pistol through painfully red eyes. The agent squeezed the trigger and Peter scooped up the gun and turned.
Two shots rang out simultaneously in matched echoes across the hall. One bullet struck the crucifixion. The impact shattered the effigy of Xena into a myriad of fragments that cascaded out in all directions. The wooden cross cracked and teetered for a heart-stopping moment before crashing down to the floor. It broke into a dozen chucks of stone and scattered across the steps.
Peter’s shot slammed dead-center into the chest of the agent, sending him lurching backward, his head hitting the tile floor with a resounding, skull shattering crack.
The agent’s body shuddered once and then stilled.
The gun shook in Peter’s hand as he held it out, aimed where the agent had stood only moments ago.
The hall was quiet once more save the sound of Peter’s ragged breathing. He dropped his arm and then dropped the gun. It clunked onto the tile, a hunk of useless metal. Peter looked over to where Evelyn laid - her body still, her eyes open and blank.
He scooted over to Gabrielle’s friend and touched her cheek for one brief final moment before searching the pocket of her jeans. He found the keys to her car and grasped them tightly in his hand.
“Good luck, Yakut,” Peter whispered and smiled, then jumped to his feet and ran, stooping to scoop up the gun that belonged to the agent he had killed as he ran for the door.
She was back. Yakut could taste the dryness of the air - the emptiness that was the expanse of their entire universe – their eternity. She had returned to the stark purgatory of their trapped souls.
Sitting up, she looked across the colorless desert and wasn’t surprised to find her Amazon sisters still there, huddled together against the soulless cold wind that constantly buffeted these barren plains. Off in the distance, dreamy clouds beckoned to them, but they were forever unreachable, just out of their grasp.
Her soul had returned to the Amazon Land of The Dead, and the gate between here and eternity was still closed to them.
Yakut stood and dusted off her shamaness cloak. Cyane was suddenly at her side, helping her up.
“You’re back,” she said, offering her support with a hand to her elbow.
“How long was I gone?”
Yakut looked over at the tribe; they stared back at her forlornly. Immediately, she recognized that something had changed.
“How many?” she asked with concern, unable to count how large their number had grown.
“Dozens. Hundreds. Too many to keep track.”
A second Amazon, one Yakut recognized from her journeys to the past as Evelyn, stepped up looking very, very perturbed.
“What have you done?” she asked, glaring at Yakut.
Yakut adjusted the large shamaness headdress sitting precariously on the top of her head before walking up to meet her. “Ephiny,” she said in greeting.
“I know you! You’re the one from Terreis’s hut!” Ephiny exclaimed, pointing an accusing finger. “These are my sisters that are trapped here! Look at them all! What have you done?”
Yakut grinned and looked over to Cyane who shrugged apologetically. “She doesn’t like the view. Can you blame her?”
Ephiny huffed in exasperation. “Very funny. Laugh it up. But look at the sheer numbers and more arriving with every passing moment. The Amazon nation is dying and our souls are all being sent here – trapped along with you!”
Cyane laid a strong hand tenderly on Ephiny’s shoulder.
“Ephiny, relax. I told you Yakut would be back, and here she is. Now everything will be set right, won’t it, Yakut?”
When Yakut didn’t immediately answer in confirmation, Cyane dropped her hand and turned her lean, muscular body in the shamaness’s direction. “Won’t it, Yakut?”
“Everything is going exactly as planned, Cyane. Come,” she walked between Cyane and Ephiny, placing delicate hands on the smalls of their strong backs. “Now we have to get ready. We have much to do to prepare.”
“Prepare for what?” Ephiny inquired, suspiciously.
“To assist Xena and Gabrielle. I know this may be hard for you to understand, but I’m glad to see you here – see you all here. It’s a good thing that our numbers have grown. We’re going to need all the help we can get if we’re going to help Xena and Gabrielle in defeating the great evil that’s done this to all of us.”
“I knew it! That bitch, Alti!” Ephiny hissed, clenching her fist.
“No,” Yakut answered quickly. “Alti is the least of our worries.”
Parmenio and his troops arrived at the entrance to the gorge not long after sunrise. Marching at the front of his column, he looked up each side of the steep banks of the ravine knowing all too well that they were walking right into a trap. Ragged mountain walls angled higher and higher the further they marched through the pass. He had expected this or rather Xena had warned him to expect it. It was uncanny, his commander’s ability to divine enemy tactics in advance. Some of this may have been due to Xena’s first class intelligence service, but Parmenio had to admit at times it felt like much more than logical deduction based on messages from spies. It was something more mysterious, a type of intuition – feminine, unerringly accurate and extremely deadly.
Anyone else would have assumed, and very reasonably on the face of it, that the Amazons would build a blockade at the mouth of the entrance at the narrowest part of the gorge and then fight from behind it.
Xena, however, knew that their favorite battle-maneuver was to attack from above. She warned him that the pass would be left open to lure them in and then the towering walls overhead would be used to launch an attack of first arrows, and then logs, wagons, chariots – all manner of things – that would be sent rolling down the slopes to shatter the Macedonian phalanx. Before its demoralized ranks could be closed again, the Amazons would fall down on them from the trees overhead slashing and stabbing at close quarters where the Macedonian’s unwieldy sarisas would be worse than useless.
“It could be a thing of beauty,” Xena had told him, “but half the beauty of it lies in the element of surprise. And since we won’t be surprised …,” her elegant eyebrow had lifted upward briefly accented by a rakish grin.
Sure enough, marching deeper into the gorge and looking up, Parmenio knew without a doubt that somehow Xena’s skill as a strategist and cunning feminine intuition had once again been dead on.
And then the mountain began to reveal something that Parmenio was sure Xena had not anticipated.
The first body he saw was swinging from a tree limb, rotting in the steadily rising sun. He couldn’t smell it, but Parmenio knew that if the breeze had been blowing toward them, he would have experienced the stink of death, too.
He squared his shoulders and marched forward, determined not to let the gruesome sight disturb him.
A second body and then a third, and Parmenio felt his stomach turning.
There were bodies everywhere hanging from the branches, decorating the trees on either side of the narrow canyon like a harvest of macabre fruit. His steps slowed involuntarily.
“By the gods,” he heard one of the men whisper as the rhythmic pounding of boots slowed.
It was then that he saw Alexander, huddled under a ledge with two of his patrol. They were waving at him urgently to halt and so Parmenio did, raising his sword to bring his troops to a standstill.
Alexander gave a silent hand signal and Parmenio nodded, understanding immediately what the General was trying to tell him.
There was more than just the multilated bodies of dead centaurs up in those trees.
Parmenio shifted the large heavy shield in his left hand to readiness. He hid the short sword in his right, as Xena had instructed. No sarisas, despite what the Amazons were expecting.
There was a lot more that the Amazons weren’t going to expect, Parmenio thought gleefully as he squatted into ready position. He heard a shifting of leather and metal that told him the rest of the battalion was doing the same.
The trees erupted into a chorus of high-pitched war cries, followed by an orchestrated twang of bows, and then a storm of arrows rained down on them from the corpse littered trees overhead.
With a grunt, Parmenio dropped to the dirt, hefting his shield up and knew that the battle had begun.
“It’s a good day,” the seasoned soldier smiled under the shelter of his shield as Amazon arrows pounded uselessly against it.
Xena crested the last of the huge boulders and pulled herself up, over it. Ignoring the sting of scrapes, she hopped to her feet and turned, tossing one end of the rope that had been draped over her shoulder down the side of the cliff. She paced over to a tree and secured the other end, tugging the double knot tight and checking it with a strong tug. All along the side of the ridge, her men were doing the same. An advance line of climbers had scrambled up, tossing down lines in similar fashion.
Before long the hillside was speckled with soldiers, scaling up the side of the mountain.
It had been easier than she had expected. The paths less traveled were narrow switchbacks that crept up steep hillsides, but had been painless to navigate and more than adequate for the long line of foot soldiers. This last obstacle to the peak was a short climb up the face of a ridge. In no time, her troops were mustering up top, wiping the dust from their leathers and smiling.
The plan was simple. While Parmenio’s forces engaged the Amazons at the mountain pass, she would swoop down on the village. Once the village was secure, they would set up a defense meant to lock the Amazons out of their own home. By then, the rest of the army would have joined Parmenio at the pass. They would have every Amazon in chains by sunset.
After that, in front of the entire nation, she would challenge their Queen. A quick fight and one dead Queen later, the nation would belong to her and the fierce Amazon warriors would join their ranks in the war against Persia.
Xena checked the sun. No time to rest. Parmenio’s battalion should already be at the narrows and more than likely engaged. She lifted her sword and gave the signal for her men to fan out.
The Queen stared in outrage at the sight below her. Infuriated, she shoved an Amazon warrior out of the way and pushed the wagon all by herself to the very edge of the cliff. She grabbed a torch and lit the pitch-soaked tinder filling the cart before giving it an angry kick that sent it careening down the side of the hill, thundering straight for the middle of the Macedonian column.
It rolled over rocks and through pits in the soil without slowing, a trail of flame igniting every dry bush and branch it touched along the way. The Queen watched with great satisfaction as the wagon sped down the hillside blazing a path of guaranteed destruction until it rolled right over the target, skittering across a sea of shields to crash ineffectively into the rocks on the other side of the gorge.
They were throwing everything that had at the battalion of Greek soldiers trapped in the base of the coulee, but the enemy had dropped to the ground and covered themselves with their shields, forming a blanket of bronze that protected them from every conceivable thing she had ordered hurled down into the ravine on top of them.
In dismay, the Amazonian attack slowly waned.
“Retreat,” Alti warned hoarsely in the queen’s ear.
The Queen pushed her away and strode angrily to the edge of the ridge.
“ARCHERS!” She shouted, noting that the shields below were beginning to stir.
“You can’t shoot through bronze,” the shamaness stated hotly. “Retreat now.”
Suddenly, the Macedonians broke ranks and cheered. Alti assumed they cheered because they were surprised to find themselves still alive after all that had been thrown on their heads.
Without warning, a volley of arrows ripped through the trees. All around her warriors began to fall, clutching at quivering shafts that had thudded with surprising accuracy into their chests. On the other side of the gorge, Alti could see deep rows of soldiers cresting the opposite ridge. While this new legion fired a blanket of cover across the narrow pass, the soldiers in the ravine charged up the ridge and through the pass where the hillside was less steep, quickly flanking the Amazons on their weak right.
“My Queen, retreat,” Alti urged and started to follow her own advice, tugging at her Queen’s arm as she started to run. To the left and right of the Queen, Amazon warriors were beginning to back away.
The Greek archers shot at the ropes suspending the disgraceful display of the Queen’s cruelty. Punctuated by heavy thuds, bodies began to fall down upon the heads of their killers as the Amazons withdrew.
Alti watched the first of the Centaur corpses fall with a sense of dread. The wheel was turning. Somehow, Xena had managed to turn the Queen’s own evil back upon her.
Not waiting for an order, Alti turned and sprinted through trees, running back to the village as fast as her Amazon cloak would allow. A dead corpse fell from a branch overhead and landed at her feet. It stopped her short and just missed knocking her senseless. She looked at it and glanced to her rear. The forest was swarming with heavily armed men rushing at her - no mercy whatsoever in their eyes.
Xena was nowhere among them.
Alti jumped over the dead Centaur and ran, dashing deep into the thick bush in the hope that it would hide her trail.
If Xena was not at the head, leading the charge, then where was she? She broke through the thicket and veered left, heading for the safety of the village. They needed to regroup and mount a defense quickly before the village itself was overrun.
At that moment a horrendous keening echoed through the forest, a horrific scream that tore through Alti filling her already cold heart with dread. She slowed, realizing that the ghastly cry had come from the heart of the Amazon home.
Even the soldiers, hot on the heels of the enemy, stopped in theirs tracks to listen to the wail that filled the air and echoed against the canyon walls in an endless repeat of horror.
The Queen heard the cry and her retreat slowed to a standstill. The wail made her fingers twitch and her eyes shine. Lips creased upward into an evil smile of delight.
“Ah, Xena,” the Queen said, and lifted her mask to stare at the air as though the wail was a visible, tangible thing. “I see you got my message.”
And then she had to grab onto the nearest tree trunk as the ground lurched underneath her feet. The Queen’s lips curved upward. “It has begun.”
She pulled the mask down, covering her face and pushed away from the tree, running as quickly as she could through the bush back to the Amazon village.
The horror that tore through her gut was more painful than any wound she had ever suffered. Xena’s knees hit the dirt, sharp rock and bark crunching underneath armored gauntlets. She stared up at the primitive entrance to the Amazon enclave – a wooden arch flanked by guard towers and the dreadful welcoming sign that hung there.
The boy’s face was strangely tranquil. His long blond hair drifted in the light breeze. Next to the severed head hung his body, stiff with the rigor of death, swinging from side to side like a piece of wood.
Xena knew without a doubt that it was her son, Solan, though she hadn’t seen him since she’d handed the enfant swaddled in her own banner over to the Centaur leader, Kaleipus.
The boy had deserved a chance at a happy and peaceful life. Something she’d known he could never and would never have if he had stayed with her.
But, there was no escape from the stench of her life as a warlord. Now the boy hung here, a stark and painful reminder that violence and horror would follow in her footsteps forever, until death caught up with her and tapped her on the shoulder. And everyone she ever loved or might love, in the end, would be touched by that darkness as well.
Xena howled her grief again though her throat was raw from the first scream of outrage. This time, she cried out for the loss of her own soul, which she knew was slipping away from her, dying in the face of her son’s death. The last remnant of her humanity was fleeing, leaving behind a heart as black and cold as the deepest pit in Hades.
And then she was done. There were no screams left in her throat. She stared up at Solan, suddenly bereft of all feeling. Xena welcomed the bitter emptiness. The darkness within her surged forward and she embraced it, beckoned it forth. For too long she had denied herself the luxury of the sweet taste of hateful revenge. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, smelling destruction everywhere and reveling in it.
When her eyes opened, she no longer saw the body of a small boy hanging in the morning sun. She saw the future, and the future was death.
“I’m going to kill them all,” she vowed to the wind.
Up on Mount Olympus in the Halls of War, Ares snapped open his eyes. He had been sitting lazily in his throne, bored to death with nothing to do until the Greeks reached Persia. He had almost fallen asleep, when the sharp tendril of a dark heart reached out and touched his own.
In a second he was wide awake, heart pounding in a way he hadn’t felt in years.
“Xena,” he rasped and bolted from the throne to the Eye of Hephaestus. He waved his hand and an image appeared. Macedonians, Amazons, Centaurs …
The clear blue eyes staring back at him sparkled with cold, hard hatred.
He felt his godhood stir, swelling to life.
Ares spread his muscular arms wide and laughed. The sound echoed across the halls like the drums of war.
“Xena. Xena. Xena.”
Without taking his eyes from the scenes playing out in the Eye overhead, Ares slipped back into his throne, grabbed a goblet of wine and took a good, long draught of the sweet, dark red nectar.
He couldn’t stop from smiling and winked happily at the screen.
But then the image in the Eye wavered and he felt the walls of his hall begin to tremor. Ares dropped his wine. The goblet crashed on the hard stone of the cold floor, the red wine spilling everywhere.
The War God’s eyes grew wide as the Eye of Hephaestus revealed to him a huge crack that split the earth, right at the center of the Amazon Village. A tall column of swirling fire rose up and out of the crack, licking the sky with flames tall enough to reach to Mount Olympus itself. And then the God of War felt something that he had never, ever felt before – fear.
Xena grabbed the nearest officer by his chest plate and pulled him to her.
“I want their heads, every last one of them,” she ordered, her voice hoarse and low.
The soldier swallowed once. “All of them?”
“Every last one,” Xena seethed, “I don’t want a single Amazon left alive. Do you understand me?”
“But what about the young girls? The children?”
Without hesitation, Xena plunged her sword up to its hilt into the belly of her own soldier. He died painfully, hanging onto her tightly muscled arm as the life dribbled out of him, staining the earth at their feet.
Xena used her dirty boot to kick his body off of her blade and grabbed another lieutenant.
“You got any questions?”
The man shook his head rapidly. “Not at all, Supreme Commander. I understand perfectly.”
“Good. I want their heads - except for the Queen. She’s the one in the ugly, feathered mask. She’s all mine. You got that?” She released her grip and the soldier took no time to run off to relay her command.
She felt alive now like never before. Xena hefted her sword in her right hand and twitched her head, relieving a crick in her neck that popped with an audible click. Smiling in dark expectation, she was able to sense the Amazon warrior trying to sneak up on her without looking. She stood perfectly still and waited with inhuman patience for the woman to draw near and lift her weapon.
Without warning, Xena swung her sword, turning her entire body into the blow to add to the momentum. Her blade sliced through the neck of the Amazon, severing her head before the woman could blink. A spray of red blood painted Xena’s cheek. She wiped at it with the tip of her finger and flicked it away with a grin.
The next Amazon was not as lucky – death did not come quickly. Xena took her time, playing with her adversary a bit – hacking a hand and then an arm before finishing the job with a stunning swipe of her sword that slit the fighter’s stomach wide open. Xena’s nostrils flared as the warrior’s entrails tumbled to the grass. The woman fell first to her knees and then to the dirt, lying in a pile of her own gore.
After that, there was no time to savor the death of her enemy. She fought off a barrage of wildly attacking Amazons, striking them down with cold efficiency, splaying them open – a feast for the vultures.
Xena wiped at the sweat on her forehead with a bloody hand taking a moment to listen to her surroundings.†† The village was theirs.† Only a handful of Amazons remained, and those had been corralled by her men.† There'll be time to kill them later.† Closing her eyes, she centered her attention and found the sounds she was looking for - the cries of retreating Amazons returning from the ridge, the howls of her men in pursuit.
Using hand and sword signals, she arranged her men in a long line, deploying them on a wide front that bowed outward across the entrance to the village. She placed herself conspicuously, taking up battle position in plain sight leading the phalanx wedge, dead center in her defense line.
Within moments, the forest echoed the terrible battle cry of the Amazon warriors as they crashed out of the brush into the short, well-groomed field that led to the entrance of their stronghold.† What they found waiting for them was line of Macedonians, armed with the long sarisas they had been expecting to see in the gorge. The Amazons hesitated at the edge of the forest, nearly running into one another as they stopped short in surprise.
The Queen's eyes widened.† Blocking their path to safety stood none other than the Warrior Princess herself, backed by a division of heavily armed fighters.† How in Artemis's name did Xena get an entire legion of soldiers to the village?† The Queen looked to her rear. Behind them, the rest of the army was rushing her rear, snapping at her heels.† She was caught in the same trap she had set for the Centaurs.†
Xena chuckled, watching as the tribe shifted nervously, glancing back, all too aware of the battalion of Greek soldiers that were hot on their tails.† Her vision zeroed in on the Queen, conspicuous in her regal mask and rust colored leathers.† The Amazon leader stood paused at the edge of the forest, chest heaving from the exertion of retreat. She stepped forward away from the line, posing where the Queen could see her clearly.
"Come and get me, you bitch whore from Hades," Xena taunted, flashing a white smile.
Beneath the ornate mask of Amazon royalty, the Queen let out a frustrated growl like a trapped animal.† All right, Xena.† You want a fight, you got one. Breathing heavily, she took a moment to contemplate the tactics.†††† From where she stood, Xena had set up the typical Greek defense – lines left and right flanking a heavily armed phalanx wedge at the center.† The only way her tribe could survive was to get back into their stronghold. The only chance they had to get there was to punch through at the flanks, left and right, where Xena was weakest.
The Queen snickered.† Let Xena break their center; she'd end up plowing into her own men. She looked to her rear, hearing the heavy boots of thousands of Macedonians crushing the underbrush as they charged at them through the forest.† She raised her sword and whistled a series of birdcalls and then with a shout, they charged.
"That's a good girl," Xena whispered, beaming.† "Come and get some."† Her own piercing war cry rose above the yells of the Amazons and her men responded.
Xena's troops dropped to one knee and lowered their long spears, bracing for the attack.
Like birds of prey, the Amazons charged at the Macedonian flanks, veering off in two main attack groups away from the center.†† The Queen grinned as she ran, wishing she could have seen the surprise on Xena’s face and picked up speed as she sprinted across the grass, their attack swinging away from Xena and her reinforced center.
She reached the line of spears on the far left flank and easily slashed away the point of the weapon closest to her.† It was almost too easy, she thought, as though the soldier had purposely dropped the tip to let her through.
Using her momentum, she pushed past a kneeling soldier and came face to face with a deep phalanx of sword-wielding Macedonians hidden stealthily behind the first line of defense.
It was all the Queen could do to stop herself from being pushed by one of her own warriors onto the blade of a waiting sword.† She raised her weapon and met the first blow as all around her, Amazon warriors began to die.
Meanwhile, Parmenio's troops closed ranks and rushed at the rear of the Amazon army.† To the Queen, it felt like they were about to be crushed between a rock and a hard place.
Using hand signals, Xena slowly maneuvered her center back.† The bulge in the line at the Macedonian center flattened. As a unit, the men took measured steps, marching backward. The flat line became a bowl, drawing the Amazons and the fighting to her, where fresh soldiers with sharp short swords waited, ready to finish the kill.† As the first of the woman warriors stumbled her way, Xena swung her sword, slicing neatly through flesh without effort.
"Kill them all!" she yelled as metal flashed in the sunlight.† "Kill every last fucking one of them!"
Dead center in the Amazon village, the earth groaned in pleasure and a crack opened, swallowing the Queen's hut whole.† A column of fire swirled upward devouring the sweet air like a starved demon.† It bellowed in triumph as it rose, reaching for the sky, higher and higher.† The sudden surge of power set off a series of landslides in remote areas of Greece and far off near Rome, it triggered the unexpected eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
And on Olympus, Ares watched in horror as all around him, the Halls of War began to crumble.
The vertigo was worse than it had ever been before. Gabrielle’s stomach did flip-flops as she fell backward, tumbling through space and time. She couldn’t tell if she was losing consciousness or gaining it, when suddenly her vision cleared and she found herself on her knees in a patch of muddy grass. Lifting her head, she got her bearings just in time to be knocked senseless by a blow to the chin.
Flat on her back in the dirt, she blinked her eyes quickly to clear her head, quickly coming to terms with the fact that she was obviously most definitely able to be touched. A heavily armed soldier had nearly knocked her lights out with his knee. Now, he was standing over her with his sword raised high. One look at the point of the blade hovering over her nose and she kicked him in the balls with all of her might. The soldier’s face turned bright red and he stumbled away, losing his grip on the sword. Gabrielle had barely enough time to roll away before the point of the blade imbedded itself in the dirt, in exactly the spot where she had just been.
She rolled to her feet and regained her balance, intercepting a swing of a staff meant for her head. The hard wood stung as it whacked against her palms and she felt the jolt of the impact all the way to her teeth. But she caught the wooden staff, surprising both herself and the woman warrior who had swung it.
They stared at one another for a moment in surprise.
“Hey! Watch it! You could hurt somebody!” Gabrielle exclaimed, and using all her might she pulled the staff right out of the woman’s hands. The warrior looked down at her empty palms in astonishment and then was just as thunderstruck when her own staff swung around to smack her right in the head.
Gabrielle didn’t wait to see if the woman warrior fell. She ran, staff held securely in two hands, through hundreds of men and women struggling in deadly conflict. Great time for a visit, she thought, neatly ducking under the sword strike of a soldier. She pounded her staff into the man’s stomach so hard, it sent him flipping over. Then Gabrielle ran on with only one thought in mind – she had to find Xena.
It didn’t take long to find the warrior. Xena was like a force unto herself, taking down warriors with a skill and precision that Gabrielle wouldn’t have believed possible. She watched, astounded, as the warrior fought. Xena was killing everything in her path – women, men, her own soldiers.
At that moment, the dark warrior swung widely, decapitating a woman who dared to approach her from the rear and Gabrielle was able to get a glimpse of Xena’s eyes.
There was a rage in them that took Gabrielle’s breath away.
“Oh, Xena,” Gabrielle breathed, transfixed, watching as the warrior grabbed a female fighter from behind by the nape of the neck and drove her blade deep into her spine. Gabrielle watched as the sword emerged painted with blood and bits gore out the other side, through her stomach. Xena tossed the limp body casually to the ground.
“My god,” Gabrielle gasped, realizing that the warrior lying dead in the mud was only a girl.
Gabrielle’s attention was drawn away from the bloody spectacle, toward the center of the village. Standing there calmly, hands clasped in front of her, stood Callisto. Despite the fact that her wings were gone, she still maintained an air of the ethereal. White robes drifted dreamily in the wind as Callisto watched quietly, somehow insulated from the maelstrom that was raging all around her. There was a sadness gracing her features that nearly broke Gabrielle’s heart.
They were too late, Gabrielle’s mind cried out. Xena was lost to them. Lost to her. She had to do something.
“Xena!” she shouted, her cry swallowed by the screams and cries of pain. Gripping her staff with a firm resolve, Gabrielle took off at run, heading for the center of the fighting and Xena.
Xena slaughtered another of the enemy, sending the Amazon on her way to their land of the dead with negligent ease, all the while keeping a keen eye on the field of battle, searching for her primary target.
The feathered mask was like a beacon in a violent storm. Xena followed its progress as the Queen wove her way through the onslaught of the Macedonian line. The bitch was trying her damnedest to get past the blockade and into the village. Xena watched as the ornate mask disappeared into a throng of struggling fighters.
She skewered one more Amazon, stepping aside to avoid the falling body and rushed after her. A soldier tried to intercept Xena and ask a question; without pausing, she shoved him aside. The next soldier that got in her way didn’t fare as well. She split his lip with a blow to the face and he stumbled back surprised that his own commander had just punched him.
Eyes fierce with an intense focus, Xena ignored everything but the ornate mask, tracking it as it ran by soldiers and Amazons locked in lethal combat. The Queen craftily avoided further confrontation until she left the field of battle altogether and darted behind a hut, slipping out of view.
The bitch is running, Xena surmised and she kicked a Greek soldier in the stomach just for being in the way.
“Go ahead, run. Run for your stickin’ life,” she growled out through clenched teeth and trotted after the Queen, following her route into the village.
She was a hunter now and it felt good. A snarl curled Xena’s upper lip. Damn good.
Gabrielle got a glimpse of dark hair, brown leather and bronze just as Xena disappeared behind a hut. She moved to follow, but a hand reached out and grabbed her arm. Barely pausing in stride, Gabrielle shoved her staff back and felt it connect solidly against flesh. The hand fell away and Gabrielle was free to run after Xena, deeper into the Amazon stronghold.
With the majority of the conflict behind her, the Queen ran past eerily quiet dwellings to the center of the Amazon community. She didn’t need to look behind her to know that the Warrior Princess was hot on her trail. Xena’s presence was a tangible thing, easily felt even though not seen, like the core at a burst of heat. Then again, so was the welcomed blast of power emanating from the center of the Amazon enclave. The Queen felt the energy and was drawn to its presence like a bee to honey. She ran, passing empty homes and jumping over the dead bodies of their owners knowing she had to get to its source before Xena got to her.
Xena followed her prey, passing deserted huts and weaving her way around the corpses of fallen Amazons. Heavy boots left deep impressions in the blood soaked earth as she ran further into the village. After a few turns, she lost track of the Queen and so she paused, reaching out with her senses before she decided on which way to go.
She closed her eyes and recognized the scent of herbs and stringent medicines coming from the healer’s hut she was standing near. Xena filtered that out and concentrated harder, reaching for more clues. In the far distance, the sounds of battle could still be heard – the clash of metal, the screams of the dying. These sounds were to be expected. A slight breeze tickled her nostrils and then the warrior found exactly what she was looking for.
There was no mistaking the smell of fear.
Xena took off at a run, following the breeze and her darkest instincts without question.
Callisto stood by the healer’s hut and watched as Xena ran past, never sensing her presence. She crossed her arms and observed with patient eyes, waiting for the moment when she would be needed.
The Queen scooted around a corner and slowed, certain she had lost the warrior. Breathing heavily, both from exhaustion and apprehension, she risked a glance back. Xena was rounding the same corner, coming after her, the dark warrior’s strong legs taking long strides that quickly ate up the distance between them.
“Shit!” the Queen mumbled and turned to gage the distance left to go. It was too far and Xena was too close.
Suddenly, a faithful Amazon came out of nowhere and rushed at Xena, attempting to intercept her. The Queen watched as the Amazon was killed instantly by Warrior Princess’s merciless sword. The woman slipped from Xena’s blade, sliding to the dirt a lifeless corpse. Xena slowly turned and stared at the Queen.
“Your turn,” she mouthed and a predatory grin slowly graced her beautiful features. With determined steps Xena marched forward, her goal almost within reach.
“Good,” the Queen shouted in reply with a confidence she didn’t feel. She stepped back and almost tripped over a dead Amazon. “Good. Kill them, Xena. Kill them and then come for me.” She hopped over another body and ran
The warrior princess tracked doggedly after, hard eyes set on the target, the hunger for revenge a raw ache in the pit of her stomach.
Almost there, the Queen thought panting – almost at the source that would give her the power she needed to rid the world of the Warrior Princess once and for all. She rounded the last corner and ran smack into Alti.
The Shamaness was not amused.
“Where do you think you’re going? They’re killing everyone! We are losing this battle!”
The Queen didn’t answer, but was looking to her rear. Though the mask hid her face, Alti could see the Queen’s eyes wide with fear. The Shamaness looked in the direction of that frightened gaze.
“Xena,” Alti whispered. The warrior looked as hell-bent on death as she had ever seen her.
Alti watched as Xena skewered a stray soldier, one of her own, who got in her way, and then capture the Shamaness’s eyes with an ice cold stare.
“You fool,” Alti said shaking the Queen’s shoulders. “You idiot!” Alti backed away, terror causing the blood to pound in her head. “She’s going to kill you and then me.”
“No, you first, old friend.”
Alti would recognize that dark, velvety voice anywhere. Suddenly, Xena was standing right next to her, sword in hand, hard blue eyes leveled at her – filled with a hatred unfathomable.
“Xena, listen to me. I had nothing to do with this.”
The Queen’s laugh was surprisingly relaxed. “You liar. The whole thing was your idea. Especially, the boy. What was his name?”
“Solan,” Alti answered automatically.
At the mention of her son’s name, Alti could swear Xena’s eyes shot fire.
“No. Don’t you even speak his name.” Xena’s voice was harsh and cold. “I’m going to cut out your heart, Alti and eat it myself.”
“Now, Xena. Let’s not do anything rash. Remember, I can still be of use to you.” Alti began to back up, taking slow careful steps away from the warrior princess.
“No, Alti,” Xena replied, taking an equally, slow predatory step toward her. “You’re of no used to me. Never have been, never will be.”
Alti should have been able to defend herself by attacking Xena with a blast of shamaness power – a blast powerful enough to send the warrior to her knees. But, it was as though Alti’s energy had been sucked away.
Trying hard to concentrate, all she could see was Xena’s hard, rage-filled eyes. For the first time, Alti recognized what it was that drove fear into the hearts of men and women who dared to face Xena in battle. Years ago, when she had first looked into the depth of those eerily clear eyes, Alti had seen the potential for great power. Now, all she saw there was death.
A single, small quiver of Xena’s upper lip and Alti knew she was about to meet her end.
And then the Queen did something that saved Alti’s life.
The outrage of it stopped Xena cold. The Queen was laughing at her. She turned away from Alti and glared at the Amazon leader who was standing calmly at the edge of a tremendous fracture in the earth.
“My father, Dahak, was right,” Hope stated, smirking at the warrior. “Entering the world through the corruption of innocense …,” Hope shrugged, “… been there, done that. But using your anger, Xena … your rage … it’s just so much more fun. What is it you say? It’s a thing of beauty!”
Hope’s mocking expression sent a wave of fury rushing through Xena.
“I changed my mind,” Xena rasped, shifting her sword to her left hand and grabbing her chakram. “Queens go first.”
Xena flipped her arm back and let the chakram fly. It sliced through the air, bounced off of an effigy of Artemis and ricocheted at an angle, whirling at break-neck speed right for the center of that regal Amazon mask.
But the mask, forged out of hard wood and powerful incantations, did its job and protected the Queen. The chakram struck and, with a shower of sparks, the mask shattered into pieces, falling away from the Queen’s face and whizzing off in an awkward direction, out of sight. The force of the blow sent the Queen stumbling back, momentarily dazed.
What Xena saw now stopped her heart from beating altogether. The raw pain she felt at the sight of Solan hanging in pieces paled in comparison. As she stood there, watching the Amazon Queen struggle to regain her balance, Xena felt all the air leave her lungs as though she had just been punched in the stomach.
The woman who had defiled the Centaurs, the one who had slaughtered her son, the one who was now holding her hand dazedly to her head - was her guardian angel.
“Gabrielle?” Xena choked out in disbelief.
Xena’s confusion was the split second Alti needed. She lunged at Xena, grabbing the warrior with long, thin fingers by the neck. The towering wall of fire swelled up out of the chasm in the earth and a shock of power shuddered through Alti. Suddenly her shamaness energy sprang to life.
Alti’s touch sent Xena spiraling into darkness. She was back on the cross, ordered crucified by Caesar and could only watch helplessly as her legs were shattered by the swing of a sledgehammer. The world spun and Xena’s legs gave out as she howled in agony with the memory of it.
She struggled for breath, flaying weakly in Alti’s grip. The Shamaness laughed a deep throaty bellow of joy as her power continued to grow. Her connection with her victim felt so strong, the Shamaness no longer needed direct contact to make Xena relive all the pain she had ever received or inflicted in her dark, violent life. She let go, backing away out of reach and Xena fell to her knees crying out in pain.
Alti concentrated and used her hands to shoot out an almost invisible wave of power at the warrior. The air shimmered with it as it passed from the shamaness to her target, plowing into Xena with enough force to send her plummeting to the ground, too weak now to even cry out. A thin line of blood dribbled from Xena’s nose as her body spasmed with the powerful memory of being bludgeoned repeatedly at the hands of dissenting soldiers. With every excruciating blow, she relived her torturous walk down the Gauntlet – a bloody path that, for a warlord, was the only way out of an army.
Xena fell backward into the mud, struck down by an invisible blow delivered by a long dead lieutenant.
These are only memories! Xena’s mind cried out, trying to rationalize the pain away.
She was being carried by rough hands and laid out across a cold, wooden cross. Above her head, the sky was gray and a gentle snow was falling. Though her body trembled with shivers, she did not seem to feel them. Odd, but she felt strangely at peace. Perhaps the cold was why she felt so numb? Xena turned her head. To her surprise, there was Gabrielle, arms outstretched and wrists bound to wood. Behind them, a soldier knelt and placed a nail in the center of Xena’s palm.
“Gabrielle, you are the best thing in my life,” Xena said. There was so much more she needed to say. The blond turned her head and when her eyes found Xena’s, she smiled so sweetly and with such love, that Xena kept quiet and merely smiled back – as honest and heartfelt a smile as Xena had ever offered. Given the choice, if there was only seconds to live, Xena would rather spend them looking into Gabrielle’s eyes.
A hammer fell, driving the dirty spike right through the center of her outstretched palm and tore another scream from Xena’s throat.
Back on her knees before Alti, Xena looked down at her hands, watching in disbelief as raw holes ripped open in her skin and began to bleed.
But this was no memory! She had never lived through that moment – she and Gabrielle had never shared that sweet smile. All she could see now was the face of a hideous traitor who had slaughtered her son. As Xena’s lifeblood flowed out of the wounds, she howled in torment and confusion. Over her own cries, she could clearly hear the taunting, triumphant laughter of the Amazon Queen.
“You should be grateful, Xena!” the Queen shouted, smiling at the bleeding gouges in Xena’s palms. “Think of all the pain and anguish I saved you by separating the two of you.”
Another volley of visions tore through Xena’s mind. A betrayal in Chin. Again it was Gabrielle, her duplicity agonizingly clear as Xena pulled back the covers of an oriental bed.
“No!” Xena cried out in disbelief.
Her daughter, Eve, nearly stabbed in the back. Gabrielle, holding the knife in her hand, hovering over the back of her daughter, poised to strike.
But, she didn’t have a daughter! Xena’s mind reeled, trying hard to hold on to reality. Yet, the visions were relentless, threatening to shatter any hold Xena had left on her sanity.
Again, Gabrielle – the same sweet face framed by golden hair luring her into a cave and a trap set by an army of archangels.
Gabrielle, emerging from an egg and covered by slime, threatening to scorch the earth with all the power of evil in the world.
The voice that cried out came out of nowhere, loud and strong. It took the Amazon Queen by surprise, momentarily disrupting the flow of power to Alti and releasing Xena from the barrage of visions assaulting her.
Gabrielle ran to the stricken warrior, throwing herself protectively over Xena’s body. With a fiercely determined expression, Gabrielle lifted her eyes and found herself looking into an all too familiar face.
The corner’s of the Queen’s mouth lifted into a sardonic smile. “Hello … Mother.”
Gabrielle’s determined expression melted to one of complete bewilderment.
“Don’t you recognize your own flesh and blood?” The Queen slowly turned, displaying herself so Gabrielle could get a good look at her. “You know what they say – like mother, like daughter.”
It was Mother. Her own horrible mother. Yet, she was younger, stronger … and she was here in the past with Xena. “Who are you?” Gabrielle asked hoarsely.
“I’m your daughter, Hope. Your daughter today, your Mother tomorrow. It’s confusing for you, I know, but then, you were never very quick on the uptake, were you, Mother?” Hope laughed openly at the befuddled look on Gabrielle’s face.
Gabrielle lifted herself up from the ground and paced around Xena, placing herself protectively between the warrior and the queen. “It was you. It was you all along. You were the one who did this.”
“Did what? What did I do? What are you going to blame me for now, Mother?” Hope asked, mockingly.
“Stop calling me Mother!”
“Why? That’s who you are. My mother. I’m the blood of your blood, the flesh of your flesh.”
Gabrielle held her staff, threatening to strike. “I am not your Mother!”
“Oh, but you are my Mother, Mommy dearest. You just don’t remember.” Hope concentrated, lowering her stare and, like a puppet, Alti jerked. The Shamaness sent a wave of power that struck Gabrielle dead in the chest. She stumbled back, almost tripping over Xena and fell into a sea of visions, drowning in a life unknown.
She watched herself place a baby lovingly into a basket and send it floating away down a river.
“Hope,” she whispered with regret, mourning the loss as though it had only just happened.
“That’s right, Mother. Hope. You … abandoned … me. Me! Your own daughter! You sent me, a helpless infant floating in a basket down a river. Tell me, is that any way to treat your only child?”
The staff in Gabrielle’s hands lowered, the anguish evident in her yes. Her vision was drawn inward to the painful images of another life playing out in her head controlled by Hope through the power of the Shamaness, Alti.
“Not only did you abandon me, but you tried to killed me, Mother. Not once, not twice, but three times. First, you fed me poison and then burned me beyond recognition in a funeral pyre. And when that didn’t work, you threw us both down into a pit of father’s own flames! As if that wasn’t enough, you helped to mortally wound your own grandson and trick him into attacking me! Time after time, you keep trying to destroy me! Why?”
“You are evil,” Gabrielle argued, weakly.
Hope stepped forward, hard green eyes turning sad. “I was a baby! I was your baby and you abandoned me! You abandoned me … for her!” Hope pointed an accusing finger at Xena, who was watching weakly from where she lay, losing her life’s blood to the earth.
“I had no choice.”
“Oh, you had a choice, all right. And you made it. You chose her over me. Always her. IT’S ALWAYS BEEN ABOUT XENA!”
“You bet your ass it’s about me,” Xena growled. Drawing on an innate desire to protect Gabrielle, she clawed at her sword lying nearby in the dirt and found the strength to rise to her feet. She launched herself at Hope, swinging her sword in valiant attempt to chop Hope’s head right from her shoulders.
The flames roared and the glare in Hope’s eyes returned. A blast from the tower of fire shot out a tendril of flame that wrapped around the weapon and jerked the sword right out of Xena’s hand, whipping it back into Hope’s. Hope caught the weapon neatly, sneering as Xena stumbled away, grasping a raw, burned hand in pain and trying her best to stay on her feet.
Xena turned to Gabrielle, her eyes mirroring the anguish in her guardian angel’s face.
“Gabrielle,” she implored, “it wasn’t your fault.”
“No, it wasn’t,” Hope seethed, “it was your’s.”
Then Hope hurled Xena’s own sword. It tumbled end over end through the air on a deadly course aimed straight for the warrior’s spine.
Off to the side, partially hidden by the corner of the healer’s hut, Callisto stood calmly watching the scene play out before her. The chakram in her hand seemed comfortably familiar. Callisto studied it briefly in loving appreciation and then swung, launching the weapon. It sliced a path through the air, barely missing the tip of an antler on Alti’s shamaness headdress and collided with the sword, inches from Xena’s back.
The sword twirled away, embedding itself halfway to the hilt into the ground at Gabrielle’s feet. With a heart-sickening crack, the chakram split into two pieces and fell broken to the dirt.
Hope howled with rage, her anger turning in all directions, searching for the source of the interference.
Gabrielle ran to Xena and threw her arms around her, helping the stricken warrior slowly down to the ground. Xena reacted in surprise to Gabrielle’s touch, smiling softly at her presence.
The warmth in her eyes left as quickly as it came. Xena pushed Gabrielle’s caring hands away and struggled to get to her feet. “Leave me, Gabrielle. This is no place for you. I have to destroy her. I’m going to kill her.”
“No, Xena,” Gabrielle replied, her voice strong with commitment, “she’s my responsibility.”
Gabrielle gently pushed the warrior back down and ran, retrieving Xena’s sword as she rushed forward. Holding the heavy weapon steady in her two hands, she faced off against her daughter.
Hope’s attention was drawn back to Gabrielle. “Are you going to kill me again, Mother?” Hope asked, a strange sorrow softening her hard features.
“Fourth time’s a charm,” Gabrielle said and raised the sword.
The sorrow in Hope’s expression transformed to blatant hatred. Behind her, the swirling flames swelled and Hope drew back her hand. A blazing ball of power manifested in her palm.
“That’s exactly what I hoped you’d do,” Hope said and reared back to throw.
Suddenly, Callisto materialized. Her sudden appearance and strange, peaceful expression confused Hope and the power ball dissipated in her hand. Callisto smiled sadly, “It’s what we both hoped for,” she said and then threw her arms around Hope, using her weight to twirl them backward.
Gabrielle froze, watching in surprise as Callisto fell backward - Hope held securely in her arms. Together, they tumbled over the edge.
The blond angel, Callisto, smiled softly at Gabrielle and nodded once, and then they were both gone.
The fire bellowed in outrage, rising up above their heads. The ground started to shake, sending the sword falling from Gabrielle’s still upraised hands. She stumbled sideways as the earth tilted, trembling in waves with the power of a quake.
The flames swirled higher and higher until it seemed the column of fire would engulf the heavens themselves and then, with a resounding roar, the tower collapsed in upon itself, sucked back down into the bowels of the earth right along with Hope. With a single blinding flash of light, the tower of fire disappeared.
The earth heaved, groaning one last time and the crack in the ground snapped shut, the seam weaving itself closed until it was though it had never been there.
For one brief second, all was still. Eyes wide, Gabrielle stared at the place where once a chasm had been, but was no more.
Alti jerked and cried out in relief. Hope’s control disappeared as soon as the flames did, releasing Alti from their iron-like grip. But, though Hope was gone, Alti’s shamaness skills weren’t. She recovered quickly and mumbled the appropriate incantations, drawing on the inexhaustible well of power that had always been at her disposal – the souls of the trapped Amazons in the Land of the Dead.
Her dark gaze lowered in concentration as she turned on Gabrielle.
“I think it’s time you followed in your daughter’s footsteps,” Alti rasped and ran quickly at Gabrielle, snatching her up by the neck in her thin, hard hands. She snickered as she squeezed, watching with pleasure as the blond squirmed.
“With your death, I’m going to be the one to release the great evil into the world. I’ll be able to feed off of the fear and destruction for centuries to come.” As Gabrielle gasped for breath, Alti glanced over at Xena. The warrior was struggling to get to her feet and with one look Alti struck her back down, the blow nearly knocking the warrior into oblivion.
Xena shook off the blow and willed herself to remain conscious. She rolled over in the dirt and glared at Alti, eyes hard and burning with the desire to kill.
“Would you look at that?” Alti asked, smiling. She shifted, still holding Gabrielle trapped in her powerful grasp giving her a better view of the warrior.
Alti’s thick, cracked lips curved upward into a smile. “Who needs Dahak when you’ve got the Destroyer of Nations?”
With a taunting grin at Xena, she clamped down, squeezing Gabrielle’s neck between two suddenly inhumanly strong hands.
Gabrielle choked weakly, her face turning a bright, blood red.
Xena watched, teeth clenching with frustration at her helplessness. Reaching deep within herself, she pushed against the earth, clawing at the dirt for support. Her fingers found cold metal and she wrapped her grip around the pieces of her chakram - broken in two.
Yakut opened her closed eyes and gasped.
“It’s time!” she called out to the tribe. They were standing around her, huddled together against the cold winds of the Amazon Land of the Death.
One by one sister Amazons from many nations reached out. They joined hands and closed their eyes, whispering as one tribe the chants Yakut had taught them.
Slowly, the invisible wall that separated the Amazons from their peaceful eternity began to shimmer.
Ignoring the pain and using the last remaining ounce of her strength, Xena pushed against the ground and rose to her feet. She lifted her hands and in each one she held a piece of her trademark weapon.
“YOU BITCH!” Xena screamed, raising her hands higher, intending to throw the pieces of sharp metal.
The separate pieces began to burn with a light brighter than the sun. The radiance sizzled outward, filling out the pieces until they became two separate but whole weapons that pulsed with power, one bright and one with a malevolent surging darkness.
The chanting of the Amazons in the Land of the Dead increased and Yakut raised her arms to the heavens, joining the multitude of warrior souls into a single, undeniable force.
As Alti watched transfixed by the sudden display of power, Xena lifted her arms even higher and joined the two pulsing pieces of her chakram together, high over her head.
They coalesced and spun rapidly, merging together to forge one weapon, the yin and yang of a warrior’s soul.
With one hand, Xena drew back the new chakram and grinned.
“Eat this, you Shamaness bitch!” Xena launched the weapon and it cut through the air so fast, Alti could not even see it. It struck the Shamaness in the chest, embedding itself with a wet thud deep into her black heart.
Alti released Gabrielle and the bard tumbled to the ground, gasping for air. The Shamaness looked down in surprise at the weapon buried in her chest. The chakram throbbed once, twice and then exploded in a shower of light so bright, Xena had to shield her eyes from the blast.
When the brightness faded, Xena blinked a few times and lowered her hand.
The chakram, still fused into its new form, lay on the ground where only moments before the Shamaness stood.
Alti was gone.
And so was Xena’s strength. She crumbled to the ground, exhausted, her body throbbing with pain.
Xena lay still in the dirt and grass, breathing slowly, trying to stay conscious. A moment later, warm arms wrapped themselves around her, lifting her up into a soft lap. Gentle green eyes and a beautiful face greeted her with an expression that took Xena’s breath away.
“Gabrielle,” she whispered, barely able to speak.
“Are you okay?” How do you feel? Gabrielle asked with concern, tenderly wiping blood soaked bangs away from Xena’s forehead.
“Just peachy,” Xena answered and found the strength to lift the corners of her mouth into a small grin. The warrior ran her hand along the downy skin of one of the arms that was holding her. “You feel so soft, just like I imagined,” she said, closing her eyes with pleasure.
Gabrielle bent down and placed her lips against Xena’s forehead in a tender kiss. She gave her a gentle hug and smiled. “And you have muscles. You feel so strong.”
“Don’t feel so strong now,” Xena mumbled, but smiling nonetheless.
“Xena,” Gabrielle said, her face turning serious. “I can’t begin to understand what exactly is going on.”
Xena grunted, “You got that right.”
“That evil creature was my Mother, only younger?”
“She was your daughter, Hope. An evil bitch spawned from the violence of a rape. Your rape … by an insidious power.”
“The fire? Dahak?”
“Yes. In our true lives, we destroyed both of them. Hope must have found a way to tap into his power again. She must have used it to create some kind of link here in the past. She used that same power to fix it so that we could never be together, even though we were meant to be.”
Gabrielle nodded, smiling sadly. “And Alti?”
Xena moaned, shifting in Gabrielle’s arms. “Only a pawn in a greater plan. That’s all Alti ever has been and ever will be.”
Again Gabrielle nodded in agreement, able to accept what she had already suspected based upon the images that had been thrown at her. Hope, alive in the future, had tapped into Dahak’s power and reinvented herself as the Amazon Queen here in the past. She used that power to steal Gabrielle’s soul in order to change the very essence of the way things were meant to be.
But had Hope’s destruction changed anything? Gabrielle looked around. The world was still turning, the Amazon village still burning. Xena was still a Greek warrior from the ancient past, and she was still a woman from the future dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt with a powerful shamaness magic potion running in her veins.
That potion and its strength was the reason she was able to hold Xena in her arms – it was also all that was keeping her here. Once the drug was gone from her system …
Gabrielle sighed – even now, she could feel the effect of the potion beginning to fade. If the lives they were meant to live could never be salvaged, then she would have to be satisfied with a victory for the greater good.
“At least we’ve saved the world from evil again.”
Xena smiled sadly and ignored the pain it took to reach up and touch a bit of Gabrielle’s golden hair. “No, not quite.”
“No?” Gabrielle raised her eyebrows. “You mean there’s another dark force still at large?”
Xena chuckled and winced, the laugh turning into a groan of pain. “Yea,” she said, closing her eyes, “there’s me.”
“Absolute power corrupts absolutely, Gabrielle. I’m still the Supreme Commander of the largest and strongest army the world has ever known, and I’m one war away from ruling the world. What do you think that makes me?”
“Xena, the Great. Xena, the Defender. Xena, the Warrior Princess.” Gabrielle smiled and caressed the warrior’s cheek with the palm of her hand. “You have the heart of a hero, Xena. And both of our worlds need heroes.”
Gabrielle leaned over again and placed her lips on Xena’s, bequeathing her a sweet and gentle kiss that warmed the warrior’s cold, empty soul.
Gabrielle straightened, smiling down at the woman she was holding tenderly in her arms. “You’ll know what to do.”
As the sun dipped below the horizon, the day’s light began to fade. Despite the darkness that was always a constant companion, Xena found her world brightening with hope. She took in the beautiful face painted in golden tones by the setting sun, studying her features, committing them to memory. She wanted to remember the way Gabrielle looked on this day for the rest of her life.
“I’ll love you forever,” she said as the mountain swallowed up the last of the sun’s rays and the treasured face before her slowly faded away.
Yakut opened her eyes and smiled widely.
There it was – the one word, the only word that could open the doors to eternity and beyond.
That word, spoken aloud and with such feeling by a warrior who's soul had been shadowed by darkness for so long, turned the bitter cold wind that buffeted the stark plains of the Amazon Land of Dead warm.†
The Amazons, still standing in large circles with hands clasped, opened their eyes, surprised by the arrival of such a gentle breeze.† They watched awestruck as, for the first time, the sun rose over the mountains and the distant eternity that had always remained just out of reach seemed to soften and shift closer.
"By the gods," Ephiny whispered, staring as the thick curtain of fog parted and the gray, barren mountainside turned lush with green. “They’ve done it! We’ve done it!”
"Come on!" Yakut called out and lifted her long shamaness cloak so she could run without tripping.† "Come on!"
Cyane smiled and turned her body into the warm wind, basking in the glow of the rising sun.† "Let's go," she said softly. She took Ephiny by the hand and, together, they started to run.
Shouting with happiness, the many tribes of the Amazons merged into one as they ran joyously through the tall, green grass. They crossed the gently rolling meadow, chasing the end of a rainbow and disappeared into the mountains, eventually fading away into myth.
No, we’re not quite finished yet. Continued - Part 11
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