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* * * Disclaimer * * *

The characters Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, Velasca, Ephiny, Solari, Siri, Eponin et. al. are the property of Renaissance Pictures and Universal Studios. Any modifications made to the characters beyond that described in the television series, Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, are strictly that of the authorís own imagination.

Novella Three, "Shattered Dreams," contains some profanity, scenes of graphic violence and death, and a hint of sexual tension. If any of the above is disagreeable to you, or you are under the age of 18, please select another piece of fan fiction work to enjoy.

Shattered Dreams is the third and concluding story in a three story trilogy, "Worlds in Collision," detailing an epic conflict between Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry, and the Amazon nation. It would be a prudent precaution to read the previous novellas, "Baccha Moon Rising" and "Fallen Nation," if you want to comprehend the events unfolding in "Shattered Dreams."

The "Worlds In Collision" trilogy is a so-called "lost" adventure that takes place immediately after the second season X:WP episode "The Quest" and immediately before the second season X:WP episode "A Necessary Evil." Furthermore, Velasca is alive and well at the beginning of the trilogy, and not an insane goddess trapped within a hardened lava pool with Callisto. It also introduces some characters from the fourth season H:TLJ episode "Prodigal Sister" because while they werenít known to viewers of the Xenaverse during X:WPís second season, they were known to the Amazons.

Above all, please enjoy the story. If you have any constructive comments or questions concerning any of the stories, drop me, M. Keck, a line at the following e-mail address: storymaster74@yahoo.com Finally, thank you for reading my work. It all comes from the heart.

 

The young women had been working on their projects for days now, just as the voice had told them to. The same voice which had commanded them to ignore their husbands, children and other responsibilities, and begin the projects, which were nearly finished now. A stitch here, a stitch there. Feathers -- lots of feathers. Mostly owl feathers, but mixed in with a number of feathers from the plucked carcasses of eagles, hawks and crows. Large pieces of tanned leather from the hide of an unsuspecting old cow, now dead and chopped up into meat and gristle by the villageís butcher. One of the women applied the last feather to her project and smiled broadly as she held up it up to catch the first rays of the newly risen sun.

"Well?" she asked the others. "What do you think? Itís beautiful, isnít it?"

"Very much so," an older woman replied smoothly. "But the projects that you and the others have worked on are only part of the equation. Combine it with ... ," she gestured and another woman handed her a long, lithe sword, " ... this little jewel and similar weapons, and we will be unstoppable!"

"What about our husbands?" another voice asked. It was tinged with fear. "Itís taken us days to finish these projects and we havenít so much as said a word to them. Theyíll be angry that we havenít been available to take care of the children or to give them pleasure."

"What about those worthless worms?" the older woman snarled. "The voice told us to ignore them until we were instructed to do otherwise."

A womanís sinister laughter echoed throughout the hut, interrupting the bickering. "You have done well, my friends," the disembodied voice said approvingly.

Absolute silence reigned throughout the vast hut. Over a hundred women stopped what they were doing, what they were saying. Finally, one of the young women spoke up. "Is it time yet?" she asked timidly. "Are we ready to claim our heritage and free our lands from the enemy?"

"Oh, youíre more than ready," the voice cackled. Suddenly it grew imperious. "At high noon, you will begin the liberation of your village from the enemy. Your sister villages will begin their war of liberation at the same time. Once the liberation is completed, wait for the arrival of the others -- they will help reunite you with the rest of your compatriots."

The woman smiled broadly. "It will be as you command," she whispered solemnly. She bent down and picked up the object she had toiled over for so long and slid it over her face. It was a large, dark, leather mask. Painstakingly crafted with precision, it gleamed in the early morning light, its face surrounded by a brilliant ocean of feathers. Long, thin ribbons of soft material flowed from the top of the mask and ran down the womanís back.

It was an Amazon war mask. And, after a few minutes, every woman in the hut was wearing one and had a sword balanced on her back. It had taken them a long time to acquire the weapons and craft the masks under the unsuspecting eyes of their husbands and children. Now their time was at hand -- and their village would be freed from the stench of those who had taken advantage and abused them for so long.

* * *

I canít believe the lengths Velasca goes to to try and legitimize her claim to the Queenís Mask, Ephiny thought sourly. She was standing to the right of Velasca while Xena stood silently to the left of the usurper. Gabrielle and at least a dozen of Velascaís other lieutenants stood quietly behind the trio on the coronation deck. In front of the deck stood a sea of pale-faced Amazon women -- representatives from every single tribe that composed the great Amazon nation. Each tribe had its chieftainís official headdress tied to the top of a long pole, which was driven into the ground next to the tribal representatives the headdress represented. None of the tribal headdresses were as elaborate or as splendid as the Queenís Mask, which was perched precariously on Velascaís head.

"We all come together this morning to celebrate the complete unity of the Amazon nation!" Velascaís voice boomed. The crowd fell into a solemn silence. "For weeks we have struggled to initiate the last of our renegade sisters into the ways of the Bacchae -- and with the initiation of our former regent queen, Ephiny, into our ranks, that task has been completed!" Velasca smiled broadly and crooked a finger at Ephiny, who was clearly uncomfortable with all of the unexpected attention. "Come on, donít be shy," Velasca whispered. "Say a few words!"

And so she did. "Iím glad to finally be among all of my sisters once again," Ephiny admitted quietly, her voice echoing in the crowdís silence. She stared stoically at the chalky-white, warped faces of her sisters and tried to ignore the worshipful, golden eyes and crimson-lipped, fanged mouths. In a rising voice she boomed, "Because of our lord, Bacchus, we will once again make the world tremble with fear every time it hears the word Amazon!"

Several minutes passed before the roaring crowd finally quieted down. Velasca stepped forward and announced, "Come now. Everyone drink to the celebration of our eternal union with Bacchus!" She hopped off the coronation deck and made her way over to four large cauldrons that brimmed with fresh blood. Velasca began filling wooden mugs with the rich, red elixir and handed them to surging throngs thirsty sisters.

Nearby, Gabrielle accepted the mug offered by one of her sisters and took a sip from the vessel. She spied Ephiny standing by herself and sidled up to her friend. She asked, "What did you think about Velascaís theatrics?"

"Not much," Ephiny sighed. She took a long draught from her mug, savoring the sugary taste the blood had. "We have better things to do than throw parties hailing Velasca as our queen -- especially when nobodyís challenging her claim to the Queenís Mask." Ephiny looked pointedly at Gabrielle and added, "Isnít that right, Gabrielle?"

The bard shook slightly at the coolness in Ephinyís voice. "I know what youíre trying to say, but it wonít work. Not yet anyway," Gabrielle mumbled. "Velascaís doing a decent job and I wonít challenge her until Bacchus stops sending us on these war parties to defend his realm. Sheís the military genius, not me."

"If sheís such a genius, why havenít we conquered those Thracian villages yet?" Ephiny hissed. "Five little villages full of rutting men -- and Velasca had to wait for Xena to return in order to even get an attack plan laid out!"

Gabrielleís eyes flashed angrily and she spoke harshly. "Look, I donít know why you have such an attitude problem, but once the peace returns, then Iíll lay claim to the Queenís Mask! But not before then!"

Ephiny unsheathed her sword and ran a taloned finger lovingly over its sharp edge. "What if I donít want to wait that long? What if I make my move sooner -- if I succeed, Iíd be more than happy to give you the Queenís Mask."

"Donít!" Gabrielle cried out in alarm. "If I had realized your initiation was going to transform your personality so radically, I might have reconsidered my actions and ... ,"

"Whatís going on here?" Xena called out. She had been talking to Thraso when she noticed Gabrielleís voice growing shrill and agitated. "Ephiny? Gabrielle? Are you two having a little catfight?"

Gabrielle opened her mouth, but Ephiny interrupted. "Nothing serious, warrior princess. We were just discussing career moves ... ," she ignored the face Gabrielle made, " ... and your plans for conquering the Thracian villages. You do have plans, donít you?"

"As a matter of fact, I do," Xena said warily. "I ran them by Velasca and she approved ... ,"

"Finally, some good news!" Ephiny replied sweetly. "Perhaps you and, if you like, Gabrielle, can explain it to me later since our Queen has been too busy preening over herself to tell me anything important."

"Name your time and place and weíll be there," Xena challenged.

"You can tell me everything tomorrow morning," Ephiny said brusquely. "Until then I plan on being, uh, occupied with Solari."

Xena and Gabrielle watched Ephiny retreat into the distance and looked curiously into each otherís faces. "What was that all about?" Xena finally asked.

Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders and took another draught from her mug. "Beats me. This is the first time Iíve seen her so agitated since she was initiated. I think sheís upset with Velasca and her theatrics -- and me, to a degree."

Xena grimaced and said, "Well, Velasca does have a penchant for angering some of her sisters, what with her showing off about possessing the Queenís Mask." She gazed at the bard, then asked, "Why is she mad at you?"

"Ephiny thinks Iíve abandoned my responsibility to the Amazon nation because I havenít challenged Velascaís claim to the queenhood," Gabrielle murmured.

Xena held back the wave of anger building up inside her. Why, the sheer brazenness of Ephiny! To question Gabrielleís loyalty to the nation! She wrapped her arms around the bardís shoulders and promised, "After tonight, Ephiny will come to realize that you are one of the most loyal members of the Amazon nation!"

* * *

"Tauri, get your damn ass in here. Now!" Sidon sat down heavily and began removing his dirt-caked sandals. He had spent the entire morning in the field, pulling weeds and hoeing and, afterwards, fixing a pot of chicken stew so his daughters could have a decent meal. Zeus, I hope nothingís wrong with Tauri, he thought silently. Itís been four days now since she left to visit her friends. He knew she was home when he had stepped through the door and saw her white tunic draped across a chair. Hearing no response from his wife, Sidon sighed and called out, "Please, Tauri, come and talk to me. I know things havenít been great between us lately, but the girls and I really miss you!"

Suddenly she was there. How did she sneak in so quietly? Sidon wondered. "What do you want, Sidon?" she asked coldly. "Youíre not welcome on our territory -- make your statement and then leave. Immediately."

"I, uh ... ," Sidonís voice trailed off as he stared, flabbergasted, at his wife.

Or, rather, what used to be his wife. He took in the details of the exotic, brief leathers that Tauri wore and grimaced. The outfit was nothing more than rough, short black leather skirt bursting with feathers and ribbons of tough, dried grass wrapped around her waist that reached halfway down her thighs. The breast armor was studded with small bits of metal and one of the breast cups had a concentric, silver circle wrapped around and over it. Whorls of black and white paint were smeared in strategic places on her exposed skin and Tauriís wrists and forearms were protected by leather-and-iron armbands. A sheathed sword was balanced on her back and the hilts of two daggers stuck out prominently from two waist pockets. And she looked mean, to say the least.

"Whatís with the makeover?" Sidon demanded, not cowed by his wifeís apparent change in fashion. Then he recognized the uniform and grew angry, his face reddening. "Youíre dressed exactly like those Amazon barbarians that live among us! Whatís the meaning of ... ,"

Tauri had heard enough. "Thatís enough!" she snarled. She unsheathed her sword moved in on her former husband. "I am one of the so-called barbaric Amazons now! And youíre standing on our land and questioning how we dress? How dare you!" She lunged forward and her blade just missed Sidon.

"What in Tartarus are you talking about, Tauri?" Sidon screeched, sidestepping another blow. "The Amazons havenít lived here for centuries. Our ancestors reclaimed this land from the wilderness ... ," suddenly his breath exploded from him as Tauriís blade impaled itself in his chest, skewering his wildly beating heart.

Tauri smiled savagely and twisted the blade cruelly. "Weíre back now -- to reclaim our lost heritage!" She ignored Sidonís loud, gurgling keening and withdrew the blade from his tortured chest. Sidon crashed lifelessly to the floor and Tauri wiped the bloody blade clean on his bare back.

In their bedroom over the gory scene in the living quarters, two little girls trembled violently, stew-laden spoons held in mid-air. "Mama and Daddy got into another fight," the younger one whispered fearfully. "I heard Daddy scream. Do you think heís all right, sis?"

The older girl strained to hear anything from the living quarters below, but there was nothing except silence. "I donít know -- itís never been this quiet after a fight before." Then both of them heard the steps creaking as someone advanced up them. They threw their spoons down and hugged each other tightly.

"Iím scared," the younger one whispered. "Iím really, really scared."

* * *

"The news isnít good, milord," Caria said timidly. "Our search for Lanaís patrol group has turned up nothing. No bodies, no obvious battle scenes -- nothing!" She paused, afraid to add the obvious. "That makes three patrol groups that have vanished now since Eribas began patrolling Macedoniaís so-called border with the Amazon nation!"

Eribas whirled on Caria and hissed, "Are you trying to say something, Caria?"

"Yes I am," Caria sniffed. "Iím beginning to question your judgment -- the decision to patrol our border with our allies has probably done nothing to improve our relations with them!"

"And what would have you done, Ms. Tactical Genius?" Eribas asked haughtily. "Oh, I already know the answer to that question -- your solution to our degenerating relations with the Amazon nation would be to get drunk and vent your frustration out on some unfortunate ... ,"

Bacchus had heard enough. "Silence! Both of you!" he roared. He glared angrily at his lieutenants. I should never have sent Antiope and her sisters away. They never fought amongst each other like Eribas and Caria do. Those two are a disgrace to all the other Bacchae. "Now, what have we found during these searches? Surely someone must have stumbled across something."

"Thereís nothing out there, milord," Eribas sputtered. "We double and triple checked Lanaís patrol route and found absolutely nothing!"

Caria nodded in agreement. "All we found were piles of dirt left by badgers digging for roots and berries."

Bacchusí eyes widened at the mention of the dirt piles. In his thousands of years of existence, he knew what the remains of a dead Baccha looked like. And they could easily be mistaken for piles of dirt, he thought darkly. He clenched his hands into taloned fists and slammed them down on his throne. "Those piles of yours werenít dirt -- they were the remains of your fellow Bacchae," he told Eribas and Caria. "Someoneís targeting those patrol groups and taking them out." He paused, then dramatically rumbled, "Somebodyís hunting the Bacchae for sport!"

Eribasí eyes flashed angrily when she heard her lordís explanation. "Who ... what could destroy the Bacchae?" she asked tightly. "Everyone who possessed Dryad weapons in our territory -- soldiers, collectors -- have been killed."

"Then look beyond our territory," Bacchus snorted. He jabbed a finger at his lieutenants. "Youíre both going to have to work together on this one. Combine your talents and find out who, or what, is attacking our patrols. Is it another god, our Amazon allies, or something far worse? I want answers, and I want them soon."

"When we find out who the attacker is, I have first dibs on his body," Caria announced.

Bacchus shook his massive, horned, head. "No. Whoever can kill an entire patrol group of armed Bacchae would make short work of you peasants," he spat. His choice of words shocked Eribas and Caria. "Whoever the attacker is, he will die at the hands of the Amazons!"

Caria retreated from Pellaís dank council chamber, followed meekly by Eribas. Once they got down the hall, Caria whispered, "Did you hear what he called us?! Peasant women! I thought he had more respect for us than that."

"Weíll just have to earn that respect again," Eribas replied calmly.

"And how do we do that?"

"By capturing our sistersí murderer and making an example of him before our lord has an opportunity to sic the Amazons on him," Eribas hissed, her ego beginning to swell again. "Only then will we finally escape the long shadow of our Amazon allies."

* * *

Astyanax had been sitting in the ancient, gnarled oak tree since Apollo began his daily trek across the sky. He checked the sunís position in the morning sky and shook his head wearily. It canít be much longer now, he thought. Iíve been sitting above this patrol route since last night -- thereís got to be a patrol coming along soon. He paused, and thought sourly, Surely the Amazon nation patrols its lands more frequently than this! Then he heard branches rustling in the distance and saw the grass undulating about a hundred feet away. A-ha! Itís about time my little targets decided to show up! Astyanax thought triumphantly. He slipped an arrow into his compound bow and listened intently as the patrol drew closer, their voices drifting through the still air.

"I tell you, Arista, I still think that Bacchus made a mistake when he dismissed myself and my sisters," Antiope complained. "Eventually heís going to pay the price for that decision."

"Donít you ever talk about anything else?" Arista asked acidly. "We left Ereboa two days ago and all youíve managed to talk about is Bacchus this, Bacchus that."

"Aristaís right," Nadia added. "Surely thereís more to your life than Bacchus."

Antiope shook her head. "No, there isnít. Xena assigned me to lead the detail of our sisters to protect our lord," she said. "We protected him and quelled the dissent against his rule in occupied Macedonia, and what does he do? He dismisses us because his peasant Bacchae donít like being left out of the picture!"

"Those peasant Bacchae, as you call them, seem to be doing a decent job," Arista observed. "At least I havenít heard any commotion from their zone of control since they took over." She thought a moment and added, "Antiope, I really think you should give Eribas and Caria a fair shot before shooting them down."

"No! The only reason those two havenít had any trouble yet is because we sent in enforcers to destroy those who openly opposed our lordís rule," Antiope hissed. "Donít you see? We did all the work and they got all the credit!"

Nadia sat down and began rummaging through the supply sack she was carrying. "I donít know about you two, but Iím thirsty," she said, pulling out three corked gourds filled with blood. She offered two of them to Arista and Antiope. "I suggest we talk about this over some blood -- maybe that will calm somebodyís ... ," she glared at Antiope, " ... temper down enough so we can have a rational discussion."

Up in the tree, Astyanax saw his chance and took aim at Nadiaís unprotected chest. He released the bowstring and smiled as the arrow slammed into the Bacchaís chest between her armored breasts and threw her to the ground. One down, two Bacchae bitches to go, he thought angrily. Below him, chaos was the order of the day as Arista rushed over to Nadia and Antiope reached for her own bow, trying to figure out where the attack came from.

"Nadia, stop thrashing about and let me look at the wound," Arista begged, trying to calm her dying sister down.

"It huurts!" Nadia howled. "Oh, Artemis, it huurts! I -- I feel like Iím on fire ... ,"

Arista managed to hold Nadia still long enough to grab the arrowís shaft and shove it through her chest so the bloody tip poked out of her back. She ignored Nadiaís screech. "Yes, I know that hurt! Dammit! Keep still so I can snap the shaft and get it out of you," Arista said mirthlessly, trying to ignore the horrible grimace on Nadiaís face.

Meanwhile, Antiope managed to track the arrowís flight path back to a nearby oak tree and let loose with her own reply. Two arrows screamed from her bow and into the dense foliage. The first one missed, burying itself in a branch, but the second one cut cleanly through Astyanaxís trigger hand, disrupting his concentration. He screeched and fell from the tree, landing on his back. In a matter of moments he jumped to his feet and, ignoring the burning pain in his hand, pulled his sword from its sheath and circled warily around Antiope, who mirrored his movements.

"Oh, the pain! Itís getting worse," Nadia whimpered. She shoved Arista away as her body suddenly grew hot. "Please just let me go, Arista. Donít want to ... ,"

"I canít do that ... ," Arista raised her hands and shielded her eyes as a blaze of energy erupted from Nadiaís head and moved down her body. Seconds later, only a pitiful pile of ashes remained where the Amazon warrior had once been. Arista just stared in shock at the pile, surprised at the swiftness of Nadiaís demise. Suddenly Antiopeís blood-curdling scream shook Arista from her nightmare and she whirled around, only to see Antiope impaled on a strangerís alien-looking blade.

"Two down, one to go," Astyanax hissed. Then he twisted the blade in deeper and ripped it back out of Antiopeís violated body. The Amazon warrior slumped to the ground, gouts of blood erupting from her fanged mouth.

"How did you obtain Dryad weaponry?" she asked weakly. Her golden eyes snapped shut and when she opened them again, they had turned light blue. Antiope was returning to normal, but only at the highest price. "What, what happened to me ... ," her final words were lost as her body exploded, reducing itself to scattered drifts of dust.

Arista took advantage of the fireworks and withdrew two daggers from her belt. She let one fly at the strangerís position and took an educated guess before letting the second one go in a different direction. Astyanax avoided the first dagger, but in the process he ended up in the path of the second projectile, which buried itself in his left thigh. The scout dropped to the ground and Arista dove on top of him, using her superior strength to hold him down.

"Itís time for you to die," Arista gurgled happily. She opened her crimson mouth and Astyanaxís eyes widened as her incisors elongated and sharpened into needle-like fangs. Then she paused, smiled wickedly, and puckered her lips. "But first, let me kiss you -- you deserve that much before dying."

Astyanax felt his member stiffening at that prospect and cursed his body for its weakness. Arista felt it too and smiled even wider. "Well, if you insist ... ," she cooed. The Amazon maneuvered herself over him and, using her taloned hands, shredded the crotch in his pants, exposing his erect member. She hiked her leather skirt up, exposing her swollen, moist, sex and proceeded to slide down -- and froze, shock etched into her face. Arista looked down and knew she was dead. The assailant had managed to slide an eight-inch dagger between his body and hers and now it was buried up to its hilt in her stomach. "That wasnít very warrior-like," Arista complained. She rolled off her conquest and wrenched the serrated blade from her belly.

"Who ever said life was fair?" Astyanax replied, climbing unsteadily to his feet. He crossed his legs and turned red. "Now Iíve got to find a new pair of pants -- as if I didnít have enough to do already!"

Arista knew she was dying the moment she saw the bladeís unique construction, but she continued to keep the enemyís attention focused on her. If I can keep him occupied long enough, perhaps another patrol group will finish the kill, she thought. "You should complain?! You defeated two Amazon warriors today and tricked a third one to her death -- thatís no small feat, especially when we were all Bacchae." Her fangs began to blunten and retreat and her swollen, crimson lips turned light pink. The murky haze that had clouded her mind began fading away. "Who do you represent?"

"I am one of Zeliusí scouts and the first of thousands of soldiers who will liberate Macedonia from Bacchusí rule," Astyanax said, pride tinging his voice.

"Hmm. Zelius, did you say?" Arista murmured. "Wasnít he Dionís second-in-command?"

"Yes, but why do you care?"

Arista felt her body beginning to burn from within. "Actually, I donít care. But Zelius might want to know what became of Dion after he was captured."

Astyanax cocked his head. "What are you implying?"

"Letís just say that Dion hasnít been himself ... ," her voice faded and Astyanax backed away as Aristaís body was consumed by ravaging flames. When the flames vanished there was nothing left of Arista, not even a pile of ash.

What was she being so cryptic about? Astyanax wondered. Everyone knows what the Amazons did to Dion -- they killed him, along with Amplitron, when he went back to Pella to rescue that crazy old bat. Twin jolts of pain brought Astyanax back to reality and he realized his wounds would need tending to -- and soon. They werenít life-threatening yet, but if they werenít disinfected and bandaged, that would quickly change.

He began rummaging around the patrolís belongings and quickly located some medicine and, most importantly, some maps. Asytanax blanched when he looked at the maps. I never knew I was so close to Themiscrya itself -- and look at the number of patrols! Zeus! No wonder the Amazon was so calm and collected after I stabbed her ... she probably thought another patrol would make short work of me even if she died. He looked around and realized he had to keep moving, wounds or no wounds. Iíve got to reach those Thracian villages before Bacchus does!

* * *

Ephiny pulled out a small mirror and stared listlessly into its reflective surface -- and at the alien visage which glimmered back at her. Itís been days now since Gabrielle turned me into a Baccha, and Iím still not used to seeing my features twisted like this. Itís me and yet at the same time, itís not me. She dropped the mirror and reached for a cup, which brimmed with some unfortunate soulís blood. She sipped some of it and, like before, felt her barriers against the wild, dark ways of the Bacchae weakening. Suddenly a particularly nasty wave of lust and wildness crashed into her mental barriers, nearly shattering them. Ephiny dropped the cup from her taloned hands and held her throbbing head. Iíve got to stop drinking so much blood -- Artemis said the ambrosia would only grant me mental independence from Bacchus, but not from physical or mental effects ... which seem to grow stronger with each drop of blood I ingest!

"Are you all right, Ephiny?" a concerned voice asked.

Ephiny recognized Gabrielleís voice and turned to face her. "Yes, Iím okay. Itís just really hard to maintain control over myself after Iíve drank blood."

"I donít know why Ephiny, but your initiation seems to be really hard on you," Gabrielle replied. "I mean, what with these mood swings of yours, bad-mouthing our lord and, for Bacchusí sake, even talking about trying to dethrone Velasca!" She paused, thinking, then added, "I suppose it could be worse. At least your body didnít reject the initiation and go up in flames."

"Like Atalanta did, right?" Ephiny said coolly. "Trust me, my body isnít whacked out to that degree." Inwardly, Ephiny grimaced at the cold words. She had heard Atalantaís death scream -- and it hadnít sounded pleasant. Ephiny abruptly changed the subject. "Whereís Xena? I thought she was coming with you."

Gabrielle rolled her golden eyes. "Velasca hauled her off to some tactical meeting with Diana and Arianna. Donít worry, sheíll be here soon enough to fill you in on her plans for the Thracians." Which, honestly, donít amount to much yet, she thought silently.

Ephiny reached down and picked up the overturned cup and then grabbed a gourd, which contained more blood. She dribbled some of the elixir into the cup and offered it to Gabrielle, who bridged the distance between the two women in a flash. The bard savored the sweet fluid and sighed, "Eventually youíll get used to your new life, Ephiny. It might take some time -- heck, we still got sisters wandering around in a daze who were initiated nearly a month ago."

"Whatever you say," Ephiny said noncommittally. She used Gabrielleís fascination with getting the last drop of blood from the cup to her advantage and circled around behind the pre-occupied bard. "But I really donít want to take that long to get used to my new body."

Gabrielle noticed the pronounced coolness in Ephinyís voice and looked up. "What do you mean by that?"

Ephiny reached over and wrapped her arms around the bardís mouth before Gabrielle could react. Ephiny smiled, revealing her long, slim, viperish fangs, and hissed, "I got these things in my mouth because of you. Now itís time to put them to good use!"

Gabrielleís eyes widened and the empty cup dropped from her taloned hands, shattering on the lodgeís floor. "Donít do it, Ephiny!" her muffled cry came. "Even this is too kinky for me ... ,"

Ephiny ignored the bardís cries and plunged her fangs into the side of Gabrielleís neck. The fluid which gushed into Ephinyís mouth was far from sweet -- it was a horrible, bitter-tasting greenish liquid with the viscosity of bile. Ephiny choked the vile stuff down and, after a minute, removed her fangs from Gabrielleís neck. "Pretty soon youíll realize that I did you a great favor, my queen," Ephiny sputtered. Suddenly she began to retch violently, and the fluid she had just ingested came flying out of her mouth, splattering all over the floor. Ephiny watched, astounded, as the fluid slowly turned vibrant red and assumed the viscosity of clotting blood. Iíll be damned, Ephiny thought. The ambrosia is causing the Baccha blood to revert back to human blood. Ephiny looked up at the roof and sang mentally. It really works, Artemis! It really works! Where ever you are, Artemis, thank you!

Gabrielle slumped over and felt the scorching fire burning in her veins. She tried to scream, but her muscles refused to work. Then, deep inside the Bacchaís suffocating personality, the true Gabrielle began to struggle against the mental chains which held her in place. The chains began to creak and tremble -- suddenly they shattered into a million pieces. The dark tendrils of the Baccha retreated to the outskirts of Gabrielleís subconscious mind, which began to reassert dominion over its own mind and body. After several minutes, Gabrielle managed to push her Bacchic needs and desires further into the shadows. She opened her golden eyes and saw Ephiny looking on, her face steeped in worry. "What, what happened?" Gabrielle croaked. "Gods! It feels like Iíve been sleeping for weeks now!"

"You have been sleeping, in an indirect sense," Ephiny said quietly. She helped the bard to her feet. "What do you remember of the past month or so?"

"Very little ... ," then images began flashing through her mind. Cheering Xena on as the warrior princess conquered her Baccha enemy. The unexpected ambush and subsequent violation of her body and soul by Velasca. The terrified faces of Erato and Lysara ... the faces of thousands of other Amazon women, twisted and warped by Bacchus -- all because of Gabrielle. Countless other images, all blending together to form a horrifying menagerie of horror, madness and chaos. " ... let me take that back," Gabrielle said slowly. She faced Ephiny and whispered, "Will you ever forgive me for what I did to the nation ... and you?"

"Thereís nothing to forgive, Gabrielle," Ephiny said sincerely. "Everything thatís happened -- to us, the Amazon nation, Macedonia and countless other men, women and children -- is all Bacchusí fault."

Gabrielle felt the horrifyingly familiar fangs in her mouth. They were identical to the ones that had sprouted after she had been initiated during Xenaís earlier donnybrook with Bacchus. "Itís different this time. Bacchus is much more powerful and thereís so many more Bacchae to defend him. How can we even hope to defeat him again?"

"This time we have Artemis on our side," Ephiny confided. "She gave me ambrosia before you initiated me, which defeated the mental effects of the Baccha ... ,"

"May I ask what youíre talking about?" Xena asked. She appeared at the lodgeís entrance and slinked in. "Whatís this about Artemis and ambrosia? Has she interfered with the will of our lord, Bacchus?"

Ephiny knew she had opened her mouth too soon. My coverís blown, she thought frantically. Knowing that Xenaís keen mind, Baccha or not, had already latched onto the words ĎArtemisí and Ďambrosia,í Ephiny did the next best thing. She launched an attack on the warrior princess.

Gabrielle watched her two friends go down in a tumble of arms and legs. She sprang forward and joined the fray, without a thought to her own safety. I have to get Xenaís chakram away from her before she uses it on Ephiny, she thought desperately. By this time, Xena had frenzied and the warrior princess was nothing more than a slavering, fanged Baccha who was foaming at the mouth. The only thing that kept Ephiny and Gabrielle in the fight was the fact that they, too, were Bacchae -- and fighting mad. Suddenly Xenaís taloned fist smashed into Ephinyís face, sending the Amazon flying out of the fray. Xena turned her attention to Gabrielle and deflected the bardís deft grab for her chakram.

"Nice try, Gabrielle, but not this time," Xena snarled. She punched the bard in the stomach, knocking the wind from her, and smiled as Gabrielle dropped like a fly. "Mad Baccha or not, I still rule when it comes to one-on-one combat!" She sensed another attack coming and sent the contested chakram flying without even looking at its destination -- which was Ephinyís throat.

Ephiny dove out of the way, but not before the razor sharp edge of the chakram opened a thin crease on the side of her neck. Blood sprayed from the wound and Ephiny stumbled, pain shooting through her head. The chakram zinged back into Xenaís outstretched hand and the warrior princess smiled grimly. "This time Iím going for your jugular, Ephiny," she hissed. "Even a Baccha needs her head on to get anything accomplished!" She took aim -- and Gabrielle jumped up and knocked the weapon from Xenaís hand. Gabrielle snarled and glanced at her staff, which flew across the room and into her hands. Before Xena knew it, she was being pummeled across her stomach and legs. The tables turned, Gabrielle sent a blow cracking across Xenaís legs, and the warrior princess tumbled to the lodgeís floor. She tried to regain her feet, but her bruised and bloodied body protested.

"Nowís your chance, Ephiny!" Gabrielle yelled. "Get moving! I canít keep her down much longer."

Ephiny knew her neck wound was already closing. Thatís one advantage to being a Baccha -- you heal a lot faster than if you were a normal human. She saw Gabrielle smack Xena once again and regained her footing. Then she was across the room and on top of Xena, her fangs buried in the warrior princessí neck. The same horrible, bitter-tasting, greenish fluid flooded her mouth and Ephiny choked it down. Seconds later she rolled off an insensate Xena and began puking.

Xenaís mind was in a whirl of confusion, anger, lust and hatred. Why are they attacking me? What have I done to them?! I ... suddenly a bright white light blinded her mindís eye and the Baccha personality shattered and retreated, freeing Xenaís real personality from its mental bondage. It surged outward, reclaiming its own body and mind for itself. Then it froze as it experienced the horrors it had done while under the murky haze of Baccha domination. Thalia crying as she was transformed by Xena ... the sense of betrayal she felt from Charm and Gemini during their transformation into Bacchae. Thousands of pale faces looking up at her, standing next to Velasca, their golden eyes flaming ... long, sharp fangs behind their swollen, crimson lips. Nnnooo ... !

Xena opened her eyes and, sensing danger, jumped to her feet. "Oh, itís only you two," she laughed, spying Gabrielle and Ephiny standing behind her. Ephiny held her sword in a defensive position and Gabrielle held her staff close to her chest. "Whatís with you two? You both look like you just went through Tartarus and back."

"Thatís because we almost did!" Ephiny retorted. In a softer voice she asked, "How are you feeling?"

Xena felt the Baccha part of herself gnawing at her from the shadows of her mind, but it was no longer completely dominant. The blind loyalty she had felt for Bacchus was gone. "I feel just fine ... but what was it with you biting me?! That hurt!"

"It was the only way to clear your mind," Gabrielle interjected. "Ephiny bit me too. I guess Artemis gave her the ability to transmit mental independence to those Baccha she bites. Weíre no longer blindly loyal followers of Bacchus, Xena! Weíre free -- mentally, anyway."

"I can probably free three more of our sisters from Bacchusí mind control," Ephiny added. "But thatís it. Artemis said weíd have to figure out a way to free the rest of the nation by ourselves."

"Six of us against thousands of Amazons whoíve been turned into bloodsuckers?!" Xena yelped. "Artemis certainly has confidence in us, if nothing else."

"If we can free only three more of our sisters, which ones should we free?" Gabrielle asked.

Xena remained silent, thinking. "Ideally, the ones we free should have abilities and genius that will directly benefit our campaign against Bacchus," she announced. She turned to Ephiny and added, "May I suggest Solari, Siri and Ordahlia?"

Ephiny shook her head. "I agree with you about selecting Solari and Siri, but I think we should substitute Thraso for Ordahlia."

"Why Thraso?" Gabrielle asked.

"Thraso? Iíve never heard of the name," Xena murmured.

Ephiny held her hands up. "Thatís because she wasnít always one of us. Thraso was once the Pellan general Dion, but Hera turned him into a her." She paused and sighed, remembering the traumatic event. "I guess it was Heraís gift to Bacchus -- apparently Thraso is a tactical genius whoís supposed to play an integral role in Bacchusí plans to conquer the known world."

"If itís what you want, I wonít disagree," Xena agreed. "But weíve wasted enough time -- letís get moving."

"Uh, where are we going?" Gabrielle asked.

Xena smiled malevolently. "Velasca sent me over here to fetch you and Ephiny. I guess sheís got some big plans she wants to run by us."

* * *

"Itís time to make our move against the Thracians," Velasca explained. She pointed at five dots near the Amazon nationís northern frontier within Thrace. "All of the necessary ingredients are in place -- Diana is already beginning preparations for the attack and the Amazon tribes living near the Thracian villages have started picking off individuals who are foolish enough to be outside the villages by themselves." She took a deep breath, then added, "Thraso will accompany the attack against the Thracians ... itís time to see if the tactical potential Hera said she had survived her sex change."

Xena held her hands up. "Wait a second here. I thought I was in charge of all the preparations. Since when did you start delegating responsibilities out to Diana? How many others have you let in on my battle plans? I donít want anybody, Baccha or not, to know about them unless itís absolutely imperative."

"Cool your jets, Xena," Velasca replied stiffly. "Dianaís involvement is limited to armament and supply details -- she knows nothing about your tactical plans. Which, I might add, is the situation I am in. Just what are your plans?"

"I explained it to you earlier," Xena snapped. She ignored the pouty look on Velascaís face and explained her plans again, enunciating each word. "We will take a force of several hundred warriors and conquer the villages. On the way back, we will split up my little army and distribute Heraís crushed rock into the entire water supply for the Amazon nation."

"What about those two ... ," Velasca pointed at Gabrielle and Ephiny, " ... where do they come into play?"

Ephiny stalked forward and stared unwaveringly at her foe. Then she sternly said, "If the blood supply is as low as Ordahlia claims it to be, it is necessary that Heraís special dust gets distributed to all of the tribes correctly the first time around. The distribution groups will need guidance and thatís where we come into the picture."

"And there will be a few more group leaders," Gabrielle interjected. She looked meaningfully over at Xena. "They have yet to be selected, though."

"Is there anything else you want to know?" Xena asked.

Velascaís smile slowly widened to reveal her long, viperish, fangs. "Speed is of the essence, my lieutenants. I want that army ready to roll in two dayís time."

Ephiny stared in shock at Velasca. "Thereís no way we can meet the deadline! It will take at least that long just to get our warriors assembled into anything akin to an army!"

"The deadline is not an option, Ephiny," Velasca sneered. "Nor for Xena or Gabrielle. Our lord Bacchus has wanted those villages for himself since the fall of the Amazon nation. If we donít move soon, we risk offending him -- and even a Baccha canít withstand the fury of an enraged god."

"Your wish is our command," Xena announced abruptly. She turned on her heels and walked toward the chamberís entrance. Just before leaving, she turned around and hissed, "I suggest you start trusting the intelligence and capabilities of your lieutenants a bit more, Velasca. You canít deal with everything by yourself -- thereís too many variables to take into consideration, what with all the land and tribes that together form the Amazon Nation!"

Velasca opened her mouth, but Xena and the others were already gone. She slumped down in her throne and sat brooding. Several minutes passed before Solari appeared in the lodgeís entrance, flanked by six of her guards. Velasca perked up at seeing the striking commander of the royal guard. "By Bacchus, youíre just the one I wanted to see," she bubbled happily.

"Um, yeah," Solari responded delicately. "Itís time for our daily security meeting." She noticed the distracted look in Velascaís eyes and asked, "Is everything all right? You look like you just went through the wringer."

"Xena just dressed me down for trying to micromanage the affairs of the nation," Velasca explained nonchalantly. "Itís a little galling to have one of your lieutenants do that in front of others."

Solari bared her long, slim fangs. "Do you want me to do something about her attitude, my queen?"

"Just observe her from a distance," Velasca said. "I want to know if Xenaís positive can-do attitude is having a good effect on that nationís moral. Her arrogance might bother me, but Iíll gladly overlook that if increases the confidence among the rank-and-file troops."

Solari bowed her head. "I will be as discreet as possible. Is there any information youíre looking for in particular?"

"Itís not information that I want," Velasca replied tiredly. "I have no choice but to trust Xena in that capacity to the fullest extent possible. Just shadow her and the others who are going to participate in the Thracian attack -- if nothing seems awry, donít even bother reporting back to me."

"Your wish is, as always, my command," Solari said tersely.

Solari and her guards left the lodge and Velasca was once again alone. Alone with her greatest fears and reservations. What if the Thracian attack doesnít go off as planned? What if Thraso doesnít turn out to be the tactical genius that Hera promised she would be? What if Bacchus doesnít understand all the parts of the equation and screws up? Velasca thought miserably. Ah, leadership -- everyone seems to want it. But now that I have it, itís not fun and games anymore. Thereís too much responsibility for one individual to handle alone ... perhaps Iíll take Xenaís suggestion seriously and begin to delegate more responsibilities out to my lieutenants.

* * *

Solari nibbled playfully on Ephinyís ear as the first rays of the sun broke over the horizon. The two women had made love to each other the entire night and Solari had lost track of the time after four orgasms. And it all went whizzing by way too fast, she thought sadly. The good times never seem to last long enough. Solari felt her lover shift beneath her and rolled off the regent queen, who sat up, breathing heavily.

"I havenít experienced sex like that since ... ," Ephiny paused momentarily, thinking, " ... since Dion made love to me nearly two weeks ago!"

"Humph. Thatís not much of an accomplishment on my behalf," Solari snorted. "My best attempt at satisfying you, and it only ranks up there with a man?!"

Ephiny smiled and gently kneaded one of Solariís swollen, reddish breasts. "Give it time, my love. This was only our fourth lovemaking session -- youíll get better with time. Besides, it was unfair of me to compare you to Dion ... when we were making love, it was an effort to conceive a daughter -- the highest goal possible for an Amazon practicing the art of lovemaking."

Solari broke into a broad grin, her razor sharp fangs glimmering in the early morning light. "That session with Dion must have been a doozy -- all of Themiscrya was buzzing about it the morning after."

"Oh, really?" Ephiny demurred.

"Really," Solari reaffirmed. "Velasca must have forgotten to tell you about it. Probably because she was so intent on transforming you and Thraso into her Bacchic lieutenants."

"She succeeded in that part of her mission," Ephiny admitted. "But she also inadvertently succeeded in sparking open passion between you and I for the first time."

Solari grinned wolfishly. "I never told anyone this ... but when I was screwing the fathers of my daughters, Isis and Cera, I fantasized that they were really you!"

"Iím honored to hear that," Ephiny growled playfully. She leaned over and locked her full, red lips on Solariís. A minute passed before the passionate kiss ended. Ephiny sat back and said, "Thraso, however, probably wouldnít be too amused with your fantasies -- after all, she came into existence because I made love to her. Hera certainly knows how to throw a wrench into a personís life, doesnít she?"

"Iíve heard enough about Dionís transformation into an Amazon," Solari scolded lightly. "I want to resume our lovemaking session and, for once, outgun somebody else in satisfying you."

"Hold your horses," Ephiny replied. She crawled over and pushed Solari to the lodgeís floor. "This time, Iím going to be the one on top."

She proceeded to straddle her prostrate lover and began to gently suckle a swollen nipple to attention. It seemed like an eternity to Solari before Ephiny released her aroused nipple and began to gently rub her swollen sex against Solariís wet orifice. In an instant both of the womenís swollen, furry mounds were connected to each other, labial lips sliding over each otherís sex-slicked pubices. Solari screamed joyously as electricity seemed to arc between Ephiny and her -- she exploded outward and saw her pent-up passion spray over Ephinyís sweaty, naked body. Moments later Ephiny climaxed as well, slathering Solariís sex and inner thighs with her own hot love juices.

Ephinyís mind was a wild ocean of lust and constant tidal waves of orgasmic energy and lust slammed up against her steadily weakening barriers. See? whispered the Baccha within her. Itís not that bad. Whatís better than an eternal life of lovemaking, orgies, drunkenness and immense physical power? You and Solari, together, can help millions of other downtrodden women across the known world experience life as a Baccha. Donít resist it!

Ephiny railed mentally against the Baccha that she had been transformed into by Gabrielle. Oh gods, yes it feels great! she cried out silently. But the price is too high -- too many broken lives, too many destroyed families and the needless deaths of the innocent!

Who cares about the so-called innocents? the Baccha snarled. Men! Amazons hate most of them for a very good reason ... they seek to dominate the female half of humanity! And then there are the traitors to women everywhere -- the pampered female royalty of the ruling classes. And what of the innocent children? Itís so easy to conceive a child, so why should we be concerned with their deaths?

Ephiny had been losing the war against her Bacchic alter ego, but the mere mention of dying children steeled her will against the dark side that was nearly successful in seducing her. The price is too high, she reiterated mentally.

Unaware of Ephinyís struggle, Solari continued to enjoy the pure lust that Ephiny poured down on her like an enormous, sky-engulfing, summer thunderstorm. "When Bacchus resumes his offensive against our enemies, we will have thousands of new women to introduce to our ranks," she cooed mindlessly. "Together and with our other sisters we can show them the benefits of ... ," suddenly Solariís voice was cut off as Ephiny slapped a taloned hand across her mouth.

"That horned bastard wonít resume any offensive, if I have anything to say about it," she hissed. She twisted Solariís neck, exposing her loverís carotid artery, and plunged her fangs into the pliable flesh. Solari whimpered painfully, but Ephiny was too busy spitting out grotesque green slime from her mouth to even notice. The slithering slime was what was left of Solariís blood after it had been corrupted by her transformation.

For Solari, time blurred -- but only momentarily. She hadnít been a Baccha as long as many of her Amazon sisters, so the extent and depth of the horrid memories which had drowned Gabrielle and Xena after Ephiny bit them wasnít quite as severe for her. But it was bad enough. Images of Ephiny struggling futility against Gabrielleís ravishing fangs. Thrasoís confused face as it slowly acquired a chalky white visage and a pair of viperish fangs -- all because Solari had bitten the newly-formed Amazon. Countless images of her talking with Ordahlia and another image of her holding a newborn girl while attempting to converse to Eponin, who refused to even look at her corrupted friend. A flash of light blinded her mindís eye and the suffocating Baccha personality shattered into a million pieces and retreated in shock and confusion to the edge of her conscious mind.

Ephinyís worried face creased with a smile when she felt Solari stirring weakly beside her. She looked down at her friend and grinned even wider when Solariís eyelids fluttered open, revealing stunning golden eyes. "By Artemis, that was one Tartarus of a hangover," Solari grumped weakly. "What was in that Athenian wine we drank? Some of Artemisí personal stock?"

"Donít try to deny it, Solari," Ephiny said firmly, seeing past the barrier her friend had erected against reality. "I know youíre feeling terrible about some of the things you did while under your dark sideís complete domination."

"I tried to fight the desires," Solari whispered. "But I failed -- and Lexoria and so many others paid the price for my failure!" Solariís barriers came down in an instant. "It was awful ... some of the things I did. By Artemis! The way I initially came on to you right after your transformation. I took advantage of ... ,"

"You took advantage of no one," Ephiny replied quietly. "It was only a matter of time before you, or I, made our feelings for each other public. Bacchus managed to hurry up the process somewhat -- and in a more erotic, lusty manner than we ordinarily would have."

"There were no ceremonies or rites announcing our pairing. Just plain hard-core sex," Solari moaned.

"We can worry about the formalities later on," Ephiny announced. "Right now we have to finish ridding the nation of Bacchusí presence. Without the support of the Amazon nation, the rest of his little empire in Macedonia will collapse like a house of cards." She paused, staring at Solari, then asked, "You do remember everything, right?"

Solari tapped her head knowingly. "Everything up to and including Velascaís sinking her fangs into my sex. After that itís kind of a haze."

"She bit you where?!" Ephiny asked, astounded.

"I, ah, we can talk about it later," Solari said haphazardly. I donít really want to talk about that particular experience right now, she added silently.

"You bet we will," Ephiny declared. "I heard that Velasca was somewhat kinky -- but that takes the cake! I wonder how many other sisters sheís violated in her quest to unite us under Bacchusí aegis."

"Too many," Solari replied quietly. Velasca had bragged to her about the dozens of ways she had introduced other Amazons to the wild ways of the Bacchae. Tit bites, ass bites, lip bites and she even bit a few of them right on their vaginas, Solari thought. If thereís a way to initiate a woman into the Bacchae, Velascaís done it.

* * *

"We have terrible news, milord," Eribas intoned solemnly. "There is a threat against us massing in the Macedonian town of Dium -- the remnants of Dionís army have gathered together and are preparing to stab north into our territory. It also appears theyíre numbers are much larger than we initially anticipated."

Bacchus rocked back and forth on his throne, eerily silent. "What of it?" he finally spat. "Dion himself is now a full member of the Amazon nation and his successor, Zelius, doesnít have half the capabilities of Dion. Besides, the so-called army massing in Dium is composed of mere mortal men and material ... they donít stand a chance against us or our Amazon allies."

Caria stepped forward. "Shall we dispatch some of our sisters to conquer Dium and destroy this little tumor before it grows into a malignancy?"

"At this time, I cannot allow that," Bacchus rumbled. He ignored the surprised looks on his lieutenantsí faces. "My father, Zeus, has forbidden me from expanding my earthly empire for the time being -- and even I dare not cross swords with the king of the gods."

"But, but ... ," Eribas stammered helplessly. "Thatís not fair! We earned this land and its inhabitants fair and square. We defeated the soldiers on the field of battle and transformed their women into ravishing, eternal Bacchae!"

Bacchus nodded in agreement. "Itís not fair, yes, but right now thereís nothing we can do about it. I am working on a possible solution to Zeusí interference, however. After all, I do have allies on Olympus." Bacchus fell silent, then tersely asked, "What about this hunter whoís been picking off our patrols? Have you learned anything else about this monster?"

"There havenít been any further attacks against our patrols along our frontier with the Amazons," Caria supplied.

Eribas turned on Caria and shrieked, "Well, duh! If there had been, we would have heard about them by now!"

"Silence!" Bacchus roared angrily, deflecting the argument before it could really begin. He held his taloned hands up to his throbbing temples. Donít they ever stop bickering?! he thought indignantly. "I donít have any time for this insane infighting! What have you discovered about the attacker?!"

"The attacks against us have ceased," Caria resumed. "Thereís been no word from our Amazon sisters about any attacks in their territory so I think itís safe to assume that the attacker was an aberration."

"What do you mean?" Bacchus asked, genuinely curious.

"The attacker was probably someone who had access to a small cache of Dryad weaponry and decided to use it against the oppressors -- us," Caria said darkly. "It was probably a collector of Dryad weaponry who committed the crimes. It was our understanding that our Amazon sisters managed to kill all of the collectors and anybody else with Dryad weaponry -- but they obviously must have missed one of them."

"And the attacker was a male," Eribas interjected, adding her two cents worth. "I studied some of the footprints near the site of Lanaís untimely death. They were much too large to have belonged to a woman and the deep impressions lends credibility to my supposition that the male was fairly heavy -- probably around 200 pounds."

Bacchus smiled malevolently, finally piecing the puzzle together. "The footprints this man left behind means that heís not a god. Heís a mere mortal who happened to have a small stash of Dryad weaponry." He swiveled his head toward Caria and asked, "What are the odds this murderer will resurface?"

"Slim to none," Caria reassured her lord. "He used up his stash of Dryad weapons when he dispatched Lanaís patrol group. Undoubtedly he has resumed his normal day-to-day activities by now -- and we wonít be able to find him in order to dispense proper justice."

"I wouldnít say that just yet," Bacchus rumbled ominously. "How many villages are within the vicinity of the attack which killed Lana and the others?"

"Salimus, Quasius and Carnae are nearby," Eribas replied. "Why?"

"I want those villages eradicated from the face of the Earth by sunrise tomorrow," Bacchus hissed. "Transform any women you find in the villages, kill the men and, last but not least, slaughter all of the children."

Eribasí own transformation had rendered her cold-hearted, but even she blanched at the monstrous order. "Milord, that, thatís over a thousand villagers youíve sentenced to death!"

"That seems to be a reasonable price to exact from those who would execute their protectors," Bacchus mused idly. "Besides, what are a thousand dead mortals compared to the unwarranted deaths of Lana and the others? Whoís more valuable, Eribas? Mere mortals or eternal Bacchae?"

"B, Bacchae, milord," Eribas gulped.

"I knew you would agree with me," Bacchus said softly. "Now go ... and donít take as long to finish this assignment as itís taking the Amazons to conquer those damn Thracian villages!" Eribas skittered from the throne chamber, trailed by Caria. Suddenly she was frozen in place by Bacchusí evil voice. "Not you, Caria. I have another assignment for you."

She spun around and faced her master. "What is your command, milord?"

"While Eribas is wiping those villages out, I want you to gather a significant force of your sisters together and make preparations for a possible invasion by Zeliusí army."

"I thought you said they were mere mortals," Caria grumbled. "What threat could they possibly pose to us?"

"Never underestimate your enemy," Bacchus replied sweetly. "Zelius may not be as good a general as Dion was, but an invasion by his army into our territory would be ... ," he paused, thinking, " ... disconcerting, to say the least. And it would give some of our subjects a reason to rise up in rebellion against our rule."

Caria smiled, her fangs glimmering wetly. "Our defenses shall be tripled within a week, milord!" Then she vanished through the gaping doorway, her footsteps echoing hollowly behind her.

* * *

"Thraso, itís time we had a little talk," Ephiny announced. She wrapped her arm around the young woman and stared meaningfully at her. "Itís time to answer any questions that you might have about your new nation."

"Gabrielle answered all my questions for me," Thraso replied evenly. "Please let me go -- Xena wants to discuss some of my responsibilities as one of her lieutenants in the upcoming Thracian campaign."

Another woman slid up next to Thraso and wrapped an arm around her shoulder. "That can wait," Eponin said firmly. "Surely Gabrielle didnít have the time to answer all of your questions."

"Arenít you supposed to be overseeing the care of Themiscryaís children?" Thraso inquired. "And isnít it a little bit dangerous to be wandering around alone? Youíre not a Baccha, but that can change -- and quickly."

Eponin opened her mouth, but Ephiny interceded. "Sheís under my protection. No one will transform Eponin while Iím around," she hissed. "And Iíve entrusted the care of our infant daughters to the other caregivers -- Eponin isnít the only caregiver, you know. Now, are we going to sit here all day and argue or are you going to ask us some meaningful questions?"

Thraso realized that she was sandwiched between Ephiny and Eponin and really didnít have a choice in the matter. Anyway, I do have some questions I would like to ask them, she thought. Gabrielle was a bit heavy about the glory that lay ahead for the nation under Bacchusí rule. She looked into Ephinyís beautiful golden eyes and mumbled, "I will follow wherever you go."

"Thatís better," Ephiny said, smiling. "I know this great place about a candlemark north of Themiscrya where Solari and I always go to celebrate good times. Thatís as good a place as any to discuss any questions you have."

The trio proceeded north out of the bustling Amazon capitol, winding their way on a broad path through hilly, forested land. Before long a smaller trail branched off from the main path and disappeared into a copse of heavy, old oak trees. Before long Eponin and Thraso were seated on a big log -- Eponin was roasting a wild chicken she had caught for herself while Ephiny rummaged about her rucksack. Eventually she pulled three corked gourds out and offered two of them to her companions.

"I donít drink blood," Eponin sniffed haughtily.

"Thatís why I filled your gourd with Athenian wine from my own personal stock," Ephiny countered. She uncorked her gourd and took a deep draught of rich, red blood. A wave of lust washed over her, but she resisted the temptation. "Are there any other complaints?"

Eponinís eyes lighted up the moment Ephiny mentioned that the pro-offered gourd was brimming with Athenian wine. "None whatsoever, my queen," she said humbly. "I shall enjoy your precious gift."

Thraso savored the last drop of blood as it slid down her throat, barely registering the banter between her sisters. Finally the buzz in her head faded away and she realized, again, that she was sandwiched between Ephiny and Eponin. Why do I always end up in the middle of things? she asked herself sourly. She tried to move, but Eponin was sandwiched too tight against her. I see the concept of personal space has no meaning to Eponin.

"Here you go, Ephiny," Thraso remarked, reaching to hand the empty gourd to her regent queen. Ephiny reached to grab the gourd, but instead she made a feint and grabbed Thrasoís arm and held it tightly. Ephiny smiled cruelly, exposing her razor-sharp fangs, which dripped with hot saliva. "What are you doing?!" Thraso asked excitedly.

"I am going to free you from your blind loyalty to Bacchus," Ephiny replied. "Hold still. This should take only a minute or two -- and, yes, it will sting."

"Are you out of your mind?!" Thraso yelped. She jerked her arm from Ephinyís grasp, but the regent queen was quick; she managed to reacquire Thrasoís arm after a brief scuffle. "Let me go!"

Ephiny was shocked at the raw strength exhibited by Thraso. I didnít realize she was so strong! she thought angrily. Ephiny glanced over at Eponin, who watched in slack-jawed wonder. The way she looks, youíd never imagine she was aware of my plan -- even though I told her everything yesterday! "Eponin, I could use a little assistance here!"

Eponin snapped out of her reverie and reached over to help, but Thraso saw what she was doing and lashed out. "I told you to watch your step -- now itís time to join our ranks!" she hissed. "Together we will defeat Ephiny!" Eponin saw the attack coming and jerked away, but it was too late ... she screamed in pain and flopped off the log as Thrasoís taloned fingers sliced across her bare arm, drawing blood.

It didnít take long for Ephiny to realize that she had lost control of the situation. She managed to quickly subdue Thraso and bit her hard and deep, drawing mouthfuls of greenish ichor into her unwilling mouth. She dropped an insensate Thraso to the ground, spat the repulsive ichor out, and scrambled over to where Eponin lay twitching and trembling violently. "It wasnít supposed to happen this way," Ephiny sobbed as she watched as Eponinís eyes slowly acquired a sickly, golden hue. "You werenít supposed to be transformed!"

Eponinís mind registered Ephinyís words, but she didnít respond immediately. I donít want to become like the others -- Ephiny, I donít have the protection she has against the Baccha Iím turning into! She felt her lips puffing and swelling into full, red Baccha lips. Suddenly the roof her mouth exploded in pain as her incisors abruptly erupted into half-inch long needle-like fangs that were barely concealed by her new lips. She saw her beautiful, trimmed fingernails elongate and sharpen into inkish black talons. Words finally escaped from her tortured mouth.

"It appears that Iím becoming a late blooming Baccha," Eponin whispered painfully. Her mind was still her own, but not for much longer.

"This isnít funny, Eponin!" Ephiny cried bitterly. "Artemis said I could only free five of my sisters with the ambrosia she gave me. Iíve got one bite left and I have to save that one for Siri!"

"Then let me go," Eponin wheezed. She sat up and hooked her taloned fingers beneath her twitching chest armor. The insane lust was building inside her, threatening to erupt -- and then it suddenly exploded outward and Eponin ripped her leather armor off, exposing her swollen, chalky-white breasts to the blazing noon sun. She growled like a trapped animal and grabbed Ephiny. "Iím losing control. You have to knock me out hard so I wonít remember anything. Do it and get out of here -- one of the patrol groups will be along soon. I will ... ," Eponinís mouth twisted upward into an unwanted evil smile, " .... come back with them."

"But you will be a full-fledged Baccha by then," Ephiny finished. When Eponin didnít reply, but merely stared at her mindlessly, she knew her friendís mind had finally been conquered.

"Thereís nothing wrong with becoming another follower for milord, Bacchus," Eponin cooed deliriously.

"You donít know what youíre saying," Ephiny replied calmly. She pulled her arm back, curled her taloned hand into a fist, and slammed forward with all of her power. Her rock-hard fist slammed into Eponinís unsuspecting face and the warrior fell backwards, unconscious. "Forgive me, my friend," Ephiny whispered.

"What, what happened?" a weak, wavering voice asked.

Ephiny whirled at the unexpected voice before realizing that it was Thraso. "You managed to transform Eponin into a bloodsucker before I could free you from Bacchusí mental domination, thatís what," Ephiny spat.

Thraso shakily climbed to her feet and weaved her way over to her sisterís unconscious, half-naked chalky-white body and shuddered. "I didnít realize what my attack would do to her. I, I regret my actions now -- I didnít want to change Eponin into a Baccha."

"I know you didnít," Ephiny replied dejectedly. "Gabrielle, Xena and Solari said the same exact thing -- I was just hoping that your scratch wouldnít have such a profound effect on Eponin."

"Unfortunately, it did."

"Letís get moving -- I donít want to be around when Eponin wakes up. Memory or no memory, the first thing sheís going to want is blood," Ephiny explained. "And I used up our supply during my attempt to keep you distracted long enough to bite you."

* * *

Diana pushed aside the guards that Solari had assigned to protect Velasca in the Queenís Lodge and stalked up to the foot of her throne. Dianaís chalky white face was flushed with what appeared to be rage. "My queen, I have received distressing news from Electraís patrol group ... ,"

"I already know about it," Velasca whispered angrily. "Electra told me herself about twenty minutes ago about stumbling upon the remains of Antiopeís patrol group -- or, rather, what was left of them."

"This is a provocation! I knew those damn peasant Bacchae were jealous of our nationís bond with Bacchus, but now theyíve stepped across the line," Diana hissed. "I say we strike now and ... ,"

Velasca held her taloned hand up, silencing her ranting lieutenant. "It wasnít Eribas, Caria or any of their followers who did this," she intoned imperiously. "This act of war was done by those marauding Thracians!"

"But how? We havenít made any obvious moves against them and we havenít strengthened our border defenses along the Thracian frontier," Diana said, exasperated. "They have no reason to suspect an attack from us -- weíve hidden our plans from them too well."

"Bring Xena and her lieutenants to me," Velasca sniffed. "The Thracians have discovered her plans and compromised them -- she will have to move out immediately before the Thracians can organize any further!"

Diana shook her head. "Itís too late to alter Xenaís war plans -- her forces are scheduled to move out tomorrow at the crack of dawn ... not a moment sooner! Thatís when the last of the women from the outer Amazon territories will arrive! She canít effectively control any newly-acquired territory and peoples with only half of her projected strength present!" A brief pause. "Even supernatural soldiers have their limits."

Velasca bared her fangs and hissed, "Donít you dare to criticize the warrior princess! Sheís one of your ablest sisters and Iím sure sheís had carefully calculated timetables turned into chaos before." She paused dramatically, then added, "She will adjust her timing accordingly ... and with the likes of Ephiny, Solari, Gabrielle and Thraso at her command, that shouldnít be too difficult."

Confusion clouded Dianaís mind. "My Queen, I wasnít criticizing Xena! You were the ... ,"

"Yes you were!" Velasca rumbled ominously. The murderous look in her eyes conveyed to Diana just how much she suddenly, and inexplicably, felt for Xena.

Diana knew that she had crossed some invisible line and dared not push Velasca any further. Bacchus knows what she does to those who question her judgment. So she simply nodded mutely and left the lodge to inform Xena that her presence was required by the Queen. And to warn her and the others about Velascaís peculiar mood swings.

* * *

"How are you dealing with Eponinís transformation into a Baccha?" Gabrielle asked. She was sitting next to Ephiny, who just stared straight ahead into eternity.

"I never took into consideration how vulnerable she was," Ephiny replied sadly. "It took me over an hour yesterday to even convince her that I wasnít the Baccha I appeared to be! And after I told her about Artemis and our crusade to destroy Bacchus, all Eponin could talk about was joining the cause." Ephiny drooped her head. "I should have known that Thraso might counterattack before I managed to liberate her personality ... but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine she would create another Baccha in an effort to subdue me."

Gabrielle glanced over at Thraso, who remained sullenly silent. "Donít mind me, princess," she spat bitterly. "Iím doing a great job punishing myself for my actions."

"You thought you were under attack and frenzied," Gabrielle offered. "You seem to be forgetting that all of us here know what itís like to be a bloodsucker -- by Tartarus, weíre all still technically Bacchae."

The conversation fell silent when Xena entered Ephinyís lodge and sat down heavily. "I just saw Eponin not too long ago," she announced. "She was being escorted in by Lysara and another scout I donít know -- both of them looked downright happy to have another sister join the ranks of the Bacchae."

"Thereís nothing we can do about it now," Ephiny said quietly. "I have the ability to give one more sister a degree of mental freedom, and Iíve already decided to take Siri."

"If youíre going to make your move, I suggest you do it soon," Solari observed. "Siri has made plans to return to her tribe tonight. She told me that she misses her mother, Mayem, and the companionship of Lucenne, one of her closest friends."

Ephiny acknowledged Solariís advice with a curt nod. "Thatís a five day journey one way on foot-- Mayemís tribe is one of the farthest ones from Themiscrya, almost right on top of those Thracian villages weíll be setting out to conquer tomorrow morning."

Everyone fell silent when the hides cloaking the lodgeís entrance were pushed aside by Diana. Hmmm. Something looks so strange here, she thought warily. Ephiny, Xena, Solari, Gabrielle and Thraso all together -- some of the nationís greatest minds gathered together to discuss military strategies I suppose.

"What do you want?" Xena finally snapped after Diana remained strangely silent.

"Our great queen, Velasca, demands your immediate presence in her lodge," Diana said. "Bring your lieutenants with you -- youíre going to need them."

"Why?"

"Because your battle plans have been compromised. The Thracians know all about our impending attack on them," Diana replied suavely.

"Thatís impossible," Xena rumbled. "Nobody outside of myself, Velasca and my trusted lieutenants knows anything about the battle plans." She glared at the interloper. "Youíre not implying that I have a leak in my command structure, are you?"

Dianaís mouth fell open in genuine shock. "I am implying nothing, sister. I am simply relaying Velascaís orders."

"How have Xenaís plans been undermined?" Thraso asked unexpectedly. Her voice held a measure of disbelief.

"That is for Velasca to tell you," Diana remarked. "Now get moving -- Velascaís impatience is legendary, especially when sheís angry. And sheís really angry today."

* * *

"Our failure to negate the towns on our northern perimeter within Thrace has led to the needless deaths of our sisters Antiope, Nadia and Arista," Velasca pronounced solemnly. "This act of war cannot go unpunished."

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged surprised glances. This was news to them -- there was something out there actually capable of killing a Baccha. "Why do you blame the Thracians for the attack?" Xena queried. "It could have been one of Bacchusí dissatisfied subjects, an angry god or a preemptive strike by Eribas and the other peasant Bacchae."

"Yes. We have no idea of how low our non-Amazon allies have run on blood," Gabrielle said. "Furthermore, the deaths occurred deep within our territory ... I find it hard to believe that Thracians could have penetrated that far."

Velasca shook her head venomously. "I already discussed possible culprits with Diana and we both eventually came to the conclusion that the attackers were Thracian," she lied. Velasca ignored the sarcastic, Yeah, right! look Diana tossed in her direction. "Theyíre the only ones who have the capability left to offer some kind of resistance -- all the other possible rabble-rousers were destroyed by our enforcers!"

"Have there been other attacks?" Ephiny interrupted, looking steadily at Velasca.

"No ... not, ah, any that Iíve heard of," she sputtered angrily. "Why?"

"Have there been any unusual activity among the Macedonians, Thracians or Eribas and Cariaís forces?" Ephiny asked, ignoring Velascaís question.

"There has been nothing out of the unusual," Velasca said firmly. "Now answer me -- why are you asking such idiotic questions?"

Ephiny blanched. "Call them what you will, but I think weíre making a big stink out of a minor debacle."

Solariís curiosity was piqued, and she asked, "You consider three of our sistersí deaths a Ďminor debacleí?"

"Their deaths are tragic, yes, but I think the attack is part of something larger," Ephiny said defensively. "The only problem is ... weíre not looking at the larger picture!"

"I donít care what you think," Velasca declared hotly. She turned to Xena and growled, "Iíd rather have that damn army of yours rolling tonight, but Diana has told me that dawnís first light tomorrow is the earliest you can leave! No more delays -- do you understand me?!" Xena nodded, but remained silent. Velasca grumped, "Good. Now get your butts out of here, all of you! If anything else goes awry, I will be more than happy to promote Ariel, Helen and Arianna from second-tier lieutenants to first-tier lieutenants!"

Outside of the Queenís Lodge, Xena pulled Ephiny aside and whispered, "What were you talking about when you mentioned something larger?"

"I donít know yet," Ephiny replied honestly. "I wonít have any further information until the last of the representatives from the outlying tribes come in tonight for the weekly briefing about the state of the nation."

"And?"

"And theyíll bring with them any news concerning dead patrol groups," Ephiny replied. "If my hunch is correct, the deaths of Antiope and the others werenít coincidental -- Iím hoping I can establish a pattern with more information. But I canít do that until I know whatís been happening in the outer marches of the Amazon nation."

"When do the representatives get here?" Xena asked.

Ephiny began counting mentally. "Before Bacchus conquered the nation, it took the farthest tribes at least three days to get a representative to Themiscrya via horseback," she calculated aloud. "Since all the Amazons are Bacchae now, and need less rest, a horserider could conceivably reach Themiscrya in two days."

"No, no. When does the meeting begin?" Xena asked, exasperation in her voice.

"Tonight, in about six candlemarks," Ephiny said. "Thatís when the last rider should arrive. Iíll attend the meeting to see if any new information arrives."

"What about Velasca? Wonít she be there, too?" Xena asked. She saw a young Amazon approaching her and bared her teeth menacingly -- the intruding Amazon quickly got the message and left. "Hurry up. Weíre beginning to draw unwanted attention from our admirers."

Ephiny smiled grimly. "Velasca has made me attend the nation meetings in her place since I was initiated," she confided. "I guess she got tired of listening to the bureaucrats, as she called them."

"Good. That means weíll be the first to know about any additional slayings," Xena rumbled.

* * *

Ephiny slipped into the vast communal sleeping lodge and surveyed the interior -- trying to get a glimpse of Siri. Dozens of young women were in various states of undress, readying themselves for a good nightís sleep by themselves or, if they were lucky, with a beloved companion. Ephiny glanced out the entrance and grew worried; the sun was beginning to set low in the sky. Solari was pretty sure that Siri was still in Themiscrya, but she must have been mistaken, Ephiny thought slowly.

"May I be of some assistance?" an unfamiliar voice asked behind Ephiny. She spun around and realized that the voice belonged to Lexoria. "You seem to be looking for a sister -- who is it?"

"Siri. Have you seen her lately?" Ephiny asked softly.

Lexoria shook her head. "I know the name, but not the person. She wasnít from Themiscrya, was she?"

"No, she wasnít," Ephiny muttered. She was growing more distressed by the second. "Do you know where she is? Iíve been looking all over the village for her."

"I think she left for her tribeís lands," Lexoria supplied. "She looked awfully homesick."

"When did she leave?!"

"About two candlemarks ago. Why?"

Ephiny cursed under her breath and scrambled from the lodge. She ran over to the stables to get a horse, but they were empty. Since when did the scouts and patrol groups need over a hundred horses to carry out their duties? Ephiny thought angrily. Only Argo was there -- and she whinnied and leaned away when Ephiny got near her. Animals must be able to sense when something isnít right about a person, Ephiny thought sourly. It looks like Iím going to have to do some fast running ... Siriís got at least a two candlemark lead on me.

Actually, Siri was only a candlemark away from Themiscrya. She was resting off the side of the path, bemoaning her situation. If only I had been bitten right away, when Velasca upstaged her own trial, then I could have ridden back to Chorosis with Mayem and the other tribal representatives, she thought sadly. She rummaged around in her rucksack and pulled out a gourd filled with hard liquor. It isnít Athenian wine, but itís the best stuff they were able to cook up on a dayís notice. Siri pulled out another gourd, this one filled with fresh blood, and then a large empty mug. She mixed a liberal amount of liquor in with an equal part of blood and downed the dizzying concoction in a single gulp. Whooee! Thatís powerful stuff! she thought happily. And then she passed out.

For once in her life, Ephiny was grateful to Bacchus. Her stamina and strength had doubled since her transformation and now the enhancements were coming into use. She had been running non-stop for a little over one candlemark when she finally spied a figure slumped over next to the path. Ephiny slowed down and listened intently to the forest around her. Good. None of my patrolling sisters are nearby -- I can finish this business up without interruption. She tiptoed over to the slumped figure and lifted her chin. Yes! It is Siri! Ephiny thought triumphantly. She glanced around the young woman and saw the nearly empty liquor and blood gourds. Ooh, Siri. I didnít know you were the type to mix and drink ... you generally donít do that unless youíre experienced. She looked down at the snoozing young woman and smiled, exposing her fangs. Obviously, you werenít experienced, Siri. Then she stooped over and bit Siri square on the neck.

* * *

"You could have given me some warning, you know," Siri grumbled. She rubbed the nearly healed bite wound on her neck and grimaced. "By Artemis! You sure know how to leave your mark on a woman."

"Ha, ha. Real funny," Ephiny replied lightly. "You were drunk and passed out ... and an easy target. I couldnít resist the temptation. Especially after my last attempt to free a sister went, shall we say, to Tartarus."

Siri glanced at her liberator. "What went wrong?"

"Thraso managed to initiate Eponin before I was able to free her mind from Bacchusí machinations," Ephiny said glumly. "Shit happens -- but I just wish it hadnít happened to Eponin."

The sound of pounding hoofbeats silenced the women. Siri stared into the distance and saw the horse drawing nearer. "It looks like our ride back to Themiscrya is here. Shall we flag her down?"

Ephiny nodded. "And what a coincidence the rider happens to be a representative from your tribe bringing in the weekly tactical and societal report."

Siri jumped up and began waving wildly at the thundering horse, which came to a sudden stop. Siri recognized the rider immediately and yelled for joy. "Lucenne! What in Art, er, Bacchusí name are you doing here?"

"Mayem figured that since I wasnít the most skilled fighter, I would do better as a courier," Lucenne replied slowly. Her fangs glinted dully behind her swollen, crimson lips. "Our tribeís peripheral attacks against the Thracians are going well! Mayem alone picked off seven men the other day."

"I love friendly reunions, but we must get to Themiscrya as soon as possible," Ephiny interrupted gently. She gestured at Lucenneís horse. "May we hitch a ride with you?"

Lucenne nodded agreeably. "Anything to help my sisters out ... especially you, Siri."

Siri acknowledged her friendís compliment and climbed up on the giant horse, followed by Ephiny. Lucenne poked the horse gently and the threesome vanished into the early evening.

* * *

The meeting started out diplomatically enough, but it quickly degenerated into accusations and counter accusations. It was no surprise that Ephiny, as the Queenís representative, was the target of most of the accusations. But she was damn good at tossing counter accusations right back with the best of them.

"Eight of our finest scouts have vanished in the last week and a half!" a representative rumbled ominously.

"Eight?!" another asked incredulously. "By Bacchus! Weíve lost ten scouts!"

"Itís all Velascaís fault!" a third representative cried out, pointing an accusatory finger at Ephiny. "Whereís this damn golden age that she promised Bacchus would deliver us as his followers?! All Iíve seen since are empty celebrations and stagnation since the fall of Pella! If this is Velascaís version of a golden age, Iíll gladly proclaim that sheís a mere shadow compared to Queen Hippolyta!"

Ephiny raised her arms, silencing the two dozen or so representatives. "This bickering isnít getting us anywhere," she said needlessly. She motioned to one her sisters, who stepped forward with a large, ragged piece of papyrus. Ephiny proceeded to scrawl out topographical features and the general locations of Amazon villages and tribal lands.

"Howís a map supposed to bring our infighting to a diplomatic end?" Lucenne asked curiously.

"I want each one of you to mark out the approximate locations of where each of your scouts vanished," Ephiny explained to the assembled group. "And donít ask why -- just do it!"

A candlemark later, Ephiny hoisted the marked map up on an easel, so all could see it. Well before this time, she had seen a pattern developing -- now she wanted to see if the others had also seen it. "Well ... see anything unusual?" she asked coolly.

"The attacks -- theyíre all in a fairly straight line!" Lucenne said, giving voice to her thoughts.

Smart girl, Ephiny approved mentally. She might not be much of a warrior, but sheís got great potential as a true stateswoman. "You are correct," Ephiny said earnestly. "From the first missing scout group just inside our border to the most recent missing groups south of Mayemís lands, the attacks are nearly linear in nature."

"Someone or something is making a beeline through our lands!" another voice cried out, interrupting Ephiny. "Who dares to violate our heartland like that?!"

Oh Hades! Here we start to go again ...

"Itís the damn Macedonians!" an older woman rumbled. Her elaborate black ebony war mask was accentuated a pale body with festooned with colorful feathers. It was obvious her voice would carry weight. "It looks like theyíre trying to link up with the Thracian barbarians!"

"We have to stop them!"

Ephiny held her hands up again. "And that we will ... by smashing the Thracian villages along our northern frontier within days!"

"Thatís what Velasca promised us weeks ago!" the older woman huffed. "We should have been gorging ourselves on Thracian blood long ago -- and yet we find ourselves here, still discussing military options!"

Hmm. Another potential loose cannon ... Velasca said Bacchus wanted the villages taken peacefully with no bloodshed -- man or otherwise, Ephiny wisely thought silently. I wonít try to explain that to her now, though. "Xena is moving her forces out in the morning," she said aloud. "So that part of our grand plan will finally be achieved. That will leave only the pitiful remnants of Dionís army between us and the rest of Greece." Ephiny pointed specifically at the older representative. "And since your tribeís lands are the southernmost of the Amazon nation, I expect it to be in the forefront of any action to prevent future infiltrations like the current one!"

The older Amazon was somewhat taken aback at the veiled accusation that her tribe had somehow allowed killers into the heartland of the Amazon Nation. "Say what you will, Ephiny, but my tribe will stand strong despite the unusual abilities of these enemy intruders!"

"Whatís so unusual about them?" Ephiny asked sarcastically. "That they can apparently kill supposedly immortal Bacchae at will, is that it?"

"Itís no joke!" her adversary flared.

"No, it isnít," Ephiny agreed. "But keep in mind that we are trying to take over peoples and lands that havenít been in the Amazon fold for centuries, if ever! It was plausible that our efforts would bring out the best in our foes ... and whatever is killing our immortal sisters is one of their machinations!"

A deathly calm silence had descended over the representatives. Only now was the enormity of Ephinyís statement beginning to soak in. And a fearful undercurrent began to flow through them, as it does through any predator on the hunt: What other surprises might the current enemy and future enemies have at their disposal?

"No other questions?" Ephiny asked imperiously. A moment later, "Then so be it. Return to your lands, my sisters. Rest well knowing that soon we will have treated water supplies and that both the Macedonians and Thracians will finally lay in bloodied heaps at our triumphant feet." She raised her sword. "To our lord Bacchus!"

* * *

"Itís not quite as bad as I made it sound to the nationís representatives," Ephiny explained. She unfurled the map and laid it out for the others to examine. "Theyíre all getting restless -- even with Velasca. Itís only a matter of time before something bursts and they go on the war path with or without Velascaís approval."

Xena put aside the last part of Ephinyís statement and continued to study the map. Solari, Siri, Thraso and Gabrielle crowded around the map as well. "Well, weíre leaving in a few hours to deal with the Thracians," the warrior princess commented. "A few days of hard marching and weíll be on the outskirts of the Thracian villages -- weíll have to make our move to liberate the nation sometime during that marching period."

"We canít take an army with us," Ephiny sputtered. "We would become a prime target for attack, even though we are nearly immortal, and there would be too many prying eyes."

Thraso spoke up, a degree of confidence in her voice. "Then leave the army here -- make up an excuse that will pass Velascaís inspection -- and take a select group of our sisters whom you trust implicitly to distribute Heraís special dust into the nationís water supply ... ,"

"But we canít do that until we get our hands on some ambrosia ... ," Siri interrupted.

"And weíll never be able to distribute the mixture in time to all of the nationís water supply before Bacchus compels our sisters to do something dastardly," Gabrielle added. "Thereís simply too little time and too many wells."

Ephiny held her hands up, silencing the group. Xena looked on and nodded approvingly. "That is where your unfamiliarity with your own nation is to our benefit, Gabrielle," she said warmly.

"Whatís that supposed to mean?" Gabrielle shot back defensively.

Ephiny pulled out a quill, dipped it in an inkwell, and walked over to the map, where she proceeded to scrawl in a squiggling, wavy line. "I forgot to put that little topographical feature in before," she announced.

Gabrielle studied the line for a moment before voicing her realization. "Itís the Thermodon River," she said slowly. "And it traverses the entire length of the Amazon nation from the northernmost tribes to the southernmost tribes."

"Yes. Donít you remember we crossed it when we brought Velasca into the nationís land?" Xena said gently. "At that point it was a border water, but most of the time it winds through the heart of Amazon land -- providing most, if not all, of the tribesí drinking water."

"All we have to do, Gabrielle, is drop the dust/ambrosia mixture into the Thermodonís northern waters where it enters Amazon territory," Ephiny explained. "The current is swift, so the treated water will spread down the entire length of the river and its tributaries in a matter of days. Our sisters will drink from the waters and, voila!, they will be changed back to their normal selves. Mentally, at least."

Siri stepped forward. "But that still leaves the ambrosia! Where will we get it?"

"The Ambrosia Chamber is located somewhere on our route to Thrace," Ephiny explained. "But for the life of me, I cannot remember the way there."

"Weíll cross that bridge when the time comes," Xena said cryptically. "Iím sure that either you or Gabrielle will have a snippet of reference in the old brain that we can use to get there."

Thraso joined the conversation again. "So this is what weíre going to do: We leave the army here and go by ourselves to the Thracian villages. On the way, we will make a secret detour to the Ambrosia Chamber, hope for a miracle, and then combine Heraís dust with the ambrosia. Once we reach the northernmost waters of the Thermodon in Amazon land, weíll pour the mixture into the river and let nature take its course and ... ," she paused and took a deep breath, " ... then we finish up our little journey at the Thracian villages. Does that sound right?"

"I believe so," Ephiny concurred.

"That it is," Xena affirmed. "Once we reach the villages, perhaps we will find out who or what slaughtered our patrol groups and why."

* * *

Zelius had spent both his waking hours and sleeping hours over the past days trying to devise a solid enough plan to present to Crassius so the Athenian could avoid gutting the Amazon nation. But no matter how hard he tried, Dionís second-in-command could not fashion a plan concrete enough to withstand all the criticism that Crassius and, more importantly, his superiors in Athens could direct at it. By Hades! I canít even figure out a plan that escapes criticism by my own internal thought processes! Zelius thought dejectedly. He scrunched up another scroll and another worthless plan and tossed it aside. He was alone in his command tent, and four dour guards outside the tent made sure it stayed that way.

Truthfully, though, the Macedonian general wasnít alone. He reached out and grabbed a mug, in which a golden liquid sloshed around noisily. He took a deep draught and savored the cool liquor as it warmed his body. He knew it was wrong to drown his sorrows in hard liquor, but the pressure was building and time was growing short. No plan. No word from Astyanax. Nothing from the Amazons. What am I supposed to do?! Zelius thought angrily. Just then the flap to the command tent was flung open and the blinding brilliance of the morning sun lanced into the generalís bleary eyes. The Macedonian didnít see Crassius stride in, but he heard the manís voice. And the disapproval in it.

"Drinking again, eh?!" he asked curtly. Without warning, Crassius grabbed the mug from Zeliusí trembling hands, and took a tentative sip of the golden liquid. He grimaced and smashed the mug on the hard dirt floor, speckling Zelius with drops of the swill. "For Zeusí sake! At least you could choose some genuine wine, Zelius, instead of pap thatís lucky to pass for beer!"

Zelius ignored the Athenianís tirade. It was only the third one in as many days. "I usually donít drink, Crassius, but the stress has been getting to me ... ,"

"Thatís no excuse and you know it!" Crassius interrupted harshly. "Itís obvious that you havenít formulated a way to keep our armies from gutting the Amazons -- just look at the abuse youíre putting yourself through!"

"I give up ... ,"

Crassius had had enough of Zeliusí self-pity. Humph. No wonder he never got above second-in-command! the Athenian thought angrily. A moment later, he reconsidered his thoughts and decided he was being a little too harsh on his co-commander. The manís been through the loss of almost everything he holds dear ... so Iíll cut him a little slack. But only this one time! Crassius grabbed Zeliusí face and squeezed hard, directing the Macedonianís eyes up to look directly into his own. "Youíre not giving up! Thatís the easy way out -- and Iím sure your illustrious predecessor and friend, Dion, wouldnít approve."

Zelius jerked his head away from Crassiusí tightening grip and glared up at the general, knowing what he said was right, but still trying to deny the truth of it all. "Explain the purpose of your visit. Iím assuming thereís more to this than just bawling me out and making me feel guilty."

"Our advance forces are setting out from Dium two days from now," Crassius said shortly. "I just thought it would be appropriate to inform my co-commander of the timetable."

Two days?! Zelius thought frantically. Gods! How time flies when you least want it too! "I, ah, I ... ," he mumbled weakly, still trying to figure out the appropriate response.

"Spit it out, man!"

The Macedonian general was growing desperate. He suddenly spat, "Iíve got a man whoís infiltrated the lands of the Amazon nation! Heís attempting to make contact with normal Amazons to warn them of our impending attack against occupied Macedonia and -- eventually -- them!"

A deathly silence descended across the command tent, punctuated only by Crassiusí agitated breathing. The imposing Athenian general slammed his hands down on the table Zelius sat at, but the Macedonian held his ground, refusing to give up what little dignity he had left during the present situation. "Do you realize the risk that youíve taken with that liberty?!" Crassius breathed. "You may have just signed the death warrant for all of Greece!"

"How?!" Zelius sputtered indignantly. "I sent him off fully equipped with Dryad weaponry and orders to reach some Thracian towns which border the Amazon nationís frontier in Thrace!"

"You what?!" Crassius whispered furiously, barely succeeding in keeping his voice low. "Do you realize that the odds of your man finding any normal Amazons is next to nil?! Bacchus isnít known for being a sloppy conqueror ... when he attacks and conquers things, they tend to stay conquered because heís a thorough ruler who weeds out any and all opposition! And takes advantage of any resources he has access to -- in this case, the Amazons!" The Athenian began to pace around the tent, but he was far from being finished with Zelius. "And heís armed with Dryad weaponry. Great. Just great. Do you realize that if he gets captured or killed, Bacchus will become aware of not only our numbers, but the fact that we are armed with Dryad-based weaponry!"

"And timetables," Zelius added quietly.

Crassius rolled his eyes skyward. Tell me it canít get worse, Zeus. Please tell me that it canít. Upon hearing no reply from the king of the gods, the Athenian simply shrugged. Oh well. Didnít expect one anyway. He resumed staring at Zelius, but his temper cooled considerably as he calculated the odds. A minute later, he spoke, saying, "Your effort was noble, Zelius, but it will not change the timetable or the original attack plan. Iím willing to wager that if Bacchus hasnít launched a preemptive strike yet, heís not aware of your little ingenious plot. And even if he was, I donít think itís possible for him to muster the Amazons fast enough to halt our advance into his territory."

With no further ado, Crassius whirled and left the command tent, his voice trailing behind him. "If I were you, Zelius, I would snap out of your little depression. Your plans may have fallen through, but donít despair yet. Weíre quite a distance from Amazon territory -- and something may yet enlighten you." The Macedonian heard his compatriotís parting words, but did nothing but remain seated ... deep in thought.

* * *

Astyanax arrived near the perimeter of the largest Thracian town and slumped down next to an ancient, twisted oak tree. The scout was exhausted and covered from head to toe in scrapes and bruises. Gods! That last Amazon tribe was a Hades of a challenge -- especially that one who called herself Mayem! he thought miserably. And I thought it was hard crossing the heartland of the Amazon nation! He hadnít felt sorry for himself in a long time and was enjoying the experience when the horrible stench hit him like a rock from a catapult. It was then that he realized something was terribly wrong. He stood up and skulked in closer to the edge of the town for a closer view. Fortunately, the trees went right up to the edge of the meadow in which the town lay, so its inhabitants didnít see the intruder peering in.

The Macedonian scout saw women. More women. And then even more women! They were scurrying everywhere through the part of the town that Astyanax could see. Hmm. Thatís strange -- I thought I left the last of the Amazon nationís land about a candlemark ago, Astyanax thought, studying the women. Theyíre obviously wearing Amazon clothing and carrying Amazon weapons ... but this far out of their official territory?! For an instant the scout thought that maybe he was too late, that maybe Bacchus had also overrun this Thracian town, along with its neighbors. But he knew that couldnít be possible because he had just seen numerous women from Mayemís tribe exercising and working themselves up for some sort of impending offensive. He had also heard the names Xena, Ephiny and Thraso, among others, mentioned. But the only name he recognized was that of Xena, the warrior princess who had terrorized many peoples before apparently reforming herself. Maybe theyíre the surviving Amazons that Zelius told me about! Astyanax thought, growing excited. He was right! There are ...

Then he saw the bodies. Dozens, if not hundreds, of them. Closer to the hundreds, Astyanax thought morbidly. They were laid out in neat rows, but many of them still hung ominously from hastily erected gallows. And every single corpse was that of a male who had been stripped naked. Many had wounds on them, as if they had gone down fighting. Others, those of the little boys and ... Gods! No! ... male infants were a pale shade of blue, as if they had been asphyxiated. Astyanax felt himself beginning to retch, but managed to get it under control before his last meal of beef and beans came back up his throat. It was replaced by a sense of growing anger and rage. All of his objectivity had been stripped away upon sight of the little bodies. Itís ONE thing to kill an adult who can defend himself! But itís ANOTHER to kill those who can offer no resistance!

Heedless of his own safety and his low supply of Dryad-based arrows, Astyanax brought his compound bow to bear and sighted it on the nearest Amazon warrior. A second later the air was split by an arrow that imbedded itself in the womanís chest. She jerked spasmodically, stiffened, and fell to the ground dead. Another arrow screamed from the bow. And another. And yet another. When it was all done five Amazons lay dead, cut down in their prime and never knowing what hit them. Why arenít they bursting into flames?! Astyanax thought, his rage cooling only slightly. They should be nothing more than ash piles by now -- whatís going on?! Suddenly the canopies of the nearest trees began to rustle and tremble; eight Amazon warriors dropped to the ground, surrounding Astyanax in a loose circle. Four were armed with crossbows and four had nasty looking swords. And then the battle was joined.

"Youíll never take me alive!" Astyanax roared. He released another arrow, but it was expertly deflected by one of the womenís swords. The next thing the scout knew, two crossbow bolts had imbedded themselves in his own compound crossbow, rendering the weapon useless. It was eerie because none of the Amazons wasted their breath with senseless catcalls or taunting -- they simply circled their prey silently, prepared to counter his every move. Theyíre almost like land sharks! Astyanax thought furiously.

The scout was so preoccupied with his eight adversaries that he never saw the ninth Amazon, who stood on a branch directly over him. She scowled silently and then jumped down on her foe, sending him crashing to the ground, knocking the Macedonian unconscious. "Take him away," Tauri said curtly. "His eventual death will be long and drawn out, but not before he provides some of us with daughters. His seed, when combined with our essence, should create strong daughters."

Two Amazons unceremoniously grabbed Astyanax and hauled him off while the other six schlepped back up into the trees, vanishing from sight. Tauri shook her head in disgust and muttered, "Five of my sisters killed in cold blood. So much for our vaunted patrols." She fell silent and brooded, vowing to increase the practice allotment for the scouts by at least ten candlemarks a week. Because if we donít get our collective act together soon, weíll be of no use to our other sisters and, worse, will probably become mincemeat if other Thracians try to retake these towns..

* * *

Velasca was standing side by side with Xena, surveying the assembled ranks of Amazon warriors. As far as the eye could see were row upon row of neutral faced women, their golden eyes shimmering in the morning light, razor-sharp fangs concealed behind swollen, crimson lips. Other Amazons didnít show a single physical sign that they were really Bacchae, doing a better job of concealing their true nature than many of their other sisters. There were at least ten rows of warriors, one hundred in each row, for a total of one thousand ground troops. Behind these rows were five rows of horse mounted women, three rows of women in chariots and last, but not least, two rows of rather ordinary looking Amazons -- which, of course, was the farthest thing from the truth. They were really special forces women who did scout work, sabotage, subterfuge and other dirty little deeds that would occupy too much time of the regular armyís attention. All together, there were slightly over two thousand Amazons at Xenaís beck and call, a force larger than the one that conquered Pella and crushed the resistance in other Macedonian villages and towns. And, best of all, this was only the first of three battle groups -- the other two, of similar size and strength, were still organizing for the eventual march on the mainland cities of Greece. All together, the three battle groups represented half of the Amazon nationís combat strength, the other half being represented by warriors who would stay behind to protect their homeland from any surprise attack.

"Iím not taking any of these fine warriors with me," Xena said out of the blue.

Velasca felt what little color she had left draining from her pale face. She turned on the warrior princess and snarled, "I donít think so, Xena. Iíve given you plenty of leeway to make your own decisions regarding our foray into Thrace and have earned the animosity of some of the others in the process. But this goes too far ... nothing you say will allow me to accept this crazy change in plans."

"Want to bet?" Xena asked coolly, golden fire burning in her unearthly eyes.

Solari saw the warrior princessí eyes flash and knew that was the cue to pull Velasca aside. So she did and whispered, "Remember your little tirade last night about how Xenaís plans may have been corrupted?"

Velasca nodded, then protested, "But what does that have to do with now?! I thought that issue was settled!"

"Xena wouldnít tell me the specifics, but she has an inkling that the Thracians know all about our impending attack on them and have made proper preparations to stall it -- and they donít care if weíre Bacchae or not," Solari said quietly. "She feels that if we take an army into their lands, it will be a bloody battle ... ,"

"We would win!" Velasca interrupted hotly.

"Of course we would," Solari hissed. "But in the process we would have to kill hundreds of men and only Bacchus knows what collateral damage -- dead women, destroyed towns and burnt out land -- might occur."

Velasca nodded unhappily, recognizing the logic in Solariís argument and, conveniently, Bacchusí original commandment for as little bloodshed as possible. "Then so be it. Xena may carry out her latest revised plan with my blessing." A short pause, then, "Did she tell you anything about it?"

Solari shook her head mournfully. "All I know is that sheís taking me and a few others along with her," she said truthfully. "And it involves a quicker way to reduce our bloodthirstiness and take over the Thracian villages with little or no bloodshed."

"Then leave as soon as possible," Velasca said. "By the time you and Xena return, I expect to be less bloodthirsty and all three battle groups will be prepared to roll upon our lordís command. And I expect to have the heads of the leaders of those Thracian villages!"

Solari nodded curtly and scurried up the coronation deck to confer with Xena. Velasca, however, remained at the base of the deck, brooding to herself. Is it just me, or canít the warrior princess seem to make up her mind?

Xena pulled Solari to the back of the deck, away from Lysara, Electra and the numerous other lieutenants who crowded the deck to the point of near collapse. "Did she buy your story?" the warrior princess asked quickly.

"She seemed to ... ," Solari glanced nervously at Velasca, who by this time was telling Diana of the change in Xenaís plans, " ... but I wouldnít trust her as far as I could throw her."

"I donít trust many people -- and Velasca most certainly isnít on my short list of those I do trust," Xena said emphatically. "Letís get moving before she has one of her mood swings and changes her mind."

With that the two women slipped away from the crowd of lieutenants and the battle group, which was marching in formation past the coronation deck, oblivious to the change in plans. A minute later Xena and Solari were in the stables where Gabrielle, Ephiny, Thraso and Siri waited patiently with six horses saddled up and ready to go. One of the horses, Argo, carried the pouches which contained Heraís magic dust.

"Itís a go," Xena said shortly. She mounted Argo and looked down imperiously at the others. "Have we got everything for the trip?"

Thraso patted her steedís saddlebags, which contained gourds of fresh blood. "Thereís enough blood in here to keep us well stocked for several days and ... ," she gestured at Gabrielleís steed, " ... emergency rations in Gabrielleís saddlebags, should they become necessary."

"All were missing is the ambrosia, the map to the Ambrosia Chamber and, of course, the Dagger of Helios," Ephiny chimed in.

Xena grimaced. "Thatís where we might need a miracle, Ephiny. Time is short and some celestial intervention might become necessary if this mission is to succeed." The warrior princess didnít mention Artemis by name, but everyone knew that was the miracle she was indirectly referring to.

With no further ado, the last of the Amazons mounted their steeds and followed Xena into the daylight and past the imposing timber walls which protected Themiscrya from her more powerful enemies.

* * *

When Astyanax finally regained consciousness, he found himself bound to a thick post apparently in the center of the Thracian village. The scout, his head still pounding from the impact of Tauriís body, looked longingly around the village, trying to put a brave face on a sad situation. I finally get to one of my destinations and instead of finding a normal Thracian village, I find out that itís been taken over by some old-styled Amazons, he thought angrily. By Hades! I thought the last of the child-killing Amazons had been wiped out by internecine warfare decades ago! Humph. Guess I was wrong.

"What brings you into land claimed by the Amazon nation?" a womanís voice asked coldly.

Astyanax, who had been gazing off to the side, looked straight ahead and spied an elaborately painted Amazon who had a rather imperious looking war mask perched on her head. The scout thought he recognized her -- especially the feet. "Hey, arenít you the one who jumped on me?" he asked, attempting to change the subject.

"Answer my question!" Tauri hissed, sensing Astyanaxís diversionary ploy. "What brings you here?"

The scout refused to answer and looked away. "My name is Astyanax. That is all you will get out of me."

Enraged by his reticence, Tauri stalked forward, grabbed Astyanaxís crotch and squeezed. Hard. "Well, if you want to be that way, I guess Iíve got a few hours to burn," she said conversationally. Tauri exerted some more pressure, eliciting a groan from the tortured scout. "You look pretty ragged and worn out, although your weapons stock still looked pretty full. By the way, the construction of your weapons look so alien ... ,"

"Please ... stop," Astyanax finally wheezed. Even though he tried to conceal it, there was a great deal of agony behind his words. "Iíll tell you whatever you want to know."

Tauri smiled and released her excruciating grip on the manís balls. "Thatís more like it. Now, for the third time, what is the purpose of your violation of our lands?"

"I am a scout for Zelius, who was Dionís second-in-command in the Pellan army," Astyanax explained, feeling some color returning to his face. "Bacchus, the Olympian god of wine and revelry, has been waging war against Macedonia and the Amazon nation -- and has conquered both peoples." A brief pause. "The Athenians, Spartans and Corinthians are massing with the remnants of Zeliusí army in Dium in preparation for an invasion of occupied Macedonia -- and to gut the Amazon nation at the same time. Furthermore, every soldier will be armed with Dryad-based weaponry, like I am, or was, I guess."

Tauri digested the flood of information, finding most of it hard to believe. My Amazon sisters conquered by Bacchus?! All of Macedonia under that bloodsuckerís rule?! Hmm. If any of thatís true, it would explain a lot of the recent disappearances of our remaining males along the frontier with the Amazon nation. Contrary to what Astyanax believed, not all of the males had been slaughtered by Tauri and the rest of the newfound Amazons. Only those who resisted, which were many, met with untimely ends and, unfortunately, those male children and infants who had been in the presence of their mothers when the changeover had occurred.

"So you are an advance scout sent to probe our weaknesses and strengths?" Tauri asked coolly. Then, growing more agitated, "Why, Iíll personally show you just how strong ... ,"

Astyanax sensed he was losing control of the situation. "No! I wasnít sent probe your defenses," he cried out. "I was sent by Zelius to find any unchanged Amazons in these Thracian towns so I could warn them of our alliesí plan to gut their nation."

"To warn us?" Tauri asked incredulously.

The scout nodded vigorously. "But this wasnít what I quite expected ... ," he paused, taking in the sheer number of women and lack of men in the village, " ... I thought there would be more men than women here because of an impending Amazon mating cycle."

"There were a lot of males here, until we rose up against them and reclaimed our Amazon heritage," Tauri declared hotly. "Those who resisted were killed, as were those who were in the wrong place at the wrong time ... ," May Artemis forgive us for the slaughter of the innocents, " ... but others are being allowed to remain temporarily as breeding stock both for us and our other Amazon sisters, who will be arriving soon."

Astyanax perked up. "What do you mean by other sisters?"

"The voice told us they would be arriving to help unite us with the rest of our nation," Tauri replied.

"A voice ... ?"

Tauri scowled. "Enough! I donít believe a word that youíve say, interloper! Youíre here merely because of your insatiable desire for sex -- and murder."

"Listen to me! That isnít really why ... ,"

Tauri smacked Astyanax, silencing his protestations. "You killed five of my sisters mere hours ago, and the penalty for that is death," she hissed. "The only reason you remain alive is because of your cunning ability to sneak into our territory -- hopefully some of that ability will transmit into the daughters you will help create."

"I will not be degraded as Amazon breeding stock!" Astyanax replied forcefully. "I am here on an official military mission -- it canít be compromised merely for your reproductive wants!"

Tauri withdrew her sword from its sheath and with two quick slashes, had cut Astyanaxís clothing open. She motioned to two nearby guards and they proceeded to rip the scoutís clothing off, leaving him completely naked and horribly humiliated. "You have to believe me!" he yelled, still trying to convince Tauri of the truth.

By this time, a small crowd had gathered in the square ... including three young women who waited patiently a slight distance away from the rest of their sisters. Tauri motioned to the first one and said, "You will be the first -- may Artemis grant you, and the nation, a daughter!"

The auburn-haired warrior nodded gravely and proceeded to remove her armor. She advanced quickly upon the restrained Astyanax and began to work her magic.

* * *

"Youíre doing it again, arenít you?" Zeus rumbled. The lord of the Olympian gods was not in a happy mood, what with the events revolving around his illegitimate sonís grab for power over the mortal world. "You still havenít forgiven him for simply being born and this is just another effort to destroy him!"

Hera had heard enough. She whirled on her husband and hissed, "Nonsense, Zeus! If I wanted him dead, I could have done it a long time ago."

"Yeah, right. Youíve been saying the same thing about Hercules since the day he was born!"

"Donít even go there, you womanizer!" Hera snapped, deliberately baiting Zeus. "Iíll admit that Bacchusí questioning of my intentions is irritating, but I have overlooked them ... ," so far, anyway, she thought, " ... and continue to aid him in small ways."

Zeus had suspected all along that Hera was the power behind Bacchusí throne, but to have her admit it so freely in front of him still sent a jolt of surprise through him. "That is strictly forbidden, Hera, and you know it!" he replied coolly. "Bacchus is forbidden from expanding his influence in the mortal world past its present level -- as are the other Olympian gods!"

"Iíve done nothing that will upset the current balance of power," Hera rationalized. "Nor have I expanded my presence or that of Bacchus in the mortal world."

"Then what have you done?" Zeus asked. He motioned at the banks of life bubbles that surrounded the arguing couple. "Tell me and let me see for myself."

The Queen of the gods carefully weighed her options and then decided to show her hand. "Iíve merely enabled Bacchusí followers to reduce their reliance on blood, which will result in more stability in their lands," she explained. "Furthermore, I had a hand in the creation of a new lieutenant for Velasca -- which will result in a better defense for the lands controlled by both the Amazon nation and Bacchus." She glared at her husband and adopted an aggressive stance. "See?! Iíve been a stabilizing force ... nothing more."

Zeus revealed his ace card. "Then how do you explain your actions in the Thracian villages and towns bordering the frontier of the Amazon nation?" he rumbled. "That resulted in chaos and the deaths of many innocents -- including children!"

"I never did anything ... ,"

"Donít underestimate my capabilities!" Zeus roared, his anger palpable now. "I may have a lot of responsibilities, but that doesnít mean Iím not watching what you and the other Olympians are doing! For goodnessí sake, I am the sky god -- what do you think I am, blind?!"

Sometimes it sure as Hades seems like it! Hera shot back mentally. "Those women are of Amazon descent anyway, and there was great anger bubbling beneath the placid surface," she replied hauntily. "All I did was give them the encouragement to take their rightful place -- nothing more!"

Zeus knew Hera was being truthful for once. The women in the Thracian villages were of Amazon blood and had been held down by their husbands and other males. And he also knew that his wifeís actions were less than altruistic. She has basically prepared them to be taken over by Bacchus and his bloodsucking Amazons, he thought angrily. Now itís only a matter of time before Bacchus tries to claim them as his own -- thereby breaking my decree against expanding his earthly empire. Then Iíll have to take action, thereby polarizing the gods and forcing a showdown!

"Zeus?" Hera asked, put off guard by her husbandís burning silence.

"Never mind me," he shot back. "Youíre right about those women being of Amazon descent -- but thatís all!" He walked away from Hera, fuming.

"Aww. Are you going to pout now that youíve lost another argument with me?" Hera snidely asked. "Go sit in a corner and suck your little thumb?"

Zeus was terribly tempted to smash Hera to the floor with a blast of energy, but held back. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me," he lied before vanishing in a flash of light.

Hera sniffed haughtily. "Youíre such a loser, Zeus," she muttered. And then she, too, vanished in a haze of light.

Thankfully, Zeus was long gone and didnít hear the poor choice of words that Hera had used. He materialized on the top of a tall, snowcapped, mountain somewhere in the heart of Asia Minor and sat down on a bare outcrop of rock. The king of the Olympian gods looked longing up at the clear night sky, staring at the billions of stars and one of the galactic arms as it rose up seemingly into infinity and beyond. Zeus was acutely aware of that Heraís manipulations, and that of the others, would eventually destroy the Olympians. Just as the Titans had fallen from power, so would the Olympians.

None of the gods could see what the future was, but Zeus sensed it wasnít a pleasant one -- at least as far as the Olympians were concerned. Seemingly immortal to those who didnít yet know better, and all we can do is conduct internecine warfare and get our delights in abusing those who canít defend themselves against us, Zeus thought unhappily. Itís only a matter of time before we ourselves are replaced by an even greater force ... the force that represents wisdom, knowledge and love. Even though he couldnít be positive about it, he was certain that a time of great upheaval would precede the blooming of this force -- and wasnít sure just how long the turmoil would last.

"We were charged with the protection of this planet, and we have failed horribly in the task," Zeus grumbled to himself. "Soon we will be made to answer for our transgressions against this world and its inhabitants."

* * *

Velasca was furious. A day had passed since Xena had left with her little group of lieutenants to single-handedly complete a mission that was supposed to take thousands of warriors to see it through. And Velasca had been left to inform the gathered Amazon armies -- a little over 6000 women -- that they would have to sit around and twiddle their thumbs while waiting for Bacchusí call to attack and conquer the mainland cities of Greece.

And they had become enraged. Not that it surprised Velasca, but she didnít like being the target of catcalls and, worse, questions pertaining to her sanity and intelligence. She had fended off the anger and calmed down her sisters with alcohol-laced blood, but Velasca still felt used by Xena and the others. So here she was, packing a travel bag with gourds of blood and making sure her blade was razor sharp and ready for action.

"Diana, you are now in charge of Themiscryaís affairs, in addition to our forces stationed here," Velasca said through gritted teeth. She was still furious. "The warrior princess and her entourage implied that the waters of the Amazon nation would be treated within a few days, so make sure everyone ingests it when the time arrives."

Diana nodded, then asked, "When do you expect to return?"

"That all depends on how my confrontation with Xena and her group goes," Velasca explained. "If it goes well, I should be back within a few days. If not -- well, I might not be back." She stood up, slung the travel bag on her back, and added, "I donít like being used, even if it was with the blessing of our lord! I am the Queen of this nation and shall have no information held back from me ... and thatís exactly what they have done with me! They played me for a fool!"

And then Velasca was gone, leaving Diana alone in the Queenís Lodge. "But, but ... ," Diana protested weakly to the empty lodge. Then she lamely added, for her own benefit, "You never asked Bacchus for his side of the story."

Several minutes passed before Diana finally got up enough nerve to leave the lodge. She trudged toward the commons, where Velascaís lieutenants awaited. Sirius, Electra and Lysara are just going to be so thrilled that Velasca has gone off on her own personal crusade, Diana thought sarcastically.

* * *

Astyanax didnít want to open his eyes. His entire body was sore from an evening of degradation and humiliation. It seemed like the entire Amazon village had had their way with him, but the scout knew better. Only three women. Who would have ever thought that three women could have driven a man to edge of insanity with their insatiable thirst for sex?! he thought miserably. The brunette warrior had taken an hour with him, then the blond had had him for nearly three hours and then, then ... Iíll never forget the raven haired warrior. Now she was the definition of insatiable. He hoped that all three were pregnant now so they wouldnít bother him for another night. I hope their labor lasts for days on end! he cursed silently.

A sickly sweet smell invaded his nostrils, and Astyanax forced his eyes open. It was a brilliant afternoon and the heat was beginning to get to him -- but that horrid smell was of more immediate concern. He twisted his head and saw four immense piles of bodies that were in the process of being burned. It didnít take the scout long to realize that the clouds of smoke rising from the fire was the source of the cooking chicken-like odor.

"Trying to cover up the evidence of your atrocities, eh?" Astyanax snarled at the two women guarding him, unable to hold back his anger. "Donít you morons know that the world will eventually find out about it?!"

One of the guards sauntered over to the scout, studied him for a moment, then hissed, "Weíre hiding nothing! The funeral pyres are the traditional Amazon way of freeing the dead permanently from their physical bodies. Even if the dead were, for the most part, the men who oppressed us in life!"

Astyanax grimaced as the second guard stepped forward and slapped him across the face. He willed the pain away from his inflamed face and stared resolutely up at his captors. If these are what normal Amazons are like, Iíd hate to see them as sex-crazed bloodsuckers, he thought. "Look, Iím sorry if my words hurt you," he replied quietly, his anger gone. "Iím just vocalizing what uninformed outsiders would think of the practice. Warning you, perhaps."

The first guard spoke up. "The voice said that burning the bodies was also sanitary thing to do -- otherwise we might get some sort of sickness from the decomposing corpses."

Interesting, Astyanax thought. A mysterious voice that is guiding some of the actions of these new Amazons. Joy! Just what this world needs -- more mindless followers of some deity who could care less for mortals. Nonetheless, the scout remained curious about the origins of the voice and asked, "Do you have any idea who it belongs to?"

"Artemis," the second guard replied shortly. "She called herself Artemis -- goddess of the Amazons."

Astyanax had heard of the goddess before, and telling her worshippers to burn the bodies of the dead -- even that of the enemy -- sounded like something the honorable goddess would do. But Astyanax remained suspicious about the wanton killing of so many children. Hmm. Thatís definitely not the province of the goddess of the hunt and childbirth, he mused. "Look, if you believe everything that voice says, then why canít you believe me when I swear upon Zeusí name that the Greeks are trying to kill not only Bacchus, but yourselves as well?" he asked reasonably.

"Because you are a man and, to top it off, you killed my sisters," a chilly voice snapped.

Astyanax twisted his head away from the drug-crazed guards and saw a very familiar figure approaching him. What did she call herself -- Tari? No. Tauri. Thatís it! Tauri! "I saw bodies -- lots of dead bodies, including children -- and I reacted on instinct," the scout replied defiantly.

Tauri stared coolly at the guards and they got the message: no interaction was to be allowed with the prisoner. After they had slinked off a short ways, Tauri shifted her gaze to Astyanax and replied, "I took the liberty of retracing your route through our territory ... ," an ominous silence, " ... and am satisfied that you came alone, with no companions." She squatted next to a bucket of water and withdrew a sponge from it. Tauri stood and made a beeline for Astyanax, where she squeezed the sponge over his face.

The scout greedily licked up as much of the water on his face as possible. "I told you I was a scout for Zeliusí army, that I came to warn you about your nationís impending doom," he mumbled between slurps.

"Then where is this so-called army?" Tauri snapped, withdrawing the sponge.

"As far as I know, they havenít left Dium yet," Astyanax replied. "But I canít be absolutely sure on that -- my intelligence is well over a week old."

Tauri glanced at the guards, who slipped away, leaving her and Astyanax alone with each other at the center of the village. "I have ways of making you tell the truth," she purred. "And they can be pleasant and excruciating at the same time."

Astyanax was about to protest again, then realized the it was futile. Iíve arrived during a full-fledged Amazon mating cycle -- and Tauri and the others wonít listen to reason until the time is over, he thought. He slumped over into a submissive pose. Time is of the essence, and all they -- okay, okay, me too -- can think of is sex, the scout thought self-consciously.

"The others told me of your endurance last night," Tauri said in a low, lilting voice. "And if you thought they were good, you havenít ... ," she unsnapped her leather skirt and unhooked her leather breast armor, " ... seen anything yet."

And then, with an animalistic snarl, she had Astyanax pinned to the post and was groping for his member.


Continued...