* The following story uses characters and situations created and owned by MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. Thus I'm not sure anything I write can belong to anyone but them but since I'm doing this for fun and no monetary profit, I'm not sure it matters.
* This story does contain certain scenes of violence and bloody action. If that makes you ill, best not go on.
* There are same-gender love scenes in here and if you have a problem with the thought of that, then there are other stories you might like better. Though if you got over this silly prejudice, you would find a heck of a lot of good fiction out there.
* I did most horrible things to Perdicus's reputation in this story so if you're a fan
of the guy, then perhaps you should not read this.
by G. L. Dartt
Xena didn't like this at all.
The tall, dark-haired woman with the cobalt blue eyes had immediately known something was wrong as soon as she entered the small town. People were making a point of getting out of her way and finding things to do inside shops and homes as soon as she came in sight. Uneasily, the warrior dismounted the golden palomino in front of the inn where she had left Gabrielle some four days earlier.
Her traveling companion had not liked it when Xena told her she had to stay behind while she dealt with an old foe in another village, though Gabrielle had said she understood when Xena told her of the need for speed and how Argo could not carry them both. However it had not hid the sadness in the small red-head's mist green eyes as the warrior princess rode away. Xena had promised herself she would make it up to her friend; a promise she remembered even as she entered the tavern, looking about the common room.
Gabrielle wasn't there.
Not necessarily alarming within itself but the way the inhabitants suddenly went silent and made a point of not meeting her eyes triggered every sense she had into overdrive. Warily she went to the bar and nodded at the innkeeper who was polishing a glass.
"What can I get you?" he asked gruffly. A greasy ring of hair circled a speckled scalp that gleamed wetly in the defused light cast by the candles that did little to illuminate the dim tavern even in daytime.
"Nothing," she responded shortly. She put both hands on the bar and leaned forward, unconsciously turning her unease into a threatening posture. "I'm supposed to be meeting a friend here. She's about this high, has reddish-blond hair and green eyes. She's a bard. Hardly ever stops talking."
The barkeep didn't answer right away, intently interested in his glass and Xena forced herself not to reach across the counter and seize him by the throat. The wariness was beginning to flare into full blown worry.
"She was here," he admitted finally. "She's gone."
"What do you mean, gone?" Xena stated coldly, her deep blue eyes turning glacier.
He refused to look up at her and sudden fear for her friend sparked rage. She grasped him by the front of his shirt and hauled him halfway across the bar, glaring into features gone pale, forcing him to look her in the eyes. Her strong hands tightened on his collar, choking him menacingly.
"I'm not gonna ask again," she snarled. Apparently the look in her face convinced him.
"They took her. They took her yesterday, all right," he gasped, eyes beginning to bulge out in his head as his face turned red. "There's nothing we could do. They take what they want."
"Who?" Xena's blood suddenly ran cold.
"Darulus and his band," he said, struggling a little at her grasp on his throat. "They show up every so often. I don't know where they took her or why."
"Then who can tell me?" She shook him slightly.
"Merticles," one of the men behind her said.
She dropped the innkeeper who fell behind back behind the bar, rubbing at his neck and relieved to find himself intact. She turned quickly, hand going to the circle of metal at her waist. She relaxed slightly as she saw a thin man dressed in a farmer's simple tunic. He had soft grey eyes and a scar running down his left cheek. The awkward way he carried himself and held his arm told of even deeper, unseen scars.
"I know who you are, Xena," he said, hands held up in a calming motion. "But there's little we can do to help you. The war between Theris and Pheribus took most of the able bodied men from around here and the village doesn't have much in the way of defense at the best of times. Darulus knows he'll find no resistance here and besides, he has twenty strong and experienced warriors. Most of us was just glad they took an outsider and not one of our own."
Xena's rage was a molten inferno by now but she could also tell he was trying to explain and the shame in his eyes told how much this village had been cowed. It would not do to take it out on him, especially since he seemed to be the only one volunteering information.
"Who's Merticles?" she spat.
"He's the blacksmith," he responded. "He's the only one who does business with them, sells them weapons. They pay him in gold and he doesn't care what else they do in the village."
"It's about time he started," Xena said coldly.
She strode angrily from the inn and looked down the street to where the smoke and shimmers of heat marked the blacksmith's shop. She was vaguely aware of people spilling out of the inn behind her and the rest of the villagers coming out of shops and homes to take up good vantage points. They all seemed to know what was about to happen. As did the target of her wrath, apparently. From the dark shadows of the door, one of the largest men she had ever seen lurched out into the street.
He was bare to the waist, massive slabs of muscle displayed and glistening in the sun as sweat streamed from his bald head and shoulders. He didn't seem to have a neck and in his immense hands, a double-bladed axe gleamed silver.
The warrior princess did not hesitate, did not pause in her stride, did not alter her expression other than a narrowing of her eyes. She understood now why no one had objected to his dealing with the raiders. He could break most of them in half with one hand.
"I figured you'd be wanting to talk to me," he said, grinning unpleasantly. "That's why I suggested they take the bard rather than one of the villagers. I wanted to cross blades with the great Xena. Though I've heard you've gotten soft."
"Gareth didn't think so," she responded evenly, drawing her sword. She paused as she reached him, looked him up and down with insulting condescension. "You're just a wee pup compared to him," she added in a snide tone.
The village, who had heard of her defeat of the biggest, meanest giant around were suitably impressed. Whether Merticles was or not was unreadable in the flat, scarred features. The sudden swipe with the axe told her, however, that she had struck a nerve.
She dodged it easily and sliced a red line down his arm before darting away, easily avoiding the next swing of the axe that tried to decapitate her. As she had suspected, he relied on his muscles and size to destroy his victims. A big man in a very small pond; a bully who had yet to run into someone to who knew brute strength did not necessarily mean power. He was not used to a swift warrior who's speed and reflexes could bring him down with a multitude of small cuts and slashes. The problem with this style of fighting, however, was that it took both time and patience; traits she was in short supply of at the moment. Her concern for the fate of her companion threatened to overwhelm her. Still, she forced herself to keep control, not to hurry or make a mistake. It was Gabrielle's life that was at stake here.
She was peripherally aware of the crowd which had gathered, leaving a large circle for the combatants. They were enthralled by the spectacle before them. The warrior princess, long dark hair flowing free around classically beautiful features as she fought with a poetic dance of motion and fury which made a marked contrast to the lumbering, mound of muscles which had bullied them for so long. Of course, they didn't dare cheer her on lest she lost and his anger fell upon them, but their hearts soared silently as she parried and thrust, her skill gradually bringing Merticles to his knees. A gasp escaped them as she let loose her metal disc, the chakram ripping through the axe handle, the blade falling impotently to the dirt. Her battle cry vibrated through them as she flipped through the air, booted feet driving into the bald head and sending Merticles to his back in the dust.
None of them, including Xena, noticed a rider on a big, black gelding join the outskirts of the crowd, the horse dancing slightly as the slender figure dismounted and bade him to stay. The cloaked warrior forced through the villagers to a front row vantage as Xena hauled Merticles to a sitting position and applied the infamous pressure point pinch to the thick neck.
Xena wasn't entirely sure that it would work through all that muscle and was gratified as he immediately stiffened, struggling to draw breath.
"I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain," Xena growled, her worry for Gabrielle finally breaking her control slightly as she loomed over him. "You've got thirty seconds to tell me where your buddies have taken my friend."
Unfortunately, it did not have the desired effect. He didn't talk, beady eyes glaring at her as he shuddered under the pain and increasing pressure. She stared at him, frowning as a trickle of blood appeared and began to run from his nose. Still, he refused to speak and as the seconds sped by and his eyes rolled back in his head she had no choice but to release the pinch. He was, after all, her only lead to Gabrielle.
He choked and gasped as he fell back, hauling air into tortured lungs. Finally he snorted laughter and glared challengingly back at her. "I knew it was a bluff," he spat. "They say you've gone soft, that if I don't talk, you'll release it before death. Palaemon beat it."
Xena rolled her eyes briefly in disgust. That story had certainly gotten around quick enough. The punk kid had tried to make his reputation by attacking her and had indeed, called her bluff. Unfortunately, the circumstances were the same now as then; she needed information and a dead prisoner was not remarkably co-operative in that area.
"Oh Xena," came a disturbingly familiar voice from the crowd. "Your reputation is truly shot, isn't it?"
Xena whirled, drawing her sword and staring with horror at the slim blond figure standing at the edge of the crowd. She couldn't imagine this day getting worse and then suddenly, it was.
The crowd drew hastily away from the black cloaked figure as Xena's hissed word identified the slender woman. The last time the warrior princess had seem her nemesis, Callisto had been battling with the rogue Amazon, Valasqua. The two combatants had consumed ambrosia, turning the women into gods and the cutting of the rope bridge on which they fought had been as much an act of desperation as strategy, sending the two falling into a lava flow. Xena had hoped the molten rock would hold them for eternity. So much for that wish.
Callisto strolled into the circle, sparing a glance at Merticles before stopping entirely too close to the warrior princess, allowing Xena's blade to rest against the slender neck. The eyes were dark brown and not the blue-white of ambrosia induced power but that was not anything Xena could rely on to tell her anything. Callisto's outfit had changed as well. In addition to the long dark cloak flowing from the silver clasp at the hollow of her throat, the armor had been replaced by leather breeches and a vest that laced up the front to a deep v that revealed smooth skin and a generous amount of cleavage. The arms sported leather gauntlets and a silver armband which adorned her right bicep. Her sword hilt protruded from beneath the cloak at her back and Xena could see daggers in each of the calf-high boots. But Callisto made no move to draw any weapon, instead leaning forward slightly against the point of Xena's blade until it entered the soft flesh, inserting far enough to sever the jugular.
"Aren't you glad to see me, Xena?" Callisto queried softly, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. Her voice reverberated a little as if her voice box vibrated against the steel. She drew back slightly, pulling off the blade. There was no blood and the smooth skin closed up without leaving a mark to scar the porcelain flesh.
"No," Xena said shortly, noting this without pleasure. Her eyes darting about to see if there any more unpleasant surprises. Like Valasqua or Ares.
Callisto assumed a much put upon expression. "Oh, Xena, you hurt my feelings," she pouted. "I'm always so glad to see you."
"What do you want, Callisto?" Xena said.
Callisto smiled. Her eyes widened with a wicked delight.
"Oh, my dear Xena, you could not even begin to guess," she responded.
She glanced over at Merticles who had not moved but had an ugly grin on his face as he watched the two women. "What are you smiling at, meat," she snarled, losing the pleasant expression.
He lost the grin but not the smugly triumphant look as he gestured at Xena with his head. "I can help you kill her," he said in a fawning tone.
"Like I'd need your help," Callisto snorted. She shot a look at Xena from underneath lowered lashes. "You wanna fight to the death today, Xena?" she asked blandly, a mischievous grin touching the corners of her mouth.
"Not really," Xena answered carefully, not knowing where this was going.
Callisto shrugged. "Me neither," she said in a bored tone. She looked back down at the man on the ground. "I guess this just ain't your lucky day, meat."
Her hand whipped out fast as a striking snake, grasping him by the ear and twisting brutally. Bemused, Xena lowered her sword, staring at Callisto who knelt down until she was eye-level with the suddenly shaking blacksmith.
"You see, I happen to want to know about Gabrielle as well," she continued in that sweet, syrupy voice that sent chills skittering down Xena's spine. "So talk quick. Who took her, why did they take her and where are they taking her."
"It's Daludas," he began to talk rapidly and with great sincerity as he looked into the dark eyes. "They have a cave up in the hills to the north. That's probably where they took her...for a little fun, y'know?" He tried to smile ingratiatingly at her.
Xena began to turn to get Argo. Callisto reached out and snagged her arm, smiling icily as Xena whirled, eyes snapping fury. Callisto shook her head, took her hand away carefully. "Too easy, Xena," she explained. "Artemis would not have summoned me here for a small thing like that."
"Artemis?" Xena frowned, raised an eyebrow.
Callisto spared her a brief look before turning her attention back to Merticles who realized from the cold expression in the blond's eyes that his lie did not go over as well as he'd hoped. A blade suddenly appeared from its hidden sheath in her gauntlet and she pressed it gently against his throat.
"I don't know any fancy pressure points," she told him conversationally. She drew the edge caressingly along the line of throat and collarbone and trailed down his chest. "But I do know what happens when I slit open your belly and your intestines fall all over the ground. You'll die real slow and I know you'll tell me what I want just so I'll end your suffering. Unless, of course, you think I'm bluffing."
"They follow Circe," he admitted, beads of sweat appearing on his head. "She changes men into swine."
"Oh, is that who does it? I thought it was a natural occurrence," Callisto muttered.
Xena had replaced her sword, more than a little chagrined at how easily Callisto was getting the information when she had been stymied.
"She lives on an island off the coast of Perth down south. She makes sacrifices to those she worships," he continued, seemingly mesmerized by those dark, dark eyes. "Nasty, evil things that grant her eternal life."
"Ah, immortal, and a sorceress," Callisto allowed. "That explains it."
Xena wished she did but she stayed silent and listened, heart in her throat as she realized just what sort of danger her friend was in.
"She has a temple where she and her followers bring their offerings," Merticles continued, swallowing convulsively. "She owns the group she sent out here. They were looking for a virgin for one of her ceremonies. Daludas told me that Circe needs to bathe in the blood of virgins at midnight during a full moon. They say she has a tub of pure gold and that she does this every year so she can stay young, too. Not just immortal. That's all I know, I swear."
"I believe you," Callisto said. She smiled gently at him, replaced her dagger back in its sheath. Then, with a swift lunge and immortal strength, she reached out and twisted his head, snapping his neck instantly. She rose to her feet and raised an eyebrow at Xena who had grabbed at her, way too late to save the man. "Honestly, Xena, just because you don't care if your reputation goes down the tubes doesn't mean I want mine to disappear," she said, shrugging off the warrior princess.
She stepped gracefully over the corpse and walked towards her horse, mounting the black gelding in a smooth motion. She looked back at Xena with an expression of polite patience, clearly enjoying the expression she saw on the features of her longtime enemy.
"I'm off to save Gabrielle," she said with insulting condescension. "Coming?"
With that, she reined the big animal around, and in a cloud of dust, he reared and
carried her off to the south.
Callisto kneed her horse to one side of the trail, as Argo thundered up behind her, supposedly to allow Xena to pass her. Her face betrayed the briefest of surprise when the warrior princess instead choose to rein Argo in, slowing to ride along side the black gelding. For long moments they galloped side by side, silent until they came to a cross roads where they pulled their mounts up for a breather.
Callisto leaned on her saddle horn, looking at Xena with smokey eyes, lids half closed. Xena stared back at her, features impassive which belied the emotional turmoil inside. Callisto nudged her mount closer until she was thigh to thigh with Xena, well within sword's reach, their horses standing in opposite directions. She tilted her head slightly, observing the dark haired woman with interest.
"What?" Callisto asked.
"So how did you get out of the lava flow?"
"Gabrielle," Callisto said. "She forgave me. Did you know that?"
"I knew," Xena replied flatly. She hadn't agreed at the time and since Callisto was here, it seemed she was right. What she couldn't figure out was what the blond was up to.
"Well, she also prayed for me." There was the barest trace of wonder in the blond's voice which was immediately covered by her more customary cynical tone. "I guess our little Amazon Princess is favored by Artemis. Since Valasqua apparently blew up one of Artemis's temples and I fought Valasqua in Gabrielle's defense, Artemis interceded for me to be granted a petition. That got me summoned to the Hall of the Gods for a hearing as to whether I would get to be a god or not."
"And," Xena prompted coldly.
"Of course, they don't want mortals becoming gods, even minor ones," Callisto explained. "But Artemis spoke for me, so after a while, they made me an offer. Renounce the godhood, and I could be returned to Earth as a mortal. Refuse, and I got to go back to the lava flow and join Valasqua in being a goddess of lava. I chose to give up the ambrosia. However, Artemis made a deal on the side for me to keep my immortality. All I have to do is protect the irritating bard from the immortal problems her big dumb warrior can't."
"I can't picture you serving anyone," Xena said, ignoring the insult. She paused, searched her enemy's face thoroughly. "How much of this is true?" Xena asked quietly.
Callisto leaned forward and slid a familiar hand up Xena's thigh, ignoring the warrior princess's gritted teeth and narrowed eyes. "I'm not in the habit of lying to you, Xena," she purred. "Have I?"
Xena paused to search her memories.
"No, you're usually more than glad to tell me all the horrible things you've done, or are planning to do to me or people I love," Xena allowed after a moment.
Callisto shrugged and removed her hand with impertinent grin. She urged her mount on, resuming her journey to the south. Xena reined Argo after her until once more they were riding side by side, now at a more sedate but still ground eating pace. "While I was waiting for the decision to come down, I wandered around Olympus a bit," Callisto related. "Took a little trip over to the Elysian Fields to talk to my mother."
Xena didn't quite know what to say to that. When they had been in each other's bodies, Xena had lured Callisto back to Tartarus where Callisto's mother had come to them, telling her daughter how much she had been hurt by her actions, that every time Callisto had killed, she was killing her. It had forced Callisto to face up to her guilt. Xena knew that. Otherwise, the warrior princess would never have gotten out of Tartarus, albeit, in Callisto's body.
The warrior princess also remembered how Callisto's mother had told her daughter how much she loved her, and that she always would, a marked contrast to how Xena's mother had reacted when she had first returned to Amphipolis after her warlord days.
"That's why you decided to serve Artemis?" Xena said finally. "Your mother asked you to?"
Callisto didn't answer right away, her face still. "Do you remember when I made you tell that story in the village before we went off to destroy Valasqua?" she responded with another question, apparently not wishing to reveal anything more about that conversation.
"Nobody cared, Xena," she said shortly. "I don't think they even knew who you were and they sure didn't care about a village that no longer exists."
"Time passes," Xena said after searching for the words. She couldn't remember being in a more difficult conversation in her life. "I cared."
Callisto shot her a look, sudden anger in her face but instead of the sharply sarcastic reply Xena expected, the blond took a deep breath and seemingly steadied herself. "We're the only two that remember Cirra," she allowed. "I can't let that disappear. Immortality means that I'll remember. Even if no one else does. Even when you're long gone. I'll remember Cirra and the people who lived there."
"How does this apply to Gabrielle," Xena asked after another long pause.
"I told you, she's the favored of Artemis, much as you were with Ares," Callisto said. "That's why the goddess sent me."
"So you're Gabrielle's immortal guardian?" Xena asked coldly. She really didn't like this whole concept. "Fitting penance, since you killed her husband."
Callisto actually laughed out loud at that. "Oh, Xena," she said slyly, eyeing her through the wild strands of hair blowing about her elven face. "Don't forget who you're talking to here. You don't regret his death in the slightest. It brought your bard back to you. I actually did you a favor and you know it. You weren't nearly as guilty about sinking me in quicksand as you were about feeling glad the oaf was dead. I should know, I reached you from Tartarus through all that guilt."
Xena was silent for a long time after that pointed sally from her nemesis, unable to respond without making herself commit to an untruth. Callisto's words revealed the secret she had tried very hard not to reveal, even to herself. "I still don't know why Artemis chose you." she said finally.
"I'm good, Xena, as good as you," Callisto reminded her. "And with immortal abilities, I'm better; not that we may ever have a chance to prove it, now. Of course, I'm not allowed to kill you because that might upset Artemis's favorite but....maybe someday," she added brightly in a-girl-can-dream kind of tone. "In any case, you've made a lot of enemies. Artemis just wants to make sure the ones you can't handle don't harm Gabrielle. Like Circe for example, who sounds pretty nasty."
"I don't remember Circe," Xena sighed.
"Well, this does sound more like circumstance," Callisto allowed. "Besides, I think they made a mistake. Didn't deadboy say they needed a virgin? I'm pretty sure that Perdicus impaled her before I impaled him." She snickered audibly and contrived to look innocent as Xena shot her a poisonous glare. Not very successfully. "What? You think he didn't get the job done? It's possible I suppose. He might be one of those quick archers. The arrow leaves the bow before it's actually strung?"
"I don't want to talk about this," Xena snarled.
"I'll bet you don't," Callisto agreed readily. "The thought of him taking your precious bard, his hands all over her, lying on her and sliding his---"
"ENOUGH!" Xena roared.
Callisto laughed again with surprised delight. "And I thought I wouldn't get to torture you anymore," she admitted after recovering from her burst of merriment. "Anytime I'm required to rescue Gabrielle, you have to put up with me. I was only thinking of the downside of that. This is an unexpected fringe benefit. After all, you can't try to destroy me either. Not only might it cost Gabrielle her life, Artemis wouldn't like it. This might be fun after all."
"As long as you're enjoying yourself," Xena said dryly.
"I am," Callisto admitted. "I just hope this isn't going to be a regular thing. I have things to do other than waste all my time saving Gabrielle's pathetic carcass."
"And what's so important?" Xena asked acidly. "A few villages to destroy?"
Callisto looked at her from the corner of her eyes. "That's always been more your thing, Xena," Callisto reminded sweetly. "I only tried it for a few months on and off. You did it for ten years steady. And I was held accountable, Xena. I was sent to prison, died in quicksand, spent time in Tartarus, was trapped in a pit, got dumped in a lava flow. For every one of my crimes, there was a punishment. When exactly do you pay for anything you've done?"
"I seem to be paying right now," Xena said through clenched teeth. "With you."
Callisto smiled happily. "Oh, Xena," she said. "How I've missed
Nightfall saw the pair making camp in the hills before a mountain pass. Though Xena was anxious to push on, and Callisto did not need sleep, the horses needed time to recover and rest, forcing them to take the break. It was an uneasy truce as the pair sat next to a respectable fire that did its best to hold back the darkness.
"How do you know Gabrielle is alright?" Xena said with forced patience. She was eating her meager rations, not really hungry but knowing she had to maintain her strength. Callisto of course, no longer required food.
Callisto shrugged. "I just do," she said. "She's still alive. So far. If she weren't, I wouldn't have to be here. And I know I have to be here."
"I'm just supposed to take your word for it?" Xena replied acidly.
"I don't really care if you do or not," Callisto said carelessly. "I don't like being here, I don't like having to help the bard, and I sure don't like having to listen to you whine. But I made a deal and I need my immortality."
"Why?" Xena said, eyes narrowed. The mad woman of the past was a familiar evil. This person was much harder to deal with, to predict. It was possible that a sane Callisto could be a greater threat than the insane monster of before.
Callisto didn't answer right away, staring into the fire as if she had not heard the warrior princess. Her face was still, her eyes dark in the flickering light. Finally she spoke and her voice was so quiet that Xena had to strain to hear. "My sister wasn't in the Elysian Fields," she said. "And even if she had done something horrible which isn't too common for four year old girls, I never came across her in Tartarus. That would have been a torture too good for Hades to pass up."
Xena absorbed this silently. "That means..." she allowed slowly.
Callisto looked at her. "Cassiope is still alive," she said. "Somewhere, somehow. And I have to find her. Being immortal and the abilities it entails will help me." Callisto tossed a twig fretfully in the blaze. "She'd be about ten now."
Xena studied the bread in her hand. "I'm glad," she said softly.
Callisto rose up, eyes flashing angrily. "She's certainly not alive because of you, Xena," she reminded icily. "And someday, if the bard dies at a mortal's hands as I'm sure she will if she hangs out with you long enough, then I'll be free to kill you for what you've done to me and my family."
If Gabrielle died because of me, I'll be glad to let you, Xena thought, refusing to take her eyes from the bread, ignoring the blond's ranting which was almost comforting in its familiarity.
She couldn't help but remember how Merticus had challenged her that day, how he had held utter contempt for her threats, even after she had defeated him physically. It was true that Gabrielle had done a good job of spreading the word of how she had changed and now fought for the side of justice. But there was something to be said for being known as a wanton killer. Callisto proved that when her mere presence had caused him to talk. Not to mention the advantage of being an Arrow of Artemis. Xena, without Callisto's knowledge, would probably have believed the first story and wasted precious time checking it out.
Xena lost what little appetite she had and tossed her bread into the fire, her face bleak as she wondered what she could do to protect Gabrielle if no one had any fear of her. It just made things so much harder.
"Why don't you get some sleep," Callisto offered after a few moments when she saw Xena was clearly unaffected by her verbal abuse, the blond's mood easily swinging back from rabid rage to a jittery calmness. "I don't need any so I'll keep watch."
Xena looked at her, eyebrow raised and Callisto audibly exhaled in annoyance. "Xena, for the last time, I'm not going to attack you," she added in an impatient tone, reading Xena's expression easily. "But if you want to stay up all night, that's fine with me. You might not be much good when we catch up to Gabrielle however."
Xena took a deep breath, wishing she could argue the point but realizing Callisto was right. And it was true that if her long time foe had wanted to kill her, she probably would have tried something by now. Wearily she rolled herself up in her bedroll. The last thing she saw before she closed her eyes was Callisto huddled near the fire, rocking slightly as she hummed soundlessly. It was not the sort of thing that inspired restful slumber or pleasant dreams.
She woke abruptly in the predawn, acutely aware of being observed. She felt very vulnerable as she saw Callisto staring at her intently and wondered how long the immortal had been studying her. It could have been all night. She felt ill that she had allowed herself to fall asleep so easily with her foe within reach. She must have been more tired than she thought.
Callisto had no expression on her face, not turning away when the blue eyes opened to meet hers. Xena swallowed, trying to moisten her suddenly dry mouth. "What?"
Callisto looked at her with contempt. "I thought you said you didn't sleep well at night," she said flatly. "You seem to sleep fine to me."
Xena carefully remained impassive. There was little she could say. How could she explain about the nightmares that had plagued her for so long and had only recently began to recede under the aegis of Gabrielle's friendship. Or how many times she had woken to find herself weeping in Gabrielle's arms. Even if she could, she doubted Callisto would listen or even try to understand.
Callisto finally tore her gaze away with an snort of disgust and got up, going over to saddle her horse. Xena suppressed a sigh and snatched some jerky for herself to keep up her strength before joining Callisto to ready Argo for the hard ride ahead.
They were on the road before the sun was quarter way over the horizon, their mounts cantering easily as they headed south. Xena knew they'd reach Perth by mid-day and she tried not to think about how Gabrielle was doing. At least by being a sacrifice, the bard's safety was somewhat assured until the full moon which was that night. Xena just hoped they were treating her well and that she wasn't too terribly afraid.
Just hang on, Gabrielle, she thought. I'm coming for you.
Just before reaching the last stretch of road leading into the village, the faint smell of ocean reaching them on the breeze, they were accosted by five men who leaped out of the underbrush. The two warrior women reined to a stop and five more scruffy men took up a position behind them. Their ragged clothes and unkept appearance marked them as mere bandits, not any threat to worry Xena but it did mean a delay if they tried to fight.
Xena drew her sword impatiently, glaring at the largest one which seemed to be the leader.
"Step aside," she snarled. "I'm not in the mood for this."
"Oh really," he said, sneering at her. "And who might you be?"
"The name's Xena," she said flatly.
The leader looked her up and down with insulting consideration. "The do-gooder who travels with a bard," he said. "I heard you were something....once."
Callisto laughed, eyes sparkling at this sally.
"And who are you, sweet thing?" he asked, turning his attention to her with appreciation.
Callisto did not loose the smile but her eyes lost the humored sparkle and took on a decidedly nastier glitter. "Callisto," she said gently.
He frowned, looked around as his men stirred uneasily around him. The warrior queen had destroyed a village not far from there less than a year before. "Callisto's dead," he sputtered.
"I got better," she offered, drawing a dagger and sliding it down her fore arm, slicing open the skin and muscle. She showed it to him, the bone gleaming white in the sun before the flesh closed around it and healed without blood or leaving a scar. "I don't think you will."
She drew her sword with her free hand. "But I do hope you make a good fight of it."
Her words, however, had fallen on absent ears as the men immediately took to their heels and ran for their lives after this graphic display. Callisto shot a disappointed look at Xena. "I think I'd rather have your rep, Xena," she complained, pouting slightly as she slid her sword back into its sheath. "Then I'd get to kill somebody."
"I'm sure you'll get your chance before the day is through," Xena assured blackly as they resumed their journey.
As they galloped up the dirt trail, the warrior princess couldn't help but consider what had been going on lately. When she had first joined up with Gabrielle, the looks of fear and hatred directed at her had sickened her, stark reminders of her dark warlord past. She had longed for a day when she could leave it behind, a time when people could finally believe she had indeed changed and now fought for good.
I guess it's true, she mused sourly. Be careful what you wish for....
They topped the ridge and looked down at Perth spread out below them. Beyond the fishing village, the sea sparkled deep Mediterranean blue as a steady breeze heavy with sea salt blew into their faces. Rising from the water in the distance, a dark shadow of an island beckoned. On the horizon, looming clouds filled the eastern sky, threatening the approach of a storm. Xena nodded at it.
"Bad weather," she said.
Callisto nodded. "We'd better hurry if we want to get to the island before nightfall. I don't want to be on the sea in the dark with a storm brewing."
"We can rent a boat in Perth," Xena allowed and nudged Argo down the hill, unaware of Callisto looking after her with confusion.
"'Rent'?" she queried in amazement.
But Xena was already galloping towards the village and Callisto had little choice but to follow. They pulled up in front of the stables and Xena handed her some coins. "Stable the horses," she ordered. "I'll arrange for the boat."
Without waiting for a response, the warrior princess strode towards the docks, leaving Callisto to contemplate Argo who was regarding her with equal suspicion, ears laid back warningly. Not even wanting to start something, Callisto directed the stableboy to take the palomino's reins and then dismounted her gelding. She reached out and snagged the stable master by the front of the shirt.
"Do you know me?" she asked pleasantly. His expression told her he did. He nodded shakily, avoiding her eyes. "I want these two horses looked after to the best of your ability. I don't have to tell you what will happen if I don't like how you cared for them."
"I'll take good care of them," he managed with a quaver in his voice.
"Good," she said, releasing him with a shove and dropping the coins disdainfully in the dirt before walking away. She did not look back to see the man scrambling on the ground, thankful to escape with his life and overwhelmed that he had actually been paid.
She stopped briefly on the docks and looked over the boats moored there with careful deliberation. One caught her eye, a pleasure craft that stood out amongst the fishing sculls and row boats. It was clearly the sort of toy that belonged to the rich, the bright paint and the lines which promised speed. Unusual in a fishing village. She entered the harbor master's building and found Xena haggling over a price with a lavishly dressed, portly merchant. She didn't seem to be having much success with it. He wanted far more than she carried and was stubbornly not budging, his supercilious features showing he felt he was doing Xena a favor by even speaking to her. Everyone fell dead silent when Callisto entered and she gloried in the thick sense of fear that descended. She motioned back out the door.
"There's a sailboat out there," she said.
Xena nodded. "That's the one I'm trying to rent," she responded, her voice showing the strain of maintaining her patience.
Callisto met the eyes of the merchant who suddenly paled and backed away, drawing a silk handkerchief from his tunic and mopping the sweat that had popped out all over his head. "It's all yours," he said quickly, half bowing. "Please, consider it a gift." He eased his way out the door and quickly disappeared.
Callisto noticed Xena looking at her. She shrugged. "They know me here," she said without apology. "Let's go."
She scooped up a bag containing supplies, features daring it's owner to make something of it before leaving the building and walking confidently to the sailboat bobbing gently at the dock. Xena joined her a few moments later, dropping some ropes and climbing gear on the deck, having left all the dinars she possessed with the harbor master for payment, meager as it was.
"You know, Xena, perhaps you'd better get Gabrielle to lay off the kinder, gentler, reformed warlord in her tales and start playing up the action more," Callisto offered casually as they cast off, the little boat flying across the waves like the thoroughbred it was. "The softer you appear, the quicker people are going to try to take advantage of it, especially those who know of you only from the stories. Unlike people like me who know you for the sadistic killer you really are."
Xena did not answer. Not only was it galling to be receiving advice from one of her greatest enemies, she certainly didn't want Callisto to know just how much she was starting to agree with her.
Instead, she nodded at the gear. "They tell me Circe's castle in on a bluff overlooking the beach," she said, trying to change the subject. "There's only one way up, a staircase set in the cliff side. I think we should avoid it if we can, try to keep our presence unknown for as long as possible."
"Fine, you're the military genius," Callisto said in a bored tone. She lounged on the deck, letting Xena do the sailing as if she were a queen out on an excursion and Xena her subject. She threw back her head, her blond hair whipping in the wind, delighting in the sea spray. She looked back at Xena who held the tiller with a firm hand. "You must really hate this," she said slyly.
"I always hate it when Gabrielle's in danger," the warrior princess answered shortly.
"No, I mean working with me," Callisto elaborated. "You despise me. It must have really driven you crazy when I came back from the dead. Especially after going to all the trouble of watching me sink in that quicksand."
Xena kept her eyes on the island, face impassive as she tried to ignore Callisto.
"You know, the worst part about that," Callisto went on. "I really didn't think you'd do it. If I had suspected, I certainly wouldn't have humbled myself like that. I thought you'd try to save me and I'd have a shot at you. Instead, I died with you thinking I actually pleaded for my life. Do you know how absolutely humiliating that was? Honestly, I had to come back just so you wouldn't go through life thinking I had begged you for mercy."
She shook her head and shot Xena an impish grin. "I gotta admit though, it was pretty cold-blooded. Maybe you should get Gabrielle to tell that story." She tilted her head, observed Xena with a sly smirk. "Did you tell her exactly how I died? Or did you skip over the details and just tell her you killed me? Like it was in honorable combat or something?"
Xena continued to stare intently at the sea ahead though fury made the blue eyes glacier chips of ice.
Callisto smiled slowly after studying her for a long moment. "I believe I struck a bit of a nerve there. Interesting. So you never told her how you stood by and watched me die? And what about hubby? How did you explain standing by without making an effort to stop me?"
That got Xena's full attention, glaring at the blond. "I didn't dare leave Gabrielle's side," Xena said bitterly. "You'd have killed her if I tried for you."
"I think you overestimate my speed, Xena," Callisto said sardonically. "But, I certainly don't underestimate yours." She looked towards the bow, the island getting closer every second. "Tell me, Xena," she added with delicate wickedness. "Were you able to 'comfort' the bard properly?"
"I wonder what I ever did to Artemis to cause this," Xena said, almost to herself.
"You can't blame Artemis for the results of your own actions," Callisto pointed out with mild humor. "You made me. You created your own nightmare."
Xena was silent for a long moment, thinking furiously. Then finally she spoke.
"So I win," she said flatly. She laughed with a cold irony.
Callisto straightened, turning around to look at the warrior princess with startled disbelief.
"I mean that you're right, I made you," Xena allowed.
Suddenly her tone was arrogant, her features the haughty mask of her warlord days. Her blue eyes pinned the brown ones with hypnotic intent, capturing her in their gaze which slid over Callisto's astounded features with contemptuous possessiveness. With one hand, she reached out and gripped the narrow chin in surprisingly gentle strength.
"I've been looking at this all wrong," she continued huskily. "They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. You did your best to become me, the warlord. You weren't as good, of course. You kept getting beat. Imprisoned, dying, spending your immortality on futile attempts to gain my attention. And you keep trying. You exist for me. You've even come back from the dead for me, defied a god for me. I guess I should be flattered."
Xena smiled a slow smile of deliberate domination, an odd sort of desire crossing her features as she let her eyes slide down over the blond's body and back up to meet horrified eyes. "No matter what you do, Callisto, you can't change it," she said, almost purring. "No matter how many of my friends and family you kill, no matter if you even manage to kill me, it won't change a thing. Your mother will still be dead. You'll still have to face your sister with what you've become. You'll still hurt. You'll never be able to undo what I did. I win. Your life belongs to me. Your existence belongs to me. You... Belong.... To me."
Callisto stared back at her, hatred and doubt warring with the faintest shade of fear creeping into her face. She jerked back shuddering to the furthers corner of the small scull and turned to the wind, away from the warrior princess who carefully hid her satisfaction as she guided the boat through the waves. The rest of the journey passed in blessed relief from any further conversation.
They dragged the boat up onto the beach above the high tide mark, tying it securely before retrieving their gear. Looming above them, casting them in dark shadow, the cliffs rose to where a stone castle perched imposingly. Callisto stood, her head thrown back as she studied the cliff, lips pursed as she considered the rock face.
"I don't suppose you want to rethink this climbing idea," she suggested cooly to Xena who was already shaking out the ropes. It was the first time she had spoken in a long while. It was with a wary respect that she looked at Xena now. How long it would last was unknown.
Xena shook her head. "We have to hurry," she reminded. "We only have about six hours 'til midnight."
"That's when---" Xena began.
"That's when Circe bathes in virgin blood, not when she prepares it," Callisto pointed out silkily. "How long does it take to fill a tub with blood? It's going to take about three hours to climb that cliff."
Xena stared at her, swallowing hard. How could she had not considered that? Being in her enemy's presence for this long was starting to cloud her thinking. She was more concerned with what Callisto might do or say than the matter at hand. Hiding the effort it took, she focused herself, swearing that she wouldn't be distracted again.
"We're going to have to take the stairs," she admitted.
"And kill anyone who sees us," Callisto reminded.
They trotted down the beach, climbing over the spit of rock which jutted out into the water and had concealed their landing from anyone guarding the stairs. They paused there, carefully scouting the steps carved into the side of the cliff itself. Xena didn't even want to consider the amount of work hours in creating such a structure.
There were no guards at the base or on the stairs themselves but they could see one at the top who looked out over the sea. Xena shot a look to the west where the red light of the setting sun highlighted the horizon, the storm clouds flooded the air overhead. Already they could feel the first few drops of rain.
"At least the weather's on our side," Xena mumbled. "We have to wait, though, until the fog really moves in and it's completely dark. I wonder if Circe needs to see the full moon."
"I doubt it," Callisto allowed. "You know, this is really a lot of trouble to go to for eternal youth. I have it and it certainly wasn't this involved. I only had to kick Hercules around a little."
"Not everyone's as good as you, Callisto," Xena said in a tone heavy with irony.
Callisto grinned evilly and glanced at her. "Something else just occurred to me."
"What?" Xena asked warily. It seemed that her performance on the boat was starting to lose its effectiveness.
"Well, I freely admit I've spilt a lot of it in my time," Callisto allowed. "But I'm the first to bow to your much greater amount of experience. Is there really enough blood in one person for someone to bathe in? I don't mean just wipe yourself down, I mean actually fill a tub and immerse yourself in blood?"
Xena thought about that for long moments. "You think there's other captives in there," she offered. She shot a look at Callisto from lowered brows. "I wouldn't expect that sort of consideration from you."
"Oh, don't kid yourself, Xena," Callisto showed her teeth without humor. "I know you. If there are others, you'll probably want to save them. I just want you to understand, I'm contracted for Gabrielle only. Anything else, and you're on your own."
"Now why doesn't that surprise me," Xena allowed dryly.
That quashed the conversation for awhile as they waited for the fog to roll in and the darkness to cover them. The rain had started in earnest, the wind blowing cold off the water. Callisto was unmoved by the chill, temperature unable to affect her. Xena found herself suffering miserably but she stoicly bore it without complaint. She had not brought any coverings with her and her leather and armor offered little protection.
Wordlessly, Callisto handed over her cloak.
Xena accepted it with a raised eyebrow, looking at Callisto with utter amazement..
Callisto rolled her eyes. "Don't get all mushy, Xena," she said. "Hypothermia is far too gentle a death for you."
Xena didn't answer. But she was grateful for the warm cloak that seemed to shed the water, drawing it up over her head as she was finally able to stop shivering. She had the opportunity to examine the silver clasp that held it. It was a crescent moon shape that had what seemed like a lightning bolt radiating through it. The warrior princess had never seen anything like it and it occupied her during the long moments while they were waiting for total darkness.
Finally she deemed it time for them to move. She handed the cloak back to Callisto who took a moment to pull it back over her shoulders before following the warrior princess to the base of the stairs. Pressing as close to the rock as possible, they swiftly ascended the staircase, pausing below the summit to observe the guard.
Xena frowned as she judged distances, drawing her chakram from her belt. Callisto put a hand on her forearm, shaking her head. Xena knew that it would be noisier than she liked but she didn't see any other choice and an emphatic gesture indicated that. Callisto shook her head again and reached inside her vest, drawing out a tube.
Xena looked at the blowgun, then back at Callisto who smirked at her. They both had memories of another blowgun, and the results of it's use. Callisto drew a tufted dart from a pouch in her belt and inserted it into the tube. She raised it to her mouth after filling her lungs with air and aimed it at the guard.
Xena's keen hearing barely detected the dart leaving the gun but it's effect was immediate as the guard stiffened suddenly and toppled off the cliff silently. He would have had to be either instantly rendered unconscious....or dead, for him not to make a sound on the way down and Xena looked at the blowgun with a renewed, wary respect.
Swiftly they scampered up the rest of the stairs, cautiously easing their eyes over the edge of the top stair. Apparently there had been only one guard on duty here. There was no movement near the gates but there were no doubt others beyond the walls. Moving silently, they scaled the wall, the rough stones providing secure hand and footholds. Callisto waited as Xena slid over the top first and dispatched the lookout. The slender blond joined her and looked disgusted when she saw he was merely unconscious. Without hesitation, she whipped out her dagger and slit his throat.
Xena grabbed her and thrust her up against the wall, a forearm across Callisto's neck.
"Don't do that again," she growled.
Continued - Part 2