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It was a beautiful day - one of those days when you just slowly inhale the fragrant aroma of life and sigh out the breath with a smile. Spring flowers lined the path with the dew still on them. The raven haired Warrior Princess traveled the well worn path with her golden haired companion. "You're sure you don't want to ride for a while?" she asked from her seat on the back of her Palomino, Argo.
"Positive," Gabrielle assured her. "Besides, if the gods had wanted us to ride horses--"
"Yes, I know, I know," Xena laughed at her friend.
"You know what I'm looking forward to?" she asked. "A nice, quiet, peaceful weekend in Trittico. No excitement, no bad guys, just rest and tranquillity for a change. Won't that be nice?"
"I could do with a little rest myself after that last adventure," Xena confessed. She didn't like to admit that she ever got tired, but after all, she was still human.
"I will gather all of the children together," Gabrielle continued dreamily, "and tell them the tale of the Warrior Princess and of her feats of skill and her battle against evil."
"Let's not get carried away, now. I thought we were just going to take a break for a few days." While Xena was happy for people to learn she was no longer a vicious warlord but had completely changed her alignment, she was somewhat embarrassed by the stories making her out to be a heroine - a title she did not feel she deserved. But how could she ask Gabrielle not to tell the stories? Isn't that why the young bard had joined her anyway?
Her thoughts were interrupted by the distant image of black smoke billowing above the tree tops in the distance. "What could that be?" voiced Gabrielle.
"Looks like trouble in Trittico," Xena replied. "So much for our quiet weekend." The two proceeded more quickly, yet with caution, not knowing the scope nor nature of the danger.
When they arrived, they saw the town literally destroyed. Not a building stood in tact. There were dead and wounded lying everywhere and others frantically running back and forth. Gabrielle immediately picked up a crying toddler and began to comfort him. His little eyes were wide with fear and his feeble arms reached around her neck. Tears streamed down his dirty face as he cried for him mother, who was nowhere to be found. Gabrielle gently pushed the hair back from his eyes and wiped his tears. "There, there now, I'm here; I've got you," she said sweetly.
Xena dismounted her horse and surveyed the damage. She knew at once that a common warlord could not have amassed this amount of destruction. From out of the smoke of the burning town, a man walked slowly toward them. He was carrying the body of a dead youth which he laid in a row with others. His eyes looked sad, yet not afraid. He wore the clothing and armor of a warrior and a sword hung in its scabbard at his side. He was about Xena's size and age, with full brown hair and a neatly trimmed beard and mustache. She watched as he gently laid the boy's body in a row with other victims - men, women, the old, the young. What she beheld was the result of an act of indiscriminate violence. The scene evoked memories which she did not want to relive, so she consciously pushed them from her mind. She watched as he walked straight toward them. "You must be Xena," he said to her, looking her straight in the eyes as if he had known her for years. Yet she had never met this man before.
"Yes," she answered hesitantly, not sure if he would be friend or foe. "What happened here?"
"Someone - or something - called Callisto, and she's after you, so you'd better get as far away from here as you can before she gets back." He stood as strong and in control of his emotions as anyone she had ever seen, but it was clear his eyes were filled with concern and sorrow.
"No, that's not possible," Gabrielle started in horror and disbelief. "I was there; I saw her fall into that lava flow. You must be mistaken." She refused to accept the idea that the demented and twisted woman who had killed her young husband Peracles, who had subsequently died, come back, eaten the ambrosia and turned into a goddess, who had been trapped - she hoped forever - in a raging lava flow, could possibly have returned to enact her revenge on Xena - and every other mortal.
"He's telling the truth," Xena was sad to admit. "Who else could have done this?"
"You should never have let her out of that temple - I don't care what would have happened to me - you should never have done it!" Gabrielle was filled with remorse and frustration as she shouted at her friend. She set the child down, then sat on the ground beside him and buried her face in her arms and knees. This was not supposed to happen. "When will it end?" she thought.
Xena stood thinking as she recovered from the shock of the news. "It's o.k., Gabrielle. We'll just have to find another way to fight her." She walked to her friend's side and put her hand on her shoulder, but lost in her emotions, Gabrielle would not lift her eyes.
"You intend to fight her?" the man asked, somewhat amazed. "She just pointed her finger and things burst into flames. She killed half the people in the town. And of course, nothing anyone did could hurt her."
"I know," Xena replied. "But there must be a way."
"Then I'll stand with you," he replied with determination.
"She will kill you," Gabrielle warned as she turned her tear stained face toward the stranger.
"Maybe," he replied. "But that's a chance I'll have to take."
Xena's safire eyes studied the man who stood before her, impressed with his courage. "I don't know what you could do. She's a goddess now, and immortal."
"Still, she destroyed my town, in a senseless, pointless act of violence, and now she wants to take her revenge on you, for what ever reason. Why should the two of you face her alone? I don't know what I can do, but I will not run and I will not hide and I will not let you down," he swore convincingly.
"Who are you?" Xena asked in thoughtful curiosity. Men usually either feared her or hated her, were after her or wanted her help - anything but this. He reminded her of her beloved brother Lyceus, and for that, if no other reason, she was glad to have him along.
"Laertes," he replied. "Look, I'm a descent fighter; I can hold my own, though I admit I do not possess your skills. But on the inside," he said pointing to his chest. "I am your equal."
"Well, Laertes, if we are to defeat a goddess, we need the help of a god. And it just so happens that there is one who owes me."
Gabrielle jumped to her feet with anger raging in her eyes. "Not Ares!" Xena lowered her head and turned to glance at Gabrielle who was a few steps behind her. "Not this again! What makes you think he'll help you?"
"Callisto is treading on his domain. If she has her way, they'll be no mortals left to fight his wars. Besides, he still owes me for getting his godhood back," she explained.
Gabrielle breathed heavily and turned her eyes away from her warrior friend. "You know I don't like it when you are with him; it has an affect on you. He will try to get you back under his influence."
Xena turned and in two steps was directly in front of the distraught young woman who had been through so much pain recently. Here was just one more log on that fire. Xena so desperately wanted Gabrielle to live a happy life without one calamity after another. She feared it would change her friend, that she would lose that zest for life without which Xena would be lost. She feared she would grow hard if her heart were broken too many times. And yet they could not run from Callisto; they would be found. Xena could leave without Gabrielle, leading the demented goddess far away. But that would not work either. No, it must end if they were to get on with their lives - and if humanity were to have any hope.
Xena placed a reassuring hand on Gabrielle's shoulder and gave a little smile. "Don't worry, Gabrielle," she said softly. Her young friend raised her verdant eyes to meet Xena's for a moment. "You won't lose me to him." Then she turned back to Laertes. "Look after Gabrielle for me while I'm gone to find Ares. I'll be back as soon as I can."
Laertes walked to Gabrielle's side as Xena mounted Argo. "She'll be safe with me. Ride with the wind, Xena, and good luck." Laertes put his arm around the devastated maiden whose eyes followed the Warrior Princess into the distance without uttering another word. "Come on," he said presently. "Help me with the wounded; she'll be all right." Sullenly, Gabrielle followed Laertes down what was left of the town's main street and tried to busy herself with helping out so that she didn't have to think about Callisto's revenge or Ares lust.
A mighty wind rushed into a neighboring village a half day's journey away. As the villagers turned to see what was causing the commotion, they saw a woman warrior with long blond hair standing before them. The wind seemed to emanate from her being. Wide eyed, she surveyed the village. "I want Xena the Warrior Princess," she shouted. Lightning flew from her fingertips exploding a nearby hut. The people began to scream and run around.
"She isn't here; we haven't seen her," a frightened man cried out.
"Wrong answer." Callisto fastened her sadistic gaze on the man and struck him dead.
"Who is she?" the people asked one another as they fled from her assault.
"I am Callisto, goddess of Destruction, risen from the flames," she declared with pleasure. "Just watch." With that, she demolished another building. "Give me Xena, or die!"
Evening was creeping in with its long, dark shadows by the time Xena slowed her pace and halted her horse. They stood on a hill overlooking a familiar valley. It was the old battleground where her war with the Centaurs had been fought. For a moment, she could hear the cries, the steel striking steel, the smell of sweat and blood. The woman dared not close her eyes, lest she be forced to relive a nightmare from the past.
The Warrior Princess climbed down from her horse and let her graze as she walked down the hill with the setting sun glaring across the edge of the earth. Her heart pounded as she could remember the sound of hooves beating the ground on which she walked. She could still feel Ares' presence in that place and was certain she would find him there.
"Ares!" she called. "It's me, Xena. I need to talk to you." She continued to walk the battleground slowly, continually shifting her gaze, spying for any sign of the god of War. "I know you're here, Ares; I can feel you."
"Feels good, doesn't it?" She spun around to the sound of his voice and there, behind her, Ares had appeared. "Are you coming back to me, I hope? It has been too long."
Xena's eyes lit up when she saw her old friend and enemy. She grinned at him confidently, aware of his schemes. "You should be so lucky," she replied. "I want to talk to you about the new kid in town - Callisto."
"Ah, yes," he mused. "The goddess of Destruction, I think it is. She's a kid after my own heart. I think she wants you dead," he added with a teasing smile, his eyes gleaming at her.
"Yeah - I want you to help me stop her," she said to him with eyes flashing and a wisp of adventure in her voice.
"Why should I?"
"Have you forgotten so soon how I helped you get your godhood back? You owe me."
"Ah, ah, ah," he corrected, shaking a finger whimsically. "I got you your body back - fair trade."
"Then you don't care that Callisto plans to put you out of business," Xena replied coyly and began to walk away.
"Wait; hold on." Ares pursued her to a halt. "What's this about?" His cocky tone was now flavored with more concern.
Xena's eyes shone brightly at him as she began to reveal what she knew. "You see, Callisto, your goddess of Destruction, doesn't just want to kill me - she wants to kill everyone. When she is finished wiping out all mortals, who will be left to fight your wars? Of course, you could spend the rest of eternity in combat with a totally insane woman who ate ambrosia and moved in on your position as the Warrior of Warriors. I can't imagine the great god of War putting up with this would be rival."
"You do have a point," Ares conceded. He paced about thoughtfully rubbing his chin. "Loved her as a mortal; she was almost as good as you. But as a goddess, she could cause me a lot of head aches. But still, it almost doesn't seem right to help you after you spurned and deserted me to become some boring do-gooder. Tell me," he said as he made a circle around her. "You do miss it, don't you? The excitement, the power, the blood rushing through you veins telling you that you're alive. The simplicity, the victory, no sticky morals to hold you back, no sentiment to stop you, just the passion for battle and the glory of conquest!" His eyes were wild with excitement as he enticed Xena with a picture of her former self.
"No," she said coldly. "I don't miss the death or the pain or the suffering. I find no glory in that now." Then changing the subject back to her purpose, she asked, "So, how can we stop Callisto?"
"Ah," he sighed, sad that his words and style had not been able to tempt Xena into re-entering his service. "We made a great team." She only stared at him in a business like manner waiting for his reply. "If I help you," he said, suddenly in a hateful tone. "It will be the last time. Either you're with me, or against me - you can't have it both ways."
"I understand," she replied, trying to remain emotionless despite the powerful flood of feelings that the mere presence of Ares stirred in her.
"There is my good brother, half brother actually - Hephaetus. He is the metal forger of the gods and on Hera's order forged the unbreakable chains for Prometheus. I could have him build a cage with a lock that you could trap Callisto in. Unless some idiot with a death wish strikes it with that sword you and Hercules were carrying around once, then it should hold her for all eternity. Good enough?"
Xena's face radiated with pleasure at the plan. "Let's do it!"
"Hold on - what's with this 'we' stuff. I'll provide the cage; you have to do the rest. I enjoy seeing you like this too much to interfere. There's a small cave, a couple of miles south of Trittico. I'll have it put there as soon as it's ready."
"Thank you, Ares; I won't forget this," Xena replied with an old, familiar gleam in her eye.
As she turned to leave, the god of War called after he, "Neither will I." Then he chuckled to himself, "Now you owe me."
Gabrielle and Laertes sat together beside a small fire outside of his collapsed house late that evening. The children were all asleep and only a few stunned and dismayed villagers still wandered about. Both had been quiet most of the day as they did what they could to instill any sense of life or hope into the people. Laertes stared into the fire, its light dancing on his slate gray eyes. His thoughts were far away until the girl's soft words brought him back.
"Aren't you afraid? You saw what she can do. Not even Xena can fight against that kind of power." Gabrielle had just about made peace with herself that they may all be killed, and if that happened, she wanted to be ready.
"I saw," he replied distantly. "But I'm not afraid. I'll never be afraid again; I will never again let fear stop me from acting when something must be done."
"What do you mean?" Laertes turned his gaze to Gabrielle. In the glow of the fire light, she looked so much like someone he once knew - long, amber hair, youthful, angelic face, eyes full of love and compassion. But now . . .
"Xena isn't the only one who is consumed with regrets over what is past." Laertes, no longer able to stand looking at Gabrielle, turned his eyes back to the fire.
At first she wondered how he knew Xena fought with herself over her past. But she didn't want to ask such a question. At last she spoke. "What did you do?"
"Nothing," he answered with a shrug. Then his voice turned to a deep self accusation. "I did nothing." He pulled himself back from that melancholy to continue. "I might not have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of strangers, some of whom deserved to die. No, I was responsible for the death of one sweet, innocent girl who I loved dearly, who trusted me to protect her." He paused for a moment, waiting for a response.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Gabrielle's voice sounded so kind in contrast to the events of the day. He didn't really want to talk about it, but he figured she deserved an explanation.
"Years ago, when I was about your age, my family lived to the east of here. One day - a day like today - an army of Huns, you know, the Mongols who eat the flesh of horses raw and kill without reason, they surrounded our village. The leader said that they only wanted a young virgin to sacrifice to their god and they would spare the village. The people were peaceful, without weapons or ability to defend themselves." He paused to take and let out a deep breath, then continued. "All of the girls of the village were brought out so he could choose."
Laertes paused again, wiping his face with his hand. He looked over at Gabrielle, seeing understanding and pity in her eyes. Then he looked away. "My little sister was the most beautiful girl in the village, so they choose her." He turned his eyes back to her and said, "She looked a lot like you: small, long reddish blond hair, full of joy and life." He closed his eyes and turned his face back toward the fire. Gabrielle could tell how much he was struggling as she waited patiently for him to continue.
"I was already the best fighter in my village, but I just couldn't move. The most precious thing in my life was being torn away from me and I was afraid. I was afraid that I wasn't good enough, that I wouldn't be able to defeat them, that they'd kill me and sacrifice her anyway. I trembled and everything within me cried out, No! Fight! Stop them!" He took a breath, fighting to hold back tears. "But I did nothing. I sat there, and watched," he swallowed hard. "While they drug my sister away, her arm reaching out to me, her eyes pleading for help, her voice calling my name." He put his hands over his face and sighed down at the ground. "They killed her and I did nothing because I was afraid."
Gabrielle's character was to console him. "But you were so young, and if you had fought them, they may have killed all your people. It isn't your fault."
He raised his head and tried to carry on normally. "I know; I've used those arguments on myself, too. For weeks afterward, I couldn't eat or sleep and I wanted to die. But when I continued to live, I made a decision: I swore to myself that I would never feel fear again. Never would I fail to act because I was afraid. This was worse than death - I would rather die than carry such remorse. And so, I have been true to myself and some call me a fool and others call me a man of courage." He turned his eyes back to Gabrielle. "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger, huh?"
"I've found that to be true. But Laertes, that was years ago. You've got to forgive yourself and move on. Your sister would want that," Gabrielle counseled.
"I know you're right, it's just that is it a nightmare that never leaves me." Then he brightened his tone a bit. "I see why Xena is so concerned about not loosing you. You are really nice to have around."
"Sometimes," she replied. Then her eyes fell to the ground.
"Have courage," Laertes took his turn at exhorter. "It isn't over yet; anything is possible." She looked up and their eyes met. Her compassion eased his pain and his courage made her feel safe. For a moment, Gabrielle felt a familiar feeling of times like this with Xena. She was pleased with the way mankind had been designed so that one person's strength would compliment an other's weakness, and vice versa, there by creating unbreakable bonds between people.
In the dawn's pale light, a wisp of smoke meandered up from the campfire ashes until it was no longer visible. While no one was yet stirring among the ruins of Trittico, Laertes was suddenly awaken by another nightmare. He looked around to see, not one, but two women asleep on the ground beside him. Xena had returned at some point during the night. "She must be tired," he thought as he tried to decide if he should wake them or not. There, lying quietly on the ground, she looked more like a princess than a warrior, he thought. Then he felt a strong wind and the sound of thunder. That was the way it had started before.
He shook the women's shoulders and urged softly. "Quickly, hide, back there," he pointed to a heap of rubble behind his shattered home. They moved quickly in one of those instances when out of shock, one can go from complete unconsciousness to total alertness in the blink of an eye.
The three crouched behind the stone blocks as Laertes explained. "She's coming back. Is Ares going to help?"
"Yes, sort of. Two miles south of here is a cave. There we will set a trap for her, but we need more time for Hephaetus to construct it of unbreakable steel."
"But Callisto is here," Gabrielle said, suddenly gripped with fear as they heard her voice.
"Xena, oh, Xena. Where are you? I know you're here and I'll find you. Xena, let me throw you in a lava pit," she said, her voice changing to one of vindictiveness.
"Leave her to me," Laertes volunteered. "Just get your trap set - as soon as possible." His calm assurance gave them confidence.
"Try not to get yourself killed," Xena whispered to him. He nodded and took off running toward the edge of town to meet his foe. She admired his courage and willingness to sacrifice himself for a person he had never met before. She thought it strange, but she did feel some sort of bond with this man. But there was no time to figure it out. She motioned to Gabrielle and they hurried to sneak out of town.
Laertes trotted out waving to the goddess of Destruction. "You're right; she was here, but she left last night." He stopped a few yards away from her and feigned himself to be a distraught villager, helpless in the face of a powerful being.
She approached him with a twisted look of disappointment, cocking her head to one side. A long scar stretched across her otherwise fair face and her long, blond hair blew gently in the morning breeze. She was thin and wiry and wore attire resembling that of the Amazons. A sword swayed at her side and a dagger shone from her belt. She may have appeared quite attractive if not for the sadistic look in her eyes. "Tisk, tisk, tisk. You have been a naughty boy. Why didn't you keep her here?"
"I am only a common man, your Greatness," he appealed. "I could not stop one such as Xena from leaving."
Callisto grabbed him by the throat and lifted him off the ground. With the look of a spoiled child who did not get her way, she said, "It's not good to disappoint me." The powerful death grip of her fingers closed around his throat tighter. "I want Xena!" she demanded hatefully.
"I know where she is," Laertes eeked out with the last bit of breath left in him.
Callisto snorted and released him, allowing him to fall to his knees in the dirt. He bent over gasping for air. "You might get to live a little longer - if you are telling the truth." She nudged him with her foot. "Get up, you pathetic wimp, and take me to Xena. And if you double cross me," she added with twisted pleasure, "I shall cut you up into twelve pieces and send one to each of the major gods. A perfectly fitting introduction to me, don't you think?"
Laertes struggled to his feet, still laboring to breathe. He hid his anger and resolve, submitting to the fiendish female and proceeded to lead her in the wrong direction.
Xena and Gabrielle reached the cave, but there was no sign of Ares or the eternal prison in which Callisto was to be confined. "Are you sure this is the right place?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yes," she nodded, looking around. "It's just going to take more time." Her every muscle was tense and she paced around, far removed in thought.
"How do you know you can trust him?" Gabrielle questioned as she placed a hand on her arm to stop her from pacing. "What if he doesn't_" her frightened eyes pleaded.
"It will be here!" Xena shouted forcefully, pulling away from her friend.
"I knew this would happen," she responded, shaking her head. "Whenever you're around him_"
"Shut up! Just shut up!" the warrior shouted, flashing angry eyes at her injured companion. She pushed Gabrielle aside with her strong left arm as she walked past her to inspect the cave.
The young bard looked up with her eyes closed and clenched her fists at her sides. She let out a sigh then turned her face toward Xena at the mouth of the cave. "You aren't the only one, you know."
"What do you mean?" She turned her head and gave Gabrielle a cold stare.
"You aren't the only one at war with your past, who has struggled to change, who is haunted with remorse and regret, who holds themselves to blame for things that cannot be changed." Xena stopped to listen while her gentle companion conveyed to her Laertes's story. During the course of the story, Xena began to come back to relax and come back to herself.
"I knew there was something," she nodded, understanding some of the connection she felt with Laertes. By this time, they were sitting together on a rock at the cave entrance. "I'm sorry," she sighed, placing her right hand on Gabrielle's knee beside her. "It's just," she tried to explain. They gazed into each other's eyes for a moment. Then Xena closed her eyes, rose to her feet and walked away. "I have to keep my edge. When Callisto gets here," she said turning to face her friend, "I want you to stay out of it."
Gabrielle stood with a pained expression. "I can't just sit here and watch you die. I can't go through that again."
"She's not going to kill me," Xena smiled confidently. "I just have to lure her into that cave and into the cage, then close the door." Gabrielle sighed and shook her head wishing it would just all go away.
Meanwhile, Callisto was becoming impatient as she followed Laertes down one trail and then another with still no sign of the Warrior Princess. "That tree looks familiar," she thought, looking at a large hardwood by the side of the path. "You are taking too long," she complained. "I told you I want Xena."
"She had a head start on us, but I'm certain this is the way. It shouldn't be long now," he explained.
"It better not be," she sneered.
After another hour, they came to a clearing, not too far away from the cave. Callisto stopped and grabbed Laertes by the arm. "She isn't here!"
"She should be; this is the spot. Maybe if we wait_"
"I'm tired of waiting." She pushed him to the ground with a mighty force that knocked the breath out of him. "Oh Xena. Come out, come out, where ever you are," she called as she surveyed the area. She listened quietly for a moment and did not hear the heartbeats of anyone for a mile around. "I think you have tricked me," she accused Laertes who was just starting to get up. She pointed her finger at him with an evil expression of hatred and he rolled away just as a lightning bolt hit the ground where he had been. "Now, why would you be stupid enough to do that?"
She shot another at him and he jumped behind a little bush just in time. "Oh, please," she moaned. "This is so pathetic!" She reached her arms to the sky and raised her head. Summonsing her power, she began to get bigger until she was as tall as the trees. Then she laughed, a thundering laugh, and looked down at Laertes where he stood before her. "Wanna play hide and seek?"
"I'm not afraid of you, Callisto; I know what you are. You're no god - you're just a crazy murder who ate some ambrosia. You think you have power; you think it will last forever, but you're wrong."
His words inflamed the goddess of Destruction's wrath and, taking a step forward, she grabbed him up in her hand. "You puny insect! I've always wondered what it would feel like to crush someone in my hand, to feel their bones crack and all their guts come oozing out. Then after I've disposed of you, I'll finally get my revenge on Xena." She paused for a moment as a thought occurred to her. She held Laertes in front of her and looked at him with a far away look in her eyes and a crooked smile on her face. "It's funny: Xena created me and now I'm going to destroy her." Then her face hardened, her eyes narrowed, and she began to squeeze.
Suddenly, she was interrupted by a very familiar voice. "Here I am, Callisto; come and get me!"
Her eyes lit up with passion and delight. She dropped Laertes and turned all of her attention toward Xena. "Xena," she grinned. "What do you think of me now that I've grown up?"
"There's more of you to hate," she replied.
"And you do hate me," she said amusingly. "But I hate you more."
"Come on down here, with me," Xena said drawing her sword. "You want to fight me face to face the way we used to."
"Yes," she agreed. "I want to touch you, to see the look in your eyes when I cut your heart out."
As Callisto began to revert back to her normal size, Xena took off running toward the cave. Ares had come through, and the cage of unbreakable steel was carefully concealed in the entrance of the small cave.
Once her transformation was complete, the wild eyed goddess of Destruction immediately pursued her enemy. She forgot all about Laertes, who though racked with pain, was still alive and in one piece. Getting his wind back, he struggled to his feet and began to follow them through the forest as quickly as his aching body would allow him.
As soon as she reached the clearing in front of the cave, Xena turned to make a stand. Gabrielle was crouched in the shadows just inside the cave waiting to slam the eternal door shut on Callisto.
The demented goddess sprang, flipping through the air, into the clearing and landed face to face with the Warrior Princess. Blood lust filled her being. "I've been looking forward to this for a long time. Too bad it will be the last."
They stealthily circled each other, swords ready, eyes sharp. "Tell me one thing, though," said Xena. "How did you get out of the lava pit?"
She gave a little chuckle and grinned. "You thought you had me. Well, there was this mountain near Rome, with this little hole at the top - Vesuvius, I think it was. Anyway, I think the lava didn't want me anymore because it spit me out, along with molten rock, fire, and ash. We destroyed an entire city with my rebirth. You should have seen the puny mortals running for their lives. But, they couldn't get away. The lava hardened so quickly in places, that it covered people and left them standing, looking like little gray statues at my feet. Pompeii - a fitting monument to me, don't you think?"
"You are twisted, sick, and demented; did you know that?" Callisto just laughed and swung her sword at Xena who deflected it with her own.
"So what happened to Velaska?" she asked between blows.
"I don't know, and I don't really care."
Now the fight was on. Sword would strike sword. One would leap and then the other. But Callisto's blows were much harder than they had been before. She seemed to only gain strength while Xena tired. Then, with a wicked wink, Callisto failed to block Xena's sword which pierced her through, bringing Xena close. The goddess grabbed Xena's sword and pushed her thirty feet through the air against the rock wall. The impact stunned the warrior for a moment and she stayed on her feet only because of the support provided by the stones.
With a whimsical gleam, Callisto pulled Xena's sword out of her own immortal body and tossed it to the ground. The dry wound was instantly gone. "Game over," she announced. Then her eyes turned to rage as she charged with her sword. Consumed with the passion of finally killing her arch-enemy, she was shocked when her word missed, striking the rock instead, and she found herself on the ground. Laertes had finally caught up with them and hurled himself at Callisto like a human projectile. After knocking her to the ground, he rolled over in the dirt and tried to reorient himself.
"Ugh," she sighed in disgust. "You again. Why can't you just die?" She stood up and stared coldly at him .
Xena had gotten her vision straight by this time and grabbed her chakram in her right hand. Callisto started to point her deadly finger at the man when she noticed Xena's movement. She hurled around in her direction as Xena flung the disk. It hit Callisto's arm and the ensuing lightning bolt struck against the rock wall. The Warrior Princess caught her weapon, and holding it in front of her face, glared at her enemy as if to say, "It's not over yet!"
Xena slowly began to walk over in front of the cave entrance with a sly gleam in her eye. Callisto's steps paralleled hers as they eyed each other. "Where's you little friend, Xena? I haven't seen the brat around, but I know she's here somewhere."
"Don't worry about her," Xena replied as she taunted her foe. "You've got enough to worry about with me."
As they coldly eyed each other, Gabrielle remained silent, ready to slam shut the cage door, her heart pounding in her chest. Callisto looked around to see Laertes who had crept behind her and picked up Xena's sword. She pointed her finger and he leapt just before being zapped. Before he had time to get to his feet, she was aiming at him again. Xena spun her chakram as Callisto hoped she would. She reached out and snatched it from the air into her own hand. Then she gleamed in victory at Xena who stood at the mouth of the cave surprised and stripped of all her weapons. Xena glanced over at Laertes who, standing now with Xena's sword in hand, returned the look as if to say, "What now?"
"Come and get me, Callisto," she taunted. "I dare you!" Laertes stood ready, watching closely to wait for the exact moment he should move. Gabrielle's heart was beating so hard she knew Callisto could hear it. Xena motioned with her empty right hand for Callisto to come nearer.
The goddess of Destruction looked like one totally crazed as she glared wide eyed and full of hatred toward her arch-rival. She fastened Xena's chakram to her side and clenched her sword in both hands. "Parting is such sweet sorrow - now die!" She charge forward with all her might and just at the last possible second, the Warrior Princess sprang into the air and flipped safely over the crazed being. Momentum pushed Callisto forward and into the trap waiting in the darkness of the cave. Gabrielle slammed the door shut tight and sneered at the murderer of her husband with satisfaction.
Callisto, not sure what had happened, whacked the bars with her sword and to her astonishment, broke the blade off. "Hey, what is this?" She grabbed two bars and began to pull, but nothing happened. In fury, she tried to cast lightning at Gabrielle, but her power could not pass beyond the confines of the specially forged prison. Xena and Laertes walked in and Xena eyed her handiwork satisfactorily.
"I'll take that," she said, snatching her throwing disk from Callisto's belt.
"What have you done to my powers!" she shouted in rage.
"You know," Laertes observed. "She may be good at destroying things, but she's not very smart."
Xena chuckled and Gabrielle gloated. "It's over, Callisto," the little blond announced in triumph. "Enjoy your eternal prison." The three then turned their backs on her and walked out of the cave together.
"No!" she screamed, tugging pointlessly against the bars. "Noooooo!"
Suddenly, three huge claps of thunder bombed from the sky, shaking the ground all around. The victors were startled as they looked around for the cause. Some rocks from above the cave were loosened and crashed down over the entrance, completely sealing it.
When the earthquake ended, they heard a voice boom out across the sky. "Don't forget - now you owe me!" They waited uneasily for a moment, but all remained calm. Xena's mind began to work on that thought to figure out what Ares would come back and want her to do for him someday.
"Let's get out of here," Gabrielle suggested, and they all started back towards Trittico.
They came to a stop as they reached the edge of town where Argo stood foraging on some tender grass. "Laertes, I'd like to thank you for your help. You were right; you didn't disappoint me," she smiled warmly. "I just can't believe you risked your life for someone you didn't even know."
"Correction," he said looking into her deep blue eyes. "Someone I had never met."
"So," she thought to herself. "He feels this same connection."
"Look, Xena, I know that you and Gabrielle will probably be moving on soon. What's happened here, these people need someone to lead them, help them rebuild, make them feel safe."
"I can think of no one better for that job than you."
"If you're ever back this way, or if while I'm out and about..." He felt like he was being clumsy with his words. "I would just be very pleased if we were to run into each other again sometime." He felt like he understood this woman warrior better than most people did, and he was not blind to her beauty without or within. He gently stroked her cheek with his left hand and waited for a response.
Xena admired this man for his courage and sacrifice and would not at all mind seeing him again. She saw a sweetness in his gray eyes that she had not noticed before. But she knew the road she traveled would not allow her to stay. She smiled at him and replied honestly, "I would like that, too."
The Warrior Princess was seldom at a loss for what to do next, but this was one of those moments. How could she put up a wall when he could see straight through it? She would not allow herself to become entangled in another relationship, remembering how disastrously her previous ones had turned out. But he was a special guy.
Gabrielle, standing impatiently beside her friend, thought to herself, "Oh, go on, kiss him so we can get out of here," but she held her tongue. She knew if she disturbed the moment Xena would either thank her or be angry with her, but she wasn't sure which.
While these two women couldn't make up their minds what to do, Laertes was a man without fear - well, almost. He admired this woman and, especially after what had just transpired, he felt close to her. Realizing that he may never see her again, he though it best to live for the moment. Laertes took action and kissed Xena gently on the lips. When he didn't get clobbered, he smiled at her and turned to walk away.
"Hey, Laertes," Xena called.
He turned his face over his shoulder to look back at her. "Your sister would have been very proud of you today."
A joy sprang into his face that had not been there in years. "Yeah?" he thought. "Thank you. And thank you, too, Gabrielle," he smiled and left them, satisfied in his heart.
Xena smiled, too, content with the way everything had turned out. She and Gabrielle took the other fork in the road and began to walk along, leading Argo behind. They were glad to be alive and rid of Callisto once again.
"He's a really special guy," Gabrielle observed.
"Yes, he is," Xena smiled. Then she put her arm around her loving friend and looked down at her. "Now, I'm ready for that quiet, peaceful weekend!"
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