by Brigit M. Morgan


PART 2 - Tighter Wind the Giant Coils

CHAPTER IV. "Clouds, dews and dangers come."

The sun rose above the Seven Hills of Rome, peering over them like the bloodshot eye of some insane god. Far off buildings were twisted by the terrible light, encrimsoned---as though crudely fashioned from flesh, blood and bone.

The sparse dew, collected during the restless night, was almost immediately seared into steam by the angry gaze of Helios. Fleeting, it rose in a coral hued vapor, hanging briefly above the city, then gone, like the final impressions of a dream---remaining only as an aching memory---a lingering, elusive sadness felt throughout the day.

"Look at it, Octavia," Nero said. "It's bleeding."


He gestured with a fey twitch of his arm, indicating the red horizon. "The city, Rome, it's bleeding."

The tall bodyguard nodded. "Ah," she added.

From one of the long, lavish balconies at the Imperial palace, the Emperor looked over the entire city. Stretching out below the Palatine, Rome lay like spilled teeth strewn to the banks of the Tiberus.

"My Uncle Caligula had a saying," Nero said. "'Anything that bleeds is only one step from a feast platter.'"

He turned to his long-suffering bodyguard raising his eyebrow, perhaps looking for her comprehension of the recondite wisdom. She ran her hand across her stubbly pate. To her credit, in her years as the head of the German Guard, Octavia had mastered enough ambiguous facial gestures and grunts to abide countless such conversations with the troubled Emperor. Here she employed a subtle variation of both techniques, which seemed to placate Nero. Nodding his head at her, he turned to view the city once again.

"It's on the spit right now---burning, stewing," he said. "Soon it will lay between my lips, Octavia---and I will only have to bite down." He had closed his eyes, biting down again and again to emphasize the point to himself---his teeth clacking menacingly.

From within the quarters behind them, a minor commotion had begun. Octavia turned slightly and could see that several Praetorians had arrived. They were granted access and approached, striding confidently across the marble, sun gleaming upon their white robes. The lead man, a capable officer named Marcus Tavius held a sealed scroll. He looked slightly perturbed, more so when he regarded the Emperor. Suppressing a grin, the bodyguard nodded at the three men.

"Urgent news for the Emperor," Tavius said, bowing. "There have been some…brutal crimes..."

Octavia took the scroll from the increasingly nervous man's hands, whose gaze continued to dart towards Nero's back---all of the soldiers did the same. The woman surmised that it probably wasn't widely known that the Emperor refused to wear clothes of any kind until after the midday meal.

"Caesar," she said. "Urgent news."

Nero whirled around absently and meandered towards the soldiers and his bodyguard.

"What's this?" he asked happily. "A present? And so early in the day."

He opened the scroll, holding it oddly close to his face, and read with little stabbing darts of his blue eyes. Biting his lip, he whispered inaudibly. The Praetorians rocked slightly in the hard leather of their sandals, averting their eyes. Octavia monitored the Emperor's face, divining the scrolls' news from the augury of his twitches and utterances.

"Hmm…this is not good," the emperor murmured. "Not good at all."

Tavius stepped forward. "A full investigation into the murder of Senator Serentus has been launched, your majesty."

Nero absently scratched himself, moving towards the soldier. "Yes, yes, and what of the other murders? The merchants slaughtered at their table?"


"Who is investigating that?"

"Well your highness, we had assumed the crimes were unconnected."

"Yet they appear together here," Nero shook the scroll, "and they are both quite brutal, it looks to me as though they are connected in many ways. A Senator should receive no greater treatment than the average citizen, yes?"

"Yes, but…"

"Never mind that those merchants were to invest heavily in my play…" Nero sighed disappointedly.

"We'll expand the breadth of our investigation…"

"Investigation? Romans don't demand investigations," Nero said, raising his voice. "They demand Justice."

He quickly controlled himself, stepping uncomfortably close to the soldier. There was a sheen of sweat above his freshly shorn upper-lip. His eyes maintained a cloud of troubled menace, like a still lake with a wreck lying at its bottom.

"Be a good dog and round up the usual suspects, Tavius," he ordered. "It's been some time since we've had a mass crucifixion."

The soldier gulped as inconspicuously as possible, and looked at Octavia. She nodded slightly.

Tavius bowed to Nero. "It will be done, Caesar."

"Good, good," Nero smiled warmly and waved the soldiers away. He turned again, regarding the uncharacteristically fast-departing soldiers. "Oh Tavius," he called.

The men stopped dead in their tracks.

"Send the other two ahead with the orders and please wait for a moment." Nero then turned towards Octavia, pointing at the scroll. "This wasn't our idea was it?"

"Uhm…no, Caesar. It wasn't."

"Very well. Look into it, would you?" he said, winking conspiratorially at her. "Can't be too careful."


Nero smiled up into the blinding calcimine of the new morning sun. The increasing heat poured down upon him like a river of invisible flame. His lips parted slightly as he drew a deep breath of sweet morning air into his lungs.

"And Octavia?"


"Do dispose of the messenger, uhm…what's-his-name," Nero gestured absently towards Tavius standing in the shade of the Imperial quarters. "In keeping with tradition, of course," he finished, shrugging in tired resignation.


Gabrielle shot her best warrior's scowl at yet another merchant who, like those before him, wisely backed off. Mira grinned at her friend as they strolled further along the bustling forum.

"I thought you liked to shop," she remarked.

"Not today."

Okay, the girl thought, so it's her 'stoic warrior' bit

The two women had left Virgil behind to nurse a hangover, and decided to further explore the markets of the city. They had been beset upon by scores of desperate merchants, practically coming to blows for their attention.

Mira looked to Gabrielle and noted the same pained expression on the warrior's face as the day before. There was also an unkempt look about her that led Mira to believe that the woman probably hadn't slept much during the night.

"You know, my Grandma used to say that it helps to talk about it," Mira said.

"Did she?"


Gabrielle sighed. "It's nothing, Mira. Really. Just bad dreams."

She walked on, but soon noticed that Mira hadn't moved. The girl stared at her with a raised eyebrow and an expectant look. "And?" she asked.

Sighing again, Gabrielle stepped towards the girl and grabbed her by the tunic. "Hey!" Mira exclaimed.

The warrior dragged her into an alley. "Look," Gabrielle said. "I don't know what it is about this place, but whenever I'm here I have the same dream. Night after night, the same dream."

"That must be terrible. Nightmares every night…"

"It's not a nightmare," Gabrielle turned quickly away.

Mira stepped towards the warrior. "Hey…"

Gabrielle wheeled around, a determined look on her face. "This time, the dream is more vivid, more powerful," she explained. "And different somehow…"

"What's the dream about?"

"It's a memory, really…"


The warrior turned her attention to the market, to the rest of the city sprawled around them.

"Look Mira, I don't know what it is, but something's not right around here."

"You feel it too?" Mira asked. "Like a…bad feeling?"

Gabrielle nodded, pondering.

"What do you think it could be?" Mira asked. "Like, witches? Or what about the Dream Queen? Not again. I hate that b…"

"I don't know who or what it is," Gabrielle interrupted. "But I'm going to find out."

"You're going to find out? What happened to we're going to find out?"

The warrior put her hand on Mira's shoulder. "Listen, I'm going to look into this, see what I can find out. You go off on your own and have a good time. Meet me back at Virgil's for dinner."


"Mira, please! Just do it."


The girl left, hiding clenched fists at her sides. So much for trusting me, she thought.

Gabrielle's voice came from behind her. "And Mira?"

The girl stopped, not turning around.

"Stay out of trouble."

Mira's shoulders sank, and she disappeared into the street and the crowds beyond.

Gabrielle took time to think, leaning against the walls of the alley. If there was something supernatural going on, the drought was probably being caused by it---and it was all possibly connected to Nero in some way---if the rumors were to be believed.

But why did the dream feel so different?

The warrior rubbed her eyes. Up half the night, hiding in alleys---it was always the same. How many times had they run down these streets, through these dirty laneways, across the rooftops and treetops of this city? Always on the run, always running from something or someone. She sighed.

Sparrows chattered on the eaves above her head, tiny feet tapping, scratching against worn clay---straw and string hanging absently from their beaks. Gabrielle could make out the organic chaos of a nest, draped overhead. One of the birds rose into the air, leaving the constriction of the close, cramped alley---breaking into the light and the open sky above.

The warrior lost sight of the tiny sparrow but imagined its path over the nearby forum---past the food stalls, the jewelry carts---the burlap-covered booths with their pots and pans hanging like bats from wooden pegs. Past red-robed Phoenicians---mustaches smudged, ink-black under regal hooked noses---selling their spices and silks and hard packed parcels of tea.

The little speck might drift over the stables where Argo had been hidden so long ago. Past the stable owner with his wide grin, hard skinned hands---his hay flavored with dried clover and orange blossom. Perhaps banking west and landing in the street before the small sweet shop where they had once stopped---even though lives had depended on the persistence of their movement and the steadfast focus of their hearts. The warrior's fingers had flaked the sticky pastry, passing it so easily, so comfortably between Gabrielle's lips. The bard had sighed at the sensation of sweet honey, the familiar smell and taste of those fingers in her mouth---the ecstasy, exhilaration of so intimate an intrusion.

As they left, Gabrielle had brushed the crumbs onto the pebbles of the street---robins falling red like autumn leaves from building tops, skipping and scooping morsels into their sharp little beaks. She had turned to smile up at the warrior, meeting those blue eyes for but a second before the hood of a cloak obscured them---before they joined the sweating and anonymous throng of the forum, the grit of the afternoon.

Leaving the street, did the tiny sparrow light upon the windowsill of the tavern room where they had agreed to meet? Where Gabrielle had chewed her nails---listened to shouts in indecipherable tongues, to drunken boasts and the full, throaty cries of old whores---her skin lit by the distant and indifferent face of the waning moon. Where later the warrior had entered silently, slipping out of her armor and naked between the sheets---obscure and pale in the dark morning light like a ghost or a half-remembered dream---gently descending against the bard's warm skin and damp pillow. Their love was coarse, desperate---the love of heretics, bandits, of hunted things---clutching, devouring. Their outbursts, epithets needing to say so much, saying so little---lost in the hollow plaster and cheap wood of the room, the straw and coarse burlap of the musty pallet, the uncertainty of the Roman morning. The warrior had wept in her sleep as she always did, pressed against the naked warmth of the bard who lightly and absently stroked her raven hair as if this were just another morning, another city.

Straw fell from above Gabrielle's head, floating gently to the oily, packed earth of the alley. The warrior smiled up at the busy nest maker. Looking at her briefly with its intense little eye, the sparrow returned to the task at hand.

"Point taken," Gabrielle said, half-smiling.

There didn't seem to be any logical place to start. She just couldn't walk up to Nero and start asking questions---well, she could---it just wasn't practical. Yet, she smiled to herself. All she had to go on was a slightly suspicious drought, and an uneasy feeling. And the dream, she thought. Not much less than she usually had to work with.

Outside the lane, the denizens of the market moved purposefully, kicking up clouds of dust. The din of their spirited bargaining was held at bay in the sharp sliver of the alley's mouth. Gabrielle tensed suddenly, an almost-forgotten, always unwelcome feeling washing over her body.

"Ares," she said.

"You're getting good." The God of War stepped out from the shadows near the end of the passage. "Maybe it is in your blood, after all."

It had taken Gabrielle some time to 'feel' when a god was near. Or rather, to recognize the physiological affects of a god's presence. Each one had slightly different influences on the body.

Ares' presence usually caused her skin to tingle uncomfortably, as though it were being caressed with the blade of a dull knife. Muscles tensed slightly, and a strange taste spilled onto her tongue.

"Gabby!" He stood before her with his characteristically arrogant grin. "Long time no see, huh?"

"I cried every night," the warrior said dryly.

"Yeah well, you blew your big chance," he remarked, grinning mischievously. "Just like your friend always did."

"If you came here to bring up the one thing in the last twelve years that I don't regret," Gabrielle said, stepping towards the God. "Then you're wasting your time."

"That's not why I've come. No," he said, turning his back on her. "I'm here to tell you to get the hell out of Rome."

Gabrielle crossed her arms. "Oh?"

"I've got big plans for this place, and I don't need some washed-up ex-sidekick hanging around and getting in the way."

"Plans, huh?" Gabrielle said. "What sort of plans?"

"Ah, ah, ah." He wagged a finger at her. "It's a surprise. One that'll shake this place up for good."

The warrior raised an unimpressed eyebrow at Ares. At least this is all starting to make sense, she thought. "What have you got up your sleeve, Ares?"

"Not what---who. There's a little lady named Nemesis in town," the God smiled.

"The Assassin of the Gods?"

"Yup, and She's a bitch. So if I were you, I'd make myself scarce."

Gabrielle smirked. "You'll have to excuse me if I choose to ignore any free advice you're willing to give."

"Suit yourself," the God spat, stepping toward her. "I just hope you still have what it takes when things start to heat up," he stopped, his face just above Gabrielle's, "because it's going to get a lot hotter around here before I'm done…"

With that, he vanished, leaving Gabrielle alone in the alley with the taste of blood in her mouth, and the sadness it always inspired.


"Hey! Watch it kid!"

The man was hot, sweaty and quick to anger, although more likely to be overly demonstrative of his irritation than to act out anything approaching rage or violence. Mira had been counting on this to create the diversion she needed when she had clumsily bumped into him. Paying more attention to his growing indignation than his own person, he wasn't able to feel the silver bracelet leaving his wrist---or to see it disappearing fluidly into Mira's tunic.

"Whoops, sorry!" she apologized with a clumsy smile and darted off into the crowd.

She laughed a little, feeling the added weight of several pieces of jewelry and a coin purse hidden in the secret pockets within her green tunic. Not a bad haul, she thought to herself.

Holding her head high, Mira strutted through the market toward a nearby side street. Getting ditched by 'Grumpielle' was turning out to be fun after all. The girl scowled slightly.

A little communication---is that too much to ask for?

Mira wandered through the side streets, through some alleys and into a busier avenue filled with two-story shops. She patted the various items hidden within her clothes. She needed to find a place to unload some of this stuff, before she went back to Virgil's.

The street was partially cut off from the raging sun, a dark slant of shade falling from the rooftops to the walkways across the road. Mira strolled happily along, watching the people pass. Her mirth seemed slightly out of place, so she adjusted her look---while remaining bright on the inside. No use in wasting a good mood, she thought, even around these sourpusses

It dawned on her that she was heading towards the area of the city where that kid said he and his dad were working. She marveled at what a strange coincidence it was to be headed this way. Mira's grandma had always told her to heed coincidence---so it was probably a good idea to check up on things. Just to be safe, she thought. She moved on towards the forum where the shop might be located.

Quickly Mira noticed that things were amiss in the square. A large crowd was gathered, and voices were cast in a worried murmur. She approached slowly, making sure to remain inconspicuous and seamlessly woven into the mob.

Several horse-drawn carts and military chariots had stopped in the street. A large squad of soldiers battle-ready with spears and shields stood nearby. Mira listened in on the various murmurings in the sweaty crowd. An arrest, perhaps? No one seemed to be sure.

Suddenly, a group of shackled men and women began to stagger through the door of a shop. Armored and robed soldiers also left the building, pushing them forward and loading them onto the carts. The crowd began to roil and rumble, angry shouts thrown towards the captives.

"Godless freaks! Good riddance!"

Stray pieces of fruit and other refuse were hurled spiritedly toward the line. One of the white-robed Praetorians stepped forward, unrolling an official-looking scroll. The sun shone dazzlingly off of its pale surface and the drape of his robes. He raised his arm for silence, and the crowd calmed quickly.

"By Imperial warrant," the soldier began. "The men and women of this barbaric cult are placed under arrest for the brutal murders of the Senator Gaius Servius Serentus, his two servants, twenty members of the Adriatic Merchant League, and thirty-five of their guests and servants. Secondary crimes of destruction of property, wielding weapons, and violation of curfew are included in the charges. Justice will be swift and final."

The crowd roared in horrified disbelief. Mira furrowed her brow. Sounds pretty serious, she thought. Maybe that kid would know what was going on. She scanned the clammy, incredulous faces in the crowd hoping to find his. She drew in her breath sharply.

Near the end of the line of prisoners she saw him, shackled like the rest. He seemed surprisingly calm, with a small defiant turn to his lips. Suddenly a commotion erupted from within the shop---shouts, cries, the clash of metal and wood. A beautiful woman emerged from inside the shop and ran towards the boy, shouting at the soldiers.

"Let him go!" she yelled. "He's not one of us! Let him go!"

Though shackled, the woman expertly swept the feet from beneath a Praetorian close to the boy. Other soldiers ran towards her---surrounding her, spears brandished. She remained in front of the boy, shielding him with her body.

"Let him go!"

A robed officer gave an order and the soldiers moved in unison, sweeping the woman off her feet and subduing her with blows from the butts of their spears. Cheers erupted from the mob. They loaded her slumped body onto the cart with the rest of the prisoners, including the boy. The procession soon left, kicking up a large trail of dust as it headed northeast towards the outskirts of the city.

Mira slowly eased away from the dispersing crowd. She had to get back, and quickly. Moving swiftly, though not too swiftly, she made her way towards the Aventine hill, and Virgil's. The kid was in trouble and she felt a strange obligation to help him, but it was more than that now.

It was the woman as well---she had recognized the woman who had protected the boy. Mira had gone with Gabrielle to visit her in Gaul a year earlier. She and the warrior were like family.

Her name was Eve.


CHAPTER V. Chaos is a Friend of Mine

Reflecting the mid-morning sun, the sword burned brightly in Her hands---a blinding nimbus, whirled effortlessly about Her. Breathtaking to hold and to control, the blade handled as if alive, as if an extension of Her body. Lost in the gyre of combat drills it became hard to discern where She ended and the sword began---if it was She who wielded it, or if the opposite were true.

Shifting to a sudden stop, She looked at the sword as it rested in Her hand like a leopard on a branch.

Clean, unmarked, immaculate---words did not fully describe the quality of metal, the precision of edge, the perfection of its design. There was a purity to the sword, beyond the metallurgical, that one felt when gazing upon its surface. Forged from fire by divine hands---life blown into it, hammered into it from the lips, the arms, shoulders, chest of a god. It sang in the air, a single note---one pure tone like a nymph, a siren, or an angel.

Its only adornments were the exquisitely hewn laurels wound up its shaft. A deceptive decoration: the designs were the source of the blade's power. The vines were hollow---veins containing the liquid metal azoth, which flowing freely, adjusted the sword's weight to its wielder's actions, increasing its deadly power. Light on the back swing, heavy when striking, the sword could cleave through limbs, wood, even metal without difficulty. It was from this property that it derived its name---Meridian, the dividing line.

Her Master had revealed its hiding place of centuries to Her, in flirtatious whispers---as he wiped the caul of birth from the ink of Her hair. Traveling through swamp and forest, descending into the bowels of the earth, She had rescued Meridian from its rocky prison. One of Her earliest memories was holding it in Her hands, and how right it all felt to Her---pulsing with inner light, with that purity, in the darkness of Gaia's womb. She held it that way now, feeling the blade shift with the beat of Her heart.

The grass tickled Her bare feet, the breeze Her bare skin---She prepared to continue. She had been drilling since first light. Her sleep had been a restless one, so She had left the comforts of the bathhouse to practice the only thing She understood, the only thing that seemed right. A tingling of Her skin, a taste in Her mouth told of the presence of Her Master.

"You are something else," Ares said, smiling in admiration. "You know that?"

Laying Meridian at his feet, She bowed.

"Thank you, Master."

"I bring you out to the coast for some R and R, and look at you," he said. "Amazing."

She beamed slightly, not raising Her head.

"You can stand, you know," Ares smiled, offering his hand to Her.

She took it and rose up before him. He captured the other hand, gently parting Her arms, and gave Her an admiring look. She looked upon him impassively.

"Do you always train in the nude," he asked, raising an eyebrow. "Or is this for my benefit alone?"

"I practice only for your benefit," She replied.

"Is that so?"

"Yes, Master."

"Gotta admit," Ares said, caressing Her fingers in his hand. "I love when you call me that."

The God of War grinned, and raised Her hand to his lips. He stared into Her eyes, his body closing the space between them. She continued to stare at him without emotion, obediently. He observed Her for a long moment, then sighing he let go of Her arms.

"I have another task for you," he said.

"It shall be done, Master."

"Oh I know it will." He leaned in to whisper in Her ear.

After he disappeared, She kneeled claiming Meridian from the brown grass. Above Her head seabirds seemed to choke on the foul humidity draped about the coastline---calling out in surprise at the absence of the fast moving ocean winds. She stood, looking out across the calm water.

Flat as a smooth stone or a pane of glass, the Tyrrhenum's blue resonated from its depths---pure, cerulean---like Her own gaze or the blade in Her shaking hand. With the taste of blood on Her lips and a burning in Her eyes, She marched toward the shade of the bathhouse, naked skin aglow with the terrible light of the climbing sun, and the pallid shimmer of the sword in Her grasp.


"The Emperor has never made secret his…disillusionment with the Senate, but this…"

An impassioned roar filled the rather poignant and intentional space left at the end of Senator Darius' long-winded speech. The eruption of voices slammed heavily against the high ceiling of the large hall. Nero could see the faces of the old men, swelling and puffing into amaranthine baubles, like wine-soaked pastries, or plump, ripe grapes.

The Emperor giggled at this---picturing himself plucking and picking their still nattering crania and rolling them one at a time out the open double doors of the senate hall. Purple heads bouncing and tumbling down the steps, rolling across the forum. Tripping and upsetting aged and bloated Senator's wives out for a stroll---bronzed Carthaginian slave-boys, soft and fey as cream fed leopards, trailing behind. Wide-eyed, stuttering heads flipping up over the lips of fountains like amative frogs in the moonlight---splashing into the water and piss, gurgling and bubbling just under the dusty surface, grinding coins between their rounded teeth.

Nero placed a hand in front of his face. He should attend more of these things. Biting down, he broke the skin to keep from laughing out loud.

Senator Orinthius raised his voice above the rest: "My good Darius, I am a simple man from Hispania," he said. "And, as such, am sadly immune to the subtly-crafted implications of a Roman-born orator. Would you care to elaborate on just what crime it is you are accusing the Emperor of?"

Nero raised an eyebrow towards Darius, hoping for a witty and imaginative rebuttal. The corpulent senator waved his hand.

"My dissatisfaction lies not with the throne---although I still object to the blatant waste of public funds on the fruitless excavations being conducted in the Apennines. But that is beside the point," the senator was obviously choosing his words carefully here. "I just can't believe this ragtag rabble of barbarians were responsible for the Senator's murder---and I won't."

The Emperor noticed that the fat man had trouble sitting down. Nero surmised Darius' nocturnal predilections had begun to catch up with him. His slaves inconspicuously and continuously brought him a small, bronze urn, which he continuously and inconspicuously seemed to fill with whatever issue it was that had become visible as blood flecked dribbles on the loin of his generous toga. Nero shook his head---he had to stay focused, this debate was getting good.

Cries sang out from the gallery. "Then who?" and "Who has done this?"

"Why not this cult?" Orinthius said. "They have been causing trouble throughout the Empire since the time of Julius Caesar. Their leaders are descendents of various troublemakers and enemies of the Empire. Their entire belief system renounces the Pantheon of Gods in favor of one solitary deity."

The senator chuckled at the apparent absurdity of this last point---others joined in. As he laughed, the infected welt on his neck, inflicted by his overzealous use of a razor began to suppurate. The tiny speck of fluid occasionally glittered as it caught the light. The Emperor found it hard to remove his gaze from it.

"I'll tell you why not," Senator Gallus said, arrogantly. "The praetorians' preliminary findings indicate the precision attack of a lone, highly-trained assassin---not a group of godless thugs."

Nero shifted slightly on his throne. He watched the vein in Gallus' neck pulse in time with the beating of his useless heart---counting, taking inventory, collecting the seconds, minutes, hours left in his young life. Nero ground his jaws, hoping to dull the ache of his unrequited wish to have the skin of the senator's neck between them.

"This killer had the weapons, the skill, and the means to stride in and assassinate---without leaving a trace other than butchered corpses and buckets of blood."

Much of the crowd seemed to concur with this hypothesis---buoyed on by the young Senator's bravado as much as the facts. Nero felt as though he were looking upon a room of young boys who had decided to rebel against their teachers. He suppressed his laughter.

"Oh come now," Orinthius said. "And we're to believe that this single, solitary killer also killed a room full of grown men in the prime of their life? Bear in mind, my dear Gallus, the report is preliminary, and as such should be read with some discretion. It also proposes that the killer of Senator Serentus is the perpetrator of the massacre of the members of the merchant's league as well. A fact I refuse to embrace without more evidence."

The yelling died down somewhat, crumbling into scoffing murmurs. Nero looked out towards the light of midday pouring in through the large entrance to the hall. This was becoming quite boring, quite quickly. He got up and descended from his raised throne. Silence spread quickly through the chamber.

"Oh my little birds," he said. "My twittering, tweeting, buzzering little birds. The murderers and enemies of the state have been captured, and they will be executed by my order, in two days." He stopped in front of Gallus. "And that alone should satisfy you all."

Quiet mumbles of discontent, limped through the hall. Nero casually raised an arm.

"The issue is closed," he said. "Now, if you'll excuse me."

The Emperor broke into a run, quickly leaving the Senate chambers behind for the bright and unforgiving Roman noon.


"Come on little guy," Gabrielle whispered to an especially wilted leaf of lettuce. "You can make it."

She poured a stream from a copper amphora into the cracked earth. Greedily absorbing the water, the soil quickly began to dry in the midday heat. The warrior had never seen plants punished in this way.

Hoping to discuss their next move in light of her encounter with Ares, Gabrielle had returned to an empty house. While looking for Virgil or Mira, she had happened upon the drought-punished plant life before her.

She took a leaf in her slender fingers. Brittle beneath her caress, she worried over the brown and parched plant as a mother might the hand of a sick child. Gabrielle found that, even under the circumstances, kneeling in the ordered rows granted her a sense of peace---if only to placate the desire to control something, anything around her.

She had always enjoyed working in the fields---not enough to devote a lifetime to it, but enough to appreciate the quiet dignity and satisfaction it imparted. There was no denying that she was a farmer's daughter, although the warrior couldn't remember the last time she had tended a garden, or worked in a field. Her father's fields---Poteidaia---seemed a lifetime away.

That Poteidaia was. The girl she was---the girl who burst across the grass at the edge of that sleepy little town, tramping clover and baby's breath, running into the flowing rows of wheat and barley just to bring father the lunch mother had wrapped in the old handkerchief father sometimes wore around his neck but mother hated so much---Gabrielle recognized that girl as someone completely separate from herself. There was no way back---too many divergent paths, so much blocking the way, not enough threads---not enough thread, period.

She smiled her empathetic smile down at the suffering plant. Tipping the amphora once more, she gave the plant a little extra water. Flies buzzed lazily, loudly twirling about her head. Occasionally, lighting upon her as she worked, their feeble bites barely drew blood.

"Drink up, boys."

Gabrielle sighed to herself as she pulled herself with a feline weariness into the shade of an orange tree. She adjusted her light robe, covering the skin of her shoulders. Gardens were just one more thing that went and died on you, that dried up and turned to dust---that disappeared.

Behind her, Mira entered the house excitedly with Virgil. Unaware, Gabrielle sat quietly with her eyes closed. Eventually, her two friends emerged onto the terrace, calling out to her. When they approached, Gabrielle immediately knew something was wrong. She stood up.

"What is it?"

Mira stepped forward, unconsciously reaching out to touch the warrior's arm. "The Romans, they've got Eve."

Gabrielle cocked her head as though she hadn't heard correctly. "What?"

"Your friend that we visited in Gaul…Eve? The Romans arrested her and a bunch of other people."

"The Cult of Eli," Gabrielle added. "Where did they take them?"

"I don't know. They threw 'em into a bunch of wagons and headed northeast," Mira was panting. "The main guy said that it was an Imperial order, or something---and that Eve and the others were responsible for some murders over the last couple of days."

Gabrielle ran a hand through her hair. She looked to Virgil.

"Probably took them to the Praetorian camp at the edge of town," he said. "Only problem is, they wouldn't be kept there for long. They'd be processed and moved to a prison of some sort…"

"We've got other problems too," the warrior said.

"Like what?" Virgil asked.


The poet rubbed his unshaven chin, just as his father had sometimes done when nervously pondering.

"You saw him? What did he say?"

"You know…that I should get out of town…that he's got some big master plan…that there's going to be fire and death and destruction…the usual." Gabrielle's voice trailed off. She had omitted the part about Nemesis on purpose, though couldn't say why. She turned to Mira, putting her hand on the girl's shoulder. "You did good."

"Thanks, but what are we gonna do about all of this? I mean, Eve didn't do it, right?"

"Of course not."


Virgil turned to the warrior. "I can speak to some friends of mine---powerful friends," he said. "We might be able to get to the bottom of this, or at least get more information."

"I don't think we can wait that long, Virgil," Gabrielle replied. "Romans never wait for their executions. We need to find out where they're being held---and fast."

"Great," Mira exclaimed excitedly. "When do we leave?"

"We don't," Gabrielle stated. "I leave at sunset."

Mira straightened. "Okay, that's it," she said, stepping up to the warrior. "I can't believe you're keeping me out of this again."

Gabrielle sighed. "Mira, don't do this. Not now."

"No? I guess we could just wait until things are less dangerous…oh wait! They never are!" Mira turned her back on her friend. "We've been in a lot worse, you know…"

"Not like this."

"Oh, whatever!" Mira spun around angrily, her arms swinging wildly. Something silver flew from her tunic, landing with a tinkle upon the tiles of the terrace. Rolling her eyes, she groaned a long curse heavenward.

Gabrielle knelt, lifting the shiny trinket from the ground---eyes moving from the stolen bracelet to Mira in a slow and steadily smoldering arc.

"What do we have here?"

"Just say what you're going to say and get it over with."

"What's the point, Mira? It's pretty clear you won't listen anyway."

"Not when you keep treating me like a kid, no."

"Then stop acting like one!" Gabrielle snarled. "You have a problem with something---talk about it. Don't run off doing stupid things hoping to get caught."

"You're really one to talk…"


Mira stepped closer. In for a dinar… "The whole time we've been here, you've insisted on beating yourself up for things that are ancient history---but instead of talking about it and dealing with it, you just walk around doing that stoic-warrior-with-a-dark-past thing you do."

Gabrielle's eyes burned with anger, her voice was a serrated whisper. "You don't know what you're talking about."

Virgil shifted uncomfortably, trying to get between the two women. "Guys…let's not…"

"Maybe I don't," Mira said to the warrior, gulping. "From what I do know, you've faced Tartarus these last twelve years and managed to walk away with your soul intact." She put her hands on her hips. "But anyone can see that your life can't continue until you let go of all that regret you keep carrying around. Xena wouldn't have wanted you to…"

Mira didn't even hear the slap coming, let alone see it. Her eyes filled with stars as she felt an incredibly sharp pain throughout her face, her neck snapping harshly to the side. Looking at the warrior with a pained expression, Mira's vision blurred with both intended and unintended tears.

Gabrielle's eyes were colored by shock---as though she had been a witness rather than a participant of the act. She reached out to the girl, stammering:


Mira timidly shoved the warrior's hand aside and ran towards the house and the city beyond.

"Mira, wait! Wait!"

Virgil ran after her, leaving Gabrielle alone on the terrace. The warrior knew he wouldn't be able to stop her, that she would be gone.

Gabrielle stepped absently back toward the garden. The horse flies continued to hum in the still air of the afternoon---scuffling loudly along the weather beaten marble walkway. She sat down quietly among the thirsty plants; there was no point in wasting her tears.

The large cell was easily the tallest she had ever found herself in. Smooth walls stretched upwards about 40 feet, ending in a glassy ceiling. From there, suspended on short chains, small braziers sickly sputtered---popping and crackling loudly, giving little light and certainly no heat.

Eve sat with her back against the cold marble wall and took stock of her present predicament. Elbows resting on gathered knees, she watched the various prisoners move about in the shadows, some were friends, others here when she had arrived. Occasionally, moans of discomfort and sorrow broke the constant hum of breathing and quiet murmurs that were ubiquitous with incarceration.

Her current prison was also a marvel of design. There were no windows and the door was part of the wall---sunk seamlessly into its glass-like surface. Even its position afforded maximum advantage to the guards. When Romans put their twisted little minds to something, the results often approached the sublime.

She got up off the dusty floor and moved slowly through the half-light. Strolling around the cell was meant to merely stretch her stiff legs, but Eve had accomplished much more. She smiled to the Elians as she passed, their dirty and hopeful faces turned up towards her like beggars' bowls.

Further into the cell, Eve came across the older tenants of the prison---an assortment of shifty-eyed footpads, aging whores, and lower-end ruffians. Most appeared to be ill---faces drawn, eyes glassy. As she approached, Eve smelled the sickness upon them.

She sighed, feeling the usual weight slam down upon her shoulders. She looked around at the followers---her friends. The tendency to attract deep and dangerous trouble was something that never seemed to leave her. Even her earliest memories were of being on the run, in danger---hunted. It was when her penchant for trouble put others at risk, as it had here, that she felt the burden.

A younger follower smiled sweetly, shyly at Eve as their eyes met. This girl, all of the followers, had accepted the risks---but none save Eve knew the true danger of bringing the Word of Eli to Rome. None were as intimate with the place as she was.

But this was where they had to be. The dreams---the visions had told her so. They passed through her body, like fire through dry grass---stripping it clean of everything except its divine purpose, its destiny. She was no help to anyone burdened by unfocused feelings and doubt.

Eve rubbed her eyes. How were they going to get out of this one? She smiled to herself, wistfully. If only Gabrielle was hereor…She allowed herself this one tiny, useless luxury---this weakness, before she prepared to lead the evening meditation.

The workman's son approached softly, and Eve smiled sadly down at him. She rubbed his dirty cheek.

"Joshua, I'm…"

"Don't, Eve. It's not your fault," he said. "I wasn't going to let them just take you all."

"You mean?"

"Yeah…I kind of dropped some boards onto a couple of soldiers' toes. Didn't help much, I'm afraid."

Eve suppressed the part of her that wanted to laugh, especially under the current circumstances, and shook her head at the boy.

"I don't know whether to say thank you, or scold you," she said. "You've got yourself into trouble that I don't think you fully understand."

"Maybe you can help me understand, Eve," he said. He looked directly into her eyes. "Are you responsible for those murders?"

"Of course not."

"Now I understand all I need to," Joshua said. "I stand by my actions."

Eve looked deeply at the boy. More brave acceptance---indifference to the terrible risk---by one who had no real understanding of the Word or any knowledge of Eli. Although, there was…something

He smiled at her and nodded, turning his attention to the faint groans and sobs lost in the darkness behind them.

"Is there any way we can help them?" he asked, indicating the tattered forms lying against the walls.

"Let's find out."

She took him by the hand and led the way.

Eve kneeled before one of the sick, a thin woman of about thirty years. Placing her hand on the woman's brow, she already knew the problem. The fever was not an intense one, but under these conditions could easily win a war of attrition.

"It's dysentery," she said.

"Then it's the water," Joshua finished her thoughts. Eve looked up at the boy. He shrugged. "I've seen it before. Where I'm from."

She moved away and motioned for him to follow.

There was one steady source of water in the cell---it leaked in thin rivulets from the tip of a rusted pipe halfway up the wall. The stream fed a large stone basin against the far wall of the cell. When full, the murky water overflowed into a shallow gutter, which served as the latrine. The slow, virtually still water had an unpleasant odor, and Eve could feel its impurity. Kneeling before the basin, she motioned for Joshua to stand back.

Placing her hands over the water, Eve cleared her mind of everything. Soon a purification litany filled the void---repeating steadily like a pulse, gaining strength and power. Eve let go, allowing the words---The Word to flow through her like breath through a mouthpiece.

Joshua watched Eve as she prayed---her face seeming to free itself of lines of worry or age. He watched her hands---perfectly still, held palms up in the broken light. There seemed to be a power, building near him---from within the kneeling woman, reaching outwards into the musty air around them. There seemed to be a voice, or a hum just on the edge of the boy's hearing, that was growing in intensity but not in volume. A vein in the woman's temple trembled slightly with strain and light dew appeared on her skin. An almost imperceptible glow emanated from her. Her lips began to move, pushing word-flecked breath from her lungs, as though she were being steadily squeezed around the middle. Joshua began to shake from the force of the growing hum, the intensifying roar. He tried to block it from his ears before they were ruined. He looked around---no one else seemed to be affected. His eyes widened in astonishment. The hum was in his heart---not his ears. Suddenly, Eve plunged her hands into the basin with a dramatic splash. The light, the hum, the power were all gone. Joshua rubbed his aching jaw, which he had clenched tightly during the entire event.

A thin wisp of steam rose from the surface of the water as Eve removed her hands and stood up. Her face was calm and drawn, as though she was tired---although her eyes remained alert and focused.

"That should help for a couple of days," she said. "At least until everyone gets better."

The steam cleared and Joshua peered into the basin. Even in the sickly light of the cell, he was now able to see through to the bottom. Along the tub's floor, the once algae-encrusted stone had been scoured clean in a circle radiating from the point where Eve's hands had been centered.

"Come on," Eve said, smiling serenely at the boy. "You can join us for meditation."

He took her hand and they walked to the other end of the cell where the followers had begun to assemble.

CHAPTER VI. Nyctalopia

Her Grandma had always said that running away never solved anything. In most cases she was probably right---but not in this particular one. In this case, running away was definitely more appealing than weeping like some spoiled kid in front of a warrior and a poet.

She hit me

Mira was hiding out on the rooftop of a closed shop---the butcher had gone home for the day. Clotted pigs' blood and curing spices left ghostly odors on the late afternoon haze. The forum below her was slowing down, merchants shutting their stores and packing up their carts. She had been up here for several hours, taking a nap at one point in the suffocating heat---now she was just watching life pass beneath her.

During it all she had cried quite a bit. Mira rarely shed tears, even as a child. There had never been time---she had always had to help her Grandma and Grandpa Teresius with the pottery cart and other chores. As a young teenager, the crowd she ran with didn't appreciate a crybaby---so you learned to tough it out. Even when Mira had run away from home she had only shed a small tear.

She hit me

No one had ever hit her like that before. Was that what it was? The slap had hurt, sure---but whatever it was that had come loose inside of her because of it, hurt a lot more. And now she couldn't stop crying. It was embarrassing.

Mira sighed. Maybe walking around would keep her distracted. She climbed down the side of the building and lowered herself quietly to the ground. Soon, she was wandering aimlessly through the dusky streets.

The warrior's face was like someone else's---twisted with rage, deformed with a deep and profound hurt. Her eyes had listed as though blind. Gabrielle's hand had whipped out automatically, the way she might employ it to throw her chakram, block a punch or catch an arrow.

She hit me

Mira pushed past a group of raggedly dressed travelers, slinging their heavy packs---their voices curving around strange alien words, which they hung in the ambiguity of dusk like lanterns on a porch. Sniffing, Mira detected the scent of pinesap drifting among them. She and the warrior had camped on a bed of pine needles far to the north a month after their first meeting…

Once they had thwarted that warlord---the one who said he was the son of some guy…Dragon or Draggo or something---Gabrielle had led them due north, out of Greece. It was the first time the girl had ever left the fever and bustle of her homeland. Once through the mountains, pine trees had stretched out as endless as the sea. Mira remembered the land that rested beneath their nettled branches being a lonely one. Half a day into the ethereal woods, and they happened upon an abandoned settlement.

Littered about the soft carpet of needles were ghostly artifacts---fragmented, strewn about the earth, half-fashioned in the shade and mist beneath the ancient trees. She and the warrior had passed collapsed and rotting huts, strange broken masks, ornately crafted weapons gathering moss and fungus. Mira had many strange impressions that day, a lasting one being the feeling that they were trekking through a dream long abandoned by its dreamer.

"What was this place?" she had asked.

Gabrielle had stopped in front of the splintered ruins of a large hut. "These were Amazon lands," the warrior said.

"Amazons? I thought those were just stories people told kids to frighten 'em?"

"No," Gabrielle had smiled at her, completely without humor. "They were real."

That night they camped near a fallen dwelling. Mira had gathered a few armloads of dry wood and gotten a very warm fire going. She was admiring her handiwork when Gabrielle returned carrying two skinned rabbits.

Ruffling through their packs, the girl got the larger pot, holding it out for the warrior to toss dinner into. Gabrielle had smiled strangely and took the pot from her, placing the carcasses into its yawning mouth.

"I'll cook tonight."

The warrior had prepared the rabbit stew with a sad and quiet dignity. Her hands feeling through the process in a fevered, anamnesiac sort of way---like a suppliant performing a long forgotten ritual. Lost in the gnosis of the act---the remembering---Gabrielle never made a sound.

While lying awake that night, Mira wondered if she had ever eaten a stew so delicious. Even Grandma's---the one with the dumplings---paled in comparison. She hadn't known that the warrior could cook so well---another hidden skill. Between her full belly and the dreamy scent of pine, Mira was going to get a very good night of sleep.

She had propped herself up on her elbows. Had Gabrielle said something to her? She called out to her new friend. There was no answer. Mira looked over at the warrior---her back turned to the girl. Was it the flicker of the waning flames, or had Gabrielle's shoulders been heaving?

Mira had listened intently, trying to phase out the sounds of the northern woods. Beneath the stammer of the fire, the lazy breeze stumbling through the trees, the plaintive call of an owl---Gabrielle was sobbing, sometimes whimpering. Mira got out of her bedroll and moved quietly to the woman's side.


The warrior had been asleep, though her face was contorted in a pained grimace. Her usually laconic features softened---weakened---by this hidden torment. Strangely, she appeared younger, more vulnerable than she normally did. Mira furrowed her brow. She rubbed Gabrielle's back, and eventually the warrior's sobs had quieted. The girl had never mentioned the incident, or the other times it happened, or that she had performed the same soothing and secret act for her friend.

It remained the best way to help the warrior deeper into sleep, to a place where dreams were peaceful and more forgiving…

Mira felt tears well up in her eyes again. Stupid…stupid… She wiped her eyes and sat on the edge of a fountain in the center of a small forum. Damn… Sighing loudly, she traced a finger through the tepid water. She looked around the square.

Grinning a little, Mira realized that she had once again returned to the area where she had met that boy yesterday---where later she had seen he and Eve and the others rounded up and taken away by the Praetorian Guard. She remembered the shop where they had been dragged out of---how small it was---and how many of the Cult of Eli that had come out of the tiny building…

The girl ran towards the square where the shop was located---keeping to the shadows, and out of the gaze of passersby. Filled mostly with tiny shops, the forum was already deserted even this soon after dusk. Mira slipped into the open door of the building.

Boards and wood shavings littered the front room, and Mira had to step carefully to avoid making any noise. From what she saw, there didn't seem to be signs of a large scuffle. Passing through a doorway, she moved further into the building.

A short hallway led to a larger storage room. A pile of rags rested in a corner near a closed door. There were more boards and planks, as well as various carpenters' tools littering the chamber. The room was big, but not big enough for nearly 40 people to mill about in any sort of comfort.

Mira scratched her head. The door at the end of the room thumped slightly. A closer look revealed that it had been forced and broken, and was now rattling with the light breeze outside. She pushed the door open and stepped out into the alley behind the shop. She looked around, there didn't seem to be anything out of the ordinary---until she noticed what she had first thought was a discarded rug. The rug was indeed a rug---but it had been covering a wooden hatch that appeared to hide a hole in the ground. The Romans must have discovered it after pushing out into the alley.

Mira prepared to descend into the hole. She didn't know what purpose going in there could possibly serve---but she figured there was nothing to lose. Mira lit a small candle, pulled from her tunic and dropped into the opening.

She found herself at the end of an average sized hallway. Following the narrow, unfinished corridor, she soon came to a larger chamber that also appeared to be under construction. Beyond it were other rooms of various sizes---within many were bedrolls and other signs of habitation. Mira poked around and discovered about 40 people had probably been living down here, even though it was still being built.

"An underground hideout…" she muttered to herself.

Suddenly, from behind her noises could be heard, the sound of breathing and footsteps moving steadily towards her location. She quietly pushed further into the catacombs, hoping to find another exit. Mira entered a musty smelling room and closed the door behind her, only to realize that she had reached a dead end. Inspecting every inch of the rough-hewn room, her predicament sank in.

The footsteps scraped to a stop in the hallway behind her. Mira turned, just as the door began to open.


Lying prone against the roof of the building, Gabrielle felt the stored heat of day radiating from the sun-soaked slate tiles. With the cool night air draped on the exposed skin of her back, she felt like something pressed between two worlds---like a god or a ghost. Or a warrior

Peering over the edge, she squinted into the alley below. Finding it empty, she gripped the eaves and lowered herself to the ground, where she blended expertly into the shadows.

From the alley, it was a short sprint to the courthouse. Gabrielle smiled to herself. Despite everything she hated about the Romans, in this case she was glad for their infamous administrative zeal. When dealing with warlords, one had to bust a few heads to obtain valuable information---when in Rome, if one possessed the skill, one need only bust into a building.

Quiet and dark, the building appeared to be deserted. From her vantage point, Gabrielle saw that there were only two guards maintaining an almost somnambulant watch. Their pacing left much of the courthouse unguarded. So hard to get good help these days, she smirked to herself.

Only a gentle, impotent breeze inhabited the forum in front of the warrior---the street was empty, and quite still. Flexing her leg muscles, she peered up at the second floor of the courthouse. A window remained open---perhaps in hopes to lure some of the cool night air into the stuffy rooms inside. That wasn't all, Gabrielle smiled.

One of the guards disappeared into the shadows collecting at the side of the building. The warrior sprinted from the alley, crossed the cobbled forum in six quick strides and with a powerful leap, flipped herself through the open window. She landed silently, her wake upsetting only a delicate piece of parchment from a wooden desk.

Gabrielle moved quickly through the room. She scanned documents as best as she could in the thin light---moving on to the next office when she did not find what she sought.

A search of the next room produced the same results, and the warrior wondered if this had been a good idea. The Roman love of accurate administration also had its downside---a tendency to create sub-administration upon sub-administration. The documents she was looking for could be anywhere in the city---the Empire---for all she knew.

The next room brought a smile to the warrior's face.


The large office appeared to belong to a chief magistrate. Hundreds of scrolls, loose parchment and writing tablets were filed in cabinets along two walls. A large marble desk was covered in them. Gabrielle was also pleased with the thick oak shutters that blocked out the night---allowing candlelight reading.

Soon, she was pouring over the obscene myriad of documents that served as the lifeblood of the Imperial judicial system. Property disputes, tax evasions, municipal corruption---the Romans had even managed to make crime complicated.

The mountains of paper in this office alone were staggering. Gabrielle tried to imagine the amount of papyrus and parchment the Empire consumed just to maintain itself. She cringed at the thought. It certainly explained their tendency to abbreviate---to reduce complex ideas, concepts---entire philosophies to short clusters of letters or numbers.

After tossing aside a set of building permits, she discovered a group of police reports. The warrior riffled through them, soon coming upon the object of her quest. Written in the rough hand of a lower ranking officer---a long list of names, various charges, an arrest log, and other information. Gabrielle's eyes scanned the list frantically, coming to rest on a short, simple, three-letter epithet: Eve.

Continuing to read, the warrior widened her eyes at the severe charges leveled against the Cult of Eli---charges that had only one form of punishment under Roman law. Gabrielle tried to remain focused, looking for any information on Eve's current whereabouts. There was nothing, only a transfer ordering the cult moved into the custody of higher authorities, without indicating where.

Oh Eve, Gabrielle shook her head. You've always been in trouble…The warrior smiled ruefully. She had spoken with the girl about Rome during her visit to the Elian camp in Gaul.

Gabrielle always referred to Eve as "the girl" even though Eve was actually older than the warrior by almost two years. Although Gabrielle didn't pay it much attention, the story behind this was an odd one, even for her---considering she had witnessed Eve's birth, had held her often under the platter-like moon, whispering of the future into her tiny ears.

The future…The warrior smirked ironically. Much of the girl's future had been spent alone, angry, hurt---manipulated by the gods and Rome. Her mother and Gabrielle remaining asleep locked away in an icy tomb. Waking had not dispelled darkness for them only woven its sorrows tighter, making it more tangible. But they had beaten it all in the end, at least for a little while and Gabrielle had felt less out of place in this strange new world they had woken up into. They were a family, after all. No matter what had happened, nothing had ever changed the aunt-niece rapport Gabrielle and Eve had almost always shared with each other.

That's why in Gaul, Gabrielle had criticized Eve's plans to take the cult into the heart of its enemy's territory---it was too dangerous. The girl wouldn't listen and was being completely bullheaded. Of course, displaying the typical family traits…

"It's where we're needed most," she had said.

"And where they can do you the most harm." The warrior had needed to make Eve understand. "You said the Romans have been cooling off their pursuit lately---you don't want to go and stir them up now. Not where they're the strongest, Eve."

"I can't worry about that." The girl had indicated the followers of Eli around them. "None of us can."

"You'll just be throwing your life away!"
Gabrielle had said---perhaps a little too forcefully. "Theirs too."

"For the greater good, Gabrielle."

They were always slipping through her fingers, weren't they? All of them eventually… Always helpless, always powerless---always a sidekick---Gabrielle had fought back tears.

"How do you expect me to just let you do this?" she pleaded. "After everything I promised her…"

"Because you know I have to. Because you know it's right. She would too."

Gabrielle had just let the tears fall.

"But there's so much we need to…"


Eve raised the warrior's bowed blonde head. She had smiled that serene little smile of hers---a smile that spoke of secrets she was almost too excited to share.

"Sacrifice is just something you learn to accept in our line of work," she said, raising her eyebrow---another family trait.

Gabrielle shook her head. They could make me agree to eat my own sword

The warrior scanned the scroll one more time. Best place to start is at the beginning, she thought, replacing things as best as she could. Stepping soundlessly down the hall, she backtracked to her point of entry. A quick glance from the window showed the street empty of guards.

Gripping the top of the frame with both hands, Gabrielle swung herself up to the third floor ledge---another quick flip and she was on the building's roof, sprinting across its cooling tiles. Soon, she launched herself to the building adjacent, then to the next. The warrior continued from rooftop to rooftop, ascending the long stretch of the city leading up to the Palatine Hill.

Mira desperately tried to snuff out her candle, as she moved quietly for the side of the door. She readied herself to deliver a swift blow to some unlucky jerk's melon. The portal swung open quickly, a tall middle-aged man standing in its mouth.

The man was obviously not Roman. He was definitely not a soldier, or a warrior, or a mercenary. Mira quickly realized that he was incapable of harming even a fly. She relaxed a little, stepping slowly away from him. He stood with a soft stub of a candle burning in his right hand, and his kind brown eyes staring questioningly at her.

"Uh…hi!" Mira tried.

"I heard noises…thought someone had returned…"


"I don't remember seeing you around here before," he said, rubbing his long beard.

"No…I'm…I was looking for a friend…" Mira had to figure out who this was before she could start asking questions.

"A friend, huh?" the man said, skeptically. "Only rabbits and beetles have friends who live in a place like this one."

Mira chuckled. "That's true. But sometimes we need to imitate rabbits and beetles when things aren't so hospitable on the surface."

The man rubbed his beard. "Hmm…friends with them, were you?"

Mira hoped he meant the Elians. "Uhm…yes?"

The man's face darkened somewhat. "Well, they're all gone. Carted away---arrested," he said, his head bowing a little. "Even my son…"

"I'm sorry…"

"Thing is, he's not even one of them…just got caught up in this whole mess…"

Mira's mouth opened. "Oh?"

The man stepped into the room a little. "It's so hard to get work in Rome when you're not a citizen, but we got this job here…and sure it was a little weird, what with building secret passages and them being religious zealots and all…but everyone was real nice and Joshua and I were being paid well enough, until…"

"The Romans arrested everyone for murder…including your son…"

"That's right!" the man said with surprise. "How did you know?"

"Well…you did just tell me…but also, I was there when they were taken away," Mira said. She moved close to the man, placing her hand on his forearm. "Listen, my friends and I are planning to rescue them…but we don't know where they're being held…"

The man's face brightened a little. "I know!" he said. "I tried everything I could to learn where Joshua had been taken---went to every court house and police barracks in the city…Eventually, a kind Praetorian took pity and told me that they were all being held beneath the Temple of Caesar that's being built up on the Palatine Hill near the palace…but no one is allowed to visit…"

Mira smiled at the man. "Don't worry…"


"Don't worry, Josepus," she said. "We'll rescue Joshua…he's a friend of mine…"

The man scrunched up his face a little. "Who are you?"

"My name is Mira," she said, puffing her chest out unconsciously. "But some call me the…Princess of Thieves…"

The man rolled his eyes. "I always told that Joshua to stay out of trouble…did he listen? Nope…first he gets all mixed up with those mystical types…talking all that crazy talk…now he's running around with thieves…"

Mira patted Josepus on the arm and moved around the muttering man back into the hallway. She could hardly keep from bursting right out of the tunnel and into the night sky. She leaped out of the hole and onto the street and didn't stop running until she reached the front gates of Virgil's home.

Gabrielle watched the home from a shadowed copse of pines. The building and the surrounding area seemed deserted. She quieted her breathing and opened her ears to the sounds of the night.

All around her, insects chattered in their incomprehensible tongue, spewing devotions to the darkness or the battered face of the moon. Servants of the various homes on the hill could be heard washing pottery and cutlery---the metal scraping dully against worn wooden basins. Farther away, a wagon pulled by two mules rounded the last corner of the road leading off the hill.

Upon the night's air, the warrior detected the golden smell of honey, almonds and… Cinnamon, she smiled to herself. She could hear frantic chewing and the faint clack of smacking lips about 200 feet away.

"Titus! So help me---if you're out there eating again…" The woman's voice was shrill. It caused the older man to run quickly back to the house.

Gabrielle smiled, even though her stomach shuddered with unrequited hunger. She shook her head, training her sight upon the home---the murder scene. Satisfied all was clear, the warrior moved quickly and quietly towards the townhouse. She grabbed and lit a small torch from her pouch, then stepped through the cedar door at the rear of the house.

There had been an admirable attempt to clean up, but the sheer amount of blood had made a full cleansing impossible. Three large, dark stains were soaked into the porous tiles of the pantry. The warrior noted also one thin jet of blood---a neck-wound, she surmised---the cascade reaching the ceiling at its most intense, then the wall as the force of spray and with it the force of life gave out.

Green eyes intensely darting about the room, Gabrielle pieced together what she could. The warrior paced about slightly, hands clasped---muttering out loud.

"Three victims…small space…almost no signs of struggle…Hmm…" She looked around the room. "Only room enough for one attacker…and even then…a real good one…" She noted no sword scrapes on the wall from clumsy, wide swings.

Gabrielle stopped at a counter. She examined the smeared cutting board and knife on its top, the upset, half-sliced leg of lamb. Turning around---she took in the room from this new perspective. Her eyes darted from the door to the blood spray and back. She turned towards the counter again.

"Fixing a snack and then…" She spun around quickly. "A surprise from behind…"

Rubbing her chin, Gabrielle ran everything through her mind. The assassin was highly skilled---adept at stealth and the sword.

Her mind went immediately to Ares. It was easy to draw a straight line through all of the pieces to him. The drought, his warning, the murders, Nero's arrest of Eve and the Cult of Eli…he was the thread that bound them all.

But, why?

Gabrielle remembered that Ares had mentioned Nemesis---the legendary assassin of the gods---used to wreck retribution, revenge and divine justice upon humanity, and if necessary, the gods themselves. The warrior looked to the floor, the stains of blood---wondering if this was evidence of Her work. She couldn't remember many stories about Nemesis, but of the tales she could, none ended well.

Just then, she detected a presence approaching from inside the home---from behind the door to the hallway. Gabrielle pressed herself against the wall beside the closed portal. She took a slow, deep breath. Whoever this was, they possessed a cat-like stealth if the warrior's keen ears could hear them only now. Eyes narrowing to sharpened jade shards, Gabrielle watched the door.

It inched open slowly, tentatively---silently sliding in its well-oiled hinges. A polished hardwood tube, about a thumb-span in diameter inched into the pantry at Gabrielle's eye-level. Soon, more of the tube probed its way slowly through the doorway and into the room---and guiding it in: a slender hand.

Gabrielle grabbed both the tube and the hand in a blur---flipping their owner forcefully into the room. A tall woman with short-shorn, sandy-hued hair rolled expertly into a crouch in front of the shuttered window, training the tube on Gabrielle.

"Who the hell are you?" the woman asked in a distinctly Roman accent.

Before Gabrielle could answer, she heard a sharp click from within the tube-like object. She quickly dove out of the way as a rush of air escaped the weapon and a menacing metal dart imbedded itself in the wall where she had been standing an instant before.

Her fingers gripped the chakram before she gracefully tumbled into a low stance in the corner---her arm releasing it in a quick and liquid motion. The woman had already begun a desperate back flip out the window, smashing the wooden shutters open with a loud crash. The chakram followed her out into the darkness.

Sprinting across the room, Gabrielle hopped up into the windowsill---eyes and ears tuned outward. The warrior quickly leaped into the night---dodging another screaming dart that shattered a teetering shutter with the force of its impact. Catching the returning chakram in mid-leap, Gabrielle tucked into a quick front roll, which she used to add extra power to the throw that she leveled against her adversary.

The tall woman quickly raised up her strange weapon, which appeared to be a long, oddly shaped staff, into a defensive block. It shattered into pieces with the impact of the chakram, which separated and spun back towards Gabrielle. The warrior stepped forward and quickly re-released the returning pieces of her weapon, one after another, over and over---forcing the tall, shorthaired woman to execute a series of multi back-springs into the stretch of woods nearby. Using the momentum of one of her flips, the woman launched herself expertly into the strong lower branches of an oak tree---continuing her escape up into the canopy of the woods.

Gabrielle broke into a full sprint towards the tree line---catching and uniting the chakram as she went. With a seamless leap she was in the treetops, a short distance from the fleeing woman. They continued in an almost silent rush through the dry-leaved foliage---from branch to branch, further along the Palatine hill.

A break in the trees near a tall aqueduct allowed moonlight to illuminate a series of throwing irons the woman launched towards Gabrielle. The warrior had to tuck herself into a ball in mid-flight---allowing the sharp stilettos to rush past her into the trees.

Anticipating her adversary's next landing, Gabrielle fired the chakram once again. The blade sawed through a branch just as the large woman landed on it---shattering it and sending her plummeting downward. In an act of desperation she cast out her arms, grasping blindly. Her hands slapped against a strong oak branch, and whirling about it, she flung herself up to another landing---continuing in this manner until she launched herself up onto the aqueduct.

Gabrielle had been following from lower branches, eyes trained on her quarry. With the splash of water from above, she grabbed her whip.

"Oh no you don't!"

With a loud crack, the whip wrapped about a truss on the aqueduct, and the warrior threw herself out of the trees---swinging in a wide arc upwards. She landed with a spray, just in front of her startled adversary.

Even in the knee-deep water, the tall woman was able to deliver a strong kick to Gabrielle's chest---knocking her backwards, though not off her feet.

"Die, will you!" the woman yelled, angrily releasing more throwing irons in quick succession from hidden folds in her leathers.

Gabrielle quickly drew her sword, and expertly batted the weapons away---their sparks illuminating the wide trough of the aqueduct. The warrior went into a low battle stance, and advanced with a lunge toward her tall adversary. The woman drew her own blade and parried Gabrielle's thrust in one smooth maneuver.

A frenzied volley of mirrored attacks and parries showed the two were evenly matched. Gabrielle was able to anticipate many of the woman's moves, but the tall stranger's slight strength advantage was keeping the warrior off-balance. Conversely, Gabrielle's speed and experience kept the enraged woman's vicious attacks at bay.

After another furious volley, the larger woman feinted low with her sword and caught Gabrielle with a swift uppercut, knocking the warrior slightly off-balance. Capitalizing on her advantage, the woman kicked the teetering Gabrielle hard in the ribs, flinging her off the aqueduct.

Quickly shaking off the daze of the blows, Gabrielle cracked her whip out at her opponent as she careened downwards. The aged leather coiled about its target---wrapping snuggly around the strange woman's legs. With a scream of rage, the woman buckled, falling face first into the trough and was dragged up and over the edge of the aqueduct---droplets falling, flaring like comets in the moonlight. Clawing desperately, she grabbed at the railing---holding herself and Gabrielle to the tall structure.

Not waiting for an invitation, Gabrielle let go of the whip and grabbed the rafters. She sprang up, a couple at a time---moving towards her adversary. The woman had untangled the whip from her legs and trained it upon the climbing warrior. With a crack, she lashed at Gabrielle---who gritted her teeth in searing pain.

"Oh, you're going to pay for that," she growled.

The woman laughed menacingly and lashed out again at Gabrielle. This time, the warrior grabbed hold of the whip, and with lightning speed launched from the supports. Using her adversary as a pivot, Gabrielle swung herself up and onto the top of the aqueduct. Running to the edge, the warrior drew a small dagger hidden in her belt.

With a battle cry, the woman sprang from below, tackling Gabrielle---who dropped the knife, and fell backwards into the water. With a quick shift of what little balance she had left, the warrior used the momentum of the tackle to pitch the woman over and off of her. She rose from beneath the stream to find her enemy on her feet and approaching fast.

They exchanged a rapid succession of punches and blocks---water spraying into a fine mist around them. The warrior began to leave a tiny, controlled opening on her left flank---drawing her enemy's attacks low. After unleashing a vicious flurry that Gabrielle was barely able to block, the tall woman left herself slightly exposed.

"Time to wrap this little dance up," Gabrielle exclaimed, thrusting both index fingers into the flesh of the woman's neck---the soft nerve clusters and muscles beneath suddenly jerking into tight, iron-like cords, strangling the very arteries they were meant to strengthen and protect. The large woman went rigid, pale, clutched at her neck.

Gabrielle stepped forward. "I've just cut off the…"

Suddenly, the woman lashed out with a hard right cross to the warrior's jaw. Gabrielle's ears rang as she fell backwards into the water, her vision blurring. Soon, a weight pressed upon her, a tense and desperate weight filled with sinister purpose and panicked strength. Hands clutched at her throat, crushing her larynx---holding her under the water. Gabrielle's lungs burned, her throat trembled helplessly---everything was reduced to the boiling water and blood in her ears. She clutched, scratched at the woman, but her grip and her consciousness was slipping from her like a handful of soft, pale sand in an indifferent wind.

Gabrielle laughed to herself as a strange memory occurred to her. She remembered being crucified and how death had been so long in coming that time. There had been a lot to think about, to say---so much to say to each other---but eventually they had both been lost to one another in the labyrinth of their own half-starved, fever dreams. It was only then that shivering and terrified she had wept from her useless, hungry and broken eyes. After all she had experienced with the gods and the various planes of existence, a strange and utterly frightening thought had occurred to her---what if there was nothing after? What if she just died?

This time it didn't seem so bad. There was no fear, no doubts. This time she knew what came after.

And who

The pain seemed to be subsiding; maybe her throat was going numb. Soon, it felt as though only one hand was pressed feebly to her windpipe. Gabrielle felt a breeze touch her face, enter her nostrils---she coughed violently, suddenly---her body shooting reflexively into a sitting position. Her eyes were blurry, but she saw the woman on her knees grasping at her throat---pressing her index fingers into the two pressure points. The tall woman got shakily to her feet, cursed at the warrior and swung herself off the aqueduct.

Gabrielle rubbed her eyes as she continued to expel water from her lungs. Her throat was burning, but she still managed to spit the words from her mouth.

"Gods, I hate this place!"

CHAPTER VII. The Conclusion of Fools

When it was spread-eagled before him like a mendicant trollop splayed across a pallet---its many valleys, crevices, curves, blemishes displayed unflinchingly, without any semblance of shame or good taste---the whole world did very little to impress Nero. It was just so lumpy and brown and unappealing. Not unlike the fleeting childhood memory he had of the back of his grandmother's thighs as two large and tragically castrated slaves had lowered her gently into a salted bath. Pushing the reminiscence aside for another, more solitary occasion, the emperor tried to refocus his attention on the late night strategy talk/feast/orgy he had organized.

He had removed himself temporarily from the spilled food, vomit and naked pleasures in the other room to actually talk some strategy. Standing with Terrence, the most trusted of his commanders, he looked down on a large, crude model of the world---the Roman World, positioned on a large oak table. The soldier was waxing on about troop deployments in upper-such-and-such, and the strengthening of borders between the outer Empire and some gods-forsaken land---his tanned, leathery face noble and stupid like a farm horse.

"…Meaning we'll be in need of at least two legions along the borders in Egypt…so I thought it might be best to commit the XIV Gemina along with the reinforcements out of Pannonia…"

Nero tilted his head, like a hawk when it first spies prey. "Think again, Terrence."

"But Caesar…having two legions guard your…project in the Apennines seems like a waste of men. Surely, one legion would suffice?"

"I think not, Terrence. What about the II Augusta? Or the Italica?"

"Not experienced enough, or too experienced in the Augusta's case."

Nero walked over to the model. He began picking up the small figurines, each representing a cohort of 480 men, and dropped them petulantly across various parts of the world.

"What is the point of being an Emperor if I can't move my little soldier men from one place to another, Terrence?"

The soldier stared blankly at his emperor. "I'll see what I can do, Caesar."

Nero nodded. "Good. What's next?"

"Well Caesar…I must admit I've been rather alarmed by much of the intelligence I've been hearing regarding the senate's movements as of late. Seems the senators are willing to back up their promises to my men with a little more than their word. It all started with the drought, and now more so since the murders…"

"The senate is trying to buy the army?"

"Yes, Caesar."

"And how is that going?"


"Is it working, Terrence?" Nero's patience for the general's natural immunity to all things subtle was wearing thin.

The soldier rubbed the rough iron-hued stubble of his scalp. "Enough that it could become a problem during volatile times such as these."

Nero stroked his jaw. "Yes. Volatile…most volatile…" A dreamy smile appeared on his face.


"I'm afraid, Terrence, that due to the volatile situation existing within the empire---Rome herself lies threatened. We need to bring several of our best legions home, to strengthen and protect the capitol." He smiled at the commander, hoping that the man might catch on.

"But Caesar, the senate would never allow you to have that many troops within the city."

Nero tittered. "No they wouldn't, would they?"

Through a door on the other side of the long chamber, Octavia strode agitatedly into the room---her clothes appeared to be wet. Nero met her gaze, learning much before she arrived in their immediate presence. He nodded to the still confused Terrence.

"Just make sure the orders are passed through the senate and shat out for all of Rome to pick through."

The soldier bowed and left. Nero turned swaggeringly toward his tall bodyguard who stood staring sheepishly down at the model of the Roman world.

"You've looked better," he said with a smirk.

"Caesar, there may be another element to these murders," she said.


"My visit to the first crime scene---Serentus' house---led me into combat against a highly-skilled warrior," she said, then averted her eyes. "I barely escaped with my life."

The emperor was intrigued; he began circling the woman, looking her over. She was sporting a nasty set of bruises on her neck, as though she had been strangled. Nero flushed, trying to remain focused. "Who was this warrior?" he asked. "The killer?"

"She certainly had the skills, Caesar. But why return to the scene?"


Octavia continued. "It didn't seem like something she would be capable of..."


The stern looking woman nodded, rubbing her sand-colored pate. Nero wrung his hands, his face twitching away.

"Well, these incidents certainly have many layers, don't they? Maybe her body will…"

"She's not dead," Octavia said, bowing her head.

Nero smiled. "Ooh," he said lifting up her chin with his index finger. "That does get your goat, doesn't it? Her being out there---alive."

Her lips became a thin line.

"I wouldn't worry about it…things are progressing just as I've planned…as we've talked about…" Nero slid behind her and whispered soothingly. "My poor Octavia, it's so upsetting to see you this way---so vulnerable, so tense." His fingers slowly unbuckled the straps of her armor. "I feel that I must do everything in my power to ease your tension."

She sighed sliding out of her armor---she ran her hands over the low, smooth folds of Lower Egypt. He untied the laces of her tunic. "After all," he said kissing her bare shoulders, leaning her forward. "You've spent so much time watching my back, I thought I might return the favor…"

It was by no means the first time she had dressed her own broken ribs in the dark. Sitting on the settee in Virgil's front room, Gabrielle gingerly wrapped a bandage around herself. Another memento, she smiled.

Virgil slept propped up in a wooden chair behind her, an empty wine bottle still clutched in his hand. He had been steadily snoring since the warrior had arrived, and she hadn't the heart to wake him.

Gabrielle cleared her throat with some difficulty; given that swallowing produced a stinging pain. The swelling of her windpipe would last for at least a day or two---the bruising on her neck even longer. Guess I'll just wear a scarf around town, she chuckled to herself.

Wincing as she pulled the bandage tight, Gabrielle expertly tied off her handiwork. She reached for the old knife she kept in her medicine pouch to cut off the loose ends. Running her thumb over the chipped bone handle she thought back over the night's events.

Was that woman the killer? Why had she returned to the scene? Her adversary had been a vicious fighter, fully capable of murder. Gabrielle sighed, her lips crumpling into a grimace. Fully capable of surprising and almost killing me---and escaping the pinch, she thought. The warrior still smelt the peaty perfume of the aqueduct in her hair, still felt it burning in her sinuses. Through the throbbing contusions she could still feel the cold, strong hands around her neck…

The knife slipped from her fingers and clattered to the marble floor. Gabrielle rolled her eyes as Virgil bolted awake.

"Huh? What? Gabrielle…when did you get back?" he questioned, rubbing sleep from his eyes in the half-light.

Steadying her hands, she bent with some difficulty and retrieved the knife. "About an hour ago," she said.

"Hmm…I must've drifted off." The poet got up, clutched his head briefly and began puttering around the room. "Could use some light around here…"

Gabrielle sighed and carefully trimmed the bandage. Satisfied with her work, she drew her robe up over her shoulders and stood, turning to face Virgil.

"Any luck with your friends?" she asked, hopefully.

Virgil lit a candle, his face becoming grim in its warm glow. "No," he said. "Since the murders, they've been in hiding---they're frightened for their lives."

"Ah," Gabrielle's eyes dropped. She paused slightly, the light in the room seeming to dim around her. "I wasn't able to find out where they've taken Eve."

Virgil looked at her, his eyes widening at her bruises. "Gods Gabrielle, what happened?"

"Let's just say that we're not the only ones trying to get to the bottom of these murders," she said, waving off his attentions. "I think someone in the Empire isn't convinced that Eve and her friends did it either."

"That doesn't help us much, does it?"


Virgil shook his head. "And Mira isn't back yet…"

Gabrielle lunged forward. "What? She isn't back?"

"No. I thought you knew…"

"No…" The warrior was a blur as she gathered her things---throwing on her shift and donning her armor.

"Gabrielle wait…I'm sure she'll be back…"

The warrior turned to Virgil. "It's too dangerous out there."

The poet didn't know what to say. Through his pounding headache, he tried to figure out a way to help out---to not feel so utterly helpless. He decided to grab her a cloak he had and ran to his room.

Gabrielle laced her boots. The boots Mira had suggested she buy when they had returned from Gaul, because her old pair was falling to pieces. Like everything else...

The warrior ran her hand through her dirty hair---leaving her fingers tangled up at the base of her skull and the top of her neck. Her breathing was quick, shallow, and barely successful. The panting seemed to grow louder in her ears, until she realized that it was someone else's, approaching her.

"Gabrielle?" It was Mira's voice.

The warrior's head shot up. "Mira? Wh…where were you?"

"That's not important now…I…"

"Not important?" Gabrielle stood up and almost ran over to the girl. "We were losing our minds worrying about you!"

The girl turned her face to the side. "So you're just going to lecture me again?"

"You're damned right," Gabrielle smoldered, green eyes blazing. "Maybe you haven't heard but we've got Ares, a Roman Emperor and gods-knows-what-else running around here with their various machinations for gods-knows-what…You can't just run off and put yourself in danger like that…especially in such a foolish way…"

Mira met the warrior's glare. "Our friend's life is in danger…is any risk 'foolish' at this point?"

"But that's not why you ran away."

Mira crossed her arms. "No…no it isn't. Is it, Gabrielle?"

The warrior turned her face away. "Look Mira…I'm really sorry about…"

"W-what happened to your neck?"

"Oh…it's uhm…"

The girl reached out to gently touch Gabrielle's bruises. "Gods…"

"I can't believe I hit you Mira…I am so sorry…"

"Look…don't worry about it…okay? I've got a big mouth…"

"Don't say that…it's not your fault…" Gabrielle was crying.

Mira hugged her and stroked her hair. She turned up her nose, sniffing. "You smell funny…like a frog, or worms or something…"

Virgil laughed from the doorway. The two women separated and smiled at him, a little embarrassed.

"What?" Gabrielle said.

"I'm sorry," the poet said, beaming. "I couldn't contain myself any longer…"

"Yeah well…" Gabrielle rubbed the back of her neck.

"Hey!" Mira blurted out, remembering why she had run all the way back here. "I know where they're keeping Eve!"

"What?" Gabrielle and Virgil exclaimed in unified incredulity.

"I found out where they're keeping Eve," the girl repeated, realizing quickly that she was the only one who did.

"How? What? Who? Uhm…"

"It's a long story…needless to say. They've got her under the temple to Caesar on the Palatine Hill."

Gabrielle smiled at her sidekick. "Good work."

Mira puffed up proudly. "Thanks."

"Come on." The warrior looked at them both, a steely determination washing over her.

"We've got a lot of work to do before we break them out of there."

Eve couldn't sleep.

She could feel morning looming heavily, perched on humid talons above the city. The sun's arrival would set it loose upon the world---perhaps its fiery bluster even reaching this damp and retched place. Blinking up at the ceiling, Eve shifted uncomfortably on the straw covered floor.

The audible melancholy that had pervaded through the cell had eased off considerably since she had performed the purification. Once word had spread, its inhabitants had drunk heartily allowing the healing properties of clean water to work its magic. Hopefully, the effect would last for some time to come.

Eve rubbed her eyes, keeping her knuckles pressed into the sockets. The evening's work had left her drained. While happy that she had helped cure sickness and lift everyone's spirits, she still found it hard to shake off the weight of guilt. Especially when she punished herself ruthlessly with the knowledge that certain prisoners were not getting better, that somehow her efforts could not rescue everyone---that no matter what she did there would always be some degree of failure.

She sat up and adjusted her now dirty silk robes. While running hundreds of combinations of plans through her head, Eve still hadn't been able to come up with a way to escape without losing more than half of her friends in the process.

Hugging her knees up to her chest, she rested her chin on her arms---a soothing habit she had adopted as a small child growing up in Augustus' care. Her attention drifted beyond the cell. The Romans seemed to be everywhere. She could hear them---sense them through the walls, pacing.

That was the problem…the Romans seemed to be everywhere
…Even when hiding out in some of the more remote points of Gaul or even Africa---she had always had to maintain a constant vigil for legions of soldiers hunting them down. There had been many close calls. More than once, she had been required to seek outside help. Gabrielle's help

Eve placed her cheek on her forearms. No chance of the warrior's aid this time. Gabrielle typically kept a wide berth between herself and Rome---or at least the Italian peninsula. It was pretty hard to keep entirely away from Rome's influence these days…Regardless, Eve wasn't expecting the cell door to crash open and the blonde warrior to be standing there any time soon. It was up to the Elians to engineer an escape.

It was up to her

The pained hiss of the copper braziers high above brought her focus back to the cell. She felt the soft tingle of eyes upon her. Turning with a conspiratorial smirk, she met Joshua's sleepy gaze.

"So, should we start the escape now, or should we wait until daybreak? You know…give ourselves a challenge?"

Joshua smiled, rubbing his eyes. "We should at least wait for them to bring in fresh guards," he said.

Eve grinned, running her hand through the boy's hair. She stared at him, even after her smile dissolved. Her fingers slid sadly along his scalp.

"I'm sorry, Joshua."

"Eve…I've told you…"

"I don't think I can figure a way out of this…"

"You don't have to do it alone, y'know? We all can…"

Eve shook her head, a rueful smile on her lips. "It's up to me Joshua," she said. "We all know it is. It's up to me alone."

The cell was almost peaceful, almost silent. Only the sputtering braziers and the steady rhythm of bodies breathing could be heard. Eve had lowered her head, hoping to disappear into the omnipresent silence.

Joshua sat up and looked empathetically at the woman. He placed his hand on her exposed shoulder for a moment, giving it a firm, almost loving squeeze. It slipped softly from her skin, as he lay back down on the dirty floor.

"Sometimes battles are fought alone," he said, closing his eyes. "How unfortunate it doesn't happen more often."

Eve slowly, though steadily, raised her head. Lost in thought, her gaze was unfocused until the pure light of understanding beamed upon her face. She could feel morning above them, hung over the city---waiting for the sun's arrival. Sitting up straight on the straw covered floor, Eve welcomed the new day and everything it promised. She smiled a hopeful smile down at the young boy, who was already fast asleep.

The night had arrived parched and empty handed, bringing neither comfort nor promise of breeze---nor any sign of rain. Even in the darkness of the approaching morning, sweat dripped beneath Her armor. Crouched in the blonde grass, She narrowed her eyes at the small fortress. Only two sentinels paced upon the outer wall, their spear-toting silhouettes moved against the pale aspect of the moon. The garrison would house only a small detachment, most off-duty, sleeping huddled like rats upon coarse blankets. She could fall silently, anonymously upon them like misfortune, like woe.

The soldier's mouth listed clumsily, unconsciously---the circadian twitching of an infant's jaw. He lifted his head in weakening spasms, futilely trying to rise up off of the grass at Her feet, in the shade of the indifferent trees. Lying on his back, his leather armor began to crush his mortally pierced chest.

She watched the screaming pleas in his eyes---unrealized, fading. Meridian had easily plunged between two of his ribs, deflating both lungs, flooding them with gore. Kneeling above him, She returned the sword to its scabbard.

The dying sentry clutched feebly at Her sandaled ankle.

She trained the icy shards of Her gaze upon him---looking down into his scared and uncomprehending face. Reflecting off the silver of Her mask, moonlight streaked his skin in pale scribbles. He died knowing his slayer, as a soldier should. She sneered. It was more than this Roman dog deserved

Standing beneath the trees, She tried to steady Her heartbeat. Killing had brought a strangely familiar satisfaction to the surface---one that went beyond Her service to Her Master---but it had also brought more. Closing Her eyes, She struggled to control Her breathing. The hatred She had directed toward this soldier, toward all Roman soldiers, still threatened to consume Her---pulsing like an open wound.

Her hand clutched a nearby tree. She had become painfully aware that Rome was all around Her, belching fumes and sewage and evil---suffocating and strangling Her, scrapping at the skin like smashed glass. Her knuckles tightening upon the trunk of the tree, She panted like a nauseous cat. Within Her heart, Her mind---Her entire being---faces peeled free like worried threads in a black tapestry, spinning before Her eyes. She bent at the waist, Her teeth barred. Familiar though nameless, people, places, pulled away from this once-uniform fabric leaving it---Her---tattered, full of gaping holes.

A scream was building, from far, far away---from another time, another place---from within Her. It pushed Her shallow breaths against the walls of Her chest---threatening to explode from Her and lay waste to the forest, the city, everything. The muscles in Her back pulled taut, tense enough to snap like harp strings. Her mouth opened from the coppery taste of blood on Her tongue. Had She gnawed at it in fear? She felt blood run in rivulets down Her chin…

She straightened, and was still. The thundering was gone from Her ears, the faces from before Her eyes. The blood had been the key. A reminder of the task at hand---the mission for Her master. She strode from the trees, moving toward the walls of the garrison.

With a quick and powerful leap, She was upon the wooden battlements. Falling upon the first sentinel, She quickly wrenched his neck---cradling him gently as She placed his body on the ground. Sprinting low to the ground, She came out of the night, the second guard not even having enough time to intake a startled breath. Her index fingers thrust into the clustered nerves at the side of his neck. As he spilled to the ground, dying, She could hear him sobbing chokingly, face down on the wall. She knelt and flipped the guard over. His face twitched, blood spilling from his often-broken nose, tears from his often-squinted eyes. She leaned in close to his face, his ragged, rasping breaths tickling Her cheek.

Soon, She stood, peering down upon the shaded order of the sleepy garrison---over the obscuring canopy of woods at the base of the Quirinal, past the river and the city beyond. Rome stood there packed tight and dry like straw, like tinder in the night---and She would be the spark, the flame.

The smile never left Her face, until softened by the dark oblivion of sleep hours later, miles away.

[To be concluded in Part 3.]

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