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Disclaimers: Let's see...Xena, Gabrielle, Callisto, Argo and any others popping up here, belong to MCA/Universal/Renaissance, but I'm letting them camp out in the courtyard right now since we have some good weather. (My apartment is too small for all of them and besides, Argo snores and Gabrielle isn't housebroken. Hmm...is that supposed to be the other way around?) So, since they are here I'm going to shamelessly use them for my own pleasure (getcha minds outta da gutta!). This story is for non-profit, of course.
Warning~ Violence. Some foul language. Very icky bits. Fun, fun, fun! This isn't a bright and cheery story people, so don't expect roses and sunshine.
Attention~ It's been awhile since I wrote anything on Passage Into Darkness, but just to catch you up..."Passage Into Darkness" is the second book in a trilogy called Sword of War. "A Crown of Laurel" is the first book and contains five parts. This story takes place after Gabrielle’s Hope and before The Debt. "The Rift" has barely begun (even though in episode time we’re far past it now) and the only consequence it has on their relationship is Meridian’s death, for the most part. I really suggest that everyone reread A Crown of Laurel and Passage Into Darkness just to refresh your memories since it's been so long.
The poem, The Gates of Tartarus, was written by a fellow Forum dweller of mine from Iap's who calls herself "Hades" for this piece. (She's rather shy. *G*) The poem is included with her permission and is copyrighted to her 7/25/98.
Passage Into Darkness
Chorus: Why do you cry out thus, unless at some vision of horror?
Cassandra: The house reeks of death and dripping blood.
Chorus: How so? 'Tis but the odor of the altar sacrifice.
Cassandra: The stench is like a breath from the tomb.
The cold, dead air of the Underworld rushed past Xena as she ran down the huge, gray marble ascent known as the "Eternal Stairs". Eyes darkened to hard sapphire, face set in an unreadable stone mask, the warrior's only goal was to answer Callisto's call.
She could feel it deep within her, the insistent pull on the fiery thread that held them together. The Goddess of War wanted Xena by her side and she wanted her there now. But even with that, the goddess was patient in her own way. She could easily have transported Xena to her if she wished, but that wasn't her plan. Instead she wanted her one time nemesis, now Chosen, to come to her in the old way, the way that Ares himself had made her come when Xena had first been Chosen by the god.
Taking three or four steps at a time as she ran down the flight of stairs at breakneck speed, Xena's mind hungrily remembered those glorious days and the challenge Ares had given her.
The call had first come to her almost ten winters ago, as Xena had watched the men and women in her army give thanks to the War God in a small shrine after a successful battle against another warlord. Xena had never been one to honor the gods, for she believed that worshipping them was a waste of time. It was far easier to do what needed to be done than wait for some god to get off his or her backside and bestow a miracle. Hard work was the key to getting what you wanted. It was the same for toiling in the fields as watering that same field in blood.
Besides, if it was your arm that protected you and your body that bore the cost, what right did some god have to demand you thank him for your achievements.
It had been years since she'd walked willingly into a temple, let alone made an offering, so she had been completely startled to hear three low, silky words in her head that day long ago.
Come to me.
The words caressed her mind and sent a shudder ripping through her body.
Confused, she had drawn her sword and spun around, looking for any intruders or another possible threat, but she had found none.
I am Ares, God of War, and I choose you, Xena...you out of all the warriors and warlords in the land, to be my Chosen. Come to me, Xena.
She had nearly screamed in the next moment as wave after wave of overwhelming sensation came crashing into her. Never before had she felt so many raw emotions in such awe inspiring amounts. Fiery anger, carnal passion, aching hunger and so much more.
The sweet taste of lust was most powerful of all, flowing into every pore and crevice of her body and burning so bright and fierce that she both feared and desired to be consumed by it.
It was the lust of death. To feel the life's blood of an enemy flowing slick and warm against your skin and be mesmerized by it. Knowing that with just a flick of a sword you could either take a life or have it owed to you forever.
It was the lust of power. To have the strength...the will to demolish a town, city, or nation and hold its heartbeat within your clenched hand. To know that with just a single word you could destroy, in days, a palace that had stood for centuries, and to need to do it.
It was the lust of aggression. To want to prove to all, but mostly yourself, that you are the supreme predator. To vie by strength of arm, cunning, skill, discipline, and passion against all that dare to stand in your path.
The overwhelming tide of desires and compulsion had threatened to drown her, taking Xena further and further along its current, but the warrior refused to give in. By will power alone she had forced herself to stay aware of her surroundings. Quickly, she realized that instead of fighting against the flood of raw emotions, she had to let it pass through her. Instead of letting it completely use her, she had to use its power over her for herself.
As she had gained control, Xena recognized the strength that was added to her own. The fire that was in her, the hate and anger that before was just a bonfire was now a wildfire in comparison. By understanding it and letting it dwell within, she had both conquered and surrendered.
Yes, Xena. Come to me.
That had been the beginning of her new role as Ares' Chosen, but though it started out well enough, it didn't go smoothly. Xena had walked up to the shrine's priest and had immediately demanded to know what was going on. Of course, the man had no idea what she was talking about at first, but with a little prodding and the removal of a finger or two, he had finally figured out what she wanted and had explained what exactly the 'Chosen of Ares' was.
To Ares, the Chosen was his mortal half, feeding him rage and the joy of battle, and spreading his name along with her rule, making him stronger. To him, the Chosen was War made mortal flesh.
To the Chosen, Ares was another source of strength, an endless well to be drawn upon. So closely tied to one another were God and Chosen that each could sense the other no matter where they were. What one felt the other knew.
To all others, Ares' Chosen was the war god's living weapon. Whatever wishes the Chosen had were echoed by Ares. You could not have one without the other. Their desires were one, an almost tangible link between them.
But there was a price. The mortal who was chosen to stand beside Ares became more wild and more fierce as Ares' essence was shared. The cost was the loss of humanity. Compassion and forgiveness was not the way of war and any lingering residue was burned away in the chaotic ebb and flow of battle and its lure.
Xena had also been assailed by a lust more physical. So strong had it been that for the two days that Xena had withstood Ares' call, she had spent her time with two willing volunteers trying to quench that carnal fire. Still, no matter how much she struggled, it had been to no avail. When eventually she couldn't, or rather wouldn't fight against the compulsion any longer, Xena had set out to find Ares.
The God of War had given no directions or clues to where he was, only giving her those few words and the burning need to find him. Xena had gritted her teeth at that, she would rather have been told exactly where he was in order to not waste time.
It had taken her several days to figure out where Ares was and in the end the only way she found him was by using their connection. Xena could feel the bond within her all the time and through it she could sense Ares. She learned that if she kept still and turned her senses inward that she could barely see it, a vague, bloody, umbilical cord that disappeared into the distance. As she concentrated, Xena could feel the flow of emotions and strength coming from Ares getting slightly stronger when she faced a certain direction.
The major problem was that Ares was a god. Not just any god either, but the God of War who wasn't very popular on Mt. Olympus and so rarely lived there. Like many of the Olympians though, he had his own realm, separate from both the mortal world and Mt. Olympus, but having portals to both.
And it was here that Ares had, and now Callisto, waited for Xena. The trip she took now would be much easier than the first time. The strongest pull, from where she had started her search, had been a large calm lake whose waters were famous for their abyssal depths and the legend that if someone dived deep enough they could end up in Hades' realm, the Underworld. It was like following the vaguest of trails through a forest or the faintest of scents on a stiff breeze. There were many directions that led to Ares, but some were more distinct and as Xena had followed the strongest lead and arrived at Alconian Lake, she nearly trembled at the warm taste of him that had grown stronger as she drew closer to him.
Alconian Lake had indeed proved as deep as the legends said, but Xena had been stubborn and had made it to the other side and entered Hades' realm.
It had been the first time she'd visited the Underworld. It had been simple to trick Charon out of his boat and Xena had laughed for hours after the last glimpse of Hades' ferryman screaming at her when she'd left him behind on the shore. The trip across the river had been uneventful and after she'd left the boat on the far shore of the Styx, she had journeyed through the Underworld, following Ares' scent until she reached the Bone Plain.
Xena's lips peeled back in a cruel smile as she caught sight of the end of the stairs below her. One moment the wide gray stone stairs were there, the next they disappeared several feet above the ground. The Bone Plain and Callisto's realm were closer.
The Elysians had nothing to worry about when it came to their bodies after death, but Tartarans and those who were neither good enough nor evil enough to be judged and so lived in between the two realms, did. Thus it wasn't unusual for the dead to lose body parts. Everything from heads to fingers and toes wound up on the Bone Plain in a wriggling, crawling mass of bits and pieces whose owners hopped, crawled, or rolled if necessary, along the gruesome landscape looking for their missing limbs.
The first time the warrior had set foot on the Bone Plain, she had laughed at the morbid antics of the dead and had even enjoyed herself for a moment or two by loping off a few arms from several searching victims.
Leaping off the last stair, Xena landed on the plain and immediately scanned the area. From what she could tell, it seemed as if this was the Tartarus side of the Bone Plain. There were a few of the walking dead off in the distance in the direction she would be traveling, but Xena had no intention to pester them this time. True, it might be fun to tarry and pass a little time, but Callisto's own aversion to the Underworld seeped through and colored her own views of the place.
Xena sighed and started running again. A few more hours of travel and she would reach her destination here in Hades' realm. As the warrior continued her journey, her mind drifted again and she considered Callisto and Ares and the difference between the two.
It took something more than just cruelty and skill to become truly feared. Carving your name in blood and bone across the land was only the beginning of what she had done in the old days. It was now time to pick up where she'd left off. Every nation would fall at her hand and kneel before her.
She could do it right now without Callisto, Xena assured herself. The warrior knew she'd been smarter, stronger, and faster than any other warrior had even before she'd met Ares. She had already been well on her way to becoming a feared warlord, but Ares had called her and Xena had found in the God of War a thirst like her own. She had blossomed under his tutelage and had been the doom of towns and nations. Years later, Xena was even more skilled than before and stronger and faster, if it was possible. Taking Greece in hand and grinding it under her boot heel was a task she knew she could accomplish.
Being Chosen wasn't just about power and being bound to a gods' desires though. It was the ultimate contest. Man versus man was nothing in comparison. God vs. man...wills vying against each other like pieces on a chessboard and at the same time both playing the black side. It was a sensual dance of love and hate. Two minds dueling, yet fighting alongside each other. It was more enticing than any drug or drink to try and get the upper hand. And Xena so wanted to pit herself against Callisto again.
Xena wasn't sure how good Callisto would be compared to her predecessor as both the Goddess of War and the other half of that rare bond. Zeus' dark son had had several millennia to hone his craft, making Xena work for every bit of land she took. Her army had never been unopposed, Ares had made sure of that. He had been, after all, the God of War, and where was the fun in seizing lands and kingdoms without the spilling of blood and the taking of lives?
Even the mere thought of Callisto in her mind sent a thrill through her, rippling down their link.
She was Xena's own creation. Born of two average parents, in an average village and destined to live an average life. But Xena had a habit of ignoring the Fates and creating destinies in her quest to make her own. It had been one of the reasons why Ares had chosen her to be at his side to begin with.
The warrior considered Callisto to be everything she was, but a warped and lesser version. Xena chuckled darkly at the annoyance she could feel coming from the goddess at the thought.
The volatile goddess had been quite the handful as a mortal. Even during their brief quest together to destroy Velaska, when the blonde warrior had been just an immortal, it had been exciting to pit herself against the woman. This was the first Xena had seen of Callisto since she'd fallen into the river of lava, but from what she'd seen so far, Callisto was definitely shaping up to be quite the opponent. Of course, Xena's plans for the goddess were far different than before. She had no need to trap or destroy Callisto, for now Xena and Callisto had the same desires. Xena was free from pathetic emotions and her pesky companion. She was free to be again the warlord she was born to be.
Xena brought her mind back from its wanderings. The ground was becoming more treacherous now and she had no choice but to slow down and pay more attention to where she was walking.
In a realm where flesh doesn't decay and, when severed, can move with a mind of its own, the Bone Plain was a mortal's nightmare. Arms, legs, and other various body parts littered the ground. It was amazing how many pieces had found, or rather had been dumped, their way here. Xena kicked aside a hand that groped blindly for her foot and snorted softly at the grisly sight. The warrior had a strong stomach and wasn't disturbed in the least by the writhing mass of bones and flesh.
She'd seen her share of decapitated heads and hacked off limbs on the battlefield, and though those hadn't moved on their own, like the ones before her, Xena wasn't bothered by the odd sight.
The sound came to her first. A wave of screams and low undulating moans that grew steadily louder as she homed in on its origin. Cresting a small hill, Xena saw the source of the noise. It was the portal that led to Callisto's realm. A cry of satisfaction escaped her lips as she bounded towards it. Soon she would be out of the Underworld and that much closer to Callisto.
The smell came next. The putrid odor of decayed flesh, an anomaly here in Hades' world, and of old blood would have sent any normal person running from the area retching, but to Xena the smell of the battlefield was the closest thing to what she used to call home.
The gate to Callisto's realm was an arch instead of an actual door, but in lieu of stone or wood the portal was made up of the dead themselves. Soldiers, from generals and warlords to the lowest warrior, were the undead building blocks for the arch. It was one of the many "special" punishments Hades meted out to the denizens of Tartarus. Here, dead warriors were meshed together, skewered to each other with a variety of rusted and broken weapons. Perhaps the most dismal part of the punishment was that out of all of the Tartarans, the men and women of the living arch were the only ones to continue to decay. This was to ensure that there would be room for more as the warriors slowly fell apart. Forty or so soldiers hung in varying states of decomposition, filling the air with a vile stench. Once they had withered away to nothing, the magic of the Underworld would reform them whole and complete in some other part of Tartarus. There they would writhe in some new torment for eternity.
Xena stopped in front of the groaning mass. One unfortunate soul, more central than all the others and easily the furthest decayed, opened his eyes and scrutinized her closely.
"Whooo?" the being rasped, the effort of having to speak ripping a chunk of flesh from his jaw and falling to the ground.
Xena eyed the putrid bit and toed it with her boot, before looking back up into his slimy green eyes. "I like a man who just can't help but fall apart when he looks at me," she said huskily as she ran a teasing finger along the man's desiccated jaw.
"Xeeeennnnaaaa," the soldier whispered. If he had had enough skin and muscle on his face, he surely would be giving her a look of surprise. Obviously, the news that she had come back to War's side hadn't spread yet.
"That would be me. Still hanging around I see," she quipped.
"You never change. The same cruel, heartless bitch we've all come to know and hate."
Xena turned her attention to a warrior who was almost completely covered by the others, leaving only the man's face visible.
"Toxeus?" Xena faintly amused at finding an old enemy amongst the pile of bodies. "Well, well. It looks as if Hades found a good use for you after all."
"No thanks to you," the ex-raider snarled. "After that business with Asmodeus, Hades put a lot of us in the portal. We had to wait until someone fell apart enough to make a spot open up, but Hades is nothing if not patient."
"I won't say it isn't pleasant seeing you here." Xena leaned closer to Toxeus and stared at him. "You look like you're about to lose something." She reached out her hand and flicked a finger at his left earlobe, ignoring Toxeus' indignant look. She chuckled darkly as the putrefying piece of flesh and cartilage swayed back and forth from the small strip of skin that held it to the side of his head.
"Stop that! It's bad enough that I decompose and smell," the warrior complained, clearly displeased, "but you don't have to help the process along!"
Xena raised a dark eyebrow. "But you've always smelled, Toxeus. It was one of the reasons why I killed you to begin with." She cocked her head to the side thoughtfully. "Well that, and the fact that you were stupid enough to attack me."
Toxeus blinked and was silent for a moment. Then he shook his head slightly, causing his ear to fall to the ground with a squish. The dead warrior sighed mournfully. The sound was immediately picked up and echoed by the mass of other dead soldiers around him until the air fairly shivered with the eerie sound.
"Shut up for Ares' sake!" Toxeus yelled. "Bunch of freaks!"
"Upppssstttarrrttt," someone muttered as the rest of the group ceased their noise.
Xena chuckled to herself. Things certainly hadn't change much since she'd last been here. The portal definitely had a mind...or rather, minds of its own. She would like nothing better than to stay and harass the bound warriors some more, but the urge to keep going was strong. Callisto was busy elsewhere at the moment and so she wasn't paying much attention to her Chosen, but Xena's mind was indeed on the goddess. There would be time for fun later.
"I'm in a hurry, Toxeus, so why don't you and your buddies here open up the portal for me?" she asked.
"What's the magic word?" Toxeus grinned, his lips cracking. "We can't just let anyone go through, you know. But we could make an exception for you, I guess. I haven't been there myself, but I've heard some pretty nasty critters live on the other side. I'm sure if I asked really nice, Hades will let you join us after you get torn to pieces. That's after Ares plays with you for leaving him and trespassing on his property, of course."
Xena's gaze sharpened and looked at the mass of dead men and women who were laughing along with Toxeus at her expense. She looked Toxeus in the eyes and waited for them to grow silent before speaking. "Ares is dead, Toxeus. I'm surprised his behind isn't molding and crawling around in there with you right now." She allowed a tight smile to show on her lips at the sounds of consternation coming from the dead. "Callisto took his place after she took that black, curly-haired head of his."
"Callisto? Blonde, stunning, and lethal? That Callisto?" Toxeus' eyes widened in shock along with the rest of the dead that created the portal. A low murmur could be heard from them as they whispered to each other the news and the possible shake up in the ranks of the other gods.
"Yes. That Callisto." Xena smile turned predatory. "And I've got an invitation to come and visit." She reached up and rested a hand on her sword hilt. "Now. Am I going to have to start making room for new residents, piece by piece, or are you going to open the portal for me?"
If it was possible, Toxeus' eyes grew even wider and the worried murmuring from the others became louder. Xena obviously wasn't in a good mood.
Not like she ever is, Toxeus groused silently "Oh, very well."
And the portal screamed.
Women and men, both unused to such pain after death, writhed in anguish as their wounds began to weep crimson. Thick blood poured from the injuries they had died from. Sword thrusts that had once shown the rotting insides of warrior's torsos became real once more. Grisly ax blows were no longer just the scars of the dead, but wounds that dripped fresh blood onto the thirsty ground of the Underworld.
Warriors howled as they relived the injuries that had taken them from the mortal world and into the Land of the Dead. Battlefields long forgotten in their minds were remembered as in their memories each died again and again at the hand of the warrior that had bested them.
The scarlet life's elixir was power here and as the first drop fell onto the ground below, the black soil rippled and burst forth with the fruit of war.
Swords, both broken and well cared for, heirlooms and new, thrust out of the ground. Spears, that had once known the touch of a warrior's callused hands, sprang up, covered in the crimson nectar of life. Daggers, axes...so many different types of weapons grew from the dead soil, until the arch was no longer an arch, but what seemed like a blocked passage. War magic, the power of spilt blood, wove the weapons together tightly, merging them into a more solid mass.
It was a display of cruel power, the very essence of war and death, and Xena couldn't help but feel her pulse race as the men and women of the portal died once again. The blood, the pain of the dead, and the energy that she could feel flowing from Callisto into the portal, were heady drugs to her.
Callisto's power of creation wasn't as smooth to Xena as the sensations she'd felt in the past from other gods, such as Aphrodite. It felt the same as Ares' though, which gave her a sense of reassurance that Callisto was indeed the Goddess of War now. But the power she wielded was so much different from the other gods. Callisto didn't mold or cajole. She willed. She demanded. The goddess had ordered the dead soldiers to spill their blood for her and her Chosen. It had been the dead who had used the power she had given them, to rip open their mortal wounds and bleed fresh blood to feed the soil of a dead realm and the weapons of war. Her will and her power had demanded they relive again their deaths, giving the portal energy.
The screech of metal on metal filled the air, merging with the cries of the dead in a cacophony of torturous sound. After what seemed like an eternity, no more weapons appeared from the ground, the bloody harvest had fused together to form a crudely shaped double door. The screams died finally and the blood ceased to flow. The warriors of the portal looked at Xena with pain still evident in their decaying orbs, but it was Toxeus who spoke to her.
"That was not a pleasant experience," he complained.
"Somehow I don't think Hades or Ares meant it to be a reward," the dark woman snorted. While the portal's entrance had been created she had watched with quiet curiosity. She'd been through this same experience before, of course, but she had to admit it had been as fascinating as the first time.
"Yeah, well I think that..."
"Toxeus. Shut up," Xena snarled, only the slight narrowing her eyes and her voice showing her annoyance with him. Now that the portal was complete, the yearning to move on was growing again. She didn't want any more distractions here in Hades' realm. All she wished was to open the door and get on the other side. Closer to her destination...closer to Callisto.
"I am Chosen."
The heavy doors swung open at her words, revealing the glow from the world beyond. Xena stepped forward and stood in between the two worlds, outlined by the gruesome portal.
Once it had been Ares' world, created by his own will. Now it belonged to a new god. A blood-red sun hung high in the sky, casting the world in the same tint. A few trees, hideous in shape, towered above the landscape, but most of the land was rolling hills and plains. Plant life was plentiful, but of the strangest type. A bush of wild roses nearby lashed out with its long thorny branches, as if it could smell Xena. Carnivorous, it survived, like most of the vegetation in this realm, by drinking the blood from whatever animals came within its reach, since rain was a rarity here.
Xena breathed in the air deeply and held it within her for a long drawn out moment. Then she released it slowly and smiled.
"I've been away for far too long."
The temple was a small one, as temples go, but no less loved and attended. In fact, unlike most of Artemis' temples, this one was used more often than any of her others.
Since there was good weather, the removable walls had been taken down letting the bright sunshine stream in. Now there were just the stout timbers at each of the four corners to hold up the palm frond roof. The open building wasn't unique among the Olympian gods' temples, but the priests and priestesses tended to jealousy guard the secrets of their god's temple and so that did make them rare. But here of all places there were no prying eyes of Ares' worshippers or any Hestian virgins arrogantly but curiously staring at the inner workings of this temple as they passed by. For here all worshipped the goddess, Artemis.
A large circular altar rested in the center of the temple with an exquisite silver and gold statue of Artemis towering over the numerous gifts and other offerings from the Amazon supplicants. The Amazons were unusual among the many gods' worshippers, for unlike most they came not because of fear or because they wished for something, but because it was the way of things.
Amazons were hunters, just like the goddess they worshipped, and they understood the way of the hunt. When you took the life of an animal, you took its hide for clothing, its meat for food, its horns for weapons and adornments, but you could never take its spirit. That was the goddess' and it was the duty of every hunter to thank the spirit of the animal for giving its life. It was also the duty of every hunter to thank the Goddess of the Hunt for their success. For without her will, no deer would cross your path and no boar would grace your table.
Amazon worshippers came to Artemis' temple because she was ingrained deeply in their culture and everyday life. She was their patron goddess and no Amazon could think of the Goddess of the Hunt without thanking her for their very existence. She was a part of their cycle of life just as much as the blood that flowed through their veins and the air they breathed. Artemis was everything to them. Mother provider and sister warrior.
So it was here, just off of the central square of the village, where the temple was open to the women all hours of the day or night. Always attended, it was ready for the Amazons to participate in their goddess' life.
The sun was already high in the clear sky as one of Artemis' acolytes, Tyrlia, carefully placed more powdered incense in the burning censor at the statue's feet. She was still rather new to the temple and this village, and was taking her turn in this sacred duty, as all young Amazons did. This was part of her training to become a full-fledged member of Amazon society, but she hoped her stay here wouldn't last much longer. Every day that passed seemed a torture to her, keeping her away from her new friends and the long hours of play and weapon instruction.
Only four priestesses were permanently chosen for this temple, and from them only one was picked by the goddess herself to be the High Priestess. Each Amazon spent time in their youth in the temple, learning of the goddess and her ways, but it was rare that relationship became a life long duty.
Most of the priestesses had already left the temple for the midday meal, leaving it in the hands of one of their sisters and Tyrlia. Tyrlia herself wasn't happy having to stay behind and miss sharing the meal with some of the other young Amazons, but there was some solace in that this time of day was the quietest and she didn't have as much to do. The young acolyte was just kneeling down, a fresh bucket of water next to her knee, and was just starting to scrub the stones in front of the altar steps, when a flash of light before her caught her attention.
Startled, she looked up and saw a gentle radiance dissipate to reveal a small, compact woman standing in front of the altar in the High Priestess' place. The woman was standing facing away from Tyrlia, but from what she could see, the woman wore a tattered, green leather skirt and what had once been a pretty silk halter. She was also barefoot, which Tyrlia thought was odd. The young woman could see long, pale strands of snarled hair hanging down past her shoulders. Tyrlia knew the woman hadn't been there a moment ago and the funny glow reminded her of the light that came from the statue of Artemis when the goddess was particularly pleased with an offering. So perhaps this was the goddess herself? Although why Artemis would come looking so dirty and unkempt was beyond her.
At the thought that Artemis might be standing, in the flesh, before her, Tyrlia's hand started to tremble and her brush fell to the ground.
"A...Artemis??" she stammered, so nervous that she was beginning to feel lightheaded.
The woman turned and gave her a slightly dazed look. "Hmm?" Pale eyebrows met in confusion. She looked away for a moment and studied her surroundings.
Tyrlia felt another presence come up beside her and looked over, pleased to see it was the priestess.
"Your Majesty?" The priestess was gaping at the sand encrusted, wild haired woman in shock.
The acolyte blinked as she turned her attention back. Majesty? She shook her head slightly in confusion as she tried to control her shaking limbs. Majesty? Queen? Queen Gabrielle?
The blonde woman on the altar dais gave them both an odd look, as if she still wasn't quite sure where she was. "Just so that we're all clear on this...where am I?"
A tiny squeak escaped from Tyrlia's lips and the acolyte didn't have to peer up at the priestess again to know she was being given a disapproving look. Oh well, that just means tomorrow I get to scrub the stone floor again, the Amazon thought silently.
"You're at the northern village, Queen Gabrielle. Your village," the priestess replied slowly. "Umm...shall I send for your Regent?" She slyly nudged the acolyte with her boot, hoping the girl would take the hint and run ahead.
Tyrlia sighed as she gingerly got up from the hard floor and took a cautious step backwards, wanting to leave but her curiosity keeping her from following the priestess' wishes. She had heard so many wild and unbelievable stories of their traveling Queen and had looked forward to the day when she came back to the Nation and Tyrlia would finally see her for herself. Now she had a tale of her own, but she wasn't sure if it would be believed. People just don't pop out of glowing balls of light. Even if they were the Queen of the Amazons. Right?
Gabrielle ran her hands through her hair, then let them fall wearily to her sides. "I think I'll be all right. If you'd just aim me in the right direction, please? My head's rather foggy at the moment."
"As you wish..." The priestess started to turn and point the way, then paused and turned back to her Queen. "If you don't mind me asking...did Artemis send you here?"
"Oh yeah...and let me tell you, that is not a ride I want to take again. Ever again." The blonde bard closed her eyes and forced down the nausea the short journey had given her. She had no idea how the gods could stand doing that on a regular basis. Gabrielle opened her eyes again and gave the priestess a wan smile. "I'd rather ride a horse."
The Amazon weakly returned the Queen's smile. "Err...yes..." Her words trailed off as she tried to think. It wasn't everyday the Queen of the Amazon Nation appeared out of nowhere into the temple at Artemis' will. In fact the last time it had happened was over a hundred years before, when the Chosen, Sophia, had been brought to the village by the goddess.
The priestess' eyes grew wide and her mouth slowly fell open in shock. "Chosen?" She dropped to her knees before her Queen.
Tyrlia decided that she'd heard enough. Queen Gabrielle showing up in out of nowhere. Artemis...Chosen...Yep, I think I want to be a warrior. No temples for me. The acolyte quickly made her escape and ran through the village searching for the Queen's Regent.
Xena was being stalked, she could feel it, sense it. Cold blue eyes casually scanned her surroundings, sweeping over the desolate plains, looking for any sign of what was following her. In the distance the warrior could see huge black ravens circling high in the air. Closer to her, she could make out large vultures that were perched in a far off tree. Other than that, there seemed to be no animal life around her. Xena knew better. She could hear them and sense them deep in her gut. Predators.
A dark flash off to her left teased her sight, but she ignored it. Her stalkers, and she knew there were more than one, were trying to trick her, lull her into making a mistake.
Xena didn't even pause in her running, her long, smooth strides unbroken. She would let them make the move, let them make the mistake. Then from out behind a hillock in front of her, stepped a large menacing shape, its fiery red eyes glowing dully at her.
Dire wolf, Xena thought silently as she looked the immense black wolf over. No animal in existence could be mistaken for this predator. From the huge paws to the dark furred crown of its head, the beast easily reached her shoulder. Outweighing her two to one, the wolves were almost intelligent as men. Their strength and cunning making even the most well armored warrior easy prey and, as far as Xena knew, they lived in only one place.
Xena stopped a good distance away, not taking her eyes off the wolf. She could hear the rest of the pack circling her in the tall grass and bushes, but ignored them, or seemed to. She let them flank her, surrounding her on all sides. The dire wolves were almost completely invisible to the naked eye in the brush, despite their size and color, but Xena knew they were there nonetheless.
The warrior knew what these creatures were, of course. The Dire wolves weren't the only predators on this plain of death, but they were the most dangerous and they had a taste for human meat just like as creature here did. Since Ares had several ways into this realm from the mortal world, humans were a regular food source and that craving for human meat was often filled.
When Xena had walked this realm long ago, the dire wolves and other predators had learned what it meant to be hunted by a human for the first time. In fact, until she had lost her army to Darphus, Xena's bed had sported only the fine thick black pelt of dire wolves. The first pack she’d come across had thought her to be just another prey and had tried to bring her down. None had survived. The next pack had been more careful, and ended up only losing three fourths of the group. After that, the intelligent wolves had banded together out of what Xena sensed to be hatred and revenge. But they also found that Ares’ Chosen was not easy prey, for she knew those two emotions far better than they and used it to her advantage. It made her stronger than them. She was the predator’s predator after all. After she had decimated almost the entire population, the wolves had made themselves scarce and refused to hunt her.
So she was surprised that the wolves were trying to hunt her now.
The two predators, one with only two feet, stared at each other, measuring. The dire wolf knew that this was not easy prey, for she remembered this human from when she was a cub. The packs had come close to extinction at the hands of the Hunter and her deeds were still howled across the plains at night, but now the packs were once again at full strength and they had learned from the terrible lesson taught them long ago. Hatred and revenge boiled in the wolves' blood and now that the Hunter had foolishly decided to come into their territory again, they would quench their taste for her blood and feast on her meat.
The huge black wolf was the Alpha female of her pack and one of the last survivors of that time. She was strong despite her age and her scarred face was proof of the years of fighting she'd gone through. Her savagery was well known among all the packs on the plain. The blood of many a young wolf that thought she was too old and had dared to challenge her, had passed her fangs. And now here was the crowning achievement to her life...to bring down the Hunter. Her name would be howled for countless generations.
Xena's eyes bored into the blood red orbs of the wolf without blinking. The two stared at each other, the hate between them almost palpable. The huge female wolf's lips peeled back, revealing long sharp canines, yellowed with age, but still strong. A bone-chilling snarl broke the silence between them, as her black fur bristled, making her look even larger, more menacing.
The dark warrior's lips curled back in response and a twin growl to the wolf's came from her throat in challenge. She knew the rest of the pack was almost in position and at the thought of a battle against these fellow predators, her blood began to sing darkly in reply.
She could feel Callisto's attention focus on her again, for the link between them was suddenly sharper and the eagerness the goddess felt was intensifying her own.
Three forms leapt at her at once out of the tall grass, one from each side and the last from behind her. Xena ducked, her hand reaching out and grabbing a large thighbone that was partially buried next to her foot. Her other hand snapped out and seized one of the wolves by the throat and with a heave she redirected its path, slamming it into one of its comrades. Surging back up, she used her momentum to meet the third charging combatant, using the bone as a club and shattering it against the wolf's head. The warrior's eyes sparkled in satisfaction as the beast fell over and lay motionless.
With a feral smile she dropped the remaining part of the bone and drew her sword. Sensing the two wolves behind her had sorted themselves out and were about to attack again, she spun quickly and cleaved one of the predators that was already in mid-leap and going for her back. Hot wolf blood sprayed into the air as the wolf's heart kept pumping even though its head was now gone. Xena licked her lips absently, tasting the droplets that had fallen on them, as she kicked backwards, cracking the breastbone of the wolf that had circled around as she had decapitated its companion.
The mortally wounded dire wolf flew back at the tremendous blow and landed next to its leader, whimpering piteously. With a feral snarl the female's head lowered and her jaws snapped closed, ripping out the dying wolf's throat in a spray of blood and fur.
Xena turned to the pack leader as it happened. At the same time she kept her senses tracking the last of the pack that were about to attack. There were four left, plus the Alpha female who was still watching. Grinning wickedly, Xena plucked her chakram from her hip and threw it at one wolf, who snapped at the shiny object to catch it. The glow died in the wolf's eyes as the deadly weapon sheared through his throat and lodged in his neck bone. With saliva frothing from their mouths, the remaining three charged. One went for the Hunter's hamstrings, coming in from behind her. With a cry of wicked glee, Xena back fisted it as she skewered another on her sword. Leaving her blade stuck between two ribs of the wolf, she gave another sharp yell and flipped over the two wolves and grabbed her chakram, yanking it from its grisly nest.
But retrieving her weapon had lost her a precious moment and she was hit in the back by another dire wolf and the two fell to the ground, entangled. Its hot breath on her neck, Xena grabbed the wolf by the throat before it could bite her neck. Its sharp claws digging into her leather protected back and screeching on her bronze armor, she pulled the creature's head over her shoulder and dragged her chakram across its throat just above her hand, drenching herself in warm crimson.
Pushing the wolf off, her fingers still clamped tightly in its ruff, Xena rolled onto her knees and with a scream picked up the heavy carcass and threw it into the path of its last companion. Tumbling over, the wolf shakily picked itself up and looked at the Hunter for a moment before taking off into the grass with its tail between its legs, disappearing quickly from view.
Xena barely noticed her breath rushing through her lungs, burning like hot fire.
Enjoying this as much as I am, Xena?
Ignoring Callisto Xena turned towards the Alpha female. Placing her chakram back on her hip, Xena opened her arms wide in invitation as she started stalking around the leader. Flexing her hands, the warrior smiled to herself, pleased with the battle so far.
The female's clan was no more. The only other member of her pack that had survived, except for herself, was a coward and would be shunned and eventually killed by the others. She had made a dread mistake in attacking the Hunter so soon. It would have been better to link up with other groups and together taken down the human. But it was too late now; everything she had known was destroyed by the Hunter. No other pack would take her in. Her reign and her pack's rule over the plain was over. All due to this human, this prey that was not prey. Hate surged through the huge wolf and she sprang, her jaws aimed for the Hunter's throat, saliva spraying out as her lips peeled back from her sharp teeth.
Xena let the Alpha wolf leap at her and throw her onto her back. As she fell, she twisted her body and the wolf around locking her long legs around its torso so that the wolf landed on her back and Xena landed heavily on top of her opponent. Xena's weight and her clamped legs drove the air from the wolf's lungs with a loud explosion. With savage glee the warrior crushed one arm against the thick furred neck of her adversary, pressing its head cruelly back to the ground and cutting off its air supply. At the same time she jammed the bracered forearm of her other arm into its gaping jaws, in order to keep the wolf from biting her face.
Straining, the wolf struggled to get away, frantic for air. Xena pressed harder, using all her strength to hang on to the wolf and keep it underneath her. Bending her head close to the wolf, Xena looked the female eye to eye, her intense blue orbs almost touching the beasts' own crimson. She watched with satisfaction as the light died from the wolfs' gaze and the body went limp under her.
Exultant, her blood pumping wildly through her veins, Xena stood up and breathed deeply. She could still taste the wolf's blood on her tongue and its copper tang was like a fresh draught of spring water to a man dying of thirst. It had been far too long since she'd given herself up to the excitement of the kill. The past few years she'd been restraining herself on some misguided quest for redemption.
She understood now. Redemption was for those who thought they had gone down the wrong path and felt guilt. Xena had no inkling of guilt within her anymore, for she knew this was the path set out for her since her birth. This was her road to destiny, to glory and the sweet taste of victory. This path of blood and death was where she belonged...had always belonged.
The warrior walked over and retrieved her sword from the wolf it had been imbedded in and wiped off the blood.
A long drawn out howl in the distance brought the Hunter's head up and sharp eyes scanned the grasses for any other wolves that might be hiding, but as more Dire Wolves howled in answer to the first in the distance, she sneered in disgust and sheathed her sword. There would be no more attacks.
She knew the wolves could smell the blood as it fed the soil, but even though the wolves were carnivores and cannibals, they were far more concerned with their own pelts.
Drawing her breast dagger, Xena set to work skinning the dead predators, pleased that, for the most part, she'd been able to preserve their pelts. It would be nice to once again sleep on the rich black fur. A sensual shiver ran down her spine and the bond at the thought. An answering ripple of that pleasure fed back to her from Callisto, letting her know that the goddess was still very much in tune with her Chosen.
With the ease of long practice, Xena finished skinning the wolves and wrapped them up in a bloody bundle. Hopefully, she would have time later to get them cured.
Setting the grisly parcel over her shoulder with a strap she made, she paused before moving on, ignoring for a moment the tingle of urgency coming from Callisto.
Dire Wolves still howled in the distance, warning their brethren of the return of the Hunter, as Xena looked down at the pitiful form of the pack leader.
A low growl, an amazing copy of the wolves own, rumbled from deep inside of her.
Then turning away Xena resumed her path, a whisper her parting words.
"I am not prey."
At least, not theirs, Callisto replied with a giggle.
"We shall see." Xena gritted her teeth and moved on.
"I said 'No', Eponin. We can't afford it this season. Perhaps after the harvest we might be able to trade for some of the Sythian iron, but not right now. You'll just have to live with weapons we have now." The blonde, curly haired Regent of the Amazon Nation twirled an arrow shaft deftly between her fingers, eyeing the broad tipped point critically. "Besides, the blacksmiths are still behind in recycling all of the weapons and armor we gleaned from Drixious."
Eponin sniffed in disdain and rolled her dark eyes. The solidly built woman leaned forward, resting her strong hands on the table before the other Amazon, and tried to capture the smaller woman's gaze in her own. "He was a sorry excuse for a warlord, Ephiny. The equipment we confiscated from him after he tried in vain to annex some of our land, are better suited for farmers than for us."
Ephiny pointed the feathered end of the arrow at the weapon master to make her point. "We're just going to have to make do, Ep..." Her words trailed off and a thoughtful look came over her face.
"What?" Eponin's eyebrows raised. She recognized that glint in her friend's eye, but wasn't sure if she wanted to know what it meant.
"Well...if you think the armor and weapons are worthless to us, we could trade some of them for the iron ingots instead." The wily Regent smiled pleasantly, hoping Eponin would take the bait. She had been the only one who had wanted to get rid of the spoils after the conflict, but she'd let herself be talked out of it by the craftswomen and Eponin. The equipment wasn't really in that bad a shape, but the Amazons had no use for the heavy armor Drixious' men had used, except to tear it apart for the metal.
The weapons, unlike the armor, were more useful, but Ephiny knew they were made of a lesser quality metal than her Amazons cared to use. The blacksmiths had utilized some of it, re-smelting the iron and crafting better weapons, but it took a lot of time to get the impurities out.
Besides, they had a large enough surplus to rid themselves of the extra in trade, if the blacksmiths were still adamant about keeping the low-grade iron. Ephiny figured that with some prudent bargaining the village could buy the Scythian ingots and some other goods.
What they really needed though, were items that the Amazons didn't make for themselves. For the most part, they were self-sufficient, but in her position as Regent, Ephiny had learned many things. One of them was that a well-clothed, well-equipped, well-fed Amazon wasn't necessarily a happy Amazon. In years of plenty, like this one, the women wanted more luxuries. It seemed rather silly to her actually, but even big, tough Amazon warriors liked the finer things in life.
In fact Ephiny knew for a fact that Eponin, well known as the toughest Amazon around, loved silk. She had a large collection of scarves and tunics hidden deep within a trunk in her hut and the only time she put them on in public was when her fellow warriors had plied her with a great deal of wine at a festival. Ephiny barely kept herself from laughing out loud as she remembered, quite vividly, the last time Eponin had danced around the fire during a feast wearing only several long scarves and a pretty blue tunic that fell to her knees. She had to admit that the warrior looked good in silk, but she still had a problem wrapping her mind around the concept of Eponin in such gossamer attire.
So if she could talk Eponin into agreeing with her on trading the extra weapons and armor then, at least for a few months, the village would be a happier place. Hmm...and if we're really lucky, Eponin might buy some new scarf or another. This time the Regent couldn't keep the silly grin off of her lips as she looked up at Eponin and imagined the leather clad woman trailing a long yellow scarf behind her.
"Well, as long as we get a good deal on the ingots and perhaps we can get some other..." Eponin's words were interrupted as the door to Ephiny's hut opened and slammed violently against the wall. A young Amazon stood in the doorway, her chest heaving slightly as she tried to catch her breath. She was wearing the white leathers of the temple, so Ephiny hoped that whatever it was that made an acolyte come bursting into her office unannounced was important.
Eponin stood up from the defensive crouch she'd assumed as the door flew open. She started forward, intending to either shoo the girl away or bring her inside to account for her actions, when a figure stepped up behind the acolyte, out of the sunlight.
Both the weapon master and Regent froze in shock, Ephiny half risen up from her chair and Eponin with her hand grazing the acolyte's, as if to pull her into the hut.
Tyrlia saw the astonished expressions on the older women and almost...almost smiled in sympathy. At least I'm not the only one who's startled, she mused. "Ummm...the priestess told me to tell you that...umm...Queen Gabrielle is here."
Ephiny blinked, her pale brown eyes sliding off of the dirty and tattered form of Gabrielle to the girl. "Uh huh. Well...thank you."
Tyrlia nodded and gave the woman standing just over her shoulder a shy smile, then ducked down under her shoulder and disappeared towards the kitchens. If she was lucky, some of her friends would still be there...and boy did she have a story for them.
Gabrielle took several steps into the hut, giving both of the motionless amazons a weary look. "Am I welcome?"
"Of course you're welcome!" Ephiny hissed as she levered herself up and went to envelop her friend in a warm hug. She could feel the bard's tension under her touch and grew even more concerned.
Gabrielle's arms reluctantly came up and returned Ephiny's embrace. After several long drawn out moments, she finally pulled away and gave the two women a tired smile. Looking down at herself she brushed some of the dark sand off of her leather skirt and sighed. "Well, I'm sure I look like Tartarus warmed over."
Eponin's eyes narrowed. "You have no idea," she murmured, her words barely audible.
"Hmm?" Gabrielle looked up.
The muscular Amazon just patted her Queen gently on the back. "I'll go get your hut ready and get a bath drawn." She gave Ephiny an odd look then left the hut to gather some help.
Gabrielle's eyes followed the Amazon until she disappeared between two huts, then turned back to Ephiny. "Was it something I said?"
Ephiny took a good look at her Queen and friend, trying to find a polite way to tell her that she looked like she'd been dead for days. The once golden strands of hair were lank and gnarled so badly, that Ephiny hoped they wouldn't have to cut any off. Puffy, dark circles were under the pale green eyes and her skin looked pallid. Raw scrapes covered the bard's body. Her halter and skirt, the only articles of clothing she wore, had been poor protection, evident in that the leather and silk were torn and scuffed badly. And her feet... Ephiny blinked. She hadn't ever seen Gabrielle travel without footwear before and the words tumbled from her lips, "Where are your boots?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
Ephiny gave Gabrielle a wry look. "Trust me. I'm an Amazon remember? I've given birth to a centaur. I've seen a lot."
The bard shrugged, not really wanting to argue the point. "They're in Tartarus...well, the Underworld anyway. With my luck, Cerberus is gnawing on them right now."
The blonde Amazon's jaw dropped slightly, then closed with a loud snap. Without a word, Ephiny cautiously took Gabrielle's elbow and escorted her out of the hut and towards the Queen's. Going head to head with obstinate Amazons was simple in comparison to being Gabrielle's friend at times.
Her boots are in the Underworld? Yeah, right. What next? Gone swimming in the River Styx? The Amazon sighed quietly as she ignored the curious looks from the village women.
Ephiny carefully nudged the door open with her foot and maneuvered inside the hut. She was glad to see that Gabrielle had completed her bath. The water and tub had already been taken away, and the bard was now wrapped up in a robe and writing something on a fresh piece of parchment. Eponin was nowhere in sight, so she assumed that Gabrielle had wished to be alone.
Not wanting to disturb her, but knowing that her friend needed to eat and regain her strength, she cleared her throat softly to get Gabrielle's attention.
Twirling the long quill between her fingers, the bard looked at the words on the scroll in front of her and gave it a little nod, before turning to Ephiny. "Back so soon?"
Ephiny grinned and lay the heavily laden tray down on the table, careful not to set it on the scroll. "Lydia wanted to add some more vegetables to the soup and also wanted you to have a loaf straight out of the ovens." She handed Gabrielle a spoon and motioned her to start on the hot soup first. As the woman started spooning in the rich, heavy broth, Ephiny took the extra chair and sat down to watch.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes in exasperation, fully aware that Ephiny was keeping an eye on her to make sure she ate well.
Satisfied that she was going to eat and not just fiddle with her food, Ephiny turned her attention to what Gabrielle had been writing. "What's that?"
The bard shrugged, a gloom passing over her. "Just a poem that came over me. It's nothing."
Ephiny sensed it was more than that and leaned forward in interest. "May I look at it? I'd ask you to read it, but I'm not sure if I could pry you away from that spoon right now."
Gabrielle gave her a wan smile and waved her free hand at the scroll. "Go ahead. It's not worth the parchment it's written on, but I had to get it out."
Taking the scroll, Ephiny carefully unrolled it and scanned the words. She blinked several times, then found herself reading the words aloud, as if saying them aloud made them real and not some illusion in front of her eyes.
"The ominous gloom has impending doom.
Snaking about in our souls and out.
We feel the dread of all the dead.
We smell the stink, smoke black as ink.
Forced to enter the very center.
Furies lash deep, more wounds to keep.
To scream forever, dream again never.
Abandon hope, love, and light from above.
We are the slaves to our immoral days.
No rest for us weary in Tartarus."
Ephiny's clear voice trailed off and she was silent for several moments in shock. It surely wasn't her friend's best work, but that wasn't the problem. It was the darkness, the unfamiliar ache from Gabrielle's words that she never thought she'd hear. "The Gates of Tartarus. That's what you call it?"
Gabrielle eyed the Amazon through her still damp bangs with uncertainty. "Yes. What do you think of it?" she asked as she broke off a piece of warm bread and sopped up some of the soup. The food was delicious, the best she'd had in days in fact, but Gabrielle couldn't taste it. She was just too numb inside.
"Well...it's unusual. Not like most of your work." Ephiny snorted to herself mentally. Not like any of your work, she thought silently.
Gabrielle's lip turned up at the comment. "No. No...I can't say that it is. But then..." She sighed heavily and picked up the wine goblet, taking a long deep draught of the potent Amazon brew.
Setting the cup back down on the table she gave Ephiny a tired look and considered what exactly to tell her friend and what to keep to herself. It wasn't that she wanted to hold back, but Gabrielle wasn't sure what Ephiny would believe.
"How's Argo?" the bard asked softly. "I need to go check on her later and say hello."
"She's fine. Misses you both," Ephiny replied, then paused briefly and looked her Queen directly in her eyes. "Where's Xena? It was only a half moon ago when you two left Argo with us and started out to catch a ship to Elaphonisi. I would have thought you'd still be hanging over the railing feeding the fish your supper."
"Eww." Gabrielle grimaced slightly and gave a half-hearted laugh, then grew quiet as she tore off tiny bits of bread and ate them. Her mind wandered off again and Ephiny grew more concerned as the moments passed.
Leaning forward, she rested a tanned hand on Gabrielle's forearm to get her attention. "Xena...is she dead?"
Shock at her friend's question brought some life to the bard, as she shook her head. "No! She...Xena isn't dead, although in a way she might as well be." Gabrielle said the last with an almost inaudible sigh.
"I don't understand."
Gabrielle gave Ephiny a sad look, tears beginning to well up in her eyes, making them shine as bright as cut emeralds. "I know. It's just so hard to believe. Only moments ago I was in the Underworld and now here I am..." She waved her at hand at her surroundings. "I feel like I've just woken up from a dream and Xena's going to walk through that door any moment now and..."
She looked expectantly towards the hut's doorway and paused...waiting. But no tall, lanky warrior with bright, sky colored eyes and long, dark tresses entered the hut and gave her a smile meant only for her eyes. The smell of leather was prevalent, but it wasn't the same as Xena's without the scent of hyacinth and cinnamon. The only voice besides her own was Ephiny's, and though Gabrielle loved the Amazon like a sister and enjoyed her company, it just wasn't the low timbered voice of her closest companion.
"What's going on, Gabrielle?" Ephiny knew she wasn't as good at this emotional stuff as her Queen was, but it was obvious that something was terribly wrong.
Gabrielle abruptly stood up, pulled her arm out from under Ephiny's touch and went to stand next to the window. She gazed out onto the sunlit center of the village, taking in the ceremonial fire and the other huts that circled her own. She could see several tall lookout structures towering over the roofs, with armed women scanning the vicinity for surprise attacks. A small group of the leather clad women walked past her window, oblivious to her, laughing and joking among themselves.
"It's different than before, but still the same, isn't it?" she asked.
Ephiny stood and walked over. "What is?"
"The village. It's all been rebuilt since Velaska."
The Regent nodded and looked over the bard's shoulder, trying to see it as Gabrielle did. Ephiny saw her home everyday and it was hard to remember how it looked before, but to Gabrielle this was still new. "Yes, I guess it is," she agreed.
Gabrielle shook her head ruefully and folded her arms across her chest. "It's funny really, I don't fear her anymore, Velaska that is. Not really." She glanced at Ephiny out of the corner of her eye, then back out the window. "I've seen mortals and gods much more dreadful than she could ever be. Her hunting me was definitely scary," she admitted candidly, "but I've been in more terrible situations and seen far more dangerous people than her since she came after me and destroyed the village. Goddess or no goddess." She abruptly turned away from the light and sat cross-legged on her bed.
Gabrielle's eyes caught and held her Regent's, her gaze deepening to a dark leaf green, but it was the pain and the exhaustion that was most obvious to the Amazon. "Have a seat, Ephiny. This will take a while."
She didn't leave out a single detail, going from Poseidon's cruelty to the Jade Dolphin's crew to Caesar and his Romans' bloodthirsty sport in the Coliseum. Describing the Catacombs and the days the women had spent down in the black depths was more difficult, but it had been easy in comparison to telling her about what had happened in the Underworld.
Ephiny had been silent, listening politely to Gabrielle's story, until the bard finally finished her tale. The sun had long been laid to rest, but neither woman had noticed since the room was lit from the glow of the torches outside and a single candle on the table.
"Ares is dead?" She could barely get the words out. Gods were immortal. They did't die. It was a concept that was completely foreign to Ephiny. She didn't think that anyone would ever believe that the God of War was dead...and that he'd been replaced by a goddess who had once been mortal.
Gabrielle nodded in sympathy. She understood Ephiny's disbelief. In fact, if she hadn't seen it for herself, she knew that she would have found it just as impossible to believe as Ephiny did.
"And that bit about the Underworld? That's true?" she asked as she ran a trembling hand through her curly locks.
"Yep. I still feel like I've got sand in some places," Gabrielle replied with a weary grin.
"And...and...ummm..." Ephiny's voice cracked. She was having a very difficult time with all of this. She was used to hearing some pretty wild tales from Gabrielle, but this...this was way beyond her experience. The amazon knew that her friend's comment about Velaska was true—Gabrielle had seen things far worse than Velaska had ever wished to be. "Chosen? Artemis? You?" she barely managed to get the words out.
Gabrielle frowned at the words, remembering those few moments after Artemis had stunned her with her offer.
"Chosen?" Green eyes blinked in bewilderment. Surely, Artemis hadn't said what Gabrielle thought she had said.
"Yes, Gabrielle. You did hear me correctly," Artemis assured the bard as she unstrung her bow and made it disappear. It would come to her hand if needed.
"Artemis..." Hades growled in warning. The God of the Dead wasn't pleased at his niece's willingness to keep interfering.
"I know what I'm doing, Uncle."
"Are you sure? Or are you still reacting to Aphrodite's involvement?" The dark god raised an eyebrow in question. "Are you more concerned with helping Xena and Gabrielle or getting revenge against Callisto and Aphrodite?"
"I won't lie to you. I'm worried about what Callisto's plans are. She's already killed Ares - what's to stop her from hunting each one of us down? Before, when she was just a mortal, this whole situation would have been unthinkable. We are, after all, almost completely impervious to death from mortals or immortals. Of us all, Ares had the most well known Achilles' Heel. Take his sword away and he is mortal. That won't work with Callisto. She's a goddess with or without the Sword of War. And yes, I know that even if we get Xena back to our side, she wouldn't be able to kill Callisto, since she's only a mortal and Callisto is a goddess. So, we have three choices that I can see," Artemis glanced over at the bard, "but only two of them I'm truly considering. If we have no option though, I'll kill Xena with my own hand if that will lessen Callisto's power."
Gabrielle hissed in surprise, but neither of the gods heard her. Killing Xena was definitely at the bottom of her list...even if that meant going against Artemis. But Gabrielle also knew that if there was no other way, Xena, the Xena she knew not Callisto's Chosen, would rather be dead than hurting innocents.
"Of the other two, either we start a war on Mt. Olympus as we try to destroy Callisto...and that option is one I think none of us truly wants." The goddess eyes narrowed as she continued. "The other viable choice is bringing Xena back. If we succeed, it might delay Callisto's plans...whatever they are."
Hades gestured absently at Gabrielle while frowning at his niece. "That's it? You plan on using her as your Chosen to accomplish...what? It doesn't rid us of Callisto by any means. It just deprives her of a weapon." The god snorted in disbelief. "No offense, Artemis, but she's a bard, not a warrior."
Gabrielle frowned at the implied insult. "Excuse me?"
"She's also an Amazon Queen, Uncle. She can do this and if she succeeds and brings Xena back, then we have Callisto's weapon. It will be worth the risk."
"Queen by accident, I believe. Tell me, who should have received the rite of caste from Terreis?" he asked, even though he knew the answer. He had to show Artemis that her plan had too many flaws to work.
"It doesn't matter. It went to Gabrielle. She may not have been born of Amazon blood, but I couldn't be any more pleased to have her rule over the Nation."
"Excuse me..." the bard tried to interrupt again, but was ignored.
"But you expect her to stand up against Ares' Chosen. Perhaps if Athena had her own Chosen, this plan of yours might work and we would have a chance. As it is, you're doomed to failure. Your Queen will die and Callisto will come after you," Hades said harshly.
"We?" Artemis smiled at Hades' words. "Does this mean you plan on helping me?"
Artemis and Hades turned to the indignant bard, their eyes widening in surprise.
Gabrielle nervously lowered her hands from her hips as the two gods gave her their full attention. She hadn't meant to get quite that loud. "I mean...um, pardon me for interrupting, but I'm standing right here."
Hades raised a gloved hand to his mouth and coughed softly, his eyes twinkling in amusement. Catching Artemis' annoyed glare aimed towards him, he lowered his arm and smiled at the mortal woman reassuringly. "I apologize, Gabrielle. That's the second time we've done that to you. It was rude of us to speak as if you weren't here."
Artemis nodded at the bard, silently giving her apology. "Look, Gabrielle, in the end the decision is yours. I really shouldn't be interfering and I'm sure if Father knew about this he would be most upset with me, but we don't have very many options. If we want to save Xena and defeat Callisto, we have to take some chances."
"Not with Xena's life, you won't."
Artemis blinked, rather astonished that a mere mortal, even if she was the Amazon Queen, was being so forceful with her. "Gabrielle, if I have to, I'll use Xena against Callisto even if it means her death." The goddess' eyes were hard as she spoke, then softened as she saw the fear in Gabrielle's own green eyes. "But I don't think that will be necessary. As my Chosen, when you confront her you'll be faster and stronger than you are now. You'll need it to survive long enough to bring her back from insanity and Callisto's grip. You're the only one I believe who can do it, Gabrielle. And once you have her back..." Artemis smiled encouragingly, letting her Queen know that she had no doubt that the young woman was more than capable of completing the task, "then I'm sure Xena can help us come up with a plan to control Callisto. After all, who better to know the Goddess of War's weaknesses than her own Chosen?"
Gabrielle closed her eyes and raised her fingers to her temples, gently rubbing them to try and ease the tension there. She was beginning to understand Xena's aversion to the gods in general. The bard was feeling like a pawn on a great chessboard, and she knew she wasn't far from the truth.
"Gabrielle?" Ephiny said with concern. "I'm sorry. I should let you sleep. It sounds like it's been a few days since you've had some rest and you're still half dead."
Dropping her hands back into her lap, the bard opened her red rimmed eyes and shrugged. "I don't know if I want to sleep, to be honest. The only dreams I've had lately are nightmares." She shook her head slightly as if to drive the darkness and the demons of her dreams out of her mind. "I told Artemis I needed time to think about it. A day at least. I can barely think as it is right now, let alone trust myself to make a good decision about what to wear to bed. Deciding whether or not to become Artemis' Chosen is a choice that I need to make tomorrow, after I've had some sleep," she said wryly.
"So she brought you here to rest and make up your mind?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah. It was the only place I could think of. Poteidaia was were I lived as a child, but the Amazons are where I feel most at home."
"When you're not with Xena you mean," Ephiny pointed out, trying to hide her resentment. She felt guilty about wanting Gabrielle to visit her people more often, but in an odd way she understood the younger woman's need to be with Xena. Gabrielle was just one of those people who needed to go out into the world and experience life instead of letting it come to her. Traveling with Xena gave her that...and much more. It wasn't an easy life their Queen had chosen, but it was one that seemed to make her happy. And to Ephiny, that was all that mattered.
The bard pursed her lips thoughtfully and narrowed her eyes at Ephiny slightly. "Xena means a lot to me, Ephiny. She always has. I..." her voice trailed off, as she tried to find the words to express herself. The trouble was that there weren't words enough to describe her and Xena's relationship to each other. It went beyond friendship...and love.
Ephiny sighed softly and stood up. Standing next to the bed Gabrielle sat on, the Amazon reached out a hand and squeezed her friend's shoulder in sympathy. "Get some rest, Gabrielle. We'll talk more tomorrow. All right?"
At the thought of being able to close her eyes and sleep, Gabrielle yawned and patted Ephiny's hand. "Sleep. Mmm..." She lay back into the pillows, not bothering with the blankets. It was still warm enough to sleep without them and she found she didn't really have the strength to gather them up around herself anyway.
The Amazon Regent gazed down fondly at her friend for several long moments, then turned and cleared the table, taking the tray with her as she made her way out of the hut. Pausing at the door she gave the bard one last look to make sure she was asleep.
Poseidon. Caesar. Ares dead. Callisto the Goddess of War and Xena her Chosen. Hades and Artemis. Ephiny sighed again and shook her head in disbelief as she quietly made her way out the door. I don't think I'd give up living here with my Amazons and go through what Gabrielle does, for anything.
Xena stopped as soon as she saw the tent on the far hill. She could sense the goddess inside from this distance, even though most of that was through their connection.
The warrior's muscular form trembled as she whispered the name in her mind. Now that the hot thirst, that had plagued her for most of her journey, was close to being slaked, she forced her pulse to slow and her mind to clear. If she was going to match wits against Callisto, she'd need to be under her own control again and not lulled by the fiery sweetness of this realm nor the seductive lure of her goddess.
Her heart finally slowed and her thoughts becoming more clear as Xena used her vast experience as both a warrior and Chosen to settle herself. Only her eyes showed the darkness that surged within her like a tidal wave, glittering in the near-darkness of the dim red sun.
Only when she believed she was ready to face Callisto did Xena take those final steps to the huge black pavilion.
Xena pulled back the tent flap. A roaring fire, set in the central fire pit inside, lit up the huge tent. Callisto was sitting across from the entrance, the fire between them, her body casually sprawled on the black and silver embossed throne set up on a small dais. Her brown eyes glittered in the firelight, as they inspected Xena.
Holding her gaze for only a moment, Xena felt anticipation, amusement, and even deep-seeded hostility, radiating from the goddess.
Stepping into the tent, she let the flap fall closed behind her as she removed the large bundle of bloody furs off her shoulders and tossed it onto the carpeted ground.
Callisto took pleasure in drawing out the name as she watched Xena try and control a shiver of delight. It seemed as if her Chosen had decided to try and restrain her darkness. The goddess chuckled to herself, pleased that Xena was already playing the game. "You finally made it...and you brought me a present? How thoughtful of you."
Only giving the blonde goddess a quick, bored look, Xena glanced away again and surveyed the tent for any other inhabitants, glad to see that it was just her and Callisto. This first real meeting between Goddess and Chosen was not something that was shared with others, not even other gods. The scene of her own meeting with Ares long ago, when she'd fought her way here, had been almost surreal in its intensity. Two forces meeting both physically and mentally. It still gave her chills to think about it.
Xena dampened her reaction at the memory as she felt Callisto's mirth rising within her. She doubted this meeting would be the same with Callisto, but one never knew. The warrior had learned not to underestimate anyone, let alone her longtime nemesis.
Her cold gaze continued to scan the roomy tent, stopping here and there on a certain sword or other item that she remembered, or which held some significance to her. Spotting one particular piece she stepped forward and picked it up.
"It's yours if you want it. I found it in Rome, gathering dust in Caesar's palace, but I think Ares had two or three others like it lying around here somewhere if you don't like that one," the goddess offered as she eyed Xena with hidden annoyance. Her Chosen was far too controlled for her needs. Well then, I'm just going to have to do something about that, aren't I? Tyger, tyger burning bright...let's see how much fur I can singe tonight.
A corner of the warrior's lips lifted up slightly at Callisto's tone. The dance between them had indeed begun. The anticipation of their encounter tingled in her blood, sending another exquisite shiver up her spine.
Xena set the familiar Amazon war staff back against the tent pole. It held no significance to her anymore.
Waving a careless hand at the contents of the tent she turned back to the blonde goddess. "This really isn't your style, Callisto. I'm surprised you haven't cleared things out, put in a lava pit, and a few rats for ambiance."
"That's what Strife and Discord are for." The goddess grinned impishly, then shrugged. "It's better than nothing."
Xena paced around the edge of the fire to a chair that had been set across from Callisto. It was on ground level, just below the height of Callisto's dais, making it much lower compared to the goddess' throne. Xena didn't bother to keep the smirk off of her face as she looked at the piece of furniture. Its plain, unadorned wood, when compared to her throne, was Callisto's way of trying to keep her off balance.
The warrior nodded her thanks as she lowered herself like a queen claiming her kingdom. "Very comfortable," she purred. "So, you've got Ares' little tagalongs with you now? What do you need me for?"
"Ahh...Xena. You are for the greatest plan of all."
"Killing Ares and taking his mantle wasn't enough for you?" the dark-haired woman replied with mock disbelief. It didn't surprise her really. Callisto had always wanted everything beyond her grasp, even Xena herself. Now she had her and she wanted more.
"Ares was a fool. Easily led by his desire for you. It was so simple to get him to come to Rome after you." Callisto paused, her eyebrows drawing down in thought. "Well, not too simple. It did take some planning on my part. Anyway," she smiled, "God...Chosen, it's all a two edged sword, Xena. Ares let it cut him too deeply. I plan on using that edge, instead of letting it use me."
"Using the edge or using me?" the warrior asked, her voice lowering slightly in warning.
"Aren't they the same thing?"
"I had a great teacher. 'Always keep them guessing.' Isn't that what you say?" Callisto nodded at her teacher. "Now, how about if I give you a gift? It's not often that I give you presents, Xena."
"A gift? From you? This should be deliciously painful."
"You have no idea." Callisto smiled. She felt like a sleek cat playing with a mouse. She had to be careful though, this mouse was really a lioness underneath. "The best presents are always the painful ones, Xena. We remember them so much longer that way. You know all about that, of course. Cirra was a very special gift. Just like Perdicus was one for both you and Gabrielle."
Xena changed the subject. There was no guilt within her for Gabrielle's dead husband now and the thought of talking about Callisto's childhood village again bored her. "You surprised me, you know. Taking Ares' head. Wanting me as your Chosen. I thought you were going to come after me in that arena."
"You wish to talk about Ares again? What? You don't want your present?" Callisto lifted her slim legs and turned sideways on her throne, hanging them over an armrest. After a long moment of silence, as she scrutinized Xena, she sighed and spoke. "Oh, very well. You're the key, Xena." The goddess pointed at her Chosen and grinned. "That's why I need you."
"More riddles?" the warrior snorted softly and picked at a dried bloodstain on her thigh. "All right, I'll play. If I'm the key, what's the lock?"
"Ahhh...that would be me. You're the key to me, Xena. You're the key to everything about me and what I want. I'm patterned after my creator after all. The flames of Cirra may have been my womb, but you molded me." The flames reflected in Callisto's eyes seemed to leap and dance at her words. You've always been the key to me, she purred through their bond into Xena's mind. A wave of thick madness surged along with the words to explode inside the warrior. It was only with great difficulty that Xena ignored it's pleasing call.
"And in the tradition of the gods you used to want to destroy your parent. Why the change?" Xena asked, her voice amazingly clear.
"Who said my plans have changed?" the Goddess of War hissed then paused thoughtfully. "What do you care about, Xena?"
Xena stood up and walked around the fire pit towards Callisto, keeping her intense gaze on the goddess' liquid brown eyes. The silence of the tent was broken only by the crackling of the fire and her own light footsteps as she sauntered closer. The tall warrior stood before her goddess and let a lazy smile caress her lips. She reached down, with her long fingers, between her breasts and retrieved her dagger. A low chuckle escaped her as she saw Callisto's eyes follow her movements, then return to her eyes. A warm surge caressed their link, but Xena couldn't tell who it originated from.
"Death," she finally replied, holding her breast dagger lightly in one hand and twirling the sharp point into a finger on her other.
"Ahhh...you are so close to the truth," Callisto's head fell back and she gasped in pleasure at Xena's answer. The emotion rippled back and forth between the two, making them both shiver. After several heartbeats of time, when both had recovered, Callisto spoke again. "Didn't Gabrielle mean anything to you? I know she did. It was so obvious." She rolled her eyes for effect.
"Illusion. It meant nothing. She fell. She died. I feel much better now," Xena assured her as she ran a thumb down the edge of her dagger's blade.
"I don't believe you," Callisto sneered and swung her legs back around so that she was face to face with her Chosen. "You came back from the dead for her. You even killed me so that she wouldn't dirty her little hands doing it!"
Xena leaned closer towards the goddess as she lifted a foot onto the dais' step and rested an elbow on her knee. "Believe it," she growled. "War has always been my true nature. Not some would-be hero helping others. I am a killer. You know that better than anyone and I know you can feel it inside of me, as you feel it within yourself. Death is in my blood. Destruction is my right hand and desolation my left." She waved her hands to emphasize her point.
"Oh, I believe you. I just think there's a small part of you hidden away, waiting and watching for its chance to escape," Callisto laughed softly, amused by the thought. "It's the part of you that loves and cares," she sneered. "In fact, I'm counting on it."
Blood encrusted midnight black hair shook slightly as Xena stepped back, showing her disgust with Callisto's choice of words. "Perhaps I was wrong. You know nothing of the power you possess, do you?" she snarled. "You emulate me, but do you truly understand?"
"I understand," Callisto insisted as she send a wave of annoyance through their bond. "I hunger for what you hunger for. I thirst for what you thirst for. Death. Destruction. Complete annihilation of your enemies and whomever stands in your way. But do you know what my desires are, Xena?"
Xena laughed. The answer was a simple one. "You want to destroy all I loved, thereby destroying me. Old news, Callisto. You tried, but now it doesn't matter anymore, because I care for nothing."
"Really?" A blonde eyebrow lifted. "Will you conquer everything for me then?"
"The world? I dream of it." Xena snorted and placed the dagger back in its hiding place.
"What else will you destroy for me?" the goddess asked with a feral smile. "Your mother?"
"Mommy dearest? Who turned her back on me and killed my father?" Xena's eyes gleamed, Callisto's mad glee mixing with her own. "I don't think she'll be much of a challenge, but it should still be fun. I'm tired of having to feel guilty over my brother's death. I'm tired of it all."
"What about Amphipolis? Your home village which made you an outcast and cursed your name for so long?"
"Do you want me to raze it to the ground?" Xena asked. "It's not really worth the time, but anything to make you happy. That is what you wanted once isn't it? Destroy Amphipolis? You tried, but I'll be the one to accomplish it." The warrior seemed to almost purr as Callisto's anger spiked for a moment between them.
"How about Greece, herself?"
"It shall be sown in blood and ground beneath the feet of my army," the mortal assured the goddess with an insolent grin.
Callisto nodded her approval, then paused dramatically for an instant before going on. "Caesar?"
"Caesar?" Xena frowned. "That's not someone I love, Callisto."
"Obsession. Love. Same thing," she pointed out.
Xena pursed her lips thinking about the point, then asked a question of her own. "If that's true, do you lo..." She hesitated, smiling once again as she leaned so closely to Callisto that her breath warmed the goddess' cheek, "I mean...are you obsessed with me?"
The lithe blonde widened her eyes in mock surprise, but she couldn't hide her feelings from her bonded. "You don't know the answer by now, Xena? Not as observant as I thought you were. Gabrielle asked me once what I felt when I made you make that public apology...you remember that day don't you?" At the warrior's nod, she continued. "I told her that I don't feel anything anymore."
"That wasn't really the truth, now was it?" Xena admonished.
Callisto gave an amused little snort. "What is truth but the illusions each of us sees? You see the world differently than I do...at least you used to. Your illusions...your truth are different than mine. Now of course, you and I see the world in the same light. A world drowning in a sea of warm blood and lit up by the fires of burning villages."
"I never took you for a philosopher, Callisto."
"Madness is a philosophy all its own," the goddess replied. "Come Xena, tell me what else you'll do for me." The blonde woman's teeth flashed in a bright smile as she leisurely looked her Chosen up and down.
"Amphipolis? Mother? Greece? The rest of the world crushed? That isn't enough for you?"
Callisto rolled her eyes, her smile faded. "And you were so close."
Ice blue eyes narrowed in thought as Xena eyed the goddess who sat so casually on her carved throne. "You think there's some part of me that won't go along with your plan? That I'll fight you? What do I have to do to convince you?"
Gracefully rising from her chair, which forced Xena to straighten up, Callisto stood face to face with the dark warrior. "I'm disappointed in you, but not completely surprised. You're usually one step ahead of me, Xena, but not this time. This time I trapped you as soon as you set foot on that ship." She reached out a slim finger and pressed it lightly against the blood-encrusted flesh over the warrior's breastbone. "And now...now you're mine."
Xena was beginning to lose patience and it showed. Her iron control was starting to slip. "What do you want, Callisto? This conversation is beginning to get rather old," she asked testily.
"What do I want? What do I want?" she asked herself. "That is the question, isn't it?" Glittering brown eyes closed partially as Callisto let her head fall back onto her shoulders for a moment. She could feel the warrior's growing frustration and it gave her a sense of power...and pleasure.
Callisto stepped down from the dais and brushed past the mortal woman, glancing over her shoulder and giving her a brazen smirk, then stopping in front of the roaring fire set in the middle of the tent.
Xena could feel the almost abnormal heat coming from the goddess as her skin had momentarily come in contact with her own. She shivered in response.
Turning her soft brown gaze to the hypnotic flames, Callisto observed them for a few moments, fully aware of Xena watching her at the same time.
Callisto loved fire...it had created her after all. This fire was special, feeding off her, its flames hungrily licking the air at her will. Not long ago, it had gone out when its previous master had died, but it now lived again and served a new mistress. Like the dark throne, which faced it, the bonfire was a symbol of Callisto's authority as Goddess of War. But unlike that piece of carved wood and intricate silver, it was much more than a symbol. It was alive, an elemental creature fed by the blonde goddess.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" the goddess asked, but didn't both waiting for an answer. "Alive and so very hungry. It would eat anything in its path if it was free, but it's trapped here...just like I am." The last words were barely a whisper, but Xena heard them nonetheless and felt the emptiness Callisto radiated through their link.
The dark warrior felt their bond abruptly sharpen, as Callisto took it firmly in her mental grasp. It was almost a painful feeling, but also pleasurable. She gasped softly at the sensation, unable to control her reaction. This close to Callisto, she was more vulnerable to the goddess' emotions and will. But the Chosen/Goddess bond went two ways, if Xena was strong enough and determined.
Callisto turned around to face her Chosen, her back almost in the flames, her hands on her hips, and a dark smile gracing her lips.
"Come here," she ordered with both her voice and will.
Xena had no choice but to take a step towards the fire, the compulsion was too powerful and sweet. Callisto had obviously learned her lessons well, in regards to their bond, and was more than willing to use all her immortal strength and will against the warrior.
Blue eyes darkened and reflected the flickering glow of the flames, as Xena let her anger grow within. She tried to use its power to fight the urge to comply with Callisto, but she was failing. And that just made her more angry.
"No!" she hissed though clenched teeth.
The blonde goddess gave her an amused chuckle. "As if you have any choice in the matter, Xena dear. Now, be a good girl and come closer...yes, that's it." She nodded in approval as her warrior took the last few steps and stood in front of her. Callisto took in the long length of Xena, the power, the lethal grace of her and breathed in the smell of blood that was her aroma. The bond trembled with pleasure between them.
"Damn you!" Xena growled impotently, her anger evolving into a white-hot fury that raged within her. She tried again to use her anger against Callisto, but the goddess seemed to be taking the emotional barrage Xena threw at her and growing stronger.
"Aren't you ready to give up yet?" A pale eyebrow rose high under equally pale blonde locks in question. "You are a bit out of practice aren't you? I'm the Goddess of War remember? Murderous rage is my thing. It feeds me, Xena. Gives me power."
"I'll kill you for this! Ares never dared to..."
"Oh please," Callisto interupted and rolled her eyes in disgust, "Like I said, Ares was a fool and a wimp. He could have kept you on his leash if he'd tried hard enough." She locked her gaze with Xena's. "And I plan on keeping you on mine."
"I won't be controlled, Callisto! I refuse! I'll deny you just as I did Ares, if that's what it'll take!" Xena started to reach back for her sword, but Callisto raised her hand and brushed a finger along the warrior's arm, immobilizing the woman's body with her power.
"I don't want to control you, Xena. On the contrary, I want you wild. I want you so furious and full of loathing that you'll..." She paused and waved her finger back and forth in the air. "No. No. Not yet. I'm not going to tell you if you can't figure it out for yourself. I'm only giving you one present today, not two."
"Callisto, let me go!"
"Fine. I'll release you if you do one thing for me," Callisto promised with an impish grin. She was enjoying herself immensely.
Xena struggled for a moment, her muscles straining, a faint sheen of sweat breaking out on her body and moistening the crusted blood on her skin so it looked fresh. Finally, still unable to move she snapped, "What do you want?"
Callisto stepped up so that her body was a hairsbreadth away from Xena's. Looking up into the mortal's angrily flashing eyes she whispered, "Kneel."
"NO!" the warrior hissed in outrage. She had never kneeled to a soul and she wasn't about to begin now. Frustrated, Xena began to struggle anew against Callisto's will and her frozen limbs. The strain was so great that her vision began to darken, her breath growing harsh and loud in her ears. She could feel everything through the link that held her and Callisto together, the goddess' amusement, her sense of retribution and even her respect for Xena's struggle. But try as she might she was having a difficult time using her own emotions as a weapon this time. Callisto was just too close, too focused, and too insane. But oh...it felt so good to struggle.
Callisto cocked her head to the side and looked puzzled. "You know, I think you're enjoying this. No sane person would go though all the pain and suffering you're putting yourself though right now just to be difficult." She giggled as a thought came to her. Reaching up, she ran a slim finger along Xena's jaw.
The caress felt cool against the warrior's overheated skin, but while it was pleasurable, at the same time she would rather have had a viper touch her.
"On second thought, you're almost as raving mad as I am now, so perhaps you are enjoying this. Hmm?"
Xena had no time to prepare herself as Callisto's finger started to glow, then abruptly erupt in flames. The goddess trailed her index finger down Xena's cheek, around her chin and up the other side of her face, laughing at the screams of agony that were torn from her victim.
It was too much. The fire within and without was too much, too luscious and too agonizing painful. The darkness swept up around her and held her close in its shadowy arms and dragged her down into its depths.
Callisto raised her hand in front of her face and stared at the flames for a heartbeat or two, then pursed her lips and blew them out. Then leaning down, she picked Xena up and held her almost gently in her powerful arms.
"Hate me, Xena. Let the little hero that's hidden inside scream for my blood." Lowering her head, she brushed her lips against her burden's forehead then gave the unconscious woman a sad, forlorn look. "Then...then you'll finally be ready."
Callisto stayed in that position for several moments, just gazing down at her nemesis' face. After what seemed like hours, she finally smiled. "Now, let's go give you your present, shall we?"
Holding Xena close to her body, she started walking towards the tent wall, disappearing in a flash of fire and light.
To be continued in Part Six, the conclusion of Passage Into Darkness
Yep, it's been awhile since I worked on this, hasn't it? I hope it hasn't been so long that you all are lost now. *G* The good news is that Passage Into Darkness is almost complete. I figure that one more part after this one, ought to finish it off. Then I'll move on to "Chains of Love" (tentative title of the third installment in the Sword of War Trilogy)
I'd like to apologize to everyone for Part Five taking so long to come out, but I do have a good excuse. I lost my focus on it. At the time Part Four came out Maternal Instincts and Bitter Suite, had already aired, as well as When In Rome, with the season ending Sacrifice I and Sacrifice II around the corner. Basically, what happened is that I no longer felt comfortable with my plot line after these episodes. Now though, after watching a Herculean load of tapes, I've come up with a way to use my plot line. So I'm back in business. Also, another reason why this took so long to come out, was that I got tired and worn out. Writing short stories takes a completely different mind frame than an epic and isn't as wearing, IMHO. That's why I wrote about five or so and quit working on...And Beyond and Passage Into Darkness. But never fear, I'm back in the groove and though I'm still not writing anything on...And Beyond right now, I'm definitely back in the flow on the other.
Anyway, enough of my babble. I promise I won't take so long to come out with Passage Into Darkness - Part Six. I've got the outline already written out and I know exactly how I'm going to ruin your week. *VBEG* Muhahahaha!
"Bard? Where? How do you spell that? G.A.B.R.I.E.L.L.E.I.S.T.O.A.S.T.Y."
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