The sun was piercing the canopy of leaves in a myriad of golden shafts, sparkling as the gentle breeze massaged the trees. The air was filled with the rustling of lush foliage and the sounds of bird song.
They had been walking for two days now and the pain of their wounds had subsided to a dull, but constant ache.
"Don't destroy the village," Xena chided, smiling. "I told you not to destroy the village."
Hope grinned, looking thoughtful. "Well, technically, I didn't destroy the village."
"What?" Xena laughed. "Twelve homes, one warehouse and a tannery, not to mention the damage to the theater."
"All true," Hope nodded. "But I didn't do it."
Xena looked sidelong at her sister.
"Okay," Hope admitted with a shrug. "The theater and some of the little stuff in the streets, I'll take credit for."
"How gracious," Xena snickered.
"The other stuff was a direct result of that brute and Atrophis." Hope finished in a matter-of-fact tone. "Now, how was I supposed to keep them from damaging the town?"
She turned and jabbed a finger at Xena. "And let's not forget, the first house that collapsed was your fault."
"My fault?" Xena's eyebrows rose.
"You set the trap up," Hope nodded. "And when that guy went in, it brought the whole house down on him. Now you can't blame me for that."
Xena shrugged slightly, glancing at the surroundings. "I can try."
"Failed!" Hope countered, laughing.
They fell silent for a while. For a long time, the only noise was their foot falls on the path.
"What's it feel like?" Xena asked suddenly.
Hope looked up at her questioningly.
"Having my father's power." Xena finished, looking at her. "How does it feel?"
Hope frowned and her expression became introspective.
"It's frightening at times," she admitted. "There's so much of it. He was incredibly powerful, for a mortal." Hope smiled slightly. "Sometimes, it's like he's an extension of me, almost like my conscience, you know? Everything he felt, everything he knew, his beliefs, all of it."
She looked over and saw the subtly hurt expression on Xena's face.
Hope reached up and put a hand on Xena's shoulder. The Warrior Princess smiled softly and tried to mask her internal pain. She had been close to her father, and his loss, even though it had been years past, still hurt her deeply.
"It's like having him with you?" Xena surmised.
"Not like he's walking beside me, no," Hope shook her head. "More like remembering a life with him, like I grew up in your home with you."
"But you didn't," Xena replied. "Grow up in our house with us."
"I know," Hope said. "It's like having the feelings, but not having the memories. I can't think of any better way to describe it."
They entered the small hamlet, here and there several people went about their personal business. Several children played in the center of the path, splashing in a mud puddle and laughing musically.
The two women gave the children a wide berth even as one of them jumped, stomping two feet in the center of the depression and sending a small geyser of dirty water in all directions.
The small shop, with its sturdy little cabin and covered work area rested at the end of a side path. Smoke rose lazily from the hole in the center of the open air work place.
Entropis walked out of the cabin, wiping his hands on an old rag. His narrow face broadened into a smile.
"Well there," he greeted them warmly. "The conquering hero's return."
Hope embraced the older man and laughed.
"How are you?" He asked them.
"I need to talk to you," Hope said, drawing her weapons and setting them on the bench.
Entropis looked the weapons over carefully and found the minor damage to the blades.
"Not too bad," he said critically. "I can probably smooth those out for you."
Hope looked at him closely. "You knew," she nodded. "You knew that Atrophis had taken my place and you knew we would end up facing him. So you gave me these to make sure I had a chance."
He smiled. "I suspected."
"How did you know?" Xena asked.
Entropis shrugged. "The children of Dahok are no where near as numerous as they used to be," he replied easily. "And of those who do remain, there are precious few with the ability to complete the task he set before you." He nodded to Hope and smiled. "Atrophis was one of his stronger children, so it seemed only logical that he would be chosen by Dahok to continue your work."
"How did you know what he could do?" Hope asked, indicating the weapon s and her armor. "How did you understand his powers so completely?"
Entropis smiled and a soft chuckle emanated from him. "It is in his name, my dear."
He looked at the two confused expressions and nodded.
"Atrophis and I have very similar powers," Entropis explained. "We can destroy the things that come into contact with us by simply speeding up the natural processes of decay." He set one of the weapons in a small clamp, edge up and again inspected the blade.
"His talent had to do with speeding the decay of things if they were neglected," He explained. "Whereas my talent is slightly different. Mine deals with the decay of things over time, no matter what you do to stave it off."
He focused on the weapon and pinched the edge between his thumb and forefinger, tracing them along the edge from the hilt to the tip slowly.
As the girls watched, the weapon simply smoothed over and repaired itself beneath his fingers. He finished and lifted the weapon to Hope for inspection. The edge gleamed in the sunlight.
Then he did the same with the other one.
"You see," he went on. "In many ways, it is within our names that our destinies are actually written and that our powers are bestowed. Just as Atrophis and I were given power in accordance to our names, so were you and your sister. Your names were the most important aspects of your coming into being."
He smiled and stepped around the bench.
"In that respect, your mother saved you both."
Xena and Hope looked at each other in surprise.
Entropis smiled and gestured to a small table and bench near the edge of the covered work area. He set out a flagon of wine, three sturdy wooden cups, and a small wooden tray of bread and cheese.
"You see," he went on. "To name a thing is to grant power to a thing, you understand?"
They both nodded.
"And your names are both very, very powerful," Entropis continued.
Xena and Hope exchanged a look, confused.
"I can understand Hope," Xena admitted. "But mine?"
"Yours especially, Xena," Entropis smiled as he filled their mugs. He sat down and looked at the two of them appraisingly.
"Your sister's is just a little more obvious."
He looked at Hope as his fingers curled around the cup. "In your name was the last hope for Dahok to command the world. He put everything he had into you, but he was not able to name you."
"Why not?" Xena and Hope asked at the same time.
"Ah, that was your fault," Entropis looked at Xena and smiled. "Well, the old you anyway."
"I don't understand?" Xena replied.
"That makes two of us." Hope agreed.
Entropis smiled knowingly. "Come, come, Xena. I know that you have been reincarnated into this life. The idea of someone returning in a life so closely resembling the one departed is rare, but not unheard of."
"How do you know so much about me and my past?" Xena's eyes narrowed.
"It was made known to me," Entropis replied easily. "The moment I saw you."
"The passage of time is at the very heart of what I am, Xena, so I recognize it in all aspects. Mankind is an open book to me. I can tell who was who, where, and when, etcetera." He shrugged.
He took a quick drink. "When Gabrielle became pregnant with Hope, you were there to protect her. The Guardian of the temple was unable to take Gabrielle to Dahok's realm, and even his other minions were unable to tempt her away from you."
"The banshees," Xena nodded, remembering the encounter with those unearthly beings.
"Among others," Entropis nodded. "You protected her and the child until Hope was born," He looked at Hope. "And when your mother named you, it changed everything. You became a creature independent of his will, for the most part, and the only way he could control you was to constantly keep himself in mind," he pointed at Hope's forehead. "He had to subsume your conscience completely so you would do his bidding. Even when you slept, he would continue to whisper in your ear, clouding your mind and darkening your heart."
Entropis looked at Xena. "Your father recognized this, which was surprising in and of itself. Wherever he was from, he had a deeper understanding of things than most."
"You mean you don't know where he was from?" Xena smiled.
"I never had the pleasure of meeting him. What little I do know comes from your sister, and the energy he gave to her." Entropis replied.
"Your father recognized that in order for Dahok's energy to be purged from Hope, it needed to be replaced, not simply expunged, you understand?"
Both women nodded.
"Your father," Entropis looked at Hope. "Knew you needed to be freed from Dahok's grasp in order to grow. You needed to reclaim your name in order to be free so he gave you that freedom by exchanging the energy of Dahok with his own, though it cost him his life."
He looked back at Xena. "You could have accomplished the same thing, had you been prepared to, for your power, like his, is dark in nature," he looked back at Hope. "And that is why David's power so easily joined with you. It was dark, like the power that held you."
"So he made me what I am now, in order to let me be my own person," Hope nodded.
"He gave you your name back," Entropis smiled. "In more ways than one."
He turned and fixed his eyes on Xena. "Now, you, my dear. You're name is powerful as well, but in a different way."
"It is a variation of a word, like mine and like Atrophis, and as such it protects you from external influence." He smiled. "When something has reached its zenith, the word from which your name derives, it is at its most powerful. For most, a person reaches their zenith at some point in life and then begins to decline, but not you."
He smiled appreciatively. "Your parents were also wise when they first named you, hiding the true word within your name. By that act, they granted you great strength and power in perpetuity. The fact that your parents in this life carried on your name for you only added to your power. You are stronger in this existence than you were in the previous, because you retain your knowledge and experience even as you grow and learn all over again."
He smiled and sipped his wine, his eyes moving back and forth between them, as if studying them.
"This should be most interesting to watch your journey through this life," Entropis mused.
Xena and Hope looked at each other and then back at Entropis who sat there, smiling at them knowingly. The laughter began slowly, as gentle smiles broke like soft waves on the sands. It rose and built in a wave of cleansing joy and Hope felt the last of her guilt falling away. She leaned over, her head coming to rest on Xena's shoulder.
Xena's arm rose and settled around Hopes shoulders. In that simple contact, Hope felt the last of the gulf between them bridged.
The laughter and conversation drifted through the village, mingling with the voices of the children, men and women and further into the trees until lost in the greater sounds of the forest.