Part 2 of Dark Beauty

Chapter 5

Callisto and Theodorus had been walking for days. They had heard tell that Xena's army was headed due north so they travelled in that general direction not quite knowing what they would find. But the life of following Xena had become quite an adventure and Callisto cherished the fact that Xena had no idea she was being followed which she knew would make her revenge that much sweeter. How to catch her unaware was the biggest question. Xena had many guards not to mention an entire army to protect her. Even so, Callisto knew her own amateur skills were no match. After surviving nearly 19 winters, she knew she was still a mere babe in the woods. She was improving every day with her sword but that round metal weapon Xena carried was lethal and held at least one advantage above all else. She knew of no other warrior who possessed one let alone have expert skills with it. Somehow, she knew, she would find someone, anyone who could teach her.

"Callisto!" Theodorus shouted.

The blonde girl was snapped out of her reverie by the approach

of a large man on a horse. He strutted with the confident air of a man who had found an easy prey. He dismissed Theodorus and lustfully eyed Callisto.

"Hey, little girl, why don't you leave that boy and come travel with a real man?"

A smirk crossed Callisto's face as she eyed the man on horseback. She squinted into the mid-day sun. "Ha! let's see, choices, choices, choices. Hmm. You. A huge and ugly lecherous lout, or my friend here, a boy just barely schooled in the ways and wiles of a woman," she taunted as she imperceptibly readied herself to draw her sword.

Theodorus visibly flinched at Callisto's words. He knew they were being used as a weapon to disarm the much bigger and more experienced man but sometimes Callisto's razor sharp tongue was even too much for him, and he had known her all his life. He was hurt by her implication that he had no chance with her.

The large man's face reddened at Callisto's words even though he had no doubt he could easily dispatch of the boy and have his way with the young nubile girl. He had been on the road a long time and he couldn't remember when was the last time he had pleasured himself with such a succulent flower as this sweet thing. She had a foul mouth and a clear lack of respect to be sure, but he knew that after several rounds of pleasure seeking, he could fix that.

He dismounted from his horse abruptly and quickly knocked Theodorus unconscious with the hilt of his sword before he knew what hit him, then started after the blonde girl. Callisto glanced at her fallen comrade and a feral grin lit up her face. She instantly withdrew her sword and enjoyed the quiet assurance the familiar handle gave her.

"So, I see you want to play rough," she grinned and waved her sword menacingly in his direction. The two of them faced off against each other in defensive combat. Callisto had no doubt she could take the bigger man because she knew that she could use his weight against him. She wasn't surprised by the clumsy dismount from his horse and she'd be damned if she would let this idiot force himself on her.

"I'll make a deal with you," she offered. "There's really no need to force me to do anything." She eyed him warily despite the knowledge that she had his undivided attention.

"OK, what's the deal, little girl?" he asked, amused by her pluck.

"Simple, we fight. If I lose, you do what you want with me. However," she paused, "if you lose, you make a hasty retreat out of here unless you want to meet Hades before your time," she threatened.

The man then made a fatal mistake. He threw his head back and roared with laughter.

"You're going to defeat me with that puny sword of yours?!" he thundered. "You?!?!? A little girl?!?!?!" he roared.

Callisto was taken aback by his reaction, but any sliver of fear she'd felt immediately vanished by the ridicule that reverberated in her head. She did not see a scraggly and lone warrior before her, nor did she hear his jeering laughter as his own. All she heard was Xena laughing at her, Xena and her soldiers. Laughing and laughing and laughing. There was only one thing Callisto could do and before the man realised his error, Callisto had driven her sword deep into his beating heart. No longer would Xena's soldier laugh at her ever again.

The man dropped to his knees. He opened his mouth to speak, his eyes wide with astonishment and anger, so aghast was he that such a young girl would have the audacity to murder him in cold blood.

"Little....girl?....." were the only words that managed to escape his lips before Callisto twisted her sword with a vengeance. Even she herself was stunned by the vehemence with which she'd struck him. It was the first time she'd ever taken a human life and her face glowed with the power that invigorated her. She had often wondered if she would have the courage to actually kill the Warrior Princess and now she knew for certain. She would.

"Tell Hades, it was Callisto who sent you, not Xena!" she spat at the fallen man as she kicked his crumpled body for good measure. But the man didn't hear her, he had already departed for the River Styx.

Behind her, Theodorus groggily got to his feet. He saw the stricken man on the road.

"Callisto! Is he dead?" Theodorus asked in wonderment.

"Yes," Callisto answered calmly. "Let's go." She walked away

in a daze from the bloody scene on the road, not bothering to wait for Theodorus to follow. In a way, she was glad that he lagged behind. She had just crossed over the threshold from blood innocence to the realm of the guilty and she knew it was a place from whence she would never return. Despite her best efforts to control herself, her entire body surged with a carnal lust and she knew that soon she would have to make a private trip to the woods so that she could release the hunger that promised to swallow her whole.

Chapter 6

"Tell me again how she escaped?" Hades bellowed as he sat in his throne, not believing his ears. Hephaestus, master craftsman and God of Fire, peeked around the imposing God of the Underworld and out the window behind him. At the moment, the flames of Tartarus were a much more pleasant distraction. He wanted to look anywhere except into the furious eyes of his uncle.

"Ssshe....," Hephaestus stopped. He was ashamed that he had let Callisto escape his domain. She had easily tricked him and he was even more angry with himself than Hades. But Hades was more powerful than he and maybe his uncle would have pity on him and get Callisto back. He was tired of being alone and considered a lesser god because he was lame. True, his expert metal work earned him a place on Mount Olympus but he was certain that having an immortal beauty like Callisto at his side would enhance his image.

"Look, Hephaestus, I tried to warn you. She has an evil

heart. I've seen it with my own eyes. She was in Tartarus for a

time, you know, and that is where she should go back to----"

"NO!" Hephaestus bellowed. "The Fates brought her to my domain when Xena sealed her in the lava. You can't make her go back to Tartarus now, she's a goddess. She should be with me." He didn't tell his uncle that when Callisto had been at his side, she informed him in no uncertain terms that she would much rather spend an eternity suffering the blazing heat of Tartarus than grant even one candlemark to Hephaestus. But what Callisto wanted right now didn't matter, eventually she would grow to love him. He was certain of it. He had to be. If only his uncle would help him. Hades had helped him once before, he could do it again.

Hades clamped down the rising fury inside him when he thought of how Hephaestus could be so gullible when it came to women. Everyone knew how his former love Aphrodite had played him for a fool. However, Callisto was another matter, Hephaestus was no match for the Goddess of Evil. Their original deal was that Hephaestus would make a golden necklace to capture Callisto under his spell and become his mate until the end of time. Before Hades liberated Callisto from the lava, he placed the medallion around her neck, but somehow the blonde woman managed to remove it and escape the lame God of Fire's domain. Hades surmised she had used her quick-silvered tongue.

"She talked you into removing the necklace, didn't she?" Hades queried. He demanded to know the truth before he proceeded.

Hephaestus only bowed his head and nodded, disconsolate that yet another woman had deceived him.

Hades contemplated his decision. He was sceptical that his naive nephew really knew what was good for him. Hades was certain his new request would only bring him heartache. The God of the Underworld heaved a deep sigh. He even felt pity for the lame smith-god who had forged many wondrous tools and weapons for the gods on Mount Olympus. Surely, that in and of itself was worth something.

"Okay, for now I will allow her to remain among mortals, even though she should be burning in the fires of Tartarus."

"Hades, don't, please," Hephaestus begged.

"Don't worry, for now she will be free, but....."

"But, what?" Hephaestus queried and waited for the inevitable

favour his uncle would demand in return.

"Have you been following Callisto's actions since she escaped?" Hades asked.

"Yes," he replied with resignation. "She's been following Xena again."

"Yes she has, it's quite a remarkable obsession, actually. Callisto is nothing if not tenacious." On some level, Hades even marvelled at the evil woman's single minded determination. He supposed that it was that same single-mindedness that allowed her to break the necklace's spell.

"What about it?"

"She still carries the necklace with her and I have a feeling

she will try to capture Xena with it."

"Hades, what are you saying?" Hephaestus was taken aback by the implication. "If the necklace is placed around Xena's neck.......," his voice trailed off and he broke out into a wide grin when he thought of what a prize Xena would be at his side. Either way, he couldn't lose.

"Exactly, Hephaestus. Xena would be unable to resist just like any other mortal woman. On the other hand, if Xena gets it back around Callisto's neck.....," he paused, "either way, you will have your wish." Hades didn't bother to mention to Hephaestus that if Xena somehow managed to ensnare Callisto with the necklace, he had no intention of letting the woman escape the Underworld again, goddess or not. An excellent solution began to develop in the back of his mind.

 

***************

Nestra awoke from a deep slumber in the hour before dawn. Apollo had yet to peek over the horizon. She and her lover, Brissea, had been riding horseback for three straight days in order to catch up with Xena and Gabrielle, barely stopping to eat or relieve themselves in the woods.

After their midnight chat with Callisto, the newly created Goddess of Evil wouldn't let them rest. Somehow their former friend had managed to first escape from the Underworld not once, not twice, but three incomprehensible times. She had to be a real charmer with the gods, Nestra mused. This time, she came back as an immortal goddess after Xena confined her to the fiery lava. Miraculously, Callisto managed to escape that destiny as well. She had returned with more powers than anyone ever dreamed imaginable. She now enjoyed the natural gifts of a goddess and like all goddesses, possessed the gift of knowing a mortal's thoughts. Nestra didn't want to think about that for very long. Sure, she knew Callisto had crossed over to well beyond the threshold of insanity long ago, but what she didn't want Callisto to know was that she was sure Xena would find a way, any way to defeat her. And Nestra was certain she would prevail. The dark warrior knew she would endure a painful death if Callisto knew she was even thinking such a thought but she couldn't help herself. In her mind, it was the unmistakable truth.

Nestra gazed unseeingly at the open sky as hues of purple and blues began to colour the vast landscape. It would be another hot day but at least much of their time would be occupied with conspiring against Xena and her little companion. She sighed inwardly, again troubled by her part in the shadow dance Callisto had already begun with Xena.

Despite the nagging doubts Nestra had about Callisto's triumph over Xena, she didn't really feel like she had a choice. Many winters ago, Callisto had actually been her friend, however, over the years, her obsession with Xena had deteriorated into a vector from which Callisto could not escape and Nestra had watched with a growing realisation that the blonde warrior would never be free.

When Nestra and Brissea first met Callisto, they were intrigued by her. The blonde warrior told the horrific tale of how Xena had destroyed her entire village and killied her mother and sister in the ensuing fire. Callisto's hardship struck a deep chord within Nestra as she had lost her own mother when she was just past her 13th winter. Even though her mother had accidentally drowned in a river, Nestra always blamed Artemis for allowing it to happen. Artemis, the protector of the Amazons, was supposed to protect. She remembered how her burgeoning hatred eventually turned into a bitter distrust for any god and a disdain for the many rules and rituals assigned to the gods by the Amazons. She couldn't have left the Nation soon enough at the beginning of her 17th summer. She had been lucky that Brissea followed her even though she had yet to survive her 16th winter. The two of them had been inseparable ever since.

Several moons cycles passed before they met Callisto and her budding legion. She remembered with a laugh how Nestra and Brissea had naively admitted to the blonde warrior that they wanted to join Xena's army. At the time it didn't seem as hilarious.

"THEY WANT TO JOIN UP WITH XENA!" Callisto had roared and doubled over with laughter for several minutes as her men, about twenty of them, joined her in loud guffaws. Nestra had been taken aback by Callisto's apparent disrespect for the infamous warrior.

As an Amazon child, Nestra had looked forward to meeting the legendary Warrior Princess for what seemed like her entire life. Xena had been a brave heroine in the eyes of many Amazons, especially during the war against the Centaurs. She was a bit of rebel, too, Nestra noted. She had always wondered why Xena wasn't an Amazon. In her mind, the legendary warrior had the heart and soul of a true Amazon and yet she remained apart from them.

Then one day, her perspective on Xena changed radically and Nestra would never forget the imprint Xena left on her that momentous day. Shortly after Nestra and Brissea banded with Callisto, the blonde warrior recruited Nestra for an intriguing stealth mission. They were to observe Xena's camp at close range, nothing more. After what she saw, however, Nestra never wanted to accompany Callisto on one of her secret excursions ever again.

They silently hid amongst the trees that overlooked Xena's encampment. Callisto had become an expert at stealing past the scouts and found a discreet locale in the dense foliage to watch the activity undetected. Callisto's intention was to gather information on Xena - her strengths, her weaknesses, what Xena ate at each meal, who her lovers were, when she visited the relief tent, and other little details that would fulfil Callisto's promise to destroy the Warrior Princess. At the time, Nestra was just beginning to discover the full scope of Callisto's deadly fixation and frankly, it scared her. But no matter, she would do what Callisto asked.

They had been waiting immobile in the trees for some time, the only comfort was that they were in the shade and thus sheltered from Apollo's beaming rays. Nestra's muscles began to ache and stiffen up in their cramped position. Suddenly, there was movement in the camp below. Xena strode purposefully out of a huge tent. A young woman ran after her shouting, "Please, Xena, don't! it's not her fault!" The woman was crying, her hair and clothes dishevelled as if she had been in a wrestling match and lost. Incongruously, Xena's appearance was pristine. Her flowing black hair cascaded behind her as a breeze gently lifted both her hair and cape away from her muscular frame. In the bright sun, her black leather glowed darkly against her bronze skin, the contrast making the leather seem richer and smoother. The metal swirls of her breast plate reflected off the sun and Nestra's eyes were magnetically drawn to the tiny silver chains that hung from her wrists. The scabbard that protected her sword rested menacingly at her side, its presence an obvious comfort to its owner. She nonchalantly tinkered with a leather greave on her forearm as she confidently sauntered to the middle of the camp grounds. She did not bother to acknowledge the woman's frantic pleas.

Nestra was stunned. Her heart raced inside her chest and a light sweat covered her body. She struggled to control her breathing as the Warrior Princess exuded a majestic power that entranced her beyond anything she had ever dreamed. The calm control of Xena's body belied the murderous rage that shone in her icy blue eyes. They held no emotion save a blazing fury. It was her eyes that made Nestra involuntarily shudder. Inwardly, she laughed at herself for having the naive and preposterous notion that she could have simply walked up to Xena and volunteered to join her army. In that moment, she was certain that if she had been any closer to the raven haired beauty, she would have simply dropped dead from the power of her gaze. If looks could kill....., she thought crazily. Mesmerised by the vision before her, she completely forgot about Callisto and their secret objective and focused her entire being on the irresistible Warrior Princess.

Xena stopped. "Cretus!" she shouted. A man came running out of a tent and Nestra simply assumed it was her first in command.

"What is it?" he questioned.

"Where is she?" Xena asked flatly. She stood with her hands

on her hips, her voice void of all emotion. The woman from the tent had followed her every step of the way but she no longer pleaded with Xena. Loud sobs wracked her body.

Cretus began to open his mouth to speak, then stopped. He nodded an acknowledgement to Xena then jerked his head to another soldier galvanising a pair of soldiers into action. They ran to get the woman in question. Cretus stood silently at Xena's side.

Shortly thereafter, a woman was brought before Xena. She hopelessly struggled against the soldiers that held her arms as they forcefully pushed her in Xena's direction. The fear in her wide eyes was absolute and spoke of a foreboding certain death. Her face was as white as a puffy cloud in the high blue sky. No breath entered her lungs as she seemed frozen in place by Xena's cold piercing eyes. At the sight of the struggling prisoner, the woman beside Xena began shouting and pleading again. Xena didn't flinch and indifferently ignored her.

"Xena! Please! Don't kill her! It was my fault! Please! My fault! My fault!" she babbled. Without concern for her own life, she grabbed hold of Xena's forearm with both hands and tried to hinder the warrior from getting to the restrained woman. This time, Xena stopped and turned. Her eyes met the overwrought woman's as they lidded over in a searing hatred. The woman jerked her hands away and stumbled backwards as if struck by an unseen force. Helplessly, she continued to cry in silence.

Xena slowly turned to the captive woman.

"Just tell me the truth, Maedea. Did you lay down with my

Cela?"

Maedea began to open her mouth and speak but no words came out. Her silence answered Xena's question more than words ever could. Her vocal chords were sealed mute by the overwhelming knowledge that she would soon be a passenger on Charon's boat. Xena confirmed her fear.

In the blink of an eye, Xena deftly reached for her sword and in one swift motion plunged her sword to the hilt through Maedea's heart. After a meaningful grunt, she extracted the dripping blade and pivoted around to face her lover. Before the woman had a chance to register Xena's sudden movement, the warrior swung her blade in a backward arc and sliced a clean gash across Cela's abdomen. Instinctively, Cela's hand reached up in a futile attempt to hold on to her intestines but not before Xena had swiped her abdomen a second time in the opposite direction. Cela collapsed lifelessly to the ground, her hand uselessly clutched at her mutilated stomach. Xena took in a deep breath and stomped back toward her tent as her bloody sword lead the way.

"Get rid of them!" she yelled over her shoulder.

Nestra cried out. Instantly, Callisto clamped her hand over her mouth but it was too late. Xena and her soldiers heard her and looked up in their direction. Quickly the camp was spurred into action to capture the intruders.

Callisto shouted at her to run and Nestra ran blindly through the trees as she followed Callisto's lead. Amazingly, she was glad to be able to run after witnessing the horrifying murders. She was certain that if she had stayed hidden in the trees a moment longer she would have vomited or fainted to the ground below. Running felt good. Running away from Xena. Running away from certain death. Running away from the Warrior Princess. Gratefully, she saw their horses where they left them as she and Callisto escaped the clutches of Xena's army by what must have been a mere stroke of good fortune.

Callisto and Nestra arrived safely back in camp. When the horses stopped, Nestra rolled off her mare and tumbled to the ground. Brissea raced over to help her as Callisto dismounted.

"What happened?" Brissea asked worriedly. She didn't like the pale complexion on Nestra's face. As if on cue, Nestra vomited without warning. Brissea held her and looked over at Callisto questioningly for an answer.

"What happened, damn you?!" Brissea demanded, an edge of fear crept into her voice.

Callisto laughed. "Xena, the Warrior Princess happened! Your role model. The 'true' Amazon. The one you two wanted to join up with. Well, I suspect after what happened today, you won't be volunteering anytime soon."

"Why....why.... did you take me there?" Nestra spat the words out as she struggled to catch her breath. "You knew that would happen, didn't you!" she accused.

"Why I had no idea!" Callisto giggled. "That was just a fortunate coincidence. She showed her true colours, though, didn't she? Red. Like blood. Her lover had no idea Xena would kill her too!" She threw her head back and howled with laughter. She noticed Brissea and Nestra did not join her. She furrowed her brow and frowned.

"I guess it's true what they say. Amazons really don't have a sense of humour, do they?" She sighed.

Nestra was shaken out of her reverie when Brissea opened her eyes and squinted at the sunlight. She looked around the campsite and immediately remembered where they were.

"Is it time to go yet, Nestra?" she asked.

"Yes it is, sweetie," Nestra answered and gave Brissea an open

kiss on the lips. When the kiss ended, Brissea made no attempt to get up from their bedroll. Nestra remained in place as well.

"Nestra, are you as worried as I am?" Brissea frowned. In all their adventures on the road, she had never had such a bad feeling about something. Callisto being a goddess was beyond her mortal comprehension.

"Yes I am, but all we can do is let this thing play itself out. We do what Callisto says and she takes care of Xena. All we can hope for is that it stays between them. We lead Xena to the bait and that's it. I really don't think Callisto will trouble us after that. And besides, we were good friends not too long ago, before Xena killed her and, you know, all this happened."

"I know. Nestra, but when I think about it, it's very scary.

I mean Callisto has all this godly power and she wastes it on Xena."

Brissea shook her head sadly. "I just don't understand it."

Nestra squeezed her lover more tightly and kissed the top of her forehead. "Don't worry, this will soon be over, one way or another," she assured her. She sighed.

"We better get going, we want to catch up to them by mid-day."

"Wait, Nestra." Brissea stopped her from rising to her feet.

"Let's make love before we go," she urged, "in case......, you know." Brissea didn't finish her sentence as Nestra descended upon her lover with a fervour and desperation neither one had ever experienced.

Chapter 7

Xena stretched her long legs and arms upon awaking at first light. She and Gabrielle were both naked and Xena was content to just lie there all day with Gabrielle's soft curves moulded into her own. However, she knew that if they wanted to reach the festival on time, they'd have to get going fairly early. She squeezed Gabrielle one last time before she stood up and went to fetch some wood for their morning fire. They would need to break the night's fast before they began their journey.

When Xena returned from the woods, she ignited a small fire and lovingly stared at the sleeping bard. Her heart swelled with an almost painful joy. She couldn't remember a time in her troubled life when she had been so content and ease with herself. There was something about this gentle woman that brought out the best in Xena. It was a part of her she didn't even know existed until the vibrant young woman entered her life. No one would have believed that she was the same woman who had struck fear in the hearts of so many as the Warrior Princess and Destroyer of Nations just three short summers ago. She knew Gabrielle lead her away from that path time and time again and Xena had no idea why the Fates were gracious enough to cross her dark soul with Gabrielle's bright one. All Xena knew was that there was nothing she wouldn't give to follow Gabrielle wherever she led for the rest of her life.

Gabrielle stirred briefly in her sleep, pushing aside the blanket they'd shared when her smooth thigh escaped its hiding place. Xena grinned mischievously and licked her lips. She had an idea of how she would wake the bard up.

She hovered over the sleeping woman and whispered, "Gabrielle." She ran a strong hand along the younger woman's well-muscled thigh, massaging the taut skin until she found the sparse hair between Gabrielle's legs. The bard didn't stir one bit. Xena wondered how far she could go before Gabrielle awakened and she bent down to taste the fine hairs in between the bard's most private part. Xena's tongue made languid circles in Gabrielle's reddish triangle purposely avoiding the nether lips that she knew were already beginning to swell with arousal. Gabrielle moaned softly in her sleep and this tiny acknowledgement, albeit unconscious, spurred Xena to continue her oral assault voraciously.

"Xena....." Gabrielle moaned.

Xena wasn't quite sure if Gabrielle was fully awake, but no

matter, she wasn't going to deny herself the taste of the young woman's sweet nectar. Her mouth eventually reached the bard's wet centre and she lapped up her essence in sheer amazement. If Gabrielle was this aroused in her sleep------ Xena didn't finish her thought when the bard's hand entwined her fingers into the warrior's dark hair. Gabrielle pulled her closer and urged her on in a quiet desperation. Xena moaned deep in her throat when she knew that Gabrielle was fully conscious. The bard's hips began to move to Xena steady's rhythm. The warrior buried her tongue inside Gabrielle and relished the golden honey that flooded the hot opening.

"Oh Xena!" Gabrielle panted, her body contorted to the expert ministrations of Xena's tongue.

Xena groaned loudly. She never tired of the wondrous pleasure that indulging Gabrielle gave her. Working feverishly, Xena's tongue travelled deftly to the tiny bud in dire need of attention. She smothered it with her mouth as Gabrielle's hips rose off the ground to meet her.

"Oh Xena!" Gabrielle exclaimed again. "Let me.......ah!" Words escaped her as Xena drove two strong fingers inside with frenzied abandon. Her digits matched the beat set by her skilful tongue. She brought Gabrielle to the brink and then let her topple over the edge in a delightful cascade of undeniable ecstasy.

From her perch on a nearby tree, a blonde warrior observed the two lovers with godlike discretion. She silently mimicked the sounds and utterances that escaped the bard's lips. "Oh Xena!" she mouthed in feigned ecstasy. "Oh Xena!" Oh, give me a break! you little brat, Callisto spat out disdainfully. Despite her wish to deny it, she was equally torn between wanting to be Xena's lover and wanting to plunge her massive sword into her heart. But first things first, she thought. Once again she toyed with Hephaestus' necklace as her face broke out into a feral smile. Dear sweet Xena would suffer exquisitely, she vowed.

 

***************

"Xena? Do you think you could wake me up like this every morning?" Gabrielle asked hopefully.

Xena grunted and smiled in spite of herself.

"Your wish is my command, my little Amazon Queen, but I don't

think we'd ever go anywhere if I did."

"Yeah, you're right," Gabrielle laughed.

"Come on, we better get going," Xena urged. Actually, she

didn't want to move from the hollow of Gabrielle's neck but they had already wasted precious candlemarks indulging themselves in the open forest. Xena knew that if they wanted to reach Aulis by the Summer Solstice, they would have to pick up their pace. On the other hand, Xena mused, if they dallied here, Gabrielle would be forced to ride Argo behind her for the entire ride. At any rate, they had to get moving. With great reluctance, the warrior planted a final kiss on Gabrielle's lips. She rose to get dressed and began to gather up their belongings. They quickly finished and began their journey in the direction of Aulis riding one behind the other atop Argo.

Less than a candlemark later, Xena spotted two warrior women on horseback that looked vaguely familiar. She brought Argo to a halt and quickly dismounted. Gabrielle followed her lead.

"Gabrielle, get behind me," she warned. The warrior's hand immediately fingered her chakram and she prepared herself to withdraw her sword. As the women drew closer, Xena recognised the strong dark woman with the long braids and her companion, not much smaller but with pale skin and shoulder length light brown hair. They were the warriors she had nearly killed back in the cave near Athens.

"Xena, aren't they the women from Athens?" Gabrielle whispered anxiously behind her.

"Yes.....just stay close. I don't like this."

The women stopped their horses a fair distance between Xena and themselves, not quite sure if the warrior would hear them out.

"Xena, we have a message for you," Nestra bega as she got straight to the point. "It's from Callisto!" she shouted.

Gabrielle quickly shot a glance at Xena. Both she and Xena knew that Callisto had been trapped in the lava pit alongside Velasca. How could anyone escape that? she wondered.

"Is that right?" Xena asked as she withdrew her sword from its scabbard. She wanted to hear more but she did not trust these two women even for the slightest of moments.

"Xena, we mean you no harm, we are willing to throw down our weapons as a show of good faith." Nestra nervously waited for an answer. The Warrior Princess was the best warrior in the land and could have already taken both of them out within a blink of an eye. But she had no choice except to believe that Xena's little companion would somehow exerted a calming influence on the volatile warrior.

"All right then, throw down your swords. Slowly," she added. With obvious relief, they both complied. "Now dismount and ease away from your horses," Xena ordered. "Careful, now. Any sudden movements and you're both dead," she cautioned. Both women dismounted as instructed.

As soon as the horses were well away from the warriors, Xena propelled herself into an acrobatic flip and landed in front of Nestra and in one swift motion rammed her against the nearest tree. Her eyes blazed in undisguised fury as she pressed her forearm hard against Nestra's windpipe. Gabrielle had her staff trained on Brissea to allow Xena's interrogation.

"Now you know and I know that Callisto's dead! So what's your little game? Do you want me to finish the job I started back in the cave?"

"No! I'm not lying! I swear it!" Nestra shouted, suddenly panicking that Xena would really kill them after all. "Ssshe's really alive! We saw her!" Thinking quickly, Nestra remembered added proof. "She said you were going to Aulis! For the Solstice!" Xena shot a glance at the bard and knew full well that only she and Gabrielle knew of such a thing.

"Let's say I do believe you, and Callisto is alive, what does that evil bitch want?" Xena pushed her forearm harder into Nestra's throat for emphasis. Nestra coughed and gasped through her rapidly closing windpipe. Well, if that isn't the frying pan calling the kettle black, Nestra thought with contempt. After seeing the colourful lives of both women, neither of them had a right to speak of evil. Nonetheless, she kept her perceptive thoughts to herself.

"She's got Isiphae!" she choked.

Gabrielle gasped audibly. This encounter was quickly

deteriorating from bad to worse. A surge of jealous envy passed through her even though she knew the indisputable truth that Xena was hers, and hers alone.

"Where?!" Xena barked.

"Back.....in....Athens," she sputtered. "Xena, let me talk,"

she pleaded. Xena relented. With her skills, she knew these two women could be easily dispatched of, warriors or not. However, before she released the ebony warrior, Xena groped behind her leather garb and withdrew the woman's concealed dagger. She aimed the blade menacingly close to her throat.

"So start talking," she said.

Nestra took a few moments to breathe. "Callisto's holding

Isiphae for ransom until you come to Athens. She says you two have some unfinished business." Gabrielle snorted at that comment.

"How did she come back?" Xena didn't want to tell Nestra the full circumstances of Callisto's demise. She wanted to make sure that her tale had a ring of truth to it.

"I don't know, she only said the gods were kind to her."

Nestra was clearly lying, but Xena saw no need to pursue this further. The fact that the gods brought Callisto back was all she needed to know. She may indeed be an immortal goddess.

"So are you saying she's a goddess now?" Xena queried, still not quite believing this fantastic tale, although many people were still in awe of the fact that she herself had come back from the Underworld.

"Yes! She's definitely a goddess but she walks among us. I don't think they'd ever allow her a place on Mount Olympus." Despite the seriousness of the situation, Xena gave Nestra a half crooked smile. She was absolutely right about that.

"Where is she in Athens? At the Wicked Wing?" Gabrielle's shoulders noticeably flinched at the name of the place where she'd sought out Xena the last time they were in Athens.

"No, she said we should accompany you into the City and when we get there, she'll give us further instructions." Nestra hoped this would be enough to convince Xena to go.

"All right, we're going. Start walking." Xena pushed her forward onto the road. She decided the two warriors would be easier to keep an eye on if they were on foot. Gabrielle and Brissea followed suit.

"What about our horses?" Nestra questioned. "We just can't leave them here."

"You'll stable them in the next village. I'm sure Callisto won't mind. If she's a goddess, like you say, she has all the time in the world." Xena handed Argo's reins to Gabrielle and took hold of the other women's horses. They would leave all three at the next village.

Nestra nodded agreeably and moved down the road. All the while she kept in mind that the most important thing for her and Brissea right now was to stay alive. Their horses were a small price to pay in exchange. She hoped that Xena hadn't detected her small lie, but the warrior hadn't seem to notice. Later, if Xena resorted to using her pinching fingers on her, Nestra had a back up plan all ready as a confession for "the truth". Callisto had at least taught her that much.

Again she wondered how she and Brissea had been ensnared by the deadly dance Xena and Callisto played with each other. She had no idea what Callisto was up to but as far as she was concerned, she and Brissea were there to deliver a message and fulfil a duty. Nothing more. When that was done, she and her lover would depart as fast and as far away from Xena and Callisto that Hermes' winged feet could take them.

 

***************

Just before darkness descended on the land, the four women prepared a campsite. The horses had been left at a village along the way as they continued their journey to Athens on foot. Xena took Nestra with her to hunt for small game as she did not want the two warriors to be left alone with Gabrielle. Of the two women, she decided Nestra was more dangerous. Gabrielle and Brissea remained behind. They tended to the fire and arranged their respective bedrolls.

For a long while, the campsite was filled with an awkward silence, neither woman knew quite what to say. The last time they'd seen each other, Brissea had been an unwilling participant in the kidnapping of Gabrielle by her friend Leica. She avoided Gabrielle's eyes and focused on her immediate tasks. Eventually both women were drawn to the warmth and comfort of the fire. Brissea spoke first.

"So you're really the Queen of the Amazons?"

"How did-----," Gabrielle began but she knew it was no secret, however, she declined to go into further details. "Yes I am," she simply answered.

"We used to be with the Nation," Brissea stated wistfully. For the life of her, she wished she could have been in any other situation than the one she and Nestra were currently mired in.

"You were? What happened?" Gabrielle asked curiously. "Sorry, you don't need to tell me if it's too painful," she quickly added when she saw the look of despair on Brissea's face.

"No, it's not the Amazons," she said. "It's just this." She waved her hand to mean their current predicament. "The Amazons were actually good to me, I have no quarrel with them."

"So why did you leave?"

"Nestra," she answered. "When she left the Amazons, I had to

follow her. She didn't want me to go with her, she said I was too young. But I knew what was in my heart, I had to go with her. She needed someone at her side. She needed me." Brissea allowed a small smile to escape her lips as she thought of her deep love for the ebony warrior.

"You and she are....,um,...an item?" Gabrielle asked. She did not really want to pry but she was intrigued nonetheless.

"Yes, we are as one," Brissea confirmed.

Gabrielle grinned and nodded, "I know how that feels," she

said, clearly thinking of Xena.

"Gabrielle----," Brissea started then stopped.

"What? What is it?"

"Can I ask you a personal question?" Brissea asked

apprehensively.

"Sure," Gabrielle nodded.

"How do you it?"

"Do what?"

"How do keep such control over Xena?"

"Control?" the bard asked, confused by the question. "I don't

have any control over Xena. She makes up her own mind and believe me,

once she does, not even I can't stop her,"

"You stopped her back in that cave," Brissea reminded her, and still trembled at the memory of how close to death she had actually been. Both her and Nestra were as certain as the rising sun that it was the end.

"Look, I'm sorry about that, but Xena really wasn't herself that day. She was just going through a bad time and sometimes she just gets a little crazy when someone threatens to harm me. I'm sorry about what happened to Leica. Really, I liked her. She just caught Xena in a bad moment," Gabrielle said apologetically.

Brissea looked at her incredulously. "You really believe that? That Xena was just going through a bad moment?"

"Yes, she's changed. Really. I know there's been some bad stories about her, but that was a long time ago, she's trying to make up for it now. You should see all the good she's done since then." Gabrielle tried to sound convincing but inside she was desperately trying to rationalise Xena's actions. Sometimes she just couldn't and Leica had been one of those times.

Brissea just shook her head at Gabrielle's naivet´┐Ż. No wonder Xena liked this little slip of a girl. Xena had her spellbound, and she swallowed it - hook, line and sinker.

"Did you and Nestra know Xena before?" Gabrielle asked even though she was afraid of the answer. Clearly, this woman had at least known about Xena in her warlord days.

"Well, not personally, but we've seen some things," she replied vaguely. She did not really want to tell Gabrielle what Nestra had seen Xena do to an unfaithful lover. It would serve no purpose to hurt the girl maliciously. Brissea didn't elaborate further and the bard didn't press her.

They sat and stared into the fire, each of them lost in thought, when they heard Xena and Nestra return to the campsite.

Chapter 8

"What is it?!" Callisto barked without looking up. She and Theodorus were going over maps in her tent. Priameus, her security lieutenant, entered apologetically.

"I'm sorry to interrupt, but there's a woman here that insists on seeing you. She's been banned from the camp but the scouts say she hovers on the perimeter all day long. She's been there for a quarter moon now."

"Yes, yes, yes, now why are you telling me this, Priameus? You know how to handle those kinds of things all by yourself, don't you?" she asked sarcastically.

"I know, but she says she has a gift for you," he said and waited for Callisto to let him go on.

"Let me know when you get to the point," Callisto snapped as she intently examined a particularly fascinating area on the map. "Here, this is an excellent locale," she said to Theodorus, pointing out a spot on the parchment.

"Yeah, the river should cut them off nicely. There will be nowhere to run," he smiled, pleased with himself that he was offering Callisto useful information.

"She says it's a chakram," Priameus interrupted again. He watched both Callisto and Theodorus look up at him for the first time, "and that you would want to know."

"Bring her in," Callisto replied indifferently. She didn't want to let on how excited she was at the prospect if what he said was true.

Priameus exited the tent briefly and returned with a curly blonde headed woman in tow. He half dragged her into the tent ignoring her resistance to being pushed so forcefully. He had no idea how this woman had gained an audience with Callisto despite his best efforts to prevent it.

The woman smoothed out her loose dress and fussed with her long curly locks in an attempt to look more presentable. She straightened herself up and approached Callisto, who leaned back against the front of her desk. The woman bowed her head and said, "Thank you for granting me a few minutes of your time, my Warrior Queen."

Callisto grinned, mildly charmed and intrigued by the subservient respect granted her. "You have something for me?"

"Yes, a chakram."

"Where is it?"

The woman reached behind her and withdrew the round metal

object from a sack. She handed it to Callisto. Callisto examined the chakram, noticing the sharp metal edges and the weighty feel of authenticity. She knew it was not Xena's as there was no pattern or design on it, just a beautiful shiny smoothness that reflected back the power she held in her hand. She saw the weapon as her final piece in her mission to defeat Xena. Her heart swelled with the knowledge that the demise of the Warrior Princess was about to begin.

Theodorus shifted nervously behind Callisto. He recognised the woman, Leica, as one of his former lovers and in fact had been the one to ban her from the encampment. The woman had pestered him obsessively about Callisto, when finally he concluded that the erotic gratification simply wasn't worth it. He already knew he had confided too much about Callisto but Leica was skilfully adept at making him talk much more than he'd ever wanted. He only hoped Callisto wouldn't find out all that he'd said.

"How much do you want for it?" Callisto asked as she knew that everything came with a price.

"There's only one thing I want," Leica said quietly. "Let me help you defeat the Warrior Princess. You've been searching for this weapon for a long time and it should give you the ultimate means to defeat her."

"And how would you know that?" Callisto asked. Only a few people knew of her search for the elusive chakram. She was not one to believe much in oracles, only blabbermouths. She noticed that the woman glanced almost imperceptibly in Theodorus' direction. Callisto turned to face him and he immediately looked away, unable to meet her dark gaze.

"Still unable to control yourself during the heat of passion, Theodorus?" she spat at him.

"Callisto, I.I.I.I...didn't....," he stopped as he knew full well there was no way out of his dilemma. Callisto always knew when he was lying.

Breaking the tension in the air, the woman fell to her knees, clutched Callisto's hand, and smothered it with gentle kisses.

"Please, Callisto, let me ride with you. I want to see Xena die as much as you do." Callisto let the woman continue with her feeble pleas, and actually enjoyed her humble overtures. Occasionally, she indulged herself in a fanciful gift befitting a Warrior Queen. The woman had guts if nothing else. She looked up at Callisto adoringly. "I could be of great service to you," Leica offered.

"Is that right?" Callisto turned to Theodorus who, at the moment, looked like he would rather be in any other tent in the known world. "How good is she, Theodorus?" she sneered. "No, no, never mind, don't answer that. I'm sure you were too busy blabbering to notice." Theodorus' face reddened at Callisto's caustic words. If only things were different, he thought, and he had the courage to tell Callisto that her words hurt him more than a biting whip's lash ever could. Instead he stood there stoically and waited for the verbal onslaught to end.

"Leave us," Callisto ordered. Theodorus gratefully headed for the exit.

"Theodorus!" Callisto snapped and waited for him to turn around. "For now, you're still alive, but don't ever take that for granted." She casually dismissed him from the tent and turned her attention to the kneeling woman.

"Get up," Callisto commanded. The woman rose to her feet. She was several inches taller than Callisto and that excited the blonde warrior even more knowing that she held the taller woman's desires in the palm of her hand.

"What's your name?" Callisto asked.

"Leica."

"Leica, tell me more, do you know how to use the chakram?" she

asked as she withdrew a dagger from her leathers. Leica visibly shuddered not quite sure what Callisto was about to do with the lethal weapon waved menacingly in front of her.

"Nnnno, bbbut I know a man that does, he could train you," Leica stammered. In spite of her fear, there was something alluring, almost ethereal, about Callisto's sensuous movements. Her heart pounded in her chest and her throat constricted in anticipation.

"I see," Callisto said as she reached out and used the blade to slide Leica's dress first over one shoulder and then the other. Leica gasped at the cold metal against her increasingly warm skin. She had been waiting for this day for many moons and never dreamed that Callisto could be so exquisite. Of course, she would have to keep an eye out for the blade but for the moment, Callisto appeared to be content to play. Callisto's dagger inched the sleeves down to uncover her breasts and Leica suppressed an urge once again to fall to her knees.

"So when can this man be in camp?" Callisto questioned, her voice low and seductive.

"Within a....." Leica took a sharp intake of breath as Callisto brushed the cold metal tip against a nipple that instantly stood at attention. Callisto grinned at the reaction she'd caused.

"When can he be here?" Callisto asked again as she turned her attention to Leica's other nipple that ached to be caressed.

"In a day or two," Leica managed to utter. Her entire body was on fire and raged with an intense need for Callisto's touch.

"Good," Callisto said as she pulled away her dagger and returned it to its sheath. "Now you go and find him and bring him back here." She rearranged Leica's dress so that her full breasts were covered up once again. It took a moment for Leica to realise that Callisto was dismissing her. She was at a loss for words, so bewildered was she by Callisto's sudden actions. She was disappointed but swallowed hard to control herself. She wanted so much to please Callisto despite the monstrous lust that the blonde warrior provoked in her.

Callisto turned her back to Leica and began to study the parchment once again.

"Don't come back without him, Leica. In the meantime, I'll hold on to the chakram," she called over her shoulder.

"Yes, my Queen," is all Leica said before leaving the tent.

 

***************

Nearly six lunar cycles passed before Callisto grew tired of Leica's attentions. It had been a long time for her to be with one lover but Callisto was more accustomed to answering to no one. As far as she was concerned, Leica had served her purpose so she had dispatched the woman to embark on a dangerous mission. Leica, so eager to please Callisto, willingly agreed. Her mission was to infiltrate Xena's army and curry the favours of her 2nd lieutenant, Cretus. Callisto had been rather impressed by Leica's seduction of Theodorus and knew that he was not one to easily blurt out secrets, despite the vicious insults she'd hurled at him. He would not have lasted at her side for long if he was.

Callisto was flattered by Leica's determined efforts to claim her heart and on some level, she succeeded. But Callisto's heart was not available to anyone save the Warrior Princess. It was time for Leica to move on. Callisto was certain that the blonde woman would be the perfect spy. All she needed to do was get all the information necessary and report back to her. If she was discovered and killed in the process, well, such was life. She'd simply get someone else to replace her. There was nothing that could stop Callisto now.

For the past several moons, she had been practising with her new-found weapon, the chakram. It became her friend that always came back to her. She was an eager student who practised from sunrise to sunset. In the beginning, she repeatedly cut her hands when catching it but she ignored the pain and concentrated only on becoming an expert with the round metal weapon. The time had come for Xena to meet her Fate and her Fate would be delivered by Callisto.

"Callisto!" Theodorus shouted excitedly as he entered her tent. "It's Leica! She's back!" Callisto was instantly on her feet.

"So soon?" Callisto asked incredulously. "Only a half moon's time has passed! Where is she?!"

Moments later, Leica entered Callisto's tent, apparently dishevelled from a frantic ride on horseback.

"You're not going to believe what happened!" she exclaimed breathlessly.

"What?!" Callisto snapped.

"Darphus took over Xena's army! He's dead now but she stopped

him from killing a baby then he talked the rest of her army into overthrowing her and she ran the gauntlet and somehow sur------" Leica chattered excitedly.

"Leica!" Callisto shouted. "Slow down! Are you telling me Xena doesn't have an army anymore?!" she asked, highly sceptical that she could be the benefactor of such good fortune. If it was true, she knew she'd have to move fast before Xena had time to build a new army.

Leica paused to collect herself. She inhaled several deep breaths before answering.

"Yes! Darphus took over her army and made her run the gauntlet. I guess he didn't think she would survive but she did. Then Hercules killed him," she finished.

"Hercules, that do-gooding weakling?"

"Yes, Hercules, the son of Zeus, but here's the kicker," she

paused for effect even though she already had Callisto's rapt attention. "Xena helped him," she announced dramatically.

"She helped Hercules? I thought she tried to kill him." Callisto quickly summed up the bizarre turn of events in her mind and evaluated their significance.

"She did, but when Darphus turned against her, she joined up with Hercules to defeat him. But get this," Leica boasted, proud that she was the messenger of such fantastically good news for her Warrior Queen, "she says she wants to do good now." Leica joined Callisto in a hearty laugh.

"Oh no, no, no, Xena," Callisto said to the phantom vision of Xena in her mind. "You don't get off that easily. Oh no, no. All you've done is make my little task a lot easier. Don't worry, you will pay for your crimes just the same," she vowed. "Hercules, indeed," she sneered and shook her head.

Turning to Leica, she asked, "Is Cretus in charge of her army now?"

"No, he's dead too and the rest of them disbanded. The first chance I got, I raced back here to tell you."

"Very good work, Leica," Callisto smiled and planted a full mouthed kiss on the woman's lips. She hugged her close and murmured, "Now go freshen up. Come back when you're finished, you know how I'd like you." She took full possession of Leica's mouth with a frenzied hunger that surged through her loins. Oh yes, she thought to herself, this will be a night for a grand celebration.

As soon as Leica left, Callisto clasped her hands together with glee. Very soon, my sweet, she said to Xena. Very soon, we will meet and your life will never be the same, she promised. She busied herself with details of her plan to introduce herself to Xena, which included finding out what was the best poison to incapacitate the great Warrior Princess. And soon after that, she had a special little job for Theodorus.

Chapter 9

Gabrielle browsed through the crowded market in Athens. She was not really paying much attention to the shopkeepers and their wares but she needed to get out of the tavern the four women had secluded themselves in for the past four days. Nestra told them that Callisto would give further instructions once they got to Athens, but Xena was getting more and more impatient and her nerves were frayed beyond reason. It was all Gabrielle could do to not conk her on the head to settle her down. She decided to go for a walk and the busy marketplace was a comfort to her. The market was more boisterous than usual as people were preparing for the upcoming Summer Solstice. She wistfully thought of how nice it would have been to be in Aulis rather than back in Athens waiting for a message from a deluded immortal goddess. Why the gods of Olympus allowed such aberrations was well beyond the bard's mortal understanding.

Gabrielle scanned the merchants' wares, unconsciously keeping one eye open for a Summer Solstice gift for Xena. It was only fair since the warrior gave her the toy lamb for the Winter Solstice. Quite unexpectantly, she spotted a beautiful golden necklace displayed on a table and she was magnetically drawn to it. It would look gorgeous around Xena's neck, she gushed. She picked up the fine craftwork and examined its intricate details. Its weight was much lighter than it appeared and the round gold medallion was embossed with swirling flames that extended out from an open eye. The pupil of the eye was filled with a glittering azure gemstone. Gabrielle succumbed to the hypnotising beauty of the magical necklace.

"You like it?" queried the merchant, who immediately recognised a guaranteed sale if he ever saw one. The entranced look in the bard's eyes told him he could practically charge anything he wanted.

"How much?" Gabrielle asked, not taking her eyes off the dazzling jewellery piece.

"Just fifty dinars," the merchant casually stated.

Gabrielle snapped out of her trance and nearly shouted, "Fifty

dinars?!?!"

The vendor backed off. "Sorry, I was just seeing if you were paying attention," he joked half-heartedly. "Forty dinars."

The bard smirked and narrowed her eyes, doing her best Xena imitation, "Yeah, right. I'm sure you would have taken 50 dinars, no problem. I'll give you twenty." Gabrielle was determined not to pay a dinar over twenty-five. She fingered the jewellery again and enjoyed the smooth and flawless metal that somehow soothed her inside. Once again her eyes were drawn to the piece and she saw the flames shimmer in the bright afternoon sun. She envisioned Xena's naked and sweating body in the throes of passion while the radiant medallion dangled from her neck.

"Thirty five and not a dinar less. You know, they say that piece was made by the smith-god, Hephaestus, himself," the merchant boasted as he tried to tack on added value to the admirable craftwork.

"Thirty five," Gabrielle said distractedly. She no longer cared about the number of dinars it cost, she only knew she had to give this necklace to Xena, her Warrior Princess.

 

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Dark Beauty - Part 3

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