Stranger In A Strange Time chapter 16 by Red Hope

Chapter 16 – A Little Alchemy

Janice Covington was still and fear coursed through her body, making her palm sweaty and her sword almost slipping from her hand. Her breathing was heavy as she stared at her friend, who just twirled her sword. She couldn’t believe when her guards had told her that the Conqueror requested her presence down on the fortress grounds.

The Conqueror was glowing in the sunrise light, her bronze armor brighter than normal. “Attack!” she hotly yelled at Janice.

Janice backed away with her sword lowering at her side. “No.” She shook her head too. “There’s no way.” She glanced around to see that a patrol squad was watching with awareness about what was happening. The dekarchos of this particular squad was there as was another unknown but important soldier. That unknown solider held the sheath to Janice’s Amazon sword, he’d given it to her when she first arrived.

“If you will not fight then you will die,” growled the Conqueror, who suddenly lunged at the archeologist.

Janice easily jumped out of the way but she knew that the Conqueror was toying with her. She backed away from her attacker as she tried to figure out why her friend was doing this.

The Conqueror growled and pointed her sword at the prisoner. “You want freedom, you have to fight for it, prisoner.”

The archeologist straightened up at this information. She hadn’t expected this and started to understand maybe what was going on here. “The hell I’ll be alive let alone free if I fight you.”

The Conqueror laughed then lowered her sword some as she stepped closer. “You will live,” she promised, “but I will cut you down now if you do not fight. Show me you’re worth your hide.” She suddenly sprung forward after her opponent.

Janice braced her self with her sword coming up to meet the powerful blow. She was relieved to find her body absorbed the shock easily and she was on her toes, not flat footed as earlier. She was suddenly met by rapid attacks from the ruler that she parried away easily. She still couldn’t quite understand how she went from sleeping in the same bed with Melinda last night to waking up to fighting her.

The Conqueror was making a slow effort but then she picked up the pace.

The archeologist stopped a threatening swipe at her stomach. She looked up to see a sly glint in the ruler’s wild eyes then there was the battle cry. She knew it before it happened and she ducked then rolled away just as the ruler did a back flip.

The Conqueror grinned when she saw Janice had figured out her move. She spun her sword then bounced on the balls of her feet. “You remembered.”

The archeologist was several paces away. She reached up with her freehand and undid the clip to her cloak. She tossed the cloak away to reveal her lean, scabbed, yet toning body. “I’m a quick study.” She gracefully spun her sword then met her opponent’s blade.

The squad watched the lethal dance between the enemies perform before their eyes. They were amazed that the prisoner had any skill let alone so much to be a decent opponent for the Conqueror. The unknown soldier, who held Janice’s sheath, glanced over at the dekarchos and secretly grinned. He wiped his grin away and returned to the watching the fight.

Janice ducked when the sword breezed of her head. She then tried her latest move, her right leg kicked up and just missing the Conqueror’s moving sword hand.

The Conqueror laughed at the attempt and brought her sword at Janice.

The archeologist stopped the attack then brought her sword around to swipe at the Conqueror’s stomach.

The Conqueror vertically caught her opponent’s blade then gave a powerful thrust.

Janice just kept a hold of her blade that was thrown off. She then backed a step away when the Conqueror straightened up to her full height.

“Enough,” hotly ordered the Conqueror, her lips were curled in a feral grin. She saw how Janice was warm and breathing quite heavily now. She turned her head to the left at the squad then pointed her sword at the dekarchos. “Over here, dekarchos.”

The squad leader became uneasy but he compiled.

Janice was breathing heavy; her body hot but the cool fall breeze offered her relief. She glanced off to her left and saw that Hu was intently watching the show. She could tell he was on edge by how his teeth were baring and his fur up.

“You have one chance, dekarchos,” informed the ruler, “if you fail to defeat the prisoner then your life is forfeited.”

Janice’s attention snapped back at hearing this.

The Conqueror could see that Janice was about to verbally dispute this so she cut her off ahead. “Do not talk, prisoner just fight.” She walked away and came to stand beside the soldier, who had more official standing than the dekarchos.

Janice spun her Amazon sword as she tried to gain her wits. This was serious if her friend was relaying on her sword skills to defeat this dekarchos. She’d already tried fighting a squad leader once before and failed at doing so.

The dekarchos though had double incentive to defeat the prisoner since it was his position and life. He stalked up to his enemy with his sword unsheathed from his side. His blood pulsed heavily in his veins.

Janice swallowed as she saw those primal eyes of her opponent honed on her.

The Conqueror stood to the side, her gaze transfixed on Janice and the squad leader. Her hands rested on her leather clad hips and her right fingertips discreetly touched her chakram.

Suddenly the dekarchos attacked Janice and tried to come at her head.

Janice caught the blade then back peddled a few steps. She spun her sword as she tried to asses her opponent carefully. She tried to recall that state of mind that Ephiny had taught her that every good warrior used when fighting. She brought on her focus just as the squad leader attacked her again.

The dekarchos tested the woman’s defenses and found no opening yet. He then suddenly lost strength when the small and unknowingly strong woman doubled her efforts and attacked him. He stumbled back several steps as he desperately fought off her attacks.

The Conqueror watched on with complete satisfaction but yet she didn’t back her hand away from her chakram.

The ranking soldier beside the ruler, leaned over and whispered, “You were right, my liege. She is quite good.”

“She has potential,” agreed the ruler. “Fighting runs in her blood like fire… she just doesn’t know it yet.”

“If anybody can bring it out in her, my liege it is you,” murmured the excited soldier.

The Conqueror softly laughed in amusement but she kept her full attention on the dekarchos and Janice.

There was a yelp of pain from the dekarchos when Janice’s blade caught his left arm. He backed away with surprise all over his face and he glared at the woman. He became enraged then charged his opponent.

Janice braced herself as she took the blow that jarred her to her bones. She gave a quick kick to his stomach, which offered her a second to collect her focus again. She didn’t have much of a chance as the dekarchos sprung up against her. Now Janice was hissing at the sharp pain on her right forearm that reopened some of the chakram cut from some time ago. She ignored the pain and the blood oozing out of her wound, her temper suddenly reared up.

The dekarchos was met by the fierce rage of the prisoner. He couldn’t keep up with the rapid pace after so long then Janice’s blade caught him in the side. He fell to his knees with this sword loosely clutched in his hands. His dazed eyes lifted to the angry woman standing before him.

“You fuckin’ bastard,” bit out Janice and she gave him a quick kick to his face.

The dekarchos’s head snapped and blood flew from his mouth and nose. He then collapsed unconscious to the worn ground.

Janice turned to the Conqueror and held out her palms, sword still in hand. “Is that what the Hell you wanted?”

The Conqueror turned to the ranked soldier beside her. She held out her hand.

The soldier placed the sheath into the ruler’s hand.

The Conqueror slowly walked up to the archeologist then threw the sheath at her. “Keep your sword, you’ll need it now.”

“The Hell I do,” barked the angry archeologist, who snatched the sheath in mid air. Just as she caught it, she found the Conqueror’s sword tip under her throat. She never saw her friend move so fast or so easily.

“I will make you an offer, Janice Covington so see that you listen well because I will not repeat myself.” The Conqueror let her sword’s tip touch the archeologist’s skin. “You defeated my dekarchos, do you know what a dekarchos is?”

The archeologist knew what the title dekarchos meant in Greek. She wasn’t a Greek translator but she knew enough history and enough words to get by. “Dekarchos translates to a leader of ten… a squad leader.”

“Exactly,” commended the grinning ruler. “You see, in my old traditional army… when we were more cut throat.” She paused at seeing the archeologist lift an eyebrow at her. “Whenever the leader or somebody in command was challenged and defeated then that winner takes power.” She stopped to shrug then went on. “Things are not quite that way anymore but sometimes I like to remember the good old days.”

Janice’s eyes narrowed as she began to figure out the Conqueror’s intent.

“You pledge service to me, Janice as my dekarchos and I will free you.” The Conqueror tilted her head as her cold eyes bore into the petite woman. “But if you so much as think of trying me, you will see the same cross that rebel found herself on.”

“If I refuse this… gracious offer then what?”

The Conqueror’s lips curled with her ruthless grin. “You can return to the dungeons and meet your cross soon.” She now lowered her sword but didn’t sheath it. She slowly walked up to her prey then proceeded to walk around Janice like she was powerless. “What will it be?” She stopped behind Janice and lowered her head closer to Janice’s. “I can give you anything, Janice… but I need you at my side,” she whispered.

Janice closed her eyes then they fluttered open as she made her decision. She sheathed her sword as the ruler walked around to face her. “I accept, Conqueror.”

The squad soldiers all looked between each other because not only did they have a new leader but a female at that. They were unsure but by the fighting skills they saw they would not try her too much less they’d meet the Conqueror’s sword. It was simple for anybody see that the ruler greatly favored this small woman.

“Come here, tetrarchès,” order the Conqueror.

The unknown soldier marched up to the ruler and stood beside the pair. “My liege.” The small soldier bowed his head then lifted it again.

The Conqueror focused on Janice. “This is the tetrarchès.”

Janice narrowed her eyes then translated, “The commander of four files.”

The Conqueror grinned at the archeologist’s unknown skills for Greek military units and officer titles. “The tetrarchès as been in my service for much of my campaign and I trust him highly. He is also the soomatophylax.” At Janice’s clear confusion she translated the meaning. “The soomatophylax basilikos are my royal guards… elite guards from Macedonia that are highly trained.”

The archeologist now understood then nodded as her eyes rested on the man that was about her same height. She figured he was older and probably older than her or Melinda by the way his features seemed so weathered. His hair was blond much like Janice’s and curly locks that were in a mess. In his left ear he wore a gold loop earring.

The tetrarchès held out his arm then said, “The name’s Iolaus.”

Janice clasped his arm then shook it. “Janice… Janice Covington.”

“Welcome to the Conqueror’s finest, Janice Covington.” Iolaus grinned wildly at him then peered up at the ruler after releasing arms. “You will come to find being in the Conqueror’s service an honor.”

The ruler huffed and clapped the man’s back. “Still a thief and a liar at heart, aren’t you, Iolaus?”

The soldier folded his muscular arms across his heavily leather clad chest that had a design in it. “Only for your praises, my liege.”

The Conqueror grunted now then beautifully sheathed her sword behind her back. She then removed a purple colored leather string that was tucked into her left gauntlet. She stepped up to Janice as she stretched out the leather thong.

Janice was unsure but then realized what was going on since Iolaus bore one on his right arm. She hesitantly lifted her arm as the Conqueror came close to her side.

The Conqueror slowly and casually tied the leather strap over Janice’s bicep as she spoke. “You will spend much of the day with Iolaus and your squad. He will teach you about your duties, how to run the squad, and how to patrol Corinth accordingly.” She finished tying the symbolic purple strap then stated, “After you are finished you are to report to me. Are we clear, dekarchos?”

The archeologist tasted the Greek military title given to her and she wasn’t sure what to make of it exactly. She slowly nodded her head as she tried to get use to the leather thong tied to her arm. “Yes… my liege.” She almost choked on the royal formalities but she spit it up.

Iolaus signaled with his chin the watchful tiger. “What of him, my liege?”

“He is to stay beside Janice,” ordered the ruler, “he is very much her partner.”

“As you wish, my liege.” Iolaus bowed his head to the ruler then straightened up at Janice. “We will begin now then.”

The Conqueror grasped Janice’s shoulder then stated, “See to your wound before you go.” She arched an eyebrow at the tetrarchès in warning then she peered down at the silent archeologist. “You will serve me well, won’t you, Janice?”

The new dekarchos met her friend’s gaze, the powerful ruler. “Unconditionally, my liege.”

The ruler showed a wide grin at hearing how easily Janice called her title this time. She released Janice then walked away a few paces but stopped by the former dekarchos. She glanced over at the squad and barked, “Clean up this mess… kill your former dekarchos.”

Janice stiffened at this order as she watched her new squad rush to carry out their orders.

Iolaus grabbed the woman’s attention by clasping her arm. “We will go to the healer’s first then meet your squad.”

Janice stopped watching the two squad soldiers dragging the former dekarchos away. “Alright… let me get my cloak.” She walked away while placing her sheathed sword over her back again. She remembered the comforting weight of the sword on her back. She grabbed up her cloak, hooked it on, and called Hu over to her side.

The Conqueror entered back into her fortress and knew she would require some time before she could settle down and do her office work. She hurried through the empty court and went in search of a certain somebody she wanted to cross today. It was easy to find Alti as she was in her large chambers that doubled as an office. She barged right in without knocking and yelled, “Alti!”

The shaman surfaced from another connecting room and glared at the demanding ruler. “What is it, my liege?”

“Something has come to light recently.” The Conqueror stepped up to the shaman, her features cold and growing angry. “I seem to have… misplaced my scepter.”

Alti sighed then jabbed, “It is a silly scepter.” She waved off the ruler and started to walk away.

The Conqueror’s hand shot out, grabbed Alti, and yanked her back close to her body. She leered at the shaman and hissed, “You know exactly how fond of that silly scepter I am, Alti.”

Alti’s eyes were level with the angry ruler’s. She held her ground as she whispered, “I have not seen your scepter, my liege.” She paused then poked, “Perhaps you should look in the place you last left it.”

The ruler growled and jerked Alti against her burning body, her lips almost touching Alti’s. “I want my scepter returned, Alti,” she murmured, “So see that you… find it for me.”

The shaman grounded out, “I am a shaman not your toy keeper.”

The Conqueror’s slow, predatory grin appeared on her face. “You are what I make you, Alti.” She tilted her head then murmured, “Or would you prefer to be reminded of that?”

Alti’s teeth clenched and bore in a furious show. “No… my… liege,” she hotly whispered despite it pained her to admit it.

“Then do as I instruct,” commanded the ruler. “Find my scepter… now.” She suddenly threw the shaman away then walked a few paces to the open door but paused. She became smug as she peered over her shoulder at the furious shaman. “By the way, I thought you’d be interested to hear that Janice Covington has pledged her services to me.” With that, she swept out of the room and soundlessly went down the long hall.

Alti clenched her hands at her side and closed her eyes as her fury consumed her. Her black eyes flew open and she angrily marched into her other room but she soon appeared back out with the scepter with the Cronos Stone. “You want your scepter, my liege… then you shall have it.” She laughed, tucked the scepter between the folds of her robe and disappeared out of her room.

The shaman disappeared out of the fortress and into the city of Corinth. She went directly to her intended target, who was an old acquaintance known as Arien and Arien was also an alchemist formally trained in Egypt.

Arien’s head shot up when the door of his store opened up. He slightly smiled at seeing the dark features of the Conqueror’s shaman. “What do I owe your visit to, shaman?”

Alti floated across the floor and came up to the counter where the alchemist stood. “I need your help, Arien. I will pay you well for it too.”

The alchemist’s eyes brightened at this offer so he leaned over the counter. “What do you need made, Alti?”

“I need something… remade,” offered the shaman. She reached into the folds of her robe then displayed the well-known scepter of the Conqueror.

Arien backed a step away as if burned by the mere sight of the scepter. “I will not touch her scepter, Alti. You have come to the wrong alchemist.”

The shaman lifted her free hand, palm up, and her fingers closing into her palm, her eyes honed in on the alchemist. “Need I remind you of my shamanism, Arien.” Her fingers closed into her palm.

The alchemist hissed against the unknown pain burning up his right arm. “Stop it, Alti.”

Alti turned her fisted hand over, which caused the alchemist to moan in pain then fall to his knees. “Then you will do as I ask of you, Arien.”

“Yes… yes… just take this off,” begged Arien. He fell forward when the pain suddenly disappeared from his arm. He rasped heavily but lifted his head when the shaman glided behind his counter and knelt down beside him.

Alti put the scepter under the alchemist’s chin to lift his head up higher. She then pulled the scepter away and put the green gem between their views. “See this gem, Arien?” At the man’s nod, she continued speaking. “I want you to break its power down into its liquid form then split it.” She leaned in then whispered, “Can you feel its power?”

An alchemist also worked in the spirit world but not similar to the way a shaman did, especially a shaman like Alti. “Yes, I can. What are its powers?”

The shaman grinned and leaned into the man as the scepter lowered. “That does not concern you. I need this gem’s power split in half but will it lose its powers if that is done?”

The alchemist considered it then he carefully replied, “I don’t think it will lose its strength if its power is split in half.”

“Can you transfer its elixir into another gem or metal?”

Arien sighed as he sat back on his knees finally and stared at the now glowing gem. He reached out but the shaman pulled the scepter away from his grasp. He swallowed then met the shaman’s gaze. “I can transfer it, yes.”

Alti stood up then ordered, “Let’s get started then.”

The alchemist nodded, rose up, and went to his shop’s door to lock it up. He then came back around while saying, “Follow me.” As he led the shaman back into his workshop, he mentioned, “I believe I can transfer it into a metal if you… wish to make it more discreet.”

The shaman reached into her cloak and produced a simple dagger. “Will this do?”

The alchemist plucked the dagger from the shaman’s hand then smiled. “Yes.” He held out his freehand and signaled the scepter.

Alti wearily handed it over but decided she need only stay close to the alchemist to watch him.

Arien grinned when he felt the power more closely from the gem. He stared into it and it pulsed brightly in his eyes. “Such power,” he murmured.

“Get started, Arien,” hissed the shaman, who was lifting her hand in warning.

Arien snapped back and hastily made his way to his workstation. He first had to work the gem free from the scepter then once he accomplished this he hunted around for something on his shelves.

Alti stood over his shoulder the entire time to make sure he didn’t pull any tricks.

Arien popped the clay vile’s cork top and then carefully poured the clear liquid over the gem.

The Cronos Stone and vile’s contents made a loud hissing noise.

The liquid poured over the green gem and onto the metal sheet covered work station. The liquid now glowed a bright green and pulsated much like the stone.

The Cronos Stone had faded into a dark green much like an emerald.

“Perfect,” murmured the alchemist. He noticed the pool of green liquid was rather thick, which told him a lot. He got up quickly again and went back to his shelves, on the hunt for something else.

The shaman was entranced by the glowing pool of green as she was bent over it and stared at it.

Arien took this opening after glancing over his shoulder. He pulled out two viles this time but tucked one into his robe’s pocket in the front. He came back to his workstation and sat down. He took Alti’s dagger that sat nearby and carefully lowered it into the pool of green glow.

The pool instantly separated away from the dagger as if they were oil and water.

The alchemist uncorked his new vile then carefully poured the elixir over the dagger and green liquid. He inhaled the sharp smell of steel and fire mixing together. He calculated it carefully then suddenly stopped pouring the elixir. He set the half used vile into a tray nearby next to the earlier one.

“Did it work?” snapped the shaman.

Arien sighed but picked up the dagger from the now smaller pool. He held the dagger in his palm in display to the shaman.

Alti reached down and as she did so the dagger glowed the familiar green tone. She laughed as she picked it up by its handle. “Perfect.” She then pointed the dagger at the dark gem. “Put the rest back in the stone.”

The alchemist nodded then as he twisted back, his left elbow knocked the stone pretty hard.

The powerless Cronos Stone went airborne then headed for the ground.

“You fool!” Alti hurried over to the stone some paces away.

Arien hastily removed the silver band ring from his right hand. He dropped it into the green pool as he brought out his second vile. He glanced at the bent over shaman as he let a few drops fall over his ring.

The ring soaked in as much of the green liquid as it possible could then it was snatched up. The ring was silently dropped into the alchemist’s robe pocket then the vile followed it.

“Is it damaged?” asked the concerned alchemist.

“No.” Alti came over and handed the stone to him. “Be more careful, fool. Now fix it.”

Arien sighed then placed the dull gem on its base in the remaining pool. He picked up his vile on the workstation and poured it over the stone.

The Cronos Stone glowed once again and pulsed fairly brightly.

Alti laughed and clapped the man on the back. “Perfect, Arien.”

“Not quite done,” refused the alchemist. He’d put the empty vile aside then worked to get the stone back into the scepter. He eventually wiggled it back into its home on the top of the gold scepter. He held it up in triumphant display. “It is done, Alti.”

The shaman smiled as she scooped up the scepter. “You are a true alchemist, Arien.”

“One of the finest,” agreed Arien.

Alti still kept her evil smile as she reached into her robe. She untied a hefty pouch from her side then threw it onto the alchemist’s workstation. “We will meet again, Arien.” She then disappeared out of the workshop then eventually the shop.

Arien disregarded the dinars on his table and instead pulled out his glowing green ring. He held the green ring between his fingers and grinned at it amusingly. “You’re the fool, Alti.” He slipped the ring onto his finger and felt the power course through his body. He didn’t know what the power was but given some time he would figure it out then use it to his every means.

Arien decided it was then time to celebrate his success. He scooped up the bag of dinars and headed out of his shop. He went towards the port where some of the finer taverns were located.

The shaman though returned to the fortress and made her way directly to the Conqueror’s bedchambers and stored the scepter away deep in the Conqueror’s trunk. She then hastily escaped the room then returned down to hers on the second floor. Her grin was wide at the thought of her perfect deception that the Conqueror would never be any the wiser.

The Conqueror had spent much of her day working on her realm’s affairs. Just as she was gratefully finishing up, her office doors flew open and she jumped to her feet in reaction.

“My liege,” announced a strong voice.

The Conqueror came around her desk as Commander Meleager bounded into her office. “What is it?” she urged.

“There’s a problem, my liege,” hastily started the commander. “I just received word from the constable of Ambracia about a warlord uprising.”

“What?” The Conqueror approached the commander then demanded, “How did this happen?”

“We’re not sure, my liege I have people checking into it.” The old commander rested his hand on his sword hilt. “It seems they are bearing for the Amazon Nation.”

The Conqueror tried not to become too alarmed at this news. “Have you sent a dispatch to Tricca?”

“Yes, my liege,” answered Commander Meleager. “He is on his way to order the small Tricca Equestrian to mobilize.” He then stepped aside as the ruler started out of the office, shoving the doors open in a fury. “What of the legions, my liege?”

“I want the Legio V of Thebes mobilized.” The Conqueror was heading for the steps to go down to ground level, the commander tailing her. “How big is this army? And who the Hades is this warlord?”

“I am afraid it is your old friend, my liege.” Commander Meleager steadied himself as he finally answered, “It is Darphus.”

The Conqueror stopped on a step and turned back to her commander. “How in the name of Ares did that son of bitch get an army?”

Commander Meleager sighed then shook his head. “Its not known yet, my liege.”

“Well you better find out, commander,” snapped the ruler. “How big his army?”

“I believe it is a mere five hundred, my liege.” Meleager watched as the ruler continued down the steps quickly. “Will you accompany the legion?”

The ruler considered this and knew the dangers if she showed up in the Amazon Nation when the real Conqueror was already there. She sighed inwardly then replied, “No, I trust that the legatus can handle his post as the legion commander.”

“He is excellent,” reminded the commander.

The Conqueror grunted then remarked, “All those Roman pigs think they’re something… that is why I am the Conqueror.” She finally came to the last step then hurried down the hallway.

“What of the Amazon Nation, my liege?”

The Conqueror stopped then turned to Commander Meleager. “Leave them alone… I want Darphus, I owe him a beheading.”

The commander softly laughed then folded his muscular biceps over his silver plated chest. “Legio V of Thebes is four thousand strong, my liege. Do you wish their equestrian or ballista support to join them?”

“No,” replied the Conqueror, “We’re merely squashing a bug… not defeating an empire.” She stepped through the open doorway into her court then ordered, “See to my orders, commander then report back to me.”

“Of course, my liege.” Commander Meleager left the ruler’s side then hurried to carry those orders out.

The Conqueror marched out of the fortress then went directly to the small barrack that was attached to the walls. She was on the hunt for a certain dekarchos.

That particular dekarchos was on training duty with Iolaus out in the city of Corinth. Janice had learned quite a bit today from her superior and she was confident that her squad would follow her. Now Iolaus was showing the typical routes they marched through in the city to keep up on patrol.

Something caught Janice’s ear and she stopped so she could pinpoint it. She sensed Hu stopped beside her.

“What is it?” inquired Iolaus.

“I’m not sure but….” Janice shook her head then said, “Let’s back track for a minute.”

The tetrarchès had twisted features. “A minute?”

Christ that damn time issue again, mentally complained the archeologist. “For a heartbeat.” She was already moving but in a fast walk.

Iolaus shrugged then hurried along side the woman as he wondered what her hunch was all about.

The squad doubled back and soon figured out what Janice was hearing so well.

Iolaus unsheathed his sword then ordered, “Get these citizens settled down!”

The squad broke apart and hastily entered the chaos to figure out what was going on now.

Janice and Iolaus quickly jogged up to the mass of people and weeded through things.

“Alright back away,” yelled Iolaus as he waved his sword at the people.

The people did easily back away as the Conqueror’s soldiers formed a circle around the disturbance to block people.

Iolaus knelt down beside the lifeless body of a man.

Janice tilted her head as she studied the bruising on the man’s neck. “He was strangled.”

“It would seem so,” agreed the tetrarchès. He tilted his head back to meet Janice’s gaze. “But why?”

Janice scanned the faces of the people in the middle of the street with them. “Who knows what happened here?” she called out but nobody stepped forward.

Iolaus stood up then quietly stated, “They’re not going to help you. Trust me.”

“The Hell they will,” muttered the archeologist. She narrowed her eyes at this man in the front of the crowd that was trying to slink away. “You!”

A squad soldier quickly reacted and caught the man then yanked him out of the people then threw him towards Janice and the tetrarchès.

Janice came around the body and stood before the taller man. “Did you see what happened here?”

“N-n-no, dekarchos,” answered the scared young man.

The archeologist sighed then put her hands on her hips. “Listen, I’m not going to slap you in manacles and haul you off to the dungeon. If you do know something then I need to know too.”

Iolaus was kneeling again beside the man as he finally concluded something. He got up and stated to Janice, “He’s an alchemist.”

“He was,” corrected the archeologist, who returned to her attention to the young man. “Do you know him?”

The young man swallowed then stared down at the dead body.

Janice stepped into his view then asked, “What is your name?”

“L-Lysander,” answered the man.

“Alright, Lysander tell me if you know this man?”

Lysander saw how calm the dekarchos features were and they were almost inviting. He’d never seen a dekarchos like that let alone a female dekarchos. “He… he is an alchemist. I’ve been to his shop a few times.”

“Where’s his shop?” inquired the dekarchos.

“It’s on the west side of the city. I think his name is Arien.”

Janice glanced at the dead alchemist then back at the frightened Lysander. “Do you know what happened?”

“He was jumped from behind,” hollered a woman’s voice.

Iolaus strained his neck then ordered, “Come forward.”

The woman shoved through the crowd and broke through the squad circle. “I saw it happen.” She was obviously a street vender, which was rare for women to do. “I sell baskets and weavings… things like that and my shop is right there.” She pointed over the mass of people. “He was crossing the street and I noticed some guy tailing him.” She stopped then shrugged. “I think he just wanted to rob the alchemist because he was flashing his dinars around… bought some expensive wine.” The merchant glanced at the dead man then back at the dekarchos and tetrarchès as she further added, “The alchemist fought him but I guess the thief won.”

Janice glanced at Iolaus, who was a former thief.

Iolaus shrugged then returned his attention to the merchant. “I take it he got the alchemist’s money.”

“Yes, and some odd ring he was wearing too,” added the merchant. “It was pretty strange ring too.”

“Why’s that?” pressed the archeologist.

“It was a common silver ring but what was odd was it glowed green. I don’t know why… I thought maybe I’ve been in the sun too much today.” The merchant faltered then did her own shrug. “I know it was glowing green though.”

Iolaus smiled pleasantly at the crazy woman. “Thank you for the help.”

Lysander took that as his opening to go too.

The dekarchos quickly grabbed the escaping young men. “Not you though.”

“You said-”

“I know what I said,” reminded the archeologist, “and I am a woman of my word.” Janice grinned at Lysander’s still frightened features. “You’re taking us to his shop.”

The tetrarchès focused his attention on the squad soldiers. “I want two of you to see to the alchemist. The rest of you follow us.”

“Come on, Lysander.” Janice hauled the young man off towards the western side of the city.

Lysander’s sandals scrapped along as he tried to keep up.

Hu however made his presence known again as he took up Janice’s other side. He yawned some but faithful followed along. As he followed, he found himself going through busy streets, quieter ones, and then finally they were stopped.

“This is his shop,” informed Lysander. He was at the bottom of the steps and pointed up at the door.

Janice clasped the man’s shoulder then nodded at him. “Thank you, Lysander. You’re free to go.” She could tell the boy was relieved and he quickly left. Janice though climbed the steps then tried the door but it was definitely locked. “Iolaus, can you pick the lock or something?”

The ex-thief smirked, stomped up the steps, and brushed his hands together. “This is my greatest secret, Janice. Watch, okay?”

The archeologist stepped back to give him room on the platform, her hands on her hips and a curious look.

Iolaus faced the door, stepped back once, inhaled, and gave a sharp cry as he kicked at the door.

The door flew open and slammed into a wall on the inside.

Iolaus held out his hands to the open doorway now. “Thief extraordinaire at your service.”

The squad soldiers all laughed together at the tetrarchès’s great joke but they all went dead silent when their dekarchos glared at them.

Janice Covington huffed then walked past him to go in first. She stopped inside the shop after a few paces as it was dark some. “Where’s the damn light switch?” she complained under her breath.

The tetrarchès entered next and removed the matt on the front window, which helped to shine some sun on the subject. As he tossed the matt aside, he scanned the contents of the shop. “Definitely an alchemist.”

The archeologist had minimal knowledge about alchemy and the history behind it. She understood it was a crude version of chemistry that was more or less based on finding eternal life and transforming metals into gold. She started to explore the shop then eventually ended up behind the counter. She spotted the entrance into another room so she wondered into there next.

Iolaus soon followed behind and started mingling through the alchemist’s things. “So you suffered the Conqueror’s Língchí?”

Janice wavered in between picking up an empty clay test tube. “Yes.”

Iolaus glanced over at her then mentioned, “I did too when I first met her. I still have a few scars left too.” He wondered off to the left where there was some shelving.

Janice lifted the tube up to her nose and carefully smelled it. She quickly regretted the decision as it was a putrid odor. She put the empty vile back down then glanced over at Iolaus. “Why did you suffer the Língchí?”

Iolaus was opening a tube and peering in to make out the contents. “I dressed up as one of her soldiers.” He corked it and put it back then turned his head to Janice. “I tried to steal her riches and needless to say she caught me.” He neared Janice. “The Conqueror is quite intelligent… many of her best officers were once her enemies.”

The archeologist grunted but made no comment as the tetrarchès walked past her. She heard him go back into the shop and she was about to follow but something stopped her. Janice leaned over the workstation more and with her right hand, her fingertips drifted over the teardrop size green liquid. When her fingertips hovered over the green liquid, it pulsated a bright green in reaction to her. “Holy shit,” she muttered, “it can’t be.” She pulled her hand away and the liquid dimmed to an emerald shade. “Damn,” she hotly growled then hurried out of the workshop.

“Dekarchos,” called a squad soldier. He was one of the soldiers that had taken the alchemist’s body to the state healer’s morgue.

Janice stood beside Iolaus but her attention rested on the soldier. “What is it, Gilles?”

“When Biton and I took the body to the healer’s we were informed to tell you that the Conqueror requests your presence right away,” replied the squad soldier, Gilles.

The archeologist stepped up to him and asked, “You hear why?”

“No, I’m afraid not, dekarchos.”

Janice nodded then turned her head to Iolaus.

“I will finish with them,” offered Iolaus. “It is wise to respond to the Conqueror.”

“Thanks, Iolaus.” Janice headed for the door but paused then glanced back at her superior. “I think we better leave somebody here to guard this place.”

Iolaus had twisted features but he decided to go along since Janice’s hunch earlier was good. “Alright, leave one of your soldiers here.”

Janice nodded then ducked out of the store and Hu waited for her at the bottom. She ran her fingers through his coat in enjoyment, a smile touched her lips. She lifted her head then ordered, “The tetrarchès will be finishing up with you. I need somebody to stay posted here for a few….” She decided not to state hours or candlemarks since she’d had previous bad luck with time.

A file soldier stepped up. “I will take first post, dekarchos.”

“Thanks, Biton. I’ll be sure to have somebody relieve you soon enough.”

Biton nodded his agreement and he hid his surprise well about the dekarchos’s outward appreciation. He actually enjoyed it as he proudly took his post by the store front.

Janice then signaled Hu to follow her and she was quickly heading back the fortress. It took her a good ten minutes to make it north of the city where the fortress jutted out from the hill side. She entered through the open gates then hurried up the main opening of the fortress. The four guards at the door pulled the doors open for her when she made it to the last step.

“The Conqueror is in her office, dekarchos,” offered a sentry.

Janice nodded then stepped through the entranceway into the empty, quiet court. Her boots and Hu’s claws were the only sound in the marble court as they went to the door for the hallway. When she finally arrived at the office, she was called to enter and she spotted her friend behind her desk like always. “You can’t seem to get around that desk.”

The Conqueror lifted an eyebrow as a grin played with her lips. “It would seem so.” She signaled the three chairs in front of her desk. “You’ll need to sit for this, Janice.”

“That bad huh?” muttered the archeologist. She wondered over and after she sat, Hu laid down at her feet. “What’s wrong?”

The ruler leaned back into her chair then stretched her long legs. “There’s a small warlord uprising just east of Ambracia. The big problem is that this warlord is headed to the Amazon Nation… most likely he’s there.”

“Christ,” murmured the shocked archeologist. “When did this happen?”

“I only found out an hour ago.” The Conqueror sighed then peered down at her finally thinning scroll work. “I’ve sent orders for the Tricca Calvary to engage them. A Roman legion in Thebes will be mobilizing by tomorrow and headed up there.”

Janice carefully considered this, her eyes washed out by thoughts.

“The warlord was the Conqueror’s second in command during her Thessaly Campaign,” informed the ruler.

The archeologist’s face tightened together and her eyes focused on her friend again. “He knows the Conqueror is there.”

The ruler slowly moved her head in agreement. “That’s my suspicion too.” She straightened up some then quietly added, “Which means that somebody in the Amazon Nation let word out about her kidnapping.”

“Yeah but wouldn’t they find it a little odd that the Conqueror is in Corinth and in the Amazon Nation?” Janice shook her head as she thought it out then she exhaled audibly. “Damn it. Let me go up there, Mel.”

Melinda’s eyes narrowed then she stated, “No.” She saw her friend was about to argue her hotly but she stopped her first. “I’m not going to risk your life, Janice… recklessly.”

“Mel, we have to help them.”

“We are helping them,” reminded Melinda, “I have a band of cavalry and a legion headed up there.” She tilted her head then carefully said, “It will do them no good, Janice if you or I get hurt. Besides that if I go there’s the possibility of somebody noticing two Conquerors.”

The archeologist grinded her teeth as she tried to settle down her emotions.

“Janice?” gently called the linguist. When irritated green eyes met her gaze, she continued speaking. “I really need ya here with me. Please?”

Janice finally detected Melinda’s usual, gentle tone of voice and pure southern accent. Her annoyance was broken and she slowly nodded her head. “Alright, Mel.” Then as she mulled over it more so she knew it was best that she stayed after finding out about this alchemist.

“What is it?” Melinda knew something else was on her friend’s mind.

Janice shook her head, her eyes directed towards Hu but she lifted her head up again. “I think we have a slight problem.” Her confusion was clear as she began to explain what’d happen this afternoon. “Iolaus was training me and we were patrolling through the port. I heard this commotion so we doubled back then came up to this crowd.”

“What’d happened?” urged the concerned southerner.

“An alchemist was murdered… supposedly by a thief.” Janice clenched her hands in her lap. “It wasn’t so much that, that was odd but one of the witnesses said the alchemist had a glowing green ring.”

Melinda stiffened at this news and her stomach knotted. “Ooo my.” She sighed then leaned forward some as she asked, “What else?”

“Well we went to his shop and looked around. In his… I guess workshop or somethin’ he had this metal covered desk.” Janice lifted her hands to demonstrate how big it was then her hands went back to her lap. “On the damn work desk there was this green glowing liquid.”

Melinda softly groaned then slumped back into her chair as she absorbed this new information. This could not be good by any measure. “Alchemists are known for about four things, Janice.”

“Metals into gold,” ticked off Janice.

“The search for the Philosophers Stone,” added the translator.

“An elixir for immortality,” further recalled the archeologist.

Melinda sighed then finished it off with, “And transmutation… mainly of humans and metals.”

“What a damn combination,” muttered the archeologist. “You think this alchemist transmuted the Cronos Stone’s powers?” She then huffed then brought up, “How the Hell would he have gotten the stone?”

“That… might by my fault,” admitted Melinda. “I talked to Alti this morning telling her I was missing the scepter and that I wanted it found.”

Janice quietly groaned then let out a long sigh. “Shit,” she grumbled then stared down at the resting tiger at her feet. “This green glowing ring thing is missing too, Mel.” She lifted her gaze to Melinda. “This thief swiped it off the alchemist.”

“It is never a dull moment around ya, Doctor Janice Covington,” informed the translator.

Janice became playful as she winked and teased, “I don’t want you to get bored, sweetheart.”

Melinda had a crooked grin at the archeologist then she slowly lost it as she considered the new predicament. “Janice, you’ll have to figure out who stole that ring.”

The archeologist sobered some then stared down at the tiger, her thoughts wondering off to what she’d seen today. “You really think it’s possible that there’s now a… Cronos Ring?”

The linguist tilted her head at her friend and gave her a dubious look.

Janice laughed at the look then held up her hands while saying, “Forget I asked.”

Suddenly Melinda stood up then said, “Come with me. I just had a thought.” Her sweet southern accent floated back to the still sitting archeologist.

Janice popped up to her feet with her cloak falling around her easily. She trailed behind her friend and Hu tailed behind her. She finally came along side Melinda as they strolled down the endless torch lit and sunlit hallway. “You have a hunch?”

Melinda only nodded but kept silent as she didn’t want anybody to overhear anything. She came upon her bedchambers and shoved the heavy door open by the golden ring.

Janice shut the door then stepped into the center of the room while Melinda was digging in some trunk.

Melinda paused and the clattering noise she’d been making quickly stopped. “Ooo my.” She straightened up, turned around, and held up the prized possession to her friend.

“Sweet Jesus, Mel!” Janice had saucer eyes as she quickly came over and touched the familiar scepter that she’d come to both love and hate. “That’s it, isn’t it?”

“I reckon so.” The translator’s freehand passed over the stone.

The Cronos Stone hummed a bright green at Melinda’s spirit then fade once her hand was away.

Janice was puzzled so she passed her hand across the side of the stone, which reacted to her too. “That’s definitely it.” Her hands rested on her hips as she stared very confusingly up at her tall friend. “Mel, didn’t you check that trunk when you first got here?”

“Yes,” answered the linguist. “And it wasn’t there before.”

Janice’s lips puckered and her eyes narrowed from her thoughts. “That stupid shaman.”

Melinda grunted as the scepter lowered to her side.

Janice’s head dipped down in careful consideration. “This still doesn’t explain this ring or what I saw in the alchemist’s shop.” She focused back on the southerner. “I know what I saw in there, Mel.”

Melinda nodded then finally said, “Ya know I trust ya, Janice.” She stepped a little closer to her friend.

The Cronos Stone reacted quickly by glowing brightly from the two strange beings from another world.

“Ya need to figure out what’s going on, Janice.”

The archeologist agreed with a bob of her head. “I will,” she promised. “Something is going on… and I don’t mean just with Alti.”

“I reckon you’re right,” softly agreed the southerner.

Janice peered down at the scepter that was in Melinda’s right hand. She saw how it was quite lively with them so near. “Mel… we could…”

The translator lifted the scepter and stared deep into the pulsating, magical stone.

Janice lifted her hand, her fingertips almost touching the stone but she knew what could possibly happen if she touched it. Her eyes flickered up and locked on Melinda’s soft blue eyes.

Melinda let out a low sigh then softly stated, “It is tempting.” She watched as Janice’s hand lowered slowly.

“We can’t… not yet,” relented the saddened archeologist. “As much as I’d like to go home and just forget all this.”

“I reckon we won’t ever forget this, Janice.” Finally, Melinda broke away from staring into the stone by lowering it back to her side. “I will try to find out what Alti is up to. Can ya deal with this murder and ring?”

“Sure thing, sweetheart,” teased the archeologist. She enjoyed the gentle smiled that caressed her friend’s lips from the banter.

Melinda released her smile then lowered her head closer to Janice’s. “I’m sorry about this morning, Janice.” She shook her head then spoke again. “I’ve been trying to think of a way to get ya out of the fortress without arousing suspicions. I reckon I get some of my better ideas when I’m fighting.” At that thought, she shook her head because she knew when she was sparring or fighting her mind was in extra acceleration and the calculations were so fast.

“I admit I didn’t understand what was going on at first but… I caught on,” relented the archeologist. “I’m just glad you didn’t kick my ass.”

The translator chuckled but honestly mentioned, “You’re a good fighter, Janice.”

Janice shrugged then coolly remarked, “Runs in the bloodline.”

“Somethin’ like that,” agreed the linguist. She returned to the open trunk and tucked the scepter away for safe keeping. She then closed it, knelt down, and worked to lock the padlock for the first time in many, many moons.

The padlock protested at first then snapped shut, the key popping out in protest. The key fell into a large hand and disappeared from sight.

Melinda rose back up and neatly tucked the key down between her cleavage.

Janice bit her lower lip but she just couldn’t stop the comment. “So what else you got in there, Mel?”

Melinda Pappas merely arched an eyebrow as her expression became chilled much like the Conqueror. The look broke quickly as Melinda seemed to become subconscious of it. “Can we talk about somethin’, Janice?”

The archeologist steadied herself because she knew it was serious. “Come on… we’ll sit down.” As she padded across the room to the long sofa against the wall, she noticed that Hu occupied one end of it. “Cats… I swear,” she complained under her breath.

Hu heard it though and he lifted his head, his ears perked forward. He settled his head back down on his paws when the humans sat on the sofa near him. He sighed though because they were certainly going to ignore him as they were turned to each other.

Melinda had her hands locked in her lap, slightly bent forward and her eyes glued to her lap.

Janice could tell this was something very hard for her friend so she covered her right hand over Melinda’s.

The translator slightly flinched at seeing the scabs on Janice’s hands from the Conqueror’s torture.

“What is it, Mel?” tried the archeologist.

Melinda inhaled deeply then raised her eyes to meet Janice’s concerned gaze. “What are we doing, Janice?” Her voice held worry and her eyes showed she was lost.

Janice squeezed the larger hands under hers. She tried to prepare for this discussion that they’d been setting aside for a couple of days now. “Just so I understand, you mean between you and I?” At her friend’s nod, she lightly bit the inside of her mouth as she composed her response carefully. “I’m not completely sure, Mel.” She was uneasy about confessing her thoughts without knowing what Melinda thought first. Yet she knew if there wasn’t some give from one of them then it may get sticky. “I’m not… going to complain about any of it though.” She hoped that was enough but not too much at the same time.

Melinda studied her friend for a few silent moments and debated whether to read between the lines or not. She swallowed then quietly confessed, “I think a lot about the kisses.”

Janice sensed her nerves growing tighter as she edged closer to her feelings. Her left hand, in her lap, slightly clenched up but her other hand didn’t move away from Melinda’s. “I… I do too,” she softly admitted. Her gaze faltered though and she stared at her hand over top of Melinda’s much larger ones.

“I’m just confused,” whispered Melinda, “I ain’t sure if it’s me that wants to kiss ya or because of this… Conqueror persona.” She shook her head at the mounting turmoil she’d been fighting for days.

Janice clearly understood what her friend was feeling. The kisses they’d share had always been when Melinda was shielded behind the Conqueror role and not completely herself. Yet Janice realized too that those urges most likely derived from somewhere deep in Melinda and the Conqueror persona merely gave her the charge to act on them. “Mel?”

Melinda had been lost in her thoughts too. She now focused on the archeologist after hearing her calling voice.

“We’ll figure it out now then.” Janice Covington had faint grin then her right hand freed from Melinda’s. Her hand glided up then lightly touched Melinda’s left cheek in a sweet caress. Janice slowly leaned into Melinda.

Melinda’s heart thundered loudly against her chest and her stomach jumped then fell again. She stiffened just as Janice’s lips just brushed against hers. Her eyes drifted shut then her body slowly gave into the feelings.

Janice could feel Melinda let going of her initial shock but she held still. This kiss was so shy and opposite of the previous ones. Then she moaned softly when Melinda pressed their lips tighter together. She melted into the growing kiss that warmed her skin and burned her lips.

Melinda opened her mouth as her tongue met against Janice’s. This time her moan filled the quiet room. She truly felt her passion come to life because of Janice and nothing else. Her cravings were for Janice and because of Janice, which was something so new to her.

Janice slightly receded from the kiss to breathe in some air but Melinda quickly caught her lips again. She groaned at the linguist’s amazingly talented tongue that made her feel so alive and desire so much. Janice knew Melinda had gained much more confidence as this second kiss was more heated.

Melinda tried to slow down the fever of kissing but it took another two kisses to calm herself. She completely withdrew and she grinned at hearing Janice’s moan of pleasure and protest. She opened her eyes to be met by burning green eyes that were locked on her.

The archeologist cleared her throat then softly asked, “Did that help, Mel?”

“I reckon so,” came the southerner’s husky voice.

Janice gave a lopsided grin. “What’s your decision?”

“It requires more confirming,” toyed the translator. She leaned in for another long kiss.

Janice had no problem with helping to make the confirmation. She could tell these kisses were quite different from those she’d received from the previous days. These were sweet much like Melinda’s accent. They drove to her heart as much as to her lower abdomen. The previous kisses had been soaked in pure passion. Neither kisses were better than the other but merely brought out different sensations in the archeologist.

Finally Melinda pulled back but leaned her forehead against Janice’s, her eyes still closed. “Janice?” she murmured.

“Mmmm?” whispered the heavy breathing archeologist.

“As much as I enjoy those… I am scared.”

The archeologist withdrew some but gathered Melinda’s hands into hers. “What is it, Mel?” She tilted her head then tried, “Because of the split?”

“It ain’t just that.” The linguist glanced over at the room then back at her friend. “It’s just… I’m old southern and religion. I… I don’t…” She stopped and shook her head at the attacking thoughts.

The archeologist lit up with understanding at her friend’s thought process. “A good ole Methodist southern proper belle.” She sighed at the social barriers setup in her friend.

“In a nutshell,” softly agreed the translator.

“And I’m sure you can guess what I think about all that horseshit?”

Melinda had a grin but it went sadder as she nodded solemnly. “I know its trash to you… but it is who I am.”

Janice’s shoulders slumped at this gentle declaration because she really hadn’t considered that aspect. Way to call her entire life horseshit, inwardly berated the sighing archeologist. “I’m sorry, Mel. I didn’t mean it that way.” She shook her head then muttered, “I’m just a moral less thief without a sense of background.” Her gaze was downcast. “And an inconsider-”

“Janice,” cut in the translator, “its okay.” She squeezed the small hands in hers. “We’re just from opposite backgrounds.”

Janice blew out a deep breath in frustration. “That’s the truth, sweetheart.” She shook her head then studied her friend. “What do you want to do, Mel?”

“Take a page out of your book,” honestly answered the translator. At Janice’s bewildered face, Melinda slightly smiled then clarified her words. “I ain’t going to lose this.” She made an indication by squeezing their hands. “Just because I have certain values grounded into my head.”

“Mel,” argued Janice, “you can’t just throw your identity all away for this… for me.”

“I ain’t throwing my identity away.” Melinda arched a challenging eyebrow at her friend. “I know who I am. I also know whatever this is between us it is bigger than either of us understand right now.”

“I guess you didn’t transcend time and worlds just for shits and giggles huh?”

Melinda slowly nodded then leaned in closer to her friend. “I reckon it’ll be harder for me when… when we get back home. You’ll have to be patient with me then.” She freed a hand and tilted Janice’s head back so that they were looking into each other’s eyes. “I just got ya back, I ain’t gonna lose ya now, Janice.”

“Mel, I just… I’m worried about you. What if… I don’t….” Janice trailed off then she became distraught at seeing Melinda’s now smirking features. “What?” she asked slightly defensively.

Melinda leaned in closer then teasingly whispered, “Just shut up and put up, Doctor Covington.”

“Melinda Pappas!” gasped the horrified archeologist. “Only I can cuss-” She was instantly shut up by a feverish kiss, which she moaned from happily.

Hu lifted his head at all the ruckus but he huffed at the again kissing women. He lowered his head and distantly wished he was in Lao Ma’s room because at least she didn’t do those oddly human things like this pair. He yawned, closed his eyes, and tried to ignore the soft moans of pleasure so nearby.

Melinda ended the kiss then straightened up some but mentioned, “By the way, I need ya to talk to the faction members.”

Janice blinked out her passions then muttered, “What faction members?”

“Gabrielle’s faction,” offered the smirking translator.

“Oh.” The archeologist’s muddied head cleared up and she sheepishly smiled up at her friend. “Right. Gabrielle’s fraction… faction I mean.” She shook her head to clear out. She shrugged then muttered, “Fraction… faction… I’m good at any f word though.”

Melinda chuckled then patted the smaller woman’s closest knee. “Ya need to talk to somebody from the faction to update them. I reckon they don’t know too much.”

“Should I tell them about you?”

“If ya want to try but I reckon they ain’t gonna believe ya.” The linguist sighed then leaned back against the sofa. “I reckon Gabrielle hasn’t touched based with ’em and hopefully they’ll listen to ya.” She tilted her head when it became clear that Janice wasn’t completely listening to her, a wistful look on the archeologist’s face. “Janice?”

The archeologist blinked out of her reverie and a faint blush painted her cheeks. She faked cough to steal a second as she gathered her wits again. “Talk to the faction, check. Gabrielle hasn’t talked to them, check. And they’ll listen to me, another check.” She smiled and stated, “I’m on it, sweetheart.” Her eyes then went wider than the sun when Melinda suddenly leaned forward.

Melinda’s hand shot out, grabbed Janice in between her leather top at her cleavage, and yanked her down.

Janice was hauled onto Melinda’s lap so that she now straddled Melinda’s lap. She quietly yelped but was subdued with a fierce kiss to her lips. She pressed her body against Melinda’s when strong hands came around to her back, under the cloak, and ran up her burning back.

Hu lifted his head then yawned loudly at the active women.

Janice drew back at hearing this and started to laugh. She turned his head to him. “I guess we’re boring to some.”

Melinda was grinning at the tiger, who flicked his tail at the pair. “That’s alright… at least he won’t bother us then.”

The tiger exhaled extremely loud as if in response then he hung his head over the sofa’s edge in utter boredom.

Janice shook her head amusingly at the sight. “We’ll go see Lao Ma, boy. Promise.”

This gave Melinda an idea and she drew Janice’s attention back by touching her cheek. “Why don’t ya take Lao Ma to the market this afternoon? Take your squad for her protection.”

“Alright,” agreed the archeologist. She leaned in for a soft kiss then regretfully scooted off of Melinda and stood up.

The translator easily stood up and towered over her friend. “Find me when ya get back.”

“I’m sure you’ll be in the office,” casually remarked the archeologist, who was wondering over to the two doors.

Melinda watched the tiger flop off the sofa and follow after Janice. She peered back up at the archeologist then came over to her. “Just be careful out there. We don’t know who this murderer, thief is and I don’t like it.”

“That makes two of us, Mel.”

Melinda considered this more then mentioned, “I’ll have Iolaus order the squads to patrol more heavily until it is figured out.” She then focused back on her friend after this thought. “How do ya like Iolaus?”

“He’s pleasant enough… he mentioned that the Conqueror once submitted him to Língchí.”

The linguist nodded her confirmation then replied, “Do you know who Iolaus is?”

Janice Covington narrowed her eyes, her lips sealed tightly together reflecting that she was thinking this over. “I know who Iolaus is from mythology… yes. They say he was Hercule’s nephew and that he helped Hercules with his second labor… then later married Hercule’s wife.”

“They did know each other,” agreed Melinda, “but from what I read in Gabrielle’s scroll… he and Hercules were close friends. They weren’t nephew and uncle.”

“Really?” The archeologist’s interest perked up instantly. “So wait… is this the same Iolaus that you read about?” Janice’s confirmation was Melinda’s evil grin then finally a nod. “Holy shit… you’re joking, Mel?”

“Janice Covington, when have I lied to ya?”

The archeologist grinned at this truth then ran Iolaus and Hercules through his head. “So… Iolaus does exist here but Hercules doesn’t.” She was puzzled and staring up at her friend. “Wasn’t Alcmene his mother and then Zeus was the father.”

“Maybe he wasn’t born for some reason,” suggested Melinda. “I ain’t sure but Iolaus still exists here with or without him… just in a different light.”

“It would seem so,” agreed the archeologist. “Huh… this keeps getting more and more interesting.”

Melinda started to open the door but stopped then bent over to her friend. “Also Iolaus… he had a thing for Gabrielle.” With no other words, she drifted out of the room with door left open for Janice.

The archeologist crinkled up her nose at the concept but she shiver in dislike too. She grinned as she quickly left, closed the door after Hu, and chased after Melinda. Once she was close enough, she thoroughly teased, “I’ll be sure to see if he has any… services to offer.”

“You better not, Janice Covington,” growled the translator and her accent lost.

Janice shivered yet again but for a completely different reason. She had a silly grin but she whispered, “Or else what?”

Melinda suddenly stopped.

Janice instantly stiffened up at seeing the familiar fire behind Melinda’s eye that she was growing use to seeing. She stepped back once as she faced her friend now. “Now, Mel I was just kidding.”

Melinda’s eyes went into a chilled glacier shade.

Janice jumped back when Melinda stalked forward, after her. “Hu, stop her.”

The tiger actually reacted and stepped between the pair, his head back and teeth baring up at Melinda.

The archeologist hadn’t quite expected him to do that and she shyly smiled up at Melinda. “Um.”

Melinda’s eyes lowered to the tiger and she hotly whispered, “Back off, Hu before I make a nice rug out of you.”

The tiger’s low growl started to sound between them.

Melinda’s eyes slotted at the tiger and she furthered added, “And a set of mittens.”

Hu’s fur rose up on his back as his tail flickered dangerously.

Janice was stunned by this as she wasn’t sure what to do between the pair. “Hu?” She tried to call.

Melinda stared down the tiger and held her ground well. Her eyes locked on the tiger’s.

Hu suddenly closed his mouth then walked away quickly then sat to watch the pair.

Janice’s mouth hung open in absolute amazement at how Melinda stopped him without doing anything, as far as she could figure. She then suddenly realized her friend was looming over her. “Hi,” she greeted but she shot a dark look at her supposed protector. “Thanks, Hu.”

Melinda lifted her hands but her hands stopped in mid air and something else caught her attention. Her head snapped to the right.

Janice now heard the boot steps too. She glanced up to Melinda to see she’d backed away.

“Later,” lowly promised the woman that now became the ruler of the largest realm.

The archeologist shivered at the promise then she watched as the nearing body was forming into a person.

“Commander,” greeted the Conqueror.

“My liege.” Commander Meleager bowed his head then his worn brown eyes fell onto Janice Covington. “The prisoner is not under guard, my liege…?”

“The prisoner is now the dekarchos of Dekania V, commander.”

The commander just contained his surprise but this wasn’t something complete unheard of either with the Conqueror. He now noticed the former prisoner had a sword and one that had usual markings. “Congratulations, Janice,” he offered.

Janice nodded and also surprised that he knew her name. Then again he was the commander so he had to know all the business.

“I’m bringing you news about dispatch, my liege. Perhaps we can talk in your office?”

The Conqueror relented with a faint nod but turned to Janice. “See to what we discuss, Janice.”

The archeologist tried to fall into her role as she bowed her head then replied, “Of course, my liege and I’ll report back to you.” She signaled for Hu to follow her then she made her way down the hall. She needed to find Lao Ma before the afternoon became any later.

The Conqueror briefly watched Janice go then she focused back on the commander. “Is there anymore news?”

“There is some,” agreed Commander Meleager then he turned.

The ruler followed along side as they silently returned to the office. His news about Darphus would prove to not only enlighten the Conqueror but also irritate her to no end.

Chapter 17 – The Conquered

“Gabrielle, it’s time,” ordered the Amazon Princess. She stood in the open doorway of the guest hut, her eyes watching the hastily moving outsiders.

“We’ll head over there right away,” agreed the bard. She was gathering up her scroll satchel that she’d packed earlier this morning.

“Your guards will take you there.” Princess Terreis glanced at the two guards on either side of her that were waiting for the outsiders to go. “Please be safe and stay in the healer’s hut with the queen and Eilis.”

The rebel leader limped up to the princess. “Thank you, Terreis.” She moved in and gave a one-armed hug.

Princess Terreis warmly received her friend yet drew back some. “I should go.”

“Be careful out there… please, Terreis,” murmured the very worried bard.

The Amazon Princess nodded then softly gave a reply. “We don’t plan to fail, Gabrielle.”

“I know but… just come out of this alive,” urged the bard, “some things just aren’t worth more than your life.”

Princess Terreis lowered her head closer to Gabrielle’s, her proud green eyes meeting the rebele’s own set. “And some things are worth more than my life… this happens to be one of them.” She squeezed her friend’s shoulder then she reached to her hip. She revealed an Amazon dagger and whispered, “Take this, Gabrielle. I know you don’t….” She sighed then held out the sheathed dagger in her palm. “Keep it for protection but I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Gabrielle hesitated as she stared at the blade because never once had she’d used a blade beyond a kitchen knife. She knew little of weapons except her sharp words. Yet looking into the Amazon’s eyes she saw the hidden plea and she sadly took the weapon. She worked the weapon between her belt and skin then hid it with her blue top. “Thank you,” she whispered.

Princess Terreis only nodded, squeezed the bard’s shoulder, and turned as she marched off to join her Nation.

“Be safe, my friend,” murmured the watching bard. She sighed then gazed sidelong over her shoulder. “You ready, Cyrene… Melpomene?”

Melpomene came out and took her aunt’s hand. “I’m ready.”

Cyrene strolled out last, closed up the door, and hefted the satchel at her side. “We’re ready.” She said it mainly to the guards.

“Follow us,” ordered a guard. She and her partner escorted the outsiders across the village and to the healer’s hut. They remained outside the hut at their posts by the steps that led into the hut.

The outsider family hurried up into the hut and was welcomed by Eilis.

“How is the queen today?” questioned the bard.

The healer sat behind her desk and replied while she watched the outsiders get situated. “She is stable.”

Gabrielle tried not to flinch at the healer’s response because she knew that could mean anything. She’d settled her satchel on the long table off in the right corner. “Mind if I see to her?”

“Of course,” answered the healer.

“Thank you.” The rebel leader glanced at her mother and her niece, who were resting in the chairs that surrounded the table. “I’ll be back.” She limped across the hut and slipped into the dark room. She came over to the queen’s bedside and found her asleep soundly. She picked up a cloth that was sitting in a cool bowl of water. She rung it free of the water then placed the moist cloth over the queen’s forehead.

The queen softly moaned and her eyes slotted open.

Gabrielle held her tongue because she wasn’t sure if the queen was completely awake or not. She gently patted the queen’s cheeks and down to her neck.

“Gabrielle,” murmured the hoarse voice of the queen.

“Sssh,” softly ordered the rebel. “You need to sleep, my queen.” A lump formed in her throat at seeing the wound in the queen’s shoulder. She truly admired Queen Cyane for all her strength and determination to keep her Nation together against the Conqueror.

The queen’s left hand slowly came up and lightly her fingers curled around the bard’s wrists.

The rebel stopped her administrations as she saw Cyane’s golden eyes upon her. “You must rest, Queen Cyane.”

“I’ve been resting for too long,” cursed the wounded queen.

“And you still need to rest some more,” argued the rebel leader. She placed the cloth back into the bowl, which broke the contact between her and the queen.

“Sit down, Gabrielle.”

The bard studied the queen’s worn features but she could tell the queen would not let her leave. She slowly nodded then turned and found a chair nearby. With her freehand, she managed to drag it to the bedside then she took a grateful seat. Her legs released the pain they always felt from any amount of standing. She tilted her head at the waken queen yet all she heard was the queen’s heavy breathes.

Finally after a long silence, Queen Cyane began to speak but yet her voice was so distant. “The Conqueror has suffered much in her lifetime, Gabrielle.” She turned her head and studied the rebel leader. “Do you realize this?”

Gabrielle lowered her gaze to the small floor space between her and the bed yet her head lifted again.

Queen Cyane licked her lips then whispered, “I really don’t hate her, Gabrielle.” She rolled her head away then continued to speak again. “I am willing to admit I am afraid of her though. Ever since the day she killed the ten elders… I can still hear the screams… and feel myself hanging by my stomach.” She blinked away her forming memories. “It’s not something you ever forget, Gabrielle.” She rolled her head back then whispered, “I think you understand this too.”

Gabrielle’s memories of her days on the cross instantly surfaced and her eyes squeezed tightly together. “I do,” she murmured then her pain filled eyes met the queen’s.

“You and I, Gabrielle… we’ve followed much the same path. We’ve both have withstood the Conqueror, survived her, and are made stronger.” Cyane stopped as she swallowed against her parched throat. “But since this trial… since meeting you, I’ve come to realize something that separates you from me.”

Gabrielle tilted her head then softly asked, “What’s that, Queen Cyane?”

Cyane softly smiled at the outsider. “You don’t fear the Conqueror like I do… that was my mistake.”

“But I do fear her,” challenged the bard.

Cyane inhaled slowly then debated back. “If you truly were, Gabrielle you would have ran… just like me but you haven’t. If I hadn’t ran from her then maybe none of us would be here today.”

Gabrielle bit her inside mouth as she was seeing a common theme from everybody anymore. Could it be true that the Conqueror was alone ever since Lyceus’s death? Cyrene first rejected Xena then not long after Caesar betrayed her and she could recall hearing stories about some Chin ruler also sending Xena away. Then there was Cyane later. The only person to ever welcome the Conqueror was Alti but Alti was obviously there for her own motives. The Conqueror hadn’t seen trust or love since her long dead brother.

“Gabrielle,” broke in the queen’s voice, “I tried to help her but I feared her and because I kept her at arms length, Alti was able to seize her.” She turned her head away from Gabrielle. “It is truly Alti that I hate.”

“My queen, everything happens for a reason,” gently reminded the bard.

“Yes, it does, Gabrielle.” Cyane’s hazy brown eyes turned back to the rebel. “There is a reason why you do not fear her… why you’re the only one.”

Gabrielle’s head fell forward and shaking. “I don’t know, my queen. She’s so set in her ways.”

“No one is set in their ways in the face of love,” rebuked the queen. “Not even the powerful Conqueror… especially her.” Queen Cyane let out a long sigh. “You will come to see this.” She’d closed her eyes earlier but now opened it and turned her head back to the rebel. “You would make a fine Amazon, Gabrielle.”

The bard huffed then held out her hand to her knees. “Minus my crippled legs huh?”

“Not every Amazon has to be a warrior,” argued the queen.

The rebel leader leaned back into her chair as she settled her walking stick into her lap. “Maybe some day, Queen Cyane… just not today.”

“When it is time,” softly spoke the queen. Cyane turned her head away and closed her eyes. Her breathing calmed but her eyes were flickering fast under her eyelids.

Gabrielle carefully watched her as the silence lengthened. She was almost sure that Queen Cyane had drifted back to sleep again.

Queen Cyane’s eyes flew open then she sharply stated, “It has begun.”

Princess Terreis cupped her hands over her mouth as she knelt stealthy in the trees. Just below her several enemy warriors passed so she gave the call for battle. After she gave it, she heard her call echo through the forest at a rapid rate. She silently withdrew her sword then quietly moved through the trees and gave signals to nearby Amazons to fan out. She was grateful that Artemis had blessed them with a lengthier summer as the tree leaves had only slightly turned in recent days.

Darphus’s men were thickening as the line of foot warriors were coming through the woods. Off in the distance the sound of horse’s huffing rang out along with the distinct smell of them floating on the breeze.

Princess Terreis knew it was time to begin the attack as the enemy line came close to the ground traps. She suddenly lunged down and started the attack. Her sisters all dropped from the trees or appeared from behind trees with thrusting swords and vibrant masks.

The line of warriors broke out in a yell and attacked the Amazons. The meeting of swords rang out in the woods heavily along with wrenching cries as enemies were taken out. Occasionally, a warrior would suddenly disappear by an Amazon, who was hiding in the ground traps.

Princess Terreis spun around, twirled her sword, and rammed it up into an enemy’s gut. She jerked it hard then yanked her bloody sword free as her target fell to the ground in a moan of death. She lunged off to her right as another of Darphus’s warriors engaged her. She sensed a second coming at her left side so she gave a cry then jump just as her first opponent’s sword came at her stomach.

The first warrior’s swing clearly missed but he managed to skewer his comrade. He growled at his stupid comrade, kicked him off his blade, and dropped his head back to see the Amazon holding onto a tree branch with her left hand. He grinned up at her and unsheathed a dagger from his hip.

Princess Terreis laughed, tossed her sword up some, caught the handle with the reverse of her hand, and gave it a hard throw.

The warrior’s dagger throw was completely off as the Amazon’s sword plunged into his chest. As he grabbed at the hilt, he suddenly was rammed into his back from the Amazon’s powerful landing.

Princes Terreis stood on top of her opponent’s chest and she yanked her blade free from the dead warrior’s chest. She glanced about her surroundings and saw that they were evenly matched right now. Then something in the uproar of battle caught her attention so her head jerked up and to the right. Over her shoulder, she saw a long line of cavalry riders begin to form in the woods.

The Amazon Princess clenched her teeth as her ears focused on the sharp breathing of the warhorses that were scraping their hoofs on the soft ground. She cupped her hands over mouth and gave the warning bird call to her Nation.

A man in the center of the cavalry line gave a cry, raised his sword, and pointed it at the battle. His laughter then filled the air as the small cavalry raced through the woods and plunged into the battle.

Princess Terreis watched in horror as Darphus’s cavalry swept into the battle and ripped over Amazons with simple easy. She then learned to breathe again when the whistle of Amazon arrows flew down from the trees and began picking of the riders. She doubled her efforts and hurried to help an overwhelmed sister only so many paces away. Her prayers were as much with her Nation as they were with the guarded queen and outsiders hidden in the village.

Gabrielle had left the sleeping queen only recently. She’d spent over half a candlemark with the queen not that it was all talk. When she came outside into the main portion of the hut, she found her family and the healer organizing herbs and bandaging for later. It made her sigh sadly. “Can I help, Eilis?”

Cyrene turned her head to the young rebel. “Sit down, Gabrielle. I think we all have it.”

The bard nodded then walked over to the table. She sat but it did her little good as her worries and thoughts wondered to the battle just outside the gates. She was breathing heavy from raging thoughts and desire to help despite there was little to nothing that she could do. She hated feeling this helpless especially due to her legs. When she slightly slumped forward, her stomach was poked by the dagger’s hilt, which was an abrupt reminder.

Gabrielle glanced over at Cyrene and Melpomene’s backsides as the women helped the healer organize certain amounts. Her stomach knotted up at the prospect of dying and wounded Amazons coming back to the hut either in heartbeats or candlemarks. A chill worked its way down her back as she knew the awful odds facing the Amazon Nation. Then as she dropped her head forward, she heard the soft voices of the guards outside from the window as they talked back and forth.

“I hear there were over a hundred on horseback.”

“It could be a slaughter… we only have so many archers to pick off the cavalry.”

Gabrielle tensed at this news having heard it for the first time. The princess had never mentioned anything about Darphus having a small cavalry and she could only imagine why. Maybe the princess was trying to still her fears from defeat and death. She suddenly stood up when all this soaked into her conscious.

Cyrene heard the bard move so she slightly turned. “What is it, Gabrielle?”

“I have… I have to see the Conqueror,” answered the suddenly shaken bard.

Cyrene completely turned then hurried over to the rebel’s side. “Gabrielle, there’s-”

“Cyrene,” cut off the bard, “they have a small cavalry,” she whispered hotly but her eyes were lit up in fear.

The mother hadn’t known like Gabrielle so she felt her breath still. “How….”

“I just heard the guards… outside,” murmured Gabrielle. “I have to try and talk to her again, Cyrene. I know she’s not going to listen but this time she had to.”

“Let me come with you,” started Cyrene.

“No,” argued the bard, “I need to do this alone. Plus Eilis could use your help to prepare.”

The mother glanced at Eilis and Melpomene but her worried features returned to Gabrielle. “Be careful, Gabrielle. Don’t endanger your life, please. I can’t lose anybody else.”

The bard clasped her mother’s arm then gently promised, “You won’t, Cyrene.” She then slipped out of the healer’s hut before anybody would notice her gone. However the guards at the base of the steps noticed her coming down and they blocked her path.

“You are not to leave, Gabrielle,” ordered the left guard.

“Listen, I need to talk to the Conqueror.”

“No,” ordered the same guard, “Princess Terreis mentioned you may try this. You are to stay here and we are allowed to use any means necessary to carry out those orders.”

“Does that include my dead body?” snapped the outsider. “I am going and there is nothing either of you two can do about that.” She came off the last stop and faced the pair. She wasn’t fearful of them having stood up to the Conqueror on many occasions so her skills were toned anymore.

The left guard stepped in front of her directly as she would not back down easily. “Returned to the hut. Now.”

“Listen, I’m not an Amazon and I don’t take anybody’s orders.” The rebel leader’s features were growing very cold as her fire reared up. “Now get the Hades out of my way.”

The Amazon could tell that the rebel would not back down. She also wasn’t sure if it was worth trying the rebel despite she was crippled but something about those fire green eyes told her not to underestimate. She stepped aside then clipped, “You are reckless, Gabrielle.”

“Yea save it for somebody that’ll listen,” snapped the bard, who started walking away. She paused then glanced back at the pair. “Watch after my family… they’re more important than I am.” She said nothing else then moved as fast as her mangled legs allowed her.

The Amazons exchanged glances then the left one let out a frustrated sigh.

Gabrielle’s breathing was ragged by the time she made it to the jail hut. She saw that the two guards that usually stood outside were no longer there. She figured they were most likely in the battle. She came up to the small window then called, “Ephiny?”

The Conqueror opened her eyes then saw the soft featured rebel in the barred window.

“By the gods, Gabrielle!” Ephiny came to the door and she was furious. “What in the name of Hades are you doing here! Get back to the healer’s hut.”

“Open the damn door,” barked Gabrielle as she banged on it with her left hand.

“No,” hotly shot back the Amazon. “Nobody is allowed in here and you need to be in the healer’s hut.”

“I’m not leaving until I can speak to the Conqueror,” challenged the defiant rebel.

“Well I figured that much,” hissed the frustrated head guard.

Gabrielle grabbed a bar with her freehand. “So let me in then I’ll go back sooner, Ephiny.”

Ephiny clenched her teeth then she grabbed the key at her side. She worked it into the lock then pulled the door open. “Why in the Hades do I put up with you, Gabrielle?”

“You have a soft spot for irritating blonds,” joked the rebel as she limped into the jail.

Ephiny softened at the joke about her favorite two blonds and one she missed even if she didn’t care to admit it. She closed the door up but didn’t bother to lock it as she hoped the rebel would be leaving soon. She did remain in front of it and carefully watched the bard.

Gabrielle neared the slumped Conqueror and carefully started the conversation with a question. “How are you feeling?”

The Conqueror raised her head up, her ghostly features locking on her young enemy. “I am not fighting, rebel.”

The bard sighed at hearing the old monotone and her title coming from the cold lips of the ruler. “I thought we were beyond that point, Conqueror.”

“Leave,” ordered the harsh voice of the ruler.

Gabrielle ignored the command of course and instead she slowly knelt down. Her knees touched the rough, cold wood floor and it pained her but it gave her a better view of the slouched ruler’s face. She’d never once seen the Conqueror in such an unbecoming manner. “You know I’m not going to.” Her back went ridged when hollow eyes locked on her.

“I should kill you now,” growled the ruler, “because soon none of this will matter.”

Ephiny stepped forward, which caused the other guards to follow suit.

Gabrielle waved them off with her right hand in hopes they’d back away. This was between her and the ruler. “Is that the answer huh?” Her right hand slipped under her shirt then she revealed a dagger.

“Gabrielle, no!” yelled Ephiny but she was too late as she watched in horror.

The Conqueror had the hilt in her hand, the tip pressed into the rebel’s throat, and her face pressed close to the rebel’s.

“We had a pact,” whispered the fearless bard. Her chin lifted but her eyes only on the Conqueror. “I can keep my part of the bargain.”

The Conqueror pressed the tip in more and she watched the skin break open, a droplet of blood formed just under the blade. “In a few moons, you will be forgotten and your dreams… they’ll be crushed.” She tilted her head. “Alti will take your soul… you’ll never know your next life.”

Gabrielle kept her eyes open despite she wanted to shut them against the ruler’s darkening features and the cutting words. “She may be able to control my soul, Conqueror but she’ll never own it.” She licked her dry lips then whispered, “Just like you will never conqueror me.”

The Conqueror’s heavy breathing matched the rebel’s for several heartbeats. Her teeth clenched together as her racing mind kept her shaking hand still from moving the dagger forward. Her arm muscles taut and flexing under her skin.

Gabrielle then quietly promised, “And my fears of you cannot conqueror me.”

The Conqueror’s lips pulled into a snarl as a low growl echoed from deep in her throat. She suddenly yelled, pulled the dagger away, and threw it furiously over the rebel’s head.

Ephiny jumped out of the way just as the dagger screamed past her shoulder and sunk into the wood door of the jail.

“Leave!” yelled the enraged ruler.

The rebel held her ground, still kneeling but she braced herself for the next attack she expected.

“Leave!” repeated the Conqueror and she emphasized it by lifting the bard by her neck. She then threw the bard away onto her back.

Gabrielle hissed from the sharp pain up her back as she landed hard. Her walking stick was briefly airborne then clanked repeatedly against the floor and rolled off. She flinched as she moved about to get up. She saw the shadow now falling over her but she would not stay down.

“Gabrielle, get away from her.” The head guard was coming to help the bard. Ephiny was seeing just too many deja-vu’s lately for her taste.

“No!” hissed the bard. She shoved the Amazon away then angrily stated, “This is between us.” She got to her feet on her own and ignored all the pain in her legs.

The standing ruler straightened her back out at seeing how the rebel climbed up onto her weak legs. Her anger grew again at seeing the defiance of this rebel and that she would not stand down.

Gabrielle’s adrenaline coursed through her anger shaken body. She stood completely up and boldly held her ground against the ruler. “I will not be conquered!”

“Then you will die!” The Conqueror lunged for her enemy.

Gabrielle braced herself and caught the ruler’s hands almost too easily. She gripped the ruler’s wrists tightly and held her down from doing anything. “I will not be conquered,” she challenged up at the ruler, “And you will not make me give in.”

The Conqueror’s angry features were broken by sudden emotions. She tried to rip her hands free and even though she was much stronger than the rebel she seem to have lost all of her strength. “Everybody gives in,” she hotly debated but her voice cracked from surfacing aged emotions.

“I’m not everybody,” stated Gabrielle, “and I’m not giving in.”

The Conqueror’s revengeful will died as she fell to her knees before the rebel. Her shackled hands were held up yet the rebel’s clenched hands hid the manacles over her wrists as if she weren’t really chained anymore. “Everybody has… given up,” she rasped with her head dropping out of defeat.

Gabrielle’s body trembled, not from fear or anger but from success. She didn’t release the ruler’s iron covered wrists but she lowered her head some to whisper, “I told you… I’m not everybody.”

The Conqueror forced her closed eyes to open and she raised her head up. She stared into the soft features of her enemy and saw only long hidden truth. “Why?”

Gabrielle searched the ruler’s desperate face that needed an answer so bad and it broke Gabrielle’s harden heart. “I can’t tell you why… but I can tell you that I will never stop.”

The Conqueror could only accept that promise given to her. She closed her eyes then her always tensed shoulders fell and finally she released a long breath that’d been holding old rage. She unexpectedly rested the side of her head against her enemy’s quickly moving chest.

Gabrielle finally released the ruler’s shackled wrists then her hands lowered to the dark ruler’s shoulders. She no longer saw the weight much less felt them on the ruler’s shoulders as her arms encircled the ruler.

The Conqueror’s freed hands now clung at the rebel’s side. She breathed heavily in fear for the second time in her life. The rebel’s rapid yet faithful heartbeat unconsciously soothed her old, festering wounds in her.

The Amazons were riveted by the scene. They watched on at the amazing change before them. And time later, they would continue to swear they’d actually seen something released from the dark Conqueror.

Gabrielle closed her eyes as she lowered her head closer to the ruler’s. Her legs’ pain was starting to sharpen against her like a raging hammer nailing her. She now started to clench to the ruler for support but she quietly breathed, “You must help the Amazons, Conqueror.” She swallowed then murmured, “Cyrene needs your help. Melpomene.” She then opened her eyes when she sensed piercing blue eyes upon her. “He has a cavalry…” Her voice held the plea and desperation then for once there was fear but not for the Conqueror but for these people’s lives. “He’s going to slaughter… all of them.”

The Conqueror’s returned strength started to lift her up by her legs. Her hands at the bard’s waist no longer clenched but helped support the bard’s weight. “Sit down,” she ordered in a calm voice. She guided the rebel around until she was positioned on the bench.

Gabrielle let out an aspirated sigh as the beads of sweat rolled down her temples. Her eyes were briefly closed but she now gazed up at the ruler, her weak yet hot form slumped against the wall. “Please, you have to-”

“It’s alright,” cut in the Conqueror, “Just breathe for a heartbeat, will you?”

The bard relaxed some because she could see and feel the shift in the ruler. She had to have faith that it would be okay.

“Ephiny,” started the turning ruler, “Amazon Law states that if a prisoner is willing to help the Nation in battle that they can be freed to do so.”

The head guard tilted her head then said behind her mask, “Amazon Law also says we can reject the offer.”

The Conqueror’s hands balled up at her side.

“Ephiny, free her so she can help,” started the arguing bard.

“You are not an Amazon,” shot back the angry head guard, “and you’re especially not the queen.”

“Ephiny, if you free her then that means you six can fight as well. That’s six more Amazons to help stop Darphus… and good warriors too.” Gabrielle sat up now as her strength started to pick up again.

“Make that seven good warriors,” piped up an Amazon’s voice.

“Solari, be silent,” ordered Ephiny.

Solari ripped her mask back and leveled her friend with a cold look. “This is stupid, Ephiny because if the Conqueror is willing to fight for us we should allow her.”

“I don’t trust her,” snapped Ephiny.

Another guard stepped forward then stated, “I accept the Conqueror’s aid… and I am Amazon.” She reached up and pulled back her mask, which allowed her bright blond hair to spill out over her shoulders.

Ephiny yanked her mask back and stared wide eye at Callisto.

Callisto lowered her sword to her side then declared, “I have suffered under the Conqueror but even I can see that leaving her here when she wants to help will hinder the Nation. If we at all stand a chance at defeating Darphus then the Conqueror is the key to that success.”

“Ephiny,” softly urged Solari, “don’t overlook the obvious here. Queen Cyane didn’t put you in charge just to follow orders but to use your better judgment.”

Ephiny’s eyes flickered away from her friend and bore into the Conqueror. She stepped up to the ruler and continued to stare into the ruler that she considered more destructive than any army. She read the silent shift in the Conqueror, which told her gut to trust it yet her mind refused such nonsense.

Gabrielle was biting her lower lip but she let out a silent pray to whatever god when Ephiny reached for her key. She dropped her head against the wall and released a long breath that’d she’d been holding. Her lips twitched with a smile when she heard the wrist manacles collapse to the floor then finally the distinct snap of the ankle manacles filled the jail hut. After a heartbeat, her eyes fluttered open from the looming shadow casting over her.

“Time to go,” ordered the Conqueror. She held out the rebel’s walking stick to her, the first thing she picked up when she was free from the chains.

Gabrielle received the cane and noted the dried blood on the ruler’s chewed up wrists. She could tell that the ruler could careless though about it. She merely moved her head in agreement then got off the bench. She limped through the small jail to the now open door.

Ephiny let the outsider through first then she follow suit. Next came the Conqueror behind her and then the five guards. “Gabrielle, you need to return to the healer’s hut.”

Gabrielle opened her mouth for an argument.

The Conqueror stalled it by stepping in front of the openmouthed rebel. “Just for once, listen to what somebody tells you to do.”

The bard’s jaw snapped shut and she peered up at the ruler. She swallowed then simply nodded.

Callisto was the last out so she ripped the Amazon dagger from the jail door and held it out to Gabrielle. “It’s wise to keep this on you, deary.”

The outsider accepted the weapon back. “Thanks.” She tucked it back into the sheath that was still between her long skirt’s belt and her stomach.

“I need you to watch after mother for me,” softly urged the ruler.

“I will,” answered the rebel.

“Get her to safety if any of this goes wrong,” added the Conqueror. At Gabrielle’s nod, she backed away while hearing Ephiny speak to her.

“We’ll outfit you with some weapons from the armory,” offered Ephiny, “but we must hurry.”

The Conqueror dipped her head in agreement at the head guard. “Let’s go then.” She stepped away from the silent rebel and started off with the Amazons.

Gabrielle stood still and watching the group quickly move through the village. Her sights especially rested on the evolved ruler.

The Conqueror stole a quick glance back at the still rebel.

Gabrielle’s emotions surged and she held up her freehand as if her touch would reach that far.

The Conqueror only nodded then focused back on what was at hand.

The rebel leader knew she needed to get back to the healer’s hut. She accomplished what she could have only hoped for but now why did she feel so wrong for it? As she started on her trip back to the healer’s hut, she realized it was because the Conqueror could be killed today and that didn’t settle well in her stomach or thoughts.

As Gabrielle limped along, she heard an odd whistle that she hadn’t expected at all. She stopped and turned her head in the direction of the whistle.

“You know, I would have had you if I’d waited for the Conqueror to get further from you.”

Gabrielle stared at her assassin’s face for the first time that was filing the square of his jail hut door. She narrowed her eyes at him then decided to go over to him. “Well I guess you underestimated her.”

The assassin shrugged then smirked at the approaching rebel leader. “It really doesn’t matter now.”

The bard’s face tightened up at his words. “Why?”

“You want to hear a little secret?” inquired the smirking assassin. His right hand grabbed onto a bar as if he could lean forward more towards the woman. “I wasn’t really trying to kill you… I mean if I did then great but….” He shrugged then casually mentioned, “I was just a distraction for the Amazons.”

Gabrielle froze at this information as she started to piece the puzzle together. “You’re with Darphus… you were suppose to keep the Amazons busy while he was setting up.”

“For a blond, you catch on quick.”

Gods what was it with these stupid blond jokes, inwardly grumbled the bard. She ignored it though and tried to pump the assassin for more information. “Does Darphus have any other plans?”

The assassin laughed and now held onto both bars with his hands. “Let me out and I’ll show you some of my plans.”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes and muttered, “Pig.” She shook her head and started to limp away in hopes it’d make the prisoner talk.

“Wait, wait,” urged the assassin. “I bet you haven’t heard this one.”

Gabrielle slightly turned and mimicked the Conqueror’s common look. “What’s that?” she drew out.

“Darphus has everything worked out to beat the Amazons and kill the Conqueror.”

The bard stepped closer then snidely stated, “I bet he didn’t factor in the Conqueror fighting for the Amazons.”

The assassin smirked at the rebel’s spunk but he shrugged then replied, “Actually he did… he was sorta hoping for it really.” He saw the shock wash over the rebel’s face.

“What’s he have planned?” demanded the worried bard.

The assassin just shrugged again. He considered whether to tell the rebel or not but he figure by her limp and the fact she can’t fight that there was no harm in telling her. Besides he’d get to enjoy seeing the dread fill the rebel once she heard Darphus’s brilliant plan. “He’s gonna set her up.” He laughed then explained, “He’s gonna get her to fight him but away from the battle somewhat.”

The bard stepped closer to the jail. “Why?”

The assassin revealed a wide grin. “He’s got this special spot to fight her where three of his best archers are hiding in the trees.” He then pressed his face against the bars then whispered, “Don’t tell anybody but the archers’ arrows are tipped with poisonous hemlock.” He laughed at the rebel’s shocked and fearful face. “Darphus could never fight fairly I heard.”

“By the gods… no,” rasped the bard. The Conqueror would undoubtedly walk into Darphus’s trap because she knew the Conqueror loved to challenge her enemy directly.

The assassin laughed again then gleefully declared, “Long live the Conqueror!”

Gabrielle broke away from her astonishment at the prisoner’s words. She suddenly took off as fast as her mangled legs would allow her. She had to stop this; she had to warn the Conqueror. She came upon the healer’s hut while yelling, “Cyrene! Cyrene!”

The mother threw open the hut’s door and bounded down the steps at her daughter’s frantic yells. She rushed up to the hastily limping bard and grabbed her shoulders. “What is it, Gabrielle?”

The Amazon guards shifted closer to the pair but not too far from the hut.

Gabrielle caught her breath then answered, “I have to go out there. The Conqueror… she’s endangered.”

“What’s going on?” demanded the worried mother.

The bard caught Cyrene’s right arm with her hand. “The Conqueror is fighting for the Nation.” At Cyrene’s relieved expression she sighed then told her about the assassin. After she told Cyrene, she whispered, “I have to get to her… I sent her out there, I can’t-”

“Gabrielle, she can-”

“No she can’t,” debated the aggravated bard. “She’ll be killed, I have to warn her.” She started to move but Cyrene’s grip suddenly at her wrist stopped her.

“You could be killed,” refuted the mother. “I won’t lose you both.”

Gabrielle turned back to her mother. “And I can’t let her die if there’s something I can do about it.” She lifted her freehand up to Cyrene’s cheek. “You’re just going to have to have faith that I’ll be fine.” She leaned forward and placed a kiss to Cyrene’s other cheek and whispered, “I love you, Cyrene.”

The mother finally released the rebel because she knew there wasn’t anything she could do to stop the rebel. “I love you as well, daughter.” She clasped the bard’s hand into hers. “By the gods, be careful.”

Gabrielle nodded then let go of Cyrene and hurriedly limped off.

Cyrene’s chest tightened then her eyes stung from hidden tears. She wanted to chase down Gabrielle and drag her back into the safety of the hut but Gabrielle would only fight her.

Gabrielle made it to the stables. She prayed there was a horse or two left behind seeing as the Amazons really didn’t have a cavalry. The Amazons were known for their mastery of riding but even that was becoming a legend these days. When she entered the distinctly smelling hut, she heard a few whines that were like wine to her ears.

A horse in the closest stall threw his head up and whinnied at the outsider. He stepped back when the limping human came into his stall.

“Sssh.” Gabrielle touched his head to calm him. “I need your help, boy. I don’t know your name or anything but I do need your help.”

The gelding whined then threw up his head and finally calmed down.

Gabrielle only had a minimal knowledge of horseback riding. She’d never truly learned but that surely wasn’t going to stop her now. She found the tack for the horse off to her right. The face tack was hanging from a wood peg while the saddle was high up and resting between the stall walls. She dismissed the saddle because she knew it’d be impossible for her to lift it with one hand let alone put all the tack on too.

The gelding watched as the human hastily put the harness over his face. He normally wouldn’t take the bit into his mouth so easily but this time he did. He then scraped his hoofs through the soft, hay covered dirt and whined.

Gabrielle grabbed the horse’s mane and urged him closer to the stall wall because there was a stack of hay there.

The gelding side stepped the paces then threw up his head in excitement. He could tell this human was wired by fear and courage all at once.

Gabrielle first unlocked the stall door. “Here goes,” muttered the bard. She climbed the hay stack and then held tightly with her left hand to the horse’s mane. She tried to push off the hay with her weak legs and painful yelp exploded from her lips. Yet Gabrielle made it onto the horse’s back but slightly lopsided. She was breathing heavy but she had no time to calm down. She glanced at her walking stick still in her right hand. It would be almost impossible to hold onto it, the horse’s mane, and the reins. She tossed the cane onto the ground and gathered up the reins. “Ya, boy!”

The gelding whined then pressed forward through the unlocked door. He hurried out of the stables then followed the human’s signals for direction. He was going at a fast trot with the human bouncing on his back.

Gabrielle gritted her teeth from the bumpy ride but she held on tightly. Her legs were screaming in pain and her body was completely tense from the pain, perspiration forming over her skin.

The gelding approached the cracked gates so he slowed down then aimed for the open crack.

“Stop there!” yelled a guard at the gates.

Gabrielle ignored them and urged the horse through the gates.

“Stop, Gabrielle!” called an unfamiliar Amazon’s voice.

Once outside the gates, Gabrielle tapped her boots against the horse’s sides.

The gelding whined then broke into a canter for the open woods before him. He was thrilled to be out as he raced through the woods. He easily jumped over fallen trees and low ditches. He never lost his rider but he sensed her guidance from the reins and her holding onto his mane.

Gabrielle was breathing heavily as she held on for life. She was bent forward over the horse’s neck but her head was up and her eyes scanned the forest. It was her ears though that first detected the battle before anything else. She pulled on the gelding’s right rein and urged him that way.

The horse huffed harder and harder as his canter turned into a full gallop. He darted around trees with perfect precision. He was well trained by the Amazons to handle such heavily wooded forests.

“By the gods,” whispered the awestruck bard. Her eyes filled with the scene of the battle; the warriors, the Amazons, and clanking steel. She pressed the gelding to keep going to the fight. She tried to hone in on the Conqueror knowing she had to be somewhere in there. When she was finally upon the battle, the gelding came to a fast stop so he wouldn’t be hit.

The gelding whined unhappily yet he jumped over two clashing swords then started the dodge training around the various lumped fights.

Gabrielle merely clung to the black mane and let the horse guide her. She searched the many faces for the distinct one that she wanted. Then in the distance she heard the loud warcry echo through forest but unexpectedly she lashed forward.

The gelding abruptly stopped when a warrior cut down an Amazon.

The Amazon’s blood, from her neck, sprayed in a fine mist up towards the shocked horse.

Gabrielle cried out and clung to the horse. She was suddenly spotted in blood and when she looked over the horse’s neck she saw the dead Amazon and approaching warrior. Her body charged with fear.

The warrior leered at the vulnerable woman on the gelding and rushed up to her. His sword was raised yet as he brought it down, it was stopped by a long blade. He turned his head to the owner of the sword.

“Ah-ah-aaah.”

The rebel leader was amazed to see Callisto.

Callisto kicked the warrior away from the gelding and then attacked him.

Gabrielle was about to urge the gelding to keep moving but she heard a bird call. Just as she was about to signal the gelding, a new weight was on the rear of the horse. She grabbed for her dagger at her waist but a hand to her wrist stopped her.

“Relax,” coldly ordered a woman’s voice. “What in the Hades do you think you’re doing here?”

The bard let go of the dagger’s hilt as she realized it was Velasca. “I have to find the Conqueror.”

Velasca tried to steal the reins from the rebel but failed. “The Conqueror can handle herself fine, rebel. You were suppose to stay in the hut to protect the queen.”

Gabrielle thought that was a joke considering her condition. “Darphus is setting up to kill her!”

The Amazon paused at hearing this news. She glanced off to her right when a warrior was trying to sneak up on them. She kicked at him and sent him reeling into a tree. “What are you talking about?”

“He’s going to lead her away from the battle then fight her. He has archers with hemlock tipped arrows.” Gabrielle looked sidelong at the Amazon. “I have to get to her, Velasca. So either help me or get the Hades off. Now!”

The Amazon made a quick decision then replied, “Let’s go.” She wrapped her arms around the outsider’s waist.

Gabrielle had pinpointed the famous battle cry earlier but she could only imagine if the Conqueror was still there. She ordered the gelding forward and helped guide him through the battle.

Velasca supported the bard’s weight with her arms and anchored them down better with her strong legs. Her dark eyes scanned through the battle and tried to lock on the Conqueror. “Over there!” She pointed off to her right briefly then slipped her arm back around the bard.

Gabrielle had already seen the Conqueror. She pressed the gelding to go harder.

The horse whined loudly then leapt up over several fighting groups.

Gabrielle’s head just skimmed under a few tree branches. She cried out in pain from her legs when the horse’s hoofs abruptly connected with the ground. Her eyes welded up with tears but she ignored it all. She was getting closer to the Conqueror.

The Conqueror was armed with two swords. She twirled them both and rammed them behind her body, her swords plunging into two enemies that were racing up behind her. She jerked her swords free then flipped them around in her hands as she lunged after two oncoming warriors.

The two warriors’ swords sparked against the dark ruler’s Amazon blades. They tried to outwit her but failed miserably as one took a sound kick to his chest. The second had his neck slashed open and he fell to the ground bleeding to death.

The Conqueror rushed up to the one warrior that was still conscious. She crossed her swords just at his neck then pulled them apart in a blur.

The warrior’s mouth was hung open but his head was sliced away from his neck. His blood sprayed over the Conqueror then his head crashed onto the ground.

“Conqueror!” yelled a laughing voice.

The Conqueror’s head snapped up in the direction and she stepped back with her right sword spinning. “Darphus,” she sneered at the warlord.

“I didn’t expect the Amazons to let you out,” toyed the Darphus as he sat proudly up on a horse. His yellow teeth shined at the dark ruler.

“They can’t resist me,” mildly joked the blood soaked ruler. Her former second in command still repulsed her like he had so long ago. “I see you’ve become uglier.”

The warlord’s smirking face hardened at the Conqueror. “Bitch,” he growled.

“You could never come up with good remarks,” jabbed the stalking ruler.

Darphus turned his horse around by his right rein. “You want me, Conqueror then you have to keep up!” He spurred his horse into a run.

The Conqueror watched him go for a heartbeat then she laughed excitedly for the hunt. She spun her swords, sheathed them behind her back where they crossed, and she leapt up into the trees. She landed neatly in the branches but she hastily took off after her prey.

“No!” screamed Gabrielle at the top of her lungs. She’d seen the man on horseback that she assumed was Darphus. Her desperation escalated when the Conqueror took the bait and chased after the warlord. Also Gabrielle barely had a clear view of the fast moving ruler in the leafy cover.

“Follow Darphus,” called Velasca over the din of fighting.

The rebel leader calmed some at hearing the perfect alternative. She spied the warlord that was hurrying through the battle. She urged the gelding to follow the distant warlord and she was amazed to see they were catching up.

The Conqueror knew she was being led away from the battle but she wanted Darphus. Her blood pulsed with hunger for this insolent man’s death. She saw he entered a clearing and stopped with his horse rearing up on its hide legs. The Conqueror’s leering grin formed and she neatly landed on the ground on the edge of the clearing.

Darphus unsheathed his sword and pointed it at his long enemy. “Today you will die, Conqueror.” He grinned wildly. “You have lived far too long.”

The Conqueror clenched her hands at her sides. “Get off that horse and I’ll show you how long you have to live, Darphus.”

Darphus laughed then spun his sword. “Have I ever been a fair fighter, Conqueror?”

“Shut up in fight,” snapped the ruler.

“With pleasure.” The warlord spurred his horse towards the ruler and gave a battle cry.

The Conqueror growled, her eyes narrowing at her target but it wasn’t Darphus. Her warcry broke free as her hands went to her back for the swords’ hilts. She dropped down onto one knee as her swords sprung forward.

The horse’s chest sunk into the Conqueror’s swords. The horse cried out in sharp pain then went crashing to the ground with dirty and grass spewing up into the air.

The Conqueror had extracted her blades in time then whirled away and climbed to her feet expertly.

Darphus was rocketed from the saddle and hit the ground hard with his sword rolling out of his hand. He groaned then tried to get to his feet with his hands.

The Conqueror smirked then warned, “I told you to get off the horse. You still don’t listen.” Her backside was to the clearing then something made her skin on her back crawl from the clearing’s direction. She had no time for this though as Darphus approached her.

Darphus wiped the blood away from his face but it wasn’t his, it was the dying horse’s. He glanced at the raggedly breathing horse that had a dark pool of blood seeping from its chest. He then turned back at the smirking ruler. “You fuckin’ bitch.” He quickly engaged the ruler.

The Conqueror laughed in amusement at her opponent’s attempts to break her defenses.

Darphus pressed harder, which forced the Conqueror to back step into the clearing. His eyes flickered up to a tree branch but quickly returned to his opponent’s face.

The Conqueror caught the motion and that confirmed her earlier suspicious that something was wrong. She couldn’t make any confirmations as her enemy was pressing her hard.

“Conqueror!” cried out a familiar voice.

The Conqueror’s concentration was broken for a heartbeat and that cost her as Darphus’s blade cut her left arm. She hissed then jumped away with angry features.

Darphus laughed but glanced over to see a gelding with the famed rebel and an Amazon on it. This wasn’t exactly what he had planned for yet he knew he had to be flexible.

Gabrielle pulled the gelding to an abrupt stop on the edge of the clearing.

“Get out of here, Gabrielle!” yelled the furious ruler. She then jumped when Darphus lunged at her. She raised her swords and stopped his feverish attacks.

“No, Darphus has set you up!” hollered the bard into the clearing, “He has-”

The Conqueror’s face froze when she heard the rebel’s words cut off. She watched in horror as the Amazon, Velasca, threw the rebel off the horse’s back. “Hades,” she hissed.

Gabrielle clawed the ground as she lay on her aching stomach. She heard the Amazon’s boots hit the ground then when she lifted her head some, she her vision filled with the angry Amazon’s face.

“It’s time for you to shut up, rebel,” snarled Velasca. She reached behind with both hands and unsheathed her sword. She was looking forward to finishing what she started in the meeting hut yesterday. “I will do what the Conqueror should have done a long time ago.”

Gabrielle’s breathing was erratic as her mind raced with what to do.

The gelding reared up when he saw the danger to the smaller human. He tried to bring his hoofs at the Amazon that he’d never liked from the start.

Velasca darted out of the way then growled at the protective horse.

Gabrielle used her hands to push her body up.

The horse came along side the rebel leader and he angrily huffed at the Amazon. His teeth showed.

“Stupid horse,” hissed the Amazon.

The rebel clung to the horse’s nearby leg and used it to help her get up. She eventually got to her feet with the gelding’s body for support. “You were the leak, weren’t you?”

Velasca laughed and held her ground, legs in battle stance, and her sword pointed at the rebel. Off to her right she heard the crossing blades. “I am the Amazons’ savior, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle stared at the Amazon like she was insane. “You’re with Darphus… by the gods.”

“Finished her, Velasca!” yelled Darphus, “And get over here to help me.”

Velasca stepped closer to the rebel leader. “This Nation has become too weak and you’ve proven that, Gabrielle.” She pointed her sword at the fighting warlord and the Conqueror. “Now they trust her to fight for us.” She bitterly laughed and directed her sword at the rebel. “Darphus will defeat this weak Nation and I will be the only Amazon left.” Her dark eyes brightened with excitement. “And I will rebuild the Amazons to their glory days. Queen Cyane’s Nation has come to an end.”

Gabrielle was stunned by the evil Amazon’s proclamation. “You setup your Nation to die,” she chewed out.

“No,” sneered the angry Amazon, “I am exterminating the weak links of the Amazons. It is time for a new Nation with a new queen.” She stepped closer as she hotly whispered, “And a new realm without the Conqueror… and without a rebel leader that spreads lies.”

“They are not lies!” yelled the bard.

Velasca gave a battle cry then came at her opponent.

The gelding tried to bite the Amazon but missed.

Velasca struck with a hard kick to the rebel’s chest.

Gabrielle screamed as she went sailing into the air then crashed into the ground.

The gelding protested by rearing up again and came at the Amazon. Yet he whined out in sharp pain when cold steel went thrusting into his chest and caught his heart.

Velasca quickly moved away with her bloody sword when the gelding collapsed to the ground in a dying heap. She then turned her cold eyes onto the rebel leader that lay on her back only a few paces away. She spun her sword then stalked up to her weak enemy. “Your time has come, rebel.”

Gabrielle sat up with her hands behind her. Her ears pounded with her heartbeat yet in all the chaos the close din of clashing swords filtered to her. She hastily reached for her dagger under her shirt as the Amazon raised her sword. “No, your time has come, Velasca!”

Velasca saw the rebel’s movement for the hidden dagger yet Velasca was moving faster. Her sword came down towards the rebel in a blur.

The rebel leader had already let go of her dagger when the background behind Velasca had changed. She screamed as she used her hands to hastily roll away but the Amazon sword caught her left leg in the thigh. She cried in pain as she laid partially on her side and stomach however she glanced over her shoulder.

Velasca remained hanging on the Conqueror’s sword by her stomach. Her mouth was open with blood seeping out from the corners and her eyes up to the trees, praying to Artemis.

Gabrielle’s terrified eyes lifted further past the dead Amazon and focused on the Conqueror.

The Conqueror’s left arm was still stretched out with the dead Amazon on her blade. Her other sword was across her body horizontally and had just stopped Darphus’s vertical slash. She snarled at her enemy then extracted her sword from Velasca’s stomach and swiped her left sword at him.

Darphus backed away just in time then called out, “Now!”

“No,” screamed the rebel, “Conqueror!” She watched helplessly as two arrows whizzed from hidden spots on the edge of the clearing.

The Conqueror rammed her swords into the ground then raised her hands in time to catch the shafts, the tips just near skin at her chest. Her nose detected a mousy odor on the arrowhead; she instantly knew what that smell meant. “Nice try, Darphus.” She threw the arrows to the ground. She then grabbed her swords’ hilts.

“There are three archers,” shouted the bard.

The Conqueror had already extracted her blades from the ground when she heard the third whistle. She ran out of time to pinpoint it.

Gabrielle stared in shock as the third arrow pierced the Conqueror’s lower back side, through the leathers into the skin and sunk into her muscle. “Gods… no,” Gabrielle whispered fearfully.

The ruler clenched her teeth then suddenly whirled around with her left hand raising the sword. She released the sword’s handle when she had her aim perfect.

The sword whirled through the air in a spinning circle. The blade cut into the hidden archer’s chest and his cry filled the air.

The archer dropped to the ground with the Amazon sword protruding from his chest.

The Conqueror had a satisfied look yet she peered down at her injured backside. With her freehand and clenched teeth, she ripped the arrow out then lifted it to her nose. Her features wrinkled up at the mixed smell of her blood and the mousy scent again.

Darphus was grinning then started to laugh. “How long do you think you can last, Conqueror before it makes it to your heart?”

The Conqueror dropped the arrow to the ground, stepped on it with a distinct crack, and lifted her right sword. “Long enough to kill you, Darphus.”

“Not likely,” argued the warlord. He raised his sword then defended himself when the Conqueror attacked him. He could already tell the Conqueror was slightly weaker, which encouraged him more.

Gabrielle scanned about desperately as she tried to think of some way to help. She saw over her left shoulder was Velasca’s lifeless form but she was fairly far. She pulled up her internal strength then tried to get to her feet. But her attempt was futile as her mangled and now injured legs could not help her. She collapsed to the ground in a painful, defeated display.

The Conqueror’s attention was briefly caught by bow strings going taut in the distance. She growled then gave a piercing warcy. She flipped up into the air and landed past Darphus several paces and her sword was dropped. Her hands quickly moved to her sides as she unsheathed the daggers at her side. She threw her arms and her wrists flicked the daggers.

Darphus had finally recovered from the unexpected launch and turned around. He caught the tale end of the amazing display as the Amazon daggers shot through the air towards his hidden archers.

The Conqueror’s now free hands were able to catch on the oncoming poisonous arrows. She stopped them just in time then spun around and tried to throw them at her enemy.

Darphus yelped and ducked out of the way from one almost scraping his upper, exposed arm. He smirked at the injured ruler. “Nice try.” His smirk was lost though when the archers far behind the ruler hit the ground, dead.

The Conqueror heard the bodies hit the forest floor. Now her smug features showed as she bent down and grasped her sword’s hilt. “It’s just you… and me, now.”

“You won’t live long enough, Conqueror,” challenged the warlord. “I’m sure you can already feel the hemlock coursing through your veins. It’ll travel to your heart.”

“Not before I have yours in my hand,” snarled the ruler. She wasted no more time and attacked her enemy. She caught a quick view of the rebel leader several paces away on the clearing’s edge.

Gabrielle hissed as her arms dragged her aching body across the forest floor. Her hands finally touched the dead Amazons and her hands were coated in Velasca’s cooling blood. She ignored it then rolled the Amazon over as best as she could. Her eyes were filled by the view of the Amazon sword that she’d been after. She clenched the bloody hilt then rammed the tip onto the soft ground.

The rebel leader’s jaw was set as she tried to haul her body up. She muffled a whimper of pain from her legs but she slowly made progress. At some point, her left hand slipped and ran down the coated blade and cut her palm. She ignored it and held tight to the handle with both hands again.

Finally Gabrielle made it to her feet. She used the sword as a walking stick as she very slowly limped towards the ensuing fight. Despite it was a battle, she was amazed by the Conqueror’s beautiful dance against Darphus.

The Conqueror spotted the rebel coming closer to them. She growled then clashed her sword against Darphus. She spun him around so that she was now between him and Gabrielle.

Darphus spied the nearing rebel with amusement. “She’s as restless as you, Conqueror.”

The ruler popped a punch at his face and caught him for his distraction.

The warlord hissed as he stumbled back from the blow. He straightened up with a bleeding lip and nose.

“Get back, Gabrielle!” commanded the ruler’s cold voice. Just as she raised her sword at the warlord, her right hand was shaking uncontrollably.

Darphus surprisingly watched ruler’s grasp on the sword’s hilt falter.

The Conqueror’s right hand was numb now but her left hand caught the sword by the hilt just in time. She growled at her enemy as she knew she was running low on time.

Daphus was gleeful at seeing the hemlock’s paralysis coming into affect. He charged the ruler with a dangerous attack.

The Conqueror was both left and right handed with her sword however the hemlock quickly weakened her abilities. She just barely caught the warlord’s blade with her vertical blade.

Darphus was moving much faster in comparison to the ruler. He dodged around her shaken defenses and kicked at her stomach.

The Conqueror absorbed the blow yet her legs suddenly gave up control. She dropped to her knees and her left fingers stopped receiving commands to hold the weapon. Her sword fell to the dirt. The Conqueror only had upper body motion and she lifted her head back.

Darphus towered over the prone ruler. “Who would have thought the great Conqueror would ever come to this?” He lowered his sword and smugly bent over the ruler. “Paralyzed and helpless… it’s becoming of you.” He suddenly struck the Conqueror with a blow from his sword’s hilt.

The Conqueror could do nothing as her head was slammed by the hard metal. She growled as she crashed into the ground and her vision briefly swam while her mouth filled with the taste of blood.

“She’s not completely helpless,” challenged the limping rebel.

Darphus’s head snapped up from staring down at the motionless yet still breathing Conqueror. He pointed his sword at the rebel leader. “You!” He laughed as he simply stepped over the Conqueror’s body and approached the rebel. “You’ve caused enough problems for me.”

Gabrielle stood before the warlord and despite she was slumped over she proudly held her head up. “I plan to keep doing it,” she hotly defied.

“Not anymore.” Darphus readied his sword.

Gabrielle put both her hands on the Amazon sword hilt and prepared to raise the sword at the right moment.

Darphus yelled and raised the sword over his head. His blade came down but was immediately stopped by another sword. His shocked features turned to the dark, angry face of the Conqueror.

“Nor am I completely paralyzed, Darphus.” The Conqueror held her body up with her left hand and her shaking right hand held the trembling sword. “Drop, Gabrielle!” she yelled as her sword quickly tucked under Darphus’s arms and slashed up.

The rebel leader released the sword hilt and she fell to the ground as Darphus’s sword swept over her head. She then felt warm blood spray from above and coat her. She closed her eyes and turned her head away.

Darphus screamed in pain then stumbled back, his sword forgotten and his hands around his sliced neck.

The Conqueror dropped her sword and turned her head. She watched in satisfaction as her enemy fell to his knees now, teetered for a heartbeat, and slowly dove to his right side.

Darphus’s hands loosened from his neck and his ghostly, cold eyes remained lifelessly staring at the Conqueror. The shock of his defeat was written all over his face.

The Conqueror released a painful breath then her upper body gave into the poison. She slumped onto her back and stared up through the opening in the forest to the lively blue sky. “Gabrielle?” she softly called.

The rebel leader crawled over to the Conqueror and stopped at the ruler’s right side then used her hands to sit up. Her left hand balanced her from behind her and her right hand in her lap but she wanted to touch the dying ruler. “I have to get help, Conqueror.”

The Conqueror shook her head then her eyes focused onto the rebel. “It’s too late for that.” She swallowed as her thoughts were starting to slow down. “Especially… since… you’re legs are injured.” Her chest rose and fell quickly.

“I have to try,” argued the frantic bard.

“No,” whispered the ruler. She willed her paralysis away from her right hand and she collapsed the rebel’s hand. “Stay here… with me.”

Gabrielle clenched the ruler’s blood slick hand and her eyes burned from unshed tears. “I have to try,” she hoarsely repeated.

“Sssh,” whispered the ruler. Her eyes closed as she murmured, “Isn’t this what you’ve always wanted?” Her eyes fluttered open and locked on the blurring rebel that hovered over her.

“No,” rasped the bard, “not anymore.” She couldn’t do this; she couldn’t sit here and watched the Conqueror die. “I have-”

“Gabrielle,” softly drew out the ruler’s voice. Her tone wasn’t her normal cold monotone but inviting and almost tender. “Everything will be fine.”

Gabrielle glanced at their clenched hands then back at the ruler’s motionless face. “You can’t die… the realm needs you. What are we going to do?”

The Conqueror’s chest rose high then slowly fell. “Just go forward.” A brief emotion passed over her face then disappeared. “The known-world doesn’t need a tyrant, Gabrielle… you know this.”

Gabrielle’s chest rose and fell wildly as she whispered, “No, you’re not that tyrant… I was wrong.” She lowered her head down closer to the ruler’s. “You’ve helped so much too. You’ve stopped all the warring Greek states, brought peace… the economy is strong. And we can worship under any religion in your realm. We’re well protected from outside threats.”

The Conqueror sadly smiled at that last statement. “Just my punishment and taxation could use some help huh?” Her joke was delivered to the bard but she got the wrong effect.

Gabrielle broke into hot tears.

The Conqueror’s slow mind tried to think of a way to ease the rebel’s new fears. “You know what… I’ve come to… realize about you, Gabrielle.”

The crying bard tried to calm some as she throatily whispered, “What’s that?”

The Conqueror’s fuzzy blue eyes locked on the rebel for once instead of beyond her. “You make a great enemy but… an even better friend.”

Gabrielle’s tears only strengthened and she shook her head frantically. “Oh gods please… don’t leave, Conqueror.”

“Xena,” murmured the Conqueror then she finished the line at seeing Gabrielle’s confused features. “My name is Xena.”

The bard’s rapid heart wavered then continued its hasty beats. Gabrielle lowered her head down onto the ruler’s slowly rising chest. Their locked hands remained between their bodies.

The Conqueror clenched her teeth as she forced her left hand to lift off the ground. She just managed to rest her hand on the bard’s shoulders to soothe her.

Gabrielle’s powerful tears rolled down over the bridge of her nose and cheek then pooled on the dark ruler’s chest.

The tears rolled down the Conqueror’s chest then stopped over the Conqueror’s slow beating heart. They then suddenly picked up momentum as the ruler’s chest fell and they streamed down against the ruler’s neck.

Gabrielle’s head rose high up on the Conqueror’s chest but her ear heard the slurred heartbeat. She quickly lifted her head when the Conqueror’s chest fell one last time. “No,” she breathed, “Conqueror?” She touched the ruler’s left cheek and it was chilled from the working hemlock. “Oh gods no… please, no.”

The Conqueror’s left arm fell off the rebel’s back and hit the ground. Her right hand had long ago lost its grip.

Gabrielle became hysterical as she yelled, “Don’t leave… I need you.” She searched the lifeless, staring blue orbs below that didn’t respond to her. “Don’t leave me,” she breathed emotionally. “Wake up!”

The Conqueror made no response. Her face was peaceful for the first time since her childhood.

Gabrielle stared at her legs that had betrayed her. Her life was nothing but irony as the Conqueror shattered the very legs that could have brought her help. She suddenly threw her head back and started screaming, “Help!” She inhaled sharply and hysterically cried out, “Help! I need help!” Her tears rushed down her cheeks at the resounding silence coming back to her ears.
“Gods please, help!!”

Chapter 18 – Unraveling

Janice Covington bent down then snapped the strap into place over her revolver’s handle. She patted the gun’s handle and grinned at finally having her precious weapon back. She stood up and slightly stretched so that the rest of her fitful sleep would work out of her body. She’d awoken half an hour ago and now was preparing for a long day with her squad.

Just at the thought of being a dekarchos was quite foreign to her. In many ways it was providing her with first hand account of Corinth, Greek military, and the people. So for Janice, it truly was a way for her to secretly carry out her archeological findings about ancient Greece.

Janice was clothed in her Amazon leathers minus her cloak and sword, which rested on the foot of the Conqueror’s bed. She strolled across the large bedchambers and went into the washroom. After she was cleaned up and ready to the face the day, she stepped into the center of the quiet bedchambers. She figured Melinda must have left a couple of hours ago since she’d awaken alone.

Then something on the large coffee table in front of the long sofa caught her eye. Not that they had coffee in ancient Greece, inwardly joked the archeologist, but Christ it would be nice with a shot of whiskey. She neared the table then bent over and studied the bowl of fruit, her right hand eventually curled over a round fruit. Janice held up the orange in front of her face and smirked. “I’ll be damned… an orange in ancient Greece.” She peered back down and saw on the right side of the bowl a banana was tucked in between some apples. “Sweet Jesus.”

The bedchamber door quietly opened up and two forms entered, Lao Ma and Melinda Pappas.

Lao Ma softly smiled at the archeologist’s full absorption in the orange. “The Conqueror is very fond of citrus fruits.”

Janice Covington quietly gasped after being scared out of her skin. “Christ… couldn’t you have knocked?” She lowered the orange to her side as a slight flush colored her cheeks.

Melinda folded her arms over her chest and arched an eyebrow at her friend. “Good mornin’ to you too, Doctor Covington.”

The archeologist’s blush proceeded to deepen. “Sorry,” she muttered and put the fruit back on the stack. She approached the pair. “So what’s today’s agenda?”

Melinda’s eyebrow descended but her lips spread into a wide grin. “Since ya asked, Janice you’ll be spendin’ the day with Ma.”

Janice opened her mouth then closed it at the warning look over her friend’s face. She smiled warmly at the Chin ruler. “Bored of the damn fortress huh?”

Lao Ma tilted her head then explained, “I believe I can help you find this mysterious Cronos Ring.” At Janice’s newly twisted features she further explained it. “I can detect its source of power.”

Janice slowly nodded then peered up at Melinda behind the Chin ruler. “Should I take the squad?”

“It would be wise,” agreed the southerner. “Lao Ma’s two guards will join her.”

“Alright.” Janice Covington shifted her weight on her feet. “What about Alti?”

“I’ll deal with her,” answered Melinda. “Ya need to worry about this ring and the thief.”

Janice nodded then returned her attention to Lao Ma. “When will you be ready to go?”

“The present is most desirable,” responded the Chin ruler.

The archeologist blinked then a slow grin shaped her soft lips. “My kinda woman.” She turned then called to the curtains, “Hu?

Within a few seconds, the tiger casually strolled in from the balcony with his tail flickering behind him. He came over and sat between Lao Ma and Janice Covington, his favorite two people. He dropped his head back and bared his teeth at Melinda Pappas though but there was no snarl.

Melinda narrowed her eyes at the furry beast.

Lao Ma ran her fingers through the tiger’s heavy coat. “Two tigers form a deep bond but they always fight about who is in charge.” Her words fell to Melinda despite she wasn’t look at her.

Melinda grinned at this then softly replied, “I reckon so, Ma.” She gently touched Janice’s shoulder to get her attention. “Ya should get started before the sun gets any higher.”

“Christ, Mel it’s like nine in the morning.”

The linguist’s lips tugged with a warm grin. “And I have been up since seven.”

Janice rolled her eyes then under her breath said, “That’s for the birds.” She felt a squeeze to her shoulder then Melinda released her.

“Find me later,” ordered the translator, whose back was to the group as she left through the open door.

Lao Ma smiled at Janice then offered, “Perhaps we should get started.”

Janice nodded then went to the foot of the bed. She’d made the bed when she first got up even though she didn’t have to since it was Nakia’s duty. She was just too use to doing it. She put her sword over her back then collected her cloak. “Where are your guards?”

“They’re waiting down in the court,” answered the Chin ruler.

The archeologist nodded then they were headed off. Janice had Lao Ma wait on the grounds with Hu and the two Chin soldiers while she went to the barracks to collect her men. She was quite impressed with the two Chin guards as they were almost as tall as Melinda. They wore a heavy black robe, their chests protected by coin design metal armor, and they carried a sword at their sides but spears in hand. Their faces remained impassive from years of training, high cheek bones, long hair that was tied into a bun, and thin mustaches.

It wasn’t long before the large group mixed together and marched into the city of Corinth. Janice Covington decided the best place to start was back at the alchemist’s shop. Lao Ma readily agreed because it would give her a feeling for what this Cronos Stone’s powers were due to the green liquid that Janice described to her. It wasn’t long before Janice and Lao Ma entered the alchemist’s shop. Janice was happy to see that the posted guard was on duty at the shop. Janice led the Chin ruler to the back of the shop and showed her the workstation.

Lao Ma neared the workstation and studied the green teardrop that rested on the metal plated desk. She was quite intrigued as she leaned over it closer.

Janice closely watched the oriental woman. “What you think, Lao Ma?”

The Chin ruler didn’t respond right away instead she cupped her hand over the green droplet then, to Janice’s amazement, the droplet started to float up in the air. Lao Ma turned her hand over and the droplet hovered in the small woman’s cupped hand without touching her skin.

“Jesus Christ,” muttered the archeologist, her hands slipping from her chest. “How….”

Lao Ma turned to the archeologist, a thin smile showed. “Melinda did not tell you?”

Janice closed her gaping mouth with a sharp snap. “No.” She tilted her head then asked, “You’re a psychokinetic?”

The Chin ruler considered the word then replied, “I do not know this word, Janice.” She studied the green droplet more carefully while mentioning, “My abilities come from Light.”

Janice’s interest showed over her face and she stepped closer. “Can anybody do that?”

“Essentially yes,” replied Lao Ma, “but you must enter a new world… a world without desires and without will.” She lifted her head and her soft brown eyes locked on the stranger. “It is derived from the qi. Do you know this concept, Janice?”

Janice Covington’s archeological mind had a few bells ringing. She considered it deeply then whispered, “It’s Chinese mythology and if I remember right it translates to life force or spiritual energy. It’s really a Buddhist or Taoist concept.” She tilted her head then further added, “It’s used a lot in Chinese medicine.”

Lao Ma’s smile lengthened at the archeologist. “Yes but it is not mythology as you say.”

Janice cleared her throat and stared back at the floating droplet. “No, it doesn’t seem to be.” She focused back on the Chin ruler’s face. “Can you tell anything… about that?” She pointed at the droplet.

“It is very unusual,” murmured Lao Ma, who was still dissecting it.

“There’s the pot calling the kettle black,” mumbled the archeologist.

“Do you know of anything called a Cronos Stone, Janice? Melinda mentioned you are excellent with ancient Greek history and stories.”

The archeologist bit her lower lip then replied, “There’s only one story about Cronus and any stone. Cronus was a Titan and ruled the heavens before the regular gods. When Cronus’s children were born, all the current gods, he ate them except for Zeus because he wasn’t born yet. When Rhea had Zeus, she hid him and gave Cronus a stone to fool him.”

“Cronus ate the stone?” inquired the Chin ruler.

“Yes,” answered Janice, “and not long after Zeus over threw his father and saved his siblings.”

“Are Cronos and Cronus the one in the same?” probed Lao Ma.

Janice shrugged then replied, “They’re inner changeable when the name is translated.” She sighed for a second. “The stone that Cronus ate though was called Omphalos not the Cronos Stone.”

“Perhaps they are the one in the same.” Lao Ma lifted her hand and let the droplet lift in the air higher. “Perhaps much like Cronus’s name, the stone’s name has been lost in translation.”

“It’s definitely possible,” agreed Janice. “But the Omphalos Stone is suppose to reside in Delphi with the oracle… not wondering from hand to hand.”

Lao Ma’s lips shaped a small grin. “Do you really believe that a powerful stone from the gods would remain in Delphi?”

“Now that you put it that way,” grumbled the archeologist. “This is really sticky.”

Lao Ma mentally moved the droplet deeper into her hand and she closed her hand around it to hide it. “This will help me detect any object with the same powers.”

Janice released a long breath then nodded her head. “Great.”

“The stone is very powerful, Janice. It is not something that should be in Alti’s hands.”

Janice stepped up closer to the Chin ruler. “Do you think it’s possible to… split the stone’s power in half and for it to remain just as strong?”

Lao Ma slowly nodded her head. “From that mere droplet it is possible to use its powers.”

“Christ,” muttered the worried archeologist. “That’s not good… at all.”

“We should begin our search,” suggested Lao Ma.

“Yeah no telling what lunatic will use that ring… if it’s real.” Janice started out of the workshop and into the shop.

“The stone does have a safety feature,” mentioned Lao Ma, “it is inactive if the bearer does not understand its powers.”

Janice huffed. “Well thank god for small miracles… let’s hope our thief is a dumb lunatic.” She marched out of the shop and came to the street level where her squad waited along with the Chin soldiers and Hu.

Lao Ma glided down the steps and quietly stood beside the archeologist.

“We’re going to sweep through the city,” ordered Janice, “Keep your eyes open for anybody that might be talking about the murder from yesterday.” She glanced over at the Greek soldier to her right. “You’re free of your duty. Return back to the fortress’s barrack. See the tetrarchès.”

“Yes, dekarchos.” The soldier clapped his fisted hand across his chest then marched back to the fortress.

“Let’s go,” ordered Janice.

The Greek file broke into half as five soldiers walked ahead and five behind. Lao Ma and Janice stayed in the center with Hu near them then the Chin soldiers stayed directly behind Lao Ma. Lao Ma opened her right hand and revealed the droplet that was a dull emerald shade.

Janice peered at the oriental woman and noticed Lao Ma was concentrating. “Just let me know if you… pick up on anything.”

“Of course,” replied the distant voice of the ruler.

Janice realized that many street vendors and citizens were observing them as they went and most likely because of Lao Ma and her unusual guards. She knew that ancient Europeans rarely encountered the Asian culture and very much the reverse too. Janice tried to not let it bug her since she was use to being popular in public eye.

By the time the sun was overhead, Janice was beat and there was no luck. She commanded the group to halt then ordered her squad to take a break for a candlemark and that they’d continue afterwards. She realized by this afternoon they will have successfully sweep the entire city but she just hoped they’d get a bite.

Lao Ma stayed with Janice as did Hu and the guards. Lao Ma reached into her robe then fished out a small, silver box that she opened.

The emerald droplet floated into the box then it was sealed away for later.

Janice tilted her head then asked, “How about lunch at a tavern by the port?” She grinned at the Chin ruler. “It’ll be a cultural experience for you.”

Lao Ma revealed a grin of her own. “I believe that would be desirable. Thank you.”

“Come on, I know just the tavern too.” Janice took them to the Fish Head Inn down by the port, the first tavern that Janice went to when she arrived in Corinth. She found them a large enough table and they all sat while Hu curled up behind Janice’s chair and the wall.

The tavern’s lunch special was shortly brought out then they ordered drinks as well. Janice, for her part, inquired about how Lao Ma came to meet the Conqueror, which really fascinated her. She could only wonder if Xena, in her world, met Lao Ma too. Janice mostly assumed that Xena had considering Gabrielle’s scrolls were written not long after Xena’s changes, not long after Hercules.

“Do you think the Conqueror will be able to change?”

Lao Ma had finished eating and she set her plate aside. She straightened up in her chair rather formally. “Anybody is capable of change, Janice but it is a matter of will.” She studied the thinking archeologist. “Do you believe she could change, Janice?”

Janice Covington heavily debated with herself then she found that she was nodding. “In my world, Xena followed some of the same path as the Conqueror but she changed paths at some point.”

“Do you know why?”

The archeologist cupped the wood mug in her hand then answered, “Xena changed because of this demi-god known as Hercules.” She shrugged then after a beat she continued speaking. “Maybe the Conqueror is capable of that same change… she can’t be that far different from the Xena in my world. Maybe Gabrielle will see that change in her. The Gabrielle in my world, she inspired Xena to stay on a set course.”

“They are one another’s balances,” stated the Chin ruler. “Very much like you and Melinda are too.”

Janice dipped her head down, peering into the quarter filled mug. “I’m not like Gabrielle though… nor is Melinda like Xena.” Her head came up.

“You each have your path to follow,” agreed Lao Ma, “but your karmas are fated. It is as certain as the sunrise each day or the moon’s cycle.” She sensed that Janice was somewhat uneasy still. “There is a common Chin saying, Janice. We say that it is impossible to change your basic characteristics.”

“But it’s easy to fine tune huh?” Janice slightly grinned.

Lao Ma stretched her hand out and collapsed it with Janice’s. “A great tree can bend and stretch in the wind because if it didn’t then it would topple over.”

Janice nodded her head then she smiled as she took in the proverb more. “Do you mind if we make a stop somewhere?”

“Not at all.” Lao Ma climbed to her feet, which prompted the guards to get up too.

Janice quickly paid the tavern owner then escorted the group out of the inn. They then trekked across the city until Janice finally located the back alley that she wanted. She went to the door and knocked on it but there was no response from anybody.

“You were expecting somebody here?”

The archeologist shook her head at Lao Ma’s question. “Not really. It’s Gabrielle’s home actually.” She stepped backed twice. “Watch out.” She followed Iolaus’s handy open the door trick and she gave a brisk kick to the door.

The door flew open and revealed the inside of the quiet, low lit home.

Janice went in first followed by Hu, Lao Ma, and the guards. “I just want to check on things in here. Why don’t you wait here?”

Lao Ma dipped her head in agreement.

Janice glanced about the quiet home then she hurried upstairs to see if anything had been disturbed. Nothing seemed to be touch as far as she could tell. She entered Gabrielle’s room last, where she removed the glowing matt from the window. She then scanned the room and found everything fine. She then sadly smiled at seeing her leather pack she’d picked up in the market with Melpomene.

Janice picked up the pack and put the straps over her shoulders. She then debated whether to take Gabrielle’s scrolls but decided it was best not to do so. She put the matt back into place and hurried downstairs. “We better get back before the squad shows up.”

“A wise idea.” Lao Ma left the home then waited for Janice.

The archeologist closed the house back up and led the group to the location where the squad had separated. When they made it, a soldier hurried up to Janice’s side with an excited expression.

“Dekarchos, I heard news of this thief.”

Janice jumped at this and demanded, “Who? What? Where?”

The soldier slightly grinned at the dekarchos’s excitement too. “Biton and I heard a vendor talking to a customer. He was rattling on about how he got this magical ring from some guy that sold it to him.”

The dekarchos’s eyes widened. “Do you recall the merchant?”

“Sure,” answered the soldier, “he’s hard to miss.” He chuckled then offered, “I will point him out, dekarchos.”

“Perfect.” Janice saw the rest of the squad had arrived. “Let’s go, men.”

Within fifteen minutes, the squad entered the bustling market and Biton and his comrade directed the group through the people. They finally came to a stop in the busy street. Biton stood next to the dekarchos and pointed to the left at the merchant and his stand.

Janice Covington nodded then turned to Lao Ma at her side. “Are you sensing anything?”

“I do not believe it is here,” sadly informed the Chin ruler.

“Well, let’s see what we can find out… nothin’ like a little detective work.” Janice made everybody stay, except for Hu, and she stepped up to the merchant. “Afternoon, sir.”

“Hello, little friend, looking for some Conqueror merchandise?” When the merchant saw the immediate irritation of his little friend, he quickly rattled forward. “Ssh, ssh not too loud, not just because of the Conqueror’s squads but because these are incredible bargains.”

Janice ticked off another back molar after not only taking a height joke but this man’s annoying attitude. “I don’t have time for this,” she hotly stated through her teeth.

“Time? Who doesn’t have time for a great deal? Trust Salmoneus, he only has the interest of the customer at heart. Ask anybody… later. Take a look at this huh?” The merchant picked up a small bag. “This nice pouch… you can put it on your back. You can put a vegetable in there… a scroll. Take a look….” He held it closer to his little friend. “It’s the Conqueror’s seal. I call it my Conqueror pack… Conqueror pack… get it? You like that?”

“That’s it!” growled the furious archeologist and her right hand shot out. She grabbed the merchant by the collar and yanked him up onto the stand. “Listen, I’m looking for some information.”

Salmoneus held up his hands then replied, “I don’t have any information for anything. I’m just a humble merchant.”

Janice snarled deeper.

“My… perhaps you could use my handy scroll for proper manners?”

Janice Covington’s eyes were growing a deep green by this point.

Quickly Biton came up to the merchant stand and asked, “Is there a problem?”

Salmoneus was relieved to see a squad soldier for once. “Ooo thank the gods, could you tell this woman to unhand me? She is wrinkling my best suit.”

The archeologist proceeded to twist her hand and she wrinkled his shirt more. She then leaned in closer to the man but her words went to Biton. “Is it illegal to merchandise the Conqueror?”

The squad soldier scanned the merchant’s hidden products behind the stand. “The Conqueror would be very displeased.” He came around the stall to get the merchant. “You are to come with me,” he ordered.

Janice tossed the merchant back so that the soldier could get him.

“Wait,” argued Salmoneus, “I have every right to sell these.” He held up his hands. “I was once the Conqueror’s personal biographer.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Biton grabbed the man’s forearm. “Sure you were, man. Come with me.”

Janice huffed then stepped off the sidewalk and neared Lao Ma. “Nothing?”

“I am afraid not, Janice.”

The archeologist sighed but turned her attention to her squad. “I want some of you to haul this merchant’s stand back to the fortress.” She saw the surprised features on their faces. “Right now,” she chewed out. “He has illegal merchandise.”

“Of course, dekarchos,” spoke a soldier.

Three soldiers broke away and carried out the orders.

“Gilles, where will Biton take that merchant?”

“To the dungeons, of course.”

The archeologist secretly flinched then nodded her head. “Alright, let’s finished up our sweep of the city.”

The thinned out group continued the last of the search through the city. Lao Ma never detected the mysterious ring but Janice still had at least one lead that was waiting in the dungeon. She only hoped that this merchant wasn’t being torture much like what she’d seen previously. Her stomach pitched just at the thought especially since she would be the cause of it.

The small party finally returned to the fortress an hour before sunset with empty hands. Lao Ma parted from Janice and said she was going to rest in her chambers. Janice dismissed her squad then went into the fortress to seek out her friend. She wasn’t the least bit surprised to find Melinda anchored to her desk chair behind the desk still doing scroll work.

“Did ya have any luck, Janice?” Melinda set her quill and got up from the chair. She needed to stand for awhile since she’d been sitting for far too long.

“Not really,” admitted Janice. She padded across the office and stopped in front of Melinda. “Either there isn’t one or it’s out of the city by now.”

“God,” whispered Melinda, “I hope the latter ain’t the case.”

“I did… um….” Janice hesitated as her right hand went to the back of her neck.

“What happened?” urged the translator.

“I arrested a merchant.”

Melinda Pappas’s eyebrow hiked up. “Ya what?”

“I… arrested a merchant… he really pissed me off too.”

“Janice, ya can’t just arrest merchants ’cause they piss ya off.”

Janice held her hands up to stop her friend’s rant. She saw Melinda take a steady breath then she explained the situation. “I think he might have information about this ring thing. He wouldn’t answer me then one of my squad soldiers came up to stop me from doing anything stupid.” She lowered her hands. “Did you know merchandising the Conqueror is illegal?” She then realized who she just asked and she moaned softly. “Don’t… say anything to that.”

“Where is this merchant now?”

“Down in the dungeons.”

“Ooo my,” whispered the linguist. “You think he might be a lead?”

The archeologist shrugged. “I won’t know ’til I try.”

“Let’s handle this together,” stated the linguist.

Janice easily agreed then she and Melinda left the office together. Janice stole a few silent minutes to admire her friend in her leathers, bronze armor, and the chakram glinting at her side. The old memory of the chakram running up Janice’s arm hit her and she unconsciously shivered. By the time she got rid of the memory, she and Melinda were on the first floor of the dungeon where Janice had been for some time.

The archeologist tried to remain calm but her breathing was labored.

Melinda touched her friend’s midback after detecting the uneasiness. She then dropped her hand when the guard in this sector of the dungeon approached them. “A merchant was brought in earlier?”

The sentry clapped his right arm across his chest. “Yes, my liege. He is in the last cell. Do you wish to go in?” At the Conqueror’s nod, he escorted the former prisoner and ruler down the dark, stone corridor. He stopped at the end of rowed cells on his right and turned on his heels. He removed the ring of keys from his side and stepped up to the door.

Janice let her friend enter the cell first.

The Conqueror swept into the cell then her eyes sought out the man slumped on the floor.

The merchant stared at the Conqueror’s boots. “Wait a minute. Those boots….” His eyes traveled up. “That leather.” His gaze journeyed up the Conqueror’s legs. “Those legs.” Finally his beady eyes met the dark, dour face of the owner of those boots, leather, and legs. “Conqueror!” He jumped to his feet.

The Conqueror folded her arms over her chest. “Salmoneus.”

Janice sidestepped the ruler and huffed at the annoying merchant.

“You!” Salmoneus pointed a finger at his little friend. “That’s the little Miss Innocent that got me thrown in here in the first place.”

The Conqueror smirked then stated, “She’s my dekarchos.”

“She’s your… dekarchos,” whispered the suddenly fearful merchant. “She’s your dekarchos? You have a female dekarchos? What? Is she an Amazon?”

Janice’s temper sparked again. “Hey, hey back off! You know, you wouldn’t be in here in the first place if you kept your mouth shut!”

Salmoneus stepped back and smiled real brightly.

The Conqueror held up her hand to silence Janice, her warning look given to the archeologist.

Janice grumbled then rested her hands on her hips.

The Conqueror rotated her head back to the merchant as her hand fell. “Salmoneus, I hear you’re merchandising me… again.”

“Just call it fringe benefits after being your biographer,” rambled Salmoneus, “You’re more than welcomed to collect royalties. Everything has been a real big hit.”

“Especially the Conqueror pack,” jabbed the archeologist.

Salmoneus glowered at the dekarchos. “I’ve been meaning to send you one of everything. I just have gotten so busy lately… business and all. You should really stop by my stand, Conqueror.”

The Conqueror’s features darkened considerably. She took two long strides and towered over the older man. “Listen, Salmoneus I don’t have time for this.”

Janice rolled her eyes at the similar line.

“You have information that I need.”

“Information?” squeaked the merchant, his back against the wall. “Conqueror, I have never hidden a single thing from you. What could I possibly be hiding from you?”

The Conqueror’s ruthless smile appeared. “Does a green ring sound familiar?”

“Green ring?” dodged the merchant.

“Salmoneus,” snarled the ruler, “if I find you’re hiding anything from me then our trust will be quickly broken… along with a few other things.”

Salmoneus smiled suddenly. “I think I do recall such a ring, my liege. Made of silver perhaps?”

“You’re getting warm,” encouraged the Conqueror. “Tell me more and I might let you leave without a scratch.”

“Does that include my Conqueror merchandise?” Salmoneus heard a low throaty growl from the ruler. “Well actually you should keep the merchandise since I’ve been meaning to give you a set.”

“Salmoneus,” warned the ruler. Her hand slowly rose up and her fingers wrapped around his collar. “My limited amount of patience are almost gone.”

“My liege, please it was several candlemarks ago that I had the ring.”

The Conqueror tensed at this news. “Where is the ring, Salmoneus?”

“I already sold it to some guy… I don’t know who he is or anything.”

Janice took a step closer then questioned, “Do you remember what he looks like maybe?”

Salmoneus grinned. “I do not divulge my customer’s identities… its bad for business.”

“And if you don’t,” hissed the ruler, “it’ll be bad for your health.”

“But for you, my liege I am willing since you are the realm,” back peddled the merchant’s words. “And no, I didn’t really get a look at his face.”

“Why not?”

“He wore a hood over his face, my liege.” Salmoneus held up his hands. “The only thing I can remember was that he had blue eyes… similar to yours actually.” He then smiled weakly. “Did I ever tell you, my liege that I’m very fond of your eyes?”

“You and a thousand others,” clipped the ruler. “Who did you get this ring from, Salmoneus?”

Salmoneus lowered his hands some then replied, “That I can tell you!”

The Conqueror backed off finally then took her spot beside her dekarchos. “Start talking, Salmoneus.”

The merchant straightened out his flashy Chin mockup robe. He cleared his throat then peered up at the waiting women. “I didn’t get his name but I did get his face.”

“Jesus Christ, just tell us already, man,” demanded the agitated dekarchos.

“You know, you could probably use my temper management scroll too along with the proper manners,” offered the merchant.

Janice took a dangerous step closer to the merchant.

Salmoneus looked at the Conqueror for help.

The Conqueror shrugged and folded her arms over her chest. “It would be wise to answer the question, Salmoneus… and quickly.”

Janice Covington reached back for her sword just to toy with him.

Salmoneus’s eyes widened in fear and his hands came up. “Wait, wait!”

The archeologist bit the inside of her mouth to hold back her grin at finally getting this man’s goad. “Start talking before I show what a female dekarchos does differently from a male one.”

“Sounds like an interesting proposition but I think I’ll pass.” Salmoneus lost his smirk when Janice started to go for her sword again. “Okay, he was a younger guy… like your age,” he informed the dekarchos. “He had almost black hair, short… carried a sword and brown eyes.” He considered something then brightened up. “He also had a few scars, right here.” He demonstrated by running his index finger across his forehead. “And here.” His finger traced across his right cheek. “And a third was on the same cheek.” He paused, shrugged and casually added, “It looked a bit battle worn for such a young kid.”

The Conqueror narrowed her eyes at the familiar description.

“Actually,” mumbled the merchant, his eyes staring at the floor. “I swear I’ve seen him before.”

Janice Covington processed the description in her head then she let out a low moan. “Ooo goddamn it.”

“What is it?” questioned the cut tone of the ruler.

“I know exactly who it is, my liege.” Janice shook her head. “He served in your army for twenty seasons… his name is Perdicus.”

The ruler’s eyes filled with realization.

“Ooo yeah.” Salmoneus brightened up. “He was the foot soldier you conscripted from Potidaea, my liege.” He nodded then smiled at the ruler. “See? I knew exactly who he was.”

The Conqueror rolled her eyes but returned her focus on the dekarchos. “How do you know him?”

The archeologist realized she was slightly under the spotlight for this one. She cleared her throat then answered, “Long story, my liege.” When her friend narrowed her eyes at her she hastily promised, “That I will tell you… later.”

The Conqueror’s agreement showed by her saying nothing in response but she turned her sights back on Salmoneus. “Salmoneus,” she drew out in a sultry voice.

“Yes, Proud Warrioress?” Salmoneus tensed at the ruler’s snarl and closer step. “I forgot you don’t like to be undressed that way… I mean addressed!” He backed against the stone cell when the powerful ruler emerged high above him. He smiled sweetly then whispered, “Yes, my liege?”

The Conqueror bent over him and smiled sensually at him. “I’ll cut you a deal… I know how much you love deals.”

“Especially yours, my liege because they’re so unfair… fair!”

The ruler arched an eyebrow then with her husky tone she offered, “I’ll let you go right now without a single scrape if you do something for me.” She placed her right fingertips under the merchant’s bearded chin and tilted it back. “I want you to keep your eyes and ears open for this man you sold the ring to.” Her eyes twinkled down at the man. “If he so much as breathes in your general direction you are to warn one of my soldiers.”

“A stool pigeon, my liege?”

“No… not at all, Salmoneus think of it as life investment because it’s either him….” The Conqueror’s eyes went cold like her tone. “Or you.”

“You are most gracious as always, my liege… truly.” Salmoneus slapped on a fake smile.

“I know I am,” murmured the ruler as she freed her hand. “So we have an agreement, Salmoneus?” Her hand came up.

The merchant swallowed and decided it was definitely in his best interest to shake. He took the larger hand and suddenly bit his lower lip when the ruler’s grip was strong enough to almost crush his hand.

“You’ve agreed to a deal of a lifetime, Salmoneus.” The Conqueror released the man’s aching hand. She then backed away suddenly.

Salmoneus sighed in relief then slumped against the wall.

The Conqueror stopped next to the archeologist. “See that Salmoneus’s stall is returned to him.”

The merchant perked up as he carefully listened.

“Without the Conqueror merchandising,” further emphasized the ruler.

Janice was smug at the merchant but peered up at the ruler. “Of course, my liege.”

The Conqueror went to the door however stopped and glanced back at the merchant. “See that you use all your resources, Salmoneus… I know you have a sea of them.”

“Most definitely, my liege,” hastily replied the merchant.

The Conqueror nodded, opened the door, and left with her dekarchos trailing her.

Janice held the door yet she couldn’t help poking the merchant one last time. Her head hung around the corner of the jail door as she tormented, “I’ll be sure to stop at your stall daily, Salmoneus to check that you’re keeping up on your side of the deal.” She then slammed the heavy door.

Salmoneus let out an aspirated and long breath then slid down the wall until his butt hit the floor. “By the gods… women leaders… what’s this realm coming to? Next any Amazon army will really exist.”

The Conqueror’s long strides carried her out of the dungeons and into the many portion of the fortress.

Janice had to walk quickly to keep up with the ruler.

“How do you know Perdicus?” questioned the Conqueror.

The archeologist peered up and gauged that her friend was still in the ruler mindset. She held back her sigh then replied, “He’s a guard in the rebel faction.”

The Conqueror came to a complete stop in the middle of the hallway and faced the small woman. “The faction,” she drew out carefully. “Why would the faction want the alchemist dead?”

The archeologist also was considering this too; she shook her head. “Maybe they caught wind of Alti going to the alchemist’s shop.” Her head dipped forward as a slight headache was beginning to appear. “I’ll be sure to ask when I get my hands on Perdicus.” She rubbed her forehead.

“You’re going to find out tonight, Janice,” commanded the ruler.

“Tonight?” questioned the archeologist. Her head came up and she tried to blink away the dull ache behind her eyes. “Why tonight?”

“We don’t have time to waste so I want you to go out tonight. Find Perdicus and question him.” The Conqueror tilted her head. “You can also tell them what’s going on with Gabrielle.”

“Alright,” murmured the archeologist.

“And where is Hu?” snapped the ruler.

Janice’s features tightened. “I left him with Lao Ma for the afternoon… I thought he could use a break from me.”

“He needs to be with you at all times, Janice.” The Conqueror stepped closer then threateningly whispered, “Or I will reinstate those two guards on your backside again.”

Janice’s mouth opened some yet she didn’t say anything. Her tightened features loosened then she murmured, “I’m sorry, Mel… I didn’t mean to….” She shook her head as her headache strengthened.

The Conqueror’s tense shoulders slightly lowered. She stepped closer to the smaller woman and her hands came up to Janice’s temples. She slowly worked the muscles to soothe her friend.

The archeologist let out a quiet moan of gratitude, her eyes now closed.

“If something happens to you, Janice I will tear this realm apart,” warningly promised the ruler.

“I know, Mel,” whispered the archeologist. “I’ll keep Hu with me all the time.”

“Thank you,” murmured the Conqueror. Her left hand disappeared while her right hand trailed down to Janice’s cheek then under the side of her chin. She carefully tilted the archeologist’s head back as she lowered hers.

Janice released a moan as her right hand now clung to her friend’s leather clad hip. She inhaled the sensual smell of leather and sandalwood coming from the ruler. She pressed her body against the Conqueror’s just as their tongues met.

The Conqueror slowly withdrew from the kiss, her eyes glowing in more warmth. “Take care of Salmoneus and Perdicus then come back here.”

“After I get Hu,” emphasized the slightly grinning archeologist.

The Conqueror’s body shook with a silent laugh. “Exactly.” She lowered her head and brushed their lips but only bit Janice’s lower lip then huskily whispered, “I’ll be waiting for you tonight.” She then separated their bodies and retreated down the hall without another word.

Janice completely forgot about her headache as she was overtaken by other sensations in her body. She exhaled loudly and stared down at her friend’s retreated back. “Wow,” she murmured then tried to shake off the hazy over her head. She quickly went to work to get things finished up. She first went to the Conqueror’s bedchambers and dropped off her pack, next was to Lao Ma’s to get Hu, followed by the babbling Salmoneus and his stall, which she swore she wouldn’t sock the man, and finally she separated from him and went through the sunset lit city.

Janice figure the best place to start was going to the faction meeting place. She figure either she’d find somebody or stir up attention first. She eventually found the place and banged on the door but there was no response. “Great. What you think, Hu? Should I bust it open and double-check?”

The tiger yawned but then he unexpectedly started to growl, his head turned to the right.

The archeologist looked up and spotted a silhouette of somebody at the end of the alley. “Who’s there?” She then heard the distinct sound of a sword being unsheathed. “Christ,” she mumbled but didn’t go for hers yet especially since she had her gun now.

Hu though didn’t relax as he stepped in front of Janice.

“Listen,” called Janice, “I’m not here to fight. I’m just looking for some friends of mine.”

The figure moved forward; their sword now at their side. “And what friends do you think you have here, Janice Covington?”

The archeologist sighed. “Joxer… Christ you really scared me.” She peered down at Hu and petted his backside. “It’s okay, boy… come on.”

The tiger gave a last growl for good measure then he sat down, still between the stranger and his human friend.

Joxer still hadn’t sheathed his sword and his expression was unwelcoming. “What you want, Janice?”

“What’s with the damn chip on your shoulder?” snapped the archeologist. “I came here to talk to Perdicus but you’ll work too.” The faction guard narrowed his cold eyes. “We’re not allowed to speak to you… to traitors.”

“Ooo sweet Jesus,” muttered the annoyed archeologist. She swore her headache was going to return any second. “I’m not a damn traitor, Joxer.”

“And yet you’re a dekarchos now? I heard how you arrested that merchant without any reason.”

Janice narrowed her eyes at the man. “He is perfectly fine right now and free.” She sighed then tried to keep her temper at a minimum. “Listen, it’s really complicated, Joxer and I just need you to trust me on this.” She impersonated Melinda’s arched eyebrow technique. “If I was really with the Conqueror don’t you think the entire faction would have been killed by now?”

“Maybe it’s just a trick,” challenged the faction guard. “We’re completely in the dark… we have not heard anything from Gabrielle or Cyrene and you’re now apart of the Conqueror’s legions. What in Hades are we suppose to think?”

“That maybe something is a little fishy,” shot back the archeologist. She groaned and hastily spoke again. “Maybe fishy in another way than you’re thinking.” She tried to think of a way to calm the man. “Look… see if this helps you decide.” She carefully reached up and undid the clasp to her cloak. She removed her cloak to reveal her scabbed body from her torture.

Joxer stared at the woman’s body that the setting sun poured over. He was astonished by the number of cuts but then something else caught his eye. He lifted his sword and the tip of his blade caught the ends of the purple leather thong. “And this?”

Hu reacted hotly by growling loudly and his left arm shot up and pawed away the sword. He was up on all fours and snarling at the stranger for threatening his friend. His eyes were fired by protectiveness.

Joxer jumped back and lifted his sword in defense.

“Joxer, just put the sword away before he does something we’ll all regret.”

Hu’s lips curled up higher and revealed his sharp teeth, his whiskers flinching from the motion.

“Hu, its okay.” Janice carefully touched the tiger’s prickly backside. “Joxer, just put the goddamn sword away. I’m not here to fight you or run you in or whatever else you’re thinkin’ in that damn pea brain of yours. Just put the fuckin’ sword away.”

The faction guard swallowed then he slowly sheathed the sword after agreeing to Janice’s promising suggestion. As soon as he released the hilt, the tiger backed away and he sighed in relief.

“Thank you,” breathed the archeologist. She then quickly put her cloak back on to hide her body again. “Listen Joxer, I’m here to help but I just need your trust on this. I also need to talk to Perdicus… there’s a lot going on here. Do you know where he is?”

“I can get him,” answered the faction guard.

“Alright how about this…” Janice stepped closer and her expression was softer. “I’m really damn hungry so how about we all meet somewhere? I’ll tell you everything that’s going on.”

Joxer hesitated then he slowly nodded because he wanted to trust Janice. “Alright. Give me a half a candlemark.”

How long does a candle take to burn to half a mark mentally speculated the archeologist. “Where do you want to meet?”

“There’s a tavern right on the street in front of the port. It’s called Jellyfish Jason’s.”

Janice chuckled at the name but she went serious. “Okay, I’ll meet you both there and we’ll work this out.”

Joxer nodded then turned to leave yet Janice’s voice made him stop.

“Thanks, Joxer.”

The faction guard wavered, glanced over his shoulder, and gave a smile but it was solemnly. He disappeared out into the busy street.

Janice let out a deep breath then peered down at her furry friend. “Thanks too, boy.” She ruffled his furry head. “Just try not to eat him later.”

Hu smiled with all teeth showing.

The archeologist laughed then joked, “Who would believe a tiger can understand English? Come on.” She quickly hurried off and went in search of this tavern. It took her about fifteen minutes to get to it as it was a pretty busy place. She reserved a table in a corner that was enough room for them all. She thought on a few occasions that some people were going to ask her to move but when they saw the tiger near her they decided to look someplace else.

Then a half a candlemark passed or what Janice deducted was thirty minutes, and the faction guards appeared in the doorway. Janice signaled them over and tried to remain relaxed as they sat with her.

Perdicus and Joxer sat the opposite side of the round table from Janice.

Hu was lying on his stomach beside Janice’s feet and yet his ears were perked to listen for any trouble from these strangers.

“Thanks for coming, guys,” mentioned the archeologist.

Perdicus eyed the archeologist warily then nodded his head. “You look like you got in a fight with a dagger and lost, Janice.”

The archeologist huffed, which caused a few blond strands to pop off her forehead then flutter back down. “You could say that, yeah.” She leaned back in her chair then asked, “So where you wanna start?”

“How about after I left you at the cave,” offered Joxer.

“Right… good place.” Janice saw that the waitress, or rather barmaid as they called them in this day of age, was very busy. She figured it would be a little bit before they’d have meals so she hoped her mood wouldn’t go under because of that. “I got into the dungeons fine and eventually into the fortress.” She continued to tell them what’d transcended for the past several days. By the time she was finished telling them, the barmaid showed with their plates of food.

Joxer shifted his plate around but hadn’t started eating just yet. “So you’re telling us that your best friend, who happens to be the Conqueror’s descendent, is here and posing as the Conqueror?”

The archeologist pushed her feta covered fish around for a second then replied, “Yes. I know it sounds quite off but that’s what happened.”

Joxer shook his head and exchanged looks with Perdicus.

Perdicus shrugged and started to eat.

“Well,” muttered Joxer, “it can’t be that far fetched if you’re here, Janice.”

The archeologist grunted then started to eat before her complaining stomach gave her another type of headache.

The group quietly ate then after the meal the conversation picked back up again. Janice could tell that Joxer and Perdicus were relaxing now that they knew what was going on despite it did seem unreal. She didn’t though tell all the details such as what may be going on with this odd ring; she was saving that for later.

“Perdicus,” questioned Janice, “did you happen to be near an alchemist recently?”

The faction guard glanced at his companion then back at Janice, he let out a low sigh. “I’ve heard word you’re trying to find the thief… murderer.”

Janice leaned back into her chair and stretched her legs under the table. She gave an inquisitive look. “I heard you may have sold an… interesting ring to a merchant.”

Perdicus pushed his plate away as he debated what to do.

Joxer poked him in the ribs with his elbow. “Just tell her, Perdicus.”

Perdicus’s lips were tightly set but he focused back on Janice. “I did kill him… by accident really.” He saw that Janice was waiting for him to share his story now so he reeled into it. “I saw Alti leave the fortress… one of our duties as a faction guard is to keep track of her movements. So I followed her and saw she went into an alchemist’s shop and I went to an open window that was on the back of his shop. I heard them ranting on about this stone and powers… I couldn’t hear it all but I knew enough.” Perdicus stopped and quickly took a drink from his mug. He set it back down but played with the handle for a heartbeat. “I followed Alti back to the fortress but I was worried about this alchemist so I happened to track him down in the port area.”

“You were tailing him for awhile huh?” questioned the archeologist.

“Yes,” answered the faction guard, “and I realized that ring he was wearing had that power that him and Alti had been talking about. So I decided I had to get it away from him.”

“Perdicus didn’t mean to kill him,” answered Joxer.

“The alchemist was going to stab me,” clarified Perdicus. “The plan to steal his ring turned out really bad.”

“You got the ring though,” suggested Janice.

Perdicus nodded then pushed his mug away, his eyes finally meeting Janice’s. “I took his ring and the money just to make it look like a robbery gone bad.”

“What’d you do with the ring?”

“I sold it to that merchant you arrested today,” answered Perdicus.

Janice let out a low groan and she shook her head because that wasn’t what she was hoping for. “Why’d you sell it to him?”

Perdicus frowned. “I thought that if the ring was in circulation and nobody knew what it really was then it couldn’t be used.”

“That is the most idiotic thing I think I have ever heard,” snapped Janice, her eyes alive with anger. You should be arrested for stupidity Perdy boy, mentally threatened the furious archeologist. “Didn’t you think that the ring could fall into the wrong person’s hands?”

Perdicus clenched his jaw tightly and looked away.

“Better than in the Conqueror’s hands,” reminded Joxer.

“No, instead it could fall into some lunatic’s hands who wants to destroy the timeline or people’s lives! Yea that’s really fucking smart,” shot back the archeologist.

“I’m sorry,” hotly snapped Perdicus. “It was a mistake… a stupid mistake.” He saw how Janice instantly retreated from her attacking manner. “We didn’t have much choice though, Janice. We didn’t know what the ring could do or anything nor are there many people we can trust right now.”

The archeologist dropped her head at this as she realized they were in a tight squeeze. “I’m sorry, Perdicus… it’s just there’s a lot happening here. Mel and I just didn’t need this on top of everything else.”

Joxer could tell that Janice had been through a lot and the stress was wearing on her. He let go of his earlier frustrations and insecurities about everything and he softly promised, “We’ll help you as much as we can, Janice.”

Perdicus nodded his agreement.

Janice sadly smiled as she calmed down. “Thanks.” She and the faction guards continued to talk for another half an hour or so then they left the tavern. She said goodnight to them and promised to catch up with them soon so that they could collaborate on their efforts. She and Hu then made the journey back to the fortress and her walk was rather brisk as she could only imagine what Melinda was doing.

Janice Covington quietly entered the Conqueror’s bedchambers and found the room was dimly lit by candles. “Mel?” she called as she scooted in and let Hu in too. She leaned against the heavy doors then she smiled when Melinda appeared from the balcony, the curtains open and letting a cool breeze flow through the room.

“Hello, Janice.”

The archeologist lifted her head from the door. She was awestruck by what Melinda was wearing. “Holy….” She bit back the rest of her swear then tried to think of something much more appropriate. “Mel, you look amazing.” She lifted her body off of the door as her friend slowly moved across the distance to come to her.

Hu quickly concluded that these humans needed private time so he vanished out on the balcony for some fresh air and silence.

Melinda Pappas’s body was being hugged by a red silk dress that was simple yet beautiful. It was sleeveless except for one strap that went over her right shoulder. At her waist she wore a golden chain belt that matched her left golden arm band. Her midnight hair was twisted into a bun and kept in place by a gold headband while her gold chandelier earrings displayed rubies.

Janice held her breath when her friend was upon her.

“Thank you,” came the linguist’s sensual voice. “Come sit with me.” She laced her hand through Janice’s then guided her to the long sofa.

Janice could only follow but before she could sit, Melinda’s hands were at her neck and worked the Amazon clasp open.

“You should stay awhile,” warmly teased the translator. She removed the cloak then moved down to the other end of the sofa, she draped the cloak on the arm. “Would you like some wine with me?”

The archeologist mutely nodded. She didn’t detect any southern accent from her friend yet she wasn’t going to disrupt this moment that Melinda obviously planned out and quite well at that. Besides that, she fully trusted Melinda.

Melinda had been bent over, pouring a sweet wine into two gold cups. She straightened up and handed one to Janice. “It’s a rare, sweet wine from Chin.”

Janice carefully smelled the wine from the cup as she asked, “It’s not made from rice?”

“No,” answered the linguist, “that’s why it is so rare because most Chin’s wines are but this is a sweet grape mixed with lychee… it’s a plum fruit.”

Janice was very interested by this and it showed.

Melinda softly grinned yet she drew Janice down onto the sofa. “Try it.” She and Janice each took a delicate taste of the incredible wine.

The archeologist peered into the cup and whispered, “Wow… that is very sweet.”

“It’s a beautiful mix of flavor,” agreed the translator. “Do you know what wine is in the Chin tongue, Janice?”

Janice slightly grinned then answered, “Mel, this is why you’re the translator between us.”

Melinda mirrored the grin but with how she sat, side against the sofa, she was able to lean closer to Janice. “It is called pútáo jiu, which literally translates to grape wine.”

“Pútáo… jiu,” carefully tried the archeologist.

Melinda smiled at the perfect attempt. “Exactly.” Her smile spread at seeing Janice taking another taste of the wine.

Janice kept the cup between her hands as she lowered it to her lap. She cleared her throat quietly then informed, “I took care of everything tonight with the faction.”

The translator nodded after just taking a sip of her wine. “We’ll talk about it tomorrow.” With her freehand she lightly touched Janice’s cupped hands. “Tonight we’re going to talk about us… nothing else.”

Janice’s lips pulled into a smile at this promise for tonight. She released her hand from the cup and that was being touched by Melinda. She threaded her fingers through Melinda’s.

“Now, Janice Covington, tell me something about yourself that I haven’t learned yet.” Melinda released the archeologist’s hand so that she could twist around from her spot. She picked up the gold flask that contained the sweet pútáo jiu. She refilled her and Janice’s cups while she waited for a response.

“Hmmm.” Janice grinned then mentioned, “I’m sure I could tell you one thing that’ll throw you for a loop.”

The translator had returned to the flask to the table and now revealed a smile at her friend. “It’s always worth a try.”

Janice softly laughed at Melinda’s challenge. She hesitated then shrugged, her eyes lowered to her cup of wine yet when she lifted her gaze she found Melinda studying her over the rim of her cup.

Melinda finished her draw of the sweet wine and lowered her cup away.

Janice was on the verge of fidgeting as Melinda’s inquiring blue eyes made her almost squirm.

Melinda propped her left arm on the back of the sofa, her hand stretched out and running through Janice’s short hair. “What don’t I know about you, Janice Covington?” she tried again.

The archeologist bit the inside of her lower lip then she answered, “I actually do understand how you feel about society… back at home, I mean.” She briefly glanced down at her wine then back at Melinda. “I know we seem really opposite at first glance but honestly there are some similarities.”

“What are those similarities?” posed the linguist.

Janice took a brief drink of her wine and the alcohol helped sooth her earlier retention of will. “I was actually baptized Roman Catholic.”

Melinda shifted some as she took complete interest in this unexpected topic.

“I went to Sunday School,” went on Janice, “and service every week.” She tilted her head at Melinda. “I went to confession for the smallest swear and carried out my Hail Mary’s.”

“What changed?” encouraged the translator.

“It started to change when my mother ran out on Dad and me.” Janice stopped then corrected, “I guess when she was… murdered.” She took a second to enjoy the wine again and Melinda did the same. She lowered the cup then sadly smiled at Melinda. “My mother was Roman Catholic and she really followed the faith so she instilled that in me too. Dad… well he just went along with it because it made Mom happy but he really didn’t care one way or the other.”

Melinda cupped her left hand behind Janice’s neck. “So after you thought your mother ran out on you, you gave up the religion?”

“Yeah that’s about the sum of it,” answered Janice. “I just gave up on the faith… I just thought it was worthless since Mom believed in it.”

“Just like she was,” theorized the translator.

The archeologist sadly nodded. “It didn’t happen all at once… old habits are hard to break but as I got older I just turned away from the faith.” She shrugged. “My dad, for some reason, he gave me my mother’s silver cross necklace that she wore everyday. You would never catch her not wearing it.” She let out a long breath then quietly added, “I always wondered how he managed to get it if she’d really had ran out on us.”

Melinda carefully studied her friend as she saw the flicker of emotions on Janice’s face.

“I still have her cross necklace,” softly mentioned Janice, “I could never bring myself to throw it out.” She peered up at her friend. “Just too many memories linked to it, ya know.”

“I know, Janice,” murmured the linguist. She then saw the tear track down Janice’s right cheek. She easily moved her hand from Janice’s neck and caught the tear. Her thumb brushed it away along with the trail. “You know, your mother does love you.”

“Yes,” whispered the archeologist, “I know now. I just don’t… don’t know why my father never told me.”

“You were young, Janice… I would imagine he was protecting you from the horrible truth.”

“So instead I’m left thinking my mother never loved me or Dad and left us?” Janice huffed then shook her head.

Melinda brushed her friend’s soft, blond hair back. “I don’t think it was an easy choice for your father.”

“Yea… you’re right, Mel.” The archeologist took another drink, which calmed the ache in her heart. She slowly grinned at her friend as another thought came to mind. “You want to hear the biggest scandal in my family history?”

Melinda softly laughed after taking her own drink. “This should be quite interesting.”

“Ooo it is that,” joked the archeologist. “I may have been born in New York but my roots go to the south.”

The true southerner gracefully lifted an eyebrow and gave a challenging grin. “Oh really?”

“Mmmhmmm.” Janice chuckled then defiantly questioned, “Does the last name Caldwell sound familiar?”

Melinda drank her wine but when she drew back the cup she had a devilish grin. “It is an old southern name, yes.”

Janice nodded then proudly stated, “Janice Caldwell Covington.” She chuckled at Melinda’s mix of amusement and fascination. “Can you guess who my great, great… great uncle happens to be?”

Melinda’s eyes lit up as she toyed back. “Perhaps Vice-President John Caldwell Calhoun.”

Janice smiled proudly. “Don’t you see the resemblance now?”

“I believe so… the hair and the attitude.”

Janice dropped her head back and laughed. She smiled at her friend.

“Covington is also a very southern name,” informed the translator.

“It’s an all around name,” argued Janice, “that’s from the British originally.”

Melinda grinned as she swirled the last mouthful of wine in her cup. “So what’s your family scandal?”

Janice chuckled then replied, “Well I’m not that far placed from the southern roots it seems. My maternal grandmother was born in Georgetown, South Carolina.”

Melinda turned and picked up the flask of wine. She refilled her and Janice’s cups then returned the flask. “So what trouble did Grandma Caldwell get into?”

The archeologist stifled her laughter but her eyes were just glowing. “Grandma Caldwell fell in love with a damn Yankee and moved to New York City.”

Melinda covered her chest with her freehand then fake gasped, “Ooo my, the thought is even enough to swoon.”

“Well that’s only the half of it,” mentioned Janice, “not only did she marry the damn Yankee but she changed faiths just to marry him.” She leaned in then quietly whispered, “She went from Methodist to Catholic.”

Melinda was glowing from enjoyment of the topic. “Unthinkable… such disgraces to the Caldwell name.”

“It sure was,” agreed the straightening up archeologist. “Needless to say, Grandma Caldwell lost out on her father’s big fat will.”

Melinda softly smiled now at her friend but she held up her cup and started a toast. “To family scandals… we shall proudly continue them, Janice.”

The archeologist laughed then clanked hers against Melinda’s.

The translator then refilled their cups once again as she knew the alcohol was soaking into their bodies and minds. She noted the coy smile on Janice’s face, which made her grin.

“Are we back to your seduction plans, Mel?” The archeologist indicted her continued flow of wine.

“Hmmm.” Melinda’s eyes darkened a shade. “Do you require more seduction, Doctor Covington?”

“To be honest,” mentioned the archeologist, “I just don’t think I could last much longer.” Then Janice really debated whether she just said that out loud or not.

“Then perhaps this conversation is better suited for the bed, Doctor Covington.” Melinda set her cup down then stole Janice’s away too.

Janice blinked as she realized the switch of tide here. Then there were strong hands that simply helped her rise up from the sofa before she figured out what was happening.

Melinda lowered her head and captured Janice’s lips.

Janice held onto Melinda’s hips as the translator’s sweet wine tongue ran across hers. She wistfully studied Melinda at the end of the kiss. “That really is amazing wine.”

The linguist’s lips curled into a predatory grin. “Yes, even sweeter in the kisses I’ve noticed.” She laced her hand through Janice’s then slowly brought her across the bedchambers that was softly lit by candles. She came next to the bed but stopped and pulled Janice against her body.

Janice’s stomach twisted with passion and her heart was very alive. She felt Melinda’s warm hand on her shoulder then nimble fingers working her leather strap across her shoulder. She hastily ended the kiss then rasped, “Mel, are you sure… I mean…. Christ I think a tiger has my tongue again.”

Melinda had Janice’s leather strap just on the edge of Janice’s shoulder. She did have a cat like smile on her face as her sultry voice whispered, “Don’t worry, Janice this doesn’t require any talking… it’s actually preferred that there are sounds over words.”

That little speech didn’t help Janice’s shattering resistance. She whimpered then held onto the stronger body against hers for support. “Mel, I just….”

Melinda smiled warmly then lowered her head closer to Janice’s again. “I told you, it’s just us tonight… nothing outside these walls matter here.” Her lips diverted from Janice’s and came to the silky skin of Janice’s neck.

Janice closed her eyes as Melinda’s lips brushed over her neck then she sharply inhaled at the light nip that went straight between her legs. “Ooo god,” she muttered. She then followed Melinda’s guidance to the bed where she sat then warm, large hands trailed down her legs.

Melinda easily removed Janice’s boots then rose up some. Next she removed the sheathed sword and placed it by the boots.

Janice still had her eyes closed but when a warm hand pressed against her stomach and lightly pushed, she followed the signal. She crawled back onto the bed but she opened her eyes when warm lips brushed against hers. She was amazed to see the beautiful mix of passion and tenderness in Melinda’s face and illuminated eyes.

Melinda remained poised over top of the archeologist. She moved her head, her lips closer to Janice’s right ear. “I’ve wanted you since I first saw you at the dig site, Janice.”

Janice had her eyes closed and she slightly lowered but rested on her elbows against the inviting bed.

“The way you handled those men,” murmured the translator, “and used that big gun.” Her tone showed she was teasing.

Janice had to chuckle as she lightly bantered back, “Machine gun, Mel.”

“Mmmm,” simply agreed the southerner. Her left hand came up and returned to working off Janice’s shoulder strap but much slower this time. “You remember how I said sounds are preferred over words, Janice?” She gently pulled the leather shoulder strap off finally just as her tongue’s tip touched Janice’s earlobe.

Janice sucked in her breath then whispered, “Yea… I remeb…er.”

“Good,” breathed Melinda, “I want to hear those sounds, Janice.” Her teeth lightly grazed over Janice’s earlobe and she received a moan of enjoyment. “Just like that, Janice.” Her left hand came back down onto the bed as she crawled more over Janice.

The archeologist was forced to lie down completely.

Melinda’s right hand now worked the left strap off Janice’s shoulders while her lips found Janice’s neck again. “I want to hear what makes you feel good.”

Janice’s pleasing moan escaped her lips. She arched her neck when Melinda’s tongue touched her burning skin. Her hands slid up Melinda’s back as her right leg wrapped around Melinda’s.

Melinda now had both straps removed from Janice’s shoulders then she easily helped Janice arch her back up instead. Her hands made quick work of freeing the back strap from Janice.

Janice released a louder moan when Melinda’s cool silk brushed over her already hardened nipples.

Melinda lifted her head and met Janice’s hungry lips in a long kiss but her hands kept busy with Janice’s heated body. When she withdrew from the kiss, Janice moaned in protest, which made Melinda grin and huskily whisper, “You’re so amazing, Janice and now I’m going to make you feel that way.” And Melinda soon delivered on her promise with every sensual kiss and exact touch.

Janice was convinced she was more than amazed as she later lay heavily breathing with a heart rate that was frantic. Her body coated in perspiration and her mind empty of any rational thought. She took some time to gain any balance again before she was able to show Melinda what she thought of her.

The new lovers spent most of the night taking and giving until Apollo had his beautiful quarter moon high in the starry sky. The couple now rested in a tangle of sheets with Melinda on her back and Janice’s hot body curled up against her. Melinda was currently trying to catch her breath after receiving a demonstration from Janice about how shooting a machine gun gave her exceptionally strong fingers and arm strength.

“You okay, Mel?” softly spoke the archeologist.

“Hmmmm?” asked the wistful southerner.

Janice’s head popped up with a smug look. “Are you okay?”

“Mmmhmmm.” Melinda turned her head and smiled. Her left hand brushed Janice’s cheek then she lifted her head for a short kiss. “Very okay.” She lowered her head then watched as Janice lowered her head back down. “Now are you ready to sleep?”

“If I recall correctly,” prompted the taunting, husky voice of the archeologist, “you started this here party.”

Melinda softly laughed at the joke then slowly started running her fingertips up and down Janice’s bare back. Occasionally she would detect a scab but she tried not to think about that tonight or else it would spoil the mood. “I reckon I did.”

Janice kissed her lover’s shoulder then carefully asked, “No regrets?”

Melinda turned her head so that her chin rested on top of Janice’s head. “If I thought I was gonna regret this I would have never started it.”

“True,” readily agreed the archeologist. “I just wanted to be sure.”

Melinda considered this then returned the question. “How ’bout you?”

“I would have stopped you at hello, Mel.”

The southerner genuinely smiled in the dark room; the candles having expired a long time ago. Then Janice’s movement made her peer up to see the archeologist’s hovering features. Before she could say much, Janice kissed her and it was a kiss of passions for more. At the end of it, she hoarsely whispered, “I take it ya ain’t tired yet?” She saw Janice’s glinting grin in the moonlight coming from the balcony.

“Mel, sleep is for those that are in bed… alone.”

Melinda’s eyebrows hiked up as she realized she let loose a monster in this bed. “Ooo my,” she murmured yet she pulled Janice down for a passionate kiss. She wasn’t about to be caught on the descending side of something she started in the first place, especially making love to Janice Covington.

Chapter 19 – Welcome to Tartarus, my Liege

The Conqueror slowly opened her eyes and the low lit beach filled her view. She inhaled the sharp poignant scent of the black river in front of her. She swallowed hard when she realized all her teachings of Hades were now in full truth before her eyes.

“Well, well… welcome to the underworld,” greeted a gritty voice off to the left.

The Conqueror turned her head to the left and assessed the pale, robed man that had a long reaper in his left hand. “You must be Charon.” She spotted the black boat behind him.

“No, I’m Tilulu the dancing girl. Of course I’m Charon. Who else would be crazy enough to be down here?”

The Conqueror remained calm despite she was beginning to grasp her fate. She glanced to the right when a man walked past her. His ghostly eyes fixed on her as he strolled past.

Charon watched the same man go past then he mentioned, “Excuse the pauper… he only has ninety years to go before he can cross.” He then neared the ruler. “Let’s have my obolus.” He held out his hand.

“I don’t have any money,” remarked the ruler.

“Sure you do… you’re the Conqueror of most of the living.” Charon grinned at the ruler then ordered, “Open your mouth… go on.”

The Conqueror opened her mouth almost involuntarily.

Charon stretched out his bleach white hand and plucked a gold coin from under the ruler’s tongue. He held it up in display. “See? Somebody among the living cares enough for you.” He tucked the coin away then ordered, “Get on board.”

The Conqueror paused as another pauper passed her. She shivered some then neared the boat. Her thoughts were a mere daze as she stood in the center of the small boat.

Charon climbed in next then put his long reaper into the water. “How about a guided tour on our way across the river Acheron?” He pointed with his chin off to the right. “That’s the river Styx… the river of hate.” He smirked at the dark ruler. “I’m sure you can appreciate that river out of the five.”

The Conqueror’s cold eyes settled on the ferryman. She ignored him and glanced off the edge of the boat but she stiffened once she realized the water wasn’t really black but a deep red.

“The river Acheron is the river of sorrow,” explained Charon, “there is much blood in sorrow.” He watched as the former ruler backed away from the edge of the boat. “You don’t want to fall in the Acheron.” He lifted his reaper from the water and showed how it was stained red from his time being a ferryman. “I’ve seen some men try to cross the Acheron. They’d only make it so far before the blood water filled their lungs and they’d scream before disappearing under the surface.” He continued to use his long reaper to push the boat across. “Hades only knows what’s at the bottom of the Acheron.”

The Conqueror glanced over her shoulder when she saw the other shore came closer. Her stomach slightly pitched but certainly not from the boat’s rocking motion.

“And here we are the shores of Hades.” Charon disembarked just as the ruler did the same. “Follow me now.”

The Conqueror tried to recall from her memory how the underworld worked. She knew everything but yet her mind was so foggy for some reason. She could only trail behind the ferryman.

Charon waved his reaper at the snarling, large dog that had three heads. “Down, Cerberus.”

The heavily fanged dog’s three heads bore at the very evil soul coming with the ferryman. He howled as the pair walked past him.

Charon finally came to a stop before three men in front of a black gate. “I have brought you Xena of Amphipolis.” He bowed to the men then turned and left the Conqueror to her fate.

The Conqueror stared at the three lined men and her quickening mind recognized the men. Old paintings from the island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea and the island of Aegina from the Saronic Gulf quickly flashed in her head.

“Do you know who we are?” spoke the man in the center.

The Conqueror’s mouth was dry but she whispered, “You’re Minos… the former king of Crete.” Her eyes flickered to the man on the right. “Rhadamanthus… Mino’s brother and….” Her focus went to the far left man. “And Aeacus the king of Aegina.”

Aecus folded his arms over his chest. “I hear Aegina suffered under your reign, Xena of Amphipolis.”

The Conqueror clenched her hands at her sides because she realized that it was Aecus that would judge her. Rhadamanthus only judged those from the Chin providence while Minos held final say. Her history with the island of Aegina would not bolster well for her judgment not that she stood a chance anyway.

“We have long awaited this moment, Xena of Amphipolis,” spoke Minos. “You have kept us busy with spirit after spirit coming to the gates of Hades but now it is your turn.”

The Conqueror wanted to move away, to run and be free of her fate but she stood her ground.

Minos signaled the judge to his right.

Aecus now approached the former ruler and smiled toothily at her. “There are two punishments that await you, Conqueror.” He lifted his right hand and waved it past the woman’s beautiful face. “First, your inner ugliness from your life will now show outside.” When his hand lowered, his smile shifted into a grin of satisfaction.

The Conqueror’s skin cracked open all over in various spots. She lifted her hands and saw that her hands and arms were covered in slash marks. Her eyes lowered to take in the view of her now mutilated body.

Aecus chuckled at the astonished look on the Conqueror’s slashed face. “For every life you killed you suffer a cut.” He backed away but stopped and held out his hands at the Conqueror’s ugly body. “Now look how many you’ve killed, Xena of Amphipolis.”

The Conqueror touched her face that was plagued with thick gashes. Her eyes were wide as her hand pulled away she saw a new cut forming in the center of her palm.

“Another life has just died because of your hands,” mentioned Minos when he saw the cut form. “There are many that will still die because of you.” He then stepped up to the ugly, former ruler of most of the known-world. “Your second punishment, Xena of Amphipolis, is you will spend eternity in Tartarus where you will be confined to a field. The field contains the hacked, bodily remains of all those that you’ve killed. You will spend eternity making those bodies whole again so that they may finally have peace for what you’ve done to them.” He backed stepped, turned sidelong, and held out his hand to the right.

The black gates of Tartarus creaked open to the black, unknown space behind it.

Minos turned his head to the mangled Conqueror and harshly stated, “Welcome to Tartarus, my liege.”

The Conqueror uncontrollably walked up to the open gates then she was engulfed by blackness once she passed the gates. Her scream suddenly exploded through Tartarus to show her arrival then the world around her cleared. She found herself on her hands and knees on something cold but soft, her eyes closed. She rasped as she lifted her head and opened her eyes. The Conqueror scanned her surroundings as her dead heart pounded against her chest.

Spread out for more leagues than any human could see was a covered field of human remains. The stench in the air was that of dead, decaying bodies. In one spot, stood a hill like mound of stacked bodies or pieces with legs or arms jutting out. At the top was one of the Conqueror’s flagged pikes with a man’s head skewered on top and it was the head of Julius Caesar with his mouth open in his final cry.

The Conqueror now felt a breeze that circulate the stench, which caused something to move on her left hand. She gazed down as the hair of a bodiless, nameless man covered her palm. Horror and terror exploded in the Conqueror’s dead body as she realized she was kneeling on top of a thin stack of body parts. She hastily climbed to her feet but her weight crushed the bodily remnants under her boots. The head under her left boot crunched, which meant she’d have to put it together as well as find the rest of its body.

The Conqueror ignored it as she stood on the small mound of hacked bodies. She stared in horror at the endless field of people she’d killed in her lifetime. She frantically shook her head then whispered, “No. By the gods… no.” She realized this would take longer than eternity to repair.

Just then she felt a cut form on her left arm and she glanced at it. She then heard some strange noise high above so she gazed up. From the bleak clouds above came a body falling down. She stared in revulsion as the body was marred into pieces in midair then blown across the field to be tangled in the mess.

The Conqueror made a small circle where she stood and her vision just filled with endless mounds, hills, and piles of mutilated bodies. She came full circle and stared at the pierced head of Julius Caesar at the top of the opposite mound. Her rage for Caesar’s betrayal never surfaced like it use to every time but instead her dead heart pounded wildly and a cry of pain broke free from her lips.

After the Conqueror tried to release her endless pain, she went down the small pile she was on and her boots connected with the blood soaked grass. She turned to the pile she’d just descended and started her punishment for eternity. Time moved by slowly as the former ruler started to sort the body parts and tried to identify and match but it was almost impossible.

The Conqueror did not cry though. She did not escape her pain. Her memories of her life agonized her. She worked nonstop at her punishment but would never make any really progress. Finally after some unknown time that could have been candlemarks, days, or moons, she stopped and collapsed to the red grass.

The former ruler remained still, breathing heavily, and her inward rage high. Then something caught her ears and it was the sound of somebody coming. She jumped to her feet and held up her mutilated hands. “Who’s here?”

From around a pile stepped out a familiar face, his shiny yellow teeth showing. “I’d wondered where you were, Conqueror.” Darphus put his hands on his hips. “Once I saw this field, I knew it couldn’t be anybody but you.” He inhaled until his chest filled then he remarked, “Smells just like you too.”

“Leave me, Darphus,” snidely ordered the Conqueror.

The dead warlord laughed and shrugged. “I figured we could spend eternity together, Conqueror.” He tilted his head as an amused expression over his face. “I see your remark about my ugliness has come back to haunt you.”

The Conqueror’s bleak azure eyes narrowed at her enemy.

Darphus smiled toothily but he twisted his head to the right, which made his slashed neck show more. “I’ve brought another old friend of yours too.”

The Conqueror took a faint step back when another of her past commanders stepped around the other side of the pile.

“Hello, Xena,” greeted the sultry voice.

The Conqueror realized that maybe her punishment for eternity wasn’t just this field but all her dead enemies. She glared at her other commander. “How’s Tartarus treated you, Draco?”

“Better than it seems to be treating you,” replied the smirking warrior.

“It seems Draco and I have a few things in common,” mentioned the warlord. He reached to his side where he had his sheathed sword. “One of those is seeking revenge for our deaths.”

“You can’t kill me,” reminded the grinning Conqueror.

“Maybe not,” agreed Draco, who unsheathed his sword. “But having you live in pieces for eternity in this field sounds like a great start.” He charged the former ruler.

Darphus followed suit.

The Conqueror’s warcry vibrated through the field and she back flipped onto a pile of bodies. She just missed the top so instead went surfing down on the crumbling pile. She launched herself into midair from the speed then sailed into the air high above the field. She tucked into a ball to help her go further then when the drop came, her body opened again. She neatly landed on her feet, her boots crushing an arm. She distinctly heard her two opponents running after her not that she could see them with all the mounds in the way.

Darphus and Draco chased after her but the Conqueror had no weapons to defend herself. They chased her almost in a perfect circle in the field.

The Conqueror launched herself into the air as she came back to the mound with Julius Caesar’s speared head. She landed at the top of the mound and yanked the spear free. Her purple flag snapped in protest loudly in her right ear.

Draco and Darphus stopped at the bottom of the mound and leered up at her.

“Come on, Xena,” coaxed Draco, “I never thought you were the one to run.”

The Conqueror smirked then shot back, “I’m not… I’m just buying some time.” She gave the pike a sharp slash in the air, which caused Caesar’s head to go flying.

Caesar’s head landed then rolled a few paces then a booted foot stopped the rolling head. The head then was picked up from the ground by a pair of large hands.

“Nice to see my destiny hasn’t changed here either.” The heavily clad Roman lifted his pale brown eyes to the Conqueror at the top of the pile.

The Conqueror’s lip curled at seeing her old enemy. “Long time, Caesar… I expected you here sooner.”

Julius Caesar tossed the head over his shoulder then approached Draco and Darphus. “Come down here, Xena… we can talk this out.”

The former ruler grunted then pointed her spear at the three men. “Over my dead soul.” Her joke was lost on her past commanders but it wasn’t on Julius Caesar.

Caesar smirked then called up, “That is already being arranged, Xena.”

The Conqueror shivered at his threat that most likely could mean anything. Her warcry tore through the air and she sprung up, twisted, and landed behind the three men. “Come and get some, boys.” She gave a loud cry then came at her enemies.

Darphus and Draco attacked together.

Julius Caesar unsheathed his sword from his side. He stood still and observed as his gold plated chest reflected the movements of the fighting. His focus then shifted beyond the dead ruler and centered on another arrival, an Amazon.

Velasca snuck up behind the Conqueror with her sword at the ready. She raised it once close enough.

The Conqueror moved the thick pike behind her back as the Amazon blade tried to slice her back. She spun around Velasca, kicked the Amazon onto her face, and grabbed up the sword.

Velasca growled and wiped the blood from her face. She jumped to her feet to face her killer. “I had everything planned out,” she yelled in outrage.

The Conqueror stepped back and pointed her sword at the evil Amazon. “Except for your death I suspect.” Her eyes flickered to the gaping hole in Velasca’s stomach. She hefted the pike in her left hand then stared at the four opponents. She suspected that more would show up looking for a piece of her hide. Her confirmation was made when a very familiar man stood atop the pile just a few paces away.

The Conqueror stared in horror at the face she’d never forget. His face often haunted her dreams at night especially as a child.

The man hurried down the pile and stood beside Julius Caesar. “Did you ever know, Xena that you were of Roman decent?” He held out his hand to Julius Caesar. “Caesar here is distant relative of yours.”

Caesar showed his smug smile at the Conqueror. “I take it your heritage never came up in the family discussions huh?” He clapped the man beside him on the back. “Your father and I have been catching up on old memories, Xena.”

The Conqueror shook her head then hotly yelled, “I am Greek… not Roman.”

Atrius, Xena’s father, moved past the Roman then chuckled at the dead ruler’s fighting spirit. “You were Roman before you were Greek, my dear.” He extracted his sword. “I am pure Roman but your mother…” He shrugged then stated, “Supposedly she’s Greek but she’s all whore.”

The Conqueror’s anger instantly flared up at her father’s words. “You fucking bastard!” She threw the spear with all her strength at Atrius.

Atrius didn’t bother to duck as the spear pierced through his gut. He easily ripped it out then tossed it aside. “Temper… temper, daughter.” He extracted his sword from his side. “After we’re all finished with you, I’ll have to tell you the family history. You’ve followed well in the footsteps.” He smirked then approached his daughter.

The Conqueror tensed up as the score of enemies started to close in on her. She spun her sword and stepped backwards between two large carcass piles. Her ragged breathing heightened her senses as she prepared to fight them all.

Abruptly there was a loud cry then a soaring body from nowhere landed in the space between the Conqueror and the approaching enemies.

The Conqueror was stunned and frozen by her shock.

The newcomer was a dark colored female, who had another spear that had the Conqueror’s flag. She rammed it into the ground and gave a loud cry as she ran then jumped up. Her famous whirling kick managed to knock out Velasca, Draco, and Darphus then she rocketed into the air and landed beside the Conqueror. “We must run, quickly.” She grabbed the Conqueror’s hand and didn’t waste time in fleeing.

The dead ruler recovered from her initial shock and hastily escaped with her unexpected savior. Behind her, she could hear the yells of her pursuers but they were falling behind them. She and her savior came to quick stop behind a tall pile of body parts. She glanced around the corner of it and saw nobody was tailing them then she turned her head back. “What are you… you shouldn’t be here, M’Lila.”

M’Lila smiled at her old friend that she hadn’t seen in so many long seasons. “But I am here, my friend.” Her smile widened, which brightened her beautiful features. “It has been a very long time, Xena.”

The Conqueror wanted to touch the Gaelic but she didn’t because of the nearing voices of her enemies.

“We must go,” urged M’Lila. She grabbed the woman’s wrist and started to haul her away.

“Where are we going, M’Lila?”

M’Lila didn’t respond as she was worried they’d be overheard. She finally let go of her friend’s wrist when she felt that the Conqueror would stay along side her. “We are getting close,” she assured.

The Conqueror shook her head as she wasn’t sure what woman had in mind. She came to an abrupt stop when a shadowy figure formed ahead.

M’Lila went a few more paces but stopped and glanced back at her friend. “Come on, Xena. There is only so much time.” She followed the concerned gaze of the Conqueror’s to the shadowy figure ahead. “It is okay,” she hastily assured.

The Conqueror’s attention snapped away from the shadowy figure when she heard her nearing chasers. She turned back to M’Lila and the figure that hid in the shadows of a corpse pile.

“He is a friend,” promised M’Lila, “we came to help. You must come, please.” She held out her hand to offer assurance.

The Conqueror stretched out her hand and her cut fingers laced through her friend’s.

“Come, now.” M’Lila pulled her friend along hastily.

The Conqueror held her breath as they approached the silhouette that soon took on a face.

M’Lila called out to the figure. “I have her, we must hurry… they are not far behind us.”

The Conqueror inhaled sharply when the man smiled at her and took up running pace at her side.

“What can I say, Xena? You still have my heart after so long.” Borias winked at the Conqueror then focused on where he was going.

The Conqueror hadn’t expected this help but she wasn’t in any position to argue either. Just ahead, she saw a wall of fire that rose up to the skies and it was what defined her punishment field from the rest of Tartarus.

Borias rushed ahead of the pair and he leapt through the fire wall to land on the other side. He turned back and yelled, “Hurry!”

M’Lila was next as she passed through it with ease.

The Conqueror came to a jerking halt at the edge of her punishment and Tartarus. “I can’t leave this field,” she called through the roaring flames.

“Yes you can,” hollered back Borias. “Hurry your ass up, Xena!” He was thrusting his hand through the flames while yelling, “Take my hand.”

The Conqueror’s right hand collapsed his but she still feared the flames as she took a step closer. Her body protested it and her open wounds peeled back at the nearing heat. “I can’t come through!” She held up her left hand at the wall of fire as it lapped at her.

M’Lila put her hand through and grabbed her friend’s freehand. “Ni h-ea, you must hurry, Xena. They are coming for you!”

“I can’t,” hotly debated the Conqueror.

“Trust what M’Lila is telling you, Xena,” growled the Conqueror’s former lover.

“Please, Xena… you’ll be safe.” M’Lila tugged on her friend’s hand.

The Conqueror closed her eyes then quickly went through the flames. Her skin screamed in protest but her cries were muffled by her clamped jaw. She then felt relief when she was safely yanked to the other side. She bent forward then kneeled with heavy breathing.

M’Lila knelt down beside her friend, her hand still linked to the Conqueror’s. “See? It wasn’t that bad.” Her bright smile appeared again as her friend glowered at her for the smart comment.

“What are you two doing here?” the Conqueror whispered as her body started to calm down.

“We’re here to help you,” answered M’Lila. “We must keep moving… we’re not safe here.” She hauled the dead ruler to her feet.

The Conqueror straightened out her back, which popped into place. She then stared at yet another familiar face that she hadn’t seen in so long. She sadly smiled at him. “Chuang.”

Chuang, the Conqueror’s commander from Chin, smiled and nodded.

The Conqueror’s lips curled as she teased, “Still even loyal to me in Tartarus?”

Chuang bowed then straightened up and clapped his fisted hand across his leather chest. “Always, my liege.”

“Listen,” broke in Borias, “we don’t have time for chitchat if we’re going to make it.”

“Borias is right,” agreed M’Lila. “We must go now.” She looked up at her friend then promised, “I will explain as we go.”

The Conqueror nodded then she and her small alliance of friends broke out into a jog across the bleak yet fiery domain of Tartarus. To her right, M’Lila stayed at her side and Borias to her left while Chuang remained ahead. “What is happening, M’Lila? Why are you here?” She shook her head then urged, “You should be in Elysia.”

M’Lila bitter sweetly smiled at her friend. “I have been judged for life in Tartarus, my friend. I have committed my share of crimes during my life.”

The Conqueror hadn’t known because she was never able to communicate with her friend. “What happened?”

“It is a long story,” refused the Gaelic, “but I betrayed my clansmen.” She looked away from the troubled features of her friend. She gazed down the long, endless road they were traveling along. “We must discuss our plans.”

“Where are we going?” probed the dead ruler.

“Have you ever heard of the Tree of Life?” M’Lila saw her friend’s mind working through the thickness in her head. “Perhaps in Norse folklore?”

The Conqueror confusingly questioned, “The Yggdrasil?”

M’Lila nodded then explained, “It is even in Greek stories too… the bay tree?”

The Conqueror’s mind ran through the tales then she nodded her head. “The nymph Daphne turned into a bay tree by a river side.” She shook her head then quickly added, “Even in Chin folklore there is a famous peach tree and that eating its peach will grant immortality.”

“Yes but the peach grows only every three thousand season cycles.”

The Conqueror did recall that minor detail. “Every culture has some folklore about a great tree. Why are you bringing that up?”

M’Lila smiled at her friend’s lack of perception but she explained it all. “The Tree of Life is the link between all the cultural folklores. It does truly exist because I have seen it with my eyes.”

“I think we have a problem ahead,” called back Chuang. He stopped as the group came up to his side. He pointed ahead as his feet shook overtop of the ground.

“We must hide,” cursed Borias. He waved the group away from the brightly lit road.

M’Lila grabbed the Conqueror’s hand then pulled her quickly off the road as the ground shook under her feet.

There was a loud roar in the air.

The group ducked behind a large boulder as the ground continued to shake under their feet.

“By the gods,” breathed the Conqueror, “is that really a hecatonchires?”

Borias huffed then murmured, “If it has a hundred hands and fifty heads then it must be huh?” His dark eyes flickered up to the stomping monster.

“There are three hecatonchires of Tartarus,” informed Chuang to his former leader.

The Conqueror nodded then quietly stated, “Briareus, Cottus, and Gyges.”

M’Lila tilted her head then stared at the gargantuan giant stomping nearer. “That hecatonchires is Cottus.”

The dead ruler blinked and turned her head to M’Lila. “How in… Hades can you tell?”

M’Lila slowly revealed a grin then murmured, “Cottus is the ugliest of the three.”

“They’re all damn ugly,” lowly shot back Borias. “We need to do something to distract him.”

The Conqueror started to stand up but M’Lila’s sure grip stopped her.

“Ni h-ea,” M’Lila started in her Gaelic tongue, “what are you doing?”

“I’m going to distract him… be ready to move any heartbeat.” The Conqueror stood up then hurried out onto the road.

“She’s crazy,” spat Borias however he grinned.

Chuang grunted then joked, “She’s still reckless like always.”

The Conqueror held the Amazon sword in her right hand. She cupped her left hand over her mouth then gave a resounding warcry to get the hideous monster’s attention. “Chaaaaayaaaaaa!”

Cottus spun around on his heels and flayed out his hundred swords then his fifty pairs of eyes honed in on the prisoner.

The Conqueror laughed at him and held up her single sword in display. “Come and get some, big boy.”

Cottus’s mouths all opened and Tartarus erupted from his fifty yells. He then stomped across the short distance after the escaped prisoner.

The Conqueror cracked her neck to the left then muttered, “The bigger they are the harder they fall.” She spun her sword, did an about face, and took off at a fast run.

“What is she doing?” whispered the worried Gaelic.

“She’s keeping him busy,” answered Borias. He clung to the bouncing boulder as the monster came after the dead ruler. Once the hecatonchires was past them, he quietly ordered, “Let’s go.”

M’Lila stepped up onto the road then stopped. She stared down at Cottus chasing her friend then she heard Borias and Chuang calling for her. She turned her head to them and called, “I must help her. Go, we will catch up.”

Chuang stepped back but Borias yanked him forward.

“They can handle it. I have a plan to stop that ugly thing.” Borias saw Chuang’s agreement so he and Chuang hurried off.

M’Lila followed the distinct cries of the monster and the Conqueror’s laughter faraway. Then she was amazed to hear swords clashing loudly but it was impossible for it to be her friend fighting Cottus. Her heart rate picked up and she ran faster. When she broke through a dark mist on the road she came to a quick stop.

The Conqueror’s warcry break from her lips while she back flipped from Caesar’s attack. “You have gotten slow, Caesar!”

Cottus wailed at the all the escaped prisoners. He lifted his right foot and stomped down but only smashed one prisoner, some scantly clad female.

The Conqueror’s laugh filled the air as she did several back flips away from her enemies then sprung high up into the air.

Cottus slashed with three swords at the flying form of the ruler.

The Conqueror easily twisted her body past the large blades and landed on her feet neatly.

M’Lila inhaled sharply at the amazing display because she never imagined her friend learning so well. She hastily joined into the battle and stopped Darphus from coming at Xena. She kicked his sword free then punched him square in the face.

The Conqueror smiled at her friend’s help. She then heard Cottus’s piercing cries, which meant he was about to attack. She saw he was going after M’Lila and Darphus so she warned, “M’Lila!”

The Gaelic peered up when a foot shadow came over her. Her eyes widened then she saw Darphus was too shocked to do anything but she acted quickly. M’Lila copied Xena’s amazing back flips and launched into the air but lost control.

The Conqueror held her breath and chased after her friend, trying to gauge it just right.

Cottu’s foot flattened Darphus but his screams rang out for missing the dark female.

The Conqueror braced her body as the tumbling woman came at her. She dropped her sword then caught M’Lila with her back slamming into the ground.

M’Lila was rasping but she lifted her head then stated, “You did not have to catch me.”

The Conqueror smirked up at the smaller woman on top of her then whispered, “Just giving you a soft landing.”

The Gaelic’s head snapped to the right at seeing Caesar, Draco, and Atrius coming for them. “We must go.” She jumped to her feet.

The Conqueror picked up the sword then sensed the hecatonchires’s next attack. “Time to go is right.” She grabbed her friend’s hand then dragged her away.

M’Lila ran along side her friend back down the road towards Borias and Chuang’s direction. She glanced over her shoulder to see that the monster just flattened Caesar and Draco. “Only your father is alive.”

The Conqueror grunted then muttered, “Alive… right.”

M’Lila had a thin smile as she teased, “Meeting your father was not what I imagined it to be.”

The Conqueror glanced at her friend then shook her head with a grin at the joke. “I never expected you’d have such a sick sense of humor, M’Lila.”

“If we cannot laugh here in Tartarus then where can we?” challenged the heavily breathing Gaelic.

“By the gods, life was dull without you, my friend.” The Conqueror’s feature didn’t show a smile but her eyes were lighter. “So why the Tree of Life?”

M’Lila glanced over her shoulder. She spied that Cottus was coming for them now. “Because it is the only way to bring you back to life.”

“What?” yelled the astonished Conqueror.

“Hurry up, you two!” hollered Borias. “This way! Bring him this way!”

The Conqueror raced for the stone bridge that rested ahead, her feet vibrating under her. She broke out onto the bridge with M’Lila at her side. She glanced over the edge and realized it was a bridge over a deep chasm that seemed bottomless from her point of view. Just as she came to the middle of the stone bridge, she came upon a black pile of almost fine looking sand. She stopped and grabbed M’Lila. “Run ahead, get out of here.”

M’Lila shook her head then stated, “I must stay with you.”

The Conqueror growled then shoved her friend towards Borias and Chuang. “Go! Now!”

M’Lila stared at her friend but could see she wouldn’t accept the help. “Be careful.” She turned and hurried down the stone bridge the rest of the way.

“Where’s Xena?” demanded Borias.

“She’s still on the bridge,” informed Chuang, “she found my black powder.”

Borias gazed horrified at the man he’d fought along side for many seasons. “You told her about your black powder!”

Chuang cringed but nodded yet his attention was drawn away when the ground shook heavily under him.

The Conqueror grinned up at the hecatonchires’s ugly faces then yelled out, “Hey Cottus, I hear you’re the ugliest of the hecatonchires!”

The monster roared in protest then stepped out onto the bridge.

“Come on you ugly centaur ass,” muttered the crouching ruler. She stepped back, her boots scraping over the black powder. “Come to momma.”

Cottus took another step forward.

“Get ready, Borias,” whispered Chuang.

Borias walked over to the tall pillar at the ledge. He ripped a lit torch then stepped onto the bridge at the ledge. “Bring him further down, Xena!”

The Conqueror kept her back to her comrades as her boots scraped down the stone bridge.

The monster stepped out again but carefully so he wouldn’t misstep and slip.

“The bigger they are the smaller their brain,” huffed the ruler. She then stepped back as the monster took a fourth step out onto the bridge. She needed him just a bit further to make sure he didn’t grab onto the ledge when the bridge would go out from under him. “Come on! I heard you came out of Uranus, Cottus!” She laughed at her bad joke then back peddled a few steps. Her feet jounced on the bridge when the monster came further out.

The bridge suddenly protested at the great weight. Cracks quickly formed in the center of the bridge, near the black powder, and at each end of the bridge.

“Ooo Hades,” growled the former ruler. “Borias, I need that torch now!” She spun around then yelled, “Throw it to me!”

Borias spun his arm with the torch in a windmill technique then launched it.

The torch rocket into the air then went reeling back down a third of the way over the bridge.

The Conqueror sprung up into the air then caught the lit torch before the air could extinguish it. She landed on the bridge but the monster’s step made her stumble towards the ledge.

“Xena, look out!” yelled M’Lila.

The ruler caught her balance just in time then stepped into the middle again. She turned to the hecatonchires and leered up at the monster that was now far enough.

The bridge crunched but it wasn’t quite giving way as it faithfully held Cottus weight.

The Conqueror was halfway between the end of the bridge and the middle. She had one clear shot at this so she traded the sword and torch hands. She inhaled deeply then gave her loud warcry. The Conqueror mimicked Borias’s windmill throw and sent the torch on its way.

The lit torch shot through the air then clunked off of the monster’s metal clad chest. It bounced then started its quick decent.

The Conqueror quickly turned and began her frantic run for the end of the bridge. Behind her she heard Cottus cry in protest then there was a loud explosion.

“Jump, Xena!” shouted M’Lila.

The ruler took the good advice then launched her body into the air just as the stone bridge crumpled under her feet. She aimed herself for the ledge that was many paces away.

“Back up.” Borias pushed Chuang away but he noticed M’Lila wasn’t moving. “M’Lila, I would….” He trailed off as M’Lila rooted her feet then the heavy Conqueror’s body slammed into hers.

The Conqueror gasped as she lifted her body off of M’Lila’s and stared down at her. “M’Lila, you didn’t have to catch me.” Her words echoed the Gaelic’s earlier ones.

M’Lila softly moaned after deciding returning the favor wasn’t in her best interest. “I think you’re right, Xena.”

The Conqueror deeply chuckled then got to her feet however made sure to help her friend. “Come on, no time to lie around.”

M’Lila groaned but got up too.

“Thanks for the black powder, Chuang.” The dead ruler smirked at her former second in command.

Chuang dangled a small leather pouch at all his comrades’ faces. “Don’t leave the living without it.”

Borias rolled his dark eyes then ordered, “Let’s go… it’s a long trip to the Tree of Life.”

“Can we walk for awhile?” protested the aching Gaelic.

“We’ll stop in awhile,” offered the Conqueror.

M’Lila nodded as she walked along side her friend. “You were brave to do that, Xena.”

The Conqueror grunted then mentioned, “I am sure Borias would tell you otherwise.”

Borias threw a smirk over his shoulder at the women. He held his tongue though then turned his head around.

M’Lila adjusted her red headband then touched the ruler’s arm. “You have learned much since we last met.”

The Conqueror, for the first time, realized how M’Lila’s touch tingled against her skin. She peered at her arm when the Gaelic removed her hand and her eyebrows furrowed tightly. “What did you do?” Where M’Lila had touched her there were no more cuts.

M’Lila pointed at the Conqueror’s hands.

The Conqueror lifted her freehand and left hand with the sword. Her hands were completely healed from the cuts of her punishment. Her amazed features turned to the Gaelic for answers.

M’Lila shrugged then quietly offered, “I will tell you when we stop.” She brushed back her disarrayed curly locks.

The Conqueror sighed yet she agreed with a simple nod.

The group continued down the torched lined road that seemed so endless. Occasionally they would see other prisoners that were trapped in their punishments. One familiar punishment in Greek folklore was that of King Sisyphus and the Conqueror actually saw him pushing the heavy boulder he was chained to up a hill. The Conqueror decided that punishment was far more to her liking than hers. She also found it amusing to see the former king of Corinth, who’s Isthmian Games she still upheld to this day.

After a solid candlemark, the group steered off the road and walked into the ruins of some temple. They sat on the steps and tried to let the dull ache wear out of their legs and feet.

The Conqueror though was the only one that sat on the stump of what was a column. She propped her boot up on the toppled pillar next to her. “Now tell me what’s going on here.”

Borias sighed then glanced at the group as he suspected he was the one that had to explain. “It’s because of Alti, Xena.” To this day, he still said the shaman’s name with pure hatred.

“It always is,” grumbled the Conqueror.

“Now that you’re dead,” explained Borias, “Alti will take your soul.”

M’Lila stood up, came over, and sat on the fallen column next to the Conqueror’s foot. “She will be far too powerful to be stopped.”

The Conqueror dropped her foot from the pillar and shook her head. “What’s this have to do with the Tree of Life?” Her eyes flickered between the three silent faces then it struck her. “You want me to live again so that Alti won’t have my soul.”

M’Lila leaned forward so that she was closer to her friend. “She must be stopped, Xena.”

The Conqueror closed her eyes then turned her head away.

Borias jumped up to his feet then yelled at the Conqueror, “Its time you finally corrected your mistake, Xena!” He pointed finger at the now staring ruler. “You made her and now you must destroy her.”

The Conqueror stood up hastily. Her upper lip curled into a snarl at her old lover. “Don’t tell me what to do, Borias. You know very well how I respond to that.”

M’Lila popped up and got between the pair. “Borias is right,” she softly spoke.

Borias side stepped the Gaelic and gently reminded, “Xena, she was my mistake as well.”

Chuang sighed from his spot then muttered, “All of our faults.” He sensed the group staring at him and he murmured, “All of us saw what she was capable of but we didn’t stop her.”

The Conqueror’s tense expression shifted to M’Lila. “You have nothing to do with Alti though.”

M’Lila licked her parched lips then nodded her head. “You’re right but….” Her hand came up and touched the ruler’s right cheek. “I was your last hope in life.” She placed her other hand to the ruler’s other cheek. “It was because of my death… my sacrifice that made you so angry.”

“No,” whispered the ruler, “it was Caesar’s betrayal, M’Lila.” Her past pain filled her eyes. “It was never about you.”

“But it was,” protested the Gaelic, “and I must set that right again.” She then leaned in the rest of the distance.

The Conqueror’s cracked lips were sealed by M’Lila’s sweeter ones. She moaned at the tender depth in her friend’s kiss. She felt her face no longer cold but swallowed by warmth then her eyes fluttered open at the end of the kiss.

M’Lila’s genuine smile brightened between them when she saw her friend’s beautiful face restored.

The Conqueror lifted her hand and touched forehead where she knew there’d been a large gash. It was completely gone and no scar left behind. “What… how’d you do that?”

M’Lila pulled her hands away to reveal the ruler’s healed face completely.

Borias observed with open interest at the scene.

“It is because I love you,” murmured the Gaelic. “For every heart that loves you, your wounds will heal to an extent.” She gathered the larger hands into her dark ones. “Just stop and think about those that love you.”

“Nobody does,” protested the ruler softly.

“Yet I do,” argued the Gaelic. “Stop… listen for once, Xena.” She squeezed the ruler’s hands. “When the living think of the dead, the dead can hear their thoughts. Listen…”

The Conqueror did listen for the first time since her arrival here in Tartarus. Her eyes drifted shut and she tightly held onto M’Lila’s hand for moral support.

“Xena… Xena…,” whispered Cyrene’s voice. “I know you can hear me. I am so sorry… I never told you how sorry I am. I was never there for you after Lyceus’s death.” Cyrene’s voice faded then came back again. “I’m so sorry, Xena. I spent moons regretting that I shunned you and now I pay with a life where I can’t tell you that there was never anything to forgive you for.” Cyrene’s voice faded again but returned at a low whispered, “I love you, Xena no matter who you are because you will always be my little one. I love you…”

“You were my greatest enemy, Xena but I always knew you would defeat your own darkness. I was proud of you that day when you conquered your darkness. The Amazon Nation will honor your sacrifice as you’ve repaid your debt.” Cyane’s whisper wavered then filled the Conqueror’s mind again. “I am learning to forgive you, enemy of mine.”

M’Lila felt how tightly the ruler clenched to her hand. She squeezed back then whispered, “Listen, harder now, Xena.”

The Conqueror inhaled sharply when the usually sweet but now painfully constricted voice of the rebel leader came to her.

“Conqueror, I know you can hear me… wherever you are. I know you probably think I am strong… but I can’t be, not now. You can’t leave me. I know it’s not your time. I can feel it… in my heart. I feel this emptiness that I never felt before… and it scares me. Above all, just remember to fight… fight to come back. Your realm needs you… I need you.” Gabrielle’s whispered plea floated away but rested in the Conqueror’s mind.

The Conqueror slowly opened her eyes and sadly stared at M’Lila. She understood the very emptiness that Gabrielle felt because it was the same kind she’d felt when her brother died.

M’Lila peered up into emotional blue eyes. “Now do you see?”

“Yes,” whispered the ruler.

Borias stepped closer to the pair, his voice breaking the spell between them. “Alti must be stopped, Xena or else she will condemn thousands upon thousands of souls to her karma. If she takes yours then there is no stopping her.”

The Conqueror bit her lower lip then softly asked, “Why are you helping, Borias?” She shook her head then reminded, “I killed you.”

“In fair combat and under Alti’s influence,” also reminded the former warlord. He then rested his hand on the ruler’s left forearm. “You may have never loved me, Xena but… you had a place in my heart.” He tilted his head then his usually harsh voice calmed. “And you have always protected our son from a life of violence.”

“Solan,” she sadly whispered and dropped her eyes.

“He fairs well,” confidently stated Borias, “I thank you everyday for keeping him safe, Xena.”

The Conqueror locked eyes with Borias. “He’ll never know or follow his parents’ lives.”

Borias nodded then removed his hand. When his hand drew back, the Conqueror’s skin was healed over her forearm. “We must hurry now… Alti could take your soul at anytime. Time is a luxury that we can’t squander right now.”

Chuang stood up then neared the group. “Let’s go.”

The Conqueror and the rest of the small party continued the journey on the road. Her thoughts wondered off to the evil shaman back in the land of the living. By the gods, she realized that once Alti had her soul that she would undoubtedly strike out against Melinda, Janice, the Amazons, her mother, and most of all Gabrielle. A sense of urgency to stop the shaman filled her as her long stride grew faster.

M’Lila hastened to stay along side. She peered up her friend’s determined features and she whispered, “She will not succeed, Xena.”

“No, she won’t,” snarled the newly driven ruler. “Not in this lifetime or any other.”

Chapter 20 – The Tree of Life

The Conqueror knelt down just as a small, warm hand touched her right shoulder. She turned her head and her eyes lightened at her friend, M’Lila.

“We are close,” whispered the Gaelic.

The dead ruler simply nodded her head as she gazed through the brush, her right hand parting the branches as she peered through the small opening.

“We must cross the bridge first,” quietly reminded M’Lila.

“And it seems to be heavily guarded by….” The Conqueror’s mouth remained open as mind tried to process what was guarding the bridge just ahead.

“Tree nymphs I believe you call them,” finished M’Lila. She then leaned closer to her friend.

“What kind of tree is the Tree of Life?” murmured the ruler.

“I believe it is an oak, Xena.”

The Conqueror nodded as she released the branches, her head now turned to M’Lila. “Those aren’t just any nymphs… those are dryads.” She sighed then saw the inquisitive look on M’Lila’s face. “Dryads can only be killed one way, which won’t work for us.”

“Why?”

The Conqueror shook her head then explained, “A dryad’s life force is derived from the tree it was born from… the mother tree is its life force so to speak.”

“So the only way to kill a dryad is to kill its mother tree,” summarized the Gaelic, “and we can’t kill the Tree of Life.”

“Exactly.” The Conqueror glanced over her shoulder before saying, “Let’s head back and work something out.” She and M’Lila carefully lowered onto their bellies then crawled backwards for some distance. They then got to their feet but stayed hunkered down as they returned back to Borias and Chuang.

Borias and Chuang waited at another set of ruins from another temple, some unknown temple. Borias had wondered inside of it while Chuang merely sat on the cracked, disheveled steps. Chuang climbed to his feet when the Conqueror and M’Lila appeared around the thick trees by the side of the temple.

“Where’s Borias?” questioned the ruler.

Chuang pointed a thumb over his shoulder at the tilted entrance of the temple.

The Conqueror decided to follow after her former lover and partner while Chuang and M’Lila waited outside for them. When she entered, her eyes squinted from the unknown source of light that poured through the wide opening in the ceiling. With her head tilted back, her vision focused on the opening but she could not make out the source of light but only that it was strong and warm, much like the sun. She moved away then her eyes adjusted again to see Borias’s back to her at the opposite side of the temple.

“Xena, look at this.” Borias half stepped around and signaled for her but he turned back. “These temples in Hades are leftover from the fall of the Titans.” He sensed the ruler at his side now. He glimpsed at her to see her also looking over the wall painting before them.

“This is a temple to Gaia,” muttered the Conqueror. Her right hand stretched out and touched the weathered and cracked mural.

“Look at this.” Borias took several side steps and pointed at the picture in the very center of the mural.

The Conqueror inhaled quickly and stared at the beautiful painting of a gigantic oak tree. The tree’s branches stretched to the skies, its trunk through middle earth, and its roots spread out below the underworld.

“Now look here,” offered Borias, he was now down by the left side of the mural.

The Conqueror moved down then saw that there stood a gorgeous woman that was almost as tall as the tree. Her right hand was stretched out, pointed to the tree, and her left hand was cupped upwards and some lifting movement.

The Conqueror glanced between the woman and the tree. “The Tree of Life was born from Gaia,” she theorized and from the corner of her eye she saw Borias nodding.

“But on the right side there’s more to the story.” The former warlord strolled down to it with the ruler at his side.

The Conqueror tilted her head as she pieced together the mystery of the mural. “So Gaia birthed the Tree of Life then when the Titans were banished to Tartarus, Zeus ordered the hecatonchires to attack the Tree of Life… destroy it.”

“Zeus was afraid that the Titans would use the Tree of Life to escape from their prisons in Tartarus,” added Borias. “Come here.” He turned, walked off the broken and tilted dais, and went to another wall with a mural.

The Conqueror followed then verbally described the mural to them both. “The dryads are the protectors of the Tree of Life… they keep the hecatonchires away from it.”

“So does one other protect the tree.” Borias stepped forward and pointed to a green creature that was wrapped around the base of the tree.

“A dragon,” murmured the ruler.

Borias grinned at his former partner. “Not just any dragon, Xena… that is the dragon we heard about in Chin.”

The Conqueror stared in awe at the dragon wrapped around the tree as she murmured, “The Lóng… it can’t be, Borias.” She rotated her head until her gaze rested upon him. “It’s impossible.”

“You would think so,” slowly agreed Borias, “but Xena, we have already seen a hecatonchires.”

“The dryads are real as well,” stated the Conqueror. “So why wouldn’t the Lóng be too?” She stared directly at the dragon’s painting.

“This isn’t going to be easy,” observed the former warlord. He turned his head to Xena. “We have to get past the two remaining hecatonchires, the dryads, and the Lóng.”

The Conqueror slowly revealed a dark grin at her ex-lover. “Nothing is ever easy between us, Borias.” She leaned towards him then sultry whispered, “It hasn’t been that long… has it?”

Borias supplied a sly smirk as he throatily whispered, “Xena, you should know me by now.” He leaned in too, his lips a mere brush from hers. “Or hasn’t it been that long for you?”

The Conqueror chuckled then she leaned in so that her lips grazed over his and she saw Borias’s dark eyes close. She smirked then quickly drew away while saying, “I keep myself… satisfied in the mortal world.” She then strolled away with that satisfied look on her face

Borias showed all his teeth at the ruler’s backside but he shook his head as some things just would never change. “Maybe we can use this battle between the dryads and the hecatonchires to our advantage.”

The Conqueror paused in the slanted opening of the temple, her head turned to Borias. “That’s exactly the plan.” She disappeared out of the temple.

Borias followed but stopped and he stole one last glance at the green dragon at the base of the Tree of Life. He turned away and joined the rest outside the temple.

“So what is the plan exactly?” questioned Chuang.

“Well we have a slight problem,” mentioned the Conqueror.

“Slight?” Borias huffed then peered down at Chuang, who was standing next to M’Lilia. “The slight problem is named Lóng.”

Chuang’s eyes bulged and he quickly shook his head. “You are joking.” He glanced between his two former leaders and slightly paled.

“Come on, Chuang,” tormented the Conqueror, “you have the jewels for this, don’t you?”

“My liege,” started the oriental warrior, “it is not a lack of courage but a lack of success.” He rested his hands on his hips. “The Lóng is immortal and very powerful in Chin stories. It will be impossible to stop him.”

“Who said anything about stopping him?” The Conqueror chuckled at her former second in command’s dim features. She then turned her sights to M’Lila. “Do you know what I have to do to be… reborn?”

The Gaelic sighed then neared her friend. “I believe you simply must touch the tree.”

“Touch?” repeated the dubious ruler. “M’Lila, it can’t be that easy?”

“It’s easy minus the hecatonchires, the Lóng, and dryads.”

The Conqueror chuckled at Borias’s reminder. “I suppose we will see.” She tilted her head then slowly grinned. “Now for that plan….”

It was within quarter of a candlemark that the group had worked out the plans to find a route to the Tree of Life. The plan itself was quite straightforward, which called for more brute strength than anything. They used the trees that were surrounding path to the Tree of Life as the path directly connected to the bridge across some deep, dark gorge.

The Conqueror was located behind the tree near the edge while her comrades were hiding behind the tall trunks further back. She knelt down with her left hand resting on the tree to steady her body. She carefully watched the dryads wondering up and down the stone bridge; they were faithfully guarding it. She gave her sword a quick spin then started to move forward yet she tensed and spun around with her sword moving fast. Her sword’s tip just stopped under the intruder’s chin.

The Conqueror had that sly grin because she’d caught the stranger sneaking up on her however she instantly lost it. Her sword slowly lowered to her side and she stared, shocked. Just as she was about to speak the stranger jumped forward because of some distant noise.

“Be quiet,” hushed the stranger. He tugged the tall ruler down behind the tree to hide them while the sounds grew louder and closer.

The Conqueror heard it but it didn’t matter to her as all she did was be awestruck. She then emotionally murmured, “Lyceus?”

Lyceus smiled at his sister warmly then touched her arm. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here sooner.” He turned his head away and pulled at his sister’s broad shoulder. “Duck down… they’re coming.”

The ruler tore her gaze away from her young brother and her features darkened when the noises developed into footfall and voices.

“Come on, hurry up,” ordered a gruff voice. He waved is axe in the direction of the bridge to the Tree of Life.

The Conqueror shook her head and muttered, “Kallikantzaroi.”

Lyceus grinned then murmured, “You remember them? From mother’s stories?”

“I do,” whispered the Conqueror, “How could I forget? She always teased me that I would turn into a kallikantzaros during Solstice.” She watched as about a dozen goblin-like creatures that were small and hairy waddle by with their chopping axes. Once they were gone and out of ear shot, she stood up and pulled her brother up to his feet. She looked him up and down in pure amazement as he looked like the exact same young man when he’d died. “Ly, is this….”

Lyceus lifted his hand and pressed his palm against his sister’s cheek. “It is me.”

The Conqueror revealed a long forgotten smile as she suddenly grabbed her brother into a long embrace.

Lyceus felt more alive than ever when he hugged his sister. He’d almost forgotten what it was like to hug her. He drew back but his sister still wouldn’t fully release him. “You’ve grown, Xena.”

The ruler cracked a grin. “You haven’t aged a day, brother.” She softly laughed at his boyish features and amazingly gold locks that reminded her of the forgotten sun. Then his eyes, gods they were still striking and reminded her so much of only one other back on the mortal earth. “You were always the catch of the village,” she teased and clasped her hand into his.

Lyceus rolled his eyes. “I think you attracted more men than I did women,” he thoroughly joked.

The Conqueror wistfully smiled at old memories then as her quick mind worked it out, her features darkened. “What are you doing here?” She shook her head then separated from him some.

“You’ve caused quite the stir in Hades and should I expect anything less of you?” Lyceus folded his arms against his chest.

“Tell me you’re not here in Tartarus, Ly?” urged the concerned sister.

Lyceus sighed and dropped his arms finally. “Not exactly… I’m neither in Tartarus nor in Elysia.”

“The meadows then,” murmured the Conqueror, which was confirmed by Lyceus’s nod. “Why are you here?”

“To see you,” answered Lyceus, “and help you. Word travels fast here… faster than Pegasus.”

“So it would seem.” The dark ruler then saw that her comrades were coming to her with concerned features.

M’Lila hastily asked, “What were those things? And who is he?” She carefully studied the young man and tilted her head.

Borias rested his hands on his leather clad hips. “Who’s the new stray, Xena?”

The Conqueror arched an eyebrow at her former lover. She then clapped her right hand on her brother’s shoulder. “This is my younger brother, Lyceus.”

Borias blinked and his smirking features disappeared. “You have a brother?”

The Conqueror relinquished her hold from her brother and folded her arms. “Yes.”

M’Lila stepped forward and warmly smiled at Lyceus. “I am M’Lila.” She held out her hand.

Lyceus clasped arms then met Chuang and Borias as well. He could tell that each of these people had history with his sister but he wasn’t sure about all of it. He then turned to his sister. “Getting you to the Tree of Life is very dangerous… you risk losing your soul.”

“My soul will be lost either way,” informed the ruler.

“Yes,” muttered the young man, “to Alti.”

“How do you know Alti?” inquired the Conqueror.

Lyceus released a sigh then answered, “Let’s just say I know people, sister. I’ve kept my tabs on you beyond just your thoughts.” He tilted his head before explaining, “The kallikantzaroi are exactly as they are in the legends… they are sawing the Tree of Life down.”

“Solstice is a couple of moons away,” reminded the Conqueror.

“Yes, but their numbers have increased this cycle… where there use to be six now there are twelve. They will manage to saw the tree down this cycle before Solstice… Zeus had proclaimed it.”

“What happens if the Tree of Life dies?” questioned the Conqueror.

Lyceus frowned and his hands clenched at his sides. “If it dies then so does Gaia.”

“The gods and Titans are not of my concern,” stated the ruler.

Lyceus stepped closer to his sister then whispered, “They will be your concern when your realm dies because of plague, polluted water… crops failing. Without Gaia, Xena nature will die and so will life.”

“Why would Zeus want the Tree of Life destroyed if it is the breath of nature?” questioned M’Lila.

“The gods want to beat the Titans. They do not care about any mortals.” Lyceus glimpsed between his sister and the darkly tanned woman. “Gaia is the last Titan to have any influence in mortals’ lives and Zeus wants to snub that out.”

The ruler grunted and shook her head. “And I am the tyrant,” she mildly joked.

Lyceus ignored the remark and instead asked, “Do you recall mother’s stories about how to kill a kallikantzaros?”

“The sun and the holy number three.”

Borias quietly laughed then asked, “So since there’s no sun light here, you’re telling me we have to get these hairy guys to say the number three? While they’re swinging axes at our heads?”

Chuang smirked. “Don’t forget the dryads-”

“The hecatonchires,” added M’Lila.

The Conqueror sighed and muttered, “And the great Lóng.”

Borias threw up his hands in the air and walked off then hotly yelled, “I rather face Alti alone than do this!” He turned around with the most frustrated features and his teeth showing.

“Listen,” started the Conqueror, “none of you need to be here.” Her eyes scanned her friends’ faces and her brother’s. “This is my fight.” Then without another word, she started down the path with her sword at her side. She would try because if she did not then it would cost her soul regardless because there was not much to lose.

Lyceus quickly ran off and joined his sister side at the edge of the bridge. “Your fight has always been my fight, Xena.”

The Conqueror turned her head to her young brother and whispered, “Not this time, Ly… you lost your life because of me. I won’t let you lose your soul now.”

Lyceus grabbed his sister by the wrist. “I have never regretted my life.” His stared out at the bridge full of moving dryads. “Now I will not regret my death.” He stepped out onto the bridge.

“Lyceus, no!” The Conqueror inhaled sharply when his brother’s boot met the bridge then all the dryads reacted at once. She gave a battlecry and exploded forth with her flying jumped that landed her between Lyceus and the charging dryads. She raised her sword. Then unexpectedly she lowered her sword and her left hand shot out towards Lyceus behind her.

Lyceus gave a small yelp as his sister yanked him forward.

The Conqueror quickly moved forward on the bridge as she and her brother dodge over, around, and through dryads without being caught. She saw that the distance to the end of the bridge was rather long and there was also a thick fog that obscured her view of what was there, waiting.

“Xena, watch out,” hollered Lyceus and he jumped forward towards an oncoming dryad; he unsheathed his sword simultaneously.

“No!” The ruler’s sword shot out and stopped Lyceus’s blade from striking the dryad. She then wrapped her left arm around his waist and quickly shot up into the air.

Lyceus closed his eyes as the world spun around him. He tried not to get too sick feeling then his feet connected with the bridge again. He dared to open his eyes but he instantly regretted it. “Sis, I think that was out of the frying pan and into the fire.”

The Conqueror released her brother and growled at all the surrounding dryads. She lifted her sword in preparation. “Fight now, talk later.”

Lyceus raised his sword, the sword he’d fought and died with. He gave a strong yell and charged the nearest dryad. Behind him he heard his sister’s war cry, which was much more powerful than he last recalled. He fought against two dryads that tried to use their long branch-like hands and fingers to grab him. He cut one dryad’s fingers off but he was stunned to see them instantly regrow. “Xena?” he shouted while doubling his efforts. “I think we have a major problem.”

“I know,” hotly called back the ruler. “You have to get them off the bridge… it’s the only way.” She then made the unknown mistake of slashing her sword vertically down a dryad.

The dryad merely split in half and become two.

“I think these things are closer related to hydras,” muttered the frustrated ruler. She backed stepped then another step when a dryad swiped at her. Suddenly her backside hit her brother’s.

“Any more fancy tricks, sis?” Lyceus swiped at a groping tree-hand, which he cut off but it only regrew.

The Conqueror was about to reply but she suddenly smiled when she heard M’Lila’s fighting cry sailing overhead. “Ly, drop… now!” She squatted just as her brother did the same.

M’Lila landed neatly between the pair, slammed her pike in the ground, and gave a cry as she lifted into the air. She effectively kicked every nearby dryad off the bridge and shot up into the air then neatly landed beside the Conqueror. She held down her hand and ordered, “You must not lie around, Xena if we are to succeed.”

The ruler smirked at the joke and clasped her hand into her friend’s. “Thanks for the backup.”

M’Lila nodded and turned her head to the standing brother. “You are senseless like your sister. I had better hopes for you.”

The Conqueror glowered at her friend but then she growled, “Duck, M’Lila.”

The Gaelic obliged as her tall friend charged her then jumped over her.

The ruler nailed an approaching dryad in the torso and sent it flying into another dryad and off the bridge.

“I think its time to move!” yelled Borias, who dodged away from two more dryads and behind him was Chuang.

“Press forward,” commanded the Conqueror. She sensed her comrades lining up beside her with her brother at her right and M’Lila to her left.

The group quickly moved forward as they covered the width of the bridge. They slashed their way forward, pace by pace, and shoved the dryads off the bridge. They edged closer to the end of the bridge where the heavy fog hid what was ahead and where the thick trunk of the Tree of Life plunged down into it. Finally with one last kick, the Conqueror was able to step off the bridge and into the fog.

“Xena?” called Lyceus. He then felt a warm hand grab his and hauled him into the thick fog. He could barely make out his sister’s outline in the fog.

“There are steps here. Be careful, Ly.” The Conqueror held his hand and guided him down deeper and deeper.

M’Lila was between Chuang and Borias but she hollered, “Can you see anything, Xena?”

The ruler came off the last stop and stared in wonderment at the gigantic trunk that was surrounded by a decorative marble stand. The marble floor that she stood on had brown lines that spread out like veins in every direction. She could only guess it was the great root system of the tree. When her eyes focused back on the marble stand around the tree she realized the kallikantzaroi had stopped hacking at the tree and turned to her and Lyceus.

Lyceus released his sister’s hand and lifted his sword.

The Conqueror held her sword between both her hands and pointed her tip at the goblins. “Sorry, boys but you’re not saying timber this time or any other.” When she finished, her three friends materialized out of the fog and took sides with her.

A kallikantzaros pointed his axe at the intruders and hotly commanded, “Stop them!” He watched in satisfaction when his immortal comrades flooded down the stand and came at the dead souls.

“Chaaaaya!” The Conqueror laughed loudly and began the charge for the small, hairy creatures.

The battle between the immortal creatures and the dead souls raged forward but it were the souls that started to tire. Lyceus was caught off guard at one point and took a nasty swipe at his chest that almost missed but still cut his chest lightly. He stumbled back and caught the next whirlwind swipe with his sword.

The Conqueror saw it and her anger flared so she jumped and landed between the goblin and her brother. She laughed at the goblin’s shocked features then she took her opening by kicking him hard.

The kallikantzaros sailed through the air and slammed into the tree trunk and slumped unconscious.

“Xena, this isn’t getting us anywhere!” hollered Borias.

The ruler sighed because she thoroughly agreed. “Borias, remember what I wanted to do between the House of Lao and the House of Ming?”

“How could I forget?” chided the ex-warlord.

“Well now is a good time to execute that idea,” suggested the ruler. She swiftly grabbed Lyceus and quietly ordered, “Back up to the bridge.”

“Wha-”

“Just go,” snapped the ruler, who shoved her brother towards the steps. She turned around quickly and caught an attacking kallikantzaros.

Lyceus, M’Lila, and Chuang hurried up the steps but stopped on the last one because if they touched the bridge again the dryads would react.

The Conqueror and Borias slowly went up the steps backwards while fighting off the goblins and drawing them upwards.

Lyceus glanced at the reformed dryads on the bridge and was amazed they’d regrouped so fast.

“Oh no,” muttered Chuang. He pointed his sword at the new problem they’d forgotten.

M’Lila gasped and stared at the two remaining hecatonchires roared out and displayed their ugly faces and plentiful swords. “Xena,” she yelled down, “The hecatonchires have arrived!”

The Conqueror cursed under her breath as she stepped upwards.

“This isn’t exactly how we… planned it,” growled Borias.

“You gotta be flexible, Borias.” The ruler gave a hard kick and sent a screaming goblin flying downwards through the fog. Her boots then rattled on the step from what she assumed was the stomp of a hecatonchires.

The hecatonchires, Briareus, stepped out onto the bridge and started the attack on the dryads. Behind him his brother, Gyges, followed him slowly.

The dryads cried out in pain then all together they attacked the gigantic monster to stop it.

Lyceus saw his sister’s silhouette now form in the fog then come out of it. His eyes widened when the kallikantzaroi unexpectedly rushed up the steps and swarmed them all. He ended up stumbling back onto the bridge however the dryads were far too busy with the hecatonchires.

“We’re wearing them down,” yelled a kallikantzaros, “kill them! Throw them off the bridge!”

The Conqueror was suddenly hard pressed by four goblins at once and she tried to duck away from the wielding axes. She and her comrades were pressed backwards onto the bridge completely. She then lost her footing when a hecatonchires stomped on a handful of dryads.

Lyceus yelped as he teetered on the edge of the bridge and the nearest kallikantzaros charged him with a vertical slash. Lyceus tried to duck but lost his balance and went over the edge. “Xena!”

The Conqueror was already in motion and leapt into the air. She purposefully landed on her stomach just on the edge of the bridge as her brother lost his grip. Her left hand shot down and caught his wrist. “I’ve got you, Ly!”

Lyceus wrapped his fingers around his sister’s larger wrist and held on tightly. He glanced down below his feet and saw nothing but blackness ready to swallow him.

“Xena, look out!” Borias couldn’t make it yet Chuang did.

Chuang stopped the approaching goblin from attacking Xena’s unprotected back.

“Lyceus, drop your sword and take my other hand,” ordered the Conqueror.

“I need my sword,” argued the young man.

“You need your soul more!” angrily shouted the ruler. She’d already let go of her sword and was stretching her right hand down. “Take my hand, now!”

M’Lila gave fierce kick to her opponent then jumped at him. She grabbed his axe by the shaft then gave a powerful swing, which caused him to lose his grip on the axe. She now had a better weapon and made her increase her efforts.

The flying goblin however went over the Conqueror then down towards the pit. His piercing scream came to a sharp stop when his claw hand ripped into Lyceus’s leg.

Lyceus cried in pain and peered down at the monstrous creature hanging onto his right leg, his claws digging through his skin.

“No,” whispered the Conqueror in fear.

Lyceus tried to stab at the kallikantzaros with his sword but couldn’t reach. He then screamed when the claws went deeper.

“Lyceus, take my other hand!” commanded the Conqueror.

The hecatonchires gave a powerful cry of battle and stomped again on the bridge.

Borias fell onto his back then a goblin’s axe went into his right thigh. He howled in pain but tried to roll away with his sword. Chuang quickly came to his side to support him.

The M’Lila only stumbled back but recovered easier.

The Conqueror however was shaken over the edge more so but she held tightly to her brother. “Ly, let go of the damn sword and take my hand!”

Lyceus finally let go of the sword and threw up his hand.

The Conqueror clasped it and held tightly. She quickly tried to pull him up but with the extra weight it was incredibly hard.

The hecatonchires growled loudly then sent two swords slamming down and connecting with the bridge. His swords not only took out several dryads but it sent a crack ripping down the bridge.

The Conqueror quickly felt the bridge’s ledge buckling under her from the tremendous quake from the hecatonchires. She released her brother’s left hand and yelled as she slammed her right hand against the bridge where it didn’t crack. A chunk of the bridge broke away and fell from under her chest and just swiped past Lyceus.

“Xena, just let me go!” Lyceus emphasized it by releasing his grip on his sister’s wrist.

“I am not letting you go!”

Lyceus gritted his teeth when the goblin dug his claws deeper. The kallikantzaros was obviously didn’t agreed with Lyceus’s idea.

The Conqueror growled and urged her body not to betray her now. She tried to use her right hand to lift them up but the angle was against her. Her left arm socket was already aching from holding the weight of her brother and the fat kallikantzaros.

“Xena,” whispered Lyceus, “let me go.” His voice was low but so soft. “I’ll be fine.”

“No,” snarled the ruler, “I won’t… not again.” She closed her eyes and brought on a powerful surge in her body as she started to lift her body up and worked her knees under her.

The kallikantzaros decided not to wait any longer as he threw up his right hand. His claws dug into Lyceus’s right thigh. He slowly started to climb up the young man’s prone body.

Lyceus wailed out in pain but his eyes met his sister’s. “He’ll kill you too, Xena! Just release my hand before he gets to you!”

The Conqueror just had her knees under her but when she was going to move her right hand down to Lyceus’s wrist the hecatonchires stomped again. She lost her advantage and her knees caved in under her. She slammed her forehead on the edge of the jagged, broken bridge and it almost knocked her unconscious but she wouldn’t surrender.

“Xena,” called Lyceus, “Xena… Xena… Xe-”

“-na,” softly called a warm, feminine voice.

The Conqueror’s heartbeat slowed in the middle of the chaos.

“Xena,” warmly called the same voice.

“Lao Ma,” murmured the ruler and her blue eyes glossed over with the image of the Chin ruler. The noise of the battle washed away from her.

“Xena, have you really forgotten what I tried to teach you? Heaven endures and the earth lasts a long time because they do not live for themselves. Remember the world is driven… driven by will… you control your own limitations. To conqueror others is to have power. To conqueror yourself is to know the Way. Remember Xena,….”

“Stop willing,” whispered the Conqueror, “Stop desiring. Stop hating.” She repeated the words in a mantra.

Lyceus cried out in pain from the ascending claws of the kallikantzaros.

The hecatonchires gave a vibrating cry and kicked at several dryads while taking another step out onto the bridge.

M’Lila hissed painfully when a goblin’s axe sliced down her arm.

Borias fell to his knees because of the heated pain in his thigh. He lifted his head as the goblin raised his axe, prepared to behead the former warlord.

Chuang stopped a horizontal axe slash but didn’t see the second one coming from behind. Then he closed his eyes because he knew it was too late for him.

There was a loud eruption of unseen power that rippled out from the end of the bridge.

The kallikantzaroi all screamed in unison as they exploded into midair and flew off the bridge, over the edge.

Lyceus briefly lost sight of anything but then he found his feet safely on the bridge and the goblin no longer clinging to him. He moved past his astonishment as he sought his sister. He held his breath when he saw his older sister actually glowing a dark pink shade and slowly walking down the bridge.

Borias limped up to his feet with Chuang’s help. He peered down at the ruler.

Chuang gazed that way too and whispered, “She poses the qi… by the gods… it is real.”

M’Lilia was heavily breathing as she neared Lyceus. “What is she doing? What has happened?”

“I don’t know,” murmured the astonished brother.

The Conqueror stopped several paces away from the lump of dryads. She lifted her hands as red orbs began to develop in her palms and she was still murmuring a mantra. Her hands shot out forward and the orbs flew from her hands.

The hecatonchires, Briareus, released a painful cry from the powerful explosion. He lost several of his swords however he had plenty left. He stomped his foot hard on the bridge, which caused the bridge to crack again.

The Conqueror ignored it but instead of sending off more orbs, she half turned and stretched her right hand out towards the Tree of Life.

Lyceus saw his sister’s eyes were lively with something he’d never seen before and she was also gazing beyond them. He turned his head and called, “Look!”

The group turned around and watched as the fog surrounding the base of the tree was suddenly being moved away by an unknown and unseen force.

The Conqueror took a deep breath then called out loudly in an exploding volume, “Lóng, it is time, finally!”

“By the gods,” rasped Chuang, his head dropped back.

The air filled with a piercing cry then the dark sky was filled by a green dragon swooping through the air. He lifted up higher and higher until he disappeared but his call cut through the chaos.

The Conqueror turned back to the two hecatonchires and she produced red orbs in her palms again. The powerful orbs grew larger than the previous two then she screamed at the top of her lungs. She threw them at the hecatonchires with all of her strength.

Lóng swooped down from the darkness above and attacked the hecatonchires as the red energy bursts struck them. The dragon shot out fire over Gyges, which engulfed the hecatonchires in fire. Lóng then reared back as his sharp hind legs came out and his talons burried into Briareus’s shoulders. Lóng’s long wings begun to beat heavily and he lifted the ugly monster off the bridge then they vanished into the black sky.

The Conqueror clenched her teeth as she willed new energy balls into her hands. She held up her hands and brought the balls towards each other. The energy spheres melted together then were lifted over the ruler’s head. The Conqueror gave her fierce battle cry and hurled the powerful energy sphere at the hecatonchires.

Gyges was already wailing in pain from the fire but when the energy orb exploded against him and he lost his balance on the edge. He slipped off the edge of the gorge and disappeared into the darkness but his cry resounded back up.

The Conqueror was breathing heavy but she turned her head to the right when she head a new cry from above.

Suddenly Briareus was tumbling out of the black sky then vanished down in the gorge with his brother.

The Conqueror suddenly fell to her right knee and her head drooped, her eyes closed.

“Xena!” Lyceus ran down the bridge to his sister. He knelt down next to his sibling and touched her hot skin. “Are you okay?”

The ruler could only nod but she was recovering.

M’Lila hurried down the bridge too and checked on her friend, an axe at her side.

Chuang and Borias remained still since Borias couldn’t really walk yet but his wound was slowly healing. He considered the dryads at the other end of the bridge. “They’re not attacking anymore.”

Chuang noticed it too and he was quite happy about it. “Lucky for us.”

The Conqueror stood up with gritted teeth. Her muscles ached however she would ignore it. She studied the slowly moving dryads that posed no threat now. She sighed in relief then turned to her brother. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” promised Lyceus, “thank you.” He quickly pulled his sister in for a hug.

The Conqueror tightly hugged him back then when she pulled away M’Lila took her attention.

“We must get you to the tree,” urged the Gaelic, “before it gets any later.”

“You’re right.” The Conqueror hastily started into a fast walk then a jog as she gained control over her body. She, M’Lila, and Lyceus hurried past the guys then down the marble steps. She came to a quick halt though when her gaze met a very curious set of eyes at the base of the hacked tree.

Lyceus stopped beside his sister and stared at the beautiful rustic colored bird, which was perched on the edge of the tree’s stand. “By the gods… what kind of bird is that?”

The bird squawked at them for a heartbeat then she flapped her wings to hover up in the air. She turned and landed again but now faced the badly chopped Tree of Life. She cried again but this call was slightly different and a small flame formed on her head. The flame grew larger and crept over her body until she was completely on fire. She spread out her wings of fire and flapped them at the injured trunk.

The Tree of Life’s trunk hastily healed over and was returned to normal as if never touched.

“It is the phoenix,” whispered the Gaelic.

The phoenix seemed to hear this and hopped along the edge of the base. Once again she faced the souls but her focus centered on the dark ruler in the middle.

“Go to her,” softly suggested M’Lila.

The Conqueror wasn’t sure why but she agreed and carefully approached the beautiful firebird. She stopped a pace away then her eyes locked with the phoenix’s and she became lost in it.

“Xena of Amphipolis, you wish to be granted life again,” spoke the phoenix in an angelic voice but her beak did not open or move.

The Conqueror was uneasy however things haven’t been all that normal since her arrival in Tartarus. “I wish that, yes. I must return to the mortal earth.”

“To continue your plunders?” questioned the phoenix, her head twisted to the right. “The Fates decided it was time for your life to end.”

The former ruler sighed as she hated to admit this aloud but she argued, “It’s not really about my life… it’s about everybody else’s lives.”

The firebird squawked and lifted her head as if considering this statement. “Since when has it not been about you, Destroyer of Nations? I have not survived thousands of lifetimes to believe such lies.”

“They are not lies,” argued the ruler hotly, “because I would have not done all that I have done here if it was only for me.”

“Instead of paying your debt to those lives you’ve destroyed here in Tartarus, you greedily demand to be reborn. Where is the selfness in that?” The phoenix shook her head then folded her wings over her side. “You are incapable of change, Xena of Amphipolis and I will not grant life to the Bringer of Death.”

“I am capable of change,” shot back the Conqueror. “And if you do not grant me life then you’ll be sealing thousands of souls to be imprisoned by a dark shaman. I am the only one that can stop her.”

“The high and mighty Conqueror demands a chance to correct something that she did wrong so long ago. You should have thought of that long before your death when you had so many chances.” The firebird’s eyes glowed a brighter red. “And I do not trust you to keep your word to stopping this shaman. Perhaps the mortal souls imprisoned by the shaman are better suited than the suffering they shall endure under your rein.” She spread out her right wing and pointed it straight ahead. “Return to your deemed punishment, Xena of Amphipolis.”

The Conqueror took a step forward then declared, “I will not.” Her blue eyes held those of the firebird’s burning pupils. “I am asking you to give me a chance to set all of this right.” She hesitated and glanced back at her friends but mostly her young brother. Lyceus had been the only one to believe in her, ever but when she gazed back the firebird, who was the link to rebirth; she knew there was another that believed in her too.

“What is her name?” asked the phoenix, as if reading the ruler’s thoughts.

The Conqueror’s clenched hands loosened at her side as she whispered, “Gabrielle.”

“The name of strength,” defined the phoenix, “such a fitting name for such a powerful woman.” She noted that the dead ruler wasn’t arguing with her. “She believes in you when others do not.”

“It didn’t start out that way.”

The firebird seemed amused as her laughing voice replied, “I can imagine.” She folded her wing back up then stretched out her long neck. “Is it her life you wish to destroy above the rest?”

The Conqueror sighed then truthfully replied, “At one point, yes I thought so but I can’t now… I don’t want to.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” admitted the former ruler, “but I do know that out of anybody she can help me change.”

“She cannot make you change,” reminded the firebird.

“No but she can help as long as I want to change.”

The phoenix hopped to the right then tilted her head. “Is there some reason you want to change?”

“It’s more of a somebody than a something… my brother.” The Conqueror sighed then softly admitted, “I thought when I conquered the known-world that I would have everything. I was wrong. As a child I owned nothing but I had everything but now I own everything and having nothing… nothing but debts.”

The phoenix chirped then straightened her head out. She thoughtful mulled over the ruler’s words then she blinked and explained, “I am phoenix… I give rebirth and change. The Tree of Life creates life, which you’ve already expired. I can give life again but only in the form of rebirth otherwise it fails and your soul will be lost. If you wish to return to the mortal life you must be reborn from the ashes of your old, dead self.” She waited a beat and stretched out her neck so that her face was closer to the Conqueror’s. “If you cannot do this then I suggest you turn back now. Are you willing to stake your soul to be reborn, Xena of Amphipolis?”

The Conqueror kept her chin up as she confidently answered, “Yes, I am.”

“Then so be it.” The phoenix waved her right wing at the souls behind the ruler. “You may have a moment with them before it is time.”

The Conqueror dipped her head then stepped back once and turned. She approached her friends and explained, “The phoenix will try to grant me life again.”

“Try?” questioned M’Lila. “What do you mean, try?”

The dead ruler exhaled audibly then explained, “The Tree of Life creates life and only once but the phoenix can give rebirth.”

“What’s the catch?” urged Borias.

“The catch is I have to be truly willing to change or else the rebirth will not work and my soul will be destroyed.”

“Don’t you think that’s a little risky, my liege?” argued Chuang.

The Conqueror folded her arms across her chest. “I’m better off trying… if I fail then at least my soul can’t go to Alti so either way she loses.”

“And so do I, sister,” cut in Lyceus.

The Conqueror lowered her arms and relaxed her posture then faced her young brother. “Ly, I have to try.” She grabbed up his hands into hers and held tightly. “You were right about what you said… when you… when you were dying. I did become lost.”

“It doesn’t matter now though,” whispered the brother. “We can spend the afterlife together.”

“Here in Tartarus?” argued the Conqueror. “I am in punishment and you’re in the meadows, Ly.” She lowered her head closer to his then whispered, “Besides that Alti may soon have my soul then where’s that leave us… any of us?”

Lyceus bit his lower lip before saying, “I can’t lose you, Xena.”

“You won’t, Ly… I promise.” The Conqueror revealed a soft smile only meant for her brother. “You always told me I could be a great warrior… for people, not against them. You remember?”

“I do,” murmured Lyceus, his eyes now burning. “You protected Amphipolis… mother and me from harm. Even Toris.”

“Then please let me try this, Ly. I don’t know if it’ll work but I have to try.”

Lyceus finally nodded then whispered, “You can do it, Xena.” He then quickly pulled his sister into a long, warm embrace and between the hug, he murmured, “I believe in you, Xena.”

The Conqueror pulled away from the hug then moved over to Borias and Chuang.

Chuang had his left arm free while her right was supporting Borias. He held out his arm then stated, “I don’t do hugs, my liege.”

The dead ruler huffed and took his forearm in a brisk shake. “I think I’ll pass anyway.” She flashed a grin but sincerely sated, “Thank you, Chuang.”

“For one last adventure it was worth it, my liege.” Chuang released the strong arm.

Borias put his weight on his good leg and released Chuang then tried to near the Conqueror. “Xeeena, I hope it’s a long time before I see you again.”

The Conqueror grunted then rested her hands on her hips. “Thank you, Borias… truly.”

Borias rolled his eyes however he limped forward and held out his arm. “Maybe in our next lives we’ll meet again.”

“With any bad luck, we will,” jested the ruler. She released his arm but leaned in and murmured, “By the way, you did have a place in my heart.” She slipped away without saying anything else and went to M’Lila last. “M’Lila… I….”

M’Lila stepped forward until her body pressed against her friend’s. She lifted her hands and pressed her palms against the ruler’s cheeks. “Xena, I will miss you but I am happy we have met again.”

“When we see each other again you can teach me Gaelic,” murmured the ruler.

M’Lila softly laughed and a few tears trickled down her cheeks. “We will do that,” she promised. “Thank you for all that you gave me in life. I made my sacrifice in life because I loved you… please never waste that again.”

“I will not,” promised the Conqueror.

M’Lila nodded then lowered her hands. She reached behind her neck and untied her prized Gaelic necklace she’d bore for most of her life and death. She picked up the ruler’s left hand and placed the necklace into her palm. “Wear this when you return to the mortal life… it will protect you.”

“M’Lila-”

“You will take it.” M’Lila closed the larger hand over the necklace. “Please.”

The Conqueror sadly nodded then she lowered her head some, her eyes closing.

M’Lila met her halfway and began the brief yet conveying kiss. When she pulled back she quickly gave into a hug and wished her friend the best.

The Conqueror clenched the necklace in her hand but with her freehand she held it out to her brother.

Lyceus understood and laced his through his sister’s. He walked with her back to the phoenix but they stopped in front of the bird. “You’re sure about this, Xena?”

“Positive,” answered the ruler. She squeezed his hand then gently swore, “I made you promise a long time ago… now I’m going to live up to it.”

Lyceus finally smiled and nodded his head. “I know, sis.” He then met his sister in a long hug. He closed his eyes tightly at the thought of not seeing his sister for so long again. “I love you, Xena.”

Xena tightened her embrace then emotionally whispered, “I love you too, Ly.” She kissed his temple. “Always.”

When Lyceus broke the embrace he saw that his sister was completely healed of all her wounds that’d been given to her as her punishment. He didn’t mention it as he knew Xena mostly likely sensed it.

Instead Xena turned to the firebird and nodded her head. “I’m ready.”

The phoenix squawked and opened her wings to the dead ruler. “Take my wings and do not let go.”

Lyceus stepped back to give them room.

Xena quickly tucked M’Lila’s necklace away in the small, hidden pouch of her leathers in the front. She then stretched out her hands and her fingertips went through the hovering flames over the wings. She carefully collapsed the wings.

The flames lapped at her hands and trailed up her wrists, over her forearms, and up towards her shoulders.

Xena closed her eyes as the burning fire swallowed her face and hastily went down her body. She’d been holding her breath but she suddenly had to breathe and when she did she inhaled the flames into her body. The phoenix’s cry suddenly echoed in her ears and her body was weightless then instantly it was all fire around her and in her. Xena let out a sharp cry that didn’t contain pain but it was a release of her former self.

“Conqueror, wake up… come on.”

The Conqueror rolled her head to the right and moaned. Her moan deepened into a low groan filled with pain that was coming from her lower left side at her back. She sharply inhaled and picked up the scent of balsam.

“That’s it… you’re safe,” ushered a familiar, warm voice.

The Conqueror dared to open her eyes but the lighting ached against her eyes. She waited for everything to adjust, which took several heartbeats and she enjoyed the cool compress dabbing against her forehead. When her eyes finally adjusted and focused on the fuzzy head above her, she realized there were concerned green eyes observing her.

“Welcome back,” whispered Gabrielle, who pulled the damp cloth off the ruler’s forehead and set it back in the water bowl on the nightstand. “How do you feel?”

The ruler tried her throat first by clearing it then she murmured, “Like I’ve been through Tartarus and back.”

The rebel faintly grinned but her face showed she was quite weary and she leaned heavily against her walking stick. “I’m sure you do.”

“How are you?” questioned the ruler.

Gabrielle was remotely surprised by the obvious concern the ruler showed for her. “I’m okay… now.”

The Conqueror blinked away some of the sleep then asked, “Your leg?”

Gabrielle was further shocked by the ruler’s keen memory about her injury from the battle. “It’s healing but still hurts.”

“Sit down,” ordered the ruler and she was glad Gabrielle listened. She then took a chance to try and sit up some in the soft, warm bed. “Where are….” She was somewhat up and glanced about the room.

“We’re in a guest hut,” answered the bard, who sat heavily in a wood chair by the bed. “You’ve been sleeping for three days now.” She lifted her walking stick into her lap then mentioned, “We thought we almost lost you there at one point.”

“What happened?” asked the ruler, who was working her fingers through her hair. She felt some dried blood in her mussed hair.

Gabrielle grabbed her walking stick. “I’ll tell you in a beat… let me get you some food. It’s been three days.” She stood up and very slowly limped to the front door.

The Conqueror carefully observed and she spotted the wrap around the rebel’s leg that was only slightly tainted red. She then stole a moment to reach into the tiny pocket of her leathers. When her fingertips went inside she felt the bronze charm there so she pulled it out and sadly smiled at it. She clenched her hand around it tightly then her head came up when she heard the bard conversing with a familiar Amazon.

“How is she?” questioned Ephiny.

The bard nodded. “Her memory seems strong.” She leaned heavily on her cane. “Can you get some food? She hasn’t eaten in three days.”

Ephiny nodded then murmured, “Neither of you. I’ll get enough for you both.” She turned her head to the right at another Amazon. “Solari?”

Solari had her mask off so her soft features showed along with her smile. “I’ll get it now.” She started off but heard the head guard calling a thank you.

“Go sit down, Gabrielle.” Ephiny touched the bard’s shoulder. “Solari won’t be long.”

“Thanks, Ephiny.” The bard gave a warm smile then closed the door and returned to her chair by the bed. When she sat she released a long winded breath and studied the worn ruler. “What do you remember last?”

The Conqueror had already tucked away M’Lila’s necklace and had worked her weak body up higher on the bed. Her bright blue eyes remained centered on the rebel leader. “The hemlock arrows, killing Darphus… Velasca… and you.”

Gabrielle’s head bobbed as she scooted back into the chair more.

“I should be dead right now,” declared the ruler.

“You almost were,” confirmed the bard. “After you… I guess passed out or whatever happened I started screaming for help.” She stopped and dipped her head as her memories of the battle from three days ago came back to her. “I kept yelling and….”

“Help! I need help!” Gabrielle’s tears rushed down her cheeks at the resounding silence coming back to her ears. “Gods please, help!!” She tried to get up, tried so hard but her legs were failing her more and her skin felt chilled. When she lifted her left hand, which had been holding the Conqueror’s frozen hand, she saw that her sliced hand’s blood had mixed with the Conqueror’s.

“Oh gods no,” murmured the rebel. Her skin was already cold from the hemlock seeping into her system from the mixing of bloods. She’d sensed the fuzziness of her thoughts much earlier yet now it was settling deeper. She stared down at the dead ruler and her emotions exploded again, which caused her to scream out, “Help!!” Her labored breathing was starting to slow and she felt very little sensation in her legs. “Somebody help us!”

“Gabrielle!” cried out a voice.

The bard’s tear stained face turned to her left and she yelled, “Eilis! Over here… I’m over here!” She was relieved to see the healer burst through the forest into the clearing.

Eilis sheathed her bloody sword while she ran to the swaying rebel, who sat beside a motionless and bloody ruler. “By the gods… I’m too late.” She was breathing hard but she knelt beside the bard. “What’s happened? Do you get hit by a hemlock arrow?” she hotly demanded and grabbed the bard’s shoulders to steady her.

“I… help… help the Conqueror,” murmured the rebel, “she… was hit… back.”

The Amazon healer glanced down at the ruler but saw the ruler’s chest wasn’t moving and blue eyes were beginning to gloss over. “I can’t do anything for her now, Gabrielle but I can for you.”

“No!” yelled the rebel. “Help her, Eilis. I can wait.” She grabbed the healer’s wrist then begged, “Please.”

The healer relented because the sooner she proved to Gabrielle that hope was gone for the ruler the sooner she could help the bard. She reached to her side and pulled out the antidote she’d mixed when Cyrene had repeated to her what Gabrielle had told her. She untied the leather pouch and it fanned open to reveal a thick, yellow tinted paste.

Gabrielle’s head rolled some but she steadied her weakening body by clinging to the ruler’s body as an anchor. She observed Eilis placing the paste into the ruler’s mouth.

Eilis then removed a skin from her other side as she wiggled behind the ruler. She lifted the Conqueror’s upper body some after uncorking the skin. She poured an oozy liquid into the ruler’s mouth, which washed the paste down into her throat. She then shook her head then declared, “It’s too late, Gabrielle.” She lowered the ruler back down.

“No,” growled the bard, “keep trying.”

Eilis ignored the command and came over to the rebel again. “Listen to me it’s her time to passover. Let her go, Gabrielle.” She picked up the leather pouch from the ground near the bard and ran her fingers through the paste. “Now let me help you.” She held the paste up towards the bard yet hesitated. “So help me or I’ll shove it into you.”

Gabrielle swallowed but nodded. She detected the mustard scent of the paste but she opened her mouth. The mustard taste exploded in her mouth and her faces instantly screwed up.

“Here, drink this quickly.”

The rebel brought her lips around the skin’s spout and helped the oozy, amber colored liquid move into her mouth by sucking it. The taste repulsed her and she almost spit it up but she forced it down with the mustard.

Eilis pulled the skin away when she thought enough of the castor oil was in the bard’s system. “Now lay down… you’ll be out of here soon.”

Gabrielle only nodded as she lowered her body against the lifeless ruler without really considering it. Her head rested on the Conqueror’s warm chest, similar to last time, but she started to pass out from the quiet yet steady heartbeat under her ear. It was the most beautiful rhythm Gabrielle thought she ever heard even if she thought she was hallucinating yet it was all that could comfort her.

“I was wondering what that bad taste in my mouth was,” complained the ruler. She caught the fain grin on the bard’s face.

“I don’t know how it happened,” whispered Gabrielle, her head shaking and her gaze distant. “You just started breathing again… or maybe you were and we just didn’t see it.” She focused on the ruler again. “Eilis doesn’t even understand.”

The Conqueror arched an eyebrow then teased, “Did you think I was really that easy to kill?”

Gabrielle grunted and stretched her legs some. “I should know better huh?”

“Mmmm.” The ruler lowered her eyebrow then quietly asked, “What of mother? Melpomene?”

“They’re all fine,” promised the bard, “even the queen is recovering.” She shook her head. “I didn’t see the rest of the battle but I heard that after Darphus was killed, his men started to fall apart. Then as the Amazons took the advantage a small cavalry from Tricca arrived and helped defeat Darphus’s men.”

The Conqueror’s interest peaked and she carefully asked, “Does the Tricca Cavalry know that I am here?”

Gabrielle read the ruler’s undertone and figured out that it was best to honestly answer. “No, we didn’t think it was safe.”

“Good.” The ruler didn’t add anything else as a knock came at the door.

“Come in,” offered Gabrielle. She started to get up but the entering Amazon told her to sit down again. She decided not to argue as she was just too worn out to do that right now.

Solari set a tray of food down on the table then picked up a bowl of soup in either hand and handed one to Gabrielle and the other to the ruler. She then picked up the spoons and gave those too. She grabbed the table that was slightly behind the bard and dragged it closer to the bard to make things easier. “There’s some fruit there too, Gabrielle. There’s hot water in the skin to make tea when you’re ready.” She straightened up after getting everything in order then further informed, “Eilis will be in later to check on you.”

“Have you seen Cyrene lately?” questioned the rebel.

“That last I heard,” started Solari, “she went to your guest hut. Would you like me to check on her?”

“No but thank you, Solari.” Gabrielle gave a tired smile. “Tell Ephiny thank you too.”

“I will,” promised the Amazon then she quietly left the pair.

“What’s next? Somebody is going to feed me?” jested the ruler.

Gabrielle had her head down because she was stirring her soup. She paused and peered up then a slow grin shaped her soft lips. “The Amazons are grateful.” She lifted her bowl up then spooned up some of the soup but before she ate it she mentioned, “You saved a lot of lives that day.”

The Conqueror said nothing and silently ate her meal. The warm soup felt great and warmed her insides completely. She enjoyed the flavor of lamb mixed with vegetables and she could already feel her strength returning. After she ate half the soup, she paused and asked, “How many Amazons died?”

Gabrielle frowned while staring into her bowl but she answered, “A hundred and twenty-seven.”

“A little less than half the Nation,” calculated the ruler.

The bard only nodded but then her gaze met the ruler’s. “It would have been worse… a lot worse. If you hadn’t stopped Darphus and Velasca… they would have succeeded.”

“I knew I disliked that Amazon for a reason,” muttered the agitated ruler. “There’s always one psycho path in every state that thinks they can do better.”

Gabrielle grunted as Alti’s name came to mind but she said nothing.

“So what happens now?” inquired the ruler.

The bard stirred her soup again but before she ate anymore she replied, “We finished the trial in a couple of days.” She swallowed but was relieved to see the ruler’s agreement. “Today the Nation is mourning their loses then tomorrow the queen returns to power.”

The Conqueror considered this however she didn’t voice her thoughts. She finished off her soup then Gabrielle took her bowl from her. Just as she decided that maybe she’d tried to move out of bed there was a rap at the door.

“Come in,” commanded the bard.

The healer, Eilis, strolled in and shook her head at the sitting up patient in the bed. “I know you were not going to move out of bed, Conqueror.”

Gabrielle realized indeed that the Conqueror had been caught in midmotion of getting out of bed. She quietly chuckled then limped once over to her chair and sat down. “Eilis, I am verbally relentless and she’s physically relentless.”

“Such a charming pair of patience to have too,” remarked the healer. She sighed and came to the other side of the bed. “How do you feel?”

The Conqueror knew the question fell onto her so she nodded. “Better.”

Eilis huffed at the simple answer. “Your back?”

“I’ve had worse,” quipped the ruler.

Eilis rolled her eyes then ordered, “Turn over to your left side.” When the ruler compiled she started probing the sewn wound where the leathers had been cut away for easier inspection. “It seems to be healing but I suggest you get out of these leathers.” The healer decided that was a good idea. “Do you think you can get up and move around?”

“I believe so,” answered the ruler. Her body was only partially covered by the pulled back bedsheets. She used her arms to move about as she swung her legs off the bed. She finally stood up and straightened out her back where a small pop sound came from.

Eilis tilted her head in question at the sound.

The Conqueror shrugged.

The healer sighed then pointed at the washroom. “Take your leathers off and I’ll be in there in a heartbeat to clean your wound.”

The ruler’s agreement showed since she went to the washroom, which was a slow journey from all her aching joints, muscles, and general weakness.

Eilis went to the sitting bard and knelt down beside her. “What does she remember?”

“Everything,” answered the bard, “She doesn’t seem to have forgotten anything.”

“Excellent,” murmured the healer. “How is your leg today?”

“It’s getting there.” Gabrielle released a sigh then nodded her head.

Eilis touched the bard’s flushed cheek then lowered her hand. “You need to rest soon. Have you stayed in here the past three days?” At the bard’s faint nod she let out an annoyed breath. “Why do I bother to ask?” She shook her head then straightened up and went into the washroom.

Gabrielle chuckled but leaned back into the chair. Her aching eyes drifted shut but she listened to the healer caring for the ruler in the washroom. She even smelled the renewed scent of balsam in the air. She opened her eyes when the ruler padded out of the washroom with a white nightshift on now. She smiled at Eilis scowling features and she bit back her laugh.

The Conqueror got onto the bed again but sat on it instead of lying down.

“I advise you stay here for the rest of the day,” suggested the healer, “until tomorrow but what do I know?” She started for the door then stopped and glanced back at the rebel. “I’ll check on your leg later.”

“Thank you, Eilis.” Gabrielle gave a weary smile then watched the healer leave the hut. She then returned her attention to the ruler.

“What time is it?” questioned the ruler.

“Just a candlemark before Helios high,” reported the bard.

The Conqueror pulled her legs in as she sat cross legged in the bed.

Gabrielle blinked as she never expected to see the Conqueror in such a mortal looking state of being. She’d always viewed the ruler as much higher despite she knew the truth that the ruler was of peasant stock. It was a fascinating scene for the bard. “Your guards have been reduced to just Ephiny, Solari, and Callisto. You’re allowed to move about the village and this is your hut until the end of your stay.” All she heard was the Conqueror’s breathing then finally the Conqueror spoke.

“What of the trial?”

Gabrielle tilted her head then replied, “Most likely you’ll be pardoned of your charges but they still want to go through the motions of the trial.” She twisted in her chair and started to get the cups with tea leaves.

The Conqueror though was faster as she came around the bed and brushed the bard’s hands away. “I’ve got it… just relax.” She picked up the warm water skin and after uncorking it, she poured the steaming water into the wood mugs. “What of the Tricca Cavalry?”

“Princess Terreis told me they returned back to Tricca but the princess and the….” Gabrielle couldn’t find the right title that was on the tip of her tongue.

“Ilarchès,” supplied the ruler.

“That’s it,” agreed the bard, “well he and the princess argued about what to do with the prisoners from the battle.”

“What happened?” The Conqueror handed the rebel her cup of tea.

Gabrielle gladly received it and her hands cupped around the warm mug. “Princess Terreis relinquished and let him take them back to Tricca. She was too concerned about stepping on toes just after getting help from the realm.”

“Smart leader,” murmured the ruler as she sat on the bed again but this time she sat on the side facing the rebel. She propped her bare feet up on the bed’s frame along the side. “When did you sleep last?”

Gabrielle shrugged and peered down into her mug as if it was more interesting. “I’ve nodded off here and there.”

“You’ve been here the entire time,” summarized the ruler.

Gabrielle could tell it wasn’t a question but a statement of fact and she nodded anyway. “I just wanted to be here when you woke up, Conqueror.” She still wouldn’t look at the dark ruler.

“Xena,” supplied the ruler, “I already told you.”

Gabrielle finally lifted her head and saw that the ruler was very serious. “I’m sorry… I just thought… you were… I….” Her words jumbled up but she stopped when she saw the faint, teasing grin on the ruler’s face. It made Gabrielle quietly laugh yet she shook her head and murmured, “I just thought since you were drugged then that….”

“That I didn’t mean it?” finished the ruler. At Gabrielle’s nod she let a low exhale but she stole a beat of silence as she drank her tea. She lowered it to her lap again then mentioned, “I meant it.”

“So….” Gabrielle bit her lower lip then urged herself to ask it aloud. “So we’re friends?”

The Conqueror observed how nervous the rebel leader was by this and she was inwardly surprised but as she reflected on it she too was nervous to answer. She steadied herself as she honestly replied, “We are if you’re comfortable with that?”

Gabrielle had a thin smile at the ruler’s consideration so she nodded her head. “I’d like that.” For the first time, Gabrielle witnessed a small yet precious smile grace the ruler’s usually dark features. It warmed Gabrielle more than the tea and soup were doing and she felt a sense of peace settle over her. Now she truly felt exhausted from the endless seasons of weight on her shoulders that finally mounted to this, to an unexpected but welcomed friendship with her former enemy.

“You should rest soon, Gabrielle,” suggested the ruler, who discerned the bard’s high level of fatigue.

“For once,” started the bard, “I completely agree with you.” She then was shaken by the deep laugh coming from the ruler, which passed into her and Gabrielle softly laughed along side her new friend.

Chapter 21 – Sibling Rivalry

Janice Covington slowly opened her eyes and focused on the peaceful, slumbering features of her new lover. She worked her hand free and gently touched the southerner’s cheek.

Melinda reacted by turning her head and she kissed Janice’s palm. She then laced her hand through Janice’s. “Mornin’.”

“Hi,” whispered the smiling archeologist. “How’d you sleep?”

“Pretty well,” answered Melinda. “How ’bout you?”

Janice squeezed the linguist’s hand. “Still tired.”

Melinda chuckled then closed her eyes. “We need to get moving… I can’t pick up your sleeping in habit.”

The archeologist rolled her eyes but retorted, “And you say that like it’s a bad thing.”

Melinda smirked then opened her eyes. “Ya said it, Janice.” She chuckled at the fake offended look she received. “Come on, we need to get ready.”

“What’s the agenda today?” Janice untangled her body from Melinda’s and slowly worked her way out of the comfortable bed.

The southerner picked up the silk robe that rested on a chair nearby. “I need to practice with the squads this morning. Then I want you to check on Salmoneus for me.”

Janice wore nothing as she came up to her lover.

Melinda didn’t bother to close her robe yet and Janice took that to her advantage. Melinda grinned when the small warm body pressed against hers then small hands slipped under her robe and went to her back. “Janice?”

“Hmmm?” The archeologist kept an innocent demeanor and she placed a feathery kiss to her lover’s chest. “Yes, Mel?”

“We don’t have time,” reminded the southerner.

Janice noticed there was little to no insistence in her lover’s voice. Her tiny frame shook with a silent laugh. Her head dropped back and her glowing green eyes met Melinda’s. “Are you sure?”

Melinda arched an eyebrow the archeologist’s sexual appetite, which she’d unleashed. “Let’s take a bath.” Her suggestion was met by the archeologist taking her hand and leading them across the bedchambers.

“What is the point of a bath if we’re going to be training shortly?” considered Janice aloud.

Melinda entered the large bathroom that had a tub. “This ain’t exactly about getting clean, Janice,” huskily whispered the southerner into a delicate ear under her lips.

Janice shivered and dropped her head back to see her lover’s passionate face. It’s a good thing these walls are several inches thick, mentally joked the archeologist, because otherwise the entire city would know what happened last night… and this morning.

By mid morning Janice Covington came off the last step from the main entrance of the fortress. She now donned a new long jacket that Melinda had gotten for her to keep her warmer against the cooling weather. The jacket was a combination of white wool and light brown leather that just stopped above her ankles and the leather collar was short. It certainly felt warmer than her Amazon cloak.

Janice glanced down at Hu to check on him then she continued her walk ahead but off to the left some. She observed her friend already warming up one squad for the morning but she needed to collect her men. She hurried across the fortress grounds and went to the small barrack that was attached to the large wall. Just as she made it there Biton was coming out with three other men.

“Good morning, dekarchos,” greeted Biton.

The four soldiers simultaneously clapped their fists over their chests.

“Where is everybody?” questioned the archeologist.

“I roused them, ma’am,” answered Biton, “They will join us at the field.”

Janice nodded then ordered them to go; she wasn’t too keen on being late in front of her friend. When she arrived she saw that Melinda was lecturing the dekarchos and his squad about better form. Janice carefully listened to it as she knew she could use some form tips too. She was by no means a master of the sword but she knew she had a knack for it and it would only take proper training.

The Conqueror dismissed the squad then turned her sights on Janice and her thin squad. “You are missing a soldier, dekarchos.”

Janice did a snappy head count and she realized she was only missing one person. She focused back on her lover and realized this would not go over well. “He’s being delayed, my liege. I apologize for his lack of punctuality.”

“I don’t want apologies,” snapped the ruler, who spun her sword. “They have expectations and responsibilities to fulfill as do you, dekarchos. One of those responsibilities is making sure your entire file is here and timely.”

“It will not be repeated, my liege,” offered Janice.

The Conqueror pointed her sword at the archeologist. “Let me show you some of my other expectations. Come here.”

Janice inwardly sighed as her good morning was instantly deflated. She waved at Hu so he knew to remain still. She then stepped into the sparring field while reaching behind and unsheathing her sword.

The Conqueror grinned and stretched out her sword, she tapped the blade against Janice’s. “There are certain fighting skills I expect of every dekarchos.” She quickly lunged at her opponent.

Janice was surprised but she recovered hastily and blocked the rapid attacks.

“A solid defense is one of them,” growled the ruler.

The archeologist gritted her teeth when her blade met the ruler’s. She then whispered, “I take it a solid offense goes along with that.” She surprisingly dropped and swiped her sword.

The Conqueror amusingly laughed while she jumping up into the air. She then leaped higher into the air and performed several back flips until she was many paces away from Janice. She gave a loud battle cry then landed on her feet. She grabbed her chakram from her side and aimed it. “And expect anything!” She shot the chakram off.

Janice knew what that weapon could do and it almost froze her. “Act, Janice,” she said under her breath and she twirled her sword then saw the chakram nearing her. Janice gave a decent battle cry and her sword shot up through the center of the chakram. She spun the circular weapon on her blade then manipulated it to her advantage and threw it back at her opponent.

The Conqueror grinned at the beautiful display then her hand plucked the returning chakram from midair and she swiftly came at her opponent. She hooked the chakram back just as her sword came at her opponent.

Janice parried the blow and threw in a missing kick.

The Conqueror returned the kick and knocked Janice’s sword from her hand.

The archeologist was weaponless and her right hand ached from the kick. She shook it off though and took one step back but she didn’t show any fear. She’d been in enough fist fights in her time and especially ones where she was at the disadvantage. Her eyes slightly widened when the sword came swiping at her head so she ducked away. She popped back up and tried to think of a way to even her odds.

The Conqueror knew that Janice was calculating so she tried to figure out what the compact woman was planning. She didn’t leave much room for scheming as she surged forward with her sword.

Janice duck over and around the swiping blade. She then hastily spun around her opponent.

The Conqueror flipped her sword around and tried to stab her opponent behind her body.

Janice had moved in time with her back against the ruler’s. Her nimble hands shot out and caught the blade to her left. She smashed her knee into the ruler’s hand and broke the sword free.

The ruler snarled as she reached behind and snared small shoulders.

Janice cried out when her feet were taken off the ground and she was thrown overhead. She just landed on her feet but her back was to the ruler. Her sixth sense picked up on the next attack and her eyes widened while she dropped just as a fist breezed over her head. She tried to make a dodge for the Conqueror’s sword.

The Conqueror knew it as she stepped between the sword and Janice.

The archeologist stepped back and lifted her fists.

The ruler was snide as she raised her open hands. “Come on, shortie.” She knew the jest would fuel the archeologist’s easy temper.

Janice did react as she threw a wild punch.

The Conqueror caught the punch in her right hand, her fingers curling over the much smaller fist.

Janice used her free fist with a hurling punch targeted the ruler’s face.

The Conqueror easily caught that too. Then she leaned down and whispered, “I also expect you to know your weaknesses.” Without warning, she disappeared in a blur and took Janice’s leg out from under her.

The archeologist groaned when her head hit the hard ground. She opened her eyes and her blurry vision focused on the looming form of the ruler.

“Get up,” ordered the ruler.

Janice did just that after one last breather. She got to her feet and bowed her head at her lover.

The Conqueror nodded then dismissed her.

Janice collected her sword first then ordered her stunned men to begin training with the ruler. She rubbed the back of her head for a moment, which was a reminder to her that she’d have a nice chitchat with this late soldier when she figure out who it was.

The training of Janice’s squad went quickly then the Conqueror gave them a lecture on better defense as she noticed most of the men were lacking there. She dismissed them to carry out their duties for the day and she took on the next awaiting squad.

Janice, with her squad, marched to the barrack to collect the tenth man that was missing.

Biton got the jump on his superior by rushing into the barrack to retrieve the foolish soldier.

Janice ordered her men to stay then she entered the barrack. She heard Biton’s yelling voice so she followed his voice to the back of the barrack where the sleeping cots were stationed.

“Hurry up, fool,” barked Biton. “You cost the dekarchos heavily this morning.”

The soldier grumbled and picked up his helmet from his small trunk of belongings next to his pallet.

The archeologist had her sword at her side as she stepped up to Biton. She looked the soldier up and down then realized he wasn’t a regular in her squad. “Who are you?”

“He’s a transfer, dekarchos,” explained Biton.

Janice’s steel features shifted from Biton to the new soldier in her squad. “I was not informed.”

“It was last heartbeat,” answered the unknown soldier, “the tetrarchès transferred me last night, ma’am.” The solider put on his helmet that thoroughly covered his face.

Janice grumbled then stepped into the tall man’s space. She pressed her face closer into his because she knew that intimidation was often half the battle to winning. “What’s your name?”

“Toris,” curtly replied the soldier.

“Toris,” drew out Janice, “the next time you’re late you’ll be mucking rotting carcasses out of the damn dungeons for a moon. You will be on time for now on. Is that clear?”

“Crystal, dekarchos.”

Janice studied the sharp, cold blue eyes above her. “Good,” growled the agitated archeologist. She turned on her heels then marched out of the barrack.

“Let’s go,” ordered Biton in a cutting tone.

Toris rolled his eyes behind Biton’s back but followed the pair. He fell into step with his new squad.

Janice led her file out of the fortress and into the city. Her sour mood slightly calmed now that she was outside and enjoying the beautiful autumn weather that ancient Greece was providing. Her first stop would be Salmoneus she decided so she could work some her annoyance out on him. Just the thought of it made her grin.

Salmoneus straightened up when he saw a squad of the Conqueror’s soldier marching through the market. He sighed when a fair haired blond materialized at the front of the squad and he pleasantly smiled when his little friend was upon him.

Janice quickly indicated she was in no mood by her angry expression.

Salmoneus stayed chipper looking as he cheerfully greeted, “Ooo goooood morning, female dekarchos.”

“I’m not in the mood,” snapped Janice. She grabbed onto the edge of the man’s stall. “Selling anything interesting today, Salmoneus?”

The merchant hesitantly laughed then held up his index finger. “Now wait, I’m a reforming type of man.”

“I bet,” chided the archeologist. “Any information for me?”

The merchant fumbled a bit with some of his merchandise behind his stall. “Nothing yet.”

Janice’s eyes slotted and she partially turned and prepared to wave her men over.

“Wait,” recoiled Salmoneus, “I was being honest.”

“I find that hard to believe,” drew out Janice. She faced him again after signaling her squad to stay put in the street. “The Conqueror authorized me to use any means to make sure you kept up your part of the deal, Sal.”

“Salmoneus,” corrected the merchant.

“Whatever,” waved off Janice, “Now listen, if you have anything to tell me do it now. Or else my squad will be happy to shake it out of me.”

“Alright, alright,” gave in the merchant. “It’s not solid but I heard from a fellow merchant that there was this guy asking around about you.”

“What?” hissed the archeologist.

“Don’t kill the messenger boy,” defended Salmoneus. He leaned over his stall and quietly added, “He was asking about where you came from… if you’re related to Gabrielle, that rebel leader.” He pulled back then mentioned, “You actually do look a lot like her but I think she’s taller than you.”

Janice’s right hand shot out and she yanked the man over the stall by his collar. “I’m really not in the mood for short jokes, Sal.”

Salmoneus waved his hands at his little friend then squeaked out, “Well honestly the shortness becomes you because people can easily see your beautiful green eyes.” He smiled brightly hoping that would save him. “Especially the fire in those green eyes,” he said under his breath.

Janice just wanted to sock the man but knew that wouldn’t help her. She tossed the man back then hotly demanded, “Who was this man?”

The merchant straightened out his mock Chin robe and replied, “Nobody knows because he was wearing a hood. Does that surprise you?”

The gruff archeologist grumbled, “No.” She then sighed yet ordered, “Keep hunting around for more information. Or else.”

“Or else…?”

Janice was half a step away but she turned back and completed her threat. “Or else the Conqueror will be out here to question you herself.” She tilted her head. “And she is in a fouler mood than me today.”

Salmoneus swallowed then showed all his teeth in a smile. “I’ll work diligently on the mystery man.”

The archeologist nodded then moved away and signaled her squad to follow her. She continued the sweep of the city that was a normal routine of their duties.

Salmoneus sighed in absolutely relief when the squad marched past him without any other incident. He kept watching them from behind his stall however something struck him odd about one of the soldiers. He also realized that the particular soldier glanced back at him but quickly turned away. Salmoneus shrugged it off then called out to some passing customers.

At Helios high Janice ordered everybody to take their usual candlemark break. She separated from her men and only Hu followed her. She decided to see if she could catch up with Perdicus so she went to the market where she’d agreed, with Perdicus last night, to meet up. When she arrived there it wasn’t long before she found the faction guard.

“How goes things?” questioned Janice. She stepped up to a stand whose merchant was selling food.

Perdicus stood beside her and decided he too would get something to eat. “We’re not having much luck either. We can’t seem to find out much about this guy.”

Janice sighed then offered her small amount of information. “It seems Salmoneus heard that somebody is asking around about me. He thinks it’s the same guy that bought the ring from him.”

“Salmoneus? That merchant right?”

“Yes,” answered Janice. She turned to the food merchant and ordered some food then paid the man. She stepped aside and let Perdicus order too.

“We haven’t even heard that,” stated Perdicus.

The archeologist sighed at the lack of luck they were having today. She plucked a skewer of meat from her small wood plate. She held it down to Hu so he could nimble on the meat. “How’s the faction now?”

The guard paid the merchant then came to Janice’s side. “Better.” He glanced around their surroundings then said, “Let’s go down by the coast. I need some sea air I think.”

Janice readily agreed and headed down the streets of Corinth. She nibbled on a skew of meat that she’d purchased while listening to Perdicus talk. She finally saw the beach that traveled along the coast of the Aegean Sea and despite the wind child she really enjoyed it. By the time they made it, she’d eaten her skewers clean except for one, which she pulled each piece off and tossed to Hu.

“So what’s his name?” Perdicus indicated the tiger.

“Hu,” supplied the archeologist.

Perdicus nodded and he debated whether to ask more but decided against it. He found several large rocks buried in the beach so he sat on one while Janice took the one next to him. “Have you heard from Gabrielle?”

The archeologist sighed and stretched her legs out. She placed her right hand on Hu’s head and trailed her fingertips through his thick coat. “Melinda keeps in contact with her.” She chewed the inside of her mouth while she stared out over the choppy waters. “There’s a small problem.” She turned her head to young man. “Other than just this ring and mystery guy… there’s a warlord uprising and he marched to the Amazon Nation.”

“By the gods,” murmured the faction guard.

Janice dipped her head then quietly mentioned, “Melinda sent the Tricca Cavalry to help then a legion out of Thebes is suppose to go up and secure things.”

“Will the cavalry make it in time?”

“We’re not sure,” confessed Janice, “but we’re hoping so.”

Perdicus dropped his head and shook it. “Everything has gone so wrong… ever since Gabrielle spoke out against the Conqueror.” He lifted his head. “It seemed to trigger all these events.”

“Maybe,” murmured the thoughtful archeologist, “but everything happens for a reason.” She sadly smiled at the faction guard. “Whether you like them or not.”

Perdicus huffed yet he moved his head in agreement. “Nothing seems to be going right.”

“You gotta be flexible, Perdicus.” Janice shrugged then considered her troubles since she first arrived here. “If things always worked out the way we planned it then life wouldn’t be worth living.”

Perdicus enjoyed the humorous attempt as he did laugh quietly. “You’re nothing like Gabrielle yet I see the similarities here and there.” He smiled when sparkling green eyes centered on him. “I guess I am flexible because Gabrielle and I never married.” He saw that Janice went still and was waiting for more. “We were betrothed as kids to be married, her father really liked me… so did her mom and sister.” He shrugged. “Gabrielle’s parents and mine… they all got along.”

“What about Gabrielle?” questioned the archeologist.

Perdicus sighed then studied the sea instead of Janice’s inquisitive features. “When we were young Gabrielle and I were very close, not that we’re not now but it’s different.” He went silent for a little bit then went back to talking. “After the Conqueror ordered his second in command, Draco, to attack Potidaea and enslave the women Gabrielle escaped and left. I didn’t know she lived,” admitted Perdicus. He licked his wind chapped lips. “Potidaea recovered but a few years later the Conqueror ordered every village and city she’d conquered to conscript fifty percent of their male youth. I happened to be one of the chosen from Potidaea and I was trained by Macedonia’s finest foot soldiers and joined her army twelve moons later for the Peloponnese Campaign.”

“What happened after that?” urged Janice.

“After that?” Perdicus sighed while shaking his head. “After that everything changed for me and Gabrielle. I survived my twenty seasons in the army then I was allowed to leave so I did. I was in Corinth and decided to stay here since I was pretty familiar with the area. I actually met Gabrielle by accident… in the market here. I heard her voice while she was in a heated barter with a merchant.”

Janice laughed at this image.

Perdicus grinned from his old memory but he lost it. “Gabrielle was just starting her faction while the Conqueror was settling into Corinth as her capitol. I helped her get things organized along the lines of security for the faction members.” He shrugged then his tone picked up remorse. “Gabrielle had changed so much… and so had I. I realized she was obsessed with the Conqueror… with the idea of defeating her. It seems to be the only drive in her life.”

Janice Covington could understand that type of drive as her archeology for most her life was all she had and all she wanted.

“Gabrielle is much more distant than what she was like as a kid. I guess I’m not much the same either.” Perdicus shrugged then mentioned, “We discussed getting married but we realized it just wouldn’t work. She knew she didn’t have any room for me or any spouse in her life because all her time and energy was consumed by her plots against the Conqueror.”

“I wonder what she would do if the Conqueror was gone?” murmured the archeologist. What would I do if I couldn’t be an archeologist internally questioned Janice.

Perdicus’s lips twitched as he thought about Janice’s question. “I’ve wondered the same thing too. What meaning will her life have once she defeats the Conqueror?”

“I suppose time will tell.” Janice had no answers either.

Hu twisted his head to the right, which caused Janice’s petting to stop. He then stood up on all fours.

Janice followed the tiger’s gaze and saw that one of her squad soldiers approaching them. She couldn’t make out who it was but she didn’t like the fact they were coming and that she was here with Perdicus. She had to play this off. She climbed to her feet.

“Ho, dekarchos,” called the soldier then his face took on shape as he neared.

The archeologist eyed the squad soldier suspiciously. “What is it, Toris? Is there a problem?” She knew that the break wasn’t over just yet so it was odd he was looking for her.

“I’ve heard word from the Conqueror, ma’am… she’s requesting your presence.” Toris shifted his attention to Perdicus and studied him for a beat then turned back to his superior. “She wanted to see you immediately.”

Janice nodded however her stomach pitched because something just felt very off. She signaled Hu to her side yet she looked at Perdicus. “I will see you later.”

Perdicus dip his head in agreement but he decided it was safer to say nothing in front of the soldier. He simply started up the beach towards the soldier and when he came along side the soldier, he realized the soldier was smirking at him.

Toris rested his left hand on his leather hip while his right hand was loosely on his sword hilt. “I know who you are,” he seethed, “faction scum!” He unsheathed his sword.

The faction guard wasn’t prepared as he was suddenly yanked into a choke hold and a sword across his throat. He growled when his back brushed against the soldier’s leather chest. “You bastard,” he growled.

“Toris, release him,” ordered the dekarchos, who stepped a few paces forward. She didn’t make any moves for her sword or her gun but it was very tempting.

“No,” snarled the soldier, “I think it would be more fun to inform the Conqueror of your deceit.”

Janice held her breath because she was treading dangerous ground as she couldn’t expose Melinda’s identity. “You don’t want to do this, Toris.”

Perdicus yelped when the blade over his throat nicked his skin.

“I’ve been following you since Helios high,” spoke the soldier, “and I know you’re a traitor… traitor to everybody.”

Janice’s eyes narrowed at his last words. “Toris if you do anything to him or even me, you’re going to be playing a very dangerous game.”

“I have a better game in mind,” suggested Toris. His free left hand came up to his neck and he tugged out a hidden necklace from under his leather chest. He let the trinket at the end of the necklace dangle in the air. “You tell me what this ring does and I’ll free your little friend here.”

Janice’s back straightened out when she took in the view of the Cronos Ring, which suddenly glowed green at sensing her.

Toris noted it too and he narrowed his eyes at the archeologist. “Tell me what in Hades this thing does or he dies!”

“Don’t, Janice,” ordered Perdicus but he hissed when the blade dug deeper.

Hu growled suddenly and his tail continued to flicker in the air. His teeth were showing and his fur standing up on his back.

Janice felt much the same way as she debated what to do but she had no options.

“Time’s over,” growled Toris.

“Wait,” begged the archeologist. “I’ll tell you.”

Toris slightly pulled the blade away from Perdicus’s neck.

Perdicus clenched his teeth and his left hand snaked down to his side.

Janice breathed heavily then carefully said, “That power of that ring allows you to-”

“No!” yelled Perdicus as he ripped a dagger free from his side and tried for his enemy.

Toris jumped away just as the dagger almost hit his stomach but he recovered and growled loudly. He still had his blade near Perdicus’s neck so he slashed it up.

“No!” yelled Janice and she went for her sword.

Perdicus dropped his dagger and his hands instantly went to his sliced neck. His eyes were wide then he stumbled to his knees in the sand.

Toris lifted his head when he saw that Janice was charging him. He then spotted the fierce tiger moving faster than Janice for him. He lifted his sword and prepared for the battle but he was determined to win and it showed in his wild sapphire eyes.

Back in the fortress, the Conqueror just slipped into her office after talking to Commander Meleager about Darphus and the dispatchers that were sent out. She was still in her leathers, armor, and her weapons attached. She’d considered changing but decided she couldn’t be bothered since she had too much work to do. Just as she got settled at her desk there was a knock so she peered up and called the person to enter.

Lao Ma swept into the office and bowed her head at the ruler. “Good morning, Melinda.”

The southerner softened at her friend. “Sit down, Ma.”

“I cannot stay long but I wanted to stop in quickly.”

Melinda got up from her seat and approached the Chin ruler because she could tell something wasn’t right. “What is wrong, Ma?”

Lao Ma’s face was twisted by a variety of emotions. “This morning I detected the power of the Cronos Stone but I could not locate it exactly.”

“The Cronos Stone is safely locked up in my bedchambers,” reminded the ruler.

“Yes,” agreed Lao Ma, “however this was different. It was a small quantity of power but it was from the stone.” She slipped her hands into her robe’s sleeves. “I apologize I could not properly detect it, Melinda.”

The linguist offered an assuring smile. “Its okay, Ma… Janice has been working on it.”

“She will succeed,” declared the Chin ruler. “I must go as I plan to go to the market to shop.”

“Do you want to wait for Janice? She and her squad can take you.”

Lao Ma smiled at the prospect. “She is busy but thank you. My guards are highly sufficient.”

Melinda agreed and escorted her friend out of the office with a goodbye. She then decided to sit down at her desk and start her scroll work finally. When her finger wrapped around the quill in the ink pot there was another knock at her door. She sighed and hotly ordered, “Enter!”

A sentry marched into the office a few paces, stopped, clapped his shoulder over his chest, and stated, “I apologize, my liege but there is a merchant at the main entrance urgently requesting to see you. He says his name is… Salmoneus.”

The Conqueror lost her annoyance and she quickly ordered, “Bring him up here.” She watched the soldier excuse himself so she tried to do a few things before the merchant came up here but she was too curious about what information he may have for her. The expected knock came a couple of minutes later and she allowed them to enter.

Salmoneus rushed past the two guards that’d escorted him and he hurried up to the ruler. “My empress, there’s a….” He stopped and breathed heavily.

The Conqueror got up because it was obvious to her that the man how been running between the sweat on his forehead and his ragged breathing. Not that she imagined Salmoneus was a fast runner. “What’s happened?”

The merchant’s shoulders slumped. “You have to swear not to kill me if I tell you, my liege. I had nothing to do with this.”

“Salmoneus, I will if you don’t tell me,” threatened the ruler.

Salmoneus hesitated but then stepped back when the ruler came around the desk. “I found out who the mystery guy is… well not exactly because I don’t know his name.”

“Then what do you know?”

Salmoneus readied himself for this so he lifted his hands defensively. “He’s one of your fortress soldiers.” He braced himself but no outburst was forthcoming from the ruler. “One of my fellow merchants figured it out… he’s been going around asking about your female dekarchos.” He stopped when he saw the Conqueror was growing darker by the heartbeat. He quickly rattled on faster, “I tried to find your dekarchos to warn her but I could find her.”

The Conqueror realized that Janice and her squad would be returning from their Helios high break. She suddenly grabbed the merchant and growled, “Are you sure?”

“Y-y-yes, proud empress. H-h-he is a sentry because he was carrying your marked sword.”

“Damn,” hissed the ruler and she suddenly released the merchant. She hastily headed for the open doors of her office and she ordered the two sentries to follow her.

Salmoneus craned his neck as he ambled out into the long hallway. He called out to the Conqueror, “Does this complete our deal?” He got no response so he cursed and decided to follow after the ruler.

The Conqueror came to the ground level of the fortress and she headed for the door to the courtroom. “I want one of you to find me the tetrarchès. Now!”

A sentry took the order and he took off at a run down the hallway to take the side exit of the fortress that would take him to the barrack faster.

The Conqueror broke into a jog and she approached the door to the courtroom. She threw open the door and hurried down the few steps to the ground level of the empty court. Then something made her stop with the soldier at her side; she detected a loud commotion and shouting voices on the other side of the main entrance doors.

The entrance doors were thrown open and the sunlight streamed in through the door and covered two molded bodies.

The Conqueror squinted and her hands fisted at her sides when the two forms stepped up closer.

Janice let out a low snarl when the dagger nicked her throat again. “You fucking bastard.”

The Conqueror sensed the sentry next to her going for his sword but she waved him off. Then there were the guards pouring into the courtroom behind Janice and her captor but she ordered them to stay back. “Are you okay, Janice?”

The archeologist faintly nodded her answer but she hissed when the blade cut her.

“You’re suppose to answer our liege when she asks you a question,” snapped Toris. “You have to do what she orders you.” He dug the dagger up more.

Janice closed her eyes then answered, “I’m okay, my liege.”

The Conqueror was flexing her hands in and out of fists as her mind quickly worked out a solution to the problem. “Who are you?” she demanded to the soldier. She scanned over Janice’s body and saw her face was badly scraped up, her right hand bloody, and there was blood trickling down from her left leg just below her jacket. The jacket itself was torn, dirty, and stained with a lot of blood.

“I’m an old face, my liege.” The soldier forced Janice to take a few steps closer but his kept his face shielded behind Janice and the helmet hid him well.

“What do you want?” demanded the ruler.

Toris chuckled darkly then whispered to his superior, “Go on, dekarchos tell her what I want.”

Janice steadied her breathing. “He has… it. He wants to know what it does, my liege.”

The Conqueror instantly knew what Janice was referring to and her eyes narrowed at the hidden soldier. “You’re a fool if you think I’m going to tell you what it does.”

“I’m a betting man though,” challenged Toris, “and I bet you will if I stake your dekarchos’s life on it.” He stole a quick look at the sentries that were around him to make sure they hadn’t moved. He was rather confident but he wasn’t stupid either.

The Conqueror touched her chakram at her side when he was distracted.

“I wouldn’t,” warned Toris, “throwing that thing might be bad for her health. I’ve heard it’s already sliced her arm once.”

Janice’s upper lip twitched at his remark.

“Now, would you like to make this trade, my liege? Your dekarchos’s life for the riddle to this ring.”

The Conqueror kept her eyes centered on the enemy however something behind the pair captured her attention. She just needed a few extra heartbeats to get her opening. “How do I know you won’t kill her after I tell you?”

Toris laughed then answered, “You’ll just have to take my word for it, my liege. I am honorable… I’m sure you still recall those days you were too.”

The Conqueror’s anger mounted another notch but she slowly nodded. “Alright… I’ll tell you what the ring does.”

Janice closed her eyes and wanted to scream. How could she let this happen? Everything is so wrong yelled Janice’s mind, I fucked up and now Perdicus and Hu are both dead because of me. Her dark eyes opened and locked on her friend.

The Conqueror read Janice’s eyes and she wished more than anything they could trade thoughts. She inhaled then slowly said, “That ring will give you… immortality so long as you wear it.”

Toris shook his head then started to laugh. He quickly dug the dagger’s tip into Janice’s throat. “I don’t think so. Last chance before I give her a new breathing hole.”

Janice’s eyes screwed shut when the dagger’s tip pierced her skin.

The ruler swallowed. She started to speak as her fingertips crept lower to her chakram. “The ring will… get you killed!” she yelled and ripped her chakram from her side.

Toris expected this attempt but he couldn’t react fast enough when there was a furious roar from behind his back. He suddenly cried out in pain when teeth and claws sunk into his back.

The chakram slammed into the dagger’s blade and broke it at the shaft then ricocheted off.

Janice quickly broke away when the blade was gone from her neck. She turned and stumbled back but she was amazed to see Hu on top of Toris.

The Conqueror started for the archeologist.

Toris’s screamed filled the court then threw the wounded and weak tiger off him.

Hu hissed in pain as his bloody body hit the cold marble floor and he skidded away. He tried to get up but he was weakened far too much from his wound and traveling so far to stop this man.

Toris grabbed another dagger from his side while he was getting up. He saw the other soldiers preparing to charge him but he threw his dagger at Janice.

The Conqueror quickly moved after the flying dagger.

Janice yelled as she lifted her hands as if she would catch it herself. Then her rapid breathing held still when the dagger stopped in midair and the tip was a foot from her nose.

Everybody stopped moving at once as they stared in astonishment of the dagger’s hovering in front of Janice. Then the dagger flipped over and raced back towards Toris.

Toris couldn’t react in time and the dagger plunged into his right shoulder. He wailed in pain and fell to his knees. He reached for his sword but he abruptly was lifted into the air and was sent flying across the courtroom. He was slammed into the hard marble wall; his sword fell and clanked onto the floor then he moaned as he went unconscious.

The Conqueror’s heavy breathing settled down then she scanned the courtroom. There in the side door stood Lao Ma with her hands lifted.

Lao Ma glided across the court and came to the ruler’s side.

The Conqueror came to Janice’s side and slipped an arm around her waist. “Are you okay?”

Janice only nodded and held onto the ruler for support.

Lao Ma tilted her head to the side and she pointed her index finger then spun it.

Toris swiftly was spun too and now hovered upside down. His helmet fell off and hit the floor with a thud. Next his unseen necklace dangled over his face and the ring started to glow.

Janice though moved away from the ruler and limped over to Hu. She knelt down beside him and saw that he was still breathing. “Goddamn it.” She looked down at his head and saw his glossy fire eyes watching her. “I’m so sorry, boy.”

Hu moved his head and licked the bloody hand that was near his face.

The Conqueror was staring at the upside down soldier and her eyebrows drew together. She stepped up to Janice and touched her shoulder lightly then the familiar features of the soldier struck her. “By the gods…”

“What is it?” urged Janice, her head dropping back.

“That’s Toris,” murmured the ruler.

The archeologist shook her head then also stared at the unconscious man that tried to kill her.

“Toris is… my brother,” whispered the stricken Conqueror.

 

Continued in Chapter 22

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