The Last Conqueror
Kamouraskan and Lariel
For disclaimers and credits, please see part 1
"Xena. You have a guest. Darphus, bring the lad in."
Darphus had been relegated to being Xena's jailer now for almost a moon, and his once perfectly tailored costume seemed more appropriate, stained and bagged as it was now. He hauled in Solon and stared at his captive resentfully.
"Now pay attention Xena, this is so very important." There was a jingling of the heavy shackles as the former ruler stood, but it was still with defiance. Alti noted it and commented, "I thought you might have found some sort of strength. But as Gabrielle's sent word she's to return today, it's time to change all that."
She motioned to Darphus to release Solon, who began to run towards Xena. As he ran, he cried out "Xena...!" but before he could complete the sentence, Alti extended her arm with a sudden movement, and he was smashed brutally against the far wall. Xena stared in shock, as the echo of her own action against the boy reverberated in her mind. A torch was brought to his body, and in the light Xena could see the blood already trickling down his forehead.
"Oh dear, how did that happen? Guess I just don't know my own strength," snickered Alti as she dusted her palms. "So here we are, the four of us. The only people in the world who know that Xena is still alive. Well, apart from Gabrielle of course. And she'll be here soon enough."
"Don't let him die." Xena was not too ashamed to plead. The weeks of relative mental clarity she had experienced vanished in her pain. She strained against her shackles as she tried to get to her son, frantic as his fair hair turned a dark red. "Please, don't..."
"Of course I'm going to let him die, Xena. That's the whole point of this. I kept him around as long as I needed him, and now I don't." Alti strolled towards the stricken boy, knelt by his side and examined him. She shook her head, slowly, as she raised herself to her full height once more. "He's barely hanging on, Xena," she said, her voice full of false concern. Darphus giggled, drawing her attention. She smiled coldly at him. "And Darphus. Dear, loyal Darphus. The same applies to you."
"Empress?" her commander turned to her, aghast.
"You are a memory that only exists because of these people, Xena. And like candles, I'm putting them out, one by one. I'm going to leave you here in the dark, Xena. No one will know you're here, no one will care.. Not even Gabrielle. You will be a shadow with no identity, no name, and soon, no will. You'll die, forgotten and alone." With her index finger, she traced the scar which ran from Darphus' eye to the corner of his mouth. "Your candle's shed its last light, Darphus."
"Empress, please..." Darphus started backing slowly towards the cell door. "I've served you well over the last few years. You're my mentor...I can help you defeat Xena...!"
"You've used up all of my goodwill, Darphus. You learn too much and too fast for someone I can't trust. We had some good times, though, didn't we?" She smiled sardonically, and grabbed hold of him as he tried to bolt out of the room. She tutted, and sighed heavily. "I don't even have to break you before I kill you, do I Darphus? You're whimpering worse than a child."
He scrambled for his knife, gashing his arm badly as he managed to pull the weapon from his belt, but it was knocked aside. "You smell of fear, Darphus. Are you afraid to die?" He shook his head mutely, whilst trying to break free of the surprisingly strong arm that had seized his wrist. "Liar. I can smell it seeping from your pores. That sharp, metallic stench... it almost covers the stink of your fetid life. You're afraid to die, Darphus. You're a cowardly, insignificant little man."
Alti stretched herself to her full height, and Darphus' figure was lost in the shadow she formed around him. There was a sound of struggle, then Darphus' screams were abruptly cut short.
Alti moved into the light of the torch and turned to face Xena, a look of distaste on her broad lips. She delicately wiped them. "A bit off, but there are unpleasant things that have to be done. He didn't have much, but every bit of spiritual essence helps." She cast his limp corpse aside, and kicked it as it fell.
"So now, there is only... Gabrielle. Sweet, innocent Gabrielle. You know I ordered the Amazons to treat her like royalty during her travels. And I'm sure her weeks with the Green Dragon were spent at the height of style. She was already becoming accustomed to a life of leisure before leaving here. Now I've asked her to meet me here. Where it all began. This disgusting, rotting dungeon will seem like a nightmare from a long ago past. She'll probably be happy to see the last remnant of the Butcher put to a final rest. It may be that simple. For her sake, I hope so."
Alti picked up a discarded bucket, and wrinkled her nose at the contents. "What a way to live..." She tossed the bucket at Xena, scattering drops of waste over the rancid straw of the cell floor. "Oh and Xena, in case you hoping that the girl might support you through some sort of scruples... according to the couriers, Ming Tien was so enchanted by her that he's given her a new kind of wheat. A seed which can flourish in places where nothing would grow before." She slid across the cramped space, towards the chained prisoner. "I'm sure that idealistic girl will see that as a kind of independence, freedom for the little people. But even she knows that the farms can only operate in peacetime. And only I can offer her that. You can only bring about Civil War. She'll be given a choice. Prosperity for herself and all those she loves, or siding with you. What would you choose? And finally, the prophecy will be fulfilled. All of the prophecy will come true." She reached over to fondle a tendril of Xena's hair, stroking it and playing it through her fingers as she spoke. "We're going to be very happy together, Gabrielle and I."
"Gabrielle isn't as much a gullible idealist as you think, Alti," Xena whispered, jerking her head aside. " She's much more than that. The girl has a streak of cold, hard steel running right through her, and she won't be taken in by you or your bullshit. We put it there, we're responsible for it. She knows us both for what we are."
"You still have some fight left. How touching. But, that must change. I can't have her see you like this. You've still got too much strength, too much pride. I had hoped that the death of your son would have crushed you completely. Fortunately I've been saving one more blow, just for this moment... First, let's dance, shall we?"
Warily, Xena shot a glance at Alti, and snarled as she saw the wide grin on the thick lips of her tormentor. Alti raised a hand again, and Xena's head went flying back against the wall, reliving the blow from a sword hilt that had momentarily felled her in the battle of Rome. She shook her head, scattering droplets of blood onto the filthy straw, and glowered at the laughing Shamaness.
Words from a long ago time floated through Xena's consciousness, taking her completely by surprise. "The shamaness has become too large - she must be made small again," came the anguished voice, faintly underscored by a note of desperate pleading.
"You always were strong, Xena, but even I never realised you had this much endurance."
"It's surprising how much strength pure hatred gives," came the hoarse reply.
"Oh, I know what hate can do, Xena. I'm a master manipulator of it, as you well know. I love using it to..." she moved over to Darphus' body, and rolled it over. It turned slowly, and landed on its back with a soft, sickly "thump'. "...find the chink, exploit the weakness. Take the power." She prodded the body again, then raised her hand to the candle which was flickering in the sconce. "Like Darphus. He feared me, but he thought that protected him somehow. Stupid fool. He couldn't see how vulnerable it made him." She pinched her fingers together, and snuffed out the candle. "Poor Darphus. He won't be seeing much of anything now."
"Darphus didn't just fear you. He was jealous of you, and that's what you manipulated. But I'm not afraid of you. My hatred is pure, and you can't exploit that, can you?"
"Pure hatred?" Alt paused in her circuit of the cell walls, musing over Xena's words. She gave a short laugh. "Of course I can. But I'd much rather exploit your love."
"Love?" Xena half-laughed, incredulously.
"You love your son, don't you?" The Empress strolled over to the boy who now lay curled in a foetal position against the far wall, his temples a crusted mass of spiky reddened hair which sent into sharp relief the ghastly pale skin of his face. She kicked him onto his back and he gave a slight groan as he twitched. "How pure is your love for him, Xena? Or is it tainted by other things - guilt, perhaps?" She lifted her arm and casually draped it over the iron candle holder which lay above the boy's body. "Maybe even a little resentment because he didn't recognise you for who you were all those years? Could it be perhaps traced by the thinnest thread of hatred too, for the way he treated you?" Her eyes glittered in the flickering orange glow of the candle as she examined Xena. She smiled, the satisfaction on her face illuminated by the glow of the tiny flame. "I thought so." She planted a foot onto Solon's throat, and at the same time blew out the candle.
"Don't kill him, please! He's just a child..." Xena fell to her knees, trying to reach over to the boy. Her fingers barely grazed his feet.
"And you've killed so many. Where was your mercy in Potadaia? In Thebes? In Gaul?"
With a superhuman effort, Xena managed to grab her son's toes, and yanked him roughly across the cell floor and into her arms. "Where was your mercy?" she countered, angrily. She clutched her son, feeling the erratic beat of his heart against her own breast. "You were with me every step of the way, urging me on. You were the one who enjoyed it."
"And you didn't?"
"It was just a job to me."
Alti burst out laughing, genuine mirth in the tones. "And you loved it! I didn't give you that pure pleasure, that orgasmic glow you got every time you killed your way through a battle. I remember what you were like when you got back from Rome. You were high on bloodlust for days afterwards." She stilled her restless pacing, and wryly smiled at her prisoner. "We were a good team in those days, Xena."
"I didn't know any better. I didn't know I could be different," Xena replied, as she rocked her dying son in her arms. "You made sure of that. You told me keeping my child would make me weak. That it was best for him. Solon could have changed everything for me."
"Solon?" cackled Alti, "Oh no, my dear Xena. The damage was done before he came along. The rot started in Chin." She spat out the final word, her face a dark twisted mask of venom. "Whatever it was that bitch taught you, it ruined a wonderful partnership."
What had Lao Ma taught her? Almost as much as Alti had. "To conquer others is to have power; to conquer yourself is to know the way." A message of peace which had been attractive in its way, almost as attractive as its messenger. She'd understood Lao Ma's body more than she had her philosophy, but she had tried, for a while. And had ultimately failed.
"She tried to teach me life. You only taught me death."
"You didn't need me to teach you that. You were a natural. Look how well your boy did without you, and now with you."
Xena snarled, a guttural, primeval sound that only caused Alti's mocking smile to broaden.
"You draw death to you, Xena. All of the people you ever loved, all dead because of you."
"That's not true."
"Your family - all dead, killed in reprisal for your acts. All your lovers, dead. Even Lao Ma's so-called great powers couldn't save her from you, could they? And now - your son. Who's next, Xena - Gabrielle?"
"The only person I want dead now, you bitch, is you!"
Again, Alti laughed. "One candle for Lao Ma..." she snuffed out another flame, casting the cramped cell into almost total darkness, "...just as you put out her candle all those years ago. Or don't you remember that, Xena?"
"I remember how you killed her, yes."
"Oh, that's what I've made sure you believed all these years." Alti laughed again. "I think it's time you faced up to the reality of what you did to your lover, Xena."
Xena closed her eyes against the onslaught of memories which assailed her, clasped her son tightly against her body, and tried in vain to focus on the faint, catching breaths that were somehow still coming from his broken body.
The soft lapping of the water against her skin, the tender brush of a hand as it passed over her neck to sweep her long hair aside, the sweet smell of bath oils mixed with ass' milk and honey, the distinctive scents of Lao Ma which would always stay with her, reminding her of friends and lovers found, chances missed and truths denied. "You don't know it yet, Xena, but you're a remarkable woman, capable of greatness." The words had caught in her chest, and opened her eyes to the fact of what she could be, and what she had become; an ugly truth that she hadn't been able to cope with. She remembered her hand contacting brutally with the soft cheeks of her mentor.
"No," she gasped, as the vision hit her, "That didn't happen - I never hit her!"
Alti shrugged, and smiled all the more as she continued to delve into Xena's consciousness. "Didn't you ever ask yourself how Lao Ma could have let me close enough to kill her? No one but you could have done it, Xena. Only you."
Her fist lashed out again, and this time grabbed a handful of silken, dark hair, cruelly twisting the head around. She pressed an angry kiss onto the vulnerable, soft lips, drawing blood as she broke away, and laughed. "Don't you hate me yet?" she had asked, and had been angered and surprised to see the head shake, sending whips of black hair haloing around them both. "You will, soon... and where will your precious words of peace be then?"
"I have shown you the way, Xena. Stop willing, stop desiring... stop hating," was the reply, the soft and sensuous voice oozing into her ears like the sweet poison she now knew it to be, thanks to Alti.
Your way isn't for me. You said the entire world is driven by a will, blind and ruthless... so if I give up my will, where would that leave me? I have been promised a destiny, and it is to be the Conqueror of the world. It is written in prophecy. And you want me to turn my back on all that I could be? You would make me weak... I can't let that happen, Lao Ma."
Xena gripped her head, screwing her eyes up against the images that played behind her eyelids. She saw the obsidian shaft, felt the initial resistance and sudden smooth slide as she plunged it into the skull of Lao Ma. She smelt the metallic tang in the air as the blood first trickled, then pumped out and coated the hairpin hilt and her hand with its warm slickness. And she heard her own laughter, triumphant in its victory, as she watched the dying woman struggle through her last breaths.
She'd killed the woman who had offered her life? No, it couldn't be. "I don't remember... I don't remember any of this...You stabbed her, not me... I couldn't. I loved her... I loved her..."
"But that's my point, Xena. Everything you love falls apart. Being loved by you is a death sentence. Everything you touch crumbles and dies."
Each word was like a blow inside of the warrior's mind, and she collapsed down, down, down, in the corner and began shivering like a small, wounded child.
Alti heard the sound of feet hurrying down the corridor before the door to the cell was pushed open, so she was not surprised by Gabrielle's arrival on her carefully staged scene. What did shock her was Gabrielle's appearance. Instead of the silken garments she had supplied, the girl was in full Amazon regalia; tanned leather top and short skirt, and carrying a staff. Her arms and face bore evidence of exposure to the sun, and the month of training showed in the newly developed arm and shoulder muscles.
Gabrielle paused at the entrance to the cell, saw Xena huddled in a corner and Solon lying at her feet. She brushed quickly past Alti to get to the boy, and dropped quickly to his side. She touched his cheek gently, and tried to wipe away the blood that was crusting at his hairline. "Oh Solon," she whispered, before looking up at the grim faced Empress. "Why?"
Alti looked faintly surprised. "Shouldn't that question be better posed to Xena?"
Gabrielle glanced again to the silent figure in the corner, but simply repeated her question. "Why? And why Arminus?" She swallowed, and rose. "Why?" The question became a chant as she raised her staff, and strode towards the Empress. "Why? WHY?"
Alti flung out her arm, and Gabrielle was picked up and thrown to the far side end of the cell as though the wind had carried her. She landed heavily, and suddenly, soundlessly Alti was now towering above her. "That's why Arminus, Gabrielle. That's the power his death gave me." She glowered down on the girl, watching as a dazed Gabrielle struggled to her knees. "I think you've been away from court too long, and need a little lesson in manners and the realities of the situation."
Gabrielle wiped the trickle of blood from her mouth but glared upwards defiantly.
Alti shook her head. "You're making this so much harder. Why did you have to see through my charade so easily? And how? I spent such a time working on it. Didn't you have some doubts that Xena might have done this?"
"Any doubts I might have had were gone when I stopped on the way here to see Perdicus. If Xena was going to kill anyone, it would be someone who she thought had betrayed her. But you know what? She didn't touch him, and stayed only to read my scrolls about Potadaia. She's the one who wants to take responsibility for who she was. You're the darkness I'm supposed to stop."
Alti gave a short laugh. "Well it doesn't matter now, does it? And unfortunately, taking responsibility for Xena was a little more than she could chew, as you can see. With a little help from me, she's just remembered who killed the great Lao Ma."
"You killed Lao Ma."
"That's the joke," Alti grinned. "I didn't."
Gabrielle rose slowly to her feet, gripping her staff across her body. "Xena may have been the tool, but you killed her."
"A technicality," shrugged Alti.
"Hardly. Lao Ma had reached Xena. Somehow she got through that crust of hatred and anger that you'd spent years building up, and she made her feel again. It must have galled you to see all of your work crumbling. You must have known you were losing her. She stopped letting you have your pick of souls to feed on, so you made her go back to Chin. With you, this time. You worked on her mind, and told her that Lao Ma was destroying her."
"She was, that simpering bitch!"
"No, Lao Ma was destroying you! All your dreams and plans would be nothing. So you pushed Xena, hoping it would poison her against Lao Ma, and it worked, for a time. But it was already too late, Lao Ma's teaching's had already begun to work."
"Clever little girl aren't you, to figure all that out by yourself?"
"You forget Alti, I've lived under your rule. I don't have to be clever to know how far you'd go to protect your power."
Alti's smirking face grew hard, and her broad lips bared into a snarl. "None of it matters now. You see, Gabrielle, your wonderful ideal of responsibility doesn't quite suit the likes of Xena. It's like poison... it destroys and eats away at the resolve. It's impossible for Xena to come to terms with all that she's done. So as you can see, she is no longer in the running as your partner, so your choices have narrowed considerably." She took a step towards Gabrielle, who backed up a little and held her staff protectively across her body. "I believe you should be showing me a great deal more respect."
Gabrielle shook her head, resentment flashing across her face. "You think that I'm some sort of puppet. You people always do. Well, you better think again. There are things I want."
She motioned curtly towards the motionless boy on the floor. "Solon has served his purpose, right? It may not matter if he lives or dies to you, but it does to me. He's still breathing, a healer might be able to do something. You get him to a healer, and then we can talk. Letting him die won't help you."
"It won't hurt me, either, Gabrielle." Alti thought for a moment as she watched the girl carefully, then smirked. "But why not? I'll take Solon to a healer, but when I return I will have your word that you are my... partner, is that right? And if not, I promise I'll simply close this cell door. Then I'll wait before I come back. A month, maybe more. You can stay here with that shell of a woman for company; and for food... Darphus and whatever breeds in his body. Is that understood?" There was a tense silence. "I want your decision when I return. Make sure it's the sensible one, the one made for the greater good."
She grinned as she felt Gabrielle watching her carefully, so she picked up Solon almost tenderly, and crooned to him as he was lifted up and out of the cell. Gabrielle waited until her footsteps receded, and cautiously moved in front of Xena. She dropped to a crouch and wrapped her arms around her knees, resting her head on them and studied the silent warrior.
To Be Continued
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