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Disclaimers Xena Warrior Princess and all Characters of the Xenaverse are the property of Ren Pic and Universal. My deepest gratitude goes to them for the loan of these folks and I returned them none the worse for wear. Thanks for the Fertile fields.
BY APRIL MCKAIG
The three travelers finally reached Corinth on mid afternoon the following day. Gabrielle had not experienced any more nightmares, but she had not slept much since then either. Only Joxer had rested easily the night before, but he sensed their unease. The trip had been a quiet and sedate on so far.
They did not find Hercules but Iolaus was waiting on them at the local tavern. He explained that Hercules had left that morning for Olympus and asked him to wait for them to arrive.
The party ate a quick meal and then went about the difficult job of convincing Joxer how important it was for him to stay behind in Corinth. Joxer had whined and argued but finally compromised when Xena and Iolaus had pointed out to him that if trouble from Olympus spread he would be needed to protect the populace of the city. Gabrielle added her own words of encouragement and that finally persuaded him.
After exchanging goodbyes with Joxer, the new trio left Corinth bound for Mount Olympus. Talking was kept to a minimum with Iolaus promising to give them more details once they made camp for the night.
They made good time as the sun set and figured that with an early start they would reach Olympus by mid afternoon the following day.
Sitting around the fire, Iolaus began to inform them of the current events. He began with the recent encounter with Callisto and the new force of evil she served.
Gabrielle recognized the evil he described from her nightmare. It was confirmation that Hope was alive. Despite the fact that she had poisoned her evil daughter and watched her burn in a funeral pyre, the demon child was still alive. She glanced at Xena but her friend was stoic and unreadable.
Neither of them said a word as Iolaus finished with, "So no one knows where this demon child has come from. Only that her Fathers power seems to equal the Gods."
"Why is she attacking Mount Olympus?" Xena asked after a few seconds of silence.
"Aphrodite and Athena were elected by the others to approach Hercules for help." Iolaus began, "Zeus and the others have felt the evil growing more powerful and they say its moving quicker than expected."
"How did the Gods know when and where?"
Iolaus shrugged, "Hercules didnt go into that much detail. He just said that after they told him what they knew he felt foolish for not recognizing the signs. He said that the first step this child took was to gather followers, which apparently this thing has. A lot of them. The next step was to take out the Gods of Olympus. This would leave mankind helpless. Then it could destroy all those that didnt follow it and its people would mold the world to its wishes."
Gabrielle shuddered. Iolaus offered her a smile and put some more wood on their fire.
"Turns out the Gods arent the all-powerful beings we thought they were." He continued, "Theyre really worried about this thing and they need help."
"Thats where we come in." Xena replied with irony.
Iolaus nodded, "Thats why they came to Hercules. They need every mortal they have ever bestowed a gift on or that has championed for the Gods. Hercules can recruit the most in a short period of time."
"Im surprised Hercules is helping the Gods after the things theyve done to him."
Iolaus face became serious, "Hes doing this for us, not the Gods. Thats why he agreed to help them. The line is being drawn on Olympus. We have to fight together because as bad as the Gods can be, they dont want to wipe us out. This new force does."
Gabrielle had remained silent during the conversation. She had taken all she could, "Im going to get some rest." She turned and moved away from the fire.
Iolaus leaned over to Xena, "Is she all right?"
Xena watched as Gabrielle lay down and pulled a blanket over her head. "Shes just tired and probably a little scared."
"I know the feeling." He sighed.
When Gabrielle opened her eyes she found herself not under the stars but in a large stone room. Trying to sit up she realized that her hands and legs were chained to the stone alter that she lay upon. Confused, she looked around the dimly lit room and instantly recognized where she was. Dahoks temple. She was not alone. Six shadowed figures stood unmoving against the wall, watching silently.
There was a presence in the room and when she looked at the foot of the altar she saw him. A combination of the priest of the temple Kraftstar and his demon side, the Deliverer. He bent over her, his voice warm and smooth as he spoke, "Welcome back, Gabrielle."
She struggled against the chains, trying to break free as he moved beside her and leaned closer, "Its better not to struggle. Fighting against us is a waste of energy."
Gabrielle looked into his eyes defiantly, "Ill never stop fighting you. You tricked me and because of you I brought this evil into the world. Its my responsibility to end it."
"Youve already tried that and failed." He taunted with a smile.
"Ill never stop trying until Hope is destroyed and you along with her." Gabrielle argued and closed her eyes.
As he moved in even closer she turned her head away, "Open your eyes Honored One and see what your efforts shall reap."
He lingered there for a moment, so close that she could feel and smell his hot, fetid breath on her face. Then she heard his feet scrape the stone as he moved away.
When Gabrielle opened her eyes, she gasped in horror at the sight that greeted her. The room was fully illuminated and the shadowed figures against the wall were clearly visible.
Lila her sister, Perdicus her beloved husband, Hercules, Iolaus, Joxer and her amazon sister Ephony were hung up on the wall. Their lifeless bodies hung bloody, bruised and bearing the scars of torture.
"No." She whimpered in shock. Her chest heaved as tears began and she was finally able to pull her eyes from the listless bodies. When she saw who was at the foot of the altar tears and sobs became uncontrollable.
Xena had again been crucified, but this time her throat was slashed open and she had been gutted. Her head hung limply to the side and her lifeless eyes were fixed on Gabrielle, accusingly.
"Xeeenaa!" She wailed thrashing and fighting to break free of the chains and escape from this place.
Suddenly, Kraftstar was by her side again, "They cant help you now. If you fight us, this is what will happen. There is only one who can help you now and you are already his."
Kraftstar disappeared and was replaced by the fiery arms of Dahok. She felt them encircling her, consuming her, and she screamed.
"Youre safe." Xena soothed as she held Gabrielle.
Iolaus had also been awakened by her scream and kneeled beside them, concern etched upon his face.
"Shes been having nightmares." Xena explained, her own voice edged with worry.
Iolaus raised his eyebrows, "Must have been some nightmare. Considering where were heading and what were facing, Im surprised were not all having them."
Xena nodded. Gabrielle still clung to her. "Shell be all right. It just takes awhile for her to calm down."
Iolaus rose to his feet, "Im going to have a look around and get some more wood for the fire."
Xena smiled her thanks and watched him disappear into the night. When she was sure he was out of earshot she leaned in close to Gabrielle, "Youre going back to Corinth come first light."
"No." She said weakly.
"Gabrielle you cannot keep going through this every time you close your eyes."
Gabrielle pulled away from her, "It wasnt the same dream."
"From the way you screamed it doesnt make much difference. I want you to take Argo back to Corinth. We will handle Hope and Dahok."
"He showed me, Xena." Gabrielle stated, wiping the tears from her eyes, "He showed me what would happen if we fought him. Everyone dead except me. He wants me alive to bear more of his demon children."
"We wont let that happen." Xena vowed, "Ill die before I let him hurt you again."
Gabrielle looked into Xenas eyes and shook her head, "Thats the point of the dream. Everyone was dead because of me. You, Hercules, Iolaus, Lila, Joxer, Ephiny and Perdicus." Then she stopped, "Perdicus?" She repeated.
"What about Perdicus?" Xena asked, "Dahok wasnt responsible for his death. That was Callisto and it appears she serves Hope now."
Gabrielles eyes showed a flicker that made Xena feel better, "Tthe dream the other night was a prophecy dream. Tonight was a warning."
Now Xena was beginning to understand, "Hes trying to scare you. To keep you away from the battle."
"He can be stopped." Gabrielle smiled, "I dont know why or how but we are involved."
"Did your dream give you any clues to this puzzle?"
Gabrielles smile faltered, "No, but if we can find the other two women from the dream that will be a start."
Melanie and Aven had stayed up talking until daylight. As Aven calmed and relaxed she became more like her old self. Despite the fact that she was still distant and haunted at times, Melanie had hope that the old Aven was still in there somewhere.
"Why dont you pack a bag and come stay with me for a few days? Its Halloween and theres no place like San Francisco to celebrate. Its been ages since weve gone on one of our excursions. Maybe a city full of drag queens and wild parties are just what you need." Melanie replied and downed the last of her coffee.
Aven looked like she was going to say yes for a moment until the fear reasserted itself, "That sounds great, but I cant."
"Did you become agoraphobic or something? You never leave this apartment any more."
Aven leaned forward, wanting to tell Melanie the real reason she had locked herself away from the world, but her friends safety was more important than the truth. "I have a research project Im freelancing." She lied, "I have to get it finished by this weekend."
"One weekend wont kill you." Melanie argued.
Again the urge to confide rose up but she squelched it, "Im sorry. Maybe next time. I do appreciate the invitation."
Melanie had learned from past disagreements when to give up, "Next time." She replied, uncurled her legs and slid off the couch, "I better get going. You sure youre Okay?"
Aven rose too her feet, "Im fine and thanks for last night."
"Thats what friends are for."
Without warning Aven walked over and hugged her tightly, "You are my best friend and I love you. Never forget that."
Not an openly affectionate person, Melanie quickly returned the hug, sensing the fear and unrest in her friend. She was about to say something when Aven pulled away, "Thanks again." She replied, the distant manner slipping back into place.
Melanie took a step back, confused and even more worried than before, "If you need me, call. Ill have my cell phone with me this weekend."
"Have a good time and be careful." Aven said softly.
Melanie turned and walked to the door. She cast one more concerned look at her friend and walked out.
Aven went to the window and watched her walk down the sidewalk to her car. When she drove off Aven turned her attention to the familiar, ever present dark green Camry parked on the far corner. She could make out figures sitting in the car watching her but she never saw their faces, even after all these months.
"Hurt her you bastard and Ill make you sorry you ever saw the light of day." She growled before closing the curtains.
Hope Industries was one of the largest, most successful companies on the West coast. According to its public relations office it specialized in science and research for the betterment of mankind. The company had been built and run by the Hawks family.
David Hawks had assumed control of the company on his eighteenth birthday. He was an intelligent, charming, good-looking man who used manipulation as a favorite tool. By the time he was twenty-five he had bought up several smaller companies, merged them into his own and had formed a fast rising empire. On his thirtieth birthday he held a strong foot-hold in the business world with all the political and financial connections needed to make the entire west coast his domain.
For those who benefitted from him he was a god. Those who crossed him or either were dead or wished they were.
David had become aware of his destiny as a child and had been groomed for it. As he became an adult, it was apparent that he had more strength and ambition than any of his ancestors.
Hope Industries was located in the Hawks building which sat in the center of downtown Sacramento. The C.E.O.s office was on the top floor with a prominent view of the city.
The office was decorated simply but with a definite masculine flair. Shades of brown and beige, mahogany wood furnishings and mounted heads of bear, mountain lion decorated the walls and expansive room. It also contained a private sanctuary within its walls and it was from here that David entered when his primary assistant came into the office.
"Report." He ordered as he sat behind his desk and scanned the messages waiting there.
"Everything is ready. We simply await your go-ahead."
Hawks looked up and studied the man in front of him. Dan Kinsey had been by his side since high school. He was the only who knew of the Hawks true heritage and in whom Hawks trusted. "Keep them alert, the time is coming. Have there been any results in the search for the Icon?"
"No." Kinsey reported and looked downward, fearful of his Masters wraith.
"I must have the Icon, Dan. Without that, this cannot succeed." Hawks replied, anger in his voice.
"Ill get all of available resources we have on it."
Hawks smiled, coldly and cruely, "You do that. Is our bird still in the cage?"
Kinsey nodded, "Being watched twenty-four hours a day."
Hawks leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on the desktop, "Good. I still believe she knows where it is. If the Icon is not found before the messengers arrive, I want her brought in. Both of them."
Kinsey looked at him curiously, carefully wording his next statement, "I dont understand, Sir. Theres no way she could keep the information from you, yet she didnt tell you anything. Why would she tell you now?"
"I can be very persuasive, especially when Im in a hurry. This time Ill use all of my skills to convince her to tell me."
Kinsey, still confused, nodded and left to attend to his duties.
The darkening sky was their first clue that the battle had already begun. Then there was the sound of distant thunder and the escaping villagers fleeing past them.
"Looks like the party started without us." Iolaus replied as they picked up the pace and reached the top of the hill that looked over the village situated at the bottom of Olympus.
The battle had apparently spilled from the Mountain top into the valley below, and the village was quickly being destroyed. The Olympus warriors were fighting valiantly against Dakoks followers but the spill over of explosions and fire from Olympus were decimating both sides.
Xena pulled Gabrielle near and whispered, "Stay close to me."
Gabrielle nodded and Xena looked at Iolaus, "Time to crash the party."
"Better late than never." He grinned and took off down the hill toward the village.
Xena released Argos reins, "Get out of here, girl. Its too hot for you down there." Argo obeyed as Xena and Gabrielle followed Iolaus into the valley.
As they approached the melee, Xena spotted several of the Olympus Champions. Perseus, Atalanta, and Jason fought side by side against a group of robed opponents. They were easily more skilled than Dahoks people but he had more numbers.
She caught a glimpse of Hercules on the ridge above the village and was heading that way to help when a cluster of robed creatures converged upon her.
Drawing her sword, she assumed a battle stance and felt Gabrielle move behind her so that each could cover one anothers backs. The robed attackers began circling like vultures, brandishing their swords like claws.
Xena looked at their faces and in their eyes as they circled and saw only blind obedience. Their eyes were soulless and fanatical but their swords were well sharpened.
Raising her weapon, she met and pushed off three swords arcing toward her. Unarmed they seemed a confused, a fact that Xena took advantage of, delivering a flurry of punches that left them lying in the dirt.
Behind her she heard the thump, thump, thud of Gabrielle bringing one of the enemy down. Out of the side of her eye she saw another sword rising and was surprised at how quickly Gabrielles staff appeared and sent the sword flying to the ground.
Leaping into the air, she kicked out her long, muscular legs and knocked out the last two robes, who landed at her feet with a crash.
Stepping over the enemy, Xena and Gabrielle moved further into the village. Two more men came at them carrying axes.
"Ill handle this." Xena smiled. Sheathing her sword, she took two steps and launched herself over them. Firmly she grasped the axes at the apex of her leap and plucked them from their hands. Landing smoothly behind them, she began twirling the axes as they turned to face her, shock and surprise evident on their faces.
"Lose something?" She asked and then cold-cocked them with the blunt end of the axes. "Timber." She added as they fell to the ground.
"Xena!" Gabrielle called, starring at the distant stand of trees.
Xena moved beside her and followed her gaze. On the hill by the trees she could see a small robed figure watching them. "Hope?" She asked, her voice low and guttural.
Suddenly a large bolt of lightening tore off Olympus and exploded in the trees. It was followed by another powerful surge and now the woods were replaced by a large, blue swirling vortex. A sharp, hard wind spun the dirt from the ground and there was a loud piercing roar coming from the potral.
Xena and Gabrielle watched as five robed figures gathered around the smaller figure, bowed down and seemed to be receiving instructions of some kind.
"What is that?" Gabrielle yelled above the roar.
"Trouble." Xena answered.
Looking around the valley she saw that more of Dahoks people had appeared and were keeping the others busy. Hercules was trying to make his way to the forest as was Iolaus but they were besieged by more of the followers.
The five figures surrounding Hope pulled away from her and ran toward the blue swirl.
Instinctively Xena pursued them, Gabrielle following her lead. The five figures dived into the swirl and with a flash of light and gust of wind, vanished.
As they approached the hole, Xena saw the anger on Hopes scarred face and the approaching robed fanatics intent on intercepting them before they reached the swirl.
Xena felt the pull of the vortex as she neared and saw Hope rasing her hand to blast them before they could enter. Reaching back, she grabbed Gabrielles arm and the two of them dove into the swirling blue emptiness.
OUR TIME- HOPE INDUSTRIES
Dan Kinsey quickly made his way to the CEOs office, knowing that once summoned, Hawks expected quick results. He reached the door slightly out of breath, knocked once and pulled the door open. Easing in he asked, "You called?"
David motioned him in, impatience apparent, "The messengers arrive in San Francisco, tonight, near Market street. Im to be notified as soon as they are picked up."
Kinsey nodded, "On my way." He turned to reach for the door when Hawks called him back.
"One more thing, Dan."
"I want Aven Gabriel and Melanie Prince brought in here within the hour." He replied with a predatory grin, "Their time just ran out."
"Yes sir." Kinsey answered and left the office.
Melanie gave a triumphant yip of glee as she neatly backed the jeep into the empty parking space on the street. The most frustrating thing about San Francisco was its lack of parking. She had been circling for almost twenty minutes before she found this cramped space on the corner of Duboce and Market Street. It would be a long hike back to Castro streets but the Halloween celebration would be worth the inconvenience.
For a moment she felt a pang of regret that Aven had refused to come. They had always enjoyed Halloween in San Francisco, almost as much as the Renaissance Festivals. It was certainly a wild night out. On this one night, the already uninhibited residents really let go. People came from all over the country to enjoy the outrageous costumes and liberated fun.
She hurriedly locked up the jeep and started down the road, anxious to reach Jacques place. They had met while still in college, becoming close friends. He was a gay man but Melanie had not had a problem with his sexuality unlike so many of her classmates. His warmhearted nature and sharp intelligence made him a worthwhile friend. After he graduated and moved to San Francisco they had remained close.
She grinned in anticipation of the evening to come. There was no doubt that Jacques would be at his flaming best and ready to party. A night of wildness was something she needed to get her mind off dark matters. Melanie walked up the street with brisk, confident strides as she contemplated her unpredictable friend.
She snapped her head to the right as a flash of light caught her attention. Coming to a startled halt, she turned and studied the overpass across the street. The light that had startled her was gone now. As she scanned the rubble and debris littering the bridge, she detected no movement. It must have been the reflection of passing car lights or a homeless person, Melanie mused after a moment or two.
Just as she was about to move on, lightening filled the sky and a strong wind gusted around her. Looking up in amazement, she saw what looked like two people falling from the sky. Her assumption that it was human was confirmed as they landed in a nearby garbage pile with loud grunts and a muffled yelp.
Melanie ran across the street, nimbly dodging a black minivan that was easing down the road. "Hey? Are you all right?" She called as she reached the sidewalk.
There wasnt an immediate answer from the now heaving garbage heap but the snorts of disgust could be plainly heard.
She started to move into the alleyway, but paused on the edge of the sidewalk. It was not a prudent move to go charging into a dark alley, especially in this area. Yet she was baffled as to why or how someone would choose to make such an entrance. She knew that she could handle herself but caution won out over curiosity. "Do you need help?" She called in a tentative voice. "Hello, can you hear me?" She could hear the muttering getting louder and the garbage pile was definitely showing signs of disturbance.
Melanie nervously looked up and down the street, hoping to find someone to aid her in this dilemma. Any other time the streets would be packed but now they seemed oddly deserted. Her attention was drawn back to the garbage heap as she was hit with a few pieces of smelly debris. A tall woman appeared at the top of the heap, glared at Melanie and leaped to the ground, drawing her sword in midair. Melanie felt the bite of cold steel at her throat as the woman landed directly in front of her. "Where are the men we were after and who are you?" The woman growled.
Melanie opened her mouth but no sound came out. Her mind darted desperately from point to point trying to think of some sort of response, when her eyes met and locked on the sword-bearer. Connected, they stared at one another. Melanie felt tension and confusion growing and it threatened to engulf her.
Simultaneously, they tore their eyes off each other and turned to stare at the young blond woman who had just pushed to the top the garbage heap, tumbled down the side, and landed at their feet with a loud grunt. Sprawled out on the ground, she was muttering under her breath but stopped when she joined the stranger and Melanie.
For an eternity no one made a sound or a move other than to shift their eyes from face to face. Their brains tried to assimilate and make sense of the information they were receiving.
As Melanie accepted what she was seeing and their appearance, her panic began to subside. Both women were stunningly attractive. The sword-bearer was a tall, athletic looking, brunette. Her clothing was made of leather and metal and was quiet skimpy even for San Francisco. Her attention was immediately drawn to the womans incredible sword. Melanie knew a lot about swords but she had never seen such workmanship before and she had to stop herself from reaching out to touch the cold steel.
Directing her attention to the blond on the ground, she noticed that she seemed softer and less dangerous.
Finally, the brunette broke the mood as she sheathed the sword with a sigh of frustration. "Did you see some men around here dressed in priests robes?"
Melanie looked at her and then back at the blond and closed her mouth with a snap.
"What place is this?" The brunette asked as she leaned over and extended a hand to help her friend up. Even with the sword put away the woman kept a close eye on Melanie and maintained a defensive posture.
Shaken out of silence, Melanie cleared her throat, "Market street."
The brunette shot her an annoyed look and said, "No, what city?"
"San Francisco." She supplied, trying to sound calm and cool but not being very successful.
The other two women exchanged looks of confusion.
"What country?" The blond asked in a light tone.
Melanie cut her eye at them in suspicion. This was either a very strange joke or these two were junkies doing some new kind of dope. Cautiously she began backing toward the street, "Yea, right. Well Ill be going now. You two can manage on your own."
Turning on her heel she started to stalk off, disgusted. "Damn junkies. I should have known better than to get involved." She muttered as she reached the entrance of the alley.
She was only a few feet from the street when she was stopped by a hand on her arm, "Wait." The blond whispered, "Please wait."
Melanie rolled her eyes and slowly turned to face the young woman. As the light from the corner street lamp cut into the alleys darkness, she got another shock. "Aven?"
She was greeted by another look of confusion, "Who is Aven? Do you know me?" The blond asked as she too got a better look at Melanie. "By the gods! Xena!" She shouted.
At the sound of her companions voice, the brunette flew to where the others stood, "Whats wrong?"
Melanie took a nervous step back as she noticed the womans hand was once again on her swords hilt. She was not eager to feel that steel at her throat again.
The blond laid her hand on her friends arm, "No, Xena. Look at her face." Then she pointed to Melanie, "She looks almost like you. You could be related."
Once again Melanie found herself staring into those intense eyes. Wait a minute, she thought. Those eyes looked familiar. Startled, she realized that she had seen those very eyes before. Every time she had looked in a mirror. This woman could have been her twin!
"Im Gabrielle." The blond said then motioned to her friend, "and this is Xena."
Melanie smiled weakly, "Pleased to meet you, I think. My name is Melanie Prince." Gaining courage she asked, "Where are you two from anyway?"
Xena shot Gabrielle a warning look, "Were from out of town."
Melanie nodded, "Yea, me too. Im here to visit a friend and enjoy the celebration." More relaxed Melanies attention was again drawn to the sword. "Thats a fine sword you have there. Do you fence or is that part of your costume?"
In startled amazement Xena looked at her sword and back to her twin. Humor glinted in her eyes as she replied, "You dont want to find out."
Chastised Melanie quickly took a step back and looked at the ground, "Yea well, it is illegal to carry a deadly weapon here in the city. It isnt every day that you see something like that." She said in a defensive tone.
The women exchanged looks as she brought her eyes back up to them, "Seriously, are you two in some kind of trouble? It looked like you fell from the sky, but I assume it was from the overpass?"
Gabrielle looked at her with confusion, "Overpass? What is an overpass?"
Oddly, Aven suddenly came to mind. Then the dream. Melanie studied the two women more closely. Then she thought of Avens description of the two women from the dream. Like them but from a different time. These two women certainly looked like them, she mused and possibly from another world. Once again she locked eyes with the one called Xena, "You two arent from this time are you?" She asked bluntly.
Both women tensed and she noticed their unease but continued with the next assumption, "Are you after someone or something Evil?"
Their alarmed reaction was the confirmation she needed of her suspicions. "Just like Avens dream." She whispered to herself.
Gabrielle urgently grabbed Melanies arm, "Dream? What do you know about the dream?"
"We need to go somewhere we can talk." Melanie answered looking up the street, "Theres a coffee shop up a couple of blocks." Looking over her shoulder at the other two, she started walking toward the restaurant.
Xena moved to follow but was halted by Gabrielle. "Thats one of the women from my dream." Gabrielle whispered intently. "But how did she know about the dream and who is this Aven she keeps mentioning?"
Xena simply shrugged, and followed Melanie. "We will just have to find out, wont we?" Xena muttered to herself.
After a moment Gabrielle followed, running to catch up with Xena. Suddenly she was terrified to lose contact with her friend.
Hawks paced in front of his office window. He stopped every few minutes and glared at the phone as if he could will it to ring. Glancing at his watch he turned back to the window and stared out over the city.
One day all this and beyond would be his to rule in his Fathers name. History had shown him the downfall of Dahoks kingdom and now he was orchestrating a way to prevent that downfall. If everything went as planned, the time line would be changed and Dahoks rule would be supreme.
He had been planning this moment since his eighteenth birthday, when he had dreamed of Dahok. The master had come to him and told him that he was the chosen. The one to bring the glory and pain of Dahoks world to realization. Hawks had delved deep into his heritage and investigated every piece of information, all the way back to the families origins. And always there was Dahok, whispering in his mind. The more he succeeded, the more power was bestowed upon him. Now the final payoff was at hand. To emphasize that point the phone began to ring. He walked over to his desk and hit the speaker button, "Hawks."
"Phase one complete, sir." A mans voice erupted from the box.
"Excellent." He smiled, "Are the messengers all right?"
"Yes sir. Confused but safe." The box answered. "Were on our way to you now."
Hawks sat behind his desk, his smile even broader, "Good job Mr. Grey."
The box was silent for a second, then hesitantly continued, "Sir? There might be a problem."
The smile faded and his face darkened, "Problem?"
"Yes sir. After the pick-up we were driving off and saw what looked like another portal opening."
Leaning forward and resting his arms on the desk, Hawks stared at the box, "Another portal? Did you see anyone else come through?"
Again the box hesitated as if he could sense Hawks angry stare, "I think so, sir."
"It looked like two others." He continued, "We were going to stop to investigate when a woman ran in front of us and toward where they landed. We were afraid there might be others and the mission would be endangered so we went down the street and parked. Thats why were so late calling in."
Hawks agitation was clearly audible now, "What did you see, Mr. Grey?"
"Nothing for a while. Then three women came out of the side alley by the overpass. One of them was the woman who ran in front of us. The other two were strangely dressed. If it was a Halloween costume, it was very elaborate."
"Leather, armor, sword. A medieval warrior costume. Two of the women were tall, brunette and athletic looking. The other one was blond, short, kind of delicate looking. She was dressed in a short skirt & halter top and had a staff. They headed down the street to a coffee shop. I left Rico there watching them. I was anxious to get back to you and report."
Hawks clenched his jaw in anger. This was an unexpected development and one that could ruin his well laid plans. This arrival was supposed to have been prevented. Apparently there had been a problem in the past.
"Sir?" The box interrupted, "What do you want me to do?"
He wanted to lash out in anger at someone but Grey had been smart enough to take the initiative and keep a bit of control in the situation. "You should have told me this right away." Before the box could say anything Hawks continued, "But youve done well. You kept a cool head and did what was required to keep this under control."
The proper amount of fear in your associates was mandatory and the soft sigh of relief from Grey was music to Hawks ears. "Bring the messengers here as planned. Ill send backup for Rico to take care of this. Your cargo is important, Mr. Grey. Drive safely."
"Yes sir." And the box fell silent.
Hawks leaned back in his chair, his mind racing for a contingency plan. A knock at the office door stopped his scheming, "What?"
The door eased open and Dan Kinsey stuck his head in the office. He picked up his bosss mood instantly and longed to run down the hallway, but instead moved into the office.
"Theyre here?" Hawks asked rising to his feet.
Kinsey looked down at his feet, "Theres been a problem, sir."
He managed to duck just as the lamp sailed past his head and smashed into the far wall.
Melanie paused at the door of the coffee shop to wait for her cautious companions to catch up with her. She couldnt help but suppress a smile as she watched the two women looking around them with awe. She was vividly reminded of her cats when confronted with a new toy. These two beauties seemed to crouch and sniff the air as they slowly climbed up the stairs and entered the restaurant.
On this night the customers were dressed just as outlandish as her companions, in some cases much more outrageously but according to San Francisco tradition nobody stared nor did they attract any undo interest. Melanie gratefully relaxed after noting the calm way Gabrielle and Xena seemed to take their new environment in stride. She felt a flicker of admiration for the courage these two must possess.
The waitress led them toward the back, took their order and left. Once seated in the relative privacy of a booth, the three of them once again studied each other. "Where to begin?" Melanie asked looking from one to the other of the women seated across from her.
"Did you see anyone come through before us?" Xena asked still looking around the room cautiously, "Five men in robes?"
Melanie looked at her blankly and then shook her head, "No. I did see a flash of light a few minutes before the flash that brought you. I didnt really pay any attention to that one though. I suppose someone could have come through before."
Xena and Gabrielles expressions could not hide their discouragement.
"Why do you ask?" Melanie continued nervously, "Who were you following that led you to this time?" Now it was her turn to start looking around for possible danger.
Xena looked at Gabrielle, "Youre the bard. You can fill her in."
With a smile Gabrielle cleared her throat and began to tell of the battle upon Olympus and in the surrounding village. She spoke about the evil in generic terms, never detailing its origins or their connection with it. Her skills were at their peak and Melanie was enthralled. "This is a terrible evil and its strong and now its threatening both of our worlds. During the battle we saw him open a vortex and his followers ran through it and vanished. We followed. If they are here, in this city, we must find them. If we dont it could mean the destruction of both of our worlds." Gabrielle finished, looking down at her hands. She was nervously shredding her napkin and her lap was full of torn paper. Xena studied her for a moment, her eyes full of questions. Then a dawning of realization spread across her face. This was not something Gabrielle was willing to explore to deeply. The shame she felt at her part in this drama would not allow it.
Questions filled Gabrielles mind. Questions and fear. The vivid picture of all those she loved covered in gore still stalked her and threatened her sanity. What if it had not been just a warning to frighten them away from the battle? What if it was a precursor of things to come? Feeling the constriction of fear in her throat, she grabbed her water glass. Her shaky hands caused a few drops of the fluid to splash onto the table before she brought the glass to her lips and drank, letting the fluid cool her parched throat and calm her frazzled nerves. With slow deliberation she drained the glass and using great care set it on the table. Only then did she look up at her companions.
Melanie looked upon Gabrielle, compassion in her eyes. This woman, so very much like Aven, could not hide the pain and fear she was feeling. Also, like Aven, she chose silence as her sanctuary. Gabrielles eyes lifted up to meet hers and Melanie saw the same fear that had been evident in her friends eyes the night before. She felt an intense need to comfort and protect this young woman named Gabrielle, yet she hardly knew her. Melanie reached across the table and placed her hand gently over Gabrielles. "We will find them and do all that we can to stop them. According to the dream, we have the power." She said reassuringly.
Gabrielle blushed as gratitude and embarrassment mixed. Glancing at Xena, Gabrielle said, "I know we will. Xena is quite good at cleaning up my messes."
Xena wanted to say something to reassure her friend but thought better of it and changed subject, "Thats the second time youve mentioned the dream."
Melanie shrugged, "It was Avens dream. She told me about it last night. Scared her so badly she called me in the middle of the night. Thats not like her. I knew something was going on."
The waitress interrupted when she arrived to refill their glasses. Melanie looked up to thank her and her gaze was pulled out the large glass window of the dinner. A small black minivan slowly pulled to the curb outside. Something odd about it and vaguely familiar sent tingles of apprehension down her spine and she turned her full attention to it. The occupants were studying the interior of the restaurant, searching for someone. The man in the passenger seat was dressed in a black suit it served to make him stand out. They were obviously not part of the Halloween celebration unless they were dressed as gangsters.
The man in the suit locked eyes with her for an instant and then whipped his head around and spoke to the driver. The van came to a sudden halt and the side door swung back, revealing five men with automatic rifles emerging from the van.
"Get down!" Melanie shouted and dived for the floor, quickly followed by Xena and Gabrielle. The waitress stood dumbfounded as the occupants of the table hit the floor. Shots rang out and the waitress did a bizarre jig before hitting the floor with a thud, her chest ripped open by at least a dozen large caliber bullets.
Xena stared at the dead woman. She had no idea what magic had so effectively killed the servant but her warriors instincts told her to get out of the building now.
Melanie too was staring at the bloodied woman as Xena grabbed her shoulder and yelled, "Get us out of here. Well die if we stay in here."
Melanie could only look at her in stunned shock. Nothing in her life had ever prepared her for the sudden, violent scene that was playing out in front of her. The costumed patrons were screaming, running and falling dead all around her. Glass and fragments of plaster were flying all around the room and made breathing difficult. Melanie looked dumbly down at her shoulder where Xenas hand was cutting into her flesh. Shaking her head she willed her mind to focus. "Theres an exit by the restrooms" She finally managed to croak.
Xena ducked down as a bullet whizzed into the seat cushion of the booth where they had been sitting, "Lead us." Xena said urgently.
Giving Melanie a push, she began moving out from under the table, Gabrielle on one side Xena on the other. A glass on the table shattered, sending a spray of water and glass over them. "Keep down!" Xena warned as they picked up speed.
With her heart pounding, Melanie began crawling over the bodies sprawled on the floor. With every new burst of gunfire another victim joined the others on the floor. She swallowed hard to keep the contents of her stomach down as she edged her way around another booth and behind the counter. She was sighing with relief when she bumped into an apron garbed busboy lying dead on the floor. The top of his head had been ripped away by a stray bullet and she found herself kneeling in the remnants of what was once his brain. She felt the breath catch in her throat as it dawned on her what was on her hands and soaking into the legs of her jeans.
Pushing from behind, Xena urged her forward, "We have to keep moving."
Hugging the counter until she was almost a part of it, Melanie eased around the grisly scene and into the hallway entrance. Standing up, she made a dash for the lighted exit sign that promised escape at the end of the hall. Melanie was at a full dead run when she slammed into the panic bar on the door and shoved it open.
Melanie sped out into the relative quiet of an alley with Xena and Gabrielle close behind. She continued until she reached the far side of the building and stopped. Her back against the wall of the building, she breathed, deeply inhaling huge gulps of the cold sea air. She felt grateful to be alive.
Xena cautiously walked past her, scanning the dark for any sign of movement and possible threat. Gabrielle comfortingly leaned up against Melanie, "Are you all right?" She asked in a quiet voice, the concern in her eyes saying the rest.
"Hell no." Melanie sobbed, "I just saw about a hundred people killed in front of me! Ive got the remains of some guys brains all over me! How can I be all right?"
Gabrielle put her arm around the trembling woman and tried to comfort her, but Melanie was having no part of it. Angrily, she jerked away and took a step. She met Xenas eyes and glared at her, "What is going on here?"
Annoyed, Xena stopped focusing on the security of the area and graced Melanie with a disdainful look, her tone bordering on mocking, "Exactly what part of a great evil that can destroy our worlds did you not understand? This is no childs game." She finished in a flat voice.
Xenas tone and manner snapped Melanie out of her shock. She knew Xena was right. She had believed that all this was some fantasy. Slowly the reality of the situation sunk in. She was trapped in San Francisco with two strangers that looked like Aven and herself. They had come, presumably from the past to warn and protect her world and their own. Very real enemies were shooting very real bullets at her and any innocent bystanders that got in the way. Not only was she in immediate physical danger, but so was anybody unlucky enough to be near her. She felt responsible for the deaths of those people in the restaurant. Had she thought and been more careful, finding a more suitable place to take the visitors, those innocent people would still be alive. As the complete realization hit, Melanies legs folded out from under her. Sliding down the wall of the building, she landed with a jolt as her rear end hit the concrete. No longer possessing the strength to hold her head up she let it hang down and her shoulders slumped with the full weight of the situation as it settled on her.
Seconds passed while she absorbed the events of the last half hour and her part in it. This cant be real, she tried to tell herself. Then she felt the rise of the warriors instinct within her. Melanies spirit rose through the despair like a phoenix from the fire as the word of her Sensai came to her. If you try to control yourself by denial or by ignoring obstacles, you undercut your ability to act." With that thought, determination and a cool calm flowed like a balm through Melanies soul, bringing with it hope and conviction. Her usually organized mind started clicking with plans for the next steps that must be taken. Aven would also be in danger. She needed to find her and fast. If evil wanted to separate the four of them as in Avens dream, then for the good of their worlds they must be united.
Looking at Xena and Gabrielle, Melanie knew they needed to be disguised to escape San Francisco without detection. Appropriate clothing must be dound for them both. Jacques would help. Melanie was supposed to meet him at the Combs, their favorite dance club. Glancing at her watch she struggled to her feet as she realized that he would be there waiting for her. "We can go to my friend for help." She said to her blood splattered companions. She hoped that she was not putting him in danger as well.
Leading the way, she went to the end of the alley where a dumpster made a convenient step over the fence. One by one they climbed over to the top of the dumpster and jumped down the other side. A short walk up the connecting alley and they were embraced by the crowd on Castro Street. Melanie glanced around and saw rapidly approaching police cars and ambulances screeching to a halt outside the restaurant they had just left. The officers tried to push away the morbid watchers as stretchers were wheeled inside the slaughterhouse. She didnt see the black minivan or its occupants anywhere and grabbing hold of her companions let the crowds sweep them down the street, away from the police secured area.
For the first time in her life, Melanie was glad to be safely part of the huge number of people that flocked here for the holiday. They traveled up the street without incident, each watching for signs of trouble and never letting the other get out of ear shot.
At one point a rowdy group of drunk college kids caused them momentary alarm when they exuberantly admired the clever creativity of Xenas "costume." They foolishly cheered in delight when Xena automatically drew her sword and waved it threateningly in front of their faces. Melanie quickly restrained her by putting a firm hand on Xenas arm and whispering, "Its okay. They think youre dressed to celebrate. They dont mean any harm." After a moment to consider, Xena sheathed the sword. They reached the door of the bar without any further incident.
The club was dark and smokey and the music was easily drowned out by the loud conversations that filled the club. Scanning the room she tried to find Jacques amidst all the Halloween garbed patrons.
"Hello you gorgeous creature." Jacques sang out as they came through the crowd. When they met by the bar Jacques leaned in and kissed Melanies cheek, "I was ready to think you stood me up." Looking at Gabrielle his smile broadened, "Im so glad you decided to come." Gabrielle took a step back when Jacques attempted to throw his arms around her in welcome.
"She isnt Aven." Melanie answered her flamboyant friend. "You look absolutely divine, Darling." Melanie complimented hoping to distract him. "You make a better woman than I do."
Flattered, Jacques batted his eyes and turned around to better show off his finery. He was dressed in a floor length evening gown, encrusted with blue sequins that glittered and sparkled in the dim light of the bar. Stiletto heels and a huge blond wig completed his evening ensemble.
"Look at that cleavage and those legs." Melanie continued as Jacques simpered in front of her. "You are absolutely marvelous." She finished as she threw an arm around him and drew him close. With her lips to his ear she whispered, "Were in trouble. I need your help."
Startled he tried to pull away but she firmly held him close to her. "W need to leave here immediately. Quietly. We need go to your place. Ill explain there." She allowed him to pull away.
Still smiling he looked at her and said, "Oh darling, you havent even seen my new apartment. Lets move the party there." Cooly, he turned on those high heels and gracefully walked out of the bar. Shaking her head in admiration, she motioned for Xena and Gabrielle and followed him through the club. If he ever tired of working with his computers, Jaques could make a fine living as an actor. As they cleared the club, they once again found themselves engulfed by the costumed crowd. Melanie struggled to keep Jacques in sight as his sequined figure made its way gracefully up the street. She glanced over her shoulder to make sure the other two of their party were still close and marveled at how well he walked in those heels. She couldnt help but admire him, knowing she could never do that well in stilettos.
"Sorry to ruin your fun, Jacques," Melanie said as they entered the relative quiet of his flat, "But you cannot begin to imagine what has just happened."
"Thats okay love," Jacques replied as he stepped out of his heels and removed the blond monstrosity from his head. "...there really wasnt anyone interesting there anyway." Smiling, he turned to face them, "Now properly introduce me to these two lovely creatures." He said batting his eyes at Xena and winking at Gabrielle.
The removal of his wig and drop of voice to its normal masculine tone almost cost him his life. Already on edge after the incident at the restaurant Xena, startled to see the feminine dressed figure transform into a man, flashed her sword she brought it down with deadly aim against his throat.
"No! Stop!" Melanie shrieked as she pulled Jacques safely behind her. "What do you think youre doing?" Melanie growled at Xena. "Cant you keep that damned sword in its sheath where it belongs?"
The stress of the shooting at the dinner was starting to catch up with Melanie. Her last remaining shred of control snapped and without waiting for a reply she stepped up to Xena. Her faces only inches from Xenas she shouted, "This happens to be a very good friend who is risking his life just being seen with us much less helping us! The last thing he deserves is to be threatened by you, so put the sword away and keep it away! Do I make myself clear?"
Stunned, Xena angrily stared at Melanie as Gabrielle visibly cringed back. Never had she heard anyone talk to Xena like this and remain standing. The two statuesque brunettes glared at one another, the air thick with tension. Neither showed a sign of fear nor any inclination to back down. It was almost like watching someone looking into a mirror trying to fight herself.
Jacques came to the rescue. Forcing himself between the two he gingerly placed his hands on each of their chests, safely above the swell of their generous breasts. Laughing nervously he said, "Now ladies, there is no need to fight over me. I assure you, there is more than enough of me to go around."
Xena, was forced to step back when Jacques pushed between her and Melanie. Breaking eye contact with Melanie, she turned her attention to the half garbed woman standing in front of her. She looked down at the hand on her chest and then back at him. Jacques got the message and quickly removed the offending hand.
"Ill decide when and where to use my sword," Xena snarled at Melanie. "But I do apologize." She grudgingly added, in a softer tone, looking at Jacques. "We do seem to need your help. I thought you were a woman. I was startled to learn that you were a man. Im sorry." She concluded sizing up Melanie with a sweeping glance.
The storm that had arisen in Melanie dissipated and she sighed, letting her shoulders slump. "No. Its me who should apologize. I lost my temper. I know all this has to be very strange and frightening for you both." Turning her attention to Jacques she asked, "Do you have anything these two can wear? They need to be a little less obvious."
Jacques rolled his eyes toward the ceiling while he thought a moment. Slowly and deliberately he looked at both Gabrielle and Xena. He studied them from head to toe and then back up again. Noticing that Xena was getting agitated again, he quickly replied, "I still have that outfit you wore the last time you were here. You know the one thats a cross between Robin Hood and Wyatt Earp." He glanced at Melanie for approval and when he received the nod he continued, "For the little blond, I could supply a skirt and maybe a jacket. They may be a bit baggy but nothing else will really fit her."
"That would be great." Melanie nodded and with that he disappeared down the hallway into his bedroom.
An awkward silence fell over the room. Her nerves frayed, Melanie couldnt stand it. She cleared her throat, "Why dont you two have a seat while hes getting the clothes. Ill go give him a hand." Not waiting to see Xenas reaction, Melanie followed Jacques down the hall.
When he saw Melanie walk into the bedroom he grabbed her arm and dragged her into the large walk-in closet. "You have some heavy explaining to do." He whispered urgently once they were in relative privacy.
"I know, I know." She answered patiently. "Things have happened so fast. Im not sure where to start or what to believe."
"Lets start from the beginning. Like what happened after you called to say, Ill be there in a couple of hours. Im looking forward to letting off some steam and relaxing." He mimicked in a high voice then rolling his eyes expectantly.
Starting with where she had parked the Jeep, Melanie quickly related the events of the last hour. His reaction was disbelief at first but as she progressed his face fell more serious. "They shot up Joes dinner?" He asked when she finished, "They really shot all those people? I cant believe it." Then he looked at her suspiciously a thought occurring to him. "This isnt one of your little fantasy role-playing games is it? You know sometimes you do get swept up in the moment."
Melanie wasnt sure whether it was the somber look or the slight shake of her head in denial that helped convince him. The clincher was when she motioned at her clothes and for the first time he noticed the blood spatters upon them. "You need to clean up." He said nodding toward the bathroom and tossing her a pair of paint stained jeans. She left the closet and he turned back to the clothes and started flipping through full hangers. For a few minutes the only sounds were of hangers sliding over a rod and a slow trickle of water from the bathroom.
"Ah ha. There you are." Jacques stated at Melanie came out of the bathroom and rejoined him in the closet. He turned holding a hanger with a full length black Australian outback coat. Under that was the rest of the outfit, one of Melanies favorites. Black jeans, a full sleeved burgundy silk blouse and black leather vest. The vest was hip length and laced up the front. A pair of thigh high black boots were the finishing touch. Melanie had worn it to a festival just last year. Jacques handed the hanger over to her and returned to the rummaging.
He returned from the mission with a calf length skirt and a brown leather bomber jacket. "Well, these will have to do for the Aven look alike." He said winking at Melanie. Together they walked out of the bedroom and back to where Xena and Gabrielle sat stiffly and close to one another on the couch.
"Here you go ladies." Jacques said with forced cheerfulness. He tossed the skirt and jacket at Gabrielle, Melanie turning over her bundle to Xena.
"You can change back in the bedroom." Melanie said pointing down the hallway, "Ill show you where you can clean up."
Rising from the couch the women slowly eased down the hallway and disappeared into the bedroom. Melanie reappeared several minutes later and dropped into an overstuffed chair with a sigh. Jacques plopped down on the sofa across from her and looked at her expectantly, "Well, whats next on the agenda?"
Gathering her thoughts Melanie answered, "I have to get the jeep and find Aven. Shell know what to do next."
Jacques studied his friend, concern and worry evident in his features, "Why are you doing this, Mel? You should just turn these ladies over to the cops and be done with it." When she made no response, he shook his head and continued, "This isnt a game. People are trying to kill these two. You dont need to be involved in this."
Patiently he watched her. He could tell that her mind was scrambling to put together her thoughts.
Looking at her friend, Melanie simply answered, "For Aven. Im doing this for her." Licking her lips nervously, she continued, "Aven has been really messed up for the last six months or so. The other night she had this dream. It really freaked her out and she called me. J, thats the first time she has called me or reached out since she started acting all paranoid and distant." Melanie looked into Jacques eyes and saw empathy mirrored there. When Aven had cut her off, she had confided a lot of the frustration and hurt to him. "She said there were two women that looked like us and they could help with whatever is troubling her. These two have to be those women. Besides," She shrugged, "I want to help Aven. This is an opportunity to do that. Does that make sense?"
Jacques nodded and patted her hand in reassurance, "Of course, darling. Youre you, so it makes perfect sense. In that case I guess I had better change my clothes too." He replied rising from the couch. Melanie looked gratefully at her friend. This was another of the many reasons she loved him so much. Ever since the first time they met, he had unconditionally accepted her. He never judged her and he could always be counted on, just like now.
A short time later Jacques had reappeared, minus make-up and finery. He looked like a normal man in T-shirt and jeans. Melanie had just finished changing into the jeans and button down that Jacques supplied her with when Xena and Gabrielle entered the living room. Dressed in street clothes, the resemblance was even more uncanny. Both women stopped in their tracks when they saw the new Jacques.
"Joxer?" They asked in unison, their faces registering utter surprise.
"No, dear." He smiled and spoke slowly, "Jacques. The name is Jacques."
"Whos Joxer?" Melanie asked coming up beside him, "Someone from your time looks like Jacques?"
"A friend." Gabrielle answered still staring.
"Well," He replied, "Its a relief to know that all my good looks are not confined to one era."
Laughing slightly, Melanie patted his shoulder, "Come on beautiful, we have to get moving."
Grabbing a blue jean jacket from the coat rack by the door, he led them out of the apartment and into the street.
His car was parked in front of the building. As he leaned in to unlock the door, Melanie noticed that Xena was now concealing the sword under the long coat. He opened the passengers door and walked around to the drivers side. Melanie had to encourage the visitors into the car and once they were secure climbed into the passenger seat. "So far so good." Jacques stated as the cranked the engine.
Melanie looked into the rearview mirror at her two female companions. Both were wide eyed and looking around the car nervously. "This is a form of transportation." She explained, "It runs on a motor. Dont worry its safe."
Xena gave her a curt nod but still looked worried. Gabrielles attention was pulled back into the enjoyment of the crowd.
Jacques turned on his blinker and eased out into the flow of traffic, waving his thanks to the car behind them. They remained silent as they eased up Castro, before turning right on Market Street.
"Go past the jeep." Melanie ordered, "We need to make sure it isnt being watched."
Driving slowly, but not slow enough to draw attention, Jacques went past the car. All four checked out the area around it, looking for a minivan or group of men. Everything looked clear and normal.
Jacques went down to the next block and turned right, then turned again on Duboce Street. Easing up to the hill, he pulled into a space on the street by a driveway.
"You cant park here." Melanie scolded, "Youll get towed."
"Wont be here that long." Jacques countered, "Besides, towing is the least of our worries."
Melanie could not help but chuckle as she nodded her agreement. All of a sudden there were just some things that seemed so insignificant.
Jacques got out of the car, as the three women exited. "Are you sure you dont want me to come with you?" He asked for a second time.
Melanie opened her mouth to reply when a shot rang out. From past experience Xena and Gabrielle knew that sound and needed no prompting to join Melanie on the pavement. Jacques wasnt so lucky. He fell back against the car, clutching his shoulder. Xena grabbed a hand full of his coat and jerked him down to the ground beside her.
"They must have been waiting by the vortex." Gabrielle observed as another shot rang out and was deflected off the sidewalk.
Xena and Melanie scanned the darkness for the sniper but whomever had fired was well hidden or had changed position. It was then that Melanie spotted a large group making its boisterous way up Duboce. She wiggled around to get a better look at them from her place by the car. "Theres our way out." She whispered to the others, "We wait until they get beside us and just fall in step with them." She looked at her companions for assent but Jacques was shaking his head from side to side, "No, I cant."
Melanie, worried, reached across Gabrielle, "How bad is it?" She asked trying to check the wound, "We need to get you to the hospital." She finished urgently when she saw the blood.
Again Jacques shook his head, "You guys go." He said trying to mask the pain of the wound, "I can get this taken care of once your safely out of here."
Melanie stubbornly refused his advice, "No. I cant leave you here on the street, hurt."
"Go." Jacques urged, "Its just a graze across my shoulder. Look, its almost stopped bleeding." He said shoving his shoulder under her nose.
Another shot rang out and, as much as she hated to admit it he was right about the bleeding. "If we leave you here alone, they may try to take you." She argued still reluctant to leave him.
"I have my cell phone and Ill call 911 now. The paramedics will be here shortly and you can use the distraction to get the jeep and get out of here."
Convinced, Melanie nodded her agreement to the plan and helped him retrieve the phone from his jacket pocket. Jacques dialed the phone and was transferred to the emergency operator. He asked for an ambulance telling them that someone had been shot. Luckily there was a fire station only a few blocks away and in a few moments they heard the sound of an approaching siren.
"See, I told you," He gloated, "Now get going."
The group of partiers was just about even with them now. They passed by talking loudly and passing a bottle among them. Melanie leaned over, lightly kissed Jacques cheek, and stood up. Following her lead Xena and Gabrielle also rose and the three of them started walking. The group absorbed the new additions and did not appear to notice, at one point even passing the bottle back to them. When they reached the jeep Melanie motioned to Xena and Gabrielle and all three ducked down beside the jeep, while the group continued on their way. Looking back over her shoulder Melanie saw a paramedic van pulling up beside a waving Jacques.
Relieved, she unlocked the door and crawled in the drivers side. She opened the door and motioned for them to get in. Once they were in and the doors locked, Melanie started the jeep and followed the same route Jacques had earlier. Along the way she took some extra turns to see if they were being followed. When she was certain no one was watching them she drove another block and made a right onto the ramp to the freeway. Gratefully, she sighed with relief as they entered the bottom lanes of the Bay Bridge.
Putting a little more pressure on the accelerator, she settled in for the drive back to Sacramento. No sooner had she relaxed a bit when the questions started. "How does this beast run with no horses?"
"What is this incredible bridge that runs over the ocean?" Gabrielle chimed in.
"What sort of magic was used to kill those people and hurt your friend?" Xena continued.
"Hang on ladies," Melanie pleaded, "Ill try to answer all your questions if you give me a chance."
Xena and Gabrielle nodded agreement and Melanie started her explanation. "First, this is a car or automobile. It is powered by a motor that runs on Gasoline."
"What is a motor and gasoline?" Gabrielle asked curiously.
The more Melanie tried to explain about the wonders of her world the more questions they seemed to have, especially the Aven look-alike. Exasperated, Melanie eyed the blond in her rearview, "It is all magic produced by our God." She answered simply.
"Oh." Gabrielle said, falling back in her seat, satisfied by the answer. Melanie rolled her eyes to the heavens and shot Xena a glance. Xena merely gave her a knowing smile.
"Can I ask another question?" Gabrielle piped up again.
Melanie shrugged, "Sure."
Gabrielle hesitated for a moment and Melanie thought she had changed her mind until she asked, "Who is Aven?"
Smiling, Melanie eased back in the seat. They were still an hour out of Sacramento and she could at least give them a small bit of background, including the strange change that had overcome her friend. Taking a deep breath, she began.
Melanie was tiring of doing all the talking and none too soon they reached the exit ramp that allowed them into Avens neighborhood. Rapidly she navigated the residential streets. She had tried several times during the drive to call Aven on her cell phone, but all she got was a message saying the line was out of order. That in itself was not unusual as Aven was prone to take her phone off the hook when working, but given the current circumstances, Melanie couldnt help but feel something was wrong. Unconsciously she accelerated, only slowing when she turned onto Avens street.
Gasping, she stared in amazement at the sight waiting there for here. There were at least a half a dozen police cars with their lights flashing. Television news crews lined the street with their cameras aimed toward Avens building. Her entire apartment complex had been cordoned off with yellow police tape and there was a flurry of activity. From her spot down the street Melanie could see officers talking to the widow that lived below Aven and the hippie couple that lived above her. Then she noticed several officers disappearing into Avens apartment.
"No." Melanie wheezed as her chest tightened. Her first instinct was to rush to the apartment and as she opened the door, her exit was stopped by an iron grip on her wrist. "Where do you think youre going?" Xena questioned in a deceptively calm voice.
"Get your hand off me." Melanie answered and tried to yank her arm away, with little success, "Thats Avens home." Melanie almost shouted, pointing to the shattered windows of Avens apartments.
"Hold on." Xena urged, "Look at whats going on first. Do you see your friend?"
"N..no, but she could be hurt." Melanie said looking at Xena with uncertainly. Having finally gotten Melanies full attention, Xena released her. Leaning over, Xena said slowly, "I understand that but we wont help her any if we give away our position. Its better to assess the full situation first."
Impatiently, Melanie crawled back in the jeep and shut the door. Xena was right. They had no way of knowing if the attackers were still here or not. There was always the chance that Aven had been gone or had heard them coming. Grudgingly, Melanie turned and studied the scene. "There isnt an ambulance." She said finally.
"What does that mean?" Xena asked.
"Nobody is hurt." Melanie said sulkily. In her mind she also noted that there wasnt a coroners car either. Melanie had to admit to herself and Xena that Aven wasnt there. Either she had been kidnaped or she had escaped. Melanie refused to even consider the first option. Next she tried to think where Aven would go to hide. The only logical explanation was Melanies house. Looking at Xena she resisted the urge to thank her for calming her down. Melanie was thrown off by Xenas calm demeanor. The woman was in a different time and a totally alien world and yet she maintained an inner calm, no matter what had arisen. In the past Melanie had always been the strong one and she wasnt sure she liked having someone else fill that role, especially since she was the one who needed that calming just now.
Accepting the fact that there was nothing she could do here, she decided that the best course of action was to go home and check for Aven there. Sighing, she started the jeep and eased away from the scene.
A prickle of fear ran up Melanies spine when she walked up the side walk and saw her front door slightly ajar. She specifically remembered locking the dead bolt when she left. Her two companions also felt the unease and stayed close, watching for any signs of attack. Carefully Melanie eased up the steps of her creaky porch, testing each spot before putting her full weight on it. So gently treated, the normally groaning wooden steps complied, remaining silent. She made a mental note to take care of the squeak when this was over. Moving with the grace of a panther, she made her way to the top of the steps without a single warning sound. The climb up three steps seeming to take an eternity to complete. Inhaling deeply with relief, her two companions eased beside her just as silently. Finally they were standing beside the door. Pressing herself up against the door jam for protection, she looked at Xena who nodded firmly. Reaching across the door, she gave it a gentle push. It swung open slowly revealing her lighted living room.
Melanies initial caution turned to outrage as she surveyed the chaos in her house. The room had been the target of an obvious search. Fortunately the house seemed to be empty now and she waved her companions to follow her in. Oblivious to any possible remaining danger, Melanie looked at her violated home in dismay. Her eyes scanned the overturned furniture, books and papers that were scattered on the floor. Then her gaze caught and held on the CD cover lying on the over turned chair. It was only then that she heard the soft music playing. The music was haunting and laced with melodies from a synthesizer. Avens music. Melanies pulse leaped as hope and joy momentarily rose. Aven was or at least had been here.
Then just as quickly, hope turned to fear as Melanies eyes settled on a small red hand print on the wall to the left of her bedroom door. With a strangled cry she stumbled through the clutter of books and other belongings to the doorway. Hesitantly and gently she touched the hand print. In despair she studied the traces of red liquid now coloring her fingers. "Blood!" She said turning to her companions who remained by the front doorway. "Aven has been here and shes hurt." She turned back to the entrance of her bedroom and eased in. Her panic level was reaching maximum as the expectation of finding Avens dead body. Once inside she realized that this room had been searched as well, and there was no sign of Avens body- much to her relief. All the contents of her dresser and shelves now occupied the floor. Melanie took only minor notice of the mess as she scanned the room for Aven or a clue to her whereabouts. Picking her way across the room she entered the bathroom. "Not here." She concluded after a quick look in the shower, but she had discovered another bloody hand print on the white porcelain sink.
The rage that had been slowly building in her finally came to a peak. It was time to fight back. Turning, Melanie came back into the bedroom and went over to one of her most prized possessions, an old magicians cabinet. The antique black cabinet was useful as well as attractive. This time Melanie didnt stop to admire the roses, that were hand painted over the glistening lacquer finish. Standing directly in front of the cabinet she lightly tapped it twice on the left side and once, harder on the top. Swinging the door open she revealed a compartment containing her small supply of weapons.
Confidently she picked up the little mustang colt. Deceptively small, the .380 packed a big wallop. She also picked up the loaded clip from its velvet bed and inserted it into the handle of the pistol. With a click, she snapped the clip home. Checking the safety first, she then slid the compact pistol into the back pocket of her jeans. Reverently, Melanie reached back into the cabinet and lifted the sword from its nest of velvet. Pulling it from its sheath, she stroked the blade, its razor sharp edge reflecting the dim light of the room. She caressed the weapon, drawing comfort and strength from it. Lost in her reverie, she failed to hear the sounds of movement until it was almost too late.
Grey was sick of waiting for his target. He had been sitting in this old house long enough and that incessant new age music was driving him nuts. What kind of person goes on a trip and leaves the Cd player on, set on repeat, He wondered to himself. He didnt recognize the musicians, but he could have cheerfully killed them by now. There had been a temptation to break the source of his annoyance, but his orders had been clear. Dan Kinsey had ordered him to leave it playing as it was presumably Melanies alarm system. On the off chance that Aven did come here she might be alarmed and frightened away if she didnt hear the music.
Grey was afraid to anger Mr. Kinsey any more than he already was. The plan had been so simple. Hawks wanted Aven so they were to merely go to Avens apartment and kidnap the rather frail woman. Kinsey had seriously underestimated their prey. Avens reflexes had been quick and sure. The two men had busted through the door just in time to see Aven climbing out of a broken window on the other side of her apartment. Scrambling over one another they had tried to reach her, even firing several shots after her, but she was too quick. Dumfounded, they simply stared after her retreating figure as it disappeared around the corner of the building. In frustration they fired off several more shots in the apartment before heading downstairs.
They reached the bottom of the stairs just in time to hear the deep rumble of a motorcycle starting up. By the time they made it around to the garage, Aven was gone. Kinsey had been angry. Cursing all the way, Kinsey ran to the car, followed by his two henchmen. They rushed to follow the retreating woman. The only problem was there was nothing left to follow. Mr Kinsey had instructed them to drive to the next target. Melanie Princes house.
When they entered the Prince home, they saw the bloody hand print and heard the music playing. The first thought was that they had cornered Aven but after a thorough search of the house, they determined it was empty. Mr. Kinsey had decided it would be wise to leave a man here in case one of the women showed. Grey had been chosen and then Kinsey and his other accomplice had left to search other places for Aven.
"The heck with orders." Grey mumbled as he decided to turn off the infernal music racket. He had barely reached the bedroom door when he saw the front door swing open. Ducking back into the room, he frantically looked for a hiding place. Spying the queen size bed, he practically dove under it. Melanie walked into the room as he slid under the bed. He decided he should be attacking and not hiding. After all, she was a mere woman, and he had been trained in several forms of hand to hand combat. He followed Melanies feet as she walked into the bathroom. He took this opportunity to slide out from under the bed. Crouching beside it and using it for cover, he waited for his chance to move.
Now. He thought to himself when Melanie turned her back to him and opened the cabinet. Stealthily he stood up and carefully pulled out his pistol. Hawks had ordered the girl taken alive, but secretly he hoped she would put up a fight. It was so much more fun when they resisted. He took a moment to savor the thought of earning his bosses appreciation.
The moments lack of concentration cost him dearly. So intent was he on the women in front of him, that he didnt notice the others in the living room. He was no more than a few feet from his victim when he was accosted by a yell from the other room. Startled he turned his head toward the sound.
Xenas yell of warning woke Melanie from her tender preoccupation with the sword. Instinct took over. Without hesitation, Melanie spun around, swinging the sword down as she turned. The blade caught the attacker in the flesh where neck and shoulder met. The downward thrust carried the blade through the muscle and it embedded in his collarbone. A spray of blood from the carotid artery showered the bedroom and Melanie. The would be attackers head dangled gruesomely to the left. Staggering, Grey fell to the floor, landing with a thud. Melanie had maintained her grip on the sword and as he fell, the weight of his body pulled the blade free.
Standing above her victim, Melanie expected to feel horror or regret. She was not prepared for the pure joy of battle lust that rose up and flooded her being. It was such a powerful emotion she was frightened by it. Kneeling down beside the gasping man she asked, "Who sent you? Wheres Aven?"
"Call an ambulance. Im hurt." He whispered, blood oozing from his mouth now.
"Answer my questions." Melanie answered almost yelling.
Coughing, he spit out, "Hawks." Struggling to get his breath he finished, "The girl got away. Please call help."
Melanies voice was icy cold, "No paramedic or doctor can help you now."
Eyes widening with realization, he stared at Melanie and then moved his eyes to stare at the growing red stain that covered his chest. His last thought was agreement with his killer. He died with a small, quiet sigh.
Melanie crouched over the body, allowing the rush of battle lust to ebb out of her. Grim determination took its place. Now she at last had an enemy to fight. She had long disliked and suspected David. Now she had a reason to let her dislike of the man turn to hatred. So many pieces fell into place. Avens bizarre behavior after her ski trip had been the result of something he had done to her. Melanie silently vowed to destroy that monster one way or another, but first she had to find Aven. She had to make sure her friend was safe before Hawks people found her.
Xena walked across the room to where Melanie was rising to her upright posture. "Well done." She said gripping Melanies shoulder in congratulations. Temporarily distracted from her dark thoughts, Melanie smiled grimly in acknowledgment, "Thanks."
"Youre instinct served you well and you show talent with a sword." Xena extended.
"Ive been practicing with a sword for at least ten years. Ive been in mock battles but Ive never killed anything or anyone before." Melanie mused, darting her eyes to determine Xenas reaction to her words. "It felt...good." She continued, "I feel incredibly powerful and triumphant." With this she looked at her companion in earnest, "Does that make me an evil person?"
Xena studied Melanie for a moment, "If you kill to feel those things, it can be evil. You killed in self defense and question your feelings." Xena held her head up slightly, "That makes you a warrior."
Melanie felt a serge of pride upon hearing those words and smiled gratefully at her companion. Gazing into Xenas eyes she saw a mutual understanding of those feelings. For the first time in her life, Melanie felt as though she was in the company of a woman who truly understood and could match her strengths. For some reason it thrilled her. Always a loner, Melanie formed few friendships. Aven and Jacques were about the only two she called friends, people she could count on and be comfortable with. The rest were merely acquaintances that she tolerated socially, never allowing too close. Yet, she had a deep sense that Xena could be counted on as a loyal and good friend.
"Come on." Xena said and grasped Melanies shoulder, "Theres something out here I want to ask you about." Leading her toward the living room. "Here." Xena came to a halt in front of the fireplace.
"What is this hanging over your mantle?" She asked looking at Melanie in a puzzled fashion.
For a moment Melanie studied her family coat of arms prominently displayed over the old stone fireplace. "That," She said with pride, "is my oldest and most valuable possession. It has been handed down in my family from generation to generation for as long as any of our records go back. My Grandmother gave it to me, her mother to her and so on. Its my families coat of arms. Why are you interested in it?"
Without saying a word, Xena pulled her chakram from its place on her belt and held it up for Melanie to see. "Look familer?"
In disbelief Melanies eyes darted from the chakram to her family crest and back to the chakram. "Where did you get that!" Melanie asked excitedly, her hands reaching involuntarily for the chakram in Xenas hands.
At first, Xena resisted, like a child unwilling to share. Then she released her hold on the weapon adding a warning of, "Be careful. Its a weapon and its sharp." She watched it protectively as Melanie studied the ornate decorations engraved into the circular metal chakram. Turning to face the crest on the wall, Melanie compared the two. The crest consisted of a chakram emposed upon two crossed swords. He father had told her stories of her brave ancestors and their battles for good so she knew that the crest was an ancient symbol, just like the one in her hand. The two were identical, even the designs matched perfectly.
An thought occured to Melanie. A thought even more unbelievable than the previous events of the evening. Melanie looked at Xena in amazement, "Were related somehow. You must be one of my ancestors." She practically shouted as the full implication hit her. Glancing at Gabrielle who had been standing quietly watching the interaction. "You must be related to Aven. That explains why you look so much like her and you made a connection in the dream."
Turning to Xena she finished in awe, "And why you look so much like me."
The resulting silence softly filled the room while the three women tested the new idea. They exchanged looks. It was the only logical explanation in an illogical situation. They found the suggestion to their liking and smiled warmly at each other, a new level added to the relationship.
"We have to find Aven." Gabrielle and Melanie said in unison. Surprised at the moment they laughed nervously. Had it not been a life and death situation it would have been absurd.
Xena blessed them with an understanding smile, "Well, lets get to it."
Sobering up Melanie turned her attention to the room, the bloody hand print on the wall drawing her stare. "That has to belong to Aven." She stated to her companions, "If Aven was here and had to leave she would have left me a message." Melanie finished thoughtfully. Slowly she moved around the room, studying it. Her eyes fell on the stereo still playing that annoying new age junk that Aven loved so much. The CD player had been turned off when she left for San Francisco, of that she was certain. So Aven had left it on as a warning and a message. "Of course!" She said, pouncing on the CD case lying on the coffee table. "Heres our message." She remarked, triumphantly holding up the case to her companions.
"Now I just have to figure out what it says." She mumbled as she concentrated in the case. The name of the CD was Looking for Sanctuary.
"Hmm. Where would Aven look for sanctuary if there was no place left to go?"
It came to her suddenly. There was only one place that was safe. Even David didnt know of its existence. Directing her gaze at Xena and Gabrielle she smiled, "I know where she is. Come on." With no further explanation she headed for the bedroom, crammed a few things in a bag and headed for the front door. Xena and Gabrielle looked at one another. Simultaneously, they shrugged their shoulders and followed Melanie out to the jeep.
"Aven has a cabin in the mountains, up toward Lake Tahoe." Melanie explained to the women as they climbed into the jeep. The jeeps engine came to life with a roar, and Melanie deftly navigated the crooked residential street. Taking the same precautions as before she made several quick turns, and, when she was certain no one was following, drove to the freeway. Finally, with a sigh, she turned up the on-ramp to I-80 and punched the accelerator. The jeep leaped up the ramp and was going 70 mph when they hit the freeway.
For the next hour they rode in silence. Neither Xena or Gabrielle felt confident enough to speak to the driver at these high speeds, lest they distract her and she crash the metal beast. Melanie gratefully relaxed as she concentrated on navigating the sharp curves in the mountain road, letting the rhythm hypnotize her as she successfully maneuvered each left and right. This road had always relaxed her and this time was no exception. She was still a little awed by her ability to accept unquestioningly all the events that had transpired thus far. Though she would never admit it to her companions, Melanie was afraid she still thought of this a some sort of fantasy. A role playing game or live action novel was something she had participated in before, but this was a deadly reality. The thought of the bloody hand print reasserted itself in her mind, and she mashed the accelerator down a bit further.
David Hawks sat back in his comfortable office chair, waiting on the reports of Avens or one of the others capture. Closing his eyes in the dim office, he quickly ran through the previous events of the evening. Up until now his forces had been foiled at every turn in their attempts to capture their elusive prey and he was beginning to have doubts about the success of the mission. How could these women cause him so much trouble, he wondered. His master had said it would be a matter of simply killing them and then his world would be born.
His thoughts lingered on Aven. He caressed those sweet memories of her body, her mind and soul. He felt an ache of desire as he remembered how completely he had possessed her. He had sought her out all those years ago, befriending her and cultivating a friendship. Close enough for him to keep her under his watchful eye and to gain her unwavering trust. A trust that had proven useful and enjoyable, especially at the cabin six months ago.
He smiled in anticipation of possessing her again. "One day, Aven, you will be mine forever." He whispered to the image in his mind. Cruelly she savored the image of her as his unwilling bride. He imagined the things he would force upon her until she was eager to do his every biding. He could taste her fear. His body responded to the desire and excitement his fantasy caused.
Unexpectedly, he felt a familiar presence in his mind. A pressure growing in his brain as though a vice were being tightened slowly, painfully. All thoughts of his bride were forgotten as he gripped his head in his hands.
"Having ambitions of your own?" The dry voice asked.
"Father.." Hawks began but was silenced by the throbing voice in his head.
"How dare you fail me, and then sit here and dream of flesh."
Hawks groaned in sudden pain as the pressure threatened to explode his head. "Master!" He managed to croak out between clenched teeth, "You know I only exist to serve you." He begged, trying to placate Dahok.
"You would do well to remember that." Dahok rasped. His threat made he released his servant.
Sitting up straight in the chair, Hawks gave his God his full attention. "Forgive me my momentary lapse, most powerful one." He apologized humbly.
Nervously Hawks cleared his throat. He feared confessing his failure but he feared being caught in a lie even more. Taking a deep breath Hawks began, "Xena and her group have eluded us once again." Wincing as the pressure once again enveloped his head, he continued, "I have sent my best men to capture them and bring them here. I will see that she dies by my own hand in your name. She will not escape our world."
Hawks cringed and was pushed back in his chair from the rage that suddenly consumed him. Dahoks anger struck him with the force of a freight train. Without warning, he found himself sprawled on the floor of the office with the invisible hand of his god gripping his throat.
"How dare you fail me!" Dahok roared, "After all I have given you. I am the god of darkness!" The force continued shaking David like a rag doll.
Hawks felt every nerve and muscle in his body screaming in pain as the pressure and beating continued. Consciousness was threatening to leave him when, in a final fit of rage, he was slung against the wall. His fragile body slid to the floor and a stream of blood oozed from his mouth.
"No Master." David whined groveling on the floor, "Have mercy on me." He pleaded, rising to his knees, "I have done my best. It is those inferior servants of mine that have failed and I will see them punished for you. Please give me one more chance to prove myself to you, my worthiness to serve you, great one."
Appeased, Dahok calmed until his presence was once again a soothing voice in Hawks mind. Dahok wrapped around his brain and caressed him like a lover. Hawks sighed in relief and let the emotion wash over him, savoring it. "Father. My master, guide your humble servant to do your bidding." Hawks staggered to his feet, the pleasure of the sensation intensifying. "I apologize for my poor performance. Help me be successful, in your name." Hawks finished weakly, falling back into his chair.
The caress stopped and for a moment there was silence. Hawks waited apprehensively. Slowly the seconds ticked by, then Dahok whispered in a thoughtful voice, "Xena must be killed immediately, as well as her progeny. If they survive, all our work is for nothing and my plan will fail. They are responsible for my defeat during the ancient times and why my kingdom has not been born yet. Their deaths will free me and I will take control of my rightful kingdom. This world."
"And what of the other two?" Hawks questioned subserviently.
"The mother will not be hurt." Dahok growled, "She has a special place in my kingdom and I look forward to her joining us. As for her progeny..." Dahok fell silent, savoring Hawks anticipation, "If you serve me well, she is yours. The line must continue."
Carefully Hawks monitored his thoughts. It would never do to reveal his fear to Dahok, "The anthrax virus is ready for transport." He said, hoping to distract the angry God. "Once we have the Icon, we can open a portal and begin transporting it to your time. The populace should be decimated and cleansed in only a few weeks, leaving you and your followers a clean slate to build on." Hawks tried to pump enthusiasm into his voice. He thought he failed as the familiar pressure temporarily clamped on his temples.
Increasing the pressure, the angry god whispered wryly, "Fail me and I will see that your agony never ends." David grasped his head in his hands and grunted in pain. Then the pressure changed into a vigorous caress and Hawks moaned slightly, "Succeed and all earthly pleasure will be yours."
Releasing his servant, the god sat quietly in the confused and terrified mans mind.
Hawks shuddered as the pain and pleasure subsided. Straightening his tie and brushing his coat off, he retrieved a handkerchief and dabbed at the blood on his mouth, trying to compose himself. His face was flushed and his body ached from the communion with his god, but slowly his usual demeanor slipped into place.
"Our servants are here and have been kept waiting long enough." Dahok decreed and then he was gone. Hawks sighed in relief as he felt his master depart. He was instilled with a renewed purpose to succeed now. Journeying from his office and into the basement lab facilities he found the five robed followers of his father sitting patiently, their eyes reflecting a dead calm and trust.
Extending his arms he smiled, "Welcome brothers. I am David Hawks. Heir to the kingdom of the Dark one. With your help we will bring his reign to full power with the blood and pain of the non believers."
The robes nodded agreement and David began laying out their plan.