Black Lily

Mystery and The Mask (Part 10)

Chapter 27

 

Eudore saw the mob first. “There!” she meant to yell, but it came out more like a shriek. Tereus looked at her with concern, but she waved her hand at him in annoyance.

The crowd was approaching, many had real weapons, spears and swords from old campaigns. Several had staves, only a very few had rough tools or scavenged sticks.

Great, thought Xena, angry and well-armed. Let’s just hope that they’re also dispirited and tired, or our goose is cooked and it will be war. That’s what I’m trying to avoid here…isn’t it? She shook her head to clear her mind of doubt and focused on the task at hand. She waved to Gabrielle and leaned towards her.

“All we need to do is time this right. When Pontes signals the charge, we push the “Gorgon” in front of them – right before they charge, okay?” She howled over the noise of the storm. The bard nodded and passed the message on.

Leah and Aglaia were within shouting distance, but not part of the puppet team. After the Gorgon was dead, Leah was going to speak about the brave priestess who saved Eudore, whereupon the girl would be produced. The crowd, stunned at their triumph would be herded home. If all goes well. If it all goes well,thought Leah. She held tightly onto Aglaia, each clutching at a faint hope of a solution with no violence and no destruction. They resolutely avoided acknowledging all the inherent weaknesses in the plan, out loud, or to themselves.

The crowd could be heard before they came into full view. As Xena had predicted, their anger had increased, all their discomfort being projected onto the monster that they hunted. There was chanting – always a bad sign, thought the warrior.

The crowd was pulled up short at the edge of the old temple. They stood, milling about, while Pontes, assisted by Petros and the other guards helped form them into “ranks.” Gabrielle almost couldn’t keep from giggling as she saw each soldier contradict the last one’s orders, causing the crowd to move chaotically in the gloom. Finally, the crowd grew restive and Pontes held his hand up for the order to charge the Temple. His arm fell slowly and was arrested in mid air as the rain, suddenly and shockingly, stopped.

The silence was horrible, pressing on their eardrums, until a lightning bolt, harsh and electric, rent the dim sky, blinding them all for a moment. They heard several mutters of “Zeus!” from the mob, but Pontes recovered and began again. His arm dropped and they heard “Charge!” ring through the wet air.

The mob moved like a centipede, strung out over a distance, but they moved fast. Xena and Gabrielle shoved, while Tereus and Eudore, hidden behind pillars steadied the great beast they had created to be slain.

As the mob grew near, one of the leaders saw the monster and gave a great shout. Everyone stopped, and turned away quickly, fearing to be turned into stone. Muttering and whispering came from the mob. Several blindfolded archers were lead up by those who shielded their eyes.

“Clever.” Xena muttered. She watched as the archers were positioned. They mechanically began to set arrows to bows and aimed straight ahead. Xena warned her companions to stay well covered by the rubble.

The archers brought their bows to their cheeks. Xena heard a noise and looked to the right, where the grotto’s entrance lay.

“Oh no,” she heard Gabrielle groan, but the warrior was already leaping forward to intercept the staggering figure which appeared, stumbling across the uneven pavement. Lycurgus, risen from his coma, groaned with pain and confusion. At the sound, the archers turned towards him and shot their arrows.

 


 

Lycurgus just could not remember how he had gotten into this cave. He tried to get up, but found himself unaccountably weak. Slowly, with great care, he levered his exhausted body upright. He thought about shaking his head to clear it, but decided against it, as a wave of nausea passed through his body.

“Where am I?” He asked, but no answer was forthcoming. “Is anybody here?” He leaned heavily against the rock walls and took a few steps, still calling. He appeared to be alone. Making his way slowly, he found the main chamber and looked around. He vaguely remembered something about this place, but he couldn’t get a fix on it.

Step by step, each a little more certain that the last, the soldier made his way towards a slightly brighter light. When he reached, he found he was standing in the outside light streaming through the grotto entrance. He sat down heavily, leaning against an outcropping of stone, worn out with effort.

“How in Tartarus do I get out of here?” He asked the silence.

He must have passed out for a time, because he found himself laying on the dirt floor, looking up at the crack in the ceiling of rock. His body felt lighter, his head less muddy. He lay there, pondering his situation, still unable to recall anything, except a woman, no *two* women and…

“The Gorgon!” He sat up suddenly, too scared to remember his fatigue. As he stood, Lycurgus saw the faint steps carved into the stone. His heart hardened against his weakness and he began to climb. How he made it out of the cavern, with arms and legs made of lead, he never could say, but he knew he had to get to the town, tell them, get help… he moaned and stumbled.

The archers, hearing sounds from their left turned and unleashed a volley of arrows, straight for the hapless soldier. Only one arrow was on the right trajectory. Lycurgus stood there, watching it head for him, recognizing his own death and was amazed to see a flash of brown, a loud “Ungh!” and feel no arrow penetrate his flesh. He looked around, still slow to understand, and saw Xena coming out of a fluid roll, one hand holding her sword and the other, an arrow.

The crowd erupted in fury, in fear and most of all, confusion. Lycurgus lumbered towards the crowd of men waving their weapons. He saw several figures standing in his path and suddenly, he saw the Gorgon. In a confused rage, against his misfortune, against the very weakness of his body, he lifted a chunk of marble from the ground and hurled it at the monster. The soldier fell to his knees, his legs no longer capable of holding him upright. A grey mist began to invade his vision. Lycurgus kneeled, swayed and fell into darkness once again.

 

Chapter 29

 

The mob churned, unsure of what to make of this new development. Gabrielle fought a desire to run after Xena, but kept her eyes on the crowd. It was Eudore that saw the soldier lift the marble from the ruins and heave it towards them. She yelled a warning and grabbed the first person she came to. It was Leah, who fell on top of the girl roughly, hunkering down to protect her. They covered their heads as chips of marble rained down upon them. They heard the crash of armor as their makeshift Gorgon fell to the ground. A small cry of pain was heard, but was drowned by the roar of the approaching mob.

“It’s a fake!”

“The monster is a hoax!”

“Kill them!”

Gabrielle’s heart sank as she realized their plan had failed. The Gorgon had crashed to the ground, armor rolling off or broken, the twigs that had made the framework shattered under the marble block. She saw Aglaia fixed to her spot, torn between rage and fear and thrust the priestess behind her.

“Hide! Run!” She hissed as two men attempted to strike at her with poorly swung spears. She easily disarmed and disabled them, turning to stop another man, who was brandishing a sword. She saw Aglaia run, stop, and run again. Then the priestess disappeared from sight.

The bard aimed to disarm her opponents, but several of them had to be hurt before they would stop. Once she thought she heard some one attacking from behind, but turned to see Xena laying men out cold with the flat of her sword. Gabrielle smiled and turned her back to Xena’s. They’d done this before, they’d do it again. She relaxed, letting her muscles find a rhythm and kept her staff swinging.

Eudore looked up from underneath Leah’s arm. The Gorgon was gone, the mob about to erupt around them. She looked around for her friends, cursing the fate that had brought her and them to this place. She saw movement in the wreck of the false Gorgon and then she yelled.

“Tereus!” Eudore squeezed out from beneath Leah’s body, and ran to the boy, who lay dazed, in the middle of the ruined Gorgon. He was grabbing at his leg, which was pinned by a corner of the marble block Lycurgus had thrown. Tereus was desperately trying to free himself, as a townsman, armed with a battered sword threw himself upon the boy. Eudore ran towards the milieu and launched her shoulder into the man’s ribcage.

“No you don’t!” She screamed, maddened, “Get away!” She pummeled the man with her fists, grabbing at him, kicking his legs from underneath him. As he fell on the wet marble, two men, friends of his maybe, ran up and grabbed Eudore. In their bloodlust they did not recognize the very girl they came to save this day. One balled up a fist and swung to hit the girl for her impudence, but the blow never landed. He quietly slid down to the ground and lay there. Eudore looked up, was spun around by the second man and then he too fell back. Instead, a young face, full of concern and righteous anger filled her sight. It was Marcus, the young soldier she had met earlier. She smiled in relief, her face dazzling him, until she remembered Tereus.

The boy sat, tears of frustration rolling down his face as he tugged at his leg. Marcus bent to the marble and lifted it enough to allow Tereus to free himself.

“Leah…” Tereus gasped, as pain sifted through his numbed nerves. They looked around for the librarian, but couldn’t see her in the press of people. They opted to head for the small knot of people fighting, assuming that Xena would be in the middle of it. Marcus had Tereus lean on him, and the soldier tightly gripped Eudore’s hand.

 


 

Leah, surprised, rolled off of Eudore and watched as the girl slipped away before she could be stopped. She stood up, looking for any escape, any protection, from the oncoming wave of villagers. What caught her eye instead, was a glimmer of paleness in the gloom. In a flash from the lightning that now arced across the sky more frequently, she saw Aglaia, trying to make her way towards the wreck of the puppet Gorgon. When she saw one of the townspeople raise a hand to the priestess, her legs began to move without conscious thought. She jumped the attacker and delivered several viscious stabs into soft flesh, He howled in pain and threw her off. Staggering, he went on howling as he gripped his face. Leah stood over the semi-conscious priestess and faced out into the growing darkness. Blinded with fury, she hit anything that moved within her range, an unpredictable whirlwind of blows. She let her frustration give her strength and was soon the center of a whorl of motion.

Unseen, beneath the enraged Leah, Aglaia continued to crawl towards the puppet. She reached the wreck and found what she sought – The Mask.

Once again, lightning ripped through the sky, sizzling for seconds, burning into all the combatant’s retinas. They stood stunned and blinking for a few moments. Silence fell, as soldiers, arms full of struggling townspeople, stopped their efforts. Members of the mob, exhausted and dazed, slowed their movements and stilled. Weapons were lowered as they turned in answer to the voice that now spoke.

“Stop this at once!” The voice was deep, profound, unearthly. Movement was suspended, all eyes turned to find the source for the voice. Gabrielle found her eyes seeking out and finding the figure of the Priestess. Her tongue dried up in her mouth as she saw the woman move forward, out of the crowd. The Mask was upon her face, her eyes burned with a red fire. Her voice was no longer human. But the thing that riveted all eyes to her, was her hair. Brazen snakes now hissed and moved with life. Her short form seemed to have grown larger, more inhuman.

 

Chapter 30

 

“What do you think you are doing?” The voice asked. She pinned Eudore’s father in her stare. He froze, paralyzed with fear. “Do you fear I will turn you into stone?” The voice mocked. She turned away, strafing all the mob with her fiery gaze. They shied away and hid their faces. A terrible noise issued from the mouth of the Mask.

Xena, as hypnotized as the rest, recognized it for laughter. She tried to tear her gaze away, but found she was rooted to the spot. No part of her body was hers to command. And she began to get mad. White-hot fury began to rise inside her, building quickly. She was ready to scream out, but a soft voice spoke to her.

“Wait.” It said. “Did I not bring you here for a purpose? Wait and you shall see.”

The warrior looked around, but saw no one. Her eyes locked with Gabrielle’s and she instantly realized that the bard had heard the same words. They looked at the Priestess who moved freely among the cowering townspeople. The figure had not even spared them a glance, for which the bard was grateful.

“And why did you come here?” She cornered one of the ringleaders, a hairy, thick-shouldered man. He whimpered.

“We…we…came to…we came to save the girl.” He said it in a rush.

“You came to destroy! To take! And maybe, if you had enough energy, to remember that a girl was involved!” She pointed at Eudore, standing next to Marcus.

“There is the girl! One of you tried to strike her down! Where was the saving in that?” Her eyes darkened, the scarlet fire turning to a deep bronze. “You are all foolish men. This is sacred property. It is under *my* protection, do you understand?” The voice trembled with power. The men murmured in consternation. One voice cried out.

“No! You are a monster! We won’t….” The terrible laughter rang out again, it rose in pitch, changing, ringing out like a metalworker’s hammer, then it settled, into the merry, if hard, laughter of a woman.

Before their eyes the Gorgon began to change. It grew, it’s hair straightened, then bent and melded, the Mask grew tighter, less pale, the figure’s robes glinted with scales. The snakes had disappeared, but a bronze helm was clearly visible on the figure.

Gabrielle gasped, “Athena?” and the Goddess turned.

“Yes, my bard. Or had you forgotten that this is my sacred ground?” “Or that the Priestess is my Oracle?” The interior voice asked them.

The figure turned back to the townspeople. She waved her hands over them and their weapons vanished. “You, I know, had forgotten. You have come here in war – an unjust war. A stupid and pointless aggression.” The few soldiers that had traveled with the mob dropped their weapons and took off their helmets. Pontes gathered the few together, all except Marcus, who would not leave Eudore’s side. The girl, torn between emotions she could not even describe, had fallen to one knee.

“B…b…but Zeus showed us his favor…” A shaking voice began. It was Aristeus, Eudore’s father.

Once again the laughter rang out. “Tin heroes, raging against toy monsters. Did you also forget, ” the unearthly voice was teasing, “that I also bear the right to use the thunderbolts of the King of the Gods? Clearly it is time to bring this Temple back into use. Clearly, the people of this town need instruction. Very well, then, here is the verdict. You are all punished for invading these precincts with intent to harm my Temple. For a period of one year the wounds you suffered here will not heal. After one year, you shall all come to this Temple, which shall be rebuilt with your contributions. You shall make sacrifices and you shall set up a fund that will keep these demesnes clean and well-kept. That is all. Now go!” The Goddess waved her hands and a brisk wind rose.

Gabrielle could see the wind, that is, but she could not feel it. She saw the wind rise in power, and the men of the town began to scrabble against the rock and each other looking for a purchase to hang on to. The wind howled and the men were moved away slowly but inexorably. Their shouts echoed above the winds as they were literally blown away from the scene. The Goddess turned to the remaining people. She addressed the Captain of the Guards, who stood, as he had been, reverently, head bowed.

“You are a good man Pontes. You have always served us well, in your capacity. There will be no punishment for you or your men. You had a hard road to follow here, unclear and uneven. Your choices were wise.” She smiled and the Captain felt his heart would burst. To be called wise by the Goddess of Wisdom… He managed to summon up the words with which to thank the Goddess.

“I swear, that if I am still alive, I will also return in one year and make a sacrifice to thank you.” He saluted. The Goddess smiled at him warmly and returned the salute.

“Well I won’t be here for the festivities.” A dark, mocking voice spoke out and the Goddess turned. Xena stood, rigid with anger, her face in that cruel sneer that even Ares now avoided. The Goddess of War turned towards Xena, openly giving the warrior the once over. She smiled sweetly, innocently, and met the icy blue eyes without flinching.

“So, this is the famous Warrior Princess. I am impressed. You have all the skills of a hero that I might have trained. Unusual in a mortal.” The Goddess stepped closer to Xena, her hands lifted slightly. “I must thank you. You have done me a great favor, protecting my Priestess and enabling me to rebuild my Temple. I owe you quite a bit. What do you ask of me?” The Goddess’s voice was sweet, but her grey eyes challenged the warrior. Gabrielle stepped up and lightly touched Xena’s arm, silently warning her not to upset this powerful Goddess.

“I don’t want anything. Not from you, not from any of the Gods.” Xena said through clenched teeth. “And I don’t find it amusing to be used like some kind of toy. I’ll appreciate it if you’d leave me and my friend out of your next farce.”

Pontes and the soldiers turned a bit grey around the edges, wondering what kind of cataclysm was going to be the death of Xena. One does not insult a God and walk away unharmed.

The Goddess laughed lightly. “You’re exactly the way you were described to me. You know, ” she said, almost coyly, “you’re angry at the wrong God, don’t you? This wasn’t my plan at all.” Athena’s long arm swept the area, including the still unconscious form of Lycurgus, Tereus holding his leg and the soldiers standing to one side, still waiting for the ground to open up beneath the Warrior Princess.

Xena barked with derision. “Right. Not your plan. Just get the Warrior Princess in to do a little cleanup and while you’re at it….”

Athena raised her hand to stop Xena. “Seriously, Xena. I have no reason to lie to you. I did not bring you here at all. I genuinely owe you a debt of gratitude. Without you, this could have been a graveyard, my Priestess murdered and my Temple forever ruined.”

Xena’s face was still hard, but Gabrielle interrupted her next words.

“If you didn’t bring us here, then who did? I mean, we *had* to have been set up, weren’t we?” She ended hesitatingly. She looked up at her partner, hoping that they could at least trust this one Goddess. Xena looked down at the bard. Her face softened as she saw the green eyes, so hopeful, turned towards her. The warrior’s hand slipped around Gabrielle’s arm. She stiffened as she felt the presence of yet another of the Olympians.

“Aphrodite.” Xena muttered, a mere moment before the Goddess of Love appeared, glowing with light in the gloomy temple ruins. Whereas Athena was dark, the bronze of her armor glinting dully, her dark curls flowing like a black river from underneath her helm, Aphrodite was literally glowing. Inappropriately dressed in penoir, her golden hair was tumbled artistically in a ornate hairstyle. She waved her fingers coyly at bard and warrior, then turned to take in the rest of the scene.

“Ooh, grim. Well, ‘Thena, you never were one for decorations. Okay, girls…” she clapped her hands and turned back to the two women still standing close. She included the now remote Goddess of Wisdom in her speech, “Look, let’s get a little comfy here. Some light,” several torches appeared, “and some privacy. ” Her arms waved randomly. Darkness fell, shutting out all but the four of them, enclosed in a ring of light.

Athena rolled her eyes, but said nothing.

Gabrielle spoke up defiantly, “Our friends? They don’t deserve…”

Aphrodite waved her concerns away carelessly, “They’ve gone sleepy bo-bo. They needed a nap, anyway. They won’t even know what happened.”

Xena’s ire had had time to refuel. “What does it take to get you out of our lives?” she demanded of the Love Goddess. The blonde sighed melodramatically.

“You are sooo suspicious. This wasn’t even about *you.* A little self-absorbed, Xena? Do you think I have nothing else to do with my time but dog your footsteps?”

“What do you mean, this wasn’t about me?” Xena looked like she was ready to spit.

“Leah and Aglaia?” Gabrielle suddenly realized the truth of what the Goddess had said. “This was all about getting them together? A little complex, even for you, don’t you think?” She began to understand why with Xena distrusted the Gods so much and was coming around to her partner’s point of view about them. Hades, all this trouble, just to bring two people together, she thought.

Aphrodite laughed at the bard, answering her thoughts, not her words. “What would you know about it, all you ever do is write up what *we* arrange. You couldn’t even write an original story.” Gabrielle colored as she remembered the botched job she had made with the enchanted quill.

Xena’s face became even darker, Gabrielle could feel that she was ready to explode, but her voice, when it came was terrifyingly under control.

“So, Aphrodite, what you are saying is that in order to bring two people together…”

“Four.” The blonde Goddess smirked, but didn’t clarify.

Xena’s eyebrow shot up, “Four then. In order to bring four people together, a village had to raise a mob, and several people had to be injured and a few almost get killed?”

Aphrodite spluttered with frustration. “You have no idea how *hard* it is to get you mortals together! I mean, a bit of crisis always seems to be just the trick. It’s amazing any of you manage to have peaceful lives…. Anyway,” she said with the smirk spreading across her face again, “it worked for you two.” She twiddled her fingers in their direction. She cut off their protests curtly.

“Look, kids, I’m the Goddess of Love, you’re not. I don’t have time to spend explaining my spiel to you. In any case, I wasn’t the one who wanted the war stuff – does that even sound like me?” All three of them turned to look at Athena, who was standing, leaning on her spear. She put her hand up.

‘Not me – I’m the Goddess of Wisdom – did this seem particularly wise to you? It was a bit of a cock-up from beginning to end.” Athena stood upright and declaimed, “Let’s work it out. Angry mobs, random destruction. Hmmm. I guess we can figure out who arranged it then…”

“Ares.” They all said simultaneously, with the same tone of contempt and exhaustion.

 

Chapter 31

 

They heard his laughter long before they saw him.

Aphrodite leaned towards Gabrielle and confided to her, “He’s such a tick, really, but you have to admit he’s damn good-looking. Nice pecs.”

The bard smirked back at the Goddess. “He certainly thinks so.”

Ares’ figure appeared, clad in his customary leather armor. He was laughing hysterically, even slapping his knee in mirth. Athena’s face looked like she was sucking on lemons, while Aphrodite look bored. Gabrielle and Xena were simply exasperated.

“If you ask me, ” The warrior commented, “you all need hobbies.”

Athena laughed at this. “We all have them. Except for him.” She indicated the still chuckling God of War, who was now wiping his eyes. “He’s got you.” The Goddess of War and Wisdom shook her head at his preoccupation with a mortal. She had learned her lesson years ago, when her mortal playmate Pallas had been slain in a friendly bout with her own hands. No more mortal friends, it was too dangerous.

The God of War shot a “if looks could kill” glance at the tall, grey-eyed goddess and turned to Xena. “You have to admit, I got you good on this one.”

Xena sneered in contempt. “Not even close. You know, Ares, this is gonna get more pathetic as time goes on. I’ll get old, and weak, and then what – you’re going to win me over? Yeah, that’ll look great. Xena, the over the hill Warrior Princess, leading Ares’ legions. Why don’t you just give it up?” She stepped up to glare into the God’s eyes.

Aphrodite laughed harshly. “I can see it now, a doddering old Xena, with her senile sidekick finally give in and return to the God of War’s side. Oh, that’s rich!” She began to giggle maniacally at the vision. Ares spared her a glance and turned to Athena.

“Nice mortal you’re using there – cute. What was that about no more mortals?”

“You know the rule, ” Athena spat. “If it’s not a working temple, you’ve got to go through an Oracle. Not that you ever play by the rules. Look Ares, we both know that I can beat you raw and this is my Temple. You’ve had your joke – now go.”

“Oh no, ” The God of War shook his head. “I’m here to gloat.” He turned to Xena and flinched at the look of concentrated hate that flashed from her eyes.

“If I were you, ” The warrior spoke smoothly, with a cold, deadly tone, “I’d do what the lady says and leave.”

Ares crossed his arms and stood, defiant. “Who’s going to make me?” He demanded.

“I will.” Athena had had enough of this. “I’ve defeated you before and I’ll gladly do it again.”

“I will. ” Aphrodite remembered how much she hated Ares’s inability to let go of a joke. So childish, she thought. “I’ll make you fall in love with a rock formation, or a goat.”

“I will.” Xena was almost gleeful. “Or have you forgotten how I defeated you in front of the Furies? I’ll gladly do it again.” Ares flinched again. He turned in surprise as the fourth voice spoke.

“I will.” Gabrielle said solidly. The God of War began to laugh, but bit it off at the approach of the Warrior Princess. The bard continued evenly.

“I’ll tell stories that discredit you with all your followers. I’ll make you a laughingstock on Olympus. And although I’m the only “mere” mortal here, mere mortals and our descendants will be here long after you are gone and new Gods have taken over. When I’m done with you, not one generation won’t remember tales of how foolish and stupid the God of War was.” Her voice had rung out with power and she stepped next to her partner with a look of terrible triumph on her face. Xena glanced down in appreciation for the bard.

Ares glowered. “Fine. I’ll go. But you’ll miss me.” He turned to Aphrodite. “Especially you.” He cooed.

She yawned and said “I think I’ll make it a billy goat.” Ares, discomfited, disappeared in a glimmer of light.

The Goddess of Love turned to the rest. “Look, thanks for the help and everything. I’m not all bad, you know – I got you two together, right?” And she waved her fingers at Xena and Gabrielle, cried “Ta-ta!” over her shoulder at Athena and disappeared in a flash. Bard and warrior heaved a sigh of relief.

The Goddess of Wisdom looked admiringly at the two women. “I had heard of your defeat of Ares, but I had no idea that Aphrodite had given you her gift. I’m impressed.”

They stood awkwardly, not really knowing how to answer this. The Goddess continued. “Let me rectify what I can and we can all go home.” The women nodded. The artificial darkness disappeared, leaving the real darkness of the evening that had fallen. The sky was clear, but moonless, so Athena left the torches that had been manifested by Aphrodite.

Athena, smiling, began to walk away from the two women. She stopped in front of the downed Lycurgus. She bent over him, whispered something in his ear and stepped away. His breathing, which had been uneven, deepened. The Goddess returned her gaze to Pontes, who stood rubbing his eyes, as if waking from a sleep.

“He will survive to fight again. Take him home and have the physician tend to him.” Four soldiers ran up groggily and lifted the body, draped it across several overlapped shields.

The Goddess had approached the little group across the temple floor from Xena and Gabrielle. Eudore still kneeled in supplication, but Athena lifted her to her feet. “My newest devotee. Your minor indiscretion has brought us to this situation – you will have to be chastised in time.” Eudore stiffened. “But do not worry, your desire to serve is true, so your punishment will be light.” The girl smiled uncertainly. Athena turned to the soldiers who had now arranged Lycurgus on their shields.

“You may take him away. But you,” she held a hand out to stop Marcus from joining his comrades, “will stay. You struck down a man in anger today. You wounded him badly, you may have killed him.” Marcus began to speak for himself, but the Goddess interrupted. “No, no, you misunderstand. You did this out of love, out of desire to serve. I reward this, not punish it.” She turned to include Pontes in this decision.

“This one I claim. He will stay with me and guard the Temple.” The Captain of the Guard nodded, saluted Marcus, then the Goddess, and led his men away with alacrity. In mere moments, they were smudges on the horizon. Marcus stood stunned.

“What do you mean, I will stay?” he stuttered, not comprehending.

The Goddess smiled at him benignly. “I am not the Goddess of Love, but I recognize it when I see it. You did not attack two men on my grounds to serve me. You were in the service of Love.” She took Eudore’s hand and placed it into the young soldier’s hand. “Your “punishment” is to stay on as the Temple’s guardian. No more will I allow this place to be full of fear and mystery. You will stand on guard, protecting and serving the one you love.” Eudore turned shyly to Marcus, who stood, stunned, but radiant, gazing into the shining eyes and at the chestnut hair that reflected the torch flames.

“I…I’ll serve gladly, ” He quickly turned back to the Goddess, “I mean, I’ll gladly serve you. ” he rectified quickly, but the Goddess merely laughed. She turned away from the young couple to face Tereus, who still sat, holding a leg that was now bloody and swollen. He looked up at the Goddess and tried to stand clumsily. He was in obvious pain, and the Goddess reached down and lifted him gently. As she ran her hand over his leg, the blood disappeared, and the flesh was made whole.

“Young man, you have proven yourself to be a great asset to your race today. I give you back your leg, so that you may run once again. I will also give you a gift that I will not tell you, but you will figure it out one day soon.” She laughed at her own little joke. “My blessing on your head and that of your house.” Tereus nodded in thanks, but said nothing. He was just too overwhelmed at being in the presence of a Goddess to speak.

Lastly, she found Leah, standing folornly, alone, near the wreckage of the puppet. The Librarian looked as if she was about to cry. Athena held up her hand. “Say nothing. One gift you have already been given today, and I would not take it away. Instead, I will ask a favor. Will you move the Library to the Temple? It would be fitting – the repository of wisdom and knowledge attached to the renewed Temple of Athena.”

Leah nodded, her face confused. “I will, My Lady, but what…” she turned to look the Goddess in the eye and was stunned at the keen glance. She saw the humor and the sadness that filled those grey eyes and realized what she was being asked. The Librarian’s face filled with gratitude. “Gladly – I’ll do that gladly.”

The Goddess nodded with satisfaction. She turned to Xena and Gabrielle who had approached. “You will take no gift from me, I know. So I will give you one anyway. The remainder of your vacation will be uninterrupted by strife.” She turned back to the Librarian. “And now I’ll give you back what you are waiting for. My thanks to all of you in your efforts at protecting my temple.” She lifted a hand and slowly she faded away, leaving a vile figure it her place, snaky hair hissing and eyes that flamed, then grew dark and faded. The snakes became frozen as they were and the pale face, so cold and inhuman dropped to the ground, leaving in its place Aglaia, slumped with fatigue and unsteady on her feet.