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TRANSGRESSIONS - Cont'd
Saras treated the wounds of Ramus. Most of them were superficial, except the gash on his face. She turned to Vectra. "This has your particular signature, Vectra. You barely missed the artery. Not very smart, if you wanted him alive." She continued stitching the wound.
Vectra watched the healer’s deft hands close the opening. " I’d like to take credit but it was Gabrielle’s doing. I’ve never seen anything as cold as that. She actually took delight in the act. There’s something very wrong with all this. She has lost all emotion and I fear for her sanity."
Saras put the final stitch through the skin and tied the knot. She was genuinely surprised that Gabrielle had inflicted this wound. " You mean Gabrielle did this?" Vectra just nodded. Saras sadly shook her head. " Then there’s something deeper going on besides the grief of losing Xena. I need to talk to Artemis. Gabrielle’s lack of emotion has the earmarks of godly intervention to it. I can’t believe that Artemis would allow her chosen to go into this dark place." The healer applied a balm to the tender face of Ramus. He winced at her touch. She spoke to her patient. "This will keep any infection from taking hold. Try to keep the wound dry and clean."
Vectra didn’t know why Saras should bother with the prisoner’s health. She planned to personally take his life when this was all done. Regardless of his motivation, he had taken Xena’s life and would pay for it. But she surmised that they needed him long enough to get to Alexxus. The healer prepared to leave and spoke a reminder to the Amazon. "Vectra, try not to mess up my work, ok? It is Ephiny’s wish that he be able to travel. I wouldn’t want to have to explain his.... shall we say...inability to comply with that wish." The warrior silently nodded and watched the healer leave the room.
Saras entered the temple and dismissed the priestess. She reverently kneeled and asked for an audience with the goddess. There was a bright shimmering in front of her. Artemis waited her questions.
"Rise, Saras. I already know of your concerns."
The healer slowly stood and faced the goddess. "My goddess, why have you allowed Queen Gabrielle to seek this darkness? It will surely kill her. Is that your desire?"
Artemis wasn’t too thrilled with Gabrielle’s request either, so she allowed Saras to question her decision. "It was Gabrielle’s request, Saras. She will soon be faced with a most difficult path. I have allowed her a cessation of grief until this choice is made. Even I do not know which she will take... I will say this, however, if it is her wish to die, then none of you should interfere."
Saras was beside herself. "How can you allow this? You’re saying if Gabrielle wants to commit suicide, and that’s what we’re talking about here, that we should just let her? That is not an option, Artemis! There is no honor in taking one’s life and spending an eternity in Tartarus. I will do everything in my power to see this doesn’t happen."
The goddess let the woman vent before interceding. "I don’t believe I said anything about Gabrielle taking her life. There are many ways to die, Saras, and all are not physical. There’s death of the spirit...of hope...of love...of innocence. All these are possible with the heart still beating. Right now, Gabrielle doesn’t believe in the inherent goodness in her own heart. In fact, she believes that she doesn’t deserve to live. In some way, she is certain there was something she could have done to save Xena. She is suffering guilt of unparalleled proportions. My precious charge has asked for this deadness and I have given it to her. The rest is out of my hands. This saddens me terribly, but I cannot intercede until she asks."
The healer was unconvinced that the goddess was helpless. "Artemis, there has to be something we can do. We just can’t allow her to throw her life away. She needs time to heal. And for that, she needs her emotions. You have doomed her to spiritual death and without that, her body will surely follow." Saras paused, running a thought through her mind. "I know you can’t interfere, but there’s nothing that says I can’t. Please give me something I can use to help her. I’ll do whatever you ask."
Artemis neared Saras. Bending to her ear, she whispered, "There is one way to preserve her. You must do this...."
The goddess spoke to Saras in a voice only she could hear. The healer concentrated on every word, occasionally nodding. With no further instructions, Saras bowed in front of Artemis and made her way out of the temple.
The goddess was about to dissolve when a voice boomed in her ears.... it was a warning.
"Daughter, be careful. You are dangerously close to the line. Take my advice, leave this mortal alone. What is done...is done."
Artemis stood erect and returned Zeus’ statement with one of her own. " Yes...it is done...but only in one timeline."
Outside there was an ominous peal of thunder, even though the sky was clear.
Saras looked into the sky at the thunderous sound. She was sure it had to do with Artemis. She also knew talking to Gabrielle wasn’t an option, the Queen was not in a receptive place. She needed to confer with Ephiny on these plans. But it was late and the day had been one of extreme sadness. They all needed rest even though she doubted if any Amazon would sleep tonight.
All through the village, mates held one another with a new appreciation. Death had a way of making life very conspicuous.
Gabrielle was lying on the pallet, staring at the thatched ceiling. She was completely numb. Even the ‘hatred’ she held in her heart had no real feeling. This was so sterile...so empty. She let out a mournful sigh, "Well, get used to it, Gabrielle. This is what the rest of your life is going to feel like. No joy...no love...no tears...nothing." In spite of her resolve to stay awake, sleep overtook her exhausted mind and body. As she entered the realm of Morpheus, a single tear formed at the corner of her eye and dropped to the pallet. A similar tear flowed from the warm brown eyes of Artemis. This was so hard for the goddess to watch. So much would be at stake in the next few days.
Ephiny awoke early, her lover’s arms tightly holding her. She quietly watched her sleep, thankful for the opportunity. There was much to arrange today but this moment was too special to end. ‘Just a few more minutes’, she thought. She studied her lover’s face, memorizing her delicate features, the slope of her nose, the line of her jaw, the fullness of her lips. Ephiny caressed her face with her hand. There was a mist in her eyes. Softly, she uttered, "So much we take for granted." She placed a kiss on her lips and quietly eased out of bed.
She quickly dressed and exited the room, heading for the compound grounds. There was an eerie quietness throughout the village. Very few women were up and the grounds were practically empty. Ephiny guessed most of the Amazons were going through the same ritual she had experienced earlier. It was to be expected. She walked toward the detention hut to check on Ramus. There was a guard posted outside the prisoner’s room.
Ephiny approached the captain, "Any problems during the night?"
"No, Regent. I checked on him shortly after Saras left and he was trying to sleep. Not a sound all night. It’s been dead quiet." Debo was confident that she had executed her duties well. She stood aside so Ephiny could enter. The sight that greeted them was totally unexpected. Ramus was lying face down in a dark pool of coagulated blood.
"What...the...." Ephiny moved quickly to his crumpled form and rolled him over. His eyes were wide open, as was the gash on his face. He had torn the stitches loose and opened the artery. He had simply bled to death during the night.
Debo slumped against the nearest piece of sturdy furniture. It wasn’t because of the sight before them. She had failed Ephiny once before and this would surely be held against her. She stuttered, " Eph....uh...Regent...I...I...he was alive when I checked him last. I never heard a sound during the night. I beg your forgiveness."
Ephiny was still looking at Ramus. She waved a hand at Debo. "It’s not your fault, Debo. I should have expected this from him." She silently replayed his now prophetic statement concerning having nothing left to lose. How could she have not anticipated this action? She should have retied him, but thought it unnecessary. The shock and grief of losing Xena had temporarily dulled her instincts. Internally, she reprimanded herself, ‘This would have never happened to Xena.’ She closed Ramus’s eyelids and muttered, "Damn!"
Ephiny stood and ran the options over in her mind. ‘Not too many’, she thought. She had to inform Gabrielle, knowing this turn of events would have no impact on her. The plan would still go forward. She had the name of the village and mountain, so locating it wouldn’t be impossible. But she wanted to have a positive ID on Alexxus. She would have to trust her scouts for this one. This whole thing had all the attributes of a full-blown disaster. She had to be certain, without a doubt, about the identity of the priestess. Too many innocents had died over this affair. She spoke to Debo before leaving the scene. "Stay with him until there is a more suitable place for his body. I’ll send Saras to prepare him." Ephiny left the stunned captain and dead prisoner to commiserate.
Saras was making her way to the detention hut when she spied Ephiny coming toward her. "And how is my patient this morning?"
"Your patient is dead, Saras, by his own hand I’m afraid. I was on my way to get you."
Saras couldn’t believe this was true. "What the Hades happened, Ephiny? Are you sure it was ‘suicide’ and not the work of Vectra?" The tall Amazon always made Saras nervous.
"Oh, I’m sure he took his own life. Debo was on guard and there were no other visitors admitted last night. Apparently, he couldn’t stand the thought that maybe he’d killed the wrong person. That coupled with the death of his daughter was just too much to bear. Funny.... if I had been Ramus, I would have saved my hatred for the party really responsible.... Alexxus."
Saras looked into the face of the Regent and offered a chilling question. "Are you sure that Alexxus is the responsible party, Ephiny? What if you make a similar mistake? I had a most disturbing conversation with Artemis last night. We need to talk about this...without Gabrielle. Can you spare some time this morning?"
"Of course I can, but I’ve got to tell Gabrielle about this development. I’ll come to your hut when I’m finished. I don’t mind telling you that keeping secrets from the Queen isn’t a smart thing to do, regardless of her emotional condition." Ephiny placed a hand on the shoulder of Saras in a comforting manner. "We’ll get through this...all of us." She turned and headed for Gabrielle’s quarters. Saras continued toward the detention hut, but for a different reason now.
Ephiny approached the guarded door to Gabrielle’s room. She hesitated before entering her Queen’s chamber. Gabrielle had taken a very small unassuming room far from the royal chamber. Ephiny knocked softly, but there was no answer. Fear overtook her manners. She entered the room without waiting. The morning’s event had shaken her resolve. She expected to find Gabrielle awake, but not conversational. She quickly scanned the room. Xena’s sword and chakram were on the small table. The obvious signs of the funeral blaze still coloring the metal. Her attention was drawn to the pallet. The bard was under a mound of skins on the pallet. It was hard for Ephiny to see if she was breathing with the depth of the pile. Her heart quickened as she neared the form. She sat on the edge of the pallet and pulled the covering back. Placing a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder, she gently rocked her.
"Gabrielle.... it’s me, Eph, wake up." At first there was no response, fueling Ephiny’s paranoia. This time she was more forceful. "Gabrielle!"
The bard’s eyes snapped opened and before her mind fully engaged, she blurted, "XENA!!" There was a look of anguish and turmoil in her eyes. It was there only a second before the gray dullness commandeered that space. "Ephiny, what is it?" Gabrielle was in control of her nightmare once more.
The color was slowly returning to Ephiny’s face. Dealing with an unemotional Gabrielle was beginning to wear on her. "It’s the prisoner, Ramus, he’s dead. He committed suicide during the night. I’m sorry, it was partly my fault. I didn’t order him restrained after Saras finished with him." She was waiting for some sort of reprisal but none was forthcoming. The coldness in Gabrielle’s reply sent a shiver through her.
"It doesn’t matter, Ephiny. He just saved me the trouble of killing him later. We don’t really need him to find Alexxus...now do we?" There was a calculating glint in her eye.
"No, I suppose we don’t." Ephiny couldn’t stand to be this close to the thing masquerading as her friend. She stood and excused herself. "Pardon the intrusion, my Queen. I’ll be finalizing the arrangements for our departure later this morning. We will need your input, if you feel like it."
In a rather distracted tone, she uttered, "Yeah, ok."
"As you wish, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle was snaking her way from under the furs. She was still clothed in the ceremonial clothes from the previous day. She seemed oblivious to the condition of her physical being. Ephiny’s heart was breaking for her friend. She had to talk to Saras. There had to be something they could do for her. Without a further word, she left the room. In the hall she instructed Gabrielle’s guard to bring food and to prepare a bath for the Queen. Perhaps she would see fit to at least bathe.
Ephiny entered Saras hut. The healer was tending a minor wound on a young Amazon. It had been inflicted on the training ground. She seemed rather proud of the new gash. Ephiny saw some of herself in the woman’s eyes.... proud.... fierce.... devoted. She acknowledged the novice warrior and the woman smiled. The Regent had made her day. The Amazon thanked Saras and quickly left to return to the training ground.... and a date with yet another mishap.
"Youth...it does keep me busy." The healer was shaking her head and cleaning her instruments.
"Was I ever that young?" Eph was musing out loud, looking for a ‘normal’ conversation.
"Oh, yes, and a lot more foolish. If you remember, you logged more hours in this hut than me."
Ephiny smiled as she remembered days gone by. "Yes, I do recall spending a lot of time on your table. That was so long ago.... things were so different then. I had no responsibilities other than learning my skills." She let out a tired sigh, "Ahhh.... sometimes I long for those days again. This is just too hard, Saras. I don’t know what to do for Gabrielle."
"That’s what I need to talk to you about. According to Artemis, there is nothing we can or should do for Gabrielle. She is going to be challenged during the course of this journey, Ephiny...." Saras was cutoff.
"Oh, like having Xena die wasn’t enough of a challenge. I don’t care what Artemis says. I will not watch her die Saras. Nor will I allow her to completely lose her soul. Gabrielle doesn’t deserve this anguish and I’ll do what I have to. Now, give me something I can use to help her."
"I’m not sure there’s much we can do. I do know this, if Gabrielle decides to have this numbness lifted from her, a floodgate of emotion will cover her. That in itself may kill her. I have something you can give her if.... she..."
Ephiny knew what she was alluding to. "You mean...if she survives, right?"
Saras sighed loudly, " Yes, if she survives." She gave thoughtful pause before continuing. Saras moved to the multiple colored vials lining the hut wall. Carefully she selected two of them. Ephiny watched as the healer meticulously measured the liquid. One was clear but the other almost had a glow...a life, if you will. She tightly corked the vial and turned to Eph. Before handing it to her, she offered very specific instructions...and a warning.
" You should only consider using this under dire circumstances, Ephiny. It contains a few drops of the water from the Lethe. If you give Gabrielle this potion, you must come back as soon as possible. Its effects will be temporary. And try not to overwhelm her with too much information. Keep it simple." She passed the glass ampoule to the Regent.
Ephiny held the container aloft, trying to ‘see’ it’s magical properties. "Saras...do you know what drinking this will do to her? It’s from the river of forgetfulness. Gabrielle will lose her memory. How is this going to help?"
Saras put her arm around her shoulder in a reassuring manner. "I’m not sure exactly how this is to help. Artemis instructed me to prepare it. She has a plan, Ephiny, I’m sure of it. But you must get Gabrielle home. And you must keep this to yourself for now. That is all the goddess told me."
"I’ll do whatever it takes to bring her...and allof us home."
Ephiny entered the council chamber where she found Gabrielle studying a map. The Queen had apparently made use of the bath and was clothed in clean attire. She noticed that Gabrielle wore a silver amulet around her neck. It was the joining token that Xena would have given her. She tried not to stare at the symbol further emphasizing her loss. Xena’s sword was lying across the table, holding down one corner of the map. It looked out of place not strapped to the tall warrior’s back. Ephiny couldn’t see Gabrielle wielding that blade, and just the thought made her uneasy.
"The village of Crymeria isn’t marked on any of the maps. But I have a feeling that it lies near the base of Mount Cristis. It’s the only mountain close enough." Gabrielle was going over the map like someone planning a pleasure trip. "I think if we approach from this area...." She was running a finger over an area of the map. "...our chances are pretty good. What do you think, Ephiny?" She rotated the map to face the Regent.
Ephiny had to force herself to concentrate on the task at hand. She peered at the map, not really seeing it. Gaining control, she offered counsel, "Access to the village will be very limited. I would imagine there is but one way in or out. I’ve seen many villages situated just like this, but we won’t know definitely until we’re there. I suggest we camp within a half days distance and send two scouts into the village. They will be disguised as pilgrims looking for ‘enlightenment’. Once they have located the temple and Alexxus, we can plan the final assault." Ephiny looked up from the map. Gabrielle was still staring at the relief before her. There was more that needed addressing besides the route to and from Crymeria.
"Gabrielle, we need to discuss the actual battle tactics we will use." She waited for the Queen’s attention. "It is very possible that the villagers will try to engage our warriors. I would like to avoid that at all costs. We are after Alexxus and her thugs, not these innocent, misguided people."
For the first time, Gabrielle drew her attention from the table and map. She had both palms on the table, supporting her weight. She lifted her head and peered at Ephiny. "As far as I’m concerned, they are ALL involved in this. It’s just not Alexxus. If these people hadn’t gone into that pit of hatred with her, then Xena would be alive. I will not excuse them, Ephiny! They made the choice, not me. And they will pay." Gabrielle had more or less outlined her tactic, now Ephiny had to do the same.
"These people were manipulated out a place of deep sorrow, Gabrielle. I agree if it hadn’t been for Alexxus and her agenda, then none of this would have happened. They were seeking closure, Gabrielle, not revenge. If that were what they had really wanted, then a party would have sought Xena long before Alexxus arrived. They were turned by a very devious mind. You cannot punish an entire village for the heinous act of one person." Ephiny had begun to nervously pace the chamber, her next observation about to fly. "If we annihilate this village in the name of revenge, then we are no better than Alexxus and her god, X’Tain. There has to be a difference, Gabrielle. I will not allow senseless murder!"
Gabrielle stood erect, fire in her eyes. She countered the pacing of Ephiny. They were alternating being quarry and hunter. In a low, controlled voice, she asked, "Just what are you saying, Ephiny? That you are going to oppose me in some way? Do I need to remind you that I am Queen here? You would openly refuse to follow my commands?"
The confrontation was about to take a very serious direction. Ephiny weighed her words carefully, for she knew once out of her mouth, there would be no return. " I’m saying that I will do whatever it takes to protect my Amazon sisters, my Queen and the innocents from harm. You may take that to mean what you like. We need to work together, Gabrielle, not against one another. Once we have Alexxus, then you may rebuke me in any way you see fit. But until that time, we must act as one mind, one united front. The success of this mission depends on that."
The tenseness in Gabrielle eased somewhat. A very weird truce had been reached. " Ok, I agree that we must work together. But make no mistake, Ephiny, if you try to stop me from avenging Xena, I will kill you as surely as Alexxus." Gabrielle placed her hand on the hilt of Xena’s sword. There was a very hard edge to her voice.... chilling. Ephiny knew Gabrielle was very serious.
She parried with her own resolve, " If that is what you truly desire, I will be ready, Gabrielle, you make no mistake." The two women looked at each other, acknowledging the possible confrontation. This had been no pissing contest. It was real and could be very deadly. Even though Gabrielle was very good with a staff, she would be no match for Ephiny using a sword. The bard would surely succumb in a fight. The thought of that twisted her gut. Perhaps that is what Gabrielle really wanted.... to die.
As the two stood quietly, the battle contingent entered the chamber. All total, there were ten warriors and five archers. Among the lot were Vectra and Debo. The rest were very experienced fighters, fiercely loyal to Ephiny and Gabrielle. Since Gabrielle had shown little interest in the actual selection, Ephiny had hand picked the contingent. She was relying on her sisters’ proven strength to overcome a possible conflict.
Ephiny had decided that Eponin would stay behind to oversee protection of the village. She doubted if Gabrielle would object to her decision. They weren’t absolutely sure the raiders wouldn’t return. Eponin wasn’t too thrilled with the decision, but would do what was best for the remaining group. Besides, she was next in command, and it was her duty.
The plan was basic and simple. They would quietly make their way to Crymeria, staying off the main road, traveling through the forest. When they neared the village, several scouts would infiltrate the populace and seek out the priestess. The actual temple configuration and number of guards would dictate the skirmish maneuvers. Ephiny knew the simpler the plan the better. For success, execution would have to be swift and certain. They would have one shot at this; it’d better work.
The warriors had been instructed to wear simple clothes. All outward vestiges of their Amazon heritage were to be concealed. They had to appear to be simple pilgrims. Inciting a full-scale riot would not serve their interests. At last, all was ready. The contingent gathered in the compound yard to ask for Artemis’ blessing and protection. Gabrielle spoke to the goddess and was about to seek help from a very dark source.
"Great goddess, daughter of Zeus, goddess of the moon, protector of all Amazons, your chosen calls for your blessing. May each of your godly expressions serve your children. I call on the combined power of Selene and Artemis to guide and protect us. And the wrath of Hecate to vindicate this wrongful death." Gabrielle was on her knees, a tear forming deep in her numb soul, twisting to the surface like a dead carcass. She knew that in a few days, this would all be released. And she welcomed the idea of slipping away.
The Amazons eyed Gabrielle and then Ephiny. Seldom had they heard a plea for the intercession of Hecate, Goddess of the Dark of the Moon. Of the three facets of the goddess, this one was the most feared. To call forth Hecate meant to associate with the deeds of darkness. Gabrielle had aligned herself with a potentially unforgiving force. Ephiny now understood the depth of her pain and anger.
The burley armed guard looked out of place among the pious worshipers. He stood in the rear of the temple, waiting an audience with the priestess. He appeared neither devout nor impressed. He merely waited for the room to clear. It was only a few moments until the last of the morning worshipers slipped out of the temple. He instructed the temple attendees to restrict further interruption. He approached the white robed priestess as she knelt at the altar.
She spoke without rising. "You have good news for me, I hope? You know how I hate to be disappointed."
The man had an involuntary shudder wash over him. It was a conditioned reflex. "Yes, good news. Our plan is proceeding perfectly. Ramus delivered the killing blow to Xena. She is definitely dead. I stayed to witness the funeral pyre. She’s gone, priestess."
Alexxus rose and turned to face the nervous hulk. She casually inquired, " And what of Ramus? Did he survive?"
A bead of sweat trickled down his neck. He tried to moisten his lips but his mouth was like a desert. "We left him as you instructed, unprotected and without a useful weapon. The Amazons swarmed him like angry wasps."
Softly, Alexxus posed the inquiry again, "I’m sure they did...but I asked you if he survived...not if he was stung. Don’t make me ask again."
The mercenary knew his life expectancy was approaching zero. He offered his shaky defense. "They dragged him into the compound. I’m not really sure what has happened to him. There was a flurry of activity the next morning around the detention hut." He tried to be optimistic, "I’m sure the Amazons have exacted their revenge on him by now. Besides, I doubt if he would have told them anything."
Alexxus neared the quaking man. She lazily walked around him.... taking in every feature of his person.... eyeing him carefully. "Well, dear Erastimus, I sincerely hope he did talk." She was standing directly behind him. The smell of pure fear was emanating from him, filling her nostrils. "You see, I counted on him spilling his guts before they killed him. It’s all part the big picture." She reached out and ran an icy finger down the contour of his neck. "And now, I’m afraid I don’t really need you any longer."
Erastimus didn’t have time to react or cry out. The blade severed his spinal cord before his brain could scream. In slow motion, he fell forward, forming a heap on the cold stone floor.
Alexxus wiped the blood and fluid off her blade. She let loose a chilling laugh of sheer delight. "Here’s an offering to you, X’Tain. Another worthless, sniveling soul." Her attention was directed to the front of the altar.
There stood a tall warrior, arms crossed, exuding calmness in the presence of the terrifying priestess. "When shall we expect the Amazon, my priestess?"
Alexxus lifted the gossamer veil from her face. "Soon, Thesspias, very soon. Make sure she doesn’t have that much trouble finding me." She paused, putting a finger to her lips, tapping absent-mindedly. " But...don’t make it too easy. No need to wave a warning in her face, eh?"
"Exactly. All will be ready for her arrival and your revenge, goddess."
"Ah.... yes, I much prefer that term above ‘priestess’. I mean I am a goddess. Oooh...I guess I should be thankful to Xena and Gabrielle for that. They were directly responsible for my ascension. I almost hate for this game to end for I’ve found so few worthy opponents in this realm. Oh, well, so much time.... too little fun."
The Amazons traveled off the road for two days. Gabrielle kept to herself...spoke only when spoken to. To Ephiny it appeared she was trying to maintain her anger by isolating herself. Any attempts to draw her out failed. The bard was slipping into a place of complete emptiness and there was nothing Ephiny could do. She watched Gabrielle trade her scrolls for the whetstone. In the evening, she would find a secluded spot and sharpen Xena’s sword. There was single-mindedness to it.
The sound of stone on steel had taken on a comforting vibration. Gabrielle sat, eyes closed, remembering. At least she tried to remember what Xena’s voice sounded like, but it was just out of her grasp. The ‘gift’ that Artemis had given her had stripped more than her pain.... it had numbed her memories. She was adrift in a sea of nothingness. Only the sensation of her hand on hard cold steel had meaning now. It was becoming her only link to reality. Once she killed Alexxus, the rest didn’t matter. Gabrielle was already dead inside. She was just waiting for her physical body to catch up. Hecate would assist her in the transition. What better way to thank the goddess?
Vectra sat with her sisters and carefully watched Gabrielle in her ritual. On the one hand, she admired the bard’s determination to avenge her lover’s death. But this course of action was diametrically opposed to everything Gabrielle stood for. Vectra likened it to trying to wear ill-fitting armor. It just didn’t ‘fit’ Gabrielle. She was sure her Queen would not survive this quest and that saddened her. Her private concerns were suspended by Ephiny’s hand on her shoulder.
"You’re worried about her too, huh?" Eph cast a glance toward the unseeing Queen.
Vectra placed a hand on Ephiny’s. "Yes, very much. I am also concerned that her thirst for revenge will be our entire undoing. She isn’t thinking clearly, Ephiny. That could spell certain disaster for us."
Ephiny sat down next to her friend. "I know, that thought has been with me from the beginning. Gabrielle and I have had a very heated discourse over this. She has agreed, in principle, to maintain some control. But I’m not sure that once we enter the temple she will honor her promise. We are going to have a VERY big problem. I have a bad feeling about all this. For that reason, you and I will enter the village. I will need your expert assessment of the situation."
Vectra nodded, her eyes were focused on her Regent. "I believe that Gabrielle has already compromised our position. Revenge is a very unforgiving mistress. You have to be willing to pay the absolute price. And I fear we are all expendable in her eyes. You may have to stop her, Eph. Can you do it?"
Ephiny let out a long sigh. "I’ve weighed that question over and over. If I have to, I can. I’m hoping we can avoid it.... but there is the possibility. We need to keep this between ourselves right now. There’s going to be enough tension without further dividing our warriors’ concentration. I suspect the temple will be well guarded by seasoned fighters. This woman is no priestess. She is very dangerous and we should not trust our eyes alone."
"You know you have my total devotion and loyalty. I won’t let you down, Ephiny."
The Regent stood and gave her valiant warrior a squeeze. "Get some rest, Vectra. Tomorrow is going to be very long."
The warriors were in various places about the camp. Some wrapped in the arms of others...some alone. Vectra and Ephiny were huddled under a single blanket. The closeness of a good friend before battle was often a ritual. Every warrior had her own rite to perform. Many said prayers to Artemis, preparing there minds and souls for possible death. The heat of battle was no place for second thoughts. All had made their statements and were ready. Even Gabrielle was in a place of total acceptance. She slept soundly. Her body was wrapped around Xena’s sword and scabbard. The feel of the cold unyielding steel had become her lover.
Artemis walked unseen among her Amazons. She blessed each individually, placing a hand over their hearts.... imparting resolve and absolution. Tomorrow some of her warriors might die. At last she stood over Gabrielle. She looked into the face of her chosen and her eyes filled with tears. Gabrielle had gone into a place even the goddess could not reach. Her loss would be the saddest one to bear. It wasn’t the death of her body that would be so tragic. It was the loss of her spirit and soul. Gabrielle was so close to that place she had feared in Xena. There was no one to draw her away from the seductiveness of it.... not even the great goddess.
Artemis gazed one last time through the eyes of the Moon Goddess. The transformation was seamless. The soft brown eyes steeled over...the features hardened. Hecate took form. She was dark and had a very low vibration. It connected her to the earth and her fleshy charges, a very frightening specter. She had in tow her constant companions.... the three, dark, four-legged bitches. Hecate took in a deep breath of the night air, luxuriating in the heaviness. It had been too long and she wrapped the night around her. Finally she stood over her summoner. Gabrielle stirred and woke, her gaze captured by the dark one.
"I am here as you commanded. Now, will you do as I command?" Hecate waited for her response.
The bard half sat up and returned the look. There was no fear in her eyes. This pleased Hecate greatly. "I will gladly surrender my soul for my vengeance."
The goddess smiled knowingly. "Your soul is mine already, Gabrielle. Will you sacrifice your innocence as well? Will you kill?"
There was no hesitation in the Queen’s voice. "I am ready to relinquish whatever is required."
Hecate eyed her suspiciously, "My requirements are very unforgiving, Gabrielle. Are you willing to throw away your life and those of your sisters for revenge? Do you think so little of yourself and even less of your Amazon sisters?"
A very small flicker of emotion stirred. "All that was me is dead. And I am empty without her. I cannot continue to breathe while she does not. One would have to have a life to throw it away, Hecate. I have no life. I asked for your help to complete mine. I am ready."
"Very well, Gabrielle. I will help you find that which eludes you. Be prepared to pay the ultimate price."
Hecate dissolved into the night air, her last words hanging suspended. Gabrielle held Xena’s sword and quietly repeated, ".... pay the ultimate price."
It was very early. The sun had hours before it rose in the sky. Ephiny was gently shaking Gabrielle awake.
"Gabrielle, its time. Wake up." Her voice was controlled but had a gentle quality to it. Slowly, the bard opened her eyes.
She repeated Eph’s words. "It’s time...so soon?" A bit of the old Gabrielle leeched through. Her soul wasn’t totally absorbed...just yet. It stubbornly clung by a thread, but its voice was so small now.
"Yes, Gabrielle. We are ready to approach the village. Vectra and I are going in first. We will make our way to the temple and survey the layout. It shouldn’t take too long."
The Queen opened her eyes wider. "I thought you were going to send another warrior with Vectra. Why you?"
"This is too important to misread. Vectra and I have done this sort of thing before. We work well together and can communicate clearly. It is the logical pairing. I need you here to assemble the final assault, Gabrielle. The warriors need their Queen to lead them. We will come back with the pertinent information."
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at Ephiny. The ruse was not going to work. "You know what I think, Ephiny? I think you will be trying to deprive me of my revenge. And I will not allow that. I am going with you." She had barely begun her assent when Ephiny cold cocked her. Gabrielle went down like a rock.
Ephiny gently positioned her friend on the blanket, placing a kiss on her cheek. "I’m sorry, Gabrielle. But I can’t let you die doing this." She retrieved Xena’s sword and turned it over to Debo. "You are to watch over her, Debo. Take Xena’s sword and put it in a place of safety. Under NO circumstances are you to let her have it. Just tell her I took it. She will be very angry when she comes to. I hope by then, all this will be over. If not, get out of her way. Do you understand?"
Debo was a nervous wreck...her Queen unconscious by the hand of her Regent...told to blatantly lie to Gabrielle. This was a helluva test. But she had learned a lot about duty in the last few months. Her mind would follow Ephiny’s orders to the letter. "I understand."
"Eph, we need to go now." Vectra was standing ready.
"Yes. Are the others in position?"
"All is ready. We will have our best chance with the morning worshipers. But we must leave now." Vectra’s voice was very insistent. Eph moved away from the prone Queen...donned a loose robe and joined Vectra. Debo was left with two of the archers for protection. All they could do is wait.
The worshipers silently filed into the temple. Ephiny, Vectra and the rest were interspersed throughout the crowd. Entrance was almost too easy...the guards too languid. This didn’t feel right. But it wasn’t possible Alexxus knew they were coming.... was it? They waited for just a short period of time before the priestess appeared. Ephiny and Vectra watched her stride to the altar. Her gait was purposeful...almost haughty. It was not the step of a subservient priestess.... more like a warrior. Body language was very important in judging an opponent. And this opponent was very fit and dangerous. How could these people not see that? The two Amazons exchanged glances and slowly moved to opposite sides of the room. The other warriors were stationed near the most threatening guards. They would have to be taken down first. A chime sounded and the rite began.
The priestess knelt before the altar. From Ephiny’s vantagepoint she could see the woman’s feet. Her leather boots protruded past the pristine hem of her robe. The boots of a warrior for sure. A light sweat broke on Eph’s skin...her gut tightened...her hand firmly grasped the concealed hilt of the sword. A like reaction was taking place across the room with Vectra. Both their senses were fully engaged now, the fine hair on their bodies stood on end. They inched slightly forward.
Alexxus began her plea to her god. "Oh, Mighty X’Tain, you have heard the plea of your humble priestess. You have struck down the killer of the beloved daughter of Ramus...Xena...the Warrior Princess. But your revenge is not complete yet. The Amazons have viciously murdered Ramus for avenging young Katherine’s death." She paused to let the news settle over the crowd. There were gasps and a low grumbling was forming. Ephiny didn’t like the direction this was taking. Alexxus was going to incite these people on purpose. In fact, there was almost a gleeful quality to her voice.
Ephiny whispered to herself, "That voice.... I’ve heard that voice before. But where?"
The tirade continued, "Show us the way, X’Tain. We are but your humble servants...willing to do your bidding. You have but command."
A disembodied voice rang from the crowd. "Yes, tell us what to do, X’Tain."
Vectra could swear she heard Alexxus snicker. The warrior was almost parallel with the altar. Ephiny was still slightly below the priestess.
Alexxus’ voice boomed in the cavern. "Finish what has been started. Rid the land of all who go against the wishes of X’Tain. Protect your daughters for the Amazon evil."
The crowd was definitely into it now. "Yeah...KILL THE AMAZONS!!"
Ephiny wanted to just run Alexxus through and be done with it. She neared within striking distance. She was steeling herself for the attack when a voice rose over the mob. It was Gabrielle.
"Who’s next on X’Tain’s list, Alexxus? What innocent group will your god kill without impunity? Is it not enough that so many innocents have already died? "
The noise level lowered. Gabrielle had recovered much quicker than Ephiny had expected. She stood hands at her side, in the middle of the room. She was relieved that Xena’s sword wasn’t in her hand. On the other hand, surely she wasn’t totally unarmed. The shocked villagers gave her a wide berth. She continued her beratement of the priestess.
"Why do you hide your face from your beloved followers?" The question dripped with sarcasm. "What are you afraid of? That they will see you for who you REALLY are...the murderer of Katherine?"
There was a stunned silence in the room. The temple guards started toward Gabrielle. Alexxus held her hand aloft to stop them. She stepped from the altar and addressed the bard. "And just who do you think I am, Amazon?"
Gabrielle took a step closer. Ephiny and Vectra moved slightly to the rear of the priestess. Her personal guards were now inside and between them. They had made a tactical mistake. They would be easy targets.
"I think you are an impostor. And I think you killed Katherine. Care to prove me wrong?"
"But how can I have killed poor sweet Katherine?" Her voice was saccharine...and insincere. "We all know it was Xena.... and I’m not Xena." In one motion, Alexxus pulled the veil and robes from her body. Gabrielle was staring at the face of Callisto.
There was a collective gasp in the room. The villagers in the rear began scrambling over one another to exit the temple. Even in this remote village, they had heard of the monster. Those caught in front fell back. Only the Amazons held their ground. They were now easily displayed and dropped their disguises. Gabrielle was still in shock.
"CALLISTO!! YOU!! But how? I thought you were..."
Callisto was too amused. "Dead? Oh...you poor dear. How soon you forget. Remember when I had...uh...loan of Xena’s body? Well...I certainly put it to good use. I must have set her goodie two shoes reputation back ten winters. It was soooo easy to fool people. I would have done more but she tricked me. And then you and your beloved Xena arranged for my immortality. How very convenient. Oh...and did I ever thank you for that lovely lava bath? Really!! Not very smart of either of you. Just how long did you think that would hold me?"
Callisto casually strolled to the altar. With a sweep of her hand, she cleared the candles and most of the offerings. In a graceful move, she hopped up on the table and snagged a piece of fruit. She took a big bite and posed seductively.
"You know, I’m almost sorry that Xena is gone. But I guess not nearly as sorry as you, right?" Callisto ran her hand over her breast, down her exposed abdomen, finally coming to rest between her own legs. She parted her lips and ran a snake like tongue over them. Through half-closed eyes, she hissed, "Poor Gabrielle...who are you going to get all wet for now?" Callisto was cruel in her taunting, "You know, I’m available...if you don’t mind sleeping with the woman who had your lover killed." Callisto threw her head back and let loose a maniacal laugh. She was goading the bard into action.
That image pushed Gabrielle over the edge. A dagger appeared in her hand and she lunged for Callisto, screaming, "NOOOOOO!!!!!" Her movement was too quick for Ephiny or Vectra to stop. They could only watch. Callisto made no effort to move or defend herself. Nor did any of her guards. It was most curious. Gabrielle landed on Callisto and plunged the dagger home. There was a sickening ‘pop’ as the blade penetrated the skin. Warm blood spurted from the wound, covering the bard’s hand. Gabrielle was eye to eye with the abomination.
Callisto drew a deep breath, her eyes wild. She hissed in Gabrielle’s ear, "Is that the best you can do!? How pathetic!" Gabrielle was blind with rage. She withdrew the blade and rammed it home again, this time twisting the blade, opening Callisto’s abdomen. The feel of intestines mixed with the blood on her hands. Through clinched teeth, she spat in Callisto’s face, "How’s that!? Better!?"
Callisto grabbed her shoulders and whispered in her ear as the life drained out of her. "I win bitch.... I win...."
Callisto’s body rolled off the altar and came to rest at the base of the steps. Gabrielle was balanced against the table, the dagger in her hand covered with warm bright blood and bits of tissue. She stared in disbelief at the object in her hand, releasing it like a hot coal. It tumbled from her grasp, bouncing to the bottom of the steps, finally coming to rest against Callisto. Gabrielle stared at the disemboweled woman at the bottom of the steps. Callisto’s eyes were wide open and a sneer was frozen on her face.
Ephiny and Vectra closed the distance and took a defensive stance around the Queen. The Amazon warriors and archers picked their targets. Callisto’s men had been caught off guard and they were outnumbered. Without her, they were a pile of stable dung. They were frozen in place, eyes locked on arrows poised to send them to Tartarus.
Gabrielle stared at her blood-covered hands. In a trembling voice, she cried, "Oh...gods...Ephiny, what have I done!?" She had a look of madness in her eyes. Before Eph could answer, Gabrielle slumped, cracking her head on the altar table. Vectra rushed to her crumpled body, lifting her easily. The Amazons formed a protective phalanx around their Queen. As a group, they backed out of the temple. The villagers’ eyes avoided contact as they left the area. They were too afraid of the nearness of Callisto, dead or not, to hamper the retreat. There was a sense of remorse and contriteness emanating from all they passed. It would take a long time for them to heal...if ever. But Ephiny had a much worse problem on her hands. Gabrielle had wantonly taken a life. The fact that it was Callisto wouldn’t manner. In Gabrielle’s eyes she had done the unforgivable. This wasn’t over yet.
The temple was empty now. Thesspias sat next to the body of his mistress. She looked asleep...peaceful...beautiful in a morbid way. He reached over and ran his hand down her cool cheek. His other hand was holding his crotch. He closed his eyes slightly and had just begun a little fantasy. Suddenly he felt a searing pain between his legs. Opening his eyes he found Callisto’s hand tightly crushing his balls. The pain was beginning to be unbearable. The dead woman sat up and acidly reprimanded him. " Thesspias.... you ever do that again, and I will cut them off and hand them to you. Do you understand?"
All he could do was nod a ‘yes’. She squeezed harder just for a final emphasis and released him. He doubled over like a fetus. Callisto picked up the encrusted dagger ran a finger along the edge, covering it with her own blood. She inspected her finger and then licked it clean. There was no sign of a wound on her abdomen.
Thesspias was still in the throes of agony, so Callisto talked to herself. "You know, being a goddess has soooo many advantages. Did you see the look on that bitch’s face? It was priceless. This is much better than actually killing her. She will positively go mad. Perfect. Don’t you think, Thesspias?" The man just grunted.
Callisto stood and prepared to leave. She threw a glance at the downed man. "Oh...I wouldn’t hang around here too long. Those villagers are really pissed...and well you only have one life. C’mon now...we have others to terrorize. Besides, Gabrielle needs some time to really think this over. Ooooh.... being a bad girl is soooo good!"
Thesspias somehow got off the floor and followed Callisto out of the temple. He was certain that he was going to be sick.