Callisto woke abruptly. She blinked, relieved to have both eyeballs functioning again and shot a quick look around the camp. The fire had burnt down to embers that barely lit the rocks next to them and with a shudder, she swiftly rose and rebuilt it. The light was a comfort to a woman who'd had her fill of caves and caverns, especially after that incident with Hercules left her trapped. She would be so glad when this was over, when she could once more breathe fresh air and see the sun.
She sat cross-legged by the fire and took stock. Her healing ability, bolstered by the food and sleep had done its job, repairing all her wounds and returning her to her normal, keenly alert self. She glanced over at Xena and Gabrielle who slept deeply, wrapped around each other so tightly it was hard to see where the warrior ended and the bard began. She tried to muster up a snort of disgust and only managed a brief stab of envy. An image of Solari's face appeared in her mind though it had never been far away and she wondered what the Amazon was doing.
She was profoundly disturbed at that thought and tried to concentrate on something else. She wondered what time it was. Her internal clock told her it was very early in the morning but there was no way of knowing how accurate it was here in this never-ending night. She supposed she might as well trust it as not.
It had been five days since she had appeared in Xena and Gabrielle's campsite. That left two days to get past the final challenge, find the crystal and intercept Valasqua before she reached Potedeia. She wondered if the bard's little village knew what was approaching.
She looked over as Xena stirred, slowly easing away from the bard and going over to join Callisto by the fire. The warrior, clad in a rather wrinkled linen tunic, found some left over venison in her pack and bit a piece off. She offered the rest to Callisto who shook her head.
"No, don't need it now," the blond said shortly. Paused. "Thank you."
Xena nodded, chewing thoughtfully. "Pretty close yesterday," she said after awhile.
Callisto grinned. "Oh, I wouldn't have died," she said. She thought about it for a moment, then added, surprising both of them with her admission. "Not that it was an advantage in a position like that. It hurt like Hades. Those spikes did a lot of damage. And my body couldn't heal as long as the wounds were being held open."
"It did look pretty painful," Xena offered.
"Immortality isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be," Callisto allowed. She paused. "Which leads me to a question. When we use the crystal on Valasqua, what will you do then?"
Xena looked at her. "What do you mean?"
"She'll be mortal again." Callisto looked at her curiously. "But I don't think she's gonna stop coming after Gabrielle, no matter what. Are you going to kill her?"
"If there is a chance to take her alive," Xena said after long moments of thought. "We hand her over to the Amazons and let them decide her punishment. That's what Gabrielle would want."
"Interesting," Callisto said slowly. "I doubt she's thought that through."
Xena eyed her, finally decided that the woman was being sincere rather than sarcastic. "What do you mean?"
Callisto contemplated the fire. "One of the things ambrosia does is grant the ability to see beyond yourself if you really concentrate," she related slowly, trying to find the words to explain. "In the lava pit, I had little else to do besides concentrate and when I looked beyond myself, I found Valasqua."
"And," Xena prompted.
"Xena, no matter what you think of me, or what you think of all the things I've done, I think you can admit that I had a reason for turning out the way I did," Callisto pointed out.
"All right," Xena accepted that for the moment.
Callisto shook her head. "Valasqua didn't have a reason," she said. "Oh yeah, she lost her mother in the Centaur war, but she had a hundred mothers with the Amazons. Melosa herself raised her and loved her as her own. And how did Valasqua repay her?"
Xena was silent and Callisto poked the fire idly. "Valasqua likes pain, she likes what it does to people, she likes what it makes them do," the blond said evenly. "I may have hurt a lot of people, Xena, but there was always a method to my madness. And I never felt anything when I caused pain. She does. She derives pleasure from it, a lot of pleasure. She's a dangerous person to keep alive."
"Not my decision to make," Xena shrugged after taking that it.
"No, it'll be Gabrielle's," Callisto reminded pointedly since it was clear the warrior princess was not getting her drift at all. "As queen, she will have to hand down the sentence." Callisto looked at Xena knowingly before getting up and picking up her pack. "I'm going to scout ahead."
Leaving Xena to think dark thoughts about something she had not really considered
They found the third and last challenge late that morning. Their first hint was their torches which sputtered and died, plunging them into inky blackness. Wisely they immediately froze, and Xena dug a flint out of her pack. As she feared, the flint was unable to generate the slightest of sparks.
"Now what?" Callisto's unmistakable tones echoed through the cavern.
"Gabrielle, where are you." Xena's first priority was to find the bard. The touch of a small hand on her arm eased her fear.
"Right here, Xena" Gabrielle said. "This is the third challenge isn't it? The test of faith."
"It seems so," the warrior allowed, linking her fingers with the bard's. "Callisto, you mentioned something about ambrosia enhancing the senses. Is that true of your type of immortality, as well?"
There was silence for a moment. "Yeah, my hearing and sense of smell are a lot better than when I was mortal," Callisto offered thoughtfully. "I have better night sight but nothing that can penetrate this."
"Can you still sense the crystal?"
"Good. Gabrielle, give her your staff to check for obstacles," she ordered. "Callisto, lead on. All our faith's in you, now."
A snort of laughter from the blond and a startled sound from the bard greeted this but Gabrielle did as she was asked, accidently smacking Callisto in the arm as she tried to pass her the staff. Xena drew a rope from her pack and working by touch only, she linked them together to make sure they wouldn't lose each other in the blackness. She inadvertently discovered Callisto was ticklish, the immortal giggling as the warrior princess tied the rope around her waist, her knuckles brushing her bared navel.
"Oh, Xena, if I had known what a nice touch you had..." the immortal muttered suggestively.
Gabrielle elbowed her in the ribs. Not accidently.
"Oh sorry, Callisto," the bard offered innocently. "I was trying to find Xena."
"Un huh," came the disbelieving response.
With Callisto leading, Gabrielle second, and Xena bringing up the rear, they started off, going about ten feet before the bard fell flat on her face, tripping over some unknown obstacle on the ground.
"Be careful, there's rubble on the floor," Callisto offered sweetly.
Gabrielle growled and Xena hauled her to her feet. "Will you two behave yourselves?" the warrior scolded impatiently.
The two subsided and they started again, this time with Callisto being quick to inform them of the footing. Time became meaningless in that horror of endless darkness, eyes aching with the strain of searching fruitlessly for the tiniest bit of light, stumbling on rocks and barking shins painfully on stone that even the probing staff could not warn of. Concentration narrowed until all that concerned them was putting one foot in front of the other while keeping enough slack in the rope to keep from being cruelly tugged along yet staying far enough back to keep from trodding on the one in front. The staff warned them when the flooring ended but it became a nightmare of carefully feeling their way along the edge, imaginations filling in much more horrible details than truth as images of spiked pits and bottomless holes filled all their minds as they worked their way around and ever onward.
When they completed the challenge of faith, it was without fanfare or celebration, just the ruby light that stabbed viciously from the crystal sitting on the altar in the center of the cavern they staggered into. Tears streaked the grime on their faces as they blinked, trying to focus in the dim light that nonetheless seemed unbelievably bright after their recent ordeal. It took several minutes before their eyes adjusted and they could see their prize.
"Oh, Xena," Gabrielle breathed as Xena let out an oath.
Callisto shook her head, hands on her hips as she glared at their prize.
"What in Hades are we supposed to do with that?"
The crystal was a ruby square that took up a good portion of the large dias, looming over the three women who stood staring at it in disbelief. It stood three times the height of a large man and was twice again as wide. It sides were polished and buffed while it's color was that of fresh spilt blood. It had to weigh as much as a small mountain.
"Oh, I bet Artemis is laughin' her ass off right now," Callisto said bitterly.
Wearily Xena untied the rope from around her waist before freeing the bard. Callisto, in a display of aggravation had severed the bond with her dagger, the swipe of the blade relieving very little of her pique. Gabrielle sat down on a boulder and just stared at the gigantic gem.
"I don't understand," she said in bewilderment. "How can we use this? We can't even move it."
Xena looked at Callisto. "Are you sure Artemis said to use the crystal on Valasqua?" she asked, trying to keep the frustration from her voice. "And not lure Valasqua here?"
"She said that once we had secured the crystal, it would transport us to where Valasqua is," Callisto responded flatly. She glanced at Xena and made and after-you motion. "Go secure the crystal, oh Warrior Princess."
Xena rolled her eyes and together, the two leather clad warriors moved closer until they were within arm's length. Looking up put an ache in their necks.
"I don't believe this," Callisto said and reached out, placing her hand flat against the side. She jerked her hand back immediately. "Ouch."
Disbelievingly she stared at her hand, lacerated as if by a razor in a series of closely spaced parallel cuts. Blood flowed freely to drip to the floor. Stunned, she could only look at it. Xena grabbed her wrist and drew her away.
"Gabrielle, get some cloth from the pack," she instructed. "And get a torch lit."
The bard had already complied by the time the two warriors had joined her, jamming the torch into some rocks and laying the cloth out. Xena sat the shaken Callisto down on the rock Gabrielle had vacated and examined the wound.
"Why am I bleeding?" the blond said through gritted teeth. "Did that thing take my immortality?"
"I don't think so," Xena said, tilting the palm to catch the light. "I think there's something holding open the wounds." She drew out her breast dagger and held it in the torch to sterilize it. When it was glowing hot, she held it out and Gabrielle squirted it with water from one of the skins, cooling it off. Holding Callisto's arm steady, Xena gently probed one of the wounds with the tip of her blade and with a flick, sent something to fall tinkling onto the ground. The wound, free of the obstruction, immediately ceased to bleed, closing up without leaving so much as a mark.
Callisto jerked and slapped the warrior stingingly on the arm.
"Ow," she complained.
"Do that again and I'll give you something to complain about," Xena warned.
Gingerly, Gabrielle bent down and picked up the two-inch long shard of crystal that was completely transparent, using the cloth to protect her fingers from the keen edge. She held it up, the glow of the torch glinting off it. She could see it only because of Callisto's blood staining it.
"I thought you wanted me to secure the crystal," Xena said with a crooked grin.
"Funny," Callisto responded in a tone that indicated it was not at all. "Just take out the rest, will you."
Working steadily, Xena removed four more splinters from the immortal's hand, Gabrielle catching them in the square of cloth. Callisto flexed her hand, wincing and shaking it a bit when the warrior had finished.
"Did I get them all?" Xena asked, noting the wince.
Callisto nodded. "Yeah, but they burned, like acid," she said. "It's just going away now."
"What do we do with them?" Gabrielle asked as they examined the shards, visible only where the immortal's blood made them so.
"I think they'd make really good arrow heads," Callisto offered with a grin.
"My thought exactly," Xena said, nodding.
Neither of them were known as archers but both Xena and Callisto had trained with and mastered the bow. They hoped to make some proper arrows from materials in their packs. Gabrielle saved them the trouble, finding five short shafts on the altar, already notched and feathered. None of them were surprised when the crystal splinters fit perfectly and shortly, they had five arrows set and ready.
"No bow," Callisto pointed out.
Gabrielle popped up from behind the altar, bearing a large, ornate bow in her hands. "Look what I found," she said.
"Anything else?" Xena asked, raising an eyebrow as she flexed the string experimentally. It was with unspoken agreement that she would wield the bow while Callisto engaged Valasqua. She put the arrows carefully in a makeshift quiver she had attached to her back.
"I think that about covers it," Callisto said.
"Now we should give thanks to Artemis for her help," Gabrielle said. She dug out some jewelry she had picked up on her last shopping trip, laying a broach reverently on the altar. It was silver and shaped like a leaping stag.
Xena looked stoic as Callisto rolled her eyes. "If you ask me, if it weren't for Artemis we wouldn't have to be going through this in the first place," the immortal said. "She oughta be giving thanks to us."
Gabrielle ignored her as she knelt and briefly offered her prayer of thanks to the Goddess of the Hunt. There was a pause, then a glow surrounded the broach and it disappeared, indicating the offering was accepted.
Callisto leaned over in an aside to Xena. "I think they just like free stuff," she said.
Privately the warrior agreed but she would not say so out loud. Gabrielle did not share her disrespect for the gods and Xena would not presume to try to rattle the bard's faith in any way. There was a swirl of light and a form appeared on the altar before the kneeling bard. Both Xena and Callisto's hands drifted to the hilts resting over their shoulders, pausing as they finally recognized the slender female dressed in green.
"Oh, Honored Artemis..." Gabrielle began but was stopped by the upraised hand.
"There is no time," the goddess said, waving her hand to create an opening within the crystal. "Go quickly. Valasqua has already begun her attack."
Before they realized it, the three women were being pushed through the opening, falling and rolling onto the grassy turf as the sun streamed brightly about them. The air was alive with screams and yells and the pounding of hooves and the roar of fire. Greasy smoke darkened the sky as the woman scrambled to their feet.
Disoriented, Gabrielle peered at the village under attack by the horse borne raiders.
"This isn't Potedeia," she exclaimed then blanched with horror as Callisto screamed beside her, the immortal's face twisted as she stared at the burning huts before her.
The Amazon village burned as Valasqua's army descended upon them.
Callisto was running for the village, drawing her sword but as fast as she'd moved, Xena was faster, three feet in front of her, her sword also out. They hit the first wave of fighters, sliding through them with ease, leaving the corpses to fall unnoticed before taking the next group. Gabrielle, bringing up the rear, knew enough to leave the fighting to the warriors. Not that she couldn't wield a mean staff, she could and did when anyone got too close, but her position was defensive and she was well aware of it.
The Amazons who had organized a spirited defense, noted the presence of their queen and the two new warriors joining them and they quickly took the offensive, knowing the tide had suddenly turned somewhat in their favor. They knew they could not defeat Valasqua who was gleefully blowing up the structures they had just finished rebuilding after her last visit, but no pathetic band of men were going to beat them, particularly in their own turf. With the arrival of Xena and Callisto, they could leave the godling to them and concentrate solely on the rag tag army Valasqua had assembled.
Callisto raced into the center square in time to see the small form of her sister dart into a hut. Behind her, Solari cut down two raiders before following the child in. Two seconds later, the slender form of Valasqua standing on the queen's dias at the end of the center square, blew the hut into an expanding ball of flame.
Xena saw it too, and as she battled four raiders, she watched out of the corner of her eye as the blond stopped dead, staring at the demolished hut, sword dropping from nerveless fingers. Heart aching, the warrior princess sliced across her opponents and took an abortive step towards the immortal. She stopped as a line of fire appeared around her.
"Why Xena, so glad you could join me in time to see my glorious victory," Valasqua said, voice dripping with poison as she duly noticed the warrior's arrival. "I do hope you brought Gabrielle with you. It will save me having to track her down."
Xena split her attention between the godling and Callisto who turned towards them then. Xena had never seen such eyes. It was as if all the horror of the world had settled within the slender blond and Xena knew in that moment, there would be no going back for Callisto this time. The humanity Callisto had found in the last few months was gone, ripped away as if it had never existed and a greater darkness claimed her soul, far beyond that which had held it before. The only two who might have reached through it had been in that hut which had collapsed in a heap of flame and sparks.
Callisto screamed them, a terrible cry of agony and lose. Instantly she was moving towards Valasqua and only then did the godling become aware of her. A faint frown crossed her face as if she were trying to place the blond, then it twisted in pleasure as she raised a hand, pointing it at Callisto.
Moving calmly but quickly, Xena pulled the bow from her shoulder and drew her first arrow, drawing it back smoothly and aiming at the godling. Gently she released her fingers, the arrow streaking through the air just as Valasqua let loose her bolt of lightning which caught Callisto full in the chest, flinging her across the square. The godling let out a scream as the arrow struck her in the thigh. Disbelievingly she yanked the arrow out and stared at the blunted tip with confusion. The wound in her thigh continued to bleed and Valasqua tossed the shaft aside and glared at Xena with milk-white eyes.
Xena grimaced. So the other four weren't spares, she thought as she leaped out of the ring of fire and flipped through the air to avoid the lightning that crashed into where she had been standing a split second before. She landed and rolled, coming up with another arrow already notched. She fired and was moving once more, not stopping to see if it reached it's target.
Judging from the scream and temporary break in the explosions, she had a pretty good idea it had and she dared another glance as she pelted across the square. Valasqua was removing the second arrow from her right shoulder and that wound too, continued to bleed. It must be driving the rouge Amazon crazy that it seemed like Xena was scoring with untipped arrow shafts. How long had it been since she'd last felt pain?
Then Callisto was up and moving again, leaping on the godling with a scream, stabbing wildly at her with her dagger, infuriated at how little damage she was inflicting. Xena had her third arrow draw but was unable to fire, no clear shot open to her without the risk of hitting Callisto.
Patiently she waited and finally Valasqua managed to throw the immortal off her, slamming her to the ground. The third arrow took the Amazon high in the chest and this time, it did more than wound. The white in her eyes flickered, turned brown, returned to white. The bolt tossed at the warrior princess was weak, fizzling across ground like ball lightning. Xena actually could leap over it and did so, dodging behind an overturned wagon. She leaped up, the fourth arrow ready and once more she had to wait as Callisto beat on the chestnut haired woman, this time scoring bloody damage on the weakened godling.
The immortal actually drove Valasqua to the ground, slamming her head on the rocks over and over again. Xena dared to run closer, standing above the pair.
"Callisto, get out of the way," she screamed.
Callisto did not even look up. Knowing she was going to regret it, Xena kicked the immortal aside and shot the fourth arrow into the stunned godling. The blast of lightning and an infuriated immortal hit her at the same time. The lightning was weak, only giving her a mild buzz, the last shot as white eyes turn permanently to human and the Goddess of Chaos became a mere mortal once more. The backhand from Callisto was not, sending the warrior princess careening across the common, blood streaming from her split lip and nose.
Well, she knew she would regret it and she did, she thought dizzily as she staggered to her feet. She groped for the last arrow, shocked as she was unable to find it. She looked around anxiously and found it lying on the ground about ten feet away. She made a step for it, ducked a swing from a raider who immediately died under the sword of Ephiny who had appeared from mopping up the front and dived for it, scooping it up.
She notched it and stood up, drawing the bow. Callisto held the semi-conscious woman up with one hand, a dagger in the other. Grinning her maniacal grin, she brought it up to draw it across the Amazon's throat and suddenly Xena knew what the fifth arrow was for. Who the fifth arrow was for.
Callisto turned and looked at her, no recognition in those brown orbs, nor any sense of sanity. Xena closed her eyes as she released the arrow.
Which buried itself in Callisto's heart.
An eerie silence fell over the square as the two former godlings fell to the ground. Ephiny took a step towards Xena, then, after a look at the warrior's face, changed her mind and motioned two of the guard to take Valasqua. With the last of the ambrosia purged from her system, the rogue was merely a mortal woman, one who had made herself an enemy of the Amazon nation. Any followers she may have had at one time had long ago disassociated themselves from her. The two guards were not gentle as they hauled the battered brunette to her feet and dragged her off.
Gabrielle came running out of where she had spent most of the battle, fighting occasionally but mostly helping the wounded and injured get to safety. She skidded to a stop beside the warrior and threw her arms around her. Xena hugged her back, dropping the shattered bow to the ground. It had snapped as she let the last arrow fly, its purpose done. Her eyes never left the crumpled form on the ground.
Gently she pushed the bard away and she walked towards Callisto, waving away two Amazons who had been about to pick her up.
"I'll do that," she said roughly as she knelt beside the sprawled body, looking down at the woman who seemed so small as she lay on the cold ground, the wild blond hair brittle across the elven face peaceful for the first time in six years. Gently Xena brushed the hair back. She had made this monster. Watched as the monster had somehow retrieved a little bit of humanity back only to see it slip away once more. And finally she had to finish the job she started so long ago in Cirra.
"Oh, Callisto," she whispered. "I am so..so sorry."
She was vaguely aware of Gabrielle behind her, of the warm hands resting on her shoulders, of the bard crying the tears that she could not. She drew a soft fingertip down the cold cheek.
Where will you end up, Enemy Mine? Will Hades be glad to see you? A wry smile touched her lips. I suspect not. Were the three acts of protecting a bard enough to make up for the evil you did? If there is justice, it was and perhaps you will end up in the Elysian Fields. And perhaps you shall find Cassiope and Solari waiting there for you.
A small form crawled out from beneath the rubble and came barreling across the square. Xena's heart went cold in her chest as the ten year old kid threw herself on the inert body, evading the bard who attempted to stop her, to prevent her from seeing her sister.
"C'mon, Calli, wake up," she screamed, tears streaming down her face. "I'll be good, I promise. Please don't go away. Please don't go away again."
She grabbed the shaft protruding from the woman's chest, yanking it out and throwing it as far as she could. It landed at the feet of a scorched yet basically unharmed woman who's face was gaunt as she looked down at the body in the square. Solari had chased Cassiope into the hut and grabbed her, the pair leaping through the window on the other side just as Valasqua blew it up. The explosion had thrown them some distance, the Amazon doing her best to protect the child, the debris covering them. It took some time for them to dig their way out.
To find this.
Cassiope buried her face in her sister's chest, sobbing hysterically. Her heart breaking, Xena carefully reached out to pick the child up, freezing in stunned disbelief as Callisto's hand twitched, then raised weakly to touch the child's head.
"Cassi?" the voice was a croak, a mere shadow of the acerbic tones that normally came from the woman.
Xena was unceremoniously shoved aside by Solari who knelt beside Callisto. Shaking, the Amazon reached out to touch the ashen cheek, the dark eyes wet with tears as they looked down at the blond who looked back in bewilderment.
"We thought you were dead," Solari said, swallowing hard.
"I..what happened?" Callisto responded and winced. "I thought Valasqua killed you...." She tried to sit up and with her sister's help, was able to. She looked around dazedly at the demolished village. "Help me up."
Carefully they helped her to her feet and still staggering a little, one arm about Cassiope's shoulders, the other around Solari's waist, she moved them over to where Xena stood next to the bard, watching with a wealth of emotions warring on her strong features.
"I remember now," Callisto said weakly. "You shot me."
And she promptly kicked the warrior princess in the shin.
Xena slowly pulled on her leather tunic, mended and cleaned by an Amazon earlier that day. Her armor had also been polished to a deep shine. She carefully attached her chakram to her hip and slipped her sword over her back. With a frown, she checked her boots, the black leather oiled and looking far better than they had for some time.
Well, she thought, have to look my best for Valasqua's trial.
She shook her head, sighing. She knew in her heart that the verdict was a forgone conclusion. Even Valasqua offered no defense, as aware of Amazon law as anyone.
But she also knew that Gabrielle would not bring down the sentence everyone was demanding. There was absolutely no way the gentle bard would sentence Valasqua to death. It went against everything she believed in. Yet Xena could see no way that Gabrielle could justify allowing the Amazon to live, not satisfactory. It could very easily end up costing the bard any status with the Amazons at all.
She wished that as soon as the battle had ended, she had swept Gabrielle up and rode off on Argo, the horse having easily made its way back to the village long before her rider had. But she had promised the bard that they would stay here a while.
Not that they had spent any time together. Between helping in the cleanup and the demands put upon the redhead by the ruling council, they only saw each other in passing. Gabrielle was even sleeping up at the dormitory, part of which had been designated as the temporary palace, her duties keeping her up so late that she didn't bother making her way back to the hut she normally shared with Xena.
Xena could have joined her there, of course, but the dormitory was just that, many beds in a common room, Amazons living in each other's pockets. She couldn't stand that. She hated being around people as it was. Of course, after today's trial, it might all be moot. Xena left the hut, exiting into the bright sunshine. She should have let Callisto kill Valasqua, she mused. Before she shot her.
That led her thoughts to her former nemesis and she glanced over at the hut where Callisto had been recuperating under the tender ministrations of Solari and Cassiope. Solari was just leaving and the brunette gave her a brief nod. There had always been respect between them but now there was also Callisto between them. Xena had hurt the woman she loved and no matter that Cirra had happened long before she knew her, no matter that Callisto had achieved a sort of peace since, Solari still felt angry at Xena for bringing pain to Callisto. Both knew it wasn't quite rational but then, love rarely was. Xena accepted that.
"Callisto would like to see you," the Amazon said shortly. "I'm on my way to the trial."
Xena nodded. "I'll stop by now and be along shortly," she said, and altered her course to enter the hut.
Inside, Callisto was lying on the bed, listening as Cassiope told her the proper way to wield a staff. The child looked up as the warrior entered. The two had come to a sort of understanding, mostly due to the little girl's fascination with Argo and she no longer tried to kick the warrior in her knee whenever the opportunity presented. Neither did Callisto.
"Cassi, go find Eponin," Callisto urged, patting the child on the back. "And don't forget anything so you can tell me it all later." Obligingly, the child scooted out the door and left the two warriors to contemplate each other.
"How are you feeling?" Xena asked, finding a chair and, flipping around, straddling it.
Callisto shrugged. "My chest still hurts, it's hard to breathe sometimes," she said. "I'm sore all over. I'd forgotten how it feels to be mortal." She flashed that demented smile, half little girl, half demon. "Better than Tartarus though."
Xena nodded. She hesitated. "I...I'm sorry I shot you," she said slowly. They had not really discussed it; in fact, this was the first time they had been alone together.
Callisto shrugged again. "You did what you thought you had to," Callisto said, dismissing it without interest. Again the smile. "Compared to the quicksand...."
Xena narrowed her eyes, grinning thinly. There had been so much hatred and bloodshed between them, it was hard to believe that they had actually gotten to a place where they could sit and discuss things like this so casually. Or even half joke about it.
Callisto grew serious. "You know there's a problem here," she offered.
"Gabrielle's sentence," Xena said flatly.
The blond nodded. "Solari tells me that if the sentence is not death, there will be an outcry for Gabrielle to be removed," she said carefully. "There's no way around it. Too many want Valasqua's head."
"So it will come to that," Xena said softly. "I had hoped that.....The only way to remove the Rite of Caste now that she's queen is for her to be challenged. It's a combat to the death."
Callisto shifted as she found herself a more comfortable position. "You're her champion," she said knowingly, Solari having filled her in on the history of the Amazons. "Outside of myself, Xena, no one here stands a chance against you. And I won't be fighting, even if I were able. I'm not on the Council. So it will be Ephiny or Eponin.....or Solari. And you'll kill whoever it is." Eyes bore into the warrior princess. "You know if it's Solari..." Her voice trailed off without finishing the thought.
"I know," Xena said, bowing her head. She sighed and rested her chin on her arms crossed on the back of the chair. "I don't want to kill anyone here. These women are my friends, Gabrielle and I find sanctuary here. But Gabrielle.....she won't sentence someone to death."
"Not even if it means somebody else dies? An Amazon she likes....or you by some fluke? Or her if she accepts the challenge herself?" Callisto was honestly curious. "She won't kill, but she'll let somebody else in her name?"
The chair back which Xena had been gripping suddenly went with a snap. Neither woman took notice, keeping their eyes on each other. Callisto smiled suddenly.
"There was a time when seeing you and the bard in such a no-win position would have been tremendously entertaining to me," she said. She shook her head ruefully. "I guess I have changed. All I feel is bad that I can't offer some kind of solution."
"I don't think there is one," Xena said, face bleak. "Not without Gabrielle being destroyed. She either has Valasqua killed by her order, or someone else will die for her choosing not to. She would gladly die in a challenge but....I won't let her do that."
Xena thought her head was going to explode. Her only hope had been that the Amazons would let the sentence pass. Callisto's words had dashed that. And it had been a faint hope at best. The punishment for the crimes Valasqua committed was death. That was the law, a law set down for centuries. Even Valasqua accepted it in her own way and was resigned to it. For Gabrielle to set it aside meant the Amazons had no choice but to remove her as queen. If Gabrielle were still only a princess....well, the Rite of Caste could be given up to the queen. That was no longer an option, one lost the day Valasqua had killed Melosa and became......
Valasqua had been queen.....Gabrielle had vacated the role when she hopped on the coffin being dragged by Autolycus....Valasqua had taken back her crown and the majority had followed her......Gabrielle took it back when Valasqua died....except, of course, she hadn't.....
Callisto had been watching the warrior princess face closely. She smiled. "Oh, I know you, Xena," she said in gleeful anticipation. "You have an idea."
Xena allowed a return smile. "I don't have it completely worked out," she said. "But I think maybe...just maybe there is a way out here. And Gabrielle doesn't have to kill anyone." She abruptly stood up. "I have to go."
"Wait," Callisto said, struggling to slide her legs over the side of the bed. "Take me with you. I don't want to miss this." She reached for a tunic hanging on the hook.
Xena hesitated, anxious to leave but keenly aware of the note of pleading in the blond's tone. It was impossible for her to disregard that and with a resigned sigh, she helped Callisto on with the tunic. She was however, too impatient to wait for the blond to make her ginger way to the center square where the trial was being held and she swept the slender woman up in her arms, ignoring her embarrassed objections, carrying her out the door and out into the sunshine.
Eponin raised a surprised eyebrow when Xena deposited the outraged Callisto on a seat beside her and Cassiope but the warrior didn't stay long enough to listen. Instead she immediately started making her way through the crowd in search of Gabrielle. She found her with Ephiny, Solari and a few others of the council, all of whom were pale at what would take place this day, but none more so than the bard.
Gabrielle was in full Amazon regalia, the royal mask pushed back on the top of her head in preparation for donning it for the trial. The staff in her hand was not her normal weapon, but an ornately carved bar of wood fit for a queen.
Xena drew her away briefly, heart breaking as she looked into the strained face, the green eyes dark and shadowed. The bard took a deep breath, putting her hand on the warrior's arm.
"It's okay, Xena," she said calmly. "I accepted the rite and the responsibilities that go with it. If the verdict is guilty....I will bring down the sentence I must." Only the white knuckles of the terrible grip Gabrielle had on the warrior's leather bracer displayed how much this was tearing her up inside.
Xena shook her head, smiling as she drew a finger down the bard's cheek. Quickly she offered her idea to Gabrielle who listened intently, frowning occasionally, then nodding with more and more enthusiasm though there was one last sticking point.
"She'll still die," she pointed out.
"But she'll die as a warrior," Xena said intently. "And you are giving her that chance, Gabrielle. That's more than she deserves, but it will be her choice. And that takes it out of your hands."
Gabrielle was doubtful. "I don't know," she said slowly. "I feel like a coward...."
"No," Xena spoke sharply. "You are not a coward, Gabrielle. You have more courage than anyone I know. You always do what's right. And this....this is right."
"But what if you..." Gabrielle began worriedly.
Xena allowed a bit of arrogance to show through. "That will never happen, Gabrielle," she said confidently.
The trial went as expected and it was time for the sentencing. The Amazon, Valasqua, stood between her two guards, bound and smiling contemptuously at the bard as she was brought to stand before her. There was dead silence in the square as the entire tribe waited for their queen's words.
Gabrielle stood proud on the dias, the mask pulled down over to obscure her face which most knew would be exceptionally somber. She thumped the staff three times as was required, then her words echoed through the square.
"Valasqua, know that you have been judged guilty of crimes against the Amazon nation. The penalty for such crimes is death by the blade, with your body thrown to the scavengers, forever denied the Amazon funeral of a warrior." A pause, and en mass, unconsciously, everyone leaned forward. "But I cannot sentence you to death."
An uproar, the confused babble of voices which were loudly and forcefully hushed by the royal guards who did not appear happy about it. Gabrielle reached up and removed the mask, tucking it under her arm as she stared in Valasqua's smirking face. She waited until there was relative quiet once more.
"The reason I cannot," Gabrielle said, and her voice reached every corner of the square. "Is because I am not rightfully the queen. When I chose to follow Autolycus and Xena's body, I abdicated. You asked who would follow you and the majority affirmed your claim to the throne, accepting my abdication. The royal mask was given back to me only upon your death. Since clearly, you did not die, that means you never stopped being queen. The queen of the Amazons can only be challenged. She may never be sentenced. Cut her free." Shocked but moving automatically at the command, the royal guard did just that, cutting the bonds of the confused Valasqua and stepping away from her.
There was a stunned silence that swept over the crowd like a physical blow as the Amazons tried to work their way around this new bit of information. Only one person in the crowd immediately saw where this was going and Callisto laughed appreciatively, leaning over to the still puzzled Eponin.
"Not much wonder I never beat her," she chortled into the brunette's ear. "Xena knows all the angles."
Up on the dias, Gabrielle handed the mask over to Valasqua who took it without thinking, clearly still floored by what was happening. "But know this, Valasqua," the bard continued and the crowd listened avidly. "I now challenge for your rule. It shall go here in this square at dawn tomorrow. Do you accept this challenge, or do you choose the Ritual of the Cliffs?"
At that moment, as per ritual, Xena stepped forward, allowing the Amazon to know exactly what the challenge entailed. "I fight as her champion," the dark warrior said with a feral grin.
If Valasqua refused the challenge, she would be escorted to the top of the cliffs and be expected to take her own life by flinging herself off. But her body would be recovered and granted a full royal funeral as befitted the queen. Provided she accepted that option. Of course, there was not one woman there who believed Valasqua even gave it a fleeting thought.
"I accept your challenge, warrior," Valasqua said, the ritual words oozing hatred. She looked back at the bard who watched her warily. "And when I win?" she asked, stepping outside the ritual for a moment.
"I will challenge again the next day," Gabrielle said quietly. "Without a champion." She ignored the sharp look Xena shot her way.
Valasqua threw her head back and laughed. "I thank you for the incentive, Gabrielle," she said with pleasure. She caught Ephiny's eye who nodded coldly.
"And if you still live," the curly blond Amazon said flatly. "I challenge the next day."
"Then I, the next," Solari added in her even tones.
Valasqua looked around, knowing every Amazon on the dias felt the same, that even if she somehow managed to kill Xena, the challenges would never cease until either she, or the entire Amazon nation lay dead.
And that was just fine with her.
Gabrielle sat quietly at the head of the bed watching as Xena removed her armor, then her leathers. The bard had her legs bent before her, arms wrapped around her knees. Her eyes were dark in the flicker of the lamp light, the coppery hair seeming an even deeper red in the flame. She had removed the Amazonian garb and was now in a linen tunic that was a couple of sizes too large for her. She looked like a little girl, the warrior princess thought as she carefully placed her weapons next to the bed and drew on a light robe.
"Are you angry with me?" the bard asked softly.
Xena raised an eyebrow, honestly surprised. "No, why would I be angry?" she asked as she sat on the foot of the bed, tucking one leg up under her as she faced the smaller woman.
"For challenging Valasqua without a champion," Gabrielle offered. "I saw your look."
Xena shrugged. "It's not going to happen so why worry about it," she replied, then paused, looking at the bard. "I was a little surprised you thought you needed to," she added after a bit.
Gabrielle sighed. "She asked me," she said. "I know it won't happen either." She looked at her feet intently, digging her toes into the sheets. "You're so...remote tonight," she said finally. "I thought you were mad at me."
Xena shook her head, leaning forward to rest her hand on the bard's knee. "I'm not mad, Gabrielle," she explained. "I've just been thinking."
"About?" Gabrielle raised her eyes to meet hers.
Xena took a deep breath, slow to gather her thoughts. "A lot changed for you when you accepted the queen's mask," she said. "We been going about our own way, avoiding it. But there's going to come a time when they won't be content to let you wander all over the countryside. You will have to be more than a queen in name only and some hard decisions will have to be made. You were prepared to make one today and I saw what it cost you inside."
"You don't think I can do it?" Gabrielle's voice was even but her face was shaded with hurt.
"Of course you can, and will," Xena said, glad to see the features clear at her words. "No matter how much it hurts you. You will always do the right thing for the Amazons. You will be a great leader. When you decide to finally lead them for real. Or when they decide it's time."
"You think they're going to ask me to stay?" Gabrielle asked.
"I don't know," Xena said. "They might. Sooner or later, they will."
"Are you asking me what I'll do then?"
"I know what you'll do," Xena said, eyes steady on hers. "You accepted the responsibility and you would never shirk it. The question is, what will you ask me to do?"
Gabrielle rested her chin on her knees and regarded the older woman. "I would ask you to stay with me," she said evenly.
"And if I told you that I couldn't?" Xena asked shortly.
"Then I guess I.." here, the bard's voice faltered a bit. "I guess I would have to let you go." The large green eyes welled up, but the tears did not fall.
Xena nodded and moved closer, putting her hands on her shoulders. "If you ask me, I will stay," she said huskily. "If I can. But if I can't, it won't be because I don't love you. I just want you to understand that there may be demands on me I cannot ignore either. And I will always, always come back to you. Where ever you are."
Gabrielle nodded. "I understand what you're saying," she said slowly. "I guess we have been avoiding it, haven't we?" She shook her head briefly. "We make a difference, don't we? To so many lives. But then, those lives sort of become our responsibility."
"Everything has consequences," Xena agreed. "Not just the bad, but the good as well."
Gabrielle slid her hands up the warrior's arms, feeling the corded muscle through the thin cloth. "Just as long as the consequences of loving you," she said, scooting closer, "is you loving me."
"Forever," Xena smiled as she pulled the bard close to her. Carefully she bent her head and kissed the woman, sliding her hands down Gabrielle's sides, then to her legs, stroking the flesh gently. Slowly she slipped them under the nightshirt and back up over the hips, fingers dancing over the ribs lightly.
Gabrielle smiled when they parted. "Hmm, are you trying to have your way with me?" she asked, grasping the warrior's wrists through the cloth and holding them still.
"Are you objecting?" Xena asked with a raised brow.
"Nooo," Gabrielle said slowly, a mischievous glint in her eyes. "Not exactly."
"Ahh, you want something special," the warrior said knowingly. "And just what is it you wish, my queen?" Her eyes widened appreciatively as the bard whispered in her ear. "Hmm, I think I can manage that. After all, I have many skills."
"I know," Gabrielle said. "That's why I asked." She frowned. "But...I don't want you to be too tired for tomorrow."
"Gabrielle, this renews me," the warrior said seriously. "You renew me. Just being with you makes me strong in ways I've never been before."
She leaned forward and kissed the redhead once more, gently slipping her tongue into the bard's mouth, running over the edged teeth before meeting the warm flesh within. She reached under the nightshirt and gently cupped the bard's breasts, rubbing her thumbs over the nipples, feeling them stiffen. Gabrielle moaned into her mouth and pulled back, pulling off her tunic in one quick motion, tossing to the side. Then she was tugging at Xena's, demanding it be gone as well. Grinning, Xena doffed the linen shirt and reached for the bard once more, the pair of them sinking onto the bed, wrapped in each other's arms.
"Do you know how much I love you, my warrior?" Gabrielle murmured against the full lips that curved up as they heard the words.
"I know," Xena responded, pulling her close to her as they kissed for what seemed forever, leisurely taking the time to explore each other thoroughly.
Finally, the warrior rolled over on her back, carrying the bard over on top of her.
The bard smiled and sat up, straddling the strong hips, knees on either side of Xena's waist, her buttocks tickled by the warrior's soft triangle of hair as she rested her weight on her heels. She lay her hands on the top of the muscled stomach and looked at Xena expectantly.
The warrior slid her sword-calloused hands along the bard's inner thighs, stroking the smooth skin slick with readiness, slipping ever upward until they found their goal. Her deep blue eyes gleamed in the lamplight as she watched the bard lazily give herself totally over to the warrior's fingers which gently stroked the wetness. Gabrielle kept her eyes locked on hers, her green eyes intent with an almost hypnotic quality.
The warrior loved this as much as Gabrielle did, the bard surrendering to her caresses as she looked up to see her every response, spread open to whatever her hands chose to do, lost in the sensations that flooded her body in wave after wave. With her free hand, Xena reached up to fondle the small breasts, rolling the nipple between thumb and forefinger, purring as the bard arched back, groaning. She slipped two fingers into the hot wetness, thrusting in a slow, easy rhythm as her thumb flicked the nub hard with desire. With steady motion, Xena built the bard's pleasure, the hips rocking against her belly and Gabrielle whimpered, her breathing harsh in the night.
"Xena..." she moaned. "Please.."
And the warrior increased her pressure until with a final cry, Gabrielle spasmed and fell forward, caught by a strong arm that pulled her tight against the larger body even as the long slender fingers continued to move gently, drawing out the last of the pulsations before slowly withdrawing and sliding around the smooth back.
"Xena," Gabrielle muttered, sated and safe within the strong arms.
"You're hopeless," the warrior rumbled fondly.
"No, I'm helpless," she returned happily. "You make me so."
"Mmm," Xena agreed, hugging her tightly, only to loosen her grip a moment later as the bard raised up and began to kiss her way down the lengthy body. With a smile, Xena relaxed and let her bard return the favor, giving herself up totally to Gabrielle's ministrations.
And discovered she could be rendered rather hopelessly helpless as well.
Xena stood in the center square motionless, balanced on the balls of her feet, her sword held easily in her right hand. Her chakram was with Gabrielle, who held it for her until the challenge's end. She didn't need it. She had battled Valasqua in Gabrielle's body while dangling over the fire and spikes. Even in the lighter, less powerful form, she had defeated her. When Valasqua was a godling, Xena had crossed swords with her, and only the woman's ambrosia-induced power had kept the warrior princess from cutting her down. The Amazon would not have the ambrosia protecting her this time. The outcome of this challenge was a foregone conclusion. She knew it. Gabrielle and the rest of the ruling council on the queen's dias at the end of the square knew it. The Amazons stacked four deep as they surrounded the square knew it. Callisto, settled comfortably on a bench between Solari and Cassiope, their backs resting against the stone wall of the well, knew it.
Valasqua knew it.
Xena could see it in her eyes. And that made her dangerous. The animal cornered always came up with the surprises. Nor could Xena forget that this woman had defeated Melosa, a formidable fighter that Xena herself had battled. So she did have skill. And more than one warrior's last battle came as a result of overconfidence.
Xena readjusted her grip and smiled ferally at the Amazon who faced her. The woman was stripped down to a loin cloth and nothing else, choosing speed over protection. And hopefully a psychological advantage. It made Xena, dressed in her full armor, look like a bully. Of course, it was wasted on the warrior princess. Xena didn't care what she looked like.
This woman had threatened Gabrielle, had tried to kill the bard on more than one occasion. For that alone, Xena was determined to kill her. The information about the sort of woman she was which Callisto had passed onto her was just a bonus.
Xena looked at her and knew that Valasqua was deliberately provoking her. Standing there, sword lowered, looking as helpless as possible. She was trying to goad the warrior princess into casting aside her sword, to make the fight more honorable. Though what Valasqua knew about honor was debatable indeed. Still, it was kind of intriguing. Xena was never adverse to a challenge now and again.
With a contemptuous smile, she tossed aside her sword, eliciting a few gasps from the crowd, knowing by the sudden glee in Valasqua's eyes that she had guessed right. With an oath, Valasqua instantly brought her sword up and struck at the unarmed warrior.
Which Xena had also anticipated and she countered with one of her very favorite moves, catching the blade between her palms, and twisting it out of the Amazon's hands, flipping it up in the air before catching it in her right hand. She widened her eyes in look-what-I-got expression and grinned widely at the Amazon, twirling the weapon by her ear. She made a few playful feints before tossing it aside.
Callisto snorted. "What a showoff," she scoffed.
Xena was circling the Amazon warily now. The time for play was over and it was now time to finish this. Valasqua's face was flushed red with fury, realizing that her ploy had not worked and that she had been humiliated to boot. Though both were unarmed, Xena was clearly the more powerful of the two, having both a height and weight advantage. Valasqua's only chance was to get in one killing shot. And she would have but one chance at it.
Xena was well aware of this. This fight would not go on for very long. Both were too skilled for them to engage in anything less than fatal blows. And with Xena's armor covering her chest with layered leather over her abdomen, most of her vital organs were protected. That left only her head vulnerable, the bridge of her nose, the temple. But they made for very small targets.
So Xena was surprised when Valasqua went for the warrior's leg, a quick lunge that attempted to smash her kneecap, trying to cripple her. Xena barely managed to take it on her leg instead, letting it snap the femur which would heal clean rather than the knee which would always be a problem. She fell to the dirt and caught the follow up blow that would have crushed her temple. It had been a good move but Xena was equal to it even on her knees, strong hands catching the slender Amazon's ankle and diverting it past her head which left Valasqua wide open for the sharp, vicious blow to her abdomen, driving the air and a good portion of her internal organs out of place. As Valasqua bent forward, blood gushing from her mouth and nose, Xena finished her, grasping her head in vise like hands and twisting sharply. The Amazon's neck snapped and the warrior dropped the corpse onto the ground where, with a few final convulsions, the once goddess of chaos was no more.
More tired than she cared to admit, Xena looked down at her vanquished foe with a combination of sorrow and triumph...sorrow at another life senselessly wasted, triumph that this particular monster would never threaten her Gabrielle again.
Her Gabrielle who had now rushed over and was hugging her tightly as she demanded a stretcher be brought.
"I don't need a stretcher," Xena grumbled as she tried to get to her feet.
"Don't argue with me," Gabrielle snapped with uncharacteristic anger and surprised, Xena fell back, raising an eyebrow at the Queen of the Amazons who was very much in command here.
Bemused, she lay still as the Amazons lifted her to a stretcher. She caught Callisto's eye who returned her grin. "That was pathetic, Xena," she informed her. "I could have done a better, quicker, cleaner job even now."
"Well, next time, we'll get you to do it," Xena replied evenly, with a glint in her eyes.
Solari wrapped her arm around the blond. "I don't think so. There's no more need for her to ever have to fight again. She just has to concentrate on getting better," the Amazon said warningly at Xena who eyed her with amusement even as Callisto stared at her lover with open astonishment. Then the stretcher was picked up and Xena was being borne off to the healer's hut where no doubt she would hear similar comments only in greater detail, from the bard.
Behind her, other women gathered up their former leader and carried her off to the hut where her body would be prepared for a royal funeral. In death, if not in life, Valasqua would be recognized as a rightful queen of the Amazons.
The whole world seemed to have stopped in that moment before dawn, when everything was still and silent as those that prowled the night found themselves places to hide while those which thrived under the day's aegis had not yet began to stir. There was no breeze to rustle leaves, no sound of insects breaking that dawn hush as the first glimmers of light began to tint the eastern horizon.
Gabrielle leaned sleepily against Argo's side. They had spent the last six weeks here in the village while Xena's amazing recuperative powers healed her broken femur and Gabrielle had a chance to have the warrior all to herself for a change. Though she knew it was time to go, the bard would miss their time here. And their friends...including, much to her surprise...Callisto and Solari. The two couples had spent a lot of time together as both warrior's regained their strength.
This leave taking was much different than the previous one. Only Eponin, Cassiope, Ephiny, Solari and Callisto were there to see the two off. Argo snorted in the cool morning air, her breath ruffling the dark hair of the warrior princess who was clasping arms with Ephiny.
"Take good care of our queen," Ephiny insisted.
"I always do," Xena replied, and stepped aside as Gabrielle and the Amazon embraced. She clasped arms with Eponin and Solari, then looked down at Cassiope.
"Take care of your sister," she informed the child solemnly. "She has a habit of getting into trouble."
"I will," Cassiope responded gravely.
Xena looked up to meet the dark eyes of her long time enemy.
"What will you do when all the monsters are gone?" Callisto asked with a gentle smile.
"Find myself an Amazon and settle down," Xena returned the smile.
"I hope I'm the Amazon you're referring to," Gabrielle said at that moment, joining them. She reached out and touched Callisto on the arm. "Take care of yourself, Callisto. I think I'm actually going to miss you."
Callisto grinned her demented grin. "You've been out in the sun too long, bard," she said.
"Maybe," Gabrielle allowed and before Callisto could stop her, the bard stepped forward and embraced the startled blond.
Awkwardly, Callisto endured it, patting her on the back a little for lack of anything else to do. Xena laughed and recaptured the bard in a strong arm about her waist as the bard stepped backward. "Time to go," she said, and in one easy motion, lifted the bard into the saddle before springing up behind her. She and Callisto shared a half grin and nod, then she reined Argo around and the pair rode out of the village.
The Amazons dispersed, Cassiope dashing off towards the practice fields as Eponin followed at a much more sedate pace. Callisto was left standing alone, looking after the mounted horse until it disappeared in the distance.
"Look after yourself, Enemy Mine," she said softly.
Then she turned and headed towards the hut where the slender form of Solari stood waiting in the doorway. Towards a new life where Callisto was no longer the sole survivor of Cirra.
Well, this is the last story in this series. Callisto isn't near as interesting when she's sane and happy as she is when she's demented and after Xena. But it was fun writing this and I'm glad that in at least one aspect of the Xenaverse fan fic, Callisto found love and a family. Hope you all enjoyed reading it.
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