Path of Thorns

Part VI

Athena grabbed onto the throne as the ground of Olympus shook. It lasted several moments, then it stopped again as suddenly as it had started.

A flash in front of her as Artemis appeared. “What was that?”
“You know what that was.”
“Another god?” Artemis tossed up a hand. “It’s not like we’re not weak enough as it is! Now we have mortals prying away our powers?”
“Shush,” Athena looked pointedly at her sister. “You want more power? Knowledge is power? Find out who that mortal was and report back.”
Artemis hesitated a moment, but then nodded and disappeared in a flash.

Gabrielle hopped off the balcony grabbing onto the edge and swinging down. She landed on the ground gracefully.

Callisto, who had just hopped out the window herself and had been on her way out off the palace grounds turned around. “Nifty,” she grinned. “You know, you really are quite good.”

“What are you doing?” Gabrielle advanced on her. “Why?”
“Cause it’s fun!” The blonde replied, rolling her eyes. “You know, fun? Where you do what you like, just cause you like doing it? Ring any bells?”
“I know what fun is.”
Callisto snorted. “Oh, yeah, right. ‘No, Callie, don’t, it’s wrong, greater good, blablabla.’” Brown eyes twinkled at the warrior. “You remember, before? Stealing dinars from the Conqueror’s money transport? That was fun.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “No, that was silly. And dangerous.” She said. But she was unable to repress a small smile at the memory.
“Ha! Ha! See!”  Callisto advanced on her, carefully circling her. “It’s the thrill of it. The excitement. It draws you in.” She leaned a little closer, dropping her voice. “You’re a warrior now. You know.”

She finished her circle, coming to stand in front of Gabrielle again. “Come on! You can’t defeat me now. I’m a god. So… join me.” A sultry smile. “You, me, together… Could be fun.”  She held up another piece of Ambrosia, wiggling it at the warrior. “I’ll give you candy, if you want?”

Gabrielle searched the dark eyes before her for a long moment, then she slowly shook her head. “I can’t.”
Callisto huffed out a breath, then turned around, starting to walk away again. “Fine,” she waved a hand over her shoulder. “Be that way.”

A flicker of movement and then Gabrielle was in front of her again, blocking her path. “Can’t let you go.”
“Well, that’s sweet, honey,” Callisto smirked at her.
“If I let you go, you’ll hurt people.”
“Well, yes,” the blonde drawled. “Remember fun?”
“I can’t let you do that.”

Callisto studied her a moment, then a smile creeped onto her face. “We gonna fight?”
Gabrielle squared her shoulders. “If we have to.”
The smile spread into a full-fledged grin. “Excellent.” Callisto purred, then without warning she jumped forward, slamming both her boots into Gabrielle’s abdomen. Gabrielle staged back a few paces, but then recoved.

Meanwhile Callisto had pushed off, flipping back and landing on the ground again. “Ugh,” she winced, wiggling her shoulders a little. “I’m a little rusty, I’m afraid.” She glanced at Gabrielle. “Not a lot of room for flips in that dungeon, as you know.”

Without another word Callisto rushed forward again, her fist flying towards Gabrielle’s face. The warrior swatted it aside, then ducked under a second swing. She reached forward, grabbing Callisto around the waist and then tossing her straight over her shoulder.

Callisto went with the motion, rolling back to her feet and spinning around again. “Nice,” she commented with a purr.
“Thanks,” Gabrielle muttered, before flipping over Callisto again. As she came back down, she wrapped her legs around Callisto’s neck. Her hands reached the ground and she shoved herself off, sending Callisto flying once again.

Callisto managed to twist herself around and land gracefully, then she moved in again. She kicked out at Gabrielle’s side, then moved forward and slammed her elbow aganst the warrior’s forehead. This was followed by a savage knee in her stomach.

Gabrielle staggered back a few paces, trying to recover her balance. Callisto wouldn’t let her though, folding her hands together almost reverently. “Pray to your god, Gabrielle.” She drawled, then she slammed her folded hands up against the other woman’s chin, sending her falling back.

Gabrielle crawled back to her feet, wiping a hand across her face. A small trail of blood seeped from her nose.
“Ah, yes, bleeding,” Callisto drawled, tapping her chin in thought. “I believe I did that once too. Gave it up though. It gets so messy.”
Without a word, Gabrielle reached for her belt and pulled her chakram from its hiding place.

Callisto cocked her head. “Ah. The round killing thing. Xena’s?”
“No. Mine.”
“Oh,” the blonde wiggled her eyebrows. “The one that killed Ares? We getting all serious now?”

Gabrielle drew in a breath, then tossed the weapon forward. Callisto was just able to duck under it. The chakram seared past her to a tree standing behind. It bounced off it and flew straight back, Callisto having to duck again before Gabrielle swooped the weapon from the air again.

“Guess that answers my question,’ the blonde murmured. She then made her move, performing a cartwheel to come to stand in front of the warrior. She pushed the flat of her hand against Gabrielle’s forehead, getting her off balance. Gabrielle tried to cut her with the chakram, but Callisto hopped sideways just in time.

She missed the warrior’s outstretched foot though and she stumbled. Gabrielle instantly moved forward, a boot impacting with her chest. Callisto lost her balance and stumbled to the ground. A moment later Gabrielle had pinned her to the ground and was hovering over her, the edge of the chakram pressed against her neck.

Callisto glanced past the metal up at Gabrielle’s face. The warrior’s breathing was kind of shaky and she had a weird sort of expression on her face. “Well?” The blonde drawled, tipping her chin back a little, to expose more of her neck. “You gonna finish it?”

Green eyes stared down at her for a long moment, thinking. “In the dungeon, a few days ago… You said, ruining things is what you do best.” Gabrielle drew in a breath. “I don’t think so. I think… you just need someone to believe you won’t ruin things. Someone to believe in you.”

Slowly, Gabrielle rose back to her feet, releasing her hold on Callisto and stepping back.
Brown eyes studied her, clearly confused. “You… believe in me?”
“Yes,” Gabrielle nodded, then reached out a hand, offering to help the blonde up.

“Well… That’s new…” Callisto muttered, grabbing onto her hand and allowing herself to be pulled back to her feet. Which brought her mere inches from Gabrielle. She flashed her a grin. “And silly.”  She added then, just before slamming her forehead against the warrior’s.

Gabrielle staggered back, a hand grabbing for her head. A bright flash suddenly landed near her feet, the sparks biting at her ankles. She looked up just in time to see another thundertbolt flying at her, and she was just able to jump out of its way.

She landed on the ground. She could see Callisto advancing on her predatorily. Seeing no other way out, she grabbed onto the chakram and pulled it back, flinging it forward on pure luck.

Calisto ducked under it, then followed the weapon as it bounced off a treetrunk, then impacted with the palace wall. It went soaring back to Gabrielle, but at such a weird angle that she couldn’t catch it, so the warrior only just managed to roll sideways and avoid the sharp metal. The chakram slammed into another wall, then went soaring back towards Callisto.

A hand closed over it and pulled the weapon to a halt then. Gabrielle looked up, to find Callisto holding the chakram, studying the weapon curiously. She then looked up, meeting Gabrielle’s eyes with a twinkle. “Thanks, Gab. I always wanted one of those.” She winked, then blew Gabrielle a kiss, before disappearing in a blaze of fire.

A soft knock sounded at the door and Gabrielle looked up as it opened. She managed a smile. “Ephiny.”
“What did you do?” Ephiny said, taking the few paces forward and kneeling beside the beaten figure sitting on the bed.
“Picked a fight. Lost.” Gabrielle muttered, then winced as she dabbed at a cut on her arm.
“Gimma that,” Ephiny took the cloth from her, continuing to clean the warrior up. “You lost huh?”
“And here I believed you were invincable,” Ephiny murmured. “There goes faith flying out the window.”
“I was fighting a God.”
“And here’s faith swooping back in again,” the Amazon shook her head a little in amazement. “Which one was it this time? Athena again?”
A frown. “I though she was just immortal.”
“Not anymore,” Gabrielle rubbed her sore temple. “She found herself some ambrosia.”
“Ugh,” Ephiny grimaced. “This day’s not working out for you, huh?”
The warrior released a tired breath. “No,” she said, quietly. “No, not really.”

Ephiny glanced up at her a moment, then continued cleaning a second scrape on her knee. “You look tired.”
“I am tired,” Gabrielle admitted, far too easily.

The amazon looked up at her again, then half turned and let out a short whistle. A moment later the door peeked open and Solari popped her head in. “Yeah?”
“Get us a snack or something? And… some warm milk.”
Solari nodded her head shortly, then disappeared again, closing the door behind her.

Gabrielle couldn’t quite repress a smirk. “You sure got the regal thing going on.”
Ephiny turned back to face her, smiling a little. “Sol is the only one that listens, mind you. And I bribe her.”
The blonde chuckled, then sobered up again. “I really screwed up, Ephiny.”
“How so?”
“I had her,” Gabrielle shook her head. “I had her pinned down, knife at her throat. It was just… one move. One move and I’d have taken her out.”
Ephiny raised an eyebrow at her. “Why didn’t you?”
“Cause I thought I’d changed her.” The warrior snorted in disgust. “What an idiot I was. Thinking our history meant something to her.”
The amazon queen considered this a moment, then laid a hand on the blonde’s knee. “Our former queen Terreis once told me… That it takes a great warrior to fight an enemy. But an even greater one not to.”
Green eyes glanced up at her. “She sounds like a wuss.”
Ephiny chuckled. “Maybe she was,” she allowed easily. “But then she was the most courageous wuss I’ve ever known.” She reached out, squeezing the warrior’s shoulder. “You remind me of her a little.”
A smile. “I’m a courageous wuss, am I?”
“Yeah,” Ephiny returned with a grin. “I mean, you can kick everybody’s butt, but… If you can, you try to find the good in people. That’s a very admirable quality, Gabrielle. Don’t shrug that aside.”

Gabrielle exhaled, clasping Ephiny’s hand and squeezing it gently. “She’s gonna be trouble.”
“No worries,” the Amazon queen said with a careless wave. “I’ve sent word out to my Amazons. They’ll be here in a day or two. One tiny, freshly baked goddess? Too easy.”

“Right,” Gabrielle chuckled, then reached over and pulled Ephiny into a hug, which the Amazon whole-heartedly returned.
“Don’t worry, Fab Gab. We got your back.”
“Thank you,” Gabrielle replied, heartfelt. “I’m really glad you came. And stayed.”
“Anything for you.”

The door was pushed open then and Solari entered, balancing a tray as she chewed on a piece of carrot. “Hey, hero,” she muttered around her snack. “Get your hands off my queen.”
Gabrielle obediently backed off, turning to inspect the items on the tray. “Hmm, figs.”
“Stuffed ones,” Solari corrected, picking one up with the intent of popping it into her mouth. Before she could however fingers pried it from her. Solari cast her queen a look as the woman chewed contently.
“These are really nice,” Gabrielle said, having tasted one herself. “Where’d you learn to cook, Solari?”
“My mother owned an inn,” the Amazon told her as she seated herself next to Ephiny, who laid down and pillowed her head on the woman’s thigh, looking up expectantly. Brown eyes stared down at her a moment, then Solari rolled her eyes in defeat and picked up another fig, feading it to her queen. “So,” She returned her attention to Gabrielle, who was watching them in amusement. “Heard this place is a mess without me.”
“Kinda,” Gabrielle allowed. “Everybody’s been trying to immitate your Caesar salade.”
Solari snorted. “Can’t. They miss the secret ingredient.”
“Which is?”
“A good chef never tells.”
Gabrielle grinned, taking a sip of her warm milk. She closed her eyes, allowing the warm liquid to slide down to her stomach and soothe her.

Ephiny glanced at the warrior, then up at Solari, who looked back at her with a frown. “When was the last time you slept, Gab?”
Green eyes peaked open again in surprise at the question, then Gabrielle considered it a moment. “Uhm… I think I got in a candlemark or so last night.”
“You need more than a candlemark, in general.”
“I have to look after the kids,” Gabrielle countered. “If I fall asleep and something happens to them…”

“We’ll stay up.”
Solari darted a look at her queen. “We will?”
“Yes,” Ephiny said firmly. “We can crash on the couch or something. Keep watch.”
“I can’t ask you to do that.”
“Sure you can.”  Ephiny rose back to her feet. “You need the rest. You look like a centaur trotted over you.”
Solari glanced at the warrior, then nodded. “She’s got a point there.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes.
“Come on, Sol.” Ephiny shoo-ed her companion out the door, then turned back to Gabrielle. “If something happens, we’ll yell. Okay?”
The warrior smiled. “Okay. Thanks, Eph.”
The Amazon queen winked at her, then closed the door behind her.

Gabrielle exhaled, then picked up the tray and placed it on the bedside table. She blew out the candle standing next to it, covering the room in darkness.

A moment of hesitation, then she pulled aside the sheets and crawled under them. Xena’s smell clung to them a little and she sucked in a healthy breath, wrapping her arms around her pillow and hugging it to her.

The chakram spun off a tree, then a rock, then another tree, before a hand carelessly swooped it from the air. Callisto tossed the ring again, pensively following its movement.

Khrafstar studied the blonde curiously, from his place seated by the fire. Xena’s soldiers had been prying around the neighbourhood their room was in, so Khrafstar had decided to relocate to the forest just outside the city. This new location suited their purposes beter anyway. “You are very skilled with this weapon,” he commented to the blonde.
“Hmm,” Callisto muttered. The woman had been very quiet since her return.
“From what I’ve gathered, only Xena knows how to use it. How did you learn?”

Brown eyes glanced up at him, then back down again, studying the gleaming metal in her hands. “Xena was kind enough to pop by my village a while ago. Figured it look better charred to a crisp.” Callisto twirled the chakram between her hands, the firelight reflecting off it. “I was hiding in the shed with my mother. There was a hole in the wood and I looked through it. And there I saw her. Laughing. Throwing her chakram around. Quite effective. Killed half my village in one quick, easy toss.” She glanced up, looking at the clear sky overhead. Stars twinkled back at her. “When everyone was dead, I made one. I fled into the forest and I carved one from wood. Didn’t work as well, obviously, but… Worked well enough to teach me the basics. Later on I saved enough to have a blacksmith make me one out of metal, but…” She looked back down at the ring in her hands. “He could never get it quite right. Not as round, not as sharp. Not as leathal to devine beings.”

The flames of the fire rose a moment and a whispering sounded.
“Fat chance.” Callisto snorted. “Khraffie can’t throw the thing. He’ll just end up cutting an ear off.”
Another rustling from the flames.
Callisto rose to her feet. “What’s the matter? Don’t you trust me?”
The flames remained prudently silent.
“No, no…” Callisto started pacing. “Of course you don’t. Why would you? Why would anyone?” She tapped the chakram against her tigh. “Why would anyone?”

Khrafstar frowned as he watched the blonde pace around the log she’d been sitting on.

“See, that’s what I don’t get. Why? Why would she? Hmm?” She asked the question to Khrafstar, who just looked back at her, clearly at a loss. Callisto continued her pacing. “I mean, I always yelled at her. I was mean. I was cruel. I mean, okay, I gave her the birthday present, I screwed up there. But I hoped the stupid dog had died a miserable death and that it’d make her cry. I really did.” The blonde waved her chakram at the empty air in front of her. “No, I did my part. I did the evil nemesis thing. So… Why?!”

“Who are you speaking of?” Khrafstar asked, confused.

“It’s a trick,” Callisto muttered, bitting her lip. “It must be. I’m just not… seeing it. But it’s a trick.” She sat back down, balancing the chakram on her knees. “So she wants to be on my team? Then soon she’ll get her wish.”

Gabrielle yawned as the first rays of light woke her up. She blinked open her eyes, a little disoriented at first as she took in her surroundings. Then she remembered and with a groan she pushed herself to her feet.

She trudged into the living room in her sleepshirt, to find Ephiny sprawled on the couch, Niobe sitting squarely on top of her.
“Abby!” The toddler squeeled as she spotted her, scrambling to her feet and running over Ephiny to get to the blonde. The Amazon winced as a tiny heel poked painfully into her stomach.

Gabrielle quickly scooped her up, darting an apologetic look at Ephiny before turning her attention to Niobe. “Hey, sweety. You’re up early.”
“Yes. Sleep no good,” Niobe informed her sternly as she pressed a sloppy kiss on Gabrielle’s cheek. “I play tigger with Am-zon lady. I go grrr an she go scaid.” She giggled, pointing a finger at Ephiny. “But I’s no real tigger. Silly am-zon lady.”

Gabrielle chuckled, sitting down on the couch and placing Niobe in her lap. “Yeah, she’s silly. And easily scared.” She smirked as the Amazon in question poked her in the side with her boot. She looked up, dartingher a smile. “So…? All clear, huh?”
“Yes,” Ephiny nodded, folding her hands behind her head. “Except for the occasional tiger.”
“Tigger,” Niobe giggled again. “Silly.”
“So,” Gabrielle ruffled the toddler’s dark brown locks. “You ready for school, honey?”
“No school,” Niobe wrinkled her nose. “Is satday.”
“Oh right,” the warrior drummed her fingers on her leg, thinking about this dilemma. “Forgot about that.” She couldn’t watch the kids the entire day. For one, she had a goddess to hunt down.

“We can look after them for you,” Ephiny, who could apparently read minds, stated.
“Ephiny!” An exasperated sigh erupted from the kitchen, then Solari poked her head out. She was dressed in an apron and waved a ladle at her queen. “We’re amazon warriors. Not baby sitters.”
“I’ve learned from experience it’s more likely the baby will be sitting on us,” Ephiny commented dryly, getting another laugh out of Gabrielle.
Solari rolled her eyes and returned to the kitchen, furiously wacking away at a bowl of eggwhites.

Gabrielle shook her head a little, watching the aproned Amazon go. “You two are so funny together.”
“Hmm,” Ephiny smiled, her eyes following Solari for another moment, before turning back to Gabrielle. “I am serious though. We can watch them for a day, if that’s what you need. As I said, anything for you, hero.”
“Hewo?” Niobe grabbed onto Gabrielle’s nose and squeezed it. “Whas a hewo?”
“A hero is someone who’s very brave and saves people,” Ephiny explained before Gabrielle could.

Niobe turned her attention to the Amazon, toddling over and plumping back down on Ephiny’s stomach. “Save peoples?”
“Like Abby?”
Ephiny grinned. “Exactly.”
“And Sena!”
The amazon grimaced. “Uhm… That’s debatable.”

Niobe frowned at this. “Hewo save peoples, yes?”
“Then Sena hewo,” Niobe stated firmly. “Sena save Jona. Bad lady be mean. Xena go bam bam!” To emphasize her point Niobe pummeled the Amazon with her tiny fists.
“Whoa, whoa, hey…” Ephiny hastily fended off the attack. “Okay, okay. She’s a hero too.”

“Good,” Niobe nodded, pleased. She got up and returned back to Gabrielle, wrapping her arms around the blonde’s neck. “Abby? When Sena come home?”
Gabrielle pressed a kiss to the toddler’s forehead. “Wish I knew, honey. Wish I knew.”

Ephiny’s eyes tracked around the room, taking in the scenery by daylight. Niobe had found herself a spot on the floor and was paying with some blocks. Gabrielle had taken off in search of her sister and her sister’s husband, to ask them to join breakfast.

So… Ephiny got up and took a little walk around the room, inspecting a Japanese painting of a tree, with dark looming hills behind it. It seemed a little out of place with the rest of the room, which was decorated with Greek and Nordic designs. One of the few personal possessions of the Conqueror perhaps? Ephiny remembered Terreis telling her the Empress had been influenced by Asian countries, most of all.  

Above the painting, high out of reach of tiny children’s hands, a sword was hanging. It was a slender weapon, with a black scabbard and a red hilt. Asian too, from the look of it.

Ephiny was about to reach for it, when close to her a door opened. Iona, the Empress’s daughter stepped outside. Blue eyes studied her for a moment, then she frowned. “What are you doing?”
Ephiny shrugged. “Just looking around.”
“You shouldn’t touch Xena’s stuff,” Iona informed her, crossing her arms. “It’s impolite.”
“You’re right, I’m sorry,” Ephiny admitted, turning away from the weapon and returning to her spot on the couch. “I was just being curious. No harm intended.”

Iona nodded a little, walking into the room herself. “It’s a katana. Xena brought it with her from Jappa. She says it’s the best sword around.”
The Amazon queen considered this a moment. “Then why doesn’t she use it?”
“Cause it’s jinxed,” Iona stated matter of factly. “Xena says when she used it last, things sorta blew up in her face. So she doesn’t like to use it now. It’s more of a symbol, you know? You can have this really cool weapon and beat everybody up, but then at the end you still lose.”
“Nice to be reminded of that every single morning you wake up,” Ephiny muttered, as she watched Iona seat herself on the edge of the couch.
“You should never hide the truth and pretend you don’t know what’s to come when you do. That’s silly.”
“That’s a good point,” the amazon allowed.

“Where’s Gabrielle?”
“Gone to get her sister and brother-in-law for breakfast.”
“Oh.”  Iona pulled up her legs and folded her arms around her knees. “So you’re on guard duty?”
“Yep.” Ephiny propped her head on her fist, studying the twelve year old curiously. “You understand who against?”
“Dahak,” Iona muttered, tracing a line on her knee with an index finger. “And Athena. And Aphrodite and Cupid maybe. And Khrafstar. And Callisto.”
The Amazon managed a wry smile. “Yeah. You’re a popular girl.”
“No, I’m not,” the girl sighed. “Xena is. I’m just her daughter.”

Ephiny considered this a moment, then shook her head. “Nah. I don’t believe that.”
Blue eyes peeked up at her uncertainly. “You don’t?”
“No,” Ephiny shook her head. “I saw you a few times before we all knew you were the Empress’s kid. And partly devine. I thought you were special before.”
“You did?”
“Yeah,” Ephiny smiled a little at the hopefull look staring up at her. “Yeah, you had spunk. I remember thinking you’d make a good Amazon.”
“I would?”
A chuckle. “Yes. I think you would.”

“Oh,” Iona faced forward again, apparently considering this. “I think I’d like that.”
“What? Being an Amazon?”
“Yes,” Iona nodded. “I read a lot about Amazons. Amazons are cool.”
“Gee, thanks,” Ephiny smirked.
“Could you make me an Amazon?”
“Uhm,” The Amazon queen blinked at her. “What? Now?”
“Am’zon?” Niobe had caught a flurry of the conversation and had decided it was more interesting than blocks.
“Yeah,” Iona’s eyes lit up enthusaistically. “Can Niobe be an Amazon too? I mean, Amazons are sisters, right?”
“Uhm,” Ephiny repeated again, not sure what she’d just gotten herself into. “Yeah…”
“That’s cool!” The girl beamed a smile at her. “Then if we both become amazons, we’ll be sisters again!”
“Am’zon!” Niobe squeeled enthusiastically, clearly delighted with this plan. “Yay! Go!”

Ephiny glanced from one to the other, then released a heavy breath. “Sol?”  She called out to her companion in the kitchen.
In response the other Amazon’s head popped around the doorway. “Hmm?”
“We’re never having kids.”
Solari chuckled, returning to the kitchen with a grin.

Gabrielle drew in a breath, then knocked on the door. A moment, then it was pushed open.

Perdicas stared back at her.
Gabrielle swallowed. She’d been so hoping it would have been her sister opening the door. “Hi.”
“Hi,” Perdicas responded gruffly.

There was a pause in which none of them said anything, trying to think of the best posture to take. Gabrielle finally cleared her throat. “I uhm… I came by to ask you and Lila over for breakfast.”
Perdicas stared at her another moment, then took a step back, allowing her entrance to the room. “Lila is taking a bath. But I’m sure she won’t be long. You can wait here if you want.”
“Thanks,” Gabrielle managed a smile for him, then stepped inside.

The room was simple and orderly. The bed was made. Gabrielle spotted two simple travelling bags, one on each side of the bed. Out of one a small head poked. Gabrielle smiled, walking over and kneeling down, pulling a rag doll from its hiding place. “She still carries this thing around?”
“Yes,” Perdicas sighed, seating himself at a desk, his back turned to Gabrielle. “She says it’s a good luck charm or something. Idiotic.”

Gabrielle glanced up, studying him. She finally released a breath. “I’m sorry.”
The young man snorted, not turning around. “Don’t. What good will it do?”
Gabrielle shrugged, her fingers stroking through the rag doll’s hair. “Might make you feel better, hearing me say it?”
“No, it might make you feel better,” Perdicas corrected her, darting an angry look over his shoulder. “And I’m not interested in doing that.”
Gabrielle tossed up a hand, sitting down on the bed and turning her back on him. “Fine. We’ll just keep yelling at each other then. I’m sure Lila will love that.”

Silence. Perdicas traced a grain in the wood of the desk with a fingertip. “You….” He drew in a breath. “You always made me look like an idiot. You always did back home and… even the other night at the party you made me look stupid. Always the last to know, I am.” He turned his chair around. “And you know what the stupidest thing was? I let you.”  A shrug. “Cause I loved you.”
Green eyes turned to look at him. “I didn’t love you.”
“Don’t you think I knew that?” Perdicas tossed up a hand, rising to his feet and starting to pace. “You were always drooling over every stranger that walked into town. Begging them to take you along.”
Gabrielle looked at him in outrage. “I did not drool.”
“Yes, you did,” Perdicas retorted. “The boys in Potedaia would tease me about it.”

Gabrielle released a breath, pulling back the covers a bit and placing the ragdoll under them, so only her head poked out. “I never belonged there.”
“I thought you’d learn,” Perdicas murmured. “I mean, how many other choices did you have?” A faint grin. “Wasn’t counting on this option, was I?”

Gabrielle stood and turned, facing him. “Perdicas… I know I should’ve done some stuff differently, but… It all turned out for the better this way, didn’t it?”
His brown eyes met hers sadly. “I would have been a good husband, Gabrielle.”
The warrior smiled faintly. “I would have made a lousy wife.”
A shrug. “I wouldn’t have cared.”

They stared at each other another moment, then he turned away, walking to the windows and staring out of it. “I’ll tell Lila you’re waiting for her. I’m sure she’ll love to have breakfast with you. I’m not hungry.”
Green eyes studied him another moment, then Gabrielle nodded and walked away, closing the door behind her.

“Gods, I’m stuffed,” Lila managed, holding onto her stomach as she walked. “That woman can sure cook.”
Gabriellen chuckled, warpping an arm around her sister. “if you can pry some recipies from her, be sure to hand ‘em to me.”
“Will do,” Lila smiled. “So… I assume you’ll be busy today again?”
“Most likely,” Gabrielle said appologetically. “I wish I could spend some more time with you. I promise, when this is all over with, I’ll come visit you in Potedaia.”
“Oh, that will be fun,” Lila laughed. “I can’t wait for you to introduce Xena to mom and dad.”
“Yeah. That will be fun.” Gabrielle surpressed a grin. “What are you going to do?”
Lila considered this for a moment. “I think I’m going to take a walk around town. Perdicas isn’t in the mood to leave his room, let alone the palace, but… Now that I’m here, I’m kind of curious to see what you find so intersting about this place.”
“You’ll love it, I’m sure,” Gabrielle smiled, squeezing her affectionately before letting go. “Be sure to check out the Acropolis. The temples are beautiful and you have a great view over the city.”
“Will do,” Lila said, then paused. “Maybe I could ask your Amazon friend to make me lunch…?”

Gabrielle laughed as she watched her sister walk off again, back in Solari’s direction. She continued on her way to the council chamber, where she had agreed to meet Thalia.

Gabrielle stopped and turned to her right. There was a row of large pillars lining the hallway. A swirl of pink fabric could be seen behind one of them. The warrior rolled her eyes. “You know, if you want to move stealthily, you should try another outfit.”
Aphrodite’s face popped from behind the pillar. “Could we chat?”
“Sure,” Gabrielle drawled, opening the nearest door, which led to Xena’s study. “Come on in.”
“Thanks.” Aphrodite looked left, then right, then quickly tiptoed into the room.

Gabrielle closed the door behind her with a smile. “What can I do for you?”
Dark eyes looked at her pleadingly. “Could you hide me?”
The warrior blinked at her. “Huh?”

“Hide me,” Aphrodite repeated, walking forward and taking Gabrielle’s hand. “Look, things up on Mount O. are really nasty right now. Everybody’s yelling and screaming and… And last night, someone got himself goddified.”
“Herself,” Gabrielle corrected with a sigh.
The goddess looked at her inquisitively. “You know who?”
“Yeah.”  A nod. “It’s…”
“No, no, no…” Aphrodite hastily interrupted. “Don’t tell me. They’ll just hunt me down and interrogate me again. Don’t want that.” The goddess seated herself on the edge of the desk with a sigh.

Gabrielle studied the goddess. She seemed profoundly sad. “Are you okay?” She found herself saying, walking over and facing the goddess.
Aphrodite just shook her head. “You know…” She sniffled a little. “You know how you can dream of something for a really long time. And then it finally happens and… It’s not the same?”
A nod.
“I thought with Ares gone,… He locked me up, you know? He didn’t want any love roaming around. I thought that when I finally got out, things would go back to the way they were.” Aphrodite shrugged helplessly. “It wasn’t perfect back then, but… Daddy was there to look after all of us and keep the peace.” She shook her head a little. “But it’s not like that now.”

Gabrielle hessitated a moment, then reached out and touched the goddess’s shoulder. “I’m sorry.” She said, not sure what else to say.
“Thanks,” Aphrodite managed a small smile. “So, could you hide me?”
Gabrielle released a breath, scratching the back of your neck. “How do you hide a God?”
“I can do a little spell,” Aphrodite counted on her fingers. “And I need to go some place not so obvious. So this…” She indicated the palace. “…is probably a bad choice, but… you’re the only mortal I know, so…” She darted Gabrielle another pleading look. “I could wear a darker shade of pink?”

Gabrielle stared at her another moment, then tossed up a hand in defeat. “Fine.”
“Oh, yay!” Aphrodite got up, wrapping her arms around the warrior and hugging her tight. Gabrielle awkwardly patted her on the back. “You’re the best, Gab.”
“Now, this is just until Xena gets back, understand?” Gabrielle informed her as she was released. “It’s her home. If she wants to kick you out…”
“Understood,” Aphrodite nodded firmly, before looking up. “Cuppie!”

Gabrielle blinked as a bright flash lit up the room. A moment later a tall, winged man was standing in the room. He wiggled his fingers at her. “Hi. Really appreciate this.”
Gabrielle glanced past the feathers to Aphrodite. “I’m supposed to hide a guy with wings?”
“He’s my son,” Aphrodite smiled at her.
“Fine, fine…” The warrior sighed, raising both her hands. “You two just… stay here, until I figure out what to do with you.”
“Gotcha,” Cupid gave her a thumbs up, as Aphrodite continued to smile broadly at her.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “It’s one of those days. Another one of ‘em.”

“Solari has gotten the kitchen making more food than that damn army can eat in weeks,” Thalia said, shaking her head a little in amusement. “You shoulda heard her yelling. It was great.”
Gabrielle chuckled, resting her arms on the table’s surface. “I can imagine.”
“So we got the foodsupplies covered. Odell was actually helpful and arranged some carts for it all to be transported in.” Thalia continued, ticking off an item from her list. “Eph got word out to the Amazons.”
“She told me,” Gabrielle nodded. “They should be here in a few days.”
“And that’s about it, really,” her friend concluded, putting her quill down and looking up. “Heard you had no luck with the army?”
“Nah,” the warrior sighed. “I tried talking but they just wanted to beat me up. I’m not very popular with the veterans.” She offered in explanation. “I killed some of their mates, when I was… You know….”
“Right,” Thalia nodded in understanding. “Well, their loss. Xena can sort them out then when she gets back.”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle agreed in a murmur, as they both got to their feet.

“So what about this uhm… g o d situation?”
The warrior smirked. “Thal, Gods can spell you know?”
Thalia sighed. “We need a codeword or something.”
“I’ve got them… incognitoed. Sorta.” Gabrielle replied to her first question. “And Ephiny and Solari keeping an eye on them. I don’t want them walking around the palace by themselves.”
“Do you think it’s a good idea? Keeping them around?”
“No,” Gabrielle easily admitted. “I just don’t know what else to do.”
“You could have said no.”
Gabrielle grimaced. “She had the whole pouty thing going on.” A sigh. “And I really think she does mean well. She gave me back the dagger and everything. Which, since I lost the chakram to Callisto, is the only thing remotely working in my favor.”
Thalia patted her friend on the shoulder supportively as they headed down the stairs together.
The warrior shook her head a little. “You know what, Thal?”
“This ruling the world thing…? I’m so outta my league. I mean, I can’t even run the damn household.”
The redhead chuckled. “You’ll get the hang of it.”
“I dunno,” Gabrielle held open a door, allowing Thalia to walk ahead of her. “I don’t get how Xena does it. She makes it look so easy.”
“She’s got a little more experience than you do,” Thalia argued. “Who knows, maybe she’ll be back today to tell there is no army to be seen and she scared that Dahak fellow so much he turned himself into a poodle and ran off back to Persia with his tail between his legs.”

Gabrielle chuckled. “That’d be nice.”
Thalia patted her on the shoulder, then headed for the outer door. “I need to go and have a chat with those merchants I told you about.”
“Good luck,” Gabrielle called after her.

“Don’t need it, but thanks,” Thalia flashed a smile over her shoulder, before closing the door behind her and crossing the courtyard to the large metal gates. The guards there greeted her, having gotten accustomed to her walking in and out at all hours of the day. The gates swung open and she stepped outside, turning to her right and heading towards the city.

It was around midday and Athens was bustling with activity, merchants shouting from their stalls and men and women bustling about with large bags filled with groceries. Thalia smiled, tilting her face up towards the sun, letting the rays warm her pleasantly. It was a beautiful day.

She turned a corner and another one, on her way to the Agora, where she was to meet the merchants. Since she was a little on the late side she decided to take a shortcut she knew, through some smaller alleyways. Even though the buildings would block out that pleasant sun.

The alley she was walking through was busy, people bumping into her and pushing her aside. A tall, cloaked figure was heading right for her and didn’t seem to have any intent of getting out of the way. Thalia tried pushing her way to the left a little to avoid him.

But before she could, an arm wrapped itself around her neck and dragged her in the opposite direction. “Hey, wh…!” She started, but a gloved hand covered her lips, stopping her from speaking. She struggled, but it was in vain. Without anybody noticing, the cloaked figure dragged her away and they disappeared around a corner.

“Have I mentioned how stupid I feel?”
Aphrodite rolled her eyes. “Yes, Cupie, you have.” She motioned towards her own outfit. “Like I’m happy!” She picked up a fold of the faded blue dress Gabrielle had given her to wear in clear digust. “I mean, Gab must have a ton of really nice looking, sexy outfits and what do I get?”
“My wings hurt, stuck in this stupid coat,” Cupid muttered, as he fumbled with the catches of his overalls. “I feel very undivine.”
“I think you look nice,” Iona commented, from her spot seated on a rock near the pond.
Cupid looked up at her, giving her a charmed smile. “Thanks, Iona.”
Iona diverted her eyes hastily, rubbing at her cheeks to hide the blush.

“You two shouldn’t nag,” Solari scolded them both. “You wanted Gab to hide your butts. So she’s hiding ‘em. Stop complaining about her methods.”
Ephiny smiled, patting her friend on the back. “You tell ‘em, Sol.”

“I know, I know,” Aphrodite raised her hands in defence. “I’m gratefull, okay. But doing the mortal thing is tough, you know?”
“Do it everyday,” Solari muttered, returning her eyes to Caspar, who was patiently sitting beside her, coloring. “Don’t bother me.”
“You’re used to it,” the goddess retorted, sitting down on a rock, wincing as a sharp edge poked her in the butt. “So what do you guys do for fun around here?”
Solari looked up at Ephiny, who grinned back down at her cheekily.
Aphrodite rolled her eyes. “Besides that.”

“Hey, lady?”
Aphrodite looked down, to find Niobe looking up at her. “Yes?”
“Gots no pink.”
The goddess sighed sadly. “You’re telling me.”
“Pink pwetty,” Niobe nodded in understanding. “C’n me be pink?”
Aphrodite considered this a moment, then nodded. “Yeah, that might be fun.” She lifted a hand and wiggled her fingers at Niobe. A moment later a brightly pink tiara appeared on the toddler’s head.
“Pwetty!” Niobe giggled in delight. “Gain!”

Aphrodite smiled and raised her hand a second time, but then Ephiny audibly cleared her throat, darting the goddess a meaningfull look. “Right, right,” the goddess sighed. “The old fashioned way, I know.”

Meanwhile Iona was tossing stones at the pond, trying to make them skid over the water’s surface. She managed to get one to bounce three times before it sank into the water.
Cupid stepped up next to her, folding his arms as he watched. “That’s cool,” he commented, nearly making Iona topple of her rock. “Can you teach me that?”
“Uhm, sure.” Iona managed, picking up a flat stone and handing it to him. “You have to throw it from your wrist and real low, so it won’t hit the water too hard. If it does it’ll sink.”
“Right,” Cupid nodded, tossing the first stone and watching it sink straight down.

After a few more tries he got it to bounce once though and he straightened, quite proud of himself. “Rocks walking over water,” he muttered, smirking. “And who says mortals can’t do magic.”
Iona grinned, following her own rock as it bounced three times and then sank.

“You know,” Cupid settled down next to her, folding his arms around his knees. “You could make that rock fly all the way to the other side and back. Why all the effort?”
Iona glanced at him, then faced forward again with a shrug. “I don’t wanna use my powers anymore.”
Cupid frowned at her. “Why not? You were so good.”
“I hurt Gabrielle,” Iona muttered, her fingers sorting through the pebbles at her feet.
“That’s not your fault. You’re learning.” The god leaned back on his hands, staring up at the blue sky. “You shoulda seen me when I just got my bow. Arrows flying all over the place. I had the entire population of Arcadia all head over heals with a single woman. It was crazy.”
“What happened next?” Iona inquired.
A shrug. “Mom sorted it out.”

Iona looked up at him meaningfully.
“Ahhh,” Cupid nodded. “I see your point there.” He shrugged. “I can help you out if you screw up, if you want me to.”
Blue eyes glanced up at him. “You’d do that? For me?”
“Sure,” the god gave her a dazzling smile. “Anything for a cute face like you.”
Iona giggled, hastily diverting her eyes again.

Thalia struggled as her attacker pushed her into a small, dead end street. It was quiet here. Which was not good for her, Thalia realised. She twisted and shoved back her elbow, managing to catch the cloaked man in the stomach.

He hissed in pain and let her go. Thalia hastily turned away from him and tried to make a run for it, but before she could he had another hold on her wrist, yanking her back. “Let me go!” She growled, hitting at him with her free hand. She managed to grab hold of his hood and pushed it away from his face.

She gasped, her eyes widening in shock. The hold on her wrist loosened, but she hardly even noticed. “Toris.”
“Hi,” Toris drawled, then rubbed his stomach painfully. “You pack quite a punch.”
Thalia stared at him another moment, then she moved forward, wrapping her arms around his neck and kissing him.

“Hmm,” Toris murmured as they broke apart. “Now that’s more my kind of hello.”
Thalia smiled up at him, then sobered. “What’s with all the dragging me off into dark alleys?”
“Can’t get noticed,” the young man informed her. “Xena banished me remember? The streets are full of soldiers. Couldn’t risk one recognising me.”
“I thought you were leaving,” Thalia said softly, still in a state of disbelief. “For Egypt.”
“I was. But then I saw this.” Toris pulled a bit of parchment from beneath the folds of his cloak, showing it to her. It was a drawing of Khrafstar, which the military had distributed in an attempt to find Dahak’s priest. “And I had to come back for you.”

Thalia looked up from the parchment. “Come back for me?”
“Yes.” Toris reached out and took her hand. “Come with me. My ship is waiting in the harbour.”
“But… I…” The redhead stared up at him in complete confusion. “I can’t. You know that. I…”
“You don’t understand,” Toris cut her off. “This fellow, he’s bad news.”

“How do you know?”
Xena’s brother drew in a breath. “I met him on my way over here. I stopped in a port in Persia. He came up to me, said he heard about me. He said he wanted something special. And he would be willing to pay me good dinars for it.” Toris shook his head. “He wanted Greek fire. It’s this special oily mixture. Can do great damage when it’s set on fire. You can’t put it out. When you toss water on it, it just gets worse. No one is allowed to own it, except for Xena of course.”
Thalia stared at him, not sure what to say. “Did you sell it to him?”
“Ofcourse not,” Tores replied. “No sane man would sell that stuff to anyone, no matter how much he could make off of it.” A sigh. “Unfortunately, not all merchants are sane men. I heard one of my collegeas boasting how he’d made a killing in Persia. He sold it to him.”

Thalia blinked, trying very hard to think. “So… This Khrafstar fellow has Greek fire?”
“Looks like it.”
“We have to tell Gabrielle.”
Toris snorted. “Are you nuts? Xena will have my hide for coming back!”
“We need to tell her,” Thalia insisted, taking his hand. “Gabrielle’s my best friend. I can’t just get up and run off with you.”
Toris exhaled, closing his eyes. “I don’t know.”
“Xena’s not here right now,” Thalia went on, trying to persuade him. “And I’ll protect you from Gabrielle if it comes to that.”
The young man couldn’t repress a smile at this.
“I… I need to go and talk with some people. They’re waiting for me and it’s important.” Thalia said. “Is there somewhere you can hide?”
“I can go to the inn where we met.”

Thalia nodded, thinking this was a good idea. “I’ll come pick you up in a candlemark.”  She squeezed his arm. “Don’t run, okay?”
“Okay,” Toris nodded, reaching out and touching her cheek. “But you’d better protect me good. I’m not planning on dying here.”
Thalia smiled up at him. “Thanks for coming back to save me. That’s really… heroic.” She reached over, pulling the cloak back up to cover his face, before pressing another kiss to his lips. “See you in a candlemark.” She said then, before turning and running away, back in the direction of the agora.

Toris watched her go, then shook his head a little, wraping his cloak more tightly around him. “I’m probably going to regret this, aren’t I?”

The stables were quiet. Gabrielle untangled the last knot from Argo’s manes. “That’s better, isn’t it girl?” She placed the brushes back in the bucket she’d taken them from. Then she rose to her feet, stepping closer and wrapping her arms around Argo’s neck. “How about I send you outside and you roll around in some mud so I can start over, huh?”
Argo whinnied, gently nudging her side.
“You’re right, can’t hide here forever, can I?” Gabrielle sighed, resting her cheek against the soft manes. “Thanks for listening to me whine.” 

The deep brown eyes studied her quietly. Gabrielle looked into them for a long moment. She reached out, stroking the horse’s soft nose. “You remember when we were traveling around, Argo? When we were in the middle of nowhere, no one around. Remember how nice and uncomplicated that was?”
Argo studied her, then turned her head, tugging some hay from the bale lying next to her and starting to chew.
“Well, I’m not saying this place doesn’t have any advantages. I’m just saying…” A breath. “Maybe, when all of this is over, we should get out there again. Ride around Greece for a while. Just you, me… Xena.”
Argo snorted in clear contempt.
 Her rider chuckled. “Get over it.”  She instructed the mare, giving her a last pat before opening the stable door and stepping outside. “I’ll stop by in the evening.” 

Gabrielle walked out of the stables, stopping at the trough outside and sticking her hands in the water to wash the grime off them. The stables were near the army barracks and she could hear the voices of soldiers yelling and of swords clashing. Two soldiers passed her on their way to the barracks. She recognized one of them as Andros, the lieutenant she’d battled yesterday. They shot her a look, but when they saw her looking back at them, they turned their heads instantly and continued on.
The blonde released a breath, shaking her head a little.

There was panic in the voice calling out to her, and Gabrielle instantly looked up to see Perdicas running up to her.

“Gabrielle!” Perdicas stopped in front of her, panting heavily. “It’s Lila!”
“Lila?” Gabrielle looked at him, confused.
Perdicas released a shaky breath. “She… She went into town.”
“I know, she told me. She left this morning.”
“I went looking for her. I was on my way to the Agora, and then… Then…”
“And then what?” Gabrielle grabbed onto his shoulder, worried now.
“Someone was with her. A woman. Thin, blond hair, wearing armor. I called out to Lila, then this woman dragged her away. I tried to follow, but… There were so many people and…” He dropped his eyes. “I lost them in the crowd. I didn’t know what to do… I…” Perdicas looked at her again, desperately. “I hoped you’d know.”

Green eyes stared at him in shock for a long moment, then she swallowed, forcing her brain to work again. “Do… Do you have any idea where she might have taken her? What direction were they going in?”
The young man nodded eagerly, glad to be able to contribute any helpful information. “Last place I saw them was on the road leading to the eastern city gates.”
“Callisto must be taking her out of the city…” Gabrielle grabbed onto Perdicas’s shoulder and pushed him into the direction of the stables. “Get my horse for me. It’s the palomino, third stable on the right.”

Without waiting for his response she ran towards the soldiers who’d passed her moment before. “Hey! Wait!”
Andros looked over his shoulder and muttered something to his companion, but they kept moving.
“Wait!”  Gabrielle reached them and grabbed onto Andros’ shoulder and spun him around.
The man angrily swatted her arm aside. “Keep your hands off me.”

“I think Callisto might have taken my sister,” Gabrielle said, ignoring his icy stare.
“And this involves the Athenian military how, exactly?”
“Callisto’s strong. She’s a goddess now. Send some of your soldiers with me,” the warrior pleaded. “I think I may know where she is. We can take her down together.”
“You think you may know?” Andros looked at her in clear contempt. “I will not send any of my soldiers with you on a hunch.”
Green eyes bore into his. “But my sister…”
Andros cut her off firmly. “Your sister means as little to me as you do.”

Gabrielle stared at her another moment and was just about to say something else, when a loud whinnie and the sound of hooves sounded behind her. She looked around to see Perdicas holding Argo’s reigns. The mare reared, clearly confused and agitated.

“Forget it.” She darted a last look at Andros, then turned her back on him, running back over to where Argo was and grabbing onto the reigns. Argo’s eyes were wide and they were focused on Perdicas, who was standing behind Gabrielle now. “Easy, girl,” the warrior tried to calm the horse. The dark eyes focused on her and with that the horse did calm down a little.
“I don’t think she likes me,” Perdicas commented.

Gabrielle placed her foot in the stirrup and swung herself into the saddle.
The young man looked up at her. “Let me come with you. I can help.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “It’s too dangerous.”  She managed a smile for him. “I need you to find Ephiny. Tell her what happened and that I think Callisto is hiding in the forest to the east of the city.”

Perdicas nodded. “Of course.” He watched as she turned Argo around and pushed the horse into a gallop, racing towards the eastern gates. “Good luck!” He called out, his eyes following her until she was no more than a dot in the distance. Then he smiled. “Trust me. You’ll need it.”

Xena knelt down besides the small stream, scooping up some water in both her hands and tossing it into her face. Beside her Chilon had lowered his head and was greedily drinking the cold water.

The Empress rose back to her feet, shaking her hands and sending droplets scattering around. She looked down the road they were traveling on, seeing the outline of a city in the distance.

Athens. It had been a long ride back from the north. She’d traveled through the night and through the day and now it was well into the afternoon. Just an hour or so and she would be back home.

She would have to explain what she’d seen. The size of the army. Dahak. She would have to order her soldiers to go to war, outnumbered and unprepared. Not something she was looking forward to.

She reached down and picked a flower, lifting it up and studying the bright pedals. It was yellow and smelled nice. Xena closed her eyes and drew in a breath.

A panic rose in her then, suddenly, out of nowhere it seemed. Her eyes shot open again and focused once more on the city in the distance.

Something was wrong. She felt it, in her heart, in her blood. She’d had these moments before, in battle or on the eve before. Just this feeling of uneasiness, of something not being quite right. But she’d never felt it this strongly. 

She turned and jogged back to Chilon. The horse snorted loudly in objection as she mounted up once more, but obeyed when she guided him back towards the road, urging him towards the outline of the city.

Gabrielle urged Argo forward, the horse struggling to find her way through the trees. “Lila!” The blonde called out again. She’d been searching for half a candlemark now surely. She’d found a few clues, to indicate she was heading in the right direction. A footmark here, a broken twig there. It had led her away from the road and deeper into the woods.

The sun was on its way down now and the color of the rays was changing from the bright yellow to a deeper shade of orange.

A few more steps, then she pulled Argo to a halt, sliding off the mare’s back. She took a few paces and knelt, picking up a small scrap of dark leather. The same color as Callisto’s armor.

Gabrielle straightened again. Ahead of her the trees were even more tightly packed together and the ground was uneven. She turned back to Argo and patted the mare on the back. “Stay here, Argo.” She instructed the horse in a low voice.

She moved forward, silently now.  She cocked her head, listening intently. A rustle, up ahead, only barely audible.

Gabrielle unsheathed her sword, clasping the hilt in both her hands. She detected more sounds now, faint. Voices. Muted. Struggling.

She broke into a run, moving almost silently among the trees. A few more steps and she came upon a clearing. There was a fire burning low in the center and behind it she could see Callisto, kneeling, knife in hand. Leaning over her sister.

With a scream Gabrielle leaped forward.

A yell went up from the guards at the gates as she neared them. The gates were hastily pushed open, just in time for Chilon to gallop through them without stopping.

People hastily dived out of the way as she raced past, turning a few corners before she spotted her palace.

“It’s the Empress!” She heard a voice call out from the walls and there was the creaking of the wooden doors shutting the palace grounds off from the rest of the city.

Chilon’s hooves echoed loudly through the square as she rode up to the palace. She pulled Chilon to a halt, the stallion obeying willingly.

Several people came running up to her. A stable boy, who grabbed onto Chilon’s reigns. Benitor came running out, bowing as he neared her and taking the saddlebags slung over the stallion’s rear, before the stableboy led him off.

From somewhat further away she saw soldiers riding closer, the word of her arrival apparently having reached the barracks.

“General!” Andros saluted her as he halted his horse before her and jumped off. “Welcome back, General.”
“Andros,” Xena gave him a nod. “Are the troops ready?”
“Three cohorts marched for Delphi this morning, general,” Andros instructed her. “And two more are preparing to head out tomorrow.”
“They march tonight,” Xena told him as she headed for the palace. “What about Khrafstar?”
“We haven’t found him yet, I’m afraid. There was word people had seen him in an inn in the southern side of town, but when we got there he had left.”
Xena ruffled her hair back, thinking.
“We have been searching for the prisoner Callisto as well.”
Xena stopped and turned, her eyes finding Andros’. “Callisto escaped?”
The lieutenant nodded.

Xena released a breath, closing her eyes. “Where’s Gabrielle?” There was no response to her question, and Xena opened her eyes again, impatiently. “Where is Gabrielle?”
The lieutenant jaw clenched and unclenched a few times, then he spoke up. “She has gone in search of Callisto.”
“By herself?” Xena stared at the man. “Why?”
“She claimed Callisto has taken her sister. Her brother-in-law said he had seen them at the Agora, heading for the eastern gates.” Andros shook his head. “She had no evidence of this, though. The troops are preparing. I saw no need to send some to accompany her.”
“You saw no need?” Blue eyes blazed at him. “You s…”

The sound of footsteps sounded behind her and she spun around. Her eyes widened as she saw a figure walking closer.

Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Callisto’s waist, u

sing her momentum to drag the immortal away from her sister. She then quickly got to her feet, kicking out at Callisto again before running back to Lila’s side.
“Lila!” She dropped to her knees beside her sister, who lay facing away from her. She dropped her sword and grabbed onto her shoulders. “Are you all right?”

Her sister turned her head and looked at her. Gabrielle’s eyes widened as she saw Lila’s pupils were a smoldering red. Lila smiled, wickedly. “I’m fine.”

Gabrielle stumbled back as a flame consumed her sister and the next moment… The next moment the person lying on the ground was no longer Lila. It was Khrafstar.

Lila bowed awkwardly as she noticed who it was that was standing in front of the palace doors. “Empress.”
“Are… Are you okay?” Xena asked, not quite understanding what was going on.
Lila looked at her, clearly confused by the question coming from a woman she hardly knew. “Well… Yes, of course I am. I just went out for a walk.”
Andros stepped up. “Your husband said he had seen you at the agora.”
Lila managed a smile. “That’s not possible. I went nowhere near the Agora. And I am quite sure Perdicas didn’t go there either. He said he would stay inside all day.”

The lieutenant frowned. “This is very strange. Why would…?”

His words were halted though as fingers closed around his neck and he was lifed straight off the ground. Raging blue eyes looked at him. “Go back to the compound and gather as many men as you can. Head for the eastern gates and then follow my trail.”

She shoved him away from her, sending him tumbling to the ground and grasping for air. She turned around. With Chilon having been led to the stable she quickly grabbed onto the reigns of Andros’ horse and mounted up, pushing the horse into a gallop and racing out the gates again.

Behind her Callisto started laughing. Gabrielle spun her head around, to find the blonde smiling broadly at her. “Surprise!”

Krafstar grabbed onto her arm. Her instincts flared up and she shoved him aside, hopping to her feet and backing away. She pressed her back up against a tree, her eyes darting around the clearing. Krafstar was slowly rising to his feet. The fire which had been burning low before now rose up, the flames licking at the overhanging leaves. 

It was a trap, her mind informed her frantically. She needed to get out of here.

Without another thought she made a run for it, back in the direction where she’ d left Argo. But before she could as much as exit the clearing, a flame rose up before her and the next moment she was crashing into Callisto.

“Now now, precious. Don’t run.” Callisto grabbed onto both her arms to stop her from moving away again. “The party’s just getting started. And you’re the guest of honor.”
Green eyes gazed up at her, not understanding. “Why?”
“You offered me forgiveness. Dahak offered me divinity.” Callisto shrugged. “I picked the best deal.”

She shoved Gabrielle back, right into Krafstar’s arms. The man wrapped his arm around her neck, using his greater height to pull her off the ground a little, making it hard for her to struggle free. She shoved her elbow back against his chest and felt him wince, but his hold remained strong.

“Don’t fight it, Gabby,” Callisto was sauntering closer now. “Save your strength. You’ll need it.”
“To fight you?” The warrior snorted, her eyes fiery now. Angry. “Hardly.”
“Well, ouch,” Callisto reached out, a fingertip trailing down the warrior’s cheek. “Why so harsh, dearest? You were my friend, once.”
“I offered you a way out,” Gabrielle spat back at her. “You betrayed me!”
The blonde chuckled. “No. I just chose another way.” She leaned closer, hey eyes only inches apart. “You wanted us to work together. I want the same thing.”
“Then why…?”
“I don’t want to be on your team,” Callisto cut her off. “All this do goody stuff makes me nauseous.” She smiled sweetly at Gabrielle. “I want you to come over to my side.”
Green eyes looked at her in outrage. “Fat chance.”

Callisto giggled. “No. I didn’t think you’d join me willingly.” She turned around, taking a few paces to stand beside the roaring fire. “Fortunately…” She extended a hand, watching the flames lick around her fingers. “…Will power is overrated.”

Krafstar moved forward, pushing her towards the fire. Gabrielle struggled, but the man had a firm grip on her and she couldn’t get free.

“Dahak needs the heart of a true warrior,” Callisto said. “He will take your heart and make it dark. Like mine.”

“No,” Gabrielle wriggled, trying to get free. “No!” She slammed her foot back and it impacted with Krafstar’s knee. The man stumbled, allowing Gabrielle’s feet to touch ground for only a moment. A moment was enough though and Gabrielle pushed off, flipping backwards and freeing herself from his hold.

Her sword was lying nearby and she scooped it up, then turned just in time to swipe it at Krafstar. The priest hastily jumped back, barely avoiding the sharp edge. Gabrielle darted a look at Callisto, who was looking back at her, clearly impressed. “What was that about will power?”
Callisto giggled. “Well, it wouldn’t be fun if we didn’t fight.”  She drawled, then jumped forward, flipping in the air and landing in front of Gabrielle.

Their blades met and the force of it sent sparks flying. Gabrielle hit Callisto with a roundhouse kick, then had to duck quickly as the goddess’s sword came soaring at her.

Meanwhile, Krafstar had recovered and he pulled a small ceremonial knife from his dark robes. He narrowed his eyes at Gabrielle and moved forward.

Gabrielle pulled the hind’s blood dagger out of her boot and then rose again quickly, darting to the left and avoiding a jab at her side.
 “You sure have a lot of weapons on you to take me out, Gabby.” Callisto pouted. “I’m starting to think you don’t like me.”
Gabrielle blocked another parry, then moved the dagger towards Callisto’s bare abdomen, but missed.

Another weapon moved towards her now. It was Krafstar’s this time, and she only just managed to swipe it aside with her hand. She wanted to kick out at him again, but Callisto beat her to it, the goddess sending the priest soaring backwards. “Back off, Khraffie,” Callisto snarled at him. “I’m not done playing yet.”
Krafstar crawled back to his feet. “She is not yours to play with!”

Gabrielle used the distraction, slamming the hilt of her sword forward, and letting it impact harshly with Callisto’s forehead. It sent the goddess stumbling back. Seeing her path suddenly cleared, Gabrielle didn’t hesitate a moment and ran towards the edge of the clearing again in another attempt to escape.

She stumbled to the ground as something wrapped around her leg. It wasn’t a hand this time though, but… Gabrielle lost her hold on her sword as she was flipped around, her eyes widening as large, tentacle like flames reached for her.

“No!” She flailed about, her hands digging into the earth, trying to find a hold. But there was none. A flame wrapped itself around her wrist and another around her waist as she was lifted off the ground. 

Callisto’s eyes sparkled as she watched Gabrielle being lifted up. “Don’t be afraid, dear!” She called out. “It’ll be over soon. And then we can go out and play.”

Meanwhile Krafstar knelt down, bending his head reverently.

A piercing pain shot through her then as one of the flames entered her skin and grasped onto her heart. Gabrielle’s head shot back and she screamed out. Memories of battles past filled her brain and she relived the fight with Andros, with Alti, the battle side by side with Xena in the palace corridors, fighting Callisto in the forest.

She relived the anxiety she’d felt. The fear. The world around her faded out and went black, the only thing she could see now were the images in her head.

The memories went further back and she saw herself fighting Xena’s soldiers after she’d crossed the border. Battles she’d joined in the east, in India. In Chin.

With a piercing cry the flames pushed her away and she was sent flying across the clearing, crashing into a tree and thudding to the ground.

Krafstar instantly rose to her feet. He spun around, facing Callisto, who was looking at the flames with her head cocked sideways, clearly confused. “You said she was a true warrior!!”
Callisto turned to him. “She is! Kicked your butt, didn’t she?”
“She killed innocents!”
Dark brown eyes blinked at him a few times. “She did?” Then a grin spread over Callisto’s face. “Good going, Gabby!” She gave the warrior a thumbs up. “I knew you had it in ya!”

Gabrielle just sat there, slumped on the ground, her back against the tree. She couldn’t see anything. The black that had swallowed the world around her was fading only slowly and through the darkness she could now only see vague shapes and shadows, moving. She could hear her heart pounding loudly.

“She is useless now!” Khrafstar barked, advancing on the goddess. “The Dark Lord needs a pure warrior’s heart to feed off. To gain strength. He needs a vessel in his fight for Greece! You have risked everything by bringing this worthless woman!”
“Hey!” Callisto took offence to this. “Gab is not worthless, okay? If your God is so stupid he can’t see that, than that’s his problem. Not mine.”

The flames soared up again and Khrafstar stopped and turned, listening. Callisto listened too, but… she found she could no longer hear Dahak when he spoke.

“My Lord,” Krafstar took a step closer to the flames. “She is unsuitable for this task.”
The flames growled, weakly.
A grin crossed Khrafstar’s face slowly as he listened. “It will be done.” He then turned, his eyes falling on Gabrielle.

Through the darkness, Gabrielle saw a figure moving steadily towards her. She crawled back, up against the tree, finding support there as she tried to rise to her feet.

A hand closed around her throat then and she gasped as slowly Khrafstar’s face came into focus. He grinned at her, wickedly. “You have been chosen. Even though you are unworthy.” Before she realized what was going on her hands were bound and she was tied to the treetrunk, unable to escape. “Since you cannot be the Dark Lord’s vessel…” He lifted his dagger and roughly cut through the collar of her tunic. “You will have to serve another purpose.”

“No!” Gabrielle struggled, but the fight with Dahak had weakened her and the bonds tying back her arms were too strong. Tears were brimming in her eyes now, as her mind realized the hopelessness of the situation. “No…”

“Whoa, hey, back up!” Callisto caught up to him, grabbing onto the arm holding the dagger and pulling it away from Gabrielle. “This was not the deal!”
Khrafstar shoved her back roughly. “The deal was you would bring my Lord an instrument to enter the world. You have failed him!”
“He shoulda been more clear on the specs!” Callisto shot back, her eyes blazing at him. “I got Gab here to be eviled. Not to be your play thing.”
“She will be what the Dark Lord wishes her to be.” He said, before turning back and reaching for the blonde again.

Callisto’s eyes narrowed. “Over my immortal body.” She growled, wrapping an arm around his neck and dragging him backwards, away from Gabrielle.
Khraftar turned and slammed his elbow into her face, freeing himself from her hold. He lifted his dagger up in front of him. Callisto giggled. “No hinds blood on that one, honey.” She kicked at the weapon, then up at his neck, sending him stumbling back.

Khrafstar growled, then pushed his hand forward. A force shot from his palm, impacting harshly with Callisto and sending the goddess flying back. “Ugh!” Callisto landed on the ground, shaking her head a little. “So you want to do the god thing, Khraffie? Fine by me!” A fireball was sent soaring in his direction and Dahak’s priest was only just able to jump aside.

Callisto hastily scrambled back to her feet, picking up her sword as she ran towards Gabrielle. She lifted the weapon overhead, then with one quick stroke she cut through the thick ropes tying the warrior’s hands together.

Gabrielle laid her hand against the tree for support.
Callisto handed her her own sword, her eyes focused on Khrafstar who was getting back to his feet. With a yell she sent a thunderbolt soaring in his direction. She flashed a grin and Gabrielle. “Don’t you just love divinity.”
Gabrielle just stared at her. She let go of the tree, but her legs were unable to hold her up and she grabbed onto Callisto’s shoulder for support.

The goddess frowned at her, worried. “Better get you out of here.” She lifted her hand, intent on transporting them away from the scene. But before she could a flame wrapped itself around her leg, tugging her away from Gabrielle. “Hey!”  She raised her body up a little, looking at the fire she was being dragged towards in clear outrage. She sent a fireball soaring towards the flames, but this of course had little effect.

Then she remembered the chakram. She grabbed onto the weapon, then shoved it into the flame holding onto her foot. With a roar the flame returned to the fire, letting go of Callisto and sending her tumbled to the ground.

“Callisto!” Gabrielle pushed herself away from the tree, stumbling over to the goddess.
“Eat this, flameboy!” Callisto growled, sending the chakram flying towards the fire.

The weapon entered the flames and then stopped, hovering in the center of the fire for a moment. Then, with a great force, it was pushed forward, flying straight back at Callisto.

Callisto’s eyes widened, and she tried getting back to her feet. But the speed of the chakram was too great. The weapon impacted with her chest, the force sending her flying back several feet.

“No!!” Gabrielle yelled as she watched Callisto land on the ground with a thud, the goddess’ body remaining still. A moment passed, then the earth started shaking. Gabrielle crashed to her knees again, the sand scraping against her skin. She stumbled back to her feet, managing the few extra paces to Callisto’s side and falling down next to her.

Callisto blinked a few times, then turned to face the woman who’s just stumbled to her side. She lifted a shaking hand, reaching out. Gabrielle grasped onto her fingers, squeezing tightly, her eyes locking with Callisto’s.

Then she was yanked away again, a flame pulling her from Callisto and back towards Khrafstar.

Dahak’s priest moved towards her as the Dark Lord’s flames held her in place. “You cannot escape your destiny,” he growled, grabbing onto her arm and flinging her onto the ground. Gabrielle tried to get up, but a weight settled on her as Khrafstar sat down on top of her, pinning her wrists to the ground with his knees. “If Dahak himself can not enter this world… then his child will.” He growled, grabbing onto the collar or her tunic and ripping the fabric apart with all his strength.

A whinny made Xena look up to see Argo, her reigns caught in the branches of a tree. “Argo!” Xena hastily slid off her horse’s back, running to the mare’s side.

But before she could reach the horse a scream echoed though the woods and a fear clasped onto her heart as she realized whose scream it was. She instantly changed direction, running as fast as she could. Past trees, ducking under branches. Twigs scraped into the skin on her arms, but she ignored it, continuing to run towards the flames she could now see in the distance.

She felt … numb. Gabrielle kept up her struggling, but her attempts were only half hearted. It was no use, after all. The damage was done. She was too weak. And there was no one left to save her.

Fingers dug into her arm. Teeth bit into her neck, but she hardly felt it. She closed her eyes. The heat of the fire was close, the flames wrapping around her arms like snakes. Slithering. Trying to suffocate her.

Vaguely then she heard a war cry. It was only faint, but… Her heart recognized it.

Khrafstar stumbled back in shock as a body slammed into his, pulling him sideways. He tried getting back up, but before he could a body had him pinned down and a fist impacted harshly with his face. He managed to look up, to find raging blue eyes at very close range.

“You…” Xena growled, grabbing onto his neck and squeezing as tightly as she could. “… are dead.”
Khrafstar managed to free a hand and shoved it forward, sending the Empress soaring back. Hastily he got back to his feet. Only just in time to see the elbow, before it impacted with his face. A knee in his stomach, a kick to his side. Khrafstar stumbled back further and further, receiving blow after blow.

Xena folded her hands together, then slammed them up against his chin with such force that he was lifted from the ground. He impacted with a tree and slid to the base of it, remaining still.

Without another thought Xena spun around and ran back, falling to her knees at Gabrielle’s side. “Gabrielle.” She cupped the woman’s face in both her hands, forcing the wandering green eyes to meet hers. “Gabrielle, look at me!”
The warrior finally did and they stared at each other for what seemed like forever. Gabrielle’s breath was labored and irregular and her pupils were wide. “Easy. I got ya.” Xena’s fingers gently stroked her skin. “I got ya.”

A scraping of sand behind her and Xena turned, to find Khrafstar had gotten back to his feet. Dahak’s flames were nearby and were rising up high, flickering at her in outrage. Khrafstar reached for his dagger, holding it up in front of him. “Back away, Xena. She is for Dahak.”
Xena slowly rose to her feet. “No.” She pulled her sword from its scabbard. “She is mine.”


Gabrielle’s eyes followed Xena as she leaped forward, flinging her sword towards Khrafstar and pushing him back. She managed to push herself up a little, desperately pulling the shreds of her tunic together to cover herself up.

Her eyes slid from Xena’s form to her right, to see Callisto’s still body lying on the forest floor. She crawled towards the blonde, reaching out and touching her arm. “Callisto?”
A moment, then eyelids fluttered open and deep brown eyes looked up at her. The woman grinned weakly. “Surprise...”
“Hang on, Callie,” Gabrielle found her hand and clasped onto it tightly.
The former rebel coughed. “B… bet you didn’t see that one coming, huh?” The eyes searched hers, seriously now. “Are you okay?”
Gabrielle managed a smile. “I’m… fine.”
“I…” Callisto closed her eyes, swallowing. “This wasn’t what I had in mind.”
“I know,” the warrior whispered. “I know. Just… Just stay still. Hold still.”


Khrafstar howled as Xena’s sword slid though the skin covering his stomach. He stumbled back a few paces, then looked up, watching as Xena approached him again. “Give it up,” he managed to get out, clasping onto his abdomen. “Even if you defeat me, you will still loose.”
“Maybe,” Xena growled, narrowing in on him with deadly intent. “But I’ll have the pleasure of chopping you into tiny little pieces before. That’s good enough for me.”

Xena raised her sword, ready to strike him down. But before she could a flame grabbed onto her arm, dragging her back.

At the same time a ball of fire exploded from the center of the clearing, engulfing Khrafstar. Xena got back to her feet as the flames evaporated. Khrafstar was gone, but where he had been now stood a monster, with horns and pointy ears, scars across his face.

Khrafstar looked down at his new form, then started laughing loudly. He looked up, his eyes sparkling viciously at the Empress. “Dahak’s will be done. You cannot stop me now, Xena!”


Callisto coughed again. A small drop of blood sidled down the edge of her mouth now. Gabrielle placed her hand on the wound the chakram had made, pressing down to stop the bleeding.
Callisto’s hand closed more tightly over hers and she looked up, to find dark brown eyes looking at her. “So… This is it then.” A moment, then Callisto managed a laugh. “Who would have guessed this is how I would end?”
Gabrielle laid a hand against her cheek. “Call…”
“Me saving your skin,” Callisto babbled on, staring up at her. “Go figure.” She smirked, brought Gabrielle’s hand closer, bringing it to her lips and pressing a kiss to the fingers. "It's been fun." She mumbled, smiling as she closed her eyes.

The hand grabbing onto hers lost its grip then. Gabrielle looked at the hand, then at the woman lying beside her. “Callisto?”
There was no response.
“Callie?” Gabrielle drew in a shaky breath. “Wake up. Come on now.”


Xena winced as Khrafstar’s sharp nails dug into her flesh.
The Deliverer laughed, advancing on her. “Dahak will triumph here as he will triumph everywhere.” The flames rose behind him, emphasizing his words. He lifted up his sword and brought it down, Xena only just able to catch the weapon with her own. He pressed down and pushed his blade closer to her. “You can fight me, delay me… But it is only a matter of time. You will loose, Xena. Dahak will…”

The chakram whirled past her and Xena watched as the weapon dug into his chest. Khrafstar’s hold on his sword faltered and he looked down, his eyes wide as the metal of the chakram gleamed back at him. He lifted his eyes then, looking past Xena to see Gabrielle standing beside the fallen Callisto. Hate-filled green eyes were the last thing he saw, before he fell back and thudded to the ground.

The flames in the center of the clearing rose up once again, roaring. They reached out, circling the stricken Khrafstar. Then they lowered and finally disappeared all together, the only thing remaining the burning embers of the fire. Khrafstar had disappeared. And so had the white chakram.

Xena stared at the embers a moment, then she turned back to Gabrielle. The warrior stood quietly, looking back at her.

Then her legs failed her. Xena rushed forward, catching her before she could fall to the ground. Hands clutched for her and Xena quickly wrapped her arms around the other woman, pulling her closer. “Gotcha,” she mumbled, her fingers tangling themselves in the blond hair. “I’m here, Gabrielle. I’m here.”

Footsteps approached then and Xena looked up to see soldiers running into the clearing. Andros slid to a halt, looking around in confusion.

Xena darted him a look, then turned her attention back to Gabrielle, gently stroking the blond hair. “Hang on. I’m getting you out of here,” she said, wrapping an arm around the blonde’s legs and then rising, lifting her off the ground.

Gabrielle didn’t struggle, merely hiding her face in Xena’s neck and holding on. Xena carried her towards where she’d left her horse.

“Empress.” Andros ran up to her. “What happened?”
Xena didn’t honor his question with a response. “Get this place cleaned up,” she snapped at him. “Bring the dagger.” She motioned her head towards the hind’s blood dagger still lying in the clearing. She glanced at Callisto. “Bring her body to the palace.”
Andros looked at her, still confused. “Of course, Empress. I…”
Xena cut him off. “Your death won’t be pretty, Andros.” Blue eyes bore into his. “Count on that.”

Without another word she walked past him and left the clearing behind. She moved through the trees until she spotted Argo’s form, still tied to the branches. The horse she’d rode in on had disappeared.

Argo neighed as she spotted her rider being carried, tugging at her reigns more feverously then she had before. Xena stopped next to the mare, then lifted Gabrielle’s silent form up and settled her on the mare’s back. She touched the warrior’s thigh, making sure she was seated firmly in the saddle, before circling the horse and reaching for the entangled reigns.

She swung her sword at the branches, freeing Argo. Then she took the reigns in her hand, clearing away the last of the branches and then throwing the leather strips over the mare’s head. She hesitated a moment, then reached out and touched the mare’s nose. Argo moved her head away, backing up a pace. “I know you don’t like me,” Xena said in a whisper, advancing on her again. “But Gabrielle’s hurt. And we need to get her home. So we need to stick together, this one time. Okay?”

Large brown eyes eyed her wearily. She reached out again, and this time Argo stayed put, allowing the Empress to stroke her neck. “Good girl,” Xena mumbled, patting the horse, then circling back to her side. She grabbed onto the reigns, then pulled herself onto the horse, seating herself behind Gabrielle. The blonde instantly leaned back against her. Xena wrapped an arm around her waist, then gently nudged Argo forward, back towards the palace.

To be continued

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