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Bacca Moon Rising - Cont'd


"Xena. Gabrielle. You both arrived just in time to participate in one of our mating ceremonies," Ephiny said through a mouthful of boar meat.

The women were seated at one of the larger communal eating tables in Themiscryaís village commons. Ephiny was accompanied by Solari and three other Amazons who had won a lottery to sit at the table with their queen. Off to their right was a row of kettles; each one held a smorgasbord of soups, vegetables and several types of meat. Hundreds of Amazons stood docilely in several lines, awaiting their turn to grab a bite to eat. The noon meal was the biggest one of the day -- usually leftovers were served at the evening meal and for the next morningís breakfast. Hundreds of other women sat on the ground or at nearby tables surrounding Ephinyís table, enjoying the food and camaraderie of their sisters. They were also enjoying a rare delicacy -- small cups of sweet, golden honey. Dozens of Amazon food gatherers had gotten the crap stung out of them while obtaining the elixir from wild honeybee colonies. More than a few were staring enviously at their regent queen -- it was considered to be an honor to feast with the warrior princess.

"What mating ceremonies?" Gabrielle asked, her voice muffled by a mouthful of meat she was valiantly trying to choke down. "I never heard of this when I was the queen."

"Thatís probably because you were queen for only a day or so," Solari quipped playfully. "If you had stayed around longer, we would have introduced you to the practice."

Xena refrained from speaking. She knew what the Amazons were talking about, but Gabrielleís obvious ignorance was an enjoyable experience to watch.

"At certain times during the year, we go out en masse to the surrounding provinces and raid the towns and villages for their males," Ephiny explained. "We have intercourse with most of them in their villages, but we bring some of the best ones back to our villages and screw the living daylights out of them. Itís not unheard of for a male to have intercourse with at least ten Amazons in a single day -- it all depends on how good his performance is and how long we allow him to remain among us." She paused and laughed. "The males definitely enjoy the experience and it fills two needs for us: the need to reproduce and the need for pleasure."

"But itís not all fun and games for the guys," Xena interrupted, unable to contain her glee. "If the males fail to impregnate at least half of their lovers, the women get nasty. They usually end up spilling the guyís guts with a single sword stroke and use the remains as fertilizer on the fields."

Gabrielle turned a weird shade of green, but Solari held up a cautioning hand. "We havenít done anything so drastic for many years, though," she said. At least in Themiscrya -- I canít vouch for the other villages, though. "We just let them leave unmolested if they fail to impregnate their quota of women. About the worst thing that happens to them is that word of their libido gets around."

"How do you keep the undesirables from flooding the nationís borders if you let them leave alive no matter how good or bad their reproductive performance is?" Gabrielle asked.

"Simple. Our mating ceremonies are designed to be unpredictable," Ephiny said slowly. "About the only thing we guard against is having a mating cycle that leads to childbirth during the winter months. But getting back to the point, if males are on our territory prior to or after a mating cycle, we hunt them down and kill them. While it may seem barbaric, it keeps interlopers out of our lands until we go out seeking them." She paused again, thinking. "Itís kind of funny to hear news of the male populations of nearby villages and towns swelling to ludicrous numbers when they think weíre about to enter a mating cycle. Sometimes theyíre guesses are right, but most of the time not."

"What about unauthorized sexual encounters? Surely official excursions arenít enough to tame the libidos of warrior women like the Amazons," Gabrielle commented, her color returning to normal.

Ephiny acknowledged the comment with a curt, knowing nod. "The official excursions are never enough. Every year we have sisters who become pregnant and give birth during the winter months. We donít punish them -- itís just an inconvenience to care for a newborn during those cooler months. Thatís why we try to keep the births centered around the temperate portion of the year; besides, infant survival is higher during those months."

"Then thereís the intermittent stream of women always seeking admission to our ranks," Solari added. But Gabrielle certainly wouldnít approve of abducting the daughters of non-Amazon parents, which some of our tribes engage in, she brooded silently.

Ephiny also neglected to mention the numerous sexual relationships that the Amazons had among themselves. Bisexuality wasnít uncommon among the nationís women and it wasnít a punishable offense. But if its practitioners were caught in the act they would be taught self-gratification techniques such as masturbation or some unlucky male would be abducted and used as a lightning rod for release of sexual tension. The Amazons werenít perturbed by such relationships because it disgusted them, but because it didnít lead to the birth of daughters.

"Enough about our mating habits, though," Ephiny finished. "What do you want to do to pass the time until Velascaís trial?"

Xena and Gabrielle glanced at each other. Xena finally spoke up, saying, "We thought weíd mingle some more with our sisters. Socialize with them, go hunting, train with them, that kind of stuff."

Solari brightened at the mention of hunting. "Weíve got a group of women heading out in a hunting party tomorrow to bring back some deer and boar meat. You can go with them, Xena, if youíd like."

"Thereís another group going into the forest to pick berries, gather fruit and chop wood," Ephiny added. "You can go with them, Gabrielle." She turned to the other Amazons at the table, the ones who had won the lottery to have the privilege of sitting at the same table as the warrior princess, and said, "Sirius. Charm. Gemini. Accompany our guests and help prepare them for the expeditions. Theyíre about to learn what itís really like to live a day in the life of an Amazon."

"Boring!" Solari chipped in cheerfully.

Ephiny smiled mischievously. "Yeah, whatever. Come on, letís get moving." With that Ephiny and Solari stood and left, leaving Xena and Gabrielle saddled with three eager young Amazons bent on proving their worth to the duo.

* * *

Amplitron looked over the sea of faces that had gathered in Pellaís town square with ill-concealed dismay. When he had issued the call to arms days ago, heíd expected hundreds of men to show up to assist in the search for Xena and Gabrielle. Instead, only a hundred or so had showed up so far. And they werenít the best examples of citizenry.

"Whatís with the poor turnout?" he whispered to an aide.

"Itís a combination of several things, milord. One, Xena isnít popular with everyone because of her barbaric past and, two, a lot of the military age males were killed during the attacks by the Bacchae," the aide whispered. "Other men still refuse to leave their women and children despite our assurances that the Bacchae have been destroyed."

Amplitron sighed in disgust. "Hmm. I guess weíll have to make do with what we have -- I donít want to use our actual soldiers in an unofficial cause." He glanced at his aide and grumped, "Well, donít just stand there! Get those brave souls some armor, swords and, for Zeusí sake, some proper search and rescue training. I want them in the Baccha Woods within four days!" With that, Amplitron snorted and stomped off, muttering under his breath. He had a foreboding feeling that something terrible was going to happen. And soon, very, very, soon.

* * *

"Timeís up, Velasca," Ariana whispered. "So whatís the dirty little secret you promised to tell us last night?"

Velasca didnít reply at first; she was looking up at the entrancing night sky, drinking in the billions of stars, a bright moon and the occasional meteor. But then she grinned conspiratorially and whispered, "My dirty little secret, as you call it, involves a warlord known throughout the world as Joxer the Mighty." Arianna and her cohorts crowded in closer, straining to hear Velascaís low words. They didnít see the outcasts emerging from the shadows, their sky blue eyes now turned into golden orbs and crimson lips concealing razor sharp fangs. Velasca spied their stealthy approach and strived to keep her lieutenantsí attention. "Even now he has an army of women scattered throughout the wilds of Macedonia ... ,"

"An army of women?" Ariel interrupted, her voice incredulous. "I thought our nation was the only one to recognize the true potential of the female half of humanity!"

"Joxerís one of those rare men who recognizes what women can do if given half a chance," Velasca growled. "Now all we have to do is wait for him to liberate us from this prison. Then we can destroy Ephiny and free our sisters from her sickeningly sweet, pacifistic, rule."

Helen interrupted, saying, "Why wait? We can pretend to get sick and lure Solariís guards into ... ,"

She never completed her thought. One moment she was outlining her scheme to her sisters and the next she found herself grappling mightily with one of the outcast Amazons. "By Artemis! Get off of me!" she screamed, trying futility to toss the insanely strong woman off her back. This isnít really happening to me, she thought hazily as a wicked fanged mouth descended ominously toward her vulnerable neck. Sharp pain shot through her body and she lost consciousness. Arianna was struggling with her own assailant as well, but the results were identical. In a matter of seconds she was down on the ground, her hands wrapped weakly around the outcastís chalky white neck. She screamed in pain as the woman bit her; seconds later Arianna was beginning to convulse, her body becoming mottled with cool patches of expanding chalky white skin.

Ariel keened in terror as she watched her sisters transform into the very monsters that had bitten them only moments earlier. She instinctively grabbed for her sword, but the scabbard was annoyingly empty. Of course itís empty you damn moron, she thought furiously. Itís natural that I wouldnít have any weapons -- Iím a prisoner! Her options severely limited by the lack of weapons, Ariel slowly backed away as the outcasts fixed their seductive gold eyes on her tempting neck. She backed straight into Velascaís outstretched arms, not even noticing the black taloned fingers.

"Welcome to the new Amazon nation!" Velasca hissed, hot saliva dripping from her fangs. She wrapped her arms around a stunned Ariel. "Youíll be just like us after I nip you." Velasca buried her fangs into the young womanís neck, and Arielís pained scream cut through the night air, dwarfing her previous keening tenfold. It drew the attention of Solariís guards.

* * *

Diana had ignored the scuffling and muffled cries, assuming that the sounds were caused by another fistfight among the prisoners. But she couldnít ignore the terrible scream that had just echoed from within the prisonís walls. Itís one thing to get into a scuffle over a disagreement, she thought, but itís quite another to get killed by it. Diana produced a key from her key chain and unlocked the reinforced wooden door leading to the prisonís courtyard. "Stay here and make sure nobody gets any bright ideas," she shouted at Megara. "Iíve got to stop that damn donnybrook before somebody gets killed."

Velasca whirled from Arielís quivering, crumpled form when she heard the key turning in the prisonís door. She recognized the advancing guard as Diana, one of Ephinyís stooges, and leaped at the woman, her fangs bared. Diana ducked to avoid Velascaís wild attack and jammed a fist into her stomach. The blow didnít even faze Velasca, who alighted a short distance from the enraged guard.

"Youíre good, Diana, but not good enough to defeat me!" Velasca hissed, leaping at the guard again. Diana stayed focused on her assailant as she flew by, unaware of the other prisoners who were advancing on her position, their mesmerizing gold eyes locked on the hot blood flowing in her neckís arteries.

"What in Artemisí name is wrong with you, Velasca?" Diana roared. "Youíre sick, arenít you?! Please, let me help you before your condition worsens."

Velasca laughed coldly. "My condition canít get any worse. And I donít need your help," she growled. She jumped at Diana again; the besieged guard threw her arms up to deflect the attack. She screeched in pain as Velascaís fangs grazed her forearm, opening a good sized wound that leaked blood like a sieve. Diana cradled her injured arm and fled through the open door, which slammed shut behind her.

"Mmm. A bit salty, but still sweet as honey," Velasca purred seductively, licking traces of Dianaís blood from her crimson lips. She turned to her sisters and crowed, "Diana will soon join our ranks. But in the meantime, letís discuss how weíre going to run the nation after we conquer it. Helen, I believe you were saying ... ,"

* * *

"Stop quivering. Let me examine the bite wound," Megara murmured. She gently massaged the area around the terrible wound, noticing the odd patch of chalky white skin that surrounded the wound. The weird skin colorization expanded even further as Megara reached for rag, which was soaking in a bucket of warm, soapy water.

Diana began trembling uncontrollably as Megara carefully cleaned the wound. "Remarkable. The wound is half the size it was an hour ago when Velasca bit you," Megara observed. "The woundís healing nicely, but your skin continues to acquire that chalky white pallor at an accelerating rate. I donít know why thatís happening."

"I donít know what got into Velasca," Diana whispered. "She didnít even -- oh, by Zeus, Iím feeling nauseous."

"Are you sure you donít want to see Ordahlia?" Megara asked. "Sheís quite knowledgeable about a lot of ailments. She can probably diagnose your condition."

"Thanks for the offer, but itís not nec ... ," Diana doubled over, clutching her stomach.

Her reaction caught Megara off guard. "I donít care what you say -- Iím taking you to Ordahlia. This doorís locked tight so the prisoners wonít be going anywhere," she said sternly. "And Iíll be damned if youíre going to up and die on me."

Dianaís moaning turned into a barely audible growl. "I said no. Which part of Ďnoí donít you understand?"

Megara flinched at the cold steel that Dianaís voice had acquired. "Youíre in no position to dictate ... ," Megara trailed off as Diana lifted her head and stared at her with hypnotic gold eyes. Gold? I donít remember her eyes being gold. Theyíre usually green, Megara thought distantly.

Diana felt a wave of revulsion pass over her after experiencing her initial lust for hot, fresh blood. Specifically, Megaraís blood. Pain shot through her hands and she glanced down at them, realizing that her fingernails had lengthened into blood slicked black talons. Then the dull, aching pain spread to her mouth. Velasca infected me with something when she bit me, Diana thought miserably. Iím being transformed into a monster, like her. She gritted her teeth defiantly, but it made no difference as her incisors sharpened and elongated into slim, sexy viperish fangs. A tidal wave of dark, orgasmic energy drowned out the last of Dianaís rationality and she succumbed to the siren song of the Bacchae. She focused her attention on Megara -- and launched a savage attack on her unsuspecting sister.

Swooned into ecstasy by Dianaís golden eyes, Megara never saw the attack coming. The last thing she experienced as a normal Amazon woman was a warm tingling sensation engulfing her body. And Dianaís wet mouth affixed to her neck.

Velasca witnessed the entire episode and whirled from the prisonís door, a cold smile plastered on her crimson lips. "Yes, Ephiny, Iím looking forward to a trial by my peers. With our expanding numbers, the new Amazon nation will soon become reality. And your little trial will have one Hades of a surprise ending!"

* * *

"How are the preparations for Velascaís trial coming along, Solari?" Ephiny asked the next morning. The Queen of the Amazon nation and several of her advisors were huddled in a haphazard circle under the glory of a blazing morning sun. Around them hundreds of women moved with purpose among the lodges and huts of Themiscrya.

"The trial is tentatively scheduled for the end of the week," Solari reported. "At that time a jury consisting of eleven women will be selected at random from the Amazons present in the crowd. You and Velasca will present your respective cases to the jury, which will render its decision based on the evidence heard."

Diana held her hand up, silencing Solari. "Iím curious -- just what are the formal charges against Velasca?"

Sheís certainly been acting weird since she got off guard duty last night, Ephiny thought. "Thereís only one charge -- and thatís treason against the Amazon nation," she spoke aloud. "Velascaís actions disrupted the nationís chain of command, however temporarily, and that exposed us to unnecessary risk."

"Fine. Now what happens if sheís found innocent or, Artemis forbid, guilty?" Diana asked.

"If Velascaís innocent, she will be released back into the nation with all the rights and responsibilities accorded to a sister of the nation," Solari explained patiently. "And if sheís guilty, itís the responsibility of the Amazon Queen to determine the defendantís final disposition."

"What?! With no advice from her advisors or other members of the nation?" Diana asked, staring coolly at Ephiny and Solari.

Solari returned Dianaís unflinching gaze. "Final disposition of the defendant is the sole responsibility of the Amazon Queen," she hissed, enunciating each word. "Do you want me to write it out for you, Diana?"

Ephiny saw where the exchange was leading to, and interrupted before it could degenerate into fisticuffs. "All right you two, thatís enough!" she scolded. She looked at the other advisors and asked, "Are there any other questions? No? Good. This meeting if formally adjourned -- and remember, I expect everyone to be at the trial."

"You can count on my being there," Diana said resolutely. "Iíll personally make sure Velasca gets a fair trial."

"Oooh, arenít you suddenly Ms. Righteous?" Solari taunted as Diana walked by her. Ephiny grabbed her friend and dragged her away while three other Amazons restrained an infuriated Diana from attacking her foe. She just barely kept herself from sliding into a mindless Bacchae rage by the skin of her teeth.

* * *

"What in Artemisí name were you trying to start back there?" Ephiny asked quietly. She was strolling alongside Solari on a secluded path in the woods not far from Themiscrya. "A revolution or something?"

Solari snorted in disgust. "I didnít like Dianaís disrespectful attitude toward you or the others. It almost seemed like she was challenging your leadership of the nation."

"She was doing what any good advisor is supposed to do -- namely, question the policies of her superiors when she feels itís necessary," Ephiny replied. "She was a bit forceful about it, yes, but no permanent harm was done."

"Itís not the questions Diana asked that bothered me, it was the way she asked them," Solari declared. "She was never that forceful in the past. And if I remember right, she almost always fawned over you in the past!"

Ephiny regarded her lieutenant. "You do have a point there." She thought back to the night Velasca had arrived in Themiscrya. Diana had been the one to give her the good news. Ephiny remembered Dianaís respectful face and quiet words, which had been so conspicuously absent today. "Do you think thereís something suspicious about Dianaís attitude change?"

Solari nodded. "Dianaís not the only one to show unusual behavioral changes over the past few days, either. A lot of our sisters have been acting differently -- some have become depressed or withdrawn, introverts becoming socially active and loners turning into groupies," she explained. "Whatís more worrisome is that a lot of changes have led to aggressive, almost careless, behavior. And itís not limited to Themiscrya; other villages and encampments have started reporting similar changes."

"And you want me to allocate more women to your command so you can investigate these changes?" Ephiny asked, perceiving Solariís objective.

"Precisely. I also want to investigate Xena and Gabrielle," Solari said. "The behavioral changes became evident after their arrival."

"Thatís pushing the limits, Solari," Ephiny snapped. She shoved a feeling of foreboding away. "But Iíll give you permission for that as well. Just keep it discreet; after all, these behavioral changes are probably nothing more than pronounced nervousness because of Velascaís unfriendly presence."

Solari nodded gratefully. "Iím certain thatís all it is," she said, "but itís better to be safe than sorry." She left Ephiny alone on the wooded path, contemplating her lieutenantís words.

* * *

"Then Gabrielle freaked out after Solari described our mating practices and the ways we keep unwanted males out of our territory," Gemini explained between guffaws of laughter. "By Artemis! Iíve never seen anyone as green as Gabrielle was when we told her about ... hey! Are you even listening to me?"

Lysara didnít reply. She was engrossed honing the edge of her stabbing sword. An impatient tap from Gemini finally got her to acknowledge her sisterís presence. "Oh, Iím sorry. I didnít even know you stepped in," Lysara said. Which is a blatant lie, but whoís keeping count? she thought. I just chose to ignore your idiotic prattling about Solari and her sense of humor. "What were you saying?"

Gemini sniffed at the perceived slight. "Never mind -- youíre obviously zoned out. Iíll tell you later when Charm and I get back from escorting Xena during todayís meat hunt."

Lysara smiled to herself after Gemini left in an obvious huff. She sheathed the sword, climbed to her feet and wandered over to a small basin of water. She stared down at her watery reflection. Her thoughts turned to blood and Lysara ran her tongue absentmindedly over her incisors, feeling them slowly lengthening and sharpening into a wicked set of fangs. Her entire transformation took less than a minute; her watery reflection was now a chalky white, golden eyed warped shadow of her normal self.

She glanced up from the basin at the sudden rustling sound. It was Gemini, who had returned to gather some equipment she had left behind. Namely, her sword and arrow quiver. She spied Lysaraís normal face and growled, "Nice to see you too," and left the hut.

* * *

Solari had paced back and forth for hours before deciding to select Gemini, Sirius and Megara as her spies. Now the women were staring curiously at her, their hands defiantly on their hips. All I have to do now is explain why they have to spy on their sisters, Solari thought bitterly.

"Solari, weíve been standing here like morons for the last half hour," Sirius spoke up. "Could you tell us just what you want us to do before we die of old age?"

"I want you to spy on Xena and Gabrielle," Solari blurted. She ignored the deafening silence and shocked looks her sisters gave her. "There have been some behavioral oddities going on since they arrived -- I want you to discreetly observe their actions, to see if they have anything to do with the phenonomen. Keep your cool and act normally, because if you donít we wonít have any reliable information if the changes are related in any way to our guests."

"Youíve got my full cooperation," Megara said brightly. "I know what youíre talking about when it comes to strange behavior." She paused dramatically, then continued. "By Artemis, I had to pull guard duty with Diana last night and she was worked up all night, especially after that fight with Velasca."

Solariís interest suddenly piqued. "What fight?"

Megara waved her hands nonchalantly. "Oh, it wasnít anything serious, but donít tell Diana that. She had to go in and break up a fight between Velasca and some of her former followers. She got scratched by Velasca and it made her a real crab to be around." She didnít mention the horrific transformation that the Ďscratchí had led to, or her own toothy encounter with Diana soon afterwards.

"Hmm. That probably accounts for Dianaís bad attitude toward Ephiny," Solari mused. She sounded relieved.

Gemini shook her head. "You make a good case, Solari, but spying on the warrior princess and our true queen ... it just doesnít sound right," she admonished. "I mean, those two have done the nation great favors by bringing Velasca back for trial and stopping our war against the centaurs!"

Solari held her hand up. "Weíll worry about the ethical ramifications later," she announced. "Anyway, this is just precautionary on our part -- itís not like weíre going to imprison them or anything!" She looked around for any sign of discontent, but found none. "Now if there arenít any more questions, get out there and observe. And remember, I want your verbal reports tonight before you hit the hay!"

Solari didnít see the small smile that played across Megaraís face as she walked away, or the pointed tips of her partially concealed fangs.

* * *

"Weíll nip Solariís little plan in the bud before it can damage our cover," Velasca hissed angrily. She stared thoughtfully at Diana and Xena through the iron bars on the prison door. Arianna and the others wandered around aimlessly behind her in the courtyard. Several transformed guards stood watch over the impromptu meeting, making sure that none of their unchanged sisters got too curious about the gathering.

Xena hissed her agreement. "It wonít be hard to separate Gemini and her little friend, Charm, from the hunting group and initiate them at my pleasure. Thatís especially true if Gemini blindly follows Solariís orders to the letter -- and Charm will innocently follow her into life as an eternal bloodsucking Baccha forever loyal to Bacchus!"

Velasca nodded curtly. "Remember to tell Gabrielle that she has to bring Sirius into our ranks as well."

"That shouldnít be a problem," Diana said, cutting in. "Thereíll be several Bacchae in Gabrielleís group. If the bard canít do it by herself, she can enlist the aid of her sisters."

"After the wannabe spies have been converted, then they can feed Solari the news she really wants to hear; that thereís nothing unusual going on," Velasca added darkly.

Arianna scampered up behind Velasca and asked, "How about the trial, Xena? Have you figured out how weíre going to deal with it?"

Xena smiled patiently and nodded. She had been expecting that question sooner or later. "Solariís stupid charade is scheduled at for noon the day after tomorrow. By then our ranks will have swelled to the point that over a quarter of the Amazon nation will be on our side -- and scattered throughout the crowd at the trial," she explained. "When the verdict is made public, weíll reveal our existence to our unchanged sisters. And weíll give them two choices: Join the ranks of the Bacchae willingly, or weíll forcefully turn you into bloodsuckers."

"Thatís a Hades of an offer," Velasca mused. "Which way do you think our sisters will go?"

"Hopefully theyíll just acknowledge their fate and allow themselves to be transformed," Xena said. "But I wouldnít count on it. Weíll probably have to hunt them down and turn them into Bacchae one by one." She ignored Velascaís distasteful look. "It will take longer to fully convert the nation, but we should be able to deliver an army of Amazon Bacchae to Bacchus without much of a delay."

"That plan sounds good to me," Velasca announced. "Now I can really look forward to this sham of a trial. Ephiny and Solari are in for a surprise!"

"That reminds me; how are we going to deal with Ephiny and Solari after we complete our mission?" Diana asked.

Velasca smiled cruelly and ran her tongue over her saliva slicked fangs. "I will personally initiate them into the ways of the Bacchae. Theyíll both make excellent lieutenants!"

* * *

By Artemis! Thatís the third time today that Xena has gone her own merry way instead of following the others, Gemini thought sourly. She was huffing and puffing after the warrior princessí latest escapade; Charm was right behind her, wheezing and trying to catch her breath.

"Doesnít Xena realize that weíre hunting deer and boar?" Charm asked. "Her insistence on chasing after jackrabbits is driving me crazy! Thereís hardly any meat on their bones!"

Gemini nodded and silently surveyed the clearing. As usual, there was no sign of Xena and, by Zeus, Gemini wasnít going to waste her breath yelling for her. But she did notice one peculiarity. "Hey, whatís with the sudden silence? Why arenít the birds singing or the insects chirping?"

"Um, maybe thereís a thunderstorm approaching ... ," Charm never completed the sentence. A fast moving blur caught her attention as it sped directly toward her position. It flashed by her in an instant and by Gemini moments later. Both women screamed in shock as a painful stinging sensation raced up their arms. They stared unbelievably at their wrists, at the precise bite marks which had seemingly appeared out of nowhere.

"What in Hades was that thing?" Charm cried out. Her body was beginning to tremble and convulse wildly.

"I donít know ... didnít get a close enough look at it," Gemini mumbled, her body quaking uncontrollably.

Both women suddenly became aware of the warm, tingling sensation spreading over their bodies and stared at their hands as manicured fingernails turned inky black and stretched into inch long talons. Then a tidal wave of dark, orgasmic energy flooded their minds, ripping away the thin veneer of civilization and freeing the real women locked inside that veneer. Gemini tore her leather chest armor off, exposing a pair of swollen, chalky white breasts to the world. Her quivering pink nipples became aroused and swelled into hard buttons as her forest green eyes flashed into golden orbs. Gemini parted her full, crimson lips to expose her slender, serpentine fangs and hissed slowly, seductively. Charm saw what Gemini was doing and went all the way, exposing her entire naked body, including a mound of golden brown fur guarding the entrance to her sex. Her incisors erupted into blood slicked fangs as dark lusty thoughts of steaming blood, sweet wine and sexual orgies drowned out her veneer of rationality.

They spied each other through their new, shifting vision and fell into each otherís arms. Taloned fingers explored swollen nipples and curious tongues tasted the sweet flavor of cloyingly warm sexual secretions. The fantasy went on for several minutes before Xena stepped into the meadow to claim her initiates.

"Now, girls, donít waste all of your energy on each other," Xena hissed gently. "Save some of it for your other sisters so they can experience the pleasure of being a Baccha." Charm and Gemini separated and stared at Xena with instinctual respect. "Now itís time for your initiation meal. Weíve got to get some blood into you to restore a semblance of rationality!" Xena pulled three freshly killed rabbits from a burlap bag and held them temptingly; blood dripped slowly from the carcasses. It took less than a minute for Charm and Gemini to suck the corpses dry. Xena smiled seductively, her fangs glinting in the afternoon sun. "And you two thought I was wasting our time hunting rabbits," she purred.

* * *

"No, no! Youíre doing it all wrong," Sirius sighed. She grabbed the ax from Gabrielleís useless hands. "This is the proper grip that will enable you to chop a small tree down with three strokes." It took Sirius five strokes to down the small tree. "Well, nobodyís perfect," she murmured, her face flushing bright red.

"Give me that ax back, you arrogant bitch!" Gabrielle hissed. "Iíll show you how a real professional gets the job done." She selected her target, a stunted pine tree, and trashed it with a single stroke.

Sirius ignored Gabrielleís feat and growled, "What did you just call me?"

"An arrogant bitch. Why?"

"I would really appreciate it if you didnít call me that," Sirius sighed. "You may be our true queen, but that doesnít make you on par with Artemis!"

Gabrielle grinned coldy. "I donít care what you think. Youíre still an arrogant bitch."

Siriusí patience was beginning to wear thin. She unsheathed her sword and held it menacingly. "You may be good with a staff, Gabrielle, but youíre no match against a swordswoman like me," she announced. "Donít tempt the fates. Velasca nearly kicked your ass in with her bare hands -- imagine what I could do with my sword!"

By this time the entire group was watching the exchange. The Bacchae scattered throughout the group tittered knowingly; Gabrielle was trying to trip Sirius up, make her reveal why she was really with the group. Gabrielle finally got tired of the mind game and hissed, "I know why youíre following me around like a puppy. Solari sent you to spy on me, you arrogant bitch!"

Sirius was taken aback by Gabrielleís brazenness. "I am not a spy!" she declared hotly.

"Yes you are!" Gabrielle shouted, enunciating each word. "And guess what -- Solari is right! There is something terribly wrong with myself, Xena and Velasca. You see, weíre all Bacchae and weíve been slowly initiating our Amazon sisters into our ranks!"

"Why are you telling me this?" Sirius asked. She backed off slowly when Gabrielle smiled cruelly, revealing a nasty set of gleaming fangs.

"Because itís time for you to join our ranks. Youíll be singing a different tune after Iíve nipped you," Gabrielle said. She leaped at Sirius, who deftly avoided the attack and backpedaled ... right into the outstretched arms of several other Bacchae. Her startled cry was muffled as a taloned hand slapped over her mouth. Siriusí eyes went wide in pain as several mouths latched on to her wrists and throat, draining her blood away. Several seconds passed before mottled patches of chalky white skin appeared and began expanding as long, sharp fangs slid into her mouth behind swollen, crimson lips.

Gabrielle helped Sirius steady herself and said, "Youíre a good swordswoman all right. And now that youíve joined our ranks, you can put that skill to use for your new, and only, lord, Bacchus!" She turned and glared at the remaining six unchanged Amazons, who had been disarmed by their Bacchae sisters. "Now itís your turn," she said quietly.

* * *

Ordahlia sighed dejectedly and looked over the interior of the hut and its empty beds. Hardly any of her sisters had been getting sick lately, or, Artemis forbid, injured in any skirmishes. Which makes my job as Themiscryaís chief medicine woman really boring, she thought. Ordahliaís thoughts turned to the last major conflict the Amazon nation had gotten into; namely, against the centaurs. Over two hundred Amazons had been killed in the war and half that number injured. I did my best, but I couldnít save all the wounded. Many of them, my friends, and some more than friends, died. So I shouldnít bitch about the lack of business -- it could be worse. A lot worse.

"Looks like youíre having the time of your life," a womanís voice said. "Why donít you make yourself useful and clean the stables?"

Ordahlia looked up at the owner of the voice and sighed. "I suppose itíd give me something to do, Electra. At least it would keep my hands busy and mind occupied for a couple of hours."

Electra looked around the vast, echoing empty interior of the hut. "Where did your assistants run off to?"

"I sent them to the commons. I didnít have anything for them to do with me today."

"Are you sure there was nothing for them to do with you today?" Electra cooed, sidling up to Ordahlia. She slipped a hand beneath her sisterís breast armor and slid it up to fondle her stiffening nipples.

Ordahlia pulled away. "I donít have time for your games, Electra! Besides, I like doing my business with men, willing or otherwise."

Electra sniffed haughtily at the rejection. "Thatís too bad. I like it both ways." She smiled wolfishly. "Now you better get started on the stables. Thereís dozens of a shit filled stalls waiting to be cleaned!"

The medicine woman scampered from the hut, glad to get away from Electraís dominating presence. She didnít see Electra tentatively lick her hand, savoring the sweet taste of the sweat that had dappled Ordahliaís aroused nipple. Several minutes went by before Ordahlia arrived at the stables. Dozens of women were scattered through the structure feeding and caring for the neighing horses. The women guarding the stables regarded her with blank stares.

"Hi! Sure is a great day, isnít it?" Ordahlia said brightly. "Apolloís doing his job and thereís not a cloud in the sky!" The women didnít respond; they just kept staring blankly at her neck. They must be admiring my necklace, Ordahlia thought blithely. She didnít notice the small wounds on the guardsí necks or their quickening breath when she strolled by them. And she didnít hear the low, animalistic hiss that rumbled from one of the guardís throats.

* * *

"Did any of you discover anything unusual about our guests?" Solari asked anxiously. She stared expectantly at her informants, who fidgeted nervously. The afternoon sun was setting and Solari was growing impatient. "Well? Was there any evidence to back up my paranoia?"

Gemini stepped forward and snarled, "Your paranoia was unfounded! Charm and I spent hours following Xena around like kittens chasing after their mother. And you know what -- sheís damn good at nabbing rabbits and her chakram makes short work of unwary deer and boars!"

Solari cringed at the veiled accusation of incompetence in Geminiís voice. "Thatís good to hear," she finally admitted. "Sirius, Megara. Was there anything on your fronts?"

"Nothing like a day of competing with Gabrielle in wood chopping contests and seeing who can pick berries the fastest," Sirius explained politely. "On average it took her five strokes to down small trees and she filled five baskets with fruits, berries and nuts. A really exciting day."

"I have nothing to really add," Megara supplied. "Diana spent the day doing typical Amazon business: She ate breakfast, pulled a few hours guard duty, did some border patrol, had an afternoon nap and helped train some of our younger sisters."

"Good. Very good." Solari mused. She smiled at her sisters. "Youíve all done well. Now I can relay this great news to Ephiny. Thanks for your assistance -- and I really mean that. Now get some chow and well deserved rest!"

Solari watched her sisters wander away before almost skipping over to Ephinyís official residence: A timbered hut four times the size of an ordinary hut. It had a timbered roof and a raised, wooden floor that set it apart from most of the other dwellings in Themiscrya. Ephiny didnít use it much except to sleep in; she preferred to mingle with her sisters. Solari was almost there when her path was blocked by two familiar figures.

"Xena, Gabrielle. What can I do for you?" Solari asked innocently.

"Donít play cute with us, Solari," Xena said quietly. "We know that your little toadies were observing us today. By Bac, er, Artemis, two of them were almost tripping over themselves keeping up with me! And a personalized tree chopping lesson for Gabrielle?!" She jabbed a finger in Solariís shoulder. "Come on! What do you take us for? Ignorant fools?"

"How did you find out?! Who told you?" Solari rumbled.

Xena mouth turned upward in a grim smile. "One of your recruits, Charm, Ďfessed up after I pinned her during a wrestling match." She jabbed her finger in Solariís shoulder again. "What I want to know is why they were following us? Weíve never harmed the Amazon nation -- if anything, weíve done you great favors!"

Solari looked deeply into Xena and Gabrielleís eyes and saw genuine anger in them, but not hatred. She decided to come clean and said, "Many of my sisters have started acting differently since you arrived with Velasca earlier this week. Some have become withdrawn, others more socially active and, in all of them, more aggressive and uninhibited behavior." She paused, then continued. "I just wanted to make doubly sure that nothing was amiss, especially since your recent adventures with the Bacchae."

"Of course our sisters are behaving differently," Gabrielle replied, her eyes softening. "Theyíre nervous because of Velascaís presence -- and they have every right to be! Velasca is a dangerous individual who has deadly tendencies and shouldnít be taken lightly."

"They probably think we canít control her or her remaining followers," Xena added.

"Thatís pretty similar to the conclusion I reached recently," Solari admitted. Her face was red with embarrassment. "Sometimes in my zeal to protect Ephiny and the nation, my paranoia gets the best of me." She held her hand out. "I want to apologize for my actions. Can we let bygones be bygones?"

Xena smiled and gripped Solariís outstretched hand. "All is forgiven. Even I have to admit that my paranoia has saved my life more than once, so I understand your concern for the nation."

"Same here," Gabrielle said softly.

"Good. Then can I expect to see both of you at Velascaís trial in a few days?"

"Definitely. We wouldnít miss it for the world," Xena said.

* * *

The morning sun found Ordahlia completing the task she had started the previous day. Six hours of backbreaking labor and my part of the stable is actually beginning to look clean, she thought tiredly. She glanced up at the guards positioned outside one of the entrances and stuck her tongue out at them. They had talked amongst themselves for hours, but hadnít volunteered to help her. They could have helped me. But nooo, they just stood there and never acknowledged my hard work or greetings. Iíve heard of getting into your job, but Antiope and her bunch take it to new heights! Thatís a disgrace!

Ordahliaís thoughts were interrupted by angry neighing. She spied a horse locked up in a secluded stall and made a beeline towards it. Hey, itís Argo. And it doesnít look like she has any oats in her trough, she thought. After searching around for a few minutes, Ordahlia scrounged up some oats and fed the poor creature. Then she produced a metal toothed brush and proceeded to clean an assortment of cockleburs out of Argoís mane and tail. The horse suddenly neighed and bucked, spilling the contents of its saddlebags over the stableís floor.

"You dumb horse. Now Iíve got another mess to clean up. How annoying." Ordahlia bent over and began gathering the contents, which turned out to be about a dozen empty goatskins. Hmm, thatís strange. There appear to be puncture holes in every one of these vessels, she thought. That makes them utterly useless, thatís for sure.

Then Ordahliaís natural curiosity got the best of her. She ran a delicate finger along the inside lip of one goatskin and tasted the flaking, dried residue. She was expecting wine, but instead a horrid taste flooded her mouth. She gagged and cried, "By Artemis, it tastes like blood!" She sampled the residue again. "Hades! It is blood! But why would Xena carry blood in wine goatskins?!"

She started piecing her information together and the big picture was beginning to chill her. Xena said that she and Gabrielle captured Velasca while destroying some surviving Bacchae. Not long after they arrived, my sisters began behaving differently -- a few at first, but multiplying like wildfire. And now this. Goatskins with traces of dried blood in them and twin puncture marks in each one. Ordahlia felt her skin go cold as the realization hit her like a load of stones. Artemis, please help us! Your nation has been infiltrated by the Bacchae! And theyíre multiplying, increasing their numbers by the day, if not the hour. But why? How are Xena and Gabrielle involved? Have they been transformed into Bacchusí minions? Hades! Iíve got to get this information to Ephiny before itís too late!

Ordahlia scrambled from the stable and past the inattentive guards. Whoa. Better slow down. I donít want to draw any attention to myself -- Artemis knows how many of my sisters have been turned into bloodsuckers against their will. She put on an amiable smile and took an indirect route to Ephinyís royal lodge.

* * *

"What do you mean sheís not here?!" Ordahlia exclaimed. She was breathing excitedly and emanated energy that had been purposefully locked up during her deliberate, unhurried pace from the stables to Ephinyís hut. "Where in Artemisí name would she go?! Velascaís trial is tomorrow!"

Ilyria shook her head, not understanding why Ordahlia was so excitable. "Calm down. I think Ephiny went with Solari on an extended walk. I guess Solari had some good news she wanted to share with Ephiny in private. Theyíre probably toasting to the success of the mission, whatever it was."

"Which direction did they take off in?"

Ilyria pointed to a well defined path that eventually meandered out of Themiscrya in a northerly direction, into the heavily forested wilds of Macedonia and Thrace. "You can probably catch them if you hurry. They left less than an hour ago."

Ordahlia thanked Ilyria and left Ephinyís hut. Ilyria shook her head and resumed her guard duty. Several minutes passed before Ordahlia reached Themiscryaís northern perimeter and scrambled past the timbered walls guarding the city. Dozens of women walked along the top of the walls, ensuring that nothing, man or beast, got into Themiscrya without being challenged. Ten more minutes passed before Ordahlia glimpsed two figures in the distance; they didnít appear to be moving. "How far do they have to go in order to celebrate?" she grumbled before picking her pace up. Her path was suddenly blocked by three Amazons who appeared out of the bushes. Ordahlia froze before realizing that they meant her no harm. One of them wrapped her in a friendly bear hug, effectively stopping her progress.

"Long time no see, Ordahlia!" Aridne boomed, grinning. It didnít take her long to notice the medicine womanís apparent nervousness. "Whatís the hurry? The way youíre running, you could put a centaur whoís rutting to shame!" Behind her, Lysara and Erato guffawed at their sisterís humor.

Ordahlia felt a mental five alarm warning go off in her head. Aridneís little group werenít what they appeared to be. Theyíve been transformed, she thought, before blurting, "I donít have to tell you anything!" Ordahlia saw the angered looks on her sistersí faces and changed her mind. "But Iíll be nice and tell you anyway. Ephiny forgot to take her pep pills this morning. Iíve got to find her and give them to her, or she will become really depressed. And, as we know, depressed Amazon women do really strange things."

"I didnít know Ephiny had to take medication," Erato murmured, surprised by the revelation.

Aridne frowned, deep in thought. Then she smiled and slapped Ordahlia playfully on the back. "Thatís because she doesnít take any medication, Erato. Ordahlia just whipped up a little devious story to get away from us -- and thatís okay with me. Itís obvious you donít like our companionship ... yet. But Iíll give you brownie points for originality, if nothing else!"

Ordahlia nodded gratefully and suppressed a sigh of relieve. Then she resumed her frenzied pace; it had been a close call. Too close. Behind her, Lysara stood next to Aridne and stared at the shrinking figure. "Why didnít you nip her when you had her in that bear hug?" Lysara hissed. "She would have joined our ranks and, with her medical skills and knowledge, really made a contribution to the Bacchae!"

"Patience is a virtue," Aridne purred. "Weíll initiate her tomorrow at the trial. Ordahlia will join Bacchusí minions soon enough!"

* * *

Ephiny savored the smooth, refreshing taste of the Athenian wine as it slid down her throat. She laughed delightedly and passed the half empty flask to Solari, who took a long, deep draught of her own. "Thatís some damn good stuff," Ephiny gurgled happily. "And we donít get it often enough up in these isolated parts. Hey, I got a great idea ... ," she hiccuped, " ... why donít we organize a war party and raid Athens, just like our ancestors did centuries ago, and steal all their wine and men?"

Solari wiped her lips and smiled. "Youíre joking, right?"

Ephiny frowned and hissed, "No. Iím serious about it ... ," she paused and smiled at Solariís stunned face. "For Artemisí sake, yes, Iím joking! Athens is one of the most heavily fortified and defended cities in Greece -- probably the only city stronger than Athens is Sparta! Even as sexy and alluring as we Amazons are, I seriously doubt we could just waltz into the city and sweep it off its feet with our physical charm alone."

Solari grinned like a Cheshire cat; she grabbed her crotch with one hand and fondled her breasts with the other. "Oh, I donít know about that. Never underestimate the power that the female body has over a maleís mind."

Ephiny laughed at the parody and slapped her friend playfully on the back. The appearance of a gasping, heaving woman put a chill in the joviality. "Whoís that?" Solari asked, squinting at the distant figure.

"Hmm. It looks like Ordahlia," Ephiny announced. "Thatís unusual -- she usually doesnít leave Themiscrya unless itís a real emergency." Ephiny and Solari stared curiously at Ordahlia as the young woman finally stumbled into hearing range. "What brings you to these parts?" Ephiny asked uncertainly.

Ordahlia took a moment to catch her breath, then blurted, "The Amazon nation is under attack by Bacchusí minions, the Bacchae! Theyíve already transformed many of our sisters into bloodsuckers -- weíve got to organize a rally to stop their infiltration!"

Ephiny and Solari exchanged confused glances. "What in Artemisí name are you rambling about? Xena and Gabrielle said they snuffed a few Bacchae out, but they never mentioned a massive army of them!" Ephiny said.

"I think itís been one big lie since the night they arrived in our territory," Ordahlia said excitedly. "Somehow, some way, Xena and Gabrielle got turned into the creatures they were out to destroy. Those two, along with Velasca, are responsible for the behavioral changes our sisters have started exhibiting. Theyíve been turning them into minions of Bacchus while we looked on, oblivious to the growing threat!"

"Whereís your proof?" Solari demanded hotly. "I spoke with Xena and Gabrielle the other day and they acted and looked perfectly normal to me." She paused, then snarled, "And why are you telling us this? For all you could know, we might have already been transformed!"

"I can sense whoís a Baccha and who isnít ... to a certain degree," Ordahlia said slowly. She remembered her encounter with Aridne and the others. "I can sense the dark, wild energy that pervades their essences and bodies."

"All youíre doing is rambling. Do you have any evidence that backs up your claims?" Ephiny asked quietly.

Her question stopped Ordahlia cold. "Why, yes I do," she mumbled, reaching into one of her tunicís pockets. Her hand grabbed at empty air -- the goatskin vessel wasnít where it was supposed to be. There was nothing but disconcerting emptiness. "I, uh, seemed to have misplaced my evidence." By Artemis! I must have left it in the stables! Ordahlia added silently, and shrugged sheepishly.

"So you have no physical evidence to back up your ranting and raving," Ephiny accused. Her voice was quiet, but full of hard steel. Ordahlia knew all about her Queenís respect for the warrior princess and the bard and rightly feared she was about to receive a verbal lashing. "Go home, Ordahlia. I want you to think long and hard about the immense embarrassment you could have caused had you gone public with your baseless accusations."

"But, but ... ,"

Solari snarled, "You heard your Queen! And as of now, youíre restricted to communal quarters through tomorrowís trial -- I donít want you causing trouble during that delicate affair!" She glanced at Ephiny, who nodded in tacit agreement. Ordahlia grimaced angrily, but held her silence. She didnít want to test the limits of Ephiny or Solariís patience. She spun on her heels and stalked away from her sisters.

Ephiny stared longingly at Ordahliaís retreating figure and sighed. "I want the truth, Solari. Do you think there was any basis behind her ranting and raving?"

Solari shook her head. "Unless Xena and Gabrielle are really playing us for fools, I have to disagree with Ordahlia. Velasca did a lot of damage to the nationís confidence when she seized power illegally ... I feel the reverberations of her past actions are still affecting us today."

"Since when did you become a psychoanalyst?" Ephiny kidded, poking Solari in the ribs.

"I was just giving you an honest answer ... ,"

"I know that -- Iím just having fun with you," Ephiny laughed. "Solari, you have to learn to lighten up sometimes. Not everything is a life or death situation." She reached for the Athenian wine. "Enough about Ordahlia, though. What were we discussing before her untimely interruption?"

Solari grinned and purred, "I believe we were discussing the sexual prowess of Amazon women over the male population of Athens."

"Thatís a good subject to wax philosophical on. We can ask questions like ĎHow many orgasms can an Amazon have before her Athenian lover wears out?í and ĎHow many Athenians does it take to satisfy ... ,í you know, stuff like that," Ephiny said. "Thereís more to Amazons than just making war." She chuckled and looked appreciatively at Solariís smiling face. Itís times like these that make you appreciate what really counts, Ephiny thought.

* * *

Amplitron looked over the rows of assembled men with a degree of satisfaction and respect. Each volunteer had a sword, iron helmet and leather armor studded with bits of metal. The morning sunlight glanced off the burnished helmets, nearly blinding the elderly statesman. He turned to an aide and whispered, "What else needs to be attended to? Weíve got over two hundred volunteers, but have they been properly informed about search and rescue jobs?"

The aide shook his head. "Experienced men will arrive later this morning to give our volunteers some tips and basic information. The rest will be up to the men themselves, milord."

"How many of the volunteers have previous military experience?" Amplitron asked.

The aide checked some figures and replied, "Approximately a quarter of them have varying degrees of military training and/or actual combat experience."

"Excellent. Make sure the veterans are slotted into the command positions," Amplitron ordered. "I want our volunteers ready to go by dawnís first light tomorrow." He paused, thinking. "By the way, have any of our advance scouts learned anything more about Xenaís whereabouts?"

"Not really. We havenít had any confirmation ... ,"

"What do you mean by that, Xander?" Amplitron inquired.

Xander sighed and gave up the ghost. "Several of our men stumbled across an old battle site in the Baccha Woods a few days ago," he said. "There were putrefying body parts and ... something else."

"Donít hold anything back! What did they discover?" Amplitron rumbled

Xander shook his head and motioned for his lord to follow him. Several minutes later they entered a nondescript two story building and climbed a set of stairs. Moments later they stood just inside the door to a brightly lit room, which was dominated by a small pile of scrap in its center. Amplitron ambled over to the pile and started examining the shattered pieces of rock hard wood. He was able to discern several letters and parts of letters on some of the pieces. The letters included O, P, S, R, H and U.

The silence was broken when Pellaís leader looked up and whispered, "Xander, why didnít you tell me that pieces of Orpheusí lyre had been discovered?"

"Because I feared what it might portend for us, milord," Xander stammered. "If the Bacchae could kill Orpheus and destroy his lyre, they probably made short work of Xena and Gabrielle. And if itís true, then Greece has lost one of the most beautiful gods of music and two heroic women who taught us all something about kindness."

"Just because Orpheusí lyre was smashed doesnít mean heís dead, or that Xena and Gabrielle are gone," Amplitron declared. But his bleak, haunted eyes told a different story.

"The only way weíll ever find the truth is to get our volunteers into the woods so they can scour every single foot of them," Xander mumbled.

Amplitron dropped the shattered piece he had been holding and rose to his feet. "Yes. And thatís exactly what weíre going to do tomorrow morning." He grabbed Xanderís shoulders and saw the manís fear of the unknown. "Weíre going to get to the bottom of this -- one way or another!"

* * *

The day of the great trial dawned bright and warm with streams of brilliance splashing across the thatched and timbered roofs of Themiscrya. From Velasca pacing back and forth in her prison to the dignitaries from other Amazon villages to Ephiny reviewing her notes in the crowded and noisy commons, anticipation for the midday trial was growing by leaps and bounds. It was hovering over the Amazon nation like a threatening storm, promising to ruin an otherwise beautiful day.

One of those considering the situation was Gemini. She took a deep bite from her pomegranate and chewed it slowly and forcefully, finally swallowing it with a terrible grimace. Eating hasnít been quite the same since Xena initiated me, she thought. Itís hard to enjoy ordinary food when all your body wants to do is regurgitate it. Just give me a couple ounces of warm, sweet blood and Iím fine all day. She gazed longingly around the table, drinking in the details: her sisters wolfing down pomegranates, their fingers smeared with jelly and finishing off the last cups of golden honey. She sighed, knowing full well that by nightfall nothing less than blood would satisfy the hunger of her sisters. I suppose itís the price we have to pay for near immortality, but the urge is always nagging at me, she thought. All Bacchus demands in return for his gift is our loyalty to him and our Bacchae sisters. Gemini sensed that somebody was looking inquisitively in her direction and looked up. She saw Ilyria smiling at her from a nearby seat. Gemini smiled back, but realized that her solitude was about to come to a crashing end. A very familiar wave of lust and anger washed over her. Calm down, Gemini, calm down. Control the lust and donít frenzy, she thought miserably. Thatís the only real drawback to being a Baccha -- itís way too easy to succumb to your carnal desires.

"Youíre looking preoccupied," Ilyria said, sitting next to Gemini. "Isnít the food good enough for you? Maybe I should get Ordahlia to examine the foodís quality."

"Thanks, but no thanks," Gemini replied, attempting to put on a good show of looking perky. "Itís not the food thatís making me worried ... ," she paused dramatically, " ... itís Velascaís trial."

Ilyria nodded knowingly. "Tell me about it. It seems like everyone is uptight about the whole deal, especially Solari. I can understand why sheís nervous, though, because sheís in charge of security."

"Arenít you supposed to be helping Ephiny organize the nationís case against Velasca?" Gemini asked, abruptly changing the subject.

"I tried to, but she shooed me away. So here I am, trying to get a bite to eat before heading back into the storm," Ilyria explained. She took a dainty sip from her cup of honey and smacked like a drunken sailor, eliciting smiles and laughter from most of her sisters. Except for Gemini, who had noticed she was the only Baccha at this particular table. Guess Iím the odd one out, she thought morbidly.

Suddenly the entire commons area fell silent. The mysterious cause revealed itself when Ephiny strode into the commonís center. Her commanding presence silenced everyone from the wild and woolly representatives of Mayemís tribe to the rambunctious children of Themiscrya. The young girls were just as mesmerized by Ephinyís presence as the older women were.

"Today is a great day in the history of the Amazon nation. At high noon one of our greatest criminals, Velasca, will be put on trial for her crimes against the nation," Ephiny thundered. "Special accommodations have been made for the trial because thousands of our sisters from across the entire Amazon nation will be in attendance." She paused, then added, "The nationís security will not be jeopardized by the trial, either. Iíve ordered our borders doubly guarded to prevent our enemies from taking advantage of our preoccupation with Velasca."

Her statement completed, Ephiny left the commons. Solari separated from the silent crowd and followed her queen, knowing that Ephiny was feeling the terrible burden of being a leader. Of what Melosa and countless other Amazon queens before her had experienced. Velasca nearly plunged the nation into civil war with her usurpation of the chain of command, but she still has numerous followers and admirers, Solari thought. Thatís an almost insurmountable barrier that Ephiny has to overcome if she wants to successfully prosecute Velasca -- and, for the nationís sake, I hope sheís successful.

Back in the commons, Ilyria had resumed talking to Gemini. "Ephiny certainly doesnít look like sheís enjoying her prospects in the upcoming trial," she said quietly.

"Along with power comes responsibility," Gemini snorted. "I think Ephiny is learning that lesson the hard way. I wonder if sheíll freak out at the trial and blow the nationís case against Velasca."

"What do you mean by that?"

"I think Ephinyís claim to the queenhood will rest on how she handles herself at the trial," Gemini explained. "Her conduct will play a big role in how Velascaís supporters, and thereís many of them, will stay in line. For instance, if Velascaís found innocent, will Ephiny really allow her to return unmolested into the nation? If sheís found guilty, will Ephiny be able to balance justice with her personal desire for vengeance?"

Ilyria frowned. "Those are some serious questions youíre asking. Are you one of Velascaís supporters?"

Geminiís face softened. "No, Iím not one of Velascaís rabid supporters. But she did have some good ideas during her reign. Ideas like returning the nation to its pre-Hippolyta borders and instilling awe and fear in our adversaries." And Velasca figured that the only way we could achieve those goals was by allying the Amazon nation with Bacchus, she added silently. Now weíre forever bound to the god of wine. "Youíve heard of the incident with Diana?"

"Yeah. Something about Diana getting really righteous with Ephiny and Solari getting pissed off about that," Ilyria recalled.

"Well, thatís the vein Iím in," Gemini said. "I want Velasca to be treated with respect, no matter the outcome of todayís trial." She stood abruptly and walked away. Looking back at Ilyria, Gemini said, "See you at the trial. Until then, donít do anything stupid. Because if that happens, I wonít be able to give you my gift."

Ilyria exchanged confused looked with her sisters. "What did she mean by that?"

"Probably nothing important. Sheís just baiting us so weíll attend the trial," said Siri, a young woman belonging to Mayemís tribe. "Hey, can you do that little honey smack trick of yours again? It cracks us up when you do that."

* * *

"Will you please stop that incessant pacing, Velasca? Itís not going to stop the trial and itís really driving the rest of us nuts!" Arianna said loudly.

Her comment got Velascaís attention. "Iím not pacing because Iím nervous -- itís because of anticipation! By tonight, our lord will rule the entire Amazon nation," she declared. "Iím just trying to figure out how weíre going to handle the flood of new initiates in a timely manner so we can assist our other sisters in taking Pella and the other Macedonian cities."

"How many Amazons will Bacchus need to complete his conquest?" Helen asked.

"By now we have hundreds, if not thousands, of initiates outside the Amazon nation," Velasca said. She closed her eyes, thinking. "It will probably take a single Amazon army to help finish what our sisters start. Pella will be the big problem; once it falls, all weíll have to do is complete a tour de force to impress the other conquered towns and villages. They wonít resist once they realize what Bacchus could do if he unleashed the entire Amazon nation against them. Weíll be the uncontested rulers of all of Macedonia!"

"Pipe down! Weíve got company coming!" The voice belonged to one of the transformed guards standing outside the prison walls.

Soon afterwards a key rattled in the locked door, which slowly swung open. A grim faced Solari tramped into the prisonís open courtyard, flanked by six of the royal guards -- two of whom had already been transformed into Bacchae. Solari didnít know it, but she was in the midst of a viperís nest of the Bacchae. "Hereís your breakfast," she said tartly. "Youíve got a couple hours to formulate your defense. If I were you, I would start using your brain for something other than power games. Perhaps something that might convince the jury to spare your wretched life?"

"Like you really care about what happens to me," Velasca sneered. Her mocking attitude brought about conspiratorial grins from the prisoners and several of the guards. None of this was lost on the astute Solari.

"I see youíve bought some friends since you arrived," she growled. "And, yeah, I really donít give a damn about you. I hope youíre found guilty and sentenced to death -- with me as your executioner. But right now itís my job to make sure the savage mobs outside these walls donít wring your neck before the nation does!"

Velasca smiled viperishly at Solariís retreating figure as the door clanged shut. "Youíve got spunk, Solari, and I like that. I canít wait to sink my fangs into you -- youíll make an excellent follower of Bacchus."

* * *

"Pellaís so-called volunteer force has dispersed into our woods, milord. Thereís over two hundred men combing the woods for Xena and Gabrielle," Eribas reported. "Our delaying tactics have finally failed, and we have yet to hear about our success or failure with the Amazon nation! Itís only a matter of time before those men stumble upon our hidden sisters."

Bacchus grimaced, his fangs gleaming in the wavering torchlight. He was reviewing his options. "We will not reveal our true numbers just yet. Iíve yet to receive word on the Amazons from Xena or Velasca -- mental or otherwise." He looked down at the hundreds of chalky white faces, which stared up at him expectantly. "We have to wait until itís been confirmed that the Amazons have joined our ranks. Then, and only then, will we give Amplitron and the rest of Macedonia a shock theyíll never live to recover from!"

* * *

Apolloís brilliance showered down on the vast commons area of Themiscrya, illuminating over a thousand assembled Amazons. They were seated in ten long rows of one hundred women apiece, with countless others standing or sitting in their own spots outside the rows. The area where the trial was to be conducted was simple: the jury zone consisted of a roped off square with eleven rough hewn stools within it. In front of this area were two smaller roped off squares. Ephiny stood with quiet dignity in the right square while Velasca stood fuming in the left box. One of her legs was shackled to a sturdy post so she wouldnít escape. The spectators were seated directly in front of the antagonists. Ephiny would do her damnedest to represent the Amazon nation while Velasca would do her best to deflect attention away from her alleged acts of treason.

"All of you have scraps of papyrus that you picked randomly from the kettle," Solari explained. "Those of you holding the numbers that are announced will step forward. You will be the jury for this trial." A murmur of anticipation ran through the massive crowd. With the exception of the patrol groups and border guards, the majority of the Amazon nation was present for this momentous event. "Four, eight, three, sixteen, two hundred and twelve, eighteen, thirty-two, one hundred and sixty-two, two thousand and five, eighty-six and six hundred and nine."

Several minutes passed before the prospective jurists separated themselves from the crowd and approached Solari. She studied their faces, recognizing five of them by name and three others in passing. She didnít know who the other three women were. Satisfied, Solari pointed at the jury square and the jurists made their way over and seated themselves on the stools, which were nothing more than leather-covered logs.

"I will act as the mediator for both sides," Solari explained. "Should the discourse become irrelevant to the trial, I will intercede to stop the proceedings." She looked meaningfully at both Ephiny and Velasca. "Let the proceedings begin -- and may justice emerge victorious!"

* * *

"That point is irrelevant! What does it matter that I glared at Gabrielle when you invited her to lay over in Themiscrya with us?" Velasca was nearly beside herself with rage. "Since when did giving dirty looks become a crime in the eyes of the law?"

"Because that look, coupled with others, signaled your displeasure at the appearance of the Amazon princess and, indirectly, myself," Ephiny replied calmly. "You knew that Gabrielleís unexpected appearance threw a wrench in your plans to keep the Mask of the Queen for yourself!"

"Unexpected?!" Velasca roared. "Whose bright idea was it to meet her in the first place ... ,"

Four hours of bitter testimony had passed since the trial started. Not a single Amazon hadnít left the proceedings; they were all still seated in the commons, riveted by the emotional exchanges. So far Solari had had only to step in once, after Ephiny crossed the ethical line by indirectly questioning Velascaís parentage. Although both sides had taken their fair share of guff, Ephiny currently had the upper hand, and she hadnít even called for her two star witnesses: Xena and Gabrielle. Nowís the time for the knockout blow, Ephiny thought. She made the proper motion and the warrior princess and the bard strode forward to play their part.

"Gabrielle, do you remember when Velasca threw her dagger at you during your coronation ceremony?" Ephiny asked. The bard nodded uncomfortably. "How did it feel to nearly have your head taken off by a fellow Amazon?"

"I was infuriated by her actions. I could have been killed, but more important was the disrespect she showed for tradition," Gabrielle replied quietly. "I can only hope that Artemis wasnít offended by Velascaís actions."

Ephiny nodded, understanding where Gabrielle was coming from. "Then, to add insult to injury, she imprisoned you and your friend, Autoclyus, after the initial attempt to obtain the ambrosia. Velascaís action slowed you down, thereby decreasing the chances of reviving Xena." Gabrielle nodded. "And on top of that, she had illegally reappointed herself to the position of Queen!"

And so it went on for some time: Ephiny saying something and then Gabrielle or Xena agreeing with her. Velasca was unable to formulate a coherent response. The very publicness of her actions, which had seemed so good then, were damning her now. Most of Themiscrya and many other tribal representatives had seen Velasca do exactly what Ephiny was describing in crucifying detail. Then Ephiny described the dagger fight in the ambrosia chamber, which had led to Velascaís defeat and near death experience with some nasty spikes.

"During my own coronation, Velasca actually had the arrogance to come back to Themiscrya and challenge the sacred ceremonies again!" Ephiny was talking to Xena, who nodded in agreement. "You managed to chase her from Themiscrya, but not before the little firestarter disrupted the Amazon nation again."

"Everything you said is true," Xena agreed, nodding. "Velasca turned from a public nuisance to a very serious threat to the Amazon nation. Her actions caused a breakdown in the delineated line of authority, however briefly, which put all of our sisters at unnecessary risk."

"Youíve been silent for a while, Velasca," Solari said, her eyes drilling into Velasca. "Do you care to respond to any of the allegations against you?"

Velasca nodded. "All I can say is this: Everything I did was to improve the lot of the Amazon nation and encourage a glorious, unlimited future," she said forcefully. "I wanted to restore our nationís rightful destiny, and the only way that could ever happen was if I were queen. There is no glory under Ephinyís sick, pacifistic rule." She stared coolly at the eleven jurists. "Who would you trust with the Amazon nationís future? Myself? Or a treacherous woman who left her own people to give birth to a half-breed child with a centaur, one of our greatest enemies?"

"Thatís enough!" Solari hissed forcefully. "What Ephiny does in her private life bears no relevance to these proceedings!"

"I beg to differ," Velasca growled, glaring coldly at Ephiny. "She betrayed us by leaving and giving birth to a child sired by one of the hated centaurs! Then she came back, groveling for acceptance by the same sisters she had abandoned months earlier! And Queen Melosa forgave her and let her reassume her status within the nation." Velasca pointed an accusing finger at Ephiny. "Who knows what secrets she uttered when she screwed one of our enemies!"

Solari had had enough. She stalked over to Velasca and smashed a fist in her face, drawing blood. Solariís actions drew startled gasps of shock from the stunned crowd and jurists. "Silence! Thereís absolutely no place in these proceedings for that kind of slander," she shouted. "Next time Iíll hit you twice."

Velasca gingerly ran her hand across her bruised face. A low hissing sound emanated from her throat as her eyes turned into blazing, golden orbs. She didnít bother hiding her unearthly eyes when she slowly lifted her face to stare at Solariís shocked face. "There wonít be a next time for you ... ," she looked over at Ephiny, then at the silent crowd, " ... any of you! Youíre all history!" She hissed loudly and snapped her leg shackle with a single, indifferent shrug. Then she smiled, allowing everyone to see her incisors lengthening and sharpening into saliva slicked fangs. "All of you will make excellent followers for my lord, Bacchus!" She paused, then roared, "Attack, Bacchae! Attack! Initiate your sisters into the seductive, eternal ways of the Bacchae!"

And then all pandemonium broke out as the proceedings degenerated into utter madness.

* * *

Xanderís group of men never stood a chance. They were by themselves in a clearing, examining putrefying body parts, when dozens of Bacchae materialized seemingly out of thin air and attacked. All the armor, swords and helmets in the world couldnít stop the slashing talons or fanged mouths of the women. Four of the men fell immediately. The remaining six fell back, Xander screaming, "Take up defensive positions! Ardius, warn the other searchers!" The young man leaped to his feet and started running, but he was set upon by three monstrous women, who tore him to pieces before he could get out of the clearing.

Xander roared furiously and unsheathed his sword. His blade connected with the nearest woman, burying itself in her abdomen. Her breath exploded from her mouth and she doubled over, but recovered immediately. She smiled wickedly, jerked the sword from Xanderís grasp, and pulled the blade from her stomach, ignoring the sickening sucking sounds the blade made. Then she rammed the blade through Xanderís armor, into his wildly beating heart. Impaled by his own weapon, Xander fell to the ground, his vision swirling red and black as his life fled from his dying body. The last thing he saw was the woman bending down toward his neck, hot saliva running over her slender fangs. Well, at least I wonít live long enough to see her suck me dry, Xander thought with quiet dignity.

Lydiaís feeding was interrupted a minute later by the arrival of Clete. "How is our surprise attack proceeding?" Lydia asked, licking traces of blood and gore from her swollen lips.

"None of our sisters has died yet," Clete crowed. "I counted at least fifty dead searchers on my way over here. It appears that our ambush has been a great success!"

"Bacchus will be pleased with the news -- but our good fortune cannot last forever," Lydia replied. "Despite our best efforts to the contrary, some of the searchers will escape from the woods and inform Amplitron of our reemergence." She paused. "Theyíll be better prepared for us the next time we encounter them."

Clete frowned. "I doubt it. While weíre wreaking havoc out here, our sisters in Pella and across all of Macedonia have been doing the same in the towns and villages. By now chaos rules this wretched land -- and not even Amplitron can pull his chestnuts out of the fire this time."

The conversation was interrupted by the appearance of two disheveled searchers who stumbled from the forest carrying hunting bows. One of the men was covered from head to toe with bite wounds and was near death. "Avenge my death," the dying man whispered hoarsely. "Make them pay for their crimes." He slumped to the ground while his companion slid an arrow into his bow and aimed it at Clete.

Clete smiled and stepped forward defiantly. "Hit me with your best shot, soldier. It wonít do you a bit of good."

"Gladly, you Baccha bitch!" The arrow screamed from the bow and smashed into Clete, pinning her against an old oak tree. Her smug grin quickly faded when she realized that the pain was increasing, not decreasing. Lydia stared in open mouthed shock as Clete suddenly flared into incandescence and vanished. Clete was really dead this time; she wouldnít be coming back. Lydia turned on the archer and launched a frenzied attack. Another arrow winged from the bow and slammed into her throat.

"What, what are those arrows made from?" she gurgled weakly, clutching at the protruding shaft. Her body suddenly flared into incandescence, leaving nothing but a light coating of ash behind to indicate she had ever lived. She never heard her conquerorís reply.

"My arrowheads are crafted out of Dryad bones," the man said quietly. "Theyíre from my personal stock -- nobody else has ... ," He never completed the sentence as four screeching Bacchae dropped from the trees. They had witnessed the destruction of Clete and Lydia and had gone bonkers. The man never stood a chance; he went from a living, breathing human being in one instant to a dried out desiccated corpse the next instant.

"Whereís his quiver?" Lana hissed, looking wildly for the container and its deadly cargo. Another woman finally found it -- with six arrows still in it. "Destroy it! We canít risk having any Dryad-based weaponry floating around." The quiver was quickly set on fire; only after it was reduced to blackened ash did the Bacchae leave the scene.

* * *

"We have to evacuate the government -- weíve already lost over six hundred soldiers!" Dion shouted as he and Amplitron ran headlong down a cobblestone street running red with blood. "Even worse is the fact that the Bacchae are multiplying like rabbits and we have no way of effectively stopping them!"

Amplitron shook his head, breathing hard. "No way! I wonít give Pella up without a fight. This was Alexander the Greatís capitol city and Iíll be damned if it will be overrun by the hedonistic Bacchae!"

"You donít seem to understand the military situation, milord," Dion shouted. "The Bacchae are attacking throughout all of Macedonia and reinforcements, if any, from the rest of Greece are weeks away!"

The two men skidded to an abrupt halt after spying dozens of Bacchusí followers engaged in hand-to-hand combat down the street. The Bacchae were winning the one sided battle. The men slipped into a corner and Amplitron whispered, "We cannot surrender! Thereís got to be some survivors coming in from the Baccha Woods to help us out -- and every man and woman is fighting this suddenly very real threat! All we have to do is hold the Bacchae off and reinforcements will arrive!"

"Why you stubborn old goat ... ,"

"Watch your mouth, Dion!" Amplitron snapped. "Canít you see it?! If we surrender now, Pella will be permanently overrun and Bacchus will fortify his gains by turning more innocent women into bloodsuckers! Once his rule is established, heíll use other powers to extend his rule to other lands! Thatís when the world as we know it will come to a crashing end."

"Fine, weíll go down in a blaze of glory," Dion muttered. "But a lot of men are going to die needlessly because of your pride, milord. How do you feel about that?"

"I donít have any better ideas -- do you?" Amplitron barked angrily. He smiled grimly when Dion shook his head, acknowledging the dearth of ideas in his head. "I guess thatís the downside to leadership ... everyone looks to you for an answer and you donít have the faintest idea of whatís right and whatís wrong. Itís damned if you do, damned if you donít! Get the drift, Dion?"

* * *

Solariís worst nightmare had just come true. She turned from Velascaís triumphant, fanged smile and stared in silent horror as hundreds of her sisters began twitching and trembling in reaction to Velascaís words. Patches of chalky white skin mottled their bodies and incisors began lengthening and sharpening as the unaffected Amazons looked on, dumbfounded. Solari realized she had only scant seconds to get her sisters out of the commons before the Bacchae attacked. "Everyone scatter! We have no means available to defeat the Bacchae!" she shouted.

But it was too late. Just as the normal Amazons began reacting, they were assaulted by their transformed sisters. Velasca scrambled from her spot toward Solari and Ephiny and snarled, "Why donít you be good little girls and surrender? One quick nip and youíll live forever -- as followers of Bacchus!"

Ephiny kneed Velasca in the stomach, putting her down for the count. "That wonít keep her out for long ... ," she smashed a fist into Xenaís milky white face, " ... and we canít take them on in hand-to-hand combat because itís too risky. I suggest a strategic withdrawal." Solari nodded in agreement and the two retreated from the commons, followed by several other Amazons. A terrified scream stopped Ephiny in her tracks and she whirled around to see Ilyria kneeling on the ground, surrounded by taunting Bacchae.

"Somebody please help me!" Ilyria deflected a savage blow. "I ... I canít last much longer!" She saw Ephiny and looked imploringly at her Queen. "Donít leave me!"

Ephiny and Solari knew they were taking a big risk, but they unsheathed their swords and moved in anyway, followed by the rest of their entourage. They knocked out Ilyriaís assailants, but dozens of Bacchae reinforcements were arriving from the commons to join in on the unexpected battle. One, then two, of Ephinyís sisters fell victim to the slashing talons and razor sharp fangs of the surging Bacchae. The window of opportunity was closing fast.

"Iíve got you, Ilyria," Ephiny said. She leaned over and grabbed Ilyriaís arms and pulled the young woman to her feet. Suddenly Ephiny gasped and jerked away from her sister, who dropped to her knees. Ilyria looked up sadly and a single tear coursed from her right eye.

"Whatís happening to me?" Ilyria whispered, staring at the irregular patches of chalky white skin spreading over her arms. She realized that her incisors beginning to elongate and sharpen and felt her lips beginning to puff and swell. "What did they do to me?!"

Ephiny was speechless with terror as Ilyriaís body slowly warped and twisted into its new Bacchae configuration. She looked past the moaning woman and saw hundreds of other unfortunate Amazons going through the excruciating transformation as well. They hadnít been able to get away from the commons in time -- and now they were paying for their tardiness. This canít be happening under my watch, Ephiny thought hazily. This is all a nightmare. Thatís all it is -- a really bad nightmare. A taloned hand suddenly flashed by her face and Ephiny snapped out of her stunned haze. Her attacker was the bloodthirsty creature Ilyria had been turned into with a single bite. A sword butt knocked her out and Ephiny turned to see who had just saved her from being transformed into an identical monster.

It was Solari. "Itís too late for Ilyria," she yelled, fending off another attacker. "We canít afford to lose you ... but Ilyria was a different story." Ephiny knew what her lifelong confidante was trying to say and nodded. "We have to get out of here before all of the Bacchae attack us," Solari added, smashing a fist into another attackerís face.

"Then by all means, let me lead the way," Ephiny declared. Please, Artemis, forgive us for our actions today, she pleaded silently.

* * *

Ordahlia jumped to her feet the moment she heard the screaming and sounds of intense fighting from the commons. The sound of fighting died away and moments later two women scampered into the spacious communal living quarters, gasping and heaving. She recognized the women as Ephiny and Solari and her heart sank like an anchor stone. They didnít believe me when I warned them yesterday and now look what happened, she thought miserably. Now itís finally happened -- Xena and the other Bacchae have revealed their existence.

"Are you in here, Arista?" Ephiny shouted, not seeing Ordahlia. Receiving no response, she whirled on Solari and snarled, "I thought you said they would meet us here!"

"They were right behind us when we left Ilyria ... ," Solari shrugged helplessly, " ... itís utter chaos out there, though. Almost anything could have happened to them."

"That blows a hole in our plan," Ephiny sighed. She looked over the quarters again, hoping to see Arista. She didnít, but Ordahlia suddenly appeared out of nowhere. "Ordahlia! Thank Artemis youíre still here -- and normal! Weíve got to get out of Amazon territory ... weíre being overrun by an army of Bacchae!"

"I tried to warn you yesterday, but you brushed me off," Ordahlia said quietly. "Now, only after itís too late, do you believe me."

Solari grabbed Ordahlia by her shoulders and held them firmly. She looked into her eyes and said, "You were absolutely right. We should have listened to you, but we didnít. But we canít waste time placing the blame on each other or weíll all get turned into bloodsuckers." She paused, then added, "Velascaís smashing any resistance we put up out there -- sheís already gotten most of the spectators at the trial and it wonít be long before she consolidates her grip on the entire nation."

"Itís really that bad out there?" Ordahlia mumbled. Her stony visage cracked and she finally blinked. "Arenít we putting up some kind of resistance against this abomination?"

Ephiny shook her head sadly. "Only weapons derived from Dryad bones are capable of completely defeating a woman whoís been transformed into a Baccha. Right now we donít have access to any such weapons."

"But I thought Xena kept some Dryad bones in her ... ," Ordahlia stammered.

"The warrior princess probably dumped them the moment she was turned into a Baccha," Solari declared. "And I know that Velasca is the key behind this whole problem -- somehow she turned Xena and Gabrielle into creatures like herself and from there it simply mushroomed." Solari shuddered. "You have to hand it to Bacchus, though. That horned bastard knew exactly how to infiltrate the nation without our ever realizing it."

A multitude of approaching voices silenced the trio. "Check these living quarters," a voice called out. It belonged to Aridne. "Velasca wants to capture all the escapees before they can warn the outside world of the new Amazon nation that was born today." She laughed sinisterly. "Theyíll join our ranks tonight during the blood ceremony!"

"What about Ephiny and Solari?" Lysara asked.

"Just capture them. Velasca wants to have the honor of initiating them into our ranks herself," Aridne replied.

Solari looked around furtively. "Weíve got to get moving before weíre trapped," she whispered. "Letís make a run for the centaur territory controlled by Tyldus. They wonít look for refugees there."

Ephiny nodded and glanced at Ordahlia. "Youíre more than welcome to come with us. If you remain here, youíll get turned into a Baccha before the sun sets."

"I donít want to become a bloodsucker," Ordahlia agreed. "But what can we do against Velasca and our sisters? We canít run forever!"

"Weíre having a Hades of a time just trying to survive right now," Ephiny said. "Once we reach a secure location and link up with other Amazon refugees, weíll have to figure out a way to destroy Bacchus -- permanently, this time. Only then will our sisters revert back to their normal personalities."

Solari snorted derisively. "Humph. With Velasca, I doubt that would be an improvement!"

* * *

Velasca surveyed the crowded scene around her and smiled malevolently. She was standing on the coronation deck, surrounded by several of her lieutenants. Xena and Gabrielle stood further away, silently scanning the enormous crowd in front of them. Several hundred Amazons were in that crowd, their chalky white faces and flaming golden eyes upturned reverently toward their leaders. Soon, very soon, even more Amazons would join their ranks.

"Give me a status report," Velasca barked at Helen. "How much resistance is there left to clean up?"

"Themiscrya and the nearby villages have been subdued. We should be hearing in from the outlying villages soon," Helen replied triumphantly. "Weíve got over four hundred prisoners from Themiscrya alone, and our sisters in the other villages report similar successes. Weíll be able to bring them across into our ranks at your command."

"What about our sisters who escaped the dragnet? How many of them are still running around loose?"

"We estimate that approximately two hundred have thus far eluded capture," Arianna chipped in. "Theyíre probably making tracks for the borders. If the patrol groups donít capture them, then the border guards will."

Velasca nodded, then asked, "What about Ephiny and Solari? Have there been any sightings of them?"

Ariel shook her head. "Itís only a matter of time before our former leaders make a mistake -- like heading for marauder territory in Macedonia. When they attempt the border crossing, weíll nab them."

"Just remember, I will be the one to initiate them," Velasca hissed ominously. "Donít forget that."

Velasca turned her attention to Xena. "After we finish the initiation ceremonies tonight, make preparations for an Amazon army to aid Bacchus in his war against our Macedonian enemies. With our infusion of strength, our sisters across the land will be able to consolidate their gains!" She paused, then growled, "Bacchus will rule all that he sees once weíre finished with his foes!"

* * *

"Perfect. Just perfect. The one night that we could really make use of the cover of darkness and we have a full moon," Ephiny fumed. "Can it possibly get any worse?"

"Donít say that," Solari sighed. "Because now it probably will become worse."

Ordahlia just shook her head. "I donít see how it can get any worse. By Artemis, it seems like we were the only ones to escape Velascaís surprise attack! We havenít seen any of our other normal sisters since leaving Themiscrya this afternoon."

The women were sitting under a massive, gnarled oak tree, discussing their options. The arguments seesawed between Ephiny, who wanted to regroup in centaur territory or elsewhere, and Solari, who was fighting mad and wanted to kill Velasca and Bacchus. For her part, Ordahlia just wanted to find a nonlethal way to revert her transformed sisters back into normal women. The bright, full moon rose far overhead, oblivious to the plight of those living under its glare.

"Thereís two ways it can get worse," Solari explained. "One, we might get caught by our Bacchae sisters get turned into bloodsuckers like them and, two, weíre going to need light to find our way through this damn darkness. Unfortunately, when we get that light, weíll be easy pickings for anybody trying to pinpoint our location."

Ephiny nodded. "But weíll need that torchlight -- even the full moonís light canít penetrate through the thick forest canopy!" She paused, then added, "When it comes to the torches, we donít have a choice. Weíre going to need them until we reach one of the relatively clear border zones. But then weíll undoubtedly run into the guards -- and Iím sure Velascaís already initiated them."

"Whatís our overall objective?" Ordahlia muttered under her breath. "We can argue and debate all we want, but what do we do after weíve made a decision? Living as a refugee doesnít sound too enticing to me."

"Velasca and Xena would do their damnedest to make sure weíre not refugees for long anyway," Solari raged. "They would do everything in their power to see us sporting fangs and bad attitudes like them!"

"And failing that, doing everything to destroy us," Ordahlia added helpfully.

Ephiny held her hand up, silencing the lively discussion. "Keep one thing in mind, you two: Every one of those Bacchae, from Velasca to Xena to the non-Amazon women, were once like you and me. None of them willingly became Bacchusí minions -- another, once innocent, Baccha made that choice for them!"

"Even Velasca?!" Solari retorted.

"Even her. We have to keep in mind that once a woman is bitten, she undergoes a mental transformation as well as a physical one," Ephiny explained quietly. "Every dark desire and fantasy becomes dominant. Lust and carnality rules a mind that has had its rationality ripped away for the most part and loyalty to Bacchus forced into it. She tries to resist the transformation, but the womanís individuality and rationality is forever lost in the wild cesspool of the Baccha group mentality."

"It almost sounds like youíre defending those bastards," Solari accused.

Ephiny smiled wanely. "In a way, I am defending them," she said. "I feel that inside each Baccha a flickering spark of the womanís original rational personality remains, screaming for release from a mental prison. Unfortunately, that spark begins to fade away the longer she remains a Baccha -- before too long, her wild impulses become dominant. Forever."

Ordahlia interrupted, saying, "Thatís a nice philosophical statement, Ephiny, but it really doesnít have anything to do with our current situation. That is unless youíre looking for an excuse to join their ranks."

"Iím not that desperate to justify becoming a bloodsucker," Ephiny said bitterly. She stared off into the dark night. "Eventually weíll run into other like-minded sisters. We can then link up with them and brainstorm a strategy to destroy Bacchus and free our sisters from his insidious grip. Without the power of the Amazon nation to enforce his rule, Bacchusí reach for empire will be one that results in failure."

"You hope," Solari added.

"Exactly," Ephiny amended.

"We wonít be able to contain him by ourselves forever," Ordahlia muttered. "The Bacchae are nearly immortal and ordinary weapons wonít keep them down for long. And Velasca knows that!"

Ephiny acknowledged the comment with a single, curt, nod. "Then weíll have to find other allies to help us do Bacchus in before he realizes what weíre doing."

"Then thereís the fact that Bacchus is a god," Solari mentioned. "If we find a way to contain his minions, weíll have to finish him off in order for them to revert back. And only a Baccha who has ingested his blood can destroy him once and for all."

Ephiny threw her hands up in disgust. "This is getting complicated," she sighed angrily. She rose to her feet and lit one of the crude torches Ordahlia had fashioned. "Letís get moving. Time is of the essence -- we have to destroy Bacchus before he becomes completely untouchable behind a shield of bloodthirsty Bacchae!"

* * *

The Amazons guarding the border checkpoint spied the approaching refugees with their enhanced vision long before their desperate sisters were aware that they were being watched. Electra smiled and unsheathed her sword in anticipation. Urania and Clio mirrored their sisterís actions. Weíre feeding well tonight, and soon weíll bring three more of our wayward sisters into the ranks of the Bacchae, Electra thought. She ran her tongue over her long, lethal fangs -- her group had already introduced six other wayward sisters, who had tried to sneak by earlier, to the eternity of the Bacchae. All of them were now fanged beauties.

"Iíll be damned," Urania muttered as she recognized the approaching refugees. "Itís Ephiny and Solari! It looks like they got ... ," she studied the third woman, " ... Ordahlia with them."

Electra nodded and added, "What are those morons thinking? That weíre going to let them slip past us because Ephinyís the almighty former queen of the Amazon nation?!"

"We heard that." Urania and the others spun around and came face to face with Ephiny and Solari. Both women wore grim, determined looks on their faces.

"How? But you were just over there ... ," Clio gibbered. She composed herself and hissed, "So youíre surrendering just like that? No fighting Ďtil the last woman gets bitten?"

Clioís challenge didnít elicit any response from Ephiny or Solari. Verbal, anyway. Suddenly Solari set things in motion by slamming a rock hard fist into Electraís face, mashing her nose. Although the damage was already being repaired, the power behind the fist stunned Electra, and she dropped to the ground senseless. Urania and Clio lost control and they launched an uncoordinated attack. Clioís fangs grazed Ephinyís leather armor, but they didnít find any exposed flesh. Clio didnít get a second chance -- Ephiny smashed a fist into her twice, once in the head, snapping it backward and then under her chin, sending her to the ground. Urania joined her downed sisters moments later, her unconscious body mottled with bruises.

Ephiny knew time was fleeting. She whirled to a nearby thicket of bushes and screamed, "Do it now, Ordahlia! Nowís your chance!"

The medicine woman leaped from the thicket and scurried toward the downed Bacchae, carrying three sharpened bones in her shaking hands. Electra saw Ordahlia coming and managed to raise herself to her knees when she realized what her sister was carrying. By Bacchus! Sheís gotten her hands on some Dryad bones! But how and when?! Electra thought wildly. She tried to climb to her feet, but it was too late. A bone slammed into her chest and penetrated her heart. She fell to the ground, thinking, The tortureís finally over with. I can rest now.

The victors didnít waste time congratulating each other. It wouldnít take their bloodthirsty sisters to realize that they had been duped -- that the bones sticking in their chests were those of an unfortunate chicken, not a Dryad. Ephiny and Solari broke into a desperate run, followed closely by Ordahlia. They had nearly crossed the bridge when cold laughter stopped them in their tracks. At least a dozen of their transformed sisters materialized on the centaur side of the bridge. Ephiny spun around, only to see twice that number of her sisters on the opposite end of the bridge. Dear Artemis, it appears that the tricksters have themselves been tricked, Ephiny thought morosely.

"Psychoanalytical warfare, Ephiny? I never thought you had it in you!" a familiar voice called out. Xena separated herself from her sisters and smiled wolfishly. She looked over disapprovingly at Electra and the other fallen guards. "Itís a good thing we arrived when we did, or Ephinyís little trick would have let her escape." Xena looked coolly at a sullen Ephiny. "Just a hint of your tactical genius, eh?"

"Actually it was Solariís idea," Ephiny admitted. "I just put her plan into motion."

Xenaís grin widened and her fangs glimmered wetly in the moonlight. "Velascaís going to appreciate it when we bring you two into our custody. Sheís really looking forward to tasting your sweet blood ... and introducing you to the pleasures of being one of us." She glanced over at Ordahlia and added, "Your extensive knowledge of medicine will be invaluable. Once youíre a Baccha, you can aid your like-minded sisters in finding techniques that will deter our enemies from attacking us."

"You didnít ... ," Ordahlia clammed up and started trembling.

"I didnít personally initiate them," Xena cooed. "Gabrielle and some others had that honor. Donít fret, though, because they put up a fight before we initiated them." She licked her taloned fingers seductively. "Gabrielle let me have a taste, though."

Solari used Xenaís distraction with Ordahlia and sidled up to Ephiny. "We stand a better chance of making a break for it on the centaur side of the bridge," she whispered. "Thereís only a dozen or so of our sisters on that side versus two dozen on Xenaís side. We have nothing to lose by going for broke."

Ephiny nodded and cued Ordahlia in. "On the count of three ... ,"

Xena was still mindlessly prattling on. "I think Iíll sink my fangs into you, Ordahlia. I havenít fed in several days and Iím quite ravenous -- and I really like to watch the effect my bite has on other women. Ahh, I canít wait to experience the pleasure of staring into your seductive golden eyes or seeing your incisors sprout into a pair of newborn fangs." Or eventually kissing your luscious, swollen crimson lips and suckling on your nipples, she added silently. A distant part of her shuddered at the blatantness of her maddening lust, but it quickly faded away.

"One ... two ... ,"

"But Iím getting ahead of myself." Xena turned to her sisters and ordered them forward. "Take them. Theyíll be our guests of honor at tonightís blood ceremony in Themiscrya."

"Three!"

Ephiny and her sisters lunged forward into a crowd of hissing Bacchae. They flailed away with fists and sword butts; after several seconds, Solari and Ephiny had cleared a path through their hissing sisters. Xena was screaming incoherently behind them, shouting, "Grab the little dirty bastards! They cannot escape!" Electra and several others surged forward and the hard earned path began to quickly close. Solari and Ephiny struggled valiantly as taloned hands attempted to hold them in viselike grips. Ordahlia scampered away from the terrible struggle, but then came rushing back after seeing the predicament her sisters were in.

"Damn you, Ordahlia!" Ephiny shouted. "Get out of here! Donít worry about us -- find a way to stop Bacchus!"

"What is the Amazon nation without her true queen?" Ordahlia replied quietly. She smashed a fist into Clioís sneering face, dropping the Baccha to the ground once again.

Solari realized that it was a futile struggle as more and more of the Bacchae joined the fray. Only sheer luck had kept her from getting bitten thus far. And, of course, Velascaís orders saving me for her fangs, she thought wryly. Solari spied Ordahlia lying prostrate on the ground nearby, her run of luck exhausted. Xena was standing triumphantly over the fallen medicine woman. Solari grimaced as a fanged mouth flashed by her face and she glanced over at Ephiny. Sheís almost free of her attackers! Solari sang mentally. She grunted and kicked out viciously at Electra, who was holding Ephinyís ankle like a leech. Solariís blow connected and Ephiny stumbled away into the darkness, breathing hard. Youíre the nationís last hope, Ephiny, Solari thought sadly, realizing that there was no way in Hades the four Bacchae holding her down were going to release her. May Artemis be with you.

Ephiny realized that she was alone and spun around. Ordahlia was still unconscious and Solari had stopped her futile struggling. Ephiny started back, but Solariís venomous scream stopped her in her tracks. "For once in your damn life, Ephiny, run! Donít worry about Ordahlia or me! Remember that little spiel you gave me earlier about the Bacchae? Where you defended them?" Ephiny nodded, mute. "Just remember what you said. Whatever becomes of us, weíll always be your sisters and confidantes. No matter what our bodies or faces look like. Or how we sound!"

"Youíll be singing a different tune in a few hours," Xena snapped and slapped Solari, hard. She turned to Ephiny and taunted her to do something. "If you really care about them, youíll surrender." When that didnít work, Xena tried a different tactic. "Why fight the tides of change, Ephiny? The Amazon nation is destined to rule the world -- join us now and live wild and carefree for eternity!"

A single tear trickled down Ephinyís cheek as Xenaís vicious words filled the air around her. She struggled mentally for several seconds before she made the heartrending decision -- to abandon the Amazon nation and the countless thousands of sisters who depended on her leadership. I swear Iíll return and avenge this day ... and soon, Ephiny thought coldly. She backed into the woods and deeper into the unknown, still stolidly facing Xena down. Or, rather, the monster Xena had been unwillingly turned into.

"You may have won todayís battle, Baccha! But Iíll remember what your race has done to my nation and my sisters ... ," Ephinyís eyes flashed, " ... and Iíll get my vengeance. Even if itís the last thing I ever do in this life!"

Ephiny turned away and disappeared into the dark, foreboding woods, leaving stunned silence behind her. Solari smiled sadly and trembled slightly in trepidation. She knew what was going to happen to her. Artemis, I ... Iím afraid. I donít experience fear much,, but this time itís different. I really hope Ephiny was right when she talked about the Bacchae. I hope part of my civilized self survives my transformation.

Xena motioned curtly and her sisters tied Ordahlia and Solari up and dragged them off into the woods. "Make good on your promise soon, Ephiny. Timeís running out for the world," she said slowly, before turning to follow the others into the long, never-ending night.


* * * Authorís Note * * *

This finishes Novella One of the story arc. The second and third novellas, Fallen Nation and Shattered Dreams, have also been completed. Please, if you have any constructive comments on the trilogy or ideas for future stories, e-mail me at: storymaster@mailexcite.com I would like to thank you in advance for any comments or suggestions you may have.


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