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by Dan A. Payne

The air stank of sulfur and brimstone, and filthy gray ash, blown by an ill and accursed wind, blotted out the dying rays of a red and shrunken sun. The heat from the pit was that of the lowest circle of Hades, where molten stones ran white-hot from the continual flow of volcanic effluent. The lava was from everlasting to everlasting, and ran like a demonic river through the bosom of the blasted earth. This was the land of the damned, where no man, nor even a god, could long endure. But... from this ocean of magma there was a ripple, somehow unlike the bubbling and churning of the Lake of Fire. The rippling continued until slowly... so slowly - but inexorably - there arose from the fires the unmistakable shape of a human hand...

Spring had come early to Attica and the wind swept plains of the Peloponesus. With the end of winter in this, the Year of the Olympiad, the populace of Athens, Corinth, and Sparta, indeed of all of the villages and cities of Greece, and of Thrace and Macedonia as well, had gathered for the quadrennial games that honored the silent and distant gods. Fresh breezes brought forth the aroma of wild flowers, growing around the fields of honor, and the brazen youths and maidens laughed and played amidst the splendor surrounding them all. Everywhere there was the tune of the flute, and merrymakers frolicked to the lilt of the music. Young warriors practiced with the spear and bow, and runners prepared themselves for the exertions of both the dash and the marathon. Men, from first youth to grandsire, crowded the rows upon rows of marble seats above the bowl-shaped arena. The only women who were allowed to attend the actual games were, by tradition, those not yet betrothed or married, for as the glory of the young male participants was considered far too tempting to the matron, it was considered fit and proper that young women should chose their heroes. The elder women, did, however, mingle freely and openly with all the attendees prior to the actual festivities, so the restriction on them meant little. The maidens themselves would have their own events, and at that time it would be the men that had to be content with celebrating outside the gates of the stadium.

Joy ruled supreme among all of the tribes of the Greeks. No war would be contemplated during this, the greatest of festivals... the one celebration honoring all the gods. Wine flowed freely, and ox and boar rotated, sizzling, on great skewers placed above the roasting pits. Laughter, joy, strength, and peace were universal. Even the gods smiled at the display of so much life and happiness. Or so it would seem...

It was to the north, in an otherwise unblemished sky of the brightest cobalt blue, that the darkness first appeared. To begin, it was no more than the size of a man's hand, held at arm's length, and no one was concerned. The breezes were still warm, and the sun shone supreme. But, the wind, presently, did seem to increase, and it also felt as if it was no longer as comforting. The aroma of flowers seemed to diminish, and there was another smell, vague yet disquieting. The revelers, before so caught up in their happiness and pleasure, were now feeling a growing sense of unease. It was not just the threat of unfavorable weather. It was... more. Something much more.

The ill wind began to increase, and the dark cloud grew larger. Murmuring also grew among the people, and, for the first time, so did fear. Fear increased, spawning tendrils of dread... this was not weather at all. What was this wind and the cloud? It seemed that no one, really, wanted to know. The wind continued to increase, faster and faster, until it was a gale... as savage a gale as any that had swept the wine-dark seas. And the cloud - now it seemed to cover the entire sky, turning the entire world, perhaps the entire universe, into inky blackness. The people, so joyous only moments before, began to panic and run for the exits to the stadia. Bolts of scabrous lightning rent the skies, crashing into and splintering the marble columns that bordered the playing fields. Great statues of the gods, covered with gold and silver, were toppled, exploding into shards. Fear that had become dread was finally, and irrevocably, now terror. The masses trampled one another in their mindless flight and scattering, with screams and lamentations filling the raging air. Bolts continued to spew forth from the heavens, destroying, scorching, and killing. And from the blackness... from the depths of horror... came a strange, feminine laughter.

Xena and Gabrielle sat around the dying embers of their campfire, with Argo tethered not far away. Xena, as was her custom, was brooding. She occupied herself with running a whetstone along the edge of her already razor sharp sword. Gabrielle stoked the ashes of the fire with a stick, lost in thoughts of her own. Xena was by far the taller of the two, with strikingly beautiful, if harden, features and mane-like hair of the darkest black. She was dressed, as usual, in her dark leather and metal breastplate and short, bronze-studded battledress. At her waist was her chakram - a round, "throwing" weapon which was also razor-sharp. These weapons befitted Xena, as she was a warrior... a free-booter... traveling the lands with her companion Gabrielle.

Gabrielle was not a warrior... or, at least she was not one such as Xena. She was, however, a Queen of the Amazons, by virtue of an act of bravery and self-sacrifice, risking her life for another Queen of the Amazons. She was several inches shorter than the six foot Xena, and she wore the short skirt and sleeveless, bare-waisted attire of an Amazon. Gabrielle had left her village of Poteidaia to join an at-first reluctant Xena, and by dint of her courage, loyalty, and intelligence won the acceptance and, finally, the love of the Warrior Princess.

Xena was the Warrior Princess. She, from the days of her youth, had led armies into battle in defense of her homeland Amphypelis. She had begun by fighting warlords, but had succumbed to the narcotic of power, and soon begun raiding villages and towns. She had wanted to conquer the world, but the ambition turned to dust, as their was still good in her. She turned on her army and defeated it, and then returned to Amphypelis, where she was unwelcome. She, however, saved her village, and, ever since, had been saving the world as well. But, if there was good in Xena, there was still darkness, and in this darkness Xena brooded.

The wind whistled through the trees around the campfire. The sun had gone down long before, and the only shadows were those thrown by the dying embers. There was little light... or so it appeared. There seemed, however, some other light. There seemed to be a disquiet in the air... there seemed to be something - unsettling, like the strains of music, both haunting and too distant to hear clearly.

And then there was light. It was a blinding light, a light that would be made by the fires of several suns. And there was a figure in the light, a figure tall, white-robed, and dazzling to behold...

Xena came to her feet in an instant, by reflex brandishing her oft-blooded sword. Her lips curled back in a snarl, revealing pearl white teeth. Her eyes blazed a blue so deep as to be unapproachable. The battle lust came easy to Xena, and any threat was met with the force of her fury. But this was no threat, or at least none that muscle and steel could oppose. As the light diminished, a visage familiar to all the Greeks appeared, and Xena's battle lust turned involuntarily to awe.

"Lord Zeus..." exclaimed the now wide-eyed Xena.

"Yes. Thou that are known as Xena, the Warrior Princess. It is I. Father Zeus."

"My Lord," spoke Xena, "I have fought beside your son Hercules, and defied your son Ares, god of war. But few mortals have ever met, or ever will see, Zeus, king of all the gods."

"You do me homage, Xena, and as the affairs of men are not to my noticing, you are quite correct that my visitation is most unusual. But these are unusual times... most unusual indeed. There is a new god, and she is not of Mount Olympus. The gods - most gods - are indifferent to the ways of men, and some are even cruel. But none of the gods have ever been mad. There is now one such. That is why I'm here."

"Callisto?" asked Gabrielle, until now too shocked to speak.

"Yes. The one you call Callisto."

Both Gabrielle and Xena were silent. Both had thoughts of Callisto. For Xena, Callisto was at first not much more than a child, the only survivor of the first village, Sera, that Xena's army had sacked and burned. Callisto, lean, tall, with flying blond hair, had been driven insane by what Xena had done to her family and kinspeople, and had devoted her life to the downfall of the Warrior Princess. She and Xena had battled more than once, but in their last adventure Xena had enlisted Callisto's aid in opposing Valasca, a renegade Amazon who had become a god by virtue of a bite of ambrosia, the food of the gods. Xena had tempted Callisto into cooperating against Valasca with the lure of ambrosia, so that she Callisto, could become a god as well. In the end Callisto got her ambrosia, and did become a god, but Xena was able to spill both Valasca and Callisto into a lave flow, where they were to have been entombed forever.

"Callisto's escaped?" asked Gabrielle, "and not Valasca?"

"For now, just Callisto," spoke Zeus, "but that is by far enough."

"What is this of us, Lord Zeus?" asked Xena, "You, as King of the gods, should be able to control Callisto... if not alone, then surely in combination with all the other gods."

"Xena, you know not of the powers of the gods. To you, we are all-powerful. We have the ability to change space and time, and to reform matter as we chose. Our consciousness can create reality. But, we are not the entities that you've been led to believe. The things that we do are not solely the province of what you call gods. In time, even man will learn to do the things we do. The gods themselves will someday disappear. But, be that as it may - Callisto... is different. Her madness makes her different. We have never faced such total madness combined with the power of a god. I... we... are powerless to stop her. Many of the gods do not want to even try. But, she must be stopped. If she is not, then the entire universe may be destroyed. And you, Xena... with Gabrielle's help, if you so will... are the only ones who can stop her."

"How, Lord Zeus, if the gods themselves are so powerless?" spoke Xena.

"There was a great wrong once done. You know of this wrong. It is you that must undo it."

Xena's mind wandered back through the mists of time. She saw, as in a vision. There was fire, and the screams of the innocents, and the smell... the smell of roasting flesh. Xena knew of the great wrong. It was the wrong that had started her down the dark path - the wrong she thought that she would have given anything to correct. Now, Lord Zeus was giving her the chance. But, what would be the means? And what would be the price?

"Yes, Lord Zeus. I will try."

"Then so be it." And then there was light, and Zeus was gone. And Xena, Gabrielle, and even Argo, were gone as well...

As in a dream, the words came..."Tell the world, the universe, depends on us today..."

Xena and Gabrielle were in a strange place, but it didn't seem so strange. They had been here before, and it was not so long ago. They were overlooking a valley, which was green and prosperous. In the distance, most of a day's walk, through woods and fields, was a village. The houses in this village were modest, but the fields were well-tended. There, barely discernible, were farmers harvesting grain and watching over flocks of sheep and herds of cattle.

Xena had changed as well... or at least her attire. Her breastplate and battledress, once black with bronze fittings, was now of the softest white leather, and the overlays were of pure silver. Xena gave only the slightest notice to this change of attire, dismissing it as a whim of the gods, probably Zeus. Whatever the course of this quest, the gods would be watching, and Xena supposed that she was being distinguished from her most likely foe...Gabrielle stared at her friend, and then at the village far away.

"Xena. It can't be..."

"It is. Sera. Not as it was when we were here just a few short weeks ago, when I called this "the ugliest place in the world". This is the way it was, Gabrielle. This is the way it was just before my army... before I... arrived. And wiped it off the face of the Earth."

"Zeus has sent us back."

"To right an unrightable wrong. And to undo all the evil that came thereafter."

"But, Xena... what will you do?"

"I'll face her. The Warrior Princess. And I'll stop her army."

"How can you face yourself? And how can you defeat yourself? And, if you do, and have to kill her to stop her, then you'll no longer be. Xena, you can't do that... I won't let you do that. I won't let you leave me again like you did when you were wounded here and died... Xena, I won't."

"Gabrielle, when I died, it was for almost nothing. You were there for me and brought me back, and the same ambrosia that did that has unleashed an unspeakable evil on the world... Gabrielle, you have to understand. In that village, down there, hundreds of people - innocent people - died because of me. I have cursed the Xena that did that, but nothing I could do, no amount of regret... nothing has ever brought forgiveness. And there were others - other villages where the women and children were spared, but only to starve. Their men, which I slew without mercy, they were only farmers - not warriors. I killed them because their villages belonged to some king that I didn't like... or who didn't like me. Fate has led me back here, where the evil truly began. I have a chance for atonement, but it has to be earned."

There was a tear in Gabrielle's eye. "Well," she said, "I guess we can't just let Callisto destroy the universe.

"It depends on us, Gabrielle. And someday you'll tell the world that."

Xena and Gabrielle led Argo on toward Sera, walking along a well-worn path through the woods. Presently they came upon a small glade, with a long neglected altar in its center. There was also someone kneeling before the altar, as in prayer, facing away from the trail. She was young, barely in her teens, but tall and firm of body. She had long hair like spun gold."

"Hello," called Gabrielle, from across the way.

The young woman turned, and Gabrielle gave out a gasp, with her hands involuntarily clenching tighter on the battle-staff that she always carried. The face was young... so incredibly young. But, young as it was, it was unmistakable. The beauty and the dancing blue eyes were the same. It was a face that Gabrielle could never forget, and which she had seen in her nightmares. The face was, however... different. The eyes did not blaze with the hate and rage that Gabrielle so often remembered.

"Callisto" breathed Xena, who, of course, had recognized the face just as well as Gabrielle.

"You know my name?" spoke the girl, " Are you warrior-priestesses, too? Do you belong to the Order?"

"Warrior priestesses?" said Gabrielle.

"Quiet, Gabrielle," ordered Xena, who then turned her attention to the young woman called Callisto.

"Girl, how old are you?"

"I have seen fifteen summers."

"I'd always thought you'd be younger," said Xena.

"Younger that who? What are you talking about?", asked the girl.

"Nothing. Nothing that concerns you."

"Where are you bound?"

"To the village. We must be in Sera by nightfall."

"Sera," spoke the girl, "That is my home village. That is where I'm bound also. I had planned to stay here, at the altar of the goddess of victory, Tyche, tonight. But, if you're going to Sera, let me come with you. You'll need a place to stay, and you can stay with my family. Strangers are always welcome."

Xena had drawn close enough to the girl to look into her eyes. There was not the slightest hint of the madness that would one day dwell there. There was only the wonder of a young girl, confronted with two women, one who wore the battledress and sword and chakram of a warrior, and the other in the costume of an Amazon. But, as Xena gazed deeper and deeper, there appeared what could only be called the reflection of a premonition. Ironically, it was a premonition of the past, Xena's past... perhaps served up by the gods themselves. But it was a premonition of this girl's future, and it was too dark to be the invention of a mere god. Xena saw this young girl, covered with dirt and char, weeping uncontrollably before the body of her still-living mother, whose features were burned beyond recognition. The girl's sister was alive as well, but covered from head to foot with raw, savage burns, and she was begging Callisto to kill her. But that was not the end of this monstrous vision. Later that night, twelve of Xena's men returned to the village, where they found the young Callisto. Those men were gone that night, and the next day, and the night after that, and they returned without booty. What they did to the girl... a shudder of horror came over Xena, and a scream rose unbidden in her throat. So those were the reasons for all the hate and rage and madness.

"You can't come with us, girl." spoke Xena, "It's best you stay here."

"But, why?" asked Callisto.

"There's going to be trouble. It's no place for you."

"If there is trouble it's certainly where I need to be. I may be young, but from my thirteenth birthday I've lived in Dacia, far to the north, apprenticed to the warrior-priestesses of Gaia. My mother's people are Dacians, and I was pledged to the Order of Gaia at my birth. For three years I have learned to fight, and my call, once my training is completed, is to be protector of my village."

"Who are these warrior-priestesses?" asked Gabrielle.

"I know of the Order of Gaia," spoke Xena, "their temple is in Bucca, north of the Great River. From time unchronicled they have trained there, as protectors of the golden-haired Dacians. They have kept the peace among the Northern Tribes for a thousand years."

"Callisto, this is Xena," said Gabrielle, in belated introduction, "and I am Gabrielle. Xena is the Warrior Princess."

"I am not... not now," spoke Xena, "the Warrior Princess is who we seek to stop. But, it's still too dangerous for you."

"Xena," spoke Gabrielle, "we can't just leave her here. This is for her, too. Any way, she can help us organize the villagers."

Xena pondered on this. She did not want Callisto at the village when the inevitable battle was joined. But, if she was left here... even if she were to stay here

of her own will, which was unlikely... the cycle might be repeated. Callisto had stayed in

the grove, sacred to the Order of Gaia and the goddess Tyche when it all had happened before, and then, by the time she got to Sera, it was too late. Xena decided it was best for the girl to come with them. Additionally, Xena knew of the prowess of the Gaian warrior-priestesses. The labors of three years training with the Gaians had left Callisto as tall and strong as she would be later in life as an adult. Training in the Temple of Gaia was, for a warrior, the best in the World. Callisto would be an asset in a fight, if properly led.

"You can come with us," spoke Xena, "but you will obey me at all times."

"Well, let's go," said Gabrielle.

... And the three of them, with Argo, continued on to Sera.

Xena was astride Argo, followed by Gabrielle and Callisto. They had hurried on, as Xena was well aware that her other self... the Warrior Princess... would strike the village of Sera the next dawn. If a defense could be mobilized, it would have to be done quickly.

The road to Sera, once they cleared the trees, was through prosperous farming country. Xena dimly recalled the seeming wealth of this valley, and it was one of the reasons she had attacked it, so long ago... As the threesome neared the village, Xena noticed a shrine, with what had once been a columned atrium and altar, now in a state of sad disrepair.

"You don't seem to care much for the gods here," spoke Xena, "to let their temples fall into ruin."

"It has been years since we worshipped at this temple," said Callisto, "now Sera recognizes only one god. She is Harmony, goddess of peace."

"A strange god for these times."

"You may find many things different about our village from what you're used to..."

On reaching Sera, Xena dismounted and she, Gabrielle, and Callisto walked into the village. Everywhere the people, working in their gardens or little workshops, seemed friendly and content. Many times neighbors of Callisto greeted her with enthusiastic embraces, and seemed genuinely happy to make the acquaintance of Xena and Gabrielle. Finally, an impatient Xena hurried the threesome along. They came to a modest but well-built thatched-roof house.

"This is my home," said Callisto. Xena tethered Argo to the gatepost, and the three women went inside.

"Mother?" called out Callisto.

A handsome middle-aged woman with short golden-blond hair came out of a back room. She was followed by a younger girl, no more than twelve years old, whose hair was of the same color.

"Callisto!" cried out her mother, with obvious joy at seeing her first-born. "We had not expected you till late on the morrow. And you've brought friends. Welcome to our home!"

"Mother, this is Xena and Gabrielle, whom I met on the trail earlier this afternoon. Xena... Gabrielle... this is my mother, Veda, and this is my sister Carrah. Mother, where is Father? Xena has something important to discuss. The village is evidently in some danger."

"My husband, D'antonius, is still at his carpentry shop," spoke Vera, addressing herself to Xena, "Carrah... run get your father."

It was now late evening. Xena and Gabrielle, along with Callisto and her family, were seated at a round, wooden dining table. Veda had piled the table high with bread, cheese, wine, and other delectables. All had eaten well, and now Xena was deep in conversation, primarily with D'antonius and Veda. She had told them that the village was in grave danger from a female warlord, known as the Warrior Princess, who, with a hundred picked horsemen, would descend on Sera tomorrow. Xena was insistent that a defense had to be raised, and quickly. D'antonius and Veda were somewhat nervous with their replies.

"Xena," continued Veda, "the news you bring is very serious and disturbing indeed. We are not warriors here... and we have no other means of defense. We do pay the customary tribute to an overlord - the one the Warrior Princess has declared war on - but we pay no allegiance to him, and he would not send protection even if we asked."

Xena was not used to people who didn't know how to defend themselves. Clearly exasperated, she asked, "Surely you must at least have some weapons which you can use."

"Xena," said the kindly and gentle-eyed D'antonius, "You must have patience with us. We were once like the peoples of other tribes roundabout. There was then much fighting, and covetedness, brother against brother, cousin against cousin, and life was always desperate, bloody, and short. There was no prosperity then... and no happiness. Then our people underwent a Great Awakening. At first it was just a few, then more, and then, within the span of an entire generation, all of our village renounced war forever, even to include all the gods that tolerate war. That is why we worship only the goddess Harmony. We call her a goddess, but she is not a goddess like the ones on Olympus..."

"She is a way of life," added Veda.

"Be that as it may," interjected Xena, "a 'way of life' will not protect you from the Warrior Princess. Are there any weapons at all in the village?"

"Nothing more than pruning hooks, hay-forks and hoes," replied D'antonius.

"And even then, the people would not know how to use them as weapons."

Xena grunted, as she had no other reply. At that time Carrah, who had absented herself from the table, returned to the room with a long object, wrapped in finest linen. "Momma," she said, "we have this."

Veda took the object from her second-born daughter, laying it on the table and gently unwrapping the linen. When she opened the last wrapping, Xena and Gabrielle gasped... It was the finest sword either of them had ever seen. The steel shown like polished silver, and delicately chiseled runes ran the length of the upraised center of the blade. The hilt was overlaid with solid gold, and rubies and diamonds encrusted the crossbar. Xena, with a nod of permission from Veda, grasped the sword and lifted it. The balance was the most perfect she had ever known...

"This sword," spoke Veda, "belonged to my mother - Callisto's grandmother. She was a knight of the Order of the Temple of Gaia, a leader of the Warrior-Priestesses. I was to follow in her footsteps, but I chose D'antonius and Sera, and followed the way of the Great Awakening. My mother, for whom Callisto was named, made me swear, as the only condition of my marriage to D'antonius, that my first-born daughter be dedicated to the Order of Gaia, and that she report to the Temple on the end of her girlhood to begin her training as a Warrior-Priestess."

"Upon completion of my apprenticeship," added Callisto, " on my eighteenth year, I was to have inherited my grandmother's sword."

"Callisto is allowed to leave the Temple only once during here novitiate," said Veda, "At it's mid-point. That is why she was coming home when you met her on the road."

"Well, said Xena, "It appears that she will be inheriting the sword a little early." Xena ran her thumb along the edge of the blade. Grunting again, she added, "As fine as this weapon is, it's dull."

"That's purposeful," explained Callisto, "the Warrior-Priestesses use their swords not to kill, but only to disarm and disable their opponents. It's the philosophy of Gaia that killing in battle is to be only a last and unavoidable resort, and the Warrior-Priestesses are the world's foremost experts at non-lethal fighting."

Xena's head was beginning to spin with all this non-violence. She took the sword and threw it over to Callisto, who deftly caught the weapon.

"Sharpen it," Xena said.

Dawn broke early in the valley that nestled Sera. Xena was again astride Argo, her sword loosened and her chakram handy at her side. Gabrielle was at her right hand side, with her battle-staff, the only weapon she'd ever used, firmly grasped in both hands. On Xena's left was the young Callisto, the only person of the village trained for war, with her grandmother's sword in her fist. The three warriors stood just outside the gates of the village, facing the low open hillside that overlooked the approach to the town. There was no one else in sight, as Xena had ordered the villagers to stay in their homes, with orders to flee at her command.

The three waited, as the sun rose and the day began to warm... presently there was what seemed like a low vibration, felt by Gabrielle and Callisto through their sandals. The vibration continued and began to strengthen, and soon there was noise. It was a hammering sound, which quickly became identifiable. It was the sound of many horses, moving at a gallop... The expressions on the faces of the threesome were as if carved in stone, and didn't change a bit as the sound grew louder.

The sounds of the horses hoofs were like thunder, but were not as loud as Xena had feared. The tops of plumed helms were becoming visible over the hilltop, and Xena began to count. She stopped at thirteen, and knew this was only a scouting party. But then she remembered she'd led such a scout prior to ordering her soldiers in to destroy the village. At that time the main attack had come almost immediately after she had made certain that the village was not heavily defended. It will be much different this time, if I can help it, thought Xena.

It was only a matter of seconds before the raiders rode over the hill and into plain view. Memories flooded into Xena's brain. She knew these men... she had hired them or trained them, and a more hard-bitten set of renegades did not exist anywhere in the known world. They were all tall, powerful, heavy-limbed men, wearing armor of brass and iron, and armed with yard long blades of steel. With them came the stench of sweat-impregnated leather, the heavy oil of well-rubbed weapons, and the smell of froth-mouthed, heaving horses.

And at their very center, there she was. The Warrior Princess, ten years younger than Xena was now, but none the softer for the lack of age. Enclothed in her blacken battledress, eyes blazing and raven-black mane of hair trailing in the wind, the Warrior Princess led her party, riding a great, magnificent black stallion. Bucyphelas, thought Xena, her predecessor to Argo, and no finer war-horse had ever been sired. Argo herself whinnied at the approach of the great charger, and shivered at the prospect of an impeding combat with the great beast...

The Warrior Princess caught sight of Xena and her companions, waiting just a few hundred yards away, outside the gates of Sera. The Warrior Princess slowed her steed, and raised a hand to signal her men to slow their approach. She seemed at first to be somewhat surprised at seeing what appeared to be a duplicate of herself, clad in white battledress. The surprise, 'tho, lasted less than a handful of heartbeats, and then the Warrior Princess broke into a mirthless smile.

"So, it seems that there's an impostor in our way," spoke the Warrior Princess, "I suppose I should be flattered."

"No impostor," said Xena, "instead your nemesis."

The Warrior Princess let out a short, sharp laugh. Her men had moved up, and were positioned around her.

"Now, Gabrielle!" shouted Xena, and she rode into the midst of the Warrior Princess's cavalry, grabbing the boot of a soldier on either side, and dis-horsing the both of them with one savage pitch.

Both Gabrielle and Callisto, on foot, waded into the fray. Gabrielle's battlestaff

whistled as she swung it back and forth, with lightening-like quickness. Each blow was one to the gut of one of the mounted raiders, and the iron-hard wood dismounted one, then two, then another of the warriors. Callisto showed well why it is said that three years of training with the Gaian Warrior-Priestesses are worth a dozen in active campaigning with the legions. With heavy blows of the flat of her grandmother's sword to the bellies of the Warrior Princess's soldiers, she began dismounting her share as well...

Xena's eyes now also blazed with the lust for battle. With one hand she drew her chakram, flinging it and toppling two more horsemen. She had her sword in her by now as well, and was using the blade in not so discriminating a manner as Callisto. By now almost all of the Warrior Princess's soldiers were writhing in the dust. Gabrielle and Callisto combined to again flatten the men that tried to rise to their feet.

"Incompetents!" screamed the Warrior Princess, "mewling, pathetic infants!" And she grabbed the last two of her men who were between her and Xena, and threw them out of the saddle herself.

Now it was Xena and the Warrior Princess, upon their horses, face to face. Argo and Bucyphalis snorted and pawed, steam rising from their nostrils and teeth bared, as two sets of ice blue eyes glared at one another.

"Well, impostor," spoke the Warrior Princess, "we shall see..."

The two warriors both raised their swords at the same instant, bringing them together in bone-jarring blows. Sparks of fire ricocheted off the tempered steel, and the blows were repeated time and again, to the left, to the right, below and above... The Warrior Princess, however, was clearly surprised that there was a foe was as good as herself. Xena took this advantage, and doubled the savageness of her blows. For a second the Warrior Princess was on the defensive, and Xena, seeing her advantage, smote her opponent's blade with a super-human blow. The sword flew from the Warrior Princess's hand, and Bucyphalis reared, and the Warrior Princess, for the first time ever, was unhorsed.

Xena, still astride Argo, stood over her opponent, who had regained her feet. The Warrior Princess reached for her chakram, but, to belay that tactic, Xena brought her blade closer to the Warrior Princess's throat. Still, Xena, hesitated... and then the Warrior Princess smiled again, and somersaulted backward, out of reach. Putting her fingers to her lips, she whistled loudly, and as Bucyphalis came up, she vaulted herself into the saddle. Galloping away she reached down and picked up her sword... Xena was now flanked by both Gabrielle and Callisto, as all of the horsemen were either down or had retreated on foot, as their horses had scattered. The Warrior Princess then laughed and spun her horse, and sped away, what of her men that could stumbling after her.

"We've beaten her," said Gabrielle.

"Of course not," replied Xena, "she's made her scout and is now simply returning to her army. She'll be back, but not until sunset. Now that she knows the village is defended, she'll wait till then. It's harder to fight off an army in the dark."

The sun had passed its zenith, and was slowly descending westward. With the lull in battle, there was nothing much that Xena and Gabrielle could do but wait. Xena spent the waiting time, as always, for the cleaning and sharpening of her weapons. Gabrielle, on the other hand, as a bard with a love for stories, spent her time in the company of others. At this particular time she was out walking with Veda, to whom she had taken an especial liking. Gabrielle and Veda were walking on the road outside the village of Sera, and presently came upon the abandoned temple which she, Xena, and Callisto had passed the yesterday eve.

"Veda... tell me. Who's temple was that?"

"That was the Shrine of Demeter, goddess of agriculture, fertility, and marriage."

"In the Great Awakening, the Shrine became no longer important?"

"The things that the Great Demeter stand for are still important. More than ever so, to our village. But we have allowed the gods themselves to fade away..."

"What about Tyche? Is she still important to you?"

"She is important to the Warrior-Priestesses of Gaia."

"Do you regret not following in your mother's footsteps, and becoming a Warrior-Priestess?

"Sometimes I do. I would be lying to say that I've never looked back."

"Veda, tell me about the Temple of Gaia. I had never known that there was such an Order. All that I've ever heard about the Northern Tribes was that they were hairy clad barbarians living in a land of howling wolves."

"A common misperception - and essentially the way things were before the rise of the Warrior-Priestesses. But the Dacian plains have been at peace, more or less, for many generations." And so Veda told Gabrielle about the great Knights of the Warrior-Priestesses, and Gabrielle had visions of new armloads of scrolls for her one day career as a bard.

Then there was a familiar voice, from behind the ruins of the shrine.

"Gabrielle, come here, I need you."

"Coming Xena," and Gabrielle jogged over to where she expected to see her friend.

There was Xena, or that was what Gabrielle thought she saw. It took a second for something to register to Gabrielle that seemed disharmonious. What was it? Everything seemed all right... and then it hit her like a thunderclap - Xena's battledress was black! This was not Xena... or not her Xena... it was the Warrior Princess! The Warrior Princess had been stalking her and Veda, and now had struck... but that was the last thought Gabrielle had for the moment, as she was rendered unconscious by a sharp blow from a clenched fist.

The Warrior Princess threw Gabrielle over her shoulder with no more effort than if the young woman had been a small sack of grain. She then whistled for Bucyphelas, who came on the run, and strattled the horse with one easy motion. Shifting Gabrielle to the pummel of her saddle, the Warrior Princess dug her heals into her great horse's side, and galloped away, leaving nothing behind but her echoing battle cry...

Veda ran all the way back to the village, arriving gasping for breath. Xena saw her and instantly knew something was wrong.

"Veda, what is it?"

"The warrior woman... she's got Gabrielle. She knocked her out and took her away!"

"Damn," was all Xena could think to say. She had literally underestimated herself. The Warrior Princess had obviously read the bond between Xena and Gabrielle at the fight by the gateposts, and realized that it was something special. Now that she had Gabrielle, the Warrior Princess would know that she had Xena skewered on the horns of a dilemma. Xena could stay and protect the village, and lose Gabrielle. Or, she could seek out Gabrielle, who would be held captive away from the Warrior Princess's army, and the Warrior Princess could pounce on Sera while Xena was rescuing Gabrielle... No wonder Xena's only comment was "damn".

Xena brooded, and it was dark and menacing. She had to reach a decision, and it wasn't coming easy. But, there was only one thing she could think to do. She was needed here at the village. If she was seen leaving in search of Gabrielle by the Warrior Princess's scouts, Sera would be pounced upon, attacked and destroyed. Then what was she to do about Gabrielle? If Xena was still at the village when the Warrior Princess struck, Gabrielle would be put to the sword. She had to be rescued... and there was only one way that could be done.

Xena had to send Callisto after Gabrielle. Her thoughts about this were not easy. On the one hand, Callisto did well enough in battle... for a teenager, who had Xena watching her back. But she was still only a child - just fifteen years old. She was certainly no Warrior-Priestess. To send her after Gabrielle, especially if it were a trap, would be like sending a lamb to the slaughter. On the other hand, there was still a nagging doubt in the back of Xena's mind that would not go away. At times this seemed too perfect...

Callisto so innocent, the village inhabited by pacifists who would, or could, not fight. The Callisto Xena knew only a couple of days ago was not this teenage girl. And she had become a god. If Lord Zeus could send them back here, could not the mad Callisto... the "real Callisto"... have followed? What if that was who this Callisto is, spinning some insane plot to cause Xena and Gabrielle eternal suffering? What if this was all an illusion...

Xena shook her head as if to fling unwanted thoughts away. She would trust that this was the real young Callisto... for now. But did Xena have any right to send Callisto after Gabrielle, whom the young girl had not even met before yesterday? Xena finally decided that she could only ask...

Xena approached Callisto and Veda. Both seemed to know what she was going to ask. Xena decided to talk to Callisto's mother first.

"Veda," began Xena, "I have no right to ask this, but -"

"Xena, if there ever was a time that I wished I had the talents of a Warrior-Priestess, it is now," said Veda, "I would gladly go for Gabrielle."

"That's enough, Mother. Xena... Mother... I have been trained at the Temple of Gaia, and it is the sworn obligation of all the Warrior-Priestesses to oppose evil whenever and wherever it may arise. I know that I'm not an adept. But I know that I have a destiny, and I know that rescuing Gabrielle is a part of what I must be."

Veda was lost in thought for a moment. Then she glanced at Xena, and nodded her head. Xena turned to Callisto and said, "Go to the shrine and follow the hoof prints. I know you've been trained in that. Take along Gabrielle's battlestaff... when you find her, do nothing while the Warrior Princess is there. When she leaves, your job is to free Gabrielle and get her staff to her. She... and you... should be able to handle the rest. And Callisto..."


"Be very careful."

Gabrielle's hands were above her head, tied to the branch of a tree. She was suspended, with her feet barely touching the ground. Looking down at Gabrielle from the back of her war-horse was the Warrior Princess.

Gabrielle began to regain consciousness... her vision, 'tho very blurry, began to return. As the world came into focus, she saw a familiar figure...

"Xena?" Gabrielle said, weakly.

The Warrior Princess was taken aback, "How do you know my name, you little tramp?"

"Xena," Gabrielle said again, this time less weakly, now recognizing the Warrior Princess for who she was, "...Xena... I know you. Don't ask me how - you wouldn't believe it. But, Xena, I do know you, and I do know that this isn't you. I mean it isn't your true self. The village... Sera... you should spare it. You know in your heart that you don't want to harm these people."

"Now, how do you think you know what's in my heart, little girl? Are you some sort of missionary? Is that your position? Hah! You are nothing to me. Nothing but bait... or a sacrifice, but it won't be my choice. Whoever your friend is... the impostor. It'll be up to her to decide."

"She won't abandon me. And even if she has to, it'll be for the greater good of saving the village."

"I'll give you this, little girl, you don't lack for courage... of a sort. And your friend does make me uneasy... at least to a degree. I wouldn't have gone to all the trouble of kidnapping you, but I did feel the need to trick that woman."

"And why, Xena? Why is there something about her that bothers you?

The Warrior Princess, for a second looked troubled. Maybe there was even a glimmer - an atom - of understanding. There were words on her lips that she was going to use to reply to Gabrielle's question, but they were 'because she's just like me'... Those words were left unspoken. Instead, the Warrior Princess yanked Bucyphalis's reins, turned the horse, and rode away...

... It was much later in the evening, almost dark, and Gabrielle hung wearily from her tree. The Warrior Princess had left three guards behind to watch her. Suddenly, there was a thump, and Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked to the ground. There was a piece of wood there... a staff. Her staff! Then, flying through the air, was a bright and shining sword, which cut the bonds holding Gabrielle quite neatly. And then, out of the bushes, was a familiar, golden-haired girl.

"I sharpened it, just like Xena told me to," giggled Callisto, in that little girl voice that Gabrielle instantly recognized, even from another life.

The guards came running, swords drawn. Gabrielle reached down and picked up her battlestaff, even with both hands tied together. The staff cracked once, twice, and then a third time. The guards didn't stand a chance. Callisto pulled her grandmother's sword out of the tree, and cut Gabrielle's bonds.

Where is Xena?" asked Gabrielle.

"She's still at the village."

"We have to hurry. It's almost nightfall, and Xena is about to attack..."


"Oh, never mind. Let's hurry..."

Xena again stood at the gates of the village. She stood alone this time, as she had once more ordered the townspeople to remain in their homes, prepared to flee. The sun had set, and twilight was gathering. Xena was in a perfect state of meditation, lost in the vision of battle, even as she had her eyes open. This was her one, best destiny, for which she'd been born. And the time finally came...

On the hillside she saw the approaching torches. There were at least a score of them. There were also four score men, all dismounted. Looting and plundering a village was something best done on foot. At the very center of this mass of men, high upon Bucyphalis, was the Warrior Princess. She and her army advanced until there was only a hundred paces between them and Xena. The Warrior Princess dismounted, slapping the rump of her horse, sending him to the rear.

The Warrior Princess, surrounded by her soldiers holding torches, stared at Xena. Xena returned her gaze. The moment passed, and the Warrior Princess raised her sword.

"Burn the village!" she cried.

A look of horror came over the visage of Xena. She had never faced this fact... but it was finally, terribly, true. Sera was burned, with all its inhabitants, not due to an accident, or by her men without her permission, but on her express order.

The look of horror turned to one of rage. It was a rage undreamed of, a rage not possible even for a god, much less a mortal. Xena did not see the men charging toward her. The red mist of battle had transformed her vision. And her battle cry rent the heavens, and even the mountains seemed to shudder in dismay.

Xena flung herself into the advancing horde. Her sword was not even visible... seen only as a blur in a hurricane of motion. Her blade beat down men, it seemed, by the dozen. Her chakram left her hand time after time, and returned thereto, but she never even appeared to notice that it was gone.

The battle raged... swords met hers, and she snapped them in two like twigs. Some - not many - got through, and there was blood, but Xena didn't feel the hurts in the least. She was beating back her foes, and leaving them at her feet.

The Warrior Princess's army was made up of harden fighters, but never in their wildest dreams could they image that such a foe existed. These men thought that they could not know panic, but they were mistaken. They were falling back, step by step, and their steps were becoming more hurried... Then, from the village came Gabrielle and Callisto, and behind them were Veda and D'antonius, armed only with sticks. And then there were more of the villagers, men and women both, carrying hay forks, and hoes, and pruning hooks, and even brooms. Xena spared them the slightest glance, and in her battle frenzy, took time to feel pride that even these folk, idealistic as they were... and they should be... would defend their freedom.

Upon seeing these reinforcements, the Warrior Princess's army broke. It did not happen gradually, but all at once... The soldiers fled as if pursued by demons, and the rout was complete. The villagers subdued those that were down or had fallen behind, but they did not kill them. That part of their beliefs they upheld.

As the battlefield cleared, Xena came face to face with her main foe. The Warrior Princess stood before her, sword raised. But, the Warrior Princess was ever the strategist. If she could just separate this accursed impostor warrior woman from her allies, and slay her, then she could come back and finish off the village. With that thought, the Warrior Princess ran Xena followed.

The chase finally ended not far outside the village, among the trees, amidst the deserted and ruined temple of Demeter. Xena's eyes blazed the cobalt blue of battle-lust. Her body and hair were soaked black with sweat and streaked crimson with blood. A red mist of fury still clouded her vision, and a war cry keened from her throat. The Warrior Princess was no less a vision of desperate battle, her lips snarling with both rage and fire. Both women held their swords high above their heads, ready to deal a death blow.

"This is where it ends," said Xena, as she brought her sword forward in a killing swing, only to be matched by the Warrior Princess. The two swords threw off a rain of blue sparks as steel clashed with steel, again and again.

"For you, maybe," barked the Warrior Princess, "You may have stampeded that gutless flock of cowards I thought was my army, but you'll feed the worms before I'm through with you tonight."

The swordplay continued, blow for blow, ringing out with deafening crashes, a blizzard of razor-honed metal. The two women warriors were evenly matched... the younger one's strength against the older one's skill. Sweat flew in clouds of splattering droplets from the twisted, enraged faces of both the combatants. It was Xena versus the Warrior Princess, and neither would yield with less than the total destruction of the power of the other.

Gabrielle came running into the temple, looking for Xena.

"Xena!" called out Gabrielle, "Her army, they've either run away or been disarmed. We've won!

"You've won nothing," spat the dark-clad Warrior Princess, and, snatching her chakram, flung it at the auburn-haired village girl turned Amazon. The chakram hit Gabrielle's upper thigh, and she went down, not to rise.

Xena, seeing her friend felled, screamed in rage. Her battle fury doubled and doubled again, and her wrath was greater even than it had been when she faced the soldiers who were attempting to burn the village. Never, in all her battles, in all the many wars, had she felt such a desire to triumph and obliterate her foe. The killing blood boiled white hot in her veins, and it would not be denied. The enemy in front of her had destroyed her life long ago, and now she threatened to kill her best friend.

"Ae ae ae ae ae ae!!!" screamed the blood-enraged Xena, as she threw herself forward at her mortal foe, her sword now a hurricane of motion. The haughty Warrior Princess, so confident in her ability to wrought destruction on her victims, for the first time showed a new and very unfamiliar emotion... a flicker of fear. Xena did not relent and gave no quarter to her opponent... the Warrior Princess was being forced back, step by step, and it was all that she could manage to parry the raining blows of steel.

Xena was oblivious to all the world except for her blinding lust to destroy her enemy. She was fueled by fires of rage beyond any understanding, and this rage gave her one last ounce of superhuman strength. Her sword, now white hot with the heat of battle, struck the sword of the Warrior Princess with such force as to send it hurtling out of her hand. The Warrior Princess stumbled. Xena, glancing around, saw a long-abandoned marble pillar, once part of the shrine to Demeter. Xena's booted foot struck out, toppling the pillar over and onto the leg of the Warrior Princess, trapping her weaponless on the ground. Xena stood over her foe, teeth bared and eyes blazing.

"Now, you murdering bitch, you finally die."

And Xena raised her sword high over her head, hilt grasped iron-tight in both hands, and brought her sword down with all her power...

... only to have it clash off of steel... for there was Callisto, with her grandmother's sword in her hands, and it was she who had stopped Xena's death blow.

"Xena!" cried Callisto, "the good will outweigh the evil."

Xena's rage was unabated. Her sword came up and she struck at the young Mithran warrior-initiate time and again with all the fury still raging within her. The young warrioress desperately parried the blows, taxing every moment of training she had received from the masters at the Temple. Steel rang off of steel, two, three, a dozen times. Finally, there was a massive blow delivered by Xena which was too much for both Callisto's sword and Xena's own blade. Xena's sword finally broke, in a cascade of blue fire and renting metal, and the sword of Callisto's grandmother went flying. Xena had nothing left in her hand but her sword-hilt.

Xena threw away the worthless remnant of her weapon and lunged at the throat of the young girl. Callisto defended herself as best as she could manage, but she was no match for the larger Xena. Down in the dirt they went, rolling over time after time. Blood, sweat, and dirt covered them both. Callisto, however, was tiring fast, and the stronger Xena was able to pin her to the ground, one hand holding her there by her throat. Straddling Callisto, Xena brought up her free hand, doubled up in a killing blow. The moonlight reflected off of Xena's battledress, and it appeared darker, and darker still. It was almost as dark as the night that surrounded them...

"Xena!" screamed the still prone Gabrielle, "the good does outweigh the evil! The good will always outweigh the evil!!"

Xena's head jerked up, and, slowly, so slowly, a flicker of sanity crossed her visage. She looked down at the helpless Callisto, and then at her fist, still drawn back and poised to bring death. Xena saw something she had never before seen in her life. Her fist had begun to tremble. Xena's eyes began to clear, and, as reason returned, she released the throat of the young girl, and stood up.

"It must end here," spoke Xena.

"Xena, please," pleaded Gabrielle.

Xena walked over to where the unbroken sword of the Warrior Princess lay in the grass. She picked it up, looking at it. It was her sword, the one she had carried on her back for so many years. Xena walked over to where the Warrior Princess was still pinioned to the ground. For a moment Xena stood over the Warrior Princess, almost as if uncertain what to do. Then, she thrust the sword into the ground, and using it as a lever, pried up the marble column that held fast the Warrior Princess's leg... Xena then reached down, and, grasping the front of the breastplate of the Warrior Princess, jerked her to her feet.

"Go..." spoke Xena, "And never come back. If you ever do, or if you ever threaten a village like this one again, I'll be there, and this is the only time I'll show mercy."

A look that was something like understanding came over the face of the Warrior Princess. Looking into the eyes of Xena, for the first time, she realized what she had known all along. This warrior woman was no impostor. Xena, and the Warrior Princess, were one. With that she turned, and disappeared into the darkness.

The village of Sera was in celebration. In the town square there was a large bonfire, into which the joyous villagers cast the swords, armor, and other weapons of their defeated foes. True to the beliefs of Sera, the former soldiers of Xena's army were not harmed, and the ones wounded were helped, and then were fed, and then all were set free to return to Amphypilis or whatever other destination fate decided. They were only required to leave their instruments of war, and now these melted in the flames of the fire.

Xena was there, as was Gabrielle, as was also Callisto, her mother Veda, her father D'antonius, and her sister Carrah. Gabrielle was standing with the aid of her staff, her leg bandaged but not broken. Veda and D'antonius greeted Gabrielle and the somewhat uncomfortable Xena with embraces and kisses to the cheek.

"Stay with us Xena... Gabrielle," said D'antonius, "All of Sera wish it, as long as you desire."

"The offer is appreciated, but such is not our path," replied Xena, "But we will visit again."

"Harmony be with you. She can take care of warriors as well as people of peace," spoke Veda, "and do not worry about our village. Word has been sent to the warrior-priestesses of Gaia, and they have let it be known that Sera is under their protection. None will challenge their power."

"Thank you," spoke Xena. Then she turned to Callisto, who was standing nearby, her arm around her younger sister.

"Callisto, I believe you'll be a great warrior, worthy of the Temple of Gaia. I also believe... I know... that your destiny will be far greater than just the protection of your village." Xena took the young warrioress by the arms, and did what no one would have ever predicted. She kissed her, mouth to mouth.

"We have to go now. Until the gods decree we meet again."



Xena and Gabrielle, along with the always faithful Argo, walked from the village, not stopping until they reached the ruined temple of Demeter. Stopping there, and glancing around, and perhaps remembering, and thinking on what could have been. Xena, with a twist of her head that threw her black mane of hair, then shouted up into the heavens.

"Lord Zeus!!!"

And there was a flash of white light, and Xena and her companions were gone.

Xena and Gabrielle were back in the woods at the campsite at which they had first met Lord Zeus. Xena was sitting on a log, whetstone in hand, again sharpening her sword. She was again wearing her skirt and breastplate of blackened leather and bronze. Gabrielle was again stirring the embers of the fire. Xena was still brooding, but, it seemed, not in so dark and somber a way as before...

"Xena," spoke Gabrielle.


"It's changed... all of it's changed, hasn't it? Most of my memories seem to be clear, but there are some differences... aren't there?

"Yes, Gabrielle."

"Xena. What happened to the Warrior Princess?"

"I have only remnants of memories... impressions, mainly. I know she never returned to Sera, and I'm pretty sure that she did not raid other villages. She did regroup her army, and led battles against all the warlords threatening Amphypilus. She won all her battles... but eventually she tired of war and became a free-booter. Then she met a girl named Gabrielle... and now she's here."

"It all seems so much like a dream. And it isn't what it was. I never married Perdicus, and I have no desire to. My only desire is to be with you, now.

Xena grunted. That was all the emotion she cared to show at the time.

"Xena," continued Gabrielle, "What of Callisto? Did she remain in her village, or did she return to the Temple of Mitras and the Warrior-Priestesses? You know, I never thought I'd say this, but I'd really like to see her again."

"I don't know about Callisto... and I don't know about Valesca, either. We may still have to fight her one day. I do know that not everything has changed. There is still evil in this world. And whether it be of gods or demons, monsters or men, it's our job to take care of it."

"Xena," do you think that there will ever be a time when the world will change again? When the world will change again... and there'll be no gods, or centaurs, or giants, or unicorns?

Xena gazed off into the distance. Before her eyes, dimly, came a vision. In the distance she saw a wonderful world of fabulous cities, where ordinary folk flew above the clouds in chariots of steel, not unlike the gods, and people saw and talked to each other over the distance of great continents. There was, however, for all their wealth and magic, still a sense of unease and discontent among these people. It was like... they cried out for a hero.

"I suppose such a world may come. Will probably come."

"Do you think, Xena, they'll remember us?"

"I have no doubt of it."

... It was a time of ancient gods, warlords, and kings, and the land which cried out for them, now had its heroes. They were Gabrielle, also Callisto, and, the greatest hero of all, Xena!

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