~ X:WP - Apocalypse Book 2 - Inferno - Part 1 ~
by Brigit M. Morgan
VIOLENCE WARNING/DISCLAIMER: This story depicts scenes of violence, graphic violence and/or their aftermath. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.
LOVE/SEX WARNING/DISCLAIMER: This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story.
BLATANT HISTORIC AND SCIENTIFIC DISREGARD DISCLAIMER: I mess with/butcher a lot of names, dates, eras, events, the Latin language itself, etc. Like, totally. If that offends you---are you sure you like Xena?
COPYRIGHT: Xena, Gabrielle, Eve and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.
TIMELINE AND CONTINUITY: This story takes place approximately 12 years after "Friend in Need." It also takes place about 5-6 hours after my other book Apocalypse Book 1: Nemesis ended, so if you haven't read that, you probably should---I'll wait? I kinda reference another story of mine: "To Rest" which you might also want to check out if you haven't read it. Now I'll do that Canadian thing and apologize profusely (SORRY!) and we can move on?
BETA BABES: Last, but in no way least, I'd like to thank my fantastic Beta readers. Without a doubt, the best there are---and extremely easy on the optic sensors too, if-you-know-whut-I-mean. I am truly blessed. Their patience and enthusiasm are greatly prized and appreciated. Thank you: Alydar, Angelrad, Beta Barb, JLynn, Vivian Darkbloom and Xenalicious!
|If you come as softly|
As wind within the trees
You may hear what I hear
See what sorrow sees
If you come as lightly
As the threading dew
I shall take you gladly
Nor ask more of you
You may sit beside me
Silent as a breath
And only those who stay dead
Shall remember death.
|-Audre Lorde |
PROLOGUE - Anxur
Sunrise cast vague light out over the rolling Tyrrhenum, lending the sky an air of hazy uncertainty. It glared pale like polished silver, the azure leeched out. Even the legions of seabirds were out of place against it, exiled from the formless ether that was so often their adopted home. Beneath it all, the sea fell upon the sand in gentle waves as it always had.
She closed Her eyes, listening.
Nothing born into this world was immune to the soothing congress of sea and sand. While unsure at first, She had found Herself to be no exception. As She took in the water's accord with the white beach, the turmoil She had experienced earlier lifted from Her.
She opened Her eyes. The waves rolled toward Her with a sigh.
Hundreds of Her footsteps disappeared into a single point far along the pale coast, mapping out a journey She had begun before dawn. Her red cape whipped in the breeze, in stark contrast to the pale hues of the beach and the water. The sun only enflamed Her mantle, and it burned in reflection upon the anemic palate of the surroundings. Blue eyes traced the steady path of an albatross high over the waves. Its powerful wings beat lazily against the soft push of the wind. She pulled the cloak about Her shoulders.
The sun, the sand, the sea, the sky-four elements revolved in slow harmony as they always had and they always would. This was the universe manifest in its simplest parts, as though She stood witness to the beginning or the end of the world.
At the western horizon She could see a line of dark storm clouds looming, their movement and size obscured by their utter blackness, which swallowed the formless light of morning, confounding any attempt to make their bounds corporeal. Their enigmatic dimensions held Her gaze-the compulsion to be engulfed, lost in such a void fell heavily upon Her.
The breeze that blew to Her from over Hispania and across the sea played in the crimson of Her cape, fat with the sultriness of rain. Her nostrils arched, hungry for the musk of humidity. A flash of something, a memory clutched Her-somewhere else, a heavy downpour pummeling a thin canopy of elms, the leaves heaving, a woman running from Her, laughing, Her giving chase, the water kissing Her smiling cheeks.
A wave unrolled itself, lightly passing over Her sandaled feet. She shook Her head. The visions had followed Her from Rome, clutching at Her as She ran. More than the deliriums She had experienced earlier that had been so much like dreams, these visions were real in Her mind, these were actual memories, She knew that. They had followed Her from Rome, from the temple, where She had held that cold steel circlet and had felt it all, everything torn from Her.
The pull of connections beyond the reservoir of Her memory gripped Her, voices calling out. How was She connected to any of this? Was it Her past or Her future? The visions, the memories confused Her, it was true-not only because they were foreign to Her, but because She enjoyed them. She enjoyed how they made Her feel. Powerful. Alive.
The waves receded as She knelt on the beach; Her hand sank into the sand for balance. These were not Her memories, yet somehow She felt comfortable possessing them, thinking of them as Her own. She shut Her eyes. Mild nausea washed over Her just as the waves did. She had failed in Her task, Her test. She had failed Her master and had been reduced to this-a broken, battered child, grasping at shells in the shallows of the sea. She had nothing for him, not even Herself anymore.
She stood. Sand fell softly through Her fingers. She removed Her helmet, letting the wind play in Her hair and push it from Her like a veil. Weightlessness, or the impression of it, captured Her, threatening to sweep Her from Her feet. There was a wild giddiness to the feeling, one that triggered reminiscence without any visions, just a sensation of a place free from time. Or was it the other way around? There was the vertigo that memory now induced, but She no longer cared. Regardless of whom it belonged to, this nostalgia was something She could clutch, She could make Her own.
Without knowing or caring why, She spun Herself gently, slowly once upon the white sand.
The sun had climbed higher in the sky. Her black hair spilled about Her face as the wind weakened. She blinked, listening to the unchanging rhythm of the waves, Her lips slowly dropping into their customary place. She tasted blood.
"There you are." Her master appeared before Her upon the sand. "Out for a stroll?"
She straightened, Her fingers clutching Her helmet tightly.
"I?I was returning from my mission." She looked to the horizon, the clouds. "I failed you, Master."
"You didn't fail me, kid." The God of War smiled. "Not exactly, anyway."
She bowed Her head. She didn't pretend to understand Her master's intentions, but his mercy and understanding was greatly appreciated.
"Call it a partial victory," Ares said. "Still, I was hoping you would come through a little stronger for me, but no matter."
They walked along the beach together, soon approaching the dunes that poured toward the gradual shelf of land that the old bathhouses were built upon. Neither had spoken a word.
"Okay, you seem dour even for you," Ares broke the silence. "What's on your mind?"
He looked at Her. "I don't believe that." She bowed Her head. He crossed his arms. "I don't know?maybe I've been pushing you too hard, too soon. Maybe you need a rest."
"Sure," Ares nodded. "It's okay. I expected more from you, but maybe I was unrealistic. No one's perfect." He winked. "Even when I make 'em."
"I can't have you running around with all this doubt and stress now, can I?"
She raised Her eyes allowing them to meet his. He grinned, putting his hands upon Her shoulders. "It'll only be for a little while. Until you feel better. Take your time." He nodded, smirking. "Figure things out."
Her fists, She finally noticed, were clenched tightly. She opened them, letting blood return with its flood of warmth. She could only nod.
"Good," Ares said. "I'll be by to check up on ya-when I get a chance. Take care." He disappeared into the morning.
The wind picked up again, whipping Her cape, snapping it in the air around Her. She continued up the slope towards the baths, passing absently through the dry patches of beach grass. The sun was now gaining strength in the sky above Her. She followed the line of Her footsteps into the distance, the northern horizon. It was easy to imagine any number of alternate routes She might have taken to arrive here, to arrive anywhere. In the end She knew it was all the same; it all ended in the same way.
Meridian shifted in its scabbard upon Her back. She squinted out across the sea. She had always preferred to wear the sword behind Her, rather than at Her hip. Even this now was ambiguous-was someone else. She sighed.
Holding Her helmet beneath Her arm, She moved toward the baths, Her bed, and the hollow comfort of unfamiliar dreams.
PART 1 - The City of Visible History
CHAPTER I. Like Those Hollow Places Between the Stars
The upturned form of Rome was ashen beneath the early morning sun. Buildings, pale and spent, cast the new light in a blinding white glow. The city sprawled stinking and unmoving against the receding Tiberus, curled at the extremities like a crucifixion cut down.
Heat refused to leave the capitol now. It buried itself in the dirt of the street, the porous rock and tile of the buildings, the withered trunks of the trees, the snouts of animals. At night it emerged; pouring, spilling into the streets like an unseen tide to flood the alleys, the forae, the rooms where people lay damp and unsleeping.
Moisture was exiled by the tyranny of the sun; leaving in mass exodus as vapor over the city. Objects betrayed it to the conquering star. Parched pots crumbled or shattered in gardens, upon balconies. Statues buckled or were avulsed by the rays of Helios to be left standing scarred or lying broken in the streets. Clothes disintegrated from the backs of the poor, or from travelers who slept in the parks. It was believed that water was even abducted from reservoirs below the earth; passing through the loose and dusty ground, and lifted into the blank face of the livid sky. Citizens talked of roof tiles popping in quick succession above their heads like vertebrae in a lion's jaws.
The Romans were calling it aestas tartarum-the summer of Hell-for truly, suffering was in abundance and without end. Night was as hot as morning, morning like noon, and at noon the city was a crucible. Children ran through the forae with fingers blistered by toys left too long unattended in the sun. People wandered the streets; eyes vacant, mouths agape. Flies emerged fully formed and hungry from the Styx-like murk of the river.
Upon the palm-lush heights of the Quirinal hill, the conflagration of the Roman morning was somewhat bearable, especially to one raised with the arid summers of Hellas in her blood. Gabrielle had never wanted to admit it, but the choking heat wave often reminded her of Greece; of late summers in Poteidaia, or on the dusty roads of the Peloponesse, although the sun had never burned with such purpose or cruelty in her memories.
She sighed and pulled the light, red linen of her new robe over her shoulders. A gift from the Phoenician merchant Cyrus who had handed it to her in the light of early morning, with a flash of straight, white teeth beneath his noble mustache.
The warrior squinted over the city from a high balcony at the Senator's home. What came before these moments of stillness seemed only a blur: After the rescue, a few restless hours of sleep; Mira complaining as she was shaken awake; the flight along the western end of the city, using the sparse merchant caravans as uneasy cover; avoiding Praetorians; ascending the steep Quirinal; Virgil pointing solemnly at the recently charred ruin of a military fort at the base of the hill; Senator Gallus, the Phoenician, the old man; Eve and Mira going back to sleep; Virgil, his arm around the old man Seneca, who led the poet to a grand peristylium.
During the exhausted commotion, she had held her breath. It's what she did when, as a child, she would hide, her sister trying desperately to find her, running to the barn and back calling Gabrielle! Gabrielle! She leaned against a wall, stood perfectly still and held her breath. In the shaded comfort of Gallus' atrium, she gave herself to the fatigue, hoping it might find her first, before anyone. Hoping it might obliterate her; that she might slide softly down the wall to the floor and into a black sleep, or just crumble silently into dust.
Cyrus had found her, had talked, smiled shyly like a small girl, and handed her the robe-stark, blood red against the dark and muted colors of the meeting room, its fabric as light and thin as a wing. He had left her then; his sensitivity to the depth of her weariness should have made her grateful, but only penetrated to a place that drained more of her precious reserves, increasing her lassitude.
Eventually, she had found the shaded balcony with its palms and its hazy view of the city. She had stepped with bare feet upon the veins of marble passing, like a caress, to the edge. As the sun loomed angrily above, she had stepped quietly from her clothes, bruised skin shining in the morning, and had wrapped the weightless cloth around her. Then she had stared out over the city for the better part of an hour, lost in a numb miasma. Occasionally she focused on features or occurrences below-shouts, the flights of sparrows, the secret business of stray cats. She found it hard to lift her eyes toward the southern horizon, but often felt compelled to do so.
There were still plumes of black smoke rising from the Palatine hill. She shifted against the marble of the balcony. Had She destroyed the temple? Had they destroyed Her? Gabrielle sighed.
The tightness of the fresh bandages caused her to shift with discomfort. Nemesis had struck the warrior viciously in her already broken ribs, and the wound throbbed worse now than before. The entire encounter presented itself to her in that way; more vivid in recall than when she had actually experienced it. The clash of swords threatened to swell in her ears, throbbing torchlight seemed to engulf her, the temple threatening to materialize its columns, its altar, Caesar's statue?
And Her silhouette?
Gabrielle shut her eyes. The marble was cold beneath her fingers, pulsing with the various footfalls within the large home. Mira was approaching from behind, barefoot and tentative across the balcony. Gabrielle turned and nodded to her. The girl squinted in the brightness of the sun, her eyes still adjusting from the shade of the house. She stood beside the warrior and stared out over the city.
"That's a nice color on you," she smirked.
"There's breakfast inside," Mira offered.
Gabrielle shifted. "Great."
The girl turned. "You know," she began. "We rescued everyone. It was a complete success."
"I know," Gabrielle smiled, a little self-consciously.
"Then why didn't you sleep? Why are you out here?"
"We still have a lot to do before we can stop and rest, you know."
"Yeah, I know," Mira nodded. "That's not what's bothering you, though."
Gabrielle blinked, then sighed. "No? no it isn't."
The girl squinted out over the balcony, watching a group of swallows pop in and out of holes they had dug in an eroded embankment at the side of the hill. She sighed.
"Come inside, everyone is meeting for breakfast. I think they want you there."
Gabrielle nodded and they both headed towards the door.
"You can tell me about it when you're ready?" Mira whispered as they passed from the blazing heat of outdoors to the muted swelter of Gallus' home.
In the dining chamber there was a huge wooden table adorned with a large repast. The inviting smell of fresh bread mixed sweetly with fragrant fruit and cold meats. Gabrielle collected some food and joined the others, who reclined lazily on couches in the lush chamber. She found a spot near the bowing leaves of a large fern. Eve smiled at the warrior as she took a seat nearby. Gallus and Cyrus had already been chewing absently and talking, as everyone arrived. Mira sat on a large couch and looked about, not touching the heaping plate of food she had brought for herself.
Soon, Virgil entered, laughing happily beside the portly form of Seneca. Gabrielle watched the older man. The senator and unabashed Republican was a sight of almost hydra-like proportions in this context. Having been exiled to a small island off the coast of Hispania years earlier for his tireless meddling in Imperial affairs, his attendance added an extra layer of enigma to a room that was already well populated by outsiders, mystics and people who were supposed to be dead. He blinked happily at everyone, though Gabrielle noticed he had a tired cast to the wrinkled outskirts of his features.
Mira shuffled. Gabrielle tilted her eyes to her friend. The girl looked to the hall and back to the lounge. She popped a date into her down-curled mouth and grimaced as she chewed. Her brown eyes kept searching with their wistful quality.
"He's probably still asleep," Gabrielle offered.
Mira sat up. "Huh? Who?"
"Never mind," the warrior yawned.
Mira blinked at her friend and then turned her attention to Virgil who seemed to be acting as the host of the gathering. Gabrielle nibbled on some bread as she leaned back against the plush cushions of the couch. The poet smirked as he stood before them, instantly belittling the gravity of the situation.
"Well, here we are," he said with sure oration. "The makers of Rome and her greatest outlaws."
Seneca snorted. "I hope you're not depending on us to spot the difference, my boy."
Everyone laughed. Virgil shook his head, grinning widely. "I see all those years on a barren pile of rocks hasn't dulled your legendary wit, old man, and that is good, for we need it now more than ever."
The former Senator nodded his agreement, his eyes saddening somewhat. "Rome has certainly seen better days."
"And perhaps it shall again." Gallus rose. "To the point at hand, however. Our friends, the Elians-while they are safe for the time being, they must depart Rome immediately."
Eve nodded. "What do you suggest, Senator?"
The young Senator indicated Cyrus. "The Phoenician traders under Cyrus have agreed to secret you and your friends from the city. They have ships waiting in the ports at Ostia. From there, they can take you anywhere."
Gabrielle tilted her head to the side. "There's no way Nero will just sit around and let us all leave the city after what happened last night."
Eve looked to Seneca. "To what lengths will he go?"
Seneca shook his head sadly, his features darkening in the filtered morning light. "Even in the five years of my exile, I have watched his mania deepen, his judgment fracture. I cannot say for certain how far he will stoop to conquer."
"There's only so far he can go," Virgil said. "No matter how insane the Emperor is, in the end he must serve the will of the people. Romans will indulge his rage only so far."
"Not if that rage is their own," Eve sighed. "It can be difficult with Romans to see where the will of the people ends and the desires of the Emperor begin."
Gallus nodded. "Agreed. Nero has already used the murders and mayhem of recent days against his enemies, wrongfully accusing and detaining the Elians, and just this morning, suspending the meetings of the Senate." A hush fell upon them at this news. The Senator crossed his arms. "After yesterday's escape, I don't expect that these moves are against the will of the people."
Virgil shook his head. "What next? Will Rome just hand him ultimate control?"
"The sun has scorched all reason from this place," Seneca sighed, rising before them. "Nero is cunning when defending himself, true, but he is far more effective and dangerous when on the attack. He is malevolently proactive, and it is important that we realize his schemes go far beyond the walls of Rome, the lands of the Empire."
"Certainly, my friend, no one would know better than yourself," Gallus agreed. "But our immediate concerns are far more pressing than the future machinations of our beloved Emperor, however unsavory they may be."
"I do not think that even Nero believes he can abolish the Senate," Virgil said. "So our first worry is still the Elians. We need to coordinate our efforts and have everyone ready to move as soon as we can."
Cyrus nodded at the poet, who in turn looked to Gabrielle. The warrior was staring absently at the detailing of the Athenian banquet table. The poet blinked, momentarily lost then turned to Eve. "We should begin the preparations immediately."
She nodded, and glanced at the reclining warrior. Virgil clapped his hands, a signal that the meal and meeting, were over. He and Eve left, heading towards their quarters, Gallus and Cyrus trailed behind. Seneca stood and moved toward the balcony, drawing his robe over his mottled skin. Leaving her plate with a thump, Mira got to her feet. "Uh?I'm going for a walk," she said distractedly and was gone.
The marble beneath her toes had become warm from the heat of her body, so Gabrielle shifted them slightly to absorb the coolness of the pale stone. Servants arrived, collecting trays of uneaten food, moving furniture, wending their way quickly and efficiently through her vision. She had trouble hearing the birds chirping outside the mansion. Everyone, everything was moving away from her, it seemed. She shifted the red robe over her shoulders and rose to her feet. Perhaps some rest would help, but she had forgotten the way to her quarters in the haze of their arrival. She sighed.
At the junction of the hall that led to the balcony, the heat and heaviness of morning fell upon her. Her bruised palm slammed upon a nearby decorative table, her arms straining to keep her upright. She looked to the nearby wall, the corner of the room, behind the potted ferns and figs; anyplace to crouch, to hide, to disappear. Her knees slammed into marble and she rested awkwardly on the floor. She put a hand to her eyes, rubbing tiredly. Her teeth ground together loudly in her mouth, the sound not able to drown out the gaping silence, the void around her. Her fist slammed awkwardly into the wall once, twice---in time with the pound of her heartbeat.
Gabrielle rubbed her knuckles. She strained and rose to her feet. Outside she could see the rising haze, the shimmering rooftops and the cresting hills of the city. To the south, she could just make out the shadow of a plume of smoke that continued to rise over the far-off Palatine Hill.
Even with the heavy shutters drawn, the heat of noon was a demanding presence in Gabrielle's quarters. She sat, folded in the lotus position on a rush mat in the middle of the pale marble floor. Heat radiated from the mattress, the cabinets, the oak dressers, the tables, the silk curtains, from every corner and wall of the bedroom. Even the cool stone surrounding her provided little comfort in her richly furnished suite.
The warrior had watched thin beams of sunlight ease silently across the floor, but had yet to reach a meditative state. Sweat ran in drops along her skin as she stilled her breathing, quieted her mind. The heat, the outside world, its trappings, the memories, the aches, the pains were all intangible garments that one must shrug free, leaving the soul naked. She began stripping it all away, peeling the layers from her. But still, her soul remained bashful and aloof.
Birds cackled maniacally somewhere beyond the shutters in sharp, shrill squawks. The footfalls of servants pounded throughout the house, lost in their tasks, bounding here and there with trays and pitchers and glasses clattering away. Gabrielle even thought she could hear Virgil re-reading something he had written to himself, somewhere nearby. She sighed and shook her head.
"Come on?you do this all the time," she said under her breath.
She wiped her brow, moving a lock of hair from her eyes. Shaking the tightness from her, she prepared herself again. She closed her eyes and slowed her breathing.
Her thoughts flowed from her, trickling away in drops, in rivulets. She let them go. Pieces of everything, of the One Thing, of her, of the universe, of universes countless, spilling from her, they streamed collecting in the distance. A pool, a pond, far away from her, far away?
Rings of water had rippled outward, splashing softly against the bank where we stood. I had always been in wonder of water; its contradictions, its dynamics, the sound of it falling from the sky at dusk, rustling the leaves, its capacity for creation.
With the stone settling to the bottom of the pond, your hand had returned to your side, steady, strong. You talked about the past, the darkness you had thrown over the world, which I imagined as a black sheet falling slowly to the ground. I heard your words of warning, the lesson, but could only watch you, could only hear your voice.
And was that the first time I noticed how black your hair was? Or how smooth your skin? I fell in love with you again as you spoke. I fell in love with you so often those days, every day. It was my pastime, my obsession. Maybe I didn't know. Maybe as you spoke those words and made me envious of how effortlessly and wonderfully you had made your point. Maybe as your arm had gently arced and spun the flat stone into the pond. Maybe as you breathed.
It's hard not to laugh sometimes, especially when I think of that dress: that completely impractical peasant girl's dress that my mother had made for me. How did you not laugh at me? I knew you hated it, hated its uselessness. Do you remember that night you sliced it to pieces? You thought I didn't know, that I was asleep.
I never slept much in those days. I used to drift off cursing that we had to turn in, that I had to be away from you for any time at all-until you started to inhabit my dreams. There were times I never wanted to wake, you used to laugh at how long I could sleep, how nothing could rouse me. Only your voice, your words, every one new and wondrous on the air, even when expressing a harsh reality learned over the course of that tumultuous life that you lived. A life that seemed so much longer, so much richer than my own had.
-It's forever changed?
How many times do I remember the words? How often do I feel those stones sunk within myself? How often do I feel ripples stretching into infinity, upsetting a balance, churning and disrupting my stillness, my focus, my connection to my surroundings, to everything? How often do I feel the ripples traveling, rings unraveling becoming untenable, flattening into waves; waves spilling dead into the sea? What sort of bard am I that the rhythm of the sea is lost to me as a source, as a comfort? It's odd how I cannot remember the last time any of that had mattered?
Eve entered the room, tentatively. Gabrielle raised her head. She sighed as she slowly rose to her feet. "It's okay, Eve. Come in." The warrior smiled. "I wasn't having much luck."
They looked at each other for a moment in silence as they sometimes did. Gabrielle tried her best not to linger on the blue eyes of her friend, instead incorporating a sullen flutter between the floor and Eve's gaze. So much like?
Eve broke the silence. "I'm worried about you."
Gabrielle ran her hand through her hair. "Me? Why?"
"You seem," the woman paused thoughtfully. "Preoccupied."
The warrior moved to her bed and sat on the end of it. She sighed, hating to have to lie to her friend. "Well?if you must know, I'm a little concerned that you're deciding to remain behind in Rome. I think it's irresponsible and extremely dangerous."
"Gabrielle?" Eve sat on the bed beside her.
"You know how insane it is, Eve, I can tell. You must be able to feel that something is wrong around here." The warrior motioned outside the confines of the room, beyond the city, to some distant and metaphysical place. "Even I can feel it."
"I do feel it and that is why I've decided to stay. Besides," Eve looked at her calmly. "I don't have a choice in the matter."
Gabrielle crossed her arms. "Oh? And how is that?"
"Because I've dreamt it."
The warrior furrowed her brows. "What exactly did you dream, Eve?"
"Feelings mostly, premonitions of evil. Limitless, undying evil."
"Nothing new, huh?" Gabrielle smirked.
"But there is good also, pure and endless," Eve continued. "Things are in flux and whatever is causing it is centered here in Rome."
"How does any of this involve you?"
"I just know it does. It involves all of us."
Gabrielle sighed. "I don't like any of this."
"You don't have to." Eve squeezed her hand. "You just have to accept it."
The warrior turned to her friend. "Promise you'll tell me about all of your dreams from now on."
The woman rose and moved for the door. "I promise." She paused for a moment, about to speak and then continued out of the warrior's chambers.
Exhaustion gripped Gabrielle. Hunger as well. It was hard to breathe. The warrior sighed as she rose to her feet and moved to the window, her fingertips tracing the frame absently. She felt unnatural heat leaking through the shutters as she rested Her forehead uncomfortably against the heated wood. Pain flared in her knuckles when she gripped the frame.
Turning, the warrior moved aimlessly to the center of the room. She considered resuming her meditations, but thought better of it. Pain seemed to be omnipresent. Her ribs hurt, her back hurt; she winced as she bent over a washbasin. Hair fought against the rough sweep of her hand. She sighed, head down. And this was the sum of a life: one movement leading into the next, tiring, slowing. It pressed upon her, weighed her down. She wanted to stand perfectly still when she thought of it that way.
How did I get like this? When?
She couldn't stop herself taking stock of so many nights sleeping on cold, hard ground. Of walking aimlessly through rain, through snow; wet, hungry, cold. The sleepless nights, the wounded nights, drunken ones slipping away unremembered. They formed this huge weight, wearing her away; thirty-six years seeping into her flesh seemingly overnight.
I can't be like this now?
She rubbed at her sockets, eyelids protesting in red flashes across her vision.
Under the autumn sky in Gaul, Eve had been in high spirits. Gabrielle had watched the woman as she skipped under the red-leaved trees with Mira. The warrior almost cried when she saw the leaves, colors spilling across the quiet woods. She wiped at her eyes.
Eve grinned warmly at her friend.
-I can't think of a better protector?
She wiped sweat from her brow with a small cloth, leaving it against her skin for a moment over throbbing eyes. The air in the room remained motionless. She threw the damp cloth at the wall, where it quietly impacted and slid to the floor. She felt feather-light now, weightless, harmless, useless. The will to act was leaving her; she could feel it and she let it go, let it run from her, trickling away. Strength fled as well; peeling from her, leaving only pain, doubt and fear.
I don't think I can protect you anymore, Eve. I don't think I can protect any of you?
It wasn't until she had finished half of the peach that Gabrielle realized how over-ripe it was. Another victim of the scorching weather, she surmised. With some difficulty, she swallowed the mealy flesh and put the sad remains down.
She slouched at a large marble table occupying a silk-canopied spot on one of the balconies at Gallus' sprawling property. A platter of half-touched food, a pitcher of water and several open scrolls cluttered the surface around her. The mid-afternoon sun seethed across the unprotected portions of the terrace, the Quirinal hill and the city beyond. She let her eyes pass over the most-recently opened scroll: a detailed map of the city of Ostia and its extensive series of ports. Stifling a yawn, she pawed it aside, letting it roll up with a gentle swish.
Everything had an unsettling stillness about it, as though buried in sand. She poured some water into an ornate mug and lifted it to her lips. The liquid left a soft film in the back of her throat. She put the drained cup down and rubbed at her eyes.
The scrolls taunted from their cool marble bed. City maps, trade routes, Praetorian protocols, troop deployments lay useless beneath her fingertips, offering up a building pressure at her temples. Mira had brought them, gifts from Virgil and Gallus. The girl had brought their expectations and hopes as well, leaving them upon Gabrielle's ever-slumping shoulders.
The warrior sighed at the thought of her friend, of all of her friends. They all felt far away, like the unknowable murk of the waking world when in the clutches of a dream. They needed direction, a plan, but there was lead in her bloodstream, it weighed down her arms, rested painfully against her tender ribs, crushed her heart. Their pleading looks only made it worse. She found it hard to even push aside the fragile parchment of the scrolls before her. Indeed, she found herself reading them almost against her will. It was impossible, even now, for the warrior to ignore the written word. The churn of language could always draw in her eye. Her gaze passed over the bottom of a scroll, over the enthusiastic sweep of hastily scrawled words set in cheap ink:
Night fell then, soft like whispers at the tops of the trees,
But within the heart of the Warrior Princess,
Peace found no sanctuary, calm no quarter,
And the darkness that fell upon the land like a blanket
Seemed radiant beside the shade within her breast.
Yet beyond the woods, beyond the mists of the lonely plains,
Lay a place darker still, where memories bitter,
And Evil without bounds lay in wait.
But O, her mind was set and her heart proud and clear,
She would press into the depths of the Amazon lands,
Into the heart of darkness, the mystery of the Underworld,
Woeful Tartarus itself, where the Styx moans,
For not even the borders between life and death
Could keep her from the soul of her dearest friend,
Her beloved bard, the sun-haired Gabrielle.
Who was this child who wrote with such a bleeding pen? Who spoke so surely of life in terms of its Darkness and Light, its Good and Evil? Who possessed such clarity, such omniscience, so uncluttered a soul? Who was this with such arrogance, such pride to put anything into words, to try and hold life to any sort of promise of meaning, any form of permanence? Who was she?
The papyrus hissed as Gabrielle pushed it violently away from her. She passed another scroll over it until it disappeared from sight, was no longer a danger. Her head bowed over the parchment-laden chaos of the table. I wasn't even there, how could I possibly have known what she felt, or why? The truth was bitter, but made her laugh nonetheless. Gabrielle hadn't been dead, but the Warrior Princess had gone to Tartarus and back to find her. She hadn't been dead? Where had she been? It seemed she had never known until they had found each other. They always found each other in the end it seemed. Not that time?
So many times we kept coming back. Not that time. We acted as if nothing happened, at least for a while. We pretended, until I would try to touch the skin of your collarbone, or you would slip in behind me for an embrace. Still we tried, through the weariness, the strain.
How tired your eyes had become. How weary your words when you passed them to me across the infinity between us. Ghosts: one in body and one in soul, tracing over the same old ground. I remember how it became impossible, as we passed pale and unseen from place to place. My feet dragging, bog-heavy over roads without names, from task to task. My dreams racing over me, holding me down in leaf-choked depths, night after night. And for you there was no rest?
That morning it had rained. I remember that day, in the moments before sleep. It is a gray memory: the tombs, the sky, the slant of light spinning in fragments like cinders lost in the twilight, as I passed the mute stones, statues, gnarled trees.
That morning it had rained. This wasn't Tartarus, it was Amphipolis; bloody Amphipolis, where your whole family had died one by one. I thought it was what you wanted. You told me yourself it was what you wanted. It seemed like what you wanted.
We tried so hard with everything else, why not this time?
And in the stillness of the grave I couldn't even kiss you, touch you, take you one last time. When was our last time? That night in Japa when you had clutched me to you, smell of cherry blossom, the flat mat beneath me. You knew, didn't you? Cloaked in that dark desperation, your body asking me for what your heart could not. I knew something was wrong, but I didn't care, I didn't ask. It was wonderful to trace you, own you as though my touch could save you. It was that old place, that old game we played and it felt like coming home. And here we were, your home, and nothing but words to set you on your way. I thought it was what you wanted?
Gabrielle wiped at her eyes, the light shattering in the prism of her tears. She blinked hoping to bring the world back to her, to escape from the crush of memories. Swallowing hard could not prevent the dizziness, the nausea, that invisible impact.
Water poured from the pitcher. Focusing on it helped her. She drank it, the liquid cool in her indifferent belly. Her hand exchanged cup for quill, the ink clotted though still useable. In the margin of her old scroll she scribbled, her hand startling her, unknown to her for so long, twisted by the years, by lack of practice, by loathing, though still clear as the words:
Regret, an absence within, black, empty, like those hollow places between the stars.
The day was no less choking in its heat, the air no less still. She left the balcony, her red robe coughing with the speed of her steps. The scrolls remained on the table, unrolled, slumped upon each other. The quill lay bent, shattered, plumes littering the table, broken with vigorous stabs across the words she had written.
Gabrielle was surprisingly comfortable on her back in Gallus' garden. The heat of day floated above her in the darkening sky, but the relative coolness of the earth seeped into her skin through the silk robe. She stretched a bit, feeling her widespread exhaustion groan within. A yawn made her eyes water.
Sometimes, when she lay on the ground like this, she could return to the wonder. Beneath a tapestry of stars, she could find that farm girl who had found every moment of the journey precious, every footstep new. She could forget the yolk of days. She could forget. She could let the world spin, let the breeze pour over her, let her heart beat at a normal pace.
It was difficult: that connection, that stillness went against the current of her life, a life that was about constant motion, about collision, churning and upheaval. There was a kinship she could glean between herself and her surroundings, even the stars above her head, but not a true connection. Perhaps a bond like that shared between travelers, a common ordeal. Indeed, the stars felt like travelers to her. Drifting as they did between heaven and earth, seemingly aimless as they moved. Each with a story that she could never know, could never comprehend; only lock eyes briefly in the night, across the void and move on. And in that way, so much like human beings they were as well, unknown and unknowing, scattered like pebbles across eternity.
But it was there, the wonder, if only for a second and she didn't turn it away. Soon, it faded like an ember and was gone. She rubbed her eyes, pressing the lids roughly upon her pupils.
Footsteps entered the garden, Mira's, and light followed. The girl placed a lamp in a setting and approached. A grin spread across Gabrielle's face when her friend paused suddenly, appraising the warrior's prone position then resumed, tentatively now.
"Uhm?what are you doing?"
"Looking at the stars. I still do that, you know."
Mira sat beside her on the ground, bringing her long legs to her chest. She sniffed at the air.
"It's not too bad out here," she said. "I think there may even be a breeze."
Gabrielle nodded, not expecting the girl to see. Out upon the Quirinal, an owl offered a throaty lament. The warrior took one last look into the sky and lifted herself into a sitting position. "Mira, why did you put that scroll in with the others?"
The girl turned sheepishly. "What scroll? What do you mean?" Gabrielle just glared and her friend ran a hand through her hair. "Okay, okay. I put the scroll there, so what? It was for your own good."
"And what would you know about that?"
"A lot actually," Mira blinked. "I've been traveling with you for almost two years, but I see that doesn't seem to matter to you."
"Well, it matters to me. It matters to me to see you sulking and upset. It matters to me to see you hurt and distracted. It matters to me that we have all of these people scared and depending on us and looking to you for answers and here's you avoiding everyone lying on your back looking up into the sky not willing to accept any of that responsibility." The warrior sat in silence. Mira shook her head, playing with some leaves of grass. "What happened?"
Gabrielle sighed. "Nothing?"
"That is just so much?"
"What do you want me to say?"
Mira threw the grass to the ground. "You don't have to say anything, I guess. Just put yourself here, now, where we need you." She looked away. "I thought maybe reading about her in your own words?would?well, inspire you a little, y'know?"
Gabrielle looked puzzled. "Inspire me? What for?"
"To snap out of it and, well?"
"And maybe to start writing again."
"It's really a crime that you've stopped, you know?I've read a bunch of The Scrolls and?"
"I think it would help with everything if you started again. You should just try it." Mira shrugged. "It might make life a little easier."
The warrior pursed her lips. "I learned a long time ago that contrary to popular belief, writing and living are two separate things." She changed her tone, trying to make the girl understand. "And right now, living is hard enough." Mira looked down. The night had gone still again, humidity settling heavy on the air. The warrior took a deep breath and put her hand on the girl's arm. "Hey, you were right, reading the scroll helped. I'm?I'm just tired. That's all."
Mira nodded. "Okay. Good. Well?get some sleep and we can work on this tomorrow, huh?"
The girl rose to her feet, placing a hand on the warrior's shoulder. She moved toward the house.
Gabrielle sighed, running a hand through her hair. Liar?she threw at herself. The lamp was left in its setting, the seeping light keeping the stars from her vision. She lay on her back again.
There was nothing she could tell the girl that would have mattered. It would be easy for the warrior to fake her way through the next stage of things. She had been doing it for so long now, it seemed. She rubbed her temples. There was still Ares to deal with. Ares and? Her lip quivered. They were no closer to understanding any of the scope of the war god's plans than before. What could be done about it all? About Her?
Gabrielle looked out of the garden, into the vacant black beyond. With a wince, she slowly got to her feet.
-It's really a crime that you've stopped, you know?
The warrior rubbed her eyes.
In some ways I never did.
I distill countless moments of every day into words, shared with no one: the furious rainbow of a dragonfly's wings; the drag of days stretched out like some sad caravan from horizon to horizon; the wan and alien futility of my desire. I collect these, a book of lists without a reader; without a writer. The eye for it, that cold observer never leaves, only the inspiration, the will to scribble, the muse.
I've met kings of men, queens, heroes, gods. I've watched them fall to ruin, kingdoms erode, and civilizations sputter out into darkness. I've been at the side of prophets who are elevated as avatars and martyred into deities. And never once have I met a muse, let alone my very own. Never have I sat in sylvan woods at their pale and slight feet, sated, bloated with inspiration.
Or is that entirely true?
I remember the last time I worked on them, on The Scrolls, on anything-in Japa, in Higuchi, in our quarters, on our bed. I was having trouble capturing this far off and distant land we were in, I felt as though I had to create a completely new language to be accurate, to even approach what I was seeing. You were lying on your stomach as you sometimes did when you were completely at ease, when you would allow yourself to relax. I would stop writing, my eyes would climb the fullness of your calves, the valley behind your knees, and slowly up the perfection, the strength of your thighs as they disappeared beneath your shift, leaving only a delicious hint of what lay concealed there.
I ran the feather of my quill against the skin of your legs, gently up, as my lips, my tongue might. Your smile flashed from over your shoulder, through a dark lock of hair. My eyes fell again upon the smooth and even surface of your thighs. I dabbed my quill in ink and softly inscribed upon your flesh:
-Does the muse flow the pen, or does the pen flow towards the muse?
Each word replaced a kiss, a caress, sliding toward the sloping mystery beneath your shift, to my inspiration. Afterwards, we laughed about the smudged ink clotted across the sheets, our skin. I was hoping you'd ask what I had written, but you never did. You never knew. I should have told you, I think you would have finally been able to appreciate the role you filled in my life. I should have told you?
But that is the true secret, the burden of the bards: that the stories you leave unwritten carry far more weight. What I left out of my scrolls is worth more to me now than anything I ever committed to ink: the smell of her upon me; the half-formed words cried out in her sleep; when she would allow herself to enjoy food, wine, her friends' company---the part of her that was a woman, my part, rather than the Warrior Princess, the myth, my creation?
Gabrielle gathered her robe about her shoulders, wrapping herself in the scarlet bounty of fabric. She entered the long hall that led from the garden to the rest of the Senator's house. Statues, paintings, pottery were placed sparsely down the long passage. Beyond, at the end, she could see the vague outline of another doorway leading into the night. Suddenly, as she reached the halfway point of the hallway, a gust of wind pushed through the home, unfurling the robe from the warrior's body, casting it in a crimson arc down the corridor. The breeze smelled vaguely of the sea, of rain. Just as soon as it had begun, the gust fell away. Gabrielle gathered her robe around her. She moved soundlessly into the dormant vaults of the home, to her quarters and to sleep.
CHAPTER II. Sunlight and Shadow
Unity is against the nature of the universe.
Sunrise illustrates this concept better than anything. At night the sea, the land, the sky, all were united by darkness, blended into one. While the essence of each remained-the sea still churned like restless dreams against the skull of the land, the sky watched indifferently from above-night blurred them, conflating existence into a wonderful, singular mystery.
Just as in the early moments of the universe, light, with its drama, separated and neatly divided it all. Beginnings and endings were clear. Identity was plainly illustrated. Light showed things for what they truly were. And while the sun cast its rays down upon countless creations of beauty, it also passed a woeful finality; a fatal judgment upon the less fortunate, the meek, the non-malleable. The light divided, it stole as easy as it gave life, health, and hope.
Morning had cast Her out as easily as the howling and chattering things of the dark. She had been walking through the wave of night, unable to rest, to stop the gyre of Her mind. But while not discovering oblivion, She had found the sensation of being one with the darkness around Her, a comfort, a consolation. Now, as the sun rose, She found it impossible to keep charging thoughts at bay as they leapt to life before Her eyes from behind every rock, blade of grass, from out of the sea itself.
On Her knees in the long grass overlooking the seemingly endless white sliver of beach, She shut Her eyes. Maybe the sound of the sea would soothe Her, still Her somehow, as it had before. But in the darkness, the waves' roar churned fresh images, visions about Her mind's eye, wrapping Her consciousness in the ragged sway of vertigo. She was off-balance, falling. Her hand shot to the pillow of sand at Her side, but brushed cold steel. The helmet, its faceplate staring up at Her, reflected a distorted image of grass at Her feet, the sky, Her confused face. Visions swelled before Her, pulling at weakening sensibilities, pulling Her into the reflected grass?
She was hidden amidst tall grass at the boundary of a campsite. There was a pond reflecting the sun's setting. A blonde girl walked to the water's edge, she sat down, quickly unlaced her boots and threw them on the bank. She dangled her bare feet in the warm pond.
From Her hiding spot She could see the girl was talking to herself, laughing to herself, but the words were lost at this distance. She knew that She wanted to hear the words; but She shouldn't, She couldn't move closer.
With the sun setting in such a slow and dreamy manner, it took a second before She realized that the girl had shed her clothes, was naked. The young woman stood with her back to the hiding place, slightly crouched as she splashed water on her arms. She then dove into the shimmering water, coming up near the middle of the pond. Rising out of the water, droplets pouring down her smooth form, sunset dancing across her skin...
The sea fell upon the sand in gentle waves and then receded sadly, spurned, though unrelenting. Her breathing returned to normal and She glared out over the water. The black charge of clouds throbbed in the western sky, closer now than the day before. Squinting, She could spy flashes of lightning in the swirling, jet matrix. Within a day the storm would be upon the coast, within two, the heart of Rome itself.
And where would She be?
Had She fallen so far out of Her master's favor that he would leave Her out of his plans, out of the most crucial points of his scheme? There was no way of knowing. She had failed so utterly, so completely in Her task, how could he trust Her skills again? And yet, he hadn't scolded or raged, or showed any sort of concern over Her failure. Perhaps the visions, frightening and uncontrollable, were throwing Her judgment, Her focus. Should She confess, seek aid for the tumult within Her?
Her fingers sank into the sand between the thin blades of grass, the grains folding over Her skin?
Weapons: a sword, knives, the chakram, Her armor on the ground, clustered together like a burial cairn. She poured earth, rich soil from the forest floor over them. The dark loam falling through Her fingers like clotted blood?
A breeze came from across the sea, scattering the sand from Her palms. She threw the remaining grains to the ground and grabbed Her helm, rising to Her feet. Her cape clapped in the wind as She darted toward the bathhouses. She stopped. The smell of horses disturbed the sea air around Her. She broke into a swift sprint, reaching the bathhouses in less than five strides. Pressed against the weathered stone at the side of the buildings, She glided to the landward façade of the structure, peering around the corner.
Two large war chariots and corresponding teams of horses stood just away from the entrance to the first building. One of the large beasts snorted, stamping nervously at the soft earth. Voices could be heard from inside the building. Silently, She slipped inside.
Passing through the empty, abandoned rooms, Her eyes drifted over the old frescos, the mosaics, the faces and animals seeming to move in the half-light. A musty tapestry dotted with misshapen visages peered with detached imperiousness at Her, until their lips appeared to speak. She closed Her eyes from the visions and moved through the halls, using memory and sound alone. As She paused before the large chamber at the center of the building, She opened them again.
Her master's voice could be heard echoing in the expanse beyond. She leaned around the corner and peered into the gloom. Two men in ornate, black armor stood before Her master. Her hand instinctually moved for Meridian, but She noticed that they bowed before the God of War. Squinting in confusion, She listened.
One of the men, helmet in hand spoke. "All is as you have ordered, war god."
"Excellent," he said. "Now, we wait." The two armored men bowed deeply. Ares waved their supplication away. "Aw, c'mon guys, after the setbacks, it was nice to get some good news." He beamed at them. "Now get back to Rome and wait."
"We serve your will, Ares."
"And good servants you are, my priests." He smiled. "The best."
They left, passing through another hall and out of the building.
There was a specter of grit, a burning in Her eyes and they watered without control. Her throat threatened to collapse. On Her feet, backing away, She would not let it sink in, not let this enter Her sinew, Her soul. She tripped but kept moving away from the chamber, Her body enacting the denial within. She had lost Her master's favor, his trust. It was over.
Stumbling, She spun around. The faces on the tapestry met Hers, abstract, bored. Tears fell from Her eyes, passing without sensation over the metal of the faceplate. Her head shook in desolation.
"No," was all She could say.
The faces seemed to quiver, to call out. A scream exploded from Her and She ran from the building into the morning. In the main chamber, Ares smiled at the sound. "Man, my timing just gets better with age."
During breakfast, the slaves had whispered of a breeze: weak, ghostly, but damp and gently drifting from the west, from over the pondering sea. They spoke in spry hushes, as though of folk heroes or uprisings. Had their prayers been answered, they wondered as they removed empty trays from the table. Was Rome being spared at last? Would there be a rain that washed the drought from the city?
Nero had laughed to himself about it all. These dogs jump from flame to flood without a glance, so focused on their fleeting little pleasures, he thought. So unfocused on The Game?
Across the gardens of the Domus Aurea, a haze was already beginning to hang. Rays of harsh sunlight laid claim to much of the thinly wooded spaces. Amongst the rising heat, there was no sign of this breeze that had the chattel so riled. The Emperor stretched and turned back from the terrace to his audience chamber, his short tunic uncomfortable against his skin. He was unused to wearing clothing at such an early hour, but felt that his respect for his guest's modesty important.
Waiting calmly in a large North African chair was the brushed silver presence of General Antonius Terrence, most trusted of Nero's soldiers. He held a goblet of coarse wine, the unpretentious drink of an infantryman, in his calloused hand. A plate of food, untouched of course, rested on the small table to his left. It had been a long night for the General, yet still his faculties remained firmly in place, his patience and service unwavering.
The Emperor sat on his throne. "Now Terrence," he addressed the soldier. "What is your assessment?"
Taking one final, small sip of the sludgy wine, Terrence stood to address his Emperor. "There is much to tell, Caesar. This morning's suspension of the Senate has already caused the expected grandstanding and turmoil among your detractors, Senators Darius and Flavius the most outspoken of the bunch. Murmurs of civil war have been reported among the plebeians."
"Those plebeians," Nero smirked with condescension. "Such a flare for hyperbole."
"More distressing is a report that a Republican offer to purchase the services of several Imperial legions in the backwaters of Europa has been accepted. My intelligence has the Germania, Hispania and Britannica all secretly on the march toward the city as we speak."
This caused the Emperor to chuckle incredulously, raising his eyebrow. "Oh my!"
Terrence wasn't as amused. "These legions, if left unchallenged pose a viable threat on the city, Caesar; the Praetorians would be no match for them alone."
Nero nodded. "No they wouldn't, would they? What would you recommend, my dear Terrence?" he asked.
The soldier rubbed his jaw. "Have the Italica engage them above the river Padus and bring the Augusta and Claudian to the city's gates as a last line of defense, as we discussed before."
"But wait," Nero interrupted dramatically. "We can't bring the legions in from Ostia. The Senate would never allow it."
Terrence nodded, but smiled. "With things being the way they are, you could declare a State of Emergency. The entire might of Rome would then fall into your hands alone."
Bouncing on his chair, the Emperor was obviously titillated. "How wonderfully maverick!" He ran his hand across his stubble. "A bit too soon for that, perhaps. Have an order sent to Ostia and put the Augusta and Claudian at the ready. Any thoughts on who is behind all of this?"
The General's brows furrowed at the thought. "Obviously Darius and Flavius spring to mind, but only Darius is well-connected and wealthy enough to bankroll such a machination. But no one can draw a line back to him."
"That dirty old bull," Nero spat. "And the prison break? The Elians? The destruction unleashed against the temple to the divine Julius? Any ideas?"
Terrence shook his head. "I'll admit that it seems a bit beyond the followers of Eli. Perhaps it was the work of citizens. There was a well-established support network in place. There would have to be."
"Making people disappear into thin air is one of the few things that may not be beyond them, Terrence." Nero smiled. "I'll concur though, it stinks of Roman hands. Who would take an interest in such a boring, flea-chewed bunch of vagabonds?"
"Hard to say, Caesar. I would bet heavily on the more liberal elements among the Republicans. The younger Senators perhaps."
"Yes," the Emperor pondered this. "The young lions, the fashionable, the jet set, carousing with the artists, the lepers, the literati?" He arched his eyebrow expectantly toward the older man. "Although, it does have an older, wiser touch to it, doesn't it?"
"You don't think it could be?"
Nero smiled toothily. "Oh, but I do think it could be him."
"A delicate situation, this," the old soldier rubbed his freshly shorn chin. "You have to prove his role in this before you can proceed with any sort of bold maneuvers."
"Indeed. I've placed my best man on the job, so we're sure to see results." Nero rose and strode toward the balcony. "Now if you'll excuse me, my friend, I have an audience with the Sibylline and I'd like to steel myself." He looked out over the stillness of morning and shuddered. "Those bitches give me the creeps."
Gabrielle watched the old man from beneath a palm. He was crouching with some discomfort, talking to a pot of wilted flowers. Shade slouched sadly around his eyes as he peered at the shriveled plants. The warrior didn't know why, but she felt an overwhelming urge to pity the man. From what she knew of Seneca, he had lived a full and meaningful life of politics, philosophy and scholastics, a life that she might have been envious of at one point. She sighed.
The sun was gaining strength, swelling into the morning above. The old man gently caressed the tired flowers, speaking to them with obvious concern. She smiled to herself: an old man and a garden; so funny to watch something so archetypal, so right. She would never live to be his age, the warrior decided; the odds seemed to be against it. There was a part of her that could imagine a similar scene, with herself in the midst of the plant life, but it was countered by the part that was resigned to a short, brutal life and painful death, alone and scared. She smirked at her dramatics.
By the flowers, Seneca had noticed her watching him and had waved to Gabrielle with a smile. Her skin warmed at being caught spying and for wishing to be alone. Better go over? She walked resignedly toward the old man, her best grin spreading across her face.
"Hello," he called to her.
"I was wondering if your words work only on plants, or if they heal all wilting things?" The warrior indicated herself with a shrug.
"Wilting?" He shook his head, a look of incredulous protest on his face. "Nonsense. Why, if I were five years younger?" He smiled self-deprecatingly. "Well?thirty-five years younger?"
Gabrielle laughed. "Somehow, I don't think I'd be your type."
He smiled. "Perhaps, perhaps." His eyes met hers and became serious. "Something troubles you."
She nodded. "Rome never agrees with me." She smirked unconvincingly, hoping it was enough.
"You find it hard to share your burden."
When did I become someone who fit that description? A bead of sweat trickled between her shoulder blades until it met and was absorbed by the fresh bandage around her ribcage. "Maybe I think I can solve things on my own." She blinked distantly. "I've had to for a long time now."
"Since your friend died." He saw her eyes harden further and quickly changed his tone. "Forgive me, when you are as old as I, manners are more often a waste of time than anything else. And time," he smiled. "Time is something you cannot afford to squander."
Gabrielle's eyes fell sharply upon his. They stood facing each other in silence. Soon, the warrior's jaw relaxed and she nodded once. He tilted his head, prepared to say something then stopped. Gabrielle felt his hand upon her shoulder; he squeezed gently. He turned to the plant again and knelt carefully beside it. "Coming back to Rome has been?painful for me as well," he said.
She crossed her arms, squinting down at him. "Has it?" He continued to fuss with the plant, removing the dried leaves. Gabrielle shifted on her feet, looking for the right time-the polite time-to walk away. Sweat tickled the skin of her stomach.
"I guess I worry about how this city might remember me," he said.
Gabrielle pursed her lips, somewhat uninterested. "Perhaps it won't matter in 15, 50, 100 years. Rome is just another empire waiting to fall, to disappear."
"Perhaps, perhaps." He smiled, not thwarted by the warrior's cold nonchalance. "Nevertheless, at the end of one's life, a man indulges such thoughts, forgive me. As time runs out, all one has is history, it seems, so it is natural to want to put it in order. To find 'the moral of the story.'"
A cat slunk about the balcony, moving gracefully toward the home. It slipped inside without a sound.
"If you've lived an honest and moral life, you shouldn't worry how Romans will remember you after you're gone," Gabrielle said.
"True. But failures glimmer much brighter when life's light dims. I fear I may be remembered for them rather than for any good I've done. This city is a harsh yet simple place, my dear. It worships or it destroys." He grimaced up at her, becoming distracted by distant thoughts. "How much heavier the past is here, how much more present?"
Gabrielle stared down at him, trying to feel compassion, yet finding only languid ambivalence. "Regret is just a part of living," she said coldly.
His eyes burned into hers as he rose painfully to his feet. "Regret has nothing to do with life. It is static. It is death. I regret nothing-I feel sadness for the folly of men and my own arrogance, but never regret." His face softened. "Nor should you?"
The warrior straightened, moving dangerously close to the old man. "What would you know about what I should or shouldn't feel?"
Gallus appeared in their peripheral vision and approached. An expensive robe covered his tall form and flapped with the steadiness of his stride, rather than the movement of the air. He carried several scrolls. "Good morning, Virgil wanted me to show you these." He unfurled them at a nearby table and motioned for Gabrielle and the old man to join him. The warrior's gaze remained focused the old man---who didn't waver under its obvious hostility---until it diffused into the familiar numbness of the last two days. They joined the senator at the table, the old man sitting beside him to the right, Gabrielle standing to the left.
The scrolls contained highly detailed maps of what looked like mountainous terrain. "Where is this?" the warrior asked.
"The Apennines. The area upon Mount Velinus." Gallus answered. "It is the center of much Imperial activity, as we speak. Our sources within the military have told us that two legions guard excavations in the area. And despite protests from some of his generals, Nero plans on keeping them there."
Gabrielle squinted down at the map. "What makes it that important?"
"We're not sure." Gallus appeared somewhat sheepish. "We were hoping you might know, or might be able to find out."
Always to the rescue?Gabrielle rubbed her eyes, frustration building. Before she answered curtly, she caught herself, reconsidering something. "Do you have any friends at the library?"
"Good, write me a letter of introduction and I'll head over there to see what I can find out about the area. Meanwhile, continue with preparations for the escape."
The young senator nodded. Gabrielle nodded at both and moved to leave, ignoring the old man's enigmatic glance and the mild irritation of guilt pooling in the pit of her empty stomach.
The room was almost choked with splendor, cluttered with art objects and luxuries from around the Empire. Yet the silence filled the spaces, seeping in between the gaudy clamor. Mira sat on a soft couch, biting her nails. Adorned, almost overflowing with animal skins, the couch, like the entire room itself, appeared to serve as storage that was cleverly disguised as a lounge of some sort. The girl felt lost among it all, listless.
A servant wandered by, only accentuating the lack of activity in the house. Why wasn't anyone doing anything? Shouldn't we be out of here by now? Or at least talking about it? The last time she had checked, Virgil was still asleep and Gabrielle and Eve were nowhere to be found. No one had let her in on anything, of course. She sighed and poked at the half-finished plate of fruit beside her. Would it hurt them if they let me in on things once in a while?
She let her gaze wander through the ersatz lounge, over the rugs, the pottery, the tapestries pushed aside and stacked upon tables, chairs, couches. The writing on a scroll caught her eye, Greek, a medical text. She rolled her eyes. It made her think of Joshua.
She had searched for the boy, not sure why, for the better part of the day before---when she wasn't searching for Gabrielle or being asked to bring something to someone. After leaving the warrior in the garden, she had gone for a walk to the stables and found her new friend. He was working among the Elians who had accompanied them to the Senator's home, tending to the sick or exhausted. Mira had offered to help, but he had shrugged her off. Whatever? He seemed to be more worried about some woman, Analea or something, than anything else. Mira had left in a huff.
Everyone had their value except her, it seemed. She sighed, leaning back on the layers of skins piled behind her. Guess I'm in the right place?
Someone was coming. She didn't care; probably another servant anyway. A pitcher that smelled strongly of lemons was thrust in front of her face. She turned and met the dopey grin of Joshua. She gained her composure quickly, never betraying the bashful surprise she felt.
"Oh," she offered with a tinge of disappointment.
He was crestfallen, of course. "Uh?I thought you might like some lemonade."
"I'm not thirsty."
She reclined. "Thank you, though."
He moved clumsily to an adjacent couch, placing the pitcher and two mugs upon a small, trinket-cluttered table and then sitting. "Where have you been all morning?"
She asserted control again, looking up absently at him as though distracted from something important. "Hmm?"
"Where have you been?"
"That's nice. Very cryptic." He grimaced irritably. "Very mysterious."
He stood up and began to leave. "Whatever."
"Wait!" She grabbed his arm. "Look, I appreciate it. I?" She couldn't believe she was going to use this. "I'm just tired?stressed."
He pouted unconsciously. "I just brought you some lemonade. Not bad news."
"I know. I'm sorry. Sit down. Let's drink." She poured some out for them both.
Taking the peace offering, he sat. His eyes took in the room. "Lot of stuff."
Josh nodded and took a sip. Mira looked away, then back. He shook his head. "Why isn't anyone doing anything?"
Mira nodded. "I know. I'm sick of just sitting around, not knowing what we're supposed to do next."
"Maybe I could help with that." It was Eve, her soft arrival and smiling interruption startling them both.
Mira stood. "What is it?"
"I have heard back from all but one of the groups of Elians hidden around the city. Something has happened to them."
"Maybe they can't send word because of all the Praetorians running around?" Mira offered.
"They're hidden nearby, to the southeast of the hill. Something has happened to them and I'm going to find out what." She seemed to reconsider something, but continued anyway. "And I wanted you to come with me. Both of you."
Mira almost fell over with excitement and elation, which made what she said next an even bigger surprise than it normally would have been. "What about Gabrielle?"
Eve's eyebrow arched mysteriously, she then shook her head. "She's attending to something else."
"We can't just take off into the middle of all of this without her help, this could be a trap or something. Maybe we should wait?or?" What in Tartarus am I saying? "Or maybe I should just shut up and go with you."
Eve smiled broadly. "Everything should be fine. We'll meet Virgil along the way."
Just happy to be able to do anything, Mira didn't even hear what the woman had said. Even if this was a giant trap, at least something was happening. Without knowing why, her thoughts went to Gabrielle. What was it that the warrior was attending to? Mira was of the mind that Gabrielle shouldn't be left alone at all, but no one would listen and the stubborn woman wouldn't let her hang around. The girl had never seen her friend like this before. There had always been a dark undercurrent to the warrior, but it had never taken her away, washed her under like this. Mira sighed.
Where had they been? Somewhere on the long coast of Attica, and the warrior had stopped dead at the side of the road in front of her. Mira's hand shot out.
---What is it?
Gabrielle waved her away, motioning her onwards desperately.
The girl had stammered and Gabrielle's face had swung at her like a fist.
Tears. There had been dirty tears on the warrior's face. Why? Mira had wondered as she had kept walking. Allowing herself one quick turn, she wasn't able to see what had affected the warrior in this way. As far as she could tell, Gabrielle had stood above a growth of yellow flowers at the side of the path?
For a while Mira had assumed that whatever it was, she hadn't been able to see it and that the warrior was protecting her from the sight of it. She had imagined mutilated children or animals or some other nightmarish display of carnage and brutality. But eventually Mira had learned that there was only one thing that could touch the warrior that deeply, that devastatingly.
Eve and Joshua separated from her, heading to their quarters to prepare for the task at hand. Mira sighed as she moved to her room. She didn't know how to protect her friend. What defense could she provide the warrior when the battle was fought within? Was fought with the past? She stopped before entering her suite. What defense could she provide when her friend didn't even want her as an ally? With a weak shove, Mira opened the door and entered the still air of her chamber.
Just after noon, the city slows to a halt. The air is still now, though menacing and bright. It sucks breath from the lungs, people and animals move lethargically, gasping, or pant in the grip of sleep on their beds, in doorways, lying on the street. For the next few hours there will be little movement on the main thoroughfares or in the markets. Rome is dead to the world.
Wishful thinking, Gabrielle laughs to herself. She is meandering near the river, the red robe brought over her face, covering her head. Her eyes are dusted with kohl, partly for disguise, but also for the protection against glare the black powder provides.
A man sleeps soundlessly, lounging in the shaded entrance of a shop. The warrior steps lightly over his legs. Like a ghost, she muses.
She can smell the river now; can taste its death on the air. The Tiberus is static, giving her the impression she could walk across it. Much of the river has disappeared in the drought. The paved banks are stained where the high water mark once reached. She leans upon the bridge, peering at the tired sockets of her umber reflection.
There is another face peering up, a little further down the river. Squinting, Gabrielle sees it is the pale and corroded countenance of a sunken statue. How long has it slept there beneath the dead and unmoving Tiberus? Careful scrutiny reveals an outstretched ivory hand, the hint of an arm receding into the darkness, fingers opening desperately for what---the catacombs of air above, the sun, for the sad-eyed woman on the bridge?
Across the river, Gabrielle watches three purple-robed Praetorians emerge from a small side street. Not wishing to draw their attention, she moves purposefully toward an alley she knows leads to a small, forgotten square. In a few quick strides she has passed out of sight, into the shade of the passage. Her entrance into the tiny plaza causes an eruption of doves, which push anxiously for the sliver of sky above. Hand over her eyes; she squints up after the flutter into the stabbing light.
Absently she moves into the shaded spot and sits upon the simple fountain at its center. In this dark, almost forgotten place, there is still a puddle of water in the bowl. Peering down the alley from where she has come, the city is now lost to her, only its dusty smell lingers here. She peels the thin cowl from her face, her head and lets the shadows meet her skin. The water is cool on her fingertips. She loosens her sandals then removes them altogether, wiggling her toes in the air. The red silk rolls easily up her calves to her thighs and she slips her feet into the shallow pool. With slow strokes she passes the soothing water over her legs, splashes some on her face, rubbing the liquid across the skin of her neck. She closes her eyes and rubs the cooling muscles behind her head in a slow rhythm.
You brought me to this place. It was my first time in this damned city. We had made our way through it all to this point. I was tired, but I would never let you know it when things were dangerous. You told me to wait for you while you scouted ahead. I watched as you passed into the alley; the dust and pollen lit by the sun formed a glow around you as you slipped away.
Soon you returned and knelt beside me, beside the pool. You spoke of patrols and our plans as you splashed yourself with water, dust and grit caking from you---we were always so dirty, we used to laugh about it all the time. I watched your fingers push up your tanned arms, making your shoulders slick with water. My hands cupped, dripping gently on your neck and I cooled the heat there with my fingers, bringing my palm around your face to your cheek, my thumb resting upon your lip, my eyes upon yours?
She sighs as she slips on her sandals. Her skin is cool as the moisture begins to evaporate from her body, and she pulls the robe over her face again. There is a cluster of buildings on the other side of the alley and she moves quietly toward them, then through their laneways. Cats spring from out of shaded spots, but the way is free of people. The littered clutter leads out to a tiny market, closed until evening.
Gabrielle passes the locked stalls, the shops with shut doors. There is graffiti strewn across the walls, slogans mixed with news of performances and plays. She leaves the market and follows a dusty alleyway. A man and a donkey wander toward her. She keeps her eyes down and pushes by. She hears a child's voice somewhere above, within a building nearby, lost in the upper stories of the alley.
Names of items, of people, of places are scrawled and painted upon the close walls in unimaginative Roman script. She steps past, musing that it is as though she is shrunken and passing over the surface of a scroll, lost among the words. The streets remain indecisive, leading nowhere and she does not fight.
Down a shaded side street she can hear the clatter of cymbals, the thump of drums. Pushing against the warm wall she allows herself to be pulled to the sounds, without concern for keeping her movements secret or silent. Her feet drag in the dust. Voices can be heard, many different ones, laughing, sometimes singing. Occasionally she feels as though the random shifts between song and speaking fit some sort of design she could recognize, but then they are upset and it is gone.
Soon, she comes upon a thin back alley, cluttered with paper and other refuse, and from behind a stained door, the source of the voices, music. She moves toward the portal. The voices begin their rhythmic tumble, the call and response and she smiles as realization flows through her. Her hand rests upon the door's cool surface. She shakes her head. What am I doing? Placing her ear against the wood, she nods and gives a gentle shove. It opens and she slips inside.
The amphitheater is old, run-down and smells of cheap incense and sweat. Gabrielle moves close enough to see some of the stage and nestles into a musty smelling nook that is jammed with costumes. Heat flushes through her skin, her pulse shrugging beneath her neck. She leans her head back against the wall and closes her eyes.
The rehearsal is loud, informal and unabashedly joyous. She doesn't recognize the play; it sounds Roman, modern---strong cadences, more characters interacting with one another. Then events, names begin to reveal themselves. She stands there for a moment unmoving; wondering if this is a dream. A sad grin spreads beneath her cowl as she shakes her head. Peeling herself from her hiding spot, she steps softly toward the wings. I have to look?I have to see this?
Actors are spread informally upon a cluttered, unkempt stage. Some sit, clutching props and pieces of scenery to them, watching the others, occasionally offering comments, constructive and otherwise to the performers. Gabrielle blinks at it all, hidden in the curtains' shadow. A woman's voice brings her out of stupor.
"As I have led so immoral a life, committed such unspeakable atrocities and spread black madness upon the world by imprisoning the noblest of Titans in Godly bindings, the task should fall into my hands, Son of Olympus, I should break the chains of Hephestus, I should raise mankind from darkness, and I should free Prometheus, forfeiting my own wretched existence in exchange." Dramatic pause. "The world can live without a Warrior Princess, but not without Hercules."
Comments trickle in: "Good, Thecla." "Much better." "Excellent!" In the wings, Gabrielle rolls her eyes. Now a man's voice booms corpulently upon the air.
"No! This is a fate I will not allow, for it is unjust in the heavens as well as on Earth. True, you once rode at the head of a thieving band, burning crops, spoiling wine, slaughtering chattel without offering, and murdering all who opposed you, but today you have thrown aside those tattered trappings and have embraced the light of goodness. I have looked upon you and am moved by what I see. There is no measure of a hero save what is present in their heart in the moment, the now." Dramatic pause. "The world needs the Warrior Princess as much as it needs Hercules."
There is a kiss that is abruptly interrupted by jeers from the chorus and the other actors. "Hercules" chuckles, lifting a leather belt over his paunch and grinning gap-toothed at the bow-legged "Warrior Princess." Gabrielle sighs. Less than a lifetime ago and already wrong?
A loud, monotonous voice pierces the air. "I have them! I have them! The posters." Cheers. Excitement. The warrior leans back against the wall. There are 'oohs' and 'ahs' and the requisite yips of approval. "Hercules'" boom hits the rafters.
"Hercules and the Warrior Princess. A play by Claudius Antonius promising an entertaining blend of action and romance?"
She is running now, through the door, through the alley, into the blinding sunlight, the white streets. The cobbles clack beneath the pace of her stride. She upsets more birds; they dissolve into the glare of afternoon. Across the river, over the avenues and through the large square that leads toward the abandoned Forum. She is alone in the city, it seems, but she cares not either way. Let them skewer me, boil me, nail me to a cross again. She tears the cowl from her face and breathes the scalding afternoon into herself.
As she is crossing the wide square her feet are lost beneath her and she slams into the ground. The pain in her ribs and the sudden rush of air from her lungs causes a cry to escape. She rolls over once, then onto her belly again and begins to weep. The ground is indifferent beneath her tiny fists. There is a throb from her knee that tells her it is skinned raw. For a moment she is still. Then an undignified sniffle causes her weeping to resume, more powerfully this time. The blank stones of the Forum stretch out beneath her, pressing roughly against broken ribs. Her sobs are thin on the swollen air, fading easily into the afternoon and the wide expanse of the city.
While it was still blistering on the shaded slope to the northeast of the Capitoline hill, one could still conduct rudimentary tasks without succumbing to some form of heat related malady. Regardless, Virgil felt the sweat being torn from his body by the thirsty air. It was drawn effortlessly through the breathy linen he wrapped about his body, across his face. Sounds in the cramped streets stabbed into his throbbing head and he winced, trying to keep pace with the shrouded figure before him.
"How much farther?" he whispered across the dust of morning and the widening gulf of his own nausea.
"Two streets east," the cowled figure of Gallus turned to answer. He grinned wryly, pausing as he took in the poet's gaunt aspect. "A tad early for the poet's soul?"
"For the poet's head, actually," Virgil groaned. "Although, there aren't hours enough to sleep this hammering in my skull away."
Gallus nodded absently, looking about the narrow street. "It's only a little further. Come on."
They wound their way through the cramped avenue into the shaded curve of Rome. Voices were hushed in the early afternoon as people skulked through the merciful shadows. Over his own ragged breath, Virgil heard the sound of pigeons taking to the air above their heads, but looking up into the light filled the corridors behind his eyes with shooting pain.
Finally they turned into a dusty alley and Gallus stopped before an aged door. He leaned the shaky poet against the wall dramatically. "You'll be safe here," he said with a mocking grin.
"Shut up and knock," Virgil rasped with a queasy grin.
Gallus rapped his knuckles three times quickly against the door. There was a knock from inside and the senator responded with two more. The portal opened and Cyrus' smiling face beamed out at them. "Come in, come in, my friends."
Virgil filed into the darkened entrance after the young senator. The stillness of the air within further disturbed his uneasy constitution. He belched cautiously, fearing worse consequences than the wretched taste of bile on his tongue. Deciding that he was safe for the time being, he continued after his friends.
The musty smelling passages were cramped with various sorts of debris; old or shattered amphorae, rotting and broken pieces of wood, moldy carpets rolled and forgotten. Virgil pulled the linen over his face, as though warding an invisible evil away, to no avail. "Gods," he cursed quietly, his stomach concurring with its own unsettled incredulity. He pressed on, following Gallus and the Phoenician---who moved a tad too swiftly, in the poet's humble opinion.
Soon they entered a larger open space, what appeared to be a warehouse of some kind. Containers and crates of all sorts were stacked rather neatly in countless rows and Virgil followed his friends into the thick of them. Other red-robed Phoenicians worked calmly in the large space, packing and moving objects from one place to another. The sounds of hammering and sawing became more pronounced in the poet's fragile consciousness swelling against his temples with a growing pressure and discomfort. "This place will be the death of me," he sighed.
Cyrus and the senator stopped before a wide worktable upon which was a large wooden crate of strange design. The cheerful merchant patted the crate proudly. "This is our secret weapon."
Virgil blinked in a pathetic attempt to feign interest in anything else but the unrelenting duty of mastering his roiling insides. Gallus nodded. "Indeed. How does it work?"
"Watch!" Cyrus grinned widely beneath his mustache and put his finger dramatically in the air to gather his friends' attention. He opened the top of the crate. The two Romans peered into it. Its jet-black interior was filled with several empty, and rather plain-looking amphorae. Virgil looked to his friend with an air of skepticism. The young senator clucked almost imperceptibly, indulgently pleading for the poet's patience. Cyrus beamed excitedly. "Wait!" He then closed the crate, tapped it on the side twice and opened it again. Gallus and Virgil blinked at the open crate, first in astonishment, then in disbelief and finally with suitably impressed grins. The strange container was now empty.
"The old false bottom trick," the poet said. "A classic."
Cyrus tittered in delight. His dark fingers slid up to the lid and carefully opened the section containing the decoy urns. "The dark insides disguise the depth. Your friends can hide within and be smuggled to safety, right under the Praetorians noses."
"They'll be ready in time?" asked Gallus.
"Easily," Cyrus nodded.
Gallus placed his hand firmly upon the merchant's shoulder. "Well done, my friend. I'll help you with the preparations." He looked to Virgil. "What do you think?"
The poet grimaced. "I think I need some fresh air. And fast."
They found their way to the top of the building. The Phoenicians had set up a blind fashioned from canvas and silk. A light breeze cooled the shaded sanctuary somewhat. Virgil flopped upon the dusty roof and put his head into his hands.
Gallus blinked out over the city. "The breeze brings a hope of rain." When there was no response from the poet, he turned to see if his suffering friend was still conscious. "You look terrible," he concluded.
"Thanks. I appreciate that," came the muffled response.
"Don't mention it." Gallus motioned to the hazy streets sprawling before him. "Will you still be able to help Eve look for her friends out there in the stinking, boiling mess?"
Virgil lifted his head and his vision rolled slowly into place. "Of course, of course. You know me. I'll be fine," he lied, not very well. He stood after a struggle and peered over the city. "I should probably get going on that, huh?"
"Probably." Gallus nodded then scrutinized his friend. "What is it?"
"I'm going to vomit at any second, what do you think?"
"Aside from that."
Virgil shook his head. "I don't know. The Old Man, I guess. I can't help but feel that his arrival was an ill omen. He strengthens our cause, but he puts himself in grave danger, puts all of us there by coming to Rome now. Nero won't stop if he finds out?"
"He won't find out. No one knows Seneca is here who doesn't have to. Not many would remember him by face anyway; you know how distracted people can be nowadays. It's perfectly safe, and we're going to need his connections and wisdom in the days ahead."
The poet watched doves twist over the roofs of the city, appearing to ignite into white flame as the sun caught their wings. "His past with the Emperor is what worries me. It's dangerous; I've seen what such histories are capable of. Madness, insanity in the wisest among us, all-consuming obsession." He turned to the young man. "It can only lead to ruin."
Gallus tilted his head. "Nero is an extremely random and treacherous element in all of this, but surely the Old Man knows to keep his arrival absolutely secret; I am sure he is aware of the peril."
"I hope so. The city, the Empire rots, yet somehow grows stronger, like Death itself. Everything points to evil ahead, to darkness."
The senator put his hand on the poet's shoulder. "Night's darkest hour also signals the ascent to Morning's light."
Virgil nodded, a small, yet wry smile reaching his lips. "A senator with the soul of a poet? These are dark days indeed." He shook his friend's hand. "I'll see you later."
"I'll have a pitcher waiting for you," the senator smiled.
"That's not necessary, I think I'll?oh, who am I kidding?" Virgil laughed and headed down into the cool of the warehouse. Who am I kidding? he hurled at himself.
The street was bustling when he emerged, the shadows growing longer, the shade more complete as the sun dipped further to the southwest. He leaned against a forgotten doorway and waited for his friends. Faces poured past: dirty, tired and suspicious. The poet felt vulnerable and at risk. He hadn't seen any soldiers around, but it would only be a matter of time. And what could he do against them? He grimaced bitterly. When was the last time you picked up a sword? He sighed, rubbing his hand over his unshaven chin. He closed his eyes and leaned back against the building. When was the last time you picked up a pen and it was worth a damn?
"Hey pal, wanna buy some space in Thrace?"
Virgil opened his eyes to see Mira's smiling face beaming at him. How long had he been asleep? Any cutthroat in the city could have misused him, let alone any Praetorian. He managed a crooked grin for the girl, and for Eve and Joshua who filed in behind her. "We're ready then?" he asked, feeling a little better now.
Eve nodded. "We haven't had any luck so far. Although, we haven't been to the safe house yet."
The poet straightened and motioned to the street. "Shall we then?"
The group made their way down the sloping Capitoline streets, maintaining a loose, unassociated look to their search. Virgil would occasionally fall in line with Eve to discuss anything he may have found out of the ordinary, or would sometimes meet her gaze from over the heads of the throng and playfully wink or wiggle his eyebrows. She would laugh then quickly regain her beatific composure, shooting him a half-admonishing look.
He had always enjoyed the preposterousness, and therefore absolute innocence of the sexual tension between them, and often he felt Eve appreciated it as well. Perhaps it was liberating for her to be treated as simply, a woman. Perhaps she appreciated it for more selfish reasons. After all, there were other, darker connections that bound the two of them, and Eve's gratitude for his past clemency, silent though it was, remained a palpable component to their long friendship. We have come a long way, haven't we?
He ran a hand through his hair. Something momentarily caught his attention then was gone. A blue shrouded figure in his peripheral vision, one that he thought he had seen earlier, but blinding sunlight had beamed from down an alley and he had lost sight of them. If they were even there at all, he thought. Wouldn't be the first time, would it?
Whoever the figure was, real or hallucinated, it was now gone from sight. Virgil turned about, scrutinizing every small detail on the cluttered street. People moved quickly past in the stuttering light, wrapped faces beginning to look the same. The movement threatened to make the poet dizzy, to pitch him off his feet. He continued along as best he could.
His spirits and health soon picked up as he watched Mira negotiate the crowded streets. It was obvious why Gabrielle had allowed her to tag along for the last couple of years: the girl was a natural. Alert, enthusiastic and highly skilled; Mira bore a striking similarity to a certain young bard, at least how the Scrolls-and his father-had described her. No matter what that bard, now warrior, had to say about it. Virgil smiled. While the warrior hadn't, and never would, overcome the emptiness and grief within her, Mira's companionship had brightened her somewhat, and for that Virgil would be forever indebted to the young woman.
The Corinthian girl was also providing some excellent entertainment as she did her very best to ignore the rather smitten Joshua, while maintaining a near perfect camouflage of her own interest in the young man. Ah, the dance of Love, he sighed to himself with a smile. Eve wandered over to him. "What are you smiling about?" she asked.
"Eve, my dear we are witnessing the beginning of a beautiful friendship." He chuckled.
Eve smirked. "Poor Joshua. He's really out of his league, isn't he?"
They laughed. Eve led him around a corner and pointed to a plain looking door at the end of an alley. "That's it there." She then turned and called out to Mira and Joshua to turn around and join them. Virgil looked around, trying to find the two smitten teens. Instead, he noticed a group of dangerous looking men, cloaked in black striding purposefully toward them. Never a good sign, he thought. "Uhm? Eve?" Virgil turned to see another group striding toward Mira and Joshua, cutting them off.
The men brandished fierce looking war clubs and began to charge. The poet lunged for a nearby broom as two of the black-cowled men attacked. Hoping to avoid an overhead attack, Virgil left the broom alone and tried to roll past his assailants, but ended up crashing into one of them instead.
He hit the ground hard, not sure if he took anyone with him. Rolling onto his back, he narrowly avoided a crushing blow and threw out a kick at his attacker's mid-section. Virgil bounced to his feet and elbowed the doubled over man in the back of the skull, sending him to the ground. Lucky, he thought. These men appeared to be highly skilled warriors, he had only exploited a mistake of arrogance, there wouldn't be many more opportunities to do so again he assumed.
To his near right, Eve kept two of the men at bay with a strong defensive stance. His other assailant moved between them and swung for the poet's ribs. Spinning desperately, Virgil moved out of the man's reach and grabbed the broom. His stomach protested as he came to a stop, his vision blurring in concordance. Gods? He back peddled, swinging the awkward weapon. A blurry black shape descended upon him and he brought the broom up in front of his face. Although he had tried his best not to, Virgil closed his eyes. There was no impact, just a dull thud. He opened his eyes. Eve stood smiling at him.
"Keep an eye on the others," she said and engaged another of their attackers.
"Wait! Eve!" But then another was upon him. He swung the broom, smacking the man in the side of the head. Virgil was dizzy and breathing heavy. He couldn't remember the last time he had engaged in physical combat. His vision began to blur, fade. Blood buzzed in his ears along with the pound of his heart. Was that his father's voice he heard?
Fishing on the river behind the farm. He was four. His father wanted to help him make a rod, but he wouldn't have it. The knots weren't tied tight enough, but he knew no better. They had left the lines in the brook, his father's on the left, his on the right. When they had returned, his line had been dragged off and his father's had a bite. "Look! You got one!" his father had said.
So effortless his father's goodness, that Virgil often missed it when the man was alive. Now, the memories of it made him feel less and less of a man?
There was yelling and someone shaking him and why was he on the ground?
"Virgil? Wake up! Hurry!" It was Eve.
"Huh?" He said stupidly as he lifted himself up.
"Praetorians, Virgil, we have to run."
Around them people were scattering, including the black garbed attackers. He could hear horn blasts marking the approach of a squad of Praetorians, no doubt alerted by the skirmish and keen to break it up. The poet got to his feet and Eve steadied him.
"I'm okay," he said. "Just lead the way."
They began to run down the main street and soon cut down several alleys. Behind him, the sounds of steel clashing and voices raised in battle rose into the afternoon air. He hadn't the stomach to turn and see if anyone was chasing them. It wasn't until they had come into the sun of the southern end of the hill that Virgil realized that Mira and Joshua were nowhere to be found.
Like everything She knew about Herself, the memories led only into darkness. Sprawled here in the half-light, eyes closed, She struggled for them and they slipped away, unknown to Her. This black void within seemed to swallow everything, leaving only the present, unraveling and indefinite.
Her hands clawed into the dirt, skin tearing against the jagged earth. The floor of the place was cold upon Her cheek. A compulsion, wild and irrational, possessed Her then to tear away Her breastplate, Her underclothes and sink fingers into flesh, eviscerating, scraping away at it all to get at those lost bits, to plunge into that void. She grit Her teeth. It was hopeless.
And now a new darkness, menacing and pure skulked there. It poisoned thoughts, purpose and action. It scorched black the hollow parts of Her, choked reason. Her stomach churned. Her eyes pounded. It threatened to erupt from Her at any given moment. And it was growing stronger.
Was it fear? Was it that most contemptible of all emotions? The weakest weakness?
Her voice was pebble-small in here. It echoed softly in the shaded chamber. But that it sounded was affirmation enough of the verity of Her realization.
She smiled then. This wasn't fear; no, not this that curled itself within Her womb, Her marrow, Her bones. Not fear---this uncontrollable darkness, this black tide that churned in Her blood-not fear, but wrath. Wrath, that stinging, acrid swell that began at the feet and pounded through Her, around Her, wielding Her; pitching Her wild like a burning spear, a smoldering bolt into the quivering ether. Wrath flowed from Her heart; and those parts lost to Her when still, when silent drank from its flood.
The recognition, the naming of it brought a flood of memories to Her from out of the unknown. Her dark twin had found this darkness familiar as well, had been under its rapture, had fought its seduction throughout her life. She stilled Herself; Her palms flat upon the cold dirt. She breathed raggedly. Air struggled to escape Her lungs, thrashing wildly past Her lips. She kept Her eyes closed tightly, Her body trembling against the ground.
Light loses to shadow here; it is no surprise to Her, no tragedy. This is not a place She cares to visit, but She must, now more than ever, now at the end.
The air won't move in here because this is a crypt. She feels like so many things are choking her where She stands-regret, sadness, frustration, anger-lined up, gnarled-fingered in the dark.
It all began here, where his life ended. He had been only a boy; She had been only a girl. Now he would never become a man and She had become a woman far too soon. It was here She had first felt darkness, because it was here that light began its exodus from Her life. Now, years later, it was truly gone; She need only admit that to Herself, give in. There were no second chances.
Light loses to shadow here; it is no surprise to Her, no tragedy.
She placed Her hand on Her brother's grave, talked to him, but She was alone, alone in the darkness.
-You're not alone.
A voice behind Her, from the doorway, the daylight. Who?
Her eyes opened. The half-light of this forgotten place seemed different than the crypt in the memory, but She couldn't remember. Those differences evaded Her, slipped back into the void, unattainable. She got to Her feet, Her eyes wide. The coarse space was stuffed with rough-hewn statues of an elapsed era, a graveyard of gods, the forsaken. And just like them, She had fallen out of favor, had been tossed aside. Her master's plans had moved beyond the bounds of Her dedication, her abilities, it seemed. She refused to believe it, the darkness wouldn't allow Her to; it writhed beneath muscle, throbbing behind Her eyes. Meridian quivered wantonly in its scabbard.
With a cry She freed the blade from its place of rest and ran it singing through the tired likenesses, cleaving and shattering them. Sparks lit the space in nightmarish flashes. Soon the statues lay ruined upon the floor of the chamber leaving Her standing alone in the dark once again.
She smirked, Her eyebrow rising in a devious arc. Perhaps Her master could be made to understand the true depth of Her dedication-and failing that, the terrible totality of Her skills.
CHAPTER III. Penumbra
The incense was a tad on the sweet side, bringing to mind a spoiled persimmon, or the crude and cheap fragrance of a whore's bath. It was also quite smoky, pitching a lazy and dusty fog throughout the dimly lit chamber. Nero did not relish the idea of the aromatic soot settling on his royal vestments and making him smell like an old slut or an over-ripe fruit. He stifled a chuckle at the double entendre and the vivid and apropos image it conjured.
Agrippina, the head priestess, began her chant again. From deep within, it spilled out of her formless, almost inhuman. Somewhere between a low and a moan, the Emperor decided. The deep tone resonated, resounded and reverberated. It rose to the high ceiling of the great hall and settled there, not unlike the clinging remains of the tacky incense.
Gnosis, Agrippina had called it. A state where the mind is opened, free of the shadows of this world and laid bare before the true nature of things, the world of Forms, the Eidos. She had spoken of a sublimation of all time, a temporal and physical synaethesia, a unification of everything the only state where prescience on the level that the Sibylline practiced it, could be achieved.
In other words: total horse shit, Nero laughed to himself. While the Emperor couldn't deny the eerie accuracy the priestesses of Sibyl wielded with their prophecy over the generations, he tended to disregard any of the more negative ones. So what if they had predicted his uncle Julius' fall? They had not given him any advice on how to stop it from happening, no direction as to from where the threat came. Nero found knowledge of the future far less useful than the wisdom the past taught. Caesar's folly had been to turn his back on the senate, a mistake akin to turning one's back to a pack of ravenous wolves. It was a mistake Nero would never make.
The two younger acolytes, feline and lithe, moved to light the large torches between which the chanting form of Agrippina stood, and then the low, circular brazier before which she sang. The Emperor had always admired the Sibylline flare for drama and presentation. The older woman raised her face to the Emperor, her eyes lost in the trance. For an older bird, she certainly had a lithe and supple figure, and an ample and inviting bosom that Nero found himself focusing on through the priestess' sheer silks. His tongue passed slowly along his cracked lips and he sipped disinterestedly from a goblet of wine. The younger priestesses took up the chant, the trio of voices slowly melting into one haunting tone that swelled within the chamber. Nero watched the older woman's breasts as they heaved marvelously with every sharp intake of breath.
Soon the acolytes broke off from the incantation and brought the still intoning Agrippina a small bag made of black silk. As her mantra boiled forth with renewed fervor, rushing like a ghastly wound, the priestess thrust her hand into the noir unknown. Nero did not blink, but leaned forward in anticipation, a thin film of sweat building upon his upper lip, he leaned forward in anticipation. With a look of triumph, the woman cast three small objects into the fire of the brazier before her, where they disappeared into the flames.
Damn, that was good, Nero whispered to himself in appreciation.
Agrippina had her back to the brazier and was walking away. Her shoulders slumped somewhat, leaving a palpable sense that the state she had achieved earlier had left her body once the objects were cast into the fire. She turned, just as one of the young Sibylline approached the brazier with a pair of long tongs. Nero watched as the young girl, her face cast in the nimbus of orange light, thrust the instrument purposefully into the flames once, twice and again, each time placing a small, red-hot rectangle of metal upon the small table that the other acolyte proffered and then set upon the floor. They dropped upon the surface and glowed, pulsing.
"The Sibylline runes," Agrippina spoke. "The Engines of Prophecy?"
"Spare me the drama, you old crow and get to the prediction." While Nero feared the eccentric oddity of the Sibylline, he was certainly not afraid of their wrath.
The woman, while obviously not impressed with his audacity, smiled with grace and moved to the tray that held the runes. She took a small phial and poured a dark looking liquid upon the runes, all the while softly reciting a prayer. The rapidly cooling metal hissed as if in pain or ecstasy. Agrippina's eyes scanned slowly over the tiny tablets, lingering upon them, as though each spoke to her alone.
Nero had seen the ceremony many times, knew what was to transpire. Each rune revealed its secret, its symbol, cast in a faster cooling metal for but moments only. Afterwards, the three ciphers and their order of casting would be compared against the great Sibylline books and some sort of forecast divined. Then it's up to everyone to try and make it fit into reality and hope that I buy it, the Emperor rolled his eyes.
Agrippina drizzled the remaining liquid upon the final rune, then handed the phial off. She stood tall and spoke to the ceiling, more than to anyone in the room. "The first portent is Earth: the Mother, history, the realm of ash."
Nero blinked, lost within the sweep of the woman's revealing robes.
"The second portent is Fire: the Father, the forge of the cosmos, Truth."
One of the young priestesses transcribed the symbols onto a scroll. There was a delicious tension that built as the final rune was about to be revealed, the Emperor was at the edge of his seat. "The final portent is The Void: chaos, the Underworld, Chance."
Agrippina's hands fell to her side and she smiled strangely up at the Emperor. He stared down at her then blinked expectantly, until finally he sighed with impatience and demanded, "Well?"
"Caesar?we need time to consult The Books and meditate upon the reading," the head priestess offered in her odd tone.
"Each reading must be weighed against star charts, auguries, and other?contexts," one of the younger ones continued.
"It would be impossible to give you an accurate reading right now, Caesar." The third finished the thought.
Nero stood, smiling warmly. "Well, how about an inaccurate reading, then?"
"It is just not done," Agrippina smiled apologetically. The other two shook their heads, mirroring her patient smile.
"Neither is a public skinning, but that can always change. Now," the Emperor smiled dangerously. "An inaccurate reading."
The Sibylline exchanged anxious looks, the two younger ones bowing their heads before the mercy of the Emperor. Through the tufts of incense, Agrippina grimaced, but then thrust her hand into the air, pleading for a moment's patience. She closed her painted eyes and bowed her head. Her voice had a strangely even tone to it as she crafted the prophecy:
"Sifting lands reveal powers once lost,
Bearing Rome's destiny upon floods of flame;
Olympus' rebirth is nigh
In the gaze of the pulsing Eye,
Casting the enemies of the Empire into darkness
Where only the dead can save them."
She slumped forward then looked to one of the young priestesses for confirmation that the divination had been recorded. The girl nodded. Agrippina looked up at Nero. The Emperor clapped his hands. "Well done," he smirked. "It's amazing what the threat of open mutilation can do to speed the process of foretelling. Perhaps I'll write a treatise upon it. You will join me later, won't you, priestess?"
"Your prophecy is most intriguing, we're all quite impressed, but I'm afraid one thing remains."
"What in Hades does any of it mean?"
In the cavernous yawn of the library even silence echoed, radiating in dull waves that filled the chambers and corridors with a wandering hum. The hush asserted itself, as an active entity within the high stone vaults rather than a passive and encouraging platform upon which one constructed rational, even thoughts. Scholars and students found themselves clutching the constant and comforting smell of papyrus as an anchor for their concentration, a ward from the erratic quiet.
Only a few Romans had braved the scald of mid-afternoon, their sparse scattering magnifying the already cavernous bowels of the building. Any who had come found the library, if not wholly tranquil, at the very least cool and peaceful. The bright marble walls, ceilings and pillars swallowed both sound and heat with equal vigor, so that those who came to escape one found themselves thankfully spared from the other.
Gabrielle thumbed the collection of scrolls and maps before her yet again. She rubbed her eyes. Thus far, her investigation into the history of Mount Velinus and the area surrounding it had proven quite fruitless. At best, she had discovered that the land had been important to someone at one time or another. Brilliant work?
A map, the oldest the librarian could find, stretched out before her. The words 'Mt. Velinus' lay obtusely on the dull parchment in early Latin script. Whatever the significance of the region, the mountain, it had faded by the dawn of the Roman republic.
To further complicate matters, there appeared to be no information or account of the civilization that had occupied the area before the Romans had risen to prominence. As far as she knew and she knew very little to be truthful the Romans hadn't conquered the Italian peninsula, so much as they had filled the vacuum left by its former rulers. None of the documents elaborated or even discussed this period, this race of people; Roman history was a tool of the Empire, malleable and revisionist at best.
Gods, I hate this place?
Her eyes were tired. She went over the last six days in her head: the murders, the drought, the heat, the civil unrest, the persecution and arrest of Eve and the Elians, her battle on the Palatine hill. Caesar's temple: what she had seen and who. Her hair seemed to resist her fingers, tangling about them at the knuckle.
The librarian Livius approached, cheerfully carrying an armload of scrolls. He had been doting upon her ever since he had somehow discovered her identity, her former life as the Bard of Poteidaia. Perhaps Gallus had mentioned it in his letter of introduction, it seemed like a card he might play. The library even had copies of some of The Scrolls; Latin translations, as well. Livius was even working on one himself.
I found Teranus far too unimaginative with your adjectives?
The warrior had tolerated his obsequiousness to gain the information she sought. With a sigh of joy, the older man laid the scrolls upon the table. "These will definitely be of service to you." He smiled in triumph.
"More about the area?"
He shook his head quickly with a fey enthusiasm. "About the goddess, Nemesis. Quite old accounts, actually. I had to go into the sub-sub-basement for these." His overzealous laughter faded when not shared by Gabrielle.
"Thank you," she said quietly. Livius remained nearby. Gabrielle nodded to him. "That will be all."
He was crestfallen. "Very good. I'll continue my search for anything regarding Mount Velinus?and whatnot?"
She stared at the scrolls in their cases, their bindings. Her hand, almost of its own volition, ran over them as if to erase all that they could hold within. Beneath her fingers, their supple surface sent a strange chill through her. They were crafted from skin, probably sheep, an old technique, an ancient one. She drew in a deep breath, holding it for a long moment. The bindings creaked as she unfastened them, her fingers traitorous, shaking.
Most of them appeared to be scribed by worshippers of the Assassin of the Gods, consisting of prayers, devotions, and descriptions of dark retribution. Gabrielle skimmed many of the supplications to the 'Crimson Huntress,' 'Lady of Pain,' and 'Olympus' Dark Instrument.' While rich in language, the entreaties were light on any real information. She continued through them.
Minutes pulled free of the day, translucent as layers of skin, falling away unnoticed. She read, even after pain shot through her eyes. The tide of words roiled over her, pulling her from herself, to some far off center, perhaps to the answer, or to the true question.
A somewhat damaged scroll told a tale of the 'Fall of Nemesis,'
We speak now of the arrogance of the Tarquins,
And of the Wrath of Olympus
Rained down upon their high stone towers.
Of how their greed harried even the most steadfast of Zeus' servants,
And how she was ultimately punished.
From Kalkidike's depths they pillaged the Forge God's most powerful handiwork,
Spiriting it across the rolling Adria to their mountain city.
There it lay, swelling their power, their Empire.
She blinked intently at the flowing passages. The Olympians didn't take kindly to the outrage. Zeus' anger crashing across the heavens, as it was wont to do. And when it proved unsuccessful against these Tarquins, he unleashed Ares and his armies upon the thieves. After a lengthy and deadly siege, where the "War God's wrath fell impotently against the walls of the great city," (Gabrielle couldn't help but smirk) Zeus had but one choice left:
It fell then upon Nemesis, the Dark Instrument of Olympus,
The Sword of the Gods, to win back the Eye.
In the halls of Olympus, Zeus spoke unto her:
"Child of Vengeance, strike now the defilers of Hellas,
Punish the greed and lust of the Tarquins,
Whose appetite for power is a sin against Nature.
Here there was a lengthy passage expounding the prowess of the divine assassin, then an account of her travels (and many, many detours on the way) to the mountain stronghold. Eventually she arrived and proceeded to expertly survive the many treacherous traps and mysteries of the Tarquin fortress, until finally finding herself face to face with this enigmatic, and frustratingly vague, "Eye:"
With the prize within reach, she paused,
Considering the words of Zeus.
"All who desire this treasure thus,
Do so out of the sin of greed and obsession.
Even the cravings of Olympus, of Zeus himself are errant,
For is it not the lusting of power that moves them here?"
Torn, the Lady of Pain could not decide how Retribution might best be met that day.
She left the city and remained upon the peaks overlooking, pondering it all.
The warrior smirked. Interesting twist? Zeus sent first Hermes, then Apollo and finally, appeared himself her to get to the bottom of it all:
And so Zeus lighted upon the lofts of the mountain.
Seeing how she fared, he spoke: "It falls upon you now
To do your duty, child, and stop these villains
From using Olympus' power to their own end.
In time, with its secrets, they would threaten the Gods themselves.
Nemesis and the king of the gods debated, at length, about the intentions of both the Tarquins and the Olympians, and how Nemesis might best appease her own fierce sense of duty and the mandate she embodied. In the end, Zeus threatened her with destruction if she did not obey him and left in a flash of lightning.
Then the assassin did a curious and absolutely incredible thing: she tumbled the peak of the mountain upon the Tarquin city, satisfying the vengeance of Olympus and her duty but also putting the "Eye" out of everyone's reach, seemingly forever, and in so doing, simultaneously proved the greed of the Gods as they scrambled to recover their prized possession. Both Ares and Apollo were unable to find their way through the ruins, the Tarquin traps still in place. Miraculous! Gabrielle chuckled to herself, with a roll of her eyes.
The rest resolved itself, as one would expect when one had a background in both epic historical accounts and dealings with slighted Olympians:
Zeus unleashed the wrath of the Furies,
Across the rippling continents they gave chase.
As did the twin hunters, Apollo and Artemis;
The armies of Ares; Even gentle Hephestus took up the pursuit.
Upon the rocks of the dark Northlands
Was her blood spilled, her last breath spent
Uselessly upon its black soil.
Gabrielle leaned back and sighed, letting the scroll gently furl upon itself. Familiar tale? Just out of reach stood a half-scale statue of Zeus, a relic from Hellas, brandishing a rather meager looking lightning bolt. She glared at the likeness, wondering how she might snap its head free without drawing undue attention. In the end, what does it matter? Her eyes rolled beneath her lids, her knuckles massaging, throbbed against grit coarse as sand, desert sand?
I had thought the fortress a waking dream, a vision. So long without sleep, riding over sand dunes that folded like a magician's hands, lulling me into an acceptance, a longing for illusion. But you rode hard for it and I followed.
Three days southeast of Damascus they had brought the heavens down upon us, the air splitting apart, tearing like sheets of cloth. Flashes of light and explosions, fire, heat, rocks spilling like water; the horses had cried, but Eve had not. There were tears in my eyes, too, though I cursed them. Her face would light up between flashes of lightning, as though you carried a tiny moon upon your back, round, pale, leading me through darkness. I remember laughing about that once, during the devastation, my mirth lost, like my horse's footing in the capricious sand. For two days they hadn't stopped, and neither had we.
Then, beyond the oasis at Kharga it had come to an end. Leading the horses through the desert canyons, I remember the silence, the yawn of it, as disconcerting as the violence of the past days. Up ahead, you led Argo quietly over the broken shale and would turn offering a soft smile, a whisper to the girl, her hand opening and lighting upon a cheek, your lips.
Then finally, after putting two more half-slept nights behind us, the fortress. The keepers had been kind, had been instantly taken by Eve, by you. They had fed us, let us bathe, made beds draped with linen and silk. I had been taken by a sleep so complete I had forgot the veiled trespass of my waking life, and when I was finally released from darkness, it was as though I opened my eyes from beyond the grave resurrection once again?
I found you in the courtyard, letting the women fuss and fawn over Eve. Pointing out how puffed out and proud you were had crossed my mind, but I had a feeling your pride would never allow yourself a luxury such as that again, so I only smiled when you turned to me.
They had, of course, found us. Cries in the night echoed across the walls, then the first explosions but you had already got to your feet, had Eve against your breast. The fortress had shattered against the pummeling night, green fire twisting the battlements free from their foundation, sending them to the earth as dust and debris. Screams came as frequent as the flashes, the dark conflagration, the lightning, then less frequent. I had followed you, wending through shattered ground, bodies, animals howling as things came apart. We had found cover, in a small space beneath a tumbled silo, and lay there our cheeks touching, and Eve sheltered between us.
Eventually the explosions, the tremors, the screams died away and all that filled my ears were the sound of my blood and your breathing. There was no rest, we fled into a nearby oasis, belly down on the muddy riverbank as Olympians walked through the embers of fortress, looking for our ruins. Then, as quickly as they had arrived, they were gone.
No one had survived. All had either fled the destruction or become a part of it. The rough practicality that moves you past such things, such moments allowed us to carry on without distraction. You had decided that we could remain there, as though we were a part of it as well. It couldn't hurt to let them think they had won.
Dead again, I had joked and you laughed.
Not much remained standing. The walls had tumbled and most of the buildings were ash and rubble. Although gutted, a battlement remained intact and we used its base as shelter. How long had we stayed there, among the ruins?
Almost a life, you joked. I had tried to laugh.
Eve would sleep in the grass, mimicking the stillness death had cast around her, as a protest perhaps. I caught up with my scrolls, sitting among the scrub and dust until you would come and pluck me like a flower from the rubble, pressing me hard against you.
I had decided that there might be objects of value to us in the obscure bowels of the ruin. You had told me not to climb up the tower, and I (of course) had not listened. The rope secured itself around something stable somewhere in the darkness above, and I had tied the other end about my waist. Hand over hand I climbed, the rope leading into the black above me. After a while, entombed in the absence of light, I felt as though I were moving down, the rope descending into water, or murk. Soon, I neared the top, my hands, feet clutching tattered beams, remnants of a floor. The acrid smell of scorched wood filled my nostrils, the back of my throat. As I set my weight upon the floor, a snap shuddered in the darkness and I was pitched backward. I fell quickly, soundlessly toward a torch's light far below.
The rope jerked sharply, but I had been prepared. Eve giggled in surprise from your arms. You smiled up at me, lips cast smugly in the torchlight.
I hung limply above your head, above the floor. You shoved my shoulder, spinning me gently around, once, twice, again my arms extending out, but not as far as our laughter in the darkness.
Gabrielle rubbed her eyes, blinking wearily into the chamber before her. Sunlight stormed through the thin windows of the library, gouging bright chasms into the floor, casting the space beyond into deep black. The world outside was white flame, calcimine and hostile, searing the shade of the room into retreat.
The warrior lolled her head with a tired turn toward the exit. The shade of the room hardened against the white light, setting around her, heavy and unmoving. Must and dust from the shelves, the scrolls, clogged her breath, choked her. Her legs twitched. She did not move. Closed eyelids offered no solace, no sanctuary. When she reached out for the numbing edges of sleep, she found no rest, only its exhausting pull. With a sigh, she took a scroll from the pile, unfurled it disinterestedly and resumed her reading as silence and light creeped around her.
Smoke continued to rise, black and twisting above the pale edifices of the Palatine hill. A faint western wind dispersed it hundreds of feet into the sky, casting it out over the expanse of the city. White birds, flotsam before the murky cloud, circled aimlessly as though lost, flying grimly into its roiling folds as though possessed of some dark and tragic compulsion.
The God of War watched from the balcony of his temple at the crest of the Capitoline hill. He watched the smoldering remains of Caesar's shrine belch smoke into the sky. Watched, as a brigade of soldiers moved chunks of rubble that included the shattered marble head of the Divine Julius, smudged and pocked from the blaze. A smug grin spread upon his face as he watched.
"Nothing personal, buddy," he said. "At least, not on my end of things."
Nearby, on the shaded side of the Capitoline, he could hear alarm horns being trumpeted, Praetorians called to arms. Regular citizens moved nervously through the streets, speaking in hastened and hushed tones, averting their eyes. Dogs barked, crows cackled and everywhere was the heat, oppressive and cruel as the sun reached its blistering zenith. His smile widened.
A flash of light signaled the uninvited presence of his sister. "Tsk, could it be any more brighter out here?" She squinted in annoyance. "Gee bro, looks like your version of hot n' sweaty ain't anything like mine. Can't you turn it down a bit?"
Ares didn't turn around. "What do you want?"
"Don't be too happy to see me," Aphrodite smirked. "Y'know, if it wasn't for me, you wouldn't have anyone to gloat at. Then where would ya be, huh?"
"Yeah, because I just love these little 'pop-ins' of yours," he spat back in irritation. "Just cut to the chase, sis, okay? I'm a busy god here."
"Okay." The Goddess of Love straightened with a weary sigh. "What you're doing is not going to work and I think you should stop it."
He turned. "Hmm?maybe I should. Oh, wait a sec?NO!" His eyes smoldered with menace. "What would you know about it, anyway?"
"Look," she paused. "It's getting hard to know what side I'm on."
Ares raised an eyebrow. "Why the weak stomach all of a sudden? It didn't seem to bother you before when we?"
"I never supported this," she raised her voice, face flushed, but soon, the vigor of ire receded, leaving only a weary pall of black resignation. "You needed my help. You're my brother. What else could I do?"
A triumphant smirk crossed his lips. "Exactly. So what's the problem?"
"Don't you get it?" She blinked sadly. "I can't let you keep torturing my?my friend. Not like this."
"Friend? Friend?" Ares stepped toward her in quick, powerful steps. "Some friend. Where has she been for the last, what? Twelve years, is it? That's a long time in one of their stupid little lives, in case you didn't know."
"Do you blame her?"
"No," he smirked contemptuously. "No, I don't. Why should she visit you?"
Her eyes closed tightly at this, but soon Aphrodite raised her chin. "She will now."
"She's smart Ar,' she'll put it all together and when she does she'll come and see me."
Guardedly, Ares stepped back. "When she does," he pointed a finger before her face. "You just better remember where your loyalties lie, sis."
Light from the pitiless sun softened against her, breaking, parting into two halves that competed for which best illuminated her beauty. Normally such fancies were appealing, tickling the shallow parts of her like moonbeams sinking into a ghostly lake, but she felt nothing here. Her beauty held no interest for her right now, only mocked what trembled below the skin. In a flash of light, she disappeared, leaving the God of War to watch the rising black smoke alone upon the sun blanched battlements constructed in his name.
Running through the streets was taking its toll on Virgil.
Rather, being chased through the streets was taking its toll. As he struggled to keep the sure-footed (and surprisingly speedy) Eve in sight, his resolve to do so became obscured in a haze of dizziness, pain and dread. Harsh sunlight assaulted him from around every corner, searing his already throbbing head, as he whipped past open streets and then back behind the shade of tall buildings. His chest burned and his breathing labored weakly. With a wince, he pushed all thoughts of stopping from his mind.
They were passing quickly to the sun drenched side of the hill, out into the heat and choking dust with a group of Praetorians still following within sight. The buildings, the thoroughfares spilled more and more light as they sped through. Virgil narrowly avoided a man who stepped without looking from his home onto the street. "Sorry!" he called out over his shoulder.
Eve turned to see where the poet was in relation to the soldiers. While still far enough away, the four men appeared to be gaining ground. She decided to slip down a sliver of an alley, streaking past sparse refuse and scattering birds to the old fence at the end, which she leapt with little difficulty. Landing softly, she could only hope that Virgil would (and could) follow.
As the poet darted into the alley after Eve, arrows splintered against the wall behind him. He pushed down the thin passage, speeding up to get the proper momentum to hop the fence. He spotted Eve climbing to a balcony across the yard he now found himself in. With ease, she continued up another until she sprang to the building's roof.
"She means to kill me," he muttered. In the alley behind him, he could hear the soldiers, their armor clanking with rapid determination toward the fence. "If they don't first."
He sprinted toward the low hanging balcony he had seen Eve alight and threw himself upward. Landing gracelessly, he was still able to hoist himself up onto the landing and then to the next balcony just as the first Praetorian came over the fence in the yard below. As he prepared to dash onto the roof, he spied a rather large pot that housed a tiny lemon tree. With a grin, he nudged it over the edge onto the heads of the gathering soldiers below. "Whoops!" Spilling onto the brightness of the rooftop, he could hear the piercing shatter of pottery and the pain-wracked yelps as the missile found its mark.
Eve pitched herself from the roof over the narrow drop and onto the next building. With hanging jaw and squinting eyes, Virgil watched her land with ease and sprint toward the next jump. "Insane woman," he said under his breath. "Just like her mother. Mothers. Whatever!"
Gathering himself, the poet tore off toward the gulf and sprang to the next roof, landing a little hard, but still on stride. He let his momentum carry him, though his legs felt as though they could collapse below him at any moment. Striding powerfully, he almost felt heroic. Almost?
The city streaked by as he went, a blur below him as he leaped from the rooftop again. He thought of Mira and Joshua, captured, or scared down there somewhere. His feet slammed into the tiles of the roof, giving way beneath him. The poet skidded painfully across the surface, blacking out momentarily. Shouts of soldiers filled his ears, footsteps rushed toward him. He shot to his feet to see Eve approaching.
"Get down!" she yelled and dove at him. The air rushed from his lungs as she smashed into his abdomen taking them to the rooftop. Arrows rushed overhead, or shattered against the building around them. Eve rolled off of him and grabbed his hand. Not realizing what was happening, he was pulled to his feet and forced to run again. The Praetorians were on the building beside them, reloading their weapons. "Come on!" Eve pointed to the other end of the roof.
"Uh?" was all the poet could mumble as they sprinted hand-in-hand toward the edge.
"Listen," Eve shouted at him. "When we get to the end, we're going to drop off, okay?"
"Just trust me!"
Virgil didn't. "No way!"
Eve grinned. "Too late."
Eve dropped off the edge dragging the bewildered (and still nauseous) poet with her. They fell quickly, Virgil screaming the whole way, until they broke through a silk awning, then another, slowing as they went. Finally, with a somewhat undignified thud, they landed on the street below.
Virgil blinked. "I hate you, Eve."
"Hurry." She smiled and they raced into the crowd.
In the settling light, Romans moved with growing vigor as the afternoon began its descent into night. An almost undetectable breeze blew. With hand on scabbard, the blue-shrouded figure followed close enough to keep Virgil and Eve in sight, but far enough away to escape detection.
"So you're saying this prophecy bodes well and that I should continue as I am going?" the Emperor Nero spoke over his shoulder. He stood before an enormous mirror that was still unable to successfully dominate any of the immense space of his quarters in the Domus Aurea. In his hands was a large bolt of regal blue silk which he busied himself with, tucking and clutching it against his body with fey disquiet. He scrutinized the material as he continued to speak. "That I shouldn't worry? Even though you have no idea what it is I have planned?"
Agrippina lounged upon the mattress of the Emperor's sprawling bed, sheets lazily draped over the mid section of her nude body, hair tousled. Her eyes smoldered languidly in the candle light of the room and she smiled through full lips. "Yes, Caesar. I did."
"Works for me." Nero shrugged. His brows furrowed and he twisted his head at an odd angle. Turning quickly, he wore a look of disarming insecurity. "This color doesn't make me look fat, does it?"
The Sibylline priestess glossed over the question as though it never occurred, her fingers wandering through a bowl of olives with absent aplomb. "The augury's encouraging omen is undeniable, your holiness. It is clear that Rome's enemies will be cast 'into darkness' and destroyed."
Nero considered this with a nod of his head. "That is a positive thing, yes." He then scrunched up his face. "No real mention of painful deaths or suffering, though."
"Also, the Empire's destiny is clearly at hand," Agrippina continued. She popped an olive into her mouth, speaking around it. "And you shall lead the charge to meet it, Caesar."
The Emperor let the silk fall from his naked body to the floor. He stepped over the pile and stood before the bed watching her. Passing admiringly over his body, her eyes flared ardently as she passed another olive with overwrought lust between her lips. Nero blinked without interest at her. "I already knew that. I'm far more curious about those 'sifting sands' and 'floods of flame' to be honest," he said. His eyes narrowed with a veiled glare. "And what about this Eye? What of it?"
"The eyes of the world will witness it all: your greatness, the Empire's." She passed yet another olive between her lips, her eyes slipping from his and drifting down. "All of it."
"All of it, hm?" He blinked at her. "Do you know what I think?"
"I think this is all a bunch of rubbish." He smiled. "That's what I think."
Agrippina stiffened, chewing defensively. "Prophecy is not a precise art. There are always?"
"Shut up," Nero said. "And get out."
The priestess blinked uncomprehendingly.
"Get out!" he shrieked. "And will you stop eating those? Gods woman, do they not feed you at the temple?"
In a stunned maunder she began gathering her robes from the floor with waning dignity. Nero shook his head. "Leave the clothes. Just get out. Now!"
She left the quarters with only a sheet to cover her body. Shortly after, a guard entered.
"General Terrence has returned, Caesar, shall I admit him?" Nero gestured with a distracted flourish and moved to the large oaken desk where he took a seat.
Terrence soon entered holding a large and official-looking scroll. He nodded at the Emperor. "Caesar, the declaration is complete, we need only your signet and the State of Emergency will be official."
Nero motioned for the document. Soon he had it embossed and sat back with contented glee. "Excellent. You know Terrence, for my first act as Supreme Ruler I'd like to have two legions brought to the city from Ostia. Send for the Augusta and Claudia immediately." He smiled toothily at the tall soldier.
Terrence nodded with an economical smirk. "A wise choice, Caesar." He gestured to the scroll in his hand. "I will send a rider west before the proclamation is read."
"Well done. And do you have the latest dispatch from the Apennines?"
The soldier handed him a smaller, slightly weathered scroll. "The news is?encouraging," Terrence nodded.
Nero read and brightened, his eyes darting back and forth. "The entrance?they've found the entrance," he whispered, rubbing his chin. "This is encouraging news, my friend. Wonderful."
"I knew you would be pleased." With a bow, the General turned to leave.
Nero spread his hands over an antiquated map of the Apennines, of the area around Mount Velinus, over tattered sketches and engravings of ancient writings. He smirked, "Eyes of the world, indeed." Without looking away from his desk, Nero called out. "Oh, Terrence?"
"That Sibylline temple is out on the land below the Domus, is it not?"
"Yes it is, your holiness. It has been since before the Republic."
Putting his feet upon the cluttered table, Nero grinned with calm menace. "That's all I was wondering. It's wonderful to know that friends are so well within one's reach."
In the square, the merchants busied themselves in their frantic and fevered way, the citizens passed in sweating waves past animals sniffing with fear at the still air. The Praetorian waited with crossed arms. He watched the people scurry, brush into each other, complain, letting it all pass with the practiced scrutiny of a soldier. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
His partner appeared from out of a nearby alley, a look of relief resting upon his face. "PHEW! I feel a lot lighter, now."
"Charming," the first smirked. "You ready, or what? Captain Collinus rode by; we're supposed to meet up at the Temple of Demeter for an announcement, or something."
"More redeployment, I'll bet." The other Praetorian scowled. "They've moved me around the whole city in the last two days."
"I know," the first said, shaking his head. "I didn't become a Praetorian to walk around, if you know what I mean?"
"Oh well, let's get on with it, then." The second waved his friend along and they disappeared into the crowd.
With the soldiers' departure, a wave of calm threaded its way through the square. Citizens continued their daily shopping and spirited socializing began anew, despite the ungodly heat and the palpable tension in the air.
With a blink, Mira poked her head out from under a market stall. "I thought those clowns would never leave." She slid out onto the street, squinting into the throng. With a slight turn of her head, she spoke behind her. "You can come out now."
Giving a tentative peek, Joshua snaked out from under the stall into the afternoon. "Where'd they go?"
"Who cares? Let's get outta here." She led them off toward the far end of an alley, trying to blend in with the chaotic sway of shoppers. They had been trying to make their way back to Gallus' for close to an hour, but when Praetorians weren't obstructing the way, their own lack of familiarity with this part of Rome was. "Maybe if we can get up to a roof, I can figure our way back up the hill," she shrugged.
Joshua kept pace with her quietly. Mira figured he was pretty nervous about all of this. It probably wasn't everyday that he had people trying to kill him. It wasn't everyday she had people trying to kill her. She figured they were doing okay. They had lost the first set of clowns, the angry ones in black easily enough. Then with some expert stealth, they had avoided the Praetorians. Well, except for that one 'scare' thanks to the donkey. Mira rolled her eyes; she was really learning to hate those things. Now, all they had to do was find their way back up to the Quirinal hill. Easy enough, she thought.
They followed the alley to a set of small, labyrinthine pathways that wove behind the huddled buildings of the Capitoline. Refuse littered the dusty ground, but the shade was welcome as they moved at a slight jog. Soon, Mira knew that the slight passages led to dead ends. She cursed to herself and ran a hand through her hair. Joshua bit at a nail. She cursed again, aloud this time. "We're just going to have to cut through the square." She looked at him. "Okay?"
He met her eyes with a timid, labored lift of his own. "Yeah," he said with a nod.
They made their way back through the thin paths, through the alley, back to the rush of the street, the market, the square. Holding hands, they passed as quickly as possible through the rush of Romans and the shouts of merchants. Mira was finding it difficult to keep her eye on every possible point of danger. The leering faces, hands in pockets, the aggressive postures were overwhelming, tough to keep track of. She spotted a welcoming alley on the north side of the square and pushed for it. Joshua moved with her, his hand damp in hers.
Pushing through the last of the crowd they entered the alley. Mira let Joshua go ahead as she turned to check for any sign of pursuers. There didn't seem to be any cause for alarm, so she spun and broke into a jog. She caught up with the boy, smiling as she placed a reassuring hand upon his shoulder. "I think we made it."
"Here's hoping." He smiled with tentative relief. "I don't know if I can do another chase."
"You get used to 'em after awhile," Mira said, smirking.
"So I guess you're some kind of an expert then?"
"Of sorts. Remind me to tell you about our trip to Britannia." She rolled her eyes. "Now there's a story. The boat trip with Gabrielle alone is a story in itself."
Joshua winked. "Mm-hmm, I'm sure she's the difficult one."
"Hey! You'd be surprised how difficult she can be. Just 'cause warriors don't talk much doesn't mean they're a picnic to deal with, y'know?" She puffed herself into an exaggerated imitation of Gabrielle. "'Mira, clean those fish I caught. Mira, don't fall asleep. Mira, stop talking. Mira, prepare camp and start a fire and don't make it as big as last time and don't start it under a tree. Mira, don't speak to those mercenaries.'" She sighed. "It's thankless, exhausting work." He smiled and she nudged him. "And I'm not so difficult. I just like doing things my way. I never say it's the right way, just 'my way.'" Mira grinned widely.
Joshua nodded, smiling. "I'm sure."
She shook her head, feeling flush. "Uh? I guess we should?" She indicated the other end of the alley. They moved quickly for it and crouched as inconspicuously as possible when they arrived. Mira looked around the busy street. People passed by quickly, the narrow way appeared to be used by merchants and citizens to move quickly to and from the market square. Dozens of slaves hefted large baskets, crates and amphorae above their heads, lending the street a secondary level of sorts. Mira stood, taking Joshua's hand. "Looks good, let's?"
As she prepared to move, she noticed them: shadows, several figures rising to their feet on a rooftop across from the alley, arms pointing at them, taking aim. "Down!" She fell back into the alley as the arrows shattered against the wall where her head had been. People shouted and scattered, though eventually maintaining a steady flow in either direction while giving the alley a wider berth.
Joshua leaned against the plaster. "Now what do we do?"
Mira didn't have an answer. She blinked widely at her new friend. "Stay down. I'm going to go check the other end." The boy looked nonplussed but remained quiet about it.
She moved quickly, sticking to the wall until she knew she was safe, then retraced their steps. Maybe they could cut across the square, back to that series of alleys and try to hit a rooftop over there. She tensed as she looked out into the crowded square. Four armed men, dressed in black were moving directly for the alley and her.
The sky is black and troubled above Her. Why can't She move? There is shouting, clamor, commotion, a battle nearby, swollen in Her ears, yet Her eyes remain unobstructed, free to course the calamitous heavens. Milky snow falls like stars to the ground. Why can't She move?
Then it engulfs Her, black and choking, the realization, the end. How bitter it tastes, as always, yet how different this defeat for She knows it as the last. She recalls the strike, the wound, Her spine flaring in one final flash of agony before winking out forever.
Flakes of snow melt against Her cheeks and she thinks of Lyceus, as a boy, tongue stuck out to catch the flurries of a rare snowfall. Her legs, Her arms as dead as him now, She imagines them scattered limply upon the ground, a doll's body, forgotten.
Then there is the girl's voice, the face, of the angel begging Her to get up, but it is useless and impossible perhaps more so than even the love She feels in Her heart, that is mirrored in the face above Her own?
Still far off, the dark and roiling swatch of the great storm approached steadily over the Tyrrhenum. From where She stood, upon a high cliff overlooking it all, flashes of lightning sparked against the black clouds. Above the tang of the lapping sea, the musk of rain could be sensed, fierce and bold.
Her cape was alive in the strengthening wind, snapping in red streaks around Her body. The steel of the helmet was cool as She rested it upon Her cheeks once again. Even Her hair, which had whipped chaotically in the breeze held a damp chill to it. She clenched Her fist.
Another vision. A premonition, perhaps, speaking of failure and of death and?
Was it an omen of what awaited Her? Of the many powers in Her dark arsenal, prophecy was not one. Was this a memory of death, or only dreams? Mortals dreamed, She was told, and the heart steadily pounding in the cage of Her chest whispered its mortality in Her ears. Her fingers sprang open, letting wind cool the flushed skin.
Thought destroyed action. It was a truth that lay at the root of Her being, every fiber, every thread of Her sang it. To compromise, to let such visions, ghosts, memories destroy Her plans was not in Her nature. Meridian trembled in its home on Her back and She straightened against the blowing wind.
"Master!" She called into the shifting air. "Ares!"
Tensing as She tasted blood, She adjusted Her helmet when the God of War appeared before Her. He smirked somewhat contemptuously. "Oh, it's you," he said. "What do you want?"
"An audience, Master." She bowed, somewhat dramatically.
"Mm-hmm. And I'm supposed to just drop what I'm doing and come and listen, huh?" He squinted down at Her with a guarded skepticism then gestured impatiently. "All right, but make it snappy."
"I wish to continue in your service, Master. I want to finish my mission." Her voice was deep and, though not loud, resonant over the crash of waves, the moan of the wind.
"Out of the question, kid." He crossed his arms. "This is way too big to have you go around and screw it up on me. I have my best people on it as we speak."
Her jaw clenched, though Her head remained bowed. "But Master, I?"
"But nothing there's no changing my mind on this." He grinned, "You're sitting it out."
"No!" It had escaped Her. His eyes widened in surprise and then narrowed in contempt. Blood throbbed in Her skull, Her neck, She felt Her breathing quicken and in Her stomach the blackness, boiling, frothing now. She bit it all back, pushed it down, Her eyes burning into his. "Master, I can perform my tasks. I can?do this for you?"
"I gave you a shot at the big leagues and you blew it." He turned his back on her. "I asked you to kill one over-the-hill warrior and you couldn't. Some assassin?" With his hands at his hips, back still turned he looked up into the sky. "Guess I'll just have to kill her myself."
"NO!" Meridian was in Her hand, swelling with darkness. In a single stride She was in position to strike. A sword appeared in his left hand as he spun to parry Her attack. Sparks flew, another blade materializing in his right to counter the offensive brought against him. She let Meridian slip from the first weapon and swung into the second, batting it away. They broke apart, locking eyes.
"Not the sharpest blade in the armory, are you?" he taunted.
She went on the attack, moving toward him using an advanced feint to his right side that evolved into a strike against his left. Spinning to deflect, his blades sang shrill and high. They were a blur in a wave of strikes and parries, each unable to gain advantage.
Her heartbeat quickened, flooding Her body with a wave of delicious vigor that She directed toward Her foe. Using this tide, Her attacks intensified. Laughter, malevolent laughter escaped from Her and She let it.
"Having fun, are we?" Ares smirked.
Leaping into the air, She prepared a vicious attack, but he countered by leaping up to meet Her. They clashed high in the air, moving almost as one, like some maddened, conflicted thing. Landing, they continued the fierce stalemate, scoring impotent strikes in an endless flurry.
"Bored now," Ares sneered in a menacing singsong.
One of the swords disappeared leaving his left hand empty. From his open palm a pulse of azure energy flared and arced into Her chest with incredible force, throwing Her back and airborne. While searing in pain, Her limbs quickly went numb under the still crackling bolts coursing through Her. Dazed, She soon realized that She had been pitched clear off the cliff and was falling toward the rocks below. Turning at the last moment, She impacted hard, crashing through a thin layer of land, the earth shearing apart around Her, against Her with a roar. Breath stolen from Her by the first impact, She slammed into the ground in some dark recess, below sea level.
Lying in a crumpled and painful heap, She soon lost consciousness?
A hand caresses Her face, gently, thoughtfully. She is being held from behind, head cradled upon a soft lap. She can see the blonde girl's face, but would understand their fate without it the young heartbeat against Her cheek is a troubled one.
Why can't She move?
Bars, filth, despair. The Roman cell, it is Gabrielle who holds Her, who is troubled. They really did it this time. She smiles to Herself. Moisture, tears touch Her cheeks.
You're crying? Don't cry.
I won't. Rest.
In the darkness, for a moment there is consciousness. Pain wracked Her form, throbbed in the deepest places. She cried out, despite everything in Her nature that fought against such indulgence. It was wet where She lay, puddles of water could be seen reflecting in the slivers of sunlight entering the cavern. The sea too, fell in streams now through the shattered opening. She couldn't move.
The God of War appeared, crouching before Her. Fingers entangled Her loose hair and he pulled Her face toward his own. "I think you should take some time and really reflect about what you did, why you did it, and why it didn't work, okay?" He dropped Her head and soon She slipped into darkness to the sound of his voice. "Oh, and you might want to be quick about it. High tide is real soon."
Romans had returned to the streets, clustered in small groups about the expanse of the square. With the gradual tilt of the afternoon light, the stone had lost its blinding shimmer and returned to its former drab tones, its mundane aspect. The heat remained, though without much of its earlier venom, curling about the pillars of the Forum's larger buildings.
Gabrielle pulled the red linen around her head, wrapping her face in its breathy cowl and moved with care down the wide marble stairs of the archives. The stone coughed heat over the tired leather of her sandals and up her legs with each soft stride. She met the growing crowds in the square and began moving away from the river. With a shove, she pushed through them, needing air, space. Eventually, the throng faded, the streets becoming narrow, shaded as she moved up the Viminal hill.
The sunlight pushed through the languid dust, draping it in ochre swatches through the air before her eyes. She moved steadily, passing so many buildings, vaguely familiar. This part of Rome was pure memory to her, indistinct but known somehow, intuited through qualities of air, the hanging of light, the echo of her footsteps upon the buildings.
The cool air of the library was now fully stripped from her, and a thin sheen of sweat began to form on her skin. Other influences from the library weren't so easily abandoned. Words remained in her mind, the passage, spilled across the old parchment in its trembling meter:
Against the sins of Peleander, a punishment must fall,
Upon the God of War Olympus calls,
The Lady of Pain shall rise until the deed is done,
The task complete and Justice won,
And then again shall Her spark wink out from the stage of Gaea.
The steady tramping of a column of soldiers approached from down a nearby alley. She slipped into a shaded doorway and shut her eyes. There were ten, heading down the hill, away from her, toward the Forum, whispers among them of a meeting or gathering. As they turned a corner, they disturbed a thin cat that jogged to safety at the end of a row of crates then disappeared down the hill. Gabrielle opened her eyes and slipped from the doorway, resuming her sprint up the hill.
Her ribs still ached, protesting the strain of her pace up the steep incline, but she swore at them through clenched teeth and carried on. The rest of the passage, the revelation of it, demanded it of her.
Ares summoned from Elysium, fierce Eponia of Thrace,
Upon her shoulders the mantle of Nemesis placed
Though her resurrection and rise to the world above
Needed the blessing of the Goddess of Love
Sweet Aphrodite's gift brought the final breath of life.
And when the deed lay done, the day won,
The God of War sent her back to her place of rest.
This was definitely what Ares had been up to, what he had done, she knew it. There had been several other accounts documenting the God of War resurrecting Nemesis, using other dead warrior-women to fill the task and every one requiring Aphrodite's 'approval.'
And when his schemes were complete, what then?
Gabrielle slowed to a walk. She was lost. Sitting on the shaded doorstep of a quiet storefront, she blinked wearily at the buildings around her.
It had snowed on Mount Nestos. Raged, actually, the ice like tiny razors across my skin. My leg throbbing the whole time, hurting so much sometimes that I could forget the cold, the ice, grief?
Then you died, didn't you? And it was you who decided it, wasn't it? Like always, like every time. When to go, when to come back. And I followed. Even that first time you came back, it was your lead I was following, it was you who moved through me. Like always?
And the last time, playing my part, what could I have done? I thought it was what you wanted. I didn't even think to try, I still had you, so I thought. Out of the woods, between the restless fingers of the trees you came to my campfire, night after night, you weren't really dead and I wasn't really alive. The days were formless, empty, sick with light and other people and doubt.
There was a delusion I allowed myself, that one night you would kneel by the flames and it might warm your skin, and turning, cheeks slowly swelling red, I would take your face in my hands, lifting gently, and before words could escape, my lips would lie upon yours, your first breath taken from my lungs.
But you wanted rest, that's what you said. And I gave it to you, following your lead, again. You stayed dead and I stayed alive?
Gabrielle raised her head from her hands and got to her feet. Walking absently she moved along the cobbled streets, cresting the hill. After a few turns, she moved into a small square, at the centre of which was a modest looking shrine.
She approached slowly, tentatively. Doves took to the air from ancient urns choked with the chaos of their nests. The sun was behind a large building and shade fell harshly in the tiny plaza. Statues of the goddess stood, stained with soot, time, the faces smoothing, fading from recognition. A pool lay dry, the stone cracked, scattering the delicate mosaic inlay onto the ground where some of it rested like fish scales catching the meager light.
Gabrielle freed her head, her face from the linen cowl, running her hand through her damp hair. Peering into the temple, she sighed. Shadows pooled deeply, obscuring what lay beyond the front portal. Steeling herself, she stepped warily through the door to Aphrodite's temple.
Mira sprinted around the corner, breathing a sigh of relief at the sight of Joshua lying prone, but alert at the end of the alley. He blinked nervously as she approached. Sliding in beside him, she directed her attention out into the busy street.
"The men on the roof haven't moved," he said. "Any time I do anything, they take a shot." He gestured with distress at the shattered arrows lying useless around him. Mira noticed several slivers of wood nestled wildly in his hair and did her best not to laugh. She tried focusing on the danger at hand.
"That's not the only problem. There are about five guys coming down the alley right behind me."
"Yeah," she blinked into the bustle of the street and then to the rooftops above. "So we'd better think of something quick."
While people had backed off from near the alley, the commotion of earlier had died down allowing for a constant flood of foot traffic in the street. Mira watched the slaves carrying pots, baskets and crates upon their shoulders and heads. She rubbed her chin. "Listen," she said, excitement building in her voice. "Just follow me and do what I do. Don't think about it, okay? Just do it."
He nodded. "Okay."
"Good." She smiled at him, just as the men in black rounded the corner behind them. She readied herself. "Let's go!"
Quickly springing to her feet, Mira sprinted in a zigzag toward the closest slave, bearing a large basket on his broad shoulders. With an easy leap she pounced up lighting upon it, then sped to a nearby crate being hefted by two other men. Arrows rained down from above, the first volley eliciting shouts, screams, commotion of all kinds.
To Mira, it was as though the tops of the heads, the baskets, barrels, the crates all were waves in some river that suddenly rushed to life and wildly thrashed beneath her feet. While an expert acrobatic and a veteran of some harrowing feats of agility, the girl was trying hard not to think about the difficulty of their current ordeal. She leaped to the next crate, then across to a basket. Her goal, a nearby balcony, was almost within reach.
She turned to see Joshua's progress. He didn't seem to be doing so badly, although the hold he had on his balance was precarious at best. The rain of crossbow bolts had stopped; maybe the angle from the rooftops was too severe at this point.
Their pursuers had entered the crowd, immediately tipping baskets and crashing into people. Fights broke out, causing a surge upon the sea of bodies. Suddenly, a black figure leapt up beside Joshua, tipping over the basket he was standing on, pitching the boy saucer-eyed into the roiling mass, where he disappeared in a swell of humanity.
Mira sprang to a parallel crate, then quickly to a dangerously listing basket, all the while focusing her attention on the torrent of activity where Joshua had fallen. One of the black figures raised himself from the crowd, sporting a fistful of Joshua's tunic, lifting the stunned looking youth slightly off the ground.
"Damn," Mira cursed, eyes darting about. She hopped onto another crate to buy one fleeting moment. The crowd's boiling chaos continued to intensify, reaching a riotous crescendo. She spotted a large amphora, copper, just above Joshua. The other pursuers pushed through the crowd, converging on their friend's position. With a wide leap, Mira sprang at the back of one of the men's heads. Slamming her right foot hard into the attacker's skull, she cartwheeled in mid-air from his quickly tumbling body to another of the men in black. Crashing both feet into his back, she sprang finally at the amphora, riding it off of the slave's shoulders into Joshua's captor, who fell unconscious into the crowd.
"Uh oh," she whispered as she continued falling into the wild throes of the crowd. Legs thrashed against her and she never actually hit the ground, but was instead tangled within the limbs of screaming and yelling Romans. Somehow she lifted her head and Joshua's frantic face was staring back at her. She laughed. "Let's go!" Eventually, they righted themselves and began to push for the other side of the street.
"I think we lost them," Joshua wheezed.
"Yup." Mira apprised their position as they hit the outskirts of the crowds and moved toward a narrow side street. "This street should take us to one of the roads leading up to the house." She smirked at the visibly rattled boy. "Think you can avoid becoming a hostage that long?"
He scowled mockingly. "Ha. Ha."
They broke from the masses and jogged up the street, between the graffiti-strewn tenements and abandoned warehouses. A dog barked after them, chasing along with a springing step before finally giving up and returning to the stoop where he had been snoozing. Mira eased up as they approached a corner that opened up onto a main street. People seemed to be moving with purpose toward a nearby square, murmuring about some kind of proclamation. With a shrug, Mira indicated that they should follow and they padded after the gathering people.
When they reached the square, Mira knew she had made a mistake. A row of armored Praetorians stood at attention bearing their standards as citizens gathered in the streets, or hung out of windows. White-robed officers spoke among themselves at the head of the men, until one stepped forward, his raised hand quieting the wary trembling that had been coursing through the crowd. Mira shook her head at Joshua. "This is not going to be good."
The man spoke. "Citizens of Rome, for your safety, and for the safety of the Empire, Nero, God-Emperor has declared an official State of Emergency within the walls of the city and throughout Italia. Until further notice, citizens must remain within their homes after sunset and travel within the city is to be limited. Authority has been given to the various Praetors to affect martial law in their jurisdictions. The Senate is now officially suspended until the current crisis has passed."
A wave of murmurs spilled through the crowd. A Praetorian stepped forward, bringing a horn to his lips. Mira shifted. "We'd better get outta here. Like now."
They moved as inconspicuously as possible out of the square. The horn blared out behind them and soon after the sound of drums could be heard. "Oh great," Mira muttered under her breath. Twisting through another set of streets, they were heading away from the Quirinal and Gallus' home. The drums drew closer, their steady rhythm pounding into the walls and their bodies as they ran.
Turning a corner they stopped in their tracks. "Gods." Mira's jaw dropped.
Hundreds of Praetorians marched through the streets in tight lines, the fall of their steady march the true source of the drumming. They began taking up positions at corners, set up roadblocks, cordoned off areas of the city. The way up the Quirinal was cut off from them. Mira bit her lip. Joshua grabbed her arm. "We can't just stand here. Come on!"
Tracing their steps, they passed down alleys and across forgotten lots strewn with trash. All the while feeling as though there was less and less space for them to move. Mira halted suddenly. The end of the passage was blocked, a group of soldiers standing around. Stepping quietly back down the shaded alley, Mira gestured toward an abandoned building. "We need to hide for a while. I need to think this through."
Joshua pried a board from one of the windows and they crawled in. The air was damp and somewhat cool in the uncertain space. They replaced the board, letting their eyes grow accustomed to the darkness. Joshua stood in a tense pose near the window. The boy seemed to be waiting for her to speak. Mira ran a hand through her hair. "The Romans aren't looking for us, but I think we would attract too much attention going through one of those checkpoints right now," she spoke with affected confidence, authority. "We'll just lay low for a bit."
Joshua chewed at a fingernail. Mira paced over the cluttered ground, concluding that there was still about five hours until sunset. Five hours to let the Praetorians settle in and lock a stranglehold on the city streets. Five hours to find a way back up the hill to the house. Five hours for Gabrielle to find them and get them out of this mess.
Mira kicked at a broken clay pot, shattered pieces scattering upon the floor, settling into the thick dust. The girl sighed hugging her arms to herself, while the room throbbed angrily with the sound of distant marching.
I am dying.
I am going to die.
After all I have done, after everything, there is nothing I can do about it. Nothing I can do to open that tiniest of passages in my neck, to make blood flow again. It is almost a relief, a luxury, to be powerless; I am pleasantly surprised. I wonder why I never enjoyed it until this moment.
-Stop this. Stop it.
Gabrielle. Pleading, powerless as well. Something I will never enjoy seeing. But this is for her as much as it is for me.
There is no time. Gods, there is so little time.
She doesn't understand, she can't. I tell myself it is important for her to learn, that it is for her I do this. But my reasons are selfish, there is no denying it. My own words gave it away.
-If I only had 30 seconds to live, this is how I'd want to live them, looking into your eyes?
Somewhere, out beyond the walls of the room, is the final battle. Far from home, on a cold morning, between the aloof faces of the trees: it is a warrior's death that awaits me, as it has before, always.
You asked why I am doing this, why I am teaching you this now. Maybe you would laugh about it someday, maybe, knowing that some of your nature, your poetry may have rubbed off on me, at least by the end of it all. It is simple. I know what it is to die a warrior, and if that is to be the ultimate fate, I wanted to know what it was to die a lover, if only once, for a moment.
Typical of me, I know. Wanting it all to go my way. Perhaps you could forgive, as you always do, this one last time?
Eventually movement was possible. With incredible difficulty, She raised Herself to one knee, splashing in the growing puddles of the fissure. Water rained down in waves, the sound of the sea crashing above.
Soon, She could remain standing, the pain in Her limbs receding into a vague numbness. She scanned the cavern, searching. An absence of light deeper than darkness, Meridian lay dormant in a pool, coming to life as She bent to retrieve it. Her head spun, Her stomach unable to keep pace.
It took Her far too long to climb out of the hole, limbs still convulsing, releasing sparks of Her Master's wrath. The rocks were slippery and She growled at them and Her legs, still unable to thrust Her from the mouth of the crevice. She walked uneasily along the beach, in a daze. Water threw itself against Her legs, washing away blood and frayed skin. The beach sank beneath her unsteady steps.
A woman, with wild blonde hair, frantic eyes, submerged in sand desperately held her hand out, afraid for her life, sinking.
You can't just let me die, Xena?
She blinked. The sands stretched out empty before Her, white and endless to the northwest. The visions meant nothing, She decided. They distracted, confused and in the end, were only meaningless vapors, ghosts haunting Her head. While they felt real, something about them was distanced from Her. Even the waking hallucinations seemed to call from across some expanse, some yawning gulf. She continued to walk in a half-daze.
It wasn't clear how long She continued this way. As Her senses returned, She noted that the sun had changed positions, if only slightly, that the tide had become higher, and She had adjusted Her path to avoid it. She blinked up toward the approaching storm, mute and black in the western sky.
Then it returned, in the well of Her stomach, the back of Her throat, behind Her eyes, the darkness, Her darkness. The leather in Her gloves, swollen with salt water, complained around clenched fists. Her scream rang shrilly over the sprawling dunes and before it was swallowed by the emptiness. She broke into a run. As blood swelled pained muscles, soothing them into steadiness, Her pace quickened. With a leap She turned sharply to the northwest, scaling the dunes and tearing across the tight stubble that led to the road.
It was clear now, Her goal. Her Master's servants would fall before Her, leaving Her as the sole instrument of his power, free of distraction, of the visions. And then, as a luxury She would allow Herself, as much as a gift to Her Master, She would complete Her original task without fail, bringing the warrior woman's still stuttering head before Ares. She smiled to Herself, keeping a steady pace toward the slowly descending sun and Rome.
CHAPTER IV. The Stranger in Your Eyes
The main chamber of the temple was worn, musty smelling and still even in the muddy half-light. Large columns of coral granite, draped in laurelled detailing and hewn deftly from large chunks of quartz, pushed to the ceiling. An altar of dark cherry wood sat upon the dais adorned with garlands of dry flower petals and candle stubs covered with dust. Behind it stood a single throne with a tall back. Flakes of parchment lay crumbled on the floor, the words and invocations faded, receding into nothingness.
Gabrielle moved cautiously through the hall, taking note of every detail, sound, smell. Shards of pottery were scattered on the marble floor, the sconces hung empty and water had damaged a large copper relief depicting the birth of Cupid, obscuring it in patina. She stood before the altar momentarily, looking at the chair, running her hands absently over the wilted, dry things left as offerings long ago.
She raised her head, taking in the web-strewn dome above. Beneath a pall of dust and soot, scenes of love, eros, desire could be discerned with effort¾ghostly images as fleeting in the meager light as the emotions they portrayed. With a dismissive sniff, the warrior moved around the altar.
There was a doorway, barely visible in the darkness at the end of the temple. Her senses extended, Gabrielle passed into a smoothly rendered corridor. The small hall ended in two chambers, one kept from her by a debris-barred door of oak. The other room, a tiny chamber, had no door. She entered, her eyes adjusting to the absence of light. A simple, musty pallet was the room's only furnishing.
She stood over the bed for a moment, taking in its blank surface. Kneeling, she placed her face over the rough mattress and inhaled deeply. Her eyes widened in curiosity briefly, then narrowed once more as she sniffed again. She floated her hand, palm-down just above the mattress, eventually letting her fingers caress the coarse bedding. Reaching the head of the mat, she closed them gently. Rising, she backed out of the room and down the hall to the main chamber.
The warrior stepped to the center of the temple and stopped, facing the doorway, her face lit from the square outside. She brought her closed fingers to her face, delicately unfurling them before her eyes. Lying across her palm, cleaving it into two hemispheres was a single strand of long, black hair, catching the light as it filtered in, like droplets caught upon the thread of a net. She blinked down at it, green eyes following the thin filament that had wrapped itself around her wrist, rising over her open palm until it hung between her fingers into the air. Her eyes held it, suspended it there as much as the stillness of the temple, and it seemed only to sway with the gentle throb beneath her skin.
Gabrielle straightened, suddenly, emotion leaving her face. "I know you're there, so why don't you just come out."
From behind a pillar, the Goddess of Love stepped into the light, smiling with embarrassment. "Didn't want to interrupt."
If Ares' presence spilled the taste of blood upon the palate, Aphrodite's brought the tongue to life with the sensation of the ripest fruit splitting sweetly into morsels that tingled against the taste buds. The skin throbbed longingly, shivers playing along the spine settling into the fingertips, toes, lips, and other, softer places. The sensations tended to flow and ebb with the goddess' frequent fluctuations of mood.
"You're not." Gabrielle stiffened against the unconscious manipulation of her body. She thrust her jaw out in defiance, her hand moving to her sash. With a swaggering sweep of her wrist she indicated the temple. "Seems like this place has seen better times."
"You can say that about anywhere, these days."
Gabrielle smirked with raw contempt. "Maybe everyone gave up on your big lie."
"If that's true, why are you here?" the Goddess asked, without skipping a beat. The warrior stood quietly, smoldering.
Aphrodite moved into the room. The goddess smiled despite the obvious tension, looking Gabrielle over. "You went back to the short hair, huh?" She winked at the warrior. "Always liked that look on you."
"Don't." With a black scowl, Gabrielle banished the growing ease between them. "Just don't."
Shoulders slouching, Aphrodite sighed, her eyes reflecting depths that shook even the warrior's resolve. The Goddess of Love shrugged sadly. "You probably don't believe me, but I've missed you, you know?"
"Look-" The warrior steeled herself. "-I didn't come to catch up or reminisce."
"Never does any good. Does it?"
"If you say so. Or maybe you're just not actually interested in doing any good." The goddess tilted her head. "At least where your own well being is concerned. Hmm?"
Gabrielle raised her chin. "What would you know about it?"
"True. We haven't kept in touch, have we?"
"And who's fault is that?" the warrior spat.
"Touché." Aphrodite winked, throwing Gabrielle off guard. "So?to what do I owe the pleasure?"
"You know why I'm here."
"I do, but there's nothing I can tell you." The goddess stepped toward her. "Nothing you don't already know in your¾"
"Where? My heart?" Gabrielle's face twisted. "And you would know all about that, wouldn't you?"
Aphrodite looked away. "That's not fair."
"But what is, right?" The warrior clenched her fists, muscles rippled in waves up her legs. Her ribs ached as she swallowed hard.
The goddess turned toward Gabrielle, eyes meeting, searching. Tilting her head sadly, Aphrodite placed her hand upon the warrior's cheek. "Oh, Gabrielle?"
Without shrinking away, Gabrielle growled. "I don't need your pity, just some answers."
Staring into Gabrielle's eyes, the goddess let a heartbreaking smile play over her face. The hand lingered upon the warrior's cheek for a moment more, sending shivers that Gabrielle had to grit her teeth against. Aphrodite turned, pacing away. "It's too dark in here," she said, waving her hands and bringing the sconces to life. The light played gently throughout the unkempt temple, lifting its mood somewhat. "Okay, little one," she said, turning, the smile still coloring her lips. "What is it you'd like to ask?"
Taking a breath, Gabrielle crossed her arms. "Just what is it that Ares has planned?"
Aphrodite raised an eyebrow and chuckled. "Don't waste any time, do you?"
"I've learned not to waste anything," the warrior said without mirth. "Especially time."
The Goddess strolled back into the center of the temple. "You know I can't just tell you, right?"
"Ares is my brother." Aphrodite squinted, searching. "I can't just sell him out, y'know?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "So you won't give me a better answer?"
"Ask better questions." Aphrodite winked with tireless good humor and moved to her throne, taking a seat.
"Fine," the warrior said, rubbing her chin. "The heat wave is obviously Ares' doing; the set up for the rest of his plans. He's resurrected Nemesis and unleashed Her against Rome. Her assassinations have been blamed on the Elians and have caused, in less than a week I might add, the Senate to be abolished, martial law to be declared and the Empire to be placed in a state of unrest that may start a civil war."
Aphrodite yawned dramatically, reclining. "Yes, it's all so frikkin' exciting."
"Distracting, is a better word." Gabrielle began pacing, lost in thought. "Civil war within the greatest empire in history is something Ares would get a kick out of, but why introduce an element like Nemesis into the mix? Why not use any of the garden variety cutthroats walking around nowadays?"
"Um?duh! She's the Assassin of the Gods, who else would he call to rub out some Romans for him?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "Doesn't make sense. It all just seems too big, somehow." The warrior ran a hand through her hair. "Unless?he has some other purpose for Her," she said, turning to face the Goddess. "Her work?the assassinations?" Gabrielle's eyes veiled slightly as she spoke, "The attack on the temple?It all seems to be an overture of some kind?a beginning?a beginning without an ending in sight?"
Aphrodite looked up from her nails.
Gabrielle exhaled, rubbing her eyes in frustration. "This is going nowhere. I'm missing something. A piece of it?" She bit her lip, looking at the Goddess.
"What is it?" Aphrodite blinked at her.
With a sigh, Gabrielle crossed her arms. "You helped Ares didn't you?"
"Helped him, what?"
Her heart pounded in her ears. "You helped him bring Her to life, didn't you? Nemesis? You brought Her back somehow?"
"Answer me, damn it!" Her fists had fallen clenched, throbbing to her sides.
"What do you want me to say? Yes. I helped Ares bring Nemesis to life. Okay? You knew that already." Aphrodite rose, pursing her lips in understanding. "I told you, you already know everything you need to." She moved closer to the warrior. "Why won't you put it all together?"
The warrior, still fuming, sneered in the face of the goddess. "If I knew how, I wouldn't be here, would I?"
"No, of course not." The Goddess of Love smirked.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Oh, nothing," Aphrodite said. "Just that you might have another, more important question on your mind."
Gabrielle growled, turning toward the door. "I'm leaving."
"Before you go," the goddess called out. "Answer something for me."
The warrior stopped, shoulders slouched, breathing heavy. Running a hand through her hair appeared to provide needed strength, her posture straightened, her resolve returned. She sighed with an air of impatience. "Go ahead."
"Why did you come to Rome after all this time?" Aphrodite asked without a smile.
The warrior crossed her arms. "Because a friend asked me to."
"True," the goddess nodded. "Is that the only reason?"
Aphrodite blinked nonchalantly. "Is that the only reason you came to Rome after twelve years of avoiding the place¾because Virgil asked you to?"
"You have another theory, I suppose?" Gabrielle growled.
"I do." The Goddess of Love scrutinized her. "You wouldn't want to hear it, I think."
"Oh, I'm sure you'll tell me anyway," Gabrielle said with supreme weariness.
"You're right, of course." The goddess straightened. "You came here to die."
The warrior gagged on mocking laughter. "Did I?"
"No need to be so incredulous¾you did." Aphrodite moved closer. "So why aren't you dead yet, Gabrielle?"
"Have you lost your mind?"
"It's a legitimate question."
"Like I said: I'm leaving?"
"I guess I'm just a little confused, hon. You always finish what you start. Even though you've stayed away from the city for years, there are still bounties on your head in all of the provinces in the Empire. Coming here was dangerous enough-then your attack on the temple¾your diversion¾" Aphrodite narrowed her eyes at the warrior. "You intended to let the assassin finish you once you completed your task, saved your friends." The goddess stared at her. "You had a chance to die, yet you didn't. Why, Gabrielle? What changed your mind?"
The warrior turned and stood seething at Aphrodite, fists pulled taut and white upon themselves. Moving softly toward Gabrielle, the deity placed both hands upon her cheeks. "What happened to you, Gabby?"
"Don't call me that?" Tears welled up in the warrior's eyes and she wanted to pull away.
"You're denying everything in your soul. Everything that makes you human, that makes you alive," the goddess asked passionately, searching for an answer. "What happened to you?"
"No!" Gabrielle shoved her away. "What would you know about it?" Thunder pulsed in her ears, through her neck. "Pain, loneliness, regret, those are things I have had to live with everyday for the last twelve years. That is what being human is. That is what life is. My life." The warrior was panting like a cornered tiger, eyes burning.
The Goddess moved toward her again, but Gabrielle flinched away. Aphrodite shook her head sadly. "You're wrong," she said. "Love is life, little one. Love is life."
"Don't you say that!" Gabrielle screamed, hands over her ears. "Don't ever say that to me."
There was a cold place in the warrior's chest. A dead place. It echoed the words she had thrown at the goddess, mirrored the sentiments. If love was life, then her feelings about her own life still held true. Maybe always?
Her blonde head bowed, Gabrielle began to sob. She felt hollow, something unhinging from inside of her, breaking free, swelling to pour from her. It was clear to her now. "They all tried?all of them?but it was you?you were the one that got her in the end? Your brother never would have let that happen," Gabrielle spat words through tears, through bared teeth. "If she hadn't turned her back on him?she would still be?"
The goddess looked down upon the warrior. "Would she?"
"It was you! You let her feel things?you let her feel? Without you, without love she wouldn't have felt guilt?for anything?" She sobbed without restraint.
"But that's not what you believe, Gabrielle," Aphrodite said simply. "Is it?"
Through tears Gabrielle moved to protest, but only stared into the goddess' eyes. She couldn't breathe, blood draining from her face as she let it all fall upon her. Breaking from her chest, exploding into the low dome of the temple was a scream that spilled her to the ground. "Gods?" was all she could say in its wake, a mantra clung to like debris spun on surf fluttering over the parted lips of undertow.
The Goddess of Love knelt beside her, soft fingers trailing with affection through blonde hair. With a sad look, Aphrodite passed her gaze over the warrior. The weight of days rested heavily upon the woman, settling hard at the edges of her mouth, her eyes, around numerous scars visible and secret, obscuring her heart in miasma. But still, there it was, beyond the doubt and other pollution, glowing, firefly quiet, impossibly strong. The goddess smiled softly to herself. She would always love this mortal, this soul. Aphrodite wrapped her arms around the warrior, sending a slow, warm feeling across her skin. "You're not alone," she whispered. "You have friends: friends who love you, who can help you. And more.
"Gabrielle, listen to me," Aphrodite whispered. "You have a chance here, it's a small one, but it's a chance to have everything you've ever wanted. Everything that I've wanted for you."
The warrior's eyes opened spilling tears, and she blinked up at Aphrodite through the calm, slow comprehension welling in her eyes. "You have all the answers, little one," the Goddess of Love said, nodding. "Do you understand?"
Sniffing, Gabrielle wiped at the scald in her eyes. Short of breath, panting, she wrapped her forearm about herself as she got to her feet. Her breathing echoed through the temple, spilling across the dome above. They shared a long glance in the torchlight. The warrior swallowed hard. "I'm?"
Aphrodite placed a coral hued finger upon Gabrielle's lips, smiling. "Shh?"
The warrior nodded, her stare changing. "Thank you."
Returning the nod, the Goddess of Love turned toward her throne. Gabrielle moved silently to the doorway and the remains of the afternoon beyond.
"Gabby?" Aphrodite's voice echoed behind her. Gabrielle turned. The Goddess smiled warmly, reclining on her throne. "Don't be a stranger."
The air outside was still heavy in the dead square, light falling feather soft in ribbons to the ground. Gabrielle pulled the red silk over her face, the cloth resting coolly against her damp cheekbones. Pigeons took flight, pushing over the canals of air and space between earthly clutter and into the wide and shifting palette of early dusk. Softly, gingerly, her hand slid between the robe and its sash finding the thin secret she had placed within its fold. The long, black strand of hair tickled at her skin like a hope. The city's pull clutched her as she began her descent toward its center, dragging at her bones while she moved down the sloping roads of the Viminal that led to the forum, to the blue shade of the Quirinal hill, to Gallus' home, and to her friends.
The Goddess of Love remembered the curious smile that crept onto the warrior's face unhindered as she had left through the door to the temple and into the sun. Well, she thought, it's a start. She grinned, a sprite-like mischief wrinkling her nose. It's a start, Gabby, but I promise the finish will be a whole lot better? The chamber let her girlish giggle play across its cap after she had disappeared in a rush of light.
From where she was, half-underground, Mira could watch the soldiers' sandaled feet pace across the oily grit of the alley, back and forth, occasionally stopping to talk to one another and then continue on with their duties. The pacing of the patrols had been quite frequent. Through the sliver of light that was her lookout she threw a whispered curse, then slipped the ragged, splinter-filled board back over the entrance to their basement hiding place.
She wiped sweat from her upper lip. The ventilation through the basement was non-existent and the light was steadily failing them, retreating and regrouping into dwindling pools near the various holes and cracks in the walls. A few seconds had to pass for her eyes to adjust and for Joshua to come into focus, slouched against an ancient crate. His hair clung in damp points against his forehead. She sighed as quietly as she could. How am I gonna get us out of this one?
"You alright?" Joshua's voice sank dead into the various debris scattered about the room.
Mira nodded, not sure if he could see. "Yup."
She heard him chuckle. "Yeah, that sounded convincing."
"I'm fine," she said, a little too harshly. Turning, she softened her tone. "Really."
"I'm not," he offered. "It's too hot. I'm too tired. And to be perfectly honest, I'm afraid."
Mira squinted over at the boy, giving up on her surveillance of the street outside and moved to where he was sitting. She sat, a little too quickly, something pinching her butt with a sharp pain. Later, as she pulled a large splinter from her behind, she would thank the gods for the restraint she had shown in disguising the incident with a strategic (and rather convincing, she might add) cough. Switching positions, she blinked at the boy. "It's okay, you know? We're going to be fine." Realizing how that might sound, she added, "I mean it."
"Guess I'm just not cut out for this kind of thing." He hugged his knees.
As hard as she fought not to, she decided to try and help. "So, what are you cut out for?" she asked, hoping that if she could get his mind off of the situation he might feel a bit better about it.
"Good question." He shrugged. "My dad just assumes I'm going to be a carpenter like him, but I don't know? It just doesn't seem to fit."
He inhaled sharply then let it unfurl from him in a slow sigh. "Not sure. Well? Nah! Forget it?"
"What? What is it?"
"I don't know? it's just?well, when I was helping Eve, in the Roman cell, with all of those sick people?"
Mira nodded. "It fit."
"Yes," he returned. "Talking with them. Easing their pain in whatever way I could. It all felt?I don't know?right."
"Well, that's a start, huh?" Mira noticed him shift and tilted her head. "What is it?"
"That isn't all, though," he said, hesitantly. "I don't know?it's something more. I can't describe it?"
Joshua stood up, shaking blood into his legs. "You're gonna think I'm a stupid kid?"
"What?" She rose, wincing in the dark at her smarting rump. "Hey. Come on." She placed her hand on his shoulder, scrunching up her face in hopes he might see it in the frail light. "It's ole Mira yer talkin' too here?" He laughed, though he fought hard not to. She decided to be serious again. "You're not a stupid kid, so why would I think that?"
"Like I said, I can't describe everything?but?I think it has something to do with Eve."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, when I was around her, I felt a strange?connection, y'know?"
Mira crossed her arms. "Oh, yeah?"
"Yeah?like we were meant to work together like how we did?to heal people?"
"Oh?" Mira trailed off. "Well, that is what she does. Maybe you could go with her when all of this is done. Follow the ways of Eli. Gabrielle speaks pretty highly of it all."
"Yup. She used to follow the ways too, y'know. Well, a long time ago, anyway."
Joshua blinked at her. "Really? Gabrielle did? Quiet, blonde, warrior type?" His hand illustrated a rough approximation of the warrior's height. "This tall? That Gabrielle?"
Mira laughed. "Yes. That Gabrielle. A long time ago. I can't see it, but what do I know?"
Joshua's face darkened slightly. "There's something else?"
"There's a surprise." Mira teased.
"About a year ago I had a dream. Eve was in it." He hesitated. "I never met her until about two months ago?"
Mira blinked, not really knowing what to say. She decided to change the subject. "Look, just have a seat, we can talk about it later. With Eve, if you'd like."
Joshua looked toward the exit. "I'm really worried about those missing Elians?"
"Me too." Mira nodded. "When we get out of here, maybe we can find them." She moved away, pushing the board aside and turning her attention back to the street. "We just have to sit tight until Gabrielle comes to get us out of here."
Out on the street, the soldiers paced past the window, sandals crunching with steady pressure against the ground. One of them spit into the dust. Mira scowled.
Where in Tartarus is she? The girl ran a hand through her hair, pushing a long lock behind her ear. Gabrielle had not been herself for more than a while. Actually, not since receiving Virgil's invitation just over a month and a half ago. Mira remembered the look on the warrior's face as she read the letter while leaning against a doorway in Argos, the subtle lines of her skin darkening in bunches above and around her eyes. Gabrielle had become slowly invisible since that time, and over the last few weeks, increasingly so.
The days since the breakout had been the worst between them. It was here that the warrior had vanished altogether, and right when Mira (as much as she hated to admit it) needed the woman the most. Mira sighed, pushing her fist softly against the wall. She slipped the board back into place, sealing out the soldiers' footsteps and turned back into the room. Shuffling back into the gloom, she found a quiet place near Joshua in the growing darkness.
Dust was draped in low patches above the base of the Capitoline hill. It rose, invisible until straying into the sharp blades of light that fell between the buildings and then flashed into sight, frozen in sepia tufts above the crowds. It rose from the steady thrum of a cohort of Praetorians on the march, fanning out through the city.
At the head of the columns, younger soldiers carried their standards draped from polished brass and gold poles bearing the symbol of Rome: the Imperial eagle, wings outstretched, talons open. Chariots brought up the rear, pulled by tall warhorses with steady gazes and sure feet. At various points, white robed officers dispatched small details to patrol and monitor intersections and city blocks. Soon after stopping, they began questioning random citizens and passersby. The sounds of drums, marching feet and horns hung in the air long after the mass of men had spread out.
Virgil turned around from the low stall where he had been pretending to admire a ladle fabricated from a small gourd. With a quick squint, he scanned the square. "I think we can move," he said.
Eve stood up from the crate of sickly apples she had been sifting through. She smiled. "Almost there."
They faded into the stream of Romans, keeping apart, but within sight of each other. This had been the way of things since losing the group of Praetorians an hour earlier. While they had not had any similar encounters, it was slow going back to Gallus' home on the Quirinal. Now there seemed to be reinforcements coming into this part of the city. Virgil wondered if these had been sent to round them up. It didn't seem to make sense, but then the Romans often didn't.
As Eve slowed behind a cramped swell of crowd, the poet sidled up behind her. "What do you think all that hardware was about?" he asked quietly.
"A perfect example of the Roman fondness for spontaneous parades?" she smirked.
"You know," Virgil crossed his arms. "The closer you are to middle age, the funnier you become, Eve."
She glared at him, raising an eyebrow. "Watch it."
Sidestepping, Virgil continued his original line of inquiry. "I think something is going on. There was that horn blowing and the marching and the forming up. Something's in the wind."
"Agreed." Eve nodded. "We just need to find out what it is?" She darted her head about, looking for a nearby collection of infantrymen, or a checkpoint.
Virgil looked around for a moment then tapped a man on the shoulder. "Excuse me, exactly why are there squads of Praetorians marching through the streets?" He shrugged at Eve who crossed her arms with an amused look.
The short man squinted at them briefly then spoke. "The Emperor's declared a State of Emergency, he has. He's closed the Senate and everyone's answerable to the Praetors in the different jurisdictions." He leaned in, "And rumor has it that there's two legions headed toward the city from Ostia as we speak. It's a right mess, it is."
"Thank you." Virgil blinked at Eve intensely. "Well, this isn't good, is it?"
"No. It really isn't."
"I guess it doesn't change anything, really. We still need to get back to the house."
Eve pulled at the poet's fingers for him to follow and they continued through the crowds. Pushing as they had earlier, separately, though within sight of one another, making a steady pace for the Quirinal hill.
Soon, they passed down a street that was under construction. Scaffolds and ladders crisscrossed over their heads from rooftop to rooftop, platform to platform. On the road, the crowds began to slow, to gather in a large mass further ahead. Virgil hopped up on a stall to gain a better vantage. He squinted over the heads, his face soon darkening.
"There's a checkpoint up there," he said. "Praetorians are stopping people and asking questions."
Eve looked thoughtful. "Maybe we can risk it. That is the quickest way back."
"Too risky." Virgil shook his head. "They probably have your description."
They looked around them. Virgil turned away from the checkpoint, rubbing his chin. Glancing about the crowded street, Eve leaned against a stall letting her eyes play out past the old buildings and the crowds headed toward the checkpoint in the hazy distance. A mischievous grin slowly appeared on her face. She tapped Virgil. "I think I found a solution," she said.
"Does it involve running? Because if it does, forget it."
"Not running?" She slowly motioned down the avenue, toward the construction and the scaffolds that led up and over the street. "Climbing."
Virgil swallowed hard. "Uh uh. No way," he protested. The poet then searched futilely for an alternative, scouring the area for something, anything, found nothing and ran a hand with frantic distraction through his hair. "The death of me?" He threw up his arms histrionically. "This woman will be the death of me," he said to no one, to everyone, finally shaking his head, a resigned smile curling back his lips.
Eve smiled. "At least there's no running."
"No, just extreme heights and a desperate balancing act, that's all."
"I didn't say it was an easy solution." She patted his cheek. "Let's go."
"I never said I was a 'warrior poet,' y'know?" Virgil called out, but Eve had already begun moving toward a nearby building that had a façade covered with scaffolding. He shuffled after her.
The poet looked to the faces of the passersby, sweaty, hungry, nervous, he wondered what would happen to Rome as Nero's fist closed upon it. There was a layer of dust hanging over the city as it slowly teetered toward dusk. It looked like smoke, like ash.
They looked around and then nonchalantly ascended a ladder up to a first floor scaffold. There was a better view of the city as the buildings sagged down the side of the Capitoline toward the Forum, rooftops blurry-white in the shift of humidity. Virgil tried not to think of Mira, of Joshua, but didn't have much success. He sighed. Swallowing hard, he followed Eve through an open window, into an empty room. He was thirsty.
The room opened up into a hallway. Eve poked her head out and looked around. She led them up a staircase and into another room, this one filled with scattered tools and piles of wood. They looked through another window out onto a high scaffold. A stepladder led up to a third story platform that had a ladder bridge, leading to a rooftop across the way. A crane for lifting supplies leaned over the bridge.
"Uh?" Virgil blinked with worry at the thin bridge.
"Yeah." Eve nodded, putting a steadying hand on her old friend's shoulder.
Suddenly, they heard voices from behind. The poet slipped back toward the door and glanced into the hall. Workmen spoke, moved boxes, were coming closer. In a panic, Virgil shut the door quietly and barred it with a heavy crate. He shrugged, looking at Eve. "Guess there's only one way to go now, huh?"
She smiled and stepped out through the window. Virgil sighed and followed close behind. Soon, they had made their way up to the precarious looking ladder bridge. Looking down momentarily, Virgil felt his stomach pitch, his nausea returning. "Gods," he whispered over a gag. The street gaped beneath them, its expanse pulling him, threatening to throw him down onto the masses roiling like ants below.
Eve stepped out onto the ladder, her balance steady. "Just don't look down," she called back to him.
"Thanks, Eve. Thanks." He took a deep breath and stepped out, keeping his eyes fixed on a clasp in Eve's hair. They moved one cautious step after another like this, slowly. Carefully they placed their feet on the rungs of the horizontal ladder, holding desperately on to their balance. Virgil started to relax¾as much as he could, suspended high above the street as he was.
Without warning, halfway across the bridge, Eve halted, and it took a lot for the poet to avoid crashing into her. "Eve?"
"We have a problem?" was all she said.
Carefully peeking around her, Virgil looked toward the other side. Stepping out onto the ladder was a tall figure, cloaked in blue. Squinting, Virgil could see that it was a woman. A woman with exceptional balance, judging by the relaxed strides she took toward them.
"Well, this isn't good, is it?"
"No. It really isn't."
The cowled woman drew a sword from its scabbard on her back, and continued her advance.
"Son of a Bacchae!" Mira cursed. "Open up, will ya!"
The girl prepared to launch a punch at the trap door in the ceiling, thought better of it, and shook her fist at the sealed portal instead. A low growl escaped her, falling hollow in the growing darkness of the basement. She sighed, and began to push up on the newly discovered door again. It gave only enough to keep her trying.
The discovery of the possible exit had been a bright hope for them at the time. A hope that soon became a determined struggle, which faded quickly into a frustration and now bordered on black despair. For a candle mark they had been poking, pushing, prodding at the almost invisible seam that indicated a door to the floor above them. Mira slammed her fist into the ceiling.
"Quiet," Joshua said from behind her.
She scowled up as dust sprinkled her face, coated her eyelashes. "Aw, who cares, anymore?"
"Come on, time to switch." Joshua indicated that she should step down and let him try. With a shrug, Mira reluctantly left her position and the boy scampered up the various footholds among the dusty crates to the absence of light where they had discovered the portal. He slid his fingers along the edges.
Mira blinked up, with a skeptical squint. "Aren't you supposed to know about this stuff? Your dad's a carpenter, right?"
"It's not that simple." He continued to search. "Aren't you supposed to know about this stuff? You're the Princess of Thieves, supposedly¾doesn't a locked door fall under your jurisdiction?"
She crossed her arms. "Cute." It was hard to breathe in the mold and dust crowded air. She growled. A small potshard came apart under her foot. "This is all Gabrielle's fault?"
Joshua stopped looking. "What?"
"This. Where we are. This is all Gabrielle's fault."
"I seem to remember that you suggested we hide in here."
Mira's nostrils flared. "That's not my point. Gabrielle is the one who tracks down and rescues missing people. Not Eve. Not Virgil. Not us." The girl chewed on a thin braid of her hair. Her ire stirred anew and she swept her hands in front of her. "She's supposed to be the big hero, the fierce warrior¾well, where in Tartarus is she? Where is she?" Her fists were bunched tightly.
Mira exhaled. "Even when she is around, she's not, y'know? Ugh!"
Joshua grimaced down at her. "She seems to have a lot on her mind."
"Well it's not like I would know. Not like she tells me anything?" She turned her back.
Looking up at the trap door, Joshua spoke back over his shoulder. "Come up here for a sec, I need your help."
Mira sniffed and slowly made her way over, climbing up the crates and falling in beside him. A frustrated heat was palpable between them. Joshua squinted up. He grabbed her hands and moved them to a position in the seams. Mira blinked at him for a moment, and then complied. "I need you to apply pressure upward, here," he said. "Ready?"
With a sudden jolt, Joshua thrust upward at one of the door's corners, pitching it up and sideways. The portal came loose, along with a pile of sooty debris and pieces of wood that spilled upon them, knocking them backwards to the floor. Mira coughed and rubbed her head. She was covered in dust and chips of old wood. Brushing herself off, she called out. "Joshua? You okay?"
"Yeah." She heard him cough. "A dead cat fell on me, though."
They laughed and coughed for a bit. Mira peered up into the dusty hole in the ceiling. Tired sunlight poured through the soot-crowded air. "Well, let's see where this goes." She climbed up and pushed through the portal.
Helping Joshua up, Mira looked around the room. It was in complete rot and disarray, moldy furniture and broken bits of wood and pottery lay scattered everywhere. The windows were boarded here too, but more light trickled in. Hallways led to other rooms.
Joshua sniffed. "It doesn't smell as good as downstairs, but I'll take it."
"Come on." She grabbed his hand and led him away from the street side of the house and down a ruined hall. They passed through a room where much of the ceiling had caved in and they had to step over the remains. Soon, they had passed to the rear of the abandoned building and found a boarded doorway. Mira stopped and looked for a hole in the wall. She knelt by a small fissure and peeked out. As she had suspected it might, this side of the home opened onto a simple courtyard. The courtyard seemed empty.
Mira looked back at Joshua and shrugged. "I guess this is it." She got to her feet and moved to the door. With a quick kick, she managed to loosen the boards enough to finish the job with her hands and create a hole near the floor that was large enough for them. "Here we go."
They slid out into the shaded space. The courtyard was overgrown with weeds, tall grass, and filled with the burr of locusts. Mira moved to the side of the house to check back toward the street. Soldiers passed, but were far enough away that she didn't need to worry. When she returned to the yard she found Joshua peering over the back fence. He turned to her from across the cluttered space and shrugged. "Looks okay, I guess."
Just over the fence was a short but steep sandy embankment rough with scrub that cut between collections of old buildings, leading down to an alley. Mira considered it, rubbing her chin. "Looks good enough to me," she said, and sprang up nimbly onto the fence. "Let's go."
They fought for grip, sliding uneasily down the incline, a light cloud of dust kicked up in their wake. Joshua stumbled, rocks spilling out beneath him teetering him too far to one side, but Mira managed to grab at his belt and compensate. He smiled sheepishly in thanks. Soon, they had descended to the alley and jogged toward a shaded intersection nearby.
After a quick check, they were soon moving along a moderately busy avenue, blending as well as they could with the crowd. Mira started to move them around the other side of the Capitoline, hoping to find a way back home. There seemed to be fewer soldiers where they were heading.
Mira shrugged. "This might just work out after all."
"Yeah?" Joshua responded absently.
They continued along. Mira blinked at the boy. "What is it?"
"What about the lost Elians?"
"What about them?" Mira furrowed her brows. "If Eve and Virgil found them, then great; if not, there's nothing we can do about it except rendezvous back at the mansion, right?"
Joshua stopped, crossing his arms. "Are you so sure?"
"Um, yeah." Mira's hands went to her hips. "In case I didn't already say it: I'm not a warrior. And I don't recall you mentioning it was your line of work either."
"I can't believe after that rescue that you pulled off¾"
"Hey!" Mira cut him off, looking around the streets nervously. "Keep it down."
Joshua lowered his voice. "I can't believe after that rescue you pulled off, that you would doubt your abilities in this sort of thing." He squinted at her. "Gabrielle must have taught you a lot over the past two years, right?"
"Well, I suppose."
Mira darted her eyes around the avenue, then returned them to the boy. "Come on. Talk and walk." They moved off in the direction they had been heading earlier. Pushing a strand of hair from her face, Mira continued, "Look, maybe we could do this if we had an idea where they were¾but we don't."
"I know," Joshua said. "But we had a general idea where they were. We could start there."
Mira took an unexpected turn down another street taking them slightly off course. "Look, right now we have other problems," she said. "Those sad dressers are back. They're following us."
Joshua tensed but kept moving. They wound through a tight crowd, but Mira knew the two men trailing them would follow easily. As they passed through an intersection, they gained another pursuer. "They're corralling us," Mira said.
Joshua swallowed hard then smirked at her. "Why don't we let ourselves be corralled?"
Mira turned, wide-eyed. "Excuse me? I'm not sure I heard you right?"
"Yeah," the boy nodded, more confident. "Why don't we let them catch us? Maybe that's how we find the Elians."
"Or maybe that's how we find ourselves robbed and dead in an alley," Mira said. They continued to wind through the street, the late afternoon crowds growing. "There's no way to know that these are the guys who have the Elians." She shook her head. "There's no way to even know that anyone has the Elians¾that's the problem!"
Joshua narrowed his eyes slyly. "Then we'll just have to take a risk, won't we?"
Mira looked ahead, noticing a ramshackle marketplace along the sides of the street. She also noticed several bulky men standing about with cloaks covering black clothing that peeked out at the knees and ankles. With a roll of her eyes she considered the options, which meant, as always, that she was in trouble and when Mira was in trouble she had a tendency to choose the most reckless of her options. Far be it from me to go against my pattern?
"Even if we find them, pulling off a rescue is going to be tough¾maybe impossible?" Mira smirked. "You know this is crazy, right?" she asked him.
"Absolutely insane," he smiled.
Shaking her head, she smiled in resignation as her stomach began to tighten. "Alright, let's do this, before I change my mind." They turned back toward the stalls; Mira called out, "Hey! Lookin' for us?"
Holding hands, they strolled toward the hastily approaching men.
"I really need to stop hanging out with you and your family." Virgil peered over Eve's shoulder at the steadily approaching figure.
"Think of how boring life would be," Eve replied, crouching into a battle stance.
"I'm willing to take the chance."
The stranger moved in quickly, leading with a quick slash at Eve's waist. To Virgil's amazement it only cut empty air, as his friend flipped easily over their attacker's head¾leaving him in direct line of sight of the woman, he was quick to notice. Shifting sideways, the attacker kept herself in a defensive posture between the two friends.
Virgil blinked at the woman, then to Eve, not sure what to do. Smirking at the poet, Eve moved skillfully in to attack, using an overhand chop as a feint that collapsed into a roundhouse kick. Blocking with difficulty, the attacker shifted balance and brought her sword to bear in a downward motion. Eve clapped her hands together, catching the weapon in her palms with a slap.
"Gods!" Virgil gawked at his friend, unsure of his footing on the ladder bridge and still unable to commit to any sort of attack. Finally, noticing that the strange woman was unable to free her blade from Eve's grasp, he decided to take advantage of the opening and threw a kick at her back.
Letting go of her sword, the attacker spun, blocking the poet's kick and delivering a crushing right cross to his jaw, sending him reeling off of the bridge. With frantic, spinning arms, he managed to grab at the rungs and prevent a fall to the street below. He did his best not to look down.
"Virgil!" Eve still clasped the blade, held pommel out within her palms, and prepared to move to help her friend. The attacker spun into a dangerous aerial cartwheel kick, bringing both feet down at Eve, who let go of the sword and back flipped out of harm's way. With surprising speed, the stranger managed to catch the falling weapon at the end of her strike.
"Uhm?Eve? If it's not too much trouble?" Virgil struggled to pull himself up.
Eve rolled at their attacker, who deftly sprang over her. Uncurling near Virgil, Eve reached down, grasped his struggling forearms and began to lift. "Hang in there," she chuckled.
"Ha. Ha." He smirked dryly. His eyes widened suddenly. "Look out!"
Eve managed to swing her forearm around to block an attack at the last moment. Virgil slid downwards slightly, as Eve let go of him to deliver a foot sweep at their foe. "You teach this sort of thing to all of the Elians?"
The two women traded attacks again. Eve didn't leave Virgil's side, though still not able to offer him any real assistance. The poet began to hoist himself up again. "If you want something done around here?"
Eve fended off another strike, counter attacking quickly with a series of lightning fast kicks that backed off their attacker. She turned to Virgil. "Stay where you are."
As their assailant moved in again, Eve dropped carefully from the bridge, grabbing the legs of the stunned poet. She smiled up at him. "Swing me back up there."
Shaking his head, Virgil rocked himself with difficulty back and forth. His grip was slipping rapidly. "I don't know who you think I am, Eve," he grunted. Soon, with Eve's help, he pitched her over the side of the ladder back up onto its surface. She made sure to land behind their foe and fell upon her, gripping her in a crushing headlock. The two women struggled to gain an advantage as they grappled fiercely in this way.
Finally able to swing a leg up, Virgil pulled himself back up onto the bridge. Taking a deep breath and steadying his ever-roiling gut, he got to his feet and slowly moved toward the wrestling women.
Suddenly, the stranger found an opening and thrust a powerful elbow into Eve's abdomen, freeing herself of the acolyte's grip. The woman straightened into a stiletto-like posture and dropped between two rungs in the ladder. Eve could only watch, mouth agape, fingers still clutched around her foe's unraveling cowl. The woman grabbed a rung at the last moment and swung herself back through the ladder and upward in a two-footed attack, knocking Eve from the bridge and toward the crane at its side.
Virgil watched as the strange woman, now unmasked, turned and moved with dark purpose toward him. Her closely cropped stubble of hair, the intense, unforgiving eyes, all the more menacing as she recovered her sword and tested it with a few feints through the open air. "Uhm? maybe we can talk about this?" He blinked as she continued to approach. "No, huh?"
From her vantage on the crane, Eve didn't like the looks of Virgil's chances. Raising the platform to the level of the bridge, she began to swing it back and forth in wider and more dramatic arcs toward the ladder, and Virgil.
The poet continued to back away from his imposing attacker, until he heard a commotion from behind him. Several Praetorians had poured out onto the walkway and were advancing toward him as well. He swallowed hard. "Ho boy?"
He could smell the oil that the soldiers used on their swords, wafting to his nostrils on the breeze.
"Virgil! Get ready!"
Not even able to grunt in exclamation, the poet was grabbed by a swinging Eve and carried off of the bridge, as the acolyte tossed a lever that let out the slack in the crane. The platform plummeted quickly (too quickly for Virgil) toward the ground and the scattering crowds of the market, the rope beginning to burn in its pulley. Watching their attackers high above him now, Virgil began to relax a little.
"Well, sometimes this hero thing is not quite bad, is it?" He straightened suddenly. "Oh good gods?" was all he managed as the platform crashed into a fruit stall, spilling the two friends and various over-ripe fruit about the ground.
"Great landing, Eve," the poet sighed.
"I thought so," she smiled, helping him up. They quickly disappeared into the crowd, heading once again for home.
On the bridge, Octavia sheathed her sword, watching them wend their way to the north. She crossed her arms and nodded to the approaching Praetorian. "This little exercise appears to have succeeded. Good job."
The man nodded. "We've opened the routes to the Quirinal hill again, Commander, hopefully the Emperor's hunch is correct."
"I'm sure it is, Lieutenant," Octavia said. She turned and moved back to the other side of the bridge, eager to return to the street and her pursuit.
There were still many hours of sunlight left, but Gabrielle could already discern the steady descent into nightfall upon the air. Crossing the busy Forum, she kept her eyes lowered, her linen cowl over her head, and pushed toward the Quirinal hill. Romans flitted nervously about her, shoving and cramming against one another in a sweaty jumble of bodies and tense energy.
She could smell the warhorses over the tang of humanity. Over lowered heads, between bodies she caught a glimpse of chariots, soldiers, and a checkpoint of some sort. The warrior decided to figure out what was going on later, after she had returned to the mansion.
Eventually, she found it impossible to ascend the Quirinal from the main square. The closer she came to the avenues that climbed its palm-lush summit, the slower and more crowded the streets. She squinted through the moving figures at the cluster of Praetorians directing the flow of traffic, pulling people aside for questioning.
I don't like the looks of this?
Reluctantly, the warrior receded into the crowd, hoping to make her way back to the Capitoline and perhaps swing around to approach the mansion from behind, along the northern wall of the city. It was easy going as the throng poured in that direction, spilling out toward the southern reaches of the Forum and to the thoroughfares beyond.
Walking in even, ponderous strides, Gabrielle felt a familiar tension drape over her. It wasn't until she recognized this that she truly realized that her mood had shifted since her audience with Aphrodite. The warrior smirked with a sardonic twist to her lips. It had been the closest thing to relaxation, or at the very least ease, she had experienced since arriving in Rome. The closest thing in how long?
The people pushed past her as she came to a stop. Smells, sounds were overwhelming now, she hadn't eaten and her head was light, full of wool. Shoulders, elbows jostled and bumped her almost spilling her to the ground as she lost her center of balance briefly. Someone, she never saw who, pulled her gently to a crate near a stall and sat her down.
"Rest," they said.
When some people used this word, it seemed that it had deeper meaning than what we knew of it. It seemed to encompass something far more profound than the dreamless and desperate sleep clutched between cities or towns or battles¾something greater than simple regeneration of the body. Sometimes I felt that perhaps this incarnation of the word had almost nothing to do with sleep at all, and I would pass the faces of farmers or blacksmiths or priestesses finding a quality there that I could only describe as: 'well-rested,' despite having completed a full day's labor.
Even asleep, your muscles rippled, sleepless as the sea. Bare thighs pulsing, the lattice of your back in tumult, your jaw clenched in determination and focus pointed inward. Sometimes, this energy drew me and I would fall upon you, my lips hard against your neck, to your breast, hoping to leech it from you, all of it and give you what was unasked for but what parts of you craved oh, so dearly. Later, side-by-side we listened to our breath grow shallow, felt skin grow cool once more and I knew that I had failed again.
Still other days I hated it: the restlessness¾your restlessness. I didn't understand it back then at all, thought that only I carried about this empty place inside, this yearning. There were a few times, beyond the ones you know of, that I thought of leaving. That I thought of fading into the night and finding a place to rest, away from the running, the motion. It never stopped. It never stops.
And the places we found for ourselves were revealed at the wrong times. That's what we told ourselves, wasn't it? Or we were convinced that coming to a standstill was an impossibility? That it was selfish? And maybe it was, but selflessness forces you to let go of, to sacrifice everything, maybe even that which you cannot afford to lose.
Even now, I chase you from place to place, walk in your footsteps. A ghost, as you once were, moving between trees, inhabiting corners of rooms, the trickles of darkness at the edges of things¾heading with silent and unspoken purpose in one direction without an end, without rest?
A strand of hair dropped into Gabrielle's eye. She sighed, raising her head to the swarm of Romans moving through the Forum. Getting to her feet, she re-assessed her position in the city. The streets ascending the Capitoline hill were nearby and she moved with purpose toward them.
The warrior soon found herself walking through shaded markets and alleyways, gaining ground quickly in a move for the Servian wall's northwest edge. While the streets remained crowded, movement seemed to be unhindered and flowing. Gabrielle moved faster, entering a ragged looking market.
"Hey! Lookin' for us?"
The warrior stopped dead. It was Mira's voice and nearby. She turned and spotted a group of men heading with sinister purpose toward a worried-looking Mira and Joshua. The men circled and captured the seemingly surrendering youths.
Gabrielle shot into motion, assessing combat as she approached. There were at least six men, two with weapons visible, all seemingly capable fighters if their stances were indication.
The element of surprise claims one, my next strike another, after that?
Her eyes darted about the immediate area. Just above the approaching men a scaffold held a heavy-looking collection of planks. Gabrielle moved in, silent and quick.
A swift kick to the base of the neck incapacitated the first man, sending him tumbling toward the supports of the scaffolding. He crashed solidly into the pole shuddering it loose, tipping the heavy lumber onto two more of his comrades, who screamed in surprise before falling into unconsciousness. Debris spilled across the market as people scrambled out of the way. The pole rolled to a stop nearby. Gabrielle delivered a foot sweep and crushing blow to the chest of another attacker before any could collect themselves and mount a defense.
She lowered her cowl. Now the witty and/or heroic remark?"Let them go," she said. "And maybe not all of you get hurt."
"Gabrielle!" Mira's face brightened then grew concerned. "Look out, there's¾" One of the men wrapped a large forearm around her face and lifted her from the ground. His counterpart did the same with Joshua and they began moving the struggling pair out of the market.
More men emerged from the crowd, circling the warrior. They carried ornate and deadly looking weapons, freshly sharpened. Gabrielle noted some of the detailing, committing it to memory. She rolled her foot under the nearby scaffolding pole, kicking it up to her hands. The metallic weight wasn't perfect, but it would do.
With a battle cry, the warrior moved directly at the attacker who barred her way to Mira's captors. Using a quick feint for the head with her 'staff,' she swept his legs from under him and vaulted out of the circle of men and into a sprint. She had to hurry as it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep an eye on her friends' position through the crowd. The pack of warriors followed looking for a chance to surround Gabrielle.
She gained ground on the kidnappers and one had to fade back to deal with her. His overhand chop with a sword sent sparks off of the 'staff' as she blocked it. The subsequent slashes and blocks told of the man's training. While surprise had helped Gabrielle fell several of these men, it would become increasingly difficult to fight them one-to-one, or worse. Pushing citizens out of the way, the other men prepared to attack the warrior from behind.
Quickly planting the staff at an acute angle in the ground, she led her opponent into a downward chop for her hands. Releasing her hold on the staff, the man's blow swung the iron pole out of the ground and into his groin. Gabrielle regained the staff as he collapsed to the ground in agony.
"Gabrielllllllle!!!" Mira's voice, further away now.
With a spin, the warrior had her weapon anchored within the pit of her arm pointed outward, an extension of her reach, keeping the attackers at bay. She backed away to resume the chase. The men followed her into the crowd.
Mira and Joshua were carried down an alley up ahead. Gabrielle broke into a sprint, expertly darting in and out of the crowd. She began to put some distance between herself and the pursuers, while also gaining ground on her prey. Her ribs began to throb.
As she approached the alley, she dodged suddenly-arrows entered the ground where she once stood. Her ears detected more on the breeze and she swatted bolts from the air with the staff, back-flipping out of the line of fire. Archers on the roofs reloaded and took aim. She squinted up at them. And me without my chakram?
The warrior sprinted past the alley, hoping to arc back around, out of the range of archers from down another street. Turning, she managed to see Mira's captors round a corner at the end of the alley, fading further into the maze of back streets on the Capitoline. She could also see Mira pounding on the back of one of their heads to no avail and heard her yells echoing off the buildings. "Let me go, you big jerk!"
Gabrielle moved for another alleyway, but had to dodge a heavy rain of arrows. The archers had anticipated her move and had gained the buildings surrounding her route, while also managing to flank her position. She backed off and tried to back track. These aren't your average goons?
Several of the men who had been following moved in to attack. She crouched, bringing the staff to bear on one of her adversary's kneecaps, shattering it and other bones in the man's leg with a perfectly placed strike. Spinning quickly into an aerial cartwheel, she blocked a spear thrust, twisting the weapon from the man's hands and launching it at another's abdomen where it sank easily through leather armor.
Gabrielle growled in frustration. More arrows. She dove out of the way and right into an attack. The man's swing was too wide and the warrior was able to block his club easily and slam her staff across his face. Blood erupted from beneath the black fabric.
"Hold!" a voice boomed. Praetorians appeared, coming from the south, weapons readied.
She ran for the alley, there was no other choice. Arrows screamed through the air, scattering the already panicking crowds and creating more chaos around her. Her footfalls echoed upon the high walls of the passage as she broke through. Her ribs burned in her chest like embers split apart on the bottom of a hearth.
Gabrielle's heart sank as she rounded the corner. The alley branched off quickly in several directions and there was no sign of her friends. She had to keep moving as voices could be heard behind her. Tracking as best as she could, the warrior moved along the back streets at a speedy pace.
Soon, it was apparent that, while she had lost her pursuers, she had also lost Mira's trail. Raising her cowl, she moved carefully down the Capitoline, heading back to the Forum. She entered the great expanse and blended easily into the crowds of early evening, moving with renewed determination toward the Quirinal hill.
Sniffing, the warrior no longer detected the presence of warhorses nearby. As she approached the ascent toward Gallus' home, it was obvious that the checkpoints from earlier were no longer in place. While it piqued her interest, she could not waste any time mulling it over. She headed up the hill, passing quickly beneath the palms swaying in the whisper of breeze.
The air, chilled by shade and marble, offered a welcome and cooling embrace as they entered the foyer of the mansion. Attendants approached to offer aid but Virgil waved them off. Eve smiled with exhaustion at one of the young girls. "The Senator, where is he?"
They moved through the home, the weariness of the chase, the battle, the flight to the mansion beginning to drag upon them, slow their steps. Clouded with fatigue they made their way out onto the balcony and back into the waning light of the afternoon.
Under a large parasol, at a far edge of the balcony, Gallus and Seneca ate a leisurely meal. Their faces tightened in increasing concern as their friends approached. The senator stood, offering his couch to them. Virgil remained standing, letting Eve put up her feet. Seneca sat up, pouring cups of water for the two friends.
Gallus looked to the poet, to Eve, then to Virgil again. "What has happened?"
Swallowing his water with a gasp, Virgil blinked sadly at the senator. "Mira and Joshua are missing."
"I can talk with Praetor Septimus," Gallus began. "He'll¾"
"I don't think it was the Praetorians," Eve spoke from the couch. "Whoever has them, I think they have the others as well."
Seneca looked thoughtful. "The events of late do indicate that perhaps an unknown element is involved; that someone other than Nero might want Rome in its current state and is taking full advantage. But how can you be sure that our friends have been captured?"
"We don't have time to worry about it right now," Virgil said. "Nero knows our plans, I'm sure of it."
Gallus looked skeptical. "What? Impossible."
"We were followed by Imperial guards. We were attacked. They had been trailing us and they're shutting down the city in an effort to smoke us out. I'm sure of it."
Seneca rubbed his chin, looking to Eve. "You will need to get your people out of Rome as soon as you can."
"Should we really be making such rash moves, given the current unrest in the city?" Gallus crossed his arms. "This is just what Nero is waiting for¾he's handing us our own cross, are we going to nail ourselves to it, as well?"
"I agree that caution and restraint are required here, my friend," Seneca said. "But haste as well. The longer we wait, the more entrenched in the city the Praetorians become, the more accurate and damning the intelligence gathered by the Emperor's spies."
Virgil nodded. "We need to move and we need to move fast."
"What about Mira, Joshua, my friends?" Eve asked.
Gallus and Virgil exchanged a glance. Seneca peered out into the wall of palms that descended the western slope of the hill.
"Leave that to me." It was Gabrielle. She walked toward them from the house, a determination and purpose about her that caused Virgil's mouth to hang open slightly. The warrior had changed into her armor and equipped herself with her weapons.
Eve stood. "Where have you been?"
"It's none of your concern." Gabrielle crossed her arms. "I can't believe that you went out there on your own. That you didn't wait here until I returned."
"And how long were we supposed to wait? My friends were lost, they still are."
"That's right, they still are, and your irresponsibility may make it impossible to rescue them." The warrior was bristling with anger. "And now Mira and Joshua are lost, too. I thought you would know better, Eve."
"Gabrielle-" Virgil began to interject.
"I'll get to you in a second." Gabrielle snapped at the poet.
"Stay out of this, Virgil," Eve said. She turned to the warrior. "You weren't here. My people were in danger. A decision had to be made. If you're angry at yourself, it's no reason to project it at me, or Virgil, or anyone else."
"And frankly, you were just as irresponsible for abandoning everyone in a time of crisis."
"We don't have time for this." The warrior clenched her fists, her inner conflict appearing to be only half attributable to Eve's comments. She closed her eyes, sighing. "I have to find them. If I don't return by the end of the night, carry on with your plans."
"Wait?" Eve reached out her hand.
Gabrielle turned and strode from the balcony and into the cool of the home. Soon she had made her way to the street and passed down into the city below the leaning palms and the shade of the marble balcony.
From her vantage point in the trees, Octavia smiled. She watched the warrior disappear down an alley and returned her attentions to the figures on the balcony¾the poet, the Elian acolyte, the senator and the exile: Seneca, himself. The emperor would be overjoyed at the news. She slid quietly down the trunk of the tree and through the tall grasses at its base. It would be a pleasing walk back to the Domus Aurea.
"I'm sorry, I didn't quite get that. Could you repeat what you said, please?" the God of War put a hand to his ear and leaned forward on his throne.
The priest before him swallowed hard, looking to the floor for some form of comfort. He adjusted his black tunic and tried to keep his voice from cracking. "We didn't capture Eve, my lord."
"See, that's what I thought you said." Ares crossed his arms, leaning back. "And now I'm supposed to spare your life because?"
"Your greatness, we have other prisoners. Perhaps of equal value to you?"
The god looked skeptically at the priest. "I highly doubt that, my friend." With a bored gesture Ares indicated that the man continue. "Bring them in."
Some shouts came from the hall, the sounds of a struggle, then four priests brought in two prisoners: a girl and a boy.
Ares face brightened with recognition. He rose to his feet. "Oh my." He chuckled menacingly. "This just might work out after all."
The God of War moved toward his prisoners, a menacing gleam in his eyes. "I just love the sidekicks." He smiled at Mira. "Not quite sure how you make getting captured seem so easy, but I thank you for it nevertheless."
"Who in Hades is this joker?" Mira sneered, before being shaken into silence by her captor.
"Your worst nightmare, my dear little Mira." Ares grinned. "Yours too." He winked at a bewildered Joshua. "Well done my friends, well done," the God of War smirked. "Put them with the others, and continue with the preparations as before. We're entertaining some old friends this evening."
The priests left the hall with the teens shouting and kicking. Ares thought to himself for a moment, his hands on his hips. Soon, his laughter filled the old chamber, shaking its walls.
Along the Via Apia there are patrols of soldiers. Moving at an even pace in squads of twenty or so, two chariots, one officer, between way stations and back, every ten miles or so. They question all travelers extensively, moving them off the road, into the dry grass along its side. Most are sent on their way toward Rome. Some are detained, and taken to the city for questioning.
She had been able to avoid most of the patrols on Her run north. The land at the sides of the road was even enough not to slow Her pace, Her push to Rome. As She had gotten closer to the city, the patrols increased, were larger, they fanned out into the underbrush, became a problem. Finally, She had found it necessary to act.
Meridian throbbed with contentment as She returned it to the scabbard. The sounds of horses' hooves grew faint in the distance. There was some movement, noise coming from the slaughtered troops scattered about Her feet in the dry and bloody grass. Death rattles, quivers, bodies sliding with their full weight into the dust. She wiped sweat from Her upper lip. Birds resumed chirping as She stepped out of the circle of dead men and moved quietly toward the road. Soon, She broke into a full run.
Steady, powerful movement, the gnosis of pace, became Her focus. She sprinted in an unwavering arc for the northern horizon, Her cloak spilled out behind. Sparse trees, golden fields, farms all a blur at the periphery of Her vision, all only what lay between Her and Her goal. The milestones, shining in the slowly sinking sun, counted down: XX, IX, XVIII, XVII?
The breeze against Her skin had a soothing affect. The steady pound of her legs, muscles tireless. She closed Her eyes?
The wind tastes like disaster, like doom. It has the tang of endings, of tears and darkness. Still my legs carry me toward its strength, its origin, the dark inevitability of what I know I will find.
This village, it is the centaur village I sprint across. Yet still I cannot remember. And still I run?
In the temple I find him. Slumped over like a rabbit. Limbs thin, limp, like a tiny rabbit. In my arms he is light, as frail as parchment, yet I feel as though I will drop him from the weight on my heart. So still?
His name feels useless there on my tongue, in the air, as though it is dead, too. As though everything is dead, except me. And maybe it is.
And it is you, of course. It is always you, even here, now. The voice, the darkness in my chest, and I know it is you who is responsible, for this, for breaking my heart, for everything. Yet still I cannot remember. I turn to see your face, look into your eyes?
She collapses hard against the road, twisting and rolling in the dust and grit. Her stomach lurches, threatening to expel its contents. She screams instead, but does not truly know why.
The face. It was the face from Her visions. And She hated it, even now, here. She shook the clouds, the visions from Her head.
She rose slowly to Her feet. Faint though searing pain flickered across the various scrapes that dotted Her bare legs, elbows. She broke into a run, moving again for the north and the city. Milestones renewed their countdown: XII, XI, X? The wind dried Her tears before She reached the walls of Rome.
Little Figo never seemed to tire, his feet, even costumed in their crude hooves, were always in motion. The child darted in and out of the rows of pruned bushes, circling fruit trees as the other children gave clumsy chase. Upon his lips stretched a limitless smile scored by chimes of laughter.
A perfect little satyr, Nero thought to himself. They all are, he decided. The children chased and played half-clothed in their bizarre costumes within the serenity of the Emperor's new gardens at the Domus, as Nero ate a leisurely snack and watched, beside himself.
"Ho! Look there, Germina, Toscus will have you!" he shouted with a laugh.
The little girl giggled gleefully and flit between two sunflowers, the boy still giving chase. Nero took a happy bite from a peach and crossed his legs as he leaned back. As evening loomed, the temperature in the partly shaded garden began to approach comfortable. The Emperor tossed the pit aside and his hand reached out for his pan flute.
"Hey now! How about some music for the chase, hmm?"
He began a cheerful and speedy tune that effortlessly combined the warmth of the Dorian and the joy of the Mixolydian modes. The trilling music made the children all the more merry and they squealed with delight, spinning and madly dashing through the garden. Nero found it hard to not erupt into laughter at the near ridiculousness of his flute work and the satyr-costumed children, but he managed to continue.
Octavia entered the garden, approaching from the eastern gates that led up to the Domus. She seemed pleased with herself and so Nero kept playing his song. The children kept a distance from her as she passed through the garden toward him. With eyes a-twinkle, the Emperor switched the tune into a parody of a mournful funerary dirge before putting his instrument aside.
"Hello Octavia," he grinned. "I take it you've been busy today?"
"Indeed, Caesar, I have."
"I tracked the movements of the poet Virgil as you requested and they have led me to?" her voiced trailed off as Nero's attention was on the children.
"Don't stop running!" he yelled angrily at them. "Just because there's no music doesn't mean you little fools can stop. You don't stop until I command it." He turned back to his bodyguard and rolled his eyes. "Already lazy little dogs like their parents. Anyway, you were saying?"
Octavia continued. "I followed Virgil as you asked. He was indeed the connection between several rogue elements here within the city."
"I see," Nero said, his eye occasionally following the less-enthusiastic children continue their games.
"Elements which include Senator Gallus, the Elians and Seneca himself," she finished with the tiniest smirk of triumph.
"Hoo hoo! So the old bastard is in the city!" the Emperor laughed. "This is good. This is good." He rubbed his chin, eyes twitching with an odd hunger. "And they're holed up, where? The Senator's?"
Octavia nodded. "I was surprised, myself."
The Emperor continued to ponder the situation. "We could of course have them all arrested immediately, but prudence seems in order here. Hmm?"
The children jogged sluggishly after each other, some tripping over their hoofed feet. Many were flushed, sweating, panting in an unhealthy way. One little boy scratched at a portion of skin that had been irritated into hives by the rubbing of his satyr costume.
Octavia turned to Nero, who was still lost in thought. "Caesar?"
"I have an idea about this. We will meet later to put it into motion," he said. "Good work, as always."
The bodyguard rose and bowed. Nero watched as she strode powerfully through the garden, past the tailored flora and sculptures. Occasionally, she had to step over the exhausted bodies of the children, who from a distance, appeared to be so many scattered corpses littering the short, brown grass.
The halls to the temple were old, half-formed out of a rough, white stone. Limited torchlight made it hard for Mira to see anything clearly. Not that it mattered. The big brutes dragging her and Joshua through the place weren't giving a guided tour. She struggled intermittently, but only out of a pretense that she not surrender entirely.
They stopped in front of a solid looking, wooden door that stood strengthened by iron bands and sturdy bronze bolts. One of their captors unlocked it with a large key. They were roughly thrown into a dimly lit chamber and then the door slammed and locked behind them.
"You'll regret that!" Mira shouted, half-heartedly, realizing how silly it sounded after it had left her mouth. In response, the guards' laughter echoed down the hall. "Whatever," she muttered. She began to immediately scrutinize the door's frame, the iron-barred window, anything that she could use for an escape.
"Umm?Mira?" Joshua called from the dark.
"Not now," she whispered. "I'm trying to get us out of here."
"Mira?" he called again.
In a huff, the girl turned. "What is it¾oh!" She blinked in surprise as her eyes adjusted to the shadows.
Throughout the low, rounded cell the missing Elians, about [ten] in all, sat blinking back at the bewildered girl. Joshua was kneeling near some of them. Mira stepped closer. "You're uh? you're all here?"
Joshua smiled. "I told ya we'd find them," he said.
"No one likes a know-it-all, kid," Mira retorted. "Now we've gotta find a way out of here." She looked around the cell. The low ceiling made it hard to walk about. She turned to a woman a little older than her. "How long have you been here, since this morning? Or since last night?"
"They came out of the night, after the escape," the tired looking woman replied. "We never made it into hiding."
"Have they fed you? Asked you any questions?"
"Mira," Joshua chastised lightly. "They're tired, scared."
She turned toward him, brows furrowed. "We need to know these things if we're going to even think of getting out of here."
"I just think you should¾"
"It's probably best if you leave the thinking to me from now on," she said. "Okay?"
Joshua scowled then turned back to the Elians. Mira looked to the woman to have her answer. The woman shook her head. "They haven't given us anything to eat."
Mira nodded and moved back to the door. She tilted her head as she peeked through the tiny slat that served as a window. There didn't appear to be any guards in the hall.
"Hey!" Mira screamed suddenly and began kicking the door. "Hey! Hey! When are we gonna get somethin' to eat around here? Hey!"
This continued until soon, guards' footfalls could be heard coming down the hall. There was a loud thump on the door and a masked face appeared at the window.
"Listen kid," the guard growled. "If you don't shut up, I'll come in there and shut you up myself."
"Brilliant," Mira smirked. "I just want some food."
The guard gave an ambivalent look and began to leave. "Maybe later." His footfalls echoed into the distance.
Mira listened intently, not moving. She turned back to the room, the Elians and waved Joshua over. Taking his time, the boy strode over to the door. "What?" he asked.
"I can get us out of here."
"Yeah, I'm gonna need everyone's help, but I think we can pull this off. It's gonna take some muscle but¾"
"Do you even know who you're asking?" Joshua whispered sharply.
"These people aren't going to 'muscle' anyone. That's the whole point."
Mira blinked. "But, that's just stupid. I'm not asking them to kill anyone, just over-power them. It's the only way we're gonna get out of here."
"It's not stupid. Stop being so narrow-minded."
"I'm not being narrow-minded," she growled. "I'm trying to get us out of here. Seems like I'm the only one who's interested in it."
Joshua took a breath and composed himself. He smiled. "Look, maybe that's not a bad idea."
"What?" She crossed her arms, trying to calm down, finding it hard.
"Maybe you should try to escape. It might be harder for the guards to notice one missing prisoner, than everyone," he said. "Plus, no one has to get hurt."
Mira sighed, thinking about it. Her eyes darted from side to side as a plan quickly formed in her head. She smirked. "Just full of good ideas, huh?" Her face became more serious, almost apologetic. "I'll never tell you not to think again?"
Joshua shrugged. "You just do what it is you do."
"And you do the same," Mira smiled, indicating the Elians. Joshua nodded and moved back into the room.
For a candle mark, Mira sat crouched beside the door, watching as Joshua moved among the other prisoners. Speaking in a soothing voice, touching them gently, he managed to lift their spirits, even without any sort of food or water to offer. The kid seemed good at that whole thing, seemed to enjoy it.
She smiled to herself. When food was served, she could escape. The plan was already in place, would require only Joshua's help to succeed. Then she could get out of here and get help. Gabrielle was probably nearby anyway. The warrior had been at the market; had tried to rescue them, she must have followed the goons that had captured them. She might be outside the temple right now.
Mira sighed. She needed to rely on herself alone. She kept telling herself that.
Suddenly, guards' steps could be heard coming down the hall. She nodded to Joshua. This was it?
The door swung open and Mira remained still, quiet, in the shadows. For this to work, she had to remain unseen and wait for an opening. A guard remained just outside the door, as others entered the room, crossbows in hand. Against her instincts, Mira remained still.
"Which one of you skinnies is Joshua?" a guard asked.
Joshua stepped forward as bravely as he could. "That's me."
Two of the men moved for the boy, grabbing him. "You're coming with us, kid."
Mira almost shot to her feet, but her eyes met Joshua's. He shook his head quickly, in a silent plea for her to remain unnoticed. Holding her breath, she knew he was right. Any extra attention would implant her firmly in the guards' memories. They would immediately notice her absence. The plan had to be put on hold if they were to pull it off at all.
She rolled softly onto her side, back to the door, in a mime of sleep. The door slammed, echoing with a grave finality. She listened to the footsteps echo down the hallway, disappearing into the cold stone vaults of the temple.
The city is burning, curled and smoldering below me, at my feet. I watch the southern walls fall, eroded and set ablaze. Soon, my armies will claim the breach and flood the city in earnest. By nightfall, it will belong to me.
I have to ignore the flush my body falls prey to, the customary heat from proximity to battle, from victory. The thought of lust's indulgence is tempting, but foolish nevertheless. My hands remain steady at my sides.
With temptation sublimated, another familiar emotion reveals itself, stronger, darker. Indulging it or not is out of my control, it falls upon me as a fever. At first, I thought perhaps vengeance would scatter it from me. Then this campaign, this swath I have carved through Hellas. But these are impotent cures for my ailment, that special sickness.
I had hoped all of this would help me forget him, would set things right, somehow, but I have only forgotten myself in it all¾obscured everything I am in darkness so that nothing is right. Perhaps this is what it means to become a woman. Or is it just what it means to be me?
I have seen the future. Reflected in men's shields, faceplates, the ember of fear in their eyes just before clouding over with the fog of death¾in those glorious places I have seen what lies ahead. I have seen my own face there, reflected, twisted, magnified and brilliant, pale and terrible.
And I am afraid. Not of the future, or of my destiny, but of the past, out of reach. All of the flames of Prometheus cannot burn away the walls of those places behind me, or light my way back through the smaller passages of my history, my choices.
The outer wall finishes its collapse, tongues of fire lolling in the afternoon glow. The mood has passed me, leaving its darkness, its hate. I pick up my sword from the ground.
I've asked the guards to let the assassins through. They never understand this, they worry. For me it is a simple exercise, a healing, as temporary as it may be¾a way to exorcise it all. Besides, if they have the courage to come this far, they should be given the chance to carry out their plans, meet their destiny.
They are in the trees at the edge of the clearing, like little birds prancing over twigs in the still mornings. I turn to face them. My nudity confuses them for only a second; it is more for me than for some form of distraction or advantage. It gives me hope that what I'm doing might lead to a rebirth of some kind, to a new purity.
The three of them are unskilled; there is no plan, no imagination, only the anger¾this I understand. They die their unspectacular deaths in the dust at my feet, perhaps farther from their homes than they have ever been. One utters a word, a name perhaps before falling into nothingness¾maybe it was a curse.
I drop my sword to the ground. There is blood spattered on my naked skin, my face and hair. I smile. Rebirth is always such dirty business and never ever pure?
There were children in the square below Her. Shouts bounced with a playful lift upon the shaded buildings and up to the rooftop where She crouched. A pain gripped Her jaw and She relaxed it, letting everything return to Her: Her surroundings, Her mission.
Vengeance was Her being, Her existence, and She was on a mission of vengeance now. Her Master's favor was faltering and She meant to put it right. Never was Her purpose clearer or more personal. The muscles in Her legs tightened.
The children chased a dog across the dusty square, screaming lazily in the heat, circling around an empty fountain. The dog barked happily, its tail held high, bushy with excitement. In a doorway, two people watched, hand in hand, faces obscured in the brown shade. She closed Her eyes, still perched upon the edge of the roof?
Your face, Gods, your beautiful face. Looking down upon you as you slept, watching as you spoke, I lost myself over you. Tortured myself with thoughts of the gifts I could place upon your lips, your eyelids or becoming astray in the labyrinth of your gaze.
And on that morning after Illusia, after everything, I did the same. Reborn from the water, I watched you sleep. I watched your beautiful face dusted with dreams and felt it all again, re-igniting warm in my chest.
I had gone on patrol. I waited by a slow stream, my reflection held there by lazy morning light through the trees. The warmth was still there, but the darkness, too. I thought I hadn't the tears left, but I cried.
The path back was empty of threat. I sat silently, watching you sleep, watching your face. Gods, your beautiful face. The face of the one who broke my heart?
Screaming. She opened Her eyes and the children were screaming. Some ran across the square and into doorways, others pointed upward toward Her. Men stormed out of houses, shouting up at Her. She stood, cloak unfurling. With three simple strides She was gone from their sight, an apparition of late afternoon.
The merchants had done their best to clean up the ragged marketplace, shifting the debris of the recent skirmish into small piles or even burning what they couldn't repair or reuse. Gabrielle strode through the space, a light, gray cloak over her shoulders, obscuring her armaments. She passed the accusatory faces of those sellers savvy enough to recognize her from earlier and deterred most of them with a hard stare, or scowl when necessary. The warrior trained her gaze across the earth in a steady search, back and forth, back again. Anything of value had been scavenged or trashed at this point. She sighed.
Her hair still retained its dry and dirty feel as her fingers moved through it. She had failed the girl. She pushed the usual visions of what Mira might be going through from her vivid imagination. She had failed them all. Eve. Virgil. The Girl. Big surprise... Her stomach groaned. What a mess...
The evening approached, slowly lifting the humidity of afternoon, but still leaving the intense heat. She let the part of herself still floating on the rush of joy (was it joy?) that she had been feeling since her trip to Aphrodite's temple come to the fore. That selfish part pulling her toward a new purpose, a new mission. How could she deny its grip, its attraction? How could she ignore it, no matter what or who was at stake?
That night in the grove, our secret valley, after, when you held me, I had felt giddy, like pollen floating upon spring breezes. I teased you a little...
-What if I ran away?
I was surprised then that you would play along. Now, I know that it was silly to think that you wouldn't.
-Well...I would follow you. For as long as it took to find you, then I would beg for you to return.
-Even if I had sailed to some far off kingdom?
-You? Sailing? Pfft...
-Okay, okay. Of course I would brave the seas-
-All of them?
-Yes?all of them. I would brave all of the seas and come find you. Y'know, Jason and his buddies are close personal friends of mine...
-What if I had married a prince...don't laugh...what if I had married a prince and lived in a castle?
-I would ask for an audience with your majesty, and still beg for you to return to me.
-What if I wouldn't see you?
-I would camp out before the castle walls, in a tent made of silk in your favorite colors and would not eat or drink and would not leave until you saw me.
-What if the prince was jealous? What if he sent his best men after you?
-I would defeat them all.
-Pretty cocky, huh?
-Given the circumstances, I don't see why not. I would go through anyone, anywhere to get you back.
My chest filled, tingling with a sweet flutter. I squeezed you, yet still my mouth kept talking.
-What if...what if I died?
I felt the idea weigh upon you, but of course you didn't waver, didn't change pace.
-I told you Gabrielle: anyone, anywhere. Nothing will keep us apart....
Gabrielle moved from the market, still vaguely tracing the route of the chase from earlier. Her eyes dripped, tears tracing murky lines down her cheeks. A sob burst from her, despite her best efforts. She ducked into an alley, steadying herself against a wall, still losing balance. She slid with pathetic abandon along the bricks to the dusty ground at the building's base.
She stared hopelessly at the garbage and clutter around her. Her hand brushed something metal. She held it in her fingers, steel sharpened to a fine point.
Bringing the arrowhead to her face, she remembered where exactly she sat: the alley Mira's captors had disappeared down, the alley the archers had kept her from. She scrutinized the design. It hinted at Spartan origin, especially in length, but lay somewhere between the best of Amazon and Persian in design. The warrior knew for a fact that such a mélange of influences was unlikely, even for Imperial blacksmiths.
She blinked down at the almost impossibly ornate patterns on the flat of the weapon-such detail rendered in such limited space. The designs were classically Hellenic: warriors, seemingly as far as the eye could see, striding into an unseen, perhaps never-ending battle. All beneath the early evening sky, below the gaze of the moon and...
Gabrielle jumped to her feet. Beneath the moon in the design, beckoning to the warriors, strengthening them, was the flaring majesty of the planet Mars. She ran back into the marketplace, the arrowhead clutched in her fist. The warrior found one of the merchants and grabbed him by his tunic. He tried to pull away, yelling, until he was caught in the power and determination of her gaze.
"Where's the nearest temple of the God of War?" she asked.
Joshua realized that the guards were bringing him back to the chamber where the guy who called himself their 'Worst Nightmare' had been. It suddenly occurred to him that he wasn't putting up a struggle. He was starting to get used to being captured, tossed around by guards, sleeping in poor conditions and the like. The thought was somewhat unsettling.
The guards carried him for a bit then shoved him, allowing free movement momentarily, then grabbed him and carried him between them again. Soon, they approached the large door leading into the throne chamber.
He was pushed through the door into the chamber and tossed onto the floor. He looked up from the black marble, up over the stairs that led to the dais and up to throne. Upon the great chair sat the same dark, leather-clad man whom Joshua and Mira had seen before. Joshua swallowed with difficulty.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"I'm Ares, m'boy." The man smiled. "And have I got a deal for you..."
Still upon the rooftops, She looks down upon the weathered temple, Her goal. A black-armored guard paces upon the decaying walkway ringing the dome around the building like a crown. The rest would be inside. Her master does not fear discovery of his plans, it seems.
His priests are well-trained; devoted to his power and perhaps this is why he has dismissed Her own skills. She grimaces at the thought. True, She has been distracted by visions, the fog of strange dreams, and true, She had failed him days earlier, but Her devotion has never weakened. This mission would make things clear, or at the very least, simple for the God of War. She smirked.
Another vision threatens to cloud Her focus, but She shakes free, stays in the now. She is an instrument of nature and allows it into Herself. Sounds, smells, the feel of the roof slate beneath gauntleted fingertips; Nature surrounds and She is the dark force passing through it all. She is vengeance, pouring in inky streams and torrents through the blood, filling the chambers of the soul with choking pulp. She is fire, burning, scorching the city free of the pointless affairs of mankind, torching it all to powder, misplaced teeth and ruin. She is the steel and the sword plunged between ribs and marrow, piercing liver and lung, liberator of ichor and gore. She is Nemesis, Sword of the Gods.
She stands and with a simple, powerful thrust She takes to the air. Collecting the wind beneath itself, Her cloak bears Her with an odd gentle grace over the distance to the far side of the walkway. She lands without a sound.
Meridian throbs in anticipation under Her touch as She paces toward the unsuspecting guard. Using a low attack, She skewers the man through both thighs, pinning them together. His screams are loud, but fall uselessly over the streets. With a quarter twist She ruins the main arteries in his legs and pulls Meridian free-against the gentle protests of the sword. The man falls onto his back, gasping from the pain. Blood spills in impossible shades of black and red, splashing freely from the wounds in steady rhythms. She watches his face as each gout takes more of his life with it.
She stands, eyes smoldering and moves toward the door. The sun drops steadily, a ruined chariot swallowed in dying flame. Meridian pulses with a rolling murk, resting in Her fingers, warming in Her hand from a growing thirst as unquenchable as Her own.
The hall had been silent for more than a few minutes now. Earlier, there had been the clatter of soldiers, shouts of commands, the tramping of boots moving with purpose. Now, all was silent.
Mira peeked her head from out of the dusty closet she had been hiding in for the last three-quarters of a candle mark. She had assumed earlier that the soldiers had been onto her escape and were searching for her. But they had just stomped right by the closet-it would have been the first place she would have looked. She ran her hand through her hair, looked both ways down the hall and stepped tentatively from her moldy hiding place.
As she had hoped, the escape had been simple enough. Soon after Joshua had been removed, the guards had returned with food. Mira had remained curled and inconspicuous by the door. One of the Elians feigned a noisy and elaborate sickness that had both guards' attention and Mira slid easily out the door. For the first little bit, once she had been relieved to see that there had only been two guards, she had stealthily moved down the hall barefoot, her boots in her hands. The girl had moved back the way she had been dragged in and then found the closet, where she decided she could put her boots on and wait a short time, until she knew her escape had been successful.
The first order of business, she decided, was to find out the lay of the land. Mira figured she could tell Gabrielle when they met up, so they could rescue everyone. She moved down the hall and along a passage that sloped up toward a stairway. Silently she approached and began to ascend the stairs when she spotted a soldier, his back to her, standing at the top of the flight of steps.
For a second, she couldn't breathe. Then she thought for sure he would see her and her escape would be ruined. But he didn't move. She squinted up at him. He was leaning against the frame of the passage as if asleep, head slumped against the marble.
Mira slowly, without a sound, moved up the stairs on all fours, her hands spreading against the cool, ancient steps. Carefully, one at a time she approached the top. Suddenly, beneath her fingers was the sensation of slickness, of a warm fluid. She swallowed as her eyes struggled to see what she already knew was upon her skin-the dark stain of blood from where it had pooled at the top of the stairs. Standing, she glanced at the soldier, his hands clutched at a deep wound in his abdomen, his head almost severed by a vicious slash to the neck, his body held upright by a long dagger thrust through his shoulder and deep into the wall behind. Mira closed her eyes tightly and took a deep breath.
The chamber beyond was covered in sprays and pools of blood. Several of the guards were splayed out, slaughtered, various limbs missing. Part of the girl felt excitement and a sort of joy at the idea that this had been Gabrielle's doing and that the warrior was somewhere in the temple looking for her. But Mira knew that her friend, no matter how enraged, was incapable of indiscriminate carnage on such a scale.
A chill passed over the girl. She moved quickly toward where she and Joshua had first been taken, hoping somewhat girlishly that he might still be there, might still be okay.
Along the hall, more bodies, blood, she looked away, toward her goal, moving in a steady and silent jog. As she approached the large doorway to the chamber, she had to move along the wall to avoid a large tangle of bodies lying broken and surprisingly bloodless in a large portion of the hallway. She passed into the room, her breath held.
The chamber was empty. Mira looked around frantically. There was no blood, no bodies-no Joshua. At the head of the dais were the remains of the large throne that big, loudmouth meathead guy had been sitting on. It appeared to have been shattered by one, powerful blow. The girl sighed then remembered the Elians.
Not caring about discovery, at least by the guards, Mira quickly passed through the chambers and halls, the dead guards and moved down to the prison cells. Her footfalls echoed loudly along the hall as she arrived at the cell, which was still locked. She peered inside. Empty. No sign of anyone anywhere.
She blew a strand of hair from her face. There didn't seem to be any sign of struggle or death, but there weren't any Elians either. Mira turned to stare back down the hall. Am I the only one here left alive? She had been hidden in the closet for some time, close to a candle-mark but was it really long enough for some kind of jail break to occur?
She had to get out. Think...Think... She tried to remember how they had been brought into the temple. There had been a really old, large door down a hallway near that throne room. Had they brought her in that way?
Worth a shot...
Mira moved quickly back upstairs, past the bodies and gore toward the throne room and then beyond. She remembered the stretch of hallway now-how it ended at the door that led outside. She passed a stairway leading further up into the temple. Then she was at the door, as she prepared to put her shoulder to it and push outside, clatter and yelling came from somewhere up the stairs. She bowed her head.
Immediately, the girl knew that if she didn't check to see if it was Joshua, she would never forgive herself. Does that make me brave or stupid? She was sure Gabrielle would have some wisecrack about it regardless.
Mira moved cautiously up the stairs, her stomach in uncomfortable knots. With each step she paused, her hearing reaching out, straining into the unknown space beyond. Was that a noise? Her heartbeat filled her ears, making it almost impossible to discern real sounds from those created in her overactive imagination. She sighed and continued to ascend.
There was an abundance of natural light on the upper floor, at least in comparison to the lower levels. Most of it, thick and syrupy with dusk, came from narrow spaces between slats boarding up the old windows and flowed into the room in jagged, thin stabs that fell upon various piles of debris, fallen statues or rusted weapons. Mira entered into a long meeting hall that was thankfully free of people, alive or dead. More stairs led up and apparently outside as light bled in from a slightly ajar trap door.
She stepped gingerly around the garbage and shattered sculpture, moving toward a doorway at the end of the large room. Her eyes were wide and unblinking, her lips open and dry. What are you doing, Mira? What are you doing?
Her breathing raged ahead of her, as though a toy once held in her hand which now slipped through her fingers, rolling just out of reach.
What was that? She stopped. A sound, behind her. There it was again, faint, a spat-dripping. She turned, something fell to the floor again, dark, soaking up the dust. Don't look up... Her eyes, betraying her, arced to the ceiling, double her height.
It was the mouth she could make out first, the teeth seeming to push through the lips, then more blood dripped to the ground and she noticed the spear that pinned the man's twisted body to the ceiling, the spear that the growing tide of blood flowed along in larger and larger drops to the floor.
Something felt caught in her throat, in her soul as well, she couldn't move. Suddenly the man's hands fell from where they clutched the weapon and hung limply, fingers open. Mira reeled then stepped back, unable to breathe. She ran toward the room at the end of the chamber, away from the hanging guard-the serrated light of early evening strobed through the windows as she passed.
The room beyond was free of movement. It was about half the size of the previous chamber, and lit with the same spears of light. Furniture was pushed here, tables, chairs, couches, racks of rusted weapons, braziers, even large serving trays and silver goblets lay scattered or stacked about the room. Statues watched her with their timeless impassivity, or stood enigmatic, draped and unknown beneath cloth of black, or violet, or crimson. The humid stink of Rome was most detectable in this room, borne on the back of the rays of dusk and seeping through spaces between the boards.
Mira paced around the border of the room. She did her best not to shiver. I've got a bad feeling about this...
Suddenly her steps caused a violent flutter and commotion at her feet. Three pigeons took to the air in a violent bleating of wings, pushing frantically for a wide crack in the window and breaking one by one into the evening outside.
Startled, Mira screamed and stumbled back and to the right, tripping over a rise and bumping into a line of covered statues causing them to pitch into one another. The row systematically nudged one another, teetering dangerously but eventually righting themselves and coming to rest. All except the last one it seemed. The last one, taller than the rest and cloaked in a deep red seemed to pitch and spin, turning around as it fell from the rise to the floor. Mira readied herself for the crash, scrunching up her face.
There was no crash. The statue righted itself and stood tall before the girl. Its cloak fell open. Tears welled in Mira's eyes at her realization of who stood before her.
Nemesis drew Meridian from its scabbard. A slow, whispering scrape followed by the clear voice of steel on the air. Mira tried to speak, to say something to the figure before her. She could only blink. This is a dream?this is so a dream?
Terrified, the girl backed away almost unconsciously as Nemesis sprang with blinding speed to a table in front of her. Mira's foot caught upon a rotting box, tripping her and she fell to the ground, just as the flash of a sword swipe arced through where her head had been a moment before.
Not a dream?
She hit the ground, tangled up with part of a statue that began to topple upon her. Gasping, Mira rolled from under the looming statue as it pounded to the ground with a heavy thud. As the girl scrambled clumsily to her feet, she noticed that the assassin had sliced through the statue a second after she had rolled free.
Mira backed away, stomach in knots. Get a hold of yourself...or you're dead... She wanted to run, but could not, the muscles in her legs betrayed her. She could only slink toward the door, unable to take her eyes from the cloaked woman.
Nemesis stood to full height. Light intensified against Her flawless silver armor and was swallowed by the dark blade in Her hand. A silver helm obscured most of Her features, but Mira knew she was terribly beautiful-bronze skinned and dark haired. She began to stride toward Mira, long legs carrying Her quickly across the room.
"No!" Mira screamed, the sound jumping from her as she backed away, jostling a rack of tarnished spears. Desperately, the girl shoved the weapons between herself and the assassin. Nemesis caught the rack and hurled it easily across the room where it crashed and clattered. Mira sobbed and began to turn, but her feet caught on something and she fell, spine first into the edge of a table.
Winded, in pain, with a strange tingling coursing through her, Mira found that she couldn't edge around the table. The silent assassin continued to stride toward her, sword pulsing in the violent light. The girl clutched desperately behind her for a weapon, for anything to defend herself. Light and useless objects seemed to flop between her fingers and she cursed out loud. Nemesis raised her blade for a wide slice. Mira grasped something metallic and heavy enough, bringing it around in a quick and powerful swing. The silver pitcher clanged loudly against the assassin's face plate, causing Her to step back and let out a howl of rage.
Mira ran, this time without looking back. She hurdled over some debris and toppled a statue in front of the door as she bolted through it. Her sobs continued as she picked up pace, the stairway down now in sight. Behind her, there was a sound of air brought into submission, a snap that made her think of thunder whispering, then silence until something grabbed her vest. She screamed again, spinning herself out of the garment in the assassin's grip, stumbling free and continuing forward.
Mira's foot slipped on something slick. You've got to be kidding me... She hit the ground hard, her wrist exploding into pain. The pinned guard's blood lay in a larger pool now, with a smear where Mira had skidded through it. She began to claw her way backward, away from the stairs now, but at least away from the assassin as well. Inevitably, she pressed her back into the wall and began to cry softly.
Nemesis tossed the girl's vest aside and walked slowly toward her. The Sword of the Gods was expressionless. "Now," She said in a rich, beautiful voice. "This is the end, little one." The shadowy blade was raised and Mira closed her eyes, thinking about Gabrielle, and her grandma, and Joshua and how she had never been to Egypt but had always really wanted to but now never could.
There was a rush of air. And then a loud ring, as in a collision of tempered steel. Then a familiar voice.
"Step away from her." It was Gabrielle.
Mira opened her eyes. Near the stairs stood the warrior, dressed for battle, holding her chakram. Just above the girl, now turned to face the new threat, Nemesis stood, blade pointed outward. Mira couldn't see the assassin's face. Gabrielle had a strange look in her eyes-not angry, not determined. What? Mira was sure she had never seen it before, perhaps certain aspects, but never in this hue or tone.
Then she noticed the assassin. The tall woman trembled, slightly at first, then in larger and larger waves until She placed a hand to Her head, stepped forward as if in the throes of agony and let loose a piercing scream-not of pain, but of absolute sorrow and confusion. Gabrielle appeared devastated and moved as if to say something, but Nemesis tore by her, crashing through the frail wood covering the windows and into the coming night.
Gabrielle blinked at the rent in the darkness, at the dusk light pouring in as though peering at a friend's mortal wound. Her head bowed slightly. She whispered something, her empty hand quivering in the air.
"Wait?" she said and moved in a way which, were it words, would be stuttering-a quick succession of starts and stops toward the window, the hole, Nemesis, never amounting to true movement.
Finally she turned and sprinted to Mira's side, lifting her into her strong arms, holding her tightly to her chest.
She whispered softly to the girl as they clutched each other, rocking gently.
"It's okay, it's okay."
Dusk was almost complete before they had finished crying and got slowly and painfully to their feet.
-Inferno is continued in Part 2.
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