Part 3 Chapter 11
By Phantom Bard
For Disclaimer: See Part 3 Chapter 1
Part 3 Chapter 10
By Phantom Bard
For Disclaimer: See Part 3 Chapter 1
When love must die
Who waits forever anyway?
(Lyric from, "Who Wants To Live Forever", Written by Brian May, Recorded by Queen)
"strategos, the enemy moves," the spy reported. "They are forming ranks and arming."
It was 0430 hours, still dark, but the rain had ceased two hours before and the overcast had finally broken up. It was just as Xena had predicted, and throughout her camp, every clone believed.
"Pass the word," the Destroyer of Nations ordered, "everyone is to eat and then ready themselves silently. We stand formation at 0530 hours."
The kataskopos nodded and left the tent to convey the orders. For several moments, Xena stood in the doorway and watched the rousing of her camp. The message was passed. Tents emptied. Clones emerged to check the sky and then move to the mess area. Despite the activity, there was almost no sound. The strategos nodded in approval and then turned back to reenter her tent.
Within the darkness she walked directly to her pallet. In the darkness she began to dress, donning uniform, armor, and boots. She armed herself, sword, dagger, and Combined Chakram. Still in the darkness she turned to the tent's other occupant, her night vision providing her with a nearly perfect mirror image of herself.
"Are you ready?" She asked.
"Yes, strategos," the clone answered. She hesitated for a moment and then added, "I feel them coming down the road from the northwest."
Xena regarded the words for a moment. Whose presence had those hyper-sharp senses revealed? Not the enemy this time, but not an ally either. Then she realized who it must be in all their thousands. "They all live for you." She filed the information away.
"May this day bring you glory," Xena said as she turned to leave.
"Victory or death," came the answer.
At 0530 hours the army of the Destroyer of Nations gathered in battle formation on the hill's crest. They stood silently, in two ranks of 4,000 files width, their faces attentive but betraying no nervousness. The two "specials" had occupied positions 1,000 and 3,000 in the front rank. Now the clones watched as their supreme commander walked from the command tent and stood on the hilltop facing them. They focused their attention on her as she reviewed them before scanning the battlefield.
The strategos turned in a slow circle, confirming the conditions the morning's light would soon reveal. Overhead, the last broken lumps of cloud limped across the sky, ghostly pale with a waning moon setting and the morning star overhead. Gentle light illuminated the ground fog and laid the field before her under a glowing mist that stretched out to cover the swamp. It obscured the enemy camp and hid the Strymon River. Almost, she could imagine it as a haze of lost years, into whose nebulosity had passed all the battles she had known through her memories of another life. Into that haze flowed each passing moment as her present life slipped into history too. There was continuity here, even for a clone. Everything was in place, all her weapons ready, all her strategies set. She was at peace; more so than at any other time since she had awoken and escaped the lab.
Slowly she let her focus slide to the northwest, allowing her finely tuned senses to open and receive the sensations that emanated from that direction. She remembered first feeling it 60† off the Miss Artiphys' starboard beam while skimming along the coast of Tanzania, and how unerringly it had drawn her attention. Yes, she thought, it was "Like a second sunriseÖ". Somehow the memory of that day brought her comfort. After a moment, she shifted her focus back to the battlefield. With her army, she waited.
Her army! The realization of command came to her, conveying the importance of her responsibilities. She stood at the nexus of history, fate, and destiny. She knew her part. She and all the others had been created for this day, this deed. She perceived the hands of the Moirae weaving the fabric of all lives in fate's warp and weft, and she understood that this was the source of the absolute certainty she felt about the near future. It was exhilarating, and paradoxically, like the sensation projected from the Gabrielles, it too brought her peace.
The first gentle breath of air movement caressed her face as the mass of atmosphere above her took on energy. Somewhere far to the east, perhaps gracing the steppes she'd once ravaged, Helios warmed the land. Above that sere and endless grass heated air rose, while at ground level, cool air was drawn in to replace it. Apollo's fiery disc drove the engine of the wind, reduced at its very margins to the gentlest of breezes as Eos suckled at the waning chill of night. She slowly inhaled and exhaled. With her army, she waited.
Here time seemed frozen, yet she knew it moved forward, heartbeat by heartbeat, unstoppable. Afterwards, she would never be able to pinpoint the moment at which she seemed to be living the prophecy; the moment at which she stepped from her mortal life and into myth. In that moment, she became hyperaware. She had been given great gifts and Ares' Blessing. Never before had one such as her lived, and now as every sense sharpened, she felt as if she had never lived before. The serenity of the previous moment was replaced by an almost supernatural focus. With that focus she saw action and consequence, history and present, fate and future. She saw strategies and tactics, capabilities and limits, possibilities presented and certainties created. She saw with the clarity of a strategos hypatos and a god's mortal Favorite. Time continued to flow.
Anthracite hair shifted in the slight breeze, while eyes as heartless as chips of flint cut through the predawn stillness where the coming morning's moisture thickened the air and offered the land a carpet of dew. Selene's disc had set and Phosphor's star was fading. As promised in Ares' vision years before, the weeklong overcast had broken up in the last candlemarks. The dawn would be clear. She waited, mantled in the stillness of discipline, for prescience was upon her. She lived within the truth of the vision. Nations had fallen and half a world lay in flaming rubble. The survivors would enter a second Dark Age in servitude to the Conqueror, their machinery silenced. Yet true silence could no more exist here than could the darkness of true night. It was too late for either now. In moments Eos would taint the horizon behind her, heralding Apollo's light as a clarion of battle. It would be a lovely day for a bloodbath.
Before her a narrow plain lay under the failing darkness, cleared and groomed as a field of battle. Facing her across that scant eighth mile of land, a hostile army of 24,000 soldiers waited. These enemies had been bred, armed, and inspired by a leader of inhuman ability, and yet they had already been driven to their present disadvantageous position, encamped on the soggy margins of a swamp and facing uphill against her from the west. Xena had left them to steep in that demoralizing environment for the past week.
With supremely acute hearing she marked the faint rush of air as it flowed in and out of their lungs. It was an ocean of rhythmic whispers, like waves lapping against distant shores, or the even more distant impressions, fainter to her mind than memories from another life, of her mother's breath while she'd still rested in her womb. Over the intervening furlong, the slightest of breezes conveyed a fractional degree's warmth from their collective body heat to caress her skin, almost as an offering of their mortality. They were so close.
A glance to her right revealed a sheer cliff face rising four hundred feet in an imposing verticality of schist and gneiss, a magmatic darkness recalling its origin in Hades' realm. Born of earth's fire, the black rock was a fitting ally, a lithic equivalent of her unbending will and enduring darkness. Now its igneous hardness reflected sounds to her ears, and later it would simplify the battle. No troop movements would come from the right flank today, and there would be no escape up that escarpment for the vanquished.
From somewhere on her left came the shuffling of many hooves, horses softly chuffing, an occasional snort, and the scents of harness leather, the animals, and their dung. She marked them clearly in her mind's eye; hippikon, cavalryÖperhaps 2,000 waiting to crash against her left flank. With the foresight of a veteran general, she visualized the rear ranks of her enemies marching to follow the cavalry charge after the infantry lines engaged, hoping to mop up her shattered files. A good plan, she mused, but futile.
The fallow field they would trample during their attack lay crisscrossed with thorn vines and netting and undermined by camouflaged trenches filled with wicked spikes whose points were poisoned with botanic toxins. There were wobble-boards, trip lines, trap doors, and loose river stones to turn an ankle. Body-swallowing potholes gave the appearance of puddles, but hid half-length spears just beneath their surface. More visible were the inclined stakes with their bases embedded deep in the turf, their shafts angled forward to impale a horse or funnel the riders into the other traps. No troop movements would come from the left flank today, and the vanquished there would be reduced to broken bodies and rent flesh.
The enemy outnumbered her forces by over three to one. They were far too numerous for stealth, yet far too few for victory. Already over twice their number lay dead and her army had collected the weapons from their recently fallen to arm her traps. In a forgotten world, the living would have comprised four Imperial Legions, complete with cavalry wings. No one could hide an army of that size in such a small space. No one could prevail against her fielding a conventional army within an order of magnitude of her own army's count.
Those soldiers across the plain were just doomed soldiers who waited to fight and die as Apollo's chariot rode up into the sky. With a soul as cold as her pale blue eyes, she had no mercy to offer them. They had been bred to fight and they would be slaughtered to the last, exterminated utterly, leaving not even a memory worthy of tales or song. On this day their mortal souls would be rendered unto Hades' judgment, and their immortal general would die at her hand. For a moment she wondered how a god would judge a god, and the thought brought a slight curl to her lips.
Now she turned and cast her gaze back upon her own army. There stood almost 8,000 warriors at parade rest, with hands clasped behind their backs and their feet set shoulder width apart. Their formation was 4,000 across to match the enemy's line, but only two ranks deep against the enemy's six. For this engagement they were equipped as euzonos, light infantry, each clad head to toe in black body armor woven of manmade spider silk and overlain with cyber-mimetic fabric. On their left collars, the Sigil of War was emblazoned in blood red; on their right shoulders, the Lion of Amphipolis was embroidered in gold. Alone among them, her own right collar bore the silver ring of the chakram.
In all the history of armed conflict, never had any general fielded an army so cohesive, so committed, or so deadly. Xena knew every fighter as intimately as she knew herself; she knew their abilities, their courage, and the uncompromising perfection of their training. Menace projected from them like a storm front, these fell and peerless fighters. They held every edge their general could give them save numbers, and today that would count for nothing, for they had the advantages of heredity, technology, and destiny.
In contrast to the army across the plain, her army was deathly silent. They stood frozen, bodies that metabolized at 42% greater than an average mortal barely breathing, without any nervous movements or even the slightest evidence of any diminution of their focus. These warriors mirrored their commander in every aspect. Each cast her cold eyes on their opposition, identical neutral expressions on their faces, and each stood as tall as the next. With such an army in the time of her original life, she would have subjugated Hellas in a month and taken all of the Roman Empire in five.
Xena stood watching. She was more than a strategos hypatos, a supreme commander, to them. She was the mother of them all. Behind her back, a finger absentmindedly stroked the patch on her arm where the cells had been harvested less than five years before. She had forged this army with the Blessing of her patron god, and with it she would conquer on this dayÖand on every day to come. She would defeat the immortal enemy leader and her army before Apollo reached the zenith. She would put an end to the rapaciousness of Science. Finally, after all the intervening years, she would change the world. It had been foreseen and she believed.
Before the strategos a tall figure flashed into existence and gave her an unabashed look of approval. His Favorite. He leaned in and gave her a quick kiss on the lips, symbolic of his Blessing, and then he vanished in a flash of blue light. In his wake she fingered the razor sharp ring at her waistÖthe Chakram of DayÖthe only unbroken, uncombined chakram left in existence. It was as deadly now as it had been on that long forgotten morning when Hephaestos had first forged it. It was as deadly to a goddess as to a titan.
At last the long awaited dawn broke the horizon. She saw the ektaxis of the enemy, drawn up 4,000 across just as the vision had foreshown. Now Eos painted the landscape in hues of blood while sending greedy tendrils lashing like rents across the sky. From the plain below a trumpet bravely sent up the call to battle, yet on this morning it was bereft of heroism, plaintive and doomed. In answer, the tramping of 48,000 boots in perfect synchronization split the stillness, announcing the enemy's advance. Reality flowed just as it had unfolded in the vision.
The barest hint of a grin shaped her lips and the fire blossomed in her eyes as she felt the killer within unleashed. The katalepsis was still her birthright even though she had never been born. She saw it mirrored in the eyes of the 8,000 facing her, their bodies now shadowed by the light of the dawn brightening behind them. With her army, she waited. Then Apollo's chariot cleared the horizon, backing her forces with his radiant disc, as if conferring his blessing too on her campaign. Just as it should be, she thought.
The enemy came on, closing the distance against the blinding morning glare, and she let them come, awaiting them with her troops, still as the memorial statues of ancient heroes graven in stone. They had advanced to within a 100 yards of her now; scarcely 60 seconds' march away. Again their trumpet sounded, and with a shout, the 8,000 spears of their hoplite front ranks snapped from vertical to horizontal. Their shields lapped in a barrier wall of bronze. From the ranks behind them, 16,000 swords hissed from their scabbards with a demon's proud roar. Finally it seemed that Athena's army stood as one.
In answer, she raised her right hand, clad in black woven armor. Her 8,000 warriors snapped to attention, the stamp as they set their boots side-by-side resounding sharp as a clap of thunder. She clenched her fist. Each warrior reached up and lowered a single goggle-like filter over her left eye, enhancing their vision into the infrared.
Before her eyes and the eyes of her enemies, her army, 8,000 cloned warriors, each tall and obsidian haired, each bearing a spathe makra, (long sword), xiphidion, (a dagger), and a circular blade, shimmered and disappeared from mortal sight as if at the waking from a dream.
Then she turned and strode forward to meet the enemy line. For all appearances she was one against an army, yet it was the army whose advance faltered. Behind her the ground shook as her invisible forces followed, their every boot fall striking a tremor in synch with her own. She drew her sword and 8,000 swords shrieked from their scabbards in response. She'd heard the gasps from the enemy soldiers as her warriors had vanished, leaving the barren hill empty under the rising sun, its surface undulating slightly as if overlain by a rippling wave of heat. Hidden in the hill's long morning shadow, the shadows of her warriors could not be seen. Answering their adversaries' sounds of dismay came a full-throated challenge from her invisible army.
"In the name of the Destroyer of Nations! With the Blessing of the God of War!"
And before she lowered her filter and disappeared from living sight, she cried out a single command, "Kill 'Em All!" And then with her army, she charged.
Two heartbeats passed and then an aggregate, warbling whine, louder than a jet engine, lacerated the morning as 8,000 chakrams cut the air. They divided into their halves and suddenly 16,000 razor sharp blades exploded towards the enemy as if they'd appeared from nowhere. They passed inches above the flinching heads of the Achilleses' hoplite front ranks like a flight of argentine swifts. At the apex of their flight they floated for a second and then reversed direction above the rearmost rank of the enemy army. Now they were slicing back on a return course, gaining speed in their downward flight.
A moment later the cloud of whistling blades struck their targets from the rear and the enemy's front ranks fell. With them went the Achilleses' polished shields whose reflected light might have revealed the cloaked warriors. Gone was their forest of spears, leaving the rear ranks vulnerable. Into the resulting panic slammed the unseen lines of the Destroyer of Nations.
The air rang with ululated war cries rising from invisible throats as severed heads fell to the whistling arcs of disembodied swords. Blood fountained up into the air. The menace that Athena's army had felt a week before was instantly eclipsed by this nightmare battle in which those same deadly foes couldn't be seen. Not even the Elainises, weaving their twin blades in swift defensive figure eights could forestall their deaths. The Xenas strode among the doomed with complete impunity, hewing and slashing with feral glee, and shrieking like celebrant harpies who lived only to shed blood.
What warrior's mind could withstand the terror of seeing the comrade beside her hacked to pieces, but never seeing her killer? Who could fight, with mind overthrown by a violence no prowess could address, as trembling hands clutched weapons for which no targets could be found? Their courage fled and their spirits shrank. Fear and horror ruled their souls. All around them bodies fell and blood sprayed, momentarily revealing hazy attacking figures before they disappeared again as the cyber-mimetic fabric compensated. The killing stroke could come from any quarter, unseen and unexpected until the cold steel slammed through muscle and bone and into organs already clenching in spasms of desperation. In panic they recalled that Xena had refused their surrender a week ago. She intended to kill them all.
"Can one in three of you slay an enemy?" Athena had asked her warriors in her folly. "That is all it would take to wipe them out utterly. Yet even that isn't necessary. I say, if just one in five of you can slay an enemy you shall prevail."
Now not a single clone in Athena's army thought of slaying even one, for not a single clone in her army hoped to live. It took only seconds for the realization that they would be annihilated to overwhelm them. A tsunami of despair inundated the rapidly dwindling ranks. Pulses raced. Hearts fluttered. Adrenaline surged as bodies voided vomit, urine, and feces, futilely lightening themselves for flight or fight. Their enemy granted them neither. Some of the clones wailed and wildly swung their swords in arcs around their bodies. Some threw down their weapons and beseeched their goddess to deliver them from the horror. Some called on Celesta for the sanctuary of death. But on this day, it was the Destroyer of Nations alone who answered their prayers and curses, for each of her clones could slay three of their enemies with ease.
From several years before came the words of the God of War. "Xena, in this war there can be no satisfactory outcome short of total domination. There is no place to retreat to and there will be no second chance. When you face Athena in battle, it must be with the absolute assurance of your complete victory. The battle itself will be decided quickly, perhaps in no more than a candlemark. There will be no place for shame or mercy; annihilate them all. Afterwards, there will be no place in this world for herÖonly you."
Barely a half-hour after the trumpet had rung out the call to battle it was done. Not a single clone of Athena's infantry still lived. All had fallen before the katalepsis, and the victors turned to slaying the remains of the cavalry in the adjacent field. An hour past the dawn it was finished, the slaughter complete. The Strymon flowed red and the land lay muddied and reeking with blood and waste. Over the battleground an eerie silence prevailed. The Destroyer of Nations had killed them all.
Now, upon the hilltop, a figure appeared to mortal sight. She stood triumphant and surveyed the corpse littered field. Black hair matted and spattered, black uniform wet with the blood of the slain. On her left collar the Sigil of War, on her right shoulder, the Lion of Amphipolis, and on her right collar, the ring of the chakram. At her waist, the Chakram of Day, and in her upraised hand, a bloody sword. The dedication of the spoils was the right of the victorious strategos hypatos. Every living eye focused on her and every ear listened for her words. All over the field of battle, clones decloaked and reappeared.
"Hear me, mortals and immortals alike," she called out as she swept her sword in an arc to encompass the destruction, "here lies a sacrifice worthy of Ares, the true God of War. Accept the offering of your Favorite as a token of thanks for your Blessing and as the first fruits of the New World. Here is victory and death! The unworthy followers of an unworthy goddess have been vanquished in your name."
The words had no sooner left her mouth than a flash of golden light flared on the hilltop beside her. There stood Athena, screaming with a voice louder than a crash of thunder. There were no words, only the pure raw emotion of rage from the Goddess of Wisdom. Her drawn sword was clenched in her right hand and her arm was already in motion. She surged forward, driven by a hatred first born in the ancient world, and inflamed by frustration reborn in the present. The blow was aimed to cleave the Destroyer's head from her body. Divine speed and strength powered the stroke. God's Favorite or not, no mortal-born warrior could have preserved their life against the Goddess of War.
But the blade's stroke never fell. Cloned Xena ducked its arc as she switched her sword from her right hand to her left in a blur of unnatural motion. Athena slashed again with a return swing, but now the Hellene's Bane blocked it with her own sword and locked up their hilts. In a rage the goddess used her divine strength to slam Xena back. The cloned Destroyer gave way, turning her blade to masterfully redirect Athena's force and send her tumbling to the ground. And then the deadly Chakram of Day was at her throat in the clone's right hand. For a moment they froze and the whole world held its breath.
Behind them the azure flash signaled the appearance of the God of War, finally free to act. He had come to defend his Chosen and slay his sister. For the first time since ancient days, he bore a spear while his sword still rested in its scabbard at his hip. But he saw that the fight was already decided, and that his daughter had moved faster than his sister. Xena's mortal clone had moved faster than a goddess!
There was wonder and despair on the face of Zeus' daughter. Defeated in single combat by a mortal! She let her hand go slack and her sword dropped from her grasp in token of her capitulation. Kneeling above her, the clone pressed the ring blade down harder, drawing the slightest upwelling of ichor, immortal blood. Almost, it seemed as if a light emanated from the chakram rather than reflecting the light from Apollo's chariot above.
"Don't even think about trying to roll me off," the clone hissed to the goddess. "I can hew your neck just like I could avoid your sword."
"And anywhere you go, I can take the chakram and follow," Ares told her.
"Kill her on my command, Prima," ordered another clone as she walked up the hill. "There is no place left in this world for her."
"Yes, strategos," the "special" responded. She knew her role and the easy part was done. Now they would break the goddess' spirit completely by demonstrating how hopeless her war had always been.
The eyes of the goddess nearly started from her head when Xena revealed herself. Ares erupted in a fit of laughter. Xena strode up and knelt beside her clone and her enemy. There was not a trace of humor in her demeanor. She too knew her part in the plan.
"Athena, deposed Goddess of Wisdom and Warfare," she began, opening the traditional declaration of the fulfillment of her oath of vengeance, "you have caused me irreparable grievance by cloning my daughter, by making war on myself and my soulmate, and by causing my soulmate's death. Blood for blood; I cannot forgive.
I cared nothing about your attempt to rule this world or its people. I would never have moved to war in this time had we been left in peace. But by your actions, you unleashed the true Destroyer of Nations and slew the Warrior Princess. Now I am the Conqueror. Now this world will bow to me. Under Ares' patronage and in his name, I will rule it. Upon your death I will hold my oath fulfilled."
Athena looked into the eyes of the mortal woman who was actually her niece, and she saw a depth of hatred there colder than any she'd seen, even in the eyes of an immortal. And now she wondered how she could have missed the obvious? All that time wishing Elainis had been her daughter when her brother's daughter encompassed everything she'd have wished for in a child of war. The goddess belatedly realized that she should have been Xena's mentor instead of her antagonist 2,000 years before. This Thracian, born of a commoner, could have become the bridge that spanned the gap between her brother and herself. Through her, by naming her the first joint Favorite, they both could have ruled. Instead both her Favorite and her brother's had died on the Ides of March. The missed opportunity was more bitter than her defeat.
How could she have been so blind? She had seen Xena long ago. The woman demanding her life now was nothing like her. Athena had never understood that the Xena who had once contested against Caesar was a human woman, spared and restrained from the worst of her divine blood's influence by the very mortal she had ordered killed. Now Athena understood that she had never really seen Xena; when she had looked, she had seen only an enemy mortal. She had never perceived what she really was or discerned her potential. That mistake had undone her hopes and plans in the modern world.
Twice Athena had sealed her own doom. It could only be Fate, she thought in hopeless resignation, the culmination of a destiny she'd been trapped by. It had been in motion since the first day Zeus had split the domain of war within the Olympian order. Now it seemed that she could do nothing but accept the part fate had written for her. Like every ancient, she believed that all the living were subject to it and not even a god could escape fate. Pride and wisdom hadn't availed her. She saw that eventually mortal and immortal alike could only bow to inevitability as their life's threads were woven into the fabric of all lives on the Moirae's loom. That fabric's order was more important than the strands making it up. What had come to pass had been meant to be from the beginning. She had always been destined to lose, and her long life had been lived to facilitate the events of life's fabric as it created the world's history. She saw herself as a pathway more than a person; her ultimate value was in what she had done, not who she had been. It was depressing.
The Destroyer of Nations sneered at her defeated enemy. "How will a god judge a god? Ask Hades when you see him, Athena."
"We are not judged," the goddess whispered, "when our time is done we are consigned to oblivion. Uranus, Cronos, the Titans, the Hecatoncheire, and the other Olympians, all haveÖfaded." Her voice cracked.
"Breaks my heart," Xena said, though her heart had long been unbreakable ice. She opened her mouth to give Prima the order of execution. "Kill her, PriÖ"
"No, Xena, wait!" A voice screamed from the hillside.
And the "special" stopped the chakram on the down thrust, absorbing the movement of her arm with the flexibility of her wrist. Her conscious mind hadn't made the decision. Even she couldn't think that fast. No one can truly know how they'll react to a situation until it occurs, despite their training or prior experience. Prima had disobeyed an order from her strategos by reflex, her body countermanding the nerve impulses for an action commanded by her "near self" in response to the request from half her soul. Then like everyone else, she froze. They were here in all their thousands.
Down on the battlefield among the Destroyer's clones, and stretching up to the hill in an irregular group, stood a crowd of blonde women, all identical, and all agitated. The last few were still filing onto the field from the road. Some chewed their lips, some hugged themselves, and some clenched their fists. Their attention was riveted on the frozen tableau of figures on the hilltop.
The cloned Xenas stood staring at them in surprise and wonder. Every one of them knew this woman from a lifetime together, even though they'd never met in this life. A small fraction of them had seen the Gabrielles once from a distance at sea, and they'd never been far from their wondering minds since. Not a single one of the Destroyer's troops thought to stop them or move against them as they walked across the battlefield. For all practical purposes, the Destroyer's army was paralyzed.
Standing among her clones, Xena knew better than to issue commands. She could only try to imagine the shock her warriors were feeling, meeting this person for the first time. She felt it herself, strongly. 8,000 GabriellesÖtheir numbers magnified their effect.
Xena remembered the first time she'd felt it, in the Pallene outside of Potidaea. She'd stopped dead in her tracks, unable to move. The warrior had just freed the original Gabrielle along with a line of slaves, but a part of her had sworn to never let her go. Some might have called it love at first sight, but this was not Aphrodite's gift. This was the ancient work of the Moirae, manifesting itself again. It had been a meeting of bonded souls and the result of a destiny far older than even the Doric or Ionic migrations; it had already been ancient when Mycenae stood.
In the moment of their greatest distraction, Athena moved with mortal desperation and the speed of a goddess. She had nothing left to lose. Her head slipped sideways clearing the blade, and she wrapped a hand around the chakram. Then with a wrenching twist, she tore it from Prima's grasp and rolled to her knees. It was accomplished in the blink of an eye. Though she knew her part, allowing it was the hardest thing Prima had ever done.
Ares lunged at his sister, viciously snapping the spear towards her, but she spun aside, slipping past the point as it drove towards her chest. She came to her feet and jabbed outwards with the blade, aiming it at Xena's neck as she stood, her attention only beginning to return from the Gabrielles. Athena hoped that by killing Ares' Favorite, she could share the defeat with her enemy and spoil the Destroyer's victory. The ring-bladed weapon flashed towards its target in a blur.
Then for the third time that morning, the Goddess of War met the unexpected. Xena shifted her body only slightly, but it was enough. As she once had in a Mongolian desert, she snagged her opponent's weapon with one hand and used its momentum to wrench it from her enemy's grasp. The twisting tug she gave it drew Athena's body beyond her center of gravity. A blindingly fast foot sweep dropped her to the ground. Somehow Xena moved her body downwards faster than the goddess fell. She was already on one knee as Athena's back hit the dirt. Before the goddess took her first breath there, the chakram was again held in place at her neck. The clone had made it look easy.
The goddess could barely believe what had happened. In this war, revelation had followed revelation, just as setbacks had been followed by defeat. She remembered that on the day she'd rescued her Favorite at the Temple of the Chakram, Xena had moved faster than she ever had in her original life. For the second time in a row, one of Xena's clones had outpaced her divine speed and vanquished her in combat. She was now thoroughly convinced that all of the Destroyer's clones could move at superhuman speed. The knowledge crushed her. Her army had never stood a chance.
Now a third Xena left the mass of warriors and made her way up the hill. She was identical to all the others. Ares moved to rest the tip of his spear against his sister's chest.
"Secunda, give Ares the chakram," Xena whispered, knowing that even her "special" clones were divided within themselves. She herself felt the conflicting pull of her soulmate's presence, but she would not let this distraction rob her of her vengeance. The God of War had a vested interest in controlling his sister and Xena knew he'd guard their prisoner well. But for the double-bait tactic she'd learned from Mithridates, her victory could have become a defeat. She'd never expected Athena to go down without a fight.
With a gesture the spear vanished and Ares knelt beside Secunda. As he set his hand firmly on the Chakram of Day, he darted her a quick, wry glance. So, he thought proudly, Xena had cloned two "specials" that could pass for her in a god's eyes. Secunda withdrew her hand and then stood up beside her general.
Prima joined them and together they watched as a single Gabrielle hastened up the hill to join them while the rest inched closer, mingling with the troops. The Gabrielle didn't stop until she was only a yard away, looking back and forth between the three Xenas. To her eyes they were identical, but to her heart, they were as different as night and day. She offered Prima a small smile, nodded to Secunda, and then addressed the strategos.
"Hi, Xena," she said with disarming familiarity, "I see the Destroyer of Nations has won her war. I guess that's Athena?" She cocked her head a fraction towards the figure on the ground. Gabrielle had never met the Goddess of Wisdom.
"She's just another defeated enemy, Gabrielle," Xena softly replied. "The war's almost over, but it can only end with her death."
"I will find them and I will kill them all." Gabrielle whispered. She remembered the words of Xena's oath as clearly as if she'd heard them herself. "I know, Xena. Even when I was dying I knew you'd win your war. I believed. But what comes after?"
"Xena is now the Conqueror of this world," Ares proudly told her. His attention never shifted from his sister. "She will be the absolute ruler of what remains of mankind."
"The ConquerorÖ" Gabrielle shakily repeated. She could only remember the images of the Conqueror from the TV episode, "Armageddon Now". It still chilled her blood.
"What remains of the world," the downed goddess hissed derisively, "is what hasn't been blown up, contaminated with radioactivity, or overrun by plagues. She's won a war that's left a quarter of humanity dead, destroyed all the oil, and set civilization back over a thousand years. Some things may be recovered someday, but many things can never be the same."
Gabrielle just stared at the goddess in silence for a moment. Over 1‡ billion dead? But surely Xena hadn't killed them all. The goddess must have caused some of those deaths. Yet a world based on ancient technology wouldn't be able to support the rest. Another three or four billion could die in the next few years. By the gods, whole continents would reek of the corpses for a century. Athena wouldn't be around to share the blame for them. It was far worse than anything on the TV show had been.
"Is this what you want, Xena?" Gabrielle asked. "What glory is there in ruling an empire of rubble? Somehow, I feel that if you kill her now there can be no turning back."
For a long time Xena didn't answer. For years, all she'd wanted was her vengeance. The oath she'd sworn had driven her and she'd had no reason to swerve from her purpose. She had become all that she'd avoided in her original life and she'd realized her dark potentialÖher destiny. She'd turned from it once, but in the end, she was what she'd always been meant to be. Ultimately it was fate, and fate was a powerful master. Despite all her prowess and conquests, she was still only a mortal.
If only a single Gabrielle had stood before her to taint her victory with doubts, she'd have already taken her head. The influence of the katalepsis was still that strong within the Destroyer of Nations. But there were 8,000 Gabrielles on the field and their aggregate effect had changed everything. That she could feel doubts at all was proof. Now she fully understood the time bomb that Spencer Trilby had planted in her world. Xena could feel the hint of the Warrior Princess she had once been. Instead of a swift reprisal, she took time and answered from the heart that had been dead to everything except her plan for so long. When she spoke, it was with honesty and resignation.
"Once all I wanted was you," she finally whispered. "We had a lifetime together, and an unexpected reunion. Now I see that it was only a respite from my fate. The Moirae long ago wove what is, and none can escape it." She inhaled deeply, and when she exhaled, the breath left her in a long sigh. "Gabrielle, can you live in my world?"
All Gabrielle wanted to say was, yes. She wanted to be able to accept any conditions to be with her soulmate again. Her character on the TV show had always claimed that, "I love you. Wherever you go, I go." But this was real life, and she had never been that TV Gabrielle. Still, she wondered if somehow it could work.
Perhaps in the slow passage of years, if they were together, she could ameliorate the worst of the Destroyer's rage and maybe even see Xena again as the Warrior Princess. But the blonde knew that those intervening years would kill her spirit. The war was won but the world still needed to be brought to heel. The subjugation of the remains of humanity could take years, and it would be harsh. Pockets of resistance would have to be crushed. With an excess of population, the easiest way would be through extermination. Xena would be forced to annihilate whoever raised their voice against her. The Conqueror's rule would be absolute, and it would be held in trust for the God of War.
Could she love a woman who had laid waste to half a world and consigned it to a second Dark Age? Could she love the slayer of perhaps three-quarters of a billion people? Could she stand the touch of hands so steeped in blood that they could never be cleaned for the rest of eternity? Gabrielle felt her spirit revolt at the thought, and she realized that no, she could not. If she couldn't turn her soulmate from this course, she would rather take her chances alone forever than share in the greatest crime ever committed.
Sadly, she looked Xena in the eyes and tears trickled down her face as she said, "No, I can't. I can't partake of the horror and the killing by supporting you with my love. I would rather die. And this time, I'll pray to Hades to release me from the cycle of rebirth. I won't come back againÖjust to be alone."
Upon the hill a tense silence hung heavy, as if all of Poseidon's deeps pressed down overhead rather than the clear blue sky. Xena looked at the Gabrielle. For the first time since the blonde had been killed in Columbia, she felt the upwelling of their bond, the very thing whose absence had led her to embrace her destiny. Their love had been like the sun's warmth invested in fleshÖtangible, mortal, enticing, and so very fragile. Once it had called to her more compellingly than anything she'd even known. It still did, but only as a reflection of what had been. The Destroyer of Nations had walked a path since that loss, and there was no turning back from her fate. She felt the echo of that loss, but her heart was still unbreakable ice.
"I will set aside a land for you, a place apart from my realm. The Conqueror will never set foot there, but the rest of the world will be under my dominion. I am fated to rule in the name of the God of War. I'm sorry, Gabrielle, this is the best I can do."
Gabrielle felt her hope wither and her heart broke. The best her soulmate could offer was a place of exile from the horrors she would unleash? They could never again be together? But they had a destinyÖan eternal destinyÖtogether. Yet now Xena was obligated by Ares' Blessing and bound by her blood. She couldn't change her course. Had the Moirae lied? Had their lives together been but a sojourn into redemption that was fated to fail? Was it but a stopgap measure that had led to this?
The Gabrielle covered her face with her hands and sank to her knees, shoulders hitching as uncontrollable sobs broke from her. This misery was deeper than any loss she had ever known in any of her lives. What they'd avoided on Caesar's crosses had befallen her now. Separation. To think that their great enemy, Gaius Julius Caesar, had granted them a greater measure of mercy than the impartial Fates. Her world was ending. What had been the point of recreating her now? Why had someone recreated so many of her? It was simply cruel.
Xena looked down at the shattered Gabrielle and she felt her wrath rising at her helplessness to counter the bitter measure fate had served. They all live for me, she thought, but there can be no "us" since I can't live for them. She was unable to accept Gabrielle and unable to refuse being affected by her. It was an unresolvable conflict. It had marred her victory and robbed the sweetness from her vengeance. It would shadow her conquests and darken her rule until the end of her days. Never again would she know satisfaction. She felt like a captive slave even though she was the sole ruler of the world. Xena's wrath leapt to rage, and in the Destroyer of Nations it manifested as katalepsis.
Öif you kill her now there can be no turning back. She turned away from the sobbing Gabrielle and strode toward her enemy with a look of pure animal hatred on her face. The next few moments would be critical. She could display no uncertainty.
"All your fault," she grated out at the goddess as she knelt beside her patron god. "First I'll finish with you. That'll be the last satisfaction my fate can offer."
She snatched the Chakram of Day from Ares and he stood beside his sister, looking down as his enraged daughter foamed at the mouth and tightened her grip with obviously deadly intent. It still gave him a thrill to see her rage, especially after all these centuries.
For Ares, this was triumph. Xena had cleaved to his way, even choosing her duties over her soulmate. Athena simply closed her eyes in acceptance. She would die defeated by her fate and Xena would live defeated by hers. Fate had served them both a cup as bitter as Artemesia. For a moment, the Goddess of Wisdom almost felt sorry for her.
Xena moved to sever Athena's throat, but instead of slicing across her windpipe, she flicked the chakram backhand. It whined up sharply toward the sky on the eastern side of the hill in a short, quick flight that ended when it slammed into an unseen target. The blade rebounded to her hand as the cut pieces of a cyber-mimetic uniform fell away from the wooden frame that held the weapon her clones had recovered. Now uncloaked, the Destroyer of Nations' last gambit was revealed. Soft reddish rays projected from the ruby cabochon of the Eye of Hephaestos, bathing gods and mortals alike in its glow.
Xena had first learned about the eye from Ray Fell when they'd met in California. Later she'd spent many hours questioning the aged Janice Covington. Any weapon that could affect a god was worth knowing about. Almost a year after her war had begun, Xena had returned to the Pappas house, invading the study like a shadow as her old friends reminisced in the parlor. She'd quickly found and taken the notes from an expedition that her distant descendants had made 60 years before. Xena had actually chosen to return to Macedonia because it hosted the Tomb of Ares, while masking her intentions by basing her army in Amphipolis. Like a good general, she had given the appearance of predictability while acting unpredictably. The tactic had worked with the duplicate cloning facilities and the mad Dr. Kishihara.
Ordering the mission to recover the eye had been among her first commands upon reaching the Strymon Vale. Originally she'd thought to use it as added insurance against Athena, giving herself a second chance to destroy the goddess if the "specials" failed.
When the necessities of her situation had changed, she'd adapted like a good general, altering her plan and redirecting her resources, then acting decisively to give herself time that she desperately needed. Having been activated, the Eye of Hephaestos could hold both Athena and Ares frozen in place forever. Now the strategos had all the time in the world.
For the Destroyer of Nations, and even more so for the Conqueror, the exercise of her will was paramount. The bonds of Ares' Blessing had become uncomfortable in the face of Gabrielle's reappearance, but slavery was intolerable. She was determined that somehow she would not allow herself to be the slave of fate. Somehow she would spare Gabrielle and the Olympians as well. Somehow, she would find a way to spare them all.
Xena attached the Chakram of Day to the clip at her waist and stood. She looked over her handiwork and then out at the battlefield. All over it clones mingled, Xenas and Gabrielles. Then she approached the Gabrielle who still lay stricken on the hilltop and gently lifted her to her feet.
"Today I'm the Conqueror of gods and mortals, but I'm conquered by my fate and I need your help. There's no victory here for me anymore, only loss without you. Gabrielle, I've destroyed the world. What am I going to do?"
The Gabrielle looked at the Eye of Hephaestos and the two gods trapped in its ruddy light that sapped their strength. She looked at Xena and saw her soulmate revealing her uncertainty and vulnerability. And she leapt to wrap her arms around her.
This clone knew that she wasn't the beloved clone Xena had watched dying in Columbia. She wasn't the one who'd stood with Xena when it had been just the two of them alone in a strange world. But she was still Gabrielle. She realized that Xena was asking for her aid in changing their fate. Gabrielle had no idea if it was even possible, she only knew that beyond all hope she was being given a chance. There was still one more battle to fight.
(Partial lyric from, "We Belong", ©1984, Written by D. Navarro & R. Lowen, Recorded by Pat Benetar)
Two weeks had passed since the final battle. The Destroyer's troops, along with the Gabrielles, had gathered the bodies of the vanquished and buried them in shallow mass graves in the field where they'd fallen. Everyone had been thankful that the ground had been softened by a week of rain.
On the hilltop, a tent had been raised over the Eye of Hephaestos and the two gods who stood paralyzed by its power. In two weeks they hadn't moved so much as an eyelash. The simple wooden frame that held the eye had been reinforced, and now a sturdy cairn of stones supported it and insured its stability. Still, the Destroyer of Nations took no chances. Either Prima or Secunda stood a constant vigil over them with the Chakram of Day. Their only order was to kill either god if they moved.
In Xena's camp, some interesting changes had occurred. Without a god of war, the Destroyer's clones had been much more relaxed. Neither Ares nor Athena was active and their domains were diffuse. It was also a fact that the aggregate effect of the 8,000 Gabrielles was pacifying to the Xenas. There had been no episodes of katalepsis. The clones had accepted each other's presence with genuine joy, and this took multiple forms. In some cases, clones paired up as the original Xena and Gabrielle had done. In other cases, they formed associated groups that functioned like group marriages. Some Xenas had been lost in the battles and the arrangements absorbed the slight excess of Gabrielles who would have been left alone had all the clones paired up one on one.
The strategos and the Gabrielle who had first spoken to her on the hilltop had become inseparable. Although it would have been impossible to tell at a glance, it was almost certainly this Gabrielle who had been doused with water at the Holy Monastery of Dochairios. To her, Xena had given the hard-shell case that she'd taken from the Pappas house in Columbia. The Gabrielle had set aside the staff she'd built and now openly wore the twin ventilated short swords.
Over the past 14 days, the couple had spent much of their time together planning and plotting, for although they had a future now their task seemed insurmountable. To change fate had always been regarded as impossible by the ancients, and so they'd had to work around this stricture before coming up with an actual course of action. They'd had to find a way to make themselves believe it could be done. The quandary occupied their first days together and it kept them up late at night.
"I always thought the Moirae wove fate on their loom and ultimately every life thread had its place," Xena had said as she and Gabrielle lay in her tent staring up at the ceiling as the night's breeze puffed and rustled the fabric. "Even so, every mortal had some room to make decisions. There was obviously a middle ground between our lives bein' completely predetermined or completely open to choice, some maneuvering roomÖlike following a road but choosin' whether to walk down the center or the edges."
"I've always thought that way too, Xena, but I've also noticed that some people seem to have more room than others. Maybe it's granted to them because they exercise more choice. Maybe it's like some threads on a spool being thicker than others in a market. I know I had more chances to make decisions than someone like Joxer."
"Maybe ya did, or maybe ya just made better choices," Xena had replied, thinking of Joxer for the first time in a very long time. The buffoon had certainly made some bad choices, and some had been made for him. Xena didn't regret her part. He'd died a hero.
"Or maybe the habit of making choices widens the space a person has to choose, sort of like stretching muscles allows a body to gain more flexibility," the blonde had said. "Perhaps the Fates give thicker strands to those who can make the best use of them."
"Are you sayin' that a habit of making choices gets rewarded with more chances to make choices?" Xena was more interested now and she left her reminiscences of Joxer behind. Gabrielle was beginning to make the kind of sense that often led to revelations.
"Well, maybe," Gabrielle said, scrunching her brows as she concentrated on finding the words to explain her thoughts. "You always said it was worthwhile keeping your options open, so what you chose to do preserved them. You were grooming the future to give yourself as many choices as possible, right? So maybe not backing yourself into a corner was a mortal equivalent of what the Fates allow us. If we choose to have more choices, then we'll have more choices."
Xena was silent for a while digesting Gabrielle's words. Who knew what the Fates allowed or how they thought. Ultimately they had to weave all those life threads into some kind of order, didn't they? It implied that their choices were limited too. What the soulmates needed to do was actually change the weaving to create a new order.
"Xena, do you think it's possible for the Fates' loom to weave something wrong?"
The cloned Destroyer's head jerked up off her pillow. The very idea was anathema to the concept of a divine loom. Its whole purpose was to create order. Without it there would be chaos. Gabrielle's question was like asking if perhaps pigs could fly on the eighth day of the week.
Gabrielle looked back at her soulmate. Xena saw that she wasn't kidding.
"Like maybe a thread got into it that shouldn't have ever been there in the first place?"
For the Destroyer of Nations, the world stopped turning. A thread that shouldn't have been thereÖa life thread that should never have been? Like the life thread of a clone? A mortal who had never been meant to be and hadn't been born? A recreated killer with no business in this world, brought to life by an evil shamaness? An abomination facilitated by science? She looked at the blonde next to her. It couldn't have been her, she thought by reflex; it had to have been me.
"I'm the reason the loom wove wrong," Xena whispered in horror, "I caused this."
Gabrielle sighed at her partner's reflexive self-assessment of blame. It was so like her Xena. The cloned bard didn't see it that simply though.
"I wondered when we were first created if we had souls," Gabrielle began, "and if we had any place in this world. Neither of us was meant to be here in this time, Xena. We wouldn't be except for Alti. Maybe both of us caused the loom to misweave. Now there are thousands of each of us and there were even more of Athena's clones. The more clones there were, the worse things got. As a group, maybe we've upset fate."
Both clones lay in silence and reflected on the horror of their revelation. The Fates' loom was churning out an ever-lengthening bolt of fucked up brocade. History had been mutated and chaos was near. They could believe that their presence had caused the aberration and with every moment fate departed further from what was meant to be. Repairing it didn't seem possible; restoring it was almost as inconceivable.
But the fault couldn't lie with them alone. The clones continued with their line of reasoning, following the trail of events back in time. Alti had begun the whole madness of cloning, acting on a subtle suggestion from Ares. Athena's actions, cloning her army and waging her war, had contributed. And the two gods had been feuding since antiquity.
"If it wasn't just me," Xena asked, "then where'd the disaster begin?"
"I wish we could ask them," Gabrielle whispered.
"How?" The Fates had been regarded as even less accessible than the rest of the gods.
"I have no idea."
Neither of the clones had seen or spoken to the Fates in their original lives, and they'd never met anyone who had. In fact, they'd only believed in them in a symbolic way, since they were ingrained in their culture. A millennium before their time, people had taken the Fates, Furies, and all the other orders of supernatural beings literally. By the Hellenistic Era, they functioned mostly as convenient personifications of natural forces. Xena and Gabrielle believed in the handful of gods and beings they'd witnessed, and fitted them into a cosmology they'd inherited along with their language and customs. Neither one of them would ever have thought to pray to the Moirae or expect an answer.
"I can't think anymore," Gabrielle groaned as she rubbed her eyes. She yawned.
"Let's get some sleep then," Xena answered, wrapping the cloned bard in her arms.
And so the day after the battle had ended. Hypnos soon visited the tent and took the Conqueror and her soulmate down to the land of sleep. There, Morpheus brought them the phantasms of his wisdom in the form of dreams commanded by those who had always been. In dreams, one might ask the unaskable of the unquestionable and be answered.
At the entrance to the dreamscape, vapors and wispy tendrils of cloud languidly floated in a twilit realm of echoes and whispers. It was a place she thought of as the atrium of dreams. Here, the residues of waking life melded and recombined as the subconscious mind sifted through them for associations and meanings.
She took a few steps forward just to test her feet; okay, she thought, this was not to be a flying dream, at least not at first. Likewise, the edges of the scene weren't dark, nor were the whispers threatening. She'd noticed that sounds came to her in advance of sight, before the fog parted to reveal a scene, and so she always had some sense of what to expect. Now there was no vague and distant neighing of scared horses, and so she inferred that this wasn't to be a nightmare either. That was good; there had been enough emotional discomfort recently. She waited, feeling the childish eagerness that had never left her. Dreaming had always been a favorite part of her sleep.
The fog began to swirl as if disturbed by the breath of a great beast. It parted in the center of her vision as it fled, though at first there was only more fog beyond. She felt the strengthening breeze washing across her face and brushing back her hair. She took a few strides toward its source. It was beginning.
Now she saw the first ghostly indications of a landscape; good straight trees in summer leaf, and a country road with a sliver of cloud speckled sky above its track. She turned in a circle, seeing the last wisps of vapor swirling and evaporating behind her. The road was deserted; she was alone.
She heard the rustle of a comfortable breeze passing through the leaves above, and the shuffling of small animals in the underbrush along the roadsides. Her eyes detected the quick movements of birds among the limbs as habit made her scan her surroundings more closely. The woodland creatures moved with confidence, for the moment free of the dramas of predation. All was peaceful and nature went about its business undisturbed.
Down the road where the fog had disappeared lay a field; summer wheat waved there in the caress of the breeze. The road continued through it, dividing the sown ground to the right and left. Beyond the plantings lay a low wooded hill around which the road swept in a lazy curve. Typical of a dreamscape though, the land past the hill was shrouded in a settled bank of fog that hung peacefully, obscuring any details of the more distant land.
She turned and looked down the road, deeper into the woods. In this direction, the way gently curved and its track was lost to sight after perhaps forty yards. As was often the case, she felt a compulsive curiosity to see around that bend, and she took this as a subtle direction for which way to proceed. And so she took a deep breath and set off through the trees.
As she walked, she noted that at the margins of her vision, where sight failed among the trunks and foliage, there lay that same fog that had hidden any distant views in the other direction. Here and there, a tendril curled more visibly between boles or through underbrush. There was nothing sinister about itÖit was simply a limit to what Morpheus chose to display as pertinent to the dream.
When she looked back down the road, she noticed that she'd rounded the bend. As with the limitations on unnecessary distant vistas, distance and travel were often compressed to avoid distractions. In dreams, she'd found that it was most often the destination that was the goal.
The road ended just ahead in a clearing, where bright sunlight showered down on a building of gray stone. Though she could see no damage to the structure, it projected an air of dinginess, or of a weathered age that had seen the passage of eons. It stood firmly on a narrow stereobate, presenting a colonnade of unfluted columns and a plain but well-proportioned entablature, neither oppressively heavy nor frivolously light. She saw that no decoration declared the building's function. There were no figures in the metopes and no reliefs within the cornice. The detailing was simpler than that of the established architectural styles, seeming to predate the development of the familiar Doric and Ionic orders. Still, the columns appeared straight-sided, having no visible bulge as Egyptian columns did, and the major elements of the construction were undoubtedly Greek, merely archaic. She found herself standing before it, close enough to see the whole, and many yards into the clearing now. Her traverse from the road's head had been deleted.
In silence and peace she climbed the shallow steps of the stereobate, then stood upon the stylobate between the central columns. No sounds gave her a clue to what transpired within, no chants, no songs, or whispered converse. No scents came to her nostrils, whether of food, or of torch smoke, or of incense. She stepped between the columns and let her eyes adjust to the peristyle's dimmer interior. Before her she discerned the walls of a pronaos, with similar columns upholding its entry.
By now, her curiosity had been peaked and she wouldn't have resisted entering the building's interior for anything. The pronaos was deserted, no surprise there, and lit by a handful of sputtering torches in sconces around the walls. These produced torpid, yellowish flames and liberal amounts of smoke, which had stained the walls all the way to the ceiling with soot.
There wasn't a single thing to see in the pronaos but the entrance to the cella, the building's interior chamber, which was located directly opposite the central columns she'd just passed between. That opening was a plain rectangle, framed by posts and capped by a lintel. None of it was decorated in any way, whether by carvings, appliques, or painted colors. To her ancient eyes, accustomed to polychrome, bas-reliefs, and statuary, the interior felt unfinished, or fallen into a gerontic neglect of many centuries. Through the entrance to the cella came the flickerings of more torches.
With nothing to see and no reason to tarry, she crossed the stylobate to the cella. At the doorway she heard the first sounds other than her own footsteps or the wind. This was a soft clacking, with no particular rhythm, which proceeded at a comfortable speed. She quickly noted that the sounds came from the single thing she'd seen within the entire structure; a loom so ancient that it threatened to disintegrate before her eyes.
With each throw and shift the machine shuddered and shook. Its frame was made from timbers silvered with age and eroded by wear. No one worked its treadles or threw its shuttle. Through some enchantment, it seemed to grudgingly power itself. Threads moved of their own accord, but their sources she found were hidden in the dimness beyond the torchlight. So too, the product vanished into a gloom behind the loom, though before disappearing, she could see a mountain of completed fabric in an unruly heap on the floor. In the semi-dark of the cella it held no pattern she could discern, nor did colors individualize the treads in any way that she could see. She approached more closely, moving softly lest her footfalls cause the construction to finally falter and collapse onto the floor.
Closer up, her original impression of the loom's decrepitude was reinforced. Beneath the moving parts she noticed telltale heaps of splinters and sawdust, abraded from the frame's reciprocating parts. The resulting cloth was just as she'd suspected, utterly undecorated, plain of weave, and completely uniform in texture. The entire mass of the fabric that she could see was consistent. She could barely believe it.
"This has to be a hoax," she muttered to herself, "mankind's history can't be so boring. Shouldn't there be some differences between a good year and a bad one, or some record of a great event or a disaster? Don't some lives shine out while others blend in? From the looks of this, it doesn't matter what we do or what happens."
But as she watched, her killer appeared behind the loom with the nebulosity of a ghost. For the first time, she wasn't dressed as a warrior, and she seemed to be sobbing. She ignored Gabrielle and examined the fabric. Finding a spot some yards back from the loom, Elainis' shade was sucked down into its surface, with an action much like a movie of steam whistling from a teakettle in reverse.
The loom gave a painful heave in reaction, much like a morbidly obese matron with a gas pain. It jerked in an elaborate shudder, and suddenly several yards of fabric disappeared back into the machine! The separate threads unwound and retracted into the gloom. It was wholly unexpected and completely captivating. She stared at the loom in awe as it lurched back into motion, clacking and, so far as she could see, creating the same fabric all over again. Why bother? The product was just as plain as it had been, utterly undistinguishable from what had unwoven itself a heartbeat before. Somehow, it was terrifying. She awoke with a start.
At her spasm, Xena's eyes popped open a slit and she tightened her arm around the cloned bard's midriff in a barely perceptible display of protectiveness. Gabrielle sat up, one hand finding her partner's in the darkened tent and interlacing their fingers.
"What is it, Gabrielle?" The Conqueror asked softly. "Nightmare?"
The blonde took a couple of steadying breaths before answering, giving herself a pause to recall what she'd' seen. She'd' found that it paid for her to immediately review a dream if she wanted to imprint the images in her memory, otherwise they quickly faded.
"Not exactly a nightmare," she answered, turning so she was face to face with Xena, "but it was very strange and very unexpected."
"What was?" The cloned warrior coaxed. Like most ancients, Xena took dreams seriously. Whether they arose from the subconscious mind or were visions sent by Morpheus, they often conveyed valuable information.
"I saw what I believe was supposed to be the Loom of the Moirae. I'd walked inside a barren, grubby building and found it weaving all by itself. It looked really old, and literally ready to fall apart. It was making a fabric so simple and plain that at first I couldn't believe itÖI guess I still have doubts. Anyway, as I watched, Elainis shade appeared and got sucked into the cloth. Then the pathetic contraption lurched, unwove several yards of fabric, and then started back up again remaking the same exact thing. To be honest, I don't know if I believe a bit of it."
She bit her lip and thought back over it all again. The temple and the loom had been a great disappointment. She felt that something so profound should have had some visible cachet, some aura of distinction due to its importance. It was like finding a king in rags, ruling from a hog shack and emaciated from starvation, yet still clinging to his scepter.
"I never thought it would look anything like that, you know?"
"Guess I never had an idea of what it would look like," Xena replied, "I've seen plenty of looms, but that loomÖ?" Her voice trailed off.
"It was just soÖso mundaneÖso pedestrianÖso old."
"The loom?" Xena asked.
"The loom, the temple, even the torches on the walls," Gabrielle said, "everything."
"It is really old. That much seems right, if ya think about it. Maybe that plain, even fabric is too. It's about as far from chaos as it could ever be, right?"
Gabrielle thought about it for a moment.
"Well, I guess so. Now that you put it that way, it does make a kind of sense."
"What about the Moirae?"
"Xena, the place was deserted. I never saw anybody."
"What a surprise," Xena muttered. It was still true that no one she knew had ever seen them. On the other hand, no one she knew had ever seen the loom before either.
"Let's think about this some more in the morning," Xena suggested. "I don't have any ideas about it now and we can get another few hours of sleep before dawn."
The blonde yawned expansively and snuggled in closer to her soulmate. Moments after she closed her eyes she was asleep. As always, Xena returned to sleep more slowly.
She turned in a circle as soon as she found herself surrounded by fog. She saw nothing solid behind her or to either side. Letting her senses widen, she detected nothing threatening nearby, no presences, no sounds, but this was the dreamscape and anything could happen. She allowed the ambient tension in her body to keep her concentration sharp. With rapid, practiced movements she searched herself and confirmed that she was wearing her armor and carrying her full compliment of weapons. She thankfully noted good, solid footing beneath her boots.
When the breeze came, stirring the vapors, she moved to face it, peering ahead to the limits of her sight. First sight could make the difference between survival and death. It could take only that first split second of time to decide the outcome of a confrontation, and she had always liked to reserve that advantage for herself. The fog shifted and began to part, teasing her for a moment with details half-seen and then quickly shrouded again. Enough of this, she thought impatiently, let's see where I am this time.
The enshrouding haze parted ahead of her and she moved carefully forward. Leaving the cloudscape behind, she checked her surroundings again, surveying a deserted room. Shadows danced in the light of torches. She searched the room's corners and the areas of deepest darkness, confirming that she was still alone. At the same time, her eyes recorded the details of the space, placement of torches, presence of doorways, absence of windows. But for the torches she'd have judged the place abandoned. No furniture, no decorations, no other signs of occupation.
No point in staying still, she reasoned. This is a dreamscape and if you don't move first something may find you. She slowly drew her sword, the steel barely whispering as it left the leather scabbard. Amazon stealth guided her feet as she silently crossed the room to the opening she'd noted in the opposite wall. Another chamber lay beyond, where a similar quality of light announced the presence of more wall-mounted torches within.
Just outside the entrance she paused, listening carefully. She marked the fluttering of the torch flames, but no breathing and no shifting of bodies or clothing. Even so, she entered the room fast, letting her peripheral vision asses the emptiness ahead and to the sides with a glance, before spinning to assure herself of the same emptiness behind. She spun back to face into the room, shifting to the side, out of the doorway. With no one to cover her back, the solid masonry of the wall would have to suffice. Then she felt the hairs on the back of her neck rising and the skin tingling.
"Who's there," she demanded, turning again to check the entrance, "I can feel you. Show yourself!"
Now in motion, she continued to turn and shift, never presenting a stationary target. She'd always believed that it was advantageous to acknowledge an unseen presence with confidence. It didn't matter if it turned out to be a god, spirit, or mortal conjuror, experience had taught her that it was best to let them know they'd been perceived.
"C'mon," she hissed. "Ya want me? Come 'n get me."
She saw the air shimmer in the center of the room and turned to face it. Three figures flickered and solidified, child, matron, and crone. The trio was still and relaxed, not the least bit threatened by her sword. For a moment they stared at her as intensely as she stared at them. No introductions were necessary. She recognized them from a lifetime of references and stories; they knew everyone who had ever lived.
"So, you're real after all," she said, wanting to get in the first word.
"Before your time, with your soulmate you fell," the crone said, ignoring her chiding.
"By a goddess' hand, fate was betrayed as well," the matron said.
"From Aulis through the ages passed a twisted strand," the child said.
"Down future days to the Destroyer's hand," the crone said.
"Lament now all nations, for the past has come to be," the matron said.
"A path not taken long ago, lost to eternity," the child said.
"The gift of love's an answer, to change the world with," the crone said.
"And you'll live to seek your future in those ancient days of myth," the matron said.
"Lament no more upon that day the blood spilled by your hands," the child said.
"For through your darkness light was gifted to these mortal lands," the crone finished.
As she memorized the final lines of the Moirae's verse, she awoke, thinking just how poorly composed the rhyme was. She didn't awaken Gabrielle, but lay in the dark reviewing every detail of her dream and every word the Fates had said. It was a lot to swallow. The revelations gave her some hope. Some good might come from her actions. But the hopeful revelations were eclipsed by two that threatened to drive her from her bed to the tent on the hill in a murderous rage. One was that their deaths had come before their proper time. The second was that a goddess had been responsible. She felt certain that Athena had been involved in their deaths in Rome.
The next day, Gabrielle and the Conqueror spent hours telling each other about their dreams. It struck them as strange that the lines of verse had been given to Xena, while the mechanical vision had been sent to Gabrielle. Even so, they pored over the details.
In their absence, the chiliarchoi ran the camp and the "specials" guarded the prisoners. Every clone felt a bit strange about holding Ares as well as Athena hostage, but their strategos had issued the orders and they obeyed. Though nominally at peace, they were still an army.
It had taken a week, but the soulmates had come to the conclusion that changing the past, if not fate itself, was possible. In fact, they believed that it was fated. The vision of the Moirae's loom, unweaving what it had created and then restarting its timeless task, could be interpreted that way. With acceptance came the need to figure out how. They needed a plan.
On June 1st, the soulmates were sitting on the bluff that had once held the walls of Amphipolis. Nearby, the tributary stream burbled softly within its banks. For the first time, they were out of earshot of the army. The land around them was deserted. The couple had taken the road downstream in the morning and had arrived after a two-hour walk. They'd wanted some time to think and to be alone together. It was a brief respite, but it was dear to their hearts, for both of them remembered years of traveling and camping with only each other for company. Out of habit, Xena found kindling and built a small fire while Gabrielle dragged over a log to sit on.
"In the Moirae's first two lines, they claimed we'd died before our time," Gabrielle began, "and that a goddess was to blame." Sitting beside her, Xena nodded in agreement, seething. "And it makes sense that that goddess was Athena," the bard continued. "The Romans were devoted to Athena's style of warfareÖcrafty, technologically superior, and based on interchangeable units, not individual heroes. In Rome, science and knowledge drove the creation of an empire where the multitudes were organized like parts in a machine. Caesar personified Rome, advanced the influence of her way, and had always been your enemy. Athena would gladly have delivered you into his hands. I'm almost sure those lines are related because of the rhymingÖthere are paired lines throughout."
The warrior had always thought that the Chakram of Night should have behaved differently on that ill-fated day. It should never have broken against the armor on her back. Xena had been nowhere near ready to die in 44 BC. She'd had a lot to live for and they'd expected to defeat Callisto. They should have had more time with Eve and HopeÖmore time with each other. She bitterly resented the divine interference that she was now convinced had ended their lives.
"And afterwards, fate was upset because of her actions," Xena spat.
"Not exactly," the blonde said, "the third line traces the problem back to AulisÖ"
"Where Athena saved her Champion, Elainis," Xena breathed, remembering the information Ares had given her years ago in Columbia. At her soulmate's questioning look, she added, "Gabrielle, Elainis is Iphigenia, saved from the sacrifice to Artemis and brought back to life by Athena."
Gabrielle nodded, accepting the explanation.
"It created a twisted strand of fate that ran through history until you became the Destroyer of Nations. You were meant to wage this war, Xena."
She looked over and gazed into her soulmate's eyes, hoping to assuage her partner's uncertainties. For an added measure of reassurance, she nestled against Xena just because she could. It felt far more familiar than any sensation acquired in just the last week. Xena wrapped an arm around her back almost subconsciously and ran her fingertips absently over the skin of Gabrielle's shoulder.
"And laying waste to half the world is going to correct fate just how?" She raised an eyebrow in question. It seemed like a rather drastic cure to herÖanother Phyrric victory. "Not that I'm unhappy about correcting it by defeatin' her," she muttered.
"Well, that's the deca-drachma question, isn't it?" The blonde clone asked, ignoring her last comment. "The following lines confirm that your war was fated to happen now rather than in the past. The path not taken long ago, lost to eternity during ancient times was delivered to you, as the modern Destroyer, in the present."
"So destroyin' the world was a good thing, right?" The grin on Xena's face expressed only partial disbelief. After all, who was she to doubt the Fates?
"Apparently so," Gabrielle agreed, "the very last line seems to tell us that. When the world's corrected, it'll be because you destroyed its twisted fate. And that leaves the last three lines to tell us how."
"I don't think the changes I've brought to the world are exactly the gift of love," Xena mused, "vengeance at loss of love perhaps."
"I think a gift of love is what will change the world back to what it was supposed to be," Gabrielle said. She thought for a moment. "You gave me the swords your Gabrielle had before she was killedÖ"
"You are my Gabrielle," Xena quickly told her, tightening her arm around the blonde and softly kissing her crown of pale hair, "and being back together now is like a different chapter in the same life. I feel the same love for you that I felt for the Gabrielle that Alti cloned, and it's the same love I felt for you 2,000 years ago." She'd met the Gabrielle's eyes and held her gaze as she'd spoken, earnestly projecting the truth of her feelings and reciprocating the reassurance the blonde had given her moments before. Then she sighed and added, "But we're both still living in a time where we don't belong."
"And I thank the gods for every moment of this chance to do it," Gabrielle whispered.
She leaned towards Xena and wrapped her arms around her neck. With the compelling magnetism of new passion and the assurance of long-term lovers, they closed the distance and their lips met in a kiss. And though the kiss was as consuming as any they'd shared, her soulmate's last words stuck in her mind and she knew that sometime later they'd bear further consideration.
June 3rd saw the pair sitting a half-mile down the valley that branched off the Strymon Vale behind the hill to the east of the battlefield. They were partway up the northern slope, looking down on the tributary stream as it wound around rocks and boulders. The sun was beating down strongly, but broken. Fluffy clouds gave an intermittent respite from the glare. Neither soulmate had spoken for some time, both drifting comfortably with their own personal thoughts.
It's still a beautiful world despite the destruction, Gabrielle thought absently. Beside her, Xena twirled a stem of coarse grass between her teeth. The growing seed head spun in a rapid whirl as she worked her jaw from side to side. Her eyes were defocused, denoting that she was running two streams of thought simultaneously.
Gabrielle lay back and looked straight up at the clouds. She let her eyes wander among their billowing peaks and emptied herself of conscious thought. Approaching the same transcendental state that had allowed her to aim an arrow without sight, she floated in the womb of no mind. Here, subconscious tidbits and memories came to her unbidden.
"The gift of love's an answer, to change the world with,"
"And you'll live to seek your future in those ancient days of myth."
To be here again together with their love intact was certainly a gift, she thought, rising from the near-transcendental state to one more akin to drowsing. It had been the goal of the compulsion that had driven her since she'd awakened and it had allowed them to change the world in the present, as they never had in the past. I suppose that's why we were recreated in the first place, she mused. Our presence redressed the fate betrayed by the goddess that caused our untimely deaths in Rome. Since the first days after escaping from Alti we wished we could go back to our rightful time, but we were wrong to think we had no place here. And yet I still wish we could go back and seek our future in those ancient days of myth. She sat up.
"Xena, I realized that we were always meant to be here. Everything that's happened was for a purpose, but having changed these modern times, I think that the answer to the problem will be to return to our own time."
Xena opened an eye and looked at her closely. The stem of grass had stopped spinning.
"We've changed the world and lived," Gabrielle clarified, "now we should seek our future in the pastÖin the time of our original livesÖor maybe even back before Athena twisted fate."
"Ya mean go back to Aulis?" Xena asked. "We were never there."
"True," Gabrielle agreed, "but to fix fate, things have to change at the beginning."
"Well, I guess that makes sense," Xena conceded. After a pause she asked, "So what happens now?"
"We figure out how to go back 2,000 or 3,000 years?"
"And what happens to the present? All the clones? Ares and Athena? The rest of the world? All the dead?" Xena had been ticking off the points on her fingers as she spoke.
"It would have been better if none of it had never happened," Gabrielle sighed.
"Yeah, but we can't leave things here the way they are," Xena said with finality.
They continued to think about these problems for the rest of the afternoon.
June 4th dawned and the soulmates stopped for a quick look at their prisoners before heading out of the encampment. Neither god had moved. The Eye of Hephaestos was projecting its vitality sapping rays exactly as it had since first being struck by the chakram. Said Chakram of Day rested in Secunda's ready hand as she stood within arm's reach of both Olympians. The clone was as still as the captive gods. She and her sister Prima entered a transcendental state to stand this guard duty, for the undistractible clarity it conferred coupled with their speed would let them answer a divine threat at the first sign of movement. In the same way, the clone was aware of the soulmates in the instant they drew aside the tent flap.
"strategos," the "special" acknowledged without blinking or shifting her attention.
"Any changes, Secunda?" Xena asked, though she could see none herself.
"Nothing," Secunda answered, "either in the prisoners, or the eye."
Xena nodded and took Gabrielle's hand and the pair left the tent. Today they walked the road upstream, towards Seres, northwest of the battlefield. They moved slowly, having no real destination, but simply wanting to be in motion. Xena had no intention of visiting the city, though Gabrielle harbored the desire to retrieve her journal from the camp she'd sat out the rains in. She had a half-moon's catching up on her entries to do, and that time included all the interesting stuff. At first they didn't speak, preoccupied with their thoughts and comfortable to simply stray down the road side by side. It was one of the most familiar activities they remembered from a life that they'd lived long ago. They covered the first half-league in silence.
"Walking like this, it's almost as if we have gone back in time," Gabrielle observed. Beside her, Xena grunted in acknowledgement. After a pause, the blonde shifted gears and asked a question. "Xena, how did Athena clone Callisto, Elainis, Achilles, and all the others? I'm sure you wondered about that. I know I have since I've been back."
The Conqueror thought back to a talk she'd had with Ares, in their study at the Pappas house in Columbia, shortly after the war had begun. She most certainly had wondered how Athena had produced her enemiesÖnot their manufacture, but their source.
How had the Goddess of Wisdom and Warfare managed to clone Elainis? Or Callisto? Or Mavican? Or Livia? Or even the failures of Valesca that they'd seen in the lab? They were all long lost to the ages; every cell, every atom, and every memory ground to dust two millennia ago and lying far beyond recall.
Xena applied the facts to a mental diagram, using the flowchart method that she'd learned from Mithridates and later utilized as a military commander. Eventually she reached an appalling conclusion
"Your sister treads the roads of time," she said, "but not with complete freedom."
"No god ever acted with complete freedom," Ares replied. "There were always limits. If I had the power to pass through the years, I'd still be limited to revisiting those times and places when I was exalted. Other times belong to other gods. A rule of thumb would be that I could visit times when I had temples full of worshippers. For Athena, this would include the period from the Dorian invasion of about 1500 BC, to the rise of Rome Öor later, maybe 400 AD, if she went to Roman lands in the guise of Minerva."
"Could she bring stuff back?"
"Oh yeah. I can bring you across space if we're in contact. If Athena has the power to cross time, then she can bring back whatever she can carry."
Xena sat for several moments thinking about what Ares had said. If she hadn't seen the cloning lab or known that there had been two Callistos, then she would have suspected that Athena had brought her original enemies to the present. It would have been too good to be true. Athena had only needed to transfer a hair or a few cells from the ancient world to recreate her warriors. Time and her science would do the rest, and for a god, time is an ally.
"She travels time," Xena whispered, "she took the original material for her clones from our time and before."
"And she can take us back," Gabrielle finished.
"When pigs fly," Xena retorted, but she remembered throwing pigs and other animals, both live and dead and sometimes in flames, using catapults to clear the walls of cities she was besieging. The bears, boars, and rabid dogs had been particularly effective.
"Yeah, I guess she isn't exactly feeling charitable towards you, huh?" The blonde said.
Xena had stopped walking, and her eyes had the defocused look they got when she was contemplating dual trains of thought. Seeing this, Gabrielle waited in silence. Finally a smirk formed on the Conqueror's face.
"I could motivate her to take us back to our time easily enough," Xena stated, "but what happens to this world after we leave? Will this present disappear because of changes in the past? Will it continue? No, it won't be enough to offer her a deal she can't refuse. She could come back here and try again. I have to offer her a deal she can't resist."
June the 5th opened with a red sunrise. The soulmates had been awake almost the entire night planning. Some things about the past had become clear, and they were things that could only be understood through the perspective of the present. When Prima went off-duty from guarding the Olympians, she walked to the strategos' tent and joined them.
After the afternoon mess, the three met Secunda in the prisoners' tent on the hill. The atmosphere was tense, but the Moirae's words gave them hope. If they were right, the soulmates could change the world and restore its true fate. They did a dry run to fine-tune their strategy, and when Xena was satisfied, they left.
Continued in Chapter 12
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