Xena was growing extremely agitated as she waited impatiently at the inn. They had been in Athens for four long days and still no word from Callisto, her long time nemesis. She had driven Gabrielle to utter frustration and the bard escaped to the marketplace to get away. Nestra and Brissea were upstairs in their room. Xena sipped on a mug of port but she hardly tasted it.
The warrior openly ogled each patron as they passed by her table. She intently examined their faces for quirky nuances that might identify Callisto as an ordinary passer-by. When they first arrived in Athens, she immediately went to the Wicked Wing as it was the most logical place to go despite Nestra's denials. However, Isiphae was not there and had not been seen for several days. Xena was again worried for her safety. There was no telling what lengths Callisto would go to get her revenge. The warrior had no idea how she would be able to harness Callisto's immortal power once she confronted her, but she decided she would face that danger when it came.
Out of the corner of her eye, Xena caught a glimpse of a blonde woman in a dark cloak scurry past the entrance of the inn. Xena instantly leaped to her feet and raced out the door to follow. She instinctively knew that it was Callisto and followed the cloaked figure to the stables. She tiptoed to the door and peered into the barn. Although she saw no sign of Callisto, her suspicions were confirmed about the two warrior women. Nestra and Brissea were busily readying their horses for departure.
"Going somewhere, ladies?" Xena strolled into the barn. Before the two warriors could look up, Xena launched into a running start, catapulted in to a high arc and landed behind them. She kicked a swift blow to Brissea's stomach as the woman grunted in pain and crashed into a pile of hay behind her. The horses whinnied nervously from the sudden movements in the stable. Before Nestra had a chance to respond, Xena's lightening quick fingers cracked a sharp pinch to the nerves in her neck. The dark woman fell helplessly to her knees and gasped for breath. The veins in her neck erupted into twin rope chords as the flow of blood to her brain was instantly cut off. Xena casually circled the fallen woman in triumph.
"Now, you have 30 seconds to tell me where Callisto is," she said with a feral smile that did not reach her eyes. "Oh, and where's Isiphae?!" she demanded through gritted teeth.
Nestra's light brown eyes were wide with terror. The vice at her throat made it impossible to breathe. She began to see darting spots before her eyes and she feared she would not be able to answer Xena's questions in the span of 30 seconds.
"Isiphae....trick!" she gasped as a trickle of blood began to seep from her nose.
"Let me see if I can translate your answer. Isiphae wasn't kidnapped, that was a trick by Callisto to get me to come to Athens."
Nestra nodded vigorously. It was too painful to talk even though she knew her life depended on it.
"So where's Callisto? I saw her come in here," Xena asked with a calm that belied an unrelenting fury that would soon explode to the surface.
"Don't....know....said....you.....would know!" Nestra's vision started to blur and the panic in her voice was unmistakable.
"Another translation. You don't know but she said I would know when she got here?"
Nestra nodded desperately and pleaded with Xena through her eyes to be released.
Xena finally relented. She didn't want to kill her as she knew that Callisto had used these poor women as pawns in her deadly game. Nestra dropped her head to the ground and rolled over to suck in much needed oxygen. She coughed repeatedly and when she finally gathered some semblance of control, Xena yanked her up by her leathers and pushed her against a wooden beam. Her eyes were dark with rage.
"Listen to me, and listen good. You are going to tell me everything you know. I don't really want to kill you but I will if I have to. Are we clear?" Xena thumped her hard against her chest with her forearm for emphasis.
"I don't know anything else!" Nestra cried, her thoughts immediately zeroing in on the small lie she had told Xena earlier about who brought Callisto back from the Underworld.
"Which god, Nestra?" Xena heard Brissea rise to her feet behind her and snapped her head in her direction. Her eyes shot her a warning glance that promised another painful kick if she chose to interfere. Brissea stopped in her tracks, worried but grateful that her lover was very much still alive.
Nestra was not surprised by Xena's apparent mind reading ability, a testament to the many skills the warrior was known to possess. Xena's cruel interrogations were legendary and Nestra had always thought that she would be a brave enough warrior to survive one and stick to her deceptive story. But after experiencing it firsthand, there was no way she would want to test her courage like that again. She saw Brissea's concerned grimace over Xena's shoulder and she thought of life with her lover versus Hades and Death. Suddenly, it was clear, there was only the truth. She licked drops of blood from her lips that had trickled from her nose and began talking.
"She said it was Hephaestus-----
"Lame Hephaestus? The God of Fire?"
"Yes, he's the smith-god too. She said he released her from
the lava. Then she escaped his domain. She didn't tell us how."
Xena gradually released her hold on Nestra as she saw the final truth in the woman's eyes. Hephaestus? Xena wondered, what does he want?
Gabrielle approached the barn, oblivious to the tense encounter between Xena and the two women. When she returned from the marketplace, she discovered that Xena was gone. She left the prized necklace in their room so that she could surprise Xena when this whole ordeal was over. She was pleased with herself that she had found such a wondrous gift for her beloved warrior. As soon as Callisto was safely back in the Underworld, she vowed, she would shower Xena with gifts more often. Sometimes she worried that she took Xena too much for granted, especially in times like these when she was in imminent danger.
The barkeep at the tavern told her that Xena had hurriedly left in the direction of the stables. Gabrielle surmised that it must have something to do with Callisto. She quietly approached the barn. She hoped to catch them unaware and would assist Xena if need be. Instead, she overheard Xena speaking with Nestra and Brissea. The tension was palatable.
"Why are you two doing this?" Xena asked, apparently annoyed at the two warrior women.
Brissea spoke up. "Believe it or not, Xena, Callisto was our friend!" she spat out irately. She was still shaking and angry from the harsh treatment Xena had given Nestra.
"She has to be stopped," Xena replied evenly. She still shuddered at the idea of Callisto running around loose as an immortal goddess.
"Look, Xena," Nestra interrupted. She didn't want to set the warrior off again. "We have no qualm with you. We know you and Callisto have it out for each other. We just want to get out of your way. We're done here. Whatever is going on between you and Callisto, that's your business."
"It's not just my business!" Xena exclaimed, the anger again rising in her voice. "Doesn't it bother you that she's out there loose somewhere? This Goddess of...of....Evil!"
"Like you have room to talk," Nestra replied bitterly. "When you get tired of that little girl, are you going to kill her too?" The brown warrior knew she shouldn't be provoking Xena this way, but she couldn't help herself. She was sick of Xena preaching to them about what was right and wrong from her hypocritical high horse.
Xena closed in on the warrior and narrowed her eyes, "What are you saying?" her voice low and ominous.
"Remember Cela and Maedea? I saw how you murdered your lover in cold blood," Nestra stood tall in her warrior garb and arched her broad shoulders. She foolishly refused to back down from the confrontation with Xena that was quickly careening out of control.
Xena darted her eyes back and forth as she scanned for the familiar names in the recesses of her past. She settled on a bright sunny day when her own sword took the life of her unfaithful lover and her deceitful paramour. A stab of pain ripped through her stomach as she steeled herself against the memory. Her lover, Cela, had held a special place in her heart and she bared Xena's mark. When Xena found out about her secret affair, she immediately confronted the other woman. She became possessed by a murderous and jealous rage and quickly lost control of her senses. She clearly remembered her intention to kill Maedea but then her vision went black and the events that followed were hazy and blurred. Her sword seemingly became a life unto itself and in the blink of an eye, both women were dead by Xena's own hand. Sometimes it was hard for her to fathom that she was the same person that had once travelled down that dark and treacherous road.
"Yes, I remember," Xena said sadly as her shoulders visibly
sagged. "I killed them both," she admitted remorsefully. "But how
"I was in the trees. You chased after us, remember?"
Xena simply nodded.
Nestra almost felt sorry for the warrior whose eyes had glazed
over in sorrowful regret. The last thing she expected to see on the infamous warrior's face was sincere remorse.
Gabrielle could no longer listen. She shut out the words that swirled around her like angry stinging bees. She backed away from the stable and briskly walked in the direction of the marketplace. She didn't hear or see anyone in the crowded streets. Tears blurred her eyes as Xena's blatant confession to the murder her lover echoed through her brain. She didn't know how she would ever reconcile this part of Xena's horrific past with her own forgiving soul.
Nestra turned to retrieve the horses that were packed with their meagre belongings. "Look Xena, I just think that so-called 'evil' is in the eye of the beholder," she said quietly. "We just want to get out of here, okay? We can't help you." Solemnly, Brissea and Nestra led their horses out of the barn.
Xena followed forlornly, not really seeing the warrior women as they walked away. She only thought of how she would never be able to conquer the monstrous demon she once was. It still remained very much a part of her dark soul.
The Goddess of Evil watched the entire scene from a shadowy corner in the loft. Oh Xena, you're so pathetic, she jeered at the retreating warrior. Do you really think that being sorry for what you did will ever change things? Never, my sweet. Never! I told you that you will know I am here when the time comes, but I have news for you, Xena, by the time you find out, it will be too late.
Callisto giggled as she vanished from the stables, anticipating her godly appearance before the great Warrior Princess.
Callisto sat in the growing darkness of the small room above the tavern. She lovingly caressed the golden necklace as she awaited Xena's arrival from the stables. The little brat had easily succumbed to the bewitching allure of Hephaestus' handiwork and was gracious enough to buy the cherished item for her beloved Warrior Princess. This was all too easy, Callisto rejoiced gleefully. She supposed she could have used her godly powers in a more forceful or open manner but having Xena's precious little bard strike the killing blow to her soul was an opportunity too good to pass up. Her entire body tingled with anticipation for the moment when Xena saw her past and future collide into a whirlwind of fire that would take her down to the Underworld and Hephaestus' domain. So far, everything was working out perfectly. She could hardly believe that her final retribution against Xena was at hand. The many long years of fierce determination had paid off in this single delightful moment of reckoning.
Callisto hadn't anticipated the little brat to go running off after hearing the revealing discussion in the stables. That had been a fortuitous happenstance and it worked perfectly with her new plan. She had expected that Xena's precious little bard would present her with immortal destiny at Hephaestus' side, but instead, the brat ran away. No matter, Callisto would make sure the bard was distracted long enough not to disturb her final encounter with the Warrior Princess. For the life of her, she couldn't understand what Xena saw in the little brat. Oh Xena, save me! Oh Xena, help me! Callisto mimicked. And when the irritating blonde wasn't whining, she was a non-stop chatterbox. It was a wonder Xena didn't kill her just to get the little fool to shut up.
Callisto knew she had missed her chance to kill the brat twice, but her latest scheme promised to be much worse than Death. A mortal death would have been too good for these two. No, what she had vowed to Xena was that she would kill her soul and separating her from the little brat forever would do just that. She wondered how things could have been different. How the Fates' path led Xena down the destructive road to Cirra but allowed the warrior to save the Potedeian girl from slavery. What had she done to anger the gods? she wondered bitterly. She and the little brat were about the same age and yet their lives were on opposite ends of the spectrum. She could have easily been Gabrielle if the fork in the road had not led the Warrior Princess to her door along with death and destruction. But little of that mattered now. The course of her Fate had changed dramatically and so would Xena's.
She heard the faint footsteps of Xena in the hallway and quickly concealed the necklace in the chest of drawers beside the bed. Xena opened the door.
"Xena, what happened?! You look pale. Did you hear from Callisto?"
"No, Gabrielle," Xena sighed. She began dismantling her armour and removed her chakram and sword as well. She avoided meeting the bard's eyes. "But Nestra and Brissea are gone."
"Why? Don't they want to help us?"
"No, they don't, but they told me who brought Callisto back,"
Xena said wearily. She was tired of fighting her past and the reminder from Nestra and Brissea was enough to make her give herself up to the nearest hanging judge. The warrior sat heavily on the bed. She briefly debated relaying her disturbing conversation with Nestra and Brissea but she was too afraid that Gabrielle would flee the moment she heard the story. For her own selfish reasons, Xena needed to have Gabrielle by her side while she fought Callisto and then she would decide what to do after that. For the moment, though, she remained silent.
"Hephaestus," Xena said quietly.
"The god of fire? But why?"
"I don't know," the warrior frowned.
This is too delicious, Callisto smiled inwardly. She had
expected that Xena might detect her deception immediately, in which case she would have gone to her second plan. As it was, though, Xena was so heavy laden by the guilt of murdering her long dead lover, she could not look directly in the bard's eyes. If she had looked closely she may have seen a gleam in Gabrielle's eye that was at odds with the gloomy circumstances. Callisto presented herself in the bard's likeness and easily mimicked her mannerisms to perfection. However, she was careful not to underestimate Xena's perceptive instincts.
Callisto kneeled behind Xena on the bed and became the ever helpful bard.
"Here, Xena, let me rub your shoulders," she offered. "You've been too tense." Xena let Gabrielle massage her tight muscles. After several moments, Xena could feel the tension gradually dissolve from her body. She surrendered to the bard's strong, pliant fingers, and rode the melodic wave of Gabrielle's sultry voice.
"Yes, Xena, relax. Everything's going to be just fine. You worry too much. Don't fight it, things will work out in the end. I could give you peace, Xena. I'll give you peace if you let me."
Peace, Xena thought. That's all she needed was peace. Despite the diabolical tethers that lashed out from her past, she clung to Gabrielle's words as her only rope of salvation. She reached behind her and pulled the bard into her lap and smothered her mouth with frenzied abandon. She desperately wanted Gabrielle to love her and the bard's soothing voice convinced her that all would be forgiven, if only she had the courage to tell her. She pulled back from their breathless kiss and gazed into the emerald pools of the only woman who truly loved her.
"Gabrielle, I have to tell you something," she said.
"Shhhh, you don't have to say a word," Callisto hushed her.
She didn't want Xena to start confessing anything. All she wanted was satisfaction. The fire within her had been simmering for ages it seemed and the liquid flames were nearly raging out of control. Xena would not deny her this time. Callisto leaned forward and buried her face into the warrior's raven mane. Oh, how long she had waited to breathe in Xena's musky scent. She whimpered slightly as she nipped tiny bites along the side of Xena's sensitive neck.
Xena offered no resistance as she tilted her neck to receive Gabrielle's gentle nibbles. She was constantly amazed by the seductive power the younger woman held over her. The horrifying scene in the barn melted away and her craving for Gabrielle overwhelmed her with a compelling need. Her hands sprang to life and she fumbled to untie the laces of Gabrielle's top, desperately anxious to have the bard writhing beneath her touch. The bard's breasts emerged from the confining cloth and Xena pounced on the soft mounds eager to soothe her face against the pliant flesh. Her exploring tongue found an erect nipple and she sucked greedily on the inviting bud.
Callisto moaned loudly, her breath coming to her in short heaving gasps.
"Oh Xena!" she cried, doing her best Gabrielle imitation she'd learned in the several days spent following the warrior and her bard. Xena trailed a wet path to her other breast and she guided the warrior's open mouth to the nipple that ached for equal attention. She held on tightly to Xena's shoulders and arched herself closer to the warrior as she revelled in the hedonistic pleasure. Xena's hand groped for her skirt, yanked it off her hips and tossed it on the floor. Callisto searched for Xena's succulent mouth and her tongue explored the warrior with wicked abandon.
Xena was lost in an almost painful need to take Gabrielle. She inhaled deeply as she could smell the bard's juices wafting up from her wet centre. She quickly found the source of her desire and Xena slid her fingers along the slippery opening. She broke away from the bard's kiss and a deep growl escaped her lips.
"By the gods, Gabrielle, you're so wet tonight," Xena moaned hotly in the bard's ear.
"Yes Xena, I've waited for this for so long," Callisto panted breathlessly.
Xena smiled inwardly at Gabrielle's definition of a long time. It had only been four days. She continued to explore along the bard's outer lips, then slowly inched her way into the steaming opening. Unable to prolong her need much longer, Xena plunged her fingers deep inside, finding no resistance from the eager bard. Gabrielle pressed down hard on the digital penetration and began rocking her hips against Xena's hand. The warrior kept up a steady rhythm and easily slid in a third finger. She sucked on a spot near Gabrielle's collarbone and held the bard tightly as her hips bucked wildly against her insistent thrusts.
"Take me. Take all of me," Xena growled.
"Yes, Xena! Yes!"
Callisto never wanted the moment to end. She had envisioned
the erotic scene for nearly her entire life but she had never dreamed it could be this divine. Her trembling body was alive with years of unfulfilled passion as it cascaded over her in unrelenting waves. With godlike control, she withheld her imminent climax for as long as she could. With each thrust of Xena's strong fingers, she savoured the vibrating current that swept through every pore and cell. Finally, she could no longer hold back and surrendered to the tidal wave that washed over her.
"Xena!" she screamed as the warrior bit down hard on her shoulder just as Callisto exploded into orgasm.
Spurred on by Gabrielle's display of ecstasy, Xena succumbed to her urgent need for release. She lifted the smaller woman from her lap and laid her down on the bed. Quickly, she unhooked her leather tunic and removed her garments until her nude figure glowed faintly in the muted candlelight. Her blue eyes sparkled with unbridled desire and Gabrielle beckoned to her enticingly. She descended upon her beloved bard with her lithe frame. Her skin melted into the soft curves and she hungrily sought out the bard's delectable lips once again. The fire between her legs ached with a longing as she smeared her juices against the bard's thigh.
"Xena," Callisto whispered. "Let me please you, I want you so much."
"Oh yes, Gabrielle, I need you."
Callisto was delirious with prurient lust. All she think of
was burying her face into Xena's luscious nectar. Her lips lit a fiery trail along the sloping curves of Xena's breasts, as she devoured the fleshy mounds that quivered in her wake. Xena entwined her hand through her hair and urged her down to her wet centre but Callisto refused to be rushed as she languidly circled elaborate patterns along Xena's taut abdomen. Her fingers dipped into the warrior's slippery mound and she voraciously licked the delicious juice from her skin. Callisto broke out in a wide grin when she heard Xena moan above her.
"Gabrielle, I can't wait any longer," she pleaded.
Callisto continued her random lingual patterns as she
leisurely blazed a path to Xena's dark triangle. She relished in the powerful effect she was having on Xena even though she knew that the warrior thought it was her Gabrielle. No matter, Callisto thought, she would get her revenge soon enough. That thought heightened her furious passions and her mouth found the dark hairs that signalled the entrance to the warrior's secret treasures. Callisto rubbed her cheek against the rough hairs, smearing her skin with the sticky juices that seeped out. She twirled her tongue through the tiny hairs, not quite wanting to imbibe on Xena's tasty treats just yet.
"Gabrielle, let me.....," Xena pleaded again as her hips gyrated helplessly.
"Beg me, Xena," Callisto teased and paused momentarily from the maddening slow torture. "Beg."
Xena was nearly crawling out of her skin with a maniacal lust. She remembered the bard's little game from before but this time it took much more of her self restraint. She immersed herself in the complete and utter surrender of Gabrielle's conquest, despite her overwhelming need for release. How much longer she could hold out, she wasn't sure.
"Please, release me, Gabrielle" the warrior panted. "Please," she begged.
Callisto heard the magic words, and burrowed her tongue deep into Xena's overflowing centre. She hungrily lapped up the carnal juices and savoured the sweet taste of ambrosia on her palate. She delved into the velvety folds and wanted to get lost in the flowing heat of Xena's core. The warrior's thighs clamped tightly against her cheeks and she relaxed into the supple smoothness of the quivering flesh. Her tongue delicately uncovered the tiny bud hidden beneath its hood and the warrior cried out with pleasure.
Xena held tightly on to Callisto's head and the goddess
rejoiced in sheer ecstasy. She was at the threshold of her long awaited satisfaction. Three fingers deftly entered Xena and the warrior rose up from the bed to meet her plunging thrusts. Callisto lifted her head to watch Xena intently as the warrior thrashed wildly with untamed fervency. She replaced her thumb on the sensitive nub and continued her overzealous onslaught that carried Xena to the brink of orgasm. Finally, the warrior lifted her back in a high arc and stiffened for several moments before she dropped down to the bed, spent and weak.
Xena took several long moments to catch her breath and invited the bard to rest on her chest. Callisto happily obeyed and the warrior held her tightly as she caressed the soft curves of her back. The goddess breathed in the fragrant remnants of Xena's sweating body and knew she would remember this moment for the rest of her immortal life. She was certain Xena would never forget it either.
"Xena." Callisto said.
"Hmm," Xena replied, not quite wanting to speak just yet.
"I bought a present for you at the marketplace," she purred.
"Yes, for the Summer Solstice," Callisto answered. "It's
right here, let me show it to you."
The sun began its descent over the horizon as Gabrielle made her way through the city streets of Athens. She was surprised at how late it was. She only meant to take a walk after witnessing the disturbing scene in the barn, but somewhere along the way she fell asleep near a comfortable tree. It was quite unlike her, but she thought that maybe the shocking events of the day made her unusually tired.
Gabrielle played out the scene in her mind for the umpteenth time. She had so many questions to ask and there were no rational answers. How could Xena murder her lover? she wondered. What made her do it? Was the woman's only crime infidelity? Or was there a larger picture that Nestra didn't know about? And what exactly did Nestra see? Xena admitted to killing two women, were they both her lovers? Marking her lovers was one thing, but killing them too? To Gabrielle, that was beyond justification.
The bard had so many questions bouncing around in her head that she was getting dizzy all over again. And she was scared. For the first time since she'd met Xena, she was afraid of the dark warrior. Would Xena kill her, too, if Gabrielle were to be unfaithful? The bard knew as long as Xena was in her life, she could never love another. But she wondered what would happened if Xena falsely accused her or someone else of infidelity and attacked them before asking questions. On a number of occasions, she had seen the warrior accost any number of men who dared to cast an appreciative eye in the bard's direction. Although she was sometimes annoyed by such volatile behaviour, she also felt protected in a special kind of way. But not now. Now, she felt like she was in danger.
Gabrielle was willing to forgive Xena for crimes and atrocities she'd committed during her warlord days. In her mind, somehow she justified those acts as acts of war. She knew war made people do crazy things, things they would later regret. But how could killing her lovers have anything to do with war? She was at a loss as to how Xena could justify these horrific crimes. She wasn't even sure she wanted to tell Xena what she knew. Maybe it was best that she just leave Xena in Athens and go back home. Her heart ached painfully as she struggled to put one foot in front of the other and headed out of the City gates.
Callisto rose from the bed and retrieved the prized necklace from its hiding place. She clasped the jewellery in her hand and nearly squealed out loud in her joy. She turned back to face Xena, and kept one hand hidden behind her.
"First, Xena, you have to sit up and close your eyes," Callisto teased playfully.
"All right," Xena smirked as she sat up, closed her eyes and waited expectantly.
Callisto kneeled beside her on the bed and dangled the necklace around Xena's neck, holding the chain away from her chest. She held her fingers steady and paused before she closed the tiny clasp that would seal Xena's eternal fate. Callisto wanted to wait until the warrior fully comprehended her intention.
"Okay, you can open your eyes, now."
Xena looked down and lifted the item with her hand. She
beheld a dazzling medallion, made of a pure smooth gold. The embossed flames shimmered in the candlelight and the azure pupil cast off a twinkling sparkle.
"Do you like it, Xena?"
"It's gorgeous, Gabrielle," Xena said, stunned by its magnificent beauty. "You bought it in the marketplace?"
"Well, actually, Xena, Hephaestus gave it to me, and now I'm giving it to you," Callisto smiled.
"Hephaestus, the smith-god?" Xena asked bewildered. "Heph---
The warrior whirled around sharply to face Gabrielle as a wave of recognition crashed down with the weight of colossal boulders. As Callisto promised, it was too late. Instantly, she clipped the necklace into place. Xena's strength and willpower evaporated from her body and her eyes glazed over in a hypnotic trance. The warrior fell back heavily on the bed and her arms were pinned to her side by an unseen force. Try as she might, she couldn't remove the delicate chain that clung to her neck like a massive anchor.
"Xena, my sweet, be a good dear and tell Hephy I said hello," Callisto jeered at the fallen warrior. She threw her head back and howled with laughter. The moment of truth had finally arrived as she celebrated her long awaited triumph over the Great Warrior Princess.
The last thing Xena saw before she disappeared into oblivion was her beloved Gabrielle transform into the wicked Goddess of Evil named Callisto.
A flood of images enveloped Xena as she spiralled down in to a twisting whirlwind of fire. She was helpless to do anything save succumb to the breakneck speed that plunged her into the ocean of fiery lava. Pieces of her life whizzed by haphazardly until they melded and reformed into a massive whole that was her. Finally she settled into a throne at Hephaestus' side and the God of Fire rejoiced at her grand entrance.
The scenery changed and Xena laid in a luxuriant canopied bed
fit for a queen. She wore a silky white dress that moulded the curves of her body in a perfect fitting. The cursed jewellery of the smith god clung to her neck as a reminder of her imprisonment. Her mind flashed upon sporadic images of what transpired. She saw Callisto's evil grin as she transformed from Gabrielle into unspeakable horror. She also saw the real Gabrielle as she gazed lovingly into her eyes.
"Gabrielle, I'll always be here" Xena whispered.
Again Xena tried to move her arms and remove the burdensome
necklace, but her arms felt bolted in place and she could not move a single muscle. Her anger boiled over as she railed at herself for being so stupid not to catch Callisto's game in time. She was heavy laden with the knowledge that Hephaestus had the intention of holding her captive for all eternity. She was a prized possession to be sure.
Eternity, she thought. Oh what she wouldn't give to be with
Gabrielle until the end of time. A tear escaped the corner of her eye as she yearned to be with her beloved bard and heal the gaping hole in her heart. She remembered the soft tresses of her golden red hair and how the wispy ends sometimes tickled her face when she hovered above her. Her smile could melt away any doubt Xena held before battle and a few simple words could ease the pain of her past. I love you, Gabrielle, she whispered into a vacuum of time. Imperceptibly, the vice that gripped her soul lessened somewhat and she moved a finger for confirmation. Yes! she exclaimed, and moved a second finger. Suddenly, an image of a distraught and forlorn Gabrielle walking on a road away from Athens appeared before her. Her heart agonised at the vision and she thought of nothing but enveloping her lover in her strong arms. Silently she railed against Callisto for separating her from the woman she loved more than life itself. Fury and rage clouded her senses and Xena could think of nothing but the ways and means to end the goddess' reign on immortality. Any glimmer of hope for escape she'd felt just moments before disappeared as quickly as it came. The hatred that filled her soul clamped down on her and held her steadfastly against the prison that was her fate.
"Xena, I can't lose you again!" Gabrielle cried. Those words
filled Xena's heart as Gabrielle's face loomed before her with love and acceptance. In that moment, she knew that being with Gabrielle was her eternal fate. To her amazement the invisible binds on her again seemed to lessen and with instant clarity she knew she had found the key to her release.
In the glare of the mid-afternoon sun, Nestra kept up a steady pace on horseback along the road that lead away from Athens. After leaving the great city in the late afternoon before, she and Brissea set up camp overnight, well outside the City gates. Since first light, they had been travelling at a steady but leisurely pace. The dark warrior was only too grateful to get away from the troubling events in recent weeks that put her and Brissea smack in the middle of Xena and Callisto's never-ending feud. Frankly, she was quite surprised that they had escaped unharmed although for a moment back there in the barn, she was certain she would have paid the fare for Charon's boat by now. Nestra cast a lingering gaze at her companion of the past four summers. She wasn't one to converse with the gods much, but if she had, she would have thanked each and every one of them for granting her and her lover their lives. She was anxious for things to get back to their regular routine.
Not for the first time since they left Athens, Nestra's recalled the look of genuine remorse on Xena's face when the former warlord admitted to the bloody crimes Nestra witnessed. She was taken aback by Xena's candid disclosure. She had expected a feeble explanation, or justification, or a weak excuse for her actions but instead Xena offered none. What she did was take complete responsibility for her crimes and conveyed a sincere regret. Maybe that little girl was having a transforming effect on her, Nestra mused. In the short time they spent together on their first excursion to Athens, Nestra noticed that whenever the young woman was around, Xena noticeably softened her demeanour. The difference was quite subtle, to be sure, but Nestra noticed and found it curious more than anything else. At the time, she was certain Xena was only using the innocent girl for whatever pleasures that could be had, but now she had her doubts. Maybe Xena really was in the love with the strawberry blonde.
Nestra perked up in the saddle as she spied a lone figure in the distance. It was vaguely familiar and she silently motioned to Brissea. They kept their pace and as they got closer, they recognised the young woman as she strolled along, seemingly oblivious to her surroundings.
"Gabrielle?" Nestra pulled her horse alongside the young woman as Brissea kept back a few paces.
The bard did not respond or break her stride as she studied the scenery before her, however, she did not appear to see anything at all. Nestra quickly looked back at Brissea and shook her head. She dismounted from her horse and Brissea followed suit.
"Gabrielle, where's Xena?" Nestra asked worriedly. Something bad had happened, she knew, she could feel it in her bones.
"I don't know;" Gabrielle replied, her eyes distant and glazed over.
"Where are you going?"
"I don't know." Again the bard responded as if in a complete
hypnotic trance. She continued to walk as she barely acknowledged that she had encountered the two women, let alone recognised them. Nestra didn't like the sound of any of it but she knew that she had to help the innocent girl. She was certain Gabrielle's lonesome appearance had something to do with Callisto and Xena's confrontation. The girl must have been walking all night long, Nestra surmised. Her clothes were dusty from the road, and sweat matted the bangs of her hair. Her cheeks were grimy, her mouth parched and her eyes were void of their usual gregariousness. She put her arm around the young woman's shoulders.
"Nestra, I don't like this," Brissea cautioned, her voice low and scared. She looked around in all directions for a sign of danger lying in wait.
"Yes I know, but we have to help her."
Brissea quickly agreed.
"Gabrielle," Nestra began, "have you been walking all night?"
She stopped the bard in her tracks. Gabrielle twisted away from her and stared up into the bright sunlight. She did not bother to shade her eyes from its brilliance.
"I guess I have," she answered, then started to walk again.
Nestra quickly caught up with her and spun her around.
"Gabrielle, you have to stop." She shook the girl firmly as
she tried to jolt her back to reality. "Gabrielle, you have to get some rest. Have you eaten anything?"
"No, I ha--------," the bard started to say and then collapsed to the ground.
Xena managed to raise her hand to her stomach. She used her formidable powers of concentration to focus solely on her love for Gabrielle. She pictured her smiling face, her animated expressions when she unfolded a story, her emerald eyes when they gleamed with passion, how comforting her arms felt when they wrapped around Xena's waist when they rode Argo together.
Every time a wayward glimpse of Callisto or any other dark
thought entered her mind, Xena would lose ground and become stationary once again. Come on, Xena, she chided herself, think of Gabrielle. Gabrielle, she whispered to the absent bard, I'll be there soon, my love. Again Xena went through a pattern of images of her sweet Gabrielle. After several long moments and with great effort, one finger reached up and snagged a link on the accursed necklace. The warrior yanked it off and the necklace broke in two, releasing Xena from its captive spell. Xena jerked up from the bed and magically, the white gown disappeared, only to be replaced by her armour and weapons. Xena was on her feet instantly and rushed to the doorway. She cocked an ear to listen for the direction that Hephaestus' work room would be.
"Very good, Xena. You surprised me, I thought you would go the other way."
Xena whirled around to greet the person who spoke those words and came face to face with Hades, God of the Underworld.
Gabrielle watched intently as she saw herself make love to Xena. It never failed to stir her loins when she saw how she made her beloved warrior writhe in the throes of heated passion. She stayed rooted to the spot beside the bed, transfixed by the scene that played out before her. Then she and Xena were finished and Gabrielle watched herself get up from the bed and retrieve a golden necklace. The necklace from the marketplace, she remembered. The handiwork of a god, Hephaestus. That's odd, Gabrielle thought, she didn't remember giving Xena the necklace. She watched as she placed the necklace around Xena's neck. To Gabrielle's shock, the warrior fell back as if stricken and the bard heard herself say, "Xena, my sweet, be a good dear and tell Hephy I said hello." Xena's body disappeared and Gabrielle watched with horror as she herself transformed into Xena's arch nemesis, Callisto.
"XENA!" Gabrielle shouted and sat upright, visibly shaken from her terrifying nightmare. She quickly scanned her surroundings and tried to place where she was. Xena was no where to be found.
Nestra and Brissea raced to her side. The bard had been sleeping since they found her on the road the day before. From mid-day to mid-day counted twenty-four candlemarks and now it was a good four candlemarks past that.
"Are you all right?" Brissea asked worriedly.
"Where Xena?!" Gabrielle asked excitedly. Nestra and Brissea
exchanged a look.
"We were hoping you could tell us, Gabrielle," Nestra spoke softly and tried her best not to worry the young girl unnecessarily. "Yesterday, we found you walking along the road."
"Yesterday? I've been sleeping all this time?" She threw off the bedroll and scrambled to her feet.
"Yes, Gabrielle, you need to rest. You had been walking all night from Athens, with no food or water." Nestra tried to put a comforting hand on the bard's shoulder to get her to at least sit back down, but Gabrielle brushed her off.
Brissea picked up where Nestra left off, "You were in a daze and we tried to ask you what happened but you didn't know. Do you know where Xena is?"
"Callisto," the bard said contemptuously as her eyes narrowed with grim determination. "Xena's in trouble. We have to go back to Athens," Gabrielle said. She hurriedly began packing things without waiting for the two warriors to help her.
"We only have a few more candlemarks of daylight left," Brissea warned.
"How did I know we were somehow going to end up heading back to Athens?" Nestra asked rhetorically. "Again." She took in sigh of resignation and shook her head. After a moment's hesitation, she and Brissea helped the bard gather up their belongings.
"What did you mean when you said you thought I would go the other way?" Xena asked. She stood before Hades' throne and gazed upon the flames of Tartarus. The God of the Underworld had offered her a seat at the massive table but she opted to remain standing.
"You chose love, Xena. I undoubtedly expected you to use your hatred against Callisto to escape. It worked wonders for her. She even talked her way out of it but she didn't try anything but hatred as her motivation."
Xena remembered her initial struggle and how hatred weakened her but her love for Gabrielle gave her all the strength she needed.
"Yes, I saw that, Xena. But it was not so long ago that it would have been the opposite for you just as it was for Callisto. I'm sure Aphrodite will be proud of you. And Ares? Well, I'm sure he's crawling out of his skin with rage." Hades allowed a small smile to curl the corner of his mouth.
"What do you want me to do?", Xena asked impatiently. She was anxious to be reunited with her beloved bard.
"Callisto belongs in Tartarus, Xena. Everyone knows that, but capturing her will be a problem. She's a goddess now and possesses all our powers. She's been hiding ever since her triumph over you. I want you to lure her out, to be the bait, if you're up for it. If there's anything I've learned about Callisto, it's that she plays a one note tune with single minded determination. And you're it. In a way, it's quite fascinating, but she must be stopped. So you lure her in and let me do the rest. I have special plans for the wayward goddess."
"Can you do that, Hades? I thought the gods weren't supposed to interfere." Xena was hopeful of seeing the ultimate demise of her hated rival but she was sceptical of the heavy price she would have to pay for Hades' favour. On the other hand, if she wanted to be with Gabrielle ever again, she would risk everything.
"That's only for mortals, but she's not a mortal anymore. She's a goddess now. What did you call her? Oh yes, the Goddess of Evil. What a moniker. But she's not a true goddess, Xena, only a goddess by accident. I seem to remember a certain warrior princess leading her to the ambrosia, do I not?"
"And your point is?" Xena raised an eyebrow. It wasn't like Hades to prattle on and circle around the heart of the matter.
Hades took in a deep breath and sat back in his throne. He pressed his fingertips together and formed a steeple as he guided his index fingers to his pursed lips.
"I want you to help me, Xena, but hear me out first." Hades stood up to face Xena and looked squarely in the stoic warrior's eyes. "Like I said, I want you to lure Callisto out of hiding and distract her long enough so I can do what I have to do." He paused. "But I must caution you, if she kills you, you will end up back with Hephaestus."
"But I thought-----" Xena began, a puzzled look on her face.
Hades shook his head. "You only escaped the necklace's power
but it was because of me that you escaped his domain. I can only give you this opportunity to change your fate, but if you fail, well, you will have to be resigned to the fate Callisto set for you. Of course, if you win, you will be mortal again and a new thread begins."
"Hades, you know I have no choice. I must go back to Gabrielle," Xena said quietly, her heart once again burning from her need to be with the love of her life.
"Go." Hades said simply and waved his arm. Xena vanished from the room.
Hephaestus appeared in the room moments later.
"You let Xena go?!" the God of Fire asked incredulously.
Hades sighed heavily as he grew weary of having to placate his naive nephew.
"Next time, Hephaestus, pick women who don't have such strong wills." And with that, Hades casually dismissed the lame smith-god as he turned around to admire the soothing flames of Tartarus.
Gabrielle rode behind Nestra as they galloped along at a steady pace toward Athens. The three women wanted to gain as much ground as they could before nightfall. They knew they would have to make camp shortly as none of the women wanted to travel in the darkness despite the urgency to rescue Xena.
The bard's stomach churned yet again as she thought of the vicious tricks Callisto must have foisted upon Xena. She was sure her nightmarish vision had actually happened and it was not a part of her unconscious fears. She was constantly bewildered by the capacity Callisto possessed to conjure up such vile and rancorous acts for Xena to endure. Gabrielle was grateful that she herself was incapable of such maliciousness.
"Let's stop here," Gabrielle yelled behind Nestra. The three women dismounted, hastily tethered the horses and set up camp. As the women settled in, the blazing fire became the focal point of the small party as each one was lost deep in her own thoughts. They sat sipping tea made from a few herbs Brissea retrieved from her saddlebag. Gabrielle broke the silence.
"I have to know if it's true what you said about Xena slaying her lover," Gabrielle stated quietly at the fire. There was a quaver in her voice as she wasn't sure she wanted to hear an honest answer. Initially, she had been terrified of Xena and what she was capable of but the more she thought of how much she loved Xena and how much she needed her, the more she would be willing to forgive. However, she refused to do it blindly, she needed to know the truth and she needed to know why.
Nestra glanced quickly in Brissea's direction. Brissea nodded at her lover and confirmed what she knew in her heart was the right thing to do. Nestra knew Gabrielle's statement was directed at her and she concluded that the young woman must have overheard the conversation in the barn. She decided that Gabrielle deserved to know everything and make her decision based on the truth.
"Yes, that's what I saw," Nestra answered, her gaze on the fire.
"There were two women. Were they both her lovers?" Gabrielle asked, this time turning to face Nestra as she searched her light brown eyes for genuine sincerity.
"No," Nestra replied. She relayed the entire story but omitted a few of the more gruesome details. She saw no need to spitefully hurt the girl who she guessed as a bard, had a particularly vivid imagination.
Gabrielle had but one question. "Why?"
"I don't know," Nestra answered quietly.
"How did you find out? Did you overhear us talking in the barn?" Brissea queried.
Gabrielle nodded, too overcome with emotion to speak. Tears brimmed her eyes.
"Gabrielle, listen," Nestra put her arm around the overwrought bard's shoulders. "I never would have thought it possible, but Xena is a changed woman. I don't know what happened that day, but all I know is what I saw the other day in the barn. I saw genuine remorse in her eyes. It was as if she wished she could take back that day and make like it never happened. Let me tell you, I hadn't expected that. All these years, when I thought about confronting her with it, I expected her to justify it somehow, to give herself an excuse, but she didn't. She has truly changed and believe me, I'm shocked."
"Really?" Gabrielle asked. A small smile creased her mouth. It was satisfying for her to hear old combatants of Xena's acknowledge that she had changed from her days as the Warrior Princess. But Nestra wasn't just acknowledging it, the ebony warrior was praising Xena, and that felt extra special to Gabrielle. The burden on her heart began to noticeably lighten.
"Yes, really," she said. "Gabrielle," Nestra added with more force than she intended. A strong hand firmly squeezed the bard's shoulder. "I don't know how you did it, but you've changed Xena, you really have. I see the way her demeanour alters when she's around you. It's subtle, but it's there. Don't let this one thing ruin the love you share with her. You two are as one as we are," Nestra gently patted Brissea's thigh and felt her lover close her hand over her own. "Trust me, that kind of love doesn't happen very often. But Gabrielle, you don't want this thing to come between the two of you, talk to her," Nestra finished.
"I will," Gabrielle smiled. "Thank you."
"Gabrielle," Xena said as she emerged from the dark forest.
All three women leaped to their feet.
"Xena!" Gabrielle exclaimed and raced across the campsite and into the warrior's loving embrace. "Are you all right?" she exclaimed breathlessly as she prodded Xena's body in search of injuries.
"Well, maybe she is and maybe she isn't," a familiar voice taunted. "I already dealt with you one time, Xena. Why don't you just be a good little girl and stay dead, hmm?"
All four women peered into the dark night as Callisto, the Goddess of Evil shimmered into view.
At the distinctive sound of Callisto's voice, Xena and the two warriors simultaneously withdrew their swords. Gabrielle readied her staff. The evil goddess twirled her blade as she prepared for battle.
"Don't tell me you're going to spoil it by bringing your friends into it, Xena?" Callisto scoffed.
"No, I'm selfish that way, I'd thought I'd keep your demise all to myself," Xena deadpanned as she closed the distance between her and Callisto while at the same time, created a larger gap between the goddess and Gabrielle. Without further direction, Nestra and Brissea knew to let the two enemies fight it out. Gabrielle silently watched in excruciating horror as the indomitable Callisto returned to torment Xena yet again.
Glancing at Nestra and Brissea, Callisto sneered, "I see you two finally got your foolish wish to follow the Warrior Princess. So follow her to her death!" And on the last word, Callisto lunged at Xena.
Xena easily defended herself against Callisto's thrust. She whirled around and laterally swiped at the blonde warrior, who easily blocked her. Stroke for stroke and parry for parry, the two evenly skilled warriors forged a blazing heat that was matched only by the fury in their eyes. The cool night air resonated with the echoes of their deadly metallic dance. Xena was the first to show signs of tiring, however, and Callisto, as an immortal goddess, barely worked up a sweat.
"What did Velasca say, hmm?" Callisto jeered in between strikes. "You can't keep this up forever, Xena. I can."
"It won't take forever," Xena repeated the same prediction she gave Velasca, however, the dark warrior knew she was tiring and would soon have to make her move. After a few more swipes and thrusts, whirls and twirls, she knocked Callisto down to one knee and used the momentary lapse to her advantage. She climbed the bark of a nearby tree and somersaulted in a high arc, landing behind her hated rival.
As soon as Callisto spun around, Xena was upon her and clutched at her leathered armour. She shoved her hard against the broadside of a tree and pressed a strong forearm across her windpipe. Their faces were so close, Xena could feel the blonde warrior's breath against her cheek. She wasn't quite sure what she would do with Callisto as she knew mortal death was not an option. Unfortunately, in that moment of hesitation, Callisto wedged an opening that only an immortal goddess could slink through.
"That's right, Xena. You can't kill me, so what will you do with me, hmm?" Callisto's whispered words were meant only for Xena. The dark warrior found herself drawn against her will to the pouting full lips of her nemesis. The blonde goddess' beguiling chestnut eyes made all of Xena's surroundings fade away and she saw nothing save Callisto, who beckoned her and enticed her to join her forever in the Elysian Fields or Tartarus, wherever she wished.
"You can't resist me, my beautiful warrior princess, can you?"
"No," Xena sighed breathlessly.
Xena released her steely vice across Callisto's chest and her
lips parted to accept the goddess' invitation to Paradise. Helplessly, Xena began to drown in a melting pool of fire. She dropped her sword and grasped Callisto's shoulders tightly as she pulled the smaller warrior closer to her. The blonde goddess dropped her sword as well and she deftly removed Xena's protective breastplate. It landed on the ground with a thud.
Gabrielle's eyes hardened when she saw Callisto seize her fearless warrior in an erotic kiss. And with the removal of Xena's armour, Gabrielle was unwillingly led to thoughts she didn't want to imagine. Was there no end to the sickening depravity that Callisto would foist upon the two lovers? she wondered.
"Callisto! Get your perverted hands off of her!" Gabrielle shouted. The blonde warrior withdrew from Xena with a flamboyant smack of her lips.
"I'd say she likes my 'perverted' hands just fine," Callisto grinned as she traced a delicate line along Xena's jaw with one alabaster finger. Xena confirmed Callisto's words as her face tilted up to meet the goddess' caress.
"Can your touch compete with a goddess', hmm?" she taunted Gabrielle. Callisto cast a quick glance at the bard, then resumed her searing kiss with Xena. Without thinking, the bard took a step in their direction.
Inexplicably, Xena spun Callisto around so that her back was against the tree and, as a result, the blonde warrior was exposed to open space. Xena kept her strong muscular arms wrapped around the evil goddess and held her firm, her open mouth never breaking contact.
"Tsk, tsk, tsk, Callisto, you are oh so predictable."
A figure appeared behind Callisto and before he spoke, the
blonde goddess knew the end had finally arrived. In a panic she tried to pull away from Xena but the warrior held her in a lip-locked kiss of death.
Hades clipped Hephaestus' golden medallion around the wayward goddess' neck and her shrieks reverberated in the still night air. Her godlike form twisted and shrunk into a minuscule funnel that was sucked into the eye of the necklace. Then the God of the Underworld tossed the necklace into the air and caught it in a tight fist.
"Well, I guess that's that," Hades announced triumphantly and inhaled a deep sigh of relief. "Thank you, Xena," he said as he extended a hand to Xena, who had fallen to one knee. Gabrielle raced to her side to help her to her feet.
"You took long enough! That was too close for comfort," Xena admitted with a shake of her head. Despite her victory over Callisto, she was still weak and shaken by the goddess' nearly fatal wicked spell.
"What do you mean? I was waiting for you to turn her around," Hades replied in mock indignation.
"Well, I was a little...um... pre-occupied at the time," she retorted. Xena wiped away the sweat on her forehead with the back of her hand and held Gabrielle's waist with the other. "Is that it then? Is she gone for good?" Xena asked. She wanted Hades to confirm what she already knew to be true.
"As long as I rule the Underworld, she is. Don't worry, I have a special place for her. Trust me, Tartarus won't be good enough." And with a deep bow, he thanked Xena once again and disappeared into the darkness.
As soon as Hades vanished, Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's neck and clung to her as the warrior circled the smaller woman's waist. Neither woman said anything for several long moments as they held each other in a tight embrace. Xena spoke first.
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry, I had to---------," Xena began.
"It's okay, Xena, she's gone, that's all that matters," she
said softly as she reached up to reclaim her warrior's lips that only moments before had nearly been doomed to Callisto's fate. Xena fervently returned the kiss as the realisation of how close she came to losing Gabrielle forever sunk in.
"We'll see you in the morning," Nestra said quietly as she and Brissea began to gather up their sleeping gear. They would camp several metres away to allow the two women a private reunion.
Xena reluctantly withdrew from Gabrielle. "Um..... yeah.... first light," she said distractedly, not taking her piercing gaze away from the bard's glimmering eyes. Neither women spoke as they stood transfixed by each other's love.
The warrior slowly leaned into Gabrielle and tenderly brushed her lips with her own. Xena allowed her mouth to convey what simple words could not. They had been through so much recently that she had almost forgotten what it felt like to be home in Gabrielle's embrace. Welcome home, Xena, her entire being seemed to announce. Xena lifted the smaller woman and carried her over to the bedroll and gently rested her on the ground. She laid beside Gabrielle and enveloped her in her arms, not wanting to let go or do anything else.
"Just hold me, Gabrielle," she whispered. And Gabrielle did. For most of the night, they stayed that way until roaming hands rediscovered their amorous pathways. Neither woman slept very much all night.
Hades watched over the warrior woman and her bard until they retreated to their bedroll. Slowly, and with a contented smile on his usually grim face, he turned his attention back to his domain and his cherished Helmet of Invisibility. He lifted the helmet and scrutinised a new jewel recently added to the design originally forged by Hephaestus. There was an unmistakable familiarity to the spherical shape embedded in the metal helmet. Hades grinned at the embossed flames that surrounded an almond shaped eye that glared back at him with furious contempt. Be well, Callisto, he said to the brown eye that glowed brightly, I was right, Tartarus is too good for you. The God of the Underworld gently placed the helmet back on his table and turned to face the flames of Tartarus that never failed to bring him peace.
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