Callisto regarded her evenly, eyes dark with contempt. "Don't tell me what to do," she hissed back. "I don't need your help. This is my show, remember? That means leaving no one to wake up and give a warning. You want to play games with Gabrielle's life, do it another time," She smiled icily. "Unless you want to settle it here and now? I'm sure Artemis will be thrilled to know I couldn't rescue Gabrielle because you wanted to fight with her Arrow. Suppose the bard dies while you're delaying me. That would be even better, wouldn't it."

Shaken, Xena released her, fighting back her fury as Callisto shook her cloak back into place and strode haughtily past her. Xena needed another second to regain her control. It was more difficult to deal with Callisto when they were on the same side than when they were opponents. She knew she was fooling herself by trying to control the immortal; Ares himself hadn't been able to do it. She didn't even know why she made the attempt. What was worse is that deep down, there was a tiny part of her that envied the blond. There was an intoxicating attraction to killing at will, at taking whatever you wanted whenever you wanted. It was a feeling she was all too familiar with and one that she had tried hard to suppress. Grasping her sword, she followed Callisto deeper into Circe's castle and tried to bury the envy deep inside, beyond even her own acknowledgment.

They found themselves in a long corridor lit by torches which sputtered oily smoke into the still, stale air. There was an oppressive quality to the hall and both of them hesitated in the entrance.

"Don't like this much," Callisto gave voice to both of their thoughts.

Keen eyes surveyed the corridor which was unguarded. They knew there had to be a reason for that since it was a main entrance to the interior.

"There," Xena said, nodding at darker shadows underneath each torch holder. Callisto dropped to her belly on the floor and looked towards the end of the hall. From this angle, she could easily see the whisper thin wires strung across from each wall. Invisible against the carpeting, one had to view them against the darker wood at the exit twenty feet away.

"There's a wire strung at every torch marker," Callisto informed her as she reached out and gently flicked the one directly in front of her.

There was a breath of sound and from the hole beneath the closest torch holder, a thick, short metal bolt was released to thud into the wall opposite, propelled by enough force to drive through the average person's torso. Which was exactly what was intended.

"Nice," Callisto said admiringly while Xena raised an eyebrow. The blond got to her feet and looked at her nemesis. "It appears Circe likes booby-traps."

Xena didn't answer, still smarting from their last conversation. Instead, she began to walk down the hall, careful to step over the wire threads.

Callisto, who had immediately forgotten the other argument as soon as she walked away, cheerfully strode behind her, snapping each wire and trying to catch the bolts before they hit her. The couple she missed, she yanked out of her body with little concern and dropped them on the floor.

"Ten out of twelve," she informed Xena when she reached the warrior princess.

Xena rolled her eyes and carefully eased open the door. It led to a circular foyer with thirteen doors equidistance apart. In the center of the room, a circular staircase with thirteen stairs led to a hole in ceiling. Xena was keenly aware of the time slipping rapidly away as she studied the room. A wrong decision here could cost her dearly.

Callisto walked to the center, peered up the stairs and frowned as she looked at the many doors.

"Any ideas?" she asked.

Xena carefully opened the nearest door which revealed another corridor, again unguarded and again with suspicious shadows along the walls.

"You?" Xena replied. It was a sign of her utter frustration that she even asked.

Callisto tilted her head and breathed deeply for a few moments. Xena realized after a few seconds that she was sniffing the air.

"Smell that?" the blond offered.

Xena breathed deeply, concentrating. The faint coppery scent was familiar and unmistakable. It made her heart clench in her throat. Too many times had she smelled this during battle.

The thick, sick-sweet odor of freshly spilt blood.


Horror filled Xena in a way that had seldom happened before, an almost physical blow to her guts as she took in the scene before her. The scent of blood had led them here after passing through three more circular foyers connected with booby-trapped corridors, growing stronger with every step and escalating her fear for Gabrielle with each passing second.

In this cavernous stone room, twelve naked women hung upside down from the ceiling beams, their hands tied behind them. Their throats had been slit and their dead features were obscured by the gore that covered them, their hair sodden bunches of red that still dripped sluggishly into the channels grooved in the floor. The flickering flames of the thirteen wall lamps threw eerie shadows over the macabre scene.

"And you thought I was bad," Callisto offered conversationally as she studied the corner of the floor where the channels all met in a single drain. She looked back to see Xena kneeling down before each one, straining to see through the blood to the face below, terrified at finding a familiar one. "Gabrielle isn't here." she added gently, more gently than she'd intended.

Xena's head snapped around and Callisto shrugged. "I'd know if she were dead," Callisto reminded her. "My geas would have ended." She took another look around. "Maybe they're saving her for something special. She would be the last one."

"How do you know that?" Xena tried to keep her voice even, obscuring the fear in her heart.

Callisto jerked a thumb back at the room where they had entered from. "Haven't you noticed Circe's thing with the number thirteen? I bet if we figure out where this drain empties out, we'll find the golden tub."

Xena shook her head. "I don't want the tub, I want Gabrielle."

"Where the tub is, Circe is," Callisto reminded. "She can tell us."

Xena allowed the point and barged back out into the circle room. She noticed that the staircase in the center this time led down and she quickly took them, not looking to see if Callisto was following. Below, in the depressingly familiar circle room, Xena grabbed the door in the middle, having noted the pipe appearing from where the room above would have the corresponding drain. Down the expected corridor, she could see the pipe continue on the ceiling and without any preamble, she whipped her chakram down the hall at ankle height, snapping all the wires before rebounding off the far door with a muted thud to return to her hand. She barely waited for the bolts to embed themselves in the walls before dashing down the hall and smashing through the far entrance.

It was a good thing she did, because unlike the others, there were men on the other side, bowled over by the door flying off it's hinges and smashing into them. Xena rolled through the opening and gained her feet, sword and chakram ready. She froze at the tableau before her.

In the center of the gigantic room, glowing from the torches dripping from the walls, a golden tub sat on a dias. In it was a thick red liquid which still dribbled from the pipe directly above. Before it, a tall slender woman with long, deep raven hair stood reverently, a scarlet silken robe drawn down over her shoulders by attendants, all of which were staring at Xena in astonishment. But the warrior princess's attention was on the golden cross beyond the tub where a familiar figure hung spreadeagle, wrists and ankles bound by black velvet cords.

"Hmm, guess she was a virgin after all," came Callisto's cool assessment from behind her. "They were saving her for something special."

"Xena," Gabrielle screamed.

And all hades broke loose.

Hastily, Circe redonned the robe and gestured toward the two warriors. "Kill them," she howled with fury.

Her attendants which included several heavily armed men which Xena guessed correctly were Daludas and his men, all moved towards them. With her yell echoing throughout the cavernous room, Xena leaped to meet them, only vaguely aware of the blond whirlwind beside her, the shrill scream a deafening counterpoint to her battle cry. The two crashed into the wave of enemies rushing towards them like identical forces of nature, and this time, Xena matched Callisto blow for blow, no hesitation as to her intent. With a savage grin of fury, she slashed through, blade opening up one belly there, a chest here, decapitating and dismembering with cruel efficiency as she waded towards Gabrielle.

With dread, she realized that Circe understood her intent and was hustling towards the bard herself, drawing a wickedly long dagger from beneath the robe. Suddenly, over head, Callisto had launched herself upward, catching the pipe. Swiftly traveling hand over hand, she bypassed the battle below, reaching the bard scant seconds before Circe's murderous swipe, intercepting the blade with her chest.

"Sorry, dear," Callisto said with a mock innocent grin as she plucked the blade out. "And believe me, I'm not enjoying this."

She kicked Circe in the jaw, booted foot snapping the sorceress's head back, sending her pin-wheeling across the floor.

Behind her, Gabrielle was staring in fear and tremendous confusion at Callisto. Xena dispatched the last opponent and bounded up onto the dias, going to her friend.

"It's all right," she said, slicing through the velvet bonds with her sword and catching the bard in strong arms before she hit the ground. "I'm here now."

"Oh Xena," Gabrielle whispered, hugging the warrior. "She murdered twelve other girls. She was going to eat my heart after she bathed in their blood."

"You're safe now," Xena assured, turning to look at Circe who was on her hands and knees, dazedly shaking her head clear of the effects of Callisto's kick.

Callisto was looking at the tub speculatively. With an imprudent grin, she drew her sword and hacked away the wooden supports, causing the golden container to develop a decided list.

"NOOOO!!!" Circe screamed as Callisto gleefully finished tipping it over with the heel of her boot, the blood gushing out in a scarlet wave to spread over the stone floor, washing up against the walls and painting the bodies scattered about with even more gore.

"Bathe in that," Callisto offered cheerfully.

"Bitch!" Circe's face twisted with rage and hatred. She raised her hand and before Callisto could move, a glowing ball of energy exploded from the sorceress's fingers to smash into the immortal's chest, flinging her back off the dias, sending her crashing into the wall.

Xena had already gathered the bard up in her arms and dived off to the side, the pair sliding across the slick floor and covering themselves in the sticky substance.

"Ugh," Gabrielle said, her face taking on a decidedly green hue.

Xena was already scrambling to her feet, acutely aware of Circe turning her attention to them. She had managed to retain her grip on her sword though she didn't know what good it would do her against someone who could throw balls of light with her hands. Not that it made her hesitate in the slightest as she launched herself at the skeletal figure.

She was shocked to find herself suspended in mid-air, frozen, unable to move a muscle as she hovered some five feet above the ground.

"How dare you interrupt my sacred ceremony," Circe snarled as she approached, her bone-white features drawn with annoyance. "Do you know how hard it is to find thirteen virgins in these parts."

"I said I wasn't a virgin," Gabrielle protested. The bard knew she should be running while the sorceress was distracted with the warrior princess but she could no more leave Xena than Xena could leave her.

Circe cast her scowl on her and Gabrielle quailed inwardly as those red eyes centered on her. "I can tell a virgin," she said with contempt. "In any event, it matters not, the ceremony is ruined. I'll have to wait another month."

"I guess that means you'll have to let us go," Gabrielle offered hopefully.

"I guess it means you'll be my guest for a month," Circe returned bitingly. She turned back to Xena, considering her. "You, of course, are unsuitable. A pity about your associate. She would have worked."

Callisto was a virgin? This thought skittered across Xena's mind in a trail of amazement. She never would have guessed. She cleared her throat, wondering at the fact that she was still able to talk though every other part of her body stubbornly refused to follow her orders. Even her eyes were static, unblinking as she stared into the glowing red orbs in Circe's face. She guessed her captor liked to talk with her victims.

"What now?" Xena asked without fear. The slightest shadow of movement out of the corner of her eye raised her hopes and she tried to keep Circe's attention.

"Now, I eat your heart," Circe promised.

"I thought you said I was unsuitable," Xena reminded reasonably.

"Oh, not for a ceremony," Circe offered, licking her lips. "I'm just hungry."

Then Callisto leaped on her back, her forearm tight across the sorceress's throat. "I hate it when people kill me and walk away," she hissed.

Circe was clearly unused to physical confrontation and she staggered under the weight of the immortal, her control shattering. Xena plunged to the floor, suddenly free, barely managing to hang onto her sword. Instantly she was back on her feet and lunging towards the two combatants.

"Callisto, duck!" she instructed and Callisto immediately let the sorceress go, spinning her towards Xena with a forceful shove.

With a feral smile of joyful revenge, Xena swung her sword, slicing through the woman's neck with meaty clunk, Circe's head spinning through the air in one direction as her body flew the other.

"Oh, splendid, Xena," Callisto laughed, kicking the head across the room. "Hard to heal from that."

Gabrielle looked speechless, not sure what she was more horrified at, Xena's joy in killing Circe, Circe's bloody end, or the fact that Callisto was standing there in cozy allegiance with her warrior.

"Xena, can I talk to you for a moment?" she asked sweetly.

Xena was immediately aware that she and Callisto were clasping each other's arms in a warrior's salute, celebrating in appreciation of a mutual job well done, exchanging grins of triumph. Apparently Callisto realized it in the same breath as well, the animation draining from her features as she abruptly released her grip, turned away and walked towards the exit.

Xena took a step after her, stopped as she realized there was little she could say, that the moment had simply swept them up and now it was over. And they were enemies once more.

"Callisto," she called.

The blond stopped but did not turn.

"I hope you find your sister," Xena said quietly.

Callisto hesitated, seemed about to turn to speak, then continued out the door.


The warrior princess looked back at Gabrielle. The bard was a sight, covered in blood and filth, eyes wide with fright and reaction to her ordeal. She supposed she didn't look much better. Xena reached out and pulled the smaller woman to her in a comforting hug.

"Let's get out of here," she said wearily.


As they left the castle, Xena dropped torches on the floor in their wake, igniting the carpets and furniture with every intention of seeing this foul place destroyed as well as serving as a sort of funeral pyre for the unfortunate victims of Circe. Outside, the full force of the storm hit them though initially, they welcomed the cleansing rain and wind, needing to breath the fresh air. Then the chill hit them and they hurried for the staircase. A slender figure waited there, outlined in the flashes of lightning.

Without speaking, Callisto pointed at the beach below.

At what used to be the beach.

Xena looked down to see the strip of sand totally submerged, the waves crashing up against the rock face. The sky lit up enough to reveal the shattered debris of their sailboat floating on those waves.

"We'll have to hole up in the castle," Callisto yelled.

Xena looked back at the structure which was just now starting to light up the sky, smoke billowing as flames began to shoot from the roof. There must have been a lot of lamp oil in there, Xena noted idly. She turned back to Callisto who was staring at her with annoyance.

"What is it with you and fire?" she asked.

Xena shrugged sheepishly then became aware of Gabrielle shivering in the night. "We have to find some other shelter," she yelled over the howl of the wind.

Callisto rolled her eyes and removing her cloak once more and handing it to Gabrielle as she brushed past her, heading along the cliff to find a path to the interior of the island. Gabrielle looked at the cloak in her hand, looked at Callisto's retreating back, looked at Xena, then looked back at the cloak, totally at a loss.

"Don't ask," Xena said, taking the cloak from the bard's shaking hands and throwing it about Gabrielle's shoulders. "C'mon," she added, leading her with an arm around the smaller woman's waist as they tripped after Callisto.

It seemed to take forever, but in reality only an hour or so had passed before they stumbled across a cave. Xena couldn't believe their good fortune but perhaps it was time a little luck fell their way. It wasn't overly large but it was dry and the overhang of rock nearby kept the wind and rain from blowing into the entrance. The dead remains of a tree shattered by previous lightning was close by and Xena along with Callisto were able to cut off some respectable chunks with their swords.

Soon, the warm golden light of a fire was lighting the interior and the three women slowly began to dry out. Exhausted, Gabrielle fell asleep on the ground, Callisto's cloak still wrapped around her. Xena sat next to her, back supported by the cave wall as she rested for the first time that day. Her nerves still sang even though weariness flooded through her and made her lightheaded.

Across the fire, Callisto remained free of the frailties of mortals, fresh and wide awake. She drew a piece of granite from her belt pouch and carefully began to sharpen her sword, the stone scraping steadily along the blade in long, even strokes. Xena knew that Gabrielle sometimes found the sound irritating. She didn't. She found it soothing, the noise relaxing her and making her sleepy. It was a good sound, a sound that said the battle was over and they lived to fight another day.

The fact it was Callisto making the sound scarcely mattered at this point and before she knew it, her head had fallen forward and the warrior princess slept.

She woke hours later, sitting bolt upright. The grey light of dawn penetrated the cave though the storm clearly still raged. She was not sure what had woken her and she blinked in the morning light, feeling uncertain and very grimy. Then she realized that Callisto wasn't there. Beside her, Gabrielle still slept peacefully, face peaceful in her slumber. Xena's eyes softened momentarily and she reached over, gently brushing some of the matted hair away from those features. Then she leaned forward and rebuilt the fire which had been reduced to glowing coals.

Food was high on the list of necessities and she reached for her weapons, intending to do some hunting. A sound at the cave entrance made her leap to her feet, sword ready before slowly lowering it as Callisto came in, four rabbits hanging from a string and carrying makeshift netting made from some torn fabric containing roots and herbs. She was also carrying a sodden bag which had been their supplies.

The immortal tossed the bag down in front of the warrior princess. "That's all I could salvage from the boat." she said shortly. She handed Xena the rabbits and the vegetables before sitting down on a log at the far side of the cave. "I hope you can cook."

"Thank you," Xena said quietly, observing her foe closely. It was an unexpected gesture on the part of Callisto. Especially since the blond had no need to eat.

Callisto shrugged, dismissing it. "The castle's gone, although it's still smoldering," she reported as if she were one of Xena's lieutenants of a time long past. "There's probably enough game on the island to sustain you both indefinitely. If you crawl through that hole at the back of the cave, you'll find a couple of springs, both hot and cold."

"Springs?" Xena had wondered why Callisto had appeared so clean and tidy this morning. It seemed the day was looking up after all.

Callisto didn't answer, instead leaning back against the wall and closing her eyes in clear indication she didn't want to talk to the warrior princess any further. With a shrug, Xena let her be. She cleaned the rabbits and left them for Gabrielle when she woke, the bard being a far better cook than she was. She crawled through the hole Callisto indicated, noting that the slender woman must have spent time enlarging the opening in the long hours before morning.

Xena began to get a glimmer of what it was like not to have to sleep, to not tire or need to rest. There was no question it had its advantages but she realized it also would make for a long day, and an even longer night. Especially for one perpetually filled with nervous energy as Callisto seemed to be.

She smiled as she rose to her feet on the other side of the rock wall. This sub-cavern was much larger than the outer one, dominated by a pool which steamed slightly at one end. At the opposite end of the cave, crystal clear water spilled from the wall into a natural stone basin and when she tried it, she found it was cold and clean.

The pool was hot but not uncomfortable, just the right temperature for bathing. This couldn't be more perfect if she had conjured it up herself. A couple of makeshift torches told Xena that Callisto had spent some time in here; they lit the interior of the cave, bringing out sparkles in the stone itself as if the walls were covered with a multitude of jewels. With a groan of relief, she rid herself of the blood encrusted armor and slid into the water, the heat soaking into muscles tired from the long day before. It was practically a piece of heaven and it did not become any less so when Gabrielle crawled through the opening to join her.

"Do you want to tell me what's going on?" the bard asked finally as she settled back into the water, her gory garments soaking in a small puddle in the rocks.

"About?" Xena raised an eyebrow at her companion even though she had a pretty good idea what was coming.

"In case you hadn't noticed, Xena," Gabrielle said with exasperation. "That's Callisto out there watching to make sure the rabbits don't burn."

"Oh that."

"Xena," Gabrielle moved closer and nudged her in the ribs. "How come she isn't trying to kill you? Or me? And what about Valasqua? How did she get out of the lava flow? And what's she doing fighting at your side? Is she still a goddess? Why is she here?"

Xena waited until the barrage of questions had trailed off before attempting to answer. In truth, it took very little time to bring Gabrielle up to speed on everything that had happened while she had been Circe's captive. Not that the bard necessarily believed it all.

"Waitaminute," she objected. "You're telling me she's my protector now?" Her green eyes were wide.

Xena sighed. "It's not something I'm happy about," she said honestly. "But I don't think there's much we can do about it."

"So what does this mean, Xena?" The bard's earnest features looked at her warrior companion with confusion and not a little trepidation.

"I wish I knew," Xena responded pensively after a moment.

She looked at her friend affectionately then, changing the subject. "There's something else I have to talk to you about," she added. "It's about your stories. I need you to go easy on them for awhile."

Gabrielle blinked. "What are you talking about."

Xena closed her eyes. This was actually going to be a lot harder than explaining Callisto's presence had been. "Gabrielle, you know I love your stories, and I certainly don't want you to stop telling them, but all the ones that have been showing me in such a good light should be put aside for awhile," she explained.

Gabrielle looked at her as if she had lost her mind. "I don't understand, Xena," she said. "I thought you wanted people to know you've changed, that you now fight for good."

"The problem is, I don't want anyone to think that means I've gone soft," Xena persevered even though it was hard. She paused for a moment, searching for the right words. "Gabrielle, if it weren't for Callisto, I wouldn't have found you in time," she said. Gods, that was difficult to admit but she needed to make the bard understand. "The people I was getting information out of, weren't scared of me. They even defied my pinch, all because of Palaemon and his damn bragging. But Callisto....they couldn't talk fast enough to tell Callisto everything she wanted to know. People don't fear me anymore."

Gabrielle looked stubborn. "You want to be feared?" she said with annoyed disbelief. "You're telling me you want to have a reputation like Callisto's?"

"It would've helped me protect you," Xena replied shortly....and wished she could bite back the words even as she spoke them.

Gabrielle's eyes sparked. "I don't suppose it occurred to you that if you hadn't left me alone, it wouldn't have happened," she said heatedly. "And I don't need your protection. I can take care of myself."

"Gabrielle," Xena's stronger voice overrode the bard's and Gabrielle subsided angrily. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have left you behind."

That was not what Gabrielle had been expecting. The red-head looked suddenly sheepish at her anger and rested her hand on Xena's arm.

"No, I'm sorry," she apologized. "I know you had to go and I know that if I'm not going to get a horse that sometimes I have to stay behind. It's my choice. It's just that....this whole thing has me on edge. I don't know what's worse, Callisto trying to kill me, or her being my protector."

Xena rested her hand on Gabrielle's, keeping her face from showing what the bard's touch did to her. "I know exactly how you feel," she said sincerely. "It was easier to predict her moves when she was trying to kill me and it was hard enough then." With a sigh, she leaned her head back, wetting her hair.

"Do you want me to do your hair?" Gabrielle asked, not really waiting for a response before she moved behind the larger woman, finding some soapstone and attacking the long dark tresses.

Xena relaxed against the bard and tried not to be too aware of Gabrielle's body as she had her hair washed. It got a lot harder when Gabrielle started to wash her back and shoulders.

"You know, I wasn't really worried," the bard said softly after a while.

"Really," Xena said idly as she enjoyed the feel of Gabrielle's hands. Possibly too much, she noted and she forced herself to focus. "Worried about what?"

"When I was kidnaped," Gabrielle elaborated. "I knew you would come for me. I knew you would save me."

Xena sighed again. "That's what I mean," she tried again. "I almost didn't. I couldn't get the information I needed. Not fast enough. I hadn't realized what a useful tool being thought of as a monster was."

Gabrielle was silent for a moment, her small hands gently kneading the strong neck as she thought, and apparently totally unaware of the effect she was having on Xena. "I understand that," she allowed. "But I'm not sure what to do. I don't want to make you out to be a monster. Especially since I know you're not."

"Maybe if you just concentrated on the action more," Xena offered. "You know, I do still kill people," she added almost desperately.

"I know," Gabrielle said, grinning. "But I like telling how you save children and kittens from trees."

"I've never saved a kitten from a tree," Xena pointed out dryly.

"Well I'll try to play up the dead bodies more," she promised. "This adventure was a good one for that. It certainly had enough blood in it. And you decapitated Circe good."

"Well, it seemed the right thing to do," Xena agreed modestly. She pulled away from the bard and turned. "I'll do you now."

They switched positions and she pulled the bard against her, Gabrielle's smooth back silky against her chest and stomach as she began to wash the gore from the reddish-blond hair. If her hands lingered on the bard's shoulders, or buried themselves in the hair more than necessary, neither woman took note of it.

Callisto did as she stuck her head through the opening, a sardonic grin drifting across her face. "Hey," she yelled, making both Xena and Gabrielle start in surprise. "If you want this food, you'd better get it now."

She drew back into the outer cavern and settled on her log against the wall, drawing out her daggers and starting the precise job of sharpening them. She didn't speak as the other two joined her, though she did spare Xena a knowing look which the warrior princess gamely ignored.

The mortals fell on the rabbits and vegetables with intense appetite, not having eaten for a while. For the bard in particular, this had been a trial. In no time at all, the meal had been reduced to a few scattered bones.

Gabrielle leaned back with a satisfied smile, Callisto's cloak wrapped around her for her only cover as her clothes dried by the fire. Xena had rescued a tunic from the bag which had turned out to be the one Callisto had taken from the fisherman back in the village. The water-tight lining had succeeded in protecting the clothing from the sea and had also contained some dried herbs, a tattered blanket, cooking utensils and some simple medical supplies. If the tunic smelled faintly of fish, well, at least it was warm and dry. It was going to take hours for her to clean her leathers. A task she immediately started.

"What are we going to do now," the bard broke the silence, unable to keep silent for long.

"As soon as the storm dies down, I'll swim to the mainland," Callisto said, resheathing her daggers and relaxing against the cave wall, arms crossed over her chest, legs stretched out with her ankles linked. "Maybe I'll remember to send somebody to get you."

Gabrielle stared at her. She had been horrified to see the blond upon waking and was astonished when Callisto had blandly informed her as to Xena's whereabouts. She was even more startled and not a little grateful that the blond immediately closed her eyes and proceeded to ignore her as the bard hesitantly prepared the rabbits Xena had clearly left for her. Except for asking the immortal to watch the rabbits, she hadn't spoken to her husband's killer. She hadn't waited for a response, or to see if Callisto would indeed keep the meat from scorching before scrambling through the hole to find the warrior princess. Now, with Xena busy with her leathers, that left the bard with nowhere else to focus her attention on.

"So Xena says you're my protector now," Gabrielle began gamely.

Callisto raised a sardonic eyebrow. "I am an Arrow of Artemis," she answered shortly. "I do as she bids. As long as it suits my purpose," she added, just in case there was any doubt.

"So you can find your sister," Gabrielle noted, eyes bright with curiosity.

Callisto favored Xena with a withering glare. The warrior princess, feeling the eyes upon her and following the conversation, raised her head to meet the look evenly. "You know about Cassiope?" the immortal said silkily.

Xena's eyes narrowed warningly as Gabrielle nodded. "Xena told me everything," she said.

"She did, did she?" Callisto said coldly. "I find that unlikely."

"What did she leave out?" Gabrielle asked curiously.

Callisto smiled slowly as she watched Xena's eyes shade with worry. "So why are you still a virgin?" she said suddenly, surprising herself as well as the other two with the change of subject. She turned her eyes on the bard.

Flustered, Gabrielle poked at the fire.

"I'm not," she said defensively.

Xena was looking at Gabrielle now, as well, a reluctant curiosity furrowing her brow. "Why would Circe believe it?" she asked carefully.

Gabrielle met her warrior's eyes with annoyance, forgetting Callisto's presence for a moment. "I was with Perdicus," she said in the sort of tone that indicated the conversation was over as far as she was concerned.

Callisto, who had begun to enjoy herself, was not willing to let it go so easily. "You know, I ran into the little sleaze in Tartarus," she offered conversationally. "It seems he had a thing for raping little girls when he was a soldier. Weren't you young enough for him, Gabrielle?"

The bard turned on her furiously, Xena frowning as she considered Callisto's words. "You lie," the bard spat.

Callisto spread her hands, shrugging. "It was another reason Artemis chose me," she said in her most believable tone. "Even when I wasn't trying, I ended up protecting you. He looked you up and tried to marry you in a desperate attempt to hide from his past. He was so bad, even his army had him banished. The only reason they didn't have him killed was that he was a friend of yours. He used your name to save his life. Then he must have figured you could continue to 'save' him." She paused, judging how her words were being received and well pleased at what she saw. Gabrielle was staring at her in horror, Xena with speculation. "If you don't believe me, go look up some of his old army buddies. They'll tell you how he damaged one little girl so badly, she died right there in his tent. So tell me, Gabrielle, what exactly happened on your wedding night?"

Xena reached out and slid a comforting arm around the bard's shoulders. "Maybe you'd better start swimming," she advised coldly, staring at Callisto.

Callisto snorted, but got to her feet. However, she did have some parting words. "Imagine if he had managed to get you pregnant and you had a little girl," she pointed out. "Perdy-boy would have enjoyed that." She left the cave, her head held high to meet the wind and rain.

Gabrielle buried her head into Xena's shoulder, the larger woman holding her tightly and rocking them gently. "Oh, Xena," she whispered. "Could it be true?"

Xena was silent. She wanted to comfort the bard, to say that Callisto had been lying. The only problem was, she had a feeling the story was true. She didn't know why. She hoped it wasn't because she wanted it to be true, that she wanted the perfect Perdicus tainted in Gabrielle's mind.

"I don't know, Gabrielle," she said, finally, hating herself as she saw the pain in Gabrielle's eyes as the bard drew back to look at the warrior princess, tears sliding down the flushed cheeks. "I know Callisto isn't trustworthy.....I didn't know Perdicus that well. Gabrielle, is there anything you want to tell me?"

"Oh, Xena," she whispered again.

Xena looked at her helplessly. "What happened on your wedding night," she asked gently.

Gabrielle blushed hotly, lowered her eyes and Xena felt her blood run cold. "What did he do?" she asked again, more insistently.

"It had been a long day," the bard said hesitantly. "He said that he was tired and that he would be better the next night. He wanted me to....with my mouth....when I was afraid to, he said I could use my hands.....then he fell asleep." She looked back up at Xena. "But he was very gentle, Xena. He didn't force me into it. I....I wanted to please him."

"It's alright, Gabrielle," Xena whispered, drawing her close once more, resting her cheek on the top of the bard's soft hair. "You didn't do anything wrong. It's okay."

But her eyes were solid granite as she looked out the cave entrance to the wind swept greyness outside. He may indeed have been gentle, but it had clearly been a display of power, making Gabrielle pleasure him and ignoring her needs, using her innocence which is probably what really attracted him. The games would have no doubt gotten rougher. So you did do me a favor, Callisto, Xena thought with cold acceptance. Because I most certainly am glad he's dead and in Tartarus. Or I would have sent him there myself by now. And Gabrielle would never have forgiven me.

Her heart caught as she though how she hadn't objected when Gabrielle had married him even as every fiber in her fought against it. She had even encouraged Gabrielle in an attempt to hide her own secret feelings for the bard. You're right, Callisto, all I did that entire sorry episode was stand by and let things happen. Let Gabrielle marry a man against my better judgement, let you ride away after killing him, let you sink into the quicksand which led to the whole mess with the guilt. That was my biggest crime of all. Standing by and doing nothing.

Xena didn't know how long she held Gabrielle, whispering soft words of comfort and love until finally she felt Gabrielle relax in her arms. Slowly she eased her grip and looked down to see the bard had succumbed to the emotional exhaustion and was sleeping. Carefully she lowered the young woman to the ground, covering her with one of the blankets and taking a moment to absorb that gentle face, tenderly wiping the tear stains away with feather light fingertips.

"No one will ever hurt you again," she swore quietly. "I won't let anyone bring anymore pain into your life. Not even me."

Wearily she got to her feet and retrieved her sword and chakrum from beside the fire. With a last fond look at Gabrielle, she strode out into the storm.


The storm had let up and there was blue appearing on the far horizon as the clouds began to dissipate. Callisto sat on a rock, looking down at the water spread out before her, the thin dark line of the mainland finally appearing as the drizzle ceased. The slight sound of skin on grass alerted her and she turned to see Xena walking barefoot towards her, sword in right hand, chakrum in her left, the brief tunic clinging to the muscular body as the wind whipped the dark hair around the stern features and burning blue eyes.

She really is magnificent, Callisto allowed to herself. I could do worse than emulate her.

That traitorous thought she squelched quickly, and she assumed a superior expression as the warrior princess joined her. "The bard throw you out?" she asked snidely.

Xena stared at her evenly. "You didn't have to hurt her," she said without expression.

"Me?" Callisto protested in her best innocent tone and was suddenly rolling off the rock to avoid the sword which crashed into the stone where she had been sitting. With an exultant laugh, Callisto drew her own sword and met the next slash, sparks flying from where the blades intersected. "I guess I pushed a little too far," she allowed with amusement. "Going to try to finish it, Xena?"

"Once and for all," the warrior princess promised.

"Excellent," Callisto breathed with pleasure.

Then there was no more talk as the blond was hard pressed to block the flurry of blows that rained down upon her. But Callisto knew that time was on her side and she maintained her defensive posture, keeping a tight rein on her temper. Patience, after all, was a virtue, and unlike Xena, she would not tire. She was keenly aware of Xena throwing the chakrum to her left and with concentration, she followed the sound, reaching behind her and catching the disc just before it imbedded itself in her skull. That caused the warrior princess to widen her eyes and press the attack even more.

Oh no, Xena, Callisto thought grimly, holding her ground and dropping the disc into the dirt. If there was one thing the lava pit taught her was that all good things come to those who wait. And since she was concentrating totally on defense, Xena was not able to cause the damage she wanted. Callisto knew that she had changed since the last time the two had fought. Not just the immortality, not just the discovery of her sister's life, but there was the fact that the madness had been brought under control. It no longer ruled her, no longer sent her careening into foolish moves, no longer drove her to react to someone else's whims. No longer blinded her with rage when encountering Xena. The fire in her heart, though not entirely gone, was damped down, and forced into a contained flame.

Callisto smiled with glee as they fought. It truly was a pleasure to cross swords with the warrior princess. She suddenly realized just how much Xena's guilt had held the warrior princess back in their previous battles. Now the dark haired warrior attacked without restraint, without mercy or hesitation. There was no question in Callisto's mind that if she were without her immortality, that if she was subject to tiring from the effort of defending herself, that if the slices and cuts Xena managed to score were not healing as quickly as they appeared without the draining blood lose, Callisto would have died at several points.

Continued - Part 3