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Chapter 7: Amphipolis Found
Janice Covington squatted down, absently letting the dirt in her hand trickle through her fingers. Lifting her head, she surveyed the landscape from this new perspective, as if a change in viewing angle would make all the difference. She didn't need any sign or marker to tell her that these were the ruins of Amphipolis. She could feel it. Argo strolled over and nudged her mistress' hand. Janice smiled as she absently petted the dog, her eyes continually roving across the ruins. Slowly she stood, brushing her hand against the leg of her sturdy work pants. Her six-shooter comfortably rested at one hip, her bullwhip at the other. Janice minutely adjusted her hat and smiled. She was close, she could feel it.
"Any luck?" Emily asked from behind Janice's left shoulder.
"Janice doesn't believe in luck," Mel supplied from next to Emily. The Amazon leader gave a mild snort and returned her attention to Janice, waiting for an answer.
"These are the outskirts of Amphipolis, no doubt about it," Janice commented. "The location of the Strymon river, the place where Lake Achinos was... the details all fit. The central city would have been built over, many times, but out here... we should have a chance at finding something intact."
"What exactly is it we're looking for?" Stacey asked as she strolled over to the group, taking a moment to pull her jacket more tightly around her body.
Mel empathized with the young woman. The temperature was cool but the breeze coming off the ocean carried a penetrating chill. Mel removed her hands from her pockets to quickly turn up the collar of her jacket against the brisk cold. Janice's eyes flicked over and she smiled. While she was fully in the company of Janice the Archeologist, her lover was still acutely aware of her every move.
Something caught Janice's eye. She focused her gaze on a low hill just past Mel. "I think I may have found it," she said softly as she walked over to the hill. The mound was perhaps seven feet high and twenty-five feet in diameter. The other women watched, puzzled, as Janice circled the formation, Argo keeping close to her left leg. "Emily, can you have someone bring the surveying equipment over here?" she called from across the mound. The Amazon leader relayed the request.
A short time later, Janice had moved beyond surveying equipment to a shovel. After some deliberation, she chose a section of the mound and began to dig. The other women offered to help, but Janice sent them away, asking them instead to take readings and survey other areas of the city. "What's going on?" Mel asked when she and Emily were the only other people remaining by the mound.
Janice looked briefly at the Amazon leader before speaking frankly to her lover. "I think this is the crypt," she said without preamble, "what do you think?"
"How can you tell?" Emily asked immediately.
Mel smiled demurely at the blond woman, who was nearly able to look her in the eye. "Janice and I have very strong gut feelings where these things are concerned," she explained. Picking up the canteen that was slung around her shoulder, she handed it to Janice. "Why don't you take a break? Let me look around."
The archeologist nodded, took a healthy swig, then wiped her mouth with her sleeve. She readjusted the hat on her head, then slowly poured some water over Argo's muzzle, getting hit by flying droplets as oblivious to the cold, the dog enthusiastically lapped at the falling water. She sat down against the bank and watched Mel as she slowly strolled around the mound. Her movements were graceful and elegant in spite of her attire. Mel was dressed in a similar fashion to Janice, finally realizing the practicality in such wardrobe choices. Still, her pants were pleated and better fitting, and her shirt was crisp and wrinkle free. She returned to Janice's side and accepted the offered canteen wishing it were hot coffee.
"So you're thinking the tavern was that way?" she asked, pointing to her left.
Janice nodded. "Yeah, across and just west of the blacksmith's shop. That would put the entrance to Amphipolis over there." She pointed toward crumbled ruins some distance away that may have been part of a gate or wall.
Mel nodded, agreeing. "Okay, so we're just outside the city. That makes sense. I reckon this could be it."
"I didn't want to say anything in front of the others in case I'm wrong," Janice continued, picking up the shovel once again.
"Lan' sakes," Mel replied with a smile. "Janice Covington, wrong? Perish the thought."
Smiling, Janice teased right back. "Listen to Scarlett O'Hara..."
"I heard," Emily said dryly, looking at both women. "Last night, all night, and I didn't get any sleep." She picked up another shovel and joined Janice in digging.
Janice looked over at Mel and winked. "See, I warned you."
"Actually," Emily broke in, "you're the loud one."
The archeologist frowned at that, then resumed her digging in ernest. A short time later she stopped, looking critically at the rock she'd uncovered. "I think this is the top of the doorway," she announced. "It almost looks like a rockslide or some other debris sealed it. It's a good sign."
Emily radioed the four Amazons surveying the city. When they returned, the entire group worked to clear a small section of doorway.
By late afternoon, Janice Covington eased herself through a small hole at the top of the door to the chamber below. She lit her lamp and looked around. Satisfied that it was safe, she whistled. Argo scrambled up the hill and followed her mistress inside. The slope on the inside of the crypt was such that the dog was able to scramble down the debris with little difficulty. Mel followed Argo and was in turn followed by Emily and Tory. Stacey remained outside in radio contact with The Charmer. Debby and Shayne remained on the perimeter of the mound as lookouts.
Janice surveyed the interior of the crypt, fighting against the anxiety she felt in the chill setting. Four large stone slabs were positioned in a row in the center of the room. Each slab was about three feet wide, seven feet long, and just over a foot thick. "So the sarcophagi were here?" Emily asked, following Janice's gaze.
"Yeah," the archeologist confirmed. "They would have been set on those base stones.
"That would be a huge project, moving something that big," Tory commented.
Janice nodded. "I'm surprised they didn't just put all the bodies in one sarcophagus, and take that..."
"Oh my!" Mel exclaimed, cutting Janice off. Reaching the heiress' side, Janice saw what had startled her lover. Two skeletons sat side by side in the far corner of the room. "Who are they?" Mel asked, horrified.
"Good question," Janice agreed as she kneeled down to examine them more closely. Peering at the skeletons critically, Janice took note of their position, what little remained of their clothing and their immediate vicinity. Shifting her position so she could sit next to them she looked over at the debris that sealed the door. Peering closely at the bodies once again, she studied each rib cage. Finally, she followed the arm bones of the skeleton closest to her down to the floor to the point where the bones of the hand rested among dust, ash and cobwebs. "Mel, would you hand me that lamp?" she asked as Mel passed her the light.
Bringing the lamp to the floor she studied the hand. Blowing at the dust, yet careful not to disturb the bones, she meticulously cleared a small section of floor. "What is it?" Emily finally asked, unable to restrain herself any longer.
Janice looked up, her expression serious. "I think these two women were Amazons," she said sadly. "It's my guess that they stayed behind when the other three took the bodies. I'll bet Valaska showed up here expecting to find Gabrielle and found these two instead. I'm afraid they got the brunt of her inevitable temper tantrum."
"What are you saying?" Mel whispered, staring at the two still forms wondering how they could have told Janice so much.
"That door," Janice continued, hurrying over to the blocked entrance. "This kind of debris, coupled with those scorch marks," she said pointing to the walls just inside the entry way, "are from an explosion of some sort, not a natural cave in of an ancient structure. What's left of the clothing is clearly Amazon. Here," she said pointing to the rib cage of one body, "she was stabbed in the heart." Mel followed Janice's eyes to the knife still clutched in the hand of the other still form. "By that knife, I suspect."
"They don't look like they were fighting," Emily commented.
Janice shook her head. "No, they weren't. If Valaska found them instead of Gabrielle and sealed the entrance in some godly fit of anger... they would have starved to death. This one is holding the remains of a water skin. I'd guess that they tried to escape, but for whatever reason couldn't. Maybe when the food and water ran out they decided to end their suffering quickly as opposed to waiting for the inevitable."
"So there is nothing here to tell us where Xena and Gabrielle are," Tory said sadly.
"Oh, no." Janice disagreed, nodding at the other skeleton. "She's told us exactly where they are." Holding up her hands to stop the barrage of questions she gathered the other three women around the bodies, pointing to the recently dusted floor.
"What's that?" Emily asked, looking at some flaky black markings.
"Dried blood, very ancient dried blood," Janice supplied then looked at Mel, her eyes gentle. "Look familiar, Mel?"
It took only a moment but the pattern registered and Mel's eyes grew wide. There, drawn in the blood of a dying Amazon, was an image Mel knew all too well. "It's a chakram," she breathed.
Outside the crypt, Emily, Mel and Janice stood deep in conversation as the other women reverently put the remains of their ancestors to rest. Janice watched without regret atse bodies were lovingly removed from the tomb and set upon a hastily constructed funeral fire. "But you said the chakram was in Ares' tomb," Emily said, puzzled by the cryptic clue.
Mel nodded. "I saw it myself. Do we have to go back there?" she asked Janice, her concern evident.
"I don't think so. It has to be something else..." Janice wondered aloud. "I wonder where it came from?"
Mel's head snapped up, her blue eyes shining with understanding. "That's it Janice!"
"What?" Janice asked, perplexed.
"The clue. There was a forest not far from here, on the cliffs. It's where Xena first got her chakram. The cave entrance where the bodies were hidden, it must be near that spot."
Suddenly a breeze blew through the ruins of Amphipolis. While it was gentle and mild, it made the hair at the back of Janice's neck stand up on end. Time felt like very precious commodity now. There wasn't much of it left.
Coming to a decision, she turned to Emily, bravery and determination etched in her fearless features. "Emily, take Argo and the others and get back to the boat. We'll radio you with our location when we find the cave. Until then stay out of sight."
"No, way," the Amazon protested. "We're going with you."
"This isn't about me," Janice countered. "If you really want Xena and Gabrielle to be put to rest, do what I say. I'm going to need some dynamite and rope. We don't need the boat calling attention to our location. When the bodies are gone, we'll call you and you can come get us."
Mel brightened at the Janice's use of the word 'we'. "You're going to take me with you?" she asked.
"I need you to help me find the cave, Mel. But I don't want you going in. I need you to lower me on the rope." Mel nodded. There would be time for further discussion later.
Emily hurried off, getting the supplies Janice requested as the archeologist whistled for her dog. Argo padded over and sat down, looking up expectantly at her mistress. "Good, girl," Janice said, her voice cracking. Untying the bandanna from around her neck she knelt on the ground and with trembling fingers tied it around the big dog's neck. "For once in your life you're going to have to listen to me, girl." She said fighting back tears. "You're going to go with Auntie Emily. Mommie's going someplace you can't follow. 'Sides you hate caves as much as I do. Remember I love you and I'll see you when I get back." Argo cocked her head to the side, enjoying the attention of her mistress and her mistress' mate. While she couldn't comprehend the words she could tell that the mood was serious and sad. Moments later the blond haired one returned and handed Janice a heavy pack. After getting a final kiss on the top of her head, Argo watched as the two women left, quickly heading across the ruins. Strong arms restrained the dog as she struggled to join her pack. Finally there was nothing to do but howl in sorrow and frustration.
"Is this it?" Janice asked as they neared the cliff edge. They were on a high plateau. The rhythmic pounding of the surf could be heard from far below. The Aegean Sea reflected the brilliant sun creating the dazzling effect of diamonds sparkling on its surface. It took a few moments for Mel to catch up. When she caught her breath, she looked around, studying the landscape.
"Janice, I just don't know," Mel said anxiously as panic began to set in.
The archeologist nodded, and walked over to where Mel stood. Offering her the canteen, she smoothed a stray strand of ebony hair that had escaped Mel's pony tail. "It's okay, Mel," Janice soothed. "I know this looks a lot different. The forests that were here centuries ago are gone now. Just take it easy, relax."
"Relax?" Mel demanded. "How can y'all tell me to relax? I know y'all think something bad is going to happen. I saw you say goodbye to Argo." Janice's eyes fell at the words and Mel knew she'd struck close to home. "Janice, I'm scared," she finished quietly, not sure how her lover would respond to that admission.
Taking Mel quite by surprise, Janice smiled up at her, her eyes suddenly almost dancing in their warmth. "I know you're scared, Mel. Trust me, I'd be worried if you weren't. But you can handle this, I know you can. Mel, you're not the same woman you were six months ago. I didn't think you could get any more magnificent, but you did. You're a natural behind the wheel of a car, you shoot straight, hell you can toss me around like a sack of flour. That's all you, Mel, not Xena. You can do this, too. Just try to remember when you first saw the chakram. When did Xena first see the chakram? Don't worry about where you got the info. I don't care if it was a scroll, a dream, a Solari story. Just think about the images."
Taking a deep breath, Mel closed her eyes. "You've changed, too, Janice," she commented as she let her thoughts wander.
"How so?" Janice asked as she patiently waited for Mel's input.
Mel shrugged, her eyes still closed. "When I first met you, I wondered if there would be room in your heart for me. Yet at every turn you surprise me. You have an enormous capacity for love, Janice Covington. I see it with how you treat Pandora, Hyperion, the children. I know adjusting to the university and to me has been hard. I'm glad you decided to stick with it."
"Mel," Janice said, her voice urgent and intense. "I love you more than I've ever loved anything. I'd happily walk on hot coals if it were into your arms."
At that Mel's blue eyes flashed open. "Then promise me you won't sacrifice yourself for Xena and Gabrielle," she said softly.
Janice flinched as if she'd been slapped. Tearing her eyes away from her lover, she looked at the ground. "Mel, I hope you love me too much to ask that."
Mel closed her eyes again, this time brushing away a single tear that made its way down her sculpted cheek. "I do," she whispered. Steeling herself against her inner conflict, she looked around the plateau once again. "Xena saw the chakram for the first time when she was a little girl. She couldn't have been more than ten winters old at the time."
"Ten winters?" Janice interrupted with a frown.
Mel smiled sheepishly. "Sorry, ten years old. She'd been playing in the forest near the cliffs with Lyceus and Toris. The boys had run off, and Xena was tracking them." As Janice followed, Mel began to walk towards the cliff edge. "She came across a crippled man, over there." Mel pointed to a patch of ground a short distance away. "She wasn't afraid of him. Rather, she went to see if she could help. He was a kind man, impressed that Xena was not intimidated by his disfigurement. She was immediately intrigued by the chakram he held and asked to see how it worked. Isn't that strange, Janice?" Mel asked hoping against hope that her memory was not as significant as she now suspected.
"It was no accident that Xena encountered Hephaestus that day," the archeologist replied, her voice gentling the firmness of her words. "What happened next?"
As if in a trance, Mel continued. "He taught her how to hold it without cutting herself. He also showed her how to throw it. Positioning the chakram in her hand he drew her arm back and she threw it with all her might. It richocted off of two trees and a boulder then imbedded itself high up in a tree..." she paused turning her head to the side, "right here. Hesphestus said that when she could reach the chakram and pull it free, it would be hers."
"When was that?" Janice asked, intrigued at the story.
"After Xena's encounter with Caesar, when her heart was consumed by hatred, she came back through Amphipolis. Her original intent was to pay her respects to Lyceus. She came through this grove of trees to keep out of sight. She didn't want anyone to know she'd been here, especially her mother. As she rode by this tree, she saw the chakram. On horseback it was now within her reach. Sure enough, when she touched it, it easily pulled free."
Janice nodded. "Okay, that tree was where? Here?"
Mel shook her head, clearing her mind. "What? Oh yes, the tree. Yeah, it was right there," she said, more certain of herself this time.
Walking straight for the cliff from the point Mel indicated, Janice paused at the cliff edge. Blue and white surf pounded the rocks one hundred feet below. "Oh my!" Mel exclaimed, moving near the ledge behind her lover.
"Careful, no shoving," Janice warned, looking critically at the sheer cliff wall. Easing back from the precipice, she extracted a length of sturdy rope and proceeded to tie it around her waist. "Okay, I guess it's time to go cave hunting." While looking around for an anchor, the radio in the pack crackled to life. Mel answered it and in moments Janice's thoughts were interrupted by the Southerner's frantic warning.
"Janice, it's Quest and the women on the The Charmer. Another boat has arrived, and it sounds like Leesto."
"Oh no," Janice groaned. "I really didn't think she'd show." Janices eyes closed in pain, several tears spilling down her cheeks. It took Mel only a moment to figure out why. Leesto had showed up, near the boat where she'd just sent Emily and the others. It was quite possible that at that moment Calisandra Leesto had Argo.
The transport truck shook violently as it headed down the steep dirt road. "Damn," Emily cursed from behind the wheel. "I think we've got a flat."
"You can say that again," Shayne agreed from her spot at the back of the truck. Argo sat between the large Amazon and Debby, the nurse who had earlier bandaged her foot. Soon, the vehicle rolled to a stop and the back of the truck opened. Argo watched carefully. When the women began to move and the grip on the bandanna around her neck loosened slightly, she charged for the back and leapt from the truck.
Emily and Stacey chased after her, but it soon became apparent that they had no hope of catching the muscular dog. "Damn it," Emily swore as she kicked at the dirt. "Covington is gonna have my head for that." She watched as the moving form of the retreating dog sped out of sight.
"It's hot, and we've been on the road for an hour. Maybe by the time Argo catches up to Janice, the danger will be over," Tory supplied helpfully.
"I hope you're right," Emily replied as she returned her attention once again to the flat tire.
"A little more to the right," Janice called from her position on the cliff face. It was steep, enough so that the rope was quite necessary to keep from falling, but not so steep that the archeologist could hang directly from the sturdy rope. That had made her progress down the cliff face slow. She frequently had to change position to keep her life line from catching on protruding rocks or small plants that thrived on the cliff face.
"You see anything yet?" Mel called down, tying off the rope to halt her lover's downward progress. She winced painfully, her hands having suffered painful burns from lowering Janice down the cliff face.
"No, not... wait, there's a shadow." Mel listened intently as she heard Janice shuffle over a few feet. "Hot damn, there it is."
"I declare, Janice Covington, y'all don't need to swear. A simple 'I found it' would do," Mel said, crossing her arms. She winced again as her hand came into contact with her arm. Having never had blisters on her hands before, she was finding it an inconvenient as well as painful experience.
"Awww, that's what makes you crazy about me, Mel," Janice continued, her voice now picking up the traces of an echo. "I say and do all the things you were brought up to think unseemly. Deep down you're a rebel, Melinda Pappas, sure as I'm standing in Xena's cave."
Mel hurried to the cliff edge, getting as close as she dared. "Are you sure?" she called down hopefully.
"Oh, yeah," Janice called back. "I can see the marble friezes here at the entrance. That's one mystery solved. Lower down my satchel, and three or four sticks of dynamite. It looks like this tunnel goes a ways back. I'll have to check it out."
After hearing Mel's affirmative response, Janice turned her attention back to the cave opening. The late afternoon light shown brightly at the entrance. As her eyes adjusted to the deep shadows, Janice noted how high the ceiling extended. Even Mel would have plenty of head room. The discovery would have felt great if only Argo were here. Aside from the discovery of the actual scrolls themselves, Argo had been present for all of Janice Covington's triumphs. It was impossible for her not to dwell on the absence of the animal that for several years had been her closest friend. Only in Mel Pappas did she find another soul as trustworthy. With a sad sigh, she searched through the debris at the cave opening, finding a serviceable torch among the rubble. With a light source in hand, she headed into the dark recesses of the cave.
The temple friezes were lined up three on each side as the tunnel extended into the cliff wall. As Janice felt the ambient temperature decrease, her own heart rate sped up. After a few twists and turns, she could no longer see light from the entrance. Fully consumed by the cliff, and surrounded by stone that was cool to the touch, Janice fought the urge to flee with every fiber of her being. Chiding herself for irrational fears, and drawing some measure of comfort from the tiny animals she saw packed together along the cave ceiling, she continued on. It was a familiar routine. Janice Covington was far from fearless, she only seemed so because she simply refused to let her fears get in the way of her objectives.
The tunnel sloped sharply upwards, and Janice began to climb up the cool rock formation. Pressing her back against one wall and her legs against another she made quick progress. "How the hell did they get it up here?" she wondered aloud as she worked. In moments she had her answer. Reaching out with one hand to climb some more, a piece of wood broke off in her strong grasp. After examining it and the spot where she'd pried it loose, it was clear she was looking at the remains of an ancient ramp. Something big and heavy had been either shoved or pulled up this tunnel.
It was almost anticlimactic when she happened upon her prize. Sitting there in the middle of the tunnel was a simple sarcophagus. It was unmarked and plain, but the style and structure told her what she needed to know. Here was the final resting place of Xena of Amphipolis and Gabrielle of Poteidaia.
Janice debated for a moment if she should pry the top off now and make sure the bodies were intact. Deciding against it, she climbed back down and headed back towards the cave entrance. Reassured by the glimpse of sunlight and sky, she considered her options. It would be dusk soon. She wanted, needed, to be out of the cave by night fall. She was almost to the entrance when she heard a loud noise. Spinning around, her gun drawn and ready to fire, it took a moment before she realized that Mel had just lowered the satchel with dynamite. Reholstering her weapon, she shouted her thanks up to the woman waiting topside, and slung the bag over her shoulder.
Argo kept a steady pace as she headed back up the road to rejoin her pack. She was tired and thirsty, but knew without a doubt that she would be needed, most likely to save her mistress as she had so often in the past. Stopping to check the trail again, she sniffed first the air, then the ground. She was close, very close. In moments she'd be at the place where she'd been sent away with the other pack. Argo didn't dwell on unpleasant thoughts, she was certain her mistress hadn't done it to be malicious. Humans just didn't always know what was best for them. Pack unity was a painfully simple concept that humans struggled with endlessly.
Mel peered over the cliff edge, anxiously waiting for some sign that her lover was ready to come back up. She was startled half out of her wits by the calm voice that spoke right next to her. "What are we looking at?" She spun around to find a dapper young man on the ground kneeling next to her.
"Professor Byron?" she asked, puzzled by the appearance of Janice's university suitor.
"Not exactly," he replied, his eyes holding something sinister. Shoving Mel away from the cliff edge he picked up Janice's backpack and rummaged through it until he extracted the radio. Mel was about to scream a warning to Janice when he smoothly pulled out a gun and pointed it at her. Mel shut her mouth soundlessly. "Leesto, this is Byron. You got all of those bitches rounded up?"
"That's no way to talk about your family, William," Callisandra Leesto's voice chimed back. "A few had some car trouble and were late, but we're all one big happy family now. What about pretty Xena and the irritating blond?"
"Xena is going to be taking a nap up here shortly. Sure you don't just want me to throw her over the cliff? She could meet you down there." Byron smiled as he spoke, looking at Mel as if she were dirt. Frozen with fear, the Southerner tried to exude a confidence she didn't feel, praying that what ever part of her was Xena would hurry up and surface.
"Don't you dare," Leesto warned. "I'll be right up. Any sign of Jan's mutt?"
As an afterthought, Byron looked around. "Here, puppy, puppy..." he called then whistled. "No sign of it. I'm sure it's around. Kill it when you finish off Xena. I'm going to take care of Jan and those bodies. Byron out." Dropping the radio into his pocket, he grinned once again. "Nap time, my dear," he said then extended his open hand toward the Southerner. A small explosion erupted at her feet, sending her flying backward. Her momentum was stopped by a particularly large boulder, her crumpled body falling to the ground, unconscious. Byron chuckled to himself as he grabbed ahold of the rope and began his descent down the cliff face. "Now to find Janice. I told you once before, Gabrielle, you can't hide from a god."
Argo strolled into the clearing, her hackles rising instantly. There was a danger here so intense she could almost taste it. Growling softly in her throat she continued forward, looking for any signs of movement or danger. In no time she found her mistress' backpack. She followed her scent to the edge of the cliff where the scent of danger assaulted her sensitive nose anew. Backing away slightly, she scouted for the best way to proceed downward when the scent of her mistress' mate registered in her canine awareness. Turning her head, she spotted the taller woman about twenty-five feet away.
Without making a sound, the big dog ambled over and immediately began to inspect the unconscious form for injuries. This process consisted of licking the woman's face and prodding with her nose until she woke up. "Janice, not now," Mel mumbled groggily until she realized that the wet sensation at her ear was most certainly not her lover.
Her eyes flew open and she saw soft brown eyes gazing at her with love and concern. Unable to restrain herself, she threw her arms around the big dog and hugged her fiercely. Argo tolerated the confining display of affection for a moment, then growled very softly. Mel took the hint and released the claustrophobic animal. "Okay, okay," she said with a smile. "Ya know, Mommie doesn't mind my hugs." Brushing herself off she stood. The back of her head ached and she was sore, but nothing was broken. Moving cautiously, she walked back to the cliff edge. The ropes hadn't been moved and Byron was nowhere in sight. Coming to a decision, she grabbed Janice's pack and headed for the cover of the rocks where she'd been tossed. "Leesto will be here soon. I say we have a nice greeting planned for her." Taking a swig of water from the canteen, she then poured a liberal amount for the dog who lapped at the falling water enthusiastically. Thirst sated, the big dog sat and patiently waited while mistress number two decided what to do.
Janice extracted the four sticks of dynamite Mel had stowed in the bag, tucking them into her kakhi shirt for lack of a better place to store them. With her bare hands she started moving rocks out of the way, clearing a path for the stone coffin. As she worked, she found more remnants of the ramp that had been used to move the sarcophagus to it's final destination. With any luck, the right kind of shove might move the stone tomb from its location up the tunnel onto the remnants of track where its weight would carry it down to the cave entrance. She wasn't worried about damaging the priceless artifact. She was planning to destroy it completly after all.
"You would have been better off going to Hollywood," a cold voice commented from the cave entrance. Without the alert canine to warn her of danger, Janice Covington had been caught lost in her thoughts. Slowly she stood and turned around to face the voice.
"Professor Byron?" Janice exclaimed instantly recognizing the Egyptologist. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Really, Janice, you can call me William. There are no students here after all." Smoothly he pulled a small cigar from his pocket and placed it in between his teeth. In a blur he lit a match, and in moments puffed on the cigar contentedly.
Janice's mind, tuned into small details, noticed that the thin trail of smoke that should have come from near his feet from the discarded match was missing. Catching a whiff of his exhaled smoke, she realized that he was smoking one of her cigars. Suddenly she began to get a very ominous feeling about the man. "Yes, Janice. I know all about you," he said conversationally taking the cigar from his mouth and examining it briefly. "I've had my eye on you for some time."
"Sorry to hear that William," the archeologist replied with more confidence than she felt, "I'm flattered, but you're not my type."
He laughed, a tone that sounded hollow in the confines of the cave. "I might surprise you."
With effort, Janice relaxed her limbs. She'd have one chance and one chance only to draw her gun on the smoking man, of that she was sure. "So you work for Leesto?" she asked envisioning her .357 Magnum leaving its holster in one fluid movement.
"Not exactly, Janice. You see, Leesto works for me." Byron watched and waited. In some form or another he'd been waiting for centuries, what were a few more seconds. "You realize, of course, that I'm going to kill you?"
Janice's muscles tensed, as hours of practice came to fruition. In the space between heartbeats her hand grasped the ivory handle of her six shooter, cleanly drawing it from the holster. In an instant she had the gun cocked and aimed at his head.
"Not bad, Janice," Byron allowed, his brown eyes turning to milky white. "But still not quite good enough. Go ahead, pull the trigger." Without pause, Janice squeezed the trigger. The hammer slamed home but nothing happened. It was then she noticed the gun getting warmer in her hand.
"Who are you?" Janice breathed as the gun steadily got hotter.
"Come now, Janice. Surely a bright girl like you can figure it out. Tell me, who can you possibly think of who might have a centuries old score to settle with you?"
"Valaska." The archeologist gasped at the searing pain from her weapon.
"Your insight serves you, Gabrielle," Byron commented, "too bad it isn't going to save you. You took something of mine Gabrielle. You had no right to be Queen of the Amazons. All these lifetimes later I have not forgotten."
Realizing now that she really was going to die, Janice acted before thinking. "Maybe now would be a good time to grow up Valaska," she quipped throwing down her weapon, now glowing orange with heat. It discharged as it hit the stone floor. Using the distraction of the dust and small rocks that rained down on Byron, she ran, heading back into the dark tunnels of the cave.
Callisandra Leesto walked confidently across the clearing. She'd spotted Melinda Pappas some time ago. Xena's descendant hadn't moved from the boulder where she'd been sitting, looking out at the ocean as if she were on a picnic. Shaded by one of the few trees that dotted this cliff, she stood without an apparent care in the world. Leesto drew her gun anyway. She didn't see Janice's dog, and that was troubling.
"Surely Janice told you I was top marksman in our class," the blond woman called out. "I could kill you with one shot from here."
"Yes, you could," Mel agreed, looking calmly at the approaching form of her lover's nemesis. "But do you think that will fix anything?"
"What do you mean?" Leesto asked guardedly.
"I saw the panel in the museum," Mel explained. "Callisto's eulogy for her murdered family. Killing me won't bring anyone back. Death seems too simple and small a payment for the damage Xena wrought in life."
"You're not seeing the big picture, dearie," Leesto laughed. "What is a simple death now, ends up being a major defeat in oh...a hundred years or so."
Before Mel could respond, a shot rang out from the cave below. Argo, startled from her hiding place near the cliff, sprinted for the edge. At full speed she navigated the sheer rock wall with the coordination of a mountain goat. Leesto only had time to fire off one round before the dog's body dropped out of sight.
Leesto hurried to the cliff edge, keeping a wary eye on Melinda as she moved. The big dog was nowhere to be seen, and she noted with disappointment, there was no evidence of blood to indicate that she'd hit the animal. "Fuck," she muttered, searching for any sign of the dog. "I swear that dog has more lives than a cat."
"How long have y'all been working with Professor Byron?" Mel asked, hoping to draw her attention from Argo.
Leesto laughed, a thin insincere sound. "In a way, William and I have been working together for centuries. Trapping Callisto and Valaska in that river of lava was not the smartest thing Xena ever did."
"Professor Byron is Valaska?" Mel asked stunned.
"So he says. Personally I don't give a rats ass if he's Hades himself. He contacted me after our little soiree six months ago. I'm willing to listen to anyone with plans for Jan's demise... and yours as well of course."
"Of course," Mel allowed.
Mel watched, feeling surprisingly calm as she looked down the barrel of a gun steadily drawing near. Leesto pulled a pair of handcuffs out of her pocket with a sinister grin. "We're going for a little ride Miss Pappas," she declared as she stepped within five feet of the Southerner.
"Not today," Mel muttered under her breath. Moving her foot, released the rope she'd been standing on.
Leesto saw the rope fly as she heard a whizzing sound. Without the time to turn around the backpack filled with rocks sailed from it's position in the branches of the shady tree and connected solidly with the back of the archeologist's head.
Mel knelt over the other woman's prone form and checked her pulse. She was alive, but very unconscious. Sending a silent thanks to Xena, Mel headed for the cliff edge.
Janice frantically climbed up the tunnel. Without a torch to guide her she fumbled in the inky darkness. Clenching her teeth she fought back cries of pain as she used her badly burned hand. That was one small asset afforded by the inky blackness, she couldn't see just how extensive the damage to her hand was. Byron's taunting laugh reached her ears as she continued to climb. "You can run but you can't hide, Janice Covington," Byron called.
Her attention focused solely on moving one limb after another she startled herself when her hand felt the distinctive smoothness of the stone sarcophagus. Janice pulled herself up onto the ledge she'd felt earlier. Sitting next to her ancestor's remains, she valiantly tried to focus her mind.
"You don't have much time Janice, think!" she told herself. "You're gonna die, what can you do?" Fumbling in her pocket with her left hand she extracted her lighter. She flicked it's switch and was rewarded by a tiny flame. Not much to see by, but she confirmed that there wasn't anything sitting on the sarcophagus lid. Letting the light go out, she climbed to her knees, wincing at the pain. Finding purchase in the seam of the lid, she pulled for all she was worth. With a shove, the top came off the stone tomb. It flipped over with a dull thud, rocked a couple of times, then lay still.
Reaching into the opened sarcophagus with one hand Janice felt around blindly. With her other hand she searched the area below the stone casing until her fingers touched a length of track. Pulling the wood free with her good hand, she pulled something soft and textured out of the sarcophagus at the same time with the other. Seconds later she lit the crude torch she'd fashioned. The faded material blazed to life, hints of bilious green still clinging desperately to the homespun fabric.
Now able to see, Janice spared a glance into the stone tomb. She stared, mesmerized at the pale white bones of the two intertwined skeletons. Fragments of leather and fabric still clung to the one on the bottom, bits of Amazon-styled cloth to the skeleton on top. The one, she realized, she'd robbed for her torch. Two small urns were also present, the names Cyrene and Lyceus faded but legible on the outer surfaces. Janice looked closer, finding bits of hair still unconsumed by time, red-gold and cave-black mixed together. Reaching out a trembling finger, she touched a strand, only to have the brittle hair crumble at her touch. Coming to a decision, she began to pull and tug at the stone, moving it into position.
Byron watched Janice run, feeling powerful and fearsome. He knew Janice Covington, knew the fear that clung to her soul like stars in the night sky. She could be dangerous when cornered so he decided to dispense with the games. He would not make the mistakes he'd made as Valaska.
"Time to say goodbye, Janice," he called out. "I need you out of the way to pay my final respects to Gabrielle." Staring intently at the cave floor, he noted with satisfaction the tiny rocks and pebbles that began to shimmer. Suddenly, the ground began to move as the cave floor was transformed into a blanket of crawling, chittering insects. With an evil grin, Byron watched the chittering carpet of destruction surge toward the back of the cave and the dark tunnels beyond.
Argo scrambled down the cliff face. The momentum of her movement made stopping an impossibility even if she'd wanted to. Following the instructions provided by her keen sense of smell, she headed down the cliff, unconcerned by the pounding surf below. Finally with the cave in sight, she leapt from a protruding boulder, landing lightly on her feet at the entrance to the stone mouth. Without a second thought, she sprang at the man she'd seen earlier at her mistress' workplace. Ninety-five pounds of teeth and muscled fury leapt for the neck of the person Argo somehow knew had to be stopped. All of this was observed by a second figure in the shadows. A presence Argo sensed but did not fear. Ancient eyes watched as the battle for the souls of the Third Age commenced. "Be brave, Janice," he whispered.
Not expecting the attack, Byron was caught completely off guard as the canine body slammed into his back. With a howl of pain and fury, he flung the red-gold dog away from his body. Argo landed with a yelp ten feet away. Extending a hand, a burst of light shot forth, narrowly missing the dog who ran behind the cover of a boulder. The cave shook with the energy from the explosion, causing small rock fragments to rain down from above.
Janice's good eye went wide with panic as her other eye throbbed painfully at the attempt. Still swolen from the impact of the book corner, Janice had to struggle to keep her vision in focus. From the first rumble of the cave floor, her heart rate doubled. A heavy rock, shaken loose from the ledge above tumbled down and landed squarely on her shin. She cried out in pain as she felt the tibia of her break from the cruhing blow. To make matters worse, she heard a soft sound, a faint chattering that steadily increased in volume. Propping her torch between a couple of big rocks she froze panic at the dark tide moving in her direction. It took a few moments of petrified observation from her unswollen eye before she realized that it was a swarm of insects. Beetles, centipedes, millipedes, earwigs, ants, and roaches all swarming toward her.
"Just so you know," the taunting voice of Byron called out. "I'm not going to cut off the flow of blood to your brain." He laughed at his own joke, which angered Janice enough to put her fear aside. "No my dear colleague, you're going to be eaten alive by any number of crawling things. Take a gook look at Gabrielle's bones, you'll be twins soon enough." With a pained gasp, Janice shoved the rock off her leg, sobbing as the pain shot through her. "You were so easy to beat," Byron continued. "I'd hoped to find the bodies without you, of course. But Leesto was never as smart as you. I handed her the drawings and the Solari stories, and she still didn't figure it out."
With tears flowing freely from her eyes, Janice got to her knees and crawled to the sarcophagus as the first of the insects reached her. She absently hoped the pain of her leg would keep her mind off the tiny bites. She was wrong. She felt every bite, every sting. In a futile attempt to buy herself some time, she sent a silent apology to her ancestors and crawled into the stone coffin.
"The Third Age will be mine, Janice, as was always destined." Byron bellowed with rage. "Once Ares is free I will have my due. You robbed me of a throne once, you won't stand in my way again."
Immediately she felt the brittle bones crumble under her weight. Still, she reasoned, that was the idea. Destroy what was left of Xena and Gabrielle. Outsmarting the insects for the moment, they made futile attempts to climb the slick sarcophagus surface. Still under attack by the tiny monsters already crawling on her, she fought against the pain of their attack, as well as the pain in her leg. With shaky hands she took the sticks of dynamite out of her shirt and held them reverently in her lap. Carefully she put one stick in the front of the coffin, one behind her, and one next to her thigh. The fourth she held toward the crude torch that was just out of her reach. In a matter of heartbeats, her sole source of comfort, the tiny flame, appeared to become her undoing. With a valiant stretch, she cried out as her tortured bones and muscles protested. Made of no sterner stuff than flesh and bone, she passed out, inches from her goal.