AN: Hey guys! Sorry for going so long between updates. Between some hurricane damage, personal stuff, and things going on at work, it's been a super busy month. However, I am going to do my best to try and get back onto a normal updating schedule. Please bear with me while I get back into the swing of things, and get the fic rolling again. I hope you guys enjoy this chapter, and I will hopefully have the next one for you soon!
Disclaimer: I do not own Xena.
Ash and blood and stones, nothing remaining of the once proud centaur village.
They were quiet as they stood at the edge of the village, right at the edge of the destruction, just staring at what laid before them. What could only be the charred remains of centaurs and humans alike littered the ground, partly melted weapons still clasped in their grips, what remained of some of their faces twisted into pained grimaces. Whatever they had been rushing to fight, they had clearly never even gotten close, but still they had tried. Had tried to protect their homes, their people, the families they had tried so hard to create and raise in this hard, unfair world of theirs.
Eventually Xena knelt to the ground and drew her fingers through the soil, bringing a small clump to her tongue. Spitting to the side, her face- already dark, pain and rage only just hidden under a mask of control- twisting for a moment as she stared back into the destruction waiting for them to enter.
"Someone salted the ground," she said, taking that step she needed. "They wanted to make it clear that this wasn't just an attack, but a decimation." Stepping onto the ash, Xena gently pulled Argo forward, Gabrielle following after. Because as much as she wanted to just stand there, stand there and stare and try and understand the numbness within her, she couldn't. She was blank, and so she followed Xena into the village, looking. For what, she wasn't sure, but still she looked.
Looked and saw those that had been killed- lovers held together by ash and melted flesh from them trying to protect each other from the flames; children cowering behind cover but still caught in the death they had tried to hide from; entire families just clinging to each other as they faced the end. Gabrielle followed after Xena, only just avoiding gagging on the smell of rotten cooked meat and old singed fur, her feet stumbling over clumps of wood and debris. Once she did trip, her hand landing on a pile of ash that bit into her skin, something hard and sharp almost drawing blood had she not snatched her hand away quick enough. Curiosity overcoming her, ignoring Xena's offered hand to help her up, Gabrielle carefully dug through the ash, pulling out the thing she had almost impaled her hand on.
It was a toy. A child's toy, a carved wolf, recognizable even through the ash and singed wood that covered it.
"Lucas," Gabrielle whispered to herself, her hand trembling as she wiped the ash from him. Holding him close to her chest, she looked up at Xena with wide eyes, the sight almost blurred by the tears that welled up. Taking Xena's hand, letting her pull her to her feet, Gabrielle just stared, unable to think of anything else to do. When Xena looked at Lucas, Gabrielle couldn't help the choked sob that left her, her shoulders shaking as she spoke. "He's Xenan's."
Xena's face darkened even more as she reached out, gently taking the toy from her. Walking around Argo, she slid it into one of their bags and continued on, not saying a word.
They walked through the entire village, Xena stoic, Gabrielle silent but still crying, because this was her fault. If she had killed Hope, if she had done something to stop her, anything at all- these people would be alive. Their blood was as much on her hands as much as it was on Hope's.
She had failed them.
Finally, after walking down what would have been every road of the village, past every single house that had existed within the now ashen walls, Xena finally led them out, shaking her head as they walked away from the destruction. Mounting Argo, she held her hand out towards Gabrielle and pulled her up after her, turning Argo towards their next destination.
"They weren't here," Xena said as she started Argo on a slow trot, just keeping her reigned in so she could speak. "Most of the village wasn't here, Gabrielle. The bodies- there were only a fraction of the number there should have been. The rest must have fled."
"So you think Solan, Xenan..." Gabrielle didn't finish her sentence, unable to give life to the words that wanted to fall from her lips. Unable to hope that it could be true.
"We're going to the Amazons," Xena said firmly. "Kaleipus has a truce with them, and would want to warn them of the coming danger. He would have told everyone to evacuate there, at least, even if he didn't go himself. I..." Her voice trailed off as she took a deep, steadying breath. "I didn't see Solan."
Gabrielle didn't respond, only nodded her head- a sight Xena couldn't see. She didn't want to give false hope, didn't want to allow the little spark that had become lit at Xena's words to actually grow, lest it just be that much more painful when it disappeared. So she nodded, and when she didn't respond, Xena kicked Argo into a canter, heading straight towards the Amazons.
For days they road, following the path of destruction. Everywhere a town, city, or village should have been was nothing, nothing but rubble and death, a pure level of destruction they had never seen before. Even the gods seemed more innocent than the monster they had released, their own death toll, while large, a seemingly small, insignificant number when spread out over the millennium they had lived. While at each village they paused, taking in the devastation that had proceeded them, only twice did they actually stop on their race towards the Amazons, hoping against Hope they could make it.
The first was for a family, the mother badly wounded as her children stood guard over her, trying to protect her against those that would harm her. They paused, Xena looking at her wounds, at the deep seated infection that had had no cure, and gave her some herbs that would help. Not with the wound, no- it was too deep, too far gone, too much for any healer in the known world. No, the herbs helped her sleep, helped to make her passing into the underworld that much easier.
They left to the sounds of her children wailing, the eldest- a young woman, barely old enough to be called so- trying, through her tears, to tell them it would be alright. That they would go to Athens, with their uncle, and they were going to be ok.
The second time they were forced to- Zeus himself spat on them, the rain too heavy to continue through, not without risking breaking Argo's legs. If they had been fresh, well rested, then maybe, but after already a week of traveling, going without real rest, once again pushing themselves to the brink of exhaustion to get to the Amazons and pushing a little bit more? Xena finally had to concede defeat. But it wasn't without merit, they found.
For the little building they had believed to be a tavern ended up being a brothel, Meg getting halfway through her welcome before realizing just who it was who had stumbled through her door.
They were catching up. Meg had quickly ushered them into a clean, unoccupied back room the moment she had realized who they were, ordering one of her girls to bring them food and wine and for someone to go out to the stables to tend to Argo. Almost unintelligible, her words slurring together at the sheer relief she had at seeing Xena, Meg had only just shown them to the room before she had run out, her bare feet slapping almost painfully against the stone.
They barely had time to share looks between themselves before she returned, dragging a familiar, white garbed women behind her.
"Xena, Gabs," Meg said, pushing the woman before her, "meet Leah."
It was a relief to see the priestess- she hadn't been paying attention to their surroundings, their mad, focused rush towards the Amazons her prime concern. But upon seeing Meg, knowing what was behind them and what was possible to come, her stomach had sunk- the idea that the city and the temple of Hestia were gone, destroyed, their friends with it? It was a relief to see Leah, even if the meeting delayed them, took them away from their main goal.
They didn't stay for long- the moment the rain began to let up, making the previously impossible conditions now just dangerous they left, determined to reach the village. More so, because they were catching up. Catching up to Hope, with perhaps the ability to stop her.
"Why yes," Leah said, once the shock and excitement and judgement of seeing another look alike (and this one a previously murderous ex-warlord) had passed, "it was only two days ago that that thing passed by. It..." Her voice trailed off, her eyes almost going glassing, only Meg's reassuring hand on her shoulder enough to keep her together. "It was horrible. Like nothing that Mother Gaia ever intended to exist upon this earth. It killed as it walked, its own hands weapons unimaginable. I... it cut off my high priest's head, before he could even get out a single word for mercy. Hestia protect him." She slid into tears at that, turning into Meg's offered hug.
Not that Gabrielle could feel the same way, though she kept her face schooled. That was one less worry, at least, knowing that the priest of Deilian would be unable to threaten her friend in the future.
"Leah here and her girls managed to make it out of town and come on down my way," Meg offered as she rubbed Leah's back, finishing filling in the tale for the others. "They're stayin' with me, until we can get a few horses and carts to take 'em to the other main temple for Hesita. Though for now we're all stayin' put. That thing might be gone, but from what others have told me, it's not alone. No one's been able to come forward with a right proper description, but supposedly it has someone who can control fire by its side. The monster kills as it likes, and its companion burns everything after. Not sure if it's true or not- the monster itself might have some fire powers. But if it is?"
Meg gave a little shrug as the door opened, one of Meg's girls almost tottering under the weight of the food and drink she had prepared. Placing it between the women, openly staring at Xena, Meg, and Leah, it took her a moment before she realized she was being dismissed to leave, casting curious glances over her shoulder as she did.
They ate- the first hot, fresh meal she and Xena had had in quite a while, the food quickly disappearing into stomachs more used to hard bread and dried meat eaten while on the back of a moving horse. It was almost relaxing, the food, the company, the sound of the sheets of rain battering against the stone walls of the brothel. Gabrielle almost could have fallen asleep.
Had it not been for the dead she saw whenever she closed her eyes, their deaths just new additions to her list, for even if she hadn't been the one to kill them, they were still hers to claim the blame for. Had it not been for the pulsing in her back, the still open, still refusing to heal wound throbbing from the travel, though at least the pain had finally faded into something manageable, her body too tired to accept it correctly. Had it not been for the just barely contained panic that was pushing her towards her friends, her family, towards the Amazons she loved almost as much as her parents and Lila, her never ending desire to protect them strong. Had it not been for that, she might have fallen asleep.
But she didn't, and an hour later they were setting out again, their provisions restocked, Meg insisting on them taking some food to eat as they raced towards the monster, towards what she could only assume would be their doom. Because how could they survive against such a creature? A creature like Hope?
Gabrielle wasn't sure, but still they pushed, running towards the evil that walked before them.
Only, at some point, for them to lose the trail.
The destruction stopped. After Leah's city, it was like Hope didn't exist. The villages still stood, the people who had yet to flee from the rumors of the coming monster were alive if wary, and it almost seemed calm. It almost seemed peaceful. It almost seemed ok.
They still pushed, pushed and pushed, stopping only when absolutely necessary to keep from collapsing. Pushed because they were only a few days away from the Amazons, having covered most of the country in that mad rush that had begun on the ship and carried them here, here to protect one of the chosen groups in their strange family. Pushed because of fear and anger and that need to stop Hope before she could destroy everything they held dear.
They practically fell off of Argo in that clearing in the woods, their arms help up in the Amazon's symbol of friendship. They didn't wait long- a guard descended to guide them, apologizing for being the only one to greet the Queen as she did so. They knew what was coming, and none of the others wanted to leave their posts, lest they leave the village and its guests unprotected. She led them through the trails, the secret passages, the best ways known only to the Amazons that kept the inner depths of their home safe.
Led them to a village full of survivors, Amazons and centaurs and normal people alike preparing for the creature that was coming, arming any who were strong enough to fight and moving those who weren't to the caves. A village being led by Ephiny, a bandaged but very much alive Xenan following close at her heels as she barked orders, orders that everyone followed, species and sex aside.
A village that paused when they noticed Xena and Gabrielle, the Amazons stopping to greet their queen, the others staring at Xena with what could only be described as desperate hope, hope that this former warlord turned hero could save them.
A village that moved aside as a young boy cried out for Xena and ran to her, Xena sliding gracelessly off of Argo to hold Solan as he threw himself into her arms.
"I had taken Xenan out for a walk around the village," Ephiny later explained, when she had managed to draw them out of the public eye, into her hut. "Solan offered to come with us and make sure we didn't get lost, since we weren't familiar with the area. By the time we heard the screams..." Ephiny shook her head before glancing over to where Solan and Xenan were both sitting, their sides almost touching as Xenan showed Solan Lucas. He had almost cried when Xena had pulled it from their bags- he had thought him lost, since Ephiny had insisted Lucas remain in the hut while they went on their walk. Now he held him close, not even letting Solan touch him as he showed him the toy.
"It was over by the time we made it back," Ephiny finally continued, still staring at the boys. "Many had escaped, but so many hadn't it... I offered the survivors sanctuary here, since they can join the centaur village in the valley once the danger has passed. Kaleipus showed up a few hours later- he had been leading a hunting party. That's where he is now," she added, almost as an afterthought. "Hunting. Our own people haven't been able to support such a large influx, and while everyone around has joined forces against the thing that's coming, we're running low on supplies. Everyone who can is either on patrol or trying to keep everyone alive long enough to fight that thing."
"You'll have us by your side," Gabrielle quickly confirmed into the silence that fell, her heart almost breaking from the overwhelming look of relief that passed over Ephiny's features. "We've fought Hope before, and I believe we can defeat her now."
"Hope," Ephiny said slowly, giving both Xena and Gabrielle long, hard looks. When neither said anything, she instead turned towards the boys, her voice pleasant as she called to them. "Solan," Ephiny asked, "would you mind taking Xenan to the healer to have his wounds checked?" When Solan agreed, the older boy helping the younger to his hooves and leading him away, the two of them still chattering about how amazing Lucas was, Ephiny just nodded in thanks, all three of them waiting for the door to close behind the boys. The moment it did she returned her gaze to them, an expecting look on her face as she waited for them to comply.
"We met the demon on Britannia," Xena explained, speaking before Gabrielle could find the words that would begin the long, convoluted explanation Ephiny would need to understand. "She's the daughter of an evil god, and introduced herself as Hope to us. She attacked Gabrielle, and we've been following her since."
Xena left it at that, and when Ephiny glanced away, drawn by a noise outside, Xena shot Gabrielle a look- for now, leave it. A look Gabrielle nodded in response to, because even if she did want to do otherwise, even if she did want to explain to Ephiny everything, where were the words? She could barely find them with Xena after over two years with her. Trying now, when their minds had to be focused on so many other things, would be worthless.
"I found some books while we were over there," Gabrielle continued, picking up Xena's lie. Better to play along than cause a rift, at least for now. "I think she can be killed- she seems to fear Xena, at least, which is why we think she came here. To try and hurt us before we could hurt her. If we can find her, get her to fight us, we might be able to defeat her."
"What do you need us to do?" Ephiny's voice was hard, her face determined as she stood from her chair, reaching for a scroll that laid on the table a few feet away. Handing it to Xena, she continued to stand as Xena unrolled it, Gabrielle leaning over to look at the map of the village with her. "We have the entire village surrounded, Amazons in the trees and men and centaurs on the ground. The hunting parties are also serving as patrols, looking for anything that might stand out. Everyone old enough to handle a blade's been armed, and those unable have already been moved. We're the closest thing to an actual army you're going to get this far away from one of the larger kings. What do you need us to do?"
"Can I hang onto this," Xena asked, rolling up and placing the map in her lap when Ephiny nodded. "For now, continue on like this. The surrounding villages have been spared, have been for at least two days travel from the south. Keep a keen eye out for anything suspicious- does everyone have a horn? Good," Xena continued when Ephiny nodded again, leaning back in her own chair to think. Glancing towards the sky- the sun already low- Xena sighed and shook her head. "Gabrielle and I need to sleep, but tomorrow we'll go out and join the patrols. Anyone finds anything even remotely interesting, I want them to sound the alarm, even if it's a false one. One of us," she nodded towards Gabrielle as she spoke, "will check it out, see if it's related to Hope. In the meantime, someone told us that she might have a companion? Do you know anything about them?"
For a moment Ephiny thought before shaking her head, her curls bouncing around her ears. "I haven't," she admitted, "but I'll have some people ask around, see what we can find. I'll have them report directly to you if they find anything. For now..." Ephiny nodded her head towards a bed in the corner, big enough to fit two comfortably, three if they squeezed. "Get some rest. I'm staying with Kaleipus and the boys anyway in the centaur huts, so you two can use mine."
"Thank you, Ephiny," Gabrielle said, standing to take her friends' hand, the shake quickly turning into a hug. "We'll take care of this, promise."
"I have every faith in you two," Ephiny replied, giving Xena a respectful nod. "You'll get us through this, one way or another."
With that she left, leaving them to the room and sleep, sleep they quickly accepted, both more tired than they had realized. Even with the looming threat, even with the danger, still, they were asleep before they fully hit the bed, exhaustion drawing them deep into Morpheus' realm.