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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
They arrived at the mountain cabin a few hours before dawn. The large handmade refuge was located deep in the forest, well secluded from civilization. The closest town was twenty miles away, the closest neighbor, ten. Avens step-father had left her the cabin after her parents death. She had come to think of this area as a small piece of heaven, a sanctuary.
The trio had not seen any other cars for the last half hour on the winding mountain road and it wasnt until Melanie turned off the highway, onto a dirt road, that she began to feel safe. She eased the jeep down the road for a few miles and then turned off on a rugged long unused logging road.
She fought the urge to accelerate the jeep, knowing how treacherous the pot holes and crevices in the road could be. She had no desire to tear the gas tank or bust the engine. The only thing she could think of was Aven. She had to find her, know that she was all right. The image of Avens bullet ridden apartment, bloody hand print and her own ransacked house continued to flash in her minds eyes. She couldnt seem to shake the images from her memory.
There had been a rush of relief when she had found Avensclue, knowing that she was still alive but that had been a couple of hours ago. Their pursuers seemed so determined, she wondered now if Aven had even made it to the cabin. Her two traveling mates had been quiet for the last few miles. Either they were tired or still trying to soak in everything they had learned about this new world.
Xena sat beside her in the passenger seat, keeping a watchful eye on their dark surroundings. The clear sky and full moon illuminated the thick lush woods just enough to manifest a frightening surreal atmosphere, almost like a scene from an old horror movie. Gabrielle sat in the back seat, staring out the side window, her increasing concern about Aven just as apparent as Melanies. There was much more to this story than these two had volunteered and Melanie had the feeling that would change when they found Aven.
Easing off the gas, Melanie brought the jeep to a bouncy stop as they reached a large steel fence across the road. A big flourescent orange No Trespassing sign was posted in the center of the fence and a thick heavy chain held the gate in place.
"Almost there." Melanie informed as she cut the engine, pulled the keys out of the ignition and left the safe, warm cab of the jeep.
Gabrielle shivered slightly as the cool mountain air rushed into the jeep and pulled the leather jacket closer.
Once alone Xena turned to look at Gabrielle, "You okay?"
Gabrielle shrugged, "All the wonders and scary things we have seen in this world, it wasnt until we got here to the mountains that I ... it just reminded me of home."
Xena had also wondered how they might find their way home after all this was over. She tried to concentrate on the mission itself, that was enough to worry about for now, "We will get back home." Xena reassured her as Melanie returned to the jeep.
Restarting the jeep, Melanie drove forward, passing through the gate. Once clear of the fence, she put the jeep in park and hopped out to close the gate. Minutes later they were on their way, the road smoothing as they rounded a sharp curve.
"There on the hill." Melanie pointed out the darkened structure on the approaching hilltop.
"It looks deserted." Xena stated as the jeep eased into the driveway and up the incline.
"Looks arent everything." Melanie snapped, her concern now bordering on panic. Catching herself she added, "Sorry."
Gabrielle reached forward and sympathetically patted Melanies shoulder, a reassurance she desperately needed now. As the jeep edged closer to the house, Melanie turned the headlights off. She cut the engine a few feet from the large covered front porch and stared at the darkened house as the vehicle glided to a stop.
The cabin was a large, comfortable, modern log cabin. The yard was neatly landscaped and the surrounding trees were dark and well manicured. There was no light or movement in or around the cabin, save for the soft breeze waving the tree limbs.
Melanies impatience got the best of her caution and she jumped out of the jeep, running for the cabin. Xena and Gabrielle were out and moving right behind her. Reaching out, Xena snagged Melanies arm and pulled her to a stop. Moving close she whispered, "Whoa. It could be a trap."
Melanie tried to yank her arm from Xenas grasp but found that the Warrior was stronger than she looked, "Let go of me. I have to find Aven."
In one fluid motion, Xena released her hold, drew her sword and held it in position to deflect the arrow that had appeared from the darkness. The arrow sailed by her so fast and close, she could feel and hear the whiz of wind as it passed by her and struck one of the post on the front porch.
"Get away from her." A voice commanded from the night.
Xena immediately turned to her left, trying to get a fix on the owner of the voice.
"Aven?" Melanie called out with relief.
Gabrielle moved up beside Xena and Melanie, staff held ready for an attack from the darkness. Xena cocked her head sideways as she heard the soft loading of another arrow, still unable to get a precise location.
"Move toward the cabin, Mel." The voice instructed.
Instead of following instructions, Melanie moved in front of Xena as a shield. Holding her arms out, both Xena and Gabrielle were no longer easy targets. "Aven, its okay. These are friends."
There was no movement from the woods and no more arrows either.
Melanie knew that Aven would be even less trusting now than usual and tried another tactic, "The dream Aven. The friends from your dream."
For another second the woods remained quiet. There was slight movement as a shadowed figure emerged from the forest, cross bow still aimed and primed to fire. The figure turned on a light and aimed it at Melanie. Then the light shone on the other two. It held for a moment, the beam shaking slightly and went off.
Melanie took a few steps forward, "Aven? Are you alright?"
There was silence for a few seconds as the figure moved closer and then dropped the crossbow to their side. "I am now." Aven smiled as she met Melanie and hugged her tightly.
"Ive been worried about you." Melanie scolded weakly as they separated.
"When I saw your apartment, bullet holes and all, and then found the bloody print on my wall I thought..." Melanie trailed off as Aven raised her bandaged left hand.
"A minor mishap with some broken glass." She explained, her attention drawn to the two shadowed women near the cabin.
"Come on. You have got to meet these two." Melanie smiled and led her over to them, making introductions.
It was time for another staring match, this time between Aven and the visitors. Even in the darkness the full moon cast enough illumination for the resemblance to be seen.
"Youre real." Aven and Gabrielle said in unison as they looked over one another for a moment and then hugged.
Melanie and Xena were struck at how the women seemed to cling to one another, like a drowning person hanging onto a life preserver. They ended the embrace but continued to hold hands, amazed that the other actually existed.
Embarrassed by the emotion, Xena and Melanie looked around the area, still unsettled by the earlier events. "We need to get inside." Xena whispered to her descendant, "Its not safe out in the open and its a bit chilly out here."
"Right." Melanie agreed, realizing that it was about twenty degrees cooler here than it had been in the city. "Lets get inside." She suggested and led the way to the cabin.
Once inside, Melanie turned on some light and started a fire to chase the chill from the cabin, while Gabrielle brought Aven up to speed on the events so far.
Xena had assumed the same protective posture about Aven as Melanie had with Gabrielle. She insisted on checking Avens injured hand and then to the amazement of both Melanie and Avens, stitched the cut with the skill of a surgeon. "Thank you." Aven replied as Xena finished re-bandaging her hand.
Xena smiled, still unsettled by Avens resemblance to Gabrielle and curious to know more about the girl.
"I need coffee!" Melanie replied as she went into the kitchen and began rummaging around the cabinets.
Gabrielle leaned forward, sheepishly asking, "What is coffee?"
Overhearing the question, Melanie leaned back into the livingroom, "A key element in my survival."
Aven smiled. The first true, honest smile Melanie had seen in six months. She felt her spirits soar a little higher as she turned and went back into the kitchen.
"Coffee," Aven explained to their guests, "Is something we drink to help us keep alert."
Gabrielle nodded. That one answer had brought another dozen questions to mind but only one relevant to this situation, "If it keeps you alert, then it keeps you from sleeping and dreaming?"
Avens face was full of understanding and sympathy, "It keeps you awake for awhile, but not even coffee keeps the dreams away for long."
A few minutes later Xena held her head up and sniffed the air, "What is that?"
"Coffee." Melanie announced as she came in with tray, heavy with a coffee pot, cups, milk, sugar and some cookies. She sat the tray down and began pouring the steaming hot fluid into the mugs and handing them out.
Both she and Aven watched as Xena and Gabrielle tried their first coffee. "Smells good." Xena commented and took a tentative sip. She seemed to take to the bitter brew quickly. Gabrielle however accepted the sugar and cream and finally reached a blend she could tolerate.
They sat in a comfortable silence, each noting the change in mood and atmosphere since the four of them had come together. There seemed to be a force of power in the air, a new strength.
Aven leaned forward suddenly, her face a mixture of confusion and dire seriousness, "Wait a second. You said the portal that brought you here appeared during the battle for Olympus?"
"Yes." Gabrielle confirmed.
"This evil wanted to destroy the Gods and attacked them?"
Xena joined in, "Yes. It is the first step in forming the world to his way."
"Thats not possible." Aven replied.
"I know its a fantastic story, Aven but I believe them." Melanie jumped in, misunderstanding Avens disbelief.
Aven shook her head, "I believe theyre from the past, Mel, but the timing of the battle is wrong."
Now Xena sat forward, "What do you mean, wrong?"
Aven met Xenas eyes, "I mean its happening about three years before it should."
Xena tensed, her distrust evident, "How would you know that. Are you a seer?"
"Historian." Melanie explained.
"Historian?" Gabrielle repeated, "You know history?"
"I study it, yes." Aven answered. "Specifically Ancient Greece. The battle for Olympus is well documented. It didnt happen suddenly. There were several major events that led up to it."
"Iolaus said that Hercules saw the signs when the Gods pointed them out to him." Gabrielle suggested, "Thats why he called us to help."
Melanies mouth dropped, "The Hercules?! You knew..ah.. know him, Hercules?"
Ignoring her question, Aven continued, "Iolaus was there? How old is Hercules son?"
"Son?" Gabrielle asked, "Why wouldnt Iolaus be there?"
"He doesnt have a son." Xena stated, "Hera killed is wife and children. Aries was responsible for the death of his second wife. He has no children."
"Yet." Aven replied, "He will have a son. According to the history the battle happened when he was about two years old."
Xena and Gabrielle stared at her in shock. Aven spoke of things she knew as history. To them it was yesterday or a time to come. Xena had also recognized the look on Avens face when Iolaus was mentioned. She had sidestepped explaining her comment but Xena knew that the future would be grim for Iolaus.
"Ive got to get some things." Aven said standing up suddenly and moving toward the back of the cabin. With a final glance she disappeared into another room.
"Excuse me." Melanie smiled and followed Aven.
Xena finished off her coffee in one long gulp, then refilled her cup, "These women. Theyre the ones from your dream?
"Yes." Gabrielle answered after a moment. "Dont you feel it, Xena?"
"We were supposed to meet them. They are us. Our descendants and there may actually be a chance to undo or at least stop Dahok and his plans."
Melanie stood at the top of the basement steps. She could hear Aven rummaging around and slowly descended. The cabin had been built in the mid sixties and had been equipped with a bomb shelter.
As Melanie reached the bottom of the steps the question of what had happened to all of Avens collections and books was finally answered. The collections lined the walls, many still in their protective wrappings. The floor was covered with boxes full of books. Melanie watched as Aven rummaged through a few of the boxes that now filled the shelter. She stopped when Melanie asked, "When did you do all this?"
Aven looked around the room and shrugged, "A few months ago. I didnt think youd mind."
Melanie stepped closer, "Of course I dont mind. Its your place. I just wondered where everything went and I still dont understand why."
"I knew they would be safe here." She finished as she zeroed in on what she was looking for and dug deeper into a box.
Melanie locked her arms across her chest, "Safe from whom?" When Aven glanced up at her, she saw the fear in those blue eyes again and decided to drop it. "You need a hand?"
Aven gratefully accepted and a few minutes later they reappeared in the livingroom carrying a box of books, laptop computer and other assorted items. In no time the floor was littered with books and papers.
Aven chose one of the oldest looking leather bound volumes and returned to the couch as Melanie hooked up the laptop. Gabrielle moved next to Aven as she thumbed through the book, "What language is that?"
"English." Aven answered. "All these have been translated from their original Greek. Here it is." She stopped and read a few paragraphs to herself.
"What does it say?" Xena asked moving closer to them.
Aven stopped, "Sorry. I was just familiarizing myself with the text. Basically it talks about the battle and how fierce it was. That most of the heros from Ancient Greece came there to defend Olympus."
"I saw Perseus, Atalanta and Jason there myself." Xena volunteered.
Aven smiled and continued, "The book says that the battle lasted for three days and many lives on both sides were lost before Dahoks evil was stopped."
Gabrielles eyes widened, "Stopped! How?"
Aven scanned the paragraphs, "It says a mysterious religious Icon was the key to stopping him. Only something holy could stop the unholy. The most prominent legend concerns the blood of Christ."
Melanie had joined them by now, watching as the old Aven slowly reemerged.
"Who is Christ?" Xena questioned.
"In our time we worship one god, although hes known by several names, there is only one. He is our source of comfort, strength and answers. Christ is his son, a holy figure of good and love." Melanie supplied.
"I met a man named David and he told me of someone like that. The God of the Israelites." Gabrielle mentioned, thinking of their adventure with Goliath.
Now Avenss eye lit up, "So youve heard of him."
"Youre God is the God of the Israelites?" Gabrielle said in disbelief, "David said he was powerful but to hold power in this time, he must be strong."
"There is no greater source of good." Aven finished.
"Where did this Icon come from?" Xena asked anxious to get the information.
Again Aven turned to the book, "It doesnt say. Just that it was wielded by an unlikely warrior and stopped Dahok. There are other things mentioned here that led up to the battle and from what youve told me they havent happened yet." Closing the book Aven looked at Melanie, "So the question is, why did he attack now? Hes not strong enough to win."
"Evil still has a strong sway, even in this time." Melanie suggested, "Maybe he somehow found out about the Icon and decided to change the outcome."
"Time travel?" Aven questioned.
"Hercules told me that it took the power of Zeus to open a portal to a parallel world. Maybe their combined powers punched a hole in time." Xena surmised, "If he did know about the Icon, maybe he traced something to this time and attacked Olympus to open a doorway. In the dream, Gabrielle said there were two evil forces, one we knew..."
"And one we did." Melanie concluded.
The mention of the two from the dream visibly affected Aven and Gabrielle. Both fell silent and seemed to shrink a little. It was a reaction that neither Xena or Melanie missed.
"Okay," Melanie switched gears, "So is it possible there is something here in our time that could lead them to this Icon thing? A map or something."
Aven recovered, her mind racing, "Or the Icon itself."
The statement caught everyones attention and the room fell silent, all eyes on Aven. Standing up, Aven walked across the room to the fireplace. She stared into the flames for a second and then turned to face them. "Think about it. If the history books are right this battle happened before the crucification."
Xena and Gabrielle bristled at the word. "Whos?" Gabrielle asked for them.
"Christs." Melanie answered, "He gave his life for our sins. The Romans crucified him."
"Romans!?" Xena repeated, not sure she had heard correctly, "Was Caesar involved?"
"You know Caesar? Julius Caesar?" Melanie piped up with a mixture of awe and surprise.
The tone of Xenas voice caused Melanie to sit back a little and wisely she dropped the subject.
"Caesar was long gone by then." Aven pressed on. "Anyway, it happened several hundred years after Olympus, so it makes sense that the Icon did come from the future." She finished and began pacing in front of the fireplace.
"But how could Dahok know of something from the future?" Gabrielle pondered aloud.
"You two." Melanie said, pointing to Aven and Gabrielle, "You found about one another from a dream. What if this Dahok has followers or even a descendant in this time and what if they were history buffs too. They found out about this Icon and managed to contact him."
"The man in the dream?" Gabrielle suggested. Then realization of what that meant struck her and she understood why both had called her mother.
Aven too paled as the connection was made. She felt her knees growing unsteady but before she could fall, Melanie was at her side offering support. "You need some rest." She urged as she guided Aven to a nearby chair.
Xena had moved beside Gabrielle, "That goes for you too."
"Theres no time." Aven whispered in shock, "I helped him research some of this stuff. When I first started with the company, my assignment was the evils and monsters of Ancient Greece."
Xena turned on them, "You helped him!? Who is this man from the dream?"
"Dahoks descendant." Gabrielle supplied, "And Hopes."
"David Hawks!" Melanie gasped, "Is a descendant of this great evil?"
"And you helped him." Xena looked accusingly at Aven.
"She didnt know." Melanie defended and moved closer to her friend.
Gabrielle stood up, face still pale, "Stop it you two. If there is anyone to blame here, its me."
The room again fell silent, all occupants soaking in the revelations and implications. "Im going for a walk." Gabrielle stated and left the cabin.
After a few seconds Xena followed her, "Im going to check around outside."
Melanie watched them go, squinting as the morning sun poured through the opening door. The night had been so filled with excitement that she had not realized how much time had passed.
Aven slid out of the chair and began rummaging around the floor until she found the book she was looking for. Opening it, she began scanning pages.
"The answer has to be in the books." Aven replied as she tossed the one she had aside and moved on to the next book. "We have to find the Icon before he does. I have to fix this."
Melanie kneeled down beside Aven. She could sense the turmoil raging in her friend and worried that Aven might be losing her grip. Carefully she chose her words, "Its not your fault, Aven. Im getting a little confused here as to whats going on but you are not responsible for this mess. From what Im hearing this started before we were even born."
Aven laughed sarcastically, "He used me. In high school he made it a point to befriend me. He knew even then and has been using me for all these years. My interest in history, especially Greek mythology, I thought he appreciated my talent, my research skills. He used me to help him unleash evil into the world. I was so naive." She went back to her books, immersing herself.
Melanie, feeling cut off again went into the kitchen for more coffee.
Xena made a quick check of the area, allowing Gabrielle time to calm down. She found the young woman a few yards from the cabin. Gabrielle was sitting on a fallen tree. She stared out across a lake screened on the far side by a wall of trees.
Taking a seat beside her, Xena remained silent, knowing that when Gabrielle was ready she would talk.
The air was crisp and fresh. Her leather coat blocked out the chill and she took a deep breath of the mountain air. The rising sun over the lake made it look like a sparkling diamond mine, and a few bird chirps and songs floated on the breeze.
"Its beautiful here." Gabrielle said softly.
Xena inhaled another deep sobering blast of air. "Yes, it is."
Gabrielle looked down at her feet, her hands toying with a twig, "Because of me this may be gone soon, if we cant stop Dahok."
"Gabrielle..." Xena began but was cut off.
"Dont even try it, Xena. My actions opened the door for him. I gave birth to his...child." Gabrielle raised her eyes to meet Xenas, "It was bad enough knowing the pain I caused in our time, but to know that the pain has continued on, through time. To know that our lines will continue to pay for my mistakes..." Gabrielle broke down crying from the depths of her soul. Xena pulled her close and held her. Her own guilt at her part in Dahoks emergence, tugging at her conscience.
They sat there a long while, clinging to one another for comfort. As Gabrielles sobs subsided, Xena shook off the guilt she felt. She locked it away in the farthest part of her mind and soul, concentrating on their current situation.
"Maybe were being given a second chance to right some of those wrongs." Xena suggested, "Now. In this time."
Gabrielle pulled away from Xena, wiping the last of the tears from her eyes.
"Think about it." Xena urged hopefully, "Aven said he was moving earlier than he should. Even though he does have a descendant in this time that knew the history and warned him, Dahok was so worried that he has possibly changed history by moving to soon."
Now she had Gabrielles full attention and pushed on, "He was stopped when he was at his most powerful. Because of that knowledge hes trying to prevent that defeat by securing the object, the Icon. Hes not strong enough to defeat the Gods now and if we can get the Icon before him, well theres no way he can try again in three years. We can change things now, with Melanie and Avens help."
"A second chance?"
Xena smiled and grasped Gabrielles shoulder, "Yes. Unless you have a better explanation for our currently being in this situation and a thousand years in the future."
Some of the light was returning to Gabrielles eyes, "You may be right."
"Second chances are rare."
Gabrielle stood up, "We have to get back to the others. Aven may have found an answer or need our help." With that, she started back up the path to the cabin, Xena close behind.
As they neared the cabin, they heard loud voices, followed by a crash. Both women broke into a run, Xena drawing her sword in mid stride. They hit the porch at full speed as there was another loud crash inside the cabin.
Xena kicked the door open and leapt into the room. Instinctively she ducked as a coffee cup smashed into the wall by her head. She raised her sword, prepared to take on the intruders but found only Aven and Melanie in a heated argument. Sheathing the sword, she stepped to the other side of the room, pulling Gabrielle out of the line of fire as well.
"Just drop it Mel." Aven advised, firmly gripping a book.
"I will not." Melanie shot back, "All I want to know is what happened, Aven. When you and David went away that weekend, something happened and you changed."
Aven chewed her lip, her eyes dropping to the floor, "Nothing happened."
"Bullshit." Melanie slammed her fist on the table, harder than she meant to.
Aven cut her eyes toward Melanie flashing a warning, "For the last time, Mel. Please drop it."
"No." Melanie replied defiantly, "I have let it drop for the last six months and watched you disintegrate. I want the old Aven back. We need her to wipe this Dahok guy out of exsistance. What did David do? Did he hurt you?"
Aven shook her head and turned to walk away when Melanie grabbed her arm and spun her around, "Just tell me. Im your friend and I want to help."
Xena recognized the look that was on Avens face and moved closer. Gabrielle took up position a few feet away, ready to follow Xenas lead.
Aven yanked her arm away from Melanie, her hand forming into a fist, "You cant help me." She stated in a flat, cold voice, "Ive been to hell and Ive seen the Devils face."
Although Aven never raised her hand, Melanie stepped back as is shed been punched. The tone of Avens voice and the look in her eyes, left her unsure of what to say or do. Before she could recover and make an attempt, she felt a firm hand on her shoulder. Turning, she saw Xena, "Lets go outside. You can show me the layout of this place."
Melanie turned back to Aven, who had already withdrawn to the far side of the room, kneeling beside the fireplace and staring into the flames.
"Come on." Xena urged and pulled her toward the door, "Gabrielle will keep an eye on her."
Melanie offered no resistance and let Xena lead her out of the cabin.
Gabrielle watched Aven for a minute and then took a seat on the couch. She picked up one of the books and began paging through it. Although she couldnt understand the language, there were some illustrations of ancient Greek mythological creature. She looked at the pictures, studied them. "These drawings dont do them justice." She stated after a moment.
Coming out of her haze, Aven looked over at her, "What?"
"These drawings of the Centaurs. They dont reflect how noble and brave they really are. The drawing seems to focus on the animal, not the whole."
Aven walked across the room and sat down beside Gabrielle. Peering at the drawing in the book she asked, "You know a Centaur?"
Gabrielle smiled, "Several. In fact my godson Xenon is a Centaur. Id always heard stories about them as a child, about how violent and war like they were. It wasnt until I met one and got to know him that I realized that the stories were just that, stories. They are intelligent, loyal and yes, fierce warriors, but only when forced to fight. If the cause is just, they will fight to the death. Even when the odds are against them."
Aven looked up at her, knowing shed been pulled into a conversation shed rather avoid. "Are the odds against us, Gabrielle?"
"They could be."
"Unless I pull myself together." Aven concluded.
Gabrielle shrugged, "Its not easy. I know. Believe me, I know. When something happens to you that... shakes you from your foundation, its a long, hard trip back. The key is to learn from what happened and move on. If you dont, youll lose yourself and everyone you care about."
Aven sat back against the couch and sighed, "Easier said than done."
Gabrielle sat quietly, deep in thought for a few moments. When shed reached her decision she too sat back against the couch and turned to face Aven, "Im going to tell you how this great evil began. When Im done, I think youll see my point about moving on." Settling into a comfortable position, she began recounting the trip to Britannia.
Xena stood back and watched as Melanie stomped back and forth. She recognized the frustration and anger that her modern twin was experiencing now. Xena herself had gone through it in her younger days and she had channeled it into battle and conquest. That was not an option her counterpart had. In a way that was a good thing but then again, not. It was disturbing and comforting to know that her descendants still struggled with the same feelings and strengths that had forged her.
"I pushed too hard." Melanie mumbled to herself. "I only wanted to help her and I pushed too hard."
"Youre concerned." Xena stated.
"Yeah, so concerned, I almost pushed her over the edge. I just feel so..."
"Frustrated?" Xena supplied.
Melanie stopped pacing, "Yes."
Xena nodded, "I know the feeling. Gabrielle and I have been through a lot together. There have been some times when I have felt so frustrated and helpless, I thought Id explode."
Melanie tentatively took a step toward Xena, like a novice seeking knowledge from a master, "What did you do?"
"Its one of the reasons my fighting skills are so good. You focus. You channel that rage and emotion into something useful."
"I cant very well go roaming the countryside with a sword, fighting off warlords." Melanie replied, discouraged and sarcastic.
Xena reached out and tapped Melanies forehead. "Not every battle has to be physical. Use your head. Its your best weapon."
Melanie let that soak in. She considered herself intelligent and she did possess an amazingly analytical mind. During mock battles, work, play and everyday life she was focused, quick on her feet, everything Xena suggested. The problem arose when her emotions got in the way.
Her quick temper was her main enemy. When she was passionate about something, her temper could be provoked with ease. That combination had cost her competitions, a job and on occasion a relationship. Today it had almost cost her best friend.
Xena could see the dawning of understanding and acceptance on Melanies face, "From what youve said, Aven has been through something terrible. You cant make that go away but you can be her friend."
"You speaking from experience?" Melanie asked with a smile.
Xena didnt answer. She only raised an eyebrow and smiled.
"Alright." Melanie surrendered, "So you want a tour, huh?"
"Id like to be familiar with the area in case Hawks finds us first."
"Lets go." Melanie said and led the way.
When Gabrielle had finished, she watched Aven. The reaction she got wasnt the one she had expected.
"Youre the one." Aven replied with a hint of awe.
Aven took Gabrielles hand and led her to the back room and down the steps to the bomb shelter. She left Gabrielle standing at the doorway and went straight to a large metal box. Kneeling down in front of the box, Aven punched in the three number combination on the boxs lock. Lifting the lid, she reached in and gently lifted out a cloth wrapped item.
Carefully, she pulled the layers of cloth away and revealed an old, time worn book. "Ive always been interested in history, especially my own heritage." Aven replied, softly running her hand over the books cover. "I had an advantage in that my family, particularly my Grandmother were also historians."
Gabrielle eased over to join her and kneeled beside her. Aven smiled and continued, "This book is a translation of the diary from one of my very first ancestors. My Grandmother traced our family back to ancient Greece and found this diary, or the original scrolls and had them translated to English." Aven looked at Gabrielle, "Its your diary."
Gabrielle stared at the book, stunned, "I write stories. I dont keep a diary."
"You will." Aven grinned.
Gabrielle cautiously accepted the book from Aven, as if she expected it to burn her. She opened it and looked at the strange language on the pages. From the first time she had dreamed of their meeting, she knew they were connected. Deep down she had suspected they were related, even before Melanie had mentioned it and she had come to accept it. Now she held concrete proof in her hands. "What happened in Britannia is in there?"
Aven shook her head, "No, but its eluded to like pieces in a puzzle. When you told me what happened all the clues came together and the puzzle was solved."
Gabrielles mind reeled. She struggled to comprehend what was being said. Her life, a life she had not yet lived, was chronicled on the parchment in her hands. The future. All the mistakes, joys, and sorrows.
Gabrielle felt a hand on hers, "Its a heritage that Im very proud of." Aven said with conviction.
"I...I have more children?"
"Yes." Aven hesitantly answered, "I cant tell you any more, It could affect the time line. I may have said too much already but know this, you lead a full, exciting life. Not without its bad times and hardships but you do well."
Gabrielle realized now that this was a second chance, that she could make a difference. Despite Dahok and Hopes evil, her descendants would continue, always fighting them. "No. Youve told me all I need to hear except one thing."
"How did he hurt you Aven. What did he do to make you want to stop living?"
Aven took the diary back from Gabrielle and clutched it to her for security, then slowly began describing the events that led up to the weekend trip she took with David Hawks.
She and David had been friends since High school. The two brainy loners had found a commonality of purpose in each other and bonded quickly. They had remained friends even after school. David had urged her to come to work for him at the family company. He flattered her, telling her that her skills at research were just the thing he needed to move the company forward. During her time there she had proven herself time and time again. Her talents helped the company reach the status it held today and David was always encouraging her and rewarding her. Raises and bonuses followed, and eventually she was named head of the Research department of the corporation.
It had seemed only natural when their friendship grew deeper that they began dating. For two months she was happier and more content than she ever thought possible. Every day they became closer, working and spending all their free time together. Then he had suggested a long weekend of skiing, a suggestion she eagerly accepted.
It had been a long drive to the isolated cabin in ski country. They had discussed many things, work, skiing, nature and history. There was never any reason to suspect that anything was amiss. When they arrived at the cabin, he had arranged for a bottle of chilled champagne be waiting to start off the weekend.
It wasnt until she got very drowsy after one glass of champagne and David began asking her questions about her family that she suspected something was wrong.
Dan Kinseys arrival sent her warning radar off, but whatever had been put in her drink kept her weak and unsteady. She had tried to get up from the couch but Hawks easily shoved her back down. When she tried again she was slapped back in place.
Her shock and confusion, convinced her that this had to be some kind of nightmare. She asked him what was going on, what kind of game was he playing.
His response was another stinging slap to her face. He sat down beside her, Kinsey standing silently across the room. Hawks assured her that if she gave him all the information he needed, everything would be fine. He would take her home and they could forget this ever happened. He tried to caress her face but she pulled away from him. For the first time in her life she was frightened of him and her lack of control.
Laughing, he had leaned in close to her and whispered, "Tell me about your dreams."
When she refused, Hawks motioned for Kinsey. Standing up, Hawks went over to the hallway where their luggage still sat. He retrieved his briefcase and set it on the dining room table. Opening it, he fumbled in the contents for a few moments before coming back to her with a syringe.
Aven struggled to get away from the approaching hyperdermic but Kinsey pinned her down against the couch, her weakened state not making it much of a challenge.
"This is a new drug weve been working on." He informed her as he tapped the syringe, "Similar to Sodium Pentothal but proven to get much better results. The only downfall is its side effect."
Trying to pull away from the two men, she only made Hawks angrier. He grabbed her arm, twisting hard enough to bruise and then jammed the needle into the vein of her arm. "It causes quite a bit of pain, so the sooner you tell me what I need to know the sooner the pain ends."
Xena and Melanie returned to a quiet cabin. They could hear a hushed voice coming from the back and Melanie stealthily got closer to the basement door to overhear. Xena was uncomfortable with eavesdropping and stayed out of earshot. She looked away and when she looked back saw Melanie easing down the steps. Deciding not to eavesdrop, she moved close enough to respond if needed.
Aven was leaning against the wall, her knees drawn to her chest. Gabrielle sat in front of her, listening, her hand on Avens for reassurance. Aven stared ahead, not seeing anything but the memories of that weekend.
"Between the drugs and the pain I lost track of time." She continued slowly, clenching and relaxing her left hand as continued. "It felt like I was there for weeks. I told him everything I knew, answered any question he asked. It still wasnt what he wanted. Finally he got tired of asking and said hed get the information himself. He... he looked into my eyes and I could feel him... climbing inside my mind. Thats when he started showing me things."
"Like the nightmares?" Gabrielle questioned.
Aven laughed softly, a laugh of despair and lost hope, "Oh no. That was a good dream compared to what I saw." She fell silent, tears welling in her eyes. Fear engulfed her, threatening to sweep her away. Then she heard the words from the dream, "You are not alone." and she saw Gabrielles face and behind her, Melanies.
Nervously licking her lips, she resumed, "David said that if he couldnt convince me maybe his father could. He stepped aside and I felt a new presence in my head." Again she stopped, unable to describe the fear that it brought. With a deep breath, she moved on, "The things I saw while he was in my head...I begged for blindness. Then death. There are some things that no one should ever see and if I told you even half of them youd be damned just like me. Instead of blindness, I now have those images burned into my brain so that every time I close my eyes, I see death, destruction, Hell. Just as I thought my sanity was gone, I saw... Dahoks face. His true face. Thats when I wanted to die. I prayed for death, would have embraced it if only I never had to look on that face again."
Gabrielle stared at her, mouth agape from shock. The pain and suffering of her counterpart almost so tangible that she could feel it as well. From behind her she heard Melanies rapid breathing and could tell that the woman was just as anguished as she was. Avens terror had become their own.
"I guess my brain had all it could take, and shut down." Aven continued, "The next thing I remember is waking up on the drive home."
Gabrielle closed her eyes. To know of Dahoks evil and experience it was one thing but this woman had seen his true face. Dahoks attack on her had been physical and she had bore his child. His attack on Aven had been a mental rape, its progeny, the womans desire to fade away and die.
"Why didnt you tell me?" Melanie asked, her voice nothing more than a croaking whisper.
"The trip back from the cabin was quiet," She replied, "He never said a word until we pulled up outside my apartment. He warned me not to tell anyone what had happened. He knew that I didnt care what he did to me anymore, but there was still one way to get to me." She finished, meeting Melanies eyes.
Disbelief colored Melanies features, "Me?"
Tears began streaming down Avens face, "My family is dead. I still have my grandmother but we hardly ever see one another. I love her but you are the one constant in my life. The only other person I have in the world and care about is you. Youre my best friend, my family. He told me theyd be watching both of us. Then... he showed me another vision of what...theyd do to you." Aven was trembling, tears no longer contained. "I had to protect you. The only way to do that was to keep you away."
Melanie felt her own tears trying to escape as Aven collapsed against Gabrielle. Locking her jaw she stood up and eased out of the room. Walking up the stairs and back into the living room she barley noticed that everything had turned red. Instinctively she grabbed the gun from the coffee table and headed straight for the front door.
"Where are you going?" A voice asked through the fog.
"Im going to kill the bastard." She growled, never missing a step.
Suddenly there was a barrier in her way. An imposing six foot tall, leather clad woman, holding a sword. Melanie clicked the safety off the gun.
"Thats a good idea," Xena agreed, "And Ill even help you. Later. Right now theres something more important to take care of."
Melanies eyes narrowed, her trigger finger itching, "What!?"
"Aven." Xena answered simply.
The red haze began to clear at the sound of that name. As her stability returned she realized who was standing in front of her. The words from their talk only an hour before echoed in her mind. "Im sorry." She said and flicked the safety back on.
Xena had relaxed the sword, "No need. Her healing begins now and she needs her best friend to help her."
Melanie closed her eyes and focused on her breathing, inhaling deeply. Squelching the anger that had consumed her, she found her center. She held her breath a moment then forcibly exhaled, pushing out the rage with her breath. Taking another cleansing breath, Melanie forced her mind to focus. The discipline from years of Karate helped her now. Gratefully, she felt her pulse slow and a sense of calm settle over her. Melanie looked at Xena and nodded her thanks and then returned the gun to the coffee table. She disappeared to the basement to take her place by her friends side.
When their research continued a couple of hours later, there was a new energy in the cabin.
Melanie watched in relief as the Aven she had known started to reemerge. Still haunted by what had happened, by admitting and telling the details of the experience, she had freed herself from a self-imposed prison.
With new purpose, she focused all her energy on finding the Icon. The best place to start was in the books. She dived in with gusto.
Engrossed in her work, she never noticed how Xena, Gabrielle and Melanie watched her, a mixture of awe and wonder reflected in their expressions. Oblivious to everything she did not notice when Melanie rummaged around the kitchen and found enough to fix a meal. When a plate of food was placed beside her, she ate until every last crumb was gone.
Xena and Gabrielle napped on the couch after the meal, leaving Melanie on guard duty. And still Aven searched. She made notes on a pad, traced and retraced her steps. When she had covered all the books, she moved to the lap top computer.
When nap time was over, Melanie went through Avens closet and found Gabrielle a pair of jeans and sweater. They were more appropriate and fit better than the baggy skirt and sweater Jacques had given her.
By late afternoon Aven had gone as far as she could and sat back in the chair, looking at the lap top screen, "I cant do anymore."
"Whats wrong?" Xena questioned.
Aven turned around and looked into their expectant faces, "From everything Ive got, Ive managed to figure out that the Icon is in the United States." She answered, rubbing her tired, bloodshot eyes.
Melanie shot to her feet, "Thats great. Where?"
"Thats the problem." Aven sighed, "I need more info to get an exact location fix."
"Whats to stop Hawks from getting the same information." Xena asked with concern, "He may already have the Icon."
"No." Aven stated with conviction, "He doesnt have it. I have one piece of the map that he doesnt and without hes never going to find the Icon. Thats why he ...that was the purpose of the ski trip."
Melanie moved closer, staying protectively close to Aven.
"A piece of the map?" Gabrielle repeated.
"The diary." Aven smiled, "It tells where the Icon was found in Greece. From there its just a matter of backtracking and finding the clues." Her smiled faded a bit, "The problem is, Ive used all the information I have to get this far. I need access to more."
Melanies eyes lit up, "Jacques!"
"Huh?" Gabrielle asked.
Aven caught on, "The main frame."
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged looks of confusion.
Jacques answered the phone on the fourth ring, much to Melanies relief, "Heelloo." He said in a melodious voice.
"Jacques." Melanie grinned, "Are you all right? Hows the shoulder?"
"Mel! Girlfriend!" He greeted his own relief evident, "Are you and your friends safe? Have you found Aven?"
"Yes to all of the above. Now tell me how you are."
"Just a flesh wound." He assured her, "The doctor said no permanent damage, just some dreadful pain."
"Im sorry Jacques." Melanie apologized, her voice softer, "I never meant to get you involved in this, or hurt."
"Oh, pish darling." Jacques was forever the optimist. "No harm done. Thats what friends are for and it was quiet an adventure. Plus there was something good that came out of it."
"What good could come out of getting shot?"
Jacques laughed, embarrassed. "Because I met the most attractive intern at the Emergency room. Were going out this weekend."
Melanie couldnt contain her laughter. Only Jacques could turn a life and death situation into the dating game. "Thats great Jay. I want to hear all about it when this is over, but right now I need another favor."
"Are there guns involved?" He asked cautiously.
"No. Computers. We need your access to the main frame."
She handed Aven the phone and after a brief friendly exchange, Aven began detailing what they needed. She was silent for a few seconds, then thanked him and hung up.
"What now?" Gabrielle questioned.
Aven shrugged, "We wait. Im supposed to call him back in two hours. I ring my computer to his, it downloads the information and hopefully, we hit the road in the morning to get the Icon.
While they waited Aven and Melanie used the time to prepare for their trip. They gathered hiking and camping equipment and any other supplies they might need in their search. Not wanting to be overburdened they packed only the essentials.
Gabrielle packed Avens books back in their boxes with care and then took them back to the bomb shelter, making certain the room was secured and locked.
Xena had moved out to the porch, sharpening her sword and keeping an eye out for Hawks men.
Melanie watched her from the window and then looked at her own sword. It was a fine weapon for mock battles but the steel was not the best. She had been lucky with the thug that attacked her at her house but the weapon would not serve her in a real battle. She glanced at Avens bow and quiver of arrows sitting in the corner. For competitions and archery displays, they were great but were lacking as a deadly weapons.
The only weapon they had that could match Hawks was her own colt. It was poor insurance against his numbers and resources.
"We need to make a stop once we head out." Aven voiced, approaching from behind.
"Weapons." Melanie said flatly.
"Hawks will come after us with everything hes got, once were out in the open."
"Im glad you left the cabin in your step-dads name or we wouldnt even be safe here."
Aven hesitated, "You know well have to loose the jeep too. He knows it."
"Yea." Melanie sighed regretfully. The jeep was a cherished possession to her. Aven had often kidded her that she treated the jeep like a child.
"Will Ram help us?"
Melanie nodded, "I think so. Ive got the Renaissance schedule on disk. It wont be hard to find him."
Xena had finished sharpening the sword and rose to her feet, then walked out into the yard. Selecting a suitable clear spot, she firmly planted her feet in the dirt and began swinging the weapon. They watched as the sword arced and Xena began doing figure eights, the sword becoming a blur in the air.
"Whoa." Was the only thing Melanie managed to utter, her eyes alight with excitement.
"Why dont you go out there? Maybe pick up a few pointers." Aven suggested.
Melanie looked at her with childlike enthusiasm. "You dont think shell mind?"
"No. Weve still got about half an hour or so before I call Jacques and all of our gear is packed, so go ahead."
No further encouragement was required. Melanie grabbed her sword and reached for the door. Stopping, she turned back to Aven, "Im glad youre back."
Aven smiled, "Im glad you never gave up."
Melanie blushed softly and opened the door, easing out onto the porch. Aven watched as Melanie tentatively approached the Warrior. Aware that she had company, Xena stopped her exercise and said something to Melanie. Melanie replied shyly. More conversation followed and Melanie drew her sword, demonstrating her skills for Xena. Assessing her descendants ability, Xena stepped forward and offered her advice and slowly went through a few moves.
Smiling, Aven turned from the window.
Xena, Gabrielle, and Melanie stood around Aven and the lap top as they waited for the download from Jacques. When finished, the system beeped and Aven disconnected the phone line from the lap top. "This may take a while." She informed them as she uploaded the information and began sifting through the data.
As the sun went down and night came calling the cabin got cooler so Xena stoked the fire. Exhaustion had finally overcome Melanie and she slept soundly in the lounge chair by the fireplace.
Gabrielle draped a blanket over Melanie and looked down at the sleeping woman. She resembled Xena, even acted like her in some instances, but Gabrielle was also reminded of herself. Of the two, Aven was the quiet, serious one, like Xena. Melanie possessed an exuberant friendly personality, like herself. It was an odd merging and exchange of personalities and it left Gabrielle wondering how her other descendants had been.
She had also come to realize something else. That what-ever power created Xena and herself and forged their lives, it was their destiny to do it together. Their descendants were fated to come together at some point in their lives, like she and Xena had. It seemed to be a friendship that would last through the ages. With everything she and Xena had been through the last few months, it was a comforting conclusion.
"What are you thinking about?" Xena asked, breaking the revelry.
"Friendship." Gabrielle answered.
"Yes!" Aven shouted a short time later.
Melanie sat up, wide awake. Xena, who had become quiet fond of coffee, almost dropped her cup. Gabrielle, who had been leaning against Xena and starting to doze, fell behind onto the pillow as the Warrior stood up. Scrambling back to a sitting position, Gabrielle jumped off the couch to her feet.
"You found it?" Melanie asked as she tossed the blanket aside and joined Aven at the computer.
"I do believe so and its closer than we thought."
Melanie looked over her shoulder at the image on the lap top, then scanned the notes Aven had made. "Utah?" She asked in disbelief.
"Thats where every clue points. Ive double checked everything."
Laying her hand on Avens shoulder, Melanie leaned over and studied the marked section of the map. "Aven, I know that area."
"I know." Aven said raising her eyebrows, "Creepy, huh?"
"Whats creepy?" Xena questioned, gazing at the map from over Avens other shoulder.
Melanie pointed to the map, "That area in Nevada is where our grandmothers lives."
"Time to pay them a visit." Aven stated aloud
"You could be putting her in danger." Xena reminded them.
"My grandmother is a linguist and historian. Avens is an archeologist. Theyve worked on quiet a few projects together and if anyone knows where the Icon is in that area, its them. Theyre both tougher than they look and love adventures."
"So thats where we get it." Aven joked and stifled a yawn.
"Yea and you need some rest before we leave."
"Im fine." She argued unconvincingly.
Xena stepped forward and kneeled beside Aven, "You have been through a lot the last few days. Everyone has managed to get some rest but you. You have done a great job on locating the Icon and youll need to be at your best when we find it. I want you to get some sleep. I could make you go to sleep but Id rather you do it on your own."
Avens eyes widened at the hint of the threat. Looking around the room she had the distinct feeling of being ambushed. She was good but no way could did she stand a chance against all three of her rested comrades. Throwing her hand up in surrender she sighed, "Fine. As soon as I map out our route, Ill get some sleep."
"I can do that." Melanie volunteered, "Im more familiar with the area anyway and Ive had some sleep. The three of you can rest and Ill pull guard duty."
"Agreed." Aven said grudgingly. Although she was exhausted she was afraid to sleep, afraid of the dreams.
As if she could read her thoughts Melanie patted her on her shoulder, "If it even looks like youre dreaming, Ill wake you."
Avens eyes glowed with gratitude.
"Ill relieve you in four hours." Xena said as she grabbed a couple of blankets from the couch.
"Where are you going?" Aven asked as Xena and Gabrielle headed for the front door.
"Outside." Xena answered non-chalantly.
"Were used to sleeping outdoors." Gabrielle explained.
"Uh huh." Aven and Melanie said in unison as the two warriors disappeared into the darkness.
Exchanging glances, Aven went to lie down on the couch and Melanie laid out the map on the dinning room table and began studying the fastest, safest route.
Kinsey strode into Hawks office confidently, wearing a proud smile on his lips. When Hawks saw his expression, he immediately sat up with interest.
"We have a location, Sir." Kinsey declared bravely.
Now Hawks was smiling, "Finally. Where?"
"An isolated cabin in the mountains near Lake Tahoe. We dont have an exact address but we do know the general location down to a ten mile radius."
"Do we have a team in the area?"
"Yes Sir." Kinsey confirmed, "A four man scout team. Ive already sent them to investigate. When we have confirmation, I can have a full squad there in half an hour."
"Excellent Mr Kinsey." Hawks commended and stood up. He walked over to his assistant and took a stand beside him, "Why has it taken this long to find them?"
"They just accessed the main frame a couple of hours ago." He explained nervously, "Then we had to trace who the user was and where he sent the download data. The address was a name that wasnt associated with Gabriel or Prince. We had to do some background checks to verify a connection."
"Are you sure its them? Im getting tired of these misses."
"Almost certain Sir. Thats why I ordered a scout mission first. The parameters I set for the computer search were very specific."
Hawks patted Kinsey on the back, "Your idea that they might use a computer to search for the information was a good one and has paid off. What kind of information did they get?"
"Old history texts, religious myths, maps, and a history of Dahok. Nothing you havent studied before."
Hawks rubbed his chin, "All right. Keep me posted. If it is them, I want them alive. For now."
"Yes sir." Kinsey replied and turned to leave.
"Oh, Dan?" Hawks called him to a stop.
"The person that was responsible for the background searches. The one that let the cabin information get by them."
Hawks smiled, "I want them terminated. Permanently."
Kinsey nodded and quickly exited the office.
Aven struggled to break free of sleep as the remnants of the dream released her. It had not been a nightmare but a vision. She had seen a helicopter loaded with men carrying guns, flying through the darkened skies. "Theyre coming." She whispered and sat up on the couch.
The cabin was quiet except for the crackle from the fireplace. Quickly looking around the room she found it deserted. A steaming cup of coffee sat on the table next to the maps and atlas.
Aven eased off the couch, uneasiness settling over her. Then that she heard a succession of sounds outside the cabin in the front yard. A buzzing, a groan, followed by a muffled thud.
Instinct kicked in. Grabbing her staff, she went out the side door. Crouched low, she searched the darkness and found nothing. Moving stealthily she headed toward the front of the house.
Melanie lay on the cold ground, her nerves and muscles still tingling from the tazer gun. She had been inside studying the map when she had heard a noise outside. Assuming it was Xena or Gabrielle, she had gone outside to see if everything was alright. As she reached the bottom step of the porch she saw two approaching figures.
Her brain told her it was not Xena or Gabrielle a second after the tazer had been fired. By then it was too late to dodge the incoming projectile.
The darts hit her in the chest and shoulder and she felt as if shed been kicked by a large, angry mule. Falling to the ground she struggled for breath and consciousness. It took a few seconds for the stun to wear off before she could realize and process what had happened.
"Theyre here." Her mind screamed. She tried to yell out a warning but could only groan softly.
The man with the tazer gun dropped to his knee beside her. Trying to move away, she was shocked to find that her body no longer responded to the commands she gave it. "Are the other three inside?" Tazer man whispered in her ear.
She had to stall for time, to give the others a chance to get away. "Alone." She wheezed with great effort.
Tazer man looked at his partner and motioned to the side of the cabin. Immediately, the camouflage man eased up the steps, his own tazer gun primed and ready.
There was a noise from the darkened woods to the side of the cabin. Tazer man looked up, wondering what kind of animal made the low guttural sound he had heard.
Aven hit him with the force of a freight train, knocking him tumbling away from Melanie.
He rolled to a stop and was trying to get to his feet when she hit him again, delivering a blinding kick to his chin. He crumpled to the dirt, still struggling to rise up but she spun in the air and landed both feet squarely in his chest, pushing the air from his lungs and cracking a few ribs in the process.
His partner leapt from the porch and ran towards them. Melanie managed to turn her head to the side and tried to yell out a warning, but could only muster a louder groan than before.
Camouflage man took aim and fired the tazer darts into Avens back. He was the one stunned, however, when they had no effect.
Aven clenched her fist and with all the power she could summon delivered a smashing blow to Tazer mans face. Rising up, she shook the blood and tissue from her fist and turned on her new attacker.
Melanie was surprised by the animalistic fury on Avens face and in her eyes. Aven cocked her head sideways, watching Camauflages movements and then leapt toward the man, baring her teeth.
He was caught off guard by the ferocity of the attack. Dropping the tazer gun, he reached for the Baretta in his belt when a foot caught him in the stomach. Doubling over, another foot connected with his chin. Giving him no time to recover, Aven put her staff into motion. Twirling it with blinding speed, she began delivering numbing hits to his body. She was so intent on her punishment of him that she never saw a third camouflage man running towards them.
Melanie smiled when she saw Xena appear from the darkness and cold cock the man into unconsciousness. As he fell, Xenas eyes fell on Melanies prone figure and fear flashed across her face. Leaving Aven to finish the job on her attacker, Xena bounded over and dropped down beside Melanie.
"Are you alright, Melanie?" Xena asked with concern as she brushed the loose hair from Melanies face and checked her for injuries.
Her body ached but the tingling sensation was fading and her limbs were sluggishly starting to respond, "Getting there." She answered weakly.
With a final blow of the staff, Aven crushed the mans skull, splatters of blood freckling her face and clothes. He dropped to the ground like a rag doll, Aven staring down at him, ready to continue if he moved again.
Gabrielle approached her cautiously, "Aven?" She called softly.
Aven jerked her head toward Gabrielle, ready to attack. For a spilt second Gabrielle saw no sign that Aven recognized her, then the darkness faded from Avens face. She looked at Gabrielle for another second and then down at the fallen man. Dropping her staff, she turned and in an instant was by Melanies side.
"Mel?" She said in a quivering voice, "I thought you were..."
"Tazer." Melanie assured her. With great effort she grasped Avens hand as further proof.
Relief flooded over Aven as she and Xena gingerly helped Melanie into a sitting position.
A wave of dizziness washed over her as the blood recirculated to her limbs but sitting up seemed to help dispel the effects of the tazer stun even more.
"We have to get out of here." Gabrielle stated as she appeared beside them. She had retrieved Avens fallen staff and now held one in each hand.
The man Xena had knocked out was groaning as he came to and Xena rushed over to him. Melanie and Aven stared as she helped the man sit up and with two fingers, punched him in the side of his neck. The man stiffened and gagged. "Ive just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. Youll be dead in thirty seconds unless you answer my questions."
As scary as Hawks was, he was no match for the fear that Xena instilled in him now. "Who sent you?" She asked.
"How many more are there?"
"Where?" She pushed impatiently.
"Be here in forty minutes." He gasped, face turning blue.
With another pinch, the man fell over, unconscious again.
"Lets get moving." Xena advised.
Xena and Gabrielle carried Melanie inside while Aven secured the weapons from the attackers. Picking up the last gun, she noticed the jeep sitting at an odd angle. Moving close, she saw the reason. Three of the tires had been slashed. Closer examination of the jeep revealed that the distributer cap was missing as well. Cursing under her breath, Aven hurried back into the cabin.
Melanie always had amazing recuperative powers and now was no exception. Slowly she was walking around the cabin, trying to shake off the effects of the tazer and guiding Gabrielle which maps and paperwork to gather up for their trip.
Xena knew the minute she saw Avens face that there was a problem.
Taking a deep breath, Aven decided to share, "The good news is we have some firepower now. The bad news is the jeep wont be taking us anywhere."
"My jeep!?" Melanie whined.
"Do you know this area well enough to lead us out of here on foot?" Xena questioned.
"If theyre that close, well never make it." Melanie reasoned.
Aven perked up, "The bikes!"
"Bikes?" Melanie repeated, "As in plural, more than one?"
"Yea, I rode the Softtail up here. When I brought my other stuff up, that included the Heritage 600."
"Cool!" Melanie smiled.
"Whats a bike?" Gabrielle questioned.
"Can all of us get out of here in them?" Xena asked next.
"Its like a mechanical horse." Aven explained, "And yes we can get out if here on them. You guys get the gear ready. Mel, are you sure you can manage?"
"Im no chopper chick like you, but I can keep it in the road." She joked. Seeing Avens scolding look Melanie turned serious, "Im fine, just a little sore."
Still Aven didnt move. "Really." Melanie assured.
Aven finally relented, "Okay. Im going to check the bikes. Blast off in ten minutes." She vanished out the back door into the night.
Xenas curiosity was peaked by the mechanical horses. "Ill start taking these out." She volunteered grabbing a couple of knapsacks.
She followed the sounds coming from a large shed a few yards from the cabin. Easing into the shed, her jaw dropped when she beheld the sleek chrome and metal horses. "Bikes?" She asked.
"Oh yea." Aven answered, eyes twinkling, "Gorgeous, arent they?"
Setting the bags down, she moved closer, reaching out to touch the bike, but pulling back as if it might burn her.
Standing up beside the Harley Softtail, Aven picked up the knapsacks, "Go ahead Xena. It wont bite."
Xena moved up beside the bike. As Aven tied the bags onto the Heritage, Xena ran her hands over the smooth, cool chrome and black metal on the bike. Fascinated, she followed the contours of the bike, moving her hands to the handlebars. "These are the reins?"
"Yes." Aven answered, joining her, "We still have real horses in this time. Melanies very fond of the real kind, but I like these beauties. They have more power and the speed of ten horses plus all the dangers of the real ones."
Xena was about to ask another question, when Aven turned her head to the side, listening. "Forty minutes my ass." Aven grumbled and headed out of the shed.
"More men?" Xena asked, jogging beside her.
"Choppers." Aven replied. Seeing the confusion that answer brought, she elaborated, "Flying machines carrying Hawks people."
Melanie had also heard the helicopters and met them at the door, stating simply, "Trouble."
Grabbing the rest of the gear, the four women left the warm cabin, the sounds of the craft getting nearer. Like a well trained machine, Aven and Melanie had the gear tied to the bikes in seconds and pushing them off the kick stand, eased the bikes out of the shed.
"No helmets." Aven gasped as they aimed the bikes toward the woods, away from the cabin.
"Hard heads." Melanie shot back and climbed astride the Heritage.
The sounds of a large number of people approaching from the front of the cabin ruled out an argument over bike safety.
Aven jumped on the Softtail and simultaneously both women brought the engines to life. Even with mufflers, the distinct Harley sound filled the air, luckily the helicopters helped mask the sound.
Xena and Gabrielle stepped back as the bikes roared to awareness, the sound a little unnerving and frightening.
"Lets go." Melanie called to Gabrielle.
"Climb on." Aven encouraged Xena.
Gabrielle approached tentatively. Horses were never her strong suit and this metal one was defiantly not inviting.
Shouting voices made her decision and grabbing Melanies shoulder, she jumped on the bike. Xena followed suit. "Hold tight." Both women instructed their passengers and then put the bikes in gear.
When Hawks men came charging around the corner of the cabin, the only thing they saw where the fading red taillights in the distant woods.
They rode the bikes up the old horse trails deeper into the forest. Several miles later, as they approached a fork in the trail, Aven motioned for a stop.
Braking the bike, Melanie rested her legs on the ground and eased up along side Aven.
"Gabrielle," Melanie gasped as the fleshy steel bands crushed her ribs, "You can ease up now, I cant breath."
"Sorry." She mumbled and relaxed her hold.
Aven looked overhead and spotted the search light of the helicopters at least a mile away but coming quickly.
"Aven?" Melanie called as she looked behind them.
All four women turned to see the flames rising in the distance. A thick, black smoke filled the darkened skies. Headlights from the four-wheel drives that Hawks people were using, wove across the clearings and paths below them.
"Bastards." Aven whispered, knowing the sanctuary was gone now.
"The diary! Your books!" Gabrielle realized as they watched the destruction.
"Did you put them down in the basement room?" Aven asked.
"Yes, and I made sure the door was locked."
Sighing, Aven smiled, "Then theyll be safe. The room is fireproof."
"Theyre getting closer." Xena warned.
"What now?" Melanie questioned.
"We split up and meet at Four Rivers. You stick to the trails." Aven instructed.
"And what are you going to do?" Melanie asked, knowing already what Aven had planned.
"Xena?" Aven called over her shoulder, "Are you up to running these guys for awhile?"
"Yes." Xena replied enthusiastically. Clearly she had taken quickly to the mechanical horse and wanted to see more of its capabilities.
Gabrielle on the other hand, found herself wishing for the safety of the metal wagon jeep.
"Two hours." Aven estimated.
"You better be there." Melanie stated with concern.
"We will." Aven winked, "Now get going."
The minute Melanie put the bike in gear Gabrielle resumed her tight grip. "Relax Gab. Well take it slow." The hold lightened and Melanie eased up the horse trail.
"Show me what this horse can do?" Xena urged with excitement.
"Hang on." Aven smiled and opened the throttle.
"There!" The watcher in the helicopter pointed as the bike broke cover. He radioed the coordinates to the land vehicles and immediately two Land Rovers raced to the clearing.
Aven gave the bike full throttle and weaved between the clearing and the woods. She had spent some of the best summers and vacations of her life in these mountains. During that time she had hiked, rode and explored just about every inch of ground within a ten mile radius. When she had brought Melanie up here, she too had loved the area and was almost as familiar with the landscape as Aven. But Aven knew the land like her own apartment, a fact Hawks men werent aware of. Xena held on tightly, the speed and fear of the strange machine only adding to her excitement.
Aven slowed the bike, giving the closest vehicle a chance to catch up with her. The driver took advantage of the opportunity and sped up, closing to within a few feet of her rear tire.
Holding the bike on course, she let him follow her several hundred yards before she suddenly veered to the right and was swallowed by the forest.
The few seconds they spent staring after the bikes taillights cost them. When the driver turned his attention back to the rover, he saw the huge fallen oak tree in his path. Slamming on the brakes did little good as he crashed into the barrier. The front of the rover crunched up like foil, killing the two in front instantly. The two in the back seat were critically injured.
"One down, one to go." Aven whispered as they watched from the woods.
The other rover neared the scene of the wreck and once again Aven and Xena were off.
The helicopter lagged behind as the Land Rover skidded to a stop. Cursing, the driver of the Rover spun out in pursuit of their prey, the helicopter flying above the wreck and radioing in a report.
Traveling at break neck speed, Aven maneuvered the bike over hills and around debris until she reached the next stopping point. She brought the bike to a halt in the middle of the path, staring down the approaching 4x4. Xena said nothing, only trusted that Aven knew what she was doing.
The helicopter was trying to catch up to the speeding rover as it advanced on the still bike. "Bitch." The driver of the rover muttered and floored his accelerator.
Aven calmly held her ground.
As the driver approached, he did not question why the bike did not escape. When the man in the passenger seat tried to urge him to approach with caution he shouted, "Shut up!" Hit the steering wheel, hoping for maximum ramming speed. It wasnt until he was close enough to see Avens eyes and her smile that his reason suggested a trap.
Aven gunned the bike forward, Xena jerking backward, holding on for dear life. The land rover passed within inches of them before sailing off the embankment.
It seemed to float in the air for a few seconds before dropping and smashing into the dry river bed below, exploding into a bright fireball. The fireball rose up into the darkened sky, almost taking the helicopter with it before the pilot pulled away..
"Thats for my cabin, Shit head." Aven saluted as a wall of heat blew past them.
Once again the bike was moving and it quickly vanished into the surrounding woods, leaving the helicopter helplessly hovering over the burning river bed.
Adjoing Hawks office was a private gym furnished with state-of-the-art equipment. He was in the middle of a strenuous workout when he was brought the news of the cabin raid. Kinsey had wisely let the messenger deliver the news himself.
The foolish man had proudly finished his report by saying that the cabin had been destroyed, even though the four women had temporarily eluded their troops.
Hawks focused all of his anger into a single look at the messenger.
Kinsey entered the gym a few minutes later and found the messengers twitching body on the floor. The force of his exploding heart had forced massive amounts of blood from his eyes, ears, nose and mouth and it was now soaking into the beige carpeting.
Hawks had returned to his workout, turning his attention to the punching bag. "Tell me, Dan." He asked as he fell into a rhythmic punching. "Why with all the people and resources at my disposal, are four women still roaming the country side and preventing the coming of my Fathers Kingdom?" His voice had risen with each word and with the emphasis on Kingdom, he punched the bag hard enough to send it flying across the room.
The bag rolled to a stop at Kinseys feet. He had begun to wonder himself if Dahok was as powerful as David claimed. Why, if they had seen the women coming, could they not have provided a more accurate location of their arrival when they first came through the portal? Why had the Gabriel woman been able to keep the icons location a secret from them? If anything, the four women seemed to be the ones with the real power.
Hawks snapped his head in Kinseys direction, "Dan? Are you having doubts?"
Kinsey buried his questions deeply, "Of course not, Sir. I was just wondering what their next move will be. Our time table is very strict."
Hawks took a menacing step toward him, "Im well aware of the time table, Dan."
Kinsey stepped back, aware of overstepping his bounds, "Im sorry, Sir. I would never question you."
Smiling, Hawks dropped to the floor by the messengers body and began doing single armed pushups. "Not to worry, Dan. I know exactly what their next move is and where theyre going."
"Ill make sure we have a top-notch team ready to go." Kinsey replied and backed toward the door.
Hawks finished his push ups and moved over to the weights, "Not necessary. Ive already made the arrangements."
"Theres been a change in plans, Dan." he informed as he began lifting dumbbells, "Ive been shown a new way."
Kinseys face dropped. He had always been in on every plan and executed most per Hawks instructions. Now he was out of the loop and that meant that his life expectancy had just dropped drastically.
"You have one more chance, Dan." Hawks said, reading his thoughts.
"Ill do anything sir. My life is yours to command."
"Accompany the next assault team and ensure the safety of my bride."
Kinseys eyes widened, shock apparent, "B-Bride?"
"Yes." Hawks responded and inhaled deeply, "Its time that Dahoks lines were merged and produced an heir."
Four Rivers was not really a town but more of a stop in the road at the foot of the mountain. There was a gas station, an all night dinner, an old market and post office. The main visitors were truck drivers, and vacationers on their way to ski country.
When Xena and Aven rode into Four Rivers, Melanie and Gabrielle were waiting impatiently outside the dinner. Melanie suggested a quick cup of coffee before they headed for Navato California, the site of the Faire.
Once inside they took a booth in the back, away from direct line of sight from the outside and ordered their coffee. When the waitress left them, Xena began relating the details of the adventure they had. Aven remained silent, focusing her attention out the far window, oblivious to the conversation.
Worried about staying still too long, Melanie suggested she and Aven gas up the bikes while Xena and Gabrielle finished their coffee.
Riding the bikes across the road to the gas station, they parked and began pumping the fuel into the tanks.
"You alright?" Melanie asked after several minutes of silence.
"Fine." Aven answered, never taking her eyes off the gas pump.
Shock, Melanie told herself. Shes in shock. Aven had been the type of person who would wreck her car rather than hit a squirrel or dog in the road. She was soft hearted and gentle and it was one of the qualities Melanie admired the most about her friend. Now she was calmly carrying on after taking at least six lives. The two at the cabin had been the result of instinct and rage as well as self preservation. But the occupants of the rovers had been premeditated. Aven knew the woods well enough to flee without leaving bodies scattered about. Melanie remembered how she had felt when she killed the man at her house. Xena had called it Warriors instinct, a response to a life threatening situation. Aven had committed murder with her eyes wide open.
"I was just wondering," Melanie began anew, "If... it bothered you. Taking another life. I mean we see it on T.V. and in the movies but to actually be the one to have the blood on your hands."
Aven topped off the tank and replaced the gas hose. "No." She answered cooly. She put the gas cap back in place and turned it tightly, "I suppose it would if I let it, I just dont let it. They started this, not me."
Melanie frowned, unsettled by Avens lack of emotion.
Xena and Gabrielle came out of the dinner and started across the road.
Aven saw them approaching, "We better get moving. Weve got a long ride ahead." Turning she moved toward the station and disappeared inside, paying for the fuel.
Gabrielle picked up Melanies mood immediately, "Whats wrong?"
"Ill tell you later." Melanie whispered as Aven came back out.
The bikes roared down the darkened highway, side by side, and Melanie couldnt help but be troubled by the darkness that was hanging over her friend.
Stopping only for fuel, they made good time, reaching Navato but arriving too late in the evening for the Faire. They found a camp ground on the outskirts of town and decided to start fresh in the morning.
Melanie introduced Xena and Gabrielle to hot showers and Xena introduced Melanie to hunting for dinner. Aven went through the motions of getting cleaned up and helping set up camp but she still remained quiet and a bit distant.
After dinner, Aven excused herself from the camp fire and went for a walk and to check the perimeter.
When they were alone Melanie had related her concerns to Xena and Gabrielle. "See what I mean." She pressed after Aven disappeared.
"Shes been through a lot." Gabrielle offered weakly, "Shes probably just trying to come to grips with it."
"Yea," Melanie conceded, "I hope thats all it is. It feels like shes slipping away again and I dont know why."
"Give her time." Xena interjected. She maintained the optimistic look on her face but inside she recognized what was happening to Aven. After the Rover chase she had seen a strange fire in the girls eyes. Xena had recognized that look. She decided to keep a closer watch on the young woman.