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DISCLAIMERS: Let's see..Xena, Gabrielle, Callisto, and any others popping up here, (just picture Joxer-in-the-box..what a birthday present to get! Urk! *gag*) belong to MCA/Universal/Renaissance, but I'm letting them move in with me for awhile, cause it's wintertime and they're tired of sleeping outdoors. So I'm going to shamelessly use them for my own pleasure (getcha mind outta da gutta!). This story is for non-profit, of course, and no infringement of rights is meant.
Warning~ Violence will eventually be present. Xena. Sword. Chakrum. Gabrielle. Staff. Enough said? Ohh..and I forgot to mention the pinch too..and, of course, the bilious green could be viewed as a weapon, but if you've read Part one yet (and I sure hope to gods you have!!) you know she's not wearing it anymore. It's probably mating with that sheer silk gown I...errr..Caesar made her wear. Can you imagine the offspring from that? *shiver*
Subtext~ Yep, but never anything explicit, because story doesn't call for it.
Another Disclaimer~ After I posted Part 2, I found out that this story is starting to disturb some people. So let's call this the "Spooky Chills Jason Disclaimer". What's happening to our two heroines is not a pleasant day by the beach. If you start hearing spooky music in the background, please...raise your eyes and look at your surroundings. You are safe. There is no chainsaw..err..swordbearing skeleton running after you. Hehe..don't worry folks. Seriously though, this story does have darkness in it, so though I'd rather you were able to read on, if you can't I totally understand.
Passage Into Darkness
Oh might I shake from me
The bitterness of evil, and bend obediently
My heartís deceiving passions, its violence control,
That drives me to hideous conflict.
Part of "Hymn to Ares" Author and date unknown
"No we aren't," Xena insisted with clenched teeth.
"Yes we are. Admit it," the bard replied back just as annoyed.
"There's nothing to admit, Gabrielle."
"Stop sulking. I can almost hear you cussing in your mind back there." And she could too. The energy off her friend fairly seethed 'I'm right and you're wrong' and it annoyed the warrior even more.
"Don't patronize me, Xena. Just admit you're wrong then we can move on."
"Oh..that makes so much sense. Admit we're lost, then we can move on? To where?"
"So you're admitting it?"
"No. I'm. Not."
"Xena. I hate it when you do this." Gabrielle scowled, she couldn't quite believe Xena was being so stubborn about this.
"Fine, then don't listen."
"Stop it." Xena could feel the bard's eyes boring into her back.
"I'm not doing anything, O Warrior Princess. I'm just being a good tag-a-long and following you."
"Sarcasm will get you nowhere."
"Neither apparently will you right now."
"What? Have I hit a nerve? The Mighty Warrior can't see that she's passed the same dead bodies four times now?" Gabrielle said in exasperation, her hand gesturing to the residents of the catacombs, even though Xena's back was turned to her and couldn't see.
Xena slowed her steps, but still refused to look at the woman behind her. "How do you know they're the same? I'm surprised you're paying attention, considering how much you hate it down here."
"No offense, Xena, but they don't all look alike. The same rat has poked his little head out of the same skull each time we've passed by."
"Yeah. Oh." Gabrielle reached out a hand and touched the warrior's shoulder, tugging on it to make her stop. "Xena?"
Sighing, the dark-haired woman reluctantly complied and turned to look at her companion, the irritation at their argument and their situation evident in the crystal blue eyes. "What?"
Sliding her hand down Xena's arm to the strong lean hand, Gabrielle gently squeezed, reassured by their contact even though the emotions between the two were tense. "Youíre more perceptive than this."
The warrior's face went still. "I'm trying to get us out of here, Gabrielle. I don't have time to pay attention to every little thing. Besides, I'm...trying...very hard right now to keep myself under control. I don't know if or when Callisto is going to try and play with me again."
"Oh." Gabrielle replied simply. I'd almost forgotten about that. She paused a moment and cocked her head at a thought. "So..you didn't notice we passed the same spot?"
Xena considered snatching her hand out of the bard's, but couldn't bring herself to, instead she looked into Gabrielle's green eyes. Feeling her annoyance melt away, the warrior sighed and shook her head. "No I didn't. But now that you've pointed it out to me...I'd say that it's possible. Unfortunately, I can't figure out how it's likely." At her companion's worried look, Xena brought the map up closer to the lamp. "Look."
Gabrielle studied the parchment for a few long moments, but since she hadn't been navigating she had no idea where they were supposed to be to begin with.
Seeing the bard's blank look, Xena carefully handed her the small lamp and pointed a slim finger at a certain section. "We should be here. One long passageway, with no turns or crosspassages. We've been walking this same passageway for a couple candlemarks now. At least I think so, it's rather hard to tell down here. Anyway, there's no way we could have passed by this place again. We haven't turned anywhere."
Gabrielle let that sink in for a moment, then she commented, "Xena. I know we have." She turned to the nearest burial niche, trying to suppress a shudder as she looked at the occupant. Spotting a familiar object she pointed it out, carefully refraining from touching it. "This brooch. I know I saw it just over a candlemark ago."
She looked up and saw the faint look of disbelief on her friend's face and let a wisp of annoyance creep into her voice. "Xena. I'm sure of it. I've been trying to get myself used to it down here, so I've been making myself look at...well..them. So I know I've seen it."
Xena frowned at the brooch. "Ok. Then there's only one explanation."
"And that would be?" Come on...admit it, Gabrielle silently coaxed.
"We're lost and Callisto is more than likely behind it," muttered the warrior. "Happy now?"
* * * * *
Aphrodite looked at herself in the mirror and sighed deeply. Softly touching the skin around her eyes, she started to grimace, but caught herself in time.
It had been a while now since the goddess had finally stopped crying, and made herself take a long luxurious bath. It had calmed her somewhat and given her the chance to think about her situation in more detail. In fact Aphrodite had even surprised herself by coming up with the seed of a possible plan. She really didn't know if she could pull it off though, for it all depended on Callisto and some other factors.
Aphrodite felt as if she had to do something though. The entire situation had blown so far out of control that she knew that if her father ever did find out, that he would be far more angry than he would have been if she'd just told him from the beginning.
Another lesson learned. Never trust Callisto. Not that I did...but I was blinded by the idea of getting away for awhile. Too bad the cost is so dear and there's no way to stop this. Aphrodite sighed again, as her hands gracefully glided down her body, smoothing the fine material against her skin. She raised an eyebrow at her image. I may look like the Goddess of Love, but I sure don't feel like her.
Feeling a familiar dark presence just behind her, Aphrodite made herself not flinch. Instead she patted a wrinkled fold on her dress then slowly met the brown eyes of Callisto in the mirror, trying to ignore the darkness that threatened her.
"I thought I had some time yet." Aphrodite said questioningly.
Callisto smiled coyly as she stood closer to the goddess, the heat from both the goddess' skin felt by the other. Reaching out a long hand, Callisto plucked at the sheer material on Aphrodite's shoulder playfully. "Hmmm...a bit more time, yes." Her eyes traveled down then back up the Goddess of Love's form in the mirror, finally capturing her eyes. "Deja vu. I've no vacation to offer you this time though."
"I wouldn't take one from you even if you did." Aphrodite smiled sweetly, her eyes cold.
"You seem to be in better spirits. I suppose you've already forgotten what I do to you?" Callisto grinned as she reached over and ran her finger along the edge of Aphrodite's ear, watching as the goddess trembled. Leaning closer, the wargoddess whispered in the her ear, "You've done well so far. I'm counting on you." She paused then continued, her voice more steely. "Don't disappoint me. I hate being disappointed. What would everyone think if they found out? The Goddess of Love...reviled..hated by her own. Not a friend to turn to. Just like me."
"I promised I would do as you told me, so please stop threatening me...," the goddess said unhappily. "But..I warn you, Callisto. You can't keep blackmailing me forever. After this little plot of yours is over, I'm through."
Callisto pulled back and smiled at Aphrodite in the mirror, apparently ignoring the goddess' words. "Don't be late for the festivities, and make sure to be careful about what you say to them." The goddess started to turn away, then paused, her finger on her chin as if in thought.
Turning back to Aphrodite she caught her attention again. "And about that other thing you're to do later...just make sure it's the mouthy one. I don't want lose my Xena." Still locking their gaze, Callisto smiled, relishing the fear she could feel radiating from the woman. "Take care and be good, Aphrodite. I've got to go see a man about an army. Ta ta." Then throwing back her head she cackled loudly, the madness echoing in her voice as she quickly disappeared in a eruption of flame.
Aphrodite shuddered in relief as Callisto's dark presence finally oozed away. Looking at herself in the mirror the goddess could no longer see beauty incarnate, but a vile creature that was willingly helping one of the most dangerous powers on earth, for her own safety.
Aphrodite clenched her fist and released her will, causing the mirror to explode violently, the sparkling fragments falling onto the floor at her feet. "I HATE YOU!!" She screamed, not sure if she meant herself or Callisto.
The Goddess of Love couldn't hate for long though, and when the long piercing scream died, she fell to her knees, ignoring the sharp fragments under her, since they couldn't harm her. Tears once again ran down her face as she quietly sobbed.
This gentle goddess, who's job and joy it was to bring the ache of longing to hearts, to bring fiery passion to souls, anguish to unrequited love, and utter peace upon kissing lover's lips, felt helpless. A goddess who's beauty was equaled by no other, who with a look could transform a hardened heart into the most romantic of lovers, who's kiss could make the shyest of mortals the most bold, felt fear and dread.
It wasn't just Callisto's power that she felt, or the threat of her father's knowledge, that bound them together. Aphrodite was actually very insecure, and she knew it. Being the Goddess of Love, tended to make people believed she was less then average when it came to thinking, and so they treated her accordingly. Even the other gods and goddess acted as if she didn't have a brain in the world. Her son, Cupid, wasn't an exception. Her own insecurity about herself, was a major factor in her not standing up to the other goddess.
The sobs slowly ceased and the goddess raised herself off of the floor, sitting down on the edge of her bed to think. Although, she'd walked right into Callisto's trap and now was bound to her while she created havoc, Aphrodite knew she had to do something. She might not be able to do much, but doing whatever little bit she could would be better than letting Callisto win. And she couldn't let the goddess win, for Aphrodite knew her plans.
One thingís for sure, that woman is far too confident. The goddess smiled wryly as she wiped the last trace of the tears from her face. Then her hand froze, her mouth open in shock. Aphrodite's seed of a plan had just blossomed into a rose, and it brought a crafty grin to the goddess' face. Far too confident, and for too underestimating...of me..or them perhaps.
Smoothly the Goddess of Love stood and waved her hand negligently at the sharp debris, recreating the mirror. Posing, she looked at herself in the reflective surface, once again seeing herself...but more. Not just the Goddess of Love..but as, with a little patience and a little help, a force that would help take down Callisto. She might not be able to stand up to her face to face...but that wouldn't stop her from doing damage behind the scenes.
Blowing herself a kiss in the mirror and winking, she quickly transported herself far away.
Aphrodite's eyes slowly glided over the dark cavernous room that she had appeared in, gliding over all sorts of objects and treasures, some of which were new and which she hadn't seen before. One object which was very familiar to her, brought a soft smile to her lips.
The bust, made lovingly out of pure gold, was an amazingly likeness of her, although she didn't think she had that quite of a pert nose.
"Hephie dear!" Aphrodite called out, her eyes once more searching for her husband.
A dark head poked out from around a corner. "Dite?"
The goddess walked over to the Smith God with seductive ease, and pulled him into the room with her. Reaching up she planted a sound kiss on his lips then pulled back, giving him a sultry look. "Hello dear."
Hephestus blushed slightly, even now after they'd been married for a few years he was surprised at the emotions he felt around her. Running a strong callused hand through his dark hair, he looked down at her and grinned. "What are you doing here?"
"Who me?" Aphrodite smiled coyly.
"Yes, you. You rarely come here, and besides I thought you were home resting." He paused a moment, concern for her evident on his scarred face. "I'm worried about you."
"Don't be. I can handle...there's nothing wrong." She corrected herself then placed her hand on his chest her expression suddenly very serious. "Hephie...do you trust me?"
"Yes," he replied without a moment of thought.
Aphrodite frowned slightly and pulled her hand away, placing it on her slim hip. "I mean..really trust me. This is extremely important. I've got to ask you a major favor and you have to keep it silent. I need to know."
Hephestus looked at his wife closely. He had fallen in love with this woman centuries before he had ever told her of his feelings. With her sensuality, her beauty, and much, much more. Hephestus saw more in her than he suspected she saw in herself. There was a great vulnerability in her sure, but also great strengths. And though they didn't spend much time together..and perhaps seemed to others to be growing apart, he knew he was still very much in love with her. His work proved it.
He loved the forge. The creation of objects of both beauty and utility in his hands a thrill to him. But with her love in his heart, he had found his ultimate inspiration. Whether it was a sword or a child's toy, each object was made because of her. And he thanked the Fates, for that fateful day that had brought her to his forge and given him the opportunity to speak with her.
She had given so much to him without her realizing it. Her love wasn't meant for just him he knew...for she was the Goddess of Love, and Love is not exclusive. But that bit of her heart that she had given him was more precious and beautiful than any object he had ever seen or made. This goddess who everyone thought was without intelligence or of any redeeming value except for her beauty, was in fact much more to him.
Now she was asking for his trust and it caused his heart to fairly burst in response. "I trust you," he answered simply.
Aphrodite smiled in relief. "I can't tell you why, but I need you to do something for me."
"Anything." The god replied.
Listening carefully to her request, Hephestus eyes grew wide as she explained her needs. He had a vague idea of what his wife wanted, and knew it was up to him to expand on it. It was what she wanted that made him shudder for her with fear and concern. He also was a god who was underestimated by the others. Not because of his beauty, like his wife, but because of the lack of it. Hideously scarred from a battle long ago, he had turned his face away from the pitying looks of the other gods and looked instead towards the darkness of the earth and the forge. But though he rarely left his sanctuary, he kept himself very well informed of events on the mortal and immortal realm, and knew that his wife's request was a dangerous one.
Looking her in the eye, he waited until she finished before replying. "Are you sure? Do you know what youíre asking?"
Aphrodite froze for a moment, afraid of his disapproval, but seeing none in his eyes she nodded. "I'm sure. Will you do it?"
"Yes." He reached out his hand and gently touched hers. "Just be careful."
Aphrodite smiled brightly. "I'll try. You won't tell..."
"I'll keep your secret."
With a quick kiss on the corner of his mouth and a grateful look, Aphrodite disappeared leaving Hephestus to turn back to his forge once again.
* * * * *
Callisto appeared unseen alongside the village elders, smiling to herself. She considered becoming visible and having a little fun, but instead decided to go with her original plan and let the mortals act out their little drama. After all, this was the first time she was acting in the official capacity as the Goddess of War, and it would be amusing to witness it from this side of things for a change.
So she patiently waited along with the anxious elders outside the village proper for the warlord and his men to come down for the negotiations.
"You've got to be kidding yourselves boys," she said towards one of the old men, even though they couldn't hear her. "You think you can talk two hundred men out of looting your village?" Callisto grinned evily and raised an eyebrow at one of them. "I bet you had a bard visit you once, hmm? Did she tell you that you can stand up for yourselves? That even villagers with pitchforks and shovels can stand against anyone?"
Callisto made a rude noise. "Yeah..like her little stick does any good. You might as well give up now, but then if you gave up now, I wouldn't be able to watch the fireworks."
The blond goddess eyes caught a brief flash in the distance, and observed Mysandeous and his two men rode down the grassy hill laughing as if what they were about to do meant nothing to them. The warlord halted his steed just before the villagers and looked down at them with a sneer.
"So. You asked to speak with me?" said the fair-haired man. Mysandeous was not well known amongst the people of Greece, having only just inherited the leadership of the small army from its previous warlord, but no man could wrest the mantle of leadership over this many men and not be good. Soon, if he planned things well enough, he knew his name would be known, and feared, across the lands.
One of the village elders stepped forward hesitantly, his hands shaking as he looked up at the fearsome warlord. "Yeeesss...umm..yes."
Mysandeous waited patiently for a few moments then spit on the ground and growled. "Well? Get on with it. Or aren't you familiar with the drill?" The warlord smiled wryly as his men chuckled beside him.
"We..we don't have what you want. We're a ppoorrr...village. We were..robb..err...visited by another group last moon. We have no stores for the winter. No dinars. No ale. We'll be lucky to survive the winter." The man cringed as he spoke, fully expecting the hand...or rather the sword of the mounted warrior to descend upon him.
Mysandeous grimaced slightly, but then his eye roamed over the village, stopping here and there, and he looked back down at the elder and grinned feraly. "Well then. I guess you'll just have to give us...another kind of plunder."
The old man looked up at him in confusion. "I don't understand."
The warlord turned his mount sideways and leaned down until he was almost face to face with the man, his grin even wider. "Give us your children."
As if struck across the face, the elder stumbled back in shock. "Nooo...not our children," whispered the old man.
"As if you have a choice." Mysandeous chuckled softly and wheeled his horse around, sending it into a gallop up the hill.
Callisto cackled joyfully and transported herself beside him, as he halted in front of his waiting army.
"Well men. It seems as if these poor souls have need of us." Mysandeous smiled as his men laughed. "They've decided..and very graciously I might add, that since they don't have any goods for us today, that they'll let us kill them and take their children in trade to sell. What do you say?"
The cry of warriors thirsty for blood and easy prey made Callisto shiver in delight as she listened.
"Then in Ares name..." The warlord's voice trailed off as suddenly there appeared a huge blast of fire before him, leaving the form of a slim blond woman warrior in its wake. Dressed in skimpy black leather armor and wearing a sword on her back, she drew all eyes to her like a magnet.
"No. No. Not in Ares name. Haven't you read the latest news scrolls?" Callisto grinned seductively.
"Who are you?" Mysandeous demanded, though a quiver of uncertainty crept into his tone.
"I am Callisto. The Goddess of War. Ares had been...retired." Her eyes gleamed as they bored into his. The darkness of her like a storm wind blowing through the army.
"Callisto. I've heard of you. How do I know your..."
Callisto grinned wickedly and raised a long glowing finger. Then looking at the group of armed warriors, she picked out a suitable target and flicked her finger at him. A bolt of bluish white lightning erupted from it, to hit the unfortunate man in the chest causing him to explode violently.
The goddess watched for a moment as the ashes gently fell to the ground, then she turned her attention back to the slack jawed warlord before her. "Because I said so. Pray to me, because Ares canít hear you."
Mysandeous closed his mouth with a jaw rattling snap and gulped. After a few moments, very quick ones, of thought he drew his sword and turned back to his men. Raising the blade above his head he yelled, "Hail Callisto!"
The responding roar crashed down from the hill and through the village, causing the doomed villagers to cringe in fear. Callisto just smiled, well pleased. She got Mysandeous' attention and jerked her head down the hill. "Now I believe you have a party to attend?"
Mysandeous smiled and saluted her with his sword. "Indeed, goddess."
Callisto watched as the warparty galloped down the hill and into the village. Screams of the dying washed through her in a dark sensual wave. Throwing back her head, she shuddered in ecstasy. "Ooohhh...yess. O could get used to this." The goddess watched as the flames rose into the sky.
* * * * *
"So...we are stuck down here in the Roman Catacombs. With rationing we have enough water for four more days, food for six, but lamp oil for only two." Gabrielle raised a finger for every point. "You and Callisto...are..umm..." she faltered looking for a good word.
"Bonded." Xena grimaced at the thought. Even the idea of being Callistoís Chosen left a bad taste in the warriorís mouth.
"Bonded then. And now sheís trying to use that bond to get you to go back to your old self?" the bard raised an eyebrow in question.
"I donít know. Itís not really like her..I canít predict her this time. Sheís different...more darker you could say," Xena idly caressed her chakrum.
"And sheís more than likely the one who got us lost," Gabrielle raised another finger.
"Hmm..and donít forget we have a city full of angry Romans above us."
"Yes. We canít forget them can we?" the blond woman muttered. Suddenly something inside the bard snapped. Perhaps it was the cruelty of Fate. Perhaps the dark cold emptiness of the catacombs, with no light to bask in and only the dead surrounding them. Perhaps it was the idea of Callisto having returned and now played with them like a cat with two mice. It could have been anyone of these or another, or all that made the usually up beat woman scream in frustration.
Her fists clenched against her sides, her eyes squeezed shut against everything around her, Gabrielle released a terrible scream that rang out, echoing down the dark passageways.
Finally her yell trailed off into nothing and the bard bent over, her hands on her knees, breathing deeply.
Gabrielle raised her head and looked up at her companion. "A bit."
Xena smiled and laid a strong hand on the bardís shoulder. "Next time...warn me before you do that. I thought my heart was going to stop."
"Woah...I startled the Warrior Princess?" The blond woman stood back up and grinned impishly at the warrior, not quite believing it.
"Yeah..well.." Xena shrugged, her smile turning playful. "I just hope no one heard you."
"Hmm..didnít think of that. I was just..."
"I understand. Youíve been through a lot lately and..." Xena stopped, and looked around as if searching for something. Her eyes came to rest a few feet in front of them and she raised an eyebrow.
A ball of light appeared and exploded softly in a shower of light, leaving Aphrodite standing before them with a quirky grin.
"Well...I must say. That was some bellow." The Goddess of Love posed, her hands upon her hips, one knee slightly bent and forward.
Gabrielle tried not to blush too hard, it wasnít every day one of the gods came down and complained about the noise level.
"What can we do for you?" Xena rolled her eyes slightly, not really excited to see the goddess. "This really isnít your kind of locale...no lovers about."
Aphrodite cocked her head to the side and studied Xena for a moment, with a knowing grin on her lips. "Yes. Well..thatís for another time." The goddess abruptly grew serious. "I donít have much time, so Iíll make this as quick as possible. Callisto is becoming a big problem."
"This isnít news," Xena muttered.
"Xena, you donít understand. Callisto is much more powerful than before. She has Ares power on top of her own. She has most of the gods staying out of her way in fear. Even Zeus wonít do anything for fear of starting a war. Not like he could anyway...Callisto beat Ares fairly." Aphrodite explained.
"And youíve come to us..why?" Gabrielle asked.
"Because we believe Xena can beat her."
Stunned silence, then Xena spoke. "You must be joking. Zeus, the King of the Gods no less, is reluctant to do anything about her, and yet you think I can?" she said in disbelief.
"With a little help, yes. But we canít overtly help you. For instance, youíre stuck here in Rome...or rather under it, with perhaps a month worth of travel before you get to Greece. It would be so easy for me to just," the goddess snapped her fingers, "poof you back..but I canít. Sheíd know one of us was behind it and then all Hades would break loose. We must keep her in the dark as long as possible. Thatís why Iím here instead of one of the others. Callisto wouldnít expect me to be the one helping you."
"So if you canít get us back, then how can you help us?" Xena said wryly.
"I didnít say I canít help you get back, just not overtly. Let me see your map." Aphrodite held out her hand expectantly.
Xena shrugged and pulled the parchment out of the bag and handed it over.
The goddess looked at the map for a moment, then back up to the two women. "Callisto has been rearranging the catacombs. As far as we can tell sheís waiting for you to run out of supplies, hoping the darkness and starvation will drive you insane. Iím not about to let that happen." She touched a long slim finger to the scroll, causing it to shimmer brightly for a moment, then handed it back to Xena.
The dark-haired warrior looked at the map along with Gabrielle. Nothing had changed, except now there was a small golden arrow in one of the marked passageways. Acting on a hunch, Xena turned around and watched as the arrow turned on the map. Whichever way she faced the arrow faced.
Gabrielle looked back up at the blond goddess and raised an eyebrow. "Thatís it? An arrow? If Callisto is changing the passages as we walk itís not going to help us much."
Aphrodite frowned in annoyance. "Thereís a way out of here that she canít affect, but Iím not sure youíre going to like it."
"Look, no offense, but we are in the middle of a massive cemetery here. As far as Iím concerned, it canít get much worse," Gabrielle observed.
"Instead of a journey that could take weeks, thereís a place near here that if you pass through, will cut your journey into just days."
"Days?" the warrior asked. Something was telling her that this wasnít your normal exit.
"Hades. Thereís a portal down here that leads one-way to Hades. Itís very old and forgotten. Itís the only help I can give you for now. If you follow that arrow it will lead you there." Aphrodite explained. "Make up your minds quickly, we can keep her distracted for only so long." The goddess said as she suddenly disappeared.
"Figures," Gabrielle murmured.
Xena looked down at her absently, the warriorís mind debating the pros and cons. "What figures?"
"I said it couldnít get any worse...I was wrong."
"Well. Iím not sure if I trust Aphrodite if that helps any," Xena offered.
The bard snickered. "You donít trust any of them. But I suppose we donít have much choice. If Callisto is determined to keep us down here, thereís really no other choice. Is there?"
Xena was quiet as she thought about the question. They could chance it and stay down here. But then, with Callisto interfering, the possibility of them escaping the tunnels was remote. Or, they could take a chance and take the portal through to the Underworld, and be back in Greece in mere days.
If she knew Callisto at all, she figured the Goddess of War was planning to take over Ares old scheme and take over the mortal realm. If they didnít take the portal, then that would give Callisto much more time to prepare and create an army, but if they did take the portal, Xena knew she had a chance to foil the goddessí plans.
"I think we should take the portal, Gabrielle."
The bard nodded, as if she knew that would be Xenaís answer. "Well...what are we waiting for then? Letís follow the little arrow."
* * * * *
Xena looked down at their map again, then raised her head, her eyes piercing the darkness. "It should be right here."
She felt her companion come closer, and peer around her to look closely at the map. The bardís warm breath caressed her arm sending a shiver up her spine that she emphatically attributed to the cold chill air and nothing else.
"Hmm...well, if the little gold X is any indication, and the fact that weíre at a dead end, Iíd say youíre right. As usual." Gabrielle grinned, then moved away to get a better look at their surroundings.
The blind passage held several burial niches, but with close inspection Gabrielle noticed that they were extremely old. Only the wall that ended the passage in front of them was clear of any bodies.
"Xena. Come look at this." Gabrielle asked as she stood closer to the wall, straining to see something that caught her eye near the ceiling.
"What is it?"
"Lift the lamp higher."
Xena raised her arm, her eyes following Gabrielleís line of sight. Just above her head, now well lit by lamplight a faint mark in the soft red sandstone could be seen.
"Do you see it?"
"Hmm..." Xena reached out with her free hand and gently ran her fingers over the mark. "I think...yess..."
Carefully she brushed away centuries of dust and dirt to reveal what looked like the carving of an animal.
"Wolf," she observed.
"Is there more?" asked the bard excitedly, as she started inspecting the stone more closely at her own level.
Soon, the duo had uncovered the whole wall. Before them was what looked like an archway covered with crude but deep carvings. They knew now they had reached their destination, for though cut stones blocked the space between the archway, it was obvious that this was no burial niche.
"Two men, carrying stones..."
"Building stones, Iíd say." Xena corrected.
The bard nodded in agreement. "Carrying building stones, towards what looks like a partially built construction of some type...and surrounded by wolves. Odd."
"Romulus and Remus." Xenaís fingers grazed over the two figures.
"The founders of Rome? How old do you think this is?" Gabrielleís eyes glittered in the lamplight with excitement.
"Well, the bodies are completely decomposed. Fabric is gone, with only the bits of metal remaining." The warrior said, as she turned towards one of the recesses and examined the body. "Very ancient designs on this armband. Crude geometric designs. Iíd say...at least a thousand years. If the portal was here first, and Iím assuming it was, who knows how old it was, but it could go all the way back to the building of Rome."
"Wow." The bard looked at the carved stones in awe, then she looked up at Xena. "Are we sure this is the portal, it could be..."
"Could be what?"
"Romulus and Remusí tomb."
Xena grinned. "Only one way to find out."
"And that would be?" Gabrielle made herself ask, though her stomach knew the answer and was starting to rebel. Passing by bodies in open burial recesses was a different matter than actually opening someoneís tomb.
"Come on, Gabrielle. Just think...the first Emperors of Rome. What a story that would make." Xena grinned, knowing just the right buttons to push on her bard.
"Somehow Iím not sure Iíd be comfortable telling audiences that I helped in a graverobbery."
Xena set down the lamp a safe distance away, but close enough to light their work. "We arenít going to take anything. We just need to make sure."
Using her dagger to dig deeply in between the square cut stones, Xena wedged in her fingers, and with help from Gabrielle they eventually managed to pry out the heavy block. It went more quickly after that as the two women removed enough stone to crawl through.
"Letís take a look." Xena said as she picked the lamp back up and carefully stuck her arm into the hole and looked inside.
After a long moment, Gabrielle started to get impatient, and stood next to the warrior her hand resting comfortably on the otherís back, trying to peek in around her. "Well?" she asked, able to see nothing past Xenaís shoulders.
Xena pulled out, and grinned down at her companion. "Itís not a tomb."
Gabrielle expelled a long sigh of relief. "Well..thatís good. Whatís in there?"
"Nothing so far. Just a passageway, but I could see more carvings on the wall. One of them was Cerberus."
"This is it then."
"Looks that way." Xena looked down at Gabrielle in sudden concern. "We can rest here for a while if you want. We donít have to go in right now."
Gabrielle thought about it for a moment, but then shook her head. "No. Aphrodite said that itís imperative we get out of these tunnels, before weíre caught. Besides...Iím rather tired of this place. The sooner weíre out of here and through the Underworld the sooner weíre sleeping under familiar skies. Any sky for that matter would be a comfort."
Xena pulled her close with her free arm, holding her tightly for a few breaths. Then releasing her, she looked down into the womanís green eyes. "Letís get out of here then. Iím tired of Roman hospitality." She gave one of the nearest skeletons a grin. "They just donít know how to throw parties here like we do back home."
The two women shared a chuckle, then gathered their gear. Xena passed through the portal first, then turned for Gabrielle to pass her the lamp and sacks. Finally it was the bardís turn and swiftly she was through and safe on the other side.
Hefting her share of their belongings over her shoulder, Gabrielle looked back at the opening they had made in the wall and frowned slightly. "What are we going to do about that?"
Xena shrugged. "Well...other than cause a cave in, which Iím not going to do since we arenít sure this isnít a dead end also, there really isnít anything to do." The warrior settled the sackís sling over her shoulder and picked up the lamp. "Ready."
"Yes, letís get going before I change my mind," Gabrielle replied with determination.
Xena led the way again, walking slower this time as she carefully examined the walls and floors for traps. This place had been sealed for a reason, and she wasnít about to get sloppy with both their lives now.
"Xena? Whereís..umm.." Gabrielle paused, as she looked down at first her companionís feet, then her own. "Whereís the fog coming from?"
The dark-haired woman looked down in surprise. Sure enough, faint tendrils of wispy fog seemed to be d swirling around their feet.
"The portal Iím assuming," she answered simply as she walked on with Gabrielle following beside her.
Thicker and thicker the fog became, until it wrapped around them filling the passageway, almost blocking their sight of each other.
Two hands reached out and held on to each other, both in comfort and for security, as they continued on.
* * * * *
Out of the mist the two women walked side by side, unto the top of what looked like a small plateau. For the first time in days there was light surrounding them, but it was not the light of the sun that both yearned for. It was the light from the fires of Tartarus that could be seen glowing off to their right through what seemed like fog. The thick white bank could be seen far below them, as Xena took a quick look over the edge, making it so that they couldnít see down into Hadesí realm. Off to their left came the softer glow of what only could be Elyssia.
Far above them was the great sky of Hades, no sky really, just the underside of the world. The roots of mountains and great trees intermixed with bright shining jewels Hades had had set there long ago in order to please his wife, Persephone.
"So this is Hades," Gabrielle said as her eyes studied their surroundings. "I donít remember this."
"Yes..well this isnít either Tartarus or Elyssia. I think itís part of the realm between, where you start your journey before crossing the Styx. Though..I donít recognize this place." Her eyes try to pierce the thick cloud below, but it is useless. Only the soft glow from the two sources of light, one red, the other white, come through.
Shrugging Xena, blew out the lantern. "We wonít need this here." She carefully poured the oil back into the oil container and packed the lamp.
"I donít think I remember anything but the green field," the bard stated as she turned around. The plateau was bare except for what looked like an ancient temple. "The portal is gone."
"Hmm..." The warrior frowned. "Usually theyíre two-way."
"It reminds me of something..." The bardís green eyes suddenly lit up, and she started circling the outer edge of the plateau, her gaze returning to the old temple a time or two.
"Be careful, Iíd hate to have you fall off." Xena grinned, as she started to unpack their bags. "This seems like a good place to get some sleep. Itís been a long..err..day, or whatever, and weíll need our strength later."
"Hmm..sounds like a good idea." Gabrielle said absently.
After a few moments Xena heard a small cry from her partner, and rushed over in concern. "What is it?"
The bard grabbed the warriorís forearm in a tight grip, her eyes shining with excitement. "Itís a staircase."
Wide shallow stairs made of what looked like gray marble ran unbroken from the top of the plateau, disappearing into the fog below.
"Well..at least we wonít have to climb down the hard way." Xena chuckled.
Gabrielle shook the arm under her fingers. "No. You donít understand. I know what this is. I know where we are."
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Well since youíre so excited about it, why donít you tell me after we eat?"
"Fresh rabbit?" replied the bard teasingly.
"Only if you look at it with one eye closed, crossed, and behind a blindfold. Then perhaps the dried meat will look like fresh roasted rabbit...with a lot of imagination."
Soon the two womenís appetites were sated, and Xena lay back on her bedroll to listen to Gabrielleís story.
"Long, long ago, when mankind was still young and Zeus was still new to his crown, Hades was worshipped far differently than he is now. There was no god to pass judgment on the dead, instead all the newly dead went to the Void, there to wait and once again be born into the world." Gabrielle began.
"Hades was, instead of being a judge, the God of the Dying. Those whose time was short went to his temples to ask him to help them pass over more smoothly. In his temples there was no pain in death, only peace, and because of this Hades was well loved and worshipped widely.
But mankind was still young, and as time passed darkness and evil crept into some of the people and spread. No longer were men and women innocent and good, but now they were capable of both light and dark. Anger. Fear. Hate. Fury. All these things festered in the soul. With so much cruelty in the world, those who were not evil grew instead pessimistic, seeing only the dark side of others.
It is said that there was one man far more cruel, more violent, more evil than anyone else. He was feared above all others, for he had no heart and no conscience. He took what he wished, when he wished, be it gold or lives. He left destruction behind him wherever he and his army traveled. He was called Warlord, and all others after him take their title from his." Gabrielle eyes Xena, wondering to herself if perhaps she shouldnít tell this story.
"But even the most powerful of men must someday die, and it was during one of his raids upon yet another village, that the warlord became deathly ill. Healers were sent for, but none could help him. In anger he did what he always had done, and had them killed for not being able to obey his wishes. Finally, knowing his time was coming, he had his son take him to Hades temple.
Legend says that the shrine the warlord went to was Hadesí first and greatest, and that any who came to pray here would receive a peaceful ending. The Warlord had no use for most of the gods, having followed Ares all his life, but he feared, as most of us do, a hard, lingering, painful death.
His son helped carry him inside, roughly pushing away all the other petitioners, to kneel in front of Hadesí altar. Gold, jewels, a white calf, and fine fabrics were offered to give to the god. It was only after he spoken his request and the priest had told him that he would receive the godís blessing, that an old woman came up beside him. She also had come to ask for Hades favor, but now she was angry.
She cursed Hades loudly. Why, she said, why should a man who killed her son and destroyed her home village, and countless others, be allowed to die easily? Why should he be given peace and a chance for rebirth along with those who had led a peaceful and good life? Was there no justice?
On and on she cursed the god, until finally Hades came appearing in front of them. He had heard the prayer of the warlord and the curses of the dying woman, and was troubled.
He turned his dark gaze upon the warlord and considered him for the longest time. Then he turned to the old woman who had cursed his name in anger and contemplated her words. Finally he spoke. "I cannot in conscience make him suffer a hard death. But..you have raised a concern and I have decided to act. With my brotherís permission, I shall no longer answer the prayers of the dying. All shall meet their time with either pain or peace, according to nature. Instead I shall concern myself with the dead themselves."
And with those words Hades grew in height, until his dark hair brushed the vaulted ceiling. The temple started to shake violently and all the people fled in terror. From a distance they watched as suddenly the earth ripped opened below the shrine, causing it to fall within the great chasm. Moments later, the ground still shaking, the chasm closed. The Temple of Hades was gone.
Word spread across the land of other temples, all of Hades, that also were swallowed by the earth. Every one of his temples disappeared across the land leaving the people to die without the godís help.
Hades received Zeusí permission, and built the Underworld with his power and the might of the giants. It is said that only one of the temples survived the cataclysm and that it rests on the highest of the Underworldís mountains. From there to the world below is a stairway made by Hadesí own footsteps, from when he left the temple and descended down into the earth that day.
Another part of the legend is that when all the chasms closed, Hades placed a portal where each of the temples had been, and in order to keep the dead in check he had it one way only.
The whereabouts of the portals is a mystery. It could be within a cave, in the middle of the deepest forests..anywhere. But those that find them and dare to enter will find themselves at the First Temple and in the Underworld."
Gabrielleís voice faded and she lowered her hands, her story finally finished. She looked over at her companion, who had been watching and listening with rapt attention. "Well? What do you think? I hope it didnít upset you too much...I know part of it is rather..."
"A lot like how I...was. I know. It was a great story, Gabrielle." Xena smiled at her gently, though her insides still roiled at the guilt and horror the part about the first warlord had raised in her. "Iíd say that if your story is true, that this is the First Temple." She pulled her eyes away from Gabrielle reluctantly and inspected the shrine closely. "Not much to look at."
"Itís not the Parthenon, Xena. Itís ancient...one of the first temples of any of the gods to have been built and the oldest to have survived."
Xena nodded in agreement. "So Rome had one of his temples. That would explain the carvings. Romulus and Remus supposedly built the temples themselves, before they even placed one stone for the rest of Rome."
"The portal was underground, and later the Romans would built the catacombs around it? Iím surprised it wasnít boarded up better...or guarded," Gabrielle commented.
"Time. Centuries of time wiped it all away from the scrolls and minds of those who knew. It had probably been a closely guarded secret to begin with. Time took care of the rest," the warrior explained.
Gabrielle yawned and lay down facing Xena. "And tomorrow we travel through Hades. Joy."
"Donít worry. Weíll be fine. At least we donít have to go through Tartarus."
"What was it like?" the bard asked, curious. Gabrielle had asked before about Xenaís stay in Tartarus, and had never gotten an answer to satisfy her curiosity.
"Itís not a place you want to go, Gabrielle." Xena finally murmured, then closed her eyes. "Goodnight."
* * * * *
The noise of the hammers made her open her eyes.
Gods..at least once Iíd like to see it start differently. Xena thought to herself as she stared out from her vantage point, her eyes squinting from the sun's bright rays shining off the sea, ignoring for now the activity that was going on just below her.
The green waves and the beach before her was just as vivid as always, the sharp salty air from the sea a bitter tang on lips that felt like they hadn't tasted water for almost a day. Even the cool breeze that swept off the hills seemed so real to her senses, as it caressed skin that was scantily covered by the filthy shift.
Xena looked down finally, her eyes immediately finding the two armor clad figures who were walking up to her. One, dressed in a bright breastplate over a crimson toga, the other wearing darker and less ornate armor.
Caesar strode up to her, stopping just beneath her.
"You should have stayed in Greece, Xena."
"Go away. I'm tired of this nightmare." The warrior struggled in her restraints, but as usual the Roman soldiers had tied her securely to her cross.
"Sheís going to win you know. Callisto is going to own your soul." Caesar smiled at her in triumph.
"I should have killed you when I had the chance in Britannia." Xena spit at him, grinning as the globule marred his perfect armor.
"You always destroy that which you say you hold dear. You have no strength. Youíre weak, Xena."
The voice was from a new figure that came from behind her and stood by Caesar and Brutus, a woman the warrior had known well long ago. For a time she refused to meet her eyes, but this was Morpheus' realm, and she could fight for only so long before she was swept away.
Deep enchanting brown eyes met and caught her, pinning her more tightly to her cross, than any Roman knot. Her heart beat rapidly, trapped by emotions and memories too difficult for her to think about.
"I tried so hard to show you the way, Xena." Lao Ma shook her head sadly. "I should never have wasted my time on such a barbarian."
"Nooo..." Xena moaned.
"Theyíre right you know. Youíre not worth it. I should have stayed in Potedaia," came a new voice off to her right.
Xena turned her head and looked over at Gabrielle, who hung from the cross next to her. "Gabrielle? Not again, please..donít say it." A deep ache inside her, a pain that was worse than any wound, pulsed through her. This part of her nightmare was one of the worst and hurt so deeply.
Gabrielle smiled sadly. "Youíve caused me so much pain. Youíre responsible for Callisto killing my husband. It might just as well have been your sword that killed him as hers."
"Please. I...Iím sorry. I didnít know sheíd go for him. You have to believe..."
"I believe nothing from your lips, Xena. You always say you will protect me...keep me safe. Itís a lie...itís always been a lie. Thessaly. Perdicus. Caesar. Dahok. My daughter. The list is long, Xena." The warrior flinched at the look of rejection that Gabrielle gave her.
Xena shook her head violently in denial. "No..."
Gabrielle suddenly screamed as a sword ripped up through her chest from behind. With an almost bewildered look, the bard looked down at the crimson washed steel then turned her head to look at Xena. "It hurts so much, Xena...it must be your sword."
"Noooo...." Tears ran down the warriorís face, her arms straining against her bonds.
Her friend gave her a feral smile as she spoke with Callisto's voice. " Sheís going to die again and there isnít a thing you can do about it. Youíre going to get her killed and you wonít be able to bring her back this time. Isn't this fun, Xena? Give in to me...I can feel the anger boiling inside you. It connects us, just like it did with you and Ares. And you know you want it."
"Damn you!" Xena raged.
A bright burst of flame and Callisto hovered before her, the bloody corpse of Gabrielle hanging lifeless on the cross next to her.
Xenaís head was wrenched around by the goddess, until they were eye to eye. Callisto smiled, her eyes catching Xenaís.
"Youíre mine. Scary isnít it?" The goddess threw back her head and cackled for a moment.
"Iím not yours!" The dark-haired warrior snarled as she tried in vain to twist away from Callistoís grip.
"Well you arenít hers," Callisto motioned to the dead bard and chuckled. "I knew long ago how you cared for her, Xena. It was so obvious. But you know deep inside yourself she doesnít care about you.
Otherwise whyíd she marry Perdicus hmm? Poor Xena. The only one who loves you is me."
"Go to her, Xena. Itís where you belong." Gabrielle said, her head animated again, her sightless eyes sending a chill through the warrior. "You donít belong with me. I donít love you."
"Noooo..." Xena whispered in denial.
"Yes." Callisto and Gabrielle said together.
"NOOOOOO!!! GET AWAY FROM ME !!!!" she screamed in the goddessí face. Using her feet to push herself up against the cross, she strained using all her might and will to break her bonds.
"YES!" With a sudden snap she was free and falling.
Xenaís hands reached out and clenched around the goddessí arms, refusing to let go. Callisto just smiled at her and the two of them fell together.
Mine...youíll come to me of your own free will. So easy.
Mmiinnneee!!! Body and Soul!!
"DAMN YOU, CALLISTO!! I WILL NOT GIVE IN!!!"
Weíll find out shortly.
The sound of distant laughter.
* * * * *
Aphrodite quietly watched the sleeping mortals before her. She was uncertain if she could go through with Callistoís plan, but also knew that in order to stop her, she would have to. With a sigh she gently nudged the bard awake, and stepped back, an unseen observer...and participant.
* * * * *
"Iím awake..urmmphh," Gabrielle mumbled, as she opened her eyes blearily. Seeing Xena still sleeping near her, the bard blinked several times in confusion. I could have sworn...must have been a dream.
Still very tired, she started to drop her head back down unto her arms, when she heard a moan come from Xena. Looking over in concern, she saw her companion start twitching slightly.
"Nightmare." Slowly Gabrielle got up, moving carefully, but not stealthily so as not to set off Xenaís instinctive reactions. Setting herself cautiously by her friendís head, she reached out her hand and pulled the dark strands of hair away from her face.
"Xena." She caressed the warriorís jaw, feeling the muscles rapidly tense and relax under her touch.
"Iím not yours!" Xena murmured harshly, her lips starting to peel back in a snarl, her arms beginning to flex and tremble.
"Come on, Xena. Wake up. Itís just a nightmare," the bard pleaded.
"Noooo..." a low whisper this time, full of inner pain escaped Xenaís lips.
Gabrielle gently patted her friendís cheek, in an effort to wake her. Her eyes so full of concern that she wasnít paying much attention to Xenaís body language.
"NOOOOOO!!! GET AWAY FROM ME!!!!"
Gabrielle was suddenly thrown back by a very angry warrior whose body was arched up painfully, the muscles in her arms taunt, straining. Then with a cry the warrior was suddenly standing and grasping Gabrielle by the arms painfully. "YES!"
"Xena...ow..youíre hurting me!" the bard winced as she tried to struggle.
"NO!" The warriorís eyes were open, cruel ice blue eyes boring into hers.
Gabrielle could tell that something wasnít quite there in Xenaís eyes. The blond woman started to struggle harder as her friend started taking steps towards the edge of the cliff. "Xena. Pull yourself together. Come on...itís a nightmare. Wake up!" She fearfully looked over her shoulder at the nearing edge.
"XENA! WAKE UP!" Gabrielle yelled, her eyes now wide with fear for herself as well as for her friend.
"NOOOO!!" The warrior howled as she stopped, throwing her head back in a long scream.
Her heart beating so loudly and rapidly, that she was amazed she could hear herself think, Gabrielle placed her feet back under her and tried carefully to remove herself from her friendís strong grip. One false move and she would fall.
Xenaís cry ceased and her head came back down listlessly, her hands loose, barely gripping Gabrielle arms. It was if almost all her strength had drained out of her in that one last scream.
"Gabrielle?" Xena blinked slowly, then leaned closer.
The bard nearly fainted in relief as the eyes before her became slightly more familiar. "Xena. Could you step back please?" she asked, her voice shaking slightly.
"Gabrielle?" The warrior looked at her in confusion.
She felt one of the hands come away from her arm, then felt the remaining hand start to withdraw. Then her eyes widened as she felt Xenaís hand suddenly push her away violently.
Gabrielle screamed as she fell...
* * * * *
To be Continued in Part Four of "Passage Into Darkness"
For those of you who are rather distressed by what I'm writing (and I have gotten some email about it so I know you're out there) I really don't know what to tell ya. I've had this planned since I started "A Crown of Laurel" and I knew from the beginning this would emerge as a more darker piece. Just to warn ya though...be patient. The title "Passage Into Darkness" was chosen for two different reasons (I think perhaps you can figure them out by the end of this part hmm? *S). That's the only warning I can give ya without spoiling things. I'll try and warn ya in future disclaimers, but don't be surprised if I don't cause I'm not a big fan of disclaimers that give too much away.
And I am now wholly gone into oblivion.
Warlord in Training
Have Katiepult. Will rummage through your toy chests for Xena dollies and green jello. *Gasp* Nooo..not green jello!!!
"Bard? Where? *Rude noise* Go away kid, I'm just here having fun." ;}
Comments are welcome and generally responded to
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