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PART 3

WAR OF THE GODS

CHAPTER 12

Conscience does make cowards of us all.
Hamlet

Xenaís first sensation upon regaining consciousness was that to of feeling cold. Cold air. Cold (and hard) ground under her. And a cold, yet all too familiar, voice speaking well off to the right of where she lay.

"Youíre fortunate that youíve created a creature of such will power as myself" Callisto said with ambivalent amusement. "A lesser, more impatient, enemy with no where near my intelligence and focus would have done all those cruel things I thought about doing to you while you were unconscious. Lucky for you, that I truly want you to suffer at my hands, intimately." There was an audible sigh. "But it was delicious to think about anyway. The imagination can be such a thing of joy - if you hadnít killed my human capacity to feel anything like joy when you murdered my family, that is."

Xena, having finished her self-inventory while the other woman talked, had become fairly sure that she was relatively unharmed. She carefully sat up and opened her eyes.

A dungeon, she mentally sighed, how typical.

She immediately noticed that, although she was still fully clothed, she had been stripped of every hidden weapon she had. Even her belt and the laces of her shirt had been removed. The second thing she noticed was that Callisto, who was in the cell adjoining her own, was in similar disarray yet the bracelet of the manacles of Haepheastus was still on one arm. Ignoring her, Xena studied their surroundings. In an underground level, so no windows, torchlight though none were within reach. Their cells were large and part of a row with another row of identical ones across from them. The cell itself was spacious, a good 20 by 35 feet with high rock, cavernous ceiling. Built into a mountain then, so maybe not underground so much as within the ground. Maybe. The cell was also completely bare. Not a single stick of furniture, only the natural stone floor and dirt. It even lacked a single pebble. She approached the bars. Unusual. Metal perhaps but nothing man-made. They had an odd, brassy tone that seemed to move and as she found out - did. As soon as she moved her hand toward a bar, spikes jabbed toward her. It was only her incredible reflexes that saved her hand from being impaled. The large thorns sullenly withdrew into the shifting pattern of the bars. Another odd thing, there was no door.

Finally, Xena turned to regard Callisto whoís eyes had followed Xena continuously through the space and bars between them. "I donít suppose that while you were busy Ďimaginingí all those torments and the other petty crudities you wanted to inflict on me, that you Ďimaginedí a way out of here?"

"Petty crudities." Callisto did not move from where she sat, cross legged, resting her chin against her palm. "Iím really beginning to think that you donít respect my art."

"The insight on the insane Callisto."

"The tyranny of the would-be righteous Xena. But no, I havenít a clue on how to escape. I guess that means that you didnít come up with one of your brilliant ideas."

"Not yet anyway."

"Gosh, Xena," she said with dry imitation, "youíre not leaving much for an arch-enemy rival to strive for right now."

"For once", even dryer, "Iím actually sorry to disappoint you."

"I do have to say that youíre taking your petís transition to evil much better than I would have expected."

"First of all", Xenaís words were clipped, "Gabrielle is no oneís pet. Secondly, sheís obviously under someoneís control."

"Oh Xena", a sigh of disgusted disbelief, "donít tell me youíre actually in denial! Ugh, you really have gone downhill since you stopped being one of the bad guys."

"You underestimate Gabrielle." Xena stated flatly.

"No", Callisto was more insistent than angry, "youíre the one underestimating her. You only experienced her twist of nature for a moment. I had quite the Ďchatí with her before she had me knocked out and thrown in here ... it was everything I am. Actually," she paused thoughtfully, "she may be even more devious, after all, look how easily she captured both of us."

"She didnít capture us, Loki did. Heís probably the one whoís done something to her."

"Yeah, sure."

Xena gave Callisto a fierce glare of indigo blue.

Anyone else would have been scorched. Callisto merely continued thinking out loud. "The way she know you, better than anyone. Well, that could make her an even more formidable foe than I am. After all, knowledge is a better weapon against an enemy than any other tool. And with the way you feel about her, you probably couldnít even fight back. That gives her quite the advantage, if she uses it. And I think she just might."

"Look, Callisto," her face was drawn and austere, "it looks like weíre going to be here awhile so do you think you could quit the head games that arenít working anyway, since we both know Gabrielleís one of the purest souls thatís ever existed, and focus on getting out of here? As much as we donít like it, weíre going to have to work together to escape."

"Youíre right", then she quickly amended, "about the last part. The rest though, what sentimental garbage. Think back Xena, Iíve never lied to you. Not once, not even when it would have meant you releasing me when you took me to trial after our first meeting as warriors. As much as you despise me, you must admit that Iím an honest monster. Everything I said about your precious friend is the truth. At another time I might enjoy the situation and itís irony more but if we are going to get out of here, you need to face the reality that the enemy weíre escaping is her."

"You donít understand Callisto nor could you. She was faced with the same choice we were: whether to let her pain become hate and twist her but she didnít ... not even when you murdered her husband right before her eyes. Gabrielleís stronger than either of us in ways you arenít ready to comprehend. If sheís acting against her nature, then sheís acting against her will. Sheís too good a person to be turned against herself. Someoneís controlling her and thatís that." Xena turned away and began re-examining the cell again.

"You know what they say, " Callisto said under her breath, "about all good things..."

If Xena heard her, she made no sign of it.


The woman who now ruled over the Hall and those within, sat upon the throne which Loki had vacated earlier and looked upon those servants who now kneeled and abased themselves before her with unveiled distaste as some cried out her name with shouts of "Down with the Aesir" and "Ragnarok! Ragnarok!"

"Well," Gabrielleís voice was leaden, "do you really expect me to be impressed?"

At that, a couple of followers disembowelled themselves in hopes of pleasing the prospective harbinger of the end of the world.

Gabrielle was non-plussed. She waved her hand and in authoritative tones imperiously directed all within the chamber. "Clean those idiots off my floor, clear my room and leave me in peace!"

In the time it would take to light an already lit torch, it was done.

Alone at last, she sighed where she sat.

Well, almost alone.

Her most loyal supporter, moved from behind the throne to come around and lay himself at her feet, his head in her lap and looking up into her pensive gaze.

"They," Chaosí words flowed smoothly and more sweetly than honey, "do not please you with their talk of glory?"

"Should they?" She didnít really care about the answer.

"Ambition", he answered, "is considered a great evil. To destroy the world and remake it, rule it, holds no lure for you then?"

"To rule means to command, to command one must lead. To lead, one must reach into the hearts of many with promises of fame, fortune or pain." she said dully as if bored or fatigued. "I have no interest in others."

Chaosí smile was a sigh of love. "I adore you for it." he said.

She ran her hands through the silky night of his hair. "I donít know if I can feel adoration or love anymore. I do want something though, so much that it divests me of all other desire."

"And what", his lavender-gold gaze caressed her pursed lips, "do you want so badly?"

Gabrielle smiled, "Youíll see."

Xena immediately recognized Gabrielleís footsteps coming down the corridor. When she saw her friend she rushed to the bars but stopped herself just before the bars reacted. Seeing Gabrielle safe, just seeing her at all, stopped all other thought and made Xena catch her breath.

Gabrielle came right up to the bars which lay dormant at her touch. "Itís okay Xena." She had read the concern and the need in the light blue eyes. "We can touch through the bars."

Never doubting, Xena did not hesitate to reach through the bars and embrace her friend. The bars did not react. Unshed tears of relief burned her eyes but did not fall. The eternity of a moment. It seemed that almost all they had were stolen moments between dangers, within dangers. Xena would take whatever she was given and pray that it would be enough for the both of them.

"Youíre alright." said Xena when they broke apart, their hands still touching though the bars.

"I hope you understand" said Gabrielle earnestly, "I knew you were walking into a trap so I made a deal with Loki that I would give him the stone in return for our safety. It was the only way I could think of to keep us from getting stomped." She grinned. "Literally."

"Itís okay", Xena was relieved, "I know you were just trying to keep us safe. How could you know that Loki couldnít be trusted. Now quick, if you know how to get us out of here, then do it now before the guards come back."

Gabrielle shook her head in puzzlement. "Get us out?"

"Callisto and me." Her puzzlement matched Gabrielleís. "We canít leave her here, even if sheís earned it. We have to make sure she canít hurt anyone else. If we leave her in some strange land, who knows what she may do once she gets loose."

"I see." Gabrielle pulled her hands away.

"So," Xena still did not understand, "do you know how to open this and get us out of here? How many guards are there, and are they human?"

"Us." This was spoken too low for Xena to hear, though the rest was audible. "The bars are all the guards that this place needs." Gabrielle said with an odd casualness. "They were made by dwarves. Loki had tricked them into it, making it a competition of pride between two different sets of dwarf brothers as to who could make the most ingenious bars. Neat, huh?"

"What about getting us out of here to safety?" Xena was pulled between impatience and a sudden sense of trepidation.

"You are safe." Gabrielle looked up at her, looked into her, "No one can hurt you in here. Thatís why I had you put here."

"You?" Now Xena moved away from the bars. A fight against comprehension and the suffering it would bring was raging inside her.

"Told you." Callisto finally spoke from her captive spot of observation. "So much for the friendship of a lifetime, hmm?"

Xena, confused and now angry, turned her back to Gabrielle and faced Callisto. Hence, why she was unable to see how Gabrielleís expression changed when Xena wasnít watching. "And I told you to shut-up. Gabrielle must have her reasons. Gabrielle?"

She looked back at her friend whose expression suddenly saddened. "Of course I have my reasons. Look Xena, I have to go now but Iíll send someone to get you soon. First promise youíll have dinner with me and hear me out, okay?"

"Okay ..." Confusion whirled.

Xena watched Gabrielle withdraw down the corridor. Nearing the bars, again they reacted violently to Xenaís proximity. The strangeness of their discussion mangled her thoughts. Stranger still was the recollection of a bad dream that kept trying to reach up through her sub-conscious. Something about a cage ... ?

And why did the shadow of that memory chill her to her very soul?

 

CHAPTER 13

 

Struck mute with anger and plagued by fears, the pounding in her heart was accompanied only by the ringing in her ears. Why, why was she dreaming all this? Being left by herself sheíd become her own anti-thesis. Within her were secrets that now began to choke her. And the time in strange places only stoked the fires of these long submerged memories. This was no dream. It was all as it seemed. Why, why were they all doing this, when it meant her being stuck with this jealousy and hatred with nothing to draw ease from. What , what could she do with this, when all her thoughts were savage fears from which no peaceful thoughts would come. There, there was no bridge to cross over to find a healing spring. There, there were no calm voices, only the one long, raging scream.

The Hall where she stood was now in a state of chaos. Tables and chairs were broken and overturned in a violent mosaic. A twist of tapestry was torn from wall to floor. Every vase, cup, jug and dish had been smashed against the barred doors. None of it silenced the rage, ended the nightmare or at least turned its page. The ruckus in her mind was worse than the upset in the room. And inside the bard, the taint became her only muse. And nothing seemed to fill the emptiness of her soul. And no amount of tears would wash this pestilence from her heart. Being already near broken, now she could only bend. Worried and beaten as she was, the crimson wine that bled into the carpet whispered to her, a plan with a bitter end.

 

CHAPTER 14

Ah, the moon`s too bright, the chain`s too tight,
The beast won`t go to sleep.
I`ve been running through these promises to you that
I made and could not keep.

Leonard Cohen

 

An exceptionally beautiful man. Clad in sable, yet not as dark as the night of his hair against the alabaster of his smooth skin, had appeared to escort Xena to her meeting with Gabrielle. From his parted lips there issued a hushed melody which caused the bars to sigh and part for the warrior princess to pass through. As she did, both she and Callisto had caught sight of a pair of wondrous,mismatched eyes; one appeared gold and the other lavender. The view was too quickly stolen away for either woman to stare. The graceful move of a slender hand pointed out the way. She went. She led the way, any turn being motioned with the quiet, light movements of her unusual and extraordinary escort.

Xena moved past a set of double doors to a single, beautifully carved one of golden oak. This, the man opened. The door whispered over the carpeted floor. Since she was meant to walk in, she did. The door closed in hushed tones behind her. Her escort had disappeared even more quietly than he had appeared.

The room, in many ways, was as becoming as the escort. Warm colours of fall; reds, greens and golds, woven in intricate tapestries hung on the walls and lay on the floor. A window, framed with oak similar to that of the door, was closed against the cold. Aromatic wood burning brightly in the fireplace added to the warmth and comfort of the room. The ceiling was a wonder, for a painter had impossibly rendered it to look like the night heavens; all blazing stars and constellations. Near the hearth, lit only by the fire, sat Gabrielle who had eyes only for Xena. Her legs were tucked partially to the side, her hands on her lap. In the middle of a lush carpet lay a rich selection of foods and delicacies on patterned platters of solid gold. Wine, dark and soothing, filled matching gold goblets of the finest engravings. Plush cushions were strewn around the feast.

Xena took all this in, in the few seconds of wonder a warriorís discipline would allow, yet it was the sight of Gabrielle among all this splendour that almost turned her willpower to dust. For as the escortís beauty was all surreal, of night and shadows, Gabrielle held all the beauty of the earth and the sun and the promise of spring. Her hair, which hung unbraided past her bare, slender shoulders, gleamed in the firelight like burnished gold. Even in the lambent light, Xena could tell the colour of the dress was powder blue. And although the shoulderless dress with wide sleeves and long skirt boasted no embroidery and was made only of homespun cotton, it draped and flowed on the young womanís body as would the finest, most costly silk. Xena felt a rush of heat to her face and wondered why, but found no answer. Torn between standing there breathless with heartache at the sight of her friend or to sit at the spot which had been cleared for her close to yet across from Gabrielle, Xena at last chose to sit, though her heart ached no less for it.

"I hope you donít mind." Gabrielle smiled shyly and looked in the fire. "I thought a picnic, even an extravagant one like this, might be nice."

"I like it." said Xena just as softly. "Though I feel a little under dressed." and smiled in return.

A hand lightly took the black cloth of one sleeve in her had as Gabrielle felt the material. "Donít. The colour suits you. Besides, you usually dislike dresses."

Xena felt the otherís almost touch and covered Gabrielleís hand with her own, to press it warmly against her arm. She looked down at her black tunic and pants and looked into the dark eyes that met hers, her lips quirked, "I only dislike the cumbersome ones. They donít allow me to move freely in case I ..."

"In case you have to fight." finished Gabrielle. How sad her face had become then. Her sanguine sorrow pierced the other woman with its beauty and loneliness.

"Did I ... say something wrong?"

Gabrielle was only partially successful at erasing the sorrow from her smile as she shook her head. "No, no. Please, eat! I can only imagine how famished you must be."

The tantalizing aroma of the food and wine along with the truth of Gabrielleís words about her being hungry, was all the urging Xena needed. They ate and drank mostly in silence, warm and comforting, so that the sadness of her friend became less palpable as time passed. At one point, friendly banter became the mock threat of a food fight. Mock only because Xena had refused, saying that she did not wish to ruin Gabrielleís dress, for she looked stunning in it. Gabrielle had blushed and relented yet when she opened her mouth to deny the compliment, Xena, prepared, had placed a chocolate delicacy into it, forcing her to swallow the heart felt flattery with the food. This then led to a different battle, in which each competed to feed the other. It led to much laughter and eventually, both body and heart sated by food and companionship, Xena lay with her head in Gabrielleís lap, an arm up with the hand laying lightly across the back of Gabrielleís neck. One of Gabrielleís hands was gently stroking Xenaís hair. Xenaís eyes were closed and she sang softly, her lips curved in contentment.

"I wish", the bard whispered below the lullaby, "it could be like this forever."

"Mmm" the golden melody ceased, yet no less sweet was all that the pale blue eyes, now open, silently communicated to the darker twins. One would have to say, that the love held there was by far the more treasured song. The most treasured of songs. "I wish it could too."

Gabrielle looked away, again, to the fire, lest she be burned by the far deeper blaze she felt in the woman in her arms. "You havenít asked me whatís going on yet."

"Youíll tell me when youíre ready." the promise of the understanding sought could be felt in Xenaís sincerity. "I can wait if I have to. I trust you Gabrielle."

Gabrielleís hand stopped moving in her hair as the other come to her mouth, vainly attempting to restrain the choked sob. Two clear pearls of translucent blue escaped from her eyes and rolled, unbidden, down her cheeks. Alarmed, Xena immediately sat up and took her friendís face in her hands, wiping the tears away with her thumbs. Gabrielle tried to turn away but Xenaís strength and unrelenting tenderness refused to allow this. Their foreheads leaned upon each others, their faces so close their lips almost touched.

"Please, please forgive me Xena." barely a whisper. "Itís the only way I could find to save us. To save you."

"Gabrielle", a caress of warm breath, "let me help you. Just tell me what youíve done."

Xena could feel Gabrielleís lips move, feather-light, just touching hers with the hushed words. "Iíve poisoned you."

At that, Xena pulled her face away and stared.

Gabrielleís eyes had never been more beseeching. "At first, it was just dreams and petty fears. Anger and jealousy. Things of ugliness that should never have come between us. I thought, and once we were separated after the godís hammer blow, I began to think and thatís when I realized that the strange, fantastical dreams werenít nightmares, they were portents, visions of what was to come."

"What", asked Xena, "what are you trying to tell me?"

Gabrielle covered the hands that still lay against the sides of her face. "Listen, listen to me. No matter what happens, it will never change. Thereíll always be some person or some town in dire need and youíll feel compelled to help. Thereíll always be some enemy; some warlord or monster that only you can defeat. Donít you see? Sooner or later one of those times will lead to your death. Sooner or later their desperation for help and your desperation to help will take you away from me. Even now, you turned from me to face Callisto. I couldnít bear to lose you Xena." She closed the ocean of her eyes against the pain that would not release her. "I went through that once and I canít go through it again."

"Xena, life itself can be redemption if you let it. I know you wouldnít give up your path on your own." She inhaled deeply, "So I had to help you, because - because of how I feel about you. Because of how I think we feel about each other. There was a poison in your wine - not fatal, but if you donít take the antidote within 2 days, youíll fall into a coma. Youíll still be able to hear and see and feel you just wonít be able to move. If you can understand me, see that Iím right," Gabrielle clasped the hands tightly, "then tomorrow night, when I come to you, all you have to do is promise me that youíll stay here with me and not let anyone take you away from me. Iíll give you the antidote and here weíll stay, happily ever after."

"And", filled with the horror of disbelief, "if I refuse."

"Then no antidote." The seriousness in Gabrielleís eyes hit hers like a blow. "And you stay here with me caring for you. I promise you, you wonít suffer. Iíll read and talk and bathe and clothe you. Youíll be safe. Weíll be together."

"Gabrielle ..." the name felt thick on her tongue, not only from the heaviness of betrayal, or the horror of the threat given. Xena felt her body begin to slide back, fall. Panic seized, Gabrielle caught and cradled her against her breast. She couldnít move though, as Gabrielle had said, she could still see, still hear and feel.

"I didnít want you to doubt me." said Gabrielle. "The effects will wear off by tomorrow though the poison will still be in your system. And if you donít agree to what I ask, it wonít stay dormant. Like this", Xena felt the otherís tears fall upon her lips, "youíll know I speak the truth and , hopefully, youíll come to know that Iím only doing whatís best for you."

Xena felt Gabrielleís lips press against her arm before she was effortlessly lifted in the arms of the escort who had accompanied her earlier, and carried back to her cell. Xena tried to fight, speak, yell, anything, but nothing happened. She was placed back in her cage.

She saw Gabrielle bend over her, covering her with a blanket which she must have taken from the room. The bard also carefully placed a cushion beneath Xenaís head.

"Try not to worry." she said in Xenaís ear before standing up. "I added a sedative to help you sleep through the worst of it. I wonít be far. Iíll be back tomorrow" she smoothed Xenaís hair back, "and weíll work everything out. Remember, this is all for the best."

She heard the steps retreat and pass beyond the cell while mute prayers and screams resounded inside her.

 

CHAPTER 15

And the sky is a poisonous garden tonight.
Concrete Blonde

 

"Maybe", Callisto said to Gabrielleís back, "you could enlighten me as to what exactly youíre up to."

Gabrielleís footsteps came to a halt. A pause. Then she turned and approached Callistoís cell. Here eyes flamed and held no kindness in them as they fell upon the blonde woman before her.

"You think youíre such a genius. Guess."

"Smarter than you, anyway." Callisto answered with a lazy smile, "I wouldnít have been so foolish as to put me so close to your dear, dear Xena. As good as your hero is, sooner or later, Iíll be better."

"My hero", Gabrielle echoed. "Thatís right, Xena is with me, Xenaís mine. And you were a fool to underestimate me; to think Iíd let you have her. Iíve taken the necessary steps to see that you never will."

Callistoís smile lost a large portion of its earlier insolence.

"Upstairs, I was contemplating how I could best see you punished." the bardís face was as unreadable as unmarked stone. "With some careful planning, I realized a way I could do that and put Xena beyond your reach forever."

"Really," Callistoís drawl did not sufficiently cover the edge of apprehension slicing through her, "do tell."

"Iíve killed her."

Callisto stared, then started, quickly peering over at Xenaís listless form.

"Oh, sheís not dead yet." came the assurance that was no reassurance at all. "The poisonís slow and relatively painless, though quite fatal and with no antidote." Callistoís dark, now wide, eyes swung back to her. "In 2 days sheíll be gone. And with her your whole reason for living."

"I figured it out a long time ago that you replaced your family and the love you felt for them with Xena and your hate for her. Itís only natural after all, a child, lost and alone will cling to the first available person or thing to ease that terrible feeling of emptiness, of loss, of being without anything or anyone ..... . Now you have nothing again, or you will. And all you can do is watch helplessly as it - she - slips from your grasp, your only reason for living gone."

At this point, Callisto stared at nothing. She was reeling from the blow of those terrible words.

"Remember Callisto," came the words that grew in echoes as Gabrielle walked away, "you did this to yourself by trying to pull Xena and me apart. Now Iíve made her unreachable to you and all those like you. You tried to steal my heart, so Iíve stolen the target of your revenge, your lifeís blood. Ant it was me who defeated you Callisto. ĎPrecious, little, innocentí Gabrielle."

"No." Callisto breathed. Gabrielle, long departed heard nothing. "No." she whispered again.

No one heard although, to her own ears,the one word reverberated like a cannon shot.

"No .... it canít end like this."

Suddenly she rushed to the bars and started to scream at the lifeless form just beyond her reach. Telling it to move, demanding that it do something, anything. Then pleading, like a child, for the figure not to die.

Only when the pain from the spikes of the bars she had unknowingly gripped pierced her mind as well as her flesh, did she begin to step away from the edge of the abyss yawning open within her. The kind of insanity that has no reason because it can find none. The kind that imprisons a person within themselves and never releases them.

Externally, she stepped away from the bars.

Internally, she stepped away from the horror that Gabrielle had pushed her towards. Thought and reason began to breathe once more in the heart and mind of Callisto. She remembered who she was, what she had gone through, all she had done.

Callisto, who couldíve lain down and died from the grief when her village and family had been burned to the ground, yet had not.

Callisto, who had forsaken her very soul to become what she felt she had to become in order to do what she felt must do; destroy the most feared warrior woman in the known world. Such trials would have been the death of lesser beings. Any normal human would have crumbled. She had not.

Callisto, seeing her valued enemy turned down the road of redemption, had herself become the now most feared warrior. For what Xena had done out of rage and for the glory of conquering, Callisto did out of hate and perverse loathing for everyone, most of all herself and her foe. Xena had let her die. Sent to Tartarus, it should have been the last the living had heard of Callisto; yet it was not.

Tricking Xena and the God of War himself she had briefly escaped the Underworld. Once returned, she used the demi-god, Hercules, to help her get to the Golden Apples that gave immortality. Now death had no dominion over her. Hercules, however, had trapped her in the cave by collapsing the tunnels. Alone again with her hatred, she had grown even more mad. Defeated though, she was not.

Callisto was insane. How could she not be after all of this? Escape she did, allied reluctantly with Xena to defeat Velasca who had eaten the food of the gods. Callisto had won what she wanted, enough of the ambrosia to gain the godlike powers to add to her own immortality. Yet again, Xena had defeated her plan for revenge by dropping her in the throes of battle with Velasca, into a river of molten lave. It might well have been the end of her, yet it had not.

A freak shift in the crevice surrounding the lava had both given her the edge to destroy the petty, narrow insanity and hate that was Velasca as well as free her from the pit. She had come across the old woman with the odd mismatched eyes of yellow and purple, learned about the Hel stone and that should have been that. Yet it had not.

Now the chaos of being threatened her again. The chaos of being without purpose, without her purpose. And Callisto would not let that happen without a fight.

.... eyes of yellow and purple ... Gabrielleís escort.

Callisto let out a string of invectives.

Before she could vent her frustrations on any divine entity, however, she needed to do two very essential things. She had to escape from here and Callisto had to save Xenaís life.

At another time, when her wound wasnít open to her very core, she might have laughed at so bitter an irony. Right now, though, she had to get to work.

She already knew from previous trials that the spikes could not extend past five inches. However, they could move, fluctuating to impale flesh and muscle repeatedly. What she had to do was simple; she had to desensitize herself to the pain enough to bend or break the bars and thus take Xena and leave. All well before morning. With her immortality and power partially returned, the fast healing and extra strength would be of service. Since she was still not completely immortal with all the power, it was going to require a certain, nearly inhuman amount of determination and patience.

Focused. Her breathing controlled, Callisto placed her hands on the bars, keeping them there for as long as she could stand the repeated stabbings. Whether or not she found some amount of pleasure in this masochistic act, only she could say.

The gaping wounds closing already, Callisto prepared herself to do it again, and again, and then again .......


Gabrielle was looking out of the window from the Ďpicnicí room to which she had returned after leaving Xena in her cell. The air was bitter cold, yet not as cold as the ice blood that had frozen her heart. Dawn was still held at bay, yet several candle marks had passed since her act of necessary evil. She let the ice fill her, its numbing grasp was what was called for now so that she could be strong enough to do what must be done if Xena was to be made safe and kept with her. The young woman had barely moved all that time. Nor had she spoken though she had not been left to her solitude. Chaos remained with her, with the languid smile of a fox that had caught its prey and was well satisfied.

"Itís me, isnít it. Itís all me." Her voice was sanguine yet her eyes were turbulent seas. "What Iíve done. These feelings, these thoughts. Theyíre all coming from someplace deep inside of me not you controlling me."

"Yes." answered Chaos.

"Thatís what the Hel stone - or rather what it held - does. It awakens all the places within a person that they try to keep subdued, asleep. Iím right, arenít I?"

"Yes." came the pleased response, matching the curled lips.

"I even know that what Iím doing is terrible but I donít feel swayed to undo my actions. The conviction of these unwanted thoughts and feelings are so strong ... Iím surer that what Iím doing, though evil, is right ...How can that be?"

"It seems natural, correct because it comes from within you." Chaos studied his charge. "Though I was surprised that you lied, Iím curious to whom did you tell the truth about the poison; the woman you love or the one you hate?"

"Perhaps to neither." How the formerly open Gabrielle now guarded her secrets, hoarded them almost greedily.

Chaosí smile now widened.

"Why me?"

"You were closest to the Hel stone, being its carrier."

"No. Why did you choose me? Although your tyranny of selfish goals are like unto those of the gods, I know youíre not one. Someone ... thing, that can control a god must be something ... more .."

His smile faded like a melancholy sigh and in those bottomless eyes was a raging grief and hatred far more ancient than any that Gabrielle, mortal that she was, could fathom. And his fluid grace became imperial.

"I shall tell you, you who have become so dear to me." Whether the words, like a kiss, were a boon or a curse, who could say. He continued in a voice of endless dark and exploding stars. "Before there were mortals, before gods, before the Titans even, I existed. I, the Darkness more brilliant than any Light, that can burn more surely than any Sun. I was there when Time began and will be there when it ends. I am one of the original divinities. I am Chaos, and you, mortal, have something somewhat in common with me. For when Heaven came and claimed Earthís love as his own, he forever separated me from her. Her, the Earth, whom I love solely and eternally. Always close, for there can be no creation without me, yet eternally apart, separated by Him. Although the ĎRagnarokí here is already foretold and scrawled in Timeís Sand and is therefore unchangeable. Yours - ours, is not. You shall be the spark which divides Earth from Heaven so that I may hold her in my arms again."

"My only interest is not losing Xena." Her voice was small with the weight of his words and all the truths they contained.

"Exactly." He cloaked his brilliance somehow, this only partial reflection of an entity too immense to be seen or fathomed in its entirety. In this way, he could work unseen by Heaven. "What use do I have for one whoís goal would be to conquer, like Xena, or for revenge and rampage, like Callisto? You, you Gabrielle have evil that is like a rare wine from which I drink. Jealously and possessiveness that are beyond any morality. That and the poignant fears that drive them. For what I need done, I know you will do because you will do anything to follow your present path."

"There is someone who can undo what has been done to you." Chaos allowed the words to have time to slide within the listener and feed on her fears. "It is a goddess and if she alters you to your former self, then how will you be able to keep Xena safe?"

"Who!? How!?" the indigo raged.

"Who is Aphrodite." Now his voice became brushed velvet. "But you can stop her and in so doing, begin a catastrophic war between the gods. A war so cataclysmic that Heaven will lose his hold and Earth will be mine once more!"

"How." It was a command, forgetting, in her confused state, to whom and to what she spoke.

"With the same tool that broke the stone." From air, he plucked her satchel and then withdrew two things. One, was the empty husk of stone. In the other hand, he held the earing of Hapheastus that Gabrielle had not worn.

It happened like this: the two god-made items, each potent, one filled with love and the other evil, aggravated each the other. The constant rubbing against each other had gradually worn a crack, a small crevice in the orb; allowing its insidious contents to escape slowly, only taking hold of those around it gradually. If it had been sudden, who could say what the results would have been then? And how little that mattered now ...

Gabrielle looked at them like one beholding the objects of miracles ... or a hideous beast.

"Think about it" the embodiment of space itself suggested, "Aphrodite, the goddess of love, the one who is responsible for Xenaís love of redemption, that being stronger, perhaps, than her love for you. Imagine her here, your prisoner."

With the poison tenderly whispered in her ear, Gabrielle thought, then she spoke. "How would we hold her?"

"This." Chaos let fall what seemed to be a smooth, silk ribbon of indeterminate colour. "The Norse call what it came from ĎGleipnirí. It is a leftover bit of what was used to bind the wolf, Lokiís son, Fenris. It was made by the dwarves and is said to be made from the sound a cat makes, a womanís beard, the breath of a fish, a birdís spittle and the sinews of a bear." He raised his brows, "Whether such a fantastical thing is true, who can say?" He could. "However, the band that this slip of cloth is from did bind Fenris. And that leftover bit is enough to tie the slender wrists of the goddess of love and beauty."

"And to trick her into coming here to foreign soil? So far from any of her temples." put in Gabrielle.

Between thumb and forefinger he held up the earring made by Hapheastus. "Anything made by a god carries his or her aural residue. All I would need to do is breathe Aphroditeís name over this and Aphrodite will think herself being called by Hapheastus." Chaosí face was slack, arrogant and feral. "She will come."

Gabrielle did not ponder as to why the goddess of beauty would come at the forge-godís call. She did not care, for all else was consumed by the evil obsession within her: Xena.

Her eyes went flat. "Do it."


A carpet of blood now pooled the floors of the cells yet the bars had been wrenched and Callisto, white and grim, stood outside the cells with an unmoving Xena slung over her shoulder. And now she made her way out of the dark caverns, careful of any guards or watching entities.

Were it not for the floor of blood behind her, she would have said it had been too easy. Perhaps luck was with her, and a foolís confidence guided the owner of this abode.

A noise stopped her.

Again it came, echoed through the passages. Voices. A manís and a womanís. Mostly a manís. She paused, listening intently, and finally recognized the voices. The Ďmanísí, she felt certain, belonged to the escort who was no servant or escort at all. The other, which spoke only flat syllables here and there, Callisto realized was Gabrielleís. And though she could not hear all that was said, there were two things that caught her attention. First, there was no mention of any antidote and second, they planned to capture Aphrodite. With that last realization came another, that this Ďotherí and Gabrielle were far too dangerous for Callisto to stay and try to find the antidote. She and Xena needed to leave. Now.

And pray help could be found before it was too late.

Callisto breathed the open air beyond the compound as though it were her first. It was the only joy/relief life was about to offer her. Lokiís Hall in Juttenheim had been built into the crags of what was but a small part of a range of towering, snow-capped alps. Wind, sharp and icy, threatened to blow the woman and her precious cargo off of the narrow ledges she was forced to navigate. How far down before she was broken against jutting out-crops of stone was uncertain as they were so high, clouds veiled any land beneath them from view.

Callisto, still carrying Xena, had nearly fallen to their deaths uncountable times as she cautiously made her way round the mountain. She could not see the top nor the bottom. Exhaustion finally forced her to stop, for despite her near immortality, she still had some need for food, drink and rest. However, despite her inhuman fatigue, Callisto was frantic. On a narrow cliff that barely held the two, Callisto sat against the mountainís wall and regarded the woman who had been her reason for living for most of her life. Unbidden, unwanted, all she could see were the burned remains of her sister, her mother, her life. Desperate, she shook Xenaís listless form, crying her name. Weeping. The hot tears spilled onto the other womanís face. Noticing them, Callistoís fears grew, for the last time she had ever cried was long ago though the memory was as fresh, as palpable- perhaps more so- than the present. She no longer felt like she knew who she was. The seams of the person she had made herself into were being pulled apart by the hands of a frightened child. Frightened of life alone. Of utter loneliness. Callisto began to beat on Xena, shouting at her to wake up only to have her voice stolen by the wind; soundless screams in unlistening ears. The wind disallowed her the feel of the otherís breath, the sound of a heart beat. Was Xena even still ... ? No, she had to live. In her urgency, Callisto tore open the otherís tunic and shirt. There she laid her ear against the bare chest, eyes shut tight wanting - needing to hear the reassurance of anotherís heartbeat; another life. Hearing nothing, she began to cry harder and begged in a small childís voice over and over, donít leave me ... donít leave me ... donít leave me.

Callisto heard a thud against and within the otherís ribs.

Xena lived. Xena breathed, though still unconscious. And Callisto, the woman who swore to destroy her life piece by bloody piece, sobbed in relief. She stayed there, Xenaís sworn enemy, head against chest, weeping with relief and listening to the double percussion of the otherís heart over and over as if grasping at a long forgotten lullaby.

A weakness came over Callisto then. An undeniable heaviness which caused her to become as boneless as her saffron tresses which now draped over Xena. The weight of her eyelids became burdensome to the point where the weight won the struggle and her eyes closed completely. With the darkness brought on by the closing of her eyes, came another darkness, far more profound than that of sleep or the deep colour of her now blanketed irises. Immured in sleep, the nightmares came with new life. For when she would look up at her family as they awaited a macabre death in their burning home, they had the faces of Xena and Gabrielle.

A hand span away, perhaps a little further, there lay a small whistle which had rolled out of the folds of the shirt ripped from Xenaís body, to rest unnoticed upon the ledge of the cliff. The gale, however, curious about the whistleís tune and also rejoicing in its ability to smash things against the mountains, raised the fluted metal up into the air. The wind blew about and through the whistle giving it voice. And the melody of rich earth and rushing rivers was so sweet that the gale, forgetting its earlier wish to smash the whistle upon the mountain, stopped to listen to the music. In that moment, the whistle dropped, yet not into the clouds to be bashed on the rocks several miles down.

It was caught over the ledge by an outstretched hand.

The god Hapheastus pulled back her arm and looked from the whistle in her hand to the two women, one upon the other, at her feet.

"Curious." reflected the god.

 

CHAPTER 16

and the darkness inside you
can make you feel so small

C. Lauper

 

Aphrodite had finally ceased to glare at the gorgeous god (what else could he be?) who had bound her with some silly silk thing (that she couldnít break) and chose to smolder instead at the mortal woman (hoping it would have more of an effect).

"Gabrielle," she sounded more indignant than stern, "whatís the meaning of this? And whereís Hapheastus?"

The much changed Gabrielle studied the goddess; the cascade of pale gold curls, the light eyes, the curvaceous form clad in folds of flowing white cloth as delicate looking as spider webs yet stronger than wool. Gabrielle regarded her flawless beauty and felt nothing. She was surprised. She thought she would at least feel anger toward the goddess of love, if not hate. Nothing.

"You were tricked by this." the red-blonde let the ear-device fall to the floor before crushing it under her boot-heel. "Understand, Iím only doing this to protect my interests. Cooperate, and you wonít be harmed." She gave a definitive nod to Chaos and then went back to looking out the window.

It took a moment, but the goddess Aphrodite understood as the god very firmly guided her out of the chamber, that she had just been dismissed (a most unusual experience).

Being led down a series of increasingly darker passages, Aphrodite glanced at her guide and guard and was surprised by the odd smile he wore.

"So," said Aphrodite with all the charm her powers of feminine persuasion could muster, "whatís your name? If Iíd known the gods here were so handsome, you wouldnít have had to trick me into visiting you; Iíd have come willingly."

"Although Iím a part of everything," both pleased and indifferent at her flattery, "Iím apart from everything, Iím a foreigner of sorts myself. You may call me Chaos."

"Funny," she said, "I donít recall any Greek god called Chaos."

Only the silence of space and Space.

"What are you smiling about?" she persisted.

Again, no response. She found herself before the moving bars of a cell. She was pushed inside to literally fall upon her face. Nor was she unbound. With a huff, she sat up and saw the odd smile play on Chaosí (or whatever his real name was) face again as he stared at the empty cells next to herís. After a quiet moment of observation, he left her without a word.

Now, Aphrodite, for all her feminine charms and vacuous behaviour was not as helpless as some might surmise. Her beauty was her tool and she used the assumptions of others as weapons to further her masquerade of helplessness. Being underestimated by her rivals and enemies was a very good thing as far as she was concerned. The jealousy over her looks by the goddesses and the rivalry for her affections by the gods, had long ago left her ostracized and isolated on Mount Olympus (who better to be the goddess of love than she who was tragically denied true love and so, made a lonely romantic). Not that she minded (she despised them). Letting others judge her based on her looks, she secretly developed a rare and astute intellect (so prejudice had become her cloak and shield, intelligence the dagger hidden beneath them). And this is how Aphrodite guessed from Chaosí cryptic riddles and the hidden stars in his cloak and eyes, what he was. And even (though lacking Athenaís knowledge and wisdom) a portion of his purpose. Gabrielle, (whom she had met before) she knew from her god-sight that the woman was being affected by evil, evil that walked, damson and midnight, at her side. Which meant that Gabrielleís friend, the warrior ... Xena (yes, that was the name) must be nearby. Which of course brought Aphrodite back to the way Chaos had looked upon the empty cells beside herís.

"Curious." reflected the goddess.


Callisto woke up screaming and felt an alien wetness on her cheeks.

"Theyíre tears." said the, as yet unnoticed, third party. "Nightmares?"

Callisto looked at Hapheastus, roughly wiping the dampness away with the back of a hand. The manacle glistened in the breaking dawn.

"Howíd you get here?" Ignoring the question.

"Apparently the Wind of Fate itself chose to call me." She held up the whistle, "One, or both of you appear to be quite lucky."

"So, you gave Xena a whistle so that she could call you as easily as her horse," she half sniffed. "Touching. By the way, why havenít you whisked us away to safety yet?"

"There are some rules, Callisto," the god spoke as serenely as if they were not just around the other side of danger, "that cannot be broken. On foreign soil, I am somewhat restricted. I would remind you however, that even restrained, I am still a god."

"Fat lot of good that does us if you canít get us out of here and retrieve the antidote for Xena."

"Antidote?" the god raised a raven brow.

"Sheís been poisoned," Callisto stated, "by Gabrielle."

"Youíd best tell me whatís been happening and -", a sudden strange look crossed her face and then was gone, though she still pondered it.

"What is it?" It was a cross between a demand and a partially restrained shriek.

"Something I created has been destroyed." the god answered Callisto. "I can always sense when any of my inventions has been harmed." Hapheastus shook it off, "Itís of little consequence presently. I can guess at some of whatís happened with you but youíd best tell me it all from the beginning. And be certain not to leave out even the smallest detail. Especially with whatís happened to Gabrielle."


"Gone!?" came the savage shriek.

Aphrodite knew who it was long before the running footsteps brought Gabrielle into view. The mortal woman was wild-eyed as she looked upon the empty cells.

"Xena?" she called, then desperate, "Xena?!"

She turned her crazed visage to the silent companion who had followed her. And he, all malice, merely shrugged his shoulders eloquently.

"They were here when I brought the goddess down." The implication was obvious.

The eyes turned toward Aphrodite.

"Get a grip Gabrielle." No, Aphrodite did not like where this was going one bit, "This guy with the very bad aura is lying. Xena, if she was here, certainly wasnít when I was brought down. Heís obviously using you. And you have obviously gotten some highly negative kismet to be buying into it." Her voice became softer with sincerity and seriousness, "Look, why donít you forget him, let me out and weíll find your friend together, alright? Iíll find some way to help you, Gabrielle, I promise you."

"Aphrodite," the goddess might as well have spoken into stone, "Where Is Xena."

"I donít know."

"Iíll find out one way or the other Aphrodite. Donít make it the other."

"Since I honestly hold no knowledge of Xenaís whereabouts," her gaze squarely met and held Gabrielleís, "it will have to be the other. Although a third option, where you can fight whatís happening inside you and free me, is still open. Gabrielle, thereís always hope."

"Hope," now Gabrielle held her gaze, "is a bridge Iíve recently burned. Chaos," he came up beside her, "do what you have to but find out where Xena is."

Chaos moved with liquid grace through the parting bars to approach Aphrodite.

"Donít worry," he reassured the goddess in an equally liquid voice that was no reassurance, "I canít cause you any serious harm; that would draw unwanted attention. However, this will hurt."

To her credit, it was a full candlemark before the goddess began to scream.


By the end of Callistoís recounting of all that had transpired, she had begun to rock back and forth with her knees drawn-up where she sat on the hard stone. Haphaestus did not fail to notice how Callisto kept staring at Xenaís prone form. Her hand repeatedly strayed to touch Xena or tug at her, as if to reassure Callisto of her continued existence.

"Poisoned." It was a statement of dismay from the god.

"Sheíll die soon." Callistoís voice was raw from unaccustomed weeping. "Iíll be alone, alone, alone, alone ..."

"And you have no doubt, none, that Gabrielle did it?"

"Oh, it was Gabrielle alright." the hand repeatedly twisting a length of Callistoís flaxen hair began to pull strands out with sharp tugs. "Everyone is evil so they all deserve to die. Itís whatís been proven to me time and time again. Gabrielle certainly proved it when she gave her friend of a lifetime poison. Didnít she? She even gloated about it you know. No oneís worth saving, weíre all ugly inside, even her. You see Iím right donít you? What a grand joke it all is." She wasnít really seeing anything around her, lost in her madness.

"Gabrielleís," came the faint and unexpected voice, "not responsible for this."

Relief and who knows what else, broke Callisto at the sounds and sight of Xena stirring. She began to rock more ungently, giggling hysterically.

The god eyed the crazy woman uncertainly as she moved swiftly to Xenaís side, "Youíd best move slowly. We donít know the side effects of this poison."

"A state of complete paralysis," the words were difficult to form over a tongue that felt thick in Xenaís mouth, "combined with total awareness. At least thatís what ..."

"Thatís what Gabrielle told you?" The god helped her to sit up against the mountain wall, "Did she mention how the poison kills?"

"Kills? Itís not fatal."

"Gabrielle," the voice was merely factual, "told Callisto it was."

"No, thatís ridiculous. Gabrielle would never kill anyone."

"Oh." Callisto tried to scrape together what remnants of sanity remained to her, "I suppose the life of the living death you just mentioned was supposed to be an improvement?"

"Like I said," Xena was disturbed and angered, "none of this is her fault. Itís mine. She would never have been exposed to any of this, if it wasnít for me."

"I should have made sure she remained at Potedea instead of following me."

"Sheís a person with a mind and heart of her own Xena." Hapheastus firmly but gently reminded her. "She made a choice of her own free will, and that was to be with you. Would you rather have put her in a cage? Itíd be about the only way you could have stopped her from being with you."

Xena looked stricken, "Caged? Perhaps Iíve caged her to me. Gabrielle never knew true sorrow until she befriended me. I was selfish, keeping her with me. What she did to me, even influenced by that Hel stone - that is whatís causing it isnít it? - is no more than I deserve: as punishment for not only what Iíve done to her, but for all my past crimes."

The god, Hapheastus, considered the two women; one confused and the other resigned. Neither confusion not indecisiveness could be trusted; nor could hopelessness.

"Yes, the Hel stone, or rather its contents, seem primarily responsible for the behavioural changes in all three of you." Her god sight revealed the stains of the brackish green taint on and in the two women quite plainly; as if their current emotional states werenít proof enough.

"You mean this is all the fault of that stupid rock?" Callisto was now viciously tearing at her nails with her teeth.

The god nodded, "The bulk of it, I suspect, resides in Gabrielle so you are suffering from only mild exposure to it."

"Ha! Mild you say ..." Callisto was bordering hysteria again.

Hapheastus stood, surveying the rock. "I have to find the broken stone to even begin to solve how to get its evil back in. And Iíll go and retrieve Gabrielle before she causes herself and others anymore harm." She noticed how Xena blew on her hands. "Cold?"

"My hands and feet are." It seemed of little importance to her. "Iíll be okay in a minute and then Iíll go with you to save Gabrielle."

"No." The word had the finality of a hammer striking an anvil. "Neither you nor Callisto are in any condition to come with me. Both of you stay here and Iíll be back shortly."

"Be careful," sing-songed Callisto, "Gabrielleís new friend seems like more than one wee god - or goddess - can handle. Last I overheard they had already caught Aphrodite."

"What?!" The silver eyes burned with startled exclamation.

"Yeah, yeah, on our way out they nabbed her somehow: seemed really important to that weird god too. He even gives me the willies."

"Stay." Hapheastus commanded them, then relented for a moment in her sudden urgent rage. "Donít worry, an antidote is only a stoneís throw away."

Callisto laughed in a most disturbing fashion. Long after the Greek god was out of sight, she still continued to laugh, throwing rock after rock over the edge.


Slipping into the castle was a simple thing for the god Hapheastus. Recognized by every stone, every one, any wood or metal as a divinity who loved to create and loved each creation, they hid her in their shadows and whispered to her lovingly, wanting to feel her presence near them. They told her the way to the dungeons for such was their adoration.

Down below, in the dark, Hapheastus moved swiftly toward her goal. She noted the living bars with wonder. And the bars, sensing the godís adoration, sighed like a lover at her divine touch and as eagerly parted for her entrance.

Hapheastus, for all her strength of constitution, nearly wept at the sight of the bound and battered goddess, Aphrodite. If she had not kept in mind the lives and sanities of the two women, one mortal and one semi-mortal, whom she had undertaken to care for, it is quite possible that she would have commanded the entire place into ruins in order to reach the one responsible for harming Aphrodite. And perhaps, for a moment, her wrath considered it. And perhaps it was her concern - and what lay beneath that concern - for Aphrodite that allowed the god to reign her fury in, if only for the moment.

She called to the goddess, trying to rouse her. And if the entirety of an immortal heart with an immortal longing filled the voicing of that single name, who else was there to hear it?

 

Aphrodite kept hearing her name called over and over again. Its quiet persistence and the more that lay behind the voice that she couldnít name, brought her out of the dark and painless place she had tranced herself into. It was not his voice (thank Olympusí eternal fire). Instead, she opened her eyes of ocean shell blue to look into eyes that in their silver, held the dark gold of the moon.

"Hapheastus." Aphroditeís chest constricted.

"Wait a moment," said her rescuer in low alto tones, "and Iíll cut you loose."

"You canít." at least with the godís eyes on the ribbon and not meeting hers, she could think again. "Itís been made from some impossible things and ---", she broke off, bewildered at the godís grin and bemused at the way it lit the fierce features, making Hapheastus even more handsome (damn, this wasnít the time for this).

"I may be a god on foreign soil," Hapheastus repeated for the second time that day, "but I am still a god." With that, she took out of her belt what looked like no more than a sharpened piece of flint and yet it cut through Glepneir like molten metal through snow.

Rubbing her wrists, now free, Aphrodite had to know, "what is it?"

"Athena isnít the only one of the Olympians who likes to read and study," a graceful shrug, "I read about Glepneir and how it was made. Out of curiosity, I made an object I thought might cut it. I made it from the song of a cloud, the eyelash of a wolf, the laugh of a gale, a shadow from the dark side of the moon and a dolphinís tear. It was smelted with my own blood."

"And you did all that because you were bored?" Aphrodite felt laughter tickle her mouth, "I mean itís not like you could have foreseen ever needing to use it."

She staggered and Hapheastus caught her, easing one of Aphroditeís slender arms around her muscled shoulders and, keeping an arm firmly around Aphroditeís waist. "With all that time alone, youíd be surprised at what an immortal will do to ease the passing of eternity." Aphrodite was struck by the ache behind those words, however glibly spoken. It was an ache she herself was all too familiar with.

"Will you tell me who did this to you?" The question was gentled to spare the goddess the murderous rage burning beneath it.

"Some self-obsessed Greek entity called Chaos. I take it Xena is with you? I saw Gabrielle and her auraís been put way out of whack."

"You saw?" the god was both urgent and glad. "You understand then?"

"That some way evil Kismet from a foreign land has tainted Gabrielle? How can one miss it?"

Hapheastus nodded vehemently. "Xena and Callisto are marked by it too. Itís beyond my realm but you might be able to help them, after all, the spirit of the heart is your domain. Can you? Will you? Are you up to it after what Chaos has put you through?"

"Can I? Iím not sure. I need to see the others. Will I? If I can, certainly. As for being up to it, I owe that mismatched, misplaced, Mother Earth stalker a big Karmic sucker punch."

A low laugh, "Iíll take that as a yes."

"Now", the god continued, "if I tell you how to get there, do you think you can find Xena and Callisto on your own? Iíll follow you shortly but first I have to speak to Gabrielle and retrieve something and I think it best if I did that alone."

"Just point the way but you stay clear of Chaos until we can form a plan. And be careful of Gabrielle; sheís changed. Iím glad to see you havenít changed, at least....." Aphrodite brightened the hall with her smile. "Iíve never been so happy to see anyone in my entire life."

Hapheastus turned away from the light of that smile.


Gabrielle had retired to the room where she and Xena had their picnic. She barely moved, a hand felt the cushions where Xena had lain as if trying to touch something now irrevocably beyond reach. Despite the growing numbness in her limbs, she did not bother to stoke the fire.

"Gabrielle."

The murky blue of her gaze raised itself to regard the god Hapheastus. The fire flared suddenly at the forge godís presence. Gabrielle merely stood and seemed un-surprised both at her appearance and by her own lack of emotion. Where once the mortal was moved beyond words at the godís beauty, now she felt nothing at all.

"Howís Xena?" she asked.

"I think," replied Hapheastus, "that you can well imagine her state." The voice held neither reproach nor outrage, only concern.

"She must hate me now."

"Xenaís love is no small thing that, once finally won, can so easily be lost."

Gabrielle closed her eyes against the godís compassion. "Not easily, no. Then again, what I did was far from easy."

"So Chaos was wrong, it was you who freed them, not Aphrodite." She did meet the otherís gaze now, "Do you not want to avenge her? Do you feel no anger toward me for what Iíve done to her? How," echoing Callistoís much earlier frustration, "how can you claim to care for her and yet speak calmly to one who has made her suffer?!"

"Iím in no position to claim anything as far as Aphrodite goes.", the god calmly answered. "And it was not you who harmed her. Nor was it I who freed them. Callisto did that."

"Hmph," Gabrielle mused. "I endanger Xena and Callisto rescues her. It seems we have each usurped the otherís place."

"Not", said the god, "quite."

"Why are you here Hapheastus?"

"Three things: the orb, the antidote and you."

"Youíll have to be content," Gabrielle tossed an object which the god skilfully caught, "with one out of three."

Hapheastus looked in her hand, it was the Hel stone.

"If one, why not the other two?"

"Simply because", the mortal turned to look out the window, the cold air rippled her unbound hair of red-blonde wine, "what I have done is beyond anyoneís undoing."

The godís moonlit eyes narrowed at that. "Is there an antidote?"

"For ...?" Gabrielle was not being coy.

"Xenaís impending paralysis or her impending death. Surely one of the stories you told them was the truth?"

"Truth?" There was no humour in the brief laugh that escaped Gabrielleís lips. "As a bard Iíve learned that the "truth" relies completely on its teller. The truth is a light that, upon hitting a crystal, turns into many lights - many truths ... all we are, are those lights.

Hapheastus saw the green ichor, invisible to mortal eyes, and how it had nearly covered, if not consumed, the aura of Gabrielle. Even the god light, that shimmer, worn unknown by all the mortals whose destinies were intertwined with deities, was overshadowed by the insidious influence.

"Have you no hope then? Then why give me the stone?"

"Because," Gabrielleís words were lifeless, "I donít care. Me, who felt everything. Now, I feel nothing. I never knew that such a path would feel so empty. Itís like nothing in the known world can fill it. It doesnít matter how terrible my actions are; I no longer care."

"Hope cannot be trusted. Itís too easily taken away." Gabrielleís shoulders tensed visibly. "Besides, Xena will never be able to forgive me for what Iíve done. Iíve betrayed her. Thereís no way to go back and change it. She may have a brief period of recovery but thatís only the calm before the poison takes full effect." She looked up at the handsome face, "Youíd better leave soon before Chaos shows up. Tell Xena ..." she shook her head, "No, donít tell her anything."

"Iíll leave now since taking you by force would attract too much attention." There was a kiss upon Gabrielleís brow and gone before she could even react. "I only leave now so that I may return - with Xena - later." She withdrew soundlessly.

"Oh Hapheastus", the sadness of despair and resignation overlapped in the young womanís face, "Itís already too late."

"How can a person be safe or saved from oneís self?"

 

CHAPTER 17

Hercules: "Youíre insane."
Callisto: "Just misunderstood."


"I wonder if I could have been her."
Callisto, about Gabrielle
From: Return of Callisto

 

"Ha! I win again!" a still weeping Callisto crowed. "For all your battle prowess Xena, you canít play Xís and Oís worth -"

"Wonít you ever," Xena cut her off, not bothering to watch the cackling blonde wipe the lines traced in the dirt to make new ones, "be quiet."

"Well Xena," she jeered, waving an arm over the edge of the cliff, "youíre free to leave whenever you want to."

Xena sighed. "If I could trust my legs to carry me, I would."

"The poisonís spreading, hmm?"

The darker woman ignored her.

"That's what you get for following your heart. You really disappoint me Xena."

 

Silence as Xena remembered a day of laughter-& laundry that felt like years ago.

Callisto was undaunted. "You know whatís happened to your precious friend donít you?"

Another sigh, different from the last, "Shut-up."

"Itís about people who are too good to be true."

"Gabrielle is good, Callisto."

"Thatís exactly my point," herís was a cruel laugh. "There she was, this innocent little village girl with dreams of becoming a bard; her head filled with imagined deeds of heroism. All from the safe place of her own mind. Then you came along." Now Xena did look at her. "She follows you thinking that sheíll get the chance to witness and experience all those imagined adventures ... only to discover that reality is far more harsh than any fluffed-up fairy tale. And on top of her knowledge of the world being so violently shaken, she also had to live up to your expectations. No one can travel in our world Xena and not be brought face to face with the evil within them - no one. Gabrielle fought to keep the irrational values she was brought up with and that you cherish her for. She lost. I can understand really, with all those moral restrictions she must have begun to resent them. Donít you see, Xena? Living vicariously through you wasnít enough for the bard. All that jealousy and resentment was finally too much and now Gabrielle is exactly who she wants to be."

Xena slammed the other woman roughly against the mountainsís wall. "Listen very carefully to me, Callisto. Gabrielle is at the mercy of an evil force worse than even you. You think that I donít know that sheís too good for me? I know. Whatís happened is happening to her - was - is against her will. Gabrielleís not like us, Callisto. Sheís felt anger, even hate, but sheís never given in to it like either of us have. And thatís why you are jealous and resentful of her because you see what you could have been if you hadnít been so weak and cowardly as to give in to your hate and fear so readily. Gabrielle has a goodness, a purity and generosity of heart that puts anyone else, especially people like us, to shame. And that goodness is something I doubt youíll ever be ready to understand."

"Now, if you donít stay quiet, poison or no poison, Iíll throw you off this ledge." She released Callisto with a hard shake.

"It must give you no end of pleasure to see me suffer like this," hissed Callisto through the hated tears.

"Youíre wrong," Xenaís answer, though weak was hard.

"Well," came a sultry voice rounding the corner, "looks like I arrived just in time."

Both the warrior women looked up and saw the goddess Aphrodite approaching them.

And one of them felt a very distinct fear.


Hapheastus again touched the orb of Hel while resting in the tunnel before readjusting the heavy packages on her back, as she carefully exited the mountain stronghold.

Too easy, she thought. It was far too easy.

There was something about the whole situation that she felt uneasy about, like she was missing something of vital importance. Her intuition always came to rest on the subject of Gabrielle. Why though, was what she could not fathom. Naturally, Gabrielleís behaviour was due to the inner evil exaggerated by the Hel stoneís contents. So why then, did the mortal womanís toneless voice and even more colourless expression leave a tight knot of apprehension within the god?


By the time Hapheastus reached the others, she had carefully schooled her expression into one of casual neutrality.

"Here," she tossed the two non-Olympians a bundle of bread and cheese along with a skin of water, "you both need to keep up your strength."

Xena ate and drank listlessly. Aphrodite noticed Callistoís non-verbal refusal. "I find itís better to listen to her." Aphroditeís voice was light despite her confusion and concerns. "She has the annoying habit of usually being right."

"Iím immortal like you." Callistoís vioce was as weighed down as Xenaís lethargic movements.

"Not Ďlike usíĎ, the neutrality reached Hapheastusí words, "You can still bleed, though Iíll grant you heal fast enough. The cold, though imperceptible to us can still be felt marginally by you. And though you donít need food and drink to the extent a normal mortal would, you do need to nourish yourself." She cocked her scarred face to one side, "Or would you rather perish here while we go and attend to business?"

A low snarl buried itself in the back of Callistoís throat. The expression was a mere wraith of her former self. "You know very well that Iíll go wherever Xena does. And as for our Ďbusinessí, Iíll be sure to it that Chaos feels my presence. Although," she raised the braceletted arm, "if you took you present off, I - we might stand a better chance against him ... but youíre probably not willing to do that , right?"

"How very astute of you, Callisto." neutrality became sardonic. "And yet it had been so easy to put them on you."

"I got one off. Iíll find a way to remove the other."

"Perhaps," now she was truly indifferent, "but not today."

Aphrodite regarded the odd bundles Hapheastus had placed on the ground. "Did you get what you wanted?"

"Wanted; no, but needed; yes."

"Gabrielle?" Xena whispered.

"She gave me the stone but refused to come with me. I could not dissuade her." Hapheastus spoke gently. "It doesnít mean itís too late." She bent over her bundles and drerw out lengths of rope. "If we hurry, we may all live beyond today."

She threw some of the ropes at Aphrodite. "Here. Tie Callisto to you. Iíll do the same with Xena."

"Thanks," the goddess replied dryly, "but tying crazy woman to my back is a little too kinky, even for me."

"Forgive me." Hapheastus bowed her head facetiously, "Iím unused to peril let alone needing to assist other people. If I order instead of ask you to do something, it would help all of us if you could merely do so, as we are in some haste, and ignore my rudeness in order to do what is required?"

Aphrodite smiled and turned to Callisto, winking at her. "I told you itís better to just do as she says."

Callisto began to help tying herself to the goddess. "You should take your own advice," she muttered.

Aphrodite laughed, feather light, "What next, O Fearless leader?"

The Forge god, rather than answer with words, chose to show them. Leaning over the two bundles of leather and only she knew what else, Hapheastus began to whisper to whatever lay within. The words were unheard by the people and the goddess present yet the face and tone were loving and lyrical. All at once, the two bundles began to expand, and expand even further, stretching the thick, hairless hides until they were taut and pulled out like two sets of spread wings.

It was Aphrodite who first recognized the Ďmetalí that both moved and held the hides together. "Arenít those - ?"

"The cell bars." nodded Hapheastus. "I conversed with them and they were kind enough to choose to come with me and accommodate my wishes to create these. Theyíre truly magnificent, these bars, donít you think?"

"Conversed, hm?" Aphrodite couldnít help but smile at the endearing look on the otherís face. "Smart bars."

"By the way, what exactly are we supposed to do with you latest invention?"

"Fly."

"You must be joking."

"Not at all, Aphrodite," Hapheastus pointed at the large square frames, one hanging down the front of each set of Ďwingsí, "the two of us will hold and guide ourselves as we glide through the mountains and beyond to Helís temple. Sheís the only one who has the answers we need. And with the stone next me, I can sense when we approach its home."

"Weíre handling the gliders because the mortals are in no shape mentally or physically to do so. Doing this between the mountains will be dangerous; the updrafts and shifting winds will be difficult to navigate. If worse comes to worse and this doesnít work --."

"You mean if we fall."

"Exactly," again a face of careful neutrality, "then we immortals will have to try to cushion Xenaís and Callistoís fall and hope for the best."

"Great." the goddess followed Hapheastusís example of how to hold the glider. She looked down to see a bottom obscured by clouds. "Iíd pray, but being a deity, I wouldnít know to whom."

Hapheastus glanced at her, the mask of indifference slipping. "Iím sorry you got dragged into this, Aphrodite."

In reply, Aphrodite gave one of her most dazzling and benevolent smiles. "I wouldnít dream of missing this. I always wanted to fly. That is ... if these work."

The god returned Aphroditeís smile with a faint one of her own and then stepped off the edge ..., and flew.

"See that, Callisto? There was nothing to worry about." No reply form the woman tied to her back (only somewhat less inert than Xena, Aphrodite noticed). She stepped to the edge, "Guess itís our turn." She stepped off.

At first they fell, and fell. Slate grey clouds with blue-white wisps promised to meet them. Then the uniquely constructed wings caught an updraft, pressing their bodies up and up. After that, they glided forward and Aphrodite laughed at the blue sky all around her.

She was sailing the wind.

Nearing Hapheastus and Xena, she noticed that Xena had fallen unconscious. Probably best, as it would allow her to breathe easier in such high altitudes. Callisto was conscious, though barely. If Aphrodite had guessed correctly as to whoís blood had covered the floor cells and why, then Callisto (semi-immortal though she may be) would need the rest.

Hapheastus caught her eyes and made a motion. Eager, Aphrodite did not hesitate to follow the god down into the clouds. Suddenly embraced by ghostly whiteness she felt a thrilling moment of excitement and fear; wondering if and when the side of a monolithic mountain would appear in front of her. The sight of the tip of Hapheastusís wing in the clouds reassured her.

Down they flew until at last they were released from the clasp of white mist to gain full sight of their surroundings once again. Even after diving through clouds they were still well above land. Why, if Aphrodite spread out her hand, it would appear to cover an entire forest of evergreens and rivers. And she, Greek goddess of love, soared high above it all.

The wind, cold and strong, thrust them ever onward. Like two hawks, they swooped and circled as the wind demanded, always moving past the mountains, and free of Juttenheim. Always restricted by a divinityís duties, mortal demands and Olympian social restrictions, Aphrodite could not recall having ever felt so free, so light. Knowing that for the sake of their mortal companions (who would need a warm fire to take the windís chill from their bodies) this flight of freedom would have to end all too soon. In the life of an immortal deity, Aphrodite was aware that, although this was only an eye blink of her eternity, she would likely never feel this unprecedented sensation again.

A drop of water fell on Aphroditeís fair cheek, though there was no rain.

 

INTERLUDE

 

"So you see Odin," ever charming, Loki looked guilelessly at the overgod sometimes called The Terrible One, "I could not simply stand aside while that hideous child that I sired tried to rise against you and the rest of the Aesir."

Odin, also sometimes known as Gagnrad but only by those from whom he chose to hide his true self, pondered Loki and his words carefully. He had to clear the Hall of the other Aesir due to the clamour Lokiís presence had caused. Yet Odin, who pondered all sides, had decided to hear Loki out. The protests meant little, for he was Odin, Chief of all Aesir and they could do naught save bow to his will.

"In what way," after a weighty pause, "do you propose to save me?"

"The rancid bitch must be put back in her kennel without delay." the Sly One put his bare chin in hand, his eyes thoughtful. "She has supernatural help. Those Greek warriors are more than they seem, else they could not have so easily defeated and evaded the giants. Their foreign gods may be involved. Already, I hear that they are nearing Helís temple at great speed ... if only ..."

"If," Odinís one eye narrowed, "only?"

The other eloquently shrugged, "If only I had access to something of speed enough to catch them."

The two beastly wolves on either side of Odin growled and the ravens, one on each of his wide shoulders, clicked their beaks and cawed. However, when Odin spoke, his voice made them mute.

"There is," his voice was quiet; one could mistake it as menacing, "my horse: Sleipnir."

"Foster brother!" Lokiís eyes were wide and his red brows raised high, "The fastest mount in all the nine worlds, he is your mount and yours alone! I could never - "

"And yet he is the eight legged steed you yourself birthed and then gave to me. Truly a fitting gift to me if by riding him, you can end your daughterís betrayal; foster brother."

"Very well then," said Loki, resigned to the demands of honour, he who had none, "as it would both please you and serve the Aesir, I shall undertake this task and ride your horse. As you will it, so shall it be." With that, he turned smartly on his heel and exited the hall.

Odin did not move, though both ravens, with eyes as black as their feathers and as cunning as any of Lokiís get, baited, their wings flapping. The Overgod merely thought his will, and the two predators flew off and out the window and beyond the hall. Soft steps approached him from behind. A graceful hand reached out only to have the two wolves jump up on the person and aggressively snuffle and lick her.

Frigg, goddess and wife of Odin, petted the fawning wolves with great fondness before addressing her husband.

"Why, my husband," she looked at him, both concerned and considering, "why would you give that snake your horse when you know that it was he who goaded the giants into attacking your son?"

"Thor was impetuous. He should learn to think before he acts."

"He is impulsive, true. Yet his heart is generous and good and never less than honest."

"I do not doubt my son, my wife, so do not scold. It is only that his rash behaviour made it impossible for me to discover who is truly behind this."

"Not Loki or Hel?"

He shook his head, "Hel is cruel but not clever and Loki would never be so bold unless there was someone powerful behind him. My canny foster-brother has ever been a coward. So let him believe his ruse has worked while I wait and watch to draw the true players behind this out into the open. I will know who my enemies are so that I might strike them down!"

"Ever wise," Frigg murmured, "my husband."

 

Part 4