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Fallen Nation - Cont'd


"I surrender." Ephiny unsheathed her sword and plunged it into the rocky ground. Then she removed her dagger and threw it down on the ground. "Iím tired of playing in the rain. Let me come home; I miss the companionship of my sisters."

Elysia and Cordelia just stared blankly at their queen, a surprised look in their golden eyes. Elysia finally broke the awkward silence. "I never thought youíd just give in and come asking to rejoin your sisters," she commented. "With your rhetoric, I thought youíd fight to the bitter end."

Ephiny cocked her head saucily. "Want me to do that?" she asked, pulling her sword from the ground. "I can oblige you, but you and Cordelia will be the first to suffer."

Cordelia raised her taloned hands appeasingly. "That wonít be necessary, Queen Ephiny. Iíll escort you through Pella to where Xena is." She motioned for the gates to be opened and scampered through. Ephiny began to follow Cordelia through, but Elysia grabbed her in a bear hug.

"Iím so happy you decided to become one of us, Ephiny," she whispered into Ephinyís ear. "Itíll hurt a little when you get nipped, but after that itís like experiencing one orgasm after another!"

"Uh, thanks for the information ... I think," Ephiny replied. She did her best to ignore the dried smear of blood caked on Elysiaís upper lip. "Iíll keep that in mind when I begin the transformation process."

The next few minutes passed by in a blur for Ephiny. The rightful Amazon queen moved through Pella behind Cordelia. Ephiny did her best to ignore the curious looks from her Amazon sisters and the other Bacchae, but she abruptly stopped when she a familiar face. A single tear welled in her eye as the young Amazon woman approached her slowly and deliberately.

"Please forgive me for abandoning you at the trial, Ilyria," Ephiny whispered hoarsely. "I ... I tried to help you but Solari, the chaos and, and everything came crashing down ... ,"

Ilyria smiled, her full, crimson lips pulling back to reveal a nasty set of needle sharp fangs. "Ephiny, thereís nothing to forgive. You did what you thought was best and I became a Baccha," she cooed coyly. "Right after I changed, I was confused and disgusted with my new body and desires. But Velasca and the others helped me understand those desires, comforted me and provided me with companionship. Weíre still Amazons, but now weíre stronger and quicker. And the bond that exists among our sisters has been strengthened by our transformation into Bacchae."

Cordelia tugged at Ephinyís arm. "Xenaís leaving soon and Iím sure sheíll want to take you back Themiscrya with her." She shooed Ilyria away. "Soon enough youíll understand what itís really like to be a Baccha."

The two women resumed their hurried pace through Pella. They entered the wide open city square and Ephiny stared in shock: Hundreds of women were lined up in neat rows on their knees; each one had a single Baccha standing provocatively over her. The Bacchae are pulling the same stunt on the women of Pella that they did to the Amazon nation, Ephiny thought. Theyíre doing it again. Will it ever stop?

"Although we transformed thousands of women prior to the fall of Pella and the other cities and towns, we didnít get them all," Cordelia said, indicating the doomed women. "Those women will soon be Bacchae, too. And theyíre just the first to experience the pleasure of eternal life. Countless thousands of other women will join our ranks before itís all said and done."

"How do you know all of this?" Ephiny asked. "You were brought across only a few days ago."

Cordelia smiled secretly. "Xena and the others told me all about Bacchusí plans. And, of course, there were some things that just didnít need to be said to be understood." She tapped her head knowingly.

Ephiny didnít reply. She remained silent until she spied two women sitting haughtily atop their horses in the distance. The women were surrounded by dozens of Amazon Bacchae. Ephiny recognized Xena right away and wasnít too surprised to see Diana at her side.

"Well, well. What do we have here, Cordelia?" Xena asked sarcastically. "A sacrifice to Bacchus, perhaps?"

"Not a sacrifice, but a willing initiate who wants to join our ranks," Cordelia replied. "Ephiny came to the city walls and surrendered without a fight."

Xena smiled viciously, her fangs gleaming wickedly in the last rays of the setting sun. "The rain finally got too heavy, eh, Ephiny?" she hissed. "Youíre more than welcome to come in from the rain, but you know the price."

Ephiny stared defiantly up at Xena. "Iím not afraid of the Bacchae," she growled. "Or Bacchus, for that matter!"

"You shouldnít be afraid of us," Diana interrupted. "It wonít be long and youíll be transformed into one of us. Then youíll finally discover the fun and games youíve been missing out on!"

"She speaks the truth," Xena added. The warrior princess turned to Diana and said, "Thereís been a change in plans. You can lead the Amazons on their victory tour through Macedonia on your way back to Amazon territory. Iím going to personally lead Ephiny and Dion back to Themiscrya -- theyíll both make great trophies for Velasca."

"You, you captured Dion?!" Ephiny blurted involuntarily.

Xena looked slyly at Ephiny. "Yeah. Him and four other soldiers who didnít jump to their deaths." She smiled, realizing why Ephiny seemed so concerned for the man. "You have feelings of affection for him, donít you? Well, if itís any consolation to you, Dionís not going to be killed. I believe Velasca will use him as a breeder for our unchanged Amazon sisters."

"I donít have any sort of affect ... ," Ephiny began.

"You donít lie that well," Xena observed wryly. She motioned to some Amazons. "Bind her hands together and put her with Dion. Weíve got a several day journey ahead of us and I donít want to take any chances with Ephiny escaping from our grasp again."

I have no intention of escaping, Ephiny thought. Especially now that I have a weapon to subvert the Bacchae with from within. Artemis, I hope youíre still with us through thick and thin.

* * *

Hephaestus limped along the crudely carved path, straining to keep the blowing snow from blinding him. His breath crystallized the instant it left his mouth, but the crystals never hit the frozen ground; they were blown away by the freezing, howling winds. This part of Tartarus certainly lives up to its reputation as a forbidding place, Hephaestus thought miserably. No wonder Zeus tossed the surviving Titans down here. To live here is torture, especially for immortal beings. A jagged piece of ice, driven by the winds, buried itself in the godís left forearm. Hephaestus grimaced and tugged it out. He nearly missed the low howling that barely separated itself from the wind.

The lame god of the forge propelled himself toward the alien sound. At one point he stepped off the path and plunged down to his waist in the drifting snow. He managed to extract himself from the predicament and stumbled toward the sound, which was growing louder. Gradually, a massive pillar of frost-rimed granite discerned itself from the eternally-howling blizzard. What the Hades is that? Hephaestus thought, spying a stooped figure bound to the pillar by two bands of dimly glowing energy. Is it one of the Titans? Prometheus perhaps? Hephaestus drew closer to the figure. No, it canít be. Prometheus was freed from his burdens by Hercules. Besides, thereís no great carrion bird hovering over that poor soul. The wind suddenly died down and Hephaestus recognized the bound figure.

"Ares! What in Zeusí name are you doing in this forsaken place?" Hephaestus rumbled ominously.

The god of war looked up at his unexpected visitor. "I could ask you the same thing," he mumbled. Ares hadnít had any ambrosia for an extended period of time and was slowly losing what remained of his strength.

"You know damn well that Tartarus is the only place I can obtain my raw materials from," Hephaestus retorted. "How else do you think the weapons of the gods always manage to crush the weaponry of mere mortals? You canít make that kind of stuff with just bronze and iron you know!" He paused, savoring Aresí awkward position. It wasnít often that somebody, or something, bested the god of war in battle. "Humph! It looks like you took on somebody you couldnít beat ... again. Who was it this time?! Zeus again? Or was it Athena? Hera, perhaps?"

Ares jerked at the mention of Athenaís name. His reaction wasnít lost on the observant Hephaestus. "Ah! So you and Athena got into a spat again, huh." The lame god waggled a finger at Ares. "You better be careful around her! Remember what happened to that Titan, Pallas, when he tried to get, ah, intimate with Athena!"

"Look whoís speaking!" Ares replied indignantly. "Youíre lucky Hera has a special place in her heart for you, otherwise Zeus wouldíve done more than just toss you off Olympus that time you ticked him off!" Ares laughed weakly. "Youíve always been a mamaís boy, havenít you?"

Hephaestusí face turned bright red despite the bitter cold. "Just because Iím loyal to my mother doesnít make me a Ďmamaís boy,í as you put it!" he replied shrilly.

Zeus had tossed his son from Olympus after heíd agreed once too many times with Hera, his mother. The long fall and resulting impact produced the crippled leg. Hephaestusí lack of ambrosia during his torturous return to Olympus had made the debilitating injury permanent, despite his godhood.

Ares struggled briefly against his bonds, then slumped over again. Hephaestus was the first face heíd seen since Apollo and Artemis had imprisoned him in Tartarus. His plans to escape had also been foiled; Apollo and Artemis had made doubly sure that absolutely nobody or thing was aware of Aresí location. It was only sheer luck that Hephaestus had stumbled upon Ares.

"Iím growing exhausted of this idle chit-chat," Ares sighed. "Are you going to free me from my bonds or just stand there gaping like an idiot?"

"Oh, I donít know. Right now Iím calculating the influence I can get over Athena now that I know her dirty little secret," Hephaestus said.

"Donít even try it. You wouldnít know how to handle a woman like her," Ares laughed. "Besides, if you bring it up, theyíll all get you. Youíll end up down here with me!"

"Whoís Ďtheyí?" Hephaestus whispered, his enthusiasm cooling considerably.

"Letís see ... Athena, Apollo and Artemis," Ares sneered. "You didnít seriously believe that Athena could defeat me all by her lonesome self, did you?"

Hephaestus shrugged sheepishly. "Actually, yes, I did."

"Youíve got to have more confidence in me," Ares replied. "Now free me! I want the gods to know the atrocities that have fallen upon me!"

"I, I donít know about that. You wouldnít be down here unless it was for a good ... ,"

"They destroyed Strife!" Ares shouted. "Is that a good enough reason to free me you wishy-washy ... ,"

Hephaestus straightened. The destruction of a god or demi-god, no matter how minor, was an inexcusable act of barbarity. The only thing that shocked Hephaestus even more was that Athena, Apollo and Artemis were responsible. Heíd didnít expect that kind of behavior from those three. "Hold still," he instructed Ares. A mighty hammer materialized in his hands and Hephaestus, using all his strength, brought it down on the top energy band. It twisted, snapped and fizzled away into nothingness. The second band of energy met the same fate.

Ares straightened and stretched leisurely. "Thanks, brother. And I really do mean it this time," he said, extending a hand. "You wouldnít happen to have some ambrosia on you, would you?"

Hephaestus handed Ares a handful of the fluffy substance. The god of war wolfed it down; he was ravenous for the energy boost the ambrosia provided. The substance began working its magic, knitting fractured bones, regenerating damaged blood vessels and organs and replenishing Aresí depleted energy reserves. In a matter of minutes, he looked like heíd never been in a battle, let alone one against three powerful gods.

"Letís go rock somebodyís world," Ares huffed ominously. "Weíll make them pay for destroying Strife and imprisoning me. Theyíre worse than Bacchus! At least that horned moron stopped with Orpheus. Athena and the others started with Strife and ended it by trying to kill me!"

Ares began to dematerialize, but Hephaestus held a hand up. "Not so quick. I freed you, and now the least you can do is help me gather the raw material I need to finish my project." Ares rematerialized and, without a word, followed Hephaestus back into the raging blizzard.

* * *

"Well, it looks like Iím going to visit the Amazon nation sooner than Iíd planned on," Dion muttered quietly. He was sitting on a large horse, his arms tied behind his back. "Of course, I can think of better ways to meet women, especially Amazon women, than as a prisoner."

Ephiny smiled grimly. She was seated on her own horse and her hands were tied as well. "When I made the offer, I didnít exactly envision it this way, either," she replied. "Iím sure youíll be all right, though. It sounds like youíre going to become a breeder for normal Amazon women." She paused, then sighed dramatically. "It could be worse ... at least you arenít going to be transformed into a Baccha, like I am."

Dion glanced at Ephiny, his face red with embarrassment. "I didnít mean to trivialize your situation," he amended. "I think Iíd lose my mind if that was going to happen to me. How do you deal with the stress?"

"Iím not getting too worked up over it," Ephiny said. Because I have a secret weapon that Artemis gave me, she added silently. "The way I look at it, I can handle the gold eyes, fangs and complexion. Iíll just have a hard time maintaining self-control around blood and rutting men and women."

The two friends fell silent, contemplating their surroundings. They were in the middle of a group of over one hundred Amazons. Most of them were on horses, but a few were nimble enough to make the trek on foot over the rough terrain. They had been traveling continually for over a day now, pausing only long enough for the Amazons to satiate their blood lust twice a day; once in the morning and once in the evening. Xenaís group would reach the border of the Amazon nation sometime tomorrow evening.

"What do you think about your sisters now that theyíve been turned into Bacchae?" Dion asked abruptly, shattering the silence. "Do you despise them for their part in Bacchusí conquering all of Macedonia?"

Ephiny thought about it and shook her head. "No. My sisters didnít volunteer to become Bacchae. It was forced on them against their will and, once bitten, their wild and orgasmic sides were amplified beyond all normal expectations."

"What about Velasca? I understand sheís the one who started the whole thing by allying herself with Bacchus," Dion observed. "Doesnít that irritate you even just a little bit?"

"Yes, it does," Ephiny admitted. She turned and looked deeply into Dionís questioning eyes. "But I doubt Velasca joined Bacchus willingly." She paused, then explained, "You need to understand something about the Amazon nation. Weíre a close-knit society that respects each and every member, from the newborn girls to the oldest Amazon women. Genuine hatred is almost unheard of among the Amazons."

"That much is obvious," Dion mumbled to himself. If only the rest of us had that kind of respect for each other, a lot of the problems in this world could be avoided, he added silently.

"We canít afford to have petty divisions -- weíve got too many questionable allies and enemies who would love to see us self-destruct," Ephiny continued. She looked down at the ground. "Iíll tell you the same thing I told one of my sisters earlier -- even after a woman becomes a Baccha, a spark of her original personality remains. But that spark fades away the longer she remains a Baccha. If she doesnít eventually revert back, that spark is gone forever and her dark side completely takes over."

"What did your friend think when you told her that?" Dion asked.

Ephiny smiled. "Oh, Solari? She thought I had a screw loose."

"So where is she? Why didnít she accompany you instead of Siri?"

Ephinyís smile vanished and her eyes misted. "Solari was captured not long after Velasca revealed her true nature to the nation," she murmured. "The last thing she said to me was that ... ," Ephiny hiccuped and struggled to wiped a single tear away with her tied hands, " ... she hoped I was right about the Bacchae. And now that my fate has been sealed, I hope Iím right, too."

* * *

Why do I have the strangest feeling of deja vue? Zeus thought miserably. It seems like Iíve experienced this before, but when? I canít exactly place it, but ...

"Zeus! Snap out of it!" Hera yelled. "Weíve got a trial going on here and as its arbiter, you canít sleep on the job!" I swear, the old goat getting more senile with each passing day, Hera added silently.

Now I remember. The last time this poor excuse of a court got together was after Bacchus offed Orpheus and turned the Amazon nation into his fanged followers, Zeus thought, ignoring Heraís deliberate baiting. But this trial had a horrible twist to it; three of his favorite children were being persecuted this time around instead of one questionable child. Zeus scanned the assembled gods and looked down at the three forlorn figures huddled in the center of the hall; they werenít used to being the defendants. Artemis I could understand. But Apollo and, of all the gods, Athena? It just doesnít make sense.

Zeusí weariness turned into white hot fury the more he thought about the situation. Finally, he exploded and lashed out. "Why?! Why did you escalate an already delicate situation?" he thundered, pointing a quivering finger at Artemis. "You knew that the judgment I passed on Bacchus wasnít final! Just because the others found him innocent doesnít mean jack! I was simply relaying their judgment, not mine!"

"Then why didnít you act sooner?! Or at least let me know you were going to do something?" Artemis retorted. "I heard nothing from you, so I put my plan into motion!"

Zeus ignored Artemis and turned his attention to Apollo and Athena. "And you two! Joining Artemis and launching an attack on Strife that destroyed him! And if that wasnít enough, you tried to terminate Ares as well!"

"Law or no law, decree or no decree, the destruction of Strife was justified," Athena replied in calm, measured tones. "He was tracking Artemisí every movement and relaying the information to Ares. That is a violation of accepted behavior." She paused, thinking. "And the little twerp insulted me by calling me a Ďbig mamaí."

"And I helped Artemis because I felt guilty for holding my silence at Bacchusí trial," Apollo added defiantly. "If that results in punishment on my behalf, then so be it. Iím prepared to accept the judgment of this court."

Hera laughed quietly. "Oh youíre so melodramatic at times, Apollo," she hissed. "But I feel weíre missing the point here, which is: Why was Strife destroyed? Did he have some information that Artemis didnít want the other gods to become aware of?" She looked at Ares. "Do you have anything to say about that, my dear boy?"

Ares shook his head. "Poor Strife was destroyed before he could tell me anything," he lied. Ares forced a single crocodile tear out of his right eye. "He, he had so much potential to be a powerful god. But now weíll never know!"

"And then they attacked you," Hera stated. "How did you feel about that?"

"Anger, betrayal, confusion." Ares shrugged. "And, of course, pain. Getting hammered by energy bolts has a way of hurting even the strongest individual."

Heraís face softened, understanding Aresí pain. "Then they tossed you down to Tartarus, where your tortured and battered body was subjected to more abuse by the nasty weather down there. Youíre only bit of luck came when Hephaestus discovered you and brought you back to the world of the living."

"Thatís exactly how it went," Ares agreed. "And now I want justice for what they did to Strife and myself."

Artemis snorted. "We shouldíve destroyed you when we had the chance," she muttered.

"Hindsightís always 20/20," Ares taunted. "And now youíre whimpering ... ,"

"Silence in the court!" Zeus thundered. "Before I render judgment, I want to know two things: One, what information did Strife possess that led to his death and, two, why didnít Hades report that Ares was imprisoned in his domain?" Zeus glared at the god of the underworld. "Well, Iím waiting."

Hades fidgeted uncomfortably. "I was aware of Aresí presence in Tartarus, but was forbidden by Artemis from informing any other god." He sighed. "I owed her a favor and she chose to cash it in at that moment."

"At least youíre honest, Hades. I canít take that away from you," Zeus replied neutrally. "But your involvement in this affair means you, too, will have to suffer punishment. You understand that, donít you?"

"Yes. And Iím prepared for it," Hades said quietly.

Zeus fixed his sights on Artemis again. "Now how about Strife? What did you do that he witnessed?"

"I have nothing to say," she replied.

"Why you little illegitimate bit ... ," Hera hissed.

Zeus held his hand up, silencing his wife. He looked at Athena. "How about you? Surely you can see the wisdom in telling the truth."

"There is nothing I can say that will aid you in your judgment," Athena replied solemnly. She crossed her arms. "Thatís all youíll get out of me."

Zeus exploded, enraged by their obstinacy. "Then so be it!" He scanned the assembled gods. "Does anyone else have anything to contribute to the debate?"

Bacchus, who had been silent to this point, stood up. "Their interference in my plans demands appropriate punishment. They broke tradition by meddling in the affairs of another god!"

"Like you didnít violate any taboos when your Bacchae bitches killed Orpheus?!" Artemis demanded.

"The death of Strife and unjust imprisonment of Ares calls for eternal imprisonment," Poseidon called out, contributing his two bits. "Perhaps at the bottom of my grand whirlpool, Charbydis?"

A single voice spoke out for the defendants. "This whole thing started with Bacchus killing Orpheus and enslaving the women of Macedonia and the Amazon nation," Aphrodite observed. "The latter action infuriated Artemis, the patron goddess of the Amazons, and she got her brother, Apollo, to join her in a crusade against Bacchus, along with Athena. Strife interfered with that crusade on Aresí orders and was destroyed as a result. Then Ares was attacked."

The deafening silence was broken by Bacchusí surprised cry. "You supported me at my trial! Why have you betrayed me now?"

"Iíve betrayed nobody," Aphrodite responded haughtily. "I was taken in by your bullshit the first time around -- but true love doesnít involve killing a lover or, in this case, turning her into a bloodsucking monster!" She rose and quavered, "Youíre really a monster, Bacchus, both in body and soul. Withdraw to your stinking catacombs and release your grip on the Bacchae!"

"I wonít give up what my Bacchae and myself have earned," Bacchus howled indignantly. "We have waited over a thousand years for this moment -- no longer will we be pushed aside and shunned by civilized people! My followers outside of Macedonia have seen our success ... soon they shall rise up against the authorities and demand my assistance!" He looked wildly around the hall. "Canít you see it? The Bacchae are the wave of the future. People are tired of logic-based worship; they yearn for a wild and carefree worship that only I can provide!"

Zeusí rage toward Artemis and the others cooled as he digested Bacchusí outburst. Aphrodite has a good point when she said Bacchus started this whole affair, which he did. But the situationís escalated since then -- Iíve got to punish Artemis and her friends to satisfy Ares and Hera and now Iíve got to stop Bacchusí power games. He sighed dejectedly. All in a dayís work, I suppose.

"What about you, Hephaestus?" Zeus asked, looking at the lame god. "What do you think?" Although I already suspect I know your answer, you brown-noser.

"Although Bacchus destroyed Orpheus, I feel that the defendantsí sins are greater because in addition to destroying Strife, they also tried to kill the god of war himself, Ares," Hephaestus said. His eyes flashed angrily. "The cowardly act that destroyed Strife and injured Ares was mistargeted. If anything, the defendants should have turned their fury on Bacchus himself! Strife and Ares were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"Iíve heard enough," Hera cut in. The hall fell ominously silent. "Whatís your decision, Zeus?"

Zeus stared long and hard at Hades. "For your minimal role in Artemisí plan, your punishment is to take Sisyphusí place rolling that stupid stone up the hill for a two hours," he said quietly. Hades nodded and vanished in a blaze of light. Zeus turned his attention to the other defendants. All three gods stood, staring at him defiantly. "As for you three, your punishment will be harsher -- two months solitary confinement in the lowest level of Tartarus." Zeus paused, but didnít smile. "In other words, the same punishment you attempted to put Ares through."

"Ha, ha, ha! Revenge is a dish best served ... ,"

"Silence, Ares!" Zeus thundered. He scanned the silent crowd of gods. "I want to make one thing clear about the recent trials: They show the folly of becoming involved too deeply in mortal affairs." He glared at Bacchus. "And youíre so deeply embroiled with the mortals I doubt youíll be able to extricate yourself without getting hurt."

"I have no intention of returning to those stinking catacombs, and you canít force me to," Bacchus replied evenly. "I wonít stop until all of Greece and the known world trembles under my earthly rule."

"You will stop," Zeus said coldly. "As of now, you are forbidden from expanding your earthly empire past its present borders. Any violation of that, and you will pay dearly for your indiscretions."

Bacchus opened his fanged mouth to complain, but Zeus silenced him with a searing bolt of lightning that fused the floor next to the wine godís right foot. "Any complaints?" Zeus asked rhetorically. Bacchus kept a timid silence.

"What about the Amazon nation and the other women Bacchus has enslaved?" Artemis asked. "Order Bacchus to free them from their bloodlust."

"Keep your mouth shut, you murderer," Hera snapped harshly. "As a guilty party, you have no voice until your punishment is completed."

Zeus looked pointedly at his wife. "The mortals affected by Bacchusí machinations will have to handle the situation on their own," he said. "They have the potential within themselves to throw Bacchus for a spin."

"So youíre not going to do a damn thing for the Amazons because theyíre mortals?!" Artemis shrieked angrily.

"No, Iím not." Zeus glared coldly at the assembled gods. "I forbid any of you from expanding your presence in the lives of mortals beyond its current level. Whenever the Olympians get involved, trouble follows!"

The defendants vanished in pillars of golden light, on their way to Tartarus to carry out their sentences. Bacchus moved off, trying to avoid the distant looks the other gods gave him. It probably wasnít the brightest thing to do, spilling my plans for the world to them, he thought. Now Iíll have to really watch my back -- my plans will inevitably step on their toes, especially once I begin turning their female followers into my bloodsucking Bacchae followers.

His thoughts were interrupted by the sudden appearance of Hera next to him. She walked alongside him for a short distance, maintaining a discreet silence. "What do you want, queen?" he finally asked sarcastically.

"To help you," Hera replied.

"Ha! You said that at the last trial and nothing has happened yet!" Bacchus growled. "Leave me alone!"

"Your plan to dominate Greece and the known world wonít work," Hera snapped testily. "You have two problems that are holding you back; one, your beloved Bacchae are too bloodthirsty and, two, thereís better things to do with those who oppose you instead of just mowing them down."

Bacchus stopped and looked at Hera curiously. "Youíre planning something, arenít you?"

"Mmm. I most certainly am," she replied sweetly.

"Care to tell me about it?" Bacchus asked. "Your reputation for keeping your word is less than perfect."

Hera laughed. "Trust me, Bacchus. All Iím going to do is lessen the bloodthirstiness of your Bacchae and knock out some minor obstacles between you and your goal of ruling the known world!" She paused and glared angrily at Bacchus. "And the next time you question me, you fool, it will be the last time."

* * *

"Milord, itís over. Our scouts have received indirect reports indicating that Amplitron is dead and Dion has been taken prisoner by the Amazons," an advisor said earnestly. "We cannot continue to sit here -- itís only a matter of time before the Bacchae turn their greedy eyes toward Dium and our little army thatís camped out here."

Zelius grumbled. "Thereís times I wish Iíd never accepted the position of second-in-command from Dion. What in Hades did he see in me, anyway?!"

"Perhaps an able commander who genuinely cares for his troops?" the advisor supplied quietly.

"You may be correct," Zelius said, "but I cannot afford to be as sentimental and blindly loyal as Dion was." He glanced at the advisor, who looked down, then said, "Iíll be perfectly honest. I would have gladly abandoned Amplitron to his fate in exchange for the lives of Dion and the soldiers he kept with him. But I was overruled." Zelius began pacing back and forth, considering his options. Finally he looked up at the advisor and sighed, "Get the troops into defensive positions. If I havenít heard from those damn Athenian representatives by tomorrow, weíre going to have to be ready for the inevitable -- a massive attack by the Bacchae and an ensuing battle we will surely lose. But weíll go down fighting and weíll take as many of the fanged beauties with us as possible!"

* * *

"Ephiny, wake up. I think weíre close to Amazon territory." Dion watched the warrior for a reaction, but got nothing. He gently tapped her leg with his foot. "Címon. Wake up! Youíve been out of it for ten hours already."

Dionís insistent tapping finally got Ephiny to stir. She shook the wooziness from her head and looked blearily at her companion. "What is it, Dion? Canít an Amazon get a decent nightís sleep around here?"

"Ah, so your sense of humor remains intact," Dion observed wryly. "Thatís a good sign, anyway." He glanced around, taking in the forested scenery surrounding the convoy. The sounds of nature, animated conversations and the steady clip-clop of horses made for less-than-perfect sleeping conditions. "Do you recognize any of our surroundings?"

Ephiny drank in the scenery and strained to discern the natural sounds from human sounds. She heard several unusual bird calls from the overhead canopy and smiled. "Yes, weíre in familiar territory," she said. "Weíre already being tracked by at least two, perhaps three, Amazon patrol groups."

"How can you tell?" Dion asked. "All I hear is the incessant chattering of birds and the insane chirping of crickets and other insects!"

"When my sisters are patrolling, they communicate with each other using bird calls," Ephiny explained. "Each call has a specific meaning that cannot be deciphered by anyone outside the nation. The coded calls provide communications security that has allowed us to win more than one battle." She took in the scenery once more before adding, "By the looks of the land, weíre about two hours away from Themiscrya ... and our judgment day."

Six Amazon scouts suddenly dropped from the trees about two hundred feet from Ephiny and Dionís horses. The convoy came to a sudden halt as they talked earnestly with Xena. Suddenly it was over as quickly as it had started and the convoy was once again underway, the scouts vanishing back into the trees and undergrowth. "That was the next-to-last patrol group before we reach the outskirts of Themiscrya," Ephiny whispered furtively. "Xena told them to inform Velasca of our impending arrival. In other words, she will be ready to deal with us the moment we ... ,"

"No talking!" said a woman with a milky white complexion. She jabbed her sword into Ephinyís side to emphasize her point. Fortunately, Ephinyís leather armor blunted the blow and no damage was done. The woman paced alongside the prisoners for several seconds before falling to the rear of the convoy, satisfied that her command was being obeyed.

"That was Electra," Ephiny grumbled quietly. "Sheís had a real attitude problem since she got bitten -- I hope I donít acquire that kind of personality after Iím bitten."

Dion snorted gruffly. "Youíll find out soon enough. And I guess Iíll be spending the rest of my days as a drone for the new Amazon nation."

"It could be worse. You could be a rotting corpse lying in the blood soaked streets of Pella," Ephiny commented. "Or you could be a bloodthirsty Baccha."

"Okay, I get your point," Dion mumbled. "Anything else you want to scare me with, Ms. Sunshine?"

Ephiny smiled coyly and nodded. She had been waiting for such an opening since she had been introduced to Dion. "I admire your integrity and loyalty. Those are traits that every Amazon has, but since youíre a male, you cannot join our nation so ... ,"

"Youíre babbling, Ephiny," Dion observed.

Ephiny laughed quietly, then said earnestly, "I wish to extend an offer to you. Will you accept the honor of making love to me?" Dionís shocked look made Ephiny smile again. "I want to provide sisters for Xenan and many daughters for the Amazon nation. And I want you to be the father of my firstborn daughter."

* * *

"Snap out of your reverie, Velasca, and pay attention to what I say!" a womanís disembodied voice demanded. "Your destiny has yet to be set in stone -- and what you do over the next few weeks will determine how future generations of humanity remember you!"

Velasca jumped to her feet and whirled, scanning every visible inch of the queenís lodge, searching for the source of the malevolent voice. She found none. "Who dares to disturb the peace of the great Velasca, queen of the mighty Amazon nation?!" she challenged.

"Shut up, you puny Baccha bitch," the cruel voice rumbled. "Your power is nothing next to that of Hera, almighty queen of the Olympian gods!"

"Wha, what do you want with me, Hera?" Velasca whispered tentatively, a great deal of respect in her voice.

Heraís cold laughter filled the lodge. "Xena is on her way here with Ephiny and the Pella general Dion ... ,"

"I already know that! My scouts told me an hour ago!"

" ... and I want you to do something special with Dion," Hera finished, ignoring the mortalís outburst. "Dion is an Amazon in a maleís body, but that can be changed."

"What are you implying, Hera?" Velasca asked incredulously. She feared she already knew the answer, though.

"He is in love with Ephiny and she has asked him to give her a daughter, which he has agreed to do," Hera explained. "When they arrive, arrange it so Ephiny and Dion are alone together. They will consummate their love for each other during a wild night of passion. However, by the time Ephiny realizes that sheís not pregnant, it will be too late for Dion because ... ," Hera giggled mischievously, " ... the sexual act which he experienced with Ephiny will also result in his transformation into an Amazon warrior."

Velasca shook her head, her mind whirling in shock at the revelation. "Why are you telling me this? Surely itís not because you want my opinion -- once youíve made up your mind, not even Zeus can change it!"

Heraís rumbling laughter filled the lodge. "You are so perceptive, Velasca. Hereís what I want you to do: Once Dion becomes an Amazon, he will be just as vulnerable to a Baccha bite as any other woman. Transform her into a bloodsucker and she will become one of your ablest lieutenants -- on par with Solari, Ephiny, Eponin and, perhaps, even Xena!" Heraís voice stopped, but her brooding presence remained. She finally added, "Eventually, she will play a key part in Bacchusí plans to conquer humanity!"

"Thatís all fine and dandy," Velasca retorted. "But what about Ephiny? If she gets pregnant, she wonít be of any use as a Baccha!" She paced back and forth furiously. "If you ask me, thatís a waste of great talent!"

"I already told you that she wonít get pregnant. As much as she admires and loves Dion for his loyalty and integrity, she cannot change one thing about him -- and thatís his sterility," Hera rumbled. "Ephiny doesnít yet realize that her quest for a daughter from Dion is a fruitless one -- or that Iím using her love for him as a vehicle to turn him into an Amazon."

Velasca shook her head. She didnít understand Heraís convoluted plan. "Why donít you just turn him into one of my sisters right now?" she asked. "That would be a lot easier than doing it through Ephiny!"

"I have my reasons," Heraís disembodied voice echoed. "First of all, my method is kinkier and, second, I want to see the terror in Dionís eyes when he realizes what Ephinyís done to him -- unintentionally, of course."

"Is that all, mighty Hera? Because if it is, I promise not to interfere with your plans," Velasca said humbly.

"You couldnít stop me if you wanted to," the disembodied voice thundered. "Besides, Iím doing this as a favor for Bacchus. Unfortunately, he doesnít fully trust me yet ... and thatís just too bad. I mean, it really isnít my fault that Zeus forgot to turn him back into the man he really is ... ,"

Velasca gasped, surprised at the revelation. "You mean that milord wasnít always the monster he is today?"

Hera knew she had opened a can of worms. "Ah, yes. But thatís a story for another time. Now, take these rocks and drop them into the water sources for the Amazon nation!" Several dozen purple rocks materialized at Velascaís feet, glowing eerily.

"What will they do?" Velasca asked. She picked up one of the rocks and eyed it curiously.

"Once they dissolve into the water supply, have every Amazon drink from the purified water," Heraís icy voice replied. "The need for blood will be drastically reduced by ingesting the water. That will give the Bacchae a tactical advantage once Bacchus is freed to press his claims beyond the territory he controls now."

Velasca did something she usually didnít do. She bowed. "Thank you for your gifts, Hera. How may the Amazon nation ever repay your generosity?"

Heraís hooting laughter boomed across the room and in a fading voice the goddess said, "Thereís no debt to repay. All you have to do is forever more follow where Bacchus leads you."

* * *

Ephiny and Dion stood at the lodgeís entrance, staring suspiciously at the candle lit interior. "Something doesnít feel right, Dion," Ephiny whispered. "Why would Velasca leave us alone in a lodge with only two guards outside? I thought we were her trophy prisoners who were to be taken care of immediately!" She glanced at the stoically silent guards standing behind them, but no answer was forthcoming.

"Your questions are as good as mine," a sweet voice replied. Ephiny turned around and was surprised to see Gabrielle approaching, a small smile playing across her face. "Velasca was telling everyone about how she was going to bite you the moment she saw you and how she was going to have a bunch of our sisters rape Dion repeatedly," Gabrielle continued. "But then she changed her story a few hours ago. And sheís not telling any of us why sheís had a change of mind."

Ephiny ignored the bardís cruel words and snapped, "Whereís everyone else at? The way Xena and Diana were prattling on, I thought all of Themiscrya would be here to witness my initiation into the Bacchae."

"Oh, theyíre around," Gabrielle said. She shrugged nonchalantly. "Solariís getting chummy with Eponin and the other caregivers. Xena and Diana are discussing strategy with Velasca over skins of blood and the others are, well, doing their stuff."

"Whoís that youíre talking to?" Dion whispered as he slid up to Ephiny.

"Sheís my friend, Gabrielle," Ephiny replied, not taking her eyes off the bard. "By right of caste, sheís the legitimate queen of the Amazon nation, but since she travels with Xena, I rule as regent queen with her blessing." Ephiny suddenly noticed that Gabrielle wasnít wearing the queenís mask, and suspected she knew why. "But donít try to explain that concept to Velasca. Itís too alien for her to understand."

"She doesnít look like an Amazon or a Baccha to me," Dion replied, squinting at Gabrielle. "She looks, ah, too friendly to be the queen of a nation of warrior women."

"So, you must be the great Pella general Dion," Gabrielle interrupted. She walked up and held out a hand. "Weíve heard so much about your leadership capabilities and your prowess leading your men against the Bacchae."

Dion looked questioningly at the outstretched hand and then tentatively extended his own to shake it. Suddenly Gabrielleís fingernails turned inky black and stretched into talons, slicing Dionís hand open. The general yelled and jumped back, cradling his injured hand. "Now what in Hades was that for?!" he growled ominously.

"Because I can," Gabrielle hissed. She licked her blood spattered talons slowly and seductively. "Mmm. Your blood is rich with energy and life! Too bad youíre going to be a breeder, because youíd make an excellent meal."

"Get away from him," Ephiny whispered. She reached for her sword before realizing it wasnít in her sheath.

"You wouldnít hurt me even if you held your mighty sword in hand," Gabrielle mocked. "After all, I wasnít turned into a Baccha willingly. A spark of my original personality remains in control -- itís just so much fun now to lose that scant degree of control. And now Iím so much stronger and faster and ... ,"

"Shut up, Gabrielle," Ephiny replied quietly. She glanced at Dion and whispered, "Get in the lodge. Iíll be with you in a minute." She turned her attention back to the bard. "And youíre right. I wouldnít hurt you or any of my other sisters even if I had the wherewithal to do so. Everything thatís happened is all Bacchusí fault ... not yours or anyone elseís."

Gabrielle grinned, revealing a wicked pair of fangs, and hissed, "Milord has done nothing wrong. And youíre such a humanist, Ephiny. Well, weíll see how you handle being a Baccha after Velascaís finished with you." She gestured at the lodge. "Enjoy what little time you have left. Iím sure Velascaís just torturing you by making you wait, knowing you have no avenue of escape."

"Weíll see about that," Ephiny shot back before disappearing into the lodge.

* * *

Zelius had been sitting at the tavernís table for over an hour before the Athenian representatives arrived. The meeting was taking place in the dank, smelly confines of one of Diumís taverns because the townís governing council wanted to do nothing that might provoke an attack by the Bacchae they were all but certain were hidden throughout the bustling mass of humanity. So the meeting that would determine the future of Greece was being held in a highly unlikely place: a tavern full of smelly drunken men and a several whores. Only the presence of six armored and armed guards with a menacing attitude kept the drunkards away from the table that Zelius and the representatives sat at.

"So, whatís the decision your superiors in Athens have arrived at?" Zelius asked expectantly. "Will they assist Macedonia in her war against the minions of Bacchus?"

"What are you carping about?!" the Athenian replied. "There is no Macedonia anymore. All thatís left are rampaging Bacchae, barbarians and those damn treaty breaking Amazons."

Zelius held a hand up. "I care to disagree with your version of events. Itís true that the Bacchae and barbarians are running rampant, but the Amazon nation broke no treaty. Before they were conquered by Bacchus several of their representatives came to Pella asking for Macedonian assistance in their war against the wine god. Unfortunately, we were occupied at the time."

"Your nation is dead," the Athenian continued, ignoring Zeliusí comments. "How can Athens aid a nation that doesnít exist any ... ,"

"Are you going to assist us or not?!" Zelius snapped. "Because if youíre not, then begone! Weíll fight the good fight and go down in a blaze of glory. Then ... ," he held an accusing finger up, " ... then it will be your turn!"

"Athens will send her mighty armies to assist her neighbors," the representative said sternly.

Nearly a minute passed before Zelius spoke again. "When can we expect this aid? How large will the force be that Athens is dispatching? How many ... ,"

The Athenian held his hand up. "The first wave of our reinforcements will be here in less than a week. The second wave will land a day or two behind the first. And the tertiary wave should be right on the heels of the second wave." The man smiled malevolently. "And thatís not all. The kind leaders of Sparta and Corinth have agreed to contribute several thousand troops to the cause as well."

"How many soldiers and material are we talking about?" one of Zeliusí aides asked, disbelief in his voice.

"All together? Iíd say there will be approximately twenty thousand crack troops in Dium within several weeks. Combined with your men and the troops from Corinth and Sparta, thatíll make an army of about twenty-five thousand troops," the Athenian replied. "The ground troops will be accompanied by horsemen, chariots and catapults to beef up their hitting power. There will be fifty ships to assist us taking coastal towns as well."

"Why so many troops and material?" Zelius asked. "Our rough estimates indicate that thereís no more than ten thousand Bacchae in all of Macedonia, and thatís including those from the Amazon nation!"

The Athenian pulled Zelius aside and whispered, "Iím going to be frank with you. Freeing Macedonia from the grip of the Bacchae is a secondary goal. Our primary goal is the complete and utter destruction of the Amazon nation." Zelius shook his head, but the Athenian ignored him, again. "They occupy Macedonian and Thracian land that is rich in minerals and has excellent soil for growing crops -- and establishing colonies. Furthermore, their nation sits astride land uncomfortably close to the Hellespont, our gateway to the Black Sea. The Amazons are a potential roadblock to further Athenian expansion into the coastal areas of the Black Sea and Scythia." He paused, then dramatically added, "Weíre going to put an end to their interference once and for all!"

"Why?! Theyíre nothing more than a collection of a few dozen tribes that pose no threat to their neighbors," Zelius sputtered. "The people in Macedonia and Thrace have lived alongside and among the Amazons for years without incident! The only reason thatís changed now is because of Bacchus!"

"I can argue with you until weíre both blue in the face," the Athenian growled. "But I wonít. Suffice to say is that mainland Greece isnít taking a chance with the Amazons. You think theyíre a bunch of peaceful women bent on friendly co-existence with their neighbors, but theyíre not."

He paused and glared at Zelius, then spat, "Several hundred years have passed since Greek forces smashed the great Amazon nation, under Hippolytaís leadership, into flinders. Since that time, theyíve managed to rebuild their population and are actually expanding their territory again. Thereís tens of thousands of Amazons out there, and we have to finish them off before Bacchus gets them all or, Athena forbid, they get a hair up their ass and try to reclaim their former lands and the Amazon descendants living on those lands."

"What lands?! What descendants?!" Zelius demanded angrily. "Thereís no solid evidence that they ever occupied any other lands other than what they have now."

The Athenian sighed. "You Macedonians are such country bumpkins. Havenít you ever heard of record keeping?" Zelius kept silent, fuming at the insult. "Well, we Athenians keep records. And according to them, Hippolyta commanded a nation that spanned all of Macedonia and Thrace and even extended across the Hellespont into Asia Minor! The Amazons were so numerous that they even tried to conquer Hellas -- and even attacked Athens itself!"

"I think your leaders are attempting to turn the Amazons into a threat that doesnít exist to distract the citizens from domestic concerns," Zelius commented acidly. "And, perhaps, the specter of Rome?"

"Watch your tongue, Zelius," the Athenian snorted. "We can withdraw our support just as easily as we can offer it. And, really, Rome poses no threat -- that little barbarian state will never conquer Greece."

"So whatís the price Macedonia will have to pay for this assistance?" Zelius asked, ignoring the threat.

The Athenian smiled mysteriously. "That can be negotiated later. We have to win first, Zelius."

"Whoís going to command this little army of yours?" Zelius mentioned. "Who am I supposed to look for?"

"His name is Crasius," the Athenian said, rising from his seat. "Youíll recognize him immediately -- he will be the one strutting around pretending to be another Alexander the Great."

Zelius watched the Athenians as they left the tavern, his eyes tracking their every movement. Then he turned to one of his aides and rumbled, "Find a scout whoís fleet of foot and knows the Macedonian and Thracian countryside like the backside of his hand. Iíve got a mission of vital importance for him to carry out."

"May I ask what the mission is, milord?" the aide said, his voice quavering.

"To warn the Amazon nation of the true intentions of our so-called allies," Zelius muttered.

"But, but, the Athenians! Theyíll turn on us if they find out about your plan!" the aide sputtered.

"Then Macedonia will have two enemies to destroy, instead of one, wonít she?" the general replied solemnly.

The aide shrugged helplessly. "The scout wonít be a problem, milord, but I doubt that thereís any normal Amazons left to warn."

"Theyíre out there, my friend. We just have to find them in time to stop this preposterous extermination," Zelius said. He stopped, then sighed, "By Zeus, Iím a soldier. And Iíll have no part in a war against somebody Iíve never had an argument with!"

* * *

Pellaís council chamber had undergone a radical makeover since Gorgas and Amplitron had held meetings in it. Gone were the heavy marble desks that the council members had sat at while listening to the concerns of Pella citizens. The ancient oak podium that the citizens had stood at had also vanished, along with the ten rows of wooden benches the citizens had sat on while watching the proceedings. Now a heavy granite throne entwined with larger-than-life grapes dominated the room. A large cauldron rose on a stone base from the floor in front of the dark, massive throne while scores of torches gave light to the otherwise dark chamber. Bacchus was seated in his magnificent throne, surrounded by his grim detail of Amazon guards. Out on the floor stood six other Bacchae, three of which were Amazons. They were arguing and Bacchus was dutifully listening to their words.

"Why canít you entrust us with more responsibility, milord?" Eribas hissed. "We were instrumental in getting the war against Macedonia underway, yet youíve chosen to ignore us since victory was secured! Stop giving the responsibility to the Amazons and allow us to govern some of the towns."

"Under our administration, and especially after Dianaís victory tour, Macedoniaís towns have calmed down and the citizens have returned to a semblance of normality," Antiope replied in measured tones. "The towns that your Bacchae controlled, Eribas, remained lawless until Amazon enforcers were sent in to neutralize the rabble rousers."

"That was then, not now," Caria interjected, defending her sisterís honor. "Give us a second chance, milord. Now that our Amazon allies have eliminated any possible opposition, we can govern in an orderly fashion."

Bacchusí terrible laughter rumbled ominously through the chamber. "Tell that to the thousands of citizens who were slaughtered by your frenzying sisters, Caria," the wine god said. "But since theyíre in Tartarus now, you probably wonít get a reply."

Eribas nodded. "We donít disagree with your assessment, milord, but look at the facts: the Amazons are few in number outside of their homelands. Weíre much more numerous and can handle the duties held by our Amazon allies much more effectively than they can."

"Our Amazon allies are excellent fighters and enforcers, but we are better administrators," Caria interrupted. "We lived in these towns prior to our initiation into the Bacchae -- the Amazons didnít. By Hades, theyíve got their own nation to look after." She looked pointedly at Antiope. "Iím sure theyíd rather be back home rather than trying to govern some stupid towns."

"Home is where the heart is," Antiope admitted. "Milord, if you want to give your other followers a fair shot at governing your lands and protecting you, then just say so. My sisters and I will return to Velasca and await the next time you need us in battle."

Bacchus remained silent, going over his options. I like the way my Amazon followers have been protecting me. They havenít left me unguarded for a moment, but my exclusive use of them is driving a wedge between them and my non-Amazon followers, he thought. I canít afford to have a civil war among my Bacchae. That would set my schedule back by months, if not years! The wine god glanced at Antiope and smiled. "Antiope, gather your sisters together and return to your Amazon brethren. The security of our holdings and myself will be entrusted to our other sisters." He paused, then quickly added, "When the winds of war blow again, Iíll let Velasca know."

"Your wish is my command, milord," Antiope replied. Even though it will probably get you killed, she added silently, fastening her smoldering, golden eyes on Eribas and Caria. Antiope motioned to her sisters and they left the throne chambers. It would take her a day to gather up the rest of her sisters scattered around Pella and several more days before she returned to her village and the familiar arms of her loving sisters.

Eribas and Caria watched as their dour Amazon brethren left the chamber. As soon as the last warrior disappeared, they exchanged thumbs-up victory signals. "Thank Bacchus Antiope and her outfit have been given their marching orders," Caria whispered as she slid next to Eribas. "By Hades! It seems that you almost have to be an Amazon if you want to truly understand their ways and attitudes."

"Yes, and that worries me," Eribas replied. She ignored the curious look Caria tossed at her. "Weíre all Bacchae, but the cultural barrier put up by the Amazons seems to be impenetrable, despite our best efforts to overcome it."

Caria brushed off Eribasí concerns. "I wouldnít lose any sleep over it, Eribas," she said soothingly. "We can govern Macedonia just fine by ourselves."

Bacchus overheard every word of the conversation, but he kept silent and smiled winningly at Eribas and Caria when they bowed before him and marched from the throne room. He studied their retreating figures and sighed; despite his efforts to the contrary, he was already beginning to question the wisdom of letting his Amazon guards leave and, to a lesser degree, his plan to bring women other than Amazons into the Bacchae fold.

The way the Amazons fight, I would have conquered Macedonia with just them at my beck and call -- especially once they were transformed into Bacchae, Bacchus thought. And I can see the friction between the Amazons and the other Bacchae, even though they try to hide it. Amazons are skilled in the arts of combat, stealth and survival. They know how to govern effectively and keep their subject people placated. My other followers find it difficult to just control their bloodlust. And the differences go on and on -- I hope I didnít make a tactical error by allowing Antiope and her sisters leave Pella. Bacchus paused and shivered. Because if I did, it will take weeks to get my Amazon followers back here to clean up the damage done by Eribas and her like-minded sisters.

* * *

"Is there anything I should know about Amazon traditions when it comes to sex?" Dion asked tightly. He was sitting on the lodgeís floor, naked. His bronzed skin had been oiled by Ephiny and the sweet, cloying scent it exuded suffused the air of the lodge. "I donít want to do anything that might be, ah, taken out of context."

Ephiny smiled and shimmied out of her leather skirt. "Sexual traditions vary from tribe to tribe," she commented, unclasping her breast armor and dropping it on the floor. "Some of my sisters take their relationships seriously and select only one or two males from nearby villages to be their soul mates and fathers to any daughters resulting from the relationship. But the vast majority of my sisters arenít so picky -- they like sexual diversity and revel in it."

"What do you mean by that?"

"When you have time, look at the women who are members of the Amazon nation," Ephiny explained. "Weíre all sisters, but weíre far from being a homogeneous society. Many are fair skinned while others have darker skin. Brown and black hair is predominant among many of my sisters, but there are some who have blond or red hair. Many of us are tall, some shorter and others heavier or lighter." She paused, then added, "Most of us are of Mediterranean descent, but there are hints of Eastern, Northern and African blood in our veins as well."

Dion cocked his head, thinking. "So the reproductive practices of your sisters have resulted in a diverse society of women welded together by a strong sense of sisterhood and survival instinct," he said slowly.

"Exactly! If we fought amongst ourselves all the time and practiced discrimination, just how long do you think it would take our enemies to take advantage of the discord?" Ephiny asked. "Not long, thatís what," she continued, not waiting for an answer. She looked down at her lover and smiled playfully. "Now if you donít have any other questions, allow me to finish my seduction."

Dion didnít reply. He was too busy drinking in the details of Ephinyís beautiful, muscular body. His eyes moved slowly from her thick curly waves of dark blond hair down to her oval face where they drank in the details of her large, liquid eyes and her aquiline nose and full, sensual lips. They roved further down, taking in her large, firm breasts tipped by quivering, erect pink nipples nestled comfortably within swollen aerolae. Finally his eyes came to rest on Ephinyís inverted triangle of curly black pubic hair, which guarded the entrance to her swollen, pink labial lips, which glistened with lubrication. Her engorged clitoris peeked timidly from its protective sheath of skin. By the gods, she is beautiful, Dion thought dreamily. And look at those firm muscles! She must have earned them through years of training and living like people should live: wild, carefree and yet also intelligent and sensual!

"Are you done gawking?" Ephiny asked huskily. Her skin had acquired a reddish sex flush and her breasts swelled even more in anticipation of intercourse. "Because if you are, itís time to provide me with a firstborn daughter."

"If youíre ready, I guess I am too," Dion admitted. His flaccid penis had turned into an eight inch love tool.

Ephiny smiled and pushed him to the floor, where he lay prostrate. She grabbed his crimson member and positioned herself over it. Then she slowly sat down and Dionís penis slid in to its hilt into her wet grotto. Ephiny began letting out tiny gasps as she timed her thrusts with Dionís bucking. It wasnít long before her pleasurable moans became audible to her sisters guarding the lodge. They looked knowingly at each other and smiled tolerantly.

"Sounds like Ephiny has introduced Dion to the only way sex should be done -- and thatís the Amazon way," Ainia commented gleefully.

The other guard grunted in agreement and added, "If Dion thinks heís died and gone to the Elysian Fields with Ephiny, he doesnít know what heís really missing." She paused, then snorted, "I can only imagine his reaction if he were fortunate enough to have the responsibility of providing daughters to several of our sisters."

"Heíd really die and go to the Elysian Fields," Ainia laughed.

* * *

"Xena, have you figured out a way to deal with those villages on our territoryís perimeter yet?" Velasca asked tartly. "When I discussed Helen and Clioís strategies with you, all you did was look at me like I was a lower lifeform, not your Queen. Now, have you come up with a better plan?"

The warrior princess nodded and grinned tightly. "Youíre making things too difficult," she hissed. "You want to do things one at a time when, in this case, we can combine missions and get it done more efficiently."

"Explain yourself!" Velasca snorted. "I canít read your mind, even with my enhanced Bacchae abilities."

Xena pointed at one of the lodgeís corners, where four cloth sacks were propped up. Each sack contained several pounds of bluish dust. The dust was the ground up remnants of the rocks Hera had given to Velasca during their eerie encounter. It had taken the Amazons several hours to grind the heavy stones into dust.

"When Ephiny and ... ," Xena looked cautiously at Velasca, " ... Dion join our ranks, I can lead an expedition to distribute the dust into the water supply for the entire Amazon nation. Then, instead of returning to Themiscrya, we can head directly for those holdout villages and roll over them. We can complete two missions with one expedition, instead of doing it your way, which would take more time and involve many more of our sisters."

"And if the villagesí leaders refuse to roll over and play dead?" Velasca asked angrily. "Then what? Bacchus doesnít want to rule over a land of the dead!"

"Then weíll improvise!" Xena snapped. She stared stonily at Velasca, then asked, "You trust me, donít you?"

"Of course I do! Youíre one of my best lieutenants!" Velasca hissed. "What makes you ask that?"

"Because if we have to improvise, it might be in a fashion you donít like," the warrior princess said testily. "But whatever happens, the results will be the same -- those villages will surrender to the Amazon nation."

The conversation was interrupted by Gabrielleís arrival. "Velasca, itís about sunrise. Donít you have someone to check on and ... bite?" she asked.

Velasca looked out the lodgeís entrance at the slowly brightening sky. "Give me an hour, Gabrielle. And when I do initiate Ephiny, I want you to accompany me," she sighed. She wasnít looking forward to seeing Ephiny after Hera got done with Dion. "If Iím in a good mood, Iíll allow you to introduce your sister to our wild and seductive ways."

"It would be an honor," Gabrielle replied, her eyes flashing gold for a moment. She spun around and left the queenís lodge, not even bothering to hide her anticipation.

Velasca turned her attention back to Xena and hissed, "Make the proper preparations for the upcoming journey. Itís imperative that we reduce the need for blood among our sisters as soon as possible!"

"You sound worried. Why?" Xena inquired.

"I havenít told our sisters yet, but our blood supply is beginning to run dangerously low," Velasca confided. "According to Ordahlia, we have a two month supply on hand -- and thatís including everything within or near the nationís borders, man or beast." She stepped up to Xena and stared across at her. "Itís imperative that we expand our territory beyond our current holdings or find a way to permanently reduce our bloodthirstiness."

Xena nodded somberly. "And you think it would be easier to reduce our need for blood."

Velasca began pacing back and forth slowly. "Precisely. That magic dust Hera gave us is enough to permanently reduce our bloodthirsty ways -- but not those of the Bacchae outside the nationís borders." She stopped pacing and stared steadily at Xena. "Because of that limitation, we must keep our guard up against them. Itís only a matter of time before their bloodthirstiness runs them into a stone wall and they demand access to our treated water supplies."

"So why donít we just give them a sip?" Xena asked. "We are allies after all, arenít we?"

"Weíre too different from Eribas, Caria and Lara and their likes," Velasca sighed. "You know that -- we were forced to live among them prior to the conquest of our Amazon sisters!"

Xena nodded slowly. "Theyíre untrained in the ways of warfare, hunting and seduction. They can barely control their bloodlust and enter battles in a blind Bacchae fury," she said softly. "Theyíre a liability to the Amazon nation."

* * *

Ephiny screamed with indescribable pleasure as she climaxed for the sixth time in less than two hours. She didnít care if all of Themiscrya heard her cries of pleasure. Besides, sex is somewhat communal in the Amazon nation, she thought hazily. How many times have I heard Solari or Eponin or any number of my other sisters cry their pleasure to Artemis over the years?! More than once, thatís for sure. Ephiny felt Dionís penis pop out of her vagina and smiled as she gently tickled the quickly wilting organ. If I had to grade him on performance, I would give him four stars. The only five star sex Iíve ever had was when Iíve been in the arms of one of my sisters, she thought lazily. But thatís something Dion has no control over -- only a woman really knows how to make love to another woman.

"Iím worn out, Ephiny," Dion admitted. His voice was hoarse with exhaustion. "Iíve never experienced sex like that before. The only other woman who has come close to you in ability was my wife, Lyderia."

"You have a wife?!" Ephiny exclaimed. "Why didnít you tell me?"

Dion shrugged. "Would it have made any difference in your decision to conceive a daughter by me?"

"I ... I donít know," Ephiny admitted. "As a whole, Amazons donít care if the man theyíre screwing is married or not. All they really care about is that the sex produces daughters for the nation. Thatís especially true if the man is caught in our territory during one of our mating cycles."

"Donít agonize over it, Ephiny," Dion said tersely. "My beloved Lyderia died seven years ago from a plague that swept Pella. Iíve been alone ever since -- at least until this morning with you, anyway."

Ephiny put her hand on his shoulder and sympathized with him. "I know how it feels to lose a loved one. My first love was with a centaur. His name was Phantes and we conceived a son together, but he never saw his child because some damn Mitoan soldiers killed him." She shook her head, suddenly realizing what Dion was trying to say. "I canít go anywhere with you, Dion. Iím an Amazon and my first love and duty is to my nation," she said quietly. "You were aware of that, werenít you?"

"Yes, I was." Dion paused, deep in thought. "After listening to you defend your nation despite its notorious past and what your sisters are being forced into now, there was no question about your loyalty. I was just hoping against hope that you might ... ,"

"Iíve already made the mistake of leaving my sisters once, and I wonít repeat it," Ephiny snapped viciously. She saw Dion wince as the comment hit home, and softened her voice. "Itís not you, Dion. Iíll always respect you and the integrity you have -- but I paid too high a price the first time I abandoned my sisters." I lost my beloved Phantes and nearly my own life in some Zeus-forsaken temple ... if it hadnít been for Gabrielle and Xena, I might have died.

Dion smiled wanly and climbed to his feet. "Well, you canít say I didnít try," he murmured, reaching for his clothes. Suddenly a powerful cramp tore through his body and Dion doubled over. He cried out in pain as more cramps rolled over and through his body, warping it with pain. He dropped to his knees and wailed in agonizing agony as the cramps increased in number and intensity.

"Wha, whatís happening?!" Ephiny screeched. She ran over to Dion and lifted his face up, but he flopped over on his back before she could get a good look at the horrified expression on his face. She backed away, unsure of what to do as she watched Dionís muscles pulsate and stretch painfully beneath his skin. "Dion! Do you know whatís going on? Is it some sort of epileptic reaction?!" Ephiny asked fearfully.

"The pain ... oh, it hurts so muuuccchhh," Dion wailed helplessly. His deep, throaty voice began climbing to a higher pitched cry before it subsided into quivering, feminine sobs. His skin had become bathed in sweat and his skin continued to visibly contort as the cramps refused to die away.

"Guards, guards!" Ephiny shouted. "Please, from one sister to another -- help me! Dionís dying in here!" There was no response from outside the lodge. "Oh, for Artemisí sake," Ephiny mewled. She moved in to prop Dionís head up with a pillow, but jumped back as his short blond hair began to thicken, darken and curl into jet black tresses. Suddenly the new hair blossomed down to his shoulders.

"What in Hades is going on here?" Ephiny asked herself, her fear giving way to curiosity and a vague sense of unease. She glared up at the lodgeís thatched roof and roared, "Velasca! What have you done to Dion? Answer me!"

* * *

"According to our intelligence reports, these villages just outside the northeastern borders of the Amazon nation remain free and independent," Zelius explained, pointing a finger at a moderately forested section of his map. "Your objective is to reach all of these Thracian villages and link up with any normal Amazons in or around them before the villages are overrun by the Bacchae."

"Those villages are at least nine days journey from Dium," the scout said tersely. "Iíll have to work my way through hundreds of miles of rough terrain, untold numbers of Bacchae, Amazon patrols and bands of barbarians!"

Zeliusí aide snorted derisively. "Are you saying you canít complete the mission?" he harumphed. "It will take a whole lot of luck and balls of iron, but you can do it -- no, you have to do it. Everythingís riding on your successfully completing the mission."

"Weíre not sending you in with standard armaments, either," Zelius rumbled. He motioned for another soldier to come forward. Zelius picked up several daggers, a bow, several quivers full of arrows and a wicked, curving sword from the soldierís outstretched arms. "May I present to you the first weapons reinforcements from Athens."

The scout took the weapons from Zelius and examined them closely. It didnít take him long to notice similarities among the material used in the construction of the weapons. "Iíll be damned. Theyíre made out of Dryad remains." The scout looked up at Zelius and asked, "But how? Dryad remains arenít exactly commonplace anymore."

"The Athenian shipmaster wouldnít tell me," Zelius said dryly. "But Athens has been exploring the Mediterranean and Black Sea for over a thousand years. And before her, the Phoenicians and Egyptians were sending out explorers and traders as well. Undoubtedly the Athenians or her decedents encountered Dryad burial grounds and realized the effect that their skeletal remains had on Bacchus and his followers."

"So the Athenians began hoarding the Dryad bones for what they feared was an inevitable conflict with Bacchus," the aide continued. "But that conflict wouldnít come for another thousand years or so -- and the Athenians took advantage of that time and built up an enormous reservoir of Dryad weaponry."

The scout nodded, realizing where the story was heading. "And now thereís an opportunity to destroy Bacchus and the Amazon nation, which the wine godís conveniently conquered." The scout cocked his head and looked at Zelius. "Say, why didnít Macedonian leaders stockpile Dryad bones like the Athenians did?"

"Alexander the Great, Philip of Macedon and their decedents werenít too concerned with what happened in the future," Zelius opined. "As long as something wouldnít affect them, then they didnít prepare for it."

"But the Athenians did," Zeliusí aide interrupted. "And now every single one of our soldiers and their soldiers are equipped with anti-Bacchae weaponry."

"Now get moving, scout," Zelius commanded. "By the time you link up with the Amazons, there wonít be that much time left before we begin our offensive out of Dium. And after that begins, maybe a month or so of independence before Greek troops overrun their lands and occupy them."

* * *

Ephiny held Dion in her arms and soothed him as the terrible cramps finally began fading away. She brushed away the thick black hair which framed his feminine face and looked at its changed features. Dionís blue eyes had turned emerald green and his skin had softened and acquired a slightly darker hue. His mustache had long ago fallen out -- hair was rare and far between on a femaleís face.

"I donít know how to explain this to you, or why itís happening," Ephiny began when she felt him start to stir, "but somehow youíre being turned into an Amazon." Is this your work, Artemis? she asked silently. No, it canít be. Then who? Bacchus? Aphrodite? Or something more terrifying?

"Who? What? Where am I?" Dion murmured in an unfamiliar voice. A womanís voice. "Ephiny? What have you done to me?"

"Iíve done nothing but comfort you," Ephiny replied sadly. "For the last hour Iíve sat by your side and watched you ... ," she paused and watched in rapt fascination as Dionís soft, hairless chest rippled. His nipples swelled into quivering, pink feminine nipples surrounded by puffy, circular aerolae. Seconds later two, hard lumps pushed themselves up beneath the quivering nipples and continued to contort and swell outward into a pair of large, firm breasts. His swollen, erect nipples shook slightly, displaced outward from their original position by a little over five inches. I donít even want to see whatís happening between his legs, Ephiny thought morosely. " ... undergo this weird transformation. Itís obvious youíre turning into one of us, but is there anything else accompanying the physical changes?"

Dion remained silent for a moment. Then memories and information began filling his brain. The history of the Amazon nation. Her past and present leaders. Customs and traditions. Who was friend. And who was foe. "Weíre at war with Bacchus and his followers, arenít we?" Dion sputtered angrily. "How many of our sisters has he subverted to his ranks? Why did he attack us in the first place?!"

"Bacchus has already won, Dion," Ephiny said softly. "Thousands of our sisters have been warped into mindless, fanged beauties because of him. And, no, I donít know why he attacked ... ,"

Dion looked up at Ephiny and fell quiet when he observed another woman standing silently and malevolently behind her. Then he screamed, "Velasca! You betrayed the nation by allying us with that horned bastard, Bacchus! Iíll make you pay for that!" He tried to climb to his feet, but Ephiny kept him down.

"What do you want, traitor?" Ephiny snarled, looking at her sister defiantly.

"I had nothing to do with Dionís sex change," Velasca said simply. "That was Heraís idea -- she wanted to see his horrified face when he realized what was happening to him. And she wanted to see if her magic would work on Dion." Velasca glanced nervously at Dion. Which it obviously did. Ugh. I hate to admit it, but heís really becoming a very beautiful Amazon, she thought. "Now that Hera knows it works, she will probably use it on some other poor males she takes a disliking to." Hercules, maybe? No -- Zeus would have her head if she messed with him in that manner.

"Thereís something youíre leaving out, Velasca. What is it?" Ephiny asked quietly. Although she already knew the answer to the question, she wanted to hear the words from the horseís mouth.

"You have less than an hour before you join our ranks, Ephiny," Velasca said simply. She tossed an evil look at Dion. "The same goes for our pretty new sister -- Hera said sheíll make an excellent lieutenant."

* * *

"Dominus Caesar, the first wave of Athenian reinforcements have set sail for the Macedonian city of Dium," Brutus announced. He stood respectively in front of the Dominusí massive throne, which was centered in a brightly lit, marble columned chamber in the heart of Rome. "Now is our chance to conquer the Greek province of Illyria -- and take out the pirates using it as a base!"

Julius Caesar waved his hand casually. "Dispense with the formality, Brutus. In this setting weíre not leader and subordinate; weíre old friends." He contemplated his battle flags, which were displayed proudly all over the throne room. "Brutus, you said the first wave had already left Athens. What about the second and third waves?"

"Our informants said theyíre set to sail in a week."

"Then weíll wait at least that long before we make our move against the Illyrians," Caesar said slowly. "By the time the rest of Greece realizes what weíre doing, they will be in no position to interfere." He smiled malevolently. "And Queen Teuta will pay a high price for accepting bribes from Romeís enemies!"

Brutus clenched his hand into a fist and laid it over his heart. "Your wish is my command," he said reverently. "How many legions do you want to commit to the occupation of Ilyria?"

"Three should be sufficient to conquer and govern Illyria," Caesar commented. "Thatís all weíre after -- right now, anyway. The rest of Greece and the neighboring nations of Macedonia and Thrace can wait for now."

"Why wait?!" Brutus demanded. He was uncharacteristically angry and it was showing. "Weíve conquered most of Gaul, our forces control the Iberian peninsula, weíre on the verge of destroying Boadicea and occupying Britannia and the Germanic tribes are contained! They even pay tribute to us in the lands of Syria and the Israelites! Now is the time to expand our empire to encompass Greece and her neighbors -- and reduce them to vassal provinces!"

Caesar held his hand up and stared coldly at his lieutenant. The sense of camaraderie had diminished noticeably. "Your lack of patience and wisdom is wearing thin, Brutus. We may control most of western Europe, but that control isnít uncontested. Boadicea remains a thorn in my side and the Germanic tribes grow restless again -- theyíre probing our northern frontier with them," Caesar explained tiredly. Your outbursts have been increasing lately, Brutus. Whatís making you so irritable?

"Forgive me, Caesar," Brutus begged, his anger extinguished as quickly as it had erupted. "Itís just that our neighbors are making themselves into a tempting target -- itís hard to resist taking them completely by surprise."

"I know how it feels," Caesar replied. "But we must digest our recent conquests before acquiring new ones." He fell silent, then commanded, "Now go, my friend. Prepare the troops for our little Illyrian foray."

* * *

My time has finally arrived, Ephiny thought silently. She climbed to her feet and stared steadily at Velasca, who was framed by the midday sun in the lodgeís entrance. Gabrielle and Solari were right behind Velasca, utterly silent. Diana and Arianna were also in Velascaís little group of sightseers. "Iím ready whenever you are," Ephiny declared.

"Give me a minute," Velasca replied absentmindedly. She pointed at Dion and snapped, "Get some proper Amazon clothing on our newest sister, Dion!" Diana and Arianna moved forward, carrying black and brown leather armor in their arms.

"My name isnít Dion anymore," the young woman sneered. "You can call me Thraso, Velasca. And remember my name well -- because Iím going to make you pay for betraying the nation."

Velasca smiled and laughed. "Thraso? Then so be it, sister. But right now youíre buck naked and weaponless. And your challenge means nothing to me. After weíre finished with you, youíll be singing a different tune."

Thraso refused to be baited and stood silently as Arianna cautiously fitted her with black, leather breast armor highlighted by concentric, silver metal circles looped over each breast cup. With a little maneuvering, Diana managed to slip a brown, metal-studded leather skirt up and over Thrasoís thighs. Velasca motioned curtly at Solari, who handed Thraso a pair of knee-high boots, protective iron arm-and-wrist bands and a single owlís feather.

Several minutes passed before Thrasoís makeover was completed. Velasca observed her sistersí handiwork and nodded approvingly. "The feather tells your other sisters of your standing within the nation, Thraso," she explained. "The more feathers you earn, combined with feathers from different birds, increases your standing. Once you earn enough feathers, you will join the veteran corps and be awarded a ramís mask to glue your feathers to."

"I already know that!" Thraso snapped. "My transformation wasnít just physical in nature."

"Every sister is awarded her first feather when she becomes fourteen years of age," Solari chipped in, ignoring the barb aimed at Velasca. "Since you joined us in a nontraditional manner, you have to start out at the lowest rank, even though youíre quite a bit older than fourteen and obviously experienced in the art of warfare."

"Silence, Solari!" Velasca rumbled. "Thraso made it obvious that she already knows everything about her new nation." She studied Ephiny and Thraso momentarily, then announced, "Iíve yearned for the opportunity to initiate you into our ranks -- but Iíve decided to be charitable. Iím going to let your friend, Gabrielle, initiate you instead. And Solari will have the honor of bringing Thraso into our ranks." Velasca grinned coldly and left the lodge, dutifully followed by Diana and Arianna.

"Now whatís happening?" Thraso asked bitterly. She glared at Solari. "Whatís going on, Ephiny?"

"Get it over with," Ephiny sighed, ignoring Thrasoís desperate questioning. She didnít want to tell the eager young woman what was about to happen to them. "Youíve always wanted to get even with me, Gabrielle, for the way I treated you when we first met. Nowís your chance."

Gabrielle bared her sharp teeth and advanced on her friend. "I canít wait to sink my teeth into you and savor your sweet, rich blood!" Ephiny stoically held her ground. "One little nip and youíll become just like me, my love!"

Thraso watched Ephiny and Gabrielle tumble to the floor, struggling with each other. She glimpsed Solari advancing toward her out of the corner of her eye and reached for her sword, not realizing she didnít have one yet. "Stay away from me ... I donít want to become like you!" she whimpered, cringing against a thatched wall.

Solariís friendly smile turned into a hideous, hungry leer. "You donít have a choice in the matter, Thraso," she cooed. She hissed angrily and leaped at her victim.

"Artemis! Please help meeee ... ," Thrasoís cry came to an abrupt stop as Solari sank her needle-like fangs into Thrasoís neck and began to drink. The last thing Thraso felt was a dark, erotic wave of lust washing over her body.

* * *

"Ephiny! I left as soon as I received word of your desire to see me," Phantes said, standing at the communal living quarterís entrance. When Ephiny remained silent, he edged into the vast lodgeís interior. "Queen Melosa said it was important. Is it good or bad news, Ephiny?"

Ephiny remained seated on her bedcloth, clutching a pillow and blanket. She stared steadily at the floor, but a smile finally broke through her grim countenance. She looked up at Phantes and said, "Itís joyous news -- for us, anyway. My love, we have conceived a child -- Iím six months pregnant with our little boy!"

Phantesí face broke into a radiant smile. "Youíre carrying our son?! Thatís wonderful news -- that alone makes the four day journey here seem like a minor obstacle!" He fell silent, then asked, "Whatís wrong, Ephiny? What arenít you telling me?"

"Ephiny, can you hear me ... ?"

"Allís not well, Phantes," Ephiny admitted. "I know our two nations signed a peace treaty with each other, but much suspicion stills permeates many of my sisters and, I suspect, your brothers." She looked up at her lover and blurted, "My pregnancy will infuriate many of my sisters across the nation -- some of them never wanted a peace treaty with Tyldus! Theyíll see me as a traitor to the Amazon nation, and our child will be a pariah!"

Phantes helped Ephiny to her feet and hugged her. He didnít notice her quickening breath. "But youíre captain of the royal guard, a position of influence. Then thereís Eponin and Solari, two of your best friends -- surely theyíll give you moral support and physical protection ... "

"I donít fear a physical attack from my sisters," Ephiny mumbled. She was feeling thirsty. "Theyíll use the queen and her council to remove me from my position. Iíll become just another warrior if they get their way."

"What about Queen Melosa?" Phantes demanded. "Doesnít she support you?"

"Yes. But her job is to keep the nation in one piece," Ephiny said. "She supports me, but if she has to, sheíll ask me to leave for the sake of the nationís unity."

"Please, Ephiny, snap out of it! Iíve never seen anyone go under this ... ,"

Phantes frowned. "If itís that bad, Ephiny, we can renounce our ties to the Amazon nation and the centaurs and leave Macedonia," he said. He released her, but remained close. "We can go south -- maybe weíll find people who are more accepting of us in the civilized parts of Greece."

A tidal wave of nauseous energy washed over Ephiny. "Yes, letís do that," she whispered. "But before we make preparations, let me kiss you ... ,"

"Anything for the mother of my son," Phantes said huskily. He puckered his lips and felt Ephiny graze them, slowly and sensuously. Then he felt two sharp points behind her lips and a distinct sense of foreboding settled over him. "Ephiny, are you feeling okay? Youíre teeth, they feel sharper ... ,"

The thirst had exploded within her -- indeed, had become her. "Iím feeling like a new woman, Phantes," Ephiny hissed, removing her lips from his mouth. She smiled, revealing a pair of needle sharp fangs. Phanteís eyes went wide as Ephinyís eyes turned into burning, golden orbs. "And Iím very thirsty ... ,"she lunged at him and sank her fangs into his muscular neck. Phantes struggled, but it was useless. He felt his life draining away into his loverís gullet and weeped tears of grief.

Ephiny savored the sweet flow of nectar as it coursed into her empty stomach. "Oh, Phantes, your sacrifice will give me eternal life -- you donít know how much that means to me or our son ... ,"

Gabrielle slapped Ephiny. Hard. "I donít know what else to do," she told Solari, who was standing nearby. "Itís been nearly twenty minutes since I bit her, and sheís still out cold!" She looked longingly at Ephiny, then admitted, "Iíve never seen anyone go so deep into shock after sheís been bitten. I wonder what sheís remembering ... ,"

"Probably something that had a big impact on her life," Solari suggested. "Thatís how it was with me -- I relived the intimate moments I had with numerous lovers and the birth of my daughters, among other things."

"I know what youíre talking about," Gabrielle said quietly. "I experienced the intimate moments that Xena and I shared, both in the past and, hopefully, the future."

Neither Solari or Gabrielle bothered to mention the darker, more twisted, aspects of their flashbacks, or that they experienced the memories of other women who had been transformed into Bacchae -- one of whom included Velasca.

Ephiny stirred. "Oh, Artemis! What have I done to you, Phantes?" she cried out, her eyes snapping open. She reached out at the empty air, as if trying to comfort someone who wasnít really there. "NO! NOOOO!!! I didnít mean to do this to you! It wasnít supposed to be this way ... ,"

Solari froze when she heard Ephiny utter Phantesí name. She had an inkling that the memory Ephiny had just experienced was one that had far reaching consequences. And that memory wasnít necessarily a good one, she thought silently.

"Itís all right, Ephiny," Gabrielle said soothingly. She extended a hand and helped Ephiny to her feet. "Youíre among friends. Weíre all here for you."

"Gabrielle, we should go and get some wine skins of blood for our Ephiny and Thraso," Solari said quietly. "Iím sure theyíll be thirsty after going through the transformation process."

"Then go and find some of the crimson elixir," Gabrielle commanded. "Iíll keep our initiates company."

Solari paused momentarily at the lodgeís entrance and glanced at Thraso, who sat quietly on the floor, an empty look plastered on her chalky white face. Solari shook her head sadly and left, her words echoing, "Iíll be back with a meal fit for a king!" Thraso didnít respond -- she just started rocking back and forth, remaining eerily silent.

"Where am I?" Ephiny asked hazily. Then the realization hit her like a ton of bricks -- she staggered and leaned heavily against the lodgeís log wall, unwilling to accept it. She felt the long, slender razor sharp fangs behind her swollen, crimson lips and grimaced knowingly. "This is how it all ends, Artemis. I fight until I can fight no more, then I watch Dion go through a Hades of a transformation and then, to top it all off, I get turned into a bloodsucker."

"What were you babbling about?" Gabrielle asked, genuinely confused.

"Ah, nothing important," Ephiny quickly amended. Her stomach gurgled and the very real need for blood flooded through her body and an ocean of lust washed over her mind, blurring her rationality. Artemis, itís just like you said it would be, Ephiny thought. The physical and mental changes, the urges ... ooh, I feel dizzy with the power and thirst! She looked up at Gabrielle and said, "I feel like a new woman, Gabrielle. I can feel the power coursing through me like a wild, rampaging river -- and I feel the hunger."

"Youíll get used to it pretty quick," Gabrielle said reassuredly. "In a matter of hours you wonít believe that you actually had a life prior to your transformation. Thatís how profound your new feelings are." The bard smiled winningly. "Now youíll live forever, Ephiny, and you can thank our lord, Bacchus, for that."

I feel no loyalty towards that horned bastard, Ephiny thought mildly. But I better not start preaching that until I have a realistic game plan in place. So Iíll do the next best thing -- Iíll change the subject. "How is Thraso dealing with her new identity," Ephiny asked, peering at the young woman, who was stoically silent. Dionís been through so much in the last night -- first a sex change because of Heraís vindictiveness and now being turned into a bloodsucking Baccha -- I wonder how she deals with it.

Gabrielle looked at Thraso and rumbled, "Well, Thraso? Ephiny asked you a question -- and Iíd respond if I were you. Silence wonít get you anywhere."

"I feel exactly like Ephiny," Thraso mumbled half-heartedly. She had still been adjusting to her new female body when Solari had bitten her. Now, in addition to getting used to that alien body, she also had to deal with the Baccha accessories added to it. "What more do you need to know?"

The question and answer session was interrupted by Solari, who entered the lodge carrying four skins brimming with rich, red blood. "Velascaís too busy to personally welcome our newest initiates into the fold, but she allowed me to take some blood from her personal stock," she announced happily. Solari distributed the skins to Ephiny, and the others. "She told me that this blood came from the veins of Gorgas and Amplitron themselves -- although I have no idea how she managed to get it."

Gabrielle smiled and solemnly intoned, "With this blood, we give thanks to our lord, Bacchus, for the gift of eternal life." She twisted the cork off her skin and took a deep, satisfying drink. "Ahh! Very refreshing!"

Ephiny watched her sisters enjoy their skins of blood and sighed in resignation when Thraso surrendered to her need as well. Then, unable to withstand the aroma of the blood and her pounding head, Ephiny finally succumbed to the persistent thirst and popped the cork on her wine skin. She savored the stream of blood as it coursed into her stomach. Mmm. It tastes like sugary syrup, Ephiny thought. No wonder itís so hard to resist the urge to drink -- and if it tastes like this all the time, why should anyone resist?

Gabrielle drained the last drop of blood from her wine skin and tossed it aside. She stood and walked over to Thraso and helped the young woman to her feet. "Itís time to show you around Themiscrya," she announced. "You might think you know everything about your new nation, but Iím sure thereís some things you ... arenít knowledgeable about."

As soon as Gabrielle and Thraso were gone, Solari came over to Ephiny, a smile playing over her swollen, crimson lips. "Itís really a good life, isnít it, Ephiny?" she asked. "Immortality in exchange for everlasting loyalty to Bacchus -- thatís a pretty sweet deal, if you ask me."

"I donít think everyone would agree with that assessment," Ephiny replied coolly. "Especially those people who supply the blood that we seem to crave so much."

"Iíll let you get away with that little quip," Solari laughed. She socked Ephiny playfully on the shoulder. "Ephiny, do you remember that philosophical discussion we had before our transformations -- about how much of our original personalities survive the transition?"

Ephiny nodded warily. "What about it?"

"Your argument about warped personalities doesnít hold water," Solari announced. "Our personalities, who we are, havenít changed that much. Weíre both still Amazons, only now weíre stronger, faster and nearly indestructible. And those changes are physical in nature, not mental!"

"Solari, did you ever drink blood before you were bitten?" Ephiny asked dryly. "Were you always so prone to being aggressive and careless? And while you enjoyed sex, it never dominated your life like it does now, right?"

Solari simply smiled and advanced on Ephiny. "Youíre always trying to change the subject," she said huskily. "But now itís my turn to throw you off balance." It took Solari less than a minute to slip out of her black, leather armor. She stood before Ephiny in her birthday suit, her breasts heaving and beginning to redden and swell with desire.

"This isnít you, Solari," Ephiny protested. "Youíve never been so brazen, or tactless, about our relationship like this before!" She knew it was useless to resist -- her own hormones were beginning to percolate dangerously. How much of it is real and how much is because of my new urges and desires? Ephiny asked silently.

"Itís really me all right and ... ," Solari pushed Ephiny to the lodgeís floor and straddled her, " ... itís time to unleash your lust and hunger on me!"

The tidal wave of dark desire overwhelmed Ephinyís defenses. The straps holding her breast armor in place snapped and the armor fell away, exposing a pair of reddish, swollen breasts tipped by engorged, quivering nipples. Solari wrapped her mouth around one of those nipples, and gently suckled it while she guided one of Ephinyís hands to her own clitoris, which was swollen and slightly trembling with anticipation. All of Ephinyís inhibitions had been stripped away, leaving behind only a gasping, cooing Baccha entangled in the arms of another sex-starved Baccha.

"Yes! Ooh, it feels so good ... ," Ephiny cooed mindlessly. She locked lips with Solari and ran her tongue over Solariís needle-like fangs. Solari did the same to her willing lover. "Weíll love like this for eternity, Solari!"

"If you say so," Solari replied sweetly. She repositioned herself and began nuzzling Ephinyís clitoris.

Youíll be a Baccha in all aspects except one -- you wonít be compelled to be loyal to him or to follow his every command. The words that Artemis had spoken echoed in Ephinyís mind, but she wasnít listening. I have better things to do! Velasca was right -- with this kind of power, no one will ever again threaten my sisters. There will be no more jokes by dirty old men in taverns, no more kidnapping and raping. A single bloody tear welled in Ephinyís eyes. There will be no more pain and suffering -- and the word Amazon will strike fear in every manís heart!

Velasca and Gabrielle stood silently outside the lodge, listening to Solari and Ephiny engaging in sex. Velasca finally turned to Gabrielle and asked, "Who could have guessed that Ephiny would offer so little resistance? A lot of our other sisters put up more spunk than she did."

"Hey, she did put up a fight," Gabrielle protested. "It took me ten minutes to pin her down long enough to sink my fangs into her." The bruises from Ephinyís flailing fists had already faded away. "She didnít come over easily."

"You know what I mean," Velasca snapped. "Ephiny hasnít showed any ... ,"

Gabrielle wagged her finger at Velasca. "Calm down! You should just be happy that Ephinyís on our side now."

"Youíre right," Velasca conceded. "Sheís one of us now -- and with her, the Amazon nation is complete." She turned away and Gabrielle followed her away from the lodge. "Come now, those two wonít be occupied with each other much longer. Letís begin preparations for a ceremony celebrating the complete unity of the Amazon nation under Bacchusí rule!"

Inside the lodge, Ephiny and Solari lay entwined in each otherís arms. "Iíve never experienced sex like that," Ephiny whispered into Solariís ear. "Who taught you your technique?"

"You ... and some others," Solari admitted. "But that doesnít really matter now. I just wanted to tell you something Iíve meant to tell you for a long time."

"And that would be ... ?"

"I love you. And Iíve missed you since we were separated by Xena and her forces at the border," Solari whispered fiercely, her heart in her voice. "And thatís not the Baccha speaking -- itís really me."

Ephiny smiled. She had always known Solari was close to her. Sheís always found a way to stay near me since we were in our first year of training, Ephiny thought. Now, after all this time, does she find the strength to tell me what I always knew. Thank you, Artemis, for this moment. "That really means a lot to me, Solari," Ephiny said quietly. "Although Iíve always known about your affection for me."

Solari smiled. "It was that obvious at times, huh?"

Ephiny nodded. "Very obvious."

"Weíre all home now," Solari murmured dreamily. She snuggled up to Ephiny. "I hope itís like this forever."

* * *

Lanaís patrol group had been roving over their section of the forest for days without incident. With the sun lowering in the sky, the patrol sat down for a blood break, exhausted from hours of continual movement. She removed a large wine skin from her utility belt, opened it and lifted it in a salute. "With this blood, our lord Bacchus grants us the gift of everlasting life," Lana pronounced. She lowered the wine skin and took a deep drink from it before passing it on to Lara and Thalia.

"I still find it hard to believe that Eribas has decided to patrol Macedoniaís border with the Amazon nation," Lara commented, wiping a smear of blood from her lips. "Have our relations with our allies gone down that far?"

"Do you think Bacchus is aware of her decision?" Thalia asked. "This move might aggravate our allies rather than comfort them."

Lana snorted angrily. "He must know about it. After all, heís the one who appointed Eribas to head his security force after dismissing Antiope and her sisters," she said. "But what really makes me angry is that Macedonia doesnít have a clearly defined border with the Amazon nation -- we canít patrol what we donít have!"

"What do you mean thereís no border?" Thalia asked, accepting the wine skin from Laraís taloned hands.

"When Greece attempted to destroy the Amazon nation centuries ago, they nearly succeeded," Lana explained. "Only a series of devastating Amazon attacks that severed the Greeksí supply lines to the south succeeded in saving their nation from utter annihilation ... ,"

"How do you know all of this?" Lara interrupted.

Lana smiled and tapped her head. "I spent some time in the Athenian archives last year," she said. "But where was I? Oh well, anyway, in the ensuing cease fire and resulting peace treaty the Athenians and the other city-states just wanted to cut their losses and return home. So the treaty specified that the Amazon nation would retain the lands it had at the end of the war and that Greece would never again encroach upon those lands." She paused to catch her breath, then continued, "In return, the Amazons agreed not to interfere with Greek colonization of their former lands in Asia Minor or along the Macedonian and Thracian coastlines."

"I can understand colonizing the Thracian wilderness by the Greeks, but Macedonia?!" Thalia asked, disbelief evident in her voice. "Surely our ancestors wouldnít have allowed it!"

"This was way before the time of Philip and Alexander," Lana said. "Macedonia wasnít as strong or as organized back then as it is today. Whereas there might be a dozen or so kings and warlords contending for Macedonia now, there were at least three or four dozen warlords vying for that dubious honor back then. So the Greeks colonized old Amazon lands, which led to the rise of Amphipolis and numerous other towns and villages."

"Iím getting tired of the history lesson, Lana," Lara snapped. "Where does Macedoniaís border with the Amazons fit into this?"

"Macedonia never got involved in the war against the Amazons, but that didnít stop Athenian troops from rolling through our nation and crushing the Amazons living among us," Lana explained patiently. "After the peace treaty was signed, the Greeks left Macedonia with a big chunk of empty land that had formerly been home to several dozen Amazon towns and a couple of tribes -- the towns were empty and the Amazon survivors listless. Queen Hippolyta showed no interest in reclaiming the devastated land and Greece didnít plan to colonize it ... ,"

"So Macedonians colonized the land, interbred with the surviving Amazons and gave new life to a dead land," Thalia interjected. "Am I right?"

"Why, yes!" Lana exclaimed. "In the last two centuries, however, the Amazons began moving back into that particular area as their population base expanded again -- and they quickly became the majority people. Although thereís nothing written in ink, that section of old Amazon territory became Amazon once again."

"So weíre sitting on the edge of a vast piece of land that has both Amazon and Macedonian settlements on it?" Thalia asked.

"Well, mostly Amazon settlements now," Lana amended. "And beyond this heterogeneous land lies the ancestral Amazon homeland, which was never conquered by Greece. At the center of that land lies Themiscrya, the capitol town of the Amazon nation."

Lara looked in awe at Lana. Wow! I never realized she was a history buff. By Bacchus, I bet Thalia and I know more about the Amazon nation now than anyone else in Macedonia, she thought. "What else do you know about the Amazons, Lana? Anything exciting ... ,"

Lana held her hand up, silencing the discussion. "Quiet. I just heard someone moving in the brush," she hissed. She stood and edged carefully toward the source of the sound, followed by the others. "Come out, come out where ever you are," she cooed. "We wonít bite ... I think."

A figure dropped from the trees behind Lanaís little group and snicked an arrow into a compound bow. "Your little history discussion was enlightening, Baccha," a manís voice rumbled. "If I survive this mission, Iíll recount it to Zelius so heís not so uninformed the next time he meets an Amazon."

Lanaís patrol group spun around in shock. "Who are you and ... ," Lana looked at the bushes, where the noise had come from, " ... and how did you sneak up behind us?"

"My nameís Astyanax and ... ," he gestured at the squirrel that had scampered from the bushes, " ... you never know when wildlife might come in use!" He raised the bow and released the arrow, which hurtled at Lana and buried itself in her throat.

"What, what have you done to meeee?" she howled as her body temperature skyrocketed. She never got a response as her body vanished in a blaze of energy, leaving only a pitiful pile of gray ash behind.

Thalia screeched and lurched at Astyanax, but didnít get far before another shaft poked through her abdomen. She vanished in a similar blaze of light, leaving Lara behind to fight the good fight. "Please spare me -- Iím not a fighter, only a follower," she mewled, backing up against a tree. "I was initiated against my will!"

"Tell that to the dozens of other women youíve undoubtedly transformed since your own initiation," Astyanax whispered coldly. Tell that to my sister who vanished during your attack on Pella. "Besides, I canít leave any trace of my presence here, which means no survivors." He snicked an arrow into his bow and took aim. "Iím the first of thousands of troops who will retake Macedonia, you Baccha bitch!"

"Nnooo!" Lara screamed, but to no avail. Astyanaxís arrow thwacked into her forehead and Lara vanished moments later in a burst of flaming, golden energy. Her torture was finally over, but only at the highest of prices.

Iíve got to keep moving. This is the third patrol group Iíve had to take out since I left Dium four days ago, Astyanax thought angrily, hurrying over to the groupís supply stash. The maps Zelius had given him were good for locating towns, villages and topographical features, but were useless for tracking the location of patrol groups. Hence, the killing of certain patrols in order to obtain their rotation maps. I only hope that this groupís maps werenít on their bodies when they went up in flames -- because if they were, Iím out of luck.

It took Astyanax fifteen minutes before he fished the maps out of Laraís supply stash. "A-ha! Iíve hit the jackpot," he whispered, recognizing the symbols scattered across the map. The symbols indicated patrol groups all the way from Pella into the Amazon heartland itself. But the villages he had to reach were on the other side of Themiscrya -- straddling the Amazon border within the unorganized interior of Thrace. But these maps had no information concerning patrol groups that far away. "Five more days of travel, a few more dead patrol groups and I should be on the outskirts of those villages," Astyanax mumbled to himself. "But now Iím entering the most dangerous phase of the mission -- cutting across the heartland of the Amazon nation!"

* * *

Zelius studied the rows of Athenian ships that had sailed into Diumís harbor less than an hour ago, and sighed. There were large sails, smaller triremes and ships of unfamiliar design that composed the first wave of the Athenian reinforcements. The Athenians were already disembarking thousands of troops, dozens of catapults, chariots and hundreds of horses. Zelius finally spied an armor and medal-bedecked man approaching him, followed by at least a dozen grim aides.

"So, I finally have the honor of meeting General Crasius, the commanding officer of the Athenian reinforcements," Zelius said earnestly. He held his hand out expectantly. "My men and I have been looking forward to your arrival for days now."

Crasius took Zeliusí pro-offered hand in a warriorís handshake. "My superiors in Athens told me to cooperate with you in every conceivable way possible," he commented quietly. "I guess weíre to be co-commanders, not superior and underling."

"You donít approve of that arrangement?" Zelius rumbled, withdrawing his hand.

"Hardly!" Crasius laughed. "Iíve always been inclined to want the advice and wisdom of fellow officers. That way, if an operation goes to Hades, thereís more than one person to accept the inevitable blame."

"Iím glad to hear that you have such a high opinion of yourself and fellow officers," Zelius said hesitantly.

Crasius slapped him on the back and laughed wildly. "I was joking, Zelius! I take shared commands seriously -- I just wanted to see if you had a sense of humor," he explained. Crasius gestured at his subordinates, who reached into their waist pouches and withdrew coins. Lots of them. "Looks like you boys owe me some dinars. You bet that it would take me an hour to throw Zelius for a loop -- but it only took me five minutes!"

General Crasius is nothing like I envisioned him to be, Zelius thought silently, staring at the jovial man as he collected his money. The way that Athenian portrayed him, youíd think he was full of hot air -- why, trying to be another Alexander the Great!

The Athenian general noticed his co-commanderís silence and waved for his men to be quiet. "You donít look too happy, Zelius. Is it something I said or did?"

Zelius shook his head vigorously. "No, it was nothing you did. Iím just trying to reconcile the image of you the Athenian representative put in my head with the real thing."

"How did he portray me?" Crasius queried. He didnít wait for a response. "Let me guess -- as a pompous asshole who has the balls to think heís the next Alexander the Great. Right?"

Zelius nodded. "But youíre nothing like that -- why the discrepancy?"

"Ah, good old Darius," Crasius murmured to himself. "That sounds exactly how that stubborn old goat would describe me."

"I take it that youíve made some enemies during your time in Athens?" Zelius asked.

Crasius slapped Zelius on the back and laughed. "Old Darius is the weakest of the bunch -- his barkís worse than his bite." He turned serious and added, "I wasnít first in line for this command, Zelius. I was third. But the other two generals got caught in a political dispute a few weeks ago ... so here I am. Unfortunately, the supporters of the deposed generals have done their damnedest to make my life miserable since then." He paused, then said, "What makes it all so strange is that those generals and myself are the best of friends!"

"Although you and Darius donít get along that well, Iím sure he mentioned my objections to the final destination of our armies," Zelius interjected, changing the subject. "Surely you can see that Bacchus is our true enemy."

Crasius bowed his head, deep in thought. He looked up at Zelius and admitted, "Iíve never had the honor of meeting an Amazon in person, but their notoriety precedes them. I have nothing personal against them, but we cannot allow them to remain allied with Bacchus -- they were a benign threat before, but now they are a malignancy that has to be stopped before it spreads."

"How many times do I have to repeat this?" Zelius snapped. "I know, for a fact, that the Amazons didnít ally themselves with Bacchus. He took them over by force, against their will! Why doesnít anybody listen to me?"

"Separate emotion from fact and look at the situation from a military standpoint," Crasius suggested. "The Amazons provide the military might for Bacchus -- theyíre his shock troops. The other Bacchae are merely peasant women who were in the wrong place at the wrong time." He grabbed Zeliusí shoulders. "We take out the Amazon nation, and Bacchusí little empire will collapse like a house of cards."

Zelius was growing desperate. "If I can come up with a plan that will spare the majority of the Amazon nation from devastation, will you consider it as an alternative to the present one?"

"You have less than a week to devise this plan of yours," Crasius warned. "Keep in mind that our army will be rolling through Macedonia proper -- it wonít encounter any Amazon territory until it passes north of Pella."

"Iíll keep that in mind," Zelius fumed before storming away. He didnít get far before Crasiusí guards blocked his path, their faces unreadable. Zelius turned on Crasius, who had been following him, and yelled, "Whatís the meaning of this obstruction?"

"I donít want you to get the wrong impression about me," Crasius said loudly. "Just as your loyalty to Macedonia and respect for the Amazon nation is obvious, so to should my loyalty to Athens. Nothing can change that."

Zelius snarled, "You made that obvious a few minutes ago! Why ... ,"

"Give me an opportunity and Iíll do everything in my power to divert the main body of our army away from the Amazons toward Bacchus himself," Crasius whispered furtively.

"Huh? What are you babbling ... ,"

"My enemies have planted spies and dupes among my troops to ensure my loyalty to Athens," Crasius explained. "I must publicly adhere to the plan drawn by my superiors -- but privately, Iím always open to suggestions."

Zelius had, of course, heard about the politics and power plays in the mainland cities of Greece. But seeing it in action from a personal vantage point really shocked him. "I canít imagine a people who would compromise their military leaders for merely political aims," he harumphed.

"Athens isnít alone when it comes to this sort of stuff," Crasius said. "The mainland cities have been secure and relatively prosperous for so long that our leaders canít see past their own petty desires -- even if it costs their city state in the long term!"

"So I was right! Darius denied it, but Athens and the other cities are using the Amazons as a scapegoat for their ills," Zelius murmured. "Your leaders are pulling a bread and circuses stunt on the general population, arenít they?!"

"You donít realize how close you are to the truth," Crasius admitted. "Bacchus is a real threat, but we could eliminate him quite easily without ever laying a spear or sword into an Amazon body."

* * *

The population of the Roman town of Ravenna had increased three-fold in the last week, swelling from twelve thousand natives to a quagmire of thirty thousand inhabitants. All of the newcomers were heavily-armed and armored Roman legionnaire soldiers. Further along the Adriatic coastline, to the northeast, another twelve thousand Roman troops had gathered in Aquileia, a Roman town bordering the untamed wilderness of Liburnia. They would be making the dangerous overland journey down into Illyria to reinforce their fellow legions, who were coming across the Adriatic Sea in sails and triremes. The targets of both groups: the Illyrian cities of Epidamnus and Scodra; the former a coastal town and the latter being Queen Teutaís capitol city. Dominus Caesar and his lieutenant, Brutus, were in Ravenna with their troops -- they would accompany the soldiers to the inevitable victory over Illyria.

"Caesar, Iíve received word from our generals in Aquileia that their legions will move out in two days, according to your orders and the pre-set timetable," Brutus informed his leader. "When they do leave, the legions should reach Epidamnus at about the same time we arrive from the sea to reinforce our landing."

"Thatís good news," Caesar agreed. He grinned and wrapped an arm around Brutus. "Weíll be taking our leave in a few days after the Aquileia forces leave so we donít arrive at Epidamnus before our overland army does." Caesar swept his arm over Ravennaís harbor, filled to the gills with warships, then changed the topic, saying, "The ruling council has complained about our extended presence, Brutus, but they should be able to live with us for a bit longer."

"Why not just make them disappear?" Brutus asked. "Youíre their Dominus, Caesar, and have every right to whatever you please."

The Roman emperor took his arm off Brutus and studied his lieutenant. "Ah, I know I could -- but thatís not my way," Caesar admitted. "All that would do is create political enemies and broken families -- something that Pompeii and Crassus wouldnít hesitate to take advantage of." He hesitated ever so briefly, then explained, "Why terrorize your subjects and opponents when you can bring them to your side by stroking their feathers and, in the case of our enemies, assimilating them into the Roman Empire?"

"Yeah, yeah. I know all about your foreign policy practices," Brutus said impatiently. "Divide and conquer your enemies and then begin the assimilation process by granting them Roman citizenship and local autonomy within the empire. Youíve done it with the Gauls, the Iberian tribes and youíre attempting to do it to Queen Boadicea in Britannia and the Germanic tribes on our northern frontier."

"And it works, doesnít it?!" Caesar rumbled. "With a secure peace in the west, we can make our initial move against our opponents to the east! What more do you want, Brutus?"

"We should take all of Greece and Macedonia!" Brutus snarled. "Take them all at once, rather than one itty-bitty piece at a time!"

Caesar frowned. "We discussed this earlier, Brutus," he said. "Eventually we will conquer tomorrow what you want today. But not until then!"

"Please, stop it with your incomprehensible riddles," Brutus begged. "What are you really saying?"

"We will establish a permanent hegemony over Illyria," Caesar said casually. "Once our position is incorruptible, we will begin subverting the rest of Greece and the neighboring nations. You know, providing military assistance if asked, political support when needed -- that kind of stuff." Caesar grinned wolfishly and spat, "Once weíve insinuated ourselves as friends, our foesí homelands will be easy pickings for our legions! One way or another, they will become vassal provinces to the glorious Roman Empire!"


* * * Authorís Note * * *

Well, that finishes Novella Two, "Fallen Nation." As I said earlier, if you have any constructive comments or opinions, please feel free to e-mail me at storymaster@mailexcite.com Iím always open to compliments, suggestions for future stories and, of course, constructive criticism. And, of course, thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my work -- itís greatly appreciated.


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a spear or sword into an Amazon body."

* * *

The population of the Roman town of Ravenna had increased three-fold in the last week, swelling from twelve thousand natives to a quagmire of thirty thousand inhabitants. All of the newcomers were heavily-armed and armored Roman legionnaire soldiers. Further along the Adriatic coastline, to the northeast, another twelve thousand Roman troops had gathered in Aquileia, a Roman town bordering the untamed wilderness of Liburnia. They would be making the dangerous overland journey down into Illyria to reinforce their fellow legions, who were coming across the Adriatic Sea in sails and triremes. The targets of both groups: the Illyrian cities of Epidamnus and Scodra; the former a coastal town and the latter being Queen Teutaís capitol city. Dominus Caesar and his lieutenant, Brutus, were in Ravenna with their troops -- they would accompany the soldiers to the inevitable victory over Illyria.

"Caesar, Iíve received word from our generals in Aquileia that their legions will move out in two days, according to your orders and the pre-set timetable," Brutus informed his leader. "When they do leave, the legions should reach Epidamnus at about the same time we arrive from the sea to reinforce our landing."

"Thatís good news," Caesar agreed. He grinned and wrapped an arm around Brutus. "Weíll be taking our leave in a few days after the Aquileia forces leave so we donít arrive at Epidamnus before our overland army does." Caesar swept his arm over Ravennaís harbor, filled to the gills with warships, then changed the topic, saying, "The ruling council has complained about our extended presence, Brutus, but they should be able to live with us for a bit longer."

"Why not just make them disappear?" Brutus asked. "Youíre their Dominus, Caesar, and have every right to whatever you please."

The Roman emperor took his arm off Brutus and studied his lieutenant. "Ah, I know I could -- but thatís not my way," Caesar admitted. "All that would do is create political enemies and broken families." He hesitated ever so briefly, then explained, "Why terrorize your subjects and opponents when you can bring them to your side by stroking their feathers and, in the case of our enemies, assimilating them into the Roman Empire?"

"Yeah, yeah. I know all about your foreign policy practices," Brutus said impatiently. "Divide and conquer your enemies and then begin the assimilation process by granting them Roman citizenship and local autonomy within the empire. Youíve done it with the Gauls, the Iberian tribes and youíre attempting to do it to Queen Boadicea in Britannia and the Germanic tribes on our northern frontier."

"And it works, doesnít it?!" Caesar rumbled. "With a secure peace in the west, we can make our initial move against our opponents to the east! What more do you want, Brutus?"

"We should take all of Greece and Macedonia!" Brutus snarled. "Take them all at once, rather than one itty-bitty piece at a time!"

Caesar frowned. "We discussed this earlier, Brutus," he said. "Eventually we will conquer tomorrow what you want today. But not until then!"

"Please, stop it with your incomprehensible riddles," Brutus begged. "What are you really saying?"

"We will establish a permanent hegemony over Illyria," Caesar said casually. "Once our position is incorruptible, we will begin subverting the rest of Greece and the neighboring nations. You know, providing military assistance if asked, political support when needed -- that kind of stuff." Caesar grinned wolfishly and spat, "Once weíve insinuated ourselves as friends, our foesí homelands will be easy pickings for our legions! One way or another, they will become vassal provinces to the glorious Roman Empire!"

* * *

"Ephiny! I left as soon as I received word of your desire to see me," Phantes said, standing at the communal living quarterís entrance. When Ephiny remained silent, he edged into the vast lodgeís interior. "Queen Melosa said it was important. Is it good or bad news, Ephiny?"

Ephiny remained seated on her bedcloth, clutching a pillow and blanket. She stared steadily at the floor, but a smile finally broke through her grim countenance. She looked up at Phantes and said, "Itís joyous news -- for us, anyway. My love, we have conceived a child -- Iím six months pregnant with our little boy!"

Phantesí face broke into a radiant smile. "Youíre carrying our son?! Thatís wonderful news -- that alone makes the four day journey here seem like a minor obstacle!" He fell silent, then asked, "Whatís wrong, Ephiny? What arenít you telling me?"

"Ephiny, can you hear me ... ?"

"Allís not well, Phantes," Ephiny admitted. "I know our two nations signed a peace treaty with each other, but much suspicion stills permeates many of my sisters and, I suspect, your brothers." She looked up at her lover and blurted, "My pregnancy will infuriate many of my sisters across the nation -- some of them never wanted a peace treaty with Tyldus! Theyíll see me as a traitor to the Amazon nation, and our child will be a pariah!"

Phantes helped Ephiny to her feet and hugged her. He didnít notice her quickening breath. "But youíre captain of the royal guard, a position of influence. Then thereís Eponin and Solari, two of your best friends -- surely theyíll give you moral support and physical protection ... "

"I donít fear a physical attack from my sisters," Ephiny mumbled. She was feeling thirsty. "Theyíll use the queen and her council to remove me from my position. Iíll become just another warrior if they get their way."

"What about Queen Melosa?" Phantes demanded. "Doesnít she support you?"

"Yes. But her job is to keep the nation in one piece," Ephiny said. "She supports me, but if she has to, sheíll ask me to leave for the sake of the nationís unity."

"Please, Ephiny, snap out of it! Iíve never seen anyone go under this ... ,"

Phantes frowned. "If itís that bad, Ephiny, we can renounce our ties to the Amazon nation and the centaurs and leave Macedonia," he said. He released her, but remained close. "We can go south -- maybe weíll find people who are more accepting of us in the civilized parts of Greece."

A tidal wave of nauseous energy washed over Ephiny. "Yes, letís do that," she whispered. "But before we make preparations, let me kiss you ... ,"

"Anything for the mother of my son," Phantes said huskily. He puckered his lips and felt Ephiny graze them, slowly and sensuously. Then he felt two sharp points behind her lips and a distinct sense of foreboding settled over him. "Ephiny, are you feeling okay? Youíre teeth, they feel sharper ... ,"

The thirst had exploded within her -- indeed, had become her. "Iím feeling like a new woman, Phantes," Ephiny hissed, removing her lips from his mouth. She smiled, revealing a pair of needle sharp fangs. Phanteís eyes went wide as Ephinyís eyes turned into burning, golden orbs. "And Iím very thirsty ... ,"she lunged at him and sank her fangs into his muscular neck. Phantes struggled, but it was useless. He felt his life draining away into his loverís gullet and weeped tears of grief.

Ephiny savored the sweet flow of nectar as it coursed into her empty stomach. "Oh, Phantes, your sacrifice will give me eternal life -- you donít know how much that means to me or our son ... ,"

Gabrielle slapped Ephiny. Hard. "I donít know what else to do," she told Solari, who was standing nearby. "Itís been nearly twenty minutes since I bit her, and sheís still out cold!" She looked longingly at Ephiny, then admitted, "Iíve never seen anyone go so deep into shock after sheís been bitten. I wonder what sheís remembering ... ,"

"Probably something that had a big impact on her life," Solari suggested. "Thatís how it was with me -- I relived the intimate moments I had with numerous lovers and the birth of my daughters, among other things."

"I know what youíre talking about," Gabrielle said quietly. "I experienced the intimate moments that Xena and I shared, both in the past and, hopefully, the future."

Neither Solari or Gabrielle bothered to mention the darker, more twisted, aspects of their flashbacks, or that they experienced the memories of other women who had been transformed into Bacchae -- one of whom included Velasca.

Ephiny stirred. "Oh, Artemis! What have I done to you, Phantes?" she cried out, her eyes snapping open. She reached out at the empty air, as if trying to comfort someone who wasnít really there. "No. No! I didnít mean to do this to you! It wasnít supposed to be this way ... ,"

Solari froze when she heard Ephiny utter Phantesí name. She had an inkling that the memory Ephiny had just experienced was one that had far reaching consequences. And that memory wasnít necessarily a good one, she thought silently.

"Itís all right, Ephiny," Gabrielle said soothingly. She extended a hand and helped Ephiny to her feet. "Youíre among friends. Weíre all here for you."

"Gabrielle, we should go and get some wine skins of blood for our Ephiny and Thraso," Solari said quietly. "Iím sure theyíll be thirsty after going through the transformation process."

"Then go and find some of the crimson elixir," Gabrielle commanded. "Iíll keep our initiates company."

Solari paused momentarily at the lodgeís entrance and glanced at Thraso, who sat quietly on the floor, an empty look plastered on her chalky white face. Solari shook her head sadly and left, her words echoing, "Iíll be back with a meal fit for a king!" Thraso didnít respond -- she just started rocking back and forth, remaining eerily silent.

"Where am I?" Ephiny asked hazily. Then the realization hit her like a ton of bricks -- she staggered and leaned heavily against the lodgeís log wall, unwilling to accept it. She felt the long, slender razor sharp fangs behind her swollen, crimson lips and grimaced knowingly. "This is how it all ends, Artemis. I fight until I can fight no more, then I watch Dion go through a Hades of a transformation and then, to top it all off, I get turned into a bloodsucker."

"What were you babbling about?" Gabrielle asked, genuinely confused.

"Ah, nothing important," Ephiny quickly amended. Her stomach gurgled and the very real need for blood flooded through her body and an ocean of lust washed over her mind, blurring her rationality. Artemis, itís just like you said it would be, Ephiny thought. The physical and mental changes, the urges ... ooh, I feel dizzy with the power and thirst! She looked up at Gabrielle and said, "I feel like a new woman, Gabrielle. I can feel the power coursing through me like a wild, rampaging river -- and I feel the hunger."

"Youíll get used to it pretty quick," Gabrielle said reassuredly. "In a matter of hours you wonít believe that you actually had a life prior to your transformation. Thatís how profound your new feelings are." The bard smiled winningly. "Now youíll live forever, Ephiny, and you can thank our lord, Bacchus, for that."

I feel no loyalty towards that horned bastard, Ephiny thought mildly. But I better not start preaching that until I have a realistic game plan in place. So Iíll do the next best thing -- Iíll change the subject. "How is Thraso dealing with her new identity," Ephiny asked, peering at the young woman, who was stoically silent. Dionís been through so much in the last night -- first a sex change because of Heraís vindictiveness and now being turned into a bloodsucking Baccha -- I wonder how she deals with it.

Gabrielle looked at Thraso and rumbled, "Well, Thraso? Ephiny asked you a question -- and Iíd respond if I were you. Silence wonít get you anywhere."

"I feel exactly like Ephiny," Thraso mumbled half-heartedly. She had still been adjusting to her new female body when Solari had bitten her. Now, in addition to getting used to that alien body, she also had to deal with the Baccha accessories added to it. "What more do you need to know?"

The question and answer session was interrupted by Solari, who entered the lodge carrying four skins brimming with rich, red blood. "Velascaís too busy to personally welcome our newest initiates into the fold, but she allowed me to take some blood from her personal stock," she announced happily. Solari distributed the skins to Ephiny, and the others. "She told me that this blood came from the veins of Gorgas and Amplitron themselves -- although I have no idea how she managed to get it."

Gabrielle smiled and solemnly intoned, "With this blood, we give thanks to our lord, Bacchus, for the gift of eternal life." She twisted the cork off her skin and took a deep, satisfying drink. "Ahh! Very refreshing!"

Ephiny watched her sisters enjoy their skins of blood and sighed in resignation when Thraso surrendered to her need as well. Then, unable to withstand the aroma of the blood and her pounding head, Ephiny finally succumbed to the persistent thirst and popped the cork on her wine skin. She savored the stream of blood as it coursed into her stomach. Mmm. It tastes like sugary syrup, Ephiny thought. No wonder itís so hard to resist the urge to drink -- and if it tastes like this all the time, why should anyone resist?

Gabrielle drained the last drop of blood from her wine skin and tossed it aside. She stood and walked over to Thraso and helped the young woman to her feet. "Itís time to show you around Themiscrya," she announced. "You might think you know everything about your new nation, but Iím sure thereís some things you ... arenít knowledgeable about."

As soon as Gabrielle and Thraso were gone, Solari came over to Ephiny, a smile playing over her swollen, crimson lips. "Itís really a good life, isnít it, Ephiny?" she asked. "Immortality in exchange for everlasting loyalty to Bacchus -- thatís a pretty sweet deal, if you ask me."

"I donít think everyone would agree with that assessment," Ephiny replied coolly. "Especially those people who supply the blood that we seem to crave so much."

"Iíll let you get away with that little quip," Solari laughed. She socked Ephiny playfully on the shoulder. "Ephiny, do you remember that philosophical discussion we had before our transformations -- about how much of our original personalities survive the transition?"

Ephiny nodded warily. "What about it?"

"Your argument about warped personalities doesnít hold water," Solari announced. "Our personalities, who we are, havenít changed that much. Weíre both still Amazons, only now weíre stronger, faster and nearly indestructible. And those changes are physical in nature, not mental!"

"Solari, did you ever drink blood before you were bitten?" Ephiny asked dryly. "Were you always so prone to being aggressive and careless? And while you enjoyed sex, it never dominated your life like it does now, right?"

Solari simply smiled and advanced on Ephiny. "Youíre always trying to change the subject," she said huskily. "But now itís my turn to throw you off balance." It took Solari less than a minute to slip out of her black, leather armor. She stood before Ephiny in her birthday suit, her breasts heaving and beginning to redden and swell with desire.

"This isnít you, Solari," Ephiny protested. "Youíve never been so brazen, or tactless, about our relationship like this before!" She knew it was useless to resist -- her own hormones were beginning to percolate dangerously. How much of it is real and how much is because of my new urges and desires? Ephiny asked silently.

"Itís really me all right and ... ," Solari pushed Ephiny to the lodgeís floor and straddled her, " ... itís time to unleash your lust and hunger on me!"

The tidal wave of dark desire overwhelmed Ephinyís defenses. The straps holding her breast armor in place snapped and the armor fell away, exposing a pair of reddish, swollen breasts tipped by engorged, quivering nipples. Solari wrapped her mouth around one of those nipples, and gently suckled it while she guided one of Ephinyís hands to her own clitoris, which was swollen and slightly trembling with anticipation. All of Ephinyís inhibitions had been stripped away, leaving behind only a gasping, cooing Baccha entangled in the arms of another sex-starved Baccha.

"Yes! Ooh, it feels so good ... ," Ephiny cooed mindlessly. She locked lips with Solari and ran her tongue over Solariís needle-like fangs. Solari did the same to her willing lover. "Weíll love like the for eternity, Solari!"

"If you say so," Solari replied sweetly. She repositioned herself and began nuzzling Ephinyís clitoris.

Youíll be a Baccha in all aspects except one -- you wonít be compelled to be loyal to him or to follow his every command. The words that Artemis had spoken echoed in Ephinyís mind, but she wasnít listening. I have better things to do! Velasca was right -- with this kind of power, no one will ever again threaten my sisters. There will be no more jokes by dirty old men in taverns, no more kidnapping and raping. A single bloody tear welled in Ephinyís eyes. There will be no more pain and suffering -- and the word Amazon will strike fear in every manís heart!

Velasca and Gabrielle stood silently outside the lodge, listening to Solari and Ephiny engaging in sex. Velasca finally turned to Gabrielle and asked, "Who could have guessed that Ephiny would offer so little resistance? A lot of our other sisters put up more spunk than she did."

"Hey, she did put up a fight," Gabrielle protested. "It took me ten minutes to pin her down long enough to sink my fangs into her." The bruises from Ephinyís flailing fists had already faded away. "She didnít come over easily."

"You know what I mean," Velasca snapped. "Ephiny hasnít showed any ... ,"

Gabrielle wagged her finger at Velasca. "Calm down! You should just be happy that Ephinyís on our side now."

"Youíre right," Velasca conceded. "Sheís one of us now -- and with her, the Amazon nation is complete." She turned away and Gabrielle followed her away from the lodge. "Come now, those two wonít be occupied with each other much longer. Letís make preparations for a homecoming ceremony especially for Ephiny!"

Inside the lodge, Ephiny and Solari lay entwined in each otherís arms. "Iíve never experienced sex like that," Ephiny whispered into Solariís ear. "Who taught you your technique?"

"You ... and some others," Solari admitted. "But that doesnít really matter now. I just wanted to tell you something Iíve meant to tell you for a long time."

"And that would be ... ?"

"I love you. And Iíve missed you since we were separated by Xena and her forces at the border," Solari whispered fiercely, her heart in her voice. "And thatís not the Baccha speaking -- itís really me."

Ephiny smiled. She had always known Solari was close to her. Sheís always found a way to stay near me since we were in our first year of training, Ephiny thought. Now, after all this time, does she find the strength to tell me what I always knew. Thank you, Artemis, for this moment. "That really means a lot to me, Solari," Ephiny said quietly. "Although Iíve always known about your affection for me."

Solari smiled. "It was that obvious at times, huh?"

Ephiny nodded. "Very obvious."

"Weíre all home now," Solari murmured dreamily. She snuggled up to Ephiny. "I hope itís like this forever."

* * * Disclaimer * * *

Well, that takes care of Novella Two, "Fallen Nation." As I said earlier, if you have any constructive comments or opinions, please feel free to e-mail me at mondell.keck@mailexcite.com or at my tertiary address at mondellkeck@yahoo.com . This is especially true if you have any ideas of what you would like to see in the concluding story, "Shattered Dreams."

If I havenít made it clear yet, Iíll say it again: Thank you for taking the time to read my fan fiction work. Everything that I write comes from my heart.

* * * Disclaimer * * *

 


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