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Shattered Dreams - Part 3 of 3


"Velasca wonít be coming back, will she?" Diana asked. She was sitting at a table in Themiscryaís communal commons area with Xena and about a dozen other tribal leaders seated around her. The noon sun blazed overhead, trying to add warmth to the Amazon nationís capitol.

"No, she wonít," the warrior princess said firmly. "The last time I saw her, she was impaled on some nasty-looking spikes in the Ambrosia Chamber."

Diana sighed. "She didnít trust your abilities and had to follow you," the warrior said. "If only she had stayed here, she, too, could have tasted the purified water of the Thermodon River."

"Velasca made her choice," Gabrielle stated matter-of-factly. "I wish things could have turned out differently -- she had the potential to be a great warrior for the nation and a friend -- but it wasnít what the Fates decreed."

"Iíve heard enough about Velasca," Ephiny opined. "What she did was in the past ... we still have to deal with the consequences of her actions in the present." The regent glanced over at Xena and added, "When do we set out for Pella and the showdown with Bacchus?"

"Immediately, if you wish," Xena said idly. "Iím fairly sure that our six thousand sisters-in-arms who were scheduled to attack the Thracian villages would be more than happy to turn their attention to liberating the northern half of Macedonia from Bacchusí rule."

Diana began to speak, but she was interrupted by Solari. "Theyíll be ready to go within the candlemark," Ephinyís second said forcefully. "Itís about time we ended this charade of an empire that Bacchus has." The warrior stood and strode briskly off to the nearby training fields where the Amazon army was practicing its maneuvers and techniques.

"Solariís definitely got her old fire and zest for life back," Gabrielle teased Diana lightly. "Catch up to her and see if she can spread her enthusiasm to the rest of us." The bard watched as Dianaís figure chased after Solari, gradually growing smaller before vanishing into a thick copse of oak trees.

Moments later, Xena pulled Ephiny away from the table and whispered, "Gabrielle and I will be making our own journey -- to Bacchusí old haunts, the catacombs. Home sweet home for him is in Pella right now, but Iím willing to bet if the Amazons, along with the Macedonians and Greeks, lay siege to and invade his stronghold there ... ,"

"Heíll teleport to the obscurity and relative safety of his warrens," Ephiny finished. "You can guarantee that weíll do our best to drive him in that direction, warrior princess."

"I know you will, my friend," Xena replied, her tone softening. She saw the worried look on Ephinyís face and asked, "Something else is troubling you. Please enlighten me."

Ephiny sighed. "Iím concerned about the nationís security. Those six thousand warriors weíll be taking into Macedonia represent fully one half of the Amazon nationís fighting abilities," she explained. "That leaves only six thousand other warriors to guard the entirety of our lands and the tribes within ... I just hope our foes wonít take advantage of that temporary weakness."

"Itís not a weakness," Xena countered. "About the only good thing that Bacchus has done during his power grab is that he swept the land of most of its raiders, thieves and true barbarians. And pirates are scared to even come within a ten mile zone of the coastline," she said. "Focus on the current threat -- Bacchus and perhaps the Greeks -- and the nation will rise above its enemies ... as it has in the past." Xena choked on the last words as they caught in her throat. As it has in the past, the warrior princess -- Destroyer of Nations -- repeated silently to herself.

Gabrielle joined the conversation. "Besides, Tauriís warriors have also infiltrated themselves throughout the nationís lands," she said. "So really itís closer to seven thousand warriors left behind ... ,"

Ephiny smiled. "I swear, as soon as this war is over, weíre going to have to welcome Tauriís reconstituted tribes into the nation," the regent declared. "It will be the first official expansion weíve had since Hippolytaís great defeat at the hands of the Greek city states centuries ago."

Xena and Gabrielle stood side by side and looked lovingly into each otherís eyes. "Weíre going to take our leave now, Ephiny," Gabrielle called out. "The next time we see you Bacchus should be dead and the nation will have to have a time of great celebration ... and mourning for our sisters who died needless deaths."

Ephiny watched the two walk away, their hands linked together. She sighed and returned to the table where Thraso, Siri and several of the tribal leaders waited patiently. "Weíve got a lot of work to do, my sisters," the regent called out. "And very little time to get it done -- so letís get started."

* * *

"Leaders of Athens ... it is my sad duty to inform you that the reports of a Roman invasion and occupation of the Greek province of Illyria are true," the council president intoned solemnly. "The first sketchy reports have been backed up and expanded upon by both traders and our own resources secreted throughout Illyria."

A hushed silence fell over the twenty-four people who represented every facet of Athensí citizens -- from the poorest farmer and fisher to the richest of the upper crust -- as they digested the terrible news. After a few minutes, one of them finally spoke up.

"How bad is it?" he asked slowly.

"It canít get any worse than it is now," the president replied. "Scodra has been occupied, along with numerous other villages, towns and cities -- including the port city of Epidamnus." He took a deep breath and then added, "There has been no apparent attempt by the Romans to move beyond Illyria ... ,"

" ... but that could change," an older council member spat viciously.

The council president glared at the impudent man and rumbled, "You seem to have deep feelings on the subject, Darius. Do you have any rational suggestions on what we should do?"

"First of all, we must present a united front against Rome," Darius outlined. "If Julius Caesar sees a united land opposed to every move he makes instead of a bunch of fractious city states and provinces, he wonít be so gung-ho on sending his legions into more Greek territory!"

Someone snorted in disgust. "Hades! It would take us too long to forge this mighty alliance that you speak so highly of, Darius!" the voice behind the snort grumbled. "We have to do something now, not later!"

Darius grinned deviously. "While we work on this alliance for all of Greece, we can merely turn the forces we have in the vicinity of Illyria to stare down the Romans," he explained.

"What forces?" another voice yelled out.

"The forces weíre using to help the Macedonians liberate their nation from the Olympian Bacchus," Darius retorted. He rolled his eyes at the sheer ignorance of the manís question. "Theyíre a few days march shy of the Illyrian border, so it wouldnít take them long to get there once they receive official orders. I figure a day to disengage from the Bacchae, a day to soothe Zeliusí ruffled feathers and three days of hard marching would put them directly across from their Roman counterparts." Darius sneered as he spoke the next words, "Even that pompous General Crassius should be able to complete the task without too much trouble."

The council president pondered Dariusí words for a moment. Then he asked, "What about the long range goal of our forces? If we pull out from Macedonia -- even temporarily -- it might give Bacchusí allies, the Amazon nation, enough time to realize theyíre next on our hit list after weíre finished with the wine god."

"The Amazons?" Darius snorted derisively. "That pitiful collection of tribes is a mere shadow of the mighty nation it used to be in the past. A few days delay on our part will do no permanent harm -- it will just give them a few more days to savor life on this Earth before we knock them off the mortal coil ... and into eternity!"

"I still have my reservations, Darius, but youíve been the most vocal -- and helpful -- so far," the council president said deliberately. "Because of that, we will adopt your plan of action. However, you had better hope that our forces arenít absent longer than a week or two from the Macedonian front ... if Zelius is left to his own devices, he might decide he doesnít need our help anymore. Particularly now that weíve just given him our second-to-last stockpile of Dryad weaponry."

Darius stood and smiled benignly. "Iíve met the man myself, esteemed President. Heís too concerned about the liberation of his homeland to dare contemplating crossing his Greek allies," he explained.

The council president nodded sagely. Youíre a snake, Darius, nothing more, the man thought irritably. But where others held their tongues, you spoke up with a concrete plan of action -- so I had no choice but to accept it, or I wouldíve ended up looking like a fool. Aloud, he said, "Youíre all dismissed, then." He watched silently as the council members filed from the cavernous meeting hall and reflected on the daunting task ahead of him: forging an alliance of all of Greece. And I thought it was hard getting the Corinthians and Spartans to contribute hoplites to our war effort against Bacchus and the Amazons, he thought morosely.

* * *

The new day had started out bloody and had gotten even bloodier as the candlemarks wore on. The combined Macedonian and Greek assault on occupied Macedonia had ground on after Crassiusí successor, Arcterious, had decided not to follow in his predecessorís footsteps.

"I know the Romans," Arcterious had bragged. "Theyíll be too busy mopping up leftover resistance and consolidating their grip on Illyria to even contemplate moving into the rest of Greece." The young man had then looked down at Zelius haughtily and added, "Thatís even if that familyís fancy tale was true, which isnít likely."

Zelius had held his tongue at the young manís arrogance and obvious inexperience and had simply nodded his agreement. The offensive into Macedonia resumed and now, at midday, the battle-hardened troops were virtually at the city gates of Pella. It was then that the body counts had started to skyrocket as the Bacchae within the city flooded out wave upon wave, heedless of their own mortality -- only desiring the continued existence of their lord, Bacchus. The bloodsuckers inevitably died, but often not before taking between one and three soldiers with them.

"Arcterious!" Zelius rumbled as he stalked into the command tent. "Our losses are rapidly approaching the bloodletting point -- and we still havenít gotten a single soldier into Pella itself!" He sat down at the table across from the Greek general and glared at him. "Your strategy isnít working ... I strongly suggest we try another plan!"

"Why should we?" Arcterious demanded. "There are only so many women that Bacchus can transform into bloodsuckers and throw at us. Heís bound to run out sooner or later -- afterwards Pella will be ours!"

Zelius was taken aback by the manís casual attitude. "Those nameless women that you consider to be nothing more than cannon fodder for the wine god are individuals," the Macedonian snapped. "I know itís easy to stereotype them into mindless Bacchae but they are, for the most part, innocent victims! So the sooner we break into Pella, there will be more families who will have their mothers, sisters and daughters returned unharmed!"

"Later, Zelius," Arcterious said lazily. He waved a hand to dismiss his counterpart. "The next time you confront me, it had better be with something other than complaints and sobbing for the poor, innocent civilians."

Zelius turned beet red, stood, and then upturned Arcteriousí command table -- disrupting the Greekís one-man card game. He never heard the spewing stream of curses directed at him because he had already left the command tent stomped over to his own, where four lieutenants waited nervously within.

"I donít have the faintest idea what Crassius saw in the man," Zelius said in disgust as he sat down.

"Maybe he was still training Arcterious," a lieutenant offered.

Zelius laughed derisively. "Whatever he was doing, it didnít rub off on the idiot," he observed. With a sigh, he added, "My efforts to get through to him failed miserably. He only cares about himself and for the sons of the men who control his destiny. Itís time we struck out on our own."

The lieutenants grew wide-eyed at that prospect, but their resolve didnít waver. "When do we sever our cooperation with the Athenians and their allies?" one finally asked timorously.

"My mentor, Dion, seemed to develop a fascination with the Amazons after he encountered some while guarding Amplitron during the Bacchae attack on Pella ... ," out of the corner of his eye, Zelius saw the men wince at the mention of Amplitronís name, " ... so itís only natural thatís when weíll break ranks," Zelius outlined.

"How do you know theyíre even coming?" another lieutenant asked.

Zelius smiled. "Theyíre coming all right -- letís just say itís a hunch," he said. "Our problem is, we donít know when theyíll show up and in what numbers ... ,"

"Not more than a few hundred warriors, I would imagine, at the most," another lieutenant interrupted.

"So when do we stop cooperating with the Athenians?" a third voice asked.

Zelius raised his hands. "Quiet, my friends," he ordered. "I donít know how many will show up, but when you encounter the first of them, then thatís the time to stop cooperating with Arcterious. Aid them as soon as possible, otherwise they might mistake you for Greeks and, well, theyíll do their best to kill you."

Silence descended on the assembled Macedonians. Zelius felt its heaviness and spoke up. "Make sure to spread the word down through the ranks as quickly as possible ... I want every soldier to be aware of the new game plan," he reminded the lieutenants. He smiled and barked, "Youíre all dismissed!"

* * *

Velascaís painful scream echoed throughout the Ambrosia Chamber, accompanied by a sickly sucking noise as she heaved her body off the last of the murderous spikes that had so violated her body. The usurper dragged herself wearily from the deadly trap and, almost as an afterthought, sneered at the skeleton still in the pit.

"I have conquered death itself!" she hissed arrogantly. Then, in unbridled show of disrespect for the dead, she kicked the pitiful pile of bones and watched in malevolent silence as the empty-eyed grinning skull went clattering away from its bony body. "Take that you silly mortal!"

She studied the room carefully and tried to ignore the greenish ichor which still leaked from both the spike wounds and the horrible burns caused by Hephaestusí ambrosia defense system. She was healing, but much too slowly. I need blood -- and lots of it, Velasca thought indignantly. Images of her traitorous lieutenants flashed through her mind. And I know just who has the richest blood of them all. She stood in the dim darkness of the chamber -- thank Bacchus for the enhanced Baccha vision -- and stared listlessly at the sealed portal that led to the eternal supply of ambrosia. And to think, I nearly had some of it before that dratted wench Gabrielle took it away from me! Velasca mused idly.

"You want some of that, donít you?" a bodiless voice hissed.

Velasca whirled as a pillar of light turned the chamberís night into day. She glanced anxiously over at the walls, where the deadly beams had lanced out from earlier. "Who are you?!" she snapped, blinded by the brilliance. "And stop that! Youíre going to get us all killed!"

"Iím your salvation," the voice replied musically. When the light finally faded away -- and Hephaestusí defense system didnít kick in -- a dark, evil form was revealed to Velasca.

"Ares!" she gasped. "What brings you ... ,"

She never got another word out. The god of war raised his hands and let loose with a savage barrage of pulsating energy. One, two and, finally, three bolts slammed into Velasca and she felt herself thrown high up into the air by the coruscating impacts, arcing down toward the ...

"Nnnooo!" the Amazon howled as she saw the spikes rushing up to meet her once again.

Ares grinned evilly as he heard the sickly sound of Velascaís decidedly unpleasant impact. He strode to the edge of the spiked pit and stared down at her body, which was flailing weakly. "Donít you just wish you could die?" he sneered. "Put an end to the pain once and for all?"

"Argh!" Velasca gurgled. Pain coursed through her entire body, which was splashed in greenish ichor. At least five spikes poked through her precious body. Whereís my lord Bacchus?! Whereís Hera?! Where are my benefactors when I need them?!?! she wailed silently. Aloud, she garbled, "Why are you doing this, Ares? You should be in full approval of what Bacchus has done with the help of Hera!"

"Where are they now?!" Ares thundered. "The mighty Bacchus has all but forgotten about you, Velasca! His poor little empire is in tatters! Hera doesnít give a damn about you either! Youíre nothing more than a delusional power mad mortal woman who thinks she can have anything she wants because sheís an itty-bitty Baccha!"

"My lord hasnít abandoned me ... ,"

"Heís more concerned about some petty mortal city," Ares taunted. He floated across the pit and alighted on Velasca, crushing her body further into the spikes. "Youíre but one of thousands, Velasca. Always were, always will be. Thatís the way of things in this world."

"Aghh!" Velasca screeched as a fresh wave of pain erupted throughout her immortal body. "Please, stop!"

Ares complied and floated high above her. His voice drifted down. "Canít you feel it growing in you?" he asked.

"Feel what?!" Velasca raged helplessly.

"The hatred. The pain. The fury. The jealousy." Aresí silky voice trailed off. It came back a moment later, a tinge of patronization in it. "And last, but certainly not least, the insane madness? Youíve been abandoned, Velasca, by everyone. Youíre nothing more than a forgotten casualty in another petty conflict between the mortals and the gods. And you know what? Theyíll never find you, you immortal beauty, because Xena and the others will never divulge the location of the Ambrosia Chamber."

"Shut up, you bastard!" Velasca roared hoarsely. She felt herself slipping toward the precipice of insanity, but did nothing to halt the slide. I donít care anymore. I donít need friends. All they do is betray you, she thought coldly.

"As you wish," Ares growled. Inwardly, though, he was delighted that his plan was working to perfection. I will extract my pound of flesh from Xena and Gabrielle, he thought. And, of course, the Amazon nation. No one will ever know about my role in the unfolding events of the future -- but success, alas, comes with a price.

Then he was gone in a flash of light -- and never heard the agonized howling of a woman who was quickly turning into a cold, methodical berserker. With a grudge against everything that lived and breathed ... and then some.

* * *

Astyanax wandered the bloody streets of Pella, the blazing morning sun at his back, desperately searching for his familyís home. It had been less than a candlemark since sunrise -- and since the combined Greek and Macedonian forces had overwhelmed the Bacchae guarding the walls of Pella. In the ensuing mad rush of troops and dying Bacchae, the former scout had managed to sneak his way into the devastated city. All he had left was his armor and the Dryad-based sword which kept him alive -- for the moment.

"By the gods," Astyanax whispered as he studied the ruined city before him. It looked as if nearly half of it had been consumed in a raging firestorm of recent origin while the remaining half was still in shambles from when the Bacchae had first overrun the city. "I donít know if Iíll even be able to recognize my old neighborhood."

"You wonít," a ghostly voice rasped.

"Go away," the former scout growled at the apparition. "Iím sorry I killed you, Crassius, but canít you find some peace in the Elysian Fields or something?"

"There is no peace for me as long as my murderer walks the Earth," Crassius replied hollowly.

"I said leave!" Astyanax howled in frustration. "Youíre nothing more than a figment of my imagination!"

A ghostly leer. "Soon, you will join me in death," Crassius prophesied. "But I doubt youíll be joining me in the Elysian Fields ... your soul is too tortured to go there."

A squad of hoplites came into view ... they were bloodied and several of their number had fallen in battle. The commander spotted the renegade and snarled. Astyanax expected the whole group to chase after him, but was surprised when they turned away and began pursuing a young woman who had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. On one level, he felt a sense of relief, but on another it enraged him. Hmfph. Look where I am on the hiercharary scale of enemies to be killed ... I donít even rate the attention that a Baccha gets, he thought darkly.

"Oh, donít feel too bad, murderer," a ghostly voice whispered in Astyanaxís head, interrupting his thoughts. "Iím quite sure your time will come soon enough."

Astyanax was so engrossed in his delusion that he never saw the magnificent horned figure alight on the roof of a singed building. However, Bacchus had seen the blubbering intruder -- only one of thousands beginning to swarm across the entire city -- and wasted no time in letting loose with a savage burst of crimson energy.

The initial blow flew wide of the renegade, but he didnít notice. His attention had focused on a slim figure that had appeared in the distance. As it grew closer, Astyanax realized it was the same woman that the hoplites had been chasing so fervently just minutes before. But they were nowhere to be seen and he noticed that the young woman had blood on her hands. Her taloned hands. She was drawing closer ... apparently attracted to him like a moth is attracted to a light. Another ball of energy zipped by Astyanaxís head -- Bacchusí aim wasnít what it used to be, and the continual activity and lack of ambrosia had weakened him -- but still the scout didnít notice the attack. He was too transfixed on the womanís chalky white face, her razor-sharp fangs behind swollen, crimson lips.

"Orika?" he asked faintly. Is it possible she survived the Amazon attack on Pella? "Is it really you?"

A sibilant hiss came from Orikaís throat. "Yesss. It is me, my brother," she purred. "Why, itís been so long since I last saw you -- we must share a meal together."

"Youíre not an illusion like Crassius?" Astyanax asked. His eyes were glazed over, fixed on her face.

"No. Iím really here and ... Iím hungry," Orika said seductively. "Itís been candlemarks since I last fed ... ,"

Oblivious to the danger -- perhaps not really caring anymore -- Astyanax fell into Orikaís beckoning, open arms. She began to nuzzle his neck, her sharp fangs grazing his neck ...

... a searing blast of crimson light rock their world. Both Astyanax and Orika were instantly carbonized as the ball of energy detonated immediately overhead, raising the immediate air temperature to nearly five thousand degrees Fahrenheit. Up on the buildingís roof, Bacchus stared down at the newly-formed crater. "Third timeís the charm," he muttered. Just then he heard a rumble as saw the squad of twenty or so hoplites come into view.

"Thereís the leader of the demons himself!" the commander rumbled. He glared up at Bacchus, who was sneering at the mortals, and commanded, "Open fire!"

Bacchus never let them get the first blow in. He let loose with a barrage of energy, but the bolts were growing steadily weaker as his power drained away. Ambrosia! I need ambrosia now! the wine god thought, a tinge of desperation in his thoughts. He glowered as one of the hoplites deflected the energy blows with his metal shield -- thatís how weak his powers had grown. Even worse, the hoplites werenít the least bit scared by the otherworldly counterattack that Bacchus had launched. A cloud of arrows rose up toward him. For the most part, they missed -- but four of them nicked his arms, legs and torso. Bacchus screamed -- not so much in pain, but at the violation his sacred Olympian body was suffering -- and let loose with a final savage fury that drained him dry.

Twelve of the twenty hoplites were immediately reduced to piles of smoking ash. With over fifty percent casualties in less than a minute of fighting, the remaining men took cover, their bravery sorely tested by Bacchus. For his part, the wine god took advantage of that momentary lapse in concentration and teleported himself to the relative security of Pellaís council chambers. Bacchus knew his empire was crumbling by the minute and waited patiently for the time to arrive when he could turn the tables on the impertinent mortals.

"That time will come soon, Zelius," the wine god muttered, false bravado in his voice. He laughed, but it sounded brittle and cold. "My Amazon warriors are coming -- and theyíll swat you like the insect you are!"

* * *

"Start digging, Gabrielle," Xena commanded in a no-nonsense tone as she dropped to her knees and began to claw away at the earth near the Dryad grave. "It hasnít been too terribly long since our last encounter with Bacchus, so there should still be some bones lying at or near the surface."

The bard kneeled next to her partner and joined in the digging. "But wonít we have to contend with the Dryads themselves, just like the last time?" she asked, grimacing at the memory.

"I donít think so," the warrior princess replied, breathing heavily from the digging effort. A mound of dirt began to grow taller and taller between the two women. "If Iím right, once a Dryad burial ground is disturbed the guardian spirits inhabiting the sacred land will fight back ... and then disappear."

"It makes sense," Gabrielle agreed. She remembered how the Dryad skeletons had been vicious and determined in the attack that had occurred not long ago in this very same burial ground. Xena defeated them and the lone survivor, if it can be called that, winged its way away from the burial ground, the bard reflected. She tried not to remember what had happened to her soon afterwards -- the horrible transformation into a Baccha -- but she couldnít escape visualizing it over and over again in her mind.

Five minutes passed before the two uncovered bits and pieces of shattered bone -- what was left of the attacking Dryads after they had been defeated and picked over once by the warrior princess. When it was all said and done, and eight more piles of dirt lay in rounded mounds, the pair had managed to scrounge together no more than four rib bones and a massive piece of a broken fibula bone.

"Not much to be had," Gabrielle mentioned. "Considering the effort we put into getting this little cache."

Xenaís eyes flashed into burning golden orbs, a reaction not missed by the bard. "I never expected to uncover a treasure trove of bones," she replied testily. "Be thankful we didnít uncover more guardian spirits ... you know how much they hate the Bacchae."

Gabrielle held her pale hands up defensively. "Hey, Iím sorry," she protested. "I wasnít cheapening your search and retrieve methods."

Xenaís face softened and her eyes returned to their normal color. "I know that in my heart," the warrior princess said. She cupped the bardís face in her rough hands and placed a gentle kiss on her lips. "Itís just that everything is finally coming to a boil and thereís so much stuff whirling around in my mind ... ,"

"You donít have to explain yourself," the bard said firmly. She licked her lips, tasting the warriorís sweet flavor still on them. "We communicate on a more discreet level ... although sometimes itís not that obvious."

The warrior princess smiled. Iím so fortunate to have her -- someday I will let her become fully aware of that, too, Xena thought. She stood up and gazed longingly at the jagged opening in the sheer rock wall that led to the catacombs far beneath the surface. A slight shiver passed through her body, but Xena knew she and Gabrielle would have to re-enter that infernal hole if they wanted to reach Bacchus and finish him off once and for all.

Gabrielle saw where Xena was staring and asked the obvious, "Why in Artemisí name would Bacchus maintain his main hideout right behind a Dryad burial ground?"

"Calculating intelligence," Xena replied tersely. "He thought -- and correctly, I might add -- that the last place anyone would look for him would be in the vicinity of a Dryad burial ground, considering the history between the Dryads and Bacchus and his followers."

"What do you know about the Dryads, Xena?" the bard suddenly asked. "There seems to be so much interaction between them and Bacchus -- sort of like the Amazons and centaurs at one point in time."

Xena shook her head. "All I know is that Dryads have been extinct for a very long time," the warrior princess explained. "I think they may have been an early force that rose alongside Bacchus and kept his machinations in check during the thousands of years that humanity multiplied and spread across the known world. They lasted long enough to give humans -- women, to in particular -- a chance to establish themselves before being challenged." Xena took a deep breath, then continued. "I suppose the tide of the conflict turned against them eventually and they lost. Centuries passed and now present day humanity finds itself dealing with a power-hungry Bacchus who has no natural barriers to stop his expansion into the mortal world."

"The Amazons? The Greeks? Phoenicians? Egyptians?" Gabrielle asked breathlessly.

"And probably many more that we donít know about yet -- or never will," Xena said agreeably. "All would have been wiped out in their infancy by Bacchus had it not been for the Dryads. In a sense, the civilized world owes a great debt to these monstrous beings who apparently had hearts of gold within their ugly exteriors." She sighed. "I could go on and on about my thoughts on the Dryads -- and a host of other beings and nations -- but now isnít the time ... ,"

"We have to take on the horned freak himself," Gabrielle finished. "We have to succeed where other mortals, beings and indifferent gods have failed countless times before."

Xena smiled grimly. "That we do," she whispered to herself.

The warrior princess proceeded to distribute the minuscule supply of Dryad bones evenly between Gabrielle and herself. And then she began to amble over toward the dark, foreboding entrance into the catacombs, followed faithfully by her lover. Judgment day was coming, and both women knew there was nothing that could stop it.

* * *

It had been relatively easy for the Amazon forces to pass through northern Macedonia, which was still firmly under the boot of countless thousands of mindless Bacchae. All Ephiny, her lieutenants and warriors had to do was let their Baccha characteristics become dominant whenever they encountered other women who had been transformed into bloodsuckers. And, despite their new-found revulsion for it, Ephiny and many of the others had to ingest offerings of blood given to them by the adoring Bacchae in order to maintain the appearance of being the genuine thing: bloodthirsty, calculating Amazon warriors in the service of Bacchus. It was growing more and more obvious that not all of the Bacchae held the same disdain for the Amazons as had Eribas and Caria.

After days of traveling almost nonstop, the Amazons found themselves on the outskirts of northern Pella a day after Xena and Gabrielle had entered Bacchusí catacombs. Ephiny and her lieutenants stood on a very familiar ridge, looking down silently into the walled city.

"Hmm. This view looks quite familiar," Ephiny opined. "Probably because this is the same ridge I stood on before surrendering myself to Xena and Diana nearly a moon ago."

"The city certainly hasnít changed much since that time," Diana commented as she stared at the pillars of rising smoke and soot and burning buildings. "Itís still burning -- even worse than when we rolled through it -- but at least itís confined to the southern half of the city."

Ephiny took note of the burned out center of the city and surmised that someone had experienced a childish fit of anger and had let his self-proclaimed capitol have it. Thank Artemis it happened in Pella instead of Themiscrya, she thought instinctively. An instant after the thought, Ephiny regretted thinking that way. I should have never thought of it in such a `better them than meí way ... probably thousands of innocent people died when Bacchus went nuts.

"Ephiny." It was Solariís voice. "Our spies have returned with confirmation about the fighting going on in Pella."

"Well? What did they say?" Ephiny asked quietly.

"The Macedonian and Greek forces are confined to the southern half of the city and are engaged in heavy street and building-to-building fighting," Solari ticked off. "The Bacchae appear to by dying in droves, even with the reinforcements theyíre undoubtedly receiving from northern Macedonia, but the survivors just keep turning more women into bloodsuckers ... ,"

Ephiny snarled. "Theyíre being used as cannon fodder!" The regent sighed when Solari nodded her head in solemn confirmation. "I was afraid that would happen."

"Then itís time we added our weight to the equation," Thraso spat, breaking her silence. "Bacchus wonít be expecting his loyal Amazons to turn against him ... by the time he realizes whatís happening it will be over!"

"Give me a minute to cobble together a workable plan," Ephiny murmured.

She scanned the ridge, which nearly encircled the valley that Pella occupied, her eyes taking in the clusters of Amazon warriors scattered along the entirety of its perimeter, who waited patiently for the word to descend into Pella. The main road leading into Pella from the north still swarmed with Bacchae reinforcements flowing in from the north. Ephiny glanced up at the sky -- it was about a candlmark before noon -- and finally made up her mind.

"Diana," Ephiny began, "take a thousand of our sisters and cut off the Bacchae who are flowing into Pella. We canít have them coming in behind us once our treachery becomes apparent. It would be a bloodbath ... for them."

"It will be done," Diana intoned. She started for her mare, but stopped when Ephiny spoke again.

"You have exactly one candlemark to choke off the flow before we make our move off the ridge and into Pella," the regent explained. "Try not to kill any of the Bacchae -- theyíre not doing this on their own free will -- just stop them. Weave a story or something about how the mighty Amazons will single-handedly drive the enemy first from Pella, then from southern Macedonia."

Diana smiled and nodded. "That shouldnít be too hard, considering how much theyíre in awe of us," she replied matter-of-factly. She quickly found her horse and jumped on it and rode away toward the group of warriors under her command. I love to tell stories -- Queen Gabrielle has taught me a trick or two -- and Iíll spin a story that keeps the Bacchae dreaming of an empire instead of taking any sort of action that ensures their fabled empire comes into existence, she thought.

Ephiny watched apprehensively as Diana vanished over a small rise in the land. Thereís no turning back now, the regent thought worriedly. We either succeed in driving Bacchus to the catacombs, or this may become the shortest-lived Amazon army the world has ever seen. She envisioned lightning bolts dropping from the sky, smashing into groups of Amazons and killing them by the hundreds. Please, Artemis, donít let that vision come true.

"Are you all right?" Solari asked, sensing the uneasiness emanating from her lover.

Ephiny nodded slowly. "Yeah. Iím just thinking about everything that could go wrong," she replied quietly.

"Think positive," Solari suggested. She shrugged when Ephiny looked at her. "Itís what I would do."

"Iíll try anything once," the regent teased.

Solari smiled. "Thatís the spirit!" she beamed. The warrior grew thoughtful, then asked, "Now that youíve sent Diana off to complete her part of the mission, perhaps we should tell the others of our timetable?" Solari asked.

Ephiny motioned to Thraso and a dozen other lieutenants, who had moved a respectable distance away to afford their regent and Solari some privacy while they talked, and the group meandered over to rejoin the pair.

"In one candlemark, we move against Pella," Ephiny explained. "Our top priority will be to locate Bacchus and force him to retreat back to the catacombs -- where Xena and Gabrielle presumably await to administer the coup de grace. Try to focus on that objective, but do not hesitate to defend yourselves against anything that attacks you."

"Spread the word to the remaining warriors," Solari added. "Today we shall take the first step to restore our nationís stained honor!"

The lieutenants nodded in understanding and left to inform their respective groups of warriors. Thraso remained behind -- she was being groomed to eventually join the ranks of Solariís royal guards -- a chilly smile plastered on her face. "The attack wonít be a moment too soon in my book," she said forcefully.

Ephiny smiled benevolently at Thraso, understanding the young womanís anger toward Bacchus. Perhaps she will have the opportunity to avenge the devastation that he has caused in her life, she thought. At least I still have my own body and mind ... Thraso lost that in addition to whatever she had vested in Pella and Macedonia. "Thraso, just keep in mind that youíre not the only Amazon who has a score to settle with Bacchus," Ephiny said firmly, but quietly. "Undoubtedly thereís a long line of our sisters who wish to wreak vengeance on the wine god."

"Iíll make sure to be at the head of the line," Thraso added defiantly. "Although Iíll gladly share the honors of bringing down Bacchus with whoever else happens to be on the scene at the same time."

* * *

Xena and Gabrielle stood silently in the forbidding, cavernous chamber that Bacchus liked to call home. They had made themselves at home in the vast chamber, but -- after nearly a day of waiting -- were still unnerved to find everything hauntingly almost perfect: The massive blood cauldron still stood at the head of the chamber, directly below the rocky ledge which held the vine and grape encrusted throne of the wine god. A blazing bonfire burned in the center of the chamber, dwarfing the dozens of torches which lined the walls. Together the fires bathed the chamber in an eerie, flickering light. The two women had examined every inch of the chamber while they waited for the inevitable appearance of Bacchus, but nothing had changed since the last time they had been there. Everything appeared as it had the last time Xena and Gabrielle had seen it -- right before they had left with Velasca for the ill-fated trip to the lands of the unsuspecting Amazon nation -- except for one thing.

"Thereís no one here," Gabrielle whispered for what seemed like the umpteenth time in a single day. "I would think that Bacchus would have left a detail of Bacchae to protect his riches in the catacombs, if nothing else."

Xena snorted. "Obviously, he didnít," she replied. "Weíve checked out every nook and cranny and I can only come to one conclusion -- weíre definitely alone here."

"Sometimes it doesnít feel like it," the bard whispered nervously. She felt the reassuring bulge of the Dryad bones in her tunic, but it did nothing to calm her down.

"What do you mean?"

"I see things," Gabrielle explained. "Visions of the past, I guess. I see hundreds of innocent young women turned into Bacchae, dancing mindlessly around that damned bonfire. I see a dark figure towering over them, laughing malevolently. Worst of all, I see us, Xena! We look so mindless ... so devoted to a mad god! Itís disgusting."

Xena held her bard tightly in a bear hug, knowing all too well the flickering visions Gabrielle was experiencing. A single tear leaked from her eye as the warrior princess described some of the demons haunting her. "My love, I see us cavorting with Velasca, planning the downfall of our unsuspecting Amazon friends. I hear the hypnotic music. I keep hearing Bacchusí words over and over again in my head." Xena smiled at her beloved and stroked her honey blond hair. "So you see, Gabrielle, youíre not insane."

"I just wish theyíd go away," the bard whimpered. She pushed herself deeper into Xenaís breasts.

"They wonít go away until Bacchus is gone," Xena replied honestly. "In fact, the visions will get worse for us the longer we stay here waiting for the bastardís arrival. And when he does get here ... ,"

" ... his mere presence will make the visions twice as bad, wonít it?" Gabrielle finished.

"Do you remember the unusual effect that Velasca had on Solari?" Xena asked gently.

Gabrielle nodded. "Solari said it was like Velasca was trying to entrance her again. To release her dark side or something," the bard recounted. She shuddered at the memory of Solariís frightened and flustered face. "Will something like that happen to us when Bacchus appears?"

"I hope not," Xena replied. She pulled away from Gabrielle and looked deeply into her blue eyes. "But we have to be prepared for all the possibilities."

"Whatís your plan?" Gabrielle asked abruptly. "I know you have one ... I can hear it in your voice."

Xena smiled grimly and described her game plan. "Itís tricky, I know, and relies a lot on Bacchusí ego," the warrior princess conceded, "but it may be the only way to avoid the worst of whatever it was that affected Solari."

"A long shot is better than no shot at all," Gabrielle replied firmly. "Just keep that in mind."

* * *

Isolated as he was within the windowless council chambers of Pella, it didnít take Bacchus long to snap out of his misery and depression when his acute hearing picked up the sounds of screaming and fighting that grew steadily closer his throne within the chamber. The wine god listened intently for a second before allowing his broad shoulders to droop. His headquarters had been finally breached by the unstoppable juggernaut of the Macedonians and Greeks.

Where did I screw up? he asked himself repeatedly. I thought I did everything right this time around. I took the Amazon Velasca and a few peasant women under my wing to get the attention of Xena and Gabrielle -- that worked like a charm. I made sure to knock off Orpheus so he couldnít interfere. Afterwards, the warrior princess and her bard became my loyal, subservient Baccha ... for the second time in less than a year! He sighed with resignation and continued his review. Then the greatest coup of all -- I conquered the feared Amazon nation. After that, it was a walk in the park as my followers rose up all over Macedonia and kept it occupied until my beautiful, warlike Amazons struck and cemented my hold on the land. His ruminations came to an abrupt end as the massive door to the council chamber shook once -- and then splintered into a hundred pieces.

Bacchus stood and clenched his taloned hands into giant fists, which glowed with building power. "I whupped your butts once, you mortal bastards!" he rumbled. "And Iíll do it ... ,"

"Stop, milord!" a womanís voice shouted. "Weíre not your enemy!"

Bacchus didnít believe the words -- until he saw the dozen or so women crowding into the doorway. They all wore black, brown and green leather armor studded with bits of metal. A few wore concentric circles of metal wrapped tightly around either one or both of their breast cups. All of them had leather and wooden masks perched on their heads, bursting with a dazzling array of varying amounts of bird feathers. The wine god unclenched his hands and couldnít conceal the sigh of relief that escaped from his crimson lips.

"Finally! I thought none of you would ever get here!" the wine god scolded, his mood immeasurably lighter than it had been moments earlier. "How many warriors did you bring with you?"

"Enough to drive the enemy out of Pella and the rest of Macedonia," Ephiny replied confidently. Her eyes darted around at her sisters. Surround him, but do it discreetly, they communicated silently. "Weíve already engaged and killed at least two hundred enemy hoplites and taken out a dozen catapults."

"Itís a start," Bacchus agreed. "How long will it take to clear the city of the mortal vermin -- and just where is Xena? I thought she would be leading the Amazon nation into one of its greatest battles of all time."

Ephiny shook her head. "The warrior princess sends her regrets," the regent explained. "She thought it was more important to hunt down and kill the generals leading the Macedonians and Greeks than to present herself to you." A thoughtful pause. "As for clearing Pella, that might take some time. Our enemies have used their time wisely and secreted themselves where ever it was the expedient thing to do."

By now the Amazons had nearly encircled the unsuspecting Bacchus. Several of them carried the lethal Dryad weapons, which they had liberated from piles of rotten-smelling dust -- all the remained of the many unfortunate Bacchae who had been slayed since the invasion of Pella by the combined Macedonian and Greek forces. Better yet, Solari held a very special weapon in her hands -- a Dryad crossbow with two bolts already locked into firing positions. What made the weapon even more special was where Solari had discovered it -- tossed carelessly alongside a crater in a city street not too far away from the council chambers.

The crossbow had belonged to the ill-fated Astyanax. It was all that was left of him.

Bacchus watched as a beautiful, raven-haired warrior approached him, her golden eyes glowing hotly. The wine god couldnít help but admire her physique -- large, firm breasts jutted defiantly out from her chest and there was an obvious softness between her muscular legs. But he also knew that the lovely temptation also concealed a great danger that would go right over the heads of most mortal men. Sheís an Amazon ... and isnít to be trifled with, he thought smugly. Better yet, sheís one of my Amazons ... eternal, loyal and utterly bloodthirsty!

"Milord, do you remember me?" she asked casually as she halted less than three feet from him.

Now why would she ask me such a stupid question? Bacchus thought irritably. "No, I do not. Youíre one of countless thousands of Amazon women at my beck and call -- nothing more!" he snapped. "Now stop trying to change the subject ... ," he fixed an icy gaze on Ephiny, " ... because your Queen and I have business to discuss."

"Ephiny is the Regent Queen," the young woman replied smartly. "Gabrielle is our true Queen."

Bacchus returned his gaze to the woman and tried to stare her down. "Ephiny, I strongly suggest that you keep a leash on your more outspoken warriors ... ,"

"Dion is free to speak her mind whenever she pleases," Ephiny said sweetly. She unconsciously steeled herself.

"Dion?! Thereís no way in Hades she could be ... ," the wine god began.

"Ordinarily, I would agree with you," Dion snorted. "But, you see, this transformation was something beyond my control. I was transformed against my will just so you could have another Amazon lieutenant at your beck and call!"

Bacchus sensed he was beginning to lose control of the situation. Nonetheless, he remained silent -- shell-shocked by the revelation that one of his hated enemies could have somehow joined the ranks of his Amazon followers.

"You see, milord, Hera tried to help you. But she didnít foresee the intervention of Artemis in her wicked little plan," Ephiny explained in a youíre-just-a-stupid-little-boy-Bacchus voice. "Hera was responsible for turning Dion into the woman she is today -- and itís a good idea to remember her new name, which is Thraso!"

Thraso blurred for a moment and Bacchus was sent crashing down into his throne by a roundhouse blow delivered by the surprisingly strong warrior. He stared up at her in surprise -- and felt a burning anger percolating within him.

"You hit your lord, you bitch!" he snarled. "I cannot allow that ... itís bad for discipline and morale ... ,"

"Fuck you," Thraso said simply. She delivered yet another blow to the stunned god.

"You will cease and desist this very moment!" Bacchus commanded from his sitting position. He added a little force to his voice, knowing it would put the impudent Amazons back in their rightful place. "That is a direct order!"

Thraso moved to hit Bacchus again, but found her forward progress stopped -- by herself. She strained to move, but it was useless as the wine godís words pounded into her head. She tried to will her eyes to return to their beautiful emerald green color -- but they remained golden, glowing coals. Abruptly Thraso felt her incisors beginning to elongate and sharpen into familiar pair of razor-sharp slim viperish fangs.

"Whatís happening to me, Ephiny?" she cried out desperately. A gnawing hunger grew in Thrasoís belly and she hovered on the edge of a mindless, fanatical Baccha precipice. "I thought we were cured ... ,"

"Cured?!" Bacchus laughed, his attention momentarily distracted by her hilarious words. "Oh, my little bloodthirsty followers, thatís impossible! Once you join the ranks of the Bacchae -- itís forever!"

Artemis wouldnít lie to her worshippers, Ephiny thought as she ran her tongue over her own pair of steadily-growing fangs. She glanced over at Solari and saw the horrified, contorted look on her loverís face as it was covered in growing patches of chalky white skin. The changes must be caused by our proximity to Bacchus himself! Yes! Thatís it, along with his commanding words!

"Amazons! Attack!" Ephiny screamed. "Itís now or never!"

Thraso heard the words through the haze of her resurgent thirst for blood and fought back against the urge to defend the wine god. "Not again, you horned freak!" she screamed as she launched herself at Bacchusí smug face.

For his part, Bacchus never expected to hear the words that Ephiny had just uttered. That explained why Thraso was able to land a third blow and then somersaulted away from him, desperate to put as much distance between herself and the very real danger Bacchus still posed. She wasnít quick enough, though, as Bacchus stood up and clenched his hands into fists and fired two bolts of bluish lightning at her retreating form.

Thraso looked back, saw oncoming death, and scowled. "Not today you donít ... ,"

Suddenly another body leaped up in front of Thraso and took the death blows meant for her.

Solari watched in numbed shock as one of her sisters fell to the floor, her chest nothing more than a smoking crater. Recovering quickly, she spun around and, in quick succession, fired the crossbow twice. The bolts winged their way toward Bacchus, but merely grazed him as he leaped out of the way to avoid an ignominious death. Still, it was obvious that the wine god was in pain as he keened like a wounded animal -- which was what he was quickly devolving into. Two other warriors sensed a window of opportunity and moved in on him, swinging their swords ... and promptly vanished in a smoky haze as the wine god let loose with the last drop of his weapons energy on them, instaneously carbonizing them.

Ephiny felt the tears beginning to pool in her eyes. Not now! I canít mourn now! she thought furiously, trying to blink them away. I have to concentrate on making him pay for what he did -- then I can mourn for the fallen! She pulled a Dryad dagger from its concealed spot and threw it with all of her force at Bacchus. "Your life ends here!" she announced tersely as the dagger closed in on the weakening god of wine and revelry.

"Itís not going to be that easy, you traitor!" Bacchus hissed. He cupped his hands together and tried to catch the deadly blade -- but was only partially successful as it bit into and through his right hand. This time the pain was real and very intense, but Bacchus did his best to ignore it, especially when he ripped the blade from the hand. Blood flowed freely from the terrible wound but Bacchus saw an opportunity as two more Amazons closed in on him ...

... Arianna never saw the blade as it zipped through the air and embedded itself in her chest. Blood exploded from her mouth and she screamed as her body temperature skyrocketed into the thousands of degrees, which quickly reduced her to nothing more than a pitiful pile of steaming ash.

"Hmm. Nice to see that Artemisí little tricks couldnít prevent the obvious -- live like a Baccha, die like a Baccha!" the wine god sneered. Then he reached out and grabbed the second Amazon by her throat and jerked her off the floor like a rag doll. "Iíve got something special for you ... ," his voice trailed off as he wiped his bloody, wounded hand across her face, smearing her lips with rich, red blood. A minuscule drop slid down her throat and she involuntarily swallowed it. Bacchus unceremoniously dropped the warrior to the floor and she began to convulse and jerk spasmodically. "Now that youíve ingested my blood, youíre becoming a true Baccha ... with all of its abilities, including shapeshifting!" the wine god taunted. "Iíve always wanted a hunting dog ... ,"

Sirius tried to cry out, but all that came was a horrible gurgling sound as her body began to twist and contort into a new shape. Coarse black fur started to sprout all over her body, starting from her patch of pubic fur and spreading like wildfire across her abdomen and down her legs. Her intelligence started to dim and she writhed out of her clothing and armor as breasts began to shrink and retreat into the thick fur covering her body. Her nose and mouth began to merge into a conical snout that pushed its way out of her face -- Sirius could felt the rows of sharp new teeth crowding her mouth as they erupted through her swollen and bleeding gums. Immediately afterwards six new nipples began to develop below her two human nipples -- she would need them all for any litters of puppies she might give birth to in her new form.

Ephiny and Solari stared on in mute horror and shock as their sister tried to stand, but failed. Siriusí changing body was designed for life on four legs and she crouched, her naked furry buttocks jutting up into the chamberís air. A thin, runny white foam began to bubble from her anus, heralding the arrival of a thick, slimy shaft of flesh that pushed out and grew to nearly a foot in length. Siriusí new tail began to sprout coarse black fur and she screamed in anguish as the extent of the transformation thus far became apparent to her stunned and all-too-human eyes ...

... a shaft suddenly poked out of Siriusí furry chest. She gurgled once more and collapsed into a heap, her final words echoing, "Thank you. Oh, Artemis, thank you for the release." Then her contorted body -- half human and half dog -- burst into flames which quickly burned themselves out, leaving only a pile of gray ash behind.

Ephiny stared remorsefully at Geminiís shaking figure -- she had delivered the fatal blow -- and turned to face Bacchus again, but was blinded by a brilliant sheet of light as he dematerialized into nothingness. "Thanks for ruining the fun," his evil voice echoed. "But Iíll be back, and thatís a promise!"

"Weíll be waiting, you bastard!" Ephiny shouted at the empty air.

Silence returned to the council chambers, broken only by the sobbing of shell-shocked Amazon survivors. Twelve warriors had arrived to do battle -- but only seven would be leaving. Artemis! the regent cried silently. How many more will die before this is all said and done? How many funeral pyres will light the nationís sky and for how long? Ephiny gathered herself together -- this is no time to break down -- and nodded morosely at Solari. The two split up and began to reassure the remaining warriors that everything would turn out for the best in the end. It wasnít easy, considering the fact that the occasional rumble and distant death screams could be heard through the thick walls.

Thraso was hunched over the cooling body of the sister who had sacrificed her own life in order to save Thrasoís. She looked up, her eyes bright with unshed tears, as Ephiny crouched next to her. "Electra died trying to keep me alive," Thraso whispered shamefully. "When I said I would gladly share the honors of killing Bacchus, I didnít mean it in this fashion ... ,"

"I know you didnít," Ephiny said soothingly. "Electra always was different from many of her sisters, but what she just did for you was as Amazon as anyone could get. She saw one of her sisters in danger -- and reacted. The price was her life, but sheís on her way to Eternity now."

"Eternity -- thatís the place where we go when we die, isnít it?" Thraso asked.

"Yes," Ephiny replied earnestly. "All of the Amazons from throughout time are there, waiting."

Another warrior scampered into the council chamber and shuddered at the sight of the carnage and destruction. But it distracted her only for a second as she scanned the chamber and spotted Ephiny. The warrior raced over to the regent and exclaimed, "Weíve encountered the lead elements of the Macedonians and Greeks!"

"They havenít attacked us, have they?" Ephiny asked anxiously.

Fire burned in the warriorís eyes. "Yes, they have. Weíve already lost over one hundred warriors to their cowardly attacks -- mostly from the Greeks, but some from the Macedonians as well."

Ephiny rolled her eyes and grimaced. "Dammit. I was hoping we could avoid bloodshed with them! Hades! Weíre fighting the same enemy!" Air hissed softly between her teeth -- which had returned to normal since Bacchusí departure -- and she added, "Tell our warriors to defend themselves with whatever means they have available -- but to try and communicate their true nature with the attackers if at all possible."

"Yes, my Queen," the warrior replied earnestly. Then she was gone.

Solari and the other survivors gathered around Ephiny and Thraso. "What do we do now?" one of them asked.

Ephiny stood and helped Thraso up. "Itís pretty damn obvious, isnít it?" the regent snapped angrily. "We rejoin the fighting and try and find some way to stop the bloodshed before it spirals out of control! Bacchus has been driven from Pella ... but thereís no way Iím going to allow those Greek bastards to come any closer to Amazon territory!"

* * *

"I thought I said there was to be no hostile actions taken toward the Amazons!" Zelius roared. "Did I or did I not explicitly issue those orders, lieutenant?!"

"Those were your orders, milord," the lieutenant concurred. "Most of our units complied when they realized that the women they were facing off against were unlike anything they had encountered before ... ,"

Zelius growled and began to pace furiously. "Which ones didnít obey my orders?! And why?! I want the names of their commanders immediately!"

"The ones of who were in the midst of surrounding Greek units," the lieutenant stammered. He steeled his back and asked, "May I speak openly, milord?"

"Yes, yes!" Zelius waved his arms. "Although it might not sound like it at times, I do value any input my subordinates can offer."

"Itís my belief that the units who didnít follow orders did so only because they wanted to keep the Greek forces believing that weíre still operating as their allies," the lieutenant began. "If they had turned on the Greeks all at once, there would have been an enormous amount of bloodshed."

The Macedonian general circled the lieutenant like a tiger waiting to pounce. "Donít understate the situation to me, lieutenant," Zelius whispered coldly. "I know damn well that there are men under my command who donít care for the Amazons no more than the Greeks do -- and thatís the part of the equation youíre not telling me about."

The lieutenant gulped and finally gave up the ghost. "Seven units have sided with the Greeks and are refusing to lay down their weapons ... theyíve killed well over a hundred Amazons and are continuing their rampage despite having lost over three hundred of their own number," he explained neutrally. "However, I donít think theyíve had the time to tell Arcterious or any of the other ranking Greeks about our refusal to engage any Amazon in battle."

"Theyíre never going to have the time to tattle, either," Zelius declared. "Inform those who remain loyal to me that itís time to openly engage the Greeks and their rebellious comrades-in-arms!" A disgusted look crossed Zeliusí face. "Itís time we ended this charade -- Bacchus will soon be driven from Pella and the mere presence of the Amazons suggests that the Bacchae north and west of Pella are no longer a threat."

* * *

The unstoppable juggernaut of Greek and Macedonian forces that had inexorably crushed Bacchusí earthly empire fell apart in less than a candlemark as civil war spread throughout its ranks. Where once Greek and Macedonians stood united against a supernatural threat, they now went for each othersí throats as that threat receded. And if the bloodshed produced by the infighting wasnít enough, the thousands of Amazon warriors continued to launch indiscriminate attacks -- they were furious at the treatment they had received and were lashing out at anything that looked remotely like a male.

Less than two hundred feet behind one of the larger skirmishes, Ephiny and her entourage were attempting to hold a strategy meeting amid the chaos and confusion. It was a last ditch attempt on Ephinyís part to separate her sisters from the slashing blades and singing arrows of their opponents.

"Stop attacking the Macedonians!" Ephiny demanded. "I donít think theyíre our enemy ... instead, focus your attention on the Greeks -- they pose a real threat to us if they break out of Pella!"

"But you said we could defend ourselves if attacked -- and weíve been attacked by Macedonians!" a lieutenant pointed out. "We wouldnít be killing them if they werenít killing us!"

"Now it looks like itís a free for all," another lieutenant observed. "Many of our sisters are reporting that Greeks are going after Macedonians now and vice versa while both parties continue to attack us."

Ephiny glanced over at Thraso and snapped, "Have you got any idea whatís going on?"

Thraso nodded and a relative silence fell over the battlefield meeting as the others strained to hear her words over the background din. "Men will be men," she stated clearly. "Many of them donít like the idea of strong women and resent the fact that they got their asses handed to them on a platter by Bacchae -- women, mind you -- when Bacchus instigated his takeover of Macedonia."

"This isnít time for word play, Thraso!" a voice shouted. "Speak up and make it quick!"

Fire burned in Thrasoís eyes. "I think Astyanax made it back alive ahead of us and told Zelius that we might be coming," she explained. "Zelius knew we would be coming to kill Bacchus, not to defend him. Thatís why I suspect the Macedonians turned on the Greeks ... ,"

"Then why are still being attacked by some Macedonians?" Solari bit out. "You havenít explained that yet -- and we cannot allow a sister to die because thereís an uniformed Macedonian attacking her!"

"Didnít you listen, Solari?" Thraso shot back angrily. "About how men will be men sometimes?!"

Solari nodded, but remained stoically silent. Thrasoís becoming more of an Amazon with every breath she takes, the warrior thought approvingly. I like the fire within her -- hope it carries through in any daughters she might one day provide for the nation.

"Then you should know that nationality doesnít matter for some people," Thraso continued mildly. "If a man hates the idea of a strong woman enough to act on it, it doesnít matter if heís Athenian, Pellan or a barbarian!"

Suddenly it clicked in Ephinyís mind. "Youíre saying some Macedonian units have rebelled and gone over to the Greeks, arenít you?" she asked. "The units loyal to Zelius are the ones holding back from attacking us, while the rebels are the ones attacking us, along with the Greeks!"

Thraso nodded. "I wish I had your ability to say it short and sweet -- but, yes, thatís what has happened," she said.

"Okay, weíll go on the assumption that the Macedonian attacks are aberrations," Ephiny explained quickly. "Inform our other sisters that theyíre to focus specifically on the Greeks and only those Macedonian units which attack them! Ignore everything else!"

* * *

Xena stiffened in her hiding place as a blazing pillar of reddish light filled the cavernous chamber and faded away to reveal Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry. My, he looks battered and bloody, the warrior princess thought cheerfully. It looks like the Amazons did their part. Now itís up to Gabrielle and me to put the finishing touches on the endgame.

Bacchus stumbled over to his throne and sat down hard -- and screamed as a white-hot lance of pain shot up through his buttocks. He jumped up and gawked at the two inch piece of sharp, curving Dryad bone which protruded from the seat of the throne.

"Whatís going on here?" he wheezed weakly. He looked up at the honey-combed ceiling of his silent catacombs and roared, "Was that your idea of a practical joke, Zeus?!"

A dull, aching pain began to manifest itself in Bacchusí buttocks. The wine god quickly grew alarmed ... I didnít sit on it for that long -- mere seconds! -- it shouldnít be poisoning me ... and rubbed furiously. The wounded area was swollen and sensitive to the touch, but that wasnít what alarmed the wine god. It was the hard lump buried deep within the wound itself.

It was a piece of the Dryad bone buried deep within him. It had broken off inside him when he had impaled himself on the bone protruding from the seat of the throne. Bacchus knew he was being slowly poisoned as the bone continued to dissolve within him. Gods, no! he roared mentally. To have existed for so long ... to have earned the fear of the mortal world ... to have conquered so much -- and lost so much ... to be brought down by a small, insignificant piece of Dryad bone!

"Hurts, doesnít it?" a cold voice called out.

Bacchus looked wildly around the empty, echoing chamber. "Show yourself!" he rumbled. "Or are you afraid?"

"Itís a big cosmic joke, isnít it?" another voice chimed in. "To spread terror, death and destruction for so long, only to be brought down by the equivalent of a mote of dust."

The wine god ignored the taunts -- the pain was getting worse -- and demanded, "You will show yourselves, Xena and Gabrielle. That is a direct order!"

No one appeared. Bacchus grew frustrated. It worked on the Amazons -- why isnít it working now?! he thought. "I said, show yourselves to your lord!" he screamed banshee-like.

"Right behind you, you freak of nature!"

Bacchus whirled and faced Xena and Gabrielle, who stood a slight distance behind the warrior princess. "Your existence ends here, Bacchus," Xena said firmly. She was furious -- but it was a controlled, measured type of fury. "I hope youíre prepared to face the judgment of the gods ... ,"

"Iíve already faced them and won," Bacchus ripped. He darted forward and smashed a massive fist into Xenaís face, stunning her. "I may yet die -- again -- but Iíll do everything in my power to take you with me!"

Gabrielle saw the savage blow as it connected with her loverís face and reacted on an instinctual level. She lunged forward and slammed her shoulder into the massive, beastly, hulk that was Bacchus. He went careening off the throne ledge and landed hard on the cold, stone floor of the chamber next to the blazing bonfire. The bard, satisfied at seeing Bacchusí unmoving form, rushed over to the side of the stricken Xena, hoping against hope that the blow hadnít snapped the warrior princessí neck.

"Are you all right?" Gabrielle asked fervently. She didnít dare move Xena -- if her neck was broken, that would only increase the irreparable damage. "Xena! Please speak ... anything!"

Xenaís breathing steadied and she smiled faintly. "Iíve felt better," she said quietly. Then she climbed to her feet, assisted by a very relieved bard, and looked down at Bacchusí still form. "He wonít remain that way for long, you know. Weíve got to implement the last part of our plan before itís too late."

"Then letís do it," Gabrielle replied. She withdrew a long, curving Dryad bone from a pocket.

Xena mimicked her actions, but the objects she withdrew were smaller and softer. "We might need these," she whispered as she gave some of the objects to Gabrielle.

Down on the floor, Bacchus began to stir from his stunned state. His eyes snapped open and looked straight up to the throne ledge where Gabrielle and Xena were preparing to deliver the death blow. No! Iíve worked too long and too hard to go down without a fight! the devilish wine god thought crazily.

"I command you to stop this instant!" Bacchus ordered. "I am your lord and you will obey me!"

Up on the ledge, the warrior princess and the bard smiled innocently down at him, oblivious to the words.

"Stop! I demand it this very instant!" Bacchus screamed, enunciating each word. Why arenít they listening to me?! he thought angrily. Iím fairly close to them and they can hear my words ...

Xenaís voice drifted down. "Remember these?" she asked, holding some small objects in her fingers.

Bacchus focused on them -- and shuddered involuntarily. His hold on them had be negated even more.

"Remember Orpheus?!" Gabrielle demanded. "Remember how his music drove you and the early Bacchae insane and the only way you could wander about unmolested was to have these with you?!"

"Youíre history, Bacchus!" Xenaís words echoed over and over throughout the chamber. She tossed the objects at Bacchus twitching form and smiled maliciously. "Your words have no effect on us!"

The objects landed on the wine godís chest. His eyes bulged as he stared at them. He couldnít believe that he was about to die because of ...

Earplugs.

Small, beeswax earplugs. The same ones he had used to protect his Bacchae from Orpheusí haunting music in the Baccha Woods. The ones that kept the nauseating music from giving migraines to his followers -- and also dampened their hearing to the point of near deafness. Only this time, their purpose had been twisted around and used in a way that Bacchus could never have dreamed of.

"Nnnooo!" Bacchus roared helplessly. "This isnít any fair ... ,"

Xena and Gabrielle dove over the ledge and hurtled down toward Bacchus, the pointed tips of their weapons centered on Bacchusí unmoving body. His tried in vain to roll out of the way, but his body was too lethargic from the poison that was slowly spreading out from the dissolving Dryad bone in his buttocks. The wine god could only watch helplessly as his destroyersí sneering faces plummeted toward him.

It happened so quickly that Bacchus for a moment thought theyíd missed. Unfortunately, they had not: Bacchus felt a strange pressure in his body as the bones plunged deep into his torso. The pressure quickly grew in intensity and the wine godís body bloated and contorted grotesquely outward -- Bacchus tried to scream, but all that came out was a whistling sound, much like a tea kettle does when the water pressure within grows too great ...

"Get away, Gabrielle," Xena yelled as she heaved herself off Bacchus and tried to drag the bard away with her. "Heís going to blow ... !"

"You havenít seen the last of me," Bacchus swore at the retreating forms, his piggish eyes locked on them. "Not even Hades will be able to ... ,"

The god of wine and revelry never finished the sentence. His body detonated into a million bloody chunks that splattered across the entire chamber, coating Gabrielle and Xena in a thin film of green and red goo.

"Yuck!" the bard screeched. She tried to wipe the greasy substance off, but failed. "Talk about going out in ... ,"

"Gabrielle, do you feel any different?" Xena interrupted.

The bard fell silent. After a moment, she nodded. "The hunger -- what little of it was left -- is gone!" she exclaimed. "I canít will my body to change anymore ... ,"

Xena smiled radiantly. "Itís over Gabrielle -- we did it. Bacchus is gone ... and so is his bloodthirsty curse," the warrior princess chirped, barely able to contain her excitement.

The chamber suddenly quaked. The great bonfire in its center began to sputter and went out and the rumbling resumed, growing stronger by the moment. Cracks began to snake across the floor toward the Xena and Gabrielle and scalding steam erupted through them, soon followed by a gentle flow of clear -- but boiling hot -- water. The chamber was quickly becoming clouded with steam and hot as the water percolated in and up.

"Uh-oh. Time to get the Hades out of Dodge," Xena murmured. She stood and helped her lover up.

"Where to now?" Gabrielle asked.

"Letís get out of here first," Xena chided gently. "Then we can worry about what comes next."

The pair quickly made their exit -- as best they could -- from the quaking and quivering catacombs. Having had practice with the spasmodic jerking of the Ambrosia Chamber, they had better luck navigating the obstacles in the catacombs as the floor alternately dropped and rose repeatedly. A half-candlemark later, they stumbled from the narrow mouth of the opening in the sheer cliff wall and into the Dryad burial ground. They sat down next to a grave and watched in rapt fascination as a puff of steam escaped from mouth of the narrow opening. The entire hill trembled briefly as an explosive concussion went off deep within its hollow bowels. Mere moments passed before the hill slumped inward and collapsed in a thundering roar.

A few minutes passed before Gabrielle tiptoed to the edge of the newly-formed pit and stared down at the muddy, boiling waters which now concealed the collapsed entrance to the ruined catacombs, which were submerged beneath hundreds of feet of boiling water and completely inaccessible to mortals.

"How the mighty have fallen," Xena commented wistfully.

"Indeed," Gabrielle agreed. She leaned into the warrior princess and murmured, "But is it truly over, Xena?"

Xena thought about the bardís question for a moment, then spoke. "Does anyone -- or anything -- ever truly die, Gabrielle?" she asked ponderously. Then she answered her own question. "I donít know ... but we can only hope."

* * *

The effect of Bacchusí destruction was immediate and swift. Countless thousands of previously mindless women instantly regained their faculties and their normal bodies. Hundreds of others, in the process of being transformed, were spared the nightmare of becoming bloodsuckers. The hundreds of restless Bacchae that Diana and her sisters had been keeping occupied on the outskirts of Pella suddenly reverted back to the normal women they had been born as, although they were quite confused as to what had happened to them ... and reeled under the horrifying nightmares of what they had done while under Bacchusí control. The tears and emotions that were the hallmarks of the return to humanity were evident everywhere as the knowledge of what had really happened washed over them.

Afterwards they mobbed the Amazons -- who were reeling from their own sudden decrease in physical strength and endurance -- with questions. Needless to say, it was a scene repeated throughout liberated southern Macedonia and more so throughout the northern half of the nation, where the women had no conveniently nearby Amazons to answer their questions. All they had to look forward to was trying to regain the trust and belief of the terrified males who had survived the short-lived but horrifying reign of Bacchus.

Within the Amazon nation itself, there were only muted celebrations as the change swept across the nation. They knew that it was a time for relief more than anything else -- and a time for mourning as they prepared numerous funeral pyres for the fallen warriors that they knew would be brought back for a proper Amazon funeral. It was a day of mixed feelings -- happiness that they had finally been freed from the lust and debauchery of Bacchusí rule, but also a great deal of sadness because that freedom had come with a high price that was still being exacted on their warriors in far-away Pella.

* * *

The fighting in Pella had finally come to an end -- but only because of the arrival from Athens of a messenger from the city council telling Arcterious to disengage his forces from the quagmire they had become involved in and make preparations to stare down the Romans who -- as Arcterious had finally discovered -- really were in Illyria and making calculated postures to their new neighbors. Although the bloodshed had ended, acrimony and accusations were still being thrown at each other by the Macedonians and Greeks. The Amazons stood by and watched in utter amazement as the extent of the deterioration between Greece and Macedonia became obvious.

"You betrayed your allies, Zelius," Arcterious snapped. He leveled an accusing finger at the Macedonian. "I promise you that Greece wonít forget your betrayal ... our memory does not forget traitors!"

"Stuff it," Zelius retorted. "If I were you, Iíd be more worried about having the Roman Empire as your immediate neighbors. Theyíve already taken Illyria ... whoís to say they wonít try for Athens next?"

Arcterious harumphed. "And whoís to say they wonít try for Pella?"

"Whoís stronger right now -- Athens and Greece or Pella and the rest of battered Macedonia?!" Zelius snapped angrily. "And just who is going to march off right now and face down the Romans in their new province?"

"Gentlemen, please ... ," Ephiny began. But her voice was drowned out by the argument.

Flames burned in Arcteriousí eyes. "We will save the Greek world from further Roman penetration," he declared hotly. "No thanks to traitors like you, Zelius!"

"Milord, itís time to leave our ungrateful hosts," the messenger spoke up quietly, but firmly. "Darius was pretty adamant about you keeping your forces on a tight timetable."

But Arcterious wasnít finished yet. "I still canít believe you actually chose to side with the Amazons, Zelius," he spat. "Theyíre slowly dying out, you know ... ,"

"Watch your words, Greek boy," Ephiny snapped loudly. This time her voice was heard by all. "Weíre far stronger than you might like to admit!"

"Perhaps one day weíll have to test that theory, wonít we?" Arcterious sneered. "As I remember it, Greece pretty much kicked your ass in the last time we went a round with your people -- and that was without the assistance of the centaurs!" Then he whirled and left the command tent in a surprised silence.

The messenger was much more diplomatic about the whole thing. "Please exuse his blow-up, but both your nations are now on a hit list, so to speak," he said matter-of-factly.

As if war was a routine threat one made every day to his neighbors.

Zelius watched the messengerís retreating form and sighed. "Zeus! Does it ever end?!" he asked forlornly.

"I wouldnít worry about it too much," Ephiny reassured. "The Roman Empire has already changed the balance of power in the Greek world ... itís different now with them in almost everyoneís backyard."

"Yes, well ... ,"

"Zelius, I have one more thing to tell you about before we return to our territory," Ephiny blurted out. "Iíve been trying to find the best time to tell you about it, but ... ,"

"But what?" the Macedonian asked quietly.

"It involves Dionís fate."

Zelius stared at the woman -- no, Amazon -- he had quickly warmed up to. "Why bring up old wounds?" he asked softly. "Dionís dead. Thatís what our intelligence sources said ... he died protecting Amplitron when the Amazons stormed Pella while under Bacchusí control."

Ephiny glanced around the tent apprehensively. There was no one in there besides Zelius, herself, Solari and, last but not least, Thraso. "Heís here with us, right now," she said gently.

The Macedonian scanned the tent, but saw only Ephiny and her two warrior companions. "Stop giving me false hope, Ephiny," Zelius said neutrally. "Dion was my mentor and my superior officer -- I regarded him as a close friend and, yes, even as an older brother to a certain degree."

Thraso could no longer hold her emotion-packed silence. "I am and always will be your friend -- no matter what I look like," she stated. Thraso stepped forward and looked up into Zeliusí eyes. "I know itís hard to believe, but this body contains Dionís life-force ... I was once Dion, but have now become Thraso."

Zelius remained silent, his disbelieving eyes examining the trim, feminine body of the Amazon warrior before him. She was about 5í9" in height -- average for an Amazon -- and probably didnít weigh more than 150 pounds. Her emerald green eyes, inset on a firm and beautiful face and surrounded by thick, flowing black hair, looked earnestly into his own. As hard as he tried, Zelius couldnít detect any sign of deceit within the windows to her soul.

"But how?" he finally choked. "Iíve been speaking of you as dead, and yet you claim to stand here before me ... ,"

"Dionís gone," Thraso replied. "I had hoped that with the destruction of Bacchus, my body would reassume its former shape and sex, but ... ," she gestured at her feminine waist, hips and breasts, " ... it didnít happen. Iím still Thraso -- and apparently always will be from now until the time I die."

Zelius fell to one knee as he bowed deeply before Thraso. "How did this terrible transformation happen, milord?" he asked. There was a hint of wonder in his voice -- but it was overridden by fear.

Thraso glanced nervously at Ephiny -- the regent nodded. "Hera, the Queen of the Olympian gods, somehow cursed Ephiny," Thraso explained. "In an effort to conceive a daughter for the nation, Ephiny became the unwitting vehicle that caused my transformation into an Amazon warrior. It was all an accident, really." She smiled at Zeliusí bowed form and added, "Stop bowing like that! You never had to do it when I was a male and you certainly donít have to do it now!"

"Hera? What interest did she have in Bacchusí mortal empire?" Zelius asked as he slowly stood.

Ephiny shrugged. "No one really knows," she admitted. "Apparently her effort was an attempt to help Bacchus, but it backfired on him in the worst possible way. Perhaps she was out to get him the entire time ... and wasnít above using some mortal pawns in her game against Zeusí illegitimate son."

Zelius thought about that for a moment, then asked, "Thraso, I donít suppose thereís any way you would be willing to stay in Pella, would you? Maybe we could find a way to reverse the transformation -- a bribe to a god here, a bribe there ... you know."

"Donít even suggest meddling with the gods," Thraso replied sternly. "One of them did this to me as a favor for another and all that came of it were broken lives. And that was only the tip of the iceberg of her interference ... weíre beginning to suspect that Hera was behind a lot of Bacchusí power -- but without the evidence to support our claims, nothing can be done about it." She sighed. "Besides, there isnít much opportunity to live a full and free life as a woman outside the Amazon world, is there?"

Zelius shook his head. "No. Many men still think that women are good only for making babies and caring for the household," he said honestly. "And after what Bacchus did, that patriarchal mentality will probably become even more entrenched in Macedonia." He glanced at Ephiny and added, "Life for a nation of women wonít be easy from now on -- a lot of people will have vendettas against your people, despite their innocence."

"Life hasnít been easy for us since Queen Hippolyta was defeated centuries ago and the nation broken up," the regent said, bitterness evident in her voice. "Weíll deal with each crisis as it comes, one at a time."

Zelius stood and offered his arm in a warriorís handshake. Ephiny accepted the friendly gesture and listened to his words. "Thereís a lot of rebuilding work to be done all across Macedonia," he explained. "Itíll take months, if not years, to fully recover from Bacchusí debacle. In the meantime, life ... ,"

" ... will be difficult for all of us," Ephiny finished. "Barbarians, brigands and pirates will undoubtedly take advantage of the situation while they can. And with Imperial Rome lurking in the background, life in these parts certainly wonít be uninteresting."

"We live in interesting times," Zelius stated.

Ephiny smiled warmly. "That we do," she agreed. There was a short pause, and the regent spoke again. "We must be going now. Macedonia may have suffered a lot of physical damage, but both the Amazons and Macedonia have a great deal of mental anguish to work through."

Zelius watched as Ephiny lifted the tentís flap and vanished, followed closely by Solari. Thraso, just as she was about to leave, looked back longingly at Zelius -- a stark reminder of what she had lost -- and said softly, "Perhaps we will encounter each other again, someday, my student."

"Perhaps so, teacher," Zelius replied solemnly. "Until then, my friend, live long and find peace and love among your sisters." And then she was gone, leaving Zelius with many unanswered questions.

* * *

Velasca was dying. It had been several candlemarks since her body had reverted back to humanity -- and had immediately started down the path of a slow, inexorable death. Her nightmares during the transition had been particularly bad as she realized the damage her actions had done to her Amazon sisters -- but she didnít care. She was too distracted and angry with the world to give a damn.

Fluid still dripped from where the spikes held her in place, but it was no longer the greenish ichor of a Baccha ... it was the rich, red color of human blood. And with each drop that splattered on the floor, that much more of Velascaís life drained away. The pain had been endurable when she was a Baccha, but now even that was unbearable.

"Why?!" she screamed hoarsely, her strength ebbing. "Why have you abandoned me, Bacchus?! Why havenít you spoken to me, Hera?! Where are you all in my candlemark of darkness?!"

No one answered Velascaís cry in the darkness. She was alone in the grim blackness ...

"Iím here for you, Velasca," a powerful voice suddenly called out of the darkness. "When all the others have abandoned you, forgotten about you -- I remembered that you were here, suffering."

The Ambrosia Chamber began to lighten ever so slightly, just enough for Velasca to focus on a dark, muscular figure. She recognized the voice and mumbled, "You put me in this predicament in the first place, Ares! What do you want now -- some more entertainment to keep you occupied?!"

"Despite your shortsightedness, Velasca, Iím not your enemy as you would like to think," the god of war sneered. He glided over to the spiked pitís edge and stared down at his immobile victim. "In fact, Iím about to give you the greatest gift of your short mortal life."

"What ... ,"

Ares gestured. A glowing gelatinous pile of goo appeared on the ledge of the pit nearest Velasca. "Ambrosia, my little Amazon. What youíve always wanted ... desired ... even more so than being a so-called eternal Baccha!"

Velascaís eyes fixed on the substance. Food of the gods, she thought dreamily. Heal all my wounds. Make me strong again. Truly become a goddess ... wreak my vengeance on those who betrayed me!

"All you have to do is earn it," Ares drawled. "Itís two feet away from you, Velasca. Two feet separate you from eternity -- a mere two feet ... ," and then he vanished in a brilliant pillar of energy, his maniacal laughter echoing throughout the Ambrosia Chamber.

Velasca reached, with trembling fingers, out at the too-tempting gift of eternity.

Ares had set everything in motion and the trap was ready to be sprung. He would have his vengeance on Xena, Gabrielle and the Amazons for their temerity in making him and Hera look like fools for throwing their weight behind Bacchus doomed efforts to conquer the mortal world.

* * *

A week passed. The chaos and destruction wrought by Bacchusí foray into the mortal world had only started to show the slightest sign of healing. Villages, towns and cities throughout Macedonia were still burned out or destroyed shadows of their former selves. Mass graves were a common sight throughout the shattered land as the survivors struggled to bury the dead before the rotting carcasses polluted their water sources and croplands. For days on end, the screams and sobs of mourning filled the sky from sunrise to beyond sunset. Words of remorse were exchanged as men and women tried to reconcile some of their differences -- often failing, but some succeeded. And that was what counted in a world torn apart by sorrow and destruction ... every little success was better than none.

Imperial Rome continued to fortify its occupation of Illyria, sending in the first wave of occupation troops and officials who would govern the defeated province. Because of the tensions with Rome, the Athenians and their allies missed their vow to return immediately to take care of the traitorous Macedonians -- Arcterious was too preoccupied fending off Roman diplomatic feints and even the occasional foray into land still ostensibly under Greek domination. The borders of Illyria were quickly becoming a militarized zone between two powers -- one young, aggressive, and growing and the other older and slowly dying. The former was Rome, and the latter was, increasingly, Greece. It didnít help matters that a resurgence of barbarian, pirate and brigand action in the war-torn lands of Macedonia also spilled over into the potential flashpoint between Rome and Greece.

Over in the lands of the Amazon nation, the skies filled with the smoke and ash generated daily by the funeral pyres of nearly nine hundred Amazons who had died during Bacchusí rule of their nation. To many, nine hundred dead wasnít a lot -- but when your population numbered well under one hundred thousand, even a loss of that magnitude was significant. Then there was the problem of integrating the reborn Amazon tribes in Thrace with the rest of the nation. Hera had given the new Amazons a terrible idea of what it was to be an Amazon -- she had taught them the old ways of the Amazons, as they had been centuries in the past: Indomitable, aggressive, and warlike. But she had also imbued them with good attributes as well: a strong sense of kinship with all of their sisters, keen intelligence and wit and, of course, an intense identity of just what it meant to be an Amazon . So, in the end, it sort of balanced itself out -- the new Amazon tribes were turning out to be no different than the existing ones. All of the tribes of the Amazon nation had their good points and bad points ... but then again, isnít that the truth for every human society on the planet? Furthermore, the barbarians and other assorted riffraff that were troubling Greece, Macedonia and Rome were also a thorn in the side of the Amazons -- usually only once, though, because if the Amazons caught them, there was no mercy shown to those who dared to ravage the lands belonging to the Amazon nation. A hard lesson had been learned during Bacchusí rule ... never let the enemy get to a point where he -- or even she, in some cases -- posed a genuine threat to the nation. In other words, neutralize the threat before it became too strong to deal with discreetly. And with the Amazons, "neutralizing" a threat didnít always involve violence -- no, not with the wiles and knowledge they had gained while being unwilling followers of the god of wine and revelry, in addition to what Artemis taught them and what came naturally.

The entire Greek world was paying the price for Bacchusí insane little foray. His name was cursed over and over again -- but the past could not be undone -- so the world would have to live in the shadow of the aftermath.

* * *

Themiscrya had returned to its normal size of a few thousand inhabitants, instead of a crowded quagmire of nearly nine thousand women. The only guests of honor in the town today were the tribal leaders of the entire Amazon nation. They would remain until the last of their dead sisters was given a proper funeral and sent on her way to Eternity to join her fallen sisters in bliss. It would still be several more days before the last of the bodies was given a proper Amazon send-off.

Ephiny walked amid the bustling paths of the busy town, accompanied by Gabrielle, Xena, Eponin and Solari. They were heading in the direction of the coronation field, where a simple ceremony would be held to officially appoint Ephiny as the Queen during Gabrielleís extended absences with Xena. It was necessary because the other coronations had always been interrupted by calamitous events beyond the control of the Amazon nation. Afterwards, they would attend the funerals of Electra, Sirius and Arianna and guard the burning pyres that contained their bodies.

"So much has happened over the past moon," Gabrielle mused aloud. "I wonder how this will all eventually affect the nation -- is it really as grim as the picture appears to be, or is that just the worst-case scenario?"

Ephiny came to a stop. "I tend to be pessimistic -- Mayemís tribe is already beginning to ruffle some feathers along the Thracian frontier," she said unhappily. "Apparently theyíre making noise about regaining ancestral lands ... unfortunately, several villages just happen to occupy that particular valley. With the Councilís help, I should be able to keep Mayem and other firebrands like her contained -- but the question is for how long."

"Hmm. Sounds like tons of fun," Xena murmured.

"Youíre being sarcastic again, arenít you?" Gabrielle asked unhappily.

Xena smiled grimly. "It just never ceases to amaze me how people always find an excuse to start fighting again," she explained. "Peace is something to be valued, and war so terrible -- yet so many keep choosing war ... ,"

A pillar of golden energy whirled into existence and deposited Artemis smack dab in the middle of the discussion. "Your observations are right on the mark, Xena," she said cordially. There was no obvious warmth in her voice toward the warrior princess -- only diplomatic politeness. "Despite the near-constant meddling of the gods, mortals often put themselves in a pickle without our assistance."

"What tidings bring you to our humble nation?" Solari asked, sensing the tension between Artemis and Xena.

"I have good news and bad news," Artemis began. "The good news is that Zeus has finally put his foot down with Bacchus ... ," she gestured and a portal opened up. It showed a pale flame glowing within the icy interior of a massive glacier. "Thatís all thatís left of Bacchus," Artemis whispered. "His body was destroyed -- obviously -- but his life-force survived. Zeus has imprisoned it within some nameless glacier in the deepest bowels of Tartarus ... no one knows the glacierís location."

Several more scenes flickered within the portal. Temples exploded and alters disintegrated and the most fanatical of Bacchusí mortal followers found themselves regressing into slime molds -- the lowest of the low. It was mainly the priestesses of his temples that this fate fell on. Artemis and her audience watched, fascinated, as dozens of women -- and a few men -- were struck dumb and soon afterwards found themselves beginning to liquefy. In a matter of minutes, they had all been reduced to grotesque piles of quivering, living, goo that slithered all over the place.

"As you can see, Zeus wasnít kind ... he finally meted out the punishment that Bacchus had coming ever since he killed Orpheus," Artemis commented. She looked directly at Ephiny and added, "And you know what? Hera didnít utter a single peep during this final showdown. Strange, considering how vigorously she defended him earlier."

"Whatís the bad news?" Eponin asked. She didnít like having unknown factors in the equation.

"I fear that the future of my precious Amazons may be in jeopardy," Artemis simply said. "Enemies you never knew you had will emerge to attack you. And enemies defeated long ago will rise again from the dead to bring terror to my followers." The goddess of the hunt and childbirth slipped into a contemplative silence, then added, "It wonít be an easy time to be an Amazon ... merely using the name will probably invoke anger and hatred. But if the nation survives itís darkest days, a brighter future may open up."

"I hate riddles," Eponin grumbled before slipping back into silence.

Gabrielle hated riddles, too, and Artemisí words sent a spike of fear through the bardís heart. "Artemis, could you be more specific?" she asked. "What sort of dangers are you referring to?"

Artemis shook her head. "I dare not go into further detail -- Zeus still hasnít heard the whole story about how I managed to circumvent his judgment, along with Apollo and Athena," the goddess replied. And neither do you, she thought morosely. I can only hope that Ares finds more tempting targets to mess around with -- the last thing Olympus needs is another internecine war. And thatís exactly what would happen if Ares dares to openly attack my precious followers. "Iíve given you the hint you may well all need to survive the turbulent future."

With that, Artemis smiled warmly at Gabrielle and vanished into a familiar pillar of golden energy.

"She speaks the truth, I think," Ephiny opined. "Artemis spoke in riddles because itís my belief that she took a forbidden glimpse of the future from the Fates. She didnít want to alter history ... even if it leads to our eventual glory or destruction."

"If thatís what she did, then it was only one possible future," Xena said. "The past may be set in stone and the present ever-changing -- but the future is truly unknown. It should remain that way, too."

"What did Artemis mean when she talked about skirting Zeusí judgment?" Solari asked curiously.

Xena sighed. "Artemis is the only one who knows what really went on behind the scenes, so sheís the one to ask," the warrior princess opined. "Some gods and goddesses may be more open with their followers than others, but not a single one will always be completely truthful. I suppose itís the idea that mere mortals wouldnít be able to comprehend the actions of the gods."

A meditative silence enveloped the group and they resumed walking toward the coronation field. Life right now was complicated and difficult ... throwing in variables about an uncertain future just made the present that much more difficult to live in.

Unseen by any of the Amazons, Artemis hovered invisibly over the lands of the nation. A single tear slid down her face and manifested itself as a gentle shower that brought water to the blossoming fields of the nation.

"Shattered dreams," she whispered hollowly. The bravado she had exhibited in front of Ephiny and the others wasnít evident now -- indeed, if it had ever really been there. "Bacchusí actions did so much damage to the dreams that people wanted to live, that the Greek world -- and my beloved Amazons -- may never completely recover ... ,"

Another tear slipped from her eyes. The rains grew heavier across the Amazon nation.

Far below, Ephiny and the others decided to take shelter in one of the communal living quarters.

"In a small way, even Bacchus himself couldnít comprehend the damage he had inflicted not only upon the mortal world, but upon the Olympians," Artemis whispered to herself. Zeus had taken her into his confidence and told her of the threat that he sensed was just over the horizon -- and his words were haunting her now. "The entire world will pay for this distraction ... ,"

Then she repeated two words over and over: "Shattered dreams. Shattered dreams. Shattered dreams ... ,"

* * *

Velasca marched across the countryside, oblivious to the gentle rain which had suddenly turned into a downpour. Her eyes shimmered with a degree of controlled mixture of anger, hatred and rage. Her wounds were healed and she had never felt better in her whole life. At her side, a small pouch was stretched to the breaking point with several ounces of leftover ambrosia. There was enough left over to finish the transformation into a goddess and then some. She had been left for dead, abandoned by her patron deities and hadnít a friend in the world.

And that was how Velasca wanted it. Theyíll all pay for their sins against me, she thought darkly. And Iíll begin with that irritating little usurper to my rightful place as Queen of the Amazon nation! Iím coming, Gabrielle, and not even Xena will be able to stop me. She tittered insanely. Once Iím finished with you, then Iíll take on those fair weather bastards on Mount Olympus who pretend to rule this world!

* * * Disclaimer * * *

Iíve looked forward to writing this disclaimer since March of 1998, when I began work on the concluding novella in the "Worlds in Collision" trilogy, "Shattered Dreams." It is now the middle of October and the task is finished.

Whew. One thing Iíve discovered about writing three novellas is that keeping track of disparate events and characters across all three -- and nearly 220 pages -- is difficult, to say the least. Now I know how Tom Clancy or any number of other novel writers feel. I tried my best, but if you notice any discrepancies, the fault lies with me.

If you have any constructive comments or possible ideas for upcoming novellas, please donít hesitate to drop me a line at the following e-mail address: storymaster@mailexcite.com Iíll read them all and get back to you as soon as possible.

Itís bedtime for me, ladies and gentlemen. Look forward to talking with you and writing more novellas in the future!


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