Disclaimers: Let's see...Xena, Gabrielle, Callisto, Argo and any others popping up here, belong to MCA/Universal/Renaissance, but I'm letting them camp out in the courtyard right now since we have some good weather. (My apartment is too small for all of them and besides, Argo snores and Gabrielle isn't housebroken. Hmm...is that supposed to be the other way around?) So, since they are here I'm going to shamelessly use them for my own pleasure (getcha minds outta da gutta!). This story is for non-profit, of course.
Subtext~Fine. I give up. *sigh* I keep waffling back and forth as to whether to make this an altfic story. I started out wanting it to be completely genfic, but when Xena and Gabrielle were together in Rome, I slipped it in and its grown (almost like a virus. *L*) until I have to now warn everyone that this story does indeed have subtext/main text. It still doesnt mean that Ill do a sex scene, but you never know. *G* I think its funny though that this story has been indexed as both alt and gen at different sites on the net. I did the job I planned on and wrote a story that is plot orientated, not sex driven. (Nothing wrong with that. Some of my favorite stories have great sex scenes and a wonderful plot.) I just cant write this story any more without putting the subtext in it here and there. It just writes itself in.
Warning~ This isn't a bright and cheery story people, so don't expect roses and sunshine yet.
Attention~ "Passage Into Darkness" is the second book in a trilogy called Sword of War. "A Crown of Laurel" was the first book and Ill end this trilogy with "Chains of Love" after this part. This story takes place after Gabrielles Hope and before The Debt. "The Rift" has barely begun (even though in "real" time were far past it now) and the only consequence it has on their relationship is the events that happened in Britannia. I really suggest that if you havent read any part of this story yet, you start by reading A Crown of Laurel.
Attention Altfans!!!!There is an alternative, and I do mean alternative, version to the scene just before this part starts. Its the final scene of part five and it includes most of the scene but the end changes and continues on. If you are interested in reading it go to: http://members.tripod.com/~Fruit_2/fiction/passage5a.html
Passage Into Darkness
Speak fair to him that hates thee, till he falls in thy hand at last,
Then linger not for reasons, but pay him for the past.
Theognis of Megara
Aphrodite stumbled as she entered her bedroom, weary and sore from her encounter with Artemis.
"Mmmrrpphhh," she grumbled wordlessly as she gingerly rubbed her jaw. Sometimes being a goddess was a good deal, but then there were days when being a mortal and living in some backwater village seemed like the nearest thing to Elysia.
Shed actually given up the love business once and tried to find a new niche for herself. In fact, shed even toyed with taking Artemis spot, but Aphrodite found that traipsing around the forest after smelly little creatures and stepping in Zeus knows what wasnt her idea of an upwardly mobile career change and was extremely boring to boot. So after trying out Athenas gig, and even taking up her big brother Hercules mantle for a day, shed gone back to being the Goddess of Love. The position still had its ups and downs, but until now, the occupational hazards had always been minor. Now they were painful.
Too bad I had to wake up this morning. I would have missed all the fun.
Aphrodite was hobbling across the room when Hephaestus appeared next to her, his face showing his delight in seeing his wife so soon again. But the sight of Aphrodite, disheveled and hurt, made his happy face fall. "What happened? Has Callisto been bothering you again?"
"I met the wrong end of my sister's temper," she replied with a wry grimace and pulled an errant lock of hair back from her dirty face.
"Athena?" he asked in disbelief. It was highly unusual for the Goddess of Wisdom to get violent, but not unheard of. She was, after all, also a goddess known for warfare.
Blonde locks shook. "No. It was Artemis."
"Artemis?" Hephaestus growled, his coal black eyes flashing with anger as he reached out and pulled his wife into his arms. "She hit you? Are you sure?" Looking her over, he winced at the huge bruise on her face, which was only now beginning to fade. Other injuries, all minor, were barely apparent through the ruined, translucent robe that hung off the Goddess of Loves voluptuous frame.
"Yes, Im sure. Her fist connecting with my face is a very clear memory. I deserved it though...kind of." Aphrodite disengaged herself from her husband's grip and wearily rubbed her temples. "I'm going to take a long...very long, hot bath and when I finally get out, I'm going to crawl into bed and take a nap. And I'm not going to get out of it, even if Daddy calls."
"All right, Dite." He paused, uncertain how to help. The God of Fire had never seen his wife this depressed and it made him definitely feel inadequate. "Do you still want me to work on the...?"
Aphrodite interrupted him as she turned away, walking toward the bathing room while waving a hand dismissively in the air. "Go ahead. Perhaps I'll find a use for it. It might make a kinky wedding gift."
Hephaestus sadly watched as she closed the door behind her, effectively hiding away from everything, including him. With a long drawn out sigh, the god disappeared and went back to his forge.
Xena opened her eyes, the glare of the sun blinding her for a moment. When the spots cleared from her eyes, she scanned her surroundings, or rather tried to. Her mind felt heavy and she found it extremely hard to concentrate.
The first thing that registered in her mind was the bodies.
Men. Women. Children.
Mutilated almost beyond recognition, the corpses littered the field she was standing in. Blood was so abundant that the ground could no longer drink up the crimson fluid.
The warrior looked at the ground almost in a hypnotic state of mind. Her eyes took in the blood lapping at the tops of her booted feet, but her brain was still too cloudy to completely understand what it all meant.
She turned her attention to her hands and saw blood covering them as well, running down in thick rivulets from the sword that she wielded. Xena lifted the blade up before her and stared at it as if shed never seen one before.
After several long moments of gaping at the weapon, a vague memory of fiery blonde hair and emerald green eyes asserted itself in her mind.
Gabrielle? Xena thought to herself silently, barely able to bring her thoughts together. A flash of the bard falling back away from her outstretched hand and disappearing into a white fog rose up in her mind. It was a clear memory and the shock of it inside of her brought her mind more into focus. Gabrielle? Falling?
Uncertain ice blue eyes traveled from the blood stained sword to what could only be a battlefield of innocent dead. Her eyebrows furrowed as she scowled. Was she responsible for this carnage? Surely notbut still, the evidence was daunting. With the blood still fresh and warm on her hands and no living being around, except for herself, it was hard to refute.
And then there was that memory of Gabrielle...of her...
Xena shook her head violently, trying to dispel the wisps of fog in her mind.
Abruptly, a gout of flame erupted before her, forcing her to step back instinctively from the heat.
A beautiful blonde woman in black leather armor, carrying a sword on her back and another at her hip, stepped out of the flames and stood before her.
The warrior looked at her, trying to place her in her mind. Something felt very familiar with this woman, but somehow Xena knew the two werent friends. It was just so hard to think clearly!
Callisto placed her hands on her hips and looked Xena over carefully. Apparently, she approved of what she saw, for her light brown eyes were almost glowing with glee. "Well, well, well. What have we here?" The blonde goddess leisurely walked around the dark warrior, completely ignoring the gore she splashed through. "I knew it! I just knew you were still in here somewhere. And lucky me...I found you." She clapped her hands together like a child with a new present as she completed her circle and stood before Xena again.
Xena blinked at the blonde woman, trying to understand the sudden jumble of images and feelings that whirled around so chaotically in her brain. Then a name rose up out of the confusion and she tried to speak it. She found it difficult though, for it was almost as if she was like a child trying to say its first word.
The goddess eyes widened in surprise for a moment, then she tilted her head slightly and gave Xena an appraising look. "Having a hard time remembering things, are we? Or is it that youre just confused? Poor dear. Let me fill you in on what's happening. Your name is Xena," she pointed at the warrior, then herself, "and Im Callisto. Were the best of friends." She paused and tapped her chin with a slim finger. "Well, maybe not friends...more like the best of enemies, perhaps. Im a goddess...your goddess actually, and I've gotten control over your...hmm...how should I put this? Your dark side? That most delicious part of you? The Xena I remember as a child? The terror that destroyed my village and killed my family? You roasted them, just like you would a chicken."
Callisto smiled ferally and chuckled, enjoying the array of emotions that she could see Xena going through. What need did she have to imbibe wine or ale, when this sweet taste of revenge was the most intoxicating of elixirs? "And youre stuck here unable to do a thing about it."
Her words were indeed bringing back the warriors memories, but she was still having a difficult time separating them and comprehending what they meant. The only constant she was able to center herself on was the image of Gabrielle in her mind.
"Anyway, you and I are getting along just perfectly at the moment. In fact, just a few days from now, well be arriving in Amphipolis and we plan on finishing where I left off the last time I was there." A long, slim hand reached out and slapped Xena sharply to get her attention. Then, cupping the warriors cheek, she brought her face down towards her own, until their lips were just inches away from each other. "Pay attention, Xena. I dont have much time and I want to have as much fun as I can before I have to get back to your other half. Cant leave you alone for long...youre just too entertaining," Callisto smirked.
Xena found the strength to wrest her jaw out of the goddess grasp and take several steps back. Blue eyes flashing hotly, she looked at the goddess with growing ire. As each moment passed, her mind was mind was becoming clearer and she could sense a great dislike for this woman who stood before her. She shuddered as several memories flashed in her mind.
A shining ring of bright metal flying through the air, only to be snatched in mid-flight as a village burns and innocents died in the background.
A man, lying on the ground, eyes lifelessly staring up at the sky, as Gabrielle cried over him.
Gabrielle standing before her with a sword raised, anger pouring from her as much as tears.
Hands disappearing into a pit of quicksand.
Argo lying on the ground, her sides heaving in agony.
A large arena, filled with spectators watching gods battle to the death.
Blood spilling over the sand as a shrill voice screamed in pleasure and War is claimed.
Two mazes of shadows and death. One, an underground city, the other in her mind.
"Callisto," she whispered, the words almost a growl. Her thoughts came into sharp focus, and she remembered everything; although, Xena was still perplexed as to where she was and what Callisto meant when she said her darker side was under the goddess control.
"Gabrielle?" Xena asked, more to herself than to Callisto.
"Yes, your little bard. Are you starting to remember, Xena?" Callisto cooed evilly. "Do you remember going insane and pushing her over the edge of the cliff. I didnt get a chance to see her land, but Im sure she made quite an impact."
"Kill? Gabrielle? Never!" she hissed adamantly. Xena knew in her heart, her soul that shed never harm a hair on the feisty blonde bard who had walked alongside her for the past few years. The woman meant more to her than her own life and shed willingly give it, if it meant keeping her alive. Gabrielle was...important...no...
The bard meant everything to her. Everything. And there was just no way that shed hurt her.
Again the vision of Gabrielle falling away from her, over the edge of what looked like a cliff, came to her. Xena trembled involuntarily, unable to keep the uncertainty and guilt of that memory from seeping up and grabbing a hold of her mind. It just couldnt be possible? Could it? If only her recollection of that moment wasnt so hazy!
Callisto watched as Xenas face contorted first in disbelief and indignation, then into horror and guilt.
"Ahhh...I can see that you do remember. Tell me, Xena, did you enjoy it. I mean...we all know Gabrielle was a pest and Id have given anything to do her myself, but how did it feel to shove her over the side and watch her plummet to her death. Hmm?"
"Bitch!" Xena bared her teeth and raised her sword to attack, but when she tried to take a step forward, she found her legs were immobilized.
"Yes, I suppose I am, but thats beside the point, dear," Callisto snickered.
Looking down, she saw, to her horror that she was beginning to sink into the bloody mire. Bits of flesh swam in the thick mess that pulled at her legs. She strained for a moment, but couldnt free herself. It was when she began to see several bodies, faces contorted in horrible expression, coming to the surface, then going under again, that her struggles became more desperate.
"I really wish you could see yourself right now...your other self that is. Youve really fulfilled all my expectations...or most of them at least. Its been such a pleasure," the goddess purred knowingly. "You neednt worry, Xena, after you've run rampant over the countryside I'll let you come out and play again. Meanwhile, just think of poor little Gabrielle, all flat and squishy. Food for the worms." Callisto giggled.
"Is this some trick of yours?" she demanded, trying to reach the edge of the pit.
Callistos lips parted in a bemused smile as she watched Xena struggle to keep from sinking. "Funny thing about the Dreamscape. We create our nightmares from the fears and guilt that eat away at our soul. Remember what I told you before? That the Dreamscape is the realm between the mortal world and the Underworld? So close to each? Well, this is your Tartarus, Xena. You created it." Callisto took a moment to look around at the carnage. "Quaint little place youve created. I never would have thought to find you here earlier."
"Callisto! Damn you!" Xena struggled against the suction, dropping her sword in the process, but she only succeeded in being dragged in deeper. She reached out a hand to the goddess, her need to survive outweighing her loathing.
Callisto laughed in delight. "Oh, isnt this just ironic?" She reached out her hand as if to take Xenas, then pulled it back.
Xena snarled in frustration and looked down into the pool, searching for anything she could use to escape.
"Well, have fun, Xena dear. I'll try to come back to see you again just to keep you company and tell you everything youre missing. Don't drown now..." Callisto paused momentarily, then smirked. "Oops...too late."
Xena face was the last part of her visible in the viscous muck as she went under, her eyes wide in horror. Then she completely disappeared and the pool of blood and gore became still once more.
"Oh, this is just too much fun," the goddess said grinning down at the puddle. Then Callisto threw back her head and laughed maniacally as she raised her arms, commanding flames to surround her and carry her away. Things were going right on schedule and soon her plans would come to their dark fruition.
With Xena and Callisto gone, the Dreamscape battlefield slowly began to fade away, looking as if a sudden rainstorm was washing away the colors, leaving only misty white.
As the trees began to blur and become insubstantial, a hooded figure stepped out from behind a tall cypress and began to walk into the fog.
The tapestry stretched from horizon to horizon, rising up into the sky and coming down flush to the ground, filling the world it inhabited. Made up of threads of endless different lengths and hues, a riot of color, it was the sole reason for this realm, where fate and destiny were the only law and power that mattered.
It was here that sometimes the gods came to watch their pawns in the great game of life, looking into the future to see the possible outcome of their machinations.
The Fates were elsewhere in their realm, working on a different piece of the Tapestry, so no one saw the small strand of mist that appeared, then dissipated, leaving behind the form of a man.
Morpheus, the God of Dreams, looked around him, but saw and sensed no one nearby. It was just as well, for his mission here needed to be kept secret. It wouldnt do to have his purpose questioned, for it would raise even more queries and bring unwanted attention towards him.
Quickly, he located the threads he had come to view and gently took them in his hands, placing his will on them. Time bent to his sight and he watched events unfold as the threads now stood. His lips thinned in a scowl and he placed the threads back into the tapestry. For several long moments, he stared at the Tapestry of Life, his mind racing as he considered what he had seen.
Then, with a sweep of his arm, he disappeared into the mist that rose up around him and he left the Realm of Fate, appearing back in his own world.
The Dreamscape, knowing its master, shifted around him, changing to what he wanted it to be. This time it was a huge battlefield that was just now beginning to fade from some mortals mind. He spotted a faint robed figure walking away from the carnage and willed himself to the persons side.
The scene around them completely disappeared, leaving them surrounded by a thick bank of fog.
"What did you see?" asked the hooded figure.
Morpheus quickly related the future he had witnessed, leaving out no detail.
Low curses come from deep within the shadowed cowl. "Callisto was just here."
"Here!" Morpheus exclaimed in surprise and scanned the area nervously. Then, closing his eyes, he expanded his mind and surveyed the Dreamscape for any intruders. It wasnt often anyone, mortal or immortal, came to his realm, but it wasnt unheard of either. With a sigh of relief, he opened his eyes again. "Shes gone. Did she see you?" he asked urgently.
"No, but I understand her plan completely now," the voice growled, clearly displeased. Several moments passed as the person looked at Morpheus thoughtfully. "I'll need your help."
"I have been helping you," the God of Dreams complained. All he wanted was for this whole business to be over with and for his Realm to be only his once again.
A dark chuckle escaped from inside the hood. "I know you hate it that I'm here, but the only way you're going to get rid of me, is to cooperate."
Morpheus gritted his teeth and scowled. "Anything to get rid of you."
The figure nodded in approval. "Just so we understand each other."
"You'll hear no arguments from me, its not like anyone would believe me that youre..."
The hooded figure silenced the god with a raised hand. "Fine. Lets get on with it shall we?" Morpheus nodded and the figure continued. "Neither one of us can directly change events, but we can stir the pot a bit. Here's what we'll do..."
Gabrielle closed her eyes as Callisto raised the mallet to smash her legs. She waited for the blow to come, anticipating the pain as she always did when she had this nightmare.
But the impact never came.
The bard waited a few more moments, just to make sure, before she cracked open one eye and peeked.
Gone was the green hilltop and the cross shed been tied to. Gone was Callistos demonic grin and glittering eyes.
Instead, the bard was now standing in the middle of an ancient forest, the sun streaming down and dancing among the leaves on the ground.
Where am I? she wondered to herself.
Gabrielle scanned the green shadows, looking for any sign of a road or habitation, but there was none.
Wherever her dream had taken her, it was a far better place than the nightmare shed just been in. It was odd, this dream felt far more real than her other one, as if this one was more solid somehow.
Then she spotted it. A wooden totem carved in the shape of a screaming hawk and etched with warning symbols. Gabrielle walked up to the tree it was attached to and pulled back the branches to get a better look at it.
It was an Amazon totem and not just any totem either, but Artemis own. Her eyes took in the silver bow and arrows, which were the symbols for the Goddess of the Hunt, and the green tree carved next to it. There were other symbols also, ones that warned of certain disaster for any who entered the woods and some that gave directions for safely traversing around the edge of the woodland.
The Sacred Forest? the bard speculated.
Gabrielle released the branches and looked around the forest in silent awe. Everything she saw took on new meaning. Each tree was a tree whose ancient roots decreed it consecrated to only one deity. Each animal within these woods lived in safety by the goddess decree. No one was allowed in this hallowed forest but those whom Artemis herself invited, for this was the goddess untamed wilderness.
Even as Queen of the Amazons, Gabrielle couldnt enter this sacred place without Artemis permission. Shed heard of this place, of course, but really didnt know much more about it. Most gods had holy sites that were consecrated only to them. Ares had several, all battlefields. Aphrodite had an island, the one where it was said she first stepped out of the sea when she was born. Hephaestus had his volcano, a natural forge for him to create from. Each place was different from the others, just as each god was different from each other. Artemis was the Sacred Forest, a huge stretch of ancient, wild land that had never known the touch of a mans plow or ax.
It was even rumored that a small village of Amazon priestesses made this place their home at Artemis bidding, but if it was true, the rest of the Nation hadnt been heard from them in centuries. It would explain though how an Amazon marker made its way here.
There were always those who trespassed onto the goddess land, thinking that the warnings were nothing to worry about and that Artemis would never notice one or two of her deer gone. They would never be seen again. It was said that all who ventured uninvited into the holy grove met the sharp end of one of Artemis arrows and ended up being changed into a board or some other type of animal that became the newest member of the forests wildlife population.
The warnings and legends Gabrielle had been told by her fellow Amazons were in the fore of her mind now. She had no intention of becoming an animal, not even a cute bunny. It just wasnt one of the things she wanted to do with her life. It might be interesting for a few moments, but not for a life time.
That is, if this was all real and not a dream. But if this was just a dream, then she thought she had nothing to worry about...she hoped.
She fingered the fine leather skirt she wore, aware that she was wearing her Queens attire. Usually in her dreams, she was wearing the old green halter and rust colored skirt shed had before Rome. The only times shed dreamed and worn these leathers, were when she dreamed about Xenas death and Velaska.
It feels real, she thought to herself, shoving away the uneasy feeling she got just thinking about that time. But then, the last, and only time I remember being in the Dreamscape, that had felt very real also. Auburn eyebrows met as she frowned. Perhaps this was another plot of Morpheus followers to get her to marry him.
Well, theyll just have to take a number, the bard groused. They should be able to tell Im not right for the job anymore...not like I ever was to begin with.
"You neednt fear, Gabrielle. Morpheus no longer wants you for his bride."
Gabrielle spun around in a defensive crouch, alarmed that someone had snuck up on her. Just a few feet away stood a tall, black robed figure. Green eyes tried to pierce the darkness within the deep hood, but the bard couldnt make out any features.
"Who are you?" She could tell it wasnt Artemis herself; the body was too thick, more male in build than female.
A low chuckle emerged from the shadowed cowl, sending a shiver of vague recognition through the bard, but the figure didnt answer her.
Gabrielle looked around for a good branch that she could use as a staff if it became necessary to defend herself.
"What do you want from me?" she asked the mysterious figure, stepping back a few feet.
"What do I want from you?" The voice was deep, but sounded odd, distorted, as if it came from the bottom of a well.
The bard shivered again with instinctive recognition. She knew this person...this man? But the name and face refused to come to her.
"What do I want from you?" he repeated. "Nothing much. Just for you to come with me on a little journey."
"Because your curiosity wont be satisfied if you stay here. Dont worry. I wouldnt dream of hurting you." He chuckled again, amused at his little joke.
Gabrielle wiped her hand on her thigh, nervously, and eyed the branch out of the corner of her eye. If he made a wrong move, it would only take a moment to grab it. "Am I dreaming?"
"Yes and no. Not the dreams youre used to. This place," he waved an arm at their surroundings. "is real, but only as a shadow of the real thing. This is the Dreamscape, Gabrielle, bard, Amazon Queen, and your presence is required to witness some events."
The branch was forgotten as the bards curiosity piqued. "What events?"
"No fair telling you ahead of time. Youll just have to take my word for it."
"Why should I trust you? I dont even know you," Gabrielle pointed out. In the past, her trusting virtual strangers had gotten her in deep trouble time after time, but since Britannia, the bard was much more wary.
"Youre not the only one who has to trust here, bard," the stranger hissed, then shook himself and got back under control. "There are many who are relying on you to stop Callisto, not just for Xenas sake, but for their own."
"So you do have something at stake here?" the bard prodded, but she got only silence for her answer. Obviously, he wasnt going to volunteer more information until she made her decision. After several moments, she nodded her assent.
"Good." Something caught his attention and the dark hood turned. "Ahh...just in time. Here you come now."
Gabrielle turned her head towards the direction her guide indicated and gasped aloud in surprise.
Out of the forest stepped...Gabrielle. She was identical in every way, even down to wearing the rust colored Amazon leathers. She didnt carry a staff, but then shed lost hers in Rome, no thanks to Caesar. Instead, she carried a small bow in her hand, a quiver full of arrows at her back, and a hunting knife at her hip. The only difference beyond that was that her double looked a bit worn and haggard, as if shed spent a few days in the forest alone.
"Its me," the bard exclaimed. "Isnt it?"
"Yes and no. This will be you a few days from now," he answered.
Gabrielle watched herself scan the trees carefully then squat down next to an old stump, using it as a back rest.
"Why am I...I mean...why is she here?" Gabrielle asked as she took the last few steps toward her other self and waved a hand in front of her face. Obviously, the other woman couldnt see either one of them. "She cant see us."
"This is the Dreamscape, Gabrielle...a vision of the future brought to life for you to see. Shes real...but not," her escort tried to explain. "As for why she is here...well, the answer will be apparent in a moment."
While he spoke, a sphere of bluish-white light appeared before the reclining Amazon Queen, who quickly stood up and watched with interest as Artemis became visible.
The Goddess of the Hunt smiled at Gabrielle and inspected her for several moments. "How do you like my forest?" she asked finally.
Gabrielle returned the goddess smile. "Ive learned a lot...but it feels like Ive been here for weeks. Im worried about whats going on out there."
"Actually, youve only been here a day and a half to the world outside. Within the confines of this wild place, time moves at a different pace...my pace. Ive given you the time you need to learn. To you weeks have passed," Artemis explained as she turned and started to walk through the shrubs, motioning for Gabrielle to follow her.
Both of the unseen visitors followed the goddess and mortal, the bard listening intently to their conversation. Obviously, there was something here her guide wanted her to see. Although it was disconcerting to see herself, it was also fascinating at the same time. Very odd.
"Its beautiful here..." the little Queen began tentatively, "but..."
Artemis raised an eyebrow. "But?"
"Its different from any other forest Ive been in. Its so serene, yet dangerous...primal. Even more so than Bacchus forest."
"Does it scare you?"
"No." Gabrielle shook her head. "I didnt understand it at first, but I do now. Ive survived here. Ive hunted, been hunted...its more peaceful...no, thats not the right word."
Artemis changed the subject, letting the mortal organize her thoughts. "So youve hunted. How did it feel?"
Green eyes, which matched the foliage of the trees, glittered with an emotion the dreaming Gabrielle couldnt identify. "I didnt want to take the life at first, but I was so hungry. I had to...and it was almost as if the rabbit wanted me to have its life. It felt so strange at first, but when I did it, I felt...a part of all of this." She waved a hand at the world around them. "Thats never happened before. Ive always either bought what I needed to eat, ate vegetables, or Xena has caught our dinner. I found roots and berries to eat also, but when I saw the rabbit...I grew ravenous. Not just for meat...but for the hunt."
Artemis stepped around a giant fir tree and nodded her head at the Queens words. "Tell me about it," she commanded.
The forest was silent for a long time as Gabrielle gathered her thoughts and tried to put her experience into words. Even though she was a talented bard and had created many stories, it was still hard to express her innermost feelings. Much easier to tell a tale of Xenas exploits.
Artemis was patient, her eyes surveying the forest, catching sight of each animal and bird.
Finally, Gabrielle spoke, her hand coming up and resting on her hunting knife in a comfortable gesture. "I remember walking down this small ravine alongside a trickle of water, too small to be called a creek. There was this small clearing and thats when I saw him. Beautiful. So very small," the bards eyes dilated and stared off into the distance, as if she was reliving the experience. "His fur was all light brown, just like his eyes, and he was eating some tender grass shoots. He didnt see me or smell me. Thats when everything around me just seemed to cease to exist, except for the both of us. I dont even remember drawing my bow and sighting down the arrow, all I know is that in the next moment he looked up right at me and froze. His little brown eyes looked into mine...and I let loose the arrow. I really dont know how to describe it...I cant describe it. Instinct is probably the best word for what happened."
"Interesting to see what only a few days do to you, hmm?" the hooded man commented, still walking beside the bard.
"I dont understand whats going on," Gabrielle muttered, still staring at her identical counterpart. Hunting? Killing an animal?
"You cant understand it, completely. Unless you live it," he answered.
"So have you decided?" Artemis asked, and their unseen companions grew quiet. "Youve met all my requirements, Gabrielle. There is no one I would be prouder to call my Chosen."
Again the world was silent, except for the wind softly rustling through the trees and the calls of birds.
"Im...I mean, shes going to say yes, isnt she?" Gabrielle asked her escort.
Her other self spoke up again before he could answer.
"My answer is yes." The word came out low, almost a whisper. "I dont know if this is the right choice, but I know I cant help Xena alone. Shes too strong...and with Callisto... Well, I can only imagine what shes capable of." Gabrielle paused and looked over at the goddess. "I have to help her, Artemis, I wont do any less than what she would do for me, if the situation was reversed. Shes come back from the dead for me. For me! I can only hope that somewhere deep inside of her, I still mean something to her."
The goddess and mortal had stopped walking and were now facing each other, the invisible visitors only a few feet away, silently observing.
"Are you sure? Once you are my Chosen, there is no taking back the decision," Artemis warned her.
"Yes, Im sure. Perhaps this is what was always meant to be, ever since the day I threw myself over Terreis."
"Perhaps," Artemis nodded, accepting the logic. The goddess rested her hands on Gabrielles shoulders, without another word between them, and she began to glow. It spread throughout her entire body, the soft light running down her arms and hands to touch the young woman before her.
As the energy hit her, Gabrielles back arched and her head was thrown back. Then the initial pain was gone and she looked into the goddess eyes.
Gabrielle trembled slightly as she watched herself become the Chosen of Artemis. She could swear she could feel the energy vibrating in the air...through her own body. Not as strong as what was passing into her twin, but a very faint echo of it. For a split instant her mind merged with her other self and she understood...everything.
The power of a goddess flowed through her veins, making her stronger, faster, and tougher.
Her senses expanded and Gabrielle could hear the entire forest come alive.
Miles away, the heartbeat of an old stag still pulsed strong as he drank from the edge of a pond. Soon it would be mating season.
Almost as swift as lightning itself, a slim winged falcon dove out of the sky, her eyes focused completely on the tiny mouse scampering between the long grasses in a meadow.
A huge, bristle-backed sow snorted at her young then dug her snout into the dark soil, searching for tubers to eat.
Everything was heightened. Her smell. Her sight. Her hearing. Even her touch was enhanced. She became a part of the forest in a way that no average mortal ever could.
Then it was gone and Gabrielle came back to herself. Opening eyes that had fluttered closed as the sensations had washed over her, she looked at her other self and Artemis in awe as the two continued for a few moments to strengthen the newly formed bond between them.
"You felt it, didnt you?" her guide asked, his hood right next to her ear. She could feel his hot breath on the side of her face.
Still slightly in shock, Gabrielle could only nod.
"Imagine it. To be so close to someone, that you can hear their thoughts and have them hear yours. To know what theyre feeling. To experience what they experience. Two individuals...yet one. This is what youre considering doing, Gabrielle." He raised his arm and pointed at Artemis and her Chosen, who were only now beginning to recover. "But its also what youre fighting, with Xena and Callisto. The question is...is it enough?"
Her guide lowered his arm, resting his hand on her shoulder. Gabrielle reluctantly turned away from the two women and looked at him. She tried again to see into the depths of the hood that was only inches away from her own face, but there was nothing definite she could see within.
"Is there more to see?"
The robed stranger chuckled softly. "Definitely."
With that the forest began to fade around them, shifting to another scene.
The guide removed his hand from Gabrielle's shoulder and waved his other, concealed arm at their new surroundings.
The bard recognized the village immediately, but it had changed. Horribly so.
People she knew, men, women and even children, were moaning and crying out to the gods as they hung from crudely made crosses, like ripe red grapes from the vine.
"Who did this?" she whispered in shock, even though she knew.
"Just watch. Feel. Hear their thoughts. Know everything, Gabrielle. See it all...experience it. This is what Callisto will create. But it is not the last. Her greatest, most terrible creation is yet to come. This village is just the beginning, bard," he replied.
As he stepped back further behind her, Gabrielle knew he was watching her just as much as he was surveying the carnage around them. She could almost feel his hot gaze on her back, and once again she wondered who this mysterious man was.
"But can't we help? Please?" she begged.
"This is what is to come. You can't help them. You can't touch them. You are here, but not. Dont waste your energy on something you have no control over," her escort admonished.
But the bard didn't want to be just a silent, unseen observer, she wanted to help. To bring them down from their crosses and staunch their wounds. It went against everything she felt she stood for to just stand still and witness their suffering.
Soldiers mocked and jeered the helpless villagers as they passed by with loot. To them, villagers were nothing but game, like mice to a cat, to be played with and finally eaten.
Gabrielle took a step forward instinctively, as a child whimpered in pain, but her attendant's hand came up and restrained her.
"I can't just stand here and do nothing!" she cried, looking at the little girl. She began to struggle against the strong grip that held her back, but it was in vain.
The child's dress was torn and filthy. Blood, from numerous cuts and scratches, had dried and now flies were beginning to infest the wounds. Small lips were turning blue and the tiny body was shivering with cold. The child's eyes were closed and if it hadn't been for the whimper that Gabrielle barely heard, she would have thought her already gone. The woman's heart ached watching the girl die right before her eyes.
"I can't believe she'd do this! Women and children? Never! Not Xena." The bard shook her head in denial.
"She's not your Xena anymore...she's Callisto's, whether she wants to be or not. She's dancing to her tune, playing her game."
Gabrielle whirled around and confronted the hooded figure angrily. "That's not true! Xena is always one step ahead of Callisto! This is all just some plan of hers. It must be," she insisted vehemently.
A deep booming laugh escaped from the darkness within the hood as he raised his arm and gestured at their setting. "Oh, she knows what she's doing, all right. Reckless, wanton destruction at Callisto command! Look at her!" He spun her back around with his other hand and pointed out the tall, confident warrior who was now walking towards them.
Startling blue eyes caught everything, every movement, every possible hostile action. Xena was completely in her environment. A dark elemental force that touched the mortals around her, taking their lives and using the energy to make herself more powerful.
To Gabrielle she fairly glowed with an almost sentient, grim energy and the bard helplessly shivered as those loved blue eyes turned in her direction. For a moment, she swore that they saw her, but then they moved smoothly on to land upon a nearby cross that was empty.
"Bring her!" Xena stopped in front of the construction and motioned impatiently to her men.
The group of soldiers that had obediently followed her came forward and shoved their prisoner at Xena's feet.
Gabrielle gasped, "No. Oh please, Xena. Don't do this."
The warlord leaned down and grasped her newest victim by the chin and pulled her face up. "Anything to say?"
Tears freely ran down the bloody face and fell into the soil of Amphipolis, as the woman licked her lips carefully. "And I thought you'd changed."
Xena laughed cruelly. "That's the humor, Mother dear. I had. But I'm back where I belong now."
"No, Xena." Cyrene looked heroically into her daughter's eyes. "This isn't you. What about these past few years? You've changed, I know you have."
The warrior thrust her mother away and stood up, glaring down at the prone woman in disdain. "You're pathetic, just like the rest of these squirming cowards." She waved a bronzed arm at the other villagers in disgust. "If I didn't know better, I'd say that there was no way you were my mother."
Eyes, identical to the Chosen's own, narrowed in icy hatred. "I should have let your father sacrifice you to Ares when you were a child," Cyrene hissed.
Gabrielle gasped in shock. She didn't believe Cyrene meant the words, but still it was hard to hear her turn her heart away from her daughter.
Xena grinned darkly and motioned her men forward. "Put her on the cross."
The warriors hurried to comply and only moments later Cyrene was tied securely to the last cross in the midst of Amphipolis. She stared off into the distance, refusing to look at Xena. To her, this was no longer her daughter, but a monster more terrible than Cortese ever was.
"She won't do it. She won't. She can't," Gabrielle muttered to herself.
"Won't she? And you claim to know her," her escort said, shaking his hidden visage with disdain.
Xena held her hand out to one of her men, coldly nodding when he gave her a huge, wooden mallet. Positioning herself, she gazed up at the woman who had borne her and gripped the mallet tightly.
"To show my thanks for saving me from my esteemed father and for bringing me into this world, I would like to give you one more gift."
Cyrene's head snapped down and she glared sharply at Xena. "I want nothing from you!"
"Well,Mother, it so happens that this is one gift you won't be able to refuse," Xena lifted up the mallet and pulled it back to take a swing.
"No!" Gabrielle lunged forward, escaping from her escort's grip and leapt between Xena and Cyrene, her arms outstretched to stop the blow.
Cyrene screamed in agony as the mallet hurdled through the invisible and intangible bard and hit her legs, shattering the bones. Then she was mercifully quiet, having passed out from the pain.
Gabrielle swung at Xena angrily, her only thought to strike this woman whom she no longer knew, but like the warrior's blow, her fists swept through Xena unhindered.
After a few moments, the bard fell to her knees, panting softly, exhausted. "This can't be happening."
"It is...or rather, it will. For them, this is real. For you, this has yet to happen."
"But it's all wrong! This isn't..." her words trailed off, as tears started down her cheeks. What she'd just witnessed seemed impossible to her. Xena killing her own mother and sacking Amphipolis? It was as if the entire world had changed in a day. Gabrielle shook her head at the thought. Its merely a dream...this wont happen...it cant! she protested silently.
"It isn't over yet. Watch." He pointed to an empty space next to Xena.
The warrior tossed the mallet away and now, with what looked to be a bored expression, watched her mother hung limply, the pain still evident on her unconscious face.
A flickering tongue of fire appeared on the ground next to her, then erupted into a huge gout of flame. Xena's men stepped back several paces in fear, but the warrior herself didn't flinch. An instant later, the flames dissipated, leaving behind the Goddess of War.
"Callisto," Gabrielle growled. Standing back up, she angrily wiped the tears from her eyes. This was the source of all their problems. From the beginning, they'd been hounded by this vengeful specter of the past. Hunted and harried, led through a dark maze of lies. "You bitch! This is all your fault!"
Callisto gave her Chosen a delighted smile, then gazed up at Xena's mother. With a barely audible snicker, she waved a slim hand and dismissed her, turning back to her warrior. "Well, I see you've been busy keeping your promises to me."
Xena finally turned her head and acknowledged the goddess, her lip barely twitching into a smirk. "When have I ever broken my word?"
"I'll admit I'm impressed. Amphipolis has been pillaged...nice touch with the inn, by the way. Using the crossbeams to crucify the 'militia' was rather inventive." The blonde goddess took a step toward the cross and ran a hand roughly up Cyrene's legs, shuddering with pleasure as fresh screams burst forth. "And crucifying your mother with your own hands. I doubt she'll..."
Callisto was interrupted as a sphere of bright blue and green light rose up out of the ground next to her. Shattering, the ball became a brief shower of glowing sparks as Artemis and her Chosen stepped into the mortal world together.
Gabrielle's jaw dropped as she looked at her future self. Gone was the softness, instead her double seemed to glow with as much energy and vitality as Xena did, although of a different kind. Where Xenas was hard as stone, Gabrielles was also hard but more resolute. She was like the hunter, adapting to her surroundings. Tasting the wind on her tongue, following the faintest of tracks with just the barest of trails. She wasn't a warrior, but a hunter...and her prey was no mere deer, but the most dangerous of prey¾ the Chosen of Callisto.
Calmly, she stood next to Artemis with a self-assured stance, her strength, her peace coming both from within and from the goddess who had made the Amazon Queen her own. She still wore her Queens attire, the soft leathers fitting her body like a well made glove. For the first time Gabrielle thought that they actually suited her. But what shocked the bard the most about this other woman who bore her face was the spear that she held in her hands.
It was a beautiful piece of craftsmanship half again as long as her staff, but not as thick. Most of the decorations were in the form of carvings that ran up and down its length, but there were also a few amazon style feathers, complete with colorful beads, which hung just below the long, three sided barbed spearhead.
This was no mere staff, no weapon which served only for the purpose of defense. No, this was a spear, a weapon of dual purpose¾ to defend or kill.
Gabrielle shivered as she thought about using a weapon such as the one her twin held so confidently. Even with what shed seen Xena do so far, she just couldnt imagine herself wielding such a potentially destructive weapon. Not after Britannia.
The memory of Meridian and her death flashed through Gabrielles mind.
No! This proves that this dream isnt possible. I wouldnt use a weapon like that, let alone against Xena. The bard paused, struck by a horrible thought. But then, Ive already used one, so I can no longer say that, can I? Meridian...
The tension within her slowly changed to resignation as she watched herself expertly bring the spear up in front of her body in a defensive posture.
The Goddess of the Hunt looked at Xena and then Callisto with barely disguised disgust. "You have gone far enough. I cant let you do this."
Callisto gazed at Gabrielle with a look that could only be described as amused astonishment. "Well, well, well...isnt this a surprise? Youre looking fit for someone who should be blissfully ignorant in Elysia right now."
Gabrielle ignored her, her attention solely focused on Xena.
The Goddess of War snickered and turned her head, giving Artemis a bored look. "I suppose this is your doing? Pity you wasted your time. I take it that this little get together between the brat and Xena is supposed to weaken me. Right? And if she succeeds youre going to try and take me on."
Artemis shook her head. "No. I know that I have no chance against you and Im not willing to start a war that might tear apart the world. But still, I cant let you run rampant over the world like an enraged boar. If that means Gabrielle has to kill Xena, then so be it."
"Get over it. Theres nothing you or any of your little family can do to stop me. Just take a seat and watch the show," Callisto sneered.
The warrior ignored the two goddesses, her eyes locked upon the visage of the woman who stood next to Artemis. What she saw was an impossibility.
Artemis Chosen pulled away her gaze for a moment and looked at the dying villagers surrounding them. "Were too late," she moaned to herself, then turned back to Xena.
"Youre dead," the warrior growled, her eyes darkened to a vibrant sapphire.
"No, actually Im not." Gabrielle studied the familiar figure before her, drinking her in. "You look like Hades, Xena," she observed with a sad smile.
In just a matter of four days, Xenas face had become leaner, more severe. Her fit body seemed even stronger, more muscular than before. But it was the eyes that had changed the most. Those blue eyes that the bard never tired of seeing and always looked forward to first thing in the morning. The bright light was gone out of them, replaced with a intense gleam that sucked the very life out of whatever they gazed at. Everything around her was at her mercy, to be disposed of as she wished.
Then Gabrielles smile melted away and her face grew resolute. "Its not too late. Stop this before someone else dies."
"Why? People are meant to die, Gabrielle. Im just helping them along. Its my mission in life now," Xena sneered and motioned her men to stay back. This was none of their concern. Not that they were planning to get involved anyway, not with two goddesses and two Chosen.
Callisto and Artemis turned and watched the two mortals, only eyeing each other occasionally. The Goddess of War was inclined, for the moment, to let events play out for themselves. She doubted Artemis would attack her, she didnt think the Goddess of the Hunt was that stupid, but Callisto knew that she had a plan and that it revolved around Gabrielle.
This was a surprise though. Seeing the bard alive and well wasnt a part of her plan. Callisto knew she should have made sure the damned pest had died when she had the chance, but shed been busy at the time enjoying the delicious bond between her and Xena.
She could sense her Chosen reacting to Gabrielle on every level, now that the warrior knew the bard was alive, but Callisto had no doubts about her control over their link. Xena only felt what her goddess wanted her to feel and that meant that the good part of the warriors soul was locked away for safe keeping until later. There was nothing Gabrielle could do to bring her Xena back. Nothing. Callisto would let her go when the time was right, no sooner.
And Im betting that it wont last for long, Callisto laughed to herself.
The goddess wanted to laugh out loud at Artemis, amused that her fellow goddess thought Gabrielle would be able to affect her Chosen. Xena was hers! No mealy mouthed little peasant from Poteidaia could change that. She had plans for her dark warrior which were on the verge of fulfillment. Actually, the goddess thought silently, Gabrielle being alive and well might just be what I need. Just a little nudge here and there with Xena...and Ive got everything within my grasp. And it should be fun to watch too.
As for Artemis, she was well aware of Callisto standing near her, and of the dark power she exuded, but most of her focus was within Gabrielle, sharing her power. Their bond was strong. Now they just had to hope she didnt have a need for it and could bring Xena back from Callistos mental claws trusting that they wouldnt have to resort to violence.
"So youre just going to turn your back on everything you worked hard to achieve?" Gabrielle asked. "You family? Your friends?" She paused. "Me?"
Xena ignored Gabrielles comment, for she still was still trying to understand how the bard was alive and not dead.
For a moment a riot of emotions passed through her, and the bond between Callisto and her Chosen lessened. A tendril of joy rose up within her, coming from her other half. Just the thought of Gabrielle, alive and well, began to bring her mind back together.
Then the link between her and Callisto fully opened and the flood of dark and turbulent sensations took her over again.
Both Gabrielles saw the momentary flash of light in Xenas eyes and both thought that the warrior was coming back to her senses. But then, the light faded and the warriors eyes darkened again to a sapphire so dark, it was almost indigo.
"Well, it seems as if I need to finish the job. Too bad for you, Gabrielle. I doubt that your death will be as quick as it would have been." Xena drew her sword smoothly.
"No, Xena. Dont do this," Gabrielle begged, wishing that this moment was real and that her friend could hear her.
"Dont do this, Xena," Gabrielle echoed, as she gripped her spear tighter. "Im not ready to give up on you. This isnt the Xena I know."
Callisto spoke up. "Youre wrong, Gabrielle. If anything, this is the true Xena. Lovely isnt she? Even though she destroyed my world, I have a lot to thank her for. She taught me that life is wasted on the weak. Now its time for me to give her a gift in return. How do you like it so far, hmm?"
"Youre sick, Callisto," Artemis commented.
Gabrielle kept her eyes locked with Xenas as she lowered her spear and stepped forward.
"What are you doing?!" Artemis demanded, as she watched Xena bring her sword up and rest the tip in the hollow of the queens throat. This was not in the plan.
"Im doing what I always do with Xena, Artemis. Im trusting her," she murmured. "I know youre in there. The Xena I know...that I love is in there and I know she wont hurt me."
"Yes. This will work," Gabrielle agreed with her twin. She looked at her guide and gave him a satisfied smile.
"Perhaps. We shall see," the robed man replied.
Callistos Chosen drank from the dark emotional waters that swirled and eddied between her and her goddess. She cocked her head slightly to the side and regarded the woman standing before her. "You are a fool. You think you know me?" Xena asked calmly. "You dont know anything. Youre just a young woman, barely grown, from a dirt farm. The only reason why Id ever spare you would be for entertainment."
"Oh Zeus. This cant be happening," Gabrielle sobbed and took a hesitant step forward toward the two women.
"There is nothing you can do, bard," the man reminded her.
Callisto cackled evilly. Things were going perfectly.
"Dont let her do this, Gabrielle. Step back. You have the power to fight her, if you need it," Artemis said softly. If her Chosen would only step back and bring up her own weapon, there just might be a chance to salvage the situation.
The Amazon Queen shook her head slightly, mindful of the weapon pricking her skin. "No, Artemis. Xena, I wont lay a hand against you...I cant. It just isnt in me to hurt you."
"Then you arent just a fool, but an insane one. Do you think this is a toy?" Xena asked as she dug the point deeper. A bead of bright red blood welled up and slid down the blonde womans chest.
"Xena, look at me," Gabrielle pleaded, her voice soft. "Is this what you really want? My death? Your mothers death? The destruction of Amphipolis? All for her?" She pointed in Callistos direction without looking. "Youve always told me that the gods viewed us more like pets instead of human beings. So why are you obeying her like one?"
Xena was silent for a moment. The only movement she made was dragging down the tip of her blade until it was nestled between Gabrielles breasts, leaving a thin, bloody line. She saw the slight twitch at the corner of the womans mouth at the pain and chuckled. "Because she gives me something you never did."
Gabrielle saw the hurt reflected in her doubles eyes from the statement and felt it echo inside of herself. Shed given everything she could to Xena. Her friendship. Her trust. Her love. What more could she want?
"What would that be?" the bard asked.
"Satisfaction." Xena paused for a heartbeat. "What would you give me to come back?"
Callisto raised an eyebrow and Artemis froze, both waiting for the answer.
"Everything," Gabrielle said, willing her other self to say the same. "Id give anything to have you back, Xena."
"Everything," the Chosen of Artemis answered confidently, hope shining in her liquid green eyes.
"How about..." Xena paused again and smiled, her eyes gleaming, "your heart."
The sword thrust deeply into the smaller womans chest with apparent ease, blood and tissue gushing out as the weapon bit into flesh and bone, through the lungs and into the heart.
It was a silent death, Xenas breath and the wind the only sounds in the world. The look of love, hope, and trust that only a heartbeat ago had shone in Gabrielles eyes, died as she died and crumpled to the ground.
The dreaming bard doubled over and fell to her knees, retching as tears spilled over and fell. This cant be happening, she cried silently.
Callistos jaw dropped slightly, her brown eyes sparkling and dancing with glee. "I cant believe she did it." She giggled to herself. "I really cant believe she did it."
Artemis shook with barely controlled anger, her hand flexing open and closed as she ached to create a sword and try to strike down this monster who had just destroyed her Chosen. But her weapons were the bow and spear, and she doubted she could win. Callisto wouldnt allow it. Right now her responsibility was to warn her Amazons and the other gods of the outcome. There had to be a way to stop her. Even if it meant another war of the gods. First she must go to Zeus.
"This isnt over, Callisto," she hissed as she began to disappear.
The Goddess of War gave her an evil grin and winked. "Say hi to Daddy for me, hmm?" Then she turned her gaze to her Chosen, Artemis already forgotten. Callisto was enjoying this moment immensely. What a stroke of luck that Gabrielle had lived and had come to try and stop them. Things were perfect now and in only a few more moments the world would tremble at the feet of the Goddess of War. Most of all, she would have the prize she most wanted within her grasp. All it would take was Xena, and Callisto had no doubts that her Chosen would come through for her. None at all. "Youre just too good at this, my dear. I think perhaps its time you came out to play...all of you."
Xenas dark sapphire eyes moved to Callisto, her body still soaking up the sensations of the kill and the pleasure she could feel coming from the goddess. She drew her sword out of the dead bards body, no longer concerned about her. "What are you talking about?"
Callisto just stared at her Chosen and took control of their bond. Ruthlessly, she used as much power as she could to shut herself off from Xena. She couldnt cut herself completely off, once Chosen and Goddess were bonded nothing could break it, but she could block most of it, just as Xena had once done to Ares. And now it was Callistos turn.
The cord between them became smaller and smaller as Callisto pinched it off, until Xena could barely feel the dark flow coming from her goddess.
"What are you up to, Callisto?"
"Patience, Xena," Callisto murmured as she concentrated. It was almost painful closing herself off this way, as if she was cutting off a limb. The other side of the dinar was that Xena was almost as uncomfortable as she was. She could still feel Xenas emotions and thoughts, but now the warrior couldnt sense hers. To Xena, it was as if part of all her senses had been taken away, but leaving her deaf to only one voice and blind to one person. To Xena, Callisto had almost become a non-entity.
"Callisto," Xena growled in response.
Then with her will, Callisto opened the conduit to the Dreamscape that every mortal possessed within them.
As the door opened in her mind and soul, Xena froze for an instant, assaulted by fresh emotions and thoughts. She lifted her free hand to her head and rubbed a temple, trying to ease the sudden pressure.
This was the part the goddess was most unsure about. All she could do was cross her fingers and hope that her Chosens conscious came back and merged together.
The warrior groaned with pain, her mind becoming so overwhelmed that a black curtain began to descend around her. Xena fought against unconsciousness, forcing it back while locking her legs to keep herself from falling.
No one is completely one or the other and when a soul is seperated and the chains that imprison them are released, the two halves will always find a way to merge. It is...inevitable.
Callisto had used the dark bond between them and the warriors own guilt to drive Xena insane and split her mind apart. Now, free from the goddess influence, the door was open for Xena to return...and she did. Her mind came crashing together, joining her two halves into one. Sun and moon, both existing once again in one body and soul.
It took her several long-drawn out moments to pull herself back into one mental piece, but the Warrior Princess was once again whole. She opened her eyes in confusion... and saw Callisto looking at her with glee and then the body laying at her feet.
"I must say, Xena," Callisto cooed, "this is the most fun Ive had since I stuck Perdicus right in front of you and Gabrielle."
"You...you..." Xena stammered, her mind in shock.
"Dont look at me," the goddess admonished. "Youre the one who did it. Just look at your sword if you dont believe me."
Xena mouth parted slightly as she stared at the sword in her hand with disbelief, unable to fully comprehend what she had just done. Then it came to her, the memories from both shattered parts complete and vivid in her mind.
Shed just murdered her best friend...and this time there was no doubt it had happened. The guilt was heavy and coated her soul like the blood that coated her hand. She looked up and saw her mother and the villagers of Amphipolis, dying or dead around her.
The warrior thrust her sword away from her, refusing to look at it any longer, but she could not remove the blood from her hands as easily. With a soft cry, Xena fell to her knees and gently cradled Gabrielle in her arms.
A wave of dizziness swept through Gabrielle as she looked over at her future self. It was disorientating to see her own face, her body, laying on the ground...lifeless, blood covering her chest. It was as if she was merely asleep, her soft features serene, her bright green eyes closed in peace. The horrified bard bent over and tried to empty her stomach again, but here in the Dreamscape there was nothing to void. It was all too much for her.
"Gabrielle?" Xena whispered as she brushed a golden lock of hair from her companions still face.
"She cant hear you," Callisto whispered in a sing song voice.
"Gabrielle?" she repeated. Xena lifted the slight woman closer into her arms, unwillingly to just let her lie on the cold ground.
"Oh, Xena. What have you done? What have you let her do?" Gabrielle whispered, still stunned.
"Youre mothers legs are shattered, but she just might survive, if shes rescued. Amphipolis is looted and destroyed." Callisto looked down at her Chosen, her smile predatory. She could smell the end coming, like the foreshadowing of a firestorm on the wind. "But the most wonderful part of this day is that Gabrielle is dead and this time theres no coming back. Im actually glad she survived the fall, to tell you the truth, because this time I got to watch her die...and by the hand she loved most."
Xenas head fell back onto her shoulders as the words connected in her brain. She remembered Gabrielle...and she screamed...
"Youre not alone," came a soft voice behind her.
She turned around and looked into eyes the color of sun dappled grass. Who was this small slip of a girl whod followed her all the way from Poteidaia? She knew her name, but what was in this girl that made her follow a burnt out shell of an ex-warlord who only a few days before had decided to throw away her sword? What made her come and save an outcast from the stones of her own people?
As she continued staring into those eyes, a possible answer came to her...and it both scared and gave her a thin thread of hope for her own future.
Perhaps it was still possible to walk this path shed only just begun...and if she was fortunate, she wouldnt have to tread it alone.
The heat of the fire still felt almost too warm to her. She knew it might be a day or two before she fully recovered from her death and resurrection. The warmth of the woman who sat next to her, resting her head on her shoulder, was even hotter.
How could she tell her?
How could she put into words what she herself barely knew?
How could she explain that death was a minor obstacle when she saw those damned green eyes filled with tears?
It was nearly impossible to crouch down in the pit, motionless, powerless to stop the scene that was unfolding above her. As the sound of the Romans hoisting up the cross came to her, her own nightmarish memories came flooding back for a moment and a surge of white-hot anger followed it.
Then with iron determination she brushed it all away and waited...and when the moment was right, she thrust her hand through the woven mat. She grabbed and yanked on the ankle of the Roman who dared to harm the one human being in all of this world whom she wouldnt hesitate to die for.
No Roman. No Roman Emperor. No Roman army was going to stop her from saving the life of her best friend...the woman who she never realized meant so much to her.
...and screamed until her voice cracked and her mind bent under the pressure of her memories and guilt. The soldiers from her army, who had watched silently, fled in terror.
The culpability and self-hatred shed felt in the Underworld, when Gabrielle had fallen, was nothing compared to this. The bard was here, in her arms, and there was no denying that she was dead and that Amphipolis was sacked.
Grief at the death of a loved one. Guilt for the blood of those beloved ones on your hands. Even the power of the Furies is negligible in comparison to the punishment Xenas mind placed on her.
"Yeessss," Callisto hissed softly, watching with a rapt expression, as Xenas mind came so close to truly shattering with the madness of grief. It would only take one last push...one last move, and the black queen would arise.
"Nooooo," Gabrielle moaned in agony and weakly stood up. Her heart was broken and her spirit wounded, but she had to go on. This hadnt happened yet. Perhaps...perhaps there was a chance to change events, but it meant that she had to know everything.
"The moment is coming, bard," said her guide, his robed figure still standing near her. "Watch."
"How could I not?" she replied weakly. It would have been impossible for her to tear her eyes away from Xena now. The pain radiated off the warrior, so strong it was almost palpable.
Xena lifted her head up and with tears streaming down her face, she asked, "Why?"
"I cant tell you that, the game isnt quite over yet," Callisto said sweetly.
"A game?" the warrior muttered. "This is all a game to you?" Xena gently set Gabrielles body back on the ground and smoothed the blonde tresses back from her face and brushed her trembling fingers over the closed eyelids.
"A game with a very special prize at the end, Xena." Callisto watched avidly as her Chosen slowly stood up and picked up her sword.
"Im so very tired of all this, Callisto," Xena said wearily, the tracks of her tears shining on her cheeks. "Why does everyone have to pay for your pain?"
The goddess drew her own blade, leaving the Sword of War sheathed at her side. "Because I want every man, woman, and child to know what true pain is. They all whine and weep over lost crops and rain that comes down day after day. They wont know suffering until they see their loved ones dead in front of them! I want the entire world to drop down on its knees and curse the day you were born!"
Callisto shrieked and launched herself upwards, flipping once and pushing off the top of Cyrenes cross to drive her feet into Xenas stomach, making her drop her sword and sending her crashing into a broken wagon.
The Goddess of War walked up to the edge of the cart and picked up Xenas sword. "You wont be needing this any more." Callisto stuck the point into the ground and snapped the blade with her foot, breaking it off at the base. She tossed the hilt to her Chosen, who batted it away in annoyance.
"Then Ill just have to wring the life from you with my bare hands," the dark-haired warrior hissed as she kicked out, connecting solidly with Callistos jaw. Anger warred with the need to just lay down and die, but Xena wanted Callisto to pay. And pay she would.
Callisto twisted her neck, popping it back into place and grinned wickedly. "Oh, that felt good. Youre trying to tease me arent you."
Leaping off the wagon, Xenas foot came back up and struck the goddess again, coming back on the follow-through and striking from the other side. She kept at it for several blows, sending Callistos head snapping violently side to side from the impacts.
The goddess free hand leapt up and caught Xenas boot and held it for a moment. Then with a look of disdain she thrust it forcefully away, causing her opponent to have to flip in mid-air so as not to land on the ground.
"For someone whos crying out for my blood, you arent doing a good job of it. Perhaps you need some pointers?" Callisto snarled.
"I dont need advice from you," Xena replied, her hand coming to rest on her chakram. She drew it up before her and threw it.
The shining ring of god-crafted metal careened off a water barrel, a wagon wheel, and finally one of the crosses, heading towards Callistos head. A moment later, Callisto held the chakram before her and shook her head at Xena with disapproval.
"How many times do we have to play catch, before you realize that anything you can do, I can do," Callisto chastised her Chosen.
As she was threw the weapon back, Xena rolled forward, the chakram just missing her and lodging deep within a stone wall. Standing up, she drove her knee upwards into the goddess midsection. As Callisto began to stumble backward, gasping for breath, Xena reached out and unsheathed the sword that was at Callistos side.
Backing up a step, she brandished the weapon around her body in a dazzling display, more to get a feel for the sword, than as a shield. She neednt have bothered.
The Sword of War fit in her palm as if it had always been there. As if shed been born with this, the ultimate weapon, in her hand. Shed held it once before, although in a different body. And even then shed heard the call that sang in her blood. Shed refused its mantle then...as she did now. All she wanted was a weapon, and she now she had one.
Callisto placed a hand in front of her mouth in mock disbelief. "Oh my! You have my sword. What ever shall I do?"
Xenas answer was her loud battle cry as she took two steps forward, launching herself upwards into the air. Twisting, she came back down behind Callisto and kicked her in the back, knocking her forward onto the ground. With a yell she aimed the blade at the blondes neck, but the goddess quickly rolled out of the way and swept her leg out, tripping the warrior.
Both antagonists quickly got to their feet and squared off again, circling for the moment.
"So, Xena. How does it feel to know that youre bound for Tartarus? Hmm? Or if you live, that youll be cursed with madness when the Furies find out youve killed your mother? How does it feel to know you cut out Gabrielles heart?" Callisto chuckled as she parried a powerful blow, then sidestepped and kicked Xena in the stomach. Grabbing the warriors black hair, she pulled her face down hard onto her armored knee, then let go.
Staggering back a couple of steps, Xena shook the stars out of her head and licked the blood from the corner of her mouth. The thirst for this womans death was out of control now, mixing with the overwhelming guilt she had within. The last tenuous link to her sanity was beginning to drown and weaken under the tide of bloodlust. She knew she should be feeling the grim sensations radiating from Callisto also, but the bond between them was partially blocked somehow and she didnt care. The only clear thought in her blood craved mind was to kill Callisto.
The Goddess of War had done what Xena had learned to do with Ares. She denied herself, as much as was possible, from her Chosen, keeping her mind and emotions separated. Callisto couldnt stop the flow of power that fed Xena, but then the goddess had no intention of trying.
"Id gladly spend eternity in Tartarus, if I can drag you screaming and kicking along with me!"
"Dream on. I get to live forever while you spend your afterlife regretting everything you could have done to stop me. But youre too weak. Too pathetic." Callisto parried another blow and spun, letting Xena go past her. She reached out and drew a long bloody line along Xenas sword arm, the wound more a scratch meant to cause pain than cripple.
An incoherent scream of rage tore through Xenas lips and she turned and swung blow after blow at the goddess, wanting nothing but her blood.
Callisto blocked and parried effortlessly for several moments, then she crossed hilts with her Chosens blade and held her. She stepped closer until their faces almost touched, the only things between them, the air and the two swords. "I dont know why you want to kill me. I mean, really Xena. Your life is just so much more interesting with me in it, wouldnt you agree?"
Xenas lips curled back in a snarl and her strength surged with anger. Flexing hard, she pushed Callisto back and swung her blade, aiming a blow she knew the goddess would have to parry.
Callisto raised her sword and blocked the blow, knowing it was a trap. With a smile on her lips she felt the hard impact of Xenas fist on her jaw. The hit spun her around and she kept with the momentum, rising up in the air and striking back with a kick to armor covered ribs that knocked the warrior back a step.
"Come on, Xena. You can do so much better than this. Im getting tired of playing. Get on with it!" Callisto screamed as she rolled her eyes.
"You talk way too much." Xena said as she dived passed her opponent, the sword leaping out, as if alive, and raking along the goddess abdomen. Rolling forward, she came back up on her feet and spun around, facing Callisto again. She sneered in satisfaction as she saw the wound shed caused.
The deep cut across Callistos belly lay open and raw for only a brief moment, then closed and completely disappeared as if it had never been.
Callisto threw back her head and laughed. "That's supposed to hurt? Come on, Xena, wheres the black hearted bitch I know and love?"
Xena was beyond frustration and rage, she wanted to kill Callisto, but the bitch was a goddess and every slice...every cut, immediately healed. Then it came to her...the answer. She knew how to kill Callisto. As for the consequences, she knew them and in a small part of her mind she screamed at herself to stop, but the guilt and horror of being used to sack and destroy Amphipolis, kill her mother and murder Gabrielle, was more than her mind could bear. That last weak link that held her reason together in one piece, tore apart violently. Her consciousness shredded into a hundred pieces and faces, each whose only thought was beginning to be influenced by the sword in her hand, making her Xena thirst and hunger for...bloodshed. Insanity took over her mind and this time it didnt come from Callisto, but her own broken soul.
"No, that wasnt supposed to hurt," Xena growled, her eyes darkening, "but this will." Her muscles flexed as she lunged forward and impaled Callisto.
She kept shoving the sword further into the blonde goddess until the hilt came up against her abdomen. She was standing so close to Callisto now that their breaths mingled. Anger and anticipation rose up within both women and caressed each other along their bond, melding into one.
"NO!!!" Gabrielle screamed and leaped forward. Gabrielle had watched in silence as the fight had progressed, but now Callistos intentions were clear to her, like a perfect crystal, and the bard knew that she had to stop Xena from taking that final step. But she forgot for a moment that this was all just a dream of the future and she had no substance here and started to fall through Xena and Callisto.
In that instant, Xena took the reins of their bond in her own mental grasp and claimed the Sword of War for her own at the same time. Gabrielle felt a jolt of energy, although faint, go through her own body and mind.
Yes, Xena. Give me what I want, the goddess purred into her Chosen's mind.
Gabrielle fell to the ground and rolled to her side, looking up at the two women, locked in their deadly embrace. She had heard Callistos words, as if the goddess had spoken them in her own mind.
Then, with almost a dreamy smile caressing her lips, Callisto screamed in pain as the Sword of War began to glow. She could feel her godhood draining away and mortality descending back upon her like a heavy cloak.
Blood, thick and crimson, began oozing out of her stomach, dripping down the hilt and flowing over Xena's clenched hands. As her blood flowed to Xena, so did her immortality.
Gabrielles hands trembled in fear as she struggled back up to her feet. She could feel the sword's power rushing through Xenas body, fracturing in the warriors mind and continuing on to explode in a thousand shards of light in her soul. The threads of her consciousness healed, but they didnt come together in the same way, for Xenas vision of herself had changed as she had watched the soil of Amphipolis absorb Gabrielles blood.
Small bolts of bright light caressed the blade from the tip down, through Callisto's body to Xena's hands and beyond. Immense power raced through her, causing her to arch reflexively in both pleasure and pain as lighting bolts played back and forth along her body. Its source was as familiar to the warrior as her voice and it filled her with ecstasyenveloping her almost like a second skin.
War and death.
Focus and need.
Hatred and passion.
It dripped in her mind like the fresh crimson flow of blood from a defeated enemy, feeding on her own dread emotions and finding a like power there.
Ares had been born of Zeus and Hera, a god in his own right. But once he'd picked up this ancient and potent sword, he chained his own godly life force to it. He became everything war meant...or rather what he thought it meant.
Callisto, already a goddess also, took up the power of Ares' godhood and the force of battle that was almost a life-form within the sword. It too felt a kinship within her, but unlike Ares, her focus wasn't on war...but revenge. Her strategies weren't for conquering the world, but to conquer a single woman. Her thirst for blood came from a different spring than either Ares or Xena's. Her need was only slaked when a death caused pain for Xena or was a means to an end.
But in Xena...through Xena, the sword found a very different fountain to drink from.
To Xena, war had once been bloody conquest. Death in its most satisfying and desirable form. To take that which was most precious...life. To Xena, war had been the womb where she was conceived and the battlefield the world she was born into. As for what a warrior was...well, Xena was no mere warrior, but a predator of warriors. That was what she had once defined war as...until shed changed her life and taken a different path.
Now, overwhelmed by guilt, grief, and self-hatred, her mind half-healed by the Sword, everything Xena had, only a few days ago, stood for was gone, drowned in a bloody quagmire, destroyed forever. And in her mental state, she once more believed that Death was her destiny. After all, who was she to argue, since shed killed her best friend and her mother? This was obviously meant to happen.
Gabrielle shuddered as she felt the surge of savage emotions rise up within Xena. Everything that was going through the warrior's mind, she felt, heard, and saw. This was a side of her friend that she barely knew. The past told to her in stories or the rare remembrances that Xena herself had shared. But the feeling, the hunger and thrill, was new to her. Memories and emotions, both her own and Xena's, intertwined in a jumble of chaotic thought.
The dagger glimmered in the low light, resting in her grasp. She turned at the cry of warning and saw the woman come at her again, sword raised high over her head, a look of fanaticism making her face almost glow in the torch light. From deep within her came the instinct and she thrust out, driving the long blade into soft flesh. Past the meager barrier of the white robe. Past the skin, the outer shell, into the soft insides. Blood, thick, warm and wet, washed over the hilt and her hand, as the woman fell forward. Eye to eye, they gazed at each other, both in shock, both in pain. Then the body crumpled, falling away from her. Stunned, she looked down, amazed at how quickly the light went out of the woman's eyes. She looked away, her gaze catching the crimson gleam of metal in her hand and she brought the dagger up closer to her face, her eyes staring at it in both wonder and disbelief. What had just happened?
She parried his thrust with desperation. Fear coursed through her body, drenching her in sweat. This fight was nothing like she had fantasized about and no matter how many stories the old timers told her, it just didnt prepare her for this. She dodged another blow, then swept in with her own blade, feeling the jolt all the way up her arm as it connected, ripping through the meager armor the raider wore and tearing into his flesh. Hot blood sprayed out and splashed over her hands. She looked into his eyes, startled at her action and the surprise in his own gaze. It was like a torch that was suddenly plunged into a bucket of water...the life passing out of him. Almost gracefully, he slid away from her, falling off her blade and to the ground, lifeless. Entranced, she looked at her sword as if seeing it for the first time. She felt new...powerful. What had just changed?
She watched, as she always had, enjoying the rippled movements as her companion dipped and swung her sword in practice. The sun shone off her dark locks and made her bright eyes gleam even brighter. Graceful of form. Powerful force. Dark energy sweeping through the air. She watched and wondered, an ache in her heart as she answered the question.
Catching a slight movement out of the corner of her eye, she turned over and looked at her partner, who lay only a few feet away, unaware of her scrutiny. The soft glow of the coals making the golden hair glitter like fire. Her eyes, hidden, but moving rapidly under soft lids, dreaming. Soft breath on the night wind. The silken skin of her shoulder bared to the winds kiss. Groaning silently, she turned her back and tried to turn her thoughts away as easily. She doubted she would succeed.
Memories of pain...
Overwhelming grief raged through her as she knelt by the cot. Why? Why did she have to give up and die? Hot tears fell from her eyes and washed the still bronzed face as she readied her closest friend for the sarcophagus. No! Not a friend! She meant far more than that simple word. Far more.
heart wrenching sorrow...
Anguish overtook her as she looked down at the still bloody form in her arms. Not even the God of Healing, whose altar she stood next to, could heal the woman who had come to mean so much. And nothing...nothing could heal her heart. Desperation though...could create miracles.
Memories of a time to come. Recollections shared between the future and the present.
The point was driven into her breast with such force, that it knocked the breath from her body. Shocked, she looked into the harsh blue eyes before her, not seeing the friend...the companion, she had once known, but only a stranger. Life slipped from her and the world grew dark, leaving only that cold, unfamiliar gaze for a last remembrance.
Gabrielle echoed the shudder and deep breath that Xena took, the two of them still merged.
She drove the sword deep into the womans chest, right through skin, bone, and soft tissue. It felt delicious, this death. This was power...ultimate power. Far greater than any god could imagine. None of them truly understood this power, for none of them, until recently, had even a minute fear of death. She watched as the green eyes lost their sparkle and became lifeless. Pity. She hadnt been much of a challenge really.
The winds died down and the clouds disappeared as suddenly as they'd come. The last roll of thunder falling away as Callisto's scream also grew silent and drifted off. For a long still moment, it was as if there was nothing in the world except for Callisto and Xena.
"I win," she whispered and gave Xena a last fleeting smile.
Then Callisto slid off the goddess sword, her body limp as it crumpled to the ground. Lifeless.
A goddess no longer.
A mortal dead.
The soft brown eyes stared up at the sky, finally at peace.
Standing above her, the tall, powerful form of the new goddess willingly drowning in the mire that she now represented. War, the passionate, bloody, dark embrace that she believed it to be.
Xenas destiny was fulfilled...and the gods trembled at the thought.
Gabrielle fell to her knees to mind numbing shock, finally free from the horrible connection that had surged between Xena and her.
Xena, her mind whispered the name as the Goddess, her army, and the dead began to slowly fade away. This can't happen! I can't believe that you'd... Gabrielle denied it in her mind.
Her sight became dim and watery and tears started to fall as everything shed seen and experienced finally caught up with her. Her heart cried out against all that she'd witnessed. If this was the future...then it was indeed a bleak one. All the good Xena had done...wiped away and all because of Callisto.
The machinations of the goddess were amazing. Was this her plan from the beginning? To bring Xena into her clutches and make her destroy everything she cared about? To bring the warrior out of the dismal grip of inflicted insanity then drive her deeper into its grim depths from guilt and bloodshed, and reward her nemesis with the peace of death? And to further wreak retribution on the world that she deemed unfair and the warlord she'd hated since she was a child, by giving the gods of Mt. Olympus and the people of Greece a Goddess of War even more fearsome and bloodthirsty than Callisto herself?
Carnage and war would take on a whole new meaning.
The trees of Artemis' Sacred forest again formed around her and she found herself back at the beginning of her dream. Gabrielle continued to cry, bent over, her hands digging into the phantom soil of the Dreamscape.
Tears fell for the slain innocents of Amphipolis. Tears fell for Cyrene, the mother of her own killer, the daughter she'd only just found again. Tears fell for Greece and the rest of the world, which she knew was doomed to kneel at Xena's feet. And tears fell for Xena; the warrior, the woman, and the friend. She was lost and Gabrielle knew if the vision of the future was true, the hero she loved would be forever gone.
"Zeus, she's sexy when she's in a fury! Isn't she?" the cowled man asked, envy and yearning evident in his voice.
"Why have you shown me this?" Gabrielle looked up at the figure, wet tracks of her grief and helplessness running down her face.
"Because you might be able to change it."
The hooded figured just looked at her, refusing to answer.
"Who are you? What do you want from me? What do you get out of this?" the bard demanded, her voice cracking. The Dreamscape was beginning to fade around her, the trees becoming fog and drifting away. She could feel her body grow heavy and the waking world become more real to her as the sensation of soft wool against her skin and the smell of baking bread tickled her senses.
A deep chuckle was her only answer and her last sight of the mysterious figure, as she began to slowly wake, was of strong hands reaching up and pulling back the hood. It was a face Gabrielle had thought never to see again and it brought her completely out of the dream with a jolt.
Sitting straight up in her bed, the gray of dawn's light beginning to show in her huts window, Gabrielle's heart beat rapidly as she opened her eyes.
The End of Passage Into Darkness
To Be Continued in Chains of Love - Part One
Jeez...I didnt realize, until I was almost done, how long this last scene was. *G* It takes up most of the part, doesnt it? It took awhile to write, but there was a lot of information and description I had to put in it. I hope no one fell asleep.
You probably also noticed that there wasn't really a definite ending to Passage Into Darkness, unlike A Crown of Laurel. *Shrug* Since Part 2 of Passage Into Darkness I had a real problem with that, for there wasn't a good spot to end this. A Crown of Laurel ended with Xena and Gabrielle's escape from the Coliseum and Callisto's ascension as the Goddess of War. Pretty clear cut. But nothing like that presented itself to me here.
As for Chains of Love, Ive got the entire rough outline done and Im already working on the first part. I really doubt if it will be as grim as Passage Into Darkness was, and I really hope it wont be. Passage was a real torture to write because, although I had fun writing the dark scenes, I found that I couldnt write much of them without a break. Just too tiring and gruesome, for even me. Getting into and back out of these dark scenes and the characters is hard work, folks. That and the fact that I was lost for awhile, in regards to the plot, is why Passage Into Darkness has taken eight months to write. Uggghhh...Im sure there are a lot of people out there that want to kill me for it too. *G* Oh well. Thats why Im not giving out my real address. Im not insane...just crazy. *L*
Warlord in Training. Member of the Society of Warlords.
Have Katiepult. Will go insane and sack New Xenaland, if I don't get a new episode to watch soon!
"Bard? Where? Oh my goodness! Is it contagious? Do I have to go to the doctor to get it lanced?"