Convert this page to Pilot DOC Format
Shattered Dreams - Part 2 of 3
The meadow provided an excellent place to set down for a few hours rest, relaxation and supper for the Xenaís weary band of travelers. The sun was getting low in the sky and it wasnít long before a small campfire was burning and gourds of blood were being passed around. For once, though, the gourds remained half full after feeding -- none of the group members were keen on the idea of losing control of herself on such an important mission.
"How close are we to the Ambrosia Chamber?" Thraso asked. She idly ran her pink tongue over her long, sharp fangs, slightly discomfited that they -- and the other Bacchae accessories -- hadnít vanished after her encounter with Ephiny during the aborted picnic with the regent and, unfortunately, Eponin.
Xena didnít reply immediately, trying to remember from memory the route that had been outlined by the map book that Autolycus had carried. Which reminds me -- I hope he returned it, along with the Dagger of Helios, like he promised me he would, she thought. Aloud, the warrior princess said, "Well, weíve been following the Thermodon for quite some distance, and it flows fairly close to the chamber itself. So Iíd say weíre quite near it, probably ... ," she pointed up at some nearby hills, catacombed with caves, " ... up in those hills somewhere." Xena glanced at Ephiny, and asked a silent question.
The regent held her taloned hands up helplessly. "Donít look at me. I only glanced at the map book once and never thought weíd need it again." Ephiny, in turn, looked at Solari.
"Uh-uh. I followed you," Solari replied.
Xena sighed. "Okay, I get the picture. No one seems to remember anything except for me. How typical."
"Our time is limited, so we should figure out what the best plan of action is," Gabrielle interjected. All heads turned to look at her. "I suggest we split up into two groups -- Xena and myself will retrieve the ambrosia, one way or another, while Ephiny and the others continue the journey to the Thracian villages. We will rejoin you at the Thermodon river in time to combine Heraís magic dust with the ambrosia and release the mixture into the riverís waters." The bard paused, thinking. "Then we can find out what all this hoopla is that Bacchus has with these Thracian villages heís so bent on initiating."
Xena nodded in discreet approval of her bard. Sheís becoming more assertive every day -- and I like that, the warrior princess thought. She patted Gabrielle on her back and smiled. "I believe we can split up into two groups right here ... this is as close as we can get to the Ambrosia Chamber and remain together."
"But why?" Siri asked. "Why split up our numbers?! Weíll be more exposed that way!"
"The area surrounding the Ambrosia Chamber, even though technically in Amazon territory, is mystical in nature," Xena explained. "Itís my belief that if too many mortals approach the chamber at any one time, it may Ďshiftí to another position -- one that we have no idea where to locate."
"Huh?" Siri huffed. "Explain that one to me."
"Ambrosia was never meant to be ingested by mortals," Gabrielle supplied. "But during the epic conflict between the Titans and the Olympians, the latter needed an ambrosia supply base from which to draw energy during their battles on Earth. So the Ambrosia Chamber came into existence ... and to keep mortals away from it, a mystical zone was placed around it. If a certain threshold of life -- flora or fauna -- encroached upon its position, the chamber would automatically relocate to a new, unmapped, location."
Thraso digested the knowledge and then asked the obvious. "So whatís the threshold?"
And Xena told a little white lie. This is something that Gabrielle and I have to deal with personally, she rationalized. Bacchus corrupted us, the Amazon nation and the rest of Macedonia -- if we can obtain even a small amount of ambrosia, then it will mean the beginning of the end for that horned bastard! "Two, maybe three people, tops," Xena said firmly. She glanced over at Ephiny and Solari -- both of whom knew better -- but they remained knowingly silent. "Of course, thatís only an educated guess ... but thereís no room for error here."
A moment passed before the warrior princess spoke again. "We can only hope that nothing has disturbed the peace of the Ambrosia Chamber since our last visit here."
"What visit?" Thraso asked, genuinely confused.
Ephiny smiled tightly. "You werenít around for that incident. Suffice to say that Velasca nearly realized her dream of uniting the Amazon nation under her leadership, coincidentally leaving Gabrielle and Xena dead in her wake. Then there would have been another war against our nearest Centaur neighbors ... ,"
"Itís a long story," Gabrielle cut in. "Velascaís actions in the Ambrosia Chamber and her prior attempt to sabotage my coronation as the Queen led to her banishment from the Amazon nation."
"Hmm. Sounds like an interesting story. Youíll have to explain it in detail to me in the future," Thraso said.
"So thatís the game plan then," Xena interrupted in an attempt to bring the discussion back to where it had started. "We split up at dawnís first light and recombine our forces at the northern waters of the Thermodon, just before crossing over into Thracian territory."
The group nodded its silent consent and it wasnít long after that sleep descended on them like a heavy, wet blanket. There were no pleasant dreams for any of them -- only nightmares of blood, sex, death and destruction.
And, not too far away from the campís perimeter, a pair of glowing golden eyes flared in anger. Velasca had arrived just in time to overhear her lieutenantsí planned treachery.
* * *
Ares sat on his throne, studying the various weapons of war that lined the walls of this particular temple that was dedicated to the Olympian god of war. Spears. Shields. Swords. Metal-studded whips. Armor. Even the occasional Amazon war staff. If there was an implement of war, it was in the temple -- most of the loot brought as offerings to Ares by his bloodthirsty followers. Combined together, the weapons offered an air of coldness to the bleak, dark air of the temple.
Coldness is only one of the emotions Iím experiencing at the moment, Ares thought distantly. He turned his attention to a pool of energy that shimmered languidly in front of him -- images passed to and fro within the pool. Images of death, destruction and now ... betrayal. Velasca feels that sheís been betrayed by her patron, Bacchus. If only she knew the truth. The workings of the gods are much more complex than she could possibly imagine -- especially in her present state. The god of war stood and stretched slightly before starting to pace impatiently in front of his throne. For once Ares was glad that none of his followers were present to witness his momentary indecision. He struggled to hold back his emotions, which had grown considerably hotter since he had started pacing. Finally, it was too much and he let loose.
"Youíre all such idiotic fools!" he screamed up at the cavernous ceiling, his anger directed at his unseen Olympians brothers and sisters. Not to mention Zeus and Hera. "Canít any of you see whatís going on?! Iíve waited since Artemisí trial to find out if any of you would see the whole picture -- and you havenít!"
Indeed, that was exactly what Ares had done. He had waited and waited in this temple, zealously wondering if any of the other gods could see the intricate picture that the Fates were slowly, but surely, weaving. Now even his patience was exhausted at the obliviousness exhibited by the so-called all-knowing Olympian gods. He alone, besides Artemis and the late, lamented, Strife, knew about the goddess of the huntís intervention on behalf of her beloved Amazons. Even Zeus and Hera were unaware of the ambrosia that Artemis had given Ephiny -- although Zeus had sentenced her to time in Tartarus for her reticence in revealing what she had done.
No one heard Aresí outburst. Which was just as well, because the god of war was about to change the odds again. Hera and the others have had a fair shot at deciphering the whole picture -- and they have failed miserably, Ares thought angrily. Iím withdrawing myself from my motherís camp -- sheís bound to lose anyway -- but Iím not leaving this whole damn affair empty-handed! The god of war knew he was risking the wrath of Hera, but he wasnít too worried about it after centuries of butting heads with his father, Zeus. If the worst happens, sheíll just give me the silent treatment for a few decades ... she needs my assistance too much to leave me out in the cold for too long a period of time, Ares thought.
The plan he had in mind would salvage something from this miserable little expedition into mortal affairs while keeping his reputation as a god to be feared intact. The Amazons and other mortals may well win against Bacchus if they keep on their present course, but Iíll get my pound of flesh yet -- especially those beautiful and warlike Amazons -- if itís the last thing I do, Ares mused. A low, rumbling laugh began reverberating throughout the temple as the war god contemplated his plans with even more delight. And if Bacchus, Hera and the others get burned in the process, then so be it!
* * *
It was the dawn of another day -- but it was anything but beautiful for the people of Lagaria. Almost their entire village lay in ruins after an entire night of fighting against the bloodthirsty Bacchae who had appeared seemingly out of nowhere to put down the border villageís insurrection against Bacchusí rule. Fires continued to burn sporadically throughout the village -- a large hut that was called home by eight family members, now all dead, the village councilís chambers, which lay in scorched wreckage and, worst of all, the villageís communal well, which had been collapsed and plugged up by the evil bloodsucking women.
In the village square, two dozen women were on their knees were lined up in a row. An equal number of Bacchae women stood imperiously behind them -- it was painfully obvious what fate was about to befall some of the surviving women of rebellious Lagaria.
"You rebel women donít deserve the fate youíre about to receive," the Baccha commander rumbled as she stalked back and forth in front of her captives. She had once been a mother in a nearby village, but that had all changed the night the Amazon enforcers had came through, forever changing her life. "But our lord Bacchus -- soon to be your lord as well -- insists that all of his female subjects eventually join the ranks of the Bacchae!"
The commander nodded and a muffled scream filled the morning air. Seconds passed and other cries joined hers as six of the prisoners were bitten by their captors and began the agonizing transformation into newborn Bacchae. The remaining eighteen women stared at their changing neighbors in slack-jawed fascination -- but one of them had heard and seen enough.
"Bacchus can go to Tartarus!" she hollered at the top of her lungs. The Baccha behind her immediately tried to silence her, but the peasant jerked forward and continued screaming. "You may have killed our men and children, but you will all pay for your sins!"
"You cannot escape your fate ... ," the Baccha commander began, but then she fell silent. The cool, morning air began to tremble slightly as the ground beneath started shaking ever so slightly. The other Bacchae looked at their leader, also sensing the eerie vibration -- unable to comprehend its meaning. Then it dawned on the commander and she whirled toward her sisters and snapped, "Take up defensive positions and prepare to ... ,"
One, then two arrows slammed into her back with such force that they poked through the front of her bloodied chest. Who dares to injure me?! she thought angrily, spinning around to face her doomed attacker. Donít they know that Bacchae are impervious to mortal weaponry?! A third arrow came seemingly out of thin air and embedded itself into the commanderís forehead. The vibrations continued to worsen and the Bacchae leader was growing downright furious. She reached to pull the shaft from her head -- that one being the most disconcerting -- but froze as a burning sensation centered at the impact points began and spread through her body. The burning quickly grew white hot and the commander screamed wordlessly as otherworldly flames shot out of her fanged mouth. She stumbled and fell to the ground squirming and convulsing.
Moments later, she exploded. The entire episode, from the time of the initial arrow impact to the detonation, had taken less than thirty seconds.
Then the vibrations became more pronounced and the Bacchae cowered behind their neighing steeds, unable to assault an enemy they couldnít see. The peasant women scrambled out of the village square, desperate to get away from what looked to them like the opening volley by an enraged god -- they were led by the brash young woman whose words had apparently triggered the attack. The Bacchae saw their victims escaping, but could do nothing about it as they were pre-occupied with their own survival and dealing with the six newborn Bacchae, who were only now coming to their new senses.
Then the attackers appeared. Rounding a bend in the village leading to the square over a hundred mighty armored stallions and proud armored mares came into view driven on by their riders. Behind each rider sat an archer -- and the arrows began to fly in earnest. Some missed their marks -- because of the rough perch offered by the horses -- but the majority hit their Bacchae targets, who began to burn and explode. The bloodsuckers returned fire, knocking six riders from their steeds, along with eight archers, but that was all the casualties suffered by the attacking party. Five minutes later, the last of the Bacchae had fallen and the attack group had split up to cover the remnants of the burned out village, searching for any straggling Bacchae. The leader of the group remained in the village square on his prancing steed, surveying his surroundings as group healers set up impromptu medical facilities in a desperate effort to save those wounded in the attack.
A peasant woman appeared from one of the nearest burned out huts and ran toward the liberator. But happiness was the last thing on her mind. "Why?" she screamed mindlessly. "Why did you kill my best friend?"
The leader stared wordlessly at the shrieking woman, unsure of what to say. I wasnít expecting this kind of reception from those we just liberated, he thought coolly.
Just then another young woman, followed by about a dozen others, came up and calmed down her hysterical neighbor. She looked up at the apparent leader of the attackers and said, "Please forgive Riis for her emotional reaction." She gestured at one of the insignificant dust piles -- all that remained of the Bacchae -- and sighed. "Her best friend had just been transformed into a Bacchae, and was subsequently killed. Talk about timing, eh?"
The leader dismounted and extended a gloved hand. "I imagine Iíll just have to get used to it," he said gruffly. "The nameís Questanax -- whom do I have the honor of addressing?"
"I, uh, I donít have a name," the woman replied sheepishly. "I was a slave woman to my mistress prior to the arrival of the Bacchae -- her husband was the leader of this community." Questanax raised his eyebrows, but remained respectfully silent. "She offered herself to the service of Bacchus when the Amazon enforcers rolled through ... I think in an attempt to rule Lagaria after her husband was killed in the fighting following the uprising of Bacchae all over Macedonia."
"And?" Questanax finally asked.
"She got transformed into a bloodsucker, all right, but she was shipped off to another part of Macedonia as just another slavering Baccha soldier," the woman added. "So much for ruling Lagaria, I guess." She pointed at her abdomen, which was beginning to bulge out. "I wasnít taken immediately because of my pregnancy -- a seer said I have a little girl growing inside of me!"
Questanax nodded sagely. "Well, it looks like we got here not a moment too soon, judging from the situation you were in, along with your neighbors. Maybe now your daughter will be born into a normal world and live a long and prosperous life."
Your forces should have arrived last night, before the Bacchae got wind of our little rebellion and put a bloody end to it, the former slave thought despairingly. Before those bloodsuckers killed the men and children and burned down almost the entire village. "By the way, just who do you represent?" she asked aloud. "The last we heard was that Dionís army had been completely destroyed."
"I am Captain Erianius Questanax and this here ... ," he gestured around at his personnel, " ... is one of ten Macedonian scout groups that have just made a coordinated assault on the borders of our occupied homeland. We should be hearing shortly about the success of our brothers-in-arms."
Suddenly the small group of women grew animated as they digested the information. "You mean, the rumors werenít true then?" one of them asked. "The Pellan army wasnít destroyed?! General Dion wasnít killed?!"
Questanax held his hand up, silencing the group. "The rumors were only partially correct. Suffice to say that enough of the Pellan army was left to regroup in Dium and -- with the aid of our Grecian allies -- to arm themselves with new weapons and greatly expand our numbers." He paused, thinking. "Dion, however, is dead. His successor, Zelius, has shared his command with the Athenian general Crassius, who brought in the reinforcements."
Another outburst of frantic questions. Several minutes passed before the pregnant former slave got her compatriots to quiet down. What did a simple slave woman do to earn the respect of the remaining village women? Questanax thought idly. Thereís obviously more to her than what outward appearances indicate. He listened intently as she finally spoke up. "How can Lagaria assist you?" she asked. She gestured at the burnt out huts and the larger community structures, some of which continued to smolder. "Thereís not much here, but surely thereís something that we can do to assist our liberators."
"I must continue our probes deeper into Bacchae territory, but Iíll leave two dozen or so soldiers here to ensure Lagaria remains in Macedonian hands," Questanax explained. "Instruct my men about the ins and outs of the territory both within and without the village and feed and board them. In return, you will be defended and, perhaps, some reconstruction can be started on the most vital of facilities ... ," he glanced over at the collapsed well, " ... starting, obviously, with the need for drinking water."
He wheeled his stallion about and began barking orders to his men. Minutes later the entire square was packed with Questanaxís scout force. Before vanishing into the morning sun, he glanced back at the slave woman and added, "Iíll be leaving the wounded here as well. Furthermore, within the hour heavy forces will be arriving to permanently fortify our grip on this land." Without any further words, he slapped his horse and disappeared, followed by his men and, last but not least, the lessening vibration of shaking ground as the scouts moved away from Lagaria.
The group of village women quickly dispersed, intent on assisting the remaining soldiers in any way possible. The former slave ended up at the side of a healer, who was putting the finishing touches on an archerís bloodied arm. "What did he mean by Ďheavy forcesí?" she asked quietly.
"The actual ground armies led by Zelius and Crassius," the healer remarked. "There will be tens of thousands of troops accompanied by catapults, chariots and other such stuff." He saw the woman staring into the distance and tried to comfort her. "Questanaxís group and the other scout groups are only the beginning of the attack -- they were meant to soften up the Bacchae ... ,"
"Theyíre going to die, arenít they?" she asked shortly.
Fine. She wants the truth, then thatís what sheíll get. "More likely than not, yes, they will die ... all of them," the healer said in an emotionless voice. "As we progress deeper into occupied Macedonia, the Bacchae will become more numerous and the fortifications harder to crack. The scouts will die, but in doing so they will have delayed Bacchus and his minions long enough ... ," an uncharacteristic grin spread across the manís face, " ... for our main forces to slam into the disoriented remnants of the Bacchae who will still be reeling from the initial attacks."
"Weíre going to win!" the archer whose arm had just been repaired chirped up. "Nothingís going to stop us now!"
The former slave turned away from the healer and his charge and mumbled, "But at what cost?"
* * *
Xena and Gabrielle picked their way over the rocky path leading up into the cave-pocked hills that marked the perimeter of the Thermodon River valley. The duo had left Ephiny and the others at the crack of dawn hours ago, the only words exchanged being solemn farewells. This is the most critical part of the mission, Gabrielle thought. If we cannot obtain the ambrosia we so desperately need, then itís over. Weíd still be able to lessen the bloodthirstiness of our transformed sisters ... but a Baccha is still a Baccha, bloodthirsty or not. The bard glanced over at Xena, but no words came from the warrior princess. Only the steady footfalls of the pair and the clip-clop-clip-clop of Argo broke the eerie silence.
"How much longer is it going to be before we reach the Ambrosia Chamber?" Gabrielle finally asked. "This route is different from the one Autolycus and I took during your extended out-of-body sequence!"
Xena looked briefly at the blazing morning sun, made some quick calculations, then replied, "Another day or so, I imagine. Probably tomorrow morning at the latest." She fell into an awkward silence.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Gabrielle asked, sensing the emotional struggle going on within her friend.
Gabrielle gestured around her, taking in the valley below and the sky above. "Anything. The last month or so hasnít been exactly normal -- even by our standards." When Xena maintained her silence, the bard decided to coax the warrior princess along. "How about Velasca? She sure seems to have taken a shine to you after you joined the ranks of the Bacchae."
"What of it?" Xena shrugged. "Before Ephiny freed me from the mental chains of the Baccha I had become, I was the type of warrior that Velasca would have automatically trusted and enjoyed being in the company of: naturally evil, full of lust and, to boot, calculating and intelligent." The pair came to a halt and Xena gazed into Gabrielleís eyes, which still shimmered into a golden hue whenever the bard became excited -- or worse. "Her actions brought out the worst in you as well -- remember when we first arrived at the Amazon nationís borders with Velasca trussed up on Argo? When you sliced open Dionís hand and tasted his blood?"
The bard looked down at her feet and, after a minute, nodded slightly. "I remember everything." The pair resumed walking. "Do you truly think that Velasca is to blame for this whole affair?"
Xena shook her head. "If I did, we wouldnít be attempting to obtain ambrosia. We would be heading for the nearest Dryad burial ground to retrieve some bones to impale Velasca upon," she said. "No ... Bacchus is the true enemy here. He must be destroyed once and for all!"
The sun rose higher in the sky and the warrior princess and the bard drew ever closer to the elusive Ambrosia Chamber, both still in earnest conversation. Time passed unnoticed by the two friends and lovers, who were finally speaking to each other as themselves and not as brainwashed bloodthirsty Bacchae. They concentrated so much on reaching their destination and talking that neither one -- even with their enhanced Bacchic senses -- realized that they were being trailed by their worst nightmare.
Velasca was on the prowl. And when she was finished, there would be nothing left of her traitorous lieutenants. There will be no mercy this time ... my price will be in blood! she thought. Then, almost as an afterthought, Hmm. I wonder what Baccha blood tastes like?
* * *
Ares materialized in the middle of a howling blizzard -- and was immediately impaled by nearly a dozen bluish ice shards. Hmm. The lowest level of Tartarus hasnít changed since the last time I was here, the god of war thought as he idly removed the shards from his body. Itís still one big everlasting blizzard -- a great place for a party!
Fortunately for him, Ares had appeared on the rough, winding path that he and Hephaestus had used to gather the materials that the god of the forge had deemed necessary for one of his crazy projects. Hopefully this one, whatever it is, will work, Ares thought sarcastically. He began walking along the path, deftly avoiding the snow-filled gullies and hidden fissures from which issued the cries of the damned and those who hadnít watched their footing. After nearly two hours of traveling, the first of the ice-covered granite pillars appeared in the distance, blurred by the driving snow. Ares walked by them all, ignoring the bound figures -- for the most part, they were the worthless Titans ... although some of the figures were demi-gods and goddesses and mortals who had been troublemakers while on Earth. Or some who just simply pissed an Olympian god off and found themselves here soon afterwards, Ares thought as he passed two slumped, forlorn figures who had had the temerity of challenging the god of war to one-on-one personal combat.
Another hour passed -- Ares was enjoying his little tour of Tartarus now that he was here on his own free will and not as a prisoner -- before he finally found the person, or rather, the goddess he was looking for. Despite her heavy chains and obviously emancipated condition, she stood tall and defiant against the raging blizzard. Well, she certainly is holding up well, considering how short a time sheís been here, Ares thought smugly.
"Artemis! My dear, dear sister -- howís it going today?" Ares asked haughtily. His smile broadened when the goddess of the hunt turned her head and looked at him coldly. "Here, let me pull this out ... ," Ares began, and then unceremoniously ripped a rather large shard of ice from Artemisí shoulder.
The goddess winced as the pain shot through her nearly frozen immortal body. But the fire continued to burn in her eyes. "What in Hadesí name do you want, Ares? Have you come here to enjoy my misery?"
Ares held his hands up in mock surprise. "Now why would I want to do that?" he asked nonchalantly. He began to circle the pillar malevolently, then leaned in and whispered into Artemisí ear, "So, how does it feel to be humbled and humiliated? How does it feel to be almost ... ," he spat the word out distastefully, " ... mortal?!"
"I shouldnít have to answer idiotic questions that you already know the answer to," Artemis hissed. Her thinly veiled reference to the god of warís earlier imprisonment in Tartarus wasnít lost on him. "So stop wasting my precious time -- surely you have some mortal war or two to keep an eye on, hmm?"
Ares laughed uproariously. "War is my business, my illegitimate sister. And, yes, there are several on-going and soon to be conflicts brewing that need my expert guidance." A brief, but pregnant pause. "One of them, of course, involves your precious Amazon nation -- which stands at the precipice of victory ... or utter defeat."
"Bacchus ... ," Artemis muttered under her breath.
"Ah, yes, the horned freak that Zeus somehow sired with a mortal woman," Ares replied. "And soon heíll be leading the Amazons into a suicidal war against the invading Macedonians and Greeks."
Artemis stared into Aresí eyes. "Suicidal? How?! As Bacchae, the Amazons are nearly immortal -- how can an army of mortals destroy ... ," she fell silent, stunned at the possibility, " ... no, it canít be ... ,"
Ares gestured and a pool of energy materialized. It slowly cleared to show a close-up scene of a raging battle that looked to be taking place somewhere in the southern third of Macedonia. Soldiers clashed, catapults released their deadly loads into the enemyís rear areas and chariots and war horses slashed in and out of the fighting. The view began to pull back, revealing a vast battlefield pockmarked by brief, but brilliant, detonations and many dying men and their proud steeds. But what caught Artemisí eye was the strange glint of the weapons being clutched and fired by the Macedonian and Greek soldiers.
"Theyíre all armed with Dryad weaponry," the goddess of the hunt marveled. "And their kicking ass ... ," her demeanor suddenly went from intense curiosity and hidden joy to a severe case of suspicion. "Okay, Ares, what role did you play in arming them with supernatural weapons?"
Ares shrugged. "I had nothing to do with it. Perhaps Zeus was right -- he said that the mortals had the ability within themselves to throw Bacchus for a loop," he explained. "Perhaps this is one of the manifestations of the true potential of the mortal world." He paused and grinned wolfishly, the eternal blizzard howling around him totally forgotten by now. "Now can you just imagine the carnage that will result when -- not if -- but when Bacchus throws his Amazons up against those who would liberate Macedonia from his grasp? Probably be a meatgrinder ... ,"
"Release me!" Artemis demanded hotly, knowing damn well what Ares was alluding to. If my Amazons go into that war thinking theyíre immortal -- oh, theyíll be wiped out, despite their innate fighting and stealth skills. "I wonít allow them to be destroyed by a monsterís mad dream for dominance over the mortal world!"
And, to her eternal surprise, Ares complied. He stared long and hard at the golden chains which kept Artemis bound. After a minute they began to flicker and flash and -- inevitably -- exploded into nothingness. Then, in another unexpected gesture, the war god offered his sister a handful of regenerative ambrosia , which she wolfed down without a second thought. Artemisí body began to immediately repair itself and she looked stronger within seconds.
"You know that the first thing Iíll do is aid my people in anyway I can, donít you?" she asked Ares.
"Ah, no. I thought we could have some milk and cookies," Ares replied sarcastically. "Of course I had that in mind when I released you! What do you think I am -- a fool?!" A brief pause. "Wait, donít answer that last part."
"What kind of game are you playing?" Artemis asked caustically. Her bow and a quiver of arrows appeared in her hands. "Is this some sort of move for additional power and prestige among the Olympians?"
Ares remained silent, pondering his next words. This is a game, all right, Artemis. But Iíve only started to move my pieces! "I have a soft spot in my heart for the Amazons," he exaggerated. "I donít want to see them go marching off the proverbial cliff like a bunch of lemmings."
"Have you ever thought about exchanging titles with Hermes?" Artemis asked.
"What do you ... ," Ares began, but then fell silent. It finally hit him -- and angered him. "I am not the god of thieves and lies!" he roared.
"Could have fooled me," Artemis snarled. She turned away and began to dematerialize. I have to find Apollo and Athena and get them out of this ice-bound pit, she thought. But before she could completely vanish, she overheard Aresí parting words.
"Donít forget now -- you owe me two favors!" he mocked. "One for freeing you and another for giving you the life-restoring ambrosia ... and I will collect on my debts!"
Artemis knew that her brother was speaking the truth. She could only hope that the price for his unexpected assistance wasnít too high. What kind of game is he playing with Zeus now? she thought as she became a part of the storm, and yet not a part of it.
Ares watched his sister vanish without acknowledging his last words and laughed. The gameís only beginning ... my pound of flesh has yet to be exacted. And then he, too, was gone.
* * *
"You have failed me." The ominous words rolled through the dimly lit throne chamber and the two supplicants, who were on their knees, trembled involuntarily. "I entrusted you with the security and santicity of our lands, Eribas and Caria," Bacchus continued. A crimson pool of energy appeared in the air and slowly cleared into the view of a fiery battlefield. "Dionís second, this Zelius, has already advanced deep into southern Macedonia ... ," the wine god whirled to glare at Caria, " ... and you! Whatever happened to those tripled defenses you promised me?!"
Caria shivered. "I said it would take a week ... ,"
"You are a failure!" Bacchus screamed, ignoring Cariaís truthful statement. "At least Eribas carried out her assignment -- and quite quickly, too -- and finished off those damn villages who harbored the killers of Lanaís patrol group!" The wine god clenched a taloned hand into a fist and squeezed ... and Caria began to gasp and choke for breath. She clawed at her constricting throat, but it was useless.
"Please, stop!" Eribas cried out, leaping to her feet. She stepped between her lord and Caria, shattering Bacchusí concentration -- and his noncorporeal grip on Cariaís neck. "This invasion of our land can still be stopped! Allow us to take over command of our front line Bacchae -- Caria and I will turn the tide together."
Bacchus visibly cooled off. "You two have one chance to turn this debacle around," he said imperiously. "If you even show a hint of defeat ... well, Iíll simply call in our Amazon allies and let them finish off Zelius and his friends."
"We will not fail," Eribas said firmly.
"And how do you two -- who have absolutely no tactical or military knowledge -- plan on keeping your promise?" Bacchus asked unequivocally. "Immortal or not, Zelius has something up his sleeve thatís allowed him to take away our land with impunity."
"Savagery," Caria said simply. "When we arrive at the front, we will break all the rules of conventional warfare! For every advance made by the mortals, we will slaughter as many of our subjects as we can get our hands on! We will poison their wells and sow salt in their agricultural land!"
Eribas smiled at her sisterís words, and added her own. "Weíll assume a scorched earth and very bloody policy. It will be so bad that the land wonít be able to support the invading troops ... and no one will be left alive to welcome their arrival -- or to aid them." She laughed cruelly. "Sooner or later, Zelius will sue for peace, just to stop the slaughter of the innocents!"
"Perhaps my faith in you hasnít been misplaced after all," Bacchus replied, his eyes devoid of any emotion.
"Then we shall take our leave ... ," Eribas began.
"Oh, youíll be leaving," Bacchus interrupted. "But not by normal travel methods." He raised his hand and pointed a taloned finger at his lieutenants. And they promptly vanished -- immediately transported to the worst of the fighting. "Good hunting my Bacchae ... make our enemiesí worst nightmare the literally truth!"
* * *
"All hail to the Macedonia and her Greek allies!" Zelius cheered and lifted a mug of ale over his head. "May the war started this day end with complete obliteration of Bacchus and his filthy Bacchae!"
His cheer was echoed by the hundreds of men gathered in the center of the makeshift war camp. Amid the clinking of wooden mugs and numerous small talk, dozens of young women danced wildly around a blazing fire ... celebrating the liberation of their villages and towns from the demonic rule of the Bacchae. More than one of them had already developed premature crushes on the some of the soldiers who had freed them.
Through this whirlwind of activity Crassius alternately wound and pushed his way to Zeliusí side. "Watch how much you consume, Zelius," he muttered to the Macedonian. "Youíre an intelligent and wise man, but your weakness for alcohol may be your undoing."
"What?! Are you trying to be a party-pooper now, my Athenian friend?" Zelius challenged. He wasnít inebriated, but was in a playful mood. "Come on! Lighten up, even if itís only for one evening! Our brave men made great strides today in the war against Bacchus ... donít rain on the parade."
Crassius glared at the younger man. "Son, you havenít seen me party yet, let alone get down," he snapped impatiently. He grabbed his counterpartís arm. "Come on, Iíve got something to tell you ... ,"
"Iím not leaving my men," Zelius said shortly, jerking his arm away from Crassius. "As their general, itís important that I be seen circulating among them and not aloof -- and you should be joining me!"
The smile on Zeliusí face was instantly wiped away with that single word. "What about them? Weíre not even close to their lands -- Hades! We still have to re-take Pella!"
"Follow me," Crassius said in no uncertain terms. "Iíll tell you all about it."
A few minutes later, the two men had returned to the command tent in which waited a visibly nervous captain. Crassius motioned at him. "Go ahead. Tell Zelius what the townsfolk of Xaltos told you about the Amazons."
"Theyíre coming," the captain said shortly. "Apparently the townsfolk overheard some of the Bacchae bragging about how their numbers were going to be tripled within a week. Bacchus foresaw our impending attack ... and has made contingency plans to deal with it."
"That will be enough, captain," Crassius said, and dismissed the man. The Athenian turned to face Zelius and, despite his best efforts not to, spat on his counterpartís boots. "Well?! How do you feel now that Bacchus is well aware of our plans ... thanks to that scout you sent in to find the so-called innocent Amazons!"
Zelius held his tongue for a moment. I donít want to speak in the heat of the moment, he thought angrily. "Then how do you explain the large advances our forces have made within a single day?" he finally asked aloud. "Weíve liberated dozens of villages and towns and re-taken large parts of southern Macedonia!"
"Itís all a ploy!" Crassius replied hotly. "Think about it. Your scout was obviously captured, interrogated and then probably killed. Using the information provided by your late, beloved scout, Bacchus had a general idea of what we were planning in Dium ... ,"
"Astyanax wasnít aware of all of our plans!" Zelius retorted. "Even if he was captured -- and I donít think he was -- his knowledge would have been outdated!"
Crassius slammed his fist on the table. "That doesnít matter! All Bacchus needed to know was that something was going on! And now heís lured us deep into his territory -- and has called in his Amazon reinforcements."
"Thatís mere speculation!" Zelius replied loudly. "Rumors, nothing more! Besides, all of our soldiers are armed with Dryad weapons ... the Amazons are good fighters, but we would outnumber them and they donít know what weíre armed with!"
Crassius strode over to a crude tactical map that showed approximate unit positions and casualties. "Weapons donít make a man into a good soldier," he said quietly. "That is the province of learning and training. What Iím trying to say, Zelius, is this: We are taking anywhere from light to moderate losses. We no longer have the same number of men as we started out with this morning."
Zelius studied the map and added his own observation. "Our scout forces are still out ahead of the main body of the army ... thatís where our losses are really becoming significant," he said.
"Yes," Crassius agreed. "Weíve taken territory, but itís serpentine in nature and our supply lines -- especially to the scouts -- are becoming stretched." He turned to his counterpart. "In other words, our head -- the scouts -- are too far out ahead of the body -- the main troops."
"Weíve gone too far in our exuberance," Zelius admitted, seeing it all taking shape on the tactical map. "Bacchus will send in his Amazons to rout our scout forces and sever the supply lines. Then, amid the confusion, he will lash out at main forces -- it will be a bloodbath, Dryad weapons or not."
Crassius nodded his assent and added, "It takes us weeks to replace a soldier who has fallen in battle. All it takes the Bacchae is mere minutes ... grab the nearest unchanged woman and transform her into a bloodsucker. Voila! Another nearly immortal follower that Bacchus will use against us!"
The acrimony between the two men was now nearly gone. They were now totally focused on the much larger picture -- and it wasnít looking good. Just to be on the safe side, I had better hedge my bets and go on the assumption that Astyanax was captured and interrogated, Zelius thought. Itís the only way ... ,
"About those Amazons," Crassius harumphed. "Have you devised any other plan that might allow us to avoid spilling their lovely guts on our swords?"
Zelius shook his head. "My ace card was Astyanax. He was my best shot at warning any remaining Amazons who hadnít been turned into mindless Bacchae."
"Then youíre aware that itís only a matter of time before the inevitable collision happens, arenít you?" Crassius asked slowly. "I will carry out my superiorsí orders ... not because I despise the Amazons -- which I donít -- but because itís the militarily expedient thing to do."
Zeliusí shoulders sagged slightly. "I donít like it one bit -- but Bacchus is really leaving us no other choice," he admitted. "Without the Amazons at his beck and call, his empire will collapse into anarchy and confusion -- and what little discipline there is among his peasant Bacchae will also go out the window."
"I can already hear it: conquerors of the Amazon nation," Crassius said to himself. "And once the terrible task is done, I can only pray that the gods will forgive us for our own transgressions."
* * *
Xena and Gabrielle had maintained a steady pace throughout the long cool night, sacrificing sleep and relaxation in exchange for reaching the Ambrosia Chamber earlier than expected. Conversation had been on and off, but for the last several hours, only silence was exchanged between the two friends. It wasnít out of anger or acrimony, but simply because there was only so much one could turn into a decent conversation. Besides, Xena thought, less talk means less expended energy ... and that much more our bodies can use in keeping us going. The pair continued their journey and slowly but surely the full moon and chirping crickets were replaced by the dawn of a new day.
"Looks like Apollo is out and about earlier every day," Gabrielle observed as the sun peeked over the eastern horizon. "Itís going to be a splendid day ... ,"
"I suppose so," Xena agreed noncommittally. Personally, I think itís too early to call it a good day yet, she added silently. I donít ever call anything good until Iíve had time to reflect on it for a while.
The two relapsed into a necessary silence. It wasnít long afterwards that the trees grew stunted, the plants smaller and wildlife pretty much nonexistent. A little ways further they came upon the mouth of an eerily familiar looking cave set into an outcropping of limestone rock. Xena and Gabrielle came to a stop and examined their surroundings.
"Itís amazing," Gabrielle commented. She pointed at the land, so lush and vibrant with life nearby -- yet so barren and devoid of life in the caveís immediate vicinity. "Look at how quick the transition from environment to environment was." She snapped her fingers. "Just like that!"
Xena shook her head. "Itís not amazing -- itís downright spooky," she admitted. The warrior princess tied Argo up to an obviously dead and stunted tree. "Letís hurry up ... thereís not much here for Argo to keep herself occupied with for long."
The pair proceeded into the cave and began to experience vivid flashbacks. "I canít climb with a broken arm!" The voice belonged to Autolycus, but he wasnít anywhere in sight. "Ah, Gabrielle. So good to see you ... its about time someone witnessed the birth of a god!" Velascaís ghostly voice, but she, too, was nowhere to be found. "Weíre too late! Sheís going to get the ambrosia!" Autolycus again. "Not if I can help it." Gabrielleís/Xenaís combined voices together. The sounds of fighting filled the chamber -- grunting, screaming filled the air around the pair as they advanced deeper into the cave, coming nearer and nearer to the Ambrosia Chamber. Then a horrifying scream filled the air. "Nnnnnooooooooo!" It ended with a sickening crunch and absolute silence.
"Too bad the fall didnít kill Velasca," Gabrielle grumbled. "Then we could have avoided this whole mess."
"An inch to the right, and the spikes wouldíve impaled her," Xena observed. "We left her for dead -- obviously a mistake on our part, considering the present situation." Her eyes flared briefly into golden, glowing coals.
Then they were in the Ambrosia Chamber. Xena reached down for the fire rocks she knew were there and slapped them together near the closest burnt out torch. It flared to life, igniting the other torches as well -- and a defense system that hadnít been there the last time.
"Get down!" Xena screamed. She hit the floor, along with Gabrielle, as a blazing bolt of energy shot out of the wall and bisected the space the pair had occupied only moments before. It slammed into the opposite wall and was absorbed with no apparent effect on the wall. The warrior princess felt a burning sensation, grabbed Gabrielle and rolled out of the way as another beam slammed into the floor -- again without any apparent effect on the floor.
"We canít keep this up forever," Gabrielle yelled as yet another bolt flashed by. "What are they?"
"Iím not sure -- but itís not god energy," Xena gasped. "Itís too linear -- Hades! Itís too powerful to be that!"
Then, just as suddenly as the attack had started, it came to an abrupt end. Xena and Gabrielle cautiously looked up and saw a tall, regal figure standing before them. The figure kneeled and offered her hands to the women. "Here, let me help you up," a womanís voice said casually.
Gabrielle accepted the pro-offered hand and climbed to her feet. Xena, not seeing anything better to do, mimicked her friendís actions. It took only a few seconds for the bard to realize who had helped them. "Artemis!" she cried out. "What brings you here?"
"Now thatís a rather ignorant question from the Queen of my people," Artemis scolded lightly. "Iím here ... ,"
"What was with the attack?!" Xena interrupted harshly. Her disregard for the gods sometimes came through in the most untimely manner. "You damn near killed us!"
Artemis stared stonily at the warrior princess. "Hmm. I see that the Destroyer of Nations has automatically jumped to the wrong conclusion," the Amazon goddess replied neutrally. "But Iíll let it pass -- this time -- because Iím well aware of the stressful environment youíre both living in right now."
"You were saying?" Gabrielle asked, tossing a please-watch-your-tongue look at Xena.
Artemis clenched her hand into a fist and then opened it. In her palm a large chunk of ambrosia undulated gently. "I believe you were looking for some of this. Now use it to free my people from Bacchusí insanity!"
Gabrielle accepted the treasure and stuffed it into a small pouch. "But why?" the bard asked, genuinely curious. "I thought that the Olympians didnít care for their mortal followers."
"That stereotype may well fit most of the Olympians, but not myself," Artemis replied. "I donít try and solve every problem that the Amazons encounter -- if I did so, they would expect me to solve everything for them and never use their minds -- but I will aid them when theyíre being used against their will by another god."
"I take it this is one of those situations, then?" Xena interjected.
Artemis nodded. "This will be the last time I can aid you in the crusade against Bacchus -- Iíve already helped Ephiny and was punished for that -- so you will have only one shot at him," she explained. Artemis gestured around the chamber and added, "If I were you, donít come back here either. The defense system is a recent add-on crafted by Hephaestus. Besides, the chamber will be shifting soon -- ambrosia must never fall into mortal hands unless itís in tightly controlled circumstances ... like now."
And then she was gone. "That was quick," Xena commented. The warrior princess retrieved her sword -- and the Ambrosia Chamber began to tremble. "Artemis certainly wasnít exaggerating about this place shifting," Xena called out. "Weíd better get out of while we can."
"No disagreement here," Gabrielle called out. Together they made their way to the chamberís entrance -- and were promptly knocked off their feet by two quick slashes from the butt of a sword. Xena tried to climb to her feet, but the rumbling of the ground was getting worse and all the warrior princess could do was scrabble about on the ground helplessly like a kitten unsure of its own footing.
The attacker strode into view and hissed angrily at her fallen foes. "Long time no see, Xena," Velasca rumbled sarcastically. She glanced over at Gabrielle, who was in a similar predicament as Xena. "Ah, just where you should be, you stupid little bard!" She laughed insanely. "I look forward to draining you both dry ... hmm, Iíve always wondered what Baccha blood tastes like!"
* * *
Questanax knew it had to happen eventually. It was only a matter of time before we ran right into a horde of Bacchae responding to our incursions into their territory, the scout leader reflected. That unfortunate encounter had happened not long after daybreak when the woods had literally begun to swarm with hundreds, if not thousands, of the bloodsuckers -- half of whom had been on horseback and the other half on foot. They had overwhelmed Questanaxís scout group in a pitched battle that had lasted nearly an hour and had since moved on to a date with the main Macedonian and Greek armies, regaining territory lost to the them the previous day. There were a dozen or so survivors left behind, of course, and Questanax happened to be one of them -- but for how long was the big question.
The scout groups had pushed out even further ahead of the main army, per orders received during the night. And they had paid a steep price for moving faster than their supply lines could keep up. I can only hope that those orders were genuine, Questanax thought sourly. Itís not often youíre told to outrun your own supply line ... makes one wonder if we werenít sacrificed on the altar of necessity. He resumed walking toward friendly territory -- his horse had been shot out from under him in the morning battle -- determined to reunite with Zeliusí main army and inflict horrendous pain on the Bacchae. Well, if we were, some of the lambs escaped the slaughter and will live to fight another day, he thought.
"Stay close together!" he called out to his remaining men. "Remember -- weíre alone out here and there are no reinforcements coming ... ," at least as far as Iím aware of, " ... so stay alert! In about a candlemark we should be near the front lines." A short pause. "That is, if there is still a front line to speak of."
There was some grumbling from the men, but it died off as they became lost in their own thoughts. A short period of had passed by uneventfully when Questanax noticed something strange. The birds had been silenced. Along with the numerous insects. He knew from previous experience that this was a sure sign that some Bacchae were nearby -- and so did his men.
"Brace for an attack!" Questanax shouted, unsheathing his sword. He whirled around to face the territory he and his band had just covered. The ground began to rumble ominously and a small cloud of dust appeared in the distance and quickly grew larger. "Theyíre reinforcements heading for the main battle," he yelled over the rising crescendo of thundering hooves. "That must mean the tide is beginning to turn against them -- again!"
Shapes began to discern themselves from the all-encompassing dust cloud. Horses. Well over a hundred of them with riders and passengers. And riding on the lead horse were Eribas and Caria. They saw the pitiful little band of mortals ahead of them and Caria motioned curtly to the riders near her. A volley of arrows soared toward the targets.
Questanax saw the wave of lethal hardware streaking toward him and his men and yelled, "Take cover! They little bloodsucking freaks are using our own tactics against us!" But it was too late for those who had expected only swordplay with the Bacchae -- six men fell as shafts slammed into them. They lay on the ground mortally wounded or just plain dead. A seventh man had the unfortunate luck of having a shaft slam into his eye and poke out the back of his tortured head. He was definitely out of commission.
Eribas and Caria hissed excitedly and charged forward, followed by a dozen other riders. They quickly dismounted and began to engage the few remaining survivors in hand-to-taloned hand combat. In less than a minute, only Questanax was left standing, his sword arm shattered and his face seared by vicious claw marks. But he still stood, defiant to the very end. May this be your last battlefield, he silently cursed the Bacchae in front of him. Then he bared his teeth in an animalistic grin and charged forward, screaming like a banshee ...
... and never felt Eribasí taloned hand as it punched into his belly and ripped his intestines out. She grabbed his head and stuffed his own innards into his open mouth and shoved the now-dead man to the ground. "They always want to go out as a hero," Eribas huffed. "And it never gets them anything but a gruesome death."
"Will they ever learn?" Caria asked. She crouched next to Questanaxís fresh corpse and dipped her taloned hands into his stomach cavity, taking a roundabout way to rip his heart out, which was still futility pumping blood.
"Probably not," Eribas replied. She wrinkled her nose at Cariaís slurping. "Come on -- didnít your parents teach you any table manners?" The slurping continued and Eribas sighed. She motioned at the remaining Bacchae who waited patiently. "Go on ahead. Weíll catch up to you in a little bit -- and remember: if we appear to be losing territory, begin carrying out a scorched earth policy!" The Bacchae commanders nodded and quickly resumed their briefly aborted journey to the worst of the fighting.
Caria finished her disgusting meal and looked up at Eribas. "Iím stuffed. Itís your turn to feed now ... donít worry, the bloodís still fresh!"
We really should rejoin our reinforcements, Eribas warred with herself. This may be our land again, but there might be other nasty little surprises left over from this morningís offensive. She surveyed the cluster of dead bodies, all that was now left of Questanaxís fabled group. "Okay. But we have to catch up with the others as soon as possible," she told Caria. "Almost all of the Bacchae who have any sort of fighting skills are up at the front battling it out. They will need our guidance." She sat down by Questanaxís desiccated corpse and tentatively licked a small trickle of blood that flowed from the corpseís mouth.
Another hour passed. By this time the two women were gorged with the blood of a dozen dead men. "Perhaps we shouldnít have feasted like that," Caria huffed as she struggled to her feet.
"Well, itís the first true feast weíve had since Macedonia fell to our lord," Eribas shot back lightly. She was helped to her feet by Caria. "Come on. Weíve got some killing to do."
They waddled over to their patiently waiting horse -- which was conveniently drugged so it wouldnít flee -- and climbed on it. Another ominous rumble began to fill the air and the ground started to shake slightly as a very familiar sensation filled the meadow.
"Is there a third wave of reinforcements coming, Eribas?" Caria asked casually. She glanced back and saw a massive dust cloud, one that was easily ten times the size of the previous one. "If there is, why didnít you tell me?"
Eribas shook her head. "No, there shouldnít be. All of our fighters are up at the front ... ," then she, too, saw the cloud approaching, " ... but maybe I was ... ," the color drained from her pale face, " ... mistaken. No. No, this canít be happening," she began to mewl.
"What?! What is it?!" Caria asked feverishly. When Eribas lost her cool, it tended to be over something deadly serious. "Are we in some sort of danger?"
Eribas didnít reply. She merely kicked the stallion hard in an effort to get it to move. In itís drug-induced haze, the horse didnít respond immediately -- and Eribas kicked it again. "Get moving you stupid little ... ," the stallion finally moved, but at a far too slow pace. Eribas hopped off the steed and dragged Caria down with her. "Start running," she instructed her sister-in-arms.
But it was too late for the two bloodsuckers. Just as they got up to Bacchic speed, the arrows began flying in earnest. Several missed their targets, but the other didnít; by the time it was all said and done, Eribas and Caria looked more like human pin cushions than anything else. Both still lived, although that came to a quick end as a pair of brilliant detonations tore them into scattered shreds of bloody flesh and shattered bone.
"Nothing like a little target practice, eh?" an archer gloated at his companion as the steed they were riding came to an abrupt halt where Eribas and Caria had met their ends.
"Try and improve your aim," the rider replied tersely. As he spoke, his mare relieved herself on the piles of ash that had been Eribas and Caria. "Every wasted Dryad arrow is one less weíll have in stock when we begin the liberation of Pella!"
Another voice interrupted harshly. "Quiet, you two!"
"Yes, yes, General Zelius," the archer quavered.
Zelius slapped his horse forward to the front of the troops. "Weíve got another candlemark or so before we finish our encircling maneuver around the Bacchae," he explained, pointing toward the front. "So letís keep moving! Once we finish off the Bacchae who know how to fight, we can resume our offensive into occupied Macedonia!"
The mounted troops resumed their march without any further ado. Zelius sat on his horse off to the side, watching his proud army pass by. He was soon joined by Crassius. "I must say, Zelius, that was an excellent tactic," the Athenian said honestly. "Going around the land-based Bacchae by sea and dropping in on them from behind -- theyíll never know what hit them once weíre finished."
"Yeah, well, it came with a price," Zelius replied morosely. He looked down at the desiccated corpses of Questanax and his men. Gods! This has to be the tenth group of slaughtered scouts that weíve come upon since making our landing, he thought tiredly. "The scouts are the true heroes in this whole messy affair -- they took their suicidal orders without question and succeeded in drawing out the most battle-hardened Bacchae from their fortifications in the villages and towns."
Crassius couldnít disagree. "Once this war is over, Zelius, they will have a memorial erected especially in their honor -- one separate from the memorial for the others who have and will die," he consoled his counterpart. Crassius shrugged his shoulder. "War is a Hades of an affair ... it always carries a steep price."
"Isnít that the literally truth," Zelius muttered. "Well, lets keep moving -- Iím sure Arcterious will be more than happy to see us upon our triumphant return."
"Iím sure he will," Crassius chortled, still seeing in his mindís eye the wide-eyed commander when he was told that he was temporarily in charge of the entire front line. Crassius slapped his horse and quickly caught up with Zelius.
Neither general knew of the ramifications that would be caused by the deaths of the two seemingly insignificant Bacchae that their archers had taken out. Without Eribas and Caria leading his terrorizing Bacchae horde, and that same horde subsequently hit from behind by an unexpected enemy attack, Bacchus would be left without a majority of his peasant followers. And no choice but to call in the Amazon nation to defend his remaining land.
* * *
Xena didnít mince words. She let loose with her chakram and it neatly sliced Velascaís sword in two. The warrior princess was about to launch another long range attack, but was taken off guard when Velasca dumped her broken sword and lashed out at the nearest target of convenience -- Gabrielle.
The bard took the full force of Velascaís leg as it connected with her face and sent her literally flying to the edge of the spiked pit -- Gabrielleís eyes went wide as she saw the all too familiar skull of another adventurer leering up at her, empty eye sockets mocking her predicament. Rich red blood sprayed from the bardís split lip, ... thank goodness thatís the only damage that berserker did, ... and she pushed herself away the perilous perch.
"Oh no you donít, Gabrielle," Velasca hissed. She leaped at the bard -- who had just gotten to her feet -- and the two went down together in a tangle of limbs. "Itís the end of the line for you!"
"Xena!" Gabrielle screeched desperately, fending off an assortment of blows. "I could use a little help here ... ," her voice trailed off as Velascaís attacks continued to drain the bardís energy away.
The warrior princess tried to get to her feet, but another confounded wave rippled the earth beneath her feet and toppled her. "Iím trying ... ," and then she had an idea. She scrabbled her way over to the fire rocks and managed to retrieve them. "Gabrielle, tell Velasca about your little secret -- in fact, give it to her!"
Little secret? Give it to her? What is she talking about? Gabrielle thought. Then she remembered the ambrosia that Artemis had given her. The bard looked up into Velascaís hate-filled glowing eyes and growled, "Here. You want to keep the Amazons under Bacchusí thumb? Then take this!" She wrenched the pouch from her tunicís pocket and tossed it up into the air.
"What is it?" Velasca asked, her eyes tracking the pouch as it fell toward her.
"Ambrosia ... ,"
With no further ado, Velasca leapt up to grab the suddenly very precious pouch. Without this, the Amazon nation will remain loyal to their lord Bacchus! she thought excitedly. No other thought -- including that of potential immortality -- entered Velascaís mind. She only wanted to retrieve it to keep it from ruining Bacchusí plans.
Xena smiled coldly. And struck the fire rocks together.
And Hephaestusí defense system erupted in its full glory. Velasca never knew what hit her as multiple bolts of bluish energy slammed into her body, causing horrendous damage. She fell limply toward the Ambrosia Chamberís floor -- which suddenly jerked to the right, moving the spike-filled pit directly beneath Velascaís falling body. The Amazon tried to scream but was too weak to do anything but close her eyes and accept the inevitable as the deadly spikes pierced her wrist, abdomen and, worse, her back.
Gabrielle and Xena both winced at the horrifying crunching sound made by Velascaís body as it hit the spikes. The ground continued to ripple and twist, steadily growing worse -- and downright dangerous. Nonetheless, both women managed to get back on their feet quite quickly now that they had time to concentrate. The bard peered over the ledge at Velascaís unmoving body. "The spikes definitely didnít miss this time around," she whispered softly, barely audible above the rumble of the cavern.
"Good riddance," Xena bit out harshly. She retrieved the ambrosia-filled pouch and handed it to Gabrielle. "She deserved her fate like no one else ever did."
"But it wonít kill her ... sheís a Baccha," Gabrielle interjected.
"We havenít got time to argue -- we have to get out of here," Xena yelled. "If itís any comfort, though, those damn energy bolts probably finished Velasca off. Now letís move it!"
Gabrielle nodded in mute silence and the two darted for the caveís entrance. But it was too late. The earth leaped up into the air one final time before beginning to shimmer and lose its physical substance. Xena howled helplessly as the energy engulfed her and the bard, advancing up their bodies and leaving only emptiness behind in its wake.
"NNNOOOoooo ... ," the warrior princessí scream faded into nothingness. Then there was only eternal silence.
* * *
Ephiny and the others came to a stop, marveling at the whitewater that the Thermodon River had become. Boulders jutted up out of the foaming water at increasingly odd angles and in curious arrangements. Some stood alone amid the roaring water while other boulders were clustered together, creating deadly whirlpools of water within their rocky confines. A fine spray of mist hung over the rapids, reflecting a kaleidoscope of colors from the early afternoon sun.
"Itís beautiful, isnít it?" Ephiny asked her companions.
"Are you sure this is where the ford is?" Thraso asked hesitantly, ignoring Ephinyís question.
Ephiny huffed. "Unless the river has changed its course since I was last here four moons ago and Mayemís tribe has failed to update the part of the national map theyíre in charge of -- yes, this is the fordís location." She motioned at a strangely linear row of boulders, each oneís top marked in permanent red ochre. "The painted boulders indicate the safest crossing. Thereís others of course, but ... ,"
"Ephiny?" Solari interjected.
"Now what?!" Ephiny asked in exasperation. "Am I allowed to finish a conversation ... ,"
"The river is beautiful," Solari replied suddenly, a teasing smile on her face.
Ephiny hesitated, then smiled radiantly. "Why yes, of course!" She clambered off her steed and tied it to a sturdy old oak tree. She motioned for the others to do the same. "Letís settle down and make ourselves comfortable ... I believe this is the place where Xena and our beloved Gabrielle will rejoin us soon."
"Any idea of how much longer it will be before they get here?" Siri asked.
The regent queen shrugged. "Soon, I hope," Ephiny said softly. "Since we split up yesterday morning, they should have reached the Ambrosia Chamber by now and should be on their way here. Another day at the most, I imagine."
A flash lit up the sky, then faded away.
"What was that?!" Thraso rumbled, suddenly alert to danger -- any danger.
Another flash. This one more brilliant, almost blinding in its intensity. A rumble of thunder echoed through the air, growing louder by the moment. The ominous rumble died away.
By this time, even Solari was beginning to get worked up. "What in Hades is going on?" she demanded to no one in particular. "Is there an argument among the gods exploding over our heads?"
"It canít be the work of Bacchus," Ephiny finally said, staring at the wild countryside beyond the Thermodon River. "The land beyond the river belongs to Thrace -- and the villages weíre going to take over in his name."
"Perhaps it is a sign intended to frighten the rutting inhabitants of those Thracian villages," Thraso offered. When the others looked at her nonplused, she shrugged. "Never say never!"
Everything suddenly turned brilliant white. The sky. The ground. For an instant, the four Amazons looked like photo negatives -- white where it should have been dark, dark where it should have been white. The brilliance faded away, but was immediately followed by a rolling thunder and then a massive, jagged, bolt of lightning which struck in the hills not far away. The ground heaved upward and the warriors fell to their knees. The entire episode lasted less than a minute, but it seemed like an eternity to Ephiny and the others.
"Donít ask!" Ephiny said loudly, before the questions could start anew. "I havenít the faintest idea what has just happened ... but weíre all going to find out!" She jumped to her feet and purposely strode into the woods, toward the impact site of the lightning.
Siri rubbed her eyes, still trying to get her vision to return to normal. Solari and Thraso helped their sister to her feet and grinned slightly at her hushed muttering. "We can never have a normal adventure, can we? Oh, no. That would be too easy! No! Weíre Amazons and deserve to have the wackiest and deadliest of fun, donít we ... ," The trio set off after Ephiny, all the while listening to Siri moan and grumble.
* * *
"NNNOOOoooo ... ," Xenaís scream trailed off into silence and she looked sheepishly at Gabrielle. "I, uh, we, uh, seem to have rematerialized," the warrior princess stated unnecessarily. Just to be sure, she felt her body and touched the bard. "Uh huh. Weíre really here -- where ever here is anyway."
Gabrielle would have laughed at her friendís situation, but she was too worried at the moment. "Letís get out of here before this thing decides to shift again," she said quickly. "Artemis knows what kind of wrench this has thrown into our plans ... we could be many moons from any territory weíre familiar with!"
Xena nodded her silent approval. Good! Sheís beginning to get assertive -- thatís what I like to see with Gabrielle, the warrior princess thought. The two ran for the entrance to the cave and leaped clear. They landed hard on the bare, lifeless ground outside the caveís mouth and looked back. Nothing happened. The cave remained where it was, and the ground didnít do anything unnatural. Suddenly the pair heard distant voices growing closer.
"We should be getting close to it ... ,"
"Can you imagine the size of the crater ... ,"
"Strange. I donít smell anything burning. Surely a lightning strike would have set some trees on fire ... ,"
Xena and Gabrielle strained to separate the babble of voices, but failed. They tensed as a group of women emerged from the thick underbrush. In an instant, they locked eyes with the warrior princess and the bard and slipped into a stunned silence. It was broken by Gabrielle, who chirped, "Ephiny! Siri! Solari! Thraso! Long time no see!"
Ephinyís stunned expression changed to one of utter happiness. "Well, Iíll be a centaurís uncle!" she shouted. Ephiny ran up to Gabrielle and swept her up in a bear hug. "We werenít expecting you or Xena for another day! How did you get here so quickly?"
Gabrielle giggled and disentangled herself from the regent queen. "We got caught in the Ambrosia Chamber when it shifted to a new location ... itís only a coincidence that it ended up where it did."
"Coincidence, huh?" Ephiny said, raising a questioning eyebrow. "Personally, Iím willing to bet that Artemis guided the Ambrosia Chamber to its location."
"Believe whatever you may, Ephiny, but the moon goddess cannot help us anymore," Xena interrupted rather harshly. "Weíre on our own two feet now." The warrior princess stalked past the group of women, exuding a sense of unhappiness and, more subtly, worry.
"Whatís with her?" Solari asked under her breath to Gabrielle.
The bard shrugged. "Itís a number of things," she whispered solemnly. "Bacchus, mainly. But also the death, destruction and mayhem heís bringing upon the innocent." Gabrielle smiled reassuringly. "Solari, would you be so kind to retrieve a pouch I left in the Ambrosia Chamber? It contains the ambrosia we need to defeat Bacchus."
Solari nodded and made her way into the nearby cave opening. She tiptoed along -- not knowing why, but an uneasy feeling overcame her -- and spied the pouch lying on the floor in the actual chamber. She ran over to it and scooped it up ... and heard a long, low moan echoing from the spiked pit. Solari couldnít resist glancing into the death trap -- and froze in horror at the sight contained within.
Velasca stared back at her. The usurperís blazing golden eyes probed Solariís face and her mouth worked itself open, but no words were audible. Spikes covered in greenish ichor protruded from her body at various points. Solari was finally able to tear her gaze away from Velascaís hypnotic eyes, but not before she began to transform. Solari gritted her teeth as her incisors began to elongate and sharpen and as her skin began to acquire a chalky white color. Whatís happening to me?! she wondered silently as her fingernails turned inky black and stretched into lethal talons. I thought I was put back in control after Ephiny bit me! Then it hit her. Solari glared down into the pit, where Velasca smiled wanely, her own fangs glistening in the near darkness.
"Itís you, isnít it?!" Solari screamed angrily. She turned and ran from the chamber, not waiting for Velascaís answer. As she neared the caveís entrance, her body began to change back to normal -- but not before giving Solari a good reminder that she, and all of the other Amazons, were still Bacchae at heart, despite Ephinyís actions.
"Are you all right?" Ephiny asked after Solari returned. "We heard you screaming in there ... ,"
"It was nothing!" Solari hissed. She shoved the ambrosia into Gabrielleís waiting hands. "Velasca was trying to exert some type of control over me -- but she failed!"
"Velasca?!" Siri spoke loudly. "Sheís in the cave?"
"Yes. She attacked us during our mission to the Ambrosia Chamber," Xena said matter-of-factly. "Her effort to thwart us failed and now sheís dying a slow death on some spikes -- I hope we never hear from her again."
Ephiny could sense the tension in the air around the cave. "Letís get out of here," she commanded. "I think weíre all being affected to some degree by Velascaís proximity. Perhaps Bacchus imbued her with some sort of mental suggestive power over every Amazon whoíd been turned into a bloodsucker."
The others nodded their silent agreement and merged back into the forest single file, following Ephiny, Xena and Gabrielle. The Ambrosia Chamber, and its nearly immortal prisoner within, was forgotten.
* * *
Bacchus was nearly beside himself with grief. The death reports had started to trickle in slowly -- a few here, a few there. A squad of his followers wiped out in a small village that was rebelling somewhere near the advancing armies of Greece and Macedonia. Worse, an entire town -- Berhoea -- burned to the ground after its inhabitants had lost an aborted rebellion against the Bacchae. Unfortunately, the victors themselves had been caught in the ensuing flames and everyone had died -- men, women, children and their Bacchae enslavers. The trickle of deaths was quickly beginning to turn into a flood. Dozens of Bacchae dead quickly reached the hundreds and now, the thousands. And Bacchus felt each and every death of his follower. It was pure agony -- but his agony was quickly turning into a peculiar mixture of grief and rage.
For the fifth time in the last candlemark, the wine god sent a mental feeler out for Eribas and Caria ... and felt nothing. His prized lieutenants -- the best he had in his peasant ranks despite their apparent incompetency at times while on the job -- were gone. Usually I can at the very least sense their presence, if nothing else, Bacchus thought. Now I canít even sense their presence. And they havenít responded to any of my mental summons -- highly unusual for those two. The wine god didnít want to acknowledge what he feared most -- that his lieutenants were dead.
"Milord ... ," Bacchusí morose thoughts were interrupted by an aideís voice, " ... I have the latest information from the front lines. It doesnít look good and ... ," a hesitant pause, " ... this may be the last report we receive."
"How bad is it?" the wine god snapped.
The Baccha ran her pink tongue over her fangs nervously, then dove in and said, "Youíve already heard about Berhoea being burned to the ground." Bacchus nodded absently. "Well, now weíve lost a major stronghold -- Edessa. A walled city with thousands of residents perched on a small river and heavily fortified is now in the hands of Zelius and Crassius. In addition to that ... ,"
"Thereís more?!" Bacchus yelped in surprise.
"Yes, milord, thereís more," the aide replied solemnly. "There is no longer a front line ... ,"
"Yes! I knew Eribas and Caria could do it!" Bacchus shouted triumphantly. "We may have lost a major city, but our enemyís forces have been routed elsewhere!"
The aide shook her head. "No, milord. Our front line forces were caught between two enemy armies. One moving up from the south and another from the north -- from behind the front lines."
Bacchusí red face turned slightly paler. "This isnít happening ... ,"
"We no longer have an army, milord," the aide continued emotionlessly. "Every single woman was killed. Zelius and Crassius sacrificed their own scout groups in order to lure our ground forces from their garrisons and fortifications -- and it worked."
Bacchus whirled on the aide, intending to take his anger out on her seemingly nonchalant attitude. "You should speak of your fallen comrades in hushed, awed tones!" he shouted. "They died defending you and the other peasant Bacchae who couldnít tell the difference between a plowshare and a sword ... ,"
"Shut your damn mouth you sniveling illegitimate bastard," the aide said coldly. Bacchusí eyes widened at the words which spilled from her mouth. He watched as she began to grow taller and started to bulk out. A searing white light flashed over her and she was no longer there. In her place stood Zeus himself -- and the king of the Olympian gods stared smugly at his son. "Itís all coming down on your little horned head, Bacchus," Zeus spat, his voice like knives. "Youíve bitten off more than you can chew ... ,"
"I will not lose!" Bacchus screamed, disoriented by the sudden appearance of his father. "I will win, I will ... ,"
Zeusí voice cut through the cacophony. "Weíll see about that, Bacchus. Because if you lose -- I will destroy you and any other god foolish enough to get in my way. Your little adventures in the mortal world have pulled resources and time away from matters that are of much more importance ... and you on the verge of causing internecine war among the Olympians!" He smiled coldly. "And those are mistakes that I will not forgive."
Bacchus started to reply, but Zeus was gone in a flash of light. He stared at the empty space that the king of the gods had occupied so pretentiously. "I will persevere against all odds, father. That is a promise," the wine god fumed angrily. "Then weíll see whoís on the receiving end of any punishment!"
* * *
Ephinyís little group returned to the clearing by the Thermodon River and immediately set to mixing the ambrosia and Heraís purple dust. The resulting concoction was gelatinous in nature and seemed to have expanded in size and girth. When Gabrielle had started the procedure, it had occupied a small bowl ... but by the time she was finished, it had overflowed and had to be transferred to a bowl three times the size of the original one. The expansive, glowing mixture got some weird looks -- but nothing more.
"I think this goop is ready to be dumped into the river," Gabrielle announced. "Who wants to have the honors?"
"Let me," Thraso volunteered. She hefted the enormous bowl up in her arms and staggered over to the river bank. She waded cautiously into the foaming whitewater and began to tip the bowl ... and was promptly impaled by a pair of arrows. Thraso screeched in pain and fell into the shallow rushing water, the bowlís contents immediately dispersing into the water, which coursed down into the heartland of the Amazon nation.
In a matter of days -- if not sooner -- the nationís water source would contain, for lack of a better word, antibodies against the worst effects of the Baccha infection. Heraís solution that was intended to aid Bacchus was beginning its work, but in a way she never envisioned. Of more immediate concern, though, was Thrasoís inert body, which floated near the Thermodonís edge.
"Thraso!" Ephiny shouted. Without concern for her own safety, the regent queen splashed into the water, quickly followed by Xena and Gabrielle. The trio reached Thrasoís body and quickly pulled it back to shore. Solari and Siri immediately set up a rudimentary first aid station and set to work on their sister. They knew she wouldnít die because of her Baccha nature, but the arrows -- which were barbed, they quickly realized -- must hurt like Hades.
"Who is responsible for this uncalled for attack?!" Gabrielle challenged to the unseen assailants. She winced when she heard Thrasoís muffled scream as one of the barbed heads was removed from her shoulder. "Show yourselves!"
A distant voice replied defiantly. "I was the one who shot your friend!" It belonged to a woman, who slowly slipped into view on the other side of the Thermodon River. She didnít hesitate as she plunged into the river and forded her way across, followed by two other women. "She was attempting to poison our water supply."
"Thatís the farthest thing from the ... ," Gabrielleís voice trailed off when she realized that the three sopping wet women who had just clambered out of the river were dressed as Amazons. They also carried Amazon swords slung across their backs and daggers hitched in their utility belts. "Just who are you?" the bard spoke up again. "I wasnít aware of any Amazon tribes beyond the Thermodon River!"
"Thatís because there shouldnít be any now," Ephiny answered sternly. She stared into the strange womanís large, luminous green eyes. "The five tribes which used to claim this land were destroyed centuries ago during the time of Hippolytaís great war."
"That isnít true anymore -- those extinct tribes you speak so reverently of are back," the woman replied. She offered her arm in a warriorís handshake. Despite her reservations, Ephiny accepted the peaceful gesture. "By the way, my name is Tauri. I am the leader of the largest of the reconstituted Amazon tribes of Thrace."
Gabrielle spoke up heatedly. "If youíre all Amazons, then why did you attack us?! Didnít you recognize our clothing and weapons?! It had to be obvious that weíre your sisters, for Artemisí sake!"
Tauri looked suspiciously at the bard. "I thought I saw someone attempting to poison our water supply -- and my natural instinct was to defend our tribesí water supply," she said hesitantly. Then she grew curious and added, "What is your name and rank? Are you the ones that were prophesied to reunite us with the rest of nation?"
"I am Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazon nation," the bard said tersely. "But whatís this business of reuniting you with the other Amazons? According to my sources ... ," Gabrielle glanced at Ephiny, who shrugged, " ... thereís supposed to be several nearby villages full of rutting men waiting for the impending Amazon mating cycle."
Upon hearing Gabrielleís title, Tauri fell to her knees and bowed. Her companions did the same. After an awkward minute, Tauri regained her feet and spoke. "That was the way of things ... until the voice told us to rise up and reclaim our heritage. Which is exactly what we did not too long ago."
Ephinyís eyes darted over to Xena and the two were thinking the exact same thing. Hundreds of new potential warriors to aid in the war against Bacchus -- all unchanged and who would be willing to kick butt once they learned of the wine godís manipulation of their sisters. Just then the atmosphere was shattered by Thrasoís pained cry as the second and, thankfully, final barbed head was removed from her thigh. Before Tauri could be stopped, she was at Thrasoís side, attempting to comfort the sister she had attempted to kill less than a candlemark earlier. It didnít take her long to realize that something wasnít right with Thraso or, for that matter, the other newfound Amazons.
"Whatís this?" Tauri asked weakly, holding up one of Thrasoís arms. The arm had reacquired a chalky white pallor because of the stress caused by Thrasoís injuries -- and her fingernails had erupted into lethal, black talons. "This isnít normal ... ," Tauriís voice was rising, " ... on a woman, or anything else for that matter!"
"Tauri, weíre all Bacchae," Xena spoke up. There was finality in her voice. "You know what that means, right?"
Tauri began to inch slowly away from Thraso. Her movements were mimicked by her companions. Yep. They definitely have an idea of what theyíre dealing with, Xena thought miserably. I suppose itís about time that someone tells them that we donít bite -- before they vanish back into the underbrush.
Gabrielle raised her hands. "Weíve been freed from our bloodlust, though," the bard stated. "We still possess the abilities and physical traits of a Baccha, but we are in control of our personalities. Not our dark side."
Tauriís group hesitated, but they remained silent. Ephiny saw her chance to convince them that she and the others were no longer mindless Bacchae and joined the conversation. "Think about it. If we had wanted to, we could have bitten all three of you the moment you stepped into our camp -- but we didnít," she cajoled.
"Then it was all true," Tauri whispered in bleak horror. "Astyanax was telling the truth the entire time -- Bacchus has indeed conquered Macedonia and corrupted my Amazon sisters ... ,"
"Astyanax?" Ephiny probed. "Whoís Astyanax?"
Tauri blinked. "He claims to be an advance scout sent up here by Zelius to warn the Amazons of an impending invasion by Macedonian and Greek forces that aims to crush Bacchus once and for all and to ... ,"
Thraso jerked at the mention of Zeliusí name, but no one noticed. Their attention was transfixed on Tauri.
"And what?" Gabrielle asked gently. "What else is there?"
" ... destroy the Amazon nation for its complicity in aiding Bacchus," Tauri finished gloomily.
"We were conquered, for Artemisí sake!" Solari spat, breaking her silence. "Hades! We have a poor enough public relations image as it is -- why would we want to stain it further with unnecessary attacks?!"
"If they want a damn war, then lets give them a licking!" Siri snarled, adding her two bits to the heated conversation. "If they can see the truth, then they donít deserve to live!"
"Everyone -- shut up!" Ephiny rumbled. Silence fell as the assembled women grew quiet. "This invasion of the Amazon nation itself doesnít sound like something Macedonia would do on its own accord. Am I right, Tauri?"
Tauri nodded. "Itís best to talk to Astyanax himself, but it sounded like the Greeks were the driving force behind the idea to destroy the Amazons -- thatís why Zelius sent Astyanax up here to warn us."
"Zelius was my second," a voice sputtered. Everyone looked at Thraso as she climbed to her feet, the wounds caused by the arrows already nearly healed. "It looks like that chivalrous attitude he always had has manifested itself in the form of Astyanax."
"How could a woman hold a position of power within the male dominated ranks of Macedonian society?" one of Tauriís lieutenants asked curiously.
Ephiny smiled sadly. "Letís just say that Thraso had a change of body forced on her by a meddling goddess. She used to be a Pellan general known as Dion."
Tauriís eyes widened, along with those of her lieutenants, but they remained courteously silent. The trio recognized the name attached to the title and all of its accomplishments, but they knew it wasnít the proper time to bring it up. Iím sure Thraso is still having a somewhat difficult time dealing with her new body -- and to be transformed into a Baccha to boot! Tauri thought. I wouldnít wish that on my worst enemy.
"Letís return to your tribeís main village," Xena suggested. "Iíd like to talk to this Astyanax, and Iím sure our other sisters would like that opportunity, too."
Tauri nodded curtly. "Weíd better hurry, though," she commented. "I sentenced him to death for what I thought were his fanciful tales of mighty armies marching toward the Amazon nation. Obviously, I was wrong."
* * *
By the time they reached the village a full moon had risen high into the sky, and a it lit up the night sky into a pale imitation of high noon. Tauri scampered ahead of the group and was the first to enter the village square -- where she saw Astyanax standing on a raised platform, his hands tied behind his back and a swordswoman standing at his side. Her lethal sword was drawn and she was teasing his sweaty, naked body with it. A small crowd of women surrounded the scene, awaiting the moment when Astyanaxís heart would be pierced. Several of the women were, at that very moment, carrying the tiny beginnings of life within their wombs -- the end result of their liaison with Astyanax. In nine moonís time, they would give birth to robust newborn daughters ... but it was highly doubtful if the Macedonian scout would still be alive to witness that moment.
"Although you will die this night, Astyanax, may your soul rejoice in the fact that in nine moonís time, six of our finest warriors will give birth to the daughters that you had a hand in conceiving," a magistrateís voice droned. "Those little girls will eventually -- with the proper training and education -- go far in replacing the five warriors you killed upon your arrival here ... ,"
Tauri waded into the crowd and they soon parted before her hurried advance. "Cease and desist, immediately!" she called out. "The judgment I passed on this man was hasty and ill-considered." She heard some muttering and saw some angry looks thrown her way, but chose to ignore them. I will not shed anymore innocent blood, Tauri thought defiantly. The ground is already stained too much from previous actions.
"What made you change your mind?" the magistrate asked, more curious than anything else. "Before you left on your scouting expedition, you explicitly stated that Astyanax had to die."
Tauri smiled tautly. "During that trip, we had the great fortune to encounter ... ," she turned around to face the crowd and the Ephinyís group, which stood off to the side, " ... Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazon nation, and several of her lieutenants and friends."
Gabrielle sensed it was time to set the record straight and spoke up. "We were able to corroborate, to a certain degree, the stories that the Macedonian scout, Astyanax, related to you about an advancing Greek and Macedonian army -- and the threat it poses to the Amazon nation." The bard looked over at Thraso, but she remained respectfully silent. "Astyanax apparently is the real thing, my Amazon sisters. His arrival has saved many lives ... although right now it doesnít appear to be that way."
Tauri nodded at the swordswoman, who quickly slashed the bindings holding Astyanax in place. The scout stumbled forward unsteadily and massaged his wrists. "Retrieve his clothes and send him over to my hut once heís dressed," Tauri commanded. "Our newcomers here want to ask him more questions."
Astyanax was hustled off, but the crowd -- which had nearly doubled in size since Tauri had arrived -- remained rooted in place. They curiously examined the leather armor and weaponry that Ephinyís group sported and compared it to their own. They found very little difference between themselves and the newcomers, other than the fact that the newcomers looked unusual with their slightly pale skin and peculiar flashes of gold in their eyes.
Tauri could see what was about to happen and attempted to head it off. "Gabrielle and our other sisters have, unfortunately, been transformed into Bacchae," she explained. The crowd grew visibly nervous and more than one sword was unsheathed. "But they say that theyíre no longer mindless followers of Bacchus -- they claim to have been freed from their bloodlust!"
"Itís all true," Gabrielle added hastily. "You can see from our actions that weíre not your typical Bacchae ... but thousands of other Amazons remain under the full, maddening, effects of their unleashed dark sides."
"When do we march?!" a strident voice called out. "A foreign army threatens our very existence and our sisters are enslaved to a bloodthirsty god! That is cause enough to take up arms!"
"Not yet," Tauri interjected. "Let me speak with our guests -- they know more about the current situation than any of us -- and then Iíll let you know what we, and our neighboring tribes, can do to aid our Queen Gabrielle!" Tauri walked over to Xena and whispered, "You want to speak with Astyanax, correct?"
The warrior princess nodded. "Right now. Now that Iím aware of what the Greeks and Macedonians are up to, maybe I can couple that to the original plan and make some fireworks," she explained. "But if weíre to do anything, it has to be quickly!"
"Why?" Tauri asked.
"Because that goop we dumped into the Thermodon River was a mixture of ambrosia and magical dust provided by Hera," Xena said. "It will enable the Amazon nation to control its bloodlust and regain a large degree of mental independence from Bacchus -- but neither Hera or that horned bastard are aware of that yet. And then thereís ... ,"
" ... the Baccha moon, which is high in the sky right now," Ephiny interrupted, her voice glum. "We donít know what Bacchusí timetable is, but it probably wonít be long before he begins to permanently attach the Amazons to his side -- for better or worse -- for all eternity."
* * *
"Donít count on my information being completely accurate," Astyanax said in a no nonsense manner. "Itís been a long time since I left Zeliusí camps -- and Iím pretty sure heís changed his plans in that time just in case I was caught and interrogated by Bacchusí minions."
"Heís correct, Xena," Thraso added. "When I was still the Pellan general Dion, Zelius was always one of my brightest -- if not overly ambitious -- underlings. The old saying, `Heís a chip off the old block,í certainly holds water here, even if Zelius wasnít my son."
Xena continued to pace back and forth feverishly in front of the blazing fire which kept the lodge warm, plans and plans within plans tumbling around in her mind. Tauri, Ephiny and the others stood off to the side while Astyanax continued to devour the hearty meal in front of him. Mmm. If nothing else, the Amazons sure know how to cook up a splendid meal -- Iíve never tasted venison like this or, for that matter, this delicious nutbread, the scout thought happily. Maybe theyíd be willing to part with the recipe if I ask nicely.
The warrior princess finally spoke up. "Ephiny, by the time we return to Themiscrya the Amazons will have drunk from the purified water of the Thermodon, right?"
"Yes. The water flows fast during this time of year," Ephiny replied. "I wouldnít be surprised if half the river has already been changed ... another day or two at the most and the nation should be thinking for itself again."
"Then this is what weíre going to do," Xena said. "When we return to Themiscrya, the three battle groups already gathered there will have to make like the wind for Pella." There was a brief pause as Xena thought of something. "Bacchus will hopefully think that the Amazons are still under his control and have arrived to repel the advancing Greeks and Macedonians. Little will he know that theyíre really there to destroy him for his actions against the nation -- and to stop the Greek forces before they encounter the Amazon lands which lie northwest of the Macedonian capitol."
"There will be casualties," Siri said solemnly.
Xena nodded. "I know. Thatís why weíll have to drill into our troops that their strength and endurance has been offset by one thing -- the Dryad weaponry that is in the Macedonian and Greek hands," she said. "I wish there was some other way, but the only other option is to wait until the storm arrives at the nationís borders. And that wonít do at all ... so weíll fight them to a standstill on Macedonian soil."
"What about us?" Tauri asked. "What can we do to aid the cause?"
"Spread your warriors across the nationís lands," Xena replied. "They can serve to reinforce the warriors who will be staying behind to protect the homeland ... because if the war goes badly, we will be fighting for our very survival. And that war will be fought in Amazon territory."
Tauri indicated her acceptance. "Itís not as much as I wanted, but itís the least we can do for our sisters," she said.
"Then itís settled: we will leave immediately," Xena explained. She looked back at Tauri and added, "Gather your forces and set out after us after the sun has risen. That should be enough time for Mayemís tribe and other nearby Amazon tribes to have ingested the treated water -- theyíll be much more understandable and neighborly afterwards."
Xena left the lodge, followed by Ephiny and the others. Just before Gabrielle was about to leave, she glanced back at Astyanax and offered, "Do you wish to accompany us? I know weíre heading in your direction -- south."
"Thanks, but no thanks," the scout countered amiably. "Iíve probably made some enemies among the Amazon tribes whose scouts I had to kill on my journey up here. Itís probably better for me not to be seen with any Amazon until things have cooled down."
"You are going home, arenít you?" Gabrielle asked slowly. "You cannot stay here unless specifically invited to do so. And that hasnít happened."
Astyanax smiled wolfishly. "I have no home to return to -- Bacchus made sure of that -- but I do have a general to inform. Once heís aware of Xenaís plans, he will do everything in his power to avoid conflict with the Amazons," the scout said. "He believes in the innocence of your nation, Gabrielle, in spite of what others may think."
Gabrielle smiled grimly. "Thatís good to hear," she said. Then she, too, was gone -- and Astyanax was left alone with his thoughts of wreaking vengeance on Bacchus and anyone who tried to stop him.
* * *
The Illyrian port city of Epidamnus was a bustling center of seaborne trade, legal and otherwise, so the unusually large concentration of approaching ships didnít catch the full attention of the harbor security authority. However, the mysterious flotilla didnít completely escape attention as it sailed out of the new dayís morning mist.
Atop the portís lighthouse, a soldier focused his spyglass on the closing ships -- and felt a strange chill moving up his spine. Itís nothing, he tried to reassure himself. Just an unexpected spoils shipment from our pirate allies. Nonetheless, he glanced over at his commander, who was keeping a watchful eye on the buxom young slave women had just arrived from the province of Lesbos. "Captain Zoegrub, are you aware of any inbound merchant shipments?" the soldier finally asked.
"Why?" Zoegrub shot back. He wasnít happy about being disturbed -- gawking at half-naked slave women was a favorite pastime of his.
"Because thereís at least three dozen -- if not more -- ships that will soon be making landfall in our port," the soldier explained. "Look for yourself."
Zoegrub trained his spyglass on the approaching armada and snorted. "By Hades! You said three dozen ships?! Iím counting at least six -- maybe more -- dozen ships! And, no, theyíre not merchants ... the only seafaring traders who might travel in groups like that are Phoenicians." He turned his spyglass back on the crowded marketplace below the lighthouse. Damn! Three of the most beautiful slave women were sold while I was looking out to sea! How annoying, Zoegrub thought irritably. He spat, "Itís probably one of the pirate groups that Queen Teuta likes to extract bribes from -- Hades, theyíre always coming and going. Now donít bother me ... Iíve got better things to watch."
The soldier sighed and trained his spyglass on the ships again. Many appeared to be drab and featureless and some appeared to have suffered damage in some seaborne battle. Yet others exuded a sense of power and destiny -- one, in particular, lay in the very center of the group. It was the largest and most powerful looking of the ships ... yet there was no overt activity on its decks. The soldier mechanically stoked the blazing fire atop the lighthouse in a way that it sent smoke signals into the atmosphere -- signals that were immediately returned by the outermost ships in the flotilla. Good, the soldier thought. They matched the signals perfectly -- and these pirates look to have had a great time raiding the coasts of Sicily and Rome, judging from the number of captured Roman ships in the flotilla.
Indeed, the flotilla did contain a great number of Roman ships -- warships, that is. The old rickety vessels in the outer ring of the flotilla were merely the defeated survivors of one of Queen Teutaís favored pirate captains who had been stupid enough to attack an Imperial Roman fleet bound for Illyria. After a predictably short battle, the pirates had been overcome and their ships incorporated into the Roman fleet -- except the pirates were now dead and their vessels crowded to the gills with Roman legions. On the centermost ship, Julius Caesar celebrated his impending victory with the shipís officers and, of course, Brutus.
"Itís a beautiful sight isnít it, Brutus?" Caesar beamed as he observed the well-built city of Epidamnus with its ever-busy harbor. "And it will all belong to Imperial Rome! Soon afterwards, Queen Teuta herself will learn the true power of the Empire -- and that Rome has no mercy for those who oppose her great destiny."
"I agree completely," Brutus automatically said. The differences in opinion between him and Caesar -- the former wanted to attack all of Greece while the latter didnít -- was still pretty obvious.
Caesar didnít dwell on it as the admiral in charge of the seaborne invasion came up from belowdecks and stood silently at the emperorís side. "We are in position, Dominus Caesar. The portís authorities accepted our signals and suspect nothing," the admiral intoned. "The second half of our armada has made landfall several miles north of Epidamnus and we can only assume that our ground-based legions have massed successfully on Illyriaís borders."
"Good." Caesarís eyes took on a dangerous glint and he hissed, "Ignite the fire ships and tell our catapults on the outermost sails that they may open fire at will. Inform the men that weíll be going ashore within the candlemark!"
* * *
The attack came without warning. Rings of fire fell from the sky -- launched by the Roman catapults -- and began setting everything ablaze. A shop exploded into flames while the few women remaining in the slave harem were burned alive by another ring of fire. Their horrifying agonized screams, combined with that of hundreds of others, rose above the spreading maelstrom of flames, lending a nightmarish air to the chaotic scene. A few pirate vessels tried to escape, but they were entrapped by the blazing pyres of Roman fire ships and went up in flames themselves. Many a pirate leapt into the water to save their own lives ... only to be devoured by prowling sharks.
Above it all, Captain Zoegrub and his faithful lieutenant watched it all, knowing that they were already dead. "Do you think Queen Teuta is aware of the situation?" the soldier asked rather lamely.
"Of course not," Zoegrub grumbled. "If she had been, these attackers would never have gotten close enough to do us any real harm ... ," a shaft suddenly poked into his chest and he plummeted silently from the lighthouse.
The soldier realized that troops had already started disembarking from the enemy ships. He quickly got several of them in his bowís target sights -- and froze in horror. "Romans. Weíre being attacked by Romans!" he whispered to himself as he watched at least a dozen armored men crowd the lighthouseís base -- and as they started to climb up. The Illyrian quickly stoked his fire and began to send out another smoke signal ... but he wasnít able to complete it as two bolts from a Roman crossbow slammed into him. He died instantly, his last desperate gesture unfulfilled.
From afar, other Illyrian soldiers -- who were completely unaware of the disaster befalling Epidamnus -- joked when they saw R-0 in the sky and nothing else. "Ro what?" a nameless hoplite asked. "Row, row, row your boat?!" His companions guffawed at the hopliteís joke, not knowing that their lives would soon come to a bloody end.
* * *
Diana had never seen Themiscrya so crowded in her entire life -- which wasnít good for someone who considered herself to be claustrophobic. Typically home to only a few thousand women, the Amazon nationís capitol now bustled with the activity and hubbub of slightly over eight thousand women. Ever since Ephiny, Xena and the others had left on their expedition to negate the Thracian threat, anticipation had grown among the thousands of Amazon warriors for their triumphant return. They also waited, with a lot less anticipation, for the return of Velasca -- not knowing that the usurper wouldnít be coming back from this mission.
In her absence, Velasca had put Diana in charge of Themiscryaís affairs. I must say I think Iíve done a decent job of maintaining order and keeping my sisters busy, Diana thought idly as she walked slowly through the townís bustling center. Indeed, she had kept everyone busy -- and their minds occupied -- by sending out constant hunting expeditions, repairing the infrastructure of Themiscrya and nearby villages and by near constant training of the six thousand warriors who. All of this effort required a nearly steady stream of fresh blood ... fortunately the hunting expeditions led by Sirius, Charm and Gemini had done well, nabbing well over one hundred errant males. The captives had been brought back, but werenít killed. Instead, they were given over to the healer Ordahlia and her staff, who milked a steady flow of blood from the menís veins while keeping them healthy and robust. Needless to say, it was one of the few times where males found themselves actually being treated nicely by the Amazons -- but only because they carried within them the elixir that the bloodthirsty women literally needed to stay cognizant.
Diana entered the Queenís Lodge and relished the privacy that it offered. But she wasnít in there for more than half a candlemark when a pillar of reddish energy materialized, then faded away to reveal her master, Bacchus, towering over her.
"What brings your sacred presence here, milord?" Diana asked, not missing a beat.
"The inevitable has happened," Bacchus replied shortly. "Macedonian and Greek forces have combined together and have struck back. Worse yet, theyíve reoccupied the southern half of our Macedonian lands and are coming closer and closer to Pella itself."
Diana grinned wolfishly, her fangs glimmering in the dim light. "When do you want us to hit back?" she asked, anticipating her lordís needs.
"Immediately, if possible," Bacchus hissed. "Our peasant sisters are being systematically slaughtered ... ,"
"How?!" Diana interrupted. She felt a pit in her stomach.
"Dryad weaponry. The Greeks and Macedonians have somehow gotten their hands on it," the wine god said tersely. "Immortality means nothing when confronted with weapons like that -- as our late beloved sisters Eribas and Caria found out -- so I need real warriors. In short ... I want my Amazons to eradicate our enemies once and for all!"
Diana nodded solemnly. "We will set out to wreak vengeance once the great Xena and her entourage return from their mission to Thrace."
"Itís nice to know that that little problem has finally been taken care of ... ," Bacchus sent a silent thanks to his stepmother Hera, " ... successfully. We may have lost land in Macedonia, but we have gained more in Thrace!" He paused, thinking, Something isnít right here ... what is it? Aloud he asked, "When do you expect them to return?"
"Three or four days, depending on how long it takes them to purify the nationís water supply once theyíve conquered the Thracian villages," Diana estimated. "It will probably be a five or six days before we can reach Pella to provide any assistance."
I can only hope that Pella can hold out that long, Bacchus thought morosely. Iíve already lost control over Berhoea, Edessa and countless other villages and towns across Macedonia. It was then that he realized what was nagging at him: the absence of Velasca. "Diana, where is Velasca? I thought she was the Queen," the wine god asked.
"She followed Xena and the others," Diana explained. "I guess she couldnít trust them to complete the mission without screwing up -- sheís a perfectionist, you know."
Bacchus rolled his eyes and said, "How typical of her." He began to dematerialize and the last thing Diana heard from him was, "Iíll be expecting your arrival in Pella -- and soon. Because time is of the essence." And then he was gone, the only evidence of his being there a chilly patch of air where he had so arrogantly stood.
Diana was left to her thoughts only for a moment before a young warriorís voice announced, "Hereís the water you requested. Iím sorry for the delay."
"Thatís alright," Diana replied soothingly. She took the mug from the outstretched hand and drank deeply from it, thoroughly enjoying its cold crispiness as it slid down her throat.
* * *
Over the next three days, Bacchus watched helplessly as his mortal empire was slowly chipped away by the inexorably advancing armies of Zelius and Crassius. Cities, towns and villages fell like dominos -- and the largest domino of all, Pella, was on the verge of collapse. The Macedonian capitol could sense that it was about to be freed from its nightmarish captivity and began defy Bacchus in little irritating ways -- including blocked streets and a resolute population that no longer felt obliged to offer its blood and services to a tyrant and his bloodsucking followers. They paid a steep price for their irreverence -- especially in body counts and women lost to the siren song of the Bacchae -- but it came with the realization that freedom doesnít come free ... that it often demands the sacrifice of the innocents.
And if Bacchus was desperate about his crumbling and very short-lived empire, Queen Teuta of the Illyrian province of Greece could no longer be made to care. She was too desperate trying to save her own skin from the advancing Roman legions to even have any time to know what was happening in neighboring Macedonia. As far as she knew, Bacchus still ruled supreme ... and regarded him as a looming threat to Greece. None of that mattered now as she directed what few forces she had left to stall the inevitable -- the occupation of the capitol city, Scodra, and her throne contained within.
The Romans had struck with such surprise and ferocity that not a single Illyrian soldier was left alive in their wake. Epidamnus had fallen on the first day of the invasion and in the ensuing two days the rest of Illyrian was falling suit to the three-pronged assault -- just now shocked villagers were making their way to inform the rest of Greece about the tragedy that had befallen Illyria. But their stories werenít always met with kindness and understanding ... many were told in no uncertain terms that their provinceís fate was well-deserved.
"Thatís what you get for pissing in Imperial Romeís backyard!" was a common phrase heard by the shell-shocked survivors streaming out of war-torn Illyria.
Greece was notoriously provincial -- if a disaster took out a neighboring province, it was of no concern to many in neighboring provinces and city states as long as they werenít threatened. And Julius Caesar was playing an astute game of cards ... not a single legionnaire came within a mile of a neutral province or city state. And so Illyriaís neighbors didnít feel threatened by the sudden and unexpected Roman presence. And, if truth be known, more than one Greek felt safer with Roman forces nearby because his or her leader was less likely to carry out atrocities against the individual because he or she might scream bloody murder. And if Romans got wind of any dissent in any province or city state bordering their territory -- which Illyria was now -- they would use the flimsiest of excuses to stick their noses into the whole mess. And not a single Greek leader wanted that to happen.
While all of this was going on, Xenaís group was slowly, but steadily, making its way back towards Themiscrya and its burgeoning population of Amazon warriors. Along the way they could see the effects that the purified waters of the Thermodon River was having on the Amazon tribes. They came upon more than one village where tears were being shed and questions asked as for the first time in over a moon, clouded minds had been wiped free of Bacchusí enslavement. Xena and the others tried to salve the consciousí of as many sisters as they could, but they had to get to Themiscrya as quickly as possible. So that duty largely fell to Tauriís warriors, who trailed Xena by a day -- exactly as the warrior princess had prescribed.
Turmoil churned all across the Greek world ... and the Olympian gods looked on, unwilling to interfere in the mortal affairs of Earth. And it wasnít only Zeusí edict that prevented them from becoming involved -- it was also the rapt attention they gave to the plight that Bacchus was going through. Some snickered, others frowned and yet others -- Zeus in particular -- planned for the inevitable downfall of Bacchus.
* * *
"If only you could comprehend what has happened here, you would be infinitely more appreciative of the role you have played in Roman history," Caesar sneered at the prisoner who lay in chains at his feet. He snapped his fingers and commanded, "Get her on her feet."
Queen Teuta scowled as she was dragged to an upright position. "Youíre nothing more than a conquering bastard who picks his lands clean!" she snarled. For that epithet a nearby guard slammed his fist into the womanís face, crushing her nose.
Caesarís eyes shot daggers at the guard. "That was uncalled for," he said quietly. He motioned subtly and two of the guardís compatriots hustled him from the throne room that had -- up until a few candlemarks ago -- belonged to Queen Teuta. "Please excuse my legionnaire for that unprofessional conduct ... after all, heís from Transalpine Gaul, a rather recent addition to the Empire."
"I am Queen Teuta, leader of the Greek province of Illyria ... ," Teuta began, but she was abruptly cut off.
"You are a prisoner in the Roman province of Illyria, in the Roman city of Scodra, in the throne room of a soon-to-be-named Roman legate," Caesar snarled. "You have no rank and of this moment, no name!"
Teuta tried to speak her name over and over again, but each time a guard smacked her across the face. And this time, Caesar merely sat back -- Brutus at his side -- and smiled like a Cheshire cat. "Your suffering will end, prisoner, anytime you want it too," he taunted. "Itís in your hands."
"I will not give up my identity -- itís all I have left!" the prisoner screamed. Verbally she fought on, but mentally she had already given up. "They will unite against you ... you will pay ... all of Rome will burn ... ,"
"Such brave words," Caesar said coldly. "Iíve heard them time and time again from the fallen leaders of peoples conquered and -- in some cases -- eradicated by Rome. And whoís going to rescue you? Your fellow Greeks?!" He laughed insidiously. "Theyíre too busy fighting themselves and some Olympian deity to give hoot about a backwater province that dared to step on Romeís toes by harboring pirates who preyed on my people! Besides, Iíve no intention of showing my hand until Iím damn well ready to ... and by then it will be too late for the rest of Greece."
Caesar glanced over at three black-clad guards and snorted, "Crucify her. She will be an example to the people of what happens to troublemakers!" Teutaís mindless howls filled the corridor as she was dragged away to her long, lingering fate -- death by crucifixion wasnít quick and painless. In fact, it was often the exact opposite.
"So falls the first domino," Brutus muttered, just loud enough for Caesar to hear him.
"That is so true, my friend," Caesar rejoined. "Weíll make ourselves at home here for a week or so before heading back to Rome to deal with politics and such. I have to hand it to the former occupant of this room ... she sure knew how to decorate."
Brutus flashed one of his rare smiles. "This acquisition should be enough to keep Crassus satisfied, shouldnít it?" he asked abruptly.
Caesar smiled like the predator he was. "Certainly. Once Iíve claimed the spoils of this province -- half of which originally belonged to Romans anyway -- Iíll let my political ally govern this land," the emperor explained. "Itís only fair; after all, I gave our most recent addition in Iberia to my other ally, Pompeii, to keep him satisfied."
Not long afterwards, a cross was raised from the castleís highest point. A forlorn figure hung from it, naked, and sobbed her misery to an unsympathetic sky. There would be no liberation for Illyria. Rome was here to stay.
* * *
Bacchus was angry and, increasingly, tired. For several days now he had been teleporting all over his crumbling empire, attempting to shore up his followersí morality ... only to see it crushed time and time again as enemy soldiers armed with Dryad weaponry and honed fighting skills smashed his peasant Bacchae. Everythingís been going down the tubes ever since Eribas and Caria died, the wine god thought as he materialized in Pellaís town square. He strode menacingly forward -- and froze in horror. At least a dozen Pellans were ahead of him, doing their damnedest to trample and shatter the revered talismans required for the nearing blood moon ceremonies. No! It took me days to gather the sacred items from the catacombs and get them arranged by myself! Bacchus thought icily. I was going to permanently attach my Amazon and peasant followers to me!
"What are you bastards doing?!" Bacchus demanded. He dematerialized and reappeared in the very center of chaos and destruction that had so recently been sacred Bacchae land.
"Weíre doing what we can to aid our hero, Zelius!" a nameless woman replied mirthlessly. She upturned one of the blood cauldrons on its side and kicked it. The cauldron barely budged, but the womanís symbolism was evident.
Then it happened. Bacchus went insane. He levitated himself into the air and coruscating bolts of blazing energy leaped from his taloned hands ... and into the bodies of the impudent mortals. The wine god never heard their screams of agony as their bodies shriveled and burned under the continuous barrage of lightning strikes. In less than a minute, they were all dead -- their carbonized remains drifting away in the blowing wind. Bacchus regained a semblance of control over himself and grinned insanely.
"You all want a fight?!" he challenged Pellaís rebellious citizens. "Then Iíll give you one! When Iím finished with your miserable little city it will be nothing more than a shell of its former self!"
The god of wine and revelry rose higher into the darkening sky -- thunderclouds always seemed to gather when an Olympian god was angry -- and vanished from sight. Seconds later, a lightning storm of terrifying dimensions exploded overhead. Massive, savage bolts of shocking energy slammed into the homes and businesses of the terrified city. Fire after fire erupted as the highly flammable straw construction lit up first, which was quickly followed by the ignition of timber and even masonry buildings. Soon near a quarter of the city was ablaze and yet the lightning continued to streak down. After a candlemark, a firestorm of immense proportions was busily engulfing the doomed Macedonian city ... originating in the center and slowly burning outward.
Suddenly the wind stopped and the lightning ceased. A long heavy rain began pouring from the heavens and the previously uncontrolled fires were quickly contained and, soon after, extinguished. Bacchus reappeared from the sky and alighted in the middle of the destruction caused by his hand. He was weak and trembling -- all of his energy reserves had been used up in his fit of anger -- but grinned maliciously. He sensed that close to a thousand Pellans were now nothing more than carboned caricatures of themselves ... along with about two hundred Bacchae, who had been caught unaware by their lordís temper.
"You see, I am capable of forgiveness," Bacchus crooned melodiously. "I sent the fire as retribution for your defiance of my rule. Then I sent the rain when I knew most of the troublemakers were dead."
Although all of Pella heard the godís words, not a single peep was heard from the mortal population -- nor, for that matter, from the remaining Bacchae. Everyone had just seen a startling first hand demonstration of an Olympian godís power ... raw and uncontained. And they feared for their lives -- and very souls.
* * *
It wasnít long after the sun disappeared below the horizon when Xena and Ephiny appeared on the path leading into Themiscrya. Siri and the others brought up the rear as the group entered the strangely silent town. They passed row after row of silent huts and empty lodges -- even the massive communal sleeping quarters and the broad, green swath of the dining commons were empty. Tables sat unoccupied, but the birds sang and the crickets chirped.
"Where did they all go?" Gabrielle asked. "Where are my sisters ... ,"
"There," Ephiny said. The bard followed with her eyes where the regent was pointing -- and saw columns of smoke rising into the air. Ephiny spoke again. "The purification huts. Which means they must have drunk from the purified waters of the Thermodon River."
"Purification huts?" Gabrielle asked. "What are those used for?"
Xena gazed at her beloved and said, "Just what the name implies. Occupants enter the huts to purify their bodies and souls for any number of reasons ... ,"
" ... in this case, to absolve themselves of being Bacchae," Ephiny finished grimly.
Gabrielle broke into a run and after a few moments, found herself in a large open area. A large fire burned in the center of the clearing and it appeared that dozens, if not more, Amazon warriors were dancing rhythmically around the blaze, utterly oblivious to their nakedness. The only thing that adorned their still-pale bodies were swatches of black, white and purple ceremonial paint. And if that wasnít impressive enough, the burning bonfire was surrounded by at least a dozen hastily-constructed purification huts, in which smaller fires were stoked. They were huts in name only, for each structure looked capable of holding between fifty and one hundred women ... and the lines of Amazons snaked around the huts as far as the eye could see.
"Amazing," Gabrielle breathed. "Iíve never seen anything like it."
"Thatís understandable," a womanís voice interrupted. Gabrielle spun around and watched as Diana emerged from the woods, completely naked. "You probably saw purification huts in all of the Amazon villages you encountered on the journey back from Thrace." she saw the bard nod, and continued, "The nation is guilty by association for the actions that Bacchus has perpetrated against the innocents. We must cleanse our bodies and souls of his evil presence before we can exact justice -- and free those who are still enslaved."
Ephiny stepped forward and asked, "I take it that all of our sisters have ingested the purified water. Correct?"
"Yes. It wasnít the change we were expecting -- as Bacchae, anyway," Diana replied solemnly. Her lower lip trembled ever so slightly. "There was a lot of nightmares and crying afterwards when our sisters realized what had happened to them ... that in itself was a purifying experience."
"But weíre all still physically Bacchae -- with its needs and desires," Solari pointed out. She gazed longingly at the huts and sighed. "How can we be purified when we still come out of the huts as Bacchae?"
"Itís the spirit that counts," Xena said firmly. She knew what had to be done before the Amazons could do anything to reclaim their honor. She began to remove her clothing and soon stood in her birthday suit, showing not one iota of embarrassment. "Bacchusí blackness can be driven from our souls permanently by the purification process ... we wonít have our physical bodies back until heís dead, but we will have our souls!"
Gabrielle was next to slip out of her clothing. Then Ephiny followed suit. Thraso, Solari and Siri were the last to remove their black, leather armor. All six women stood resolutely before Diana, awaiting the next step in the purification process. Diana waited patiently ... soon several other Amazons separated themselves from the throng dancing around the bonfire and approached the silent group. Xena and the others were quiet, but the surprise showed on their faces when they recognized who was joining them.
"Xena, you will accompany Lysara, Erato and Aridne into one of the huts," Diana commanded. "They were among the first Amazons who were corrupted by Bacchusí tools -- namely, you and Gabrielle."
Next, Diana turned to Gabrielle and bowed. She then straightened and said, "My Queen, you will be accompanied by Urania, Clio, Electra, Sirius, Charm and Gemini."
Ephiny was next. "My regent, and personal friend, I will accompany you," Diana said. "We will be joined by Solari, Eponin, Thraso and Siri."
With that, the rather large group of Amazons made their way toward a purification hut and entered it. The opening closed behind them and they began the healing process. They remained ensconced within the structure the entire night, the wails and cries of thousands of other Amazons rising through the atmosphere. They were begging for forgiveness from Artemis for their mistake -- even though technically they werenít guilty of anything other than being subverted against their will -- and for victory in the inevitable campaign against the horned bastard who had corrupted the nation and, in the process, nearly destroyed it.
* * *
The morning sun rose into the sky and the first signs of life filled the war camp that had been set up the previous night by the Macedonians and Greeks. The camp was situated less than thirty miles from Pella and less than one mile from the front lines of the ever-advancing armies commanded by Zelius and Crassius. The dangerous proximity to the fighting wasnít a coincidence either -- both generals had planned it that way with the understanding that soldiers were always more confident in themselves and fellow warriors when they saw their leaders fighting alongside them.
Zelius and Crassius were poring over a tactical map when the curtains to the command tent were shoved aside. They glanced up curiously as a man and his family were escorted in by four guards. Besides the man, it appeared that his family included his wife and four scraggly children: three young girls, one near womanhood, and a quiet boy.
"Whatís the meaning of this appearance?!" Crassius exclaimed. "This place is too dangerous for civilians -- weíre too close to the front lines, and the heaviest of fighting, for us to be able to guarantee their safety!"
"Milord, they came on their own free will," one of the guards spoke up. "We tried to convince them otherwise, but nothing short of brute force -- which isnít our style -- could dissuade them."
Zelius spoke up. "What is so important that you would risk your life to tell us about?"
"Imperial Rome has occupied the province of Illyria," the husband said shortly. "It was like a ... ,"
" ... tidal wave," his wife picked up. "The fighting lasted only three days -- but when it was over, the Romans were everywhere!"
Crassius maintained an outwardly skeptical look, but his insides had started to churn. "Why should we believe a single word of what you just said?" he snarled. "Maybe youíre all just a bunch of decoys sent by Bacchus to stall us from pushing into Pella -- and ruining his little party!"
"You have to have faith, general," the oldest daughter replied firmly. Fire shone in her eyes. "Faith that weíre telling the truth. Because thatís all we can offer you."
Zelius could see storm clouds gathering in his comradeís eyes, but instinctually knew they were the storm clouds of indecision, not anger directed at the family. "We sincerely appreciate the information you have provided us," Zelius told the family. "I donít know if anything good will come of it ... but you did your part." He nodded at the guards, who escorted their guests to the campís perimeter. Before the third guard could leave, though, Zelius pulled him back and whispered, "Provide that family with a weekís worth of provisions. Thatís the least we can afford to give them for going out of their way to inform us of these disturbing developments -- if theyíre true."
"It will be done, milord," the guard stammered. He bowed and then hurried away to rejoin his comrades. He didnít have the heart to tell his leader that the familyís trip hadnít been planned -- that theyíd been found stumbling around literally in the heart of a raging battle between the Bacchae and a unit of Greek hoplites.
Zelius sat down heavily on a stool and stared into Crassius aged and lined face. Gods! This whole fiasco has been hard on my friend -- it looks like heís aged twenty years over the last couple of weeks, the Macedonian thought. Makes me wonder what Iím starting to look like. Finally, Zelius spoke the obvious. "So ... what do you think, Crassius? Were they telling the truth?"
Crassius wrapped a bear-like hand around his wooden mug and crushed it before Zeliusí disbelieving eyes. "Why now?! Why when weíre so close to liberating the southern half of Macedonia from the wine god?" Crassius asked himself angrily. He looked up at Zelius and muttered, "The timing is too suspicious for me. Itís too damn convenient for Bacchus ... ,"
Zelius nodded. "But thereís always the possibility that ... ,"
"... they told the truth!" Crassius spat. "Yes, I know that! Gods! How I wish we had some of our own intelligence from that part of the peninsula!"
"Illyria was always a backwater province, even by Macedonian standards," Zelius said helpfully. "So I donít blame you for not maintaining an intelligence presence over there."
Crassius grinned boyishly. "Ah, the chivalrous Zelius makes a valiant attempt to soothe the ruffled feathers of his fellow co-commander," he said self-mockingly. "And you know what? It worked!" He began to pace back and forth, thinking carefully. Crassius finally made a decision. "Zelius, I canít take a chance that the information might be false, even if Iíve received no indication from my superiors that theyíre aware of the trouble Illyria may have gotten itself into," the Athenian said slowly. "So what Iím about to do may pain you, but ... ,"
"You want to halt the advance into Macedonia," Zelius finished.
Crassius nodded. "It would only be temporary, mind you, until I can ascertain whatís the truth and what isnít," he replied. "If the perpetrator of the invasion had been anyone else besides the Romans -- such as pirates or land raiders or something -- I wouldnít even consider pulling my troops out of the fray. But Imperial Rome isnít a threat to be taken lightly ... so I have to find out for sure."
Zelius nodded sagely and offered his hand in a warriorís handshake. Crassius was taken aback by his peerís actions, but gladly accepted the pro-offered handshake. "A few days delay wonít mess up too many timetables," Zelius said warmly. "Enough men from liberated towns and villages have joined the cause to be sufficiently inflate Macedonian numbers to the point where we can fight defensively for a rather long period of time."
"Letís get moving then," Crassius replied. "Weíve got to get our men holed up in their defensive fortifications and our lead elements disengaged from the Bacchae. If weíre going to fight defensively, thereís absolutely no reason to rack up higher body counts in the process."
The two began to make their way for the tentís entrance when another figure strode in and stood silently before the generals, impudently blocking the exit. The man was an unshaven wreck, but through the bristly hair of his scraggly beard and by his haunted eyes, Zelius thought he recognized the stranger. Crassius could see the electricity arc between the two men, but he remained deferentially silent.
"Astyanax!" Zelius thundered. "Iíll be the son of Zeus! You made it back!"
"Just barely," the scout replied hoarsely. "I had a few scrapes and scratches ... ," to put it lightly, " ... along the way up and back from Thrace." Not to mention Iíll be a father to six odd baby Amazons in nine moons, he added silently.
Zelius studied his man carefully and finally asked, "Well? Did you succeed in locating any unchanged Amazons and warning them of the danger facing them?"
Astyanax nodded curtly. "The Thracian Amazons didnít believe me ... ,"
"Did you say Thracian Amazons?" Zelius interrupted. "I wasnít aware of any tribes currently existing in that semi-wild area. Werenít they wiped out in a conflict centuries ago?"
"Iím not a historian, milord," Astyanax said truthfully. "All I know is that thereís Amazons up there now."
Zelius nodded understandingly. "Okay. Go on -- how did your meeting turn out?"
"At first, not well. The largest tribeís leader, Tauri, refused to believe me. It wasnít until the arrival of Xena and her entourage that my story gained acceptance, though," Astyanax explained. "Milord, theyíre aware of our intentions now ... and I know theyíre going to take action. Unfortunately, I wasnít able to overhear them and they didnít bother to inform me -- probably afraid I might still get captured by Bacchus or something."
"Xena, huh?" Crassius huffed. "So the Destroyer of Nations and Warrior Princess extraordinare is aiding the Amazons in their fight against Bacchus. How unusually ... nice of her."
If thatís a good enough explanation for him, itís good enough for me, Astyanax thought sourly. Why should I try to set the record straight? "If I may ask, who are you?" the scout said bluntly.
Zelius could feel the tension between the two men and did his best to defuse it. "Astyanax, may I have the pleasure of introducing you to my co-commander, Crassius of Athens," the Macedonian said affably.
Astyanax nodded curtly, but didnít offer his arm in a warriorís handshake. Instead, he pivoted to look at Zelius and asked, "What do you want me to do now, milord? If Iím needed, I can join the fighting up at the front as soon as Iím finished shaving -- no sense in giving a bloodsucker an easy handle to latch on to."
"That wonít be necessary," Zelius said. He strode over and clapped Astyanax on the shoulder, staggering the young man. "Weíve halted our offensive for the time being so Crassius can investigate the legitimacy of a Roman incursion into Illyria."
"Weíre stopping the attack?!" Astyanax rumbled ominously. "But weíre so close to Pella ... ,"
"Rome is a long term threat to Greece and Macedonia," Crassius explained in an effort to calm the obviously nervous scout down. "We canít afford to ignore any action that they take -- theyíll take that as a sign of weakness."
"Besides, weíll be on the move again in a few days. I doubt that the Romans would be brazen enough to actually claim a piece of Greece for herself," Zelius interjected. "Maybe if weíre fortunate enough, weíll meet the Amazons in Pella and shake hands over Bacchusí desiccated corpse." The Macedonian shot a look at Crassius, hoping he remembered where Zelius stood with the Amazon nation. I will not shed the blood of a nation that I have no quarrel with, Zelius thought tightly.
If Crassius caught the glance, he didnít show it. He edged around Astyanax and said, "You two can get reacquainted with each other. I can put our plan into ... ,"
"Youíre going nowhere, you traitorous son-of-a-bitch!" Astyanax thundered. He reached into his tunic ...
... almost as if in slow motion, Crassius turned around to face the outburst. His words stretched out as time seemed to slow to a crawl. "Whatís the problem ... ?"
Zelius saw his scout reaching into his tunic -- the glint of light on a razor sharp dagger -- and tried to warn Crassius about the imminent danger ...
The Athenian saw Zeliusí mouth working, trying to form words. Crassius asked, "Is there something you forgot to tell me about earlier?"
"Death to the Athenian traitor!" Astyanax spat as the dagger was withdrawn from its hiding place and sent hurtling through the air towards Crassius back ...
... Crassius spun around, saw the dagger, and felt a sickening thunk! as it buried itself into his chest. He clawed desperately at the serrated blade, cutting his hands open ... blood sprayed from his chest, erupted from his sliced hands. The general slipped to the ground and looked up plaintively at Zelius, then at his murderer. "Why, Astyanax? Why?" Crassius spluttered weakly as a gout of blood dripped from his mouth. His vision began to fade away into blackness. He focused on a pinpoint of light and felt himself rushing toward it ...
Crassius was dead.
Zelius fell to his knees at Crassiusí side and fought back the tears which welled in his eyes. "No, dammit, nooooooo!!!!!" he wailed madly. I only knew you for a short time, my friend, but in that time you became like a father figure to me, Zelius mourned silently.
Suddenly he shook off his emotions and stood, towering, over Astyanax, his one-time friend. "Do you have any idea of the disaster youíve just caused, you fool?!" he screamed. "Gods! I want to throttle the life from your wretched little body, Astyanax!" He grabbed the scoutís neck and began to squeeze slowly. "But I wonít. That would put me on the same level as you," Zelius whispered malevolently. "You can live with the knowledge that you killed a great man -- now get out of my sight! I never want to see you ever again you loathsome excuse for a human being!"
Astyanax scrambled from the command tent, rudely shoving aside the six guards who had come rushing at the sound of Zeliusí wailing. They let him go unmolested as they gathered, shell-shocked, around Zelius and the crumpled and lifeless body of Crassius. The anchor that Zelius had relied on since Dionís disappearance was gone -- he was alone now, and didnít know what Crassiusí successor would be like to work with.