by Scarabae

Chapter 20

Gabrielle's eyes opened into the faint predawn light. She smiled to herself and snuggled in closer against the length of Xena. She looked up and saw Xena's eyes opened and focused on something at the edge of the clearing. Gabrielle turned her head slightly and felt her breath catch in her throat. Callisto.

Xena squeezed the bard gently. Sky and forest bright eyes bore silent witness to the scene before them.

Gabrielle watched in amazement at the gentle caress of Callisto's fingers tracing Ankh's face. Ankh's own hands rested gently on Callisto's bracers, they were gazing deeply into each other's eyes. Callisto tilted her head and kissed Ankh. Dark hair mingling with blond as Ankh's hands moved along the sinewy arms and across the muscular back. The kiss ended and Gabrielle saw Callisto's smile. Not the demented smile she remembered from her nightmares, a sweet, almost innocent, smile. The women stood, holding each other and murmuring before Ankh shook her head slightly and tossed her head in the direction of the camp. Callisto glanced over at where she and Xena lay and then turned back to gaze into Ankh's eyes. Gabrielle would never be sure, but she thought she saw something almost pleading in Callisto's gaze. No more words were exchanged, they seemed to be communicating solely through the gaze they locked on each other. The communication ended in another kiss.

Xena nudged Gabrielle and they both closed their eyes when Ankh moved back towards the camp. The last thing Gabrielle saw was Callisto looking after Ankh before she disappeared in that shimmering blue light that the Gods came and went with. With her eyes still closed, Gabrielle could not tell when Ankh made it back to camp. She opened her eyes to see Ankh sitting beside the embers, tossing on a few bits of wood to revive the flame.

Ankh was gazing pensively into the struggling fire. Her gaze flicked over and caught Gabrielle's. She smiled at the bard, curled around the warrior.

"Feeling better?" She asked.

"Yes. Thank you." Gabrielle replied, feeling shy again, although not sure why. Was it seeing her with Callisto? Listening to Dhomb? Knowing that this woman's former allies were already plotting her demise? Maybe they were telling the truth and Ankh was not at all as she appeared.

Xena shifted and moved to sit up, still holding Gabrielle close. She could feel the tension that had crept through her lover's muscles as the scene between Ankh and Callisto unfolded. She couldn't really blame her, there was something unnerving about the way that Callisto looked at Ankh.

"And you? How was your evening?" Xena asked. Gabrielle looked up at the face of her lover and saw nothing, just mild inquisitiveness.

Ankh looked down at the now blazing fire. A small smile crept across her lips, "Fine. It turned out fine."

"Good. We should get moving as quickly as possible then. We need to make it to the next town before the others do." Xena replied, all business, even as she squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder quickly.

"There is no rush Xena. First something to eat and we will still get there soon enough. We are but three, they are an entire army." Ankh said as she moved towards the saddlebags for the dried grain and fruit. "Besides, Aillia is not really a morning person."

Gabrielle looked up at Xena who shrugged. Ankh was in better spirits undoubtedly, she could only wonder what had happened between Callisto and her.

"Did you see Callisto?" Gabrielle asked cheerfully, this dancing around all these doubts she had was going to drive her insane if they spent the day pretending this wasn't there between them.

Ankh came back to the fire, placing the small pot with the dried grain, dried fruit and water over it.

"I did...I think that outside Aillia's enthrallment, I am falling in love with her." She replied quietly.

Gabrielle and Xena both stared at her. Gabrielle was the first to speak.

"How...How could you fall in love with...with...her?" She tried to understand, she had even allowed herself to forgive Callisto as much as she could. Without her, she would never have realized that her true love was Xena, but that did not minimize all the things she had done merely for the sheer thrill of it.

Ankh did not answer, she merely raised one eyebrow as she glanced between Xena and Gabrielle, settling on Xena for a moment longer, before she went back to stirring the mixture in the pot.

"The same way you could love me Gabrielle." Xena answered quietly, struggling to keep her anger in check at Ankh's insinuating glance.

Gabrielle opened her mouth to argue, but wasn't sure what she could say. The Xena she knew wasn't like that...Except, she had seen Xena's darkness, had seen the cold empty eyes filled only with fury and hate. Knew first hand what kind of violence her lover was capable of. She sighed, frustrated and a little bit shamed.

"I am sorry. I honestly do not know what is going to happen, I only know that the equinox is tonight and Aillia will be making plans. Perhaps my feelings really are part of the enthrallment and once that and the geas are broken this will be a moot point. Or I could lose and be destroyed. That is for tomorrow's dawn to know. I have to get a sword when we get to town. My life will not be dictated by the venom of Aillia and my own guilt any longer."

"But do you know which side Callisto will be fighting on? You could be facing 3 women leading an army out for your blood." Xena asked, smiling despite herself.

Ankh laughed, "I do not know, but is that not every warrior's nightmare?" She shook her head at the image.

"I want to thank you both again. Certainly this has done nothing but inconvenience you. I am fortunate to have found you." Ankh said, ladling the gruel mixture into mugs and handing them over to Xena and Gabrielle.

"I don't know, it's almost refreshing to not be the central target of conniving Gods and angry Warlords." Gabrielle said as she took her mug.

"Gabrielle." Xena shot a 'look' at the smaller woman with mock seriousness.

"C'mon Xena, admit it, it's almost a relief." Gabrielle grinned up at the warrior.

"Aye, I would offer my...maybe I should be careful what I say since you never know who's listening. I'd trade places with you." Ankh agreed chuckling.

The sun rose to find the three woman laughing and sharing stories. Xena had to admit that this Ankh was much more pleasant to be around than the indecisive brooding woman. Once finished with their breakfast, they quickly broke camp and headed towards the town.

"Dhomb? Dhomb?" Zanten gently nudged the prone form of his lover, wincing at the bruise that flowered across his temple.

"Uhnh." Dhomb groaned, Ankh could still pack a mean punch. He owed her one, that was for sure.

"Dhomb, what happened? The shift change found the late shift tied up, I came here and find the girl gone and you like this." Zanten gently lifted the other man, pressing a cool rag against the bruise.

"Ow! Ankh came. Who else could have dispatched the guards, and known where they were? She nailed me before I could react." Dhomb answered, glad that he could keep his eyes closed under the guise of pain.

"Was she alone?" Zanten asked, noticing the rip in the side of the tent.

"I don't know, I didn't really have a lot of time to visit with her." Dhomb snapped his reply. Despite what was going on, he believed, and knew Ankh did too, that the 2 women who aided her should be involved as little as possible. He wouldn't set Hecate and Aillia loose on his worst enemies, much less innocent bystanders.

"No matter. Come, we need to meet in Sharia's tent. Do you need more time? I can excuse you. Everyone would understand." Zanten replied stonily, something was not right here. Dhomb was not a heavy sleeper, even if Ankh was as stealthy as a shadow. This was an exercise the two of them had played often. Zanten could not remember the times he awoke to Dhomb leaping out of bed and grabbing Ankh from behind curtains, down from the ceiling, from beneath their bed.

"No, no. I will be there in a moment. I just need to clean up a bit." Dhomb rolled off the bed and held his head for a moment. Least she could have done was remove some of the pain. He thought as he moved towards the pitcher and basin. Zanten watched him for a moment and then exited.

Dhomb splashed cool water against his face and patted it dry. He looked at his reflection. He took his hand and placed it over the bruise. He closed his eyes and felt the healing blue wash through his temple. "Ahh, better." He sighed as he shook the heat from his hand.

He ran his fingers through his hair and ducked beneath the flap to head towards Sharia's tent. He had traveled with Ankh on many a campaign and seen her make many a mistake when it came to matters of the heart. He struggled with his own doubt, was Ankh truly that changed here that he would need to fight against her with Aillia as an ally? He had wanted Aillia destroyed once and for all. Ankh had argued passionately on her behalf, as had the old witch. From that day, they had never truly been rid of her. Even Zanten would not discuss Dhomb's position to kill her. Arnaia had understood, having lived in her dungeon for several moons. She knew the horrors that AIllia could wreak. Yet, Arnaia did not seem troubled by this turn of events? Or was she?

A low scream pierced the air from Arnaia's tent. Dhomb broke into a trot when he saw Zanten come out from the tent.

"She's dead." He cried.

Dhomb, Sharia and AIllia all converged on the tent at once. Zanten led them back in. Sure enough, Arnaia lay on her bed, her throat slit from ear to ear. Dhomb stood stunned, Sharia let out a small scream. "How could Ankh have done this?" Dhomb whirled to face her.

"Ankh? What makes you think Ankh did this?" He retorted, something was definitely not right here.

They all turned to face him. "The girl is gone, you were attacked, and lucky to be alive obviously." Aillia said, nodding towards Arnaia's form. "You yourself said it was Ankh."

Dhomb looked into the hard center of those silver eyes, Ankh had not killed Arnaia. He suspected he was looking at her killer right now.

"Why would Ankh kill Arnaia? She had no cause too." He turned towards Sharia.

"Why would Ankh do anything she has done here?" Sharia spat as Aillia placed a reassuring arm on her shoulder.

Dhomb kept quiet. He knew that Ankh could not have killed Arnaia, she had not used an edged weapon since that incident with the sword. The sword that Aillia now wore at her side.

"Come, we'll go back to our tent and decide the best way to deal with Ankh." Aillia purred, guiding Sharia back to the entrance of the tent. Zanten cast a look across to Dhomb as he followed the two women out. Dhomb sighed and moved to cover Arnaia's body. He looked down at the still face, then covered it with the blanket.

"I am sorry this had to happen. It seems that we are but pawns Aillia's vengeance against Ankh and all any of us is doing is apologizing.." He murmured and then made his way to Sharia's tent.

"We have no choice but to attack Ankh the minute she makes her appearance." He heard Aillia's voice coming from behind the flap.

"It should not be a problem. She is a good fighter, but not against all of us at once." He heard Zanten's reply. Dhomb's heart sank. He wondered if any of them except Aillia would be standing when this was all over?

"You forget, Ankh has defeated us all at once." Dhomb said as he entered the tent.

"When she still used a sword. Ankh only fights hand to hand now, and we can defeat her. You defeated her yesterday." Zanten continued his line of reasoning.

"I defeated her because she was surprised to see me. I assure you, she won't be surprised a second time." Dhomb replied, not wanting to see the look in Zanten's eyes.

"What if she brings the Warrior Princess and the girl?" He added.

"What if she comes with her new lover?" Sharia snarled from her seat by the maps. Dhomb wondered if she would transform again, but it looked like she was keeping her anger in check. It did not escape him that Aillia had her hand at the back of Sharia's neck.

"I can handle any aid she may bring." Aillia smiled, massaging Sharia's neck. If nothing else ever happened, this was almost good enough. They were all undecided and distrustful of one another. Zanten was back under her influence, Sharia, there was never a question she could harness that unnatural rage. She had taken care of Arnaia. Now there was only Dhomb.

Chapter 21

Callisto followed silently along side the three women. She had gone to leave, but could not bring herself to leave Ankh. The memory of Ankh surrendering to her completely and she to her burned in Callisto's mind. More than that was the gentle way Ankh had held her, stroking her hair, her face. Ankh listening to her speak of the rage that she had towards Xena, her life since Cirrah had burned. Being trapped in the lava, which had appeared cool to Callisto compared to the anger she felt. The emptiness of her revenge. How she had done Hope's bidding for the promise of complete oblivion. Before she had been trapped again in the cave, and she would have stayed there. Until Aillia came. Things Callisto had not spoken to anyone, not even herself. She admitted to the occasions when she had aided women who had reminded her of her mother and sister. Ankh listened, didn't try to interject about choices, good and evil, forgiveness. Only looked at her with those shifting silver eyes. The sound of her laughter had called to Callisto from the forest.

The emptiness she had felt, the vengeance she knew for so long, all such dark consuming emotions struggled with this obsession to be near this woman, but something else, the part of her that had longed for peace for so long, would not be denied.

Ankh stopped, looking into the brush. Xena pulled Argo to a halt, Gabrielle lifted her staff.

"Show yourself." Xena called into the brush, her hand at the hilt of her sword.

The arrogant sound of her voice and the fluidity of the warrior's movements touched upon the vengeance that more like a habit for Callisto. She took two steps and flew through the air, shrieking.

"Callisto." Gabrielle swung her staff up, Ankh watched the woman she left this morning catapulting towards Xena. Ankh took one step, leapt and tackled Callisto in mid air. Xena's sword was drawn as the two lovers split apart and faced off.

"What are you doing?" Ankh shouted at Callisto, amazed at the dark fury that blazed in those brown eyes turning them almost black.

Callisto snarled at Ankh, aware that Xena had dismounted and was watching her keenly.

"Hello Xena, miss me?" Callisto taunted as she turned towards the dark warrior. Ankh stood, tensed.

"Lots." Xena replied dryly hefting her sword before her.

"I would hate to think what you've been doing without me around." Callisto smiled sweetly before raising her hand towards Xena. The fireball hurled towards Xena who leapt out of the way.

"Callisto!" Ankh cried as the blonde woman frowned at Xena's escape.

"I know dear, I really should do this the old fashioned way." She purred as she reached around and pulled her sword out. She let loose another scream and raced towards Xena.

Metal clashed against metal as the two warriors met. For every attack there was a counterattack. They were equally matched foes. Ankh waited until Xena had driven Callisto back towards her, then she swept the blonde goddess's feet out from under her and leapt on her chest. She heard the sound of Xena's sword whistling down and then stop.

"Get out of the way." Xena growled, her sword barely above Ankh's collarbone.

Ankh did not respond, she straddled Callisto, pinning her arms by her side.

"Unh unh unh lover, we have time for this later." Callisto grinned maniacally at the woman above her, she bucked her hips to flip Ankh off. Ankh spun over her head, grasping at Callisto's armor and pulling her along with her.

Callisto's scream of rage filled the air again as she landed facing Ankh.

"Let go of me!" She shrieked, breaking Ankh's grip on her armor.

"Look at me!" Ankh said forcefully, stepping in to fill the space between her and Callisto.

Callisto moved to strike the woman out of her way, a strong hand clamped around her wrist. Ankh held the clenched fist that was beginning to glow again, her fingers digging into the bracer. Her silver eyes blazed into Callisto's fury shadowed eyes.

Callisto tried to break the gaze but could not. She felt the power of that gaze cut through her and lay her open.

Gabrielle and Xena watched the confrontation. They watched as Ankh forced Callisto's arm down to her side, saw the reddish tinge fade from Callisto's hand as she slowly unclenched her fist. Xena still held her sword ready and Gabrielle felt a wave of sorrow for Ankh and that her love could not truly heal all of Callisto.

"Do not ever raise a hand to me unless you mean to kill me." Ankh spoke in a low voice, pushing Callisto back slowly. "Now you can leave or you can apologize."

Callisto tried to lift her arm, but was surprised when she could not break the other woman's grip.

"I apologize to no one." Callisto snarled back even as she felt herself succumbing to the intensity that burned in those moon reflected eyes. Her body shuddered from deep within at the memory of the same elegant fingers that were wrapped around her wrist touching her innermost center last night.

Ankh saw the rage die and passion blaze in its place in those earth deep eyes. She steeled herself against that desire.

"Sheath your sword and apologize or go back from whence you came." Ankh said again, so softly that only Callisto heard her.

Xena's hand flew to her Chakram as she saw Callisto lift her sword, then relaxed only slightly when she slid it into it's sheath slung across her back. Callisto looked deeply into Ankh's eyes, searching for the glimmer of love she knew was there. When she found it, she nodded slightly and Ankh broke the gaze. Callisto turned towards Xena, her body still tense.

"Just trying to keep you on your feet, Warrior Princess. Sorry about attacking you. Callisto said flippantly. She would not show the Warrior Princess her weakness. Nor did she want to see the look on the bard's face.

Xena stood, not sure if this was a trick or not. The tension between the two women hovered in the air.

"Xena, Gabrielle, allow me to introduce you to my lover, Callisto. I believe you may actually know her already?" Ankh interjected smoothly. Sliding her fingers to intertwine with the woman who stood beside her. Callisto turned to look at Ankh, her fingers wrapping themselves in automatic response. She marveled at Ankh's implicit trust of her even as the hatred she had nurtured for so long screamed against this declaration before her sworn enemy.

Gabrielle cleared her throat, "Hello Callisto." was all she could say. What does one say to the vision of their nightmare personified? Xena only nodded before moving back to Argo. She swung up into the saddle and held her hand out to Gabrielle. She knew the force of the geas and the control it had over darkness, but didn't trust Gabrielle walking beside Callisto.

"Oh don't worry Xena, I won't do anything to your precious little bard." The old singsong tone crept into Callisto's voice.

"Callisto." Ankh murmured, squeezing her fingers. Would she be able to control the hate that burned so strongly in this woman. What would happen when the geas was broken? Would she have to fight Callisto as well. Her heart ached as she pulled gently and started walking again.

Gabrielle allowed herself to be pulled up behind Xena. She wrapped her arms around the soft leather encased waist, taking comfort in the warmth and feel of her lover.

Callisto's felt the tingling from her hand, up her arm, across her shoulders and into her chest. Ankh looked over at her and smiled. Callisto wanted to take her away, into the forest, someplace where she could spend forever with her.

"Xena." Gabrielle whispered into the warrior's ear.

"Hmm." Gabrielle felt rather than heard the reply.

"Do you see the way Callisto looks at Ankh? I think she is in love with her." Gabrielle watched Callisto and Ankh as they walked ahead. Side by side, not quite touching, save for the small intimate gestures. A brush of shoulders here, pushing back strands of hair, an occasional clasping and unclasping of hands. The sound of Callisto's laughter had startled her. It wasn't that twisted girlish giggle, the sound of madness chortling, but real laughter. She had a nice laugh, and around Ankh, it flowed easily.

Xena glanced back briefly at Gabrielle, her face unreadable. "We won't know until tomorrow I guess." She replied. Callisto was a Goddess, borne of Ambrosia but inspired, motivated, compelled by the hate she felt for Xena. Could Callisto truly have discovered the part of her that could love? She had never spoken to Gabrielle about the terrified young girl's voice that had screamed at her in Tartarus. Xena still struggled sometimes with letting Callisto die, she was haunted the most by the question of her redemption. Yet Callisto had planned to kill Gabrielle and settled for Perdicus instead. Poor Perdicus, the simple farm boy whose thread had become tangled in things he knew nothing of. Callisto did give Gabrielle back to her. Did she do it on purpose or was she just acting on her madness? Seducing Ares to let her come back once more to torment Xena, then defying him to see her vengeance carried out. Callisto had felt guilt, otherwise Xena could not have escaped from Tartarus. But this was the same she spawn that had worked with Hope...And helped that monster kill her son. How much forgiveness could she afford to someone who caused her so much pain? Xena sighed to herself, the answer to that was behind her. Gabrielle had forgiven Callisto, and she had forgiven Xena. Wasn't that why they had gone to Illusia? And she had seen her son again, told him the truth, finally. And he knew - and loved her still. Did she have the right to deny Callisto anything?

Sensing the warrior's unwillingness to discuss Callisto, Gabrielle changed the subject,"How much longer to AEgina? I am famished."

"Beyond the next rise." Xena nodded towards the path that sloped upward.

"We should be careful there, AEgina is known for their worship of Hecate." Gabrielle said, wondering which aspect of the dark moon goddess they worshipped.

"We'll be ok. Artemis is worshipped there as well." Ankh called back over her shoulder.

"You are a worshipper of Artemis?" Callisto asked, a slight edge creeping into her voice.

"No. I find it difficult to believe in Gods that use mortals to settle squabbles they have with each other. In the guard I made a pledge to be Artemis's champion. I have honored it because she has honored it." Ankh explained, glancing over at Callisto. Then she leaned over and whispered, "But you don't seem to have a problem with the way I worship you." Callisto's eyes widened slightly and she felt an unfamiliar sensation creeping along her neck and towards her face. Ankh smiled to see the red flush of a blush spread across the goddess's fine features.

"Then you cannot be under the enthrallment. Artemis is chaste." Gabrielle spoke from the horse, completely oblivious to the exchange between Ankh and Callisto.

Ankh smiled, "She may be chaste but I am not. Nor was it Aphrodite's doing, no, this was something that involved darker forces. Now, I am enthralled by my own free will."

Callisto caught Ankh smirking at her. Smirk now, she thought to herself, because when I get you alone. Callisto let the thought entertain her as they moved towards the city.

The women all entered AEgina in silence.

Chapter 22

The four women sat silently in the tavern of the Inn. Ankh sat looking at the sword she had purchased. Callisto had carried it back to the Inn for her. Xena and Gabrielle could not help but share a small chuckle at the sight of Callisto carrying Ankh's sword when they had entered the Inn. Callisto caught their eyes and sneered when she saw them chuckling. Her demeanor was marginally affected with them, she was still coy, taunting and sometimes cruel. The difference was most noticeable when she engaged with Ankh. There was an intensity in the way each woman gazed upon the other. Ankh made Callisto smile, and the brilliance of the smile she elicited startled both Xena and Gabrielle. Ankh and Gabrielle told story after story, while Xena and Callisto were the amused audience. Callisto did not necessarily engage with Xena and Gabrielle, her eyes mostly for Ankh, but she was visibly relaxed. The late morning became afternoon fairly quickly.

"We should get some rest, whatever happens tonight will happen when the moon is at its peak." Xena finally said as she rose from the table, Gabrielle followed her lead and also rose.

Ankh nodded her agreement, while Callisto, her attention diverted from Ankh by Xena's voice turned to gaze up at her. The mocking sing song tone of her voice returned, "Always the leader. Always thinking. Such a clever mind. When I grow up, I want to be just like you"

Ankh frowned slightly then leaned over and whispered into Callisto's ear. Whatever she said prompted darkened brown eyes to light up and Callisto to grin gleefully at Xena.

"We'll be here at dusk. Don't do anything that I don't plan on doing." Callisto practically leapt from the table, grabbing Ankh's sword and heading towards the stairs.

"I am sorry, I know that it is not for me to apologize for her behavior, but I am sorry nonetheless." Ankh nodded in the direction of Callisto. "My plan is simple...Go in, stop Sharia and Aillia, break the geas. It should not be hard, I know how all of them strategize. We've all seen the temple, so a plan should not be difficult to implement. Most of their energy will be focused on me after all." Ankh gave a sad smile to Xena and Gabrielle before leaving to join Callisto at the stairs.

"Xena, how is Ankh going to break the geas exactly?" Gabrielle asked as they watched her go, hearing Callisto's delighted laughter as they headed up the stairs.

Xena glanced down at the lovely woman beside her, a shadow behind her smile.

"She has to kill Sharia."

"Sharia? Sharia is her blood bound lover. How can she kill that which she is bound too?" Gabrielle thought she understood the flicker of sadness in the warrior's ocean deep eyes.

"It may be a curse, as far as I can understand. Ankh seems to know. Widgie explained it better." Xena said as she turned to head towards the stairs as well.

"You saw Widgie? What did she say? Xena, why didn't you tell me about this?" Gabrielle followed the lithe form of her lover up the stairs. They heard a door slam shut just as they reached the head of the stairs.

"I'll tell you what I can remember." Xena replied as she opened the door to their room. Gabrielle opened her mouth to ask another question but could not seem to get it closed when she saw the room. She finally let out a delighted laugh.

"Ankh certainly knows how to make room arrangements doesn't she?" She said slipping in behind Xena. There was a platter of fruit, cheeses and bread, a large tub filled with steaming water, oil warming, towels, even two new shifts laying on the bed.

"Should we even ask how she came by the dinars to afford this? Or why we are bathing before a battle? This would be better if it were later." Xena grumbled half heartedly as she shut the door.

"Come on Xena, let's relax...We have the afternoon to ourselves. I can guess why she had the room arranged this way, seize the moment. And I think a nice hot bath would do us a world of good." Gabrielle smiled wickedly over at the warrior princess as she began to remove her clothes. Xena raised her eyebrow and she moved towards Gabrielle.

"Seize what?" She said slyly moving towards the bard.

Gabrielle gave her warrior an innocent look, which quickly disappeared as the taller woman removed her armor.

"Oh, this is going to be nice evening." Gabrielle said as they melted into each other for a long kiss, flesh against flesh. They broke apart, eyes shining, cheeks flushed. Holding onto each other's arms for support, they both stepped into the tub and slid down into the warm water.

They were each enveloped in the luxurious warmth. Gabrielle leaned her head back against the edge of the tub. She opened her eyes to the feel of Xena's lips against her neck. "Mmmm. Hello there." She murmured, as she felt the warrior's hands sliding down the length of her body.

"Hello yourself." Xena murmured into Gabrielle's neck as she felt the bard's hands mimic her own. ---

Callisto was drinking from Ankh's lips. Even before they'd made it up the stairs, Callisto pressed Ankh against the wall, kissing her with barely restrained need. They barely slipped into the room before Xena and Gabrielle came up the stairs.

"Callisto." Ankh moaned into the kiss, pressing her back against the door. There was a feral sensuality about Callisto that drew Ankh in.

When she moved, it was with the grace of a large cat. There was power in that grace. Predatory power, as if a primal force purred away in her chest. The allure of that lithe movement - the feeling of something savage beneath that beauty. It was both breathtaking and unnerving. Ankh's new sword fell to the floor as they pressed into one another, lips and tongues dancing, while hands that started with slow caresses became more urgent.

"Mmm. No. Wait." Ankh pulled away, trying to control the passion coursing through her body.

"What is it?" Callisto asked, moving forward and feathering light kisses down the line of Ankh's neck to her shoulder.

"Mmm. I have plans...I want to spoil you." Ankh murmured, even as she leaned her head back to allow those lips more access.

"Oh, I have plans too...I need to repay you for that little comment about worshipping." Callisto replied into the soft flesh, capturing a small fold lightly in her teeth, sucking with soft pressure.

"No. I mean it. I don't know what the dawn will bring, and I want you to know..." Ankh stopped, trying to gather her thoughts back from the haze of desire that was rapidly descending upon her. She pulled reluctantly away from Callisto and with her fingertips tilted Callisto's chin so that her gaze met her own. Ankh fell into the fire that burned in those deep brown eyes. "I want you to know how much I love you." She finally whispered.

Callisto was losing herself in those fathomless mercury eyes that gazed at her so intently. The words Ankh spoke scared her. She had not thought it possible that she could love again. She had been convinced that her heart had burned away the night her mother and sister died. She had accepted the cold rage that consumed her, compelled her, controlled her. And when she had realized how empty the sounds of Xena's anguish were, she became even more convinced that her heart was dead. Yet, here was this woman who ignited something besides rage in her, found the still warm remains of her heart, wakened and made her feel things in her deepest soul. A soul that she had thought she had bartered long ago. The price for her obsession. Callisto could not explain what it was. Not her total surrender to Callisto or even the implicit trust she gave. Callisto had killed others who had fawned over her, surrendered to her, trusted her. Though admittedly, Callisto herself had surrendered to no one before Ankh. Something else in this dark haired starry-eyed woman had found it's way past the emptiness, the disappointment, the fury and hate. Found it's way and then settled in the tiniest remaining shred of her soul. Her own words to Xena came back to haunt her, "That heart of yours is a bit of a problem. I no longer seem to have one." She did and Ankh had found it.

Ankh saw the confusion and almost panic in her lover's dark eyes. She wrapped her fingers around Callisto's and pulled Callisto into the room. She had arranged to have their room set up as she had for Xena and Gabrielle. A steaming tub, oil, fruit, bread, cheeses, and thick towels.

She pulled Callisto to the tub and began to undo the warrior's armor slowly. Placing gentle kisses on the warrior's shoulders, her neck, along her spine. Callisto shivered both from the kisses and the gentleness of Ankh's touch. She turned to reach and draw Ankh to her, Ankh took her hands and kissed each palm lightly. She looked at Callisto and shook her head. Once she had completely disrobed the blonde warrior she slipped out of her own clothes. Ankh's gaze traveled over Callisto's slender form, she was beautiful. She blushed slightly when she looked up to see Callisto's eyes moving over her own body with the same appreciation glittering in them.

Ankh slowly drew Callisto closer. Her skin tingling as they flowed into each other, thigh sliding between thigh, abdomen against abdomen, breast against breast. She reached up and drew the back of her fingers down the blonde woman's cheek, then gently traced the outline of her lips with her fingertips. She leaned forward and replaced her fingers with tentative lips. They kissed softly, slowly, barely breathing.

Ankh drew back again, feeling her pulse begin to accelerate. She had to be patient, she had to show the woman beneath the goddess before her with her actions that the love she had for her was not just desire, not just the sweet release. To convey to her that she loved her, body, mind, heart and soul.

Callisto felt the power of the emotion in the gentleness of Ankh's attentions. Even though the nearness of her lover, the feel of their flesh together, her soft touches and light kisses were making every nerve sing. As fierce as Ankh had been the evening before, she was now tentative, almost shy. Callisto moaned softly as she felt Ankh move away again and lead her into the steaming water.

Ankh shifted and settled behind Callisto, moving the dampened blond hair to the side so she could kiss the back of her neck, across her shoulders. She leaned back and pulled Callisto back with her, so that her lover's head rested just below her chin. Her hands floated lazily over her collarbone, chest, down her stomach.

Callisto tilted her head to look up at Ankh. Trembling at the light tracings of Ankh's fingers.

"Will you let me love you shadow warrior of mine?" Ankh murmured softly, leaning forward, her dark hair falling forward as she kissed Callisto, nibbling on the prone woman's lower lip.

Callisto's reply was in the arching of her back so she could taste more of Ankh's lips.

Chapter 23

Gabrielle snuggled closer to Xena's flushed body, "You are so beautiful Xena." She whispered into Xena's ear.

"Uhmm." was Xena's reply as she turned her head to capture Gabrielle's lips with her own.

The two lovers kissed, rolling back into each other. A light knock on the door startled them both.

Xena reached for her sword and called out. "Yes?"

"Pardon me, but it was asked that we let you know when the moon crested the treetops." A young woman's voice said.

"Fine. Thank you." Xena replied, releasing her sword.

"Ankh is very thorough isn't she?" Gabrielle giggled, then grew serious. "Do you think she will survive?" She asked, looking up into the magnificently more than blue eyes that had captured her heart so long ago.

"If we have anything to do with it she will." Xena tried to reassure the woman in her arms. In truth, she wasn't sure what the morning sun would reveal.

Gabrielle leaned up and kissed Xena again, wrapping her arms tightly her. They pulled apart reluctantly.

"Xena. About what has happened between us. I..."

"Gabrielle, I know. I would apologize to you every waking moment of the day that we spend together if all those words didn't sound so empty and hollow. All those times I tried to protect you..And the monster you needed the most protection from - was me."

"All the things that have happened to us. But it is Ankh that has been the one to help us build a bridge back to one another. I've missed this Xena. Can we truly deny Callisto a chance at redemption? Do either one of us have the power to make that judgement? I would die if you were to be judged and then condemned forever to be away from me. I have grown up and you have too. The love I have now..." Gabrielle's voice trailed off.

"The love we have now." Xena replied, not wanting to move from her current position.

"We should get ready." Gabrielle said as she half-heartedly tried to move off the bed. Xena held on for a moment and the two women snuggled together before they each sighed and slid out of the warm bed.

They dressed as quickly as pausing for kisses and lingering touches allowed.

Down the hall, Ankh and Callisto were doing the same. Callisto felt like she had finally begun to live again. Ten years in her self imposed hatred, then the numbing emptiness and now she had found some reprieve. She moved, acutely aware of the woman beside her.

Ankh moved to where her new sword lay, she picked it up gingerly and tested it for balance, swinging it once or twice before she resheathed it.

"You handle that well." Callisto murmured as she moved towards her, helping Ankh adjust the position of the sword across Ankh's back so she could draw it swiftly and smoothly.

Ankh turned shadowed eyes to Callisto. "No matter what happens, I hope that you will always hold this evening in your heart." She said, her voice filled with sorrow.

Callisto cupped Ankh's face in her hands. "How could I ever forget? Tonight, you gave me back my soul and stole my heart."

Ankh grasped Callisto's wrists, wishing that her words were true, and that once this was over, she could come back here with this woman and spend a thousand days and nights discovering answers to the mystery that she was.

They met again in another sweet kiss and broke apart with regret. Ankh turned and opened the door.

They saw Xena and Gabrielle just heading towards the stairs. The dark haired warrior and the strawberry blonde bard waited as they caught up.

"Thank you Ankh." Gabrielle said as they moved down the stairs.

"You are welcome. It was the least I could do to repay you." Ankh replied, smiling at the younger woman.

Callisto gave a cursory glance during this short exchange, but kept quiet. Walking behind Xena, she felt the flicker of rage threatening to ignite and blaze across this happiness she felt. She knew it was more habit than anything, she quelled the anger by focusing on Ankh's face as they walked.

They all stepped out into the cool night air. Ankh crouched down in the street and drew out their plan of attack. In a brief time, they agreed upon a strategy based on Ankh's information regarding past battles. Once their consensus had been reached, they moved through the quiet streets silently, their path illuminated by Artemis's grace. The nearer they got to the temple, the heavier the night air felt. Xena and Callisto both reached back for their swords. Gabrielle and Ankh both noticed the other noticing the eerie synchronization of their movements. Green eyes met silver in acknowledgement of the strange position of the other. Gabrielle raised her staff and Ankh fell back into a fighting stance.

From silence to chaos, the air filled with leaping figures and they found themselves surrounded by soldiers wearing dark armor. Ankh's lips curled back into a sneer, her crest had been bastardized to include Hecate's emblem. Very nice Aillia, she thought. The soldiers moved in, swords glistening in the moonlight.

"Aaai yi yi yi yi yi." Xena's sword flashed as she deflected an oncoming blow. Her cry was echoed by Callisto's rage filled shriek as she too moved forward, her sword piercing the gut of the soldier that rushed towards her while her other hand glowed and ignited a soldier foolish enough to attack her other side.

Ankh ducked her first attacker, her leg flashing out and breaking the knee and then up into his chest, propelling him back into the soldier behind him. Gabrielle staff arced clocking two soldiers across the temples.

Each woman fought, focused only on the apparently never-ending onslaught of soldiers. Xena and Callisto grinned maniacally as they slashed and parried the onslaught of idiots with their death wishes. Callisto having a wider arc as the soldiers quickly realized that even if they did attack her, she did not bleed or seem to tire. Instead, she would turn blazing eyes upon them and incinerate them faster than they could blink. Gabrielle was driven back towards the center of their small circle, looking for an opening in her attackers onslaught. Ankh and Gabrielle stepped back simultaneously, Ankh stumbling over the bard's ankle and tumbling backwards. Gabrielle felt Ankh fall back and struggled to keep her balance and her attention on the soldier before her. The two soldiers attacking Ankh smiled. One went for Gabrielle, the other for her. Ankh tried to flip off the ground to stop both attackers at once, but her footing was wrong. Ankh saw one sword coming down towards her, the other swinging at Gabrielle. She caught the blade between her palms and saw a flash of silver as a dagger buried itself in her second attacker's throat. He staggered back, his sword falling from limp hands. The bard never knew of her imminent danger as she forced her initial attacker back. Ankh's leg connected squarely her attacker's groin, he groaned and fell forward, releasing his sword, Ankh slid out from beneath his falling form, turning the sword so he impaled himself.

She rose and saw a new batch of soldiers already rushing in to take advantage of her position, eyes half lidded, her hand finally went to the hilt of her own sword. She had no choice, in one fluid movement, she drew the weapon. Fingers gripped around soft leather, she felt the tingling from her fingertips to her groin as she fell into the familiar stance. Block, block, thrust, pull back, downward slash, arcing back up, there, slashing across the vulnerable point, an exposed throat. Block, block again, kneel, backfist, pull back, drive the blade deep into the foolish attacker behind her. The sword danced in her hand, oh the feel of it, it's weight, it's power, the sleek beauty in it's destructive force. The addition of Ankh's sword with the skilled prowess of her companions soon turned their attackers back. Gabrielle struck one last attacker and turned in time to see Callisto kick a soldier off her sword. Callisto looked over and saw Gabrielle watching her, she winked at the bard before whipping her head around to see if there were any other attackers. Gabrielle tried not to blanch at the smell of burning flesh mingled with the coppery smell of blood.

Gabrielle shook her head and located the familiar figure of her lover walking back towards her. The sound of swords clashing drew three pairs of eyes towards a battle between Ankh and one last attacker. She was forcing him back with one blow after another, it was too his credit that he was at least able to deflect her blows. She struck once, twice, then went for a side attack, as he moved his blade down to defend, she changed the arc and grasping the hilt in both hands, plunged it down into the hollow where his throat met his collarbone. Gabrielle turned her eyes away at the sheer force that she saw the sword go through and come out his back. Ankh's piercing gaze stared down into the surprised expression of the dying man's eyes, letting his own falling weight free him of her sword. She turned back to join the others, the sword still held ready in her grip, her body tingling, and her heart racing.

Callisto felt a new hunger rising in her as she saw the bloodrage that blazed in her lover's silver eyes. She wore the blood of those she defeated like new ribbons. Xena saw the blood and the fire in Ankh's eyes as well, she suspected that the reason Ankh gave up her sword was for more than she had stated. The child's death may have been the catalyst, but Xena guessed that if she was in such a bloodrage now, she may well have seen the child coming at her head on and not stopped the killing stroke. She felt her forearm twitch at the weight of her own sword. She knew what that bloodrage was like.

Ankh's body was alive, the blood singing through her veins. She barely registered the expressions on her companion's faces. She felt rather than saw Callisto's hunger devouring her with fierce eyes, Xena's expression revealed little, but her eyes were dark with shadows. When her eyes flickered over Gabrielle it was the young woman's expression that was like a splash of cold water in her face. There was a disappointment and almost fear in them.

Gabrielle who wasn't sure what to make of this woman walking towards her. She had thought of Ankh as a woman who knew how to fight in order to defend herself. The blood that dripped off her sword and the fire in those metal eyes told her this was not the case.

Ankh looked down, trying to clear her mind. She saw the dagger that had saved Gabrielle earlier. Using the action as an excuse to regather her thoughts, she bent down to retrieve it. Wiping it off she moved forward and joined the other women. She held the dagger out to Xena, "Here's your dagger."

Xena looked at the dagger and shook her head. "It isn't mine, it's Callisto's." She recognized the hilt pattern from Callisto's sword.

"I was wondering what had happened to it." Callisto smiled wickedly as she took the dagger and replaced it at her waist. She clasped Ankh's wrist with her other hand and pulled her towards her. She kissed Ankh quickly but passionately. "I like this side of you." She whispered as she pulled away from the stunned woman.

Xena could not read the expression on Ankh's face. She did not say anything, out of the corner of her eye she had seen how close Gabrielle had come to being seriously wounded or killed. Had it not been for Callisto's dagger...

Chapter 24

Ankh stopped before the temple door, she touched Xena's arm lightly.

"No matter what, if anything happens to me, or if it doesn't look good, get out of there. Please." She asked the tall warrior softly. Xena nodded her assent. Ankh paused for a moment, then opened the temple door and stepped through, leading in with her sword.

"Welcome my sister. You made it with little time to spare. It won't be long before you will be mine completely." Aillia purred from her position before the altar. She was running her fingers through Sharia's dark hair. Sharia did not speak, hatred a cold flame in her eyes. To one side she saw Zanten with a contingent of fighters and on the other she saw Dhomb with a mirror force.

"I got a little distracted. You know how that is, start a project here, save a village there. Sorry, have you been waiting long?" Ankh stepped out into the room, glancing around, looking for Arnaia and not seeing her.

"Nice act, looking for Arnaia when you know we found dead this morning by your hand. What a coincidence to see you with a sword again." Zanten sneered across at her.

Ankh did not let his words affect her expression, she could tell by the glitter in Aillia's eyes who had killed Arnaia. Sweet Arnaia. Ankh looked over at Dhomb, searching his face to see if the same hatred burned in his eyes. Instead, she saw only confusion and sadness.

"Arnaia...Gods, by my folly...Please, no more unnecessary deaths." This was going to be harder than she thought. She saw the glitter in Aillia's eyes and the cold fury in Sharia's.

"Aren't you supposed to be over here?" Aillia purred at Callisto. The blonde warrior met her gaze, "I've found a new playmate, thanks." Callisto nodded towards Ankh.

Ankh watched Sharia rise from her seated position. Sharia fixed Ankh in her gaze, her voice dripping venom, "So, this is how you come back to me? Sword in one hand and your harlot in the other? In league with the Destroyer of Nations? Creeping like the bastard child you are, killing former comrades...And you have the arrogance to stand before us with the same pathetic look of what? Compassion? Pride filled determination? Ever noble aren't you? So right. Even when you are destroying you think you do it with a just heart? This facade no longer fools me. I'll kill your new slut and make you beg me to kill you." She gestured with one hand and the troops behind Dhomb and Zanten moved forward.

Aillia smiled broadly at Ankh. Dhomb saw that smile and knew with sickening certainty that everything Sharia had told them about Ankh here was a lie. Sharia's tone was not new to him, he had heard her speak that way to Ankh before, behind closed doors at Inns, in hushed furious tones as they walked ahead or behind the rest. He saw Ankh flinch slightly at Sharia's words, but her eyes never left Sharia's face. Dhomb knew that it would do no good to try and stop the regiment. They had been duped to kill Ankh for Aillia. He glanced over at Zanten but saw only the fighter waiting there poised. Strong hand wrapped around the hilt of his sheathed broadsword, itching to join the fray and cut out Ankh's heart. When Dhomb caught Aillia's eye, the look of triumph in them made his heart freeze. He knew that he was standing at a crossroad and there would be a price to pay.

Ankh hefted her sword and fell back slightly. Around her Xena, Gabrielle and Callisto did the same, gauging the number of soldiers. Ankh took a deep breath, remembering to stay focused on the battle at hand. A line of soldiers rushed the 4 women, with battle cries, flashing swords, and whirling staff the battle was engaged.

Dhomb watched silently happy that they were making such easy work of the troops. Ankh with a sword in her hand was a dancer of flesh and metal. The blonde woman and the one called Xena were veritable kinetic symphonies of violence. The blonde one, she was not a mere mortal. Her sword only did part of the damage - the rest came from her glowing hand and the fire that she released. She was a goddess. Dhomb smiled inwardly, leave it to Ankh to choose a Goddess as her new lover. The young woman he had helped to escape was not defenseless either. The sound of Zanten's war cry made him turn. "Gods no." Dhomb's amusement turning to terror as he saw Zanten rushing towards Ankh's exposed back as she battled three attackers bearing down on her. She had heard Zanten's warcry as well and as she turned ever so slightly to catch sight of him, one of her attackers took advantage of the break in her concentration. The hilt of his sword slammed into her jaw. She reeled back, defending against the renewed attack as she tried to clear her head.

Zanten raced towards Ankh, saw the blow she took and knew this was his chance. Broadsword in both hands, he raised it over his shoulder for a decapitating stroke. Just as he was almost close enough to strike, he was surprised to see the blonde warrior land lithely before him. "I don't think so meat brain." She snarled as her blade slit open his stomach, then stepping aside, letting his momentum drag the impaled blade across his gut, opening him further. He released his sword as his hands went to clutch his midsection. His sword flew through the air and skimmed over Ankh's shoulder, opening a bright scarlet ribbon up her back and over her shoulder. Ankh fell forward to one knee, two of her attackers dead, she managed to keep the last one from landing a killing stroke before a ball of fire exploded against him and he flared before her like a pillar of fire before stumbling away and collapsing. Ankh rose unsteadily to her feet, stepping back away from the fray. She looked down and saw Zanten's stunned visage at her feet. The sight made her stumble, she would have fallen again but Callisto stepped in and wrapped her arm around her waist, supporting her.

Dhomb screamed inside when he watched Zanten's form fall, then he watched Ankh stumble and fall from Zanten's freed sword. He felt the blood rushing from his heart, his murderous thoughts turned to the woman beside him, the one who did scream aloud when Zanten was felled.

Chapter 25

Aillia screamed to the remaining troops the ones behind the altar when Zanten fell. "Destroy them or forfeit your lives!" She turned molten eyes to Sharia, "Kill her, kill that blonde she-spawn, the one holding up your lover. Rip her from limb to limb and then bring me Ankh." She snarled, pointing to the two women, Ankh leaning against Callisto.

Sharia did not even need for Aillia to finish, the sight of Ankh leaning against that toothpick in leather, the mere thought...Sharia's rage was already spilling through her, she was transformed before she had gone two steps. Aillia turned to Dhomb, locking her eyes onto his. "Aren't you going to vindicate the death of your lover," she sneered. Dhomb reached for his mace and ran towards Aillia. One flick of her wrist and he was flung back away from the altar.

"Traitor." She hissed. He landed none to gently against the packed floor. He looked up to see his own troops descending upon him.

"There is no sanity left." He thought as he rose, mace swinging.

Xena saw Sharia moving towards Ankh and Callisto, she also saw Aillia moving up to the altar, lighting the incense, muttering as she focused on Ankh, her hands casting small designs in the air. Xena flipped through the air, landing beside Gabrielle and kicking off one of the soldiers. An arcing sweep of her staff, Gabrielle knocked the other two to their backs. One two, staff against their jaws and they were out.

"Gods, Sharia has transformed..." Gabrielle whispered when she saw the black and white serpentine form slithering across the temple floor.

"Gabrielle, stay here, I'm going to try and stop Aillia. Ankh won't be able too. If I fail, get out. Don't be here in the temple if the casting goes as it should." Xena gripped Gabrielle's shoulder.

"Have you still not got it figured out yet? I don't leave without you." Gabrielle wrapped her hand around Xena's wrist. Xena glared into those exploding emerald eyes, then sighed.

"Fine, but if I am right behind you, running, you better move."

Gabrielle smiled and gave her wrist a quick squeeze. "That is not something you have to tell me twice."

Xena moved towards the altar. Gabrielle saw Dhomb being attacked by several of the soldiers and she moved in, striking down two as she moved in behind them.

"Need some help?" She called as she swung her staff again.

"Oh, no, just reminiscing with old friends." Dhomb grinned back as he swung his mace for emphasis. The remaining soldiers were knocked forward by Gabrielle's blow and then removed from the battle equation when they ran into Dhomb's mace head.

"Glad you have it under control. Looks like you got kicked out of the Hecate and me fan club." Gabrielle moved beside Dhomb.

"The dues were too high anyways." Movement caught Dhomb's eye, he saw Callisto sneer at the rampaging form of Sharia. He saw Callisto and Ankh begin to shimmer and then solidify in time for Sharia's claw rip across Callisto's shoulder. He saw Aillia still casting, the godling probably couldn't use her powers here. Not likely all of them. Callisto winced at the tearing of her flesh. Her eyes narrowing as she pointed her hand at the scaly creature. The fireball hit Sharia full force and then dispersed harmlessly. Callisto furrowed her brow. Dhomb wished he could tell the blonde warrior that Sharia was not of the mortal plane, sired by a legion of demons, raised in the depths of chaos itself. Sharia wrenched Ankh out of Callisto's weakened grasp and slapped Callisto away. She gripped Ankh by her throat, her massive claws digging into the soft flesh. Gabrielle and Dhomb both winced as Sharia brought her still closed fist back across Ankh's left cheek then her right. Ankh's head whipped from side to side from the force of the blows. Neither one of them could hear the litany that accompanied the blows but Dhomb could guess. Gods, how could he never have known? Because Ankh kept it hidden? Healed herself? How many times had he healed her and have her tell him it was from a battle? Why did he never make the connection between the exceptional warrior who rarely suffered a scratch in every battle he saw her in to the woman who would come to him and need to be healed from broken ribs and bruised organs? Callisto landed on her feet and immediately ran shrieking back towards this behemoth bitch that continued to rain blows down on Ankh.

"Ne' sempes..." Ankh tried to choke out, to release Sharia's tightening grip on her. Her head felt like a practice bag, she glimpsed Callisto flying through the air towards her and saw her snatched mid leap by Sharia's claw. Ankh tried to gather her thoughts, focus her aching head, her fist tightening around the sword that still barely dangled from her hand.

"I am going to rip you into small bloody pieces and scatter you from here to Athens." Sharia growled at Callisto, her sharp claws digging into Callisto's flesh.

"Oh, that's original. Rip me into small bloody pieces, do I look like a doormat to you?" Callisto replied through clenched teeth, trying to writhe out from the asphyxiating grip. Her eyes began to glow as she summoned the force of her power to break out of the tightening grip. She would wonder later how this creature could withstand her.

Sharia's lips curled back over fangs. "She is mine." She said as she turned to look at Ankh. Bringing her towards her face, she closed her mouth over Ankh's neck, then over her shoulder, causing Ankh's body to jerk slightly. Blood began to seep from the places where Sharia's teeth pierced Ankh's flesh, small red rivers forming where she dragged her fangs. Callisto snarled, the grotesque parody of Sharia's actions on Ankh's body making her want to scream. She would not sit by and watch someone she loved be hurt again. She glowed as she felt the heat explode from her body. Sharia pulled back and gazed at the blonde warrior trapped in her grip, scowling at the pain this little creature was causing her, her lips grossly red from Ankh's blood.

"Enough." She flung Callisto away from her, hurling the blonde woman through a pillar and into one of the temple walls. Callisto's form slid limply to the floor.

Sharia looked back at Ankh. "Now, where was I lover?"

"Going back to your family - going back to no where." Ankh choked, barely driving her sword through Sharia's chest. Through that small slit that led to her heart, covered over by scales, no one but she and Sharia knew of this vulnerable point.

Sharia's eyes widened as the blade pierced her heart. "How could you?" She moaned, her rage ebbing away in the crimson river, tranforming back into the striking woman Ankh had seen all those years ago. Ankh fell where Sharia dropped her, on her knees, gasping for breath, her hand at her neck, trying to staunch the warm flow of blood that was running over her hand. She needed to calm the dizzying sensation from lack of oxygen blood or both. Sharia collapsed, her hands clutching the sword jutting out from her chest. Ankh looked at the beautiful face before her, heard the last rattling wet breath she took and saw the mask of death settle over those beautiful porcelain features. She stumbled to her feet, towards the still form of Callisto.

Aillia turned away from the altar when Sharia fell to the ground. "Hecate- Noooooooo!" Xena had her Chakram poised when she saw the fires around the altar flare, and Aillia's body fill with incandescent light. She shadowed her eyes with the back of her hand, until the woman's figure burned so bright she could not see. A flash, and then only the altar remained.

Callisto opened her eyes, her senses reeling. She saw a figure staggering towards her, with a shriek she thrust her dagger forward.

Ankh felt the blade pierce her flesh, she looked into Callisto's brown eyes where emotions warred. Ankh fell again before the blonde warrior, clutching the wound in her stomach, she felt like she was exploding into a million shards of crystal fire. She slipped into darkness like a stone slipping beneath the river.

Xena, Gabrielle and Dhomb turned at Callisto's shriek, they saw Ankh stumble and fall at Callisto's kneeling form. "What is going on?" Xena asked Dhomb warily as they moved towards Callisto, her hand still on her Chakram.

"Hecate doesn't like failures, no matter what." Dhomb explained hurriedly as he rushed towards Ankh's still form.

Gabrielle turned to Xena, "He's ok. I think he finally figured out exactly what was going on. Better late than never, right?" She lay her hand on Xena's arm.

Xena just nodded, following Dhomb. Callisto knelt, staring down at the woman laying before her.

Callisto whipped her head up. Xena was walking towards her. Callisto reached for her sword, gone...Her dagger buried in the stomach of the woman before her. Callisto leapt to her feet, snarling at the Warrior Princess. Her hands glowed impotently, she could not release her fireballs in here...Something was not right here. She could not shake this feeling of unease. She watched a tall handsome man approach them, watched as he cradled the woman's body in his arms. Callisto stared at the bloodied beaten woman. Recognition pierced her brain like a needle. She knew the curve of that neck, the slope of those bruised cheekbones, the taste of now pale lips.

"What trickery is this?" She snapped at Xena who had stopped when Callisto had gotten to her feet. Something was shifting beneath the surface, struggling to break free in those brown eyes.

"Callisto." Came the ragged whisper from the wounded woman, Callisto looked down and saw the briefest flash of sorrow in silver eyes before the woman sank beneath waves of unconsciousness again.

"I have to tend to her. She is so cold, but sweating as if she were on fire." Dhomb said, looking into the maddened brown eyes of the blonde warrior.

"Ankh." Callisto whispered, the name breaking across her memory and her heart in the same moment. She looked at Dhomb, Xena, and then Gabrielle. Her hands ached to touch Ankh's face, but instead they were warm with her blood...She wanted to kiss Ankh back into consciousness, what had she done? Callisto threw back her head and gave another unearthly shriek. She leapt and flipped over Dhomb's head. Snatching her dagger from Ankh's stomach and her sword from the soldier's throat, she exited the rear doors of the temple disappearing back into the moon filled night. Her shriek hung in the temple, over the dead and the dying.

They all watched her go. "Will she be back?" Dhomb asked, turning to look at Xena and Gabrielle.

"I don't know, I suspect she will want to." Xena answered softly, Gabrielle sidled up beside her and wrapped her fingers through the warrior's.

Dhomb set Ankh down gently, "I am going to tend to what wounds I can. Enough so she can travel back to the camp. It lies in the forest behind the temple."

"Should we go back to the camp?" Xena asked tersely.

"It is safe. All the 'commanders' are dead, save me." He replied grimly, his face unreadable.

Gabrielle leaned up and whispered into Xena's ear, "His lover was the man attacking Ankh that Callisto killed." Xena looked at the bard and then back at Dhomb.

"I'm sorry." She said.

"Don't be, we were all duped by Aillia's, and she puppeted Sharia well enough. If he hadn't died then he would have murdered Ankh in cold blood. She was at least trying to save all of us and we repayed her with this." His fingers moved swiftly over her wounds.

"We should be all set. Ready?" Dhomb finally said, lifting Ankh once again.

Xena and Gabrielle nodded and followed him out of the temple back into the woods.

Chapter 26- Final Chapter

"Dreamt I saw you by my side. Face was framed by candlelight...A chance for me to set you free...In our new romance...A chance for me to set you free...This love will torment your mind for all eternity...Go gently because you hold my dreams...Love me for eternity...A chance for me to set you free."Brigid Boden

Callisto paced around the perimeter of the camp. Any guards foolish enough to challenge her once were not allowed a second chance. Memories of the previous days swept through her mind like a tidal wave. Images of Ankh beneath her, over her, beside her. And even tonight, sweet feather gentle caresses. "To know how much I love you." echoed in her brain. The only time she ever remembered the sensation of her dagger piercing flesh was tonight. She could not shake the memory of Ankh's warm blood spilling over her hand. This was madness...So trapped was she in the maze of her thoughts that she did not realize her prowling led to the heart of the camp.

Inside the tent, Dhomb had cleaned Ankh's wounds, healing Sharia's bites and the blows she had suffered on the battlefield, the wound the blonde warrior had inflicted. That one was confusing and made the most sense to him. This blonde warrior had been dazed and thought she was still under attack...Or was it something else? He would make sure Ankh survived so she could explain the entire thing once and for all. There was nothing any of them could do for the fever that seemed to burn her from the inside out, covering her in a sheen of sweat. Her flesh remained oddly cold.

"What will you do now?" Xena asked as the three of them moved to outside the tent.

"Sadly, we do not belong here...We are strangers lost. There were tales in our land of doorways to other places and time. Between Ankh and I, we should be able to cast something to reveal the location of one, if such a thing exists." Dhomb sat on a large stump outside the tent door, exhaustion and sadness weighting his broad shoulders down.

Gabrielle saw the weight of the last few hours settle upon him. What would he and Ankh do? Both of them had lost so much, all they had left was the other.

"I hope you will stay and rest. We have plenty of tents." Dhomb smiled wryly at the two women.

"We'd love to." Gabrielle accepted, pulling Xena after her towards the tent that Dhomb indicated at her response.

"I think we should leave." Xena said under her breath.

"We have to see if Ankh makes it through the night. She is our friend." Gabrielle opened the tent flap and pulled the warrior in after her.

"Callisto will return tonight." Xena said darkly.

"To see Ankh I am sure. We will be fine here for the rest of this night. Come, let us clean ourselves off, lay down beside me, warrior of my heart. Let me hold you and tell you a story or two." Gabrielle smiled up at her worried lover. Xena gave a small smile back and allowed herself to be pulled down into a kiss.

"What kind of story?" She asked as she hugged the bard to her.

26bNow you're gone...The way we kissed, it broke my aching heart. You said that we would never part. My love for you will always be... My love for you will never die... Brigid Bodun

Callisto shimmered and appeared inside the tent. There she was, lying on the bed. Candlelight shimmering over the sweat slicked sheen of her body. Callisto crept closer, until she was poised right beside the bed, gazing at the still face. She gently brushed back the damp tendrils of dark hair. Ankh sighed at Callisto's touch, turning slightly towards the sensation.

Callisto traced the outline of Ankh's face, memorizing the arc of her eyebrows, the sculpted cheeks, those lips, the ones she wanted to kiss, tease open and drink from, even now. The damage done earlier fading already beneath the healing touch of the goddess that was Ankh's lover.

Ankh kept her eyes closed, wanting nothing more to look up into those mahogany eyes. She could not, she was sure the geas had been broken, but if so, then why the tremor in her heart at Callisto's touch? She could feel the healing tingle of Callisto's fingertips. Can she heal my heart?

Despite her best efforts, Ankh's eyes flew open in surprise when she felt Callisto's lips press against hers. Ankh responded to the kiss, trying to hold on to every single sensation that was created in the universe of their lips and tongues. Tears slipped out from her eyes as the shattered crystals in her chest flared and flamed anew.

Callisto drew back and wiped away a tear journeying down Ankh's face. She tasted the salty drop captured on her fingertip. She almost wished that this single drop of elixir would drown the emptiness, the rage, and the vengeance that had been reborn less than a few hours ago and was already blazing. Trying to burn away the memory of this woman who had given herself completely to her. She gazed into those fathomless eyes that reflected back her own soul to her, "We have no place in this world together. I know. Once upon a time, all my anger, all my hatred was for Xena. I never thought I had anything else. Until now, all my love is for you. I thought there was nothing else except this black rage. So dark, so strong, it scared even me. Then I found that beneath this rage was only emptiness. Instead, you found the place my heart still dwelled, showed me peace where fury lived, cast your light into my shadows. I still feel you beating beneath my flesh. What is this then? To be betrayed by my desire, tricked by lust, to fall in love with someone I could never have...Should never have had...L'ankha'chien." Callisto whispered, her voice somber. Ankh saw the struggle in the brown eyes above her. She was no longer foolish enough to think love would conquer everything, but she had wanted to hope...Callisto furrowed her brow, tears rising in her eyes. Without another word she rose from beside the bed, her eyes never leaving Ankh's, sadness and fury battling across her fine features. Finally, she slowly took off her right bracer and placed it beside the bed.

Callisto slipped out of the tent, already her mind fragmenting again, bitterness, hate that had been her companions for so long flooded in and clamored for her undivided attention. The emptiness she had recently discovered settling over everything in a mind-numbing cloak. Yet beneath the damaged psyche a small precarious island that now lay beneath the surface. A small sanctuary when the endless tide of a life long path ebbed.

Ankh wrapped her fingers around the bracer. She was still clutching it when the fugue reappeared and she drifted off into sleep.

Dhomb had felt Callisto arrive and waited for her to leave. He finally went back in, taking in the healed state of Ankh's sleeping form, her fingers wrapped tightly around a black bracer.

Xena and Gabrielle sat in the stillness of the early morning. Xena was holding the young bard leaning against her, they both saw Callisto's silhouette kneeling beside Ankh. Xena squeezed Gabrielle tightly. She would do anything for Gabrielle. Even leave her if that is what it took. She understood Widgie's words now. Ankh kept sacrificing things for the greater good, even the things that she valued most. That was the lesson that Xena had not wanted to recognize, the one that she should have heeded when she came storming down off the mountain and into the Amazon village.

"By the Gods. Thank you Solan. Thank you." Xena thought as she nuzzled into the softness of Gabrielle's hair.

The dawn came and Ankh still slept. Xena, Gabrielle and Dhomb spoke more of what Dhomb and Ankh would do. No one mentioned Callisto's visit. The day passed without Ankh stirring from her deep slumber.

"Should she sleep this long?" Gabrielle asked as they sat by the fire, eating the fabulous meal that Dhomb had prepared. The things that man could do with game and some herbs.

"She is recovering as she should. I think. She still shakes with a fever although I can find no source of infection. She'll awaken soon enough." Dhomb said, after swallowing a mouthful of roasted venison.

Xena nodded in agreement. She believed that the fever came more from the breaking of the geas than anything else.

"I don't know that I got to thank you, for helping Ankh. She is a good warrior, but not always the most prudent at patience." Dhomb said as he looked across the flickering fire at the warrior and the bard.

Xena thought for a moment, then asked what she had wondered about since the evening before.

"Dhomb, Ankh did not want to pick up a sword, but did because she had no other choice. Yet when she fought..."

"She fought like a woman possessed. I know. Her bloodrage is frightening but it has always been as such. When she gave up carrying a sword and concentrating on meditation and hand to hand it no longer seemed to happen as much. She is my dearest friend but there were times when I was relieved when the battle was over." Dhomb answered somberly. He said not a word about his realization in the temple, although he suspected that both the warrior and the bard knew.

Xena began to understand why Widgie had advised her to watch Ankh. Sometimes the best lessons to learn were when they involved other pupils.

Gabrielle saw the pensive expression on Xena's face as Dhomb told more stories of the woman they had come to know these last few days. Many of them threaded with a deep love and affection as he recounted their foibles. Finally, the fire burned low and they each said their goodnights.

On the way back to their tent, Gabrielle wrapped her fingers through Xena's. Xena glanced down, her eyebrow arched.

"I feel sad for both of them. It cannot be easy to be strangers in a land that is like your own but so different." Gabrielle said softly.

Xena squeezed the younger woman's hand. Many of the men that had been assembled for the army had gone home, laden with the spoils of the treasure that had just been there. Dhomb kept enough for the travels he expected Ankh and he would undertake soon enough.

Dhomb ducked into his tent to check on Ankh, he glanced at the empty bed and was about to call after Xena and Gabrielle. His eyes found the scroll in the center of the bed. He sighed to himself as he made his way over and picked it up.

"Dhomb-I am not prepared to let her go. I have to go to her. Her absence destroy me. I suspect that I will return, heavier in heart, but satisfied in what I had to do. If I do not return by dawn, then seek me if you must. I am sorry for all the troubles that simple act of compassion so long ago has wrought." Dhomb could almost hear the pain and sadness in his dearest friend's voice.

"Ankh, why must you always try to assume the responsibility for everyone else's actions." He asked softly as he settled on the bed.

Ankh stopped to catch her breath. She felt more bruised and battered by the events of the last few days than she did when she was a rookie in the guard. She wasn't sure where she was going, only that she had awoken with an ache in her chest that weakened her entire body. She leaned heavily against a rock, before her, the plains rippled under the now waning moon of Artemis's light. She looked up at the stars sparkling in the night sky. What had happened to her? She had just killed her bloodbound lover and was out in the middle of the night, hoping to find the goddess that had enchanted her with the words Aillia told her to speak. She wondered sarcastically what would happen if she just prayed to Callisto.

"You should not be out here." Ankh heard Callisto's hard voice behind her. She didn't move, waiting to hear if she said anything else.

"Why did you come?" Not quite so hard this time. Ankh turned around and felt her breath catch in her throat at the sight of Callisto bathed in moonlight, her hair almost shimmering, her skin luminescent.

"To see you." Ankh whispered, her heart closing in on itself into a painful knot.

"I am not the same woman you knew." Callisto kept her distance, her stance guarded, her eyes hooded.

"That is not why I came. I am not so naive. " Ankh replied, the drive that had propelled her drained from her at Callisto's apparent disinterest. Her knees weakened and despite her determination, she collapsed to the ground.

Callisto immediately rushed to her side.

"Damn you L'ankha' chien." The blonde woman muttered as she slid her arms around Ankh.

"Not any more than I already am." Ankh tried to say jokingly. When she looked into the other woman's eyes, she saw what she had seen last night. The love and the darkness battling for control.

Callisto saw the confusion in her eyes reflected back to her. Her heart had leapt when she saw Ankh making her way through the forest to this cliff. The misery she had known before was nothing compared to the pain that had filled her like a flood when she walked away from the tent.

Ankh reached and pulled Callisto's face down to her own. "I don't care about whether this is right or wrong. I don't care if you and I can be together after tonight. The elixir I need comes from your lips my love. All I want is to hold you, woman from Cirrah one more time, knowing that the geas is broken. I just want to touch and be touched with no enchantment other than the spell of love. I know only you - my goddess of all things fiery and passionate. Our last evening together wasn't enough. Will you let me love you warrior, woman, goddess?" Her eyes filled with tears, her voice breaking.

Callisto felt her breath catch in her throat, the darkness ebbing against the light she saw in Ankh's eyes.

"Ankh." She murmured, leaning down to drink of the lips she thought she would never taste again.

Ankh sighed into the soft lips, forgetting the ache that permeated her flesh. Soft and tentative, they kissed beneath the moonlight.

Callisto pressed into Ankh, feeling the other woman's body tense slightly. The slight gasp made her pull back. Callisto saw the pain the other woman was trying to hide.

"I don't remember you being this stubborn before. Oh, wait, yes you were." Callisto smiled as she moved back and drew Ankh to lie beside her. She stroked the other woman's face, letting her fingers trail into the waves of dark hair. Ankh gazed into Callisto's dark eyes, soothed by the touch, the sight and feel of her lover.

"Did you want to sit and discuss my personality traits?" Ankh asked as she grasped Callisto's hand and brought it palm up to her lips.

"No." Callisto smiled, leaning toward Ankh's lips.

The sound of rage and grief pierced the air. Xena leapt from the bed, sword in her hand, glancing around for the source of the sound. Gabrielle was at her side, staff in hand, waiting. They stepped outside the tent and saw Dhomb with his mace, searching for the source of the shrieking sound.

Gabrielle lowered her staff slowly, "I don't think we have to worry...It is the sound of a soul rebound by shackles it never knew it had. Callisto." She said sadly. Xena turned to Gabrielle, arching an eyebrow.

"Ankh?" Gabrielle exclaimed, turning to looking at Dhomb.

"She left to see the flaxen haired one last night. She said she would return." Dhomb replied, lowering his mace and looking around.

"There." Xena could see a figure lying just outside camp and raced towards it. Dhomb and Gabrielle followed close behind.

Ankh lay in the field, staring up at the lightening sky. Tears streamed down her cheeks. She heard the sound of footsteps racing towards her. She turned her head slightly and saw Xena, then Dhomb, then Gabrielle.

When she saw the warrior, Ankh sighed.

"The geas is broken warrior, and it did not stop this ache in my heart." Her gaze traveled from Xena to Gabrielle. Gabrielle moved forward to the other side of Ankh. "I'm sorry...For both of you. All of you." She murmured, looking across at Dhomb with her final words.

Xena looked at the woman's tear streaked face. The after effects of vengeance were not pretty. Xena wondered how she would face Callisto in battle again. She had seen love illuminate those madness shadowed eyes, heard her laugh with genuine joy and she had saved Gabrielle. Xena remained silent.

"Don't sentimentalize her warrior. She will kill you the next time you meet...We had no right. The Gods have so agreed." Ankh's voice was hollow. No matter what the force of the geas, her attractions were her own. The sound of Callisto's pain would haunt her for many nights, Morpheous would not be a friend to her dreams anytime soon.

In the shelter of the forest, Callisto knelt, sobbing. Each breath drawn brought the emptiness a little closer. Each tear falling shattering her heart into one more piece.


Xena clasped her hand firmly around the black leather bracer that Ankh wore. She felt Ankh's strong clasp against her own. Her fingers were wrapped around Callisto's bracer in a gesture of friendship. Just when she thought nothing could be more twisted, she was wrong.

"I cannot say how much I owe you both. Thank you again. Ten thousand fortunes is too few to repay you for all you have done." Ankh said again, reaching for Gabrielle with her other hand.

"Ankh, you may not be able to say how much, but I think you are going for a record as to how many times." Gabrielle laughed at the dark haired, silver-eyed woman's umpteenth thank you and praise.

"She has too. Her life depends on finding people who can haul her backside out of a sling." Dhomb interjected playfully, tightening the straps on the saddles.

From high above, a lone figure sat on a tree branch. "In the dark night of my soul I once held a shooting star. How then could I know that it would leave an aching scar?" Callisto whispered to the woman below her who was now settled in the saddle of a dark brown horse.

Unseen on the branch above her, Aphrodite shook her head. She of all the Gods had been the most surprised by the love that developed from beneath the geas of the strange woman with silver eyes and the mad tortured woman child that was Callisto. Yet, she could do nothing when the judgement came from the other Gods. Hecate's interference with the continuum had been dealt with. Ares had smirked when he pointed out that with the enthrallment broken there was little if any control left in Callisto. How long do you think this love thing will keep her under control he sneered. Still - there was something about the brutal young godling's tenderness around Ankh that gave the Goddess of love some hope for her immortal soul. Unfortunately, the memories of her brief respite from her suffering were fading beneath the on slaught that the woman she had been had cultivated for so long.

Ankh paused, her rebuttal vanishing from her mind as she looked up to the treetops, scanning the forested shadows. There was nothing there, but she couldn't shake the feeling that Callisto was out there. She was completely healed, physically at least. And the scar of her geas had faded into her flesh like some ghost of her folly. Ankh could still not sleep through the night. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw Callisto - just out of reach - moving away. Warning her. She sighed softly to herself and patted the horses neck absently.

"Good luck to you both. If we can't find our way home, perhaps we'll run into one another again? If you ever need our aid, just holler. One place or another, we'll be right there." Dhomb said to the tall warrior and the sweet young woman whose company he had grown accustomed to after several days together.

Watching the two riders trot off down the road, Gabrielle turned to Xena.

"Was that all a dream? Did Callisto really fall in love?"

"Not a dream at all. You taught me about the power of love and the cycle of hate. Maybe, just maybe, the cycle has been altered enough for Callisto to choose." Xena murmured as she leaned down to kiss the bard. --------

Fini -Obviously - this was after MI but before AN or Sacrifice. Let us hope that Callisto finally did find the peace she deserved. And maybe, just maybe, when Ankh found her way back to where she belonged - she found a way to bring Callisto with her ;-)A few notes, some of Gabrielle's speeches in earlier chapters were inspired by Rilke. The CD for Brigid Bodun is self-titled.

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