Joxer, Meg, and Autolycus belong to Universal Studios/Studios USA. I'm only borrowing these characters for this piece of experimental fiction. Everything else is from my incwedibwy scewy mind. NYAH!! Uh-huh-huh-huh.
Be warned. This story is VERY dark. There's extreme violence-physical and psychological. There is also the discussion of a rape and its aftermath. If you are under sixteen, GET OUT OF HERE NOW. THIS ISN'T FOR YOU. My writing is usually pretty intense. This ain't Teletubbies.
If you're looking for the silly Joxer and Meg-THIS ISN'T THE STORY TO READ.
THE GENESIS OF THIS PIECE
I know, I know. I said I wasn't going to write another fanfic piece. But to my great shock, my silly little story Braving the Inner Storm got quite a reaction. I was stunned by it. I'm STILL scratching my head in disbelief today. Or maybe it's the lice. >:-P Anyway, I was humbled and flattered by the responses. So, the wheels in my head began to turn again.
What could I do as a sequel? I figured that I wanted to turn more people on to my writing talents. Reasoning? I'm an aspiring writer-and hey, it worked for Melissa Good. I didn't want to center the new piece around Joxer again. I don't like to repeat stuff I did before. So, I began to think about Meg this time. Meg is a prostitute, and has obviously had a dark past. Why not explore that? Nobody else has, either on the show or in fan fiction.
So, I began playing around with ideas. Braving the Inner Storm was easier, because I was working in part off the episode THE CONVERT. I was also using some of my panic attack experiences to help color the story. This new piece required a LOT more thought. It REALLY was a challenge to write.
I started writing August 26. I ended October 20. This is more the average time for me, in terms of writing a story of this length. Braving the Inner Storm, by contrast, took 2 1/2 weeks. In the case of A Taste of Deja Vu, I had a lot more to think about, and the writing environment was pretty stressful this time around. The end result is a piece that is very different from Storm.
Despite what some of you may say, this really is my final Joxer/Meg story. But it may not be my final fanfic. There may be one or two more. If and when I do them, I'm planning on using Xena and Gabrielle. However, it's going to be quite a while before I write another fanfic piece again. I have to get back to work on my novel.
Anyway-I'm outta here. Enjoy the sequel. For first-time readers of my work, it does help if you read Braving the Inner Storm first, since there are one or two characters here that you will not be familiar with. These original characters appear in the first story.
As always, please tell me what you think of the piece-AND BE BRUTALLY HONEST. Don't hold ANYTHING back. I can handle it. An artist HAS to take criticism, NO MATTER HOW NEGATIVE IT IS.
If you're interested in more of my stories, log onto TRABAL CREATIONS.
Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
October 20, 1999
A crisp wind blew through the morning air. It twisted and turned, poked and pushed. Sweeping up a few stray leaves, the wind soared up and on, towards the open window of a large wooden house. A beautiful woman stood there, gazing out into the massive forest before her. The wind caught her hair, sweeping it up until a great mane of black whipped in the breeze. Her brilliant, ice blue eyes surveyed the forest, and then the ground below her. A warm smile formed on her beautiful, angular face as she relished the caress of the morning air. She closed her eyes, and took a deep breath, savoring the air's cleanliness.
"Ahhhh..." she purred. "It doesn't get any better than this."
The woman smiled saucily at the sound of the man's voice. Then she felt two arms snake around her, hands gently cupping her stomach. She readily leaned back into the man's embrace.
"Mmmmm..." she purred again.
She turned around, and her companion lowered his lips to hers. They parted, and soon, tongues began tasting each other eagerly, caressing, dueling. After a few moments of this, the couple stopped kissing. They placed their foreheads together. The woman smiled again, her blue eyes glowing with love and passion.
"Morning Joxer." she said softly.
Joxer returned the smile.
He leaned forward, nuzzling Meg's neck. She pulled her head back to give him better access.
"Hmmm?" he mumbled against her soft skin.
"Sweetie, we've got to get ready."
Joxer traced little circles around her skin with his tongue.
"I want to stay here."
Meg sighed slightly.
"We can't. We've got a lot to do."
Joxer nuzzled her neck a bit more. He sighed himself. Joxer pulled back, looking into Meg's eyes.
"Gods, Meg. I want to spend some more time with you."
Meg smiled sadly, placing her hand on the side of Joxer's face. "And I want to spend more time with you. Gods, that month and a half was too long, Joxer." She looked away for a few moments. Her eyes grew cold. Her lips twisted into a snarl. "Damn that Stamrus..."
Joxer quickly placed his hand on her chin, turning her face towards his.
"Forget about him. Xena took care of him."
Meg's eyes narrowed slightly. "After what he tried to do to us, that ain't gonna be easy, Joxer."
Joxer leaned in, pressing his lips against hers. His tongue gently pushed against her lips, asking for entrance. Meg quickly complied, and the two kissed each other deeply. Meg moaned into Joxer's mouth. She sucked greedily on his tongue. After a few heated moments, Joxer pulled back. He smiled devilishly.
"I get the feeling last night wasn't enough."
Meg raised an eyebrow. "Joxer, I was waiting on you for over a month and a half. I wanted to ravish you last night."
Joxer's eyebrows went up slightly. "That...ya did Meg."
Meg smiled wickedly. "Uh-uh. That, sweetie, was just a warm-up."
Joxer swallowed hard. His eyes widened. "W-W-Warm up??"
Meg chuckled heartily. She traced Joxer's jaw with her finger. "Oh yeah. I've got plans for you later, sweetie." She walked past him, and over to a chair, picking up some clean clothes. She sighed. "Anyway, I'm gonna take a bath."
Meg walked up to the door, opening it. She turned towards Joxer, raising an eyebrow. "Wanna join me?"
She left the room. Joxer ripped off his clothes in seconds, chasing after Meg.
Maria took a bite out her piece of bread. She looked at Joxer with a sly grin. Joxer stared at her, puzzled.
The huge, muscular woman chuckled, and shook her head.
Joxer put down his fork. He smiled uncertainly.
Maria smiled mischievously. Her eyes turned towards Meg, who was approaching the table with her breakfast. Meg sat down next to Joxer, placing her food on the table. Maria raised an eyebrow.
"Sounds like you enjoyed your bath, Joxer."
Joxer blushed, turning a deep crimson. Suddenly, the patterns on the table cloth looked incredibly interesting. Meg leaned slightly towards Joxer, grinning slightly and raising an eyebrow.
"I know I did."
Joxer's brows knitted, and he let out a tight, nervous smile. He grew even redder, if that was at all possible.
Maria laughed heartily. Meg kissed Joxer on the cheek. She nodded towards Joxer's plate.
"C'mon sweetie. Eat your eggs."
Joxer glared at Maria, then at Meg. He shook his head.
"Boy. You two are bad."
Meg smiled devilishly.
"Meg's a bad influence. What can I say?"
Joxer chuckled. He took a bite out of his eggs. His eyes widened in surprise.
"Mmmph!! Hey, not bad!! Meg?? You made these?!"
Joxer turned towards Meg, pointing his fork at her.
"I'm telling ya Meg, you've got a talent. I don't give a damn what anyone says. You're really a gifted cook Meg."
Maria's eyebrows went up.
"I second that."
Meg blushed, smiling shyly.
"And I third that."
The three looked up. A beautiful red-haired woman approached the table, holding her plate of breakfast.
Joxer waved her over.
"Ah c'mon. Join the fun, Francisca."
The woman smiled, curtseying slightly.
"Thank you, Joxer the Mighty."
Francisca got a chair, and sat down at the end of the table. Meg smiled at her in gratitude.
"Fran's the one who's given me these great cooking tips."
Francisca raised her hands, and shook her head.
"Whoa. Hold on there. Hold your horses. Meg, you had that talent in ya before we even met. All I did was just add a little spice to the talent."
Joxer nodded in agreement.
"I agree. Meg, you shouldn't feel shy about taking credit for your talent. You've always been a great cook. I believe in you Meg. Don't sell yourself short."
Meg turned to Joxer, and smiled warmly at him. She was deeply touched.
The four friends dug into their food. There was silence for a few moments as they ate. Then Maria spoke up.
"So! What's the plan? You guys are going to Kratos then?"
Francisca nodded, swallowing her food.
"Uh-huh. That's where we're going to pick up some furniture. Gods, Maria, you should've seen the stuff I saw. I mean, really high-quality, classy chairs and tables. And the prices are pretty darned decent!!"
"Yeah! I've heard of Mirtos. That guy's developing quite a reputation."
"How much furniture are ya planning to get?" asked Joxer.
Francisca sighed, scratching her chin in thought.
"Weeeeeelll...I was hoping we could get another four tables, and about ten chairs. The stuff we got to replace what Stamrus wrecked is...well, it's not the best stuff we got."
Maria grimaced slightly at the mention of Stamrus's name.
Francisca nodded. Her eyes grew cold.
Meg shook her head. She spoke up.
"Not to mention that the local guy, Calios, makes crappy furniture." she mumbled harshly. "Crappy, expensive furniture."
Joxer put down his fork. He sighed heavily.
Meg turned towards him, eyebrows knitted.
Joxer turned to Meg, eyes full of guilt.
"I broke some furniture too. I should pay you guys."
Meg raised her eyebrow in confusion. Maria stared at Joxer, bewildered.
"Joxer, what in Tartarus are ya talking about?"
Joxer hesitantly looked at Maria.
"Well...you remember when I messed up my hand, punching out that mirror?"
"Well, I-I...before I did that, I messed up a few tables and chairs...I-I was so upset about having to leave Meg. I-I should pay you for some of those tables and-"
"Forget it." said Meg firmly.
Joxer turned towards Meg, his face full of guilt and bewilderment.
Meg instantly clutched his chin. Her blue eyes bored into his.
"No. Don't even think about it."
Joxer swallowed hard, seeing the anger and determination blazing in her ice-blue eyes. He hesitantly grasped the wrist of the hand that held his chin.
"You guys...worked so hard for those..."
Meg raised her eyebrows slightly.
"My problem. You let me handle that."
She moved in, and tenderly kissed Joxer on the lips. Meg caressed his face lovingly. She raised an eyebrow.
"Now, eat. Before your food gets cold."
Joxer sighed, and shook his head. He picked at his eggs. Meg rubbed Joxer's leg affectionately. She turned towards Maria.
"So-you replaced the front wheel?"
"Yep. Runs like new."
Francisca chuckled, shaking her head.
"That's one durable carriage."
Maria nodded knowingly.
"Yeah, really. About a good half of the lumber we used to build this place was carried in that thing. They don't make carriages like that anymore."
"Aaaaand Mercury & Apollo finished up their hay this morning. They're filled up and ready to go."
"They're nice horses." said Joxer. "And boy, does Apollo love carrots!! He can't get enough of them!!"
"Got that right. Sometimes, I wonder if that horse is a reincarnated rabbit!"
The four chuckled. They soon finished their breakfasts. Francisca turned to Maria.
"So-you're staying here?
Maria nodded, wiping her mouth.
"Mm-hmm. Got some fixing up to do around here. Then I'm gonna see someone in town later."
Francisca turned to Meg and Joxer.
"So, it's gonna be the three of us then."
Joxer stood up.
"I'll go get the horses."
"I'll go with ya." said Francisca.
The pair took their plates and walked into the kitchen. Maria turned to Meg.
"How much you taking?"
"Ehh...about 300 dinars."
Maria rose to her feet.
"So-I'll see you back here in a couple of hours?"
Meg got up as well, picking up her plate.
"About that, yeah."
"All right then. You guys be careful out there."
"Whoa, guys. Whoa."
Francisca brought the horses to a stop. They were now overlooking the small town of Kratos.
"What's up, Fran?" asked Meg.
"Damn hole in the road. It's gotten bigger. Must've been the rain several days ago. Let's see if I can get around it. Yaaa..."
Francisca gently snapped the reins, and the horses drew the carriage carefully around the hole. Joxer's eyebrows went up slightly.
"Huh. That needs to be filled up. Don't want a horse or carriage getting caught in that."
Meg looked around. She frowned slightly. Joxer noticed this, and his brows knitted.
"What's up, Meg?" he asked.
"I was just remembering when you and I were here last..."
Joxer grasped Meg's hand. His eyes narrowed in pity.
She lowered her head.
"Ya know, I cried a lot when I got home. I missed you so much..."
Joxer wrapped his arm around her, and drew Meg close.
"I'm here now."
He tenderly kissed her on the cheek. Meg grasped Joxer's hand, and squeezed it tightly.
"I hope you're gonna stick around for a while." she said softly.
"Yeah. I am."
Meg turned towards him, smiling warmly.
"I'm glad to hear that."
"Okay, you two lovebirds." teased Francisca. "We're entering town."
Meg and Joxer looked up. The streets were filled with people. A group of women were busy sorting and examining assorted fruits and vegetables. In another area, warriors were haggling with a merchant over some weapons. Children ran about, laughing and playing. Francisca steered the carriage towards a large structure in the center of town. She pulled up alongside of it, bringing the horses to a stop.
"Here it is." said Francisca. "Mirtos's Furniture."
"Great!" answered Meg. "Let's get going!"
The three of them got off the carriage, and entered the large wooden building. Meg gasped in shock at the massive amount of furniture inside.
"Wow!!" she exclaimed.
Francisca turned towards her, smiling.
"What did I tell ya?"
Meg walked over to several chairs, examining them closely. A saleswoman walked up to her, smiling warmly.
"May I help you miss?"
Meg looked up, eyebrows raised.
"Huh? Oh yeah!! I'm looking around for a few chairs and tables. How much do these chairs go for?"
"20 dinars. Finest quality chairs you can buy."
Meg nodded slowly, scratching her chin.
"Hmmm...20 dinars, huh?"
She pursed her lips, walking around several chairs, once again taking a close look at them. The saleswoman spoke up again.
"How many were you planning on buying, miss?"
Meg's eyes narrowed in thought.
"Dunno yet. I'll let ya know."
"And tables? You said you were interested in tables."
Meg straightened up, rubbing her chin absently.
She turned to the saleswoman.
"Where are they?"
The woman pointed to an area just off to her right. An assortment of tables stood before them. Meg raised an eyebrow.
"From 45 to 75 dinars."
Meg nodded slowly.
She looked around, and sighed.
"I'll let ya know. Thanks."
The saleswoman nodded.
"No problem, Miss. My name is Daria. Call me if you need me."
The saleswoman walked off. Joxer and Francisca walked up to Meg's side.
"What do ya think?" asked Francisca.
Meg's eyes widened slightly.
"Not bad! Actually, I'm pretty impressed. Way better than that centaur shit Calios tries to pass off."
She turned to Joxer.
"Whaddaya think, Jox?"
Joxer nodded slowly.
"Hmmm...I like it. Nice stuff!"
He turned to Meg.
"Listen, I'm going into town. Just going to look around for a few odds and ends. I'll meet you guys back here in a little bit."
"Okay. Sounds good to me."
She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. Meg smiled.
Joxer grinned. He turned and left the building.
"For the last time. 25 dinars. Not one dinar less!!"
Joxer growled in frustration. He looked up at the old man, almost pleadingly.
"Aw, c'mon!! Please!! It's for my girlfriend!! C'mon, haven't you ever been in love before?!"
The old man's face remained cold, impassive. Joxer bit his tongue, turning aside for a moment.
"...probably hasn't even been laid before..." he muttered under his breath.
The old man's eyes widened in surprise and anger.
"What was that?!"
Joxer turned towards him, smiling innocently.
"Aw c'mon pops. Please. I can't afford more than 20 dinars."
The old man growled. He walked around the counter, eyeing Joxer face-to-face. Joxer recoiled slightly in fear. The old man suddenly reached out and grabbed his nose, twisting it hard. Joxer cried out in pain.
"Are you as stupid as you are deaf?!" began the old man. "Let me make this clear then. For the thousandth time, the price is twenty-five dinars. Twenty-five. Not twenty-two, twenty three, or even twenty-four. Twenty-five. Got it?!"
Joxer struggled in his grasp. His face was beet-red. A tear rolled down his cheek.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah!! Let go my dose!!"
The old man smiled cruelly, enjoying the pain he was inflicting on Joxer. Suddenly, the old man felt someone grab his right ear, twisting it viciously backwards. The old man shrieked in agony.
Meg drew close to the old man's ear, her face twisted into a heated snarl.
"Let go of my boyfriend's nose!!" she hissed.
The old man instantly let go. Joxer pulled back, rubbing his nose vigorously.
"Ouch!!" he exclaimed. "He almost ripped it off!!"
Meg growled savagely. She twisted the old man's ear again. He cried out in pain.
" Aaaaaigghh!! I give, I give!!"
"I tell ya what ya gonna give, ya scum-sucking sonofa-bacchae! Yer gonna give my boyfriend an apology."
"I-I-I-I-I'm-I'm sorry mister!! I-I'm sorry!!"
Meg snarled in disgust.
"Ya got that right."
She viciously shoved him backwards. He fell hard onto the ground. Joxer couldn't believe the fury in Meg's face. It was frightening.
Meg turned towards Joxer, her eyes ablaze.
"What was that about?!"
Joxer trembled in fear at the coldness in Meg's eyes.
"I-I-I just wanted to buy you some perfume. I-I was trying to haggle the price down from 25 to 20 dinars."
Meg's face softened slightly. She turned to the old man, a dark scowl covering her face again.
"This how ya treat yer customers, huh?!"
The old man stared at Meg in terror. Meg snatched a perfume bottle from his table.
"Twenty-five dinars? For this?"
She opened up the bottle and poured all of its contents onto his head. The old man screamed in pain as the perfume burned his injured ear.
"I wouldn't pay one dinar for this horse piss." Meg spat heatedly.
She dropped the bottle onto the ground as the old man cried, clutching his burning ear. Meg walked over to Joxer, slinging her arm around his.
"Let's get out of here."
The pair left, and soon they were near the entrance to an alley. Meg pushed Joxer against the side of a building. Joxer gasped.
"Shhh! Let me take a look."
Meg examined Joxer's nose closely. It was dark red, and an ugly bruise began to form on the bridge. Meg's eyes narrowed in sadness and pity.
She tenderly kissed it. Meg pulled back slightly, She looked deeply into Joxer's eyes.
"Joxie, I don't want you spending money on gifts for me."
Meg quickly placed her fingers on Joxer's lips.
"There's only one thing I want. You. Nothing else."
She pulled his head down, and tenderly kissed him. Her tongue caressed his lovingly. Meg pulled back, smiling warmly. Joxer blushed. He smiled shyly.
"I...I-I love you Meg."
Meg pressed up against him, rubbing her forehead on his.
"I love you too, Joxer."
She kissed him tenderly on the nose, caressing it with her lips. Meg pulled back, and took his hand.
"C'mon sweetie. Let's go."
Meg led Joxer out into the street. They walked along quietly for a few moments, holding hands. As they passed another alley, Joxer suddenly heard the sounds of someone crying. He stopped instantly.
Meg looked at him, puzzled.
"You hear that?"
Meg listened. She heard the crying. It sounded like that of a young girl. Meg and Joxer looked at each other.
"Let's take a look." said Meg.
The pair walked into the alley. Soon, the sounds of crying stopped. Meg turned to Joxer, and placed a finger to her lips. Joxer nodded. The two quietly crept forward. Meg spotted a small side door. She walked towards it, and suddenly spotted a young woman, cowering in terror. She had been beaten severely, and her clothes were torn. She stared at Meg, burrowing further and further into a corner. Meg gasped in shock.
Joxer's face filled with pain and an overwhelming sense of pity. He began to approach her.
"N-No!! No!!" shrieked the young woman.
"I'm not going to hurt you." said Joxer calmly. " I just want to help."
"N-No!! Go away!! "
Meg turned to Joxer.
"Let me handle this."
Joxer nodded. Meg slowly approached the girl. The girl cowered even more.
"P-P-PPlease don't-don't hurt me!!"
Meg stared at her, puzzled.
"Now why would I want to do that?" she said softly. "Sweetheart, you're badly hurt. You need help. I can help you."
Meg crouched down, giving the girl a warm, friendly smile.
"Don't be afraid. You can trust me."
The girl sensed Meg was telling the truth. She straightened up somewhat, still eyeing Meg cautiously. Meg, ever so slowly, approached her. She carefully outstretched her hand, delicately touching the girl's face. Meg tenderly stroked it. At this, the young woman broke down and began to cry. Meg took the young girl into her arms, holding her close.
"Ssssshhh, sweetheart. It's gonna be okay. Don't cry. Sssshhhh...."
Meg rocked the girl slowly in her arms. Joxer stared at the young girl's injuries. Rage began to rise in him. What kind of monster would do this to a young girl?!
Joxer knelt down beside Meg. He smiled tenderly.
"Hi. My name's Joxer. This is my girlfriend, Meg. What's your name?"
The young woman looked shyly at Joxer.
Meg gently grasped the young girl's chin, turning it so they were face-to-face.
"Who did this to you?"
The young girl swallowed hard.
"M-Men. Tsao-Li's men."
At hearing the name, Meg's color suddenly drained from her face. Both Joxer and the girl noticed this immediately. Concern filled Joxer's face.
"M-Meg? Meg, what is it?"
Meg stared out into space for a few moments, her eyes filling with anxiety. She quickly turned back to the girl.
"Gladys, this is important! Is this Tsao-Li a foreigner?? Almond-shaped eyes?? From the land of Chin?!"
The girl's eyes widened in shock.
"H-How do you know that?!"
Meg gasped. She swallowed hard, and began glancing around nervously. Joxer grew alarmed at Meg's behavior.
"Meg, what's going on?!"
Meg grabbed Joxer by the arm, and pulled him close. Her eyes were full of terror.
"Joxer, we've got to get this girl out of here!! Now!!"
"B-But who is-"
"I don't have time to explain!!" snapped Meg angrily. "Just get Francisca and tell her to bring the cart here!! Now!!"
Joxer nodded, and began to get up, but Meg grabbed his arm again.
"Hold it!!" she exclaimed.
Meg turned to Gladys.
"How many men are chasing you?"
Meg turned to Joxer.
"Alright go!! Hurry!!"
Joxer ran off. Gladys stared at Meg in bewilderment.
"H-How do you know Tsao-Li?!"
Meg grimaced. She held the girl close. A tear ran down Meg's cheek.
"Because I used to be one of his women."
"C'mon Fran!!" shouted Joxer. "Hurry!!"
"Coming, coming!!" exclaimed Francisca.
She jumped onto the front seat, snapping the reins. The horses lurched forward.
"Which way?!" said Francisca.
"Make a left-a left!! There!! Second alley on the right!!"
Francisca followed Joxer's instructions. Within moments, she reined in the horses, slowing the carriage to a stop. Joxer jumped from the carriage, running into the alley. He spotted Meg and Gladys.
Meg turned to Gladys.
Meg grabbed Gladys's shoulders, fire in her eyes.
"Don't argue with me!!" she exclaimed angrily. "I'm trying to save your life!!"
The girl hesitated for only a second. She got up. Meg, Joxer and Gladys ran towards the cart.
"There she is!!"
Meg glanced back for a second. Two men were running down the alley from the other direction, swords drawn. Terror filled her. She rushed forward, pulling Gladys along. The three climbed hastily into the back of the cart.
"Go, go, go!!" shouted Meg.
Francisca cracked the reins, and the horses took off. Joxer stared back at the two men. He spun towards Meg.
"Meg, what in Tartarus is going on?!"
Meg shook her head erratically.
"Not now, Joxer! When we get to someplace safe."
Joxer moved up to Meg. His eyes were full of anger.
"No. You're gonna tell me now. I ain't waiting until later."
Gladys looked out towards the back of the carriage. Her eyes widened in terror.
"By the gods- they're after us!!"
Meg and Joxer looked back. Four men on horseback were chasing after them, and were beginning to gain ground. Meg gasped.
She scrambled up to the front of the cart.
"We've got four men after us Fran!!"
Francisca stared at Meg in shock and anger.
"What?!? Meg, what in Tartarus is going on here?!?"
"Just get us out of here!! Explanations later!!"
Meg suddenly felt a hand grab her arm. She suddenly turned around. Joxer stared at her in anger and fear.
"Meg, who is this-this Taz-Taz-"
"Tsao-Li." said Meg sadly. "He used to be a pimp. I've heard he became a slave trader."
"H-How do you know him?!"
Meg lowered her head in shame.
"I-I used to work for him. Years ago."
Joxer stared at Meg, not believing what was going on. He looked back, and the men on horseback were slowly, but steadily, closing distance.
"Uh, Fran-" he began.
"I know, I know!!"
Francisca snapped the reins, harder and harder. The horses were going as fast as they could, but with the weight of people and furniture, they were just not able to go much faster. They tore along the dirt road, passing large groups of trees at a furious pace. Suddenly, Francisca noticed the road widening ahead of them. Another town lay before them.
"We're entering Piros!!" she shouted.
The horses and carriage tore down the road, and into the town. People screamed and ran for cover as the horses and carriage plowed down the street. The four men on horseback followed close behind. Francisca suddenly turned a corner, and found the path blocked by a huge herd of sheep and several carriages.
"Oh no!!" exclaimed Francisca.
She brought the horses to a halt. Meg instantly popped up, staring at Francisca in anger.
"Fran, what in Tartarus-"
"Road's blocked!! We got to get out!!"
Meg turned to Joxer and Gladys.
The three quickly got to their feet. They rushed to the back of the cart-
Only to stop in their tracks. The four men on horseback had crossbows pointed at them. One of them, a large, burly, dark-skinned man, spoke.
"Get out of that cart. Slowly."
Meg, Joxer and Gladys looked at each other. They had no choice. All three quietly obeyed. They got off and stood before the four horsemen. The man turned to his comrade.
"Colicos. Go find the driver of this cart."
He got off his horse, and ran out towards the front of the cart. The dark-skinned man shook his head and spoke again.
"Gladys, you are going to pay for this, I assure you. Tsao-Li is very displeased with your behavior. And as for you two, I'm going to make an example with your deaths for trying to help an escaped slave!!"
Gladys held onto Meg for dear life. Meg and Joxer stared at the horsemen in anger and fear. The three horsemen then lifted their crossbows.
The dark-skinned man spun towards the source of the cry. A greenish-black blur came rushing towards him.
Two heavy boots slammed into his face. Hard. The rider flew off his horse, crashing into the two other riders in rapid sequence. All three flew through the air, crashing into the ground. Their assailant flipped through the air, landing beside them. Meg's eyes widened in joy.
One of the riders slowly got to his feet, shaking his head. Autolycus tapped him on the shoulder.
The rider turned around. Autolycus threw a vicious right into his jaw. The man went flying through the air, crashing into some wooden crates. The other two men rose to their feet. They quickly drew knives.
"We're gonna hack ya ta pieces!!" growled the dark-skinned man.
Autolycus twirled his moustache.
"I'd like ta see ya try, meathead."
The two men rushed forward. Autolycus effortlessly somersaulted over their heads. The two men spun around. Autolycus whipped his foot at them. It smashed into their jaws. Blood and teeth exploded from their mouths. The momentum of the blow sent them into a spin. Autolycus quickly ran up to them and smashed their heads together with all his might. They dropped bonelessly to the ground. Autolycus raised an eyebrow.
"Enjoy your nap."
Autolycus looked up. Meg ran up to him and hugged him.
"Okay, okay, okay!! Easy!!" Autolycus exclaimed.
He pulled back, staring at Meg in concern.
"Meg, why are these guys after you??"
"Hold it!!" exclaimed Joxer. "What about Fran?!"
"I'm okay, Joxer."
He spun around. Francisca stood before him, rubbing her fist.
"I took care of the last guy."
She walked up to him, placing a hand on his shoulder. Francisca smiled.
"Maria taught me well. I'm not so easy to push around anymore."
Joxer returned the smile. Both turned to face Autolycus and Meg. Autolycus smiled at seeing Joxer.
"Ya know, I'd never thought I'd say this, but it's good seeing you Joxer."
He walked up to him, grasping his hand in a firm handshake. Joxer grinned.
"You too, Autolycus."
Meg rushed up to Gladys.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah-y-yeah, I-I'm okay."
Meg grabbed Autolycus's arm. He spun towards Meg, eyebrows knitted.
"We gotta get outta here. I'm trying to save this girl from those men. We gotta get as far away from here as possible."
"The road's clearing up in front of us." said Francisca.
"Good. Let's get going."
"Okay. Lie back sweetheart." said Maria.
Gladys relaxed into the comfortable bed. Maria tenderly wiped the hair from her eyes.
"Feel better, honey?"
Gladys smiled in gratitude.
"Yeah, I do. Thank you so much."
Maria returned the smile.
"You're welcome. Now, I want you to try and get some sleep, okay?"
A dark shadow covered Gladys's face.
"I-I'm afraid to sleep."
Maria crouched down alongside Gladys, her face overwhelmed with pity. She tenderly placed her huge hand on the side of Gladys's face.
"You don't have to be afraid, honey. You're with friends now. No one's going to hurt you."
Maria's eyes turned to ice.
Gladys swallowed hard at hearing the barely controlled rage in Maria's voice. She could see tears welling up in her eyes.
"A-are you crying...for me??"
Maria smiled weakly. She nodded slightly. Gladys stared at her in amazement.
"No one's every cried for me before."
Maria tenderly ruffled her hair.
"Just rest, sweetheart. I'll be right outside."
Maria rose. She left the room, and closed the door behind her. The moment she did this, Maria began to cry. Francisca rushed up to her side, taking Maria into her arms.
"Hey, hey!!" Francisca crooned.
Autolycus and Joxer exchanged somber glances. Joxer turned towards Meg. She sat by a window, staring out of it. Joxer could see the pain churning underneath the seemingly impassive mask. He walked over to Meg, and sat down beside her. Joxer grasped her hand.
"Meg? Please tell me what's bothering you. What's all this about? I want to help."
Meg swallowed hard. A shudder cascaded through her. Joxer grew alarmed. He drew closer.
"Meg, what is it?!"
Meg bit her lower lip. Tears began to trickle down her cheeks. She looked at Joxer in shame in grief.
"Tsao-Li and I go back to about eight years ago. He used to be a pimp. And I was his whore."
Meg looked down, and chuckled harshly.
"He always called me his 'favorite acquisition'."
Meg twirled her tongue around in her mouth. She looked up. This time, Francisca and Maria stood behind Joxer. Autolycus drew a little closer. Meg wiped the tears from her eyes and looked out the window. A cold, emotionless grin formed on her lips.
"Oh, those were the days. Oh yeah. My little bad-ass self. Doing tricks with just about anything that walked and talked. I ran into Tsao-Li in Athens. He took a liking to me. A big liking. He asked me if I wanted to come to work for him. And I did."
Meg looked down at her dress, absently fiddling with the fabric. Then she looked out the window again and continued.
"Soooo, I went traveling with him. It was kind of exciting. We met all sorts of people. Warlords, rich merchants, you name it. Tsao-Li had a pretty good operation going on. I basically was meant only for high-bidding customers. Some were royalty. Princes and princesses. Man or woman, it didn't matter. It paid my way. Oh yeah, the money. I saw a lot of that going around. Huh. Good ol' Tsao-Li knew how to party. And he partied hard."
Meg sighed. Her brow furrowed as the darker memories kicked in.
"There was a side of Tsao-Li that I saw every once in a while. Not so much in the beginning, though. A dark side. In the beginning, he used to treat me with a lot of respect. I guess, being attractive to him and all, being his favorite acquisition, he treated me okay. But I saw things. I sometimes saw him treat woman he didn't find so hot like dogs. He'd spit on them, smack them around. That caught my attention.
"One night, I was wandering through a warlord's camp. I heard these cries coming from a tent. I sneaked up to the tent, and peered through a hole in it. This-this young girl was on her knees. She couldn't have been more than eighteen or nineteen. Tsao-Li and the warlord were beating the shit out of her. And at one point, Tsao-Li pulled down his pants and pissed all over her. He looked up at the warlord, laughed, and said, 'This is the only thing women are good for.'"
Meg looked down at the ground. Tears filled her eyes. Joxer squeezed Meg's hand. He was visibly shaken, and internally, he felt a thousand times worse. Joxer quickly turned to the others. Francisca's face mirrored his. Maria and Autolycus, however, wore grim masks. Joxer could see the rising fury surging underneath them. Meg wiped the tears from her eyes and sighed.
"I go to the edge of the forest, and throw up. I-I-I mean, what in Tartarus did I get myself into here?! I thought, by the gods, how long will it be before I'm the one being pissed on?!
"I-I got back to my tent. Couldn't sleep. Had nightmares about that poor young girl who didn't deserve any of that. So...next morning comes. I-I come out of my tent. I see a cart pass my tent. And in it-"
She stopped suddenly. A surge of agony shot across Meg's face. She bit her lower lip, her eyes wandering rapidly over the floor. Joxer quickly placed a hand under her chin, lifting it. His brown eyes searched her blue ones.
"M-Meg??" Joxer asked, already knowing what was coming next.
Meg stared at Joxer, tears streaming down her face. Her lower lip trembled.
"I-In it was the girl's body. She'd been strangled. The rope was still around her neck."
"Gods..." growled Autolycus in disgust.
Meg wiped her face again. She looked out the window into the forest.
"I knew, right then and there, that I had to get out. Problem was, Tsao-Li was...kinda possessive. You don't just walk out on him."
Meg snorted. She chuckled harshly and shook her head.
"I talked to some of the other girls a bit more. Being kinda new, I wasn't all that sure of of the goings on. It wasn't good to get too nosy. But boy, after that poor girl got offed, I started looking into how the other girls were treated. How Tsao-Li and his cousin, Chang Su, would whip, sodomize, just plain give these girls hell. Many were scared beyond Tartarus. I heard some horrific stories. Some of them had tried slashing their wrists. Gods, I was so naive back then..."
Meg shook her head in disgust. She paused, her eyes wandering over the floor. Then she continued.
"Huh. Tsao-Li began to suspect I was onto something. Sooo, over the next couple of weeks, he started playing mind games with me. To see how I would react. He asked me if I was happy with him, I said I was. He'd start making these little snide comments about women while I was around, almost as if I wasn't there. And he sensed he was getting to me. I tell ya, I was really starting to get scared. I-I wanted to figure out a way to get out of there, but I couldn't.
"Yeah. Okay. Then-then one day, this Roman centurion comes over to Tsao-Li and asks for me one night. I thought that this might be my chance. I go with him to his mansion, do my thing. Then I leave. And I thought that now would be the best time to skip town."
Meg swallowed hard. She shuddered slightly. Joxer got up and sat next to Meg, putting his arm around her.
"Meg, you don't have to go on." he said softly.
Meg shook her head.
"N-No. I gotta tell the rest...."
She looked around her nervously, and continued.
"A-All right. So I-I said, screw Tsao-Li. I ain't going back to him. Na-uh. And I leave town. I'm thinking, okay, okay. Just gotta get myself on a boat, and I'll be okay. Except when I got to the boat..."
Meg bit her lower lip. A tear rolled down her cheek.
"When I got to the boat, Chang Su and another guy were waiting for me. They asked, 'where are you going, whore?!' I was stuck. I-I didn't know how to answer. They-they dragged me away, into an alley..."
Meg grimaced in agony. Maria instantly was at her side. She sat down in front of her and clasped her hand. Her face was filled with sympathy.
"Meg," she began. "You don't-"
"They raped me. Beat the shit out of me. No-you gotta hear the rest. I'm tired of holding this in. Yeah. That bastard Chang Su. Called me a filthy bitch, no-good whore. They took me back to Tsao-Li..."
Meg trembled erratically. Joxer held her tight. Tears began to trickle down his cheeks.
"Tsao-Li beat and raped me the rest of the night. Broke several of my ribs. They dumped me on a road outside of Rome, leaving me for dead. Bastard..."
Meg began to cry. Joxer kissed the top of her head and rocked Meg gently.
"Meg, sweetheart....By the gods, I'm so sorry....Don't cry. Sssssshhhhh...."
Maria turned to Autolycus.
"By the gods...I-I'm going to kill him."
"Not good enough punishment...." he muttered harshly.
"He's gotta be stopped."
All four turned towards Meg. There was a coldness in her eyes that Maria and Francisca had never seen before. But Joxer and Autolycus had seen it. It was the exact, predatory look that Xena had when she was about to go after a foe. Meg spoke again.
"We've gotta stop him." she said in a cold, dark voice. "We've gotta come up with a plan and put that son-of-a-bacchae out of business. For good."
Autolycus crouched at Meg's side. He placed a hand on his shoulder.
"Meg, I've heard of Tsao-Li. He may have been just a pimp back then, but this guy's gotten a lot more powerful since you knew him."
Meg's eyes narrowed into feral slits.
"I don't care. He's gotta be stopped. Look what happened to that poor girl, Gladys."
"I wish I knew where Xena was..." sighed Autolycus.
Joxer shook his head.
"She ain't around, Auto. She and Gabrielle are out of the country."
"Then we've got to figure out a plan." said Maria. "There's got to be some way of stopping this bastard."
Meg sighed slightly.
"Only thing we can do now is let Gladys rest. We can talk to her tomorrow morning about Tsao-Li. She's got to get lots of rest."
"I agree. I'm gonna stay with her, in case she needs anything."
Autolycus stood up. His face was set with determination.
"Well, whatever it is you guys plan on doing, count me in. I'll help in any way I can."
Meg smiled slightly.
"Thanks, Auto. I appreciate it. You're welcome to stay here."
Autolycus returned the smile.
"No problem Meg."
"Let me find you a room." said Francisca. "C'mon."
Autolycus got up.
The two left. Maria rose to her feet. She tenderly stroked Meg's head.
"I'll do anything you need Meg." she said. "Just name it."
Meg grasped her wrist and squeezed it. She looked up at Maria and smiled.
Maria turned, and left. Joxer rubbed Meg's back affectionately.
"Let's go someplace where we can talk in private about this." he said softly.
Meg turned towards Joxer.
"What did you have in mind?"
"A hot bath? It'll help you relax."
Meg sighed, nodding slowly.
"Yeah. I'm game."
Meg sat in the large tub, silently staring ahead. Joxer tenderly scrubbed her back. He moved around slightly, looking at Meg's profile.
"How does that feel?"
Joxer let the sponge float on the water. He moved around to face Meg. Joxer grasped her hands. He looked at Meg timidly.
"So, what happened after Tsao-Li...?"
Joxer looked at the water, having grown very uncomfortable. Meg sighed slightly. She lifted Joxer's chin, and smiled sadly.
"Don't feel bad Jox."
Joxer shook his head slightly.
"It's just that...m-maybe I shouldn't be asking these...oh, I don't know..."
Meg moved in closer. She eyed Joxer steadily.
"Joxer, it's okay."
Joxer looked at Meg with sadness and pity. Meg sighed, and spoke again.
"This guy found me. His name was Nickolai. He lived up in the mountains. I think he was from Gaul. An incredible healer. I don't know how he did it, but he brought me back from the brink of death. I had to stay with him for almost two weeks. But Nickolai took incredible care of me. He brought me back."
Meg paused. Darkness covered her face.
"And during that time-t-that time I was there, I-I thought about my life. I was so disgusted. I-I hated myself. I hated myself so much. I felt cursed. Gods...I-I justed wanted to die. Nickolai talked to me, a-and he tried to get me to turn myself around. But the pain...the pain and that self-hatred was too much."
Meg turned around. She looked up at the ceiling.
"Even now...even now I wonder what my purpose is. Do people still look at me as a joke?"
Meg looked down at the water.
"Maybe I still am..."
Joxer shook his head.
Meg turned towards Joxer. Anger and despair surged across her features.
"I'm glad the gods made me infertile. Gods, I don't even know why I thought that I could bring up that baby I asked you and Auto to help me kidnap-"
Joxer grabbed her shoulders.
"Meg, stop it!" he said harshly.
Meg stared at Joxer, her eyes brimming with tears.
"Why?! Why me?! W-What did I do to deserve this life?!"
Meg broke down and began to cry bitterly. Joxer instantly took her into his arms, and held her tight. He kissed the top of her head. Meg continued to cry. Joxer looked up towards the ceiling with rage. Yet again, he felt a bitter hatred towards the gods. What an ability they had to make this life miserable.
He held Meg for a while. Slowly, the crying stopped. There was silence for a few long moments. Joxer pulled back slightly. He tenderly placed his hands on either side of Meg's face and lifted it up to face him.
"Hey..." he cooed softly.
"Joxer, please hold me. I don't want to be let go."
Joxer wrapped his arms around Meg again. Meg burrowed her head into Joxer's shoulder. He pulled her towards the edge of the tub. Joxer leaned back against the tub's edge. He bent his head towards Meg's ear.
"I ain't gonna let ya go, sweetheart." he said softly. "I'm here as long as ya need me."
Meg pressed further into Joxer. He kissed the top of her head, rocking her gently in the warm water.
"We looked everywhere for them!! But they disappeared!!"
The dark-skinned man then turned to his three comrades. They stared at him nervously. Then the four turned their attention back to the table before them.
At the table sat a man. Dark hair. Oriental features. Wearing a red robe. In his hands, he had a chicken leg. The man bit into it, ripping off a chunk of meat. He chewed slowly.
He licked his lips, studying the length of the leg. He sighed slightly, his dark brown eyes studying the crisp flesh that hung from it.
Then he bit into it again.
The four men stared anxiously at him. The man quietly reached for a jug, pouring some wine into a goblet. His eyes then focused on the four. But for only a moment. He casually brought the goblet to his lips, and began to drink the wine. The only sounds in the room were those of the wine being drunk, and nervous breathing.
The man set the goblet on the table. He gazed at the four again, his eyes showing no emotion. He looked to his left. Another man stood there. Oriental features as well. He wore a sleeveless purple shirt. He was muscular. His face was cold, impassive. His eyes met those of the other man for a few moments. Then their gazes returned to the four. The man at the table spoke.
"So, Malsam. What do you expect me to say?"
The dark-skinned man bit his tongue nervously. The man at the table was silent for a few moments. He spoke again.
"I asked you a question, Malsam. What do you expect me to say?"
Malsam swallowed hard.
"I-I don't know, Tsao-Li."
Tsao-Li snorted slightly.
"You don't, eh?"
Tsao-Li nodded. He rose from the table, and walked to the front of it. He looked towards his left, motioning the other man forward with his head. The man walked over to Tsao-Li's side. Tsao-Li pursed his lips slightly, nodding. He spoke again.
"Okay. Here's what's on my mind. I lost a valuable piece of merchandise. I asked you to recover it. And you didn't."
The man standing by Tsao-Li walked up to Malsam. The man's eyes grew ice cold. Malsam stared at him in ever-growing fear. Tsao-Li spoke again.
"I'm afraid that my cousin, Chang-Su, must teach you the price of such folly."
Chang-Su's face grew dark. He came closer. Malsam's body shook in terror. He felt a warm wetness trickle down his leg.
"No Tsao-Li, please-"
Malsam squinted his eyes shut, bracing for pain that never came. He slowly opened his eyes. He was looking straight into the green eyes of Chang-Su. He saw that Chang-Su's left arm was outstretched.
He followed it...
And saw that his hand held the handle of a large knife. A knife that was embedded in the belly of the man standing next to him. Malsam gasped.
Chang-Su withdrew the knife with a slick, wet sound. Colicos dropped to his knees. His eyes bulged out of his head. A red foam erupted from his mouth. He made a harsh, gurgling sound, and dropped to the floor, dead. Chang-Su lifted the knife, wiping the side of the blade along Malsam's face. Then Chang-Su spoke.
"Next time, it might be you."
He walked back to Tsao-Li's side. Tsao-Li spoke again.
"The rest of you will receive sixty lashes each for your incompetence. Plus one week in solitary confinement."
The three men gasped. Out of the darkness came seven more men. Six took hold of the remaining three. Tsao-Li glared at them in disgust.
"Take them away."
The three were dragged out. The last man dragged out the corpse. Tsao-Li turned to his cousin.
"Six more days, and we'll be doing business with Dabros."
He turned around, reaching for his jug. Tsao-Li poured some more wine into his goblet. Chang-Su spoke.
"I'm looking forward to his visit. Dabros of Crete is a very wealthy merchant."
Tsao-Li nodded and smiled slightly.
"Indeed. Which is why I'm extending my stay here. This will give me time to load both ships with supplies before we journey off. Dabros is known for his appetite for women."
"And his penchant for spending lots of money."
They looked at each other, and smiled.
Gladys stabbed at her eggs with a fork. She put the food in her mouth and chewed on it contentedly. Meg looked at her, smiling.
"Like the eggs?" she asked.
Gladys nodded. She chewed some more, then swallowed. Autolycus looked at Gladys.
"So. Dabros is gonna be here in four days, you say?"
Gladys nodded again.
"Y-Yes. That's what I heard Chang-Su say. Dabros was looking to buy some art in Boecia, and then meet with Tsao-Li."
Meg leaned towards Maria. She spoke again.
"If there was a way to amass some troops, we may be able to capture Tsao-Li, Chang-Su, and his two ships. We can try and set some sort of trap!"
Meg paused, and frowned.
"But what kind of trap...??"
Autolycus sighed slightly.
"There's a problem with that. I see why Tsao-Li has his slave ship off these shores, and his 'pleasure ship' off the shores of Boecia. The kingdom of Mirtan has no law against slavery. Keeping his other ship off Boecian shores is legal, since it's just a 'pleasure boat'. He gets clients onto his 'pleasure boat', then ferries them over to the slave ship to check out the merchandise. Clever..."
Maria raised an eyebrow.
"I just remembered. King Daites is supposedly looking into creating laws against slavery. But he has yet to finalize anything. If we can only get Prince Philemon and King Daites to work together..."
"I can talk to Philemon!!" said Meg quickly. "He'll listen to me! Maybe we can get him to convince King Diaties to combine troops and stop Tsao-Li!!"
Maria raised her eyebrows, nodding in agreement.
"That could work! I could arrange a meeting between you and Prince Philemon."
Autolycus slowly began to smile, as an idea came to him.
"And I got an idea. One we can use if we can get both kingdoms' troops to work together with us."
Meg raised an eyebrow.
"Really?? Go on, Auto!"
"Ooookay. I take Dabros's place. I check out the merchandise. When I come back to make the purchase, that's when the troops jump on them!!"
Maria stared at him quizzically.
"How do ya know Dabros hasn't met with Tsao-Li??"
Autolycus leaned towards Maria.
"Because Tsao-Li has been out of the country for quite some time. Dabros came into his wealth a year or so ago. Tsao-Li's been away from here for about close to three years. Trust me. I know quite a bit about these two. If those two had done business, I would've known about it. I've got lots of contacts. Nothing gets by this nose."
"I knew there was a reason I liked ya, Mr. Stinky."
Autolycus's jaw dropped. His eyebrows knitted.
"Hey!! I thought ya weren't gonna call me that anymore!!"
Joxer laughed heartily. Autolycus glared at him. He lifted his fork towards Joxer.
"Like a fork up your nose, laughing boy??" he said, raising an eyebrow.
Joxer stopped instantly. He lifted his hands in the air.
"No-no. I've had enough problems with my nose lately."
Maria turned to Meg, brows knitted.
"I really hope we can get all this to work."
Meg turned towards Maria. Her smile disappeared. Her face showed traces of anxiety.
"We have to. We can't do this alone."
"The only way you can stop Tsao-Li is by getting an army in there." said Gladys quietly. "He has too many men. And Tsao-Li is not above killing everyone aboard the slave ship. If he thinks there is any threat, he will do it."
Meg lowered her head. A quiet anger roiled through her features.
"Huh...that doesn't surprise me."
The others stared at each other. Autolycus turned back to Gladys.
"How many women aboard the slave ship?" he asked.
Gladys sighed. She paused for a moment, then spoke.
"What kind of shape are they in?" asked Maria.
Gladys's face grew dark.
"Caged like animals. He dresses and feeds most of us well enough, but this is only so that the buyers see a healthy product."
She sighed, paused for a few moments, and continued.
"The more attractive ones are sold to high-price customers. The less attractive ones are sold to people who need them for hard labor. Tsao-Li can be very brutal. Especially with the women he does not find so attractive. He demands complete obedience and respect."
Gladys paused for a moment, as a particularly dark memory resurfaced. She trembled in horror as it fully manifested itself. Meg quickly moved to her side, placing a hand on her shoulder.
"Gladys, what is it?"
The girl swallowed hard. A few moments of tense silence passed. Gladys spoke, a far-away look in her eyes.
"T-There was one time." she began quietly. " O-One time that he enforced this. It was over three weeks ago. He had a bunch of us on deck. Tsao-Li brought out a woman who had been a troublemaker, somebody who had enough guts to stand up to him. T-The woman had been so badly beaten that she could barely stand. And this woman had been one of the better-looking slaves.
"Tsao-Li told us that disrespect and disobedience of any kind would not be tolerated. He said he was going to show us what would happen to those who would defy him.
"C-Chang-Su dragged the woman to a large steel pit that's embedded in the deck. This was new. It had been installed only several days before. She was tossed into the pit. Chang-Su dumped oil on her. A-And then, he lit her on fire..."
Tears trickled from Gladys's eyes. Meg wrapped her arm around her, holding her close. Tears came to her eyes as well. The others sat there in stunned silence. Gladys continued.
"I-I-I had never heard anyone scream like that before. Never. I-I just stood there. It-it was as if it were some crazy nightmare. Women around me began to cry. The screaming just went on and on..."
"And then, it stopped. Just stopped. The smell of her burning flesh made me throw up. I...I..."
She couldn't continue. Gladys stared into space, tears running down her face Meg quickly grasped the girl's chin, turning Gladys's face towards hers.
"You don't have to say any more, sweetheart." she said softly.
Gladys began to cry bitterly. Meg held her tight, rocking her gently and kissing her on top of the head.
"Let all the pain out." Meg said softly. "Cry, sweetheart... Cry as much as you want."
Gladys burrowed her face into Meg's shoulder and wept. Maria moved her chair closer and rubbed Gladys's back affectionately. Autolycus got to his feet. He looked down at the three women. He trembled with rage. Autolycus turned and left the room. Joxer quickly got up and followed him.
"Autolycus!! Wait up!!"
Autolycus entered his room, walking over to the window. He stared out of it, grinding his teeth. Joxer walked into the room.
Autolycus gazed at the sky.
"I knew Tsao-Li was a bad apple, but... torching women?!?"
A moment of tense silence. He turned to face Joxer.
"Ya know, I've never killed. Not that the thought hasn't crossed my mind occasionally. But in this case..."
Autolycus shook his head. Joxer walked up to him, his face grim.
"Ya don't wanna go there. Trust me. Once you kill, everything changes."
Joxer grabbed Autolycus's arm. He stared at him, his eyes cold and filled with pain.
Joxer turned around. He sighed, shaking his head.
"Look Autolycus. There's gotta be some way of trying to take him in alive."
Autolycus snorted harshly.
"Huh. Where in Tartarus have you been??"
Joxer turned to face him, eyeing him quizzically. Autolycus continued.
"I'm telling ya, this guy is bad news. Taking him out is an option we are going to have to consider. If I have to do it myself, I will. Okay. I'll admit to womanizing. But the thing is, I've always been a gentleman. I don't believe in abusing women. But what this guy does..."
"I wish Xena were around..." grumbled Joxer. "She'd make short work of that son-of-a-bacchae."
"Well, she's not." said Autolycus. "It's just us. And we can only pull this off if we can get Prince Philemon to help us."
"Which is what I am going to do."
Autolycus and Joxer turned around. Meg stood in the doorway. Her face was set in determination.
"I told Maria to go see Philemon. She'll arrange a meeting. We can talk to him then."
Joxer walked up to Meg. He placed a hand on her shoulder.
"Keep the faith, Meg. I'm sure we can work something out with him."
Meg gazed at the ceiling, her eyes full of anxiety.
"By the gods, I hope so."
Joxer scratched the back of his head. He looked up into the overcast sky. The gray clouds drifted along, as if part of a massive river. He turned to Meg. She sat on a stone, gazing into the forest.
"You okay?" he asked.
Meg sighed slightly.
"Ah...I dunno. I-It just is a little uncomfortable, that's all. Seeing Philemon, after all this time."
Joxer walked up to Meg, placing a hand on her shoulder.
Autolycus walked forth from behind some trees, along with Gladys. He spoke.
"I hear some horses coming." Joxer and Meg got to their feet. Soon, they also heard the horses. Within a few moments, eight appeared. Riding one of them was Maria. Prince Philemon rode another. Accompanying them were six soldiers. The riders brought their horses to a stop. They dismounted their horses. Maria and Philemon walked over to Meg and Joxer. The golden-haired prince smiled warmly.
"Hello Meg. It's been a long time."
Meg smiled sadly.
"I know. How's King Lias, Diana, and the baby?"
"Everyone is fine."
Philemon frowned slightly.
"We all miss you a lot."
Meg lowered her head and bit her lip. She sighed slightly, and looked up.
"Maybe one day, I'll visit you guys."
"I hope it's soon."
Philemon straightened himself. He walked closer to Meg.
"Maria told me the problem. Where is this young woman you rescued?"
"I'm here, Your Majesty."
Gladys walked forward. She took off her hood and cloak. Philemon's eyes widened in horror at the vicious injuries on her face, arms, and legs.
"By...the...gods..." he gasped.
Philemon's face grew dark and stern. He turned to Meg.
"How could he do something like this to another human being?!"
Meg gazed at Philemon solemnly.
"That's something I've asked myself many times."
Meg lowered her head. Philemon gazed at her quietly. His features softened slightly. He turned to Gladys. Philemon walked up to her, placing a hand on her shoulder. His blue eyes grew cold.
"I'll see to it that Tsao-Li is put out of business."
He turned to Meg.
"So. Maria tells me Dabros of Crete is supposed to meet with Tsao-Li in six days."
Meg nodded. Philemon's eyes narrowed.
"Tsao-Li's very clever...He knows Mirtan hasn't enacted an anti-slave law yet. He knows I can't legally touch him with his slave ship off Mirtan's shores."
"What about King Daites?" asked Meg. "Will he agree to combining his troops and yours to stop Tsao-Li? "
Philemon smiled warmly.
"I'm sure he will, Meg. Daites and I have become fast friends, and we are working to try and unite our two peoples further. His father would probably not have been as accommodating. Relations during his father's reign had been a bit strained, but since his recent coronation, Daites is intent on trying to change that. He and his wife, Queen Ralias, are good people. Daites is quite adamant about ending slavery. It's something that he and his wife are very passionate about. I've sent a messenger to his castle to inform him I'm coming. I'll be talking to Diates about this."
Meg smiled, sighing in relief.
"Thank the gods..."
He turned to Gladys.
"I'd like you to accompany me. Are you able to travel?"
Gladys turned towards Meg, eyeing her quizzically. Meg walked up to Gladys and placed a hand on her shoulder.
"It's okay Gladys. And besides, you're safer with Philemon. He'll protect you."
"I'll take her back to Boecia when I'm done with Daites." said Philemon. "She can stay at the castle, where she'll be well-looked after."
Gladys gasped in total shock. She shook her head in disbelief.
"Y-Your Majesty!! But I-I'm just a-a commoner!!"
Philemon turned to her. He placed his hands on her shoulders.
"No. You are a human being. Just like me. Take away the title, and I'm just a man. You are a human being Gladys, and it's high time you were treated like one for a change."
Gladys trembled slightly. Tears came to her eyes.
"I-I-I-I don't know what to say!!"
Philemon smiled warmly.
He turned to Maria.
"Maria, would you accompany me to see Daites?"
"Of course, Your Majesty."
He turned back to Meg.
"Um, Meg? I was wondering if I could speak to you for a moment. In private."
Meg nodded uncertainly.
"Um, y-yeah, sure."
Philemon walked over to Meg, placing a hand on her shoulder. He led her away from the others, and they stopped under a group of trees. Philemon turned to her.
"Maria tells me you plan to testify against Tsao-Li once he's captured."
"Yes. I want to help put him away for good."
Philemon placed a hand again on her shoulder.
"I understand he hurt you a great deal."
Meg lowered her head.
"He left me for dead after he beat and raped me."
Philemon's face darkened. Rage surged within him. And through the rage, he also felt a tremendous admiration for Meg's willingness to confront Tsao-Li. He squeezed her shoulder slightly.
"Meg, what you're doing is very brave."
Meg blushed slightly, lowering her head.
"I-I'm just trying to do the right thing."
Philemon paused a moment. He spoke again.
"Meg...please remember that I'm a friend. So is Diana and King Lias. We won't judge you. We never have."
Meg turned away, her face filled with embarrassment.
"Y-You know then. About...what I did with the King's money...w-what I'm doing now."
She spun towards Philemon.
"I-I'm working to turn this into a restaurant, you know. I-I'm trying to put that life behind me. And so are the other girls who work there-"
"Meg." interrupted Philemon. "I...will not judge you. Or the girls that are with you. Believe that. Please."
Meg lowered her head, her eyes wandering nervously over the ground. Philemon placed a hand under her chin, and lifted it so she faced him. He spoke again.
"I will always be your friend. So will Diana and King Lias. You are welcome back to the castle any time you wish."
"And what about my girls?" Meg asked. "What about them? I-I mean, they can't all live in your castle!"
"No." Meg said firmly. "No, I can't. I don't belong there. I-I mean, I care for all of you very much, but I don't belong there. And it wouldn't be right for me to abandon those girls."
A moment of silence. Philemon smiled warmly.
"Xena was right about you having a warm, loving heart."
Meg blushed. She lowered her head.
"I-I'm not that special." she said in a small voice.
Philemon shook his head.
"I disagree. You're more special than you know."
He turned towards Joxer, who was gazing curiously at the pair. Philemon smiled slightly. He turned back to Meg.
"Still with Joxer, I see."
He looked back at Joxer, and nodded his approval.
"Joxer is a very, very lucky man."
Meg couldn't help but smile slightly at this. She looked up at Philemon.
"I love him with all my heart." she said softly.
Philemon smiled warmly.
"I'm happy for you, Meg. You and Joxer make a perfect pair."
Meg blushed even further. She lowered her head, smiling shyly.
"I should go. There's much to do. C'mon."
Meg and Philemon walked back towards the others. Autolycus approached him.
"Prince Philemon, I'm going to find out where Dabros is staying. Once you finalize everything with King Daites, I want to meet with you. I've got a plan on how we might be able to stop Tsao-Li."
"It's a good one, your majesty." said Maria. "A lot of lives could be saved if we use it."
"All right, Autolycus."
He turned to Gladys.
"Yes, your Majesty."
Maria placed a hand on Gladys's shoulder.
"You can ride with me, sweetheart." she said softly.
"Hey Maria." said Autolycus.
She turned to him.
"When you're done at Diates's castle, meet me back at Meg's."
Gladys turned towards Meg. She rushed up to her and hugged her tight. Meg returned the embrace. Gladys pulled back, tears in her eyes.
"I-I don't know how to thank you!!"
Meg smiled at Gladys, a tear trickling down her cheek.
"You're welcome. Just take care of yourself."
Joxer walked up to Gladys, placing a hand on her shoulder.
"I second that. Take care, and good luck."
Gladys hugged him.
She turned, and walked over to Maria. Philemon walked over to Meg and Joxer. He smiled warmly at Meg.
Philemon turned to Joxer, placing a hand on his shoulder.
"Meg is a special woman, Joxer. Look after her."
Joxer nodded firmly.
"I will, your Majesty."
Philemon and his soldiers climbed onto their horses. Maria climbed up onto hers, and hoisted Gladys up behind her. The group then rode out into the forest. Autolycus walked over behind a tree, and pulled out his horse from behind it. He walked over to Meg and Joxer.
"Well," he began, "I figure I shouldn't have a problem finding out where Dabros is staying. I wasn't kidding when I said I had contacts. I've got lots of them in Boecia."
Meg chuckled slightly.
"A guy in your profession would."
Autolycus raised an eyebrow, and twisted his moustache.
"It's good to have people in the know. Later, kids. See you in a couple."
Autolycus climbed on his horse, and rode off into the forest. Joxer turned to Meg, full of curiosity.
"What were you and Prince Philemon talking about?"
Meg smiled slightly. She threaded her arm around his.
"I'll tell ya along the way. C'mon."
***** A green sky...
A brief, violent flash of lightning.
Thunder rumbling deep, cutting through all that bear witness to it.
Boulders. Trees galore. And a solitary human being.
Meg walked along the wet dirt road. A shawl covered her. Her blue eyes darted left and right.
Her heart pounded furiously. Hammering. Screaming.
A male voice. Taunting. Teasing. Prodding...Pushing.....Meg felt the voice cut into her. Slowly. Deliberately.
"Where are you going, WHORE?!"
Meg quickened her pace along the desolate road. And ahead...
Ahead was a ship. Sails billowing in the eerie green sky. Meg ran faster. She had to get to the ship. She just had to...
From the shelter of the trees slipped a shadow. The shadow oozed onto the road before her. And soon, its owner followed.
His steely green eyes made their intentions clear to Meg. He drew closer. Meg stopped instantly. Her blue eyes were wide with terror.
"N-No please-" stammered Meg.
Chang-Su was almost upon her.
"Where are you going, whore?!" he hissed.
The sentence was never finished. Something smashed into the side of Meg's face.
The world spun. Meg suddenly found herself face-first in the grass. She felt a warm wetness trickle out of her mouth. It tasted salty. It tasted...familiar.
A weight was on top of her. Meg felt her clothes rip below her waist. A cold chill settled on her body-
Then it ripped into her.
Meg screamed in agonizing pain. Her fingers dug into the ground before her.
A hand grabbed her hair. Her head was lifted-
And smashed face-first into the ground. The hand pressed hard on the back of her head. Meg choked on chunks of rock and grass. She let out a gurgled cry.
Hot breath on her right ear.
"Wanna know what you good for?!" hissed the male voice.
"Ya Greek bitch?!"
Liquid pain ripped up into Meg's body. Into her head. Into her brain. Her brain felt like it was going to explode.
"Wanna know what you good for?!" hissed the male voice.
"This, ya bitch!"
Meg instantly rose from the bed. Her eyes were wide with terror. Huge beads of sweat trickled down her face. Joxer jumped up from under the covers. He stared at Meg in alarm.
Meg abruptly turned towards Joxer. Her face filled with anguish. She began to cry. Joxer instantly reached for her, taking Meg into his arms. She wept heavily. Joxer held her tight. He burrowed his face in her hair and kissed her head.
"Ssssshhh...it's okay sweetheart." he said tenderly. "I'm here. Nobody's gonna hurt ya. Sssshhhh... Don't cry sweetheart...."
Meg burrowed her face into Joxer's neck. She cried hysterically. Joxer whispered words of comfort into Meg's ear. He rocked her gently, kissing and tenderly stroking her head. Inside, Joxer was in agony. He felt Meg's hot tears cascading down his neck and shoulder. Her loud sobs vibrated through his body. Joxer desperately wanted to make Meg's pain go away. But he didn't know how to do it. A dark fury rose in him as a result.
Slowly, the crying stopped. Joxer gently grasped the sides of Meg's head. He lifted it so she faced him. Joxer frowned deeply at Meg's grief-stricken face. He bent forward and tenderly kissed away at her tears. Then Joxer nuzzled Meg's nose.
"C'mon. Snuggle with me." he said softly.
Meg quickly wrapped herself around Joxer in a tight embrace. Joxer pulled her back onto the bed. He threw the thick blanket over them.
"Don't let go." said Meg in a small voice.
Joxer shook his head slightly.
"Not even Zeus himself could make me let ya go. You're stuck with me, beautiful. Joxer the Mighty will protect ya."
At hearing this, Meg smiled slightly. Joxer couldn't have felt better at seeing that smile. He kissed Meg on the forehead.
They cuddled for a long time in silence. The cold night wind blew against the window. The dim candles flickered, casting odd shadows across the bedroom.
Joxer nuzzled Meg's forehead. He spoke.
"Wanna talk about it?"
Meg pulled back slightly. Her blue eyes searched his.
"The nightmare, honey. The nightmare."
Joxer placed his hand on Meg's face, rubbing it gently.
"Hey. Your pain is my pain Meg. I want to share it."
Meg grasped Joxer's hand and tenderly kissed it several times. Then she held it against her neck. She sighed.
"This isn't a pain you could share, Joxer. Or should share. I was reliving my rape. By Chang-Su."
Joxer's exterior remained calm. Underneath, however, rage tore throughout his body. And Meg could sense it. She rubbed her forehead against his.
"Joxer...please don't..." she whispered.
"They hurt you." said Joxer in a slightly tremulous voice. "I can't help it. It makes me want to-"
Meg kissed Joxer's lips tenderly, silencing him. She nuzzled his nose.
"No." she said softly.
Joxer's eyes narrowed into feral slits.
"They've gotta pay, Meg. For what they did to you. To Gladys. And all those other women they hurt."
Meg's ice-blue eyes gazed deeply into Joxer's brown ones.
"They will Joxer. I'm gonna make sure they do pay."
Joxer raised an eyebrow in curiosity.
"What do you plan to do?"
"Whatever I can. Whatever I have to to make sure that Tsao-Li and Chang-Su never hurt anyone again."
Meg bit her lip. She lowered her eyes.
"I'm still scared though. I know what they are capable of."
"But you're going through with this anyway."
Meg's blue eyes met Joxer's.
"Yes." she said without hesitation.
"Philemon was right about you being brave."
"I'm just trying to do the right thing, Joxer."
"And you have no idea how proud I am of you Meg."
Meg blushed, smiling shyly.
Joxer shook his head slightly.
"Uh-uh. Nope. You're gonna keep hearing me praise ya, whether you like it or not. You're a very special person, Meg. I love you."
Meg moved in close. She rubbed her nose against Joxer's.
"I love you too." she said softly.
Meg's lips pressed against Joxer's. Her tongue gently requested entrance. Joxer complied. They kissed slowly, tenderly. Then, Joxer pulled back. He searched Meg's eyes.
"Go back to sleep, Meg. You need your rest."
Meg pressed against Joxer. He wrapped his arms around her, kissing the top of her head. Safe in the arms of her lover, Meg allowed herself to return to a quiet, dreamless sleep.
The faces were many.
Different nationalities, different ages. But they all had the same emotion etched into them.
The women stood there, on the deck of the slave ship. A cold wind swirled around them. They shivered. But it wasn't only due to the chill.
Torches lit the area around them, casting an eerie, yellow-orange glow on everything the light touched. Before the women stood Tsao-Li's men, heavily armed. They kept a silent vigil, their faces showing no emotion.
Time seemed to pass for an eternity. The women waited. None dared to speak or whisper even the slightest word.
And then from the shadows, came their masters. Tsao-Li and Chang-Su.
And behind them, a man dragged out a woman.
At one time, this woman could have been a beautiful, carefree young person of twenty-five summers. Instead, the horrific physical punishment she had been subjected to left this person a ragged, pathetic husk. Her eye was swollen shut. Her once beautiful red hair now hung tattered, dirty, sticking to the sides of her face. A hideous red-black gash ran the length of her left arm. She limped along on her dislocated ankle, swollen into a great, blue-black lump. The woman's lips trembled. She was whispering something. It was fast. Incoherent.
A young blond girl wondered, was it a prayer to the gods? Then she thought better of it.
Huh. More likely a curse.
A curse to the gods, for that is what they deserved. For allowing this shackled prisoner and the rest of her comrades to be in such a dire situation.
And Tsao-Li stepped forth. His cold brown eyes scanned the crowd of shivering women before him. His gaze was full of contempt. Malice. To him, these women were less than insects. And tonight, he was going to demonstrate this. Again.
"You are property." he began. "Nothing but property. You don't have lives. You don't have souls. You don't have brains. You are nothing more than animals. You are not allowed to think."
Tsao-Li turned toward the shackled prisoner.
"This one here, seems to have forgotten all this. She's been giving me trouble. She has showed me that she is a defective product."
He walked over to a nearby table, and picked up a club. Tsao-Li walked over to the shackled woman. He turned towards the uneasy audience, and sighed.
"Sometimes, you have to try and beat some sense into those that won't cooperate."
Tsao-Li suddenly took a vicious swing, smashing the club with all his might into the woman's mid-section. There was a loud snap as several ribs cracked. The woman was hurled up into the air. She fell hard on her knees, her head smashing face-first into the ground. She gasped savagely, blood erupting from her mouth and face. Her eye rolled into the back of her head. Gasps and sobs came from the horrified women.
Tsao-Li turned back towards his audience. He shrugged.
"Of course, some women are a little slow to respond."
Chang-Su then slammed his foot with all his might into the woman's injured ankle. Another loud snap. And the woman let out a loud mournful screech. Her comrades gasped in terror. Even some of Tsao-Li's guards winced at this.
Tsao-Li shook his head slowly. He turned to the fallen prisoner.
A savage kick to the woman's face. Her head snapped back, blood and teeth gushing out of her mouth. She flipped over, landing on her stomach. Tsao-Li shrugged once more.
"And then...well, when all else fails...then you've got to get rid of that defective product."
He twirled his tongue around in his mouth. Tsao-Li looked up at the guard overseeing the woman.
"Take her to the pit."
The guard nodded. He grabbed the woman by the shackles at her feet. The guard then dragged the woman past Tsao-Li, over to the edge of a large metal pit. The guard then kicked her into it. She hit the bottom with a loud clang.
Chang-Su then picked up a large metal container of oil. He walked over to the pit, and poured all of the contents onto the woman. Tsao-Li then picked up a nearby torch and walked over to the pit. His audience of slaves stared on in ever-deepening terror.
Tsao-Li turned to the women. He lifted an eyebrow.
"This is what I do to defective products."
He tossed the torch into the pit. A huge explosion of flame shot up into the air. A horrific, inhuman scream tore out of the pit. It cut through the air with a savage vengeance. It cut into the souls of the women. Several collapsed onto the ground, wailing hysterically. Others stared at the flame, stunned, as if this were just some ghastly nightmare they would hopefully wake up from. A couple of Tsao-Li's guards turned away, eyes squinted shut, not wanting to accept what was happening before their eyes. The sickening smell of burnt human flesh roiled throughout the crowd. Some of the women threw up. Several guards tried hard not to. Eventually, the scream faded into a sickening, gurgling cackle, then nothing.
Tsao-Li's eyes grew ice-cold. Darkness covered his face.
"Let this be a reminder to you. Let this remind you who your master is."
He walked over to the crowd of weeping, horrified prisoners. His eyes fell on two of them.
The young blond girl and a middle-aged brunette.
"You two." he began. "Once that corpse finishes burning, you two are to take it and dump it into the sea. Then, you will go into the pit and clean it thoroughly."
Tsao-Li moved in closer. His eyes narrowed into feral slits.
"And I do mean thoroughly. If I find even so much as a speck of dirt in it, you two will be its next occupants."
The two women swallowed hard, staring at Tsao-Li in wide-eyed terror. He turned, and walked back towards his cabin.
"Hey sleepyhead. Morning!"
Meg pulled down the covers, slowly opening her eyes. They widened in surprise at the sight before her.
Holding a tray with bacon, eggs, two oranges and a mug full of apple cider.
Meg slowly sat up, raising an eyebrow.
Joxer let out a huge grin.
"Breakfast in bed for my favorite lil' lady!! I figured it was my turn to do it!"
Meg slowly sat up, rubbing the back of her head. She smiled slightly.
He walked over to the bed, placing the tray of food on Meg's lap. Joxer then pulled up a chair, sitting at Meg's side.
"I know you much you like apple cider." Joxer said cheerily.
Meg picked away at her food. Joxer noticed the distant, faraway look in her eyes. Joxer's smile slowly disappeared.
"Meg, a-are you all right?"
Meg sighed slightly. She looked up, and smiled sadly.
"I'm okay, Joxer. Really."
Joxer's eyes narrowed.
"No you're not."
He moved closer to Meg, eyeing her intently. Joxer placed a hand on her wrist.
"Talk to me."
Meg bit her lower lip. She looked down at the food. Her eyebrows lifted slightly.
"Guess I'm not very hungry."
"It's Tsao-Li, isn't it?"
Meg's eyes shifted towards Joxer's. No words were spoken. Joxer could read the fear in Meg's eyes. Joxer placed his hand on the side of Meg's face.
"Meg, we'll stop him."
Meg nodded. She forced a smile.
"Yeah. Yeah, I know."
"Talk to me. Tell me what you're feeling."
Meg leaned back against the headboard. She looked up at the ceiling, and sighed.
She studied the patterns in the wood above her for a few moments. Joxer waited patiently. Her ice-blue eyes turned towards him.
"Pain." she said quietly. "An old, deep pain. A pain that, until now, I had almost seem to have forgotten."
She slowly shook her head.
"My luck...Just my luck that this bastard has come back into my life..."
Meg lowered her head. She picked up the mug of cider, and took a sip from it. She licked her lips, and continued.
"My life, Joxer...My life is so messed up it's pathetic. I don't know how I've survived this long."
Meg turned to Joxer, her eyes full of pain.
"Do you have any idea how hard it is for a 10-year old girl to take care of herself?? Huh?? The things I had to do to survive. Stealing. For myself and others. Cons. Shoveling animal shit. Working in mines. A waitress, working in the worst bars, getting felt up all the time. Being a whore...I just went to one messed-up thing after the other. Just to get by."
Meg stared straight ahead.
"By the gods...I-I should be dead now. I don't know why I'm not."
Joxer put his hand on Meg's shoulder. Meg turned towards him.
"Because you're a survivor, Meg." Joxer said firmly. "You are the strongest woman I know."
Meg chuckled harshly.
"Strong....gods....I feel anything but strong."
She looked up at the ceiling again.
"I-I feel so small. I-I feel like...like some roach. I feel..."
Her eyes roamed the ceiling, as her mind searched for words. Joxer got up, and sat at the edge of the bed. He grasped Meg's chin, pulling her head down so that her eyes met his.
"Meg, I've felt that way too. But you...you've survived stuff that I don't know I could've survived. Meg, your spirit is strong. You're gonna rise above all this. I'll bet my life on that."
Meg raised her eyebrow.
"You believe in me that much?"
"Yeah. I do. But what's more important is that you believe in yourself that much."
Meg knitted her eyebrows, lowering her head. Joxer tenderly stroked it. At that moment, there was a knock at the door.
"Yeah?" called out Meg.
"Autolycus and Maria are back." answered Francisca's voice.
Meg turned to Joxer.
"The Centros Inn?" asked Joxer.
"Yep. That's where he's gonna stay."
Meg smiled at Autolycus.
"Wow! Didn't take you long to find out where he'd be."
"Hey! Contacts! And one of them owed me a favor anyways."
"So, when are you going to see Prince Philemon?" asked Joxer.
"Soon as possible. There's a lot to do."
Autolycus turned to Maria.
"So. We're in agreement about this? I'll be Dabros, and you'll be my bodyguard."
"That sounds fine to me."
"So, what did King Daites say?" asked Meg.
Maria raised her eyebrows, nodding slowly.
"Ohhh yeah. He's in. Definitely in. Daites was livid when he saw Gladys. Queen Ralias was in tears when she saw her. We've got the military backing we need, Meg."
Autolycus turned to Maria.
"Let's get going. We've got a lot to do in a short time."
The pair got to their feet.
"We'll see you guys later." said Maria.
"Good luck." said Joxer.
Autolycus raised an eyebrow.
"Thanks. We'll need it."
The pair left the room.
"The Centros Inn?" asked Philemon.
"Yes. The only thing left to do is ambush Dabros on his way there from Kalias Piers. Here's my idea on how all this should go down. Dabros arrives here in four days. I'll take Dabros's place. Maria will act as my bodyguard. We'll ambush him, and register ourselves at the Centros Inn. We'll go to the slave ship, assess the situation, and return to give you the information. I'll set up a time to make a purchase. We can use Dabros's ship to hide your troops. Once we arrange that, you and your troops can move in and catch Tsao-Li in the act. Give Maria and I a little time to get the business transaction going. Then you can ambush them before Tsao-Li tries anything against the slaves. Have King Daites's troops attack as soon as the ambush goes down."
Philemon nodded slowly.
"Hmmm... very good. Good thinking, Autolycus. I like your plan a lot. And securing Dabros's ship shouldn't be a problem."
Philemon turned to King Lias. The old king nodded his approval, and spoke.
"It sounds like a good plan to me, Autolycus. I'll have my best soldiers on this."
"I'll have men confiscate Dabros's ship after he leaves for the Centros Inn." said Philemon. "Late at night, so as not to arouse suspicion."
King Lias nodded.
At that moment, there was the sound of footsteps. Gladys and Princess Diana, the twin of Xena and Meg, walked into the room. Autolycus's eyes widened in shock. He turned to Maria, stunned. Maria smiled.
"I know. I still can't get over it myself!"
Autolycus raised an eyebrow. He turned back towards Diana and Gladys. They approached Maria and Autolycus. Diana smiled warmly at Maria. She walked over to her and embraced her.
"Oh Maria! It's so good to see you again!"
Maria returned the smile.
"Likewise, your majesty."
Diana turned to Autolycus.
"And you must be Autolycus, King of Thieves."
Autolycus bowed slightly.
"At your service, your majesty."
Autolycus and Maria looked at Gladys. She was wearing a beautiful white dress, her blond hair tied into a ponytail with a bright pink ribbon. And for the first time, a warm, eager smile was on her face. Gladys turned to Diana, her eyes full of affection and gratitude.
"Princess Diana has been so wonderful to me. She is such a sweet person."
Diana blushed, smiling shyly. Gladys turned to the others. A tear rolled down her cheek.
"All are you are so wonderful. You all make me believe in humanity again."
King Lias rose from his throne. He walked down the steps, and placed a hand on the young woman's shoulder. He smiled warmly.
"We're only too happy to help you." King Lias said softly. "And I promise you, my dear, that all of your comrades will be saved. They'll know freedom again."
Philemon turned to Autolycus and Maria.
"Right. Let's see about finalizing your plan, Autolycus."
Autolycus nodded in agreement.
"No time like the present."
The tall, lanky man rode his palomino slowly down the dirt road. He gazed into the clear, late-afternoon sky. The man was accompanied by four heavily armed men, also riding horseback. He turned to the one on his left. The man smiled eagerly.
"I'm looking forward to seeing Tsao-Li's women, Shanir. I hear he has the best."
The guard nodded.
"That's also what I'm told, Dabros. His reputation is spreading."
Dabros leaned back in his seat, smiling.
"Aaaaahhh...more lovelies to add to my collection."
He turned to his guard, and sighed sadly.
"Too bad I can't have the Warrior Princess as part of that collection."
The guard abruptly looked at Dabros, stunned.
"Y-You can't be serious!"
"That's the sad part. I can't be. She's too wild..."
His eyes narrowed, and a devilish smile appeared on his lips.
"Oh, but I was in Rome when Caesar had captured Xena, and set her against those gladiators. Oh, but it was a sight to see. What a magnificent creature. That leather, those legs...that impossibly perfect form...."
He raised his eyebrows, and sighed dreamily.
"Oh, to be dominated by the likes of Xena..."
The guard raised an eyebrow up to his hairline.
"Dabros, she'd serve you your balls on a plate."
"Well, no one's perfect."
"Then how about me??"
Dabros and his men quickly looked forward. Maria stood in the middle of the road, armed with her sword. She whirled it expertly in front of her. Dabros and his guards stared at the gigantic woman in shock, mesmerized by the awesome power rippling through her arm muscles.
She smiled coldly, raising her eyebrows.
"Off yer horse, Dabros." she purred dangerously. "I wanna play."
Dabros's eyes widened in fear.
His guards dismounted, and attacked Maria. She somersaulted over their heads, landing behind them. Two men whirled around. A heavily-booted foot swung hard into their jaws, snapping them like twigs. They flew through the air, crashing into the ground, unconscious. The remaining two guards rushed at Maria. She parried with them in a brief, but violent skirmish. Maria whipped out a foot. It burrowed into the guard's chest with a sickening crack. He flew through the air and crashed into a tree. The guard dropped to the ground in a crumpled heap. The last guard gaped at Maria in terror. She smiled wickedly.
"C'mon, little man. C'mon. Show me what you're made of."
The guard stared at Maria, then at Dabros. Dabros's face filled with rage.
"Well, what do I pay you for Shanir?! Kill her!!"
Maria chuckled heartily. She tossed aside her sword, motioning the guard forward with her hand.
"C'mon baby." she teased. "C'mon! I'm not armed! Show me what a real man you are."
The guard's eyes narrowed in fury. With a deafening cry, he rushed at Maria, swinging down his sword at her. She easily caught it in her left hand. The guard's eyes widened in shock.
Maria grabbed the guard by the collar with her right hand, ramming her head with all her might into his. He flew back, crashing hard into the ground. The guard's body rolled over backwards until he was lying on his stomach, unconscious.
Maria turned towards Dabros. She raised an eyebrow.
"Your turn, sweet cheeks."
Dabros drew his horse back a few steps, staring at Maria in anger and fear.
"Y-You stay away from-"
Dabros instantly turned to his left. A pair of boots smashed into his left shoulder. Dabros flew off his horse, crashing into the ground. Autolycus somersaulted, landing beside his horse. He twirled his moustache, raising an eyebrow.
"I don't think you're going anyplace." said Autolycus.
Dabros shook his head and growled. He drew a large knife. Autolycus raised both eyebrows this time. He raised his hands, slowly backing away.
"Whoa!! Hey!! Don't you know you can hurt someone with that??"
"Let me handle this one, Auto." said Maria.
She approached Dabros. He gritted his teeth, going into a fighting stance.
"Stay away from me, ya overgrown Amazon!!"
Maria's eyes narrowed.
"Time I taught ya a little respect for women."
She approached him. Dabros took a swipe at Maria. She easily caught his wrist, snapping it like a twig. Dabros cried out in pain. A second later, Maria slammed the palm of her right hand into Dabros's chest. It exploded in white-hot agony. Dabros's eyes bulged out of his head, and his legs went limp. He gasped savagely. Maria grabbed him by the collar, lifting him up to face her. She raised her eyebrows, smiling seductively.
"Was it good for you, baby??" she purred sexily.
Maria then rammed her head hard into Dabros's. She let him go, and he dropped bonelessly to the ground. She glared at him in contempt.
"Men..." she growled.
Autolycus walked up to her.
"Boy. I'm glad you're one of the good guys."
"Thanks for letting me have a crack at them Auto." said Maria. "They deserved it."
He turned towards the forest.
"Okay! They're all yours!"
A small group of Philemon's guards walked out of the forest. Autolycus walked over to Dabros's horse, rummaging through his bag. His eyes widened in glee.
"Ooooooh-what do we have here??"
He took out several large money bags. Maria walked over to him.
"What did you find?"
Autolycus turned to her, smiling slyly.
"Moolah. Here. Count."
He gave Maria a bag. They inspected the loot. Maria's eyes widened in shock.
"Gods...there's gotta be close to a thousand dinars in this one alone."
Autolycus chuckled heartily.
"Yeppers. Seems old Dabros doesn't believe in traveling light. Oooooh, I like that, I like that!!"
Maria smiled slyly.
"I bet ya do, Auto."
Autolycus looked at Maria, raising his eyebrows.
"Hey-I'm a thief! Whaddaya expect??"
Autolycus looked down at the loot, and frowned.
"Too bad I can't keep this. We've gotta use some of this to buy Tsao-Li's slaves. Yeah...I'd say there's about close to three thousand dinars here."
"So-what's next Auto?"
"Okay. Now we change into our disguises, and go over to the Centros Inn. Get comfy until it's time to meet the man. We've gotta scope out that slave ship of his real thoroughly. We've gotta get an idea of what's in there."
"Gotcha. Let's do the wardrobe change."
"That's great!!" exclaimed Joxer happily. "Man, I'm glad they got him."
Francisca smiled devilishly.
"Huh. Maria gave Dabros and his men a real ass-whipping."
Joxer nodded firmly.
"That's good to hear."
Meg sat, twirling her spoon around inside her teacup. She raised her eyebrows, staring at her tea.
"Weeeell...now they've just got to get this plan rolling."
A moment of silence. Meg looked at the ceiling.
"Gods...I hope they can pull this off."
Francisca placed her hand on Meg's.
"Stop worrying. They'll succeed. Ya gotta have faith Meg."
Meg's ice-blue eyes turned towards Francisca. She smiled slightly.
Francisca stood up.
"Well, I've got some chores to take care of. See you two later."
Francisca returned the smile. She left the room. Joxer turned towards Meg. She continued to gaze into her cup of tea, stirring it. Her eyes had that faraway look again. Concern filled Joxer. He leaned towards her.
Meg looked up, eyebrows raised.
Meg knitted her eyebrows. Joxer sighed slightly.
"You've got that look again, Meg."
"The 'I got some heavy crap on my mind' look."
Meg smirked slightly.
"Open scroll, huh?"
Joxer's eyebrows rose to their full height. He nodded.
Meg rolled her eyes back, sighing. She leaned back in her chair. Silence. Meg then looked at the floor. Her brows knitted, and she pursed her lips. She shook her head slowly.
"I-I gotta wonder...why is it that some men feel they have to treat women like animals? Like we don't have feelings? Thoughts?"
She looked up at Joxer, her blue eyes focused in an intense gaze.
"Why is that?"
Meg's stare was unsettling. Joxer gulped slightly.
"I-I don't know."
Meg tilted her head to one side. Her eyes narrowed slightly.
"You don't? Hmm!"
Meg rose to her feet. She began to pace slowly, back and forth.
"Ya know...I-I sometimes wonder about men. What they expect out of women. Why they expect it."
She chuckled slightly.
"Oh boy. Huh. It's rough being a woman, let me tell ya. Always feel like a second-class citizen. It doesn't matter what ya do for a living. Ya always gotta answer to a man...unless you're Xena, that is. Or an Amazon."
Meg turned towards Joxer, raising an eyebrow.
"And ya know what truly sucks? Women like Xena and the Amazons seem to be in the minority."
She chuckled harshly, and looked at the ceiling.
"Hah!! And then... boy ... and then ya've got bastards like Tsao-Li. Guys who get a hard-on off of abusing women. I-I mean, this guy thinks that women are trash!! That they have no value!!"
Joxer smirked harshly.
"Huh. Kinda ironic, since a woman brought him into the world."
Meg's eyes turned towards Joxer. She smiled coldly.
"Huh. Tell Tsao-Li that, and you'll be eating your balls for breakfast."
Meg began to pace again. She ran her hand through her hair.
"Why is it that so many men treat women like crap??"
Joxer lowered his head.
"Not all men are like that Meg." he said quietly.
Meg turned towards Joxer. She frowned slightly. Meg walked over to him, sitting down in front of Joxer. She grasped his hand.
"Joxer, there are rare exceptions. And you're one of them. You've got a wonderful heart. You're sweet and kind. And you've always treated me with respect."
Meg lowered her head.
"That's why I'm so attracted to you." she said quietly. "I've known very few men like that in my life. Most men have treated me like garbage. Some worse than others. And I know friends that have been through hellish things."
Joxer lifted Meg's chin. He spoke again.
"There are more good men than you know, Meg." he said softly. "Don't let the bad apples cloud your view of men."
Meg smirked slightly. She shook her head.
"I try Joxer. I really try. I mean, I know there's people like King Lias, Philemon, Auto, Hercules and his friend, Iolaus...."
She licked her lips, looking down at the floor.
"But Joxer....Joxer, if you only knew. Gods, some of the things I've seen. I -I mean, why? We're human beings! I-I mean, we're just out there, trying to survive like everyone else! We have needs, dreams! We need to feel wanted. We need to feel important. Useful..."
Meg looked up at Joxer, her blue eyes full of pain.
"Joxer, I've seen so many women suffer needlessly. You really have no idea."
Her eyes shifted to the left. A dark scowl slowly crossed Meg's face. Joxer's eyes widened slightly in fear. He swallowed hard.
"And then..." Meg growled. "And then, you've got shit like Tsao-Li."
Her lips curled into a snarl.
"That rotten bastard..." she uttered in a low, deadly hiss.
Joxer hesitantly placed his hand on her shoulder.
She abruptly turned towards Joxer, her eyes afire.
"He deserves to die." Meg spat heatedly. "I saw that-that son-of-a-bacchae piss all over that poor girl in that camp. I saw him beat that girl, over and over again. And when I saw her body taken out on that cart, the next morning...Joxer...I swear by the gods that I felt my heart ripped out of my chest. The pain...that I felt when I saw that....And now, seeing this girl, Gladys, a-and hearing her stories....oh gods..."
Tears began to roll down Meg's cheeks. Joxer instantly grasped both sides of Meg's face. He moved in close, until his face was almost touching hers.
"Now you listen to me." he said in a quiet, intense voice. "You're not going to face Tsao-Li alone. I won't let you, Meg. When you go to testify against him, I'll be there. When you have nightmares about him, I'll be there to comfort you. I'm gonna protect ya Meg. I love you, and I will do whatever I have to to protect you. I'm your rock, Meg. I'll never leave your side."
Meg placed her forehead on his. Joxer could see the gratitude and love emerge from the agony in her tear-filled eyes.
"You're amazing." she whispered.
Joxer smiled slightly.
"Nope. I'm just Joxer. Warrior wannabe."
"You're no wanna-be, Joxer." Meg said softly. "You're a warrior. Warrior and protector of my heart."
Meg wrapped her arms around Joxer, holding him close. Joxer tenderly stroked Meg's head.
Autolycus adjusted his blue turban. He gazed at himself in the mirror, checking his fake beard. Maria tapped him on the shoulder.
"Hey. You ready Auto?"
"Yeah. Wish I didn't have to wear this beard, but I don't want those goons I fought to recognize me."
He turned to Maria.
"How do I look?"
Autolycus raised an eyebrow, studying Maria's fearsome appearance. She wore purple leather and bronze armor. Her muscular, massive form towered over Autolycus. He spoke.
"You look scary."
Maria smiled slightly.
"That's the idea. Let's go."
The pair left the market grounds, and walked out to the pier. They approached one ship. A man standing guard at its entrance raised his hand, halting them.
"Hold it." he said. "Where are you going?"
"My name is Dabros." said Autolycus. "Dabros of Crete. I'm here to do business with Tsao-Li."
The man then looked at Maria. He swallowed hard, gazing at her in fear.
"My bodyguard, Shania." said Autolycus.
Maria gazed at the man icily. The guard nodded quickly.
He ran up the ramp, into the ship. Autolycus and Maria waited patiently. After a few moments, Tsao-Li and Chang-Su appeared at the top of the ramp. They walked down it, and approached the pair. Tsao-Li smiled warmly. He outstretched his hand.
"Tsao-Li. I'm glad to finally meet you, Dabros."
Autolycus shook his hand. He returned the smile.
"Likewise! Your reputation precedes you, Tsao-Li."
Autolycus turned towards Chang-Su.
"And you are?"
Chang-Su bowed slightly.
"I'm his cousin. Chang-Su."
"Nice to meet you."
Tsao-Li looked at Maria, and raised an eyebrow.
"Ahh. This is my bodyguard, Shania. She goes everywhere with me."
Tsao-Li and Chang-Su looked at each other for a moment. Tsao-Li turned back to Autolycus. He smiled.
"Come. I welcome you aboard my ship."
Autolycus smiled in return, bowing slightly. The four then proceeded up the ramp, onto Tsao-Li's ship. The captain of the ship approached Tsao-Li.
"Set sail now, sir?"
Tsao-Li's ship slowed to a stop next to his slave ship. The men dropped anchor. A ramp was extended across to the slave ship. Tsao-Li and Chang-Su approached the edge of it. Tsao-Li turned to Maria and Autolycus.
"This way, please."
They followed Tsao-Li and Chang-Su across the ramp, onto the slave ship. Maria and Autolycus noted the heavy presence of guards aboard. Tsao-Li turned to Autolycus again.
"So, Dabros. Which of my slave girls would you like to see?"
Autolycus squinted his eyes in thought.
"Hmmmm...ya know, I'd actually like to take a tour of the ship, if you don't mind. You see, I'm not just looking to get slaves for myself. I've got some powerful friends who might be interested in what you have."
Tsao-Li smiled slightly, nodding.
"Fair enough. If you would accompany me."
Tsao-Li and Chang-Su walked over to a staircase. Maria and Autolycus followed. They descended below deck. Autolycus and Maria then saw two long rows of cells. Outside them were a dozen heavily armed guards. Inside them were women, aged from fifteen to thirty-five summers old. They all wore simple white dresses. Their faces were guarded, but Autolycus and Maria could read the fear and pain in some of them. One or two even gave Maria cold stares at they walked by. Maria felt a horrific stab of pain, as these few women made their hatred towards her clearly known. Outside, Maria kept her impassive stance. Inside, her soul cried out in grief and anger. She turned forward. Maria saw two large stumps rising from the floor of the hallway. Manacles were on either side of each. The floor around them was stained in blood. Maria fought hard to fight down the rising nausea.
Tsao-Li turned to Autolycus.
"These women happen to be my finest slaves. What do you think?"
Autolycus stopped. He walked over to several of the cells, looking over the women within. He nodded slowly.
"Hmmmmm...!! I like what I see!! You've got excellent taste, my friend! Excellent taste in women."
"Thank you Dabros. Any here that you might be interested in?"
Autolycus licked his lips, his eyes narrowing, as in thought.
"Hmmmm...what are you asking?"
Tsao-Li walked over to his side. He spoke again.
"The price range is from three hundred fifty to five hundred dinars."
Autolycus nodded slowly.
He walked to each of the cells, patiently looking over the women within each. Autolycus nodded.
He walked up to Tsao-Li.
"Hmmmm...I think we might be able to do business. There are nine women that I see which I fancy."
Tsao-Li raised an eyebrow. A smile formed on his lips.
"Yes. Nine. They'll make nice house slaves. Very pleasing to my eye."
Tsao-Li turned to Chang-Su, who was smiling as well. He turned back to Autolycus.
"Sooooo-can I look at the rest of your slaves?"
"Certainly. This way."
Tsao-Li and Chang-Su walked over to a doorway. They descended a flight of steps. Autolycus and Maria followed. Within moments, they entered another hallway, and on either side again were cells containing women. These women, however, were dressed in more tattered clothing. Autolycus and Maria could see that some of them had been beaten. They could also see the exhaustion and depression on their faces. The smell of urine and feces hung in the air. It was obvious to Autolycus and Maria that these slaves were treated more roughly than the attractive ones upstairs. Like upstairs, a dozen guards stood watch. Maria and Autolycus saw two more whipping posts. They were stained with even more blood. Autolycus felt an incredible urge to kill Tsao-Li right then and there. But ever the professional, he remained focused. Tsao-Li turned to Autolycus.
"These slaves are for hard manual labor. They're a pretty ugly bunch, but they are strong. Good for tending fields, building houses, mining, if need be."
"Price range?" asked Autolycus.
"From seventy-five to one hundred fifty dinars."
Autolycus walked over to each cell, inspecting them. Tsao-Li and Chang-Su waited patiently. Finally, Autolycus walked up to them. He spoke.
"Excellent working stock. Had to get a little heavy-handed with some of them, eh?"
"Well, you know how it is. Some slaves get a little unruly, and...well, they've got to be reminded of their place."
Autolycus raised his eyebrows slightly, nodding.
"That's very true."
He looked around.
"Very impressive. You know, I think I could use a few work slaves."
Tsao-Li raised an eyebrow.
"Yeah! I could use a few. Probably about, ehhhh, say fifteen?"
"Good enough! I see no problem in that."
Autolycus walked up to Tsao-Li, placing an arm around his shoulder.
"Tsao-Li, my friend, I'd like to see about bringing my ship here in about, umm two days. As a token of good faith, I'm willing to leave a thousand dinars with you right now. I'll bring the rest when I come over with my ship. Is that doable?"
Tsao-Li turned to Autolycus, smiling warmly.
"More than doable, my friend."
They shook hands. Autolycus turned back to the women.
"Ooooookay! Time to pick and choose."
Autolycus and Maria entered their hotel room. Maria shut the door behind them. She turned to Autolycus, raising an eyebrow.
"It'll be interesting to see the look on Philemon's face when you ask for four thousand dinars more."
"Well, it was necessary. And at least we've got Tsao-Li where we want him."
Maria's eyes narrowed. Her face grew dark.
"I'm looking forward to giving him and his cousin their come-uppance. Did you see how a lot of those women looked? And did you see those whipping posts on each prison deck?? They were soaked in blood!!"
Autolycus lowered his head. He fought hard to keep down the rising agony inside him.
"Yes." he said quietly. "I saw them."
He lowered his head, taking a deep breath
"I saw one hobbling in a corner. A young girl. No more than twenty-five summers old. Beaten to a pulp. It looked like she had a broken ankle. Gods, I wanted to buy her..."
Maria walked up to Autolycus, placing a hand on his shoulder.
"I understand why you didn't. I know you didn't want to arouse suspicion."
Autolycus turned to her. His eyes narrowed in rage.
"Believe me Maria, I'm with you on the busting heads idea."
Maria snarled slightly. She cracked her knuckles.
"Oh don't worry. There'll be plenty of that to do. And I'm gonna enjoy it."
"That will be 9 dinars for the herbs, miss."
Meg took out her purse, and paid the woman. Joxer scratched the back of his head.
"Wow. Stella really got that food poisoning bad."
"Yup! I warned her about getting milk from that farmer. His cows could use better care."
Meg placed the herbs in a basket. Joxer walked up to her, peering into it.
"Will this help?"
"Yeah, it should. Let's go."
Meg and Joxer walked off. Joxer peered into the sky.
The pair walked for a while in silence. Soon, they entered the forest. Joxer took a deep breath.
"Aaahh-it's good to be outside. Too bad it was for this."
Joxer turned to her.
"How're you doing?"
"Eh! Okay. A little better."
"Good. I hate to see you sad."
A bit more silence. Joxer spoke again.
"Did I ever tell you that you have a beautiful smile, Meg?"
Meg looked at Joxer, raising an eyebrow.
"Yeah. Quite a few times."
"I'd like to see it again."
Meg blushed, lowering her head. She smiled slightly. Joxer tapped her on the shoulder, eyebrows raised in mock anger.
"Ay-ay- ay!! I wanna see that smile! Don't hide it from me!!"
She looked at Joxer, relaxing into a warm smile. Joxer broke into a huge grin.
"Aaaaah! That's it. That's the smile I love. More than anything in the world."
Meg drew closer, her blue eyes full of love.
"And that's only reserved for you."
Joxer pointed at himself, eyebrows raised.
Meg grasped Joxer's armor, pulling him close.
She leaned in, giving Joxer a long, tender kiss on the lips. She pulled back, her face filled with gratitude and affection.
Joxer raised an eyebrow.
"For being my rock. My strength. For helping me get through this."
Joxer blushed, smiling shyly. He lowered his head.
"Ah well. It's Joxer the Mighty's duty to save damsels in distress."
Meg gave a lopsided grin.
"And you're doing a damn good job of it." she said softly.
Meg leaned in and kissed Joxer again. The kiss deepened, and soon, tongues were caressing each other eagerly.
"Joxer the Mighty?? We'll see about that!!"
The lovers immediately broke the kiss. They abruptly turned forward. Tsao-Li stood there, along with five men. Meg's color drained from her face.
"...by the gods...Tsao-Li..."
Joxer instantly drew his sword. His lips twisted into a heated snarl.
"What do ya want?!" he hissed.
Tsao-Li chuckled sinisterly.
"Your girlfriend. Or should I say, my favorite acquisition. Remember that, Meg??"
Joxer's eyes narrowed into feral slits.
"Ya gonna hafta get through me if you want her."
Tsao-Li stared at Joxer in disbelief. He broke into raucous laughter.
"You?! You?! You are going to stop me?! You look like a clown!! You're not even a real man!!"
"He's more of a man than you'll ever be, ya sonofa-bacchae!!" spat Meg furiously.
Tsao-Li raised an eyebrow.
"Is that so??"
He looked at his men.
"Knock him around a bit."
Meg's eyes widened in terror.
Tsao-Li's men rushed forward. Joxer let out a loud battle cry and ran at them. One man swung his sword. Joxer blocked the blow. He kicked the man hard in the groin. He doubled over in agony. Joxer then delivered a vicious kick to his jaw. The man flew back, blood and teeth erupting from his mouth. He crashed into the earth. Another man leapt into the air, swinging his foot at Joxer. It smashed into the side of his face. Blood exploded from his mouth. Joxer reeled backwards, stunned by the blow. Another man swung his sword at him. Joxer blocked the blow. He rammed a foot into the man's knee. The man cried out in pain, dropping onto it. Joxer kicked him hard in the chin. Blood exploded from his mouth. He fell back onto the ground. Joxer turned to his left. The man who hit him flew at him in the form of a flying kick. His foot slammed hard into Joxer's chest. Joxer flew through the air, crashing hard into the ground. His sword flew into some bushes. Meg stared on in terror.
She ran towards Joxer. Suddenly, one of Tsao-Li's men leapt behind Meg, wrapping his arm around her throat. He quickly brought a knife to it. Meg squirmed in his grasp. The man pressed the blade into her neck. A thin stream of blood trickled forth. Meg cried out in pain.
"Move and you're dead!!" shouted the man.
Joxer struggled to his knees. He saw Meg being held by one of Tsao-Li's men. His eyes widened in fury. He quickly rose to his knees, then his feet.
And Tsao-Li stepped in front of him. He smiled coldly.
"Ya gonna hafta get through me if you want her." he repeated jeeringly.
Joxer threw a vicious punch at Tsao-Li. He effortlessly blocked it, ramming his own fist hard into Joxer's stomach. Agonizing pain exploded from within. Joxer doubled over, eyes bulging out of his head. Tsao-Li then threw a savage left into Joxer's right cheek. Blood erupted from his mouth. He flew through the air, crashing into the ground hard. Tsao-Li chuckled.
He turned, and began to walk towards Meg. Joxer slowly rose to his feet. With an angry cry, he rushed at Tsao-Li, leaping at him. Tsao-Li whipped out his left foot, hitting Joxer in mid-air. He flew back, crashing face-first into the ground.
Meg stared on in soul-searing terror. Tears streamed from her eyes.
"Joxer!! STOP IT!!"
Joxer slowly rose onto his hands. Blood flowed from his mouth, leaving a crimson pool on the dirt road. His face was battered and bruised. Still, it radiated defiance. Joxer shakily rose to his feet. Tsao-Li raised an eyebrow.
Joxer growled like a rabid dog. He staggered towards Tsao-Li. Joxer threw a wild punch. Tsao-Li quickly jumped out of the way. Joxer spun towards him again. He threw another wild punch. This time, Tsao-Li blocked it. He threw a right of his own. Joxer's head snapped back, blood and several teeth erupting from it. Tsao-Li then grabbed Joxer's shoulders. He them rammed his head hard into Joxer's face. More blood flowed. Tsao-Li head-butted him two more times, whipping Joxer's head to the left, then to the right. Tsao-Li then rammed a knee hard into Joxer's groin. Joxer let out gurgled cry of agony. Another vicious left. Joxer staggered back. Finally, Tsao-Li executed a vicious whirling kick, hitting Joxer hard in the chin. He flew back through the air, into a somersault. Joxer's body crashed face-first into the earth in a huge cloud of dust. After that, he lay still.
Meg's eyes bulged out of her head.
Fury overwhelmed her. She rammed her foot hard into her captor's foot. He cried out in pain, loosening his grip on Meg. She elbowed him hard in the face. Blood exploded forth from his mouth. The man staggered back. With a piercing scream, Meg rammed her fist with all her might into the man's face. There was a loud crack as his nose was smashed. More blood erupted forth. He flew through the air, crashing into the earth. Meg snatched up the knife from the ground . She glared at Tsao-Li, her ice-blue eyes filled with hatred and an all-consuming rage.
"I'm gonna gut ya, ya SHIT EATING SONOFA-BACCHAE!!"
Tsao-Li's men moved towards Meg.
"No!!" shouted Tsao-Li. "She's mine!!"
Meg stood there, hissing like a cobra. Tsao-Li approached Meg, smiling cruelly.
"I'm going to break you Meg. I'm going to break you and sell you to the highest bidder. Nobody's going to miss a worthless whore."
Meg let out a piercing scream and dove at Tsao-Li, taking a vicious swipe at him. He leapt back. Meg growled heatedly, teeth bared, her ice-blue eyes pulsing with fury and bloodlust. She charged at him again. Tsao-Li grabbed her arm, twisting it sharply. Meg cried out in pain, dropping the knife. Tsao-Li then drove a knee hard into Meg's stomach. She grunted loudly in pain, doubling over. Tsao-Li rammed his fist hard into Meg's right cheek. Her head snapped to the left, blood exploding from her mouth. Meg dropped to the ground, and Tsao-Li was upon her instantly. He took out a blue cloth, and quickly put it over Meg's mouth and nose. Meg became overwhelmed with the bittersweet odor penetrating her nostrils. She reached out, clutching Tsao-Li's chin. Meg dug her fingernails into his flesh, drawing blood. Tsao-Li winced in pain, and pressed down harder on the cloth. The fury in Meg's eyes soon began to cloud over. Her eyelids drooped, finally closing. Her hand fell away from Tsao-Li's chin, landing on her chest. Tsao-Li drew back, running his hand along the wounds inflicted by Meg. His eyes narrowed.
"You're going to pay for that, Meg." he said icily. "I'm going to teach you a new level of pain and fear."
"Where in the world are those two??"
Francisca stood in the rear doorway of the brothel, looking out towards the forest. She scratched her head in puzzlement. Francisca turned around. Another woman sat at a table, face pale, a bucket at her feet.
"How're ya doin' Stella?"
The woman raised her tired brown eyes towards Francisca.
"Uhhhh...n-not too good. W-Where's Meg and Joxer?"
"That's what I'm wondering. They should've been back long ago-"
Suddenly, Francisca heard clanging metal, and stumbling feet. She hastily looked outside. Her eyes widened in horror.
Joxer stumbled out of the forest, blood flowing from his mouth and the side of his head. A few bystanders stared at him in shock. Francisca rushed out towards him. Joxer dropped to his knees, falling on one hand. Francisca instantly knelt at his side.
"Joxer!! What ha-"
"Tsao-Li's got Meg." he grunted in pain.
Francisca's jaw dropped in shock.
Joxer grabbed Francisca's arm. His brown eyes were full of fury and savage determination.
"I-I gotta see Maria."
"I don't care!!" shouted Joxer. "Either you take me to Maria right now, or I'm going myself. I don't care."
Francisca stared at him in fear and confusion. She swallowed hard. Francisca knew that Joxer was not going to sit around while Meg was in danger. She had to come to a quick decision.
"All right. C'mon."
Francisca lifted Joxer to his feet. She helped him towards the brothel.
"Joxer, no!!" shouted Maria angrily.
Joxer strode up to Maria, eyeing her square in the face. His features were twisted in pain and rage.
"I...am going...after Meg." he uttered in a low, dangerous tone.
Maria grabbed him by the collar, yanking him close. Her hazel eyes bored into his. Joxer held his ground, meeting her gaze.
"You listen to me." Maria snarled. "You go on that ship now, in your condition, and you're gonna get yourself killed!! Then what good are ya gonna do Meg then?!"
"And what good am I doing Meg NOW?!" Joxer screamed back.
Maria squinted her eyes shut. She forced down the rage and frustration she was feeling, making an incredible effort to keep some semblance of control. Maria opened her eyes, gazing into the mid-afternoon sky. She let out a low, vicious growl, and looked down at Joxer. She spoke again. Slowly.
"You want to rescue Meg?? You want Tsao-Li to get what's coming to him??"
Joxer kept his heated stare directed at her. He said nothing. Maria moved in close. Her eyes narrowed.
"You're gonna do this my way. There's nothing I'd like more than to storm that ship now and get her out of there. But we can't. Autolycus has to get the rest of the money to buy the slaves he picked. And there's the other slaves to consider. It's not just about Meg."
Joxer narrowed his eyes.
"Well, did ya think about this?? What do ya think is going to happen to Meg between now and when you attack the ship?! Meg could die under that shit's hands!!"
Maria winced slightly at Joxer's words. She knew he was right. Maria took a deep breath. She spoke again.
"Let me ask you something Joxer."
"What??" Joxer replied in an irritated tone.
"What would Meg want?? Never mind what you want. What about Meg?? Do ya think she'd want you to jeopardize the lives of those other women just to rescue her??"
Joxer fell silent. No words were exchanged for a few long moments. Francisca stared at the two in fear. Joxer finally spoke.
"I love her, Maria." he said quietly, his voice cracking. "I don't wanna lose her."
Maria instantly embraced Joxer, kissing him on top of the head.
"You won't. I swear on my life you won't."
Joxer pulled back, looking deep into Maria's eyes.
"Then I'm joining Philemon's forces aboard Dabros's ship."
Maria raised an eyebrow.
"Joxer, you're in no condition to-"
"I'm going." Joxer said with blunt finality. "Not even Zeus himself is going to stop me. I'm going to rescue the woman I love."
Maria straightened up. There was silence for a few moments. Finally, Maria nodded.
She turned to Francisca.
"I'll tell you where to take him."
Tsao-Li sat on top of his table. Chang-Su stood behind him. Across from him sat Meg, her ankles and wrists tied behind her back. Meg's ice-blue eyes pinned Tsao-Li in a feral, dangerous stare. Yet, Tsao-Li was unmoved. Chang-Su walked over to his cousin.
"She's still retained her beauty." he said, studying her.
"That she has."
Meg's eyes narrowed.
"So." she began, her voice full of venom. "Mister big-shot slave trader, eh??"
Tsao-Li smiled slightly.
"I make ends meet. Kidnapping a few attractive women here and there doesn't hurt either."
"Why am I not surprised?!"
Tsao-Li leaned towards Meg.
"Right now, worry about yourself. Until you are sold, this is where you're going to spend the rest of your days. On this slave ship."
He walked up to Meg. Her lips curled up slightly into a snarl. Tsao-Li spoke again.
"You should fetch a handsome prize."
"I'll kill myself first." hissed Meg.
Tsao-Li instantly clutched Meg's chin. His brown eyes narrowed.
"You think you're in control of your destiny, whore??"
Meg spat in his face. Tsao-Li sprang back, wiping saliva from his eyes. They widened in fury. He slapped her hard in the face. Blood whisked out of her mouth. Her head whipped to one side. She turned towards Tsao-Li, spitting at him again. Blood and saliva drenched his face. He wiped it again. Rage tore through his features.
Tsao-Li delivered a vicious uppercut to Meg's chin. More blood burst from her mouth. She flew back onto the ground, hard. Tsao-Li was upon Meg, grabbing her by the collar. His eyes bored into hers.
"I am going to enjoy torturing you again."
Meg's eyes fluttered open. A cold smile slowly formed on her face.
"M-M-Messing up the merchandise?? W-What would your clients say??"
Chang-Su walked up to Tsao-Li's side.
"Let me have a try at her!!"
Meg's eyes narrowed.
"You'd like that, you shit."
Tsao-Li grabbed Meg's throat, squeezing it hard. Meg's eyes dilated, gasping for air.
"I think it's time for a lesson in humility." growled Tsao-Li. "It's time to remind you what you are."
Philemon placed a hand on Joxer's shoulder.
"Have faith. We'll pull this off, Joxer."
The nurse applied salve to the cut on Joxer's right cheek. He hissed in pain. The nurse frowned slightly.
Joxer looked at her through narrowed eyes.
He looked at Philemon.
"I'm scared for her. What could that bastard be doing to Meg??"
Philemon's face darkened. He lowered his head for a moment. Then he looked up.
"Try to have faith, Joxer."
Joxer laughed harshly.
"Faith?! In what?! The gods?! Uh-uh. One thing I've learned from traveling with Xena and Gabrielle is that the gods are all full of it. They don't care about anyone but themselves. So, if you're asking me to have faith in the gods, your majesty, forget it."
Philemon moved in closer, his gaze intense.
"Joxer, you've got to remain calm and focused. You're going to drive yourself crazy if you don't! We have until tomorrow morning."
Joxer growled slightly in frustration, rolling his eyes.
"That's easy to say."
He looked at Philemon.
"Imagine if that were Diana instead of Meg." he said quietly. "Would you be able to stay calm and focused?"
"If I wanted to save her life, yes. It would probably kill me, but I'd do it."
Joxer lowered his head, sighing heavily. His eyes scanned the patterns on the floor.
"I'm coming for ya, Meg." he whispered. "I won't let you down."
Meg sat in a corner of a dark, dirty cell. She had been brought down to the lower levels of the ship. The stench of urine and feces was almost overwhelming. But something else was torturing her even more.
She replayed in her mind what Tsao-Li did to him. The vicious beating. The kick to Joxer's chin. Joxer's body cartwheeling back through the air, crashing into the ground. His body laying deathly still. Fierce pain ripped through Meg's soul. Tears flowed down her cheeks.
"Joxer..." she whispered, her voice trembling. "Oh Joxer...gods, I love you...please don't be dead..."
Meg suddenly heard footsteps. She looked up. A middle-aged woman stood above her. The dim candlelight lit her face. It was full of pity.
"Hi." she said softly.
Meg wiped the tears from her face. The woman knelt down beside Meg.
"My name's Carla."
Meg gazed at the woman, her eyes full of pain. The woman placed a hand on Meg's shoulder.
"I'm so sorry."
Meg smiled weakly.
"How did Tsao-Li capture you?"
Meg swallowed hard. She gazed at the ground before her.
"I-I was walking along with my boyfriend. H-He and his men jumped us. They beat my boyfriend up really bad. I-I-I don't know if they killed him or not."
She placed her hand on Meg's face. A tear trickled down Carla's cheek.
"That happened to me too."
Meg immediately looked up. Pity filled her face.
Carla nodded quickly. Meg grasped her hand.
"I'm sorry." she said quietly.
Carla sighed. She smiled sadly.
Meg and Carla quickly spun towards the direction of the scream. A young woman sat by the wall, pulling at her hair hard. Soon, she ripped chunks from her head. Meg and Carla instantly got to their feet.
"By the gods..." whispered Meg in horror.
The young woman's face was ashen. Agony and depression roiled savagely through her face, her body. It was all-consuming. She shook violently.
"I CAN'T TAKE IT NO MORE!!!! AAAAAAAAIYAYAIIIII!!!! OOOHHH GAAWWDDS, I WANNA DIE, I WANNA DIE, I WANNA DIE, I WANNA DIE!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
She ripped still more hair from her head. One woman ran over to her, dropping at her side.
"Mirna, STOP IT!!" the woman yelled.
The young woman was oblivious. She stared at the ground, her eyes bulging out of her head. She had obviously lost all sense of reason.
"I WANNA DIE, I WANNA DIE, I WANNA DIE, I WANNA DIE!!!!!!!!!!!"
"What's going on in there?!"
Meg, Carla, and the rest of the woman in the cell turned towards the front. Six guards stood there, armed with swords and crossbows. The leader was a large, ugly, hairy man. He growled at the sight of the young woman screaming out in agony.
"Shut up in there!!"
"I WANNA DIE, I WANNA DIE, I WANNA DIE!!!! I CAN'T TAKE ANYMOOOOOORE!!!"
"I SAID SHUT UP IN THERE!!!"
"I WANNA DIE, I WANNA DIE, I WANNA DIE!!!!"
The guard snarled. He turned to one of his men.
"Open this up."
The man obeyed. In moments, all six guards were inside. Four of them pointed their crossbows and swords at the women. They stepped back. The lead guard walked towards the young woman. Carla instantly ran forward. She stopped in front of him, raising her hands.
"Matuk, please don't!!"
Matuk glared at Carla. He raised his sword at her.
"Get out of the way."
"Please! Don't hurt her!! She's just a child!!"
Matuk bit his lower lip, nodding slightly. He raised an eyebrow. His eyes turned to ice.
"Get out of the way. Or join her on the whipping block."
Carla's eyes narrowed. She refused to budge. Matuk nodded.
"Have it your way. Take them both."
Two guards walked over, grabbing Carla and the young girl. Meg quickly began to move forward, but one guard stepped in front of her, crossbow aimed at Meg's heart. He snarled at her.
"Give me an excuse, bitch."
Meg's anger and fear fought for control. But fear won. She took a step back. Both women were dragged out of the cell.
"C'mon, Balus." said Matuk.
The guard confronting Meg nodded. He turned and left. Meg's sapphire eyes narrowed slightly.
"I've got your number, Balus." she hissed under her breath.
Meg watched as the two women were manacled to the whipping posts. Other women watched as well. Some turned away. Carla gazed at the young woman in front of her, who was still screaming. Tears came to her eyes.
"I'm so sorry, Mirna."
Two guards approached the women from behind. They drew their whips back. Carla braced for the pain.
The whips tore into the women's backs. Carla squinted her eyes shut, biting her lower lip hard. Mirna screamed even louder. And so it went. For what seemed like an eternity, the two guards continually whipped the backs of each woman. Horrific screams came from Mirna. Some of the women in the cells began to cry quietly. Meg turned around, running to the back of the cell. She leaned against the wall. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
"By the gods..." she whispered harshly, her voice trembling. "Philemon... hurry!! Hur...ry!!"
Meg then slid down along the wall. She lowered her head, and began to sob.
Tsao-Li gazed into the bright, mid-morning sky. A few bright, puffy clouds floated about. A new day. And money to be made. He took a deep breath, and let out a sigh of contentment.
Chang-Su walked up to his side. He spoke.
"Dabros has arrived."
Tsao-Li and Chang-Su walked around to the other side of the slave ship. Dabros's ship was approaching. In a short time, his ship pulled up alongside the slave ship. A ramp was extended from the slave ship to that of Dabros. At that moment, Autolycus and Maria appeared, along with five armed men. Two of them carried small wooden chests. They began to walk across the ramp. Tsao-Li and Chang-Su walked up to their end of the plank. Tsao-Li smiled.
"Good morning, Dabros."
Autolycus let out his cheeriest smile.
"Aaaaah!! Good morning, my friend! Beautiful day, isn't it?"
Tsao-Li nodded, returning the smile.
"Yes, yes it is."
Autolycus, Maria, and the five men boarded ship. Tsao-Li and Autolycus shook hands. Tsao-Li looked at the wooden chests being carried by the two men.
"Ah. The payment."
"Yes, my good man. Shall we go to your office?"
"Absolutely. This way."
Meg turned towards the guard. It was the same one that had threatened her last night. Balus. He glared at her with malice. Meg turned towards Carla. She was barely able to stand. Only her shovel kept her upright.
"You all right?" Meg asked, her eyes full of concern.
Carla nodded slowly. She managed a weak smile.
"I said KEEP SHOVELING!!"
Meg turned towards the guard, her eyes flashing in an ever-deepening rage. But Carla grabbed her arm.
Meg stared at Carla in disbelief.
"I'm okay." Carla stated with quiet intensity. "Let's not invite any more trouble."
Meg saw the look in Carla's eyes. The deep, all-consuming fear. Meg fought down the fury and nausea inside her. She nodded once in acknowledgement. They went back to work.
Flies buzzed around their heads as they shoveled the human excrement, dumping it into buckets. Balus and another guard stood watch while the two women continued to work in the dim candlelight. Meg had to use all her will power to prevent from throwing up on the spot. She could see hundreds of maggots burrowing and squirming in the fecal matter. Meg closed her eyes, and made a silent prayer.
Tsao-Li smiled warmly, counting the last of the money. He looked up at Autolycus.
Autolycus bowed his head slightly.
"No problem, my friend."
He got up, and walked over to a window. Autolycus saw the last of the women enter Darbos's ship. He turned to Tsao-Li.
"Well!! I see that you're a happy man."
"That, I am."
He turned to Chang-Su, and another man.
"Take these chests below."
The two men picked up the chests and left the cabin. Autolycus turned to Maria.
"Leave us for a moment. Take a break."
Maria nodded once. She left the cabin as well. Autolycus turned to Tsao-Li.
"I happen to know a friend in Caldonas who could use some of your slaves."
Tsao-Li's eyes widened slightly.
"Oh yeah. This guy's rolling in dinars."
Tsao-Li turned around, picking up a goblet and a bottle of wine. He turned to Autolycus.
"Why thank you."
Tsao-Li poured Autolycus some wine. He took the goblet, and drank a bit. Tsao-Li leaned forward.
"So. Tell me about your friend."
The violent explosion rocked the cabin. Tsao-Li instantly got to his feet.
" What the-
Another violent explosion. Screams and shouts came from outside the cabin. Tsao-Li rushed to the the door, opening it. A swarm of arrows, some of them on fire, rained down on his ship. They were coming from Dabros's vessel. Several of Tsao-Li's men were hit. They dropped to the ground, dead. Others ran for cover. Fire erupted from the front of the slave ship. Tsao-Li saw a large group of armed men rush across the ramp towards his ship. He quickly turned around-
A foot smashed into his face. Blood exploded from Tsao-Li's mouth. He flew through the air, crashing hard onto the deck. Autolycus rushed outside. His features were roiling with rage.
"Where's Meg, you bastard?!"
Tsao-Li quickly drew a knife. He got to his feet. He snarled at Autolycus.
"Who are you?!"
"Autolycus, King of Thieves. I'm gonna give ya a whipping ya won't soon forget."
Tsao-Li bared his teeth in a brilliant, feral smile.
"You're that whore's friend?! I killed her. Sliced her throat. Just as I'm going to slice yours."
Tsao-Li rushed at Autolycus. He somersaulted over Tsao-Li's head. Tsao-Li quickly spun around. In two fast, vicious kicks, Autolycus knocked the knife out of his hand and hit him in the face. Blood exploded from Tsao-Li's nose. He staggered back to the doorway of his cabin. Autolycus's eyes widened in fury.
Autolycus leapt at Tsao-Li, hitting him hard. They flew into the cabin.
Maria rammed her foot into the guard's face. He flew off the side of the boat, crashing into the water. Maria turned to Chang-Su. Her hazel eyes were a roaring fire of hatred at rage.
"Where's Meg?!" she screamed.
Chang-Su drew a knife. He smiled coldly at her.
"Dead. Just like you'll be."
Maria's eyes narrowed into feral slits.
"Meg was my best friend." she hissed. "You raped her eight years ago, and now you've killed her. I'm going to break every bone in your body."
Chang-Su bared his teeth.
"Come and get me."
Maria let out a piercing scream, charging at Chang-Su. He somersaulted over Maria, landing behind her. She whirled around. Chang-Su rammed his left foot hard in Maria's face. Blood exploded from her nose, and her head snapped back. Chang-Su then executed a vicious, whirling kick. It hit Maria square in the chest. She flew back, crashing through the door of a cabin. The door disintegrated into kindling. Her body smashed into a table, crashing sideways onto the floor. Chang-Su rushed in, knife raised. He leapt at Maria. She whipped her right leg at him, hitting Chang-Su hard in the side. His body flew through the air, crashing into a wall. He fell to the ground. Maria turned towards him, a feral smile on her face.
"Payback time." she hissed.
Matuk stared up at the ceiling, hearing the commotion going on above him.
"What in Tartarus?!"
He turned to three of his men.
"C'mon!! The rest of you, stay here!!"
Matuk and the three men left. The remaining three gazed at each other, bewildered. The women in the cells stared at the ceiling as well, murmuring among themselves. Meg knew the attack had commenced. It was time for her to act.
She quickly shoveled up a particularly large pile of feces. Her blue eyes darted towards Balus, who was staring at the ceiling above him. Suddenly, another violent explosion rocked the boat. Balus was knocked off-balance. Meg's eyes widened in fury.
Meg hurled her shovel's contents at Balus. The feces flew into Balus's face, eyes, and mouth. He let out a gurgled scream, staggering back. Meg ran up to him, shovel drawn back. Her sapphire eyes were afire.
She swung the shovel hard into Balus's face. There was a loud crack as his jaw snapped. Balus flew through the air, crashing face-first into the ground. A huge cry of rage and satisfaction erupted from the other women. The two remaining men quickly raised their crossbows towards Meg. Carla dove at Meg's feet, picking up Balus's discarded crossbow. She fired at the men. The arrows tore into their chests. They flew back against the cells, dropping onto the ground, dead. The cries of rage and satisfaction from the women grew deafening. Meg ran over to Balus's unconscious body, taking the keys from his belt.
"Listen up!!" Meg screamed. "LISTEN UUUUUUUP!!!!!!!"
The screaming and cursing subsided somewhat. Meg spoke again.
"All right!! Listen!! We are being rescued right now by King Philemon and his army!! Go after only Tsao-Li's men!! Got it?!"
The women shouted their acknowledgement.
"We got ya!!"
"DEATH TO TSAO-LI AND HIS MEN!!"
"SPILL THEIR BLOOD!!"
Meg rushed over to each cell, opening them. The women stormed out of each cell screaming and cursing the name of Tsao-Li. Meg ran over to Carla, helping her up. She smiled.
Carla smiled in return.
"No. Thank you. That's a heck of a swing you have."
Meg raised an eyebrow, her grin growing wider.
"I swing a mean axe at home. Let's get outta here."
Chang-Su went flying through a window. He crashed onto the deck. Maria burst from the cabin. Her face was full of demonic glee.
"C'mon, ya sonofa-bacchae." she growled eagerly. "On yer feet."
Chang-Su slowly got up. His eyes widened in fury. With a piercing cry, he swung his foot hard at Maria several times. Maria quickly blocked the kicks. Chang-Su then threw a series of violent punches at Maria, who effortless blocked them all. She suddenly grabbed Chang-Su's arms and rammed her head into his face with all her might. His head snapped back, blood erupting from his nose. Maria rammed a knee into his side. Chang-Su's eyes bulged out of his head as several ribs cracked. Finally, Maria rammed her fist hard into Chang-Su's face. He flew through the air, crashing into the side of a cabin. Chang-Su fell to the ground. Maria cracked her knuckles. She approached him.
Chang-Su lifted his head. He saw a discarded knife laying before him. Chang-Su quickly snatched it up, slowly rising to his knees. He grimaced in agony. Chang-Su glared at Maria in fury. She raised an eyebrow, grinning eagerly.
"Yeah!!" she hissed. "Bring it on!!"
Chang-Su let out a harsh cry, rushing towards Maria. He lunged at her. Maria grabbed his hand, violently turning the knife back towards its owner and down. Chang-Su's eyes bulged out of his head as he felt the knife burrow deep into his groin. He let out a long, strangled cry. Maria cackled with glee.
Maria swept Chang-Su off his feet, lifting him high above her head. Her teeth were bared in rage. She let out a piercing scream, slamming him down with all her might into her knee. There was a loud crack as Chang-Su's spine snapped. Maria tossed him off her knee. He fell to the ground, dead. Maria rose to her feet, watching Tsao-Li's men and Philemon's fighting fiercely. She looked out into the waters, and saw King Diates's ships approaching. Her eyes narrowed in fury.
She ran off.
Tsao-Li rammed his fist hard into Autolycus's face. Autolycus flew back through the air, crashing into a wall. Tsao-Li glanced outside. His men appeared to be losing to Philemon's. He knew he had to escape. Tsao-Li leapt through a window. He landed hard, rolling over and over. Finally, Tsao-Li got to his feet. He ran through the midst of fighting men. Autolycus got to his feet, shaking his head. He looked around. His eyes widened in anger.
"Oh no you don't!!"
He ran outside, picked up a discarded sword. Autolycus spun to his right. He saw Tsao-Li fleeing through the angry mass of fighting men. Autolycus took off after him.
The freed women rushed up each deck, killing Tsao-Li's guards as they ascended. They cried out in rage, screaming for the death of Tsao-Li. Meg and Carla made their best efforts to keep up with the crowd of enraged women. Soon, they made it to the top. The women burst through the doors, immediately attacking Tsao-Li's guards. Meg looked at the ship across from theirs. She saw dozens of Philemon's men surge across the ramp onto Tsao-Li's ship. Meg turned to Carla, pointing at the ship.
"Carla, that's where we've got to go!! C'mon!!"
They ran in the direction of Philemon's ship, maneuvering around the fighting men and women. Soon they entered a clear space-
And Tsao-Li burst forth from a cabin. He grabbed Meg, wrapping an arm around her neck. He held a knife to her throat. At that moment, Maria and Autolycus appeared. They stopped instantly at seeing Tsao-Li and Meg. He viciously yanked Meg back. He edged himself towards a cabin behind him. His eyes were wild with rage.
"I'll cut this bitch's throat!! Stay back, OR I'LL RIP HER THROAT OPEN!! I SWEAR IT!!"
He tightened his grip on Meg's throat. She gagged in agony. Maria and Autolycus slowly made a step forward.
"You're not going to get away." growled Maria.
Tsao-Li wrenched his arm hard around Meg's neck. She let out a gurgled cry of pain. Tsao-Li pressed the blade into her neck. A tiny drop of blood trickled forth. Autolycus's face grew pale. He raised his hand.
"Please...don't do that!!"
Tsao-Li burst into insane laughter. He glared at Autolycus heatedly.
"I'll do WHATEVER I WANT!!!"
At that moment, Philemon and several soldiers rushed forth. They stopped as soon as they saw Tsao-Li and Meg. Tsao-Li whirled to face the prince. Philemon raised his hand, motioning his soldiers to stay put. Philemon spoke.
"I'm Prince Philemon of Boecia. You're surrounded, Tsao-Li. Your men have been defeated. My army and King Daites's army have joined forces. You are hereby under arrest for kidnapping, as well as engaging in the illegal commerce of slavery in Boecia."
"This is not your jurisdiction!!" screamed Tsao-Li. "These are Mirtan's waters!! You have no right here!! Slavery is not illegal here!!"
"It is now."
Tsao-Li spun to his left. A tall man walked forth, wearing a dark robe. His jet-black hair was combed back. He eyed Tsao-Li with malice.
"I am King Diates. You are hereby under arrest for the illegal practice of slavery. And that woman you have hostage is a citizen of Mirtan, whom you've kidnapped. Surrender now."
Tsao-Li slowly moved back, not believing what he was hearing. Behind him, on the roof of the cabin, appeared a form.
It was Joxer.
He slowly crept to the edge of the roof. Tsao-Li edged back, closer and closer to the cabin wall. His face was hideously twisted in an all-consuming fury.
"No!!" he screamed. "NO!! I'LL NEVER SURRENDER!! LET ME GO, OR I'LL CUT THIS BITCH'S THROAT!!"
Joxer raised his sword, moving into position. He knew he would only get one chance at this.
"I'LL CUUUUUTT IIIIIIIITTTTTTT!!!!!!!!!!" Tsao-Li screamed at the top of his lungs.
Joxer jumped off the roof. He rammed the hilt of his sword hard into Tsao-Li's skull. The momentum sent all three of them crashing into the ground. Philemon's guards burst forth. They ran over to Tsao-Li, dragging his unconscious body away from Meg and Joxer. Autolycus and Maria ran up to them. Autolycus gathered Joxer into his arms, hugging him tight.
"Yaaaaa-HOOOO!!!" he yelled. "Way ta go, buddy!!"
Maria gathered Meg into her arms. Meg sobbed bitterly. Maria held her close, stroking her head.
"Sssssssssh, ssssssssh, sssssssssh!!" Maria cooed. "It's over baby. It's over."
Meg looked up at Maria, her tear-filled eyes full of shock.
"W-Who stopped Tsao-Li?!"
Maria turned towards Joxer, giving him a brilliant smile.
Meg quickly turned to the right. Joxer stared at Meg, tears streaming down his cheeks. Meg's blue eyes bulged out of her head.
She flew at him, tackling him to the ground. Meg wrapped her arms around Joxer in a bone-crushing hug. She cried hysterically, burrowing her face into his shoulder. Joxer returned the fierce hug, crying as well. Autolycus and Maria looked at each other, smiling. Tears streamed down their faces.
"We did it." said Autolycus.
Maria's smile grew even wider.
"Yeah. We did it."
"So. Do you mind if I take Tsao-Li back to Boecia to face charges there?" asked Philemon.
"Not at all, not at all." answered Daites. "Besides, my friend, I think Tsao-Li will be spending hefty prison time in both our kingdoms."
Philemon's eyes narrowed in anger.
"After seeing these poor women, I guarantee that his punishment will be swift and severe."
Diates placed his hand on Philemon's shoulder.
"Be sure to save a piece of him for me. Anyone who's committed the crimes he has should never see the light of day again."
Autolycus and Maria looked at each other, exchanging huge smiles. Maria turned to Philemon and Daites.
"I-I don't know how to thank you." said Maria, her voice trembling slightly. "You both saved the lives of dozens of women. You've given them hope again."
Philemon and Diates smiled warmly.
"It was our pleasure." said Diates.
Philemon walked over to Maria, placing a hand on her arm.
"Thank you. And Autolycus. We couldn't have done this without your help-"
"THAT'S RIGHT!! KILL HIM!!"
"SKEWER THE SONOFA BITCH!!!"
'SHOOT HIM IN THE BALLS!!!"
The four looked at each other in shock.
"What on Earth...?!" exclaimed Philemon.
They ran outside the cabin. Their eyes widened in disbelief. Meg stood there, a crossbow aimed at a manacled Tsao-Li. The two guards that held him slowly backed away from the prisoner. The dozens of women there were screaming their approval. Bloodlust roiled through the crowd of enraged women.
"KILL HIM, MEG!! SEND HIM TO HADES!!"
"SHOOT HIS BALLS OFF!!"
"TO TARTARUS WITH THE BASTARD!!! JUSTICE NOW!!!"
"WE WANT REVENGE!!!!"
Maria and Autolycus ran towards Meg. She rapidly turned her head towards them, pinning them with the most ferocious, animalistic stare either one of them had ever seen. A horrific chill tore through them.
Maria slowly approached Meg.
"Meg, don't do this-"
"SHUT UP!!!" screamed Meg at the top of her lungs.
Her eyes pinned Tsao-Li. He stared at her in an ever-growing fear. Meg's sapphire eyes were boiling with intense rage.
"He...deserves...to DIE!!!" she shouted viciously.
The crowd of women screamed their approval. Meg gripped her crossbow harder, her finger encircling the trigger.
"Don't do it Meg!!" shouted Autolycus. "There's another way-"
"There IS NO OTHER WAY!!" yelled Meg in fury. "He must DIE!!!"
The crowd of women screamed again. Meg closed one eye, aiming for Tsao-Li's heart. His eyes widened in terror.
Meg instantly recognized the voice as Joxer's. Then to her total shock, Joxer jumped in front of Tsao-Li. He raised his hands. The screaming died down. The crowd of women stared at Joxer in disbelief. Joxer slowly approached Meg.
"Put...the crossbow...down, Meg." said Joxer slowly, his eyes full of fear.
Meg stared at Joxer, anger and grief roiling through her face. Her body shook from the intensity of the emotions. She shook her head.
"No!! No, he hurt me!! He RAPED me!!"
"He's not worth it Meg." said Joxer. "He's not worth murdering."
"Yes he is... Y-Yes he is!! H-He should die!! He's hurt people!! He's killed people!!"
"If you kill him, Meg, you'll be just like him!" said Joxer desperately. "You're better than him!! You're a way better person than him!!"
Meg's eyes narrowed in agony. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
"He raped me, Joxer. He raped me."
Joxer drew closer. His face was filled with overwhelming concern and pity.
"Murdering him will not ease the pain. In fact, it'll get worse. Remember what I went through with Criton?? Remember?? If you kill Tsao-Li now, your nightmares will be a thousand times worse. Tsao-Li will be in your nightmares for the rest of your life. I'll stake my life on that Meg. You, of all people, don't deserve that."
Meg let out a low cry of anguish. The crossbow trembled in her hands. Joxer drew even closer.
"I love you, Meg." he said softly. "Let's walk away from this. Give me the crossbow. Please."
Meg trembled even more. Joxer eyed her steadily. Meg gazed into the eyes of the man she loved. Meg saw the overwhelming love and pity in his eyes. It overtook her. Meg began to sob.
She lowered her head and the crossbow. Joxer rushed over to Meg, taking the crossbow out of her hands. Maria ran over to the pair. Joxer gave Maria the crossbow. He took Meg into his arms, holding her close. Joxer kissed Meg on top of her head.
"Let's go home, sweetheart." he said softly.
Joxer began to lead Meg away from Tsao-Li.
"YOU WORTHLESS WHORE!!!"
Meg winced at the words. Joxer gripped her tighter. Maria spun towards Tsao-Li, enraged. But Joxer raised his hand.
"No, Maria!" he said firmly.
Maria growled, holding her ground. Joxer and Meg continued to walk away from Tsao-Li. His eyes were wild with fury and hatred.
"You're a worthless, shit-stained WHORE!!" Tsao-Li screamed. "I SHIT ON YOU!! YOU DISGUSTING, WORTHLESS BITCH!!"
Something inside Joxer snapped.
A savage, overwhelming fury erupted from deep within him. In seconds, he was hurtling towards Tsao-Li, screaming at the top of his lungs. Joxer rammed his right fist with all his might into the side of Tsao-Li's face. There was a loud crack as his jaw snapped. He flew through the air, crashing hard into the floor. Tsao-Li slid to a stop and lay still. Blood flowed from his mouth onto the deck. Maria and Meg stared at Joxer, overwhelmed with shock. Gasps came from the crowd of women.
Joxer glared at Tsao-Li's still form. His face was twisted in hatred.
"That's my woman you're talking about." he hissed.
Francisca handed Autolycus the cup of tea. He smiled.
He turned to Maria, raising an eyebrow.
"Wow. I never thought that Joxer, of all people had such a vicious right!"
Maria chuckled heartily.
"Neither did Tsao-Li. That's what happens when you push people too far."
Meg smiled warmly into her cup of tea.
"Yeah. What a man."
Maria looked at Meg, eyebrows raised.
"I second that."
Autolycus raised his cup of tea.
"A toast, I say. To Joxer The Mighty!!"
"Here, here!!" exclaimed Maria.
The four friends raised their cups of tea, touching them together.
"To Joxer the Mighty!!" they exclaimed.
The four friends drank their tea. Meg got to her feet.
"I'm going up to my room. Joxie's waiting for me."
Autolycus got up as well. He smiled devilishly.
"Oooooooooooh!! Joxie, is it?? Ho-ho-ho-ho!! Boy-I'll never let him live that down!! Hahahahahaha!!"
Meg's eyes narrowed. She walked over to Autolycus, poking him hard in the chest. Autolycus gasped in shock.
"That's my man you're messing with, Mister Stinky." warned Meg in a cold voice. "You keep your grimy paws away from him."
Meg grabbed Autolycus's collar, yanking him close. Her sapphire eyes bored into his.
"Got it, Stinky??"
Autolycus swallowed hard.
Meg smiled mischievously.
Meg suddenly hugged Autolycus tightly. The King of Thieves stiffened, shocked at this sudden show of affection. Meg then kissed him on the cheek. She pulled back, her eyes full of joy and gratitude.
"Thanks, Auto. For everything."
Autolycus smiled warmly.
"Hey! What are friends for??"
Meg turned to Francisca and Maria.
"Good night guys."
Maria smiled devilishly, raising an eyebrow.
"Got anything planned tonight??"
Meg raised her own eyebrow, displaying the same devilish smile. She turned and left the room. Autolycus sighed.
"Boy. That Joxer's one lucky fellow."
Maria turned towards Autolycus. She raised both eyebrows.
"Hey handsome! Wanna go out on a date?"
Autolycus gave a huge smile. He held out his hand.
"Why not!! Dinner's on me."
Maria got to her feet, grasping Autolycus's hand. She turned to Francisca, and winked.
"Don't wait up."
Joxer soaked his right hand in the cold water, grimacing in pain. It was badly bruised from the punch to Tsao-Li's face. He growled in frustration.
"Why in Tartarus did this guy have to have such a hard jaw?!"
Joxer turned around. His eyes widened and his jaw dropped. Meg stood before him. She was wearing her see-through purple sleeping jacket. It was open in front. And Joxer noticed Meg was totally nude underneath. He swallowed hard.
Meg walked up to Joxer. She stood before him, her eyes full of love and gratitude.
"Joxer, you saved my life."
Joxer blushed. He lowered his head.
Meg placed a hand under his chin, lifting it. Her eyes narrowed in pity at the sight of the cuts and bruises all over his face.
"You risked your life for me." Meg said softly.
Joxer frowned. His face darkened.
"But I let them take you." he said, full of shame. "I-I let them take-"
Meg instantly moved in, kissing Joxer. Her tongue probed Joxer's mouth, swirling around inside it. She moaned softly. Meg then pulled back slightly, her forehead on his.
"You did your best." she whispered.
Meg silenced Joxer again with a kiss. She sucked on Joxer's lower lip. Meg pushed Joxer against the wall. She kissed him for a few more moments, and pulled back slightly. Meg gazed deeply into Joxer's eyes.
"I love you, Joxer."
Joxer blushed a deep crimson.
"I-I love you too."
"Thanks for being there for me." said Meg quietly, her voice full of emotion. "Through everything. Thank you for being there through all this. You don't know what that means to me."
Joxer smiled slightly.
"I-I think I do. I wouldn't be anywhere else."
Joxer leaned back on his right hand. Suddenly, pain exploded through it. His eyes widened in agony.
Meg jumped back, startled. Joxer lifted his bruised right hand in front of his face. He frowned deeply in pain.
Meg moved in quickly. She stared at Joxer's badly bruised knuckles.
"Sweetie, your hand!!"
Joxer grimaced in discomfort.
"Aw, I bruised it when I knocked out that bastard."
"You didn't break anything, did you?!"
"Naw, naw, I didn't. I would've known. Just bruised it, ouch..."
Meg grasped his injured hand.
"Let me see, sweetheart."
She carefully looked the hand over, seeing the bruises around his knuckles and the hand's top. Meg tenderly kissed it. Then, she ran her tongue along his knuckles. She caressed it with her lips. Joxer swallowed hard.
Meg stopped kissing Joxer's hand. She moved in closer, studying Joxer's face.
"What else hurts, Joxie? Hmmm?"
Meg wrapped her arms around Joxer, pressing into him. She began to tenderly lick the bruises and wounds on his face. She moaned softly. Joxer was getting very aroused by this.
"W-What are you doing??"
Meg pulled back, leaning her forehead on Joxer's.
"Remember when I said I had something planned for you when you first came back?"
Joxer nodded slightly.
Meg slid her hand into Joxer's pajamas, grasping his member. Joxer gasped. Meg moved in closer. She licked Joxer's ear.
"It's time for a trip to Elysia." she moaned into his his ear.
Meg then gave Joxer a deep kiss, and the two lovers slid down onto a bearskin rug. It was a night that Joxer would remember for a long, long time.
Continue on to the sequel A Switch of the Role